Proto-Indo-European Ritual

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Religion is defined as “a set of beliefs...usually involving devotion and ritual observances...” (Random House Dictionary). The rituals of the Indo-European religions are often overlooked but they are very widely described in many places in the individual languages. Also about a billion Hindus maintain their ancient rituals every day: they still remember. The study of Indo-European (IE) linguistics allows for a theoretical reconstruction of some of the original Proto-Indo-European rituals by showing the common religious meanings of some Proto-Indo-European (PIE) words. In a few cases it is thought possible to reconstruct the actual wording of ancient ritual texts, or at least the more formal ones because of the mnemonic qualities of verse. This more technical approach is the most valuable method for reconstructing Proto-Indo-European religion.

In the past, many Indo-European rituals have been reconstructed based on comparative religion studies, including descriptions from folklore and from ancient literature, however much of this work had a political or religious agenda. Nevertheless the multiple descriptions provide a picture and a confirmation of the practice which can properly be reconstructed from linguistic analysis. More recently, modern archaeologists have described many sites which have religious elements that can be analyzed (as well as finding many new inscriptions) and these have provided a welcome correction to the loose speculation that was published in the past. More professional standards of analysis of religion (with less bigotry) have also been developed in anthropological studies. See for example, pp. 229-232, Schultz and Lavenda, (Cultural Anthropology, A Perspective on the Human Condition, by Emily A. Schultz and Robert H. Lavenda, Mayfield Publishing Co., Mountain View, CA, 1995; abbrev. S&L); and p. 344-382, Haviland (Cultural Anthropology by William A. Haviland, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, NY, 1993). #arta


An example of the worst of the earlier type of analysis is provided by Émile Benveniste who states that “there is no common term to designate religion itself, or cult, or the priest, no[r] even one of the personal Gods” pp. 445-6. He then provides the first example of what he says does not exist: the root *ŗta-, usually translated as ‘order’, and reconstructed from Vedic Sanskrit Ŗta, and Iranian Arta ‘order’ which provide both an abstract word, and the name of a Goddess. This root also provides the Sanskrit forms ŗta-van (masc.), and ŗta-vari (fem.); and Iranian forms artavan (masc.), and artavari (fem.), all meaning ‘the one who is faithful to arta, who is morally accomplished’ which are common types of formations for those who assist at rituals (e.g., priests and priestesses). Having dismissed the possibility that the Indo-Europeans could have had any basic religious concept, Benveniste states, “We have here one of the cardinal notions of the legal world of the Indo-Europeans to say nothing of their religious and moral ideas” (Benveniste, pp. 379-381). He also adds that an abstract suffix -tu formed the Vedic stem Ŗtu-, Avestan ratu- which designated order, particularly in the seasons and periods of time and which appears in Latin ritus ‘rite’ borrowed into English as ‘rite(s), ritual(s).’ The same root, sometimes given as *hrta, appears as -ratri, the element in many names of festivals in India such as Shivaratri, the festival of the celebration of the marriage of Shiva. In modern Hindi, ārties (aarties) are special hymns which are sung at the end of an offering to make sure the rites come out correctly; many of these are given in Snatan Daily Prayer. Another suffix -ti gives Latin ars, artis ‘the technique for doing something’, and is borrowed into English as ‘art.’ This is one of the most widely attested words and most widely deified Goddesses among the Indo-Europeans. For many more examples, see p. 710, G&I which gives *ar-(tho-) ‘fit, correspond, unite’, with Hittite forms ara, UL ara, and DAra ‘Good, Right’, a Hittite Goddess; also pp. 56, 57, Pokorny and *Haér(tis) on p. 362, EIEC.

A list of reconstructed Proto-Indo-European religious terms is provided by Lyle Campbell (pp. 391-392, Historical Linguistics, An Introduction, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2004), for which he credits Michael Weiss. Campbell gives only the bare root and a translation; wherever possible, I have added page numbers from the Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture (abbreviated EIEC), which amplifies the information and gives some of the words in various languages, and also from Gamkrelidze and Ivanov (abbreviated G&I) who use a different type of phonetic reconstruction but also give many examples. My comments are in brackets.

  • *isH1ro ‘holy’ [*eisH1ro, p. 702, G&I]
  • *sakro- ‘holy’ (derived from *sak- ‘to sanctify’) [p. 493, EIEC; p. 702, G&I]
  • *kywen(to)- ‘holy’ [p. 493, EIEC; p. 702, G&I]
  • *noibho- ‘holy’ [p. 493, EIEC]
  • *preky- ‘pray’ [see perky ‘ask, ask for in marriage’ p. 33 EIEC, but except in Latin, the use seems to be limited to a non-religious sense]
  • *meldh- ‘pray’ [p. 449, EIEC; p. 703, G&I; see pray, prayer below.]
  • *gwhedh- ‘pray’ [p. 449, EIEC]
  • *H1wegwh- ‘speak solemnly’; [*uegwh-, p. 449, EIEC; p. 704, G&I]
  • *ĝheuHx- ‘call, invoke’ (perhaps English ‘God’ from *ĝhū-to- from ‘that which is invoked’, but derivation from *ĝhu-to- ‘libated’ from *ĝheu- ‘libate, pour’ is also possible), [p. 89, EIEC; see invoke, invocation below.]
  • *kowHxei- ‘priest, seer/poet’ [p. 451, EIEC]
  • *Hxiaĝ- ‘worship’ [*yak’ p. 704fn, G&I]
  • *weik- ‘consecrate’ (earlier meaning perhaps ‘to separate’), [*ueik-, p. 493, EIEC; p. 29, Grimm]. This is the origin of the word Wicca, by the way.
  • *sep- ‘handle reverently’ [p. 450, EIEC]
  • *spend- ‘libate’ [*sphent’- pp. 608, 708, G&I]
  • *ĝheu- ‘libate’ and *ĝheu-mņ ‘libation’ (but see *ĝheuHx- above.)
  • *dapnom ‘sacrificial meal’ from *dap-. [See daps below.]
  • *tolko/eH2- ‘meal’ (at least late PIE) [p. 496, EIEC]
  • *nemos ‘sacred grove’ (used in west and center of the IE world) [némes- p. 248, EIEC]
  • *werbh- ‘sacred enclosure’

Following are some elements of Proto-Indo-European ritual that can be reconstructed based on linguistic analysis. This is by no means all of them, these are just the ones I have gotten around to writing up at this time.

Ancestor cult

Anthropologists list Ancestral Spirits as one of the types of supernatural beings and they are “seen as retaining an active interest in human society” p. 348-350, Haviland. Called *patri- > Patris or Patrikas (e.g. ‘fathers, little fathers’, p. 194-5, EIEC) and *mater > Matris or Matrikas (e.g. ‘mothers, little mothers’, p. 385-6, EIEC) both with diminutive endings in various cognate forms, they were worshiped among all the Indo-Europeans. Generally, people do this by going to grave sites and offering food, flowers and lighted lamps or candles. The Indo-Europeans worshiped their own parents as a community at regular times of the year, especially in May and November.

The “honored dead” were assumed to persist in any location and were also worshiped in the same way under the name *Mannus, e.g. Latin Di Manes and many cognate forms in other languages. A more personal variation of this ritual was the commemoration of lost comrades by soldiers which was very widespread among the Romans, and celebrated as the Rosalia, approximately May 1st. #foodoffer

Food Offerings

A sacrificial offering or oblation of roasted barley is reconstructed based on *bhrekyh-, giving Old Latin ferctum ‘sacrificial cake made of barley, honey and butter’, Oscan fertalis ‘ritual ceremony involving sacrificial cakes’. An offering is also reconstructed from words for ‘fire’ such as *nk’ni- giving Sanskrit agní ‘sacred fire’ Greek agōn- ‘contest, games (a very common type of offering)’ and Latin agneus ‘roast offering, lamb.’ Gamkrelidze and Ivanov argue that these sets of forms show a common Proto-Indo-European ritual with some replacements, p. 604-605. Certainly a ritual offering using fire can be reconstructed on comparative religion grounds because it is explicitly described in Latin, Sanskrit, Hittite, and Greek.

Oxen being led to slaughter by young men on the Parthenon frieze In the case of an animal killed for an offering, the point was not to cause suffering to the animal, but to have something to eat. This process was disturbing to the Indo-Europeans however, and they expressed this through the ritual by personifying the animal. This appears in the Myth of Yama, the first animal to die and in rituals and festivals related to this myth such as the Greek Bouphonia Festival, the Roman Poplifugia and the Festival of Romulus and the Latvian Apjumibas Festival. #daps

A Daps is a Feast, or Ritual Food offered to a Deity as a sacred act to encourage the Gods and Goddesses to do something. Worshipers often celebrate with a communal feast, p. 231-232, S&L, but a daps has the distinctive feature that a special “seat” is provided for the Gods and Goddesses at the feast. Detailed descriptions of how to put one on are given in Sanskrit, Avestan, Greek and Latin. This is a very archaic type of festival; in the earliest descriptions, straw was spread on the ground for the ancestors or Gods and Goddesses to sit on, since apparently there was no furniture available, or it hadn’t been invented yet. In Latin, the older form is described by Cato in De Agri Cultura, a book on how to farm, and since he specifically says it’s necessary to propitiate the Gods and Goddesses in order to produce good crops, he tells how to do a daps.

By the late classical period, a daps in Greek and Roman tradition had become an excuse for an elaborate and expensive party like a “New York Charity Gala” and an entire book is preserved on the subject called the Deipnosophists, which tells what foods were served and even gives recipes. We also know the ritual song in Latin since there is a daps for St. Agnes sung at Eastertide, according to the St. Gregory Hymnal. The feast is reconstructed as *dapnom ‘sacrificial meal’ from *dap-. Forms include: Greek dapáne, with the perideipnon, a traditional banquet at the grave of a loved one; Latin daps ‘ceremonial (cultic) table; food, meal, feast,’ Armenian tawn ‘feast’ and Old Icelandic tafn ‘sacrificial animal, sacrificial food’. Related words are Tocharian A. tāpal ‘food’ and Hittite LUtappala- ‘person responsible for court cooking’ (p. 606, G&I; p. 323ff and p. 484, Benveniste; p. 496, EIEC). There is an excellent discussion of the Theoxenia ‘feast of the Gods’ in Ancient Greek Cult Practice from the Epigraphical Evidence, ed. by Robin Hagg, Svenska Institutet i Athen, Stockholm, 1994.

Speech Offerings

Offerings to Gods and Goddesses in the form of speech (prayer, praise, song and story) are common to all people according to anthropologists. The Indo-Europeans had several words for “speech offerings” which can be reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European including verbs that mean invoke, pray, sing and words formed from them by a regular process. #invoke

To invoke, invocation
The Indo-Europeans invoked Gods and Goddesses using the word *ĝheuHx- ‘call, invoke’ with forms in nine language groups (p. 89-90, EIEC; p. 413-4, Pokorny). To invoke someone is to “call them in” and this was done at the beginning of any religious ritual where it was hoped that the deities would participate or at least listen. There is a regular construction of an agent noun from this verb using a *-tar suffix (“the one who does X”), which produces words for ‘invoker’ in four language groups, and makes up one of the standard words for priests and priestesses among the Indo-Europeans. Examples would be godhi in Old Norse, Sanskrit hotra and Avestan zaothra. There are many other words of similar structure.

Vocative is the grammatical term for a noun case used in addressing persons or beings not present, and it is reconstructed to the Proto-Indo-European noun case system. For example, the Greek vocative form Deo is usually translated into English with the particle “O” as in “O Goddess...” Whenever the vocative is used, it indicates that the speaker has personified the object of address, as opposed to merely referring to an abstract concept. To clarify with an example, many Americans refer to “Mother Nature” as if she were a powerful being, especially after a hurricane, but they do not normally address her directly as “O Mother Nature...” which would indicate that they were worshiping her. This distinction is important because it shows whether a certain deity was actually worshiped, or if she is just a poetic metahphor or a figment of the imagination of the many authors who have tried to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European religion in such a way as to support their own agendas.

The Indo-Europeans often use patri ‘father’ and matri ‘mother’ (or similar forms) after the name of a deity. There is a list of these in Roman sources: Iane pater (Janus), Liber pater, Mars pater or Marspiter, Neptunus pater, Saturnus pater, Dispater, Deus Patri, Jupiter and Vediovis pater, all listed in the CIL books. This appositive has the force of a vocative, and it seems to be especially used when a request is being made, as if the speaker expected to be able to make a special appeal to his or her own parents, and they might feel obligated to respond as to a son or daughter. #pray

Pray, Prayer
One widespread word used by the Indo-Europeans is reconstructed as *meldh- ‘pray while offering sacrifice, offer prayerful words to Gods.’ This is based on Hittite maldai ‘prayer, solemnly promise the Gods to offer a sacrifice,’ maldessar ‘prayer, invocation’; OHG meldon ‘communicate, report’; German melden; and Old Norse -mal ‘poem, tale’ a suffix in titles of mythological poems in the Elder Edda. Other forms include Old Church Slavonic moliti ‘pray’; Old Russian molit’ ‘pray while making a sacrifice,’ Czech modla ‘idol, temple’; Lithuanian meldziu ‘(I) pray,’ malda ‘prayer’; and Armenian malt‘em ‘(I) pray’ (p. 703-4, G&I; p. 722, Pokorny; p. 449, EIEC).

General Pattern for Prayers
Mallory and Adams observe that there is a formulaic pattern reconstructable from the earliest attested prayers (p. 450 EIEC, basing their work on Benveniste, pp. 499-507 and ultimately on Dumézil). The pattern shows 1) invocation, 2) basis, which is the justification for a request (typically: you have helped us before) and then 3) the request often with an imperative verb at the end. They give several examples; this one is from Cato (De Agri Cultura, 1:132; the Latin original is quoted from M. P. Cato on Agriculture):

Jupiter Dapalis (invocation), forasmuch as it is fitting that a cup of wine be offered thee, in my house and in the midst of my people, for thy sacred feast; and to that end (basis), be thou honored by the offering of this food request).

Iuppiter dapalis, quod tibi fieri oportet in domo familia mea culignam vini dapi, eius rei ergo macte had illace dape pollucenda esto.

The preceding example is described as a request, but many Indo-European rituals consist of giving thanks, and singing songs of praise, especially at regular yearly festivals. In fact, the request here, as in most examples is that the Deity accept the offering! Community celebrations are a major part of all Indo-European religions, and they certainly make up the most easily reconstructable part of Proto-Indo-European religion. [fuggle26]

The Indo-European ritual practice was highly variable over a very wide area (Ireland to India) and a very long period of time (6000 years), and was quite flexible in accord with the needs of the people. Nevertheless, it is possible to reconstruct many rituals to their original Proto-Indo-European form, using both linguistic and comparative methodologies, in conjunction with archaeological data and modern religious practice.


Ancient Greek Cult Practice from the Epigraphical Evidence, ed. by Robin Hagg, Svenska Institutet i Athen, Stockholm, 1994.
Cultural Anthropology by William A. Haviland, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, NY, 1993.
Cultural Anthropology, A Perspective on the Human Condition, by Emily A. Schultz and Robert H. Lavenda, Mayfield Publishing Co., Mountain View, CA, 1995. (abbrev. S&L)
Deutsche Mythologie by Jacob Grimm, (English title Teutonic Mythology, translated by J.S. Stallybrass), George Bell and Sons, London, 1883.
Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, by J. P. Mallory, and Douglas Q. Adams, Fitzroy Dearborn, London, 1997. (abbreviated EIEC)
Historical Linguistics, An Introduction, by Lyle Campbell, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2004.
Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical Analysis of a Proto-Language and a Proto-Culture, by Thomas V. Gamkrelidze, and Vjaceslav V. Ivanov, (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. (abbrev. G&I)
Indo-European Language and Society by Émile Benveniste (transl. by Elizabeth Palmer, orig. title Le vocabulaire des institutions Indo-Européennes, 1969), University of Miami Press, Coral Gables, Florida, 1973.
Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch by Julius Pokorny, Francke Verlag, Bern und München, 1959.
M. P. Cato on Agriculture, Latin with English translation by W.D. Hooper, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1936 (a Loeb Classical Library dual language edition).
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.
Snatan Daily Prayer Diamond Books, New Delhi, 2004.

A version of this article was originally posted on Wikipedia but it was repeatedly vandalized by religious bigots. The page was published at 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.

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