• Proto-Indo-European Religion
• Indo-European Languages
• Proto-Indo-European Goddesses
• Proto-Indo-European Myths
• Creation Myth
• Correspondents in Other Languages and Religions
• Indo-European Creation Myth in Hebrew and Phoenician
• Proto-Indo-European Rituals
• Festivals, Food and Farming
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 make bread.
Types of sources for the reconstruction of Indo-European myths include: 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. Folktales 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 In areas where the original religion has been replaced by hostile monotheistic religions, many Indo-European myths persist in the form of fairytales, romances and saints' tales, and sometimes as the “history” of the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.
• Birth of the Horse Twins from the grain/horse mother (Cox, p. 234; found in 7 of the 11 language groups, which is a very conservative statistic.)
• 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
• Cloud/cows stolen from the sun god by the wind god and then released (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.)
• 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.)
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 Cúalnge 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).
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 superstitious 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 preservation.
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 2/12/2012, at piereligion.org/piemyth.html