That the Indo-European homeland was a cold place with snow is evidenced by widespread survival of two hon-homologous words for snow. Recently, a discussion on one of these words, sparked by some linguist, landed on my timeline on Twitter. From that, it seemed that people were unaware of the attestation of its cognate in Old Indo-Aryan. This, in turn, reminded me of a discussion we had with our friend in college on the very same issue. Hence, we thought it worthwhile to put down this discussion — this apposite since the winter solstice is approaching, and as we write this note, it is a new moon with a solar eclipse in Antarctica.
The two words for snow that can be traced back to early Indo-European, probably even PIE, are attested in Sanskrit as sneha and himá/hímā. The udātta is represented by the acute sign and differs between the masculine form that is usually used for snow and the feminine for winter.
Sneha is represented by many cognates that include snow itself; Old Iranian has snaēža = to snow; Baltic: (Lithuanian) sniẽgas; Germanic: (Old English): snīwan. There are the 0-graded forms in: Greek: niphás = snowflake; Latin: nivis; Celtic (Welsh): nyf. Thus, it is a solid IE word. Interestingly, it has also been transferred to Sumerian in a form that suggests either early Indo-European or the Satem clade (Balto-Slavo-Aryan) as the possible sources. This might point to a potential trade contact between Sumerians and the Indo-Europeans in their colder lands to the north of the former. Coming to Indo-Aryan, while etymologists recognize the ancestral form as being Sanskrit sneha, they usually only cite Prakritic siṇeha or siṇhā as cognates bypassing Sanskrit as though it is not attested in it. However, as we shall see below, this is not true. In New Indo-Aryan languages that are still familiar with snow we have descendants of the Prakritic forms as the primary word for snow, e.g., Kashmiri shīna (pronounced these days with terminal schwa loss).
The second word hima, was probably paralogously polysemous right from the early stages of PIE, meaning both winter and snow. It is clearly inherited from PIE in the Indo-Hittite sense as we have Hittite gimmanza = winter. We have Baltic (Lithuanian): žiemà = winter; Greek: kheima = snowstorm/cold; khion = snow; Armenian: jiun = snow; Latin: hiems= winter; Celtic (Old Welsh) gaem = winter. In Sanskrit we see all the senses being attested. The usage śata-himā is literally a 100 winters, meaning hundred years. A similar usage is seen in Latin, e.g., bīmus from *bihimos — lasting two years. The form hemanta again denotes a season marking the end of winter. On the other hand, the form himavant means a mountain [covered] with snow. Similarly, in the Ṛgveda hima can be directly used to indicate snow, for example:
himenāgniṃ ghraṃsam avārayethām
pitumatīm ūrjam asmā adhattam ।
ṛbīse atrim aśvināvanītam
un ninyathuḥ sarvagaṇaṃ svasti ॥ RV 1.116.8
With snow, you two averted the scorching fire,
you two bestowed nourishing food for him [Atri],
You two Aśvin-s, led out Atri from the fuming crater,
into which he been led, and all the troop to weal.
This ṛk attributed to Kakṣivant Dairghatamasa [Footnote 2] is an allusion to the famous deed of the Aśvin-s that is repeatedly alluded to in the RV, where they saved Atri from a fuming crater. The simple reading of the verse would imply that Atri was led into it along with his troops. They were cooled with snow and then brought up. The phrase sarvagaṇaṃ svasti occurs only one other time in the RV, in a sūkta of the Atri-s; however, there it refers to the gaṇa-s of the god Bṛhaspati. Nevertheless, one wonders if there is a subtler, undiscovered connection furnished by this cognate phrase from these relatively late sūkta-s of the RV. Finally, one may comment that this tale hints at the possibility of Atri and his men having fallen into one of the geothermal craters in the Caspian-Black Sea region close to the IE homeland.
Returning to sneha-, we tabulate below the occurrence of this word in some old Vedic texts relative to hima- (while we count both senses of hima- we do not count the season hemanta in the below table).
Thus, it is clear that sneha, while attested in the oldest surviving Indo-Aryan text (the single AV-vulgate instance is identical to the ṛk found in the RV), it is absent in the successor texts though hima- remains as common or is more frequently used. However, we should also add that a related form snīhiti (snowstorm) occurs once in the RV and once in the Taittirīya Āraṇyaka. In the case of sneha, a semantic shift occurred in Sanskrit, where it came to denote a wide range of things, including fluidity, smoothness, oil/fat and love. We will next examine the two occurrences in the RV and suggest that they are semantically aligned with the Middle and New Indo-Aryan forms. Both occur in enigmatic sūkta-s/ṛk-s that need further discussion.
The first occurrence is in a long sūkta of Tiraścī Āṅgirasa on the many glorious acts of Indra, which needs to be described to give some context. The first three ṛk-s (1-3) describe the might of Indra and his vajra and also allude to his act of piercing the mountains with his arrow. This motif is reused by Vālmīki in the Rāmāyaṇa when Rāma pierces the seven trees to prove his might (Indra-hood displacing that of the mighty Vālin) to the ape Sugrīva. The following triad (4-6) describes how Indra, in his cosmogonic form as the generator of all beings, slew Ahi with his vajra, even as the mountains shrieked. The Marut-s seeing his valor, approached him for an alliance, like brāhmaṇa-s reciting mantra-s to praise him. The next tṛca (7-9) describes a Marut-centric version of the Vṛtra myth. When Vṛtra violently sallied forth, the other gods, who were the companions of Indra, retreated, leaving him alone in the battle. However, the 360 Marut-s (an unusual count associated with the days in an year) singing the praises of Indra joined him in battle, asking for a share of the ritual offerings. They urged Indra to scatter the anti-deva asura-s with his vajra and cakra, assisted by their battle formation fronted by their sharp spears.
In the next tṛca (10-12), the Āṅgirasa calls on his fellow ritualists to send forth their chants to Indra. In the tṛca (13-15), which includes the ṛk of specific interest to us, the narration moves to the battles fought by Indra against the enemies of the gods in alliance with Bṛhaspati. This triad is soaked in astronomical allegory, with the god Bṛhaspati himself likely being represented in the sky by the planet Jupiter. The main feature of this triad is the mention of a black (shrouding like a cloud) drop, kṛṣṇa drapsa, which is said to wander to the solstitial colure along a sinuous river Aṃsumati. We interpret this river as the lunar ecliptic. The whole myth seems to encode a solar eclipse close to the winter solstice (The old Aryan New Year), in which context the snowstorm is mentioned. The next tṛca (16-18) describes the following acts of Indra: 1. Right when he was born, he became the foe of the seven unrivaled ones (not entirely clear who they are). 2. He discovered Dyaus and Pṛthivi, which were hidden. 3. He set into motion the wide-ranging worlds. 4. He smashed the unrivaled one (Vṛtra) with his vajra. 5. He slew Śuśna. 5. He discovered the hidden cows. 6. He demolished the fortifications. 7. He released the frozen rivers and slew the demoness (an allusion to Dānu) lording over the waters. The final tṛca (19-21) praises Indra as Vṛtrahan and the lord of the Ṛbhu-s, calling on him for the soma offering.
ava drapso aṃśumatīm atiṣṭhad
iyānaḥ kṛṣṇo daśabhiḥ sahasraiḥ
āvat tam indraḥ śacyā dhamantam
apa snehitīr nṛmaṇā adhatta ॥ RV 8.96.13
The drop stood at the Aṃśumatī,
the black [drop] wanders with the ten thousand.
Indra helped it [the drop] blowing along with his skill.
The manly-minded [Indra] repulsed the snowstorm.
drapsam apaśyaṃ viṣuṇe carantam
upahvare nadyo aṃśumatyāḥ ।
nabho na kṛṣṇam avatasthivāṃsam
iṣyāmi vo vṛṣaṇo yudhyatājau ॥ RV 8.96.14
I saw the drop wandering at the solstice,
in the sinuous path of the River Aṃśumatī,
going down like a black cloud,
I impel you, bulls, to fight in the battle.
adha drapso aṃśumatyā upasthe
.adhārayat tanvaṃ titviṣāṇaḥ ।
viśo adevīr abhy ācarantīr
bṛhaspatinā yujendraḥ sasāhe ॥ RV 8.96.14
Then, the drop, in the lap of the Aṃśumatī,
bore the body sparkling with light.
As the deva-less folks moved forth [to attack],
united with Bṛhaspati, Indra conquered [them].
Commentary: The black drop (drapsa, an old IE word) is interpreted as the new Moon. The drop is associated most commonly with soma (with a lunar equivalence in several cases; on rare occasions it is used for Venus). Normally, the soma is silvery — ṛjīśin (like earlier in this sūkta) — reinforcing the lunar connection. However, here the drop is explicitly and atypically described as black, suggesting that the new Moon is alluded to. The first ṛk mentions the drop wandering with a ten thousand: we take this large number to denote the stars. The drop is seen as blowing along: we consider this an early allusion to the primitive Hindu astronomical theory (shared with the Greeks and likely of old IE provenance) of celestial bodies being blown on their paths by cosmic winds. In the second ṛk, the composer states that he sees the black drop which is likened to a cloud — suggesting its shrouding nature — wandering near a colure. He also mentions the sinuous course of the river Aṃśumatī. Given that the word aṃśu is used for soma (or the soma stalks before extraction of the juice) and metaphorically connects the soma plant and the Moon, Aṃśumatī would mean the riverine path with soma/the Moon. Hence, we take this to be an allusion to the lunar path/ecliptic [Footnote 3].
We take the colure (viṣuṇa) to be solstitial. Winter is the season that corresponds to the battle between the gods, led by Indra, and the demons. The verb, ava-sthā = going own, suggests the nether point of the ecliptic path analogized to a river. Hence, we hold that the solstice referred to is specifically the winter solstice. Thus, it is not any new moon but likely the new Moon closest to the winter solstice, corresponding to the old Aryan New Year. This, in turn, supports the idea that the snehiti which Indra averts is indeed a snowstorm. The final ṛk of this triad mentions the black drop in the lap of Aṃśumatī, where it paradoxically takes on a body sparkling with light. We take this to allude to a solar eclipse happening close to the solstice. The at the point of emergence of the sun from the total eclipse or an annular eclipse would indeed give the impression of the black drop (the Moon) taking on a glittering body. Thus, this is a variant of the famous Svarbhānu eclipse myth of the Atri-s but probably referring to a specific eclipse near the solstice. In this context, the attack adevī folks should be taken as a purposeful conflation of the earthly enemies with the asura-s causing the eclipse as in the Svarbhānu myth. Moreover, given the overall celestial setting, the specific involvement of Bṛhaspati, as a companion of Indra, in this conflict suggests the potential presence of Jupiter in the vicinity during this event (Or perhaps in the nakṣatra of Tiṣyā).
We may also point out that the deployment of snow or other “weather weapons” is a feature of the battles of Indra with the dānava-s elsewhere in the RV. For example, Hiraṇyastūpa Āṅgirasa gives an account of the battle between Indra and Ahi, when the latter had frozen the rivers and corralled the cows. Here, Ahi, first tries to pierce Indra with his spear, but Indra evades him by becoming the tail of a horse. Having evaded his strike, Indra conquered the cows and the soma and released the waters. Then he closed in for combat with Ahi:
nāsmai vidyun na tanyatuḥ siṣedha
na yām miham akirad dhrāduniṃ ca ।
indraś ca yad yuyudhāte ahiś ca
utāparībhyo maghavā vi jigye ॥ RV 1.32.13
Neither the lightning nor the thunder scared away [Indra] for him,
neither the snow (/mist) nor the hail that he [Ahi] spread out.
When Indra and Ahi fought each other,
Maghavan triumphed, [then] and also for the time that came.
Here, Ahi deploys various “weather weapons”, reminiscent of the steppe “rain-stone” magic of the Turkic and Mongolic world, but they fail to scare away Indra. The first two, lightning and thunder are unambiguous, and so is the final one, hail (hrāduni). The word miha could mean snow or mist. In either case, it supports the deployment of such weather weapons, consistent with the interpretation of sneha- as snow, i.e., in a snowstorm.
Strikingly, the second occurrence of sneha- is again in the context of the same eclipse myth. This account occurs in the monster sūkta of maṇḍala 9, which agglomerates shorter sūkta-s of various Vasiṣṭha-s and Kutsa Āṅgirasa. We shall consider the whole tṛca with this reference below:
ayā pavā pavasvainā vasūni
māṃścatva indo sarasi pra dhanva ।
bradhnaś cid atra vāto na jūtaḥ
purumedhaś cit takave naraṃ dāt ॥ RV 9.97.52
Bring (addressed to soma), by purifying yourself with this filtering, riches.
At the hiding of the Moon, O drop (moon/soma), run forth into the lake.
The yellowish (sun) is also here as if impelled by the wind.
the wise one (Soma) has indeed given us the man (Indra) for the sally.
uta na enā pavayā pavasva
adhi śrute śravāyyasya tīrthe ।
ṣaṣṭiṃ sahasrā naiguto vasūni
vṛkṣaṃ na pakvaṃ dhūnavad raṇāya ॥ RV 9.97.52
Also with this filtering purify yourself,
at the front of the famous ford of celebration.
Sixty thousand treasures the destroyer of rivals,
like a tree with ripe fruits, will shake down for triumph.
mahīme asya vṛṣanāma śūṣe
māṃścatve vā pṛśane vā vadhatre ।
asvāpayan nigutaḥ snehayac ca
apāmitrāṃ apācito acetaḥ ॥
The bull is his name [Indra], great and fierce, are his two,
deadly weapons, in the hiding of the Moon or in the touching.
He put to sleep the rivals and snowed down on them.
Repulse the enemies, repulse the senseless ones.
Commentary: Composite sūkta-s, like the one in which these ṛk-s of Kutsa Āṅgirasa occur, are typical of the final part of maṇḍala 9. Except for Kutsa, who is the author of the last 4 tṛca-s and the terminal ṛk with the classic Kutsa refrain, all the other authors are Vāsiṣṭha-s. However, throughout the long sūkta (longest in the RV) we find several allusions to the finding of the sun’s path, the holding of the sun, and soma as the Moon. Thus, it is not out of place to furnish an astronomical explanation for these ṛk-s. Key to the interpretation of these ṛk-s is a rare word māṃścatu/māṃścatva whose meaning has puzzled students over the ages. It occurs only thrice in the RV, and its meaning was already obscure to Yāska, who groups it with the words for horses in the Nighaṇṭu. Two of the occurrences are in this tṛca, and one is in RV 7.44.3 by Vasiṣṭha Maitrāvaruṇi. Thus, this word perhaps links the Vāsiṣṭha-s to Kutsa. It can be etymologized as maṃs+catu. Catu can be derived from the root cat- = to hide or vanish. Māṃs (with a pure anunāsika) is taken to mean the Moon, an older variant of mās, closely related to the form in early Indo-European. This form is supported by other Indo-European cognates like: Baltic (Latvian): mēnesis; Latin: mensis. Thus, the word is taken to mean the vanishing of the Moon. To their credit, some white indologists have correctly etymologized this word using comparisons across IE. However, they failed to understand its actual meaning. Notably, on the only occasions it occurs in RV, it is coupled with bradhna — the yellowish or reddish sun. This is also seen in the case of the verse of Vasiṣṭha:
dadhikrāvāṇam bubudhāno agnim
upa bruva uṣasaṃ sūryaṃ gām ।
bradhnam māṃścator varuṇasya babhruṃ
te viśvāsmad duritā yāvayantu ॥
Ever having awakened, to Dadhikrāvan and Agni
I speak; to Uṣas, and the sun, the cow.
The yellowish one from the hiding of the Moon, [becomes] Varuṇa’s brown one,
let them drive away all the bad things from us.
Notably, the first ṛk of Kutsa, explicitly states that the sun (bradhna) is also at at the same place as the hiding of the Moon. The sun is said to be impelled to that place by the wind — again, note an allusion to the old hypothesis of the cosmic winds moving the celestial bodies (c.f. the above ṛk of Tiraścī Āṅgirasa). This conjunction corresponds to amāvāsya or the sun and moon “dwelling together”, resulting in the new Moon (or the hiding/vanishing of the Moon). Hence, māṃścatva should be understood as the “hiding of the moon” at new Moon in all its occurrences. However, there are indications that it is a new moon with a solar eclipse. The final ṛk talks of two events, the māṃścatva and the pṛśana, i.e., the touching. We take this touching as the “contact” of the sun and Moon implying an eclipse. Moreover, the ṛk of Vasiṣṭha, states that the bradhna (usually yellow or red) is Varuṇa’s brown one from the māṃścatu. This suggests that the sun’s darkening, indicating a solar eclipse at the new moon [Footnote 1].
We also encounter the cryptic statements parallel to the ṛk-s of Tiraścī Āṅgirasa, such as the drop (Moon) running into the lake. This is also called the famous ford (tīrtha) — you can cross over to the “other side” there. We take these as allusions to the winter solstitial point on the ecliptic. Thus, we believe both Kutsa and Tiraścī are talking about the same or a similar eclipse close to the winter solstice. However, notably, in this case, it is Indra who showers snow on the enemies, putting them to “sleep” — again reminding us of the use of rain/snow stones in the Altaic warfare. Thus, the two occurrences of sneha+ and the one occurrence of snīh- in the RV indicate the use of this ancient IE word in the sense of snow. The interesting early polymorphism in the form of sneh- and snīh- suggests that the ancestral state of this word, perhaps even its form in the original dialect in which the RV was composed, was close to the ancestral Baltic version (at least the first syllable). Thus, we are probably seeing a fossil of the dialect diversity in early Indo-Aryan or Indo-Iranian itself.
To conclude, we may note, an eclipse at the solstice is a relatively rare event. However, if we give a leeway of about 5 days on either side of the winter solstice, one may get more of such events. Below is a list of such events that have happened or will happen over 3 centuries from 1801-2100 CE anywhere in the world grouped by their year lunar cycle from the catalog of Eclipse Predictions by Fred Espenak (provided by NASA):
21 Dec 1805; 20 Dec 1824; 21 Dec 1843; 21 Dec 1862
22 Dec 1870; 22 Dec 1889; 23 Dec 1908
24 Dec 1916; 24 Dec 1927
25 Dec 1935; 25 Dec 1954; 24 Dec 1973; 24 Dec 1992
25 Dec 2000; 26 Dec 2019; 26 Dec 2038; 26 Dec 2057
27 Dec 2065; 27 Dec 2084
17 Dec 2066
One can see that between 1900-2100 there have been/there are no events on the solstice day. However, in 1870 CE we had a very close pass within 12 hours of the solstice. In general, the 1800s saw several close events, but the following two centuries did not. Due to the 19-year clusters, we cannot be sure that the ones recorded in the RV were the same event. However, their relative rarity and clustering would mean that they might have been dramatic enough to leave a memory in the text.
Footnote 1: This occurs in the context of Dadhikrāvan, who is typically invoked in the dawn ritual. We posit that Dadhikrāvan represents a heliacally rising old Vedic constellation, although its identity still remains uncertain.
Foonote 2: While its style is similar to that of the old Gotama founders like Kakṣivant and his father, the sūkta itself mentions Kakṣivant in the third person and talks of the later Gotama-s. This suggests that it was appended later to the Kakṣivant collection by one of his successors.
Foonote 3: In later Hindu tradition, the lunar and solar paths are often depicted on temple roofs as sinuous snakes.