The Local River God Oxus-Wakhsh in Pre-Islamic Bactria

The single most important element that dominates the landscape of ancient Bactria is the river Amu Darya, the ancient Oxus, and its many tributaries. Bactria without Oxus is almost unimaginable. Still, the past hundred years many archaeological sites have been excavated or surveyed in this area, hundreds of coins catalogued and analyzed, dozens of inscriptions restored, transcribed and studied, new material published and the local language (a middle Iranian language in Greek script) deciphered, but the most part of this work has been confined to the study of the "major" religions (Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and/or Islam). Despite that, the local Bactrian polytheistic pantheon presents an amazing richness and forms a fascinating field of study, yet acknowledged by not many modern scholars. The present paper draws from this large body of evidence in order to study one of these pre-Islamic local gods of Bactria, the god that personified its single most important source of life, prosperity and abundance, the river Oxus. It is a river deity or aquatic deity for which we know two things for certain: that in the Hellenistic period a whole temple was dedicated to this god and that much later, in the seventh and eighth century CE, local people took its worship seriously by taking oaths on its name during their legal and economic transactions. By using an interdisciplinary approach this paper will evaluate material from archaeological excavations and field surveys, epigraphic and numismatic corpora, and recently deciphered (yet poorly studied from the perspective of religious studies or cultural interpretation) written sources, in order to reconstruct this lost part of the Bactrian pantheon. In addition, this paper will use theoretical approaches from other central and south Asian regions to understand how a religious system can be connected to the management of water supplies in areas as difficult to survive as in Bactria, in order to see if and how the worship of the spirit of this river was affected in any way by similar local political and economic developments. Special focus will be applied on eras when the Oxus cult is the least present (i.e. the Kushan and the Islamic era, when irrigation works and water reservoirs where built in the name of the Kushan emperors and Allah, respectively).