Creation Myth of the Indo-Europeans

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The Primal Cow Creation Myth or the Myth of how the World was made from the body of a giant bovine is one of the best represented and most widely recognized myths of the Indo-Europeans. The following versions of this myth show the range of the material, and the approximate dates indicate the time span. The elements are (1) *Yama or *Yemós, the ‘twin’ who is (2) dismembered by (3) *Mánu, his brother, and then the parts of the twin’s body are used to (4) create the world according to a specific formula “his bones are the rocks, his blood made the rivers and seas”, etc. While the substance of the formula is essentially folkloric (rocks do look like “bones of the earth”), the use of the formula in this particular context and the linguistic correspondence of the names make possible the reconstruction of a Proto-Indo-European myth, as recognized by Cox, p. 189. This myth is also described by Mallory and Adams, p. 129-130, in the Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture and many other modern authors including Jaan Puhvel and Bruce Lincoln, which is why it was chosen as the first example. The forms of the myth are organized here according to the language group.

In Sanskrit this deity is known as Yama. The oldest source is the Rig Veda composed circa 2000 - 1000 BCE according to western scholars, earlier according to Hindu scholars.

Yamá dies (it doesn’t say how): “Yamá surrendered his dear body,” see Rig Vedic hymn 10.14. This was published on p. 223, Vol. 2, in Vedic Mythology.

Sanskrit (late 2nd millennium BCE), “Yama died as the first of mortals.” The original source is the Atharva Veda XVIII.3.13, and this was published on p. 222, also in Vol. 2, Vedic Mythology.

later Sanskrit (1000 - 500 BCE). First a bull, then the wife of Manu, named Manâvî is killed (with Manu’s permission) in sacrifice by the Ashuras but without any world making. Here the bull is unnamed and although Manu gives permission, it is the Ashuras who actually kill it. The original source is the Satapatha-Brâhmana: 1 Kanda, 1 Adhyâya, 4 Brâhmana 14-17. This was published on pp. 29-30, Vol. 12 (trans. by Julius Eggeling), Sacred Books of the East.

Avestan and the Iranian Languages
In Avestan this deity is known as Yima Kshaetra and later forms such as Jamshid and eventually Jems. The earliest part of the Avesta was composed before 600 BCE, Zoroastrians think earlier.

Yima Kshaeta makes the world grow larger three times, but he does this while he is still alive. This version is clearly mythological. Yima is the Avestan form of Sanskrit Yama and Kshaeta means ‘shepherd’ later ‘shah, king.’ The original source is the Zend-Avesta, Vendidad, Fargard II, and this was published, p. 12-21, Vol. 4 (translated by James Darmesteter), in the Sacred Books of the East.

Another reference, also in Avestan mentions “....Aži Dahâka and Spityura, he who sawed Yima in twain.” According to the editor of the text (Darmesteter), Spityura was a brother of Yima. The original source is the Zend-Avesta, Zamyâd Yasht, VIII: 46, published p. 293-297, Vol. 23, in the Sacred Books of the East.

Pahlevi (Middle Persian) texts date to between 224 BCE and 664 CE. In this source Gayomard (older form Gaya Maratan ‘mortal life’) is killed by Ahriman (spelled Aharman in this translation). A cow and Gayomard are both killed. Out of the cow’s body grows the world, and from Gayomard’s body are born the first humans, his children Mâshya and Mâshyana (who are male and female) so he is the ancestor of everyone. The name Gayomard is not a good cognate with Yima Kshaeta, but Jaan Puhvel equates them on the basis of the similarity of the stories. The original source is the Bundahišn, Ch. 3, part 23, (“Gayomard spoke thus: ‘mankind will be all of my race’”) and Ch. 15, the whole of it. This is published in Vol. 5 (translated by E.W. West), p. 19 and p. 52, in the Sacred Books of the East. An analysis of this was published by Jaan Puhvel, under the title Remus and Frater, pp. 300-311.

Pahlevi (Middle Persian). Here there is only the bare statement: “Spîtûr was he who, with Dahâk, cut up Yim.” The original source is also the Bundahišn, Ch. 31, Verse 5, and this was also published on p. 131, of Vol. 5, in the Sacred Books of the East.

In Persian, from the Shah Namah written by Firdausi around 1100 CE, Yima Kshaetra appears in the later form Jemshid. In this source, Jemshid is sawed in two by Zohak. Jemshid is the Persian form of earlier Yima Kshaeta, and Zohak is the Persian form of earlier Aži Dahâka. Gaiúmart also appears in this text but he simply “passes away” after winning a battle against the son of Ahriman. The first section of the Shah Namah is ostensibly a history of the kings of Persia, although it is actually a reprise of old myths. As this source was produced in a Moslem cultural context, the beings are no longer “Gods” but they still have many supernatural qualities. The Shah Namah has been published in English in many very bad verse translations. The one used here is Vol. 1 of the Shahnama of Firdausi, translated by Arthur George Warner and Edmond Warner, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London, 1905. There is also an abridged prose version of this on the net, translated by Helen Zimmern, 1883, called The Epic of Kings.

In Latin before CE 17, this deity took the form of the brothers Romulus and Remus. There are almost no mythological tales of Rome, but the early “history” of Rome is recognized as an historicized version of various old myths. Romulus and Remus were twin brothers, and they both have stories in which they are killed.

Remus is killed by his brother Romulus at the foundation of Rome; and

Romulus is dismembered by the senators, “...there were some who secretly hinted that he had been torn limb from limb by the senators...” There is no world-making here, but Romulus is the eponymous ancestor of the Romans, and the founder of Rome. One of the original sources for the stories of Romulus and Remus is Livy’s Ab Urbe condita or the History of Rome, Vol. 1, parts iv-vii and xvi. This has been published in an Everyman edition, translated by W. M. Roberts, E. P. Dutton & Co. NY, 1912.

Gemini is the Latin word for ‘twins’ though it usually applies to Castor and Pollux. They were worshiped all over the Roman world with votive altars with inscriptions, which remained after the Romans were gone. They were especially revered by sailors and they may be the source of some of the Pagan Saints which appear in early Christian myths, such as various Sanctos Geminos, the various Sts. James and/or Santiago de Compostella.

Celtic Languages
In the Celtic languages the same story is told of the White Bull of Ai, in early Irish texts written down between the 11th-14th centuries CE. In one myth a bull is killed and dismembered by another bull and the parts of his body are distributed around Ireland, which explains the names of many features of the landscape, though not the cause of their existence.

“It was not long before the men of Erin (Ireland), as they were there in the company of Ailill and Madb early on the morrow, saw coming over Cruachan from the west, the Brown Bull of Cúalnge with the Whitehorned Bull of Ai in torn fragments hanging about his ears and horns.” Among the less revolting distributions is this one: “Then he raised his head, and the shoulder-blades of the Whitehorned fell from him in that place. Hence, Sruthair Finnlethe (‘Stream of the White Shoulder-blade’) is the name given to it.” The original source is the last chapter of the Táin Bó Cúalnge, usually called in English, The Cattle Raid of Cooley. These quotations are from The Ancient Irish Epic Tale, Táin Bó Cúalnge, translated by Joseph Dunn, publ. David Nutt, London, 1914.

Germanic Languages

Ymir, by Katharine Pyle, 1930 The Germanic languages have information about both Ymir and Mannus, but they never appear in the same myth, rather they appear only in myths widely separated in both time and circumstances.

A Roman text Germania 2 by Tacitus, writing in Latin in the year 98, tells that Mannus, the son of Tuisto, was the ancestor of the Germanic people. We never see this person/being again, but the names Alamanni and German(s) are interpreted (perhaps by folk etymology) as ‘all-men,’ the German name for themselves. In Old Norse texts written down in the 13th century but composed earlier, Ymir is a giant dismembered by Odin and Odin's brother Gods to make the World with the formula:

“Of Ymir’s flesh the earth was fashioned,
And of his sweat the sea;
Crags of his bones, trees of his hair,
And of his skull the sky.
Then of his brows, the blithe Gods made
Midgard for sons of men;
And of his brain, the bitter-mooded
Clouds were all created.”

The original source is the Grimnismal 40-41, (in the Poetic Edda or the Elder Edda). This version is quoted from p. 21, The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, The American-Scandinavian Foundation, Oxford University Press, London, 1923.

Baltic Languages
In the Baltic Languages a Lithuanian folktale tells of a bull and 3 cows which are beheaded by Aušrinė, (the morning star) and then the land appears. The very end of the story reads:

“The maiden upon returning released her bull. The bull knelt down and spoke in a man’s voice: ‘Chop off my head!’ The maiden did not want to chop it off, but she had to. She chopped the head off--a fourth of the seas disappeared, became land. Her brother emerged from the bull. She cut off the heads of all three cows, who were her sisters. All the seas disappeared, turned to land. The earth sprang to life.” The original source for this is a folktale called Saulė and Vejų Motina (“The Sun and the Mother of the Winds”), pp. 309-13, of M. Davainis-Silvestraitis’ Collection, Pasakos, Sakmės, Oracijos (“Tales, Legends and Orations”) published in Vilnius, 1973. The English version is from p. 67 Of Gods and Men by Algirdas J. Greimas, translated by Milda Newman, Indiana Univ. Press, Indianapolis, 1992.

This myth appears in five out of eleven major language groups of the Indo-European family, taking into account the fact that Sanskrit and Avestan are counted as one when estimating the range of a myth. It seems that *Yama is a personification of the cows which were killed and dismembered for food by the Indo-Europeans who were personified as “Man.” This myth continues with the formation of the world from the various parts of the body of the cow. The process of slaughter was ritualized as an offering to the Gods --perhaps-- the narrative was developed to explain the practice. The presentation given here addresses only part of this myth, which can be reconstructed further to tell the tale of a great flood which Manu survives, and his subsequent institution of religious rites and law codes. Besides this myth about Yama and his names in various languages, several festivals for him can be reconstructed, and some elements of the practice of the ritual of slaughter can be reconstructed to a Proto-Indo-European original.

Additional Correspondents
The Indo-European Creation myth has correspondents among many other languages and religions, including the ancient Semitic languages of the Middle-East and Mesopotamia. It was also borrowed into both Christianity and Buddhism. This page describes these forms of the myth. [fuggle26]

There are also West Semitic versions of the Indo-European Creation Myth, notably in the Phoenician of the Ras Shamrah tablets, and in Hebrew in Psalm 74 in the Old Testament of the Bible. The West Semitic versions are clearly borrowed from the Indo-European original as can be seen by the confusion in the meanings of the word Yam or Yama, which refers to a domestic animal in Indo-European languages but is a word for the sea or a lake in Hebrew and Phoenician.

Analecta Indoeuropaea, (a collection of articles), by Jaan Puhvel, publ. by Innsbrucker Beitrage zur Sprachwissenschaft, Innsbruck, 1981.
Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, ed. by J. P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams, Fitzroy Dearborn, London, 1997.
• "The Indo-European Myth of Creation" by Bruce Lincoln, History of Religions, ed. by Mircea Eliade, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Nov. 1975) pp. 121-145, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
The Mythology of the Aryan Nations by George W. Cox, Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, London, 1887.
• "Remus et Frater" by Jaan Puhvel, History of Religions, ed. by Mircea Eliade, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Nov. 1975) pp. 146-157, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Sacred Books of the East, translated by various Oriental scholars, series ed. by Max Müller, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1879-1904.
Vedic Mythology by Alfred Hillebrandt, translated by Sreeramula Rajeswara Sarma, publ. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1981 (orig. 1891).

General Link for Indo-European Myths
Internet Sacred-Texts Archive at

The image of Ymir is by Kathryn Pyle.

This 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.

© 2007, last updated 8/18/2017, at