General characteristics of Indo-European Religion

A) Indo-european religion is polytheistic, consisting of a multiplicity of rites proper to various social groups and localities, and pagan, i.e. peasant, reflecting the diversity of the people and not the unity of a state cult, nor of an established church.

B) Being pluralistic and diversified, this religion is naturally tolerant; far from indulging in proselitism, each group jealously guards its own gods, rites and formulae. In this sense it may be called esoteric and initiatory. It possesses myths and symbols, but is devoid of dogma. C) It is a religion of works and not of faith, lived out rather than thought about. The performnce of the traditional rites and of one¹s state are essential to it.

D) Being a political religion by reason of its framework (that of the various ethnic units) and in view of the greater part of its pantheon, as we shall see, a religion of leaders and not of priests, it is without fanaticism. The poet may be an inspired being seized from time to time by the divine frenzy, but the celebrant is a grave and worthy magistrate. “Superstition” and foreign (or archaic) ecstatic cults are viewed with disapproval, and sorcery is repressed with severity. However the private practice of magic is widely attested, viz. The Old Indian Atharvaveda, the Hittite rituals, many examples in the classical world, among the Celts and Germans.

E) Character and appellations of the Indo-European gods

The gods are thought of as personal beings. Their nature cannot be described with greater precision, but it is more or less close to human nature according to the people and the period concerned. In this context their appellations, four types of which occur, are interesting:

a) common nouns denoting phenomena (fire, dawn), celestial bodies (sun, moon) or abstract concepts (contract, oath);

b) derived or compound common nouns with possessive value denoting the “master” of the corresponding phenomenon, being or social fact (Lat. Silva-nus “forest-master”, Ved. Brhaspàti- “master of the brh-” i.e. “power-master”);

c) personal nouns, non-motivated (Ved. Indra-) or motivated, for the most part agent-nouns (Av. Vrthra-ghna- “he who breaks down resistance”);

d) syntagmata expressing a kindred relationship (“daughter of the Sun”).

Groups (b), (c) and (d) apply explicitly and group (a) implicitly to personal beings: although their original nature is not lost sight of, and poets constantly play on the ambivalence, Mitra/Contract and Agni/Fire are just as personal as Indra in the Veda. We are not, then, dealing with a lack of precision or a nature (“force”) intermediate between the thing or action and the god *dyew- “day-sky” has the title *pHter- “father” tacked on to it from the very beginning. Very few names have been reconstructed in Indo-European; all of them denote former gods of the universe.

F) The two poles of sacrality

Benveniste (1969 II: 179 ff.) has clarified the dual nature of the Indo-Europeans’ idea of sacrality as evidenced by their vocabulary: that which is “charged with divine power” is “positively sacred” (Av. spenta-, Germanic *hailaz, Lat. Sanctus, Gr. Hieròs); that which “contact is forbidden for man” (Av. yaozdata-, Germanic *wihaz, Lat. Sacer, Gr. Hàgios) is “negatively sacred”. A corresponding duality is found in the terms for religious observance, expressed on the one hand by verbs denoting either “to cause to grow, to strengthen” or one of the sacrifical operations, and on the other by those denoting religious attitude: the fear of offending a god, even involuntarly, but at the same time confidence in and even familiarity with the gods, especially in the case of some of them. In Vedic India the bonds of Varuna/Oath are held in awe, but Indra is treated as a “comrade” (yùj-). Indo-European religion contains strict prohibitions, but is a religion of freemen (Neckel 1920: 134; Höfler 1971: 371 ff.)

The gods of the universe

Sky, earth, important heavenly bodies and atmospheric phenomena have become divine, but the constant tendency is to link nature with politics by means of cosmic symbolism.

1. The heavens and the earth

A) The Indo-European gods are called *deywòs “those of the day-sky” (Haudry 1987 b: 28 f.), a term whose origins go back to a period in which the Day-sky, *dyéw-pHtér-, was the first among the gods. Hittite Sius “Sun god” is his most archaic reflex, which retains his temporal character, the limitation of the day. He lost this primacy in those cases where he remained the sky (so the Vedic Dyaùh), whereas his name passed to the sovereign god in the case of the Greeks (Zeùs) and the Romans (Jupiter). To the *deywos of day who inhabit the heavens are opposed the demons whose habitat is the Night-sky or Hell. This theology, initially linked with the revolving-sky-cosmology, is perpetrated in the various dualism which place gods and demons in opposition to one another, such as the Mazdaism of the Iranians. The earth-mother is, in the last state of this theology, the consort of the ³sky², but in more ancient times she was the consort of a black Night-sky who was succeeded by the white Day-sky after the brief reign of a red Dawn- or Dusk-sky.

B) The Veda and Baltic folklore preserve traces of a demoniac Dawn from whose clutches the sun had to be snatched. But in a more recent state of the myth, Dawn, “daughter of the Day-sky” (Schmitt 1967: § 333 ff.) is on the latter¹s side in his daily combat with darkness. As Dumézil has shown (1974: 66 f.), this is the meaning of the curious Roman ritual of the Mater Matuta, in which matrons pamper their nephews and drive out a servant-girl, in the image of the good Dawn who guides the first steps of her sister Night¹s son, the sun, after driving out demonic Darkness. We shall see below that it is here a question not of daily but of annual Dawn. Daily Dawn is at the base of only a part of the mythology surrounding the various Dawn-goddesses, especially those who bear another name, such as the Greek Aphrodite and her corresponding heroin Helen. Many goddesses and heroins of the insular Celts, bound to the fairy Other World, such as Etain, Fand, Brigit, Boand, Mòrrigan, are to be interpreted as reflexes of Indo-European Dawn. We retain the Irish tale of the birth of the Sun (Angus Mac Oc), conceived by Diurnal Sky (Dagda) and Dawn (Eithne or Boand) without the knowing of Elcmar (Ogme), who in the story plays the part of the Indo-European Nocturnal Sky (Jouet 1993).

C) The Divine Twins “Sons of the Day-Sky” (O.Ind. divò nàpata, attribute of the Asvin, the Greek diòskouroi; the Baltic Sons of *Deivas; O. Icel. dags synir “Sons of Day” Sd 3) must be, on account of their designation, cosmic entities, like their sister Dawn (B). But their identification is debated: Twilight (Myriantheus 1896) or rather Morning and Evening Star (Mannhardt 1875). Their most important parts are the courting of rescue of Dawn or Sun¹s Daughter, whom they marry jointly, or whom they give away to Moon.

D) Two bodies of evidence in aggreement with one another show that the Sun, together with the Day-sky, was the great god of Indo-European religion in its oldest form. The traditional formulary preserves no less than five expressions applied to him or to his attributes (Schmitt 1967: § 314 ff.), and, alonside his ordinary name *sHuel-, a parallel poetic form has been reconstructed from Sanscr. Ravi-: Armenian arew. Again, the iconography of archaeological sites which can with certainty be attributed to Indo-European peoples abounds with solar emblems. Worship of the sun lives on more in popular worship and subsequently in folklore than in the “political religion” into which the sun, though in a modest role, was incorporated. He belongs to the third function by reason of his beneficient character (this is the meaning of svastika-, the Indian name for the solar emblem), and on the other hand as “universal watchman”, “eye”, he becomes more or less the sovereign god¹s police chief.

E) The Moon (*meH1-n-s/ot (Beekees 1982)) is both the unfaithful husband of the Sun goddess, whose punishment is the lunar cycle, and a warrior-god who fights against the fiends of Night-sky.

2. The elements

A) Fire

As the terrestrial form of an element represented in the sky by the sun and in the intervening space by lightning, fire is one of the most ancient of Indo-European gods. In the historical period, it is found in its original unified form only in the Aryan world: the Vedic Agni is at one and the same time the element of fire and a trifunctional god, a priest-god above all, but also a warrior-god and a “young” god, possessing and bestowing vital force. These various finctions are elsewhere shared out among separates “fire-gods” or “fire-masters” whose names are not identical with that of the element.

B) Water

Fire and water are linked in the curious image “fire, grandson of the waters” (Schmitt 1967: § 577) viz. Gold (Haudry, to appear, c). Water, or the waters, which themselves belong to three different worlds, were deified, often in the form of a great goddess, celestial source of the waters of earth, who in political religion becomes a trifunctional entity like the Avestic Ardvi Sura Anahita “she who is wet, heroic, immaculate” or a third-function divinity.

C) Air

Winds in the historical period are minor genii. However, the former importance of this element shows through in the name of the great Aryan warrior-god Vayu “the wind”: he derives this warrior-role from the fact that the intermediate world through which he blows is the arena in which the gods of the day-sky and the demons of the night-sky confront one another.

D) We have seen how these ancient gods were incorporated into political religion; on the other hand, they survived in popular religion. For this reason it will not do reject, a priori, evidence such as that provided by Caesar for the Germanic tribes who, according to him, “consider as gods only those which they see, the sun, Vulcan (fire) and the moon” (B.G. 6. 21).

E) These ancient gods are the only ones whose Indo-European names can be reestablished with reasonable plausibility: apart from those of Day-sky the Father, Dawn, the Sun and Fire (a) type appellation, above, the names of a “fire-master” *wlkà-no- (Volcanus, Zeus Welchanos, Ossetian Wærgon, and Smith Wayland, Schröder 1977); a “grandson of the waters” *nepto/u-no- (Dumézil 1986c: 18 f.; Puhvel 1987: 227 f.); a “hitter”, lightning-god, derived from *per-k/g- “to hit” and associated with the oak, and a “swell-master”, *pHus-H1en- (O.Ind. Pusàn, Gr. Pàn, Schulze 1909) have been reconstructed.

3. Gods of the individual

These ancient deities are those who are closest to man, the most reliable succour for the lonely. For an orphan-girl alone in the world, runs a Lithuanian song, (Senn 1957: 40) “Sun is the mother who piles up her dowry for her, Moon is the father who gives her share in the inheritance, the star is a sister who weaves her crown and the Pleiads a brother to take her for walks in the country”. In the same way, the Hattic-Hittite Sun god Istanu most particularly has compassion on mankind, on the downtrodden and defenceless: “Istanu, father and mother of the oppressed and lonely person you (are) you restore the claims of the lonely and oppressed person” (Cf. Istanu¹s epithet “Sheperd of the lands/of mankind”) (Justus 1983: 78).

* * *

From the book The Indo-Europeans, Lyon, Institut d’Etudes Indo-Européennes, 1994.


  1. Pierce
    | Rispondi

    Here is another view which rarely corresponds to the views above but is based on linguistic analysis.

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