Devi, a Proto-Indo-European Goddess

Welcome to the Proto-Indo-European Religion domain at
Proto-Indo-European Religion
Indo-European Languages
Proto-Indo-European Goddesses
Proto-Indo-European Myths
Proto-Indo-European Rituals
Festivals, Food and Farming

Early English Text Society Publications
Book References

Devi is one of the great Goddesses of the Indo-Europeans, but because the same word is also used generally in a number of Indo-European Languages for ‘a god(dess), any god(dess)’, her characteristics are a little difficult to define. However, this can be determined by looking at the myths, festivals and rituals connected to her. And as with all Indo-European deities, gender is not a fixed characteristic so it is natural that her name should appear in both feminine and masculine forms.

The feminine form of her name is reconstructed in Proto-Indo-European as *deiu-iH2, by Eva Tichy, p. 72 in A Survey of Proto-Indo-European and see also Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, Vol. I, p. 196. This Goddess was worshiped by speakers of most of the Indo-European language groups. Masculine forms of the name of this deity are reconstructed as having the form *deiwos- in Proto-Indo-European according to Mallory and Adams, p. 408, and a similar form is reconstructed by Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, Vol. I, p. 196. However, Jaan Puhvel reconstructs the form as beginning with *dhy-, which takes into account the Hittite forms in which he is an expert. He connects the Hittite form sius ‘God’ with the rest of these deities. Masculine forms of her name include Sanskrit Deva, and Latin Deus. The words Devi or Deva or their equivalents are sometimes used as forms of address for high-ranking (or very vain) people. In a few languages, the Devas and Devis and some other deities were demonized because of Zarathustra’s negative attitude toward them. This influence extended to several languages which were strongly influenced by the Zoroastrian religion including the early Armenian language and some dialects of the Germanic languages. In addition, masculinized forms of her name with the vocative element patri ‘father’; such as Deus Patri are used by some Christians as a name of one of their Gods and so she has often been obscured or misrepresented for religious reasons by monotheists who did not want her to be acknowledged.

Sanskrit and Hindi
Although the word devi appears in the Rig Veda as a general word for a Goddess, the specific Goddess Devi does not appear in the early Rig Vedic hymns, which have a limited pantheon, mostly in opposition to the Zoroastrian pantheon. However, Devi is the major Goddess worshiped in the Devi-bhagavata-purana which is dated to about the sixth century CE. She is most closely associated with Durga, also a grain Goddess, and is currently the major Goddess worshiped in India (see Kinsley in References). In Sanskrit the masculine form is Deva, meaning either ‘God’ or as a polite form of address to a human being ‘His/Your Majesty’.

Avestan and Persian
In Avestan, a daevi is a female demon, as the masculine form daeva means a male demon based on the Zoroastrian demonization of the Devas of the Vedic priests. This negative denotation is continued into later Persian where the divs appear as demons in the Shah Namah, and in Armenian folklore. See the Pandemonium for an explanation.

Demeter with the child Demophoon, illustration by Willy Pogany Greek
In Greek the word dia means a Goddess although thea is the nominative form in some dialects. One of the most important deities of the Greeks is Demeter who is clearly a grain Goddess and while the etymology of her name is uncertain it is probably dia-meter ‘Goddess mother.’ Deo is the vocative form used to address her in prayers, while zea is the Greek word for spelt, a primitive kind of grain. Masculine forms of her name include dios ‘God’; although theos is more usual as the nominative form in northern dialects, and the form Zeus is used as the nominative form for a specific God of the Greeks. Demeter was so important to the Greeks, and grain was so important to Demeter that eight festivals a year marking the stages in the growth of grain are dedicated to her and she is called ‘Giver of Seasons.’ There is an interesting article with updated information about the major site for the worship at Eleusis of the Goddess Demeter.

In Latin, the Goddess Dea Dia was one of the major Goddesses worshiped at a temple built in the grain fields on the outside of Rome, while elsewhere in Italy she is usually worshiped under the name Ceres. The site of the temple for Dea Dia is very well known, and there are records of all the rituals performed for her because the temple records were literally carved in stone. A good description of her rites is given at a website She is clearly a grain Goddess and was worshiped by being offered sheaves of grain by the people with the assistance of priests who wore wreaths of grain. Other forms of the cognate word in Latin include dia and diva and mean ‘Goddess’ in general. Diva is now used metaphorically to mean any Goddess-like woman, such as an opera singer. There are many dialects known from the Italic peninsula, among them Oscan in which the masculine form is written Diovis; and in Latin, Jove is a particular God. The form Jupiter is actually Etruscan and may have been borrowed into Etruscan from Greek (from Zeu Pitar), since there were Greek colonies in Italy by 800 BCE. The native masculine Italic form of the grain God is Dis Pater, a God associated with death, because the dead were typically buried (planted) in Italy. Other forms of the cognate word in Latin include deus, dives, ‘a God, a rich man.’ As with Sanskrit, the same word can refer to a god or a very god-like human being, or possibly someone who wants to be treated like a god.

Celtic Languages
In the oldest Celtic languages, this Goddess appears as Deva, for whom a votive altar was built in Iberia (Spain). In the more recent Celtic dialects the name dia, dea, is used for a Goddess in Irish prayers and charms. Masculine forms in the Celtic languages include dewi in Welsh and dia in Irish. Some authors have considered the Dagda a form of this God, partly because he is obviously a grain God.

Germanic Languages
The cognate deity in the Germanic languages is Sif, who is obviously a ‘sheaf’ of wheat as her name shows. The main myth about this Goddess is given in the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson who explains that one of the kennings (or poetic phrases) for gold is ‘Sif’s hair’ because of the story in which Loki cut off her hair while she was asleep. When he was found out he had to negotiate with dwarves to replace her hair with hair of gold that would grow like natural hair. He was able to do this, and this is thought to provide an explanation for the growth of wheat each year and incidentally an association with dwarves which is common to grain goddesses. There are many songs in the Germanic languages related to grain deities, but I have put together this list of Harvest Songs, in English to celebrate the grain harvest that happens in August.

Slavic Languages
In the Slavic languages, the name of this Goddess appears under various spellings (because of the irregular transcription of the Cyrillic alphabet) and includes Zhiva, or Siebe in Old Polish where she is clearly a grain Goddess. Masculine forms of this God include Old Polish Zywie.

Baltic Languages
In the Baltic languages Devi appears as Lithuanian deive ‘Goddess’ and Latvian dieve. There are many dainas or sacred songs for her. The masculine forms in the Baltic languages include Lithuanian Dievas and Latvian Dievs. Dievs is clearly a grain God who causes the rye fields to ripen as can be seen from many sacred songs addressed to him.

Armenian Language
Before the Armenians became Christians, their form of Pagan religion was Zoroastrianism which they absorbed from the Persians, and the Zoroastrians demonized the daevas. Even after the Armenians became Christians, they retained the negative attitude toward Divs which appear as bad creatures in Armenian folklore where they cause trouble.

Myth of the Grain Goddess
Ultimately the Indo-European Gods and Goddesses are personified and deified forms of natural phenomena and the myths about them reflect this, or at least, that is true of the ones that we can reconstruct. Most of the Indo-European language groups have a version of the Proto-Indo-European Myth of the Dying Corn God, in which the Grain Goddess loses her son, who is killed and then beaten (because grain is first cut to harvest it and then threshed with flails to separate the grain from the chaff). The Dying Corn God, as he is called, is constantly dying and being reborn, which is also true of wheat and barley which are planted and then harvested several times a year. The Grain Goddess mourns her son’s death, both when he is harvested and when he is buried and then she rejoices, as farmers do, when the grain springs up three days after being planted in the ground.

As a grain goddess, Devi is worshiped with offerings of her gifts, grain and bread at many festivals throughout the year. Grain harvest festivals typically fall in May (for the harvest of the winter barley and wheat) and in August (for the harvest of the summer grains). Naturally these times are adjusted according to the local climate. A grain goddess is worshiped with offerings of grain, as the Indo-Europeans normally thanked their deities for their gifts by offering a part back and singing songs of praise. There are many descriptions of the grain goddesses being worshiped in the form of grain sheaves, which can be offered at the altar. She is also worshiped with different kinds of bread. In the Greek tradition, there is a beautiful description of this, given in fragment #5 of Archestratos, known from the quotations in the Deipnosophists, which introduces “the gifts of fair-haired Demeter” and describes the kinds of bread that are offered. fuggle26

There are also festivals of the Grain Goddess connected with the time of planting, which typically falls in March and October. These festivals are especially related to the Dying Corn God, who is the personification of grain seed which is buried in the ground and then pops up again three days after it is buried.

Family Relationships
Devi is understood to have relationships with a number of other Gods and Goddesses. She is usually the mother of the Dying Corn God. In Greek this deity is a daughter and Persephone doesn’t die, she just spends the winter underground, as does the winter grain. Devi is usually the mother of the horse twins, which she has with Uncle Water (Apam Napat or Neptune), although they are not married. More properly, they do not live together because her domain is the grasslands, while his is the waters. But she is the ruler of her domain, the grasslands.

The forms of the Goddess Devi can be seen all over the Indo-European-speaking world. She can be reconstructed as a grain Goddess, and she is the main focus of a number of festivals during the year, making her giver of seasons. Many major temples and thousands of votive offerings have been made for her and there are several myths about her which can be reconstructed to a Proto-Indo-European original. Although she is overlooked by some of the more conservative western linguistic scholars, perhaps because of their biases, she is one of the most important and widely worshiped deities among the Indo-Europeans.

• Gamkrelidze, Thomas V. and Ivanov, Vjaceslav V., Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical Analysis of a Proto-Language and a Proto-Culture (Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 80, 2 Vol. Set), with Werner Winter, ed., and Johanna Nichols, translator (original title Indoevropeiskii iazyk i indoevropeistsy), M. De Gruyter, Berlin & NY, 1995.
• Kinsley, David R., Hindu Goddesses, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988.
• Mallory, J.P., and Adams, Douglas Q., Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
• Mann, Stuart E., An Indo-European Comparative Dictionary, Helmut Buske Verlag, Hamburg, 1984/1987.
• Olson, S. Douglas, Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters, a translation of Deipnosophistae by Athenaeus, (Loeb Classical Library dual edition), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006
• Olson, S. Douglas and Sens, Alexander, ed. and transl. of Archestratos of Gela[author of Gastronomy, or the Hedupatheia], Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000.
• Tichy, Eva, A Survey of Proto-Indo-European, transl. by James E. Cathy, Hempen Verlag, Bremen, 2006.

This page was at until Yola was hacked in November of 2011 and they were unable to repair the damage to their data. It has now been moved here, where the servers work and the employees are competent and actually pleasant.

© 2007, last updated 2/19/2011,