Proto-Indo-European myths may be defined as narratives which have certain
elements in common, such as a God/person X who does Y in connection with a
God/person/being Z, where X and Z are cognates, respectively, in several
Indo-European languages, and Y is something specific like “kills monster.” Many
Indo-European myths have at their core some simple observation of nature or
life, such as that the sun is “born” each morning and “dies” each night, or that
wheat must be cut and threshed (“killed and tortured”) before it can be used to
Types of sources for the reconstruction of Indo-European myths
1) actual mythological tales in which Gods act like Gods;
2) legends or histories. Many foundation myths of a country or city, including sometimes bare
king-lists, consist of a reprise of the nature myths; and
3) folktales which are highly subject to borrowing but some examples can be determined to
conserve native myths based on the forms of
the names which modern storytellers
are not always able to interpret correctly.
George Cox gives just such a list of
sources on p. 53-56, in the Mythology of the Aryan Nations. See also the
Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European
World, which lists “myth, history, folklore” on p. 432. Jacob Grimm gives a
more complete list of types of sources including riddles and proverbs, but they
must be used with care. In areas where the original religion has been replaced
by hostile monotheistic religions, many Indo-European myths persist in the form
of fairytales, romances and saints’ tales, and sometimes as the “history” of the
Gods or heroes in the monotheistic religions themselves, a point of which they
do not like to be reminded.
Proto-Indo-European Myths: Although many myths might be considered
“Indo-European myths” on the grounds that they are told in some Indo-European language, the very brief list of myths
which follows can be shown by the cognate names to descend from a common
ancestor (as distinguished from a common source) in the Indo-European languages
and therefore qualify as Proto-Indo-European myths. Most of these were
identified and described as early as 1887 by George Cox, in The Mythology of
the Aryan Nations, and they have been discussed by many other authors with a
better understanding of linguistics since that time. There are in fact some 28
myths that can be reconstructed to a Proto-Indo-European original based on this
very high linguistic standard, but most of these have not been recognized by
Indo-European linguists. In the list that follows, the numbers after each myth,
such as 5 of 11 language families, are used to indicate that a certain myth is
known in cognate forms in at least five of the eleven major language families
among the Indo-European languages. Three examples of a cognate myth in widely
separated languages represent a minimum criterion for inclusion.
• Primal Cow Creation Myth (“World made from the Body of a Giant Bovine”, attested in 5 of the 11 language families.) For a full discussion of the forms of this myth, see Creation Myth of the Indo-Europeans.
• Birth of the Horse Twins from the grain/horse mother (Cox, p. 234; found in 7 of the 11 language
• Danu killed and cut open to produce a river (a Partition Creation myth; found in at
least 3 of the 11 language families.)
Cyclic or Seasonal Myths
• *Perkunos, a Storm God, kills Winter, using his “weapon of power” (Cox, p. 559; found in 5 of the 11 language groups.)
• Cloud/cows stolen from the Sun God by the Wind God and then returned (Cox, p. 232; found in 4 of the 11 language groups.)
• Dying Corn God, dies and is reborn, causes seasons (Frazer, Vol. 8 and 9 of the Golden Bough, esp. Vol. 9, p. 412-423; found in 4 of the 11 language families.) The John Barleycorn song is widely recognized as a form of this myth.
• Uncle Water (Apam Napat or Neptune) melts the ice and releases the water causing flooding (Gamkrelidze and
Ivanov, p. 582-3; found in 5 of the 11 language families.)
• Quest of the golden apples of immortality, usually by
a Wind God (Cox, p. 512; in 4 of the 11 language families.) #cultgod
Culture Myths: Stories in which some godlike being teaches culture or
the “arts of civilization” (actually technologies) to humans are found in all
cultures. The culture myths of the Indo-Europeans tell how the Culture Gods
taught humans how to make fire, the proper way to kill and butcher an animal
(sacrifice), religious rituals and law codes, smithing, weaving, ploughing and
healing. Culture Gods (e.g. Prometheus and Loki) sometimes have an intermediate
position between Gods and humans. They are certainly supernatural, but they
often die or are tortured by other Gods for their beneficence to humans;
nevertheless they are often revived and worshiped like regular Gods. Mallory and
Adams call them Craft Gods and argue that they are not linguistically
reconstructible; however Cox compares Greek Prometheus with Hindu Pramanthu (p.
421, Cox). Smith Gods, a subset of the Culture Gods, are slightly
reconstructible according to Mallory and Adams (p. 410, Oxford Introduction
to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World).
Religious Uses of Myths
Many texts state specifically that telling or listening to a myth confers a
blessing on the listeners. For example the text of the Táin Bó Cúailnge
has a colophon that reads “A blessing be upon all such as shall faithfully keep
the Táin in memory as it stands here and shall not add any other form to
it.” Telling myths is also considered a way to praise and honor the Gods so
myths are often recited or sung especially at festivals for a particular God, (see Schultz and
Lavenda, pp. 229-232), or as Tacitus puts it “The praises of their Gods, and the
achievements of their heroes, are usually chanted at their festival meetings”
(Germania c.ii). This behavior is extremely widespread among the
Indo-Europeans and it is important for understanding the Proto-Indo-European religion, but scholars have generally ignored it. The
telling or performance of myths was apparently the original impetus for the
tradition of Greek drama at the festivals of Dionysus, although by the time we
have a written record of the dramas, they are not restricted in subject matter
to the myths of any particular God according to Moulton, (p. 5, The Ancient
Classical Drama). [fuggle26]
Interestingly, for what it says about humans, myths are very often used to
present ideas about social or political conditions or concerns, usually in an
indirect manner. It might be thought that in the “old days” myths were told
because people actually believed in them, but when the myths are no longer
believed, they are just told for entertainment value, since they now appear in
comic books, operas, movies and other modern works of fiction. But it can be
shown that in the time of classical Greek drama, for example, many myths were
told as a commentary on Greek society, which is a way in which myths are often
used now. And people were not more credulous in the old days. There are people
now, as there were in the past, who believe in all sorts of nonsense in a simple-minded way, and then there always were and still are people
who have a more sophisticated understanding of the world and of the nature of
the information that is presented to them. The character of myths that allows
them to be bent to any use has allowed them to be of continuous interest and
utility and it is probably this very factor that is responsible for their
• The Ancient Classical Drama, A Study in Literary Evolution by Richard G. Moulton, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1890.
• Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition, by Emily A. Schultz and Robert H. Lavenda, Mayfield Publishing Co., Mountain View, CA, 1995.
• Deutsche Mythologie by Jacob Grimm, (English title Teutonic Mythology, translated by James Stallybrass), George Bell and Sons, London, 1883.
• Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, ed. by J. P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams, Fitzroy Dearborn,
• The Golden Bough by James George Frazer, MacMillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1919-1920 (12 vol. edition).
• 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), by Thomas V. Gamkrelidze and Vjaceslav V. Ivanov, with Werner Winter, ed., and Johanna Nichols, translator (original title Indoevropeiskii iazyk i indoevropeistsy), M. De Gruyter, Berlin & NY, 1995.
• The Mythology of the Aryan Nations by George W. Cox, Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, London, 1887.
• The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, by J. P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
The Internet Sacred-Text Archive is the most useful general website for myths in Indo-European (and other) languages.
A version of this article was originally posted on Wikipedia but it was repeatedly vandalized by religious bigots. The page was published at pierce.yolasite.com/piemyth 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 4/3/2015, at piereligion.org/piemyth.html