Proto-Indo-European Religion, an Introduction

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Proto-Indo-European Religion (PIER) is the study and reconstruction of the religion of the Indo-European-speaking people. Standard methods of historical linguistics can be used for the reconstruction of common words and their meanings in the various Indo-European languages. This allows for a reconstruction of the Gods and Goddesses and some of the rituals, myths and poetry used by the linguistic ancestors of this group of speakers. While archaeology offers information about material culture, linguistic analysis offers insight into the intangible aspects of human culture, including religion, views about the organization of the natural world, beliefs about supernatural beings, processes and objects, and emotional concerns.

Efforts have been made to identify the cultures that have been reconstructed based on linguistic analysis with particular archaeological cultures, but this has not been possible in many cases and has not yet led to an identification of the “Indo-European homeland” although for many years that has been an important topic. A major cause of this failure has been the political, national and religious agendas which have perverted genuine scholarship.

Proto-Indo-European Religion should not be confused with Neopaganism. Neopaganism is an umbrella word that is used to refer to a great variety of Pagan, polytheistic or nature religions, generally in Western Europe and in English-speaking countries worldwide. These religions are often the creative production of particular individuals or are based on popular social trends, most notably cultural romanticism, mysticism and theosophy in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Some are overtly racist especially in northern Europe, while others reinvigorate a real or imagined cultural heritage of mainly English-speaking people in the US, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. Goddess religion is also of this type. Generally, such groups are not interested in maintaining standards of scholarly or historical accuracy since these are religions and as such they appeal to and provide for the personal and spiritual needs and interests of individuals, something which the monotheistic religions have conspicuously failed to do.

Proto-Indo-European religion is based on the scholarly study of older religions. Quite a few groups of people are celebrating the actual rituals and customs as was done in the past and they are generally referred to as reconstructionists. Of course, in India no scholarship or reconstruction is necessary--Hindus continue to maintain their ancient religion as they have always done.

Trends in Past Research

There are about 15 schools of thought relevant to Proto-Indo-European religion; just four are addressed here.

Nature Theory and Christian Theology
Many early students of comparative Indo-European religion observed the common elements such as the deification of forces of nature, including the Sun and saw a shared vision among different groups of people which showed the common experience of humanity. Indo-European myths often describe the cycles of nature. Christian theology teaches that all people have or will recognize the obvious superiority of the Christian god(s). Max Müller and many others made the argument that all of the early Indo-Europeans recognized a Sun God that could be identified with one of the Christian gods who was born at the winter solstice and then died and was revived at the spring equinox, among many common elements of Pagan and monotheistic religions. At first Christians saw this as proof that even “heathens” recognize the primacy of the One (Christian) god. But it soon became clear to everyone that the reverse is equally true: even Christianity recognizes the primacy of the Sun God and is based on Pagan religion. Retreating from this embarrassing reality, many scholars today display hostility to any Nature Theory of Indo-European religion, although it is usually presented as an ad hominem attack directed at Max Müller. #cathfasc

Catholic Fascism and the Trifunctional Theory of Dumézil A 1936 American dime with a fasces, the bundle of reeds with an ax inserted, representing state authority for corporeal punishment over citizens.
Trifunctionalism is the theory that Proto-Indo-European (PIE) society was divided into three classes of people, the priests who had the right to make decisions, the warrior class who had the right and responsibility to enforce the decisions, and the producer class which had no ability or right to make decisions and was required to obey and to produce food and articles and, in the case of all women, children. Thomas Aquinas is credited with the clearest presentation of these ideas which were formulated in opposition to ideas about human dignity that were developing in Europe in the 1200’s (see De Regimine Principum “On the Governance of Rulers”) although they were formulated by Aldabéron of Laon a century earlier. Despite the Protestant Reformation, these views have continued to be supported by the Catholic Church and they became very popular in Italy between the wars, through the Italian fascist party led by Mussolini. Georges Dumézil argued that the Gods and rituals of PIE religion can be reconstructed to show just such a tripartite division, apparently in an effort to support not only fascism as a political goal, but also to support control of the state by the Catholic Church. In fact there is no evidence that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had any such organization and even Dumézil has admitted that he cannot find any. A chart showing one version of his tripartite division can be seen here. Nevertheless, trifunctionalism in one form or another is still the standard model in Indo-European studies in publications by Émile Benveniste, J.P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams, and Jaan Puhvel, although it is hard to believe that any of these people would actually subscribe to Catholic Fascism. There is an excellent discussion about Dumézil by Bruce Lincoln, clearly identifying Dumézil's failures but also referencing discussions of his work both pro and con, on the Iranica Online site.

Comparative Mythology
A more recent “scientific” theory argues that all people have the same psychology which is in some way intrinsic to humanity and that this psychology corresponds to Jungian theories on human nature. This has led to bizarre and obsessive publications that attempt to show that there is a universal human desire to be the “hero who kills the dragon and gets the girl” as exemplified by writers like Joseph Campbell. While extremely offensive to just about everyone, including women who don’t want to be the prize in someone else’s fantasy, and to people everywhere who don’t like to see their sacred stories mangled to prove someone else’s weird ideas about the human mind, this approach is still very popular in academia.

Be warned: Genetic Studies which are supposed to map out the history of human migration are completely irrelevant to the history of the Indo-European-speaking peoples since the topic is language group not genetic group which often have no connection to each other. Anyone of any genetic group can learn any language and multilingualism is the norm for most people. The vast majority of arguments about genetics which are being flipped around on the internet and some that are published in journals are pseudo-scientific gibberish.

Modern Scholarly Standards

The scholarly approach to Proto-Indo-European religion requires the examination of the forms of words with their phonological component and their semantic component at the same time. Such an analysis enables the reconstruction of the development of the Indo-European religion including the precise pattern of cognate and borrowed elements (see the Grimm's Law Chart for a very brief explanation of the concept). While this includes an element of comparative religion, it is balanced and checked by the linguistic analysis which is precise and objective. It makes it possible, at least in some cases, to determine exactly which Gods, rituals and myths are native cognate forms in a particular language, and which ones are borrowed from one language to another, which direction the borrowing took and at least a relative chronology about when the borrowing happened. Without this precise linguistic analysis, most of what passes for “comparative religion” is just a glass bead game.

Current Findings
Proto-Indo-European religion can indeed be reconstructed with great confidence and a very widespread application across the Indo-European world. Among the elements of Proto-Indo-European religion that can be reconstructed are the Gods and Goddesses, the myths, the festivals, and the form of rituals with invocations, prayers and songs of praise that make up the spoken element of religion. Much of this activity is connected to the natural and agricultural year, or at least those are the easiest elements to reconstruct because nature doesn’t change and because farmers are the most conservative members of society and are best able to keep the old ways.

Goddesses: There are at least 40 deities that can be reconstructed to the Proto-Indo-European religion. Gender is not a fixed characteristic of Proto-Indo-European Gods and Goddesses, since they are often deified forces of nature which do not have gender. The Indo-Europeans have always known this, but it seems to have deeply confused western scholars who have been trapped in sexist and patriarchal ways of thinking. Among the Goddesses reconstructed so far are: *Pria, *Pleto, *Devi, *Perkunos, *Aeusos and *Yama.

Myths: There are at least 28 myths that can be reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European. Some of these have been known for years and are described in early popular books like George Cox’s The Mythology of the Aryan Nations. Many of these myths have since been confirmed by additional research, including some in areas which were not accessible to the early writers, such as Latvian folk songs and Hittite hieroglyphic tablets. One of the most widely recognized myths of the Indo-Europeans is the myth in which *Yama is killed by his brother *Manu and the world is made from his body. Some of the forms of this myth in various Indo-European languages are given in this article about the Creation Myth of the Indo-Europeans.

Rituals: A standard form for the rituals of the Indo-Europeans can be reconstructed with an invocation and offering and poetic phrases that appear in the songs of praise. The most widespread ritual of the Indo-Europeans is a food offering in which the people thanked their deities for the food they had by offering a little bit of it to them symbolically. This process had the wider social value of sharing food within the household, community and state and is the basis of Indo-European community religion. It is clearly based on a food-sharing culture which developed before the invention of money. This same ritual is still the most typical form of offering in India where it is called a puja. The most typical food offered at a puja, and one which is distinctly Indo-European, is a dairy product: milk, butter, ghee and yoghurt in India; milk, cheesecake and similar products in Greece and Rome (olive oil is often substituted); and cheese and butter in northern Europe. Fruit, grain and bread products are also offered. Among Indo-Europeans generally, water, milk and alcoholic drinks are especially poured in memory of the dead and as an offering to water sources such as rivers.

Calendar: It is not yet possible to reconstruct the Indo-European calendar since it has been adapted to the local conditions and environment; however some festivals have been reconstructed at least to continuous areas, such as northern Europe or the Mediterranean region. Many of the festivals of the agricultural year can be reconstructed, and their assignment to particular deities is consistent across the Indo-European-speaking world. [fuggle26]

The Proto-Indo-European Religion is a beautiful religion stretching back 6000 years at least and offering a round of customs and traditions and a standard of behavior and morals that represent an ancient memory of the right way to do things and the best standards for human aspirations. The myths and songs of praise, recorded as poetry from the oldest sources, notated musically in more recent times and still sung in India are among the finest treasures of the human species. The early thinkers among Indo-Europeans such as the Greek philosophers and the Vendantists continue to provide the clearest written guide to those who want to explore the relationship between ourselves and the world around us, natural, human and celestial.

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.
Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, ed. by J. P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams, Fitzroy Dearborn, London, 1997.
Analecta Indoeuropaea, (a collection of articles) by Jaan Puhvel, published by Innsbrucker Beitrage zur Sprachwissenschaft, Innsbruck, 1981.
Comparative Mythology, by Max Müller, Arno Press, New York, 1909, 1977.
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 & New York, 1995. #pokorny

If you are looking for the links to the pdf version of Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch by Julius Pokorny, I moved them to the Language List page.

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