Other Correspondents to the Indo-European Creation Myth and the Myths of Other Languages and Religions

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letter CCorrespondences have been noticed between the Indo-European (IE) religion and the myths and Gods of other religions such as Christianity and Buddhism as well as in other non-Indo-European languages such as the Semitic languages and the Caucasian and Kartvelian languages. Strictly speaking, this is off-topic for a discussion of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) religion, but it is included because it seems to be of interest to so many people. The Cow Creation Myth (to use this myth as an example because it has been discussed elsewhere) and one of the names in it--*Yama--have correspondences in several unrelated languages and religions.

Yema, Japanese judge of hell In Hindu belief, Yama is the king of the dead because he was the first to die, but he is not a death god, that is, he never kills anyone. He only comes to welcome the dead humans when it is their time to die, so he is considered quite benevolent, however no one is happy to see him! In those languages where he is borrowed he sometimes becomes a death god who kills people, and in religions that have a cruel afterlife, such as Buddhism, he sometimes tortures the dead.

Mahayana Buddhism and Asian Languages: Sanskrit Yama was absorbed into Mahayana Buddhism. As the judge of the dead, and Buddhist king of hell, Yama was borrowed into Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, Japan and Indonesia, and translated or borrowed into the languages of those countries, still with a name like “Yama.” Buddhist iconography in Nepal shows him with the head of a bull in the Short Description of Gods, Goddesses, and Ritual Objects of Buddhism and Hinduism in Nepal, but further east he looks like a government bureaucrat, see pp. 152-3, The Gods of Northern Buddhism. Other Sanskrit Gods were borrowed into Mahayana Buddhism too, which is how Indra and Shiva came to be worshiped in Japan.

Yama is also equated to the Erlik Qan (King of the Dead) of the Mongolians according to Getty, and from there he turns up in the Germanic languages in a poem by Goethe called Der Erlkoenig, which was set to music by Franz Schubert, and then turned into English by Sir Walter Scott as the poem The Erl-King, see the webpage by Bill Hammel. The Erl King is obviously a borrowing into the Germanic languages (the name Erl King is uninterpretable in German), but it retains something of Yama’s character as a psychopomp or “conductor of souls” as seen in Indo-European belief.

Languages of the Caucasus Mountains: Forms of Yama or Yima appear in the Nart sagas, folktales and songs about the Narts who were superhuman beings who lived in the old days. The Nart sagas are common to several families of languages in the area of the Caucasus mountains east of the Black Sea, including Ossetic (an Indo-European language), and the languages of the Chechens & Ingush; the Circassians; the Kartvelian-speaking Svans and the Georgians which are not Indo-European languages. The examples which follow are all Circassian. In Saga 7, Lady Setenaya and the Magic Apple, Yaminizh is seen as a personification of cholera, who destroys the magic apple tree which gave life and health to the Narts. In Saga 39, a ballad, the hero cannot rest until he avenges his father’s death on Yamina, still thought of as cholera. The hero manages to do this, “he slew him in combat” (and marries his wife!), and so although the name is equivalent according to the translator, the character of *Yama is much different in the Circassian stories, see Colarusso. The Circassian forms Yimis, in Saga 2, (possibly with an epithet Pshimaruquo ‘Prince of Death’ see note 10 on p. 17); Yaminizh, in Saga 7, with a suffix that means evil; and Yamina; along with Georgian Iaman; and Svan Yaman, are all forms of this name which show “influence in the Caucasus from the Iranian world” and the translator compares these names to Sanskrit Yama and Iranian Yima (p. 174, Colarusso). This is just one of many borrowings from the Indo-European religion into the Nart sagas.

Semitic Languages: The Indo-European God Yama and the myth in which he is killed and dismembered was borrowed into several Semitic languages, notably the Ugaritic (Phoenician) language of the Ras Shamra tablets, dating to about 1200-1400 BCE. Apparently the story continued to be told by speakers of Hebrew and appears in Psalm 74 in the Old Testament of the Bible. This is described in detail in the article about West Semitic versions of the Indo-European Creation Myth.

Other forms of a myth in which a being is killed and dismembered and the world is created from its body are known in several older languages of Mesopotamia. These myths have been equated to the Indo-European myth according to the standard of “comparative religion” that, is an equation of similar motifs without regard to their linguistic relationships, but the actual historical and linguistic relationships are not clear.

The Babylonian Creation myth, Enuma Elis which may be dated to circa 1100 BCE is known in both Akkadian and Assyrian forms. In the Akkadian (Babylonian) forms of this story, Marduk kills Tiamat and then splits her body into two parts “like two halves of a flatfish” (or shellfish, depending on the translation) and the sky is made from one part and the world, with mountains, rivers (the Tigris and Euphrates are named) and hills is made from the other part, pp. 66-67, Grimal. This clearly shows the creation of the world from her body. In the Assyrian version of this myth, the God Assur is substituted for Marduk, and the same story is told. The relationship of the names (Marduk=Assur=Indo-European *Manu vs. Tiamat=Yam-Nahar=Indo-European *Yama) is not clear, although “there is no doubt that Yam-Nahar was the chief Ugaritic counterpart of the Babylonian Tiamat” according to Gibson, p. 7. A Sumerian source has been offered for the name Tiamat, and in an article by Bruce Lincoln, Tiamat is said to be in the form of a cow.

Christian religion: The name *Yama seems to correspond to James, the name in English of several Christian saints (also Gaelic Seamus). In most languages, the Christian saints James are known by a form of the name Jacob(us), but although the names Jacob and James cannot be linguistic cognates, the persons so-named almost always correspond in all points. St. James has various forms some of whom are martyred by being sawn in half, hence the English name for him/them, St. James Sawn-Asunder. Under the names James of Nisibus, James the Persian and, in Latin, James Intercisus (feast day Nov. 27), there is a wretched tale in which he/they are tortured to death by being--cut into pieces, see Holweck, A Biographical Dictionary of Saints. However in the medieval Christian martyrologies, James Intercisus is identified with St. James the Lesser whose feast day is Oct. 23.

In the Syriac martyrologies, (the earliest martyrologies that we have--411 CE), one of the various Sts. James suffers the “nine deaths” in which his fingers and toes are cut off, etc., see Fiey Saints Syriaques. Nisibus is a city in Persia, and these saints are clearly christianized versions of Persian Jemshid, going back to the Avestan deity Yima Kshaeta. Many Indo-European Gods became saints in the Christian church, including quite a few Zoroastrian Gods in the Syriac church. The Roman Catholic Church conceded the point in 1965 when it demoted 200 saints, including the patron saints of many countries, e.g., Santiago de Compostela in Spain, St. David of Wales, St. Patrick of Ireland, St. George of England, St. Andrew of Scotland, St. Nicholas of everywhere (Germany, Russia, Holland, looks like the Hanseatic League), and too many more to mention.

Correspondences like these, including entire pantheons, between the Indo-European religion and other religions and other non-Indo-European languages are so widespread that they cannot be explained as coincidences. The pattern of borrowings with the Nart sagas, the Mahayana Buddhist elements, and Christian saints, myths and rituals are fairly well understood historically.

The relationship between the myths of the Indo-European languages and those of the Semitic and Sumerian languages is much less clear. Since these families of languages are not thought to be related, we shouldn’t expect to see cognates. Traditionally it had been assumed, partly because people believed that the Bible was historically accurate and “older,” that any similarities could be explained by borrowing from the Semitic (and Sumerian) languages into the Indo-European languages. However since many Indo-European Gods and myths show cognate forms across the Indo-European languages, the IE Gods can be reconstructed as being in existence in the Proto-Indo-European language at least by 4000 BCE (a conservative estimate). That means that if they were borrowed, they would have to have been borrowed by 4000 BCE, the time of the beginning of the break up of the Indo-European languages. None of the great Mesopotamian or other Semitic-speaking cultures had developed into politically or militarily dominant states that early, so it’s difficult to see why another culture would borrow entire pantheons from them, and this issue is much wider than just the myths and person of the Indo-European God Yama. [fuggle26]

As it is, there are still anomalies in the time lines and problems with the geographic distribution. In any case the difficulties remain unresolved and the subject is a sensitive one, since it concerns the supposed history of several different religions.

Saints Syriaques by Jean Maurice Fiey, ed. by Lawrence Conrad, The Darwin Press, Inc., Princeton, NJ, 2004.
A Biographical Dictionary of Saints by F. G. Holweck, B. Herder Book Co., St. Louis, MO, 1924.
Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible ed. by Karel van der Toorn, et al., William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1999.
Short Description of Gods, Goddesses, and Ritual Objects of Buddhism and Hinduism in Nepal compiled by Jnan Bahadur Sakya, publ. by Handicraft Association of Nepal, Kathmandu, 1989.
The Gods of Northern Buddhism by Alice Getty, Charles E. Tuttle, Co., Rutland, Vermont, 1914, 1962.
Nart Sagas from the Caucasus ed. and transl. by John Colarusso, Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, 2002.
Canaanite Myths and Legends by J.C.L. Gibson, T & T Clark Ltd., Edinburgh, 1977.
Larousse World Mythology, by Pierre Grimal, Prometheus Press, NY, 1965.
The New American Bible, Catholic Book Publishing Co., NY, c. 1970.

A version of this article was originally published at pierce.yolasite.com/othcorr but Yola was hacked in Nov. 2011 and they could not salvage their servers. It is now published here with many revisions based on continuing research.

© 2007, last updated 5/11/2014, at piereligion.org/othcorr.html