Posts Tagged ‘puhvel’

1.   Describe several of the factors that define a culture as Indo-European and how those defining factors are useful in understanding that culture. (minimum 300 words)

The term “Indo-European culture” is somewhat misleading, as the designator “Indo-European” specifically relates to a language group. A more accurate term would be “the culture of a group which speaks an Indo-European language”. There are several other factors that influence whether a group is designated as Indo-European, but the most important is that the language spoken by a group or culture is a descendant of an Indo-European language, or that it is a descendant of the ancestral Proto-Indo-European language (Mallory 7).

Culturally, there are several factors that are common to these linguistically related cultures that go into determining their status as Indo-European. Among these common cultural inheritances are a class structure of tripartition (Dumezil), a common or comparative mythology (Puhvel), and similar societal rules and obligations (Forston). Tripartition, as most notably outlined by George Dumezil, suggests that the society is divided into three classes or functions – a priestly/religious function, a warrior function, and a producer/cultivator function. Jaan Puhvel’s Comparative Mythology sets out to explain the mythological symbolism that is shared by these cultures, and Benjamin Forston sets out to describe the common societal rules and explanations in chapter two of his Indo-European Language and Culture.

None of these cultural factors are, alone, enough to designate a culture as Indo-European, however compelling the similarities might be. The best way to look at a group and consider whether it is Indo-European or not is to look at its linguistics in a cultural context. The Roman and Vedic societies can be linked through their common function of the position of brahman and flamen, both priests who oversee sacrifices, who also have cognate names. Similarly, we can find the cross-cultural terms for “sky-father” as the head of the gods in various pantheons as evidence of shared culture and language (Mallory 128). The names of sun gods and goddesses, similarly, can be used to show such commonality (Mallory 129).

In addition to religious cultural similarities, there are also economic and familial ones. Economically, “some of the best attested words in the Indo-European languages are those which concern domestic animals, and, of these, words relating to cattle are probably among the most prolific” (Mallory 117) Cattle and sheep are easily attested as grazing herd animals, and cattle in particular have some religious significance as well. Sheep provided both meat and wool, and words for wool and weaving are well attested (Mallory 118). Other animals that have significance are goats, pigs, horses, and dogs, though their economic function is less easily attested. Familial ties in Indo-European cultures were patrilineal in descent and largely male dominated. Mallory suggests that “the residence rules of the Proto-Indo-Europeans involved the woman going to live in the house of her husband or with his family” (Mallory 123), a familial structure which exists even into modern Western cultures where it is most common for a wife to take her husband’s last name, officially becoming part of his family. Forston agrees with this patrilineal model of culture (Forston 18).

These factors provide the starting point for examining two cultures and looking for ways in which they may have influenced one another or both have been influenced by a similar outside culture.

2.   George Dumezil’s theory of tripartition has been central to many modern approaches to Indo-European studies. Outline Dumezil’s three social functions in general, and as they appear in one particular Indo-European society. Offer your opinion as to whether you believe Dumezil’s claim that tripartition is central to IE cultures. (minimum 300 words)

The first function is the magico-religious function, which contained priests, lawyers, and kings. This first, or sovereign function, is often expressed through paired gods “Varuna-Mitra, Jupiter-Dius Fidius, Odinn-Tyr” (Mallory 140). These are typically one religious and one legal deity.

The second, or “military,” function was assigned to the warriors of a society and “was concerned with the execution of both aggressive and defensive force, for example the war-gods Indra, Mars, and Thor” (Dumezil, quoted in Mallory 132). While I have some qualms about putting Thor in a warrior position in the cosmos, as I think Odin fits this role better, he certainly has his place as a defender of the people, and so his place in this list is not entirely unwarranted.

The third function conceptualized “fertility or sustenance and embracing the herder-cultivators” (Dumezil, quoted in Mallory 132). In this realm the gods, or myths, normally take the form of divine twins, often associated with horses, and sometimes associated with a female figure. Good examples of these are the Indic Asvins (horse twins) and Sarasvati, the Greek Castor and Pollux with Helen, and the Norse Frey, Freyr, and Njordh. (Dumezil, quoted in Mallory 132)

These three examples are mirrored in the Norse tale of Heimdall, under the guise of Rig, providing the role of the “Father of Men”, whereby he lies for a night with three couples, one for each of the three “classes” in Norse society: the serfs, the freemen, and the earls. Much like the deities of the Norse, however, Jarl and his sons, who become the race of Kings, are both warriors and kings, much like Odin, and there is no “race” of warriors fathered in this tale – and, of course, the kings led armies made up of freemen, but those freemen were also farmers and cultivators when they were not out warring. So while there are three classes described, they don’t fit into Dumezil’s mold exactly. There is also no place for merchants in this myth, and the Norse were known to be shrewd merchants and tradespeople as well as fierce warriors.

Personally I think Dumezil’s claim of tripartition provides a good start to the discussion of IE societies. Obviously with any cultural theory there will be outliers, and with as broad a range of cultures as is provided by the Indo-Europeans there are bound to be plenty of differences to go along with their similarities. That said, I don’t think tripartition should be forced on any culture where it clearly doesn’t fit – it’s a theory, and should be examined, but shoehorning cultures into a system doesn’t make for good scholarship. Indo-European cultures should be examined for evidence of tripartition, or tripartition-like social structures, but if they do not conform, that difference should be noted, as with better scholarship, someone may come up with a better theory of Indo-European social structure than Dumezil did.


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This book review is part of the requirements for the reading list for the Dedicant Path. It intends to fulfill the requirement for the Indo-European Studies title.

To start with, this is a dense book. It’s not light reading, and though Puhvel clearly has a sense of humor, the tag on the Recommended Reading list as “Post Graduate” reading level is accurate. There were several times through the course of the book where I felt rather like a student who had decided to skip the prerequisites for an upper level class. I’m not put off by academic writing, and I’m glad to have gotten through it, but it was definitely a bit thick in spots.

Puhvel sets out at the beginning to discuss a brief history of what he calls “metamythology” – the study of how we study myths. This foundation of the study of mythology put his book into context, as well as showing how the archaeological and anthropological Indo-European studies have impacted how we look at what are now known as the I-E myths. Instead of simply cataloging myths in their various cultures, the search is for the proto-myths to go with the proto-language. Puhvel argues that “the datum itself is more important than any theory that may be applied to it” (p. 19) and that we should be wary of overemphasizing the generalist, universalist, and overly historical aspects of myths, instead taking them independently for what they are. Myth needs no specific nature, function, or purpose, instead it should be examined as it functions in individual and societal situations, and compared as such.

Taking this as his method, Puhvel then discusses in the various creation myths in the Ancient Near East, introducing the idea of mythic diffusion – the spread, interaction, and conglomeration of myths both vertically in time and laterally across cultures (p. 22). He establishes a three-generational pattern of “overthrow, usurpation, succession, challenge, and consolidation” (p. 24) that are common across many of the ancient Near Eastern myths.

After this, Puhvel concludes the Directions section of his book with an examination of what, exactly, the terms Indo-European and Indo-Iranian actually mean, discussing some of the history and cultural relationships that form the language groups these myths belonged to. Of particular interest was his discussion on how certain cultures ended up being better at preserving myths than others, specifically those who were not exposed to strong outside cultures and who had a strong priestly class – the brahmins in India, high priesthood in Iran, the pontifical and flaminical colleges in Rome, and the druids of ancient Gaul and Britain (p. 38). These cultures in particular come up again and again throughout the book as having major myths that compare to one another.

In the second section of Comparative Mythology, Puhvel sets out to explain, briefly, the myth cycles of Vedic India, Epic India, Ancient Iran, Epic Iran, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Celtic Myth, Germanic Myth, and Baltic and Slavic Myth. In each of these chapters, beginning with the Vedic foundation, he sets up the basic social structure (almost always tripartite – priests, warriors/kings, producers/farmers/craftsmen) and the gods that go along with each of those social strata.

He examines these myths in a mostly chronological fashion, which puts Vedic India at the forefront, as the oldest recorded culture in the Indo-European group. This ended up being more than a little confusing for someone with limited prior experience in Vedic mythology. Though I’ve read the Ramayana, the Bhagavad Gita, and parts of the Mahabarata, it was apparently long enough ago that I really struggled with the comparisons between myths, since the general basis was always assumed to be Vedic, and I had trouble keeping my Verunas and Vrtras straight. However, as I continued reading (with notes), I ended up better understanding those myths as I got to the sections delineating the myth cycles I was more familiar with (Greece, Rome, Celtic, Norse), both due to repetition and to having a framework I could understand references in.

In the final section, Themes, Puhvel takes a more expanded view of five recurring themes across major sections of the Indo-European cultures: God and Warrior, King and Virgin, Horse and Ruler, Fire in Water, and Twin and Brother. Each of these myths ends up being foundational to the cultures involved, specifically how their three-part social setup is reflected in the myths around respective gods. For example, God and Warrior is a theme directly related to the conflict seen in society because “order, security, and peace […] tend to depend for their preservation on the readiness of something that is inherently destructive” (p. 241). This essential cultural conflict is reflected in the great heroes, who end up as “pawns in divine infighting” (p. 247), burdened by their fate to commit crimes against the cultures in which they live. This warrior saga is portrayed in the Scandinavian (Starcatherus), Indic (Sisupala) and Greek (Herakles) myths, with each having traits of the greater proto-myth while still maintaining ties to the unique cultures in which they originated.

Overall, I’m glad to have read Comparative Mythology, though I don’t know that I will pick it up again in a hurry for light reading. It is a very strong reference for the ways these myths tie together, but that is a double edged sword in the search for a hard polytheistic religion. It would be easy, having read this, to assume that Dyaus, Zeus, and Jupiter are the same god, all descended from *Dyews, when a hard polytheist looks to place those different gods within their respective cultures as individuals with specific worship preferences. Also, Puhvel occasionally stretches his connections a bit far, at least to my relatively inexperienced mind, which may simply mean I need to re-read the book to really understand all the references (and read several other books on mythology first).

Still, the book is extremely successful at laying out the ties between these far-flung but related cultural groups, and Puhvel is extensive (occasionally excessive) at showing the linguistic ties that underlie the similarities in the stories. Puhvel sets out to show the connections between these seemingly diverse mythological cycles, and he does so admirably.

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