Way back in 1995, Joan Osborne asked If God had a face, what would it look like? Well, the Christian belief, which is what Joan wrote about, is that God made humans in “his” own image, so “he” is depicted as a man, and usually an old man at that. Fine, but if “he” made humans (i.e. two sexes) in his own image, “he” must have both male and female characteristics. Islam would say that even discussing what God looks like is sacrilegious and portraying his image is blasphemy. That goes for cartoons too. But what if a religion had no choice; it had to represent its Gods (and Goddesses) but, hitherto, had no idea what they looked like?
This happened to the Kushans, a vast empire centred on the Oxus River and absorbing modern-day Afghanistan. It was more than a match for the contemporary empires of Rome, the Han Chinese, and the Persians, but is almost unknown in the West. This may be because fewer sites have been excavated and far less is understood about their culture. In particular, apart from an assumption (born from images of kings making offerings before a fire) that they were Zoroastrian in outlook, very little is known about their Gods and Goddesses. In fact, the scant information we do have about their pantheon comes from their coinage, and that only started around AD 113 to 127, after Wima Kadphises became king. His son, Kanishka I (reigned AD 127 to 151) carried on the tradition, although he changed the language of the coins from Greek to Bactrian, albeit retaining the Greek script.
Like the inscriptions, rather than using images for their deities that arose from Kushan tradition, instead, each portrayal of a God or Goddess drew upon a God of Goddess from another culture, principally Greek (the region had been part of Alexander the Great’s empire), and neighbouring Iranian Zoroastrianism, Indian Hinduism, and Indian Buddhism. Theirs was an eclectic mix.
Take Oesho (who appears to be the chief deity for the Kushans). Here he is on a coin issued by Wima Kadphises.
The God has flames emanating from the top of his head and is leaning against a bull. If you saw this image alone, you might think it was Shiva and that’s exactly where the inspiration for this coin appears to originate. Albeit, recent opinion also associates Oesho with the Zoroastrain God Vāyu-Vāta.
Pharro (the God of good fortune) also has Zoroastrian elements in his design as, like Oesho, he can have flames rising from his shoulders. But his image is based on the Greek God Hermes, since his hat is winged and he wears a nimbate.
Pharro often appears with the Goddess Ardochsho (the Goddess of Abundance), whose name is only known from coins. She takes the image of the Greek Goddess Tyche and, like Tyche, Ardochsho is always depicted carrying a cornucopia.
The Buddha makes it onto many coins, including the less valuable copper coins. Maybe this was a “deity” that spoke to ordinary people. The legend on this coin introduces him as Boddo.
The God Vajrapani was Buddha’s protector and he also finds himself on Kushan coins, except he is portrayed as the Classical Greek God Hercules, complete with lion skin and club.
The God Mithro is based on the Roman/Iranian deity Mithras, and his image on Kushan coins includes a sun disc.
Two copper coins bear a ‘Ganesa’ legend, presumably relating to Ganesh, the Hindu elephant-headed God, but on these coins there is an image of an archer holding a full-length bow with string inwards and an arrow. This is typically a depiction of Rudra, the Rigvedic deity, who often conflates into Shiva, as he is thought he does on these coins. But, to the Kushan’s he is Ganese/Ganesh.
All in all, over 30 different Gods and Goddesses appear on Kushan coins, all with characteristics taken from other pantheons. The Kushan dieties may have had their own stories, customs, and traditions, but when it came to giving them a face, the Kushans looked elsewhere.
In time, only two divinities appear on the coins: Ardoxsho (the Goddess of Abundance) and Oesho (the chief God). But they are still represented as the Greek Goddess Tyche, and the Hindu God Shiva, albeit with a little of the Zoroastrain God Vāyu-Vāta.
So, to answer Joan Osborne’s question. If God had a face, he’d most probably look like the neighbour’s God. And that can’t be a bad thing.
For those who now have the bug for Kushan coins (and who, seriously, can resist), there is a book to be shortly published: Kushan, Kushano-Sasanian and Kidarite Coins: A Catalogue of Coins from the American Numismatic Society by David Jongeward and Joe Cribb. It will apparently focus as much on the pantheon of Kushan deities as it will on their coins. Definitely not to be missed!