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.
3. Choose one Indo-European culture and describe briefly the influences that have shaped it and distinguish it from other Indo-European derived cultures. Examples include migration, contact with other cultures, changes in religion, language, and political factors. Is there any sense in which this culture can be said to have stopped being an Indo-European culture? (minimum 300 words)
The Germanic cultures are typically divided into two groups – West Germanic (English, German, and Dutch) and North Germanic/Scandinavian (Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic) (Mallory 84). The earliest substantial texts are from the Gothic language, the speakers of which migrated from the north into the Black Sea region, until they were pushed westward into the Balkans. Other than the Gothic texts, which show Greek influences, there are also runic inscriptions, which appear to have been loosely derived from one of the north Italian or Etruscan alphabets (Mallory 84). These show clear cultural influences of both Indo-European (Greek) and non-Indo-European (Italian/Etruscan) onto the Germanic peoples.
The Germanic lands were made up of small(ish) tribes, as attested by Tacitus, who either got along, or didn’t, according to various political and territorial disputes. The Gothic word weihs is related to a number of other IE words that suggest a household or small settlement – anything from a body of houses belonging to an extended family up to a clan (Mallory 120). These clans were migratory when necessary– as seen in the migrations of the Angles and Saxons to the British Isles, where they developed an independent, yet still Germanic, culture that was heavily influenced by the Britons and Celts who were already living there. Continental Germanic tribes also came into close contact with the continental Celts and with the Romans, and eventually all of the Germanic tribes encountered Christianity and were converted. Of the Germanic groups, the Icelandic community held out the longest against conversion.
Politically the Norse were largely farmers and artisans with a strong warring and seafaring tradition which speaks to their location on rivers and coastlines. Forston refers as well to the concept of a Mannerbund – a warrior band that engaged in acts of violence, such as raiding and pillaging, and often identified with the wolf (Forston 19).While seafaring is not known as an Indo-European trait, it is a trait they would have shared with their Greek and Roman cousins, and there may have been some interchange of ideas along with the interchange of language that happened across the centuries. The Germanic tribes were led by “Kings”, many of whom traced their lineage to Odin, the King of Asgard, though Frey makes appearances as the progenitor of Kings as well.
While the Germanic people had a system of writing, they did very little chronicling, and so we are left with inscriptions and accounts of their culture and religious beliefs as recorded by either outsiders like Tacitus and Caesar or conquerors like Snorri and the rest of the Christian monks. From this point the convention of Germanic society would have changed dramatically, especially after the adoption of Christianity. This conversion happened across the Germanic language group, and the fundamental structures of the society were influenced, especially as the Christian Church became more and more powerful. However dynamic these changes eventually became, there is not a point at which the Germanic people could be said to be non-Indo-European. Their religious beliefs changed significantly, but their social structures remained intact for quite some time after conversion.
4. Choose one other Indo-European culture and compare and contrast it to the culture discussed in question 3 above with respect to each culture’s Indo-European nature. (minimum 300 words)
The Greeks, much like the Germans, though much earlier in history, had settled societies of households, but the Greeks are known for much stronger classifications of clans and tribes, which eventually became city-states and led the way for democracy. The Germans had few cities, and they were typically places where people traveled at certain times of year – such as for the Thing – as opposed to being inhabited metropolises. The Norse tradition of the Thing can be seen as a type of democracy, since it was a meeting of all freemen where legislative and judicial functions were executed, though it was not an exact analogue to Greek democracy.
Like the Germans, the Greek society had a strong tradition of reciprocity: not simply to give or to take, but the whole act of both parties of the exchange. This is seen in the Greek nemetai “allots” and the German nehmen “take” (Forston 20). These cognates show that both have a tradition OF reciprocity, but the Greek word falls on the giving side of the exchange and the German word on the receiving side, which suggests that when the languages were less diversified by time and culture, there was only one word for both concepts.
Religiously, there are some similarities and some differences. Like many Indo-European religious structures, both Germanic and Greek gods displaced an earlier race of chaotic beings that were destructive, or at best indifferent, to humanity – the Titans and the Jotun. Both pantheons are led by a Sky-Father God, who represents justice – Zeus and Tyr/Tiw/Tiwaz (Forston 22-3). The Germanic tribes eventually replaced Tyr with Odin, a god of War and Magic/Shamanism, which makes this eventually a difference between the two. As well, the Germans identified the sun as female (Sol), where the Greeks identify the sun as male (Helios). This is particularly interesting, as English is descended from the Germanic language group, but typically refers to the sun as male, showing perhaps an influence of the Renaissance classical rebirth instead of a reference back to our earlier Germanic roots. While not fully attested, there is a similar Dawn goddess between the two cultures as well – Eos in Greek and Eostara in Anglo-Saxon (Forston 23). Both cultures also share the idea that in death, one must cross a body of water to get to the afterlife, though the Greek myth of Charon and the river Styx is by far the better known, while the Germanic myth of Valhalla – and Folkvangr, if we give Freyja her due – takes precedence as the desired afterlife above those who descend to Helheim (Forston 25). In both myths, a dog guards the entrance to the underworld.
Linguistically there are some differences as well. The Germanic language emerged over the pre-existing Jastorf and possibly the Harpstedt cultures, and the linguistic differences that created Proto-Germanic from Proto-Indo-European probably happened around 500 BC (Mallory 87). Mallory does not talk about significant changes that happened to the language as it became Germanic, suggesting a much slower migration and the development of the language over time. However with Greek, which is attested to the Late Bronze Age, there are definitive additions to the early Greek language that suggest that Indo-European invaders mingled with an earlier non-Greek civilization and borrowed a considerable number of elements from that civilization in the process (Mallory 68).
Much like the German civilization, however, I see little to classify the Greek culture as non-Indo-European – the language retains much of its Indo-European roots into the modern era and is still spoken by approximately eleven million people. Greek culture eventually encountered Eastern Christianity (where the Germans encountered Western Christianity), but both cultures seem to have retained their Indo-European natures through that shift.
5. From its beginnings, ADF has defined itself in relation to Indo-European pagan traditions. What relevance do you think historical and reconstructed IE traditions from the past have in constructing or reconstructing a Pagan spirituality for the present and future? (minimum 600 words)
ADF is providing a valuable community for Neopagans who want to both appreciate and learn from the ways of their Ancestors but still remain firmly grounded as modern worshipers. This middle ground between being a truly new religion and being reconstructionists gives people a place to come to learn and grow in many ways.
The Neopagan movement does not have many people who can fulfil the magico-religious function. While Wicca is a very strong religion, one of its basic tenets is that everyone is their own priest or priestess. ADF provides the structure for there to be both clergy and laity, which is essential for Neopaganism’s survival beyond the next 50 years or so. Not everyone wants or needs to do the work of clergy, and ADF’s priests provide a service to their communities that fulfils a need that – until ADF – has not been met by other Neopagans, who have had to turn to non-denominational ministers or Unitarians or Justices of the Peace for their religious needs.
The Gods and Spirits that we worship have need of this function as well. While anyone can and should have a relationship with the Spirits that are important to them – especially their house spirits and their ancestors – historically it was the job of the priestly class to coordinate offerings and sacrifices. When the community comes together to make offerings, it is the priest who coordinates this ritual.
Priests also functioned as teachers and mediators, a job which is needed in the modern world as well.
That said, there are some aspects of the Indo-European religious and historical traditions that I think should definitively stay historical. Human and animal sacrifice is not something I ever want to be responsible for, or even be around as a participant, even if it were legal, which it’s not. Also, the position of women in Indo-European society varied greatly, and I think it’s important that ADF continues to embrace the idea that men and women should be treated equally and have equal opportunity to become priests and leaders.
Rigidly adhering to a set of class structures is also not well served in the modern era, simply because it has the opportunity to severely disenfranchise large groups of people. As well, those of the warrior function who do not serve in the military will need to find other ways of expressing their warrior natures than raiding and pillaging neighboring towns.
Indo-European cultures were largely open cultures – you could, and in some places were expected to, worship the Gods and Spirits of the place where you were, even if you were not born there. Likewise, it serves ADF well to not limit our membership to people who are descended from Indo-Europeans, nor to limit people to the hearth culture of their ancestry. The Gods call whom they will, and while it is in some ways a very ancient idea, it’s an important modern idea as well.
One thing I think that ADF could do better in serving the community is finding some way to broaden the cultural understanding of the word “Druid” – many people hear “Druid” and assume “Celt”, regardless of how many times we emphasize that we use the word differently. While this is a relic of our early days as an organization, there are plenty of Norse, Baltic, Hellenic, Roman, and Indic “Druids” who are doing excellent scholarship and work in their communities.
It is important for us to continue to define ourselves as Indo-European, simply because without a definition of who we are, there are no boundaries as to who we are not, while still remaining open to learning from and experiencing the practices of other groups and societies. The cultures of the Indo-European language group have a certain amount of similarities that allow us to create a deep and meaningful religious practice that has value to the modern world. By utilizing this framework, we can have priests of varying cultures, groves who worship different pantheons, study programs that enhance our understanding of ourselves and of each other, and function as a fully operational modern religion with a strong historical background of scholarship.
Fortson, Benjamin W. Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005. PDF.
Littleton, C. Scott. The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of Georges Dumezil. Berkeley: U of California, 1982. Print.
Mallory, J. P. In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989. Print.
Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. Print.