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.