Yama, a Proto-Indo-European God

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*Yama, as he may be called, is one of the Great Gods of the Indo-Europeans. The name is written with an asterisk to indicate that the name refers to a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European deity. This God is reconstructable on linguistic grounds to Proto-Indo-European as will be shown in the discussion of his names which follows. Calling him a God is a bit of a stretch since his outstanding attribute is to become the first mortal--by dying. As the main protagonist in the Creation Myth of the Indo-European-speaking people, *Yama was killed and dismembered by his brother *Manu, and the world was created from his body. As the divine first mortal, he is especially appealed to for help with trauma and to assist the dead. He is prayed to at funerals and whenever people remember their dead.

Cow Skull As the supernatural bovine whose death provides food for humans, he is the subject of three major festivals which are organized around the transhumance of cattle. He is connected to the ritual of animal offering which is partly reconstructed linguistically based on descriptions from ancient literature and some archaeological finds. One of the festivals for him, Halloween, under various names, remains the most popular holiday in most English-speaking areas and in large parts of the world that never spoke English. Despite the hostility toward Pagan Religion, a set of songs and customs that relate to him is conserved, sometimes shifted into romantic ballads and folksongs. As with the other Indo-European deities *Yama can be either male or female and appears as both, for example as Yama (male) and Yami (female) twins in the Rig Veda. As the origin of several rivers such as Rumina and Yamuna, *Yama is worshiped in female form with libations of milk and beautiful songs which are remembered in India.

And finally, as with other Indo-European Gods, *Yama was widely christianized in different forms and became several important saints, such as various St. James, Santiago de Compostela and the Sanctos Geminos, and was especially popular with pilgrims and sailors. His association with death and dismemberment makes him the patron saint of trauma victims and he is associated with cures by the application of holy oil with a spoken formula.

Names of the God *Yama

Words, names and even grammatical constructions are reconstructed in Proto-Indo-European by triangulating back from a set of words of similar meaning. A regular set of rules of sound changes which represent historic events, unnoticed by speakers, but recognized by linguists with mathematical regularity can be used to determine the original form of the word in the unattested Proto-Indo-European language. The name of the God that I usually refer to as *Yama is reconstructed as *Yemos by various authors, with forms meaning “twin(s)” in each of the Indo-European languages, see for example iem- on p. 505 in IEW by Pokorny. This list gives forms of the name in most of the language groups, and some brief examples of the form that the God or Goddess takes in each language.

In the Rig Veda, the oldest source that we have for Sanskrit, *Yama appears as the God Yama and Goddess Yami (a feminine form) and they are the ancestors of everyone. Yama is appealed to protect the dead especially at funerals. In modern Hindu religion, the Goddess’ name takes the form Yamuna, the name of a major river in India, now known as the Jumna. The River Yamuna is worshiped at two major festivals in October or November with many beautiful songs.

The Sanskrit God Yama was absorbed into Mahayana Buddhism, where he became a King of Hell, as described in Other Correspondences. In this way, worship of Yama spread to China, Korea and Japan.

Yima Kshaeta is the old Avestan form of the name of this God, and this name appears as Jamshid in later forms of the language and eventually in Persian as Jems in the Shah Namah, as is described in the Indo-European Creation Myth. This form of the name of the God was apparently christianized as St. James Sawn-Asunder, one of many Pagan Saints, although the exact path of transmission is not clear.

Ossetic is a language spoken east of the Black Sea and the Nart Sagas are part of the oral literature of these people. Forms of Yama or Yima appear in their folktales and songs and were apparently borrowed into the folk literature in the languages of other non-Indo-European speaking people in the area, as is explained in Other Correspondences.

Romulus and Remus (probably Remus or Emus is the correct original form) appear as the “historical” founders of the city of Rome in a Latin legend that retains elements of the original Proto-Indo-European Creation Myth. The events in this myth are connected to the festival which celebrates the City of Rome as well as the time of year that the cattle are turned out, and it seems that the festival was christianized as Pope Saint Urban, one of the legendary early popes. The twins were vaguely christianized as St. Romaine whose
saint’s tale of the First Gargoyle explains why there are gargoyles on churches (see Bucrania).

A very old ceremony called the Rumilia is mentioned by Varro and Plutarch in which it is said that the Goddess Rumina was worshiped with libations of milk at the edge of the Tiber river in Rome. This is probably the Goddess after whom the city of Rome is named, since cows were the essential domestic animal of the early Romans, and rumina(nt) is the standard Latin word for a cow.

The Gemini “twins” were Gods that were worshiped all around the Mediterranean as protectors of sailors, and this aspect was probably attached to them because of the similarity of their name to the Semitic word for “sea” which is yam. This correspondence and the fact that the Indo-European Creation Myth appears in the Old Testament of the Bible, are explained in the article about the Indo-European Creation Myth in Phoenician and Hebrew. The Gemini or Sanctos Geminos are probably the source of the name “Jamnes” or “James” which appears in French, Spanish and English in the early Middle Ages and which was eventually christianized as St. James and Santiago de Compostela, patron saints of sailors.

The Celtic languages, especially in Ireland, have examples of the Indo-European Cow Creation Myth, including the story of the dismemberment of the White Bull, at the end of the Tain Bo but the names are not cognate. Instead, another word for cow has been substituted. Because of this, not much has been published on the subject. In addition the festival of Samhain falls on the evening of October 31st and November 1st and retains the slightly ghoulish aspect of this occasion. It has certainly influenced the quality of this festival among Germanic-speakers especially in England, see next. The customs of Samhain are well-known and there is a vast literature of romances, ballads and saints’ tales based on forms of the myth of *Yama.

In the Germanic languages, the story of Ymir appears in Old Norse mythology and provides one of the most conservative and complete versions of the Cow Creation Myth. Beyond this, not much has been published about forms of the God *Yama in these languages, and he doesn’t seem to have received much in the way of cultus. However the festival of Halloween falls at the time of the slaughter of cattle and a number of ballads and folksongs retain references to him.

If there is a form of the name *Yama in the Slavic languages, it is not known to me, however the twin(s) were certainly christianized as Sts. Cosmos and Damian of various spellings.

Jumis is the name of this God in Latvian, one of the Baltic languages. The name means “twin” and is an agricultural deity (it can be male or female) that people chase around at the Apjumibus festival at harvest time in late September.

Myths for *Yama

The main myth connected to this God is the Primal Cow Creation Myth, especially the part of the Indo-European Creation that results in the Creation of the World. Just to recapitulate, Yama is killed and dismembered by his brother Manu and from Yama’s body the world is made. This has been described in the Creation Myth. The fact that the names for Yama are cognate in each of the versions of this story shows that the stories go back to a cognate original rather than having been borrowed from one language to another. It is precisely this fact that allows us to reconstruct this as a Proto-Indo-European myth.

The same myth shows up in the old Semitic languages and in Christianity and was borrowed into languages where these religions spread so there are many Other Correspondences. In addition the same myth of Yama was borrowed into Phoenician and Hebrew, see Indo-European Creation Myth in Hebrew and Phoenician so that it appears in the Old Testament of the Bible. Here the name *Yama was accommodated and reanalyzed so that it came to be understood as meaning the “sea” since the word yam, yamn means “sea” in the Phoenician and Hebrew languages. This may also be the reason that the Gemini, Indo-European Gods thought of as Horse Twins, came to be Gods especially protective of sailors throughout the Mediterranean which once had a substantial population of people, especially sailors, who spoke Phoenician.

Returning to the Indo-European myth, the myth continues beyond the death of the cow with a great flood, caused by the blood from the dismembered animal. It then continues with the survival of *Manu (Man, the one who kills his brother cow), and *Manu’s subsequent institution of laws and customs and specifically the ritual of animal offering. He becomes the first human mortal (that is, the first human to die---before this all beings were immortal apparently), just as *Yama became the first animal mortal. The myth of how some particular river was formed from the blood from the body of *Yama is more difficult to reconstruct with certainty, but the concept seems to be general to the Indo-Europeans, and it also appears in connection with the Goddess *Danu. Specific rivers that may have been formed from the body of Yama include the Tiber at Rome, known as Rumon in Etruscan, and deified as the Goddess Rumina (meaning “cow”) and the Yamuna River in India.

Other Texts for *Yama

Aside from all those texts telling of the myth of Yama and the songs for the festivals Halloween and Samhain, there are some additional songs and invocations. As the first mortal, Yama is seen as a protector of the dead, and so he is prayed to for his protection and assistance to people who have died. This integration of a God who is the object of rituals and festivals related to cattle as a food source, as well as a deity of particular interest to human beings because he is a conductor of souls in the afterlife, is very typical of the multi-layered relationships in Indo-European religion.

Funeral Hymn
Obviously the Indians do not have a tradition of butchering cows, or at least they haven’t had one for a long, long time. In Sanskrit, Yama, as the first to die, becomes a protector of the dead and conductor of souls. A funeral hymn in the Rig Veda is addressed to him. As this song is sung to ask him to take care of some person that has died, it may be sung at any time of the year.

Story of Yama and Savitri
Another important text about Yama is the Story of Savitri, told in the Mahabharata iii 292 to 297, in which Savitri saves her husband’s life by negotiating with Yama for it. The festival for this is especially commemorated in July at the Gauri Vrata, when women are particularly careful to say the mantra to protect the lives of their husbands.

Bone to Bone, An Ancient Healing Charm
This chant is used to heal fractures and is known in an early Latin text of Cato. The same text is apparently used in the Roman Catholic Church as the sacrament of Extreme Unction. There is not sufficient information to reconstruct this back to Proto-Indo-European, but the justification for it is given in the Epistle of St. James 5:14-15, which has instructions for anointing the sick with oil.

Festivals Connected to *Yama

The major annual festivals for the forms of the God *Yama fall into three distinct groups, all related to the annual management of cattle. The first festival is in the spring, set to April 23rd when the cattle are turned out to their summer pastures. The other two festivals are specifically celebrated (if you can call it that) at the season of year when people normally slaughtered their domestic cattle because of an impending shortage of fodder, and these festivals are associated with the myth of the death of *Yama. The date of the second festival depends on the climate. In Mediterranean countries, it falls before the summer dry season, which usually begins in July. In northern countries, animals were slaughtered by November 1st and probably as early as late September as far north as Latvia. This means that there is a regular pattern of festivals in either July or late October at which the personified and deified Primal Cow is celebrated and the Myth of Creation is associated with these Gods/festivals. Most of these festivals begin on the 23rd or 25th of the month, a time of the waning moon.

April, cows turned out to their summer pastures
• April 23 Parilia in Rome was the festival when the cows were turned out of the barns, christianized as the feast day of St. George in northern countries
• founding of the City of Rome, e.g. Urba de Roma, christianized as the feast day of Pope Urban (of Rome) April 23
• April 30 and May 1st are feast days of St. Romaine and the Gargoyle, in northern France.
• May 1st is the feast day of St James (Jacob) and St. Phillip, in the Roman Catholic Church.

July, slaughter of livestock in Mediterranean countries before the dry season
• Early July is the Bouphonia festival, (“the Murder of the Ox”), in ancient Greece.
• July 5 and July 7 are the dates of the Poplifugia and Romulus Festival respectively in classical Roman religion.
• July 25 is the feast day of Santiago de Compostela, and English St. James the Greater, Pagan Saints

late September
• In Latvia, a very northern country, the festival of Apjumibas festival for Jumis falls in late September.

late October to November 1st, slaughter of livestock in northern countries
• October 23, and some other dates nearby, christianized as the feast day of St. James the Lesser; and the day of the translation of the relics of St. Romaine, Pagan Saints
• October 31, Samhain (Celtic) and Halloween (England), animal slaughter in northern countries, with equivalent festivals in Slavic, Baltic and other Germanic countries.
• Nov. 1st, christianized as the feast day of Sanctos Geminos in old martyrologies where it refers to Sts. Cosmos and Damian, eventually rebranded as Omni Sanctos in the RCC.
• Late October or early November, Yamuna River celebrations in India

The major festival for Yama is celebrated as Halloween and Samhain and I have added pages which give traditional Songs and Stories for Halloween and Samhain and Halloween Song Lyrics. #animoff

Ritual of Animal Offering

Since the topic here is *Yama who represents the deified cow whose death creates the world and feeds people, I felt obligated to address the issue of the ritual offering of animals (by killing them), even though the topic is rather depressing. It turns out that it is less depressing than I thought it would be though I am certainly not expecting anyone to put these reconstructed instructions into use!

The words “offering” and “sacrifice” are often used interchangeably, but I have used the word offering here because the word sacrifice often is associated with the Christian belief that something has to suffer for the good of others. This concept was not normal to the Indo-European Pagans, and their concept of an offering was based on the idea that they thanked the Gods for whatever benefit they had by offering them a small part of it symbolically. The main offering that the Indo-Europeans made to the Gods was of various kinds of food, typically, grain, fruit and dairy. For major feasts, an animal might be killed and eaten. That their offerings of animals represented gratitude for food is shown by the fact that the Indo-European Pagans almost never killed anything they weren’t going to eat. Offerings to the Gods were presented in the temple and then shared with other members of the community, so that the typical Indo-European ritual consists of sharing food with other community members.

The main part of the ritual that can be reconstructed (thanks to Benveniste though he did not understand it) is the verbal exchange in which the humans formally ask the animal for permission to kill it. Once the animal has “agreed” to be killed (by nodding its head), it was then killed, dismembered, and either cooked and eaten on the spot, or the pieces were distributed and taken home to be prepared. When the ritual of offering to the Gods had been completed, people sat down and ate the rest of their meal.

While some individuals and sometimes entire communities certainly made offerings to appease the Gods if they thought the Gods were angry, as evidenced by some misfortune which befell them such as plague or invasion, "sacrificing” something was not a normal state of affairs and animals were not normally killed for that reason. The word “sacrifice” is reconstructed to *PIE as part of this process in various forms because it means “to cut” with a “knife” and indeed, killing the animal, mainly by cutting its throat was the way that Indo-Europeans slaughtered their animals. Certainly the animals suffered as they died but it was over quickly and the point of the ritual was not to make the animal suffer but to provide the community with food. The belief that the animals were “sacrificed” or forced to suffer in order to please the Gods is an element of Christian belief since Christians believe that someone else has to suffer for their sins (real or imagined).

Carvings of the skulls of cattle on walls of religious edifices are so widespread that there is a special name for it among architects, archaeologists and art historians -- bucrania or “cow skulls.” These carved skulls are often decorated (in stone) with ribbons and garlands of fruit and greenery.

I have never seen any explicit statement explaining how to hang up cow skulls on the walls of sanctuaries though apparently everyone did it-- other authors say that cow skulls, or properly the carvings of cow skulls or heads are distinguishing features of the sanctuaries. In the carvings the skulls are decorated with ribbons, tassels or what appear to be garlands of fresh fruit and other plant material. Although the Greeks, with their superb standards of art seem to be the center of this activity, with other cultures representing bucrania in art as they show Greek influence, there is some evidence that indicates that the hanging of cow skulls on sanctuary walls was widespread and occurred where Greek influence was negligible or unknown, such as the cow skulls which probably hung on churches and were eventually christianized and reinterpreted as “gargoyles,” see St. Romaine.

It should be noted that live cows were often decorated by having flowers, ribbons and many kinds of ornaments fastened to their horns and also bells and garlands hung around their necks especially when they were being worshiped or when they were being taken out to their summer pastures at the spring transhumance. #riverwor

Ritual of Worshiping Rivers with Libations of Milk

Very little is known about the festival of Rumilia or the Goddess Rumina, but a comparison with Hindu Religion gives a reasonable idea that worshiping rivers with libations of milk may have been a widespread Indo-European ritual. Both Rumina and the Yamuna River are thought to be feminine forms of the Proto-Indo-European deity *Yama.

The Yamuna river may be worshiped at any time of the year, but especially in November. For personal devotion, one can offer milk or water to the river. This is done by pouring the liquid into the river with words of devotion, and for the water, the gesture of sprinkling some of it on the head. #stjames

St. James and various Pagan Saints

St. James, San Diego and St. Jacob are all considered to be names of the same two apostles but no one can figure out which reference in the Bible refers to which one of them. [fuggle26]

With the introduction of Christianity in many areas of Europe, the Pagan Gods were christianized as Pagan Saints, and here the pattern of names, festivals and myths connected to *Yama is retained in whole or in part as various Saints James. It is notable that each of the cognate Indo-European Gods seems to have been christianized separately and then each of these Pagan Saints was introduced from country to country, resulting in a multiplicity of Catholic Saints. A few of them are listed here:

• Sanctos Geminos (various forms, including the Hippus saints, Omni Sanctos and Cosmos and Damian, and probably the source of the name James in English, French and Spanish)
Santiago de Compostela.
• St. James Sawn-Asunder (Jacobus Intercissus, St. James of Nisibus, or of Persia)
• St. James, the supposed author of the Liturgy of St. James
• St. James in the New Testament, the apostles (Greater, Lesser), the epistle writer, the author of the Protoevangelium
• St. Romaine (and the Gargoyle)
• St. Seamus, Irish name of St. James
• Sts. Cosmos and Damian

I plan to write more about each of these topics when I have time, but I thought it would be good to present the larger pattern here.

The cognate names and cognate myth of *Yama show that this deity can be reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European while the hymns of praise, rituals and festivals sacred to them show that they were widely worshiped, confirming their divine status. Similar descriptions could be written about many of the Proto-Indo-European Gods and Goddesses.

Chapter 3 in the Hindu Mythology by Donald Mackenzie on sacred-texts

Note on bucrania Image: This "Cow skull" was photographed at Custom Cranium, a shop and website that supplies items from animals. They can supply cow skulls, horse skulls and deer skulls and/or antlers as they become available. As I understand it, all of their materials are legally and responsibly collected, for example from roadkill. They can be contacted at their website at CustomCranium for availability and prices. (Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in this, but I have met the proprietor who does her own taxidermy and she is very nice.)

This page was at pierce.yolasite.com/yama but Yola went out of business so it has been migrated here.

© 2007, last updated 3/18/2015, at piereligion.org/yama.html