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Proto-Indo-European religion is the belief system adhered to by the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Although this belief system is not directly attested, it has been reconstructed by scholars of comparative mythology based on the similarities in the belief systems of various Indo-European peoples. The Proto-Indo-European pantheon includes well-attested deities such as *Dyḗus Pḥatḗr, the god of the daylit skies, his daughter *Haéusōs, the goddess of the dawn, the Horse Twins, and the storm god *Perkwunos. Other probable deities include *Péh2usōn, a pastoral god, and *Seh2ul, a Sun goddess.
Well-attested myths of the Proto-Indo-Europeans include a myth involving a storm god who slays a multi-headed serpent that dwells in water, a myth about the Sun and Moon riding in chariots across the sky, and a creation story involving two brothers, one of whom is sacrificed by the other in order to create the world. The Proto-Indo-Europeans may have believed that the Otherworld was guarded by some kind of watchdog and could only be reached by crossing a river. They also may have believed in some kind of world tree, bearing fruit of immortality, either guarded by or gnawed on by a serpent or dragon of some kind and tended to by three goddesses, who were believed to spin the thread of life.
- 1 Methods of reconstruction
- 2 Pantheon
- 3 Mythology
- 4 Cosmology
- 5 Ritual and sacredness
- 6 See also
- 7 References
Methods of reconstruction
The religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans is not directly attested and archaeological evidence is difficult to match to any specific culture in the period of early Indo-European culture in the Chalcolithic. Nonetheless, despite this, scholars of comparative mythology have attempted to reconstruct aspects of Proto-Indo-European religion based on the existence of similarities among the deities, religious practices, and myths of various Indo-European peoples. This method is known as the comparative method. Different schools of thought have approached the subject of Proto-Indo-European religion from different angles. The Meteorological School holds that Proto-Indo-European religion was largely centered around deified natural phenomena such as the sky, the Sun, the Moon, and the Dawn. The Ritual School, on the other hand, holds that Proto-Indo-European myths are best understood as stories invented to explain various rituals and religious practices. The Functionalist School holds that Proto-Indo-European society and, consequently, their religion, was largely centered around the trifunctional system proposed by Georges Dumézil. The Structuralist School, by contrast, argues that Proto-Indo-European religion was largely centered around the concept of dualistic opposition.
Linguists are able to reconstruct the names of some deities in the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) from many types of sources. Some of the proposed deity names are more readily accepted among scholars than others.
The term for "a god" was *deiwos, reflected in Hittite, sius; Latin, deus, divus; Sanskrit, deva; Avestan, daeva (later, Persian, div); Welsh, duw; Irish, dia; Old Norse, tívurr; Lithuanian, Dievas; Latvian, Dievs.
The supreme ruler of the Proto-Indo-European pantheon was the god *Dyḗus Pḥatḗr, whose name literally means "Sky Father." He is believed to have been worshipped as the god of the daylit skies. He is, by far, the most well-attested of all the Proto-Indo-European deities. The Greek god Zeus, the Roman god Jupiter, and the Illyrian god Dei-Pátrous all appear as the head gods of their respective pantheons. The Norse god Týr, however, seems to have been demoted to the role of a minor war-deity. *Dyḗus Pḥatḗr is also attested in the Rigveda as Dyáus Pitā, a minor ancestor figure mentioned in only a few hymns. The names of the Latvian god Dievs and the Hittite god Attas Isanus do not preserve the exact literal translation of the name *Dyḗus Pḥatḗr, but do preserve the general meaning of it.
*Haéusōs has been reconstructed as the Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn. Derivatives of her found throughout various Indo-European mythologies include the Greek goddess Eos, the Roman goddess Aurōra, the Vedic goddess Uṣás, and the Lithuanian goddess Auštrine. The form Arap Ushas appears in Albanian folklore, but as a name for the Moon, not the dawn. An extension of the name may have been *H2eust(e)ro-, since the form *as-t-r with an intrusive -t- between s and r occurs in some northern dialects. Examples of such forms include the Anatolian Estan, Istanus, and Istara, the Greek Hestia, goddess of the hearth, the Latin Vesta, also a hearth goddess, the Armenian Astghik, a star goddess, the Baltic goddess Austija, and possibly also the Germanic Ēostre or *Ostara, a goddess associated with a springtime festival who is mentioned only once by Bede in his treatise The Reckoning of Time.
*Seh2ul and *Meh1not are reconstructed as the Proto-Indo-European goddess of the Sun and god of the Moon respectively. *Seh2ul is reconstructed based off the Greek god Helios, the Roman god Sol, the Celtic goddess Sul/Suil, the Norse goddess Sól, the Germanic goddess *Sowilō, the Celtic Solntse, the Hittite goddess "UTU-liya", and the Vedic god Surya. *Meh1not- is reconstructed based off the Norse god Máni, the Slavic god Myesyats, and the Lithuanian god *Meno, or Mėnuo (Mėnulis). They are often seen as the twin children of various deities, but in fact the sun and moon were deified several times and are often found in competing forms within the same language. The usual scheme is that one of these celestial deities is male and the other female, though the exact gender of the Sun or Moon tends to vary among subsequent Indo-European mythologies. The original Indo-European solar deity appears to have been female, a characteristic not only supported by the higher number of sun goddesses in subsequent derivations (feminine Sól, Saule, Sulis, Solntse—not directly attested as a goddess, but feminine in gender—Étaín, Grían, Aimend, Áine and Catha versus masculine Helios, Surya, Savitr, Usil and Sol; Hvare-khshaeta is of neutral gender), but also by vestiges in mythologies with male solar deities (Usil in Etruscan art is depicted occasionally as a goddess, while solar characteristics in Athena and Helen of Troy still remain in Greek mythology). The original Indo-European lunar deity appears to have been masculine, with feminine lunar deities like Selene, Minerva and Luna being a development exclusive to the eastern Mediterranean. Even in these traditions, remnants of male lunar deities, like Menelaus, remain.
The Proto-Indo-European Creation myth seems to have involved two key figures: *Manu- ("Man"; Indic Manu; Germanic Mannus) and *Yemo- ("Twin"; Indic Yama; Germanic Ymir), his twin brother. Reflexes of these two figures usually fulfill the respective roles of founder of the human race and first human to die.
The Horse Twins are a set of twin brothers found throughout nearly every Indo-European pantheon who usually have a name that means 'horse' *ekwa-, but the names are not always cognate and no Proto-indo-European name for them can be reconstructed. In most Indo-European pantheons, the Horse Twins are brothers of the Sun Maiden or Dawn goddess and sons of the sky god. They are reconstructed based off the Vedic Ashvins, the Lithuanian Ašvieniai, the Latvian Dieva deli, the Greek Dioskouroi (Kastor and Polydeukes), the Roman Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), the Irish twins of Macha, the Old English Hengist and Horsa (whose names mean "horse" and "stallion"), the Slavic Lel and Polel (possibly Christianized in Albanian as Sts. Flori and Lori) and possibly Old Norse Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse born of Loki. The horse twins may have been based on the morning and evening star (the planet Venus) and they often have stories about them in which they "accompany" the Sun goddess, because of the close orbit of the planet Venus to the sun.
*Perkwunos has been reconstructed as the Proto-Indo-European god of lightning and storms. His name literally means "The Striker." He is reconstructed based off the Norse goddess Fjǫrgyn (the mother of Thor), the Lithuanian god Perkūnas, and the Slavic god Perúnú. The Vedic god Parjánya may also be related, but his possible connection to *Perkwunos is still under dispute. The name of *Perkwunos may also be attested in Greek as κεραυνός (Keraunós), an epithet of the god Zeus meaning "thunder-shaker."
Some authors have proposed *Neptonos or *H2epom Nepōts as the Proto-Indo-European god of the waters. The name literally means "Grandson [or Nephew] of the Waters." He has been reconstructed based off the Vedic god Apám Nápát, the Roman god Neptūnus, and the Old Irish god Nechtain. Although such a god has been solidly reconstructed in Proto-Indo-Iranian religion, Mallory and Adams nonetheless still reject him as a Proto-Indo-European deity on linguistic grounds.
A river goddess *Dehanu- has been proposed based off the Vedic goddess Dānu, the Irish goddess Danu, the Welsh goddess Don and the names of the rivers Danube, Don, Dnieper, and Dniester. Mallory and Adams, however, dismiss this reconstruction, commenting that it does not have any evidence to support it.
Some have also proposed the reconstruction of a sea god named *Trihatōn based off the Greek god Triton and the Old Irish word trïath, meaning "sea." Mallory and Adams reject this reconstruction as having no basis, asserting that the "lexical correspondence is only just possible and with no evidence of a cognate sea god in Irish."
*Péh2usōn, a pastoral deity, is reconstructed based off the Greek god Pan and the Vedic god Pūshān. Both deities are closely affiliated with goats and were worshipped as pastoral deities. The minor discrepancies between the two deities can be easily explained by the possibility that many attributes originally associated with Pan may have been transferred over to his father Hermes. The association between Pan and Pūshān was first identified in 1924 by the German scholar Hermann Collitz.
In 1855, Adalbert Kuhn suggested that the Proto-Indo-Europeans may have believed in a set of helper deities, whom he reconstructed based off the Germanic elves and the Hindu rhibus. Though this proposal is often mentioned in academic writings, very few scholars actually accept it. There may also have been a female cognate akin to the Greco-Roman nymphs, Slavic vilas, the Huldra of Germanic folklore, and the Hindu Apsaras.
Although the name of a particular Proto-Indo-European smith god cannot be linguistically reconstructed, it is highly probable that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had a smith deity of some kind since smith gods occur in nearly every Indo-European culture, with examples including the Hittite god Hasammili, the Vedic god Tvastr, the Greek god Hephaestus, the Germanic villain Wayland the Smith, and the Ossetian culture figure Kurdalagon. Many of these smith figures share certain characteristics in common. Hephaestus, the Greek god of blacksmiths, and Wayland the Smith, a nefarious blacksmith from Germanic mythology, are both described as lame. Additionally, Weyland the Smith and the Greek mythical inventor Daedalus both escape imprisonment on an island by fashioning sets of mechanical wings from feathers and wax and using them to fly away.
It is highly probable that the Proto-Indo-Europeans also had three fate goddesses akin to the Norse Norns, the Greek Moirai, Roman Parcae, the Slavic Sudjenice, the Romanian Ursitoare, and the Lithuanian Deivės Valdytojos. Celtic religion is also rife with triple goddesses, such as the Gaulish Matrones and the Morrigan of Ireland, and sometimes triplicate gods as well, but they are not always associated with fate. See also Triple deities.
Some scholars have proposed a war god *Māwort- based off the Roman god Mars and the Vedic Marutás, companions of the war-god Indra. Mallory and Adams, however, reject this reconstruction on linguistic grounds.
Dragon or serpent
One common myth among almost all Indo-European mythologies is a battle ending with a hero or god slaying a serpent or dragon of some sort. Although the details of story often vary widely, in all iterations, several features often remain remarkably the same. In all iterations of the story, the serpent is always associated with water in some way. The hero of the story is usually a thunder-god or a hero who is somehow associated with thunder. The serpent is usually multi-headed, or else "multiple" in some other way.
The earliest attested of these stories is the legend from Hittite mythology in which the storm god Tarhunt slays the giant serpent Illuyanka. Next oldest is the account recorded in the Rigveda in which the god Indra slays the multi-headed serpent Vritra, which had been causing a drought. In the Bhagavata Purana, Krishna slays the serpent Kāliyā.
Several variations of the story are also found in Greek mythology as well. The story is attested in the legend of Zeus slaying the hundred-headed Typhon from Hesiod's Theogony, but it is also in the myths of the slaying of the nine-headed Lernean Hydra by Heracles and the slaying of Python by Apollo. The story of Heracles's theft of the cattle of Geryon is probably also related. Although Heracles is not usually thought of as a storm deity in the conventional sense, he bears many attributes held by other Indo-European storm deities, including physical strength and a knack for violence and gluttony.
The original Proto-Indo-European myth is also reflected in Germanic mythology. In Norse mythology, Thor, the god of thunder, slays the giant serpent Jörmungandr, which lived in the waters surrounding the realm of Midgard. Other dragon-slaying myths are also found in the Germanic tradition. In the Völsunga saga, Sigurd slays the dragon Fafnir and, in Beowulf, the eponymous hero slays a dragon of his own.
Reflexes of the Proto-Indo-European dragon-slaying myth are found throughout other branches of the language family as well. In Zoroastrianism and Persian mythology, Fereydun, and later Garshasp, slays Zahhak. In Slavic mythology, Perun, the god of storms, slays Veles and Dobrynya Nikitich slays the three-headed dragon Zmey. In Armenian mythology, the god Vahagn slays the dragon Vishap. In Romanian folklore, Făt-Frumos slays the fire-spitting monster Zmeu. In Celtic mythology, Dian Cecht slays Meichi.
The myth is believed to have symbolized a clash between forces of order and chaos. In every version of the story, the god or hero always wins (except in some mythologies, such as the Norse Ragnarök myth in which both die). The Proto-Indo-European name for the serpent may have been *kʷr̥mis, or some name cognate with *Varuna/Werunos or the root *Wel/Vel- (VS Varuna, who is associated with the serpentine naga, Vala and Vṛtra, Slavic Veles, Baltic velnias), or "serpent" (Hittite Illuyanka, VS Ahis, Iranian azhi, Greek ophis and Ophion, and Latin anguis), or the root *dheubh- (Greek Typhon and Python).
Related to the dragon-slaying myth is the "Sun in the rock" myth, in which the Sun is imprisoned within a rock, but is set free by a heroic warrior deity, who splits open the rock, allowing her to escape. In the Rigveda, the goddess Ushas and a herd of cows are freed from imprisonment after the god Indra slays the multi-headed serpent Vritra. A comparable myth in the Greek tradition is the myth of Aphrodite rising from the foam of the sea following Ouranos's castration by Kronos.
The Greek Sun-god Helios, the Hindu god Surya, and the Germanic goddess Sól are all represented as riding in chariots pulled by white horses. The earliest discovered chariots come from the Kurgan culture in southwest Russia, commonly identified as belonging to the Proto-Indo-Europeans.
The myth of the Sun and Moon being swallowed by some kind of predator is also found throughout multiple Indo-European language groups. In Norse mythology, the Sun goddess (Sól) and Moon god (Máni) are swallowed by the demon wolves Sköll and Hati Hróðvitnisson. In Hinduism, the Sun god (Surya) and Moon god (Chandra) are swallowed by the demon serpents Rahu and Ketu, resulting in eclipses.
The analysis of different Indo-European tales indicates that the Proto-Indo-Europeans believed there were two progenitors of mankind: *Manu- ("Man") and *Yemo- ("Twin"), his twin brother. A reconstructed creation myth involving the two is given by David W. Anthony, attributed in part to Bruce Lincoln: Manu and Yemo traverse the cosmos, accompanied by the primordial cow, and finally decide to create the world. To do so, Manu sacrifices either Yemo or the cow, and with help from the sky father, the storm god and the divine twins, forges the earth from the remains. Manu thus becomes the first priest and establishes the practice of sacrifice. The sky gods then present cattle to the third man, *Trito, who loses it to the three-headed serpent *Ngwhi, but eventually overcomes this monster either alone or aided by the sky father. Trito is now the first warrior and ensures that the cycle of mutual giving between gods and humans may continue.
There are almost no mythological tales from ancient Rome, but the early "history" of Rome is widely recognized as a historicized retelling of various old myths. Romulus and Remus are twin brothers from Roman mythology who both have stories in which they are killed. The Roman writer Livy reports that Remus was believed to have been killed by his brother Romulus at the founding of Rome when they entered into a disagreement about which hill to build the city on. Later, Romulus himself is said to have been torn limb-from-limb by a group of senators. Neither myth directly involves the creation of a new world, but they both deal with the founding of the city of Rome and its people, who regarded Romulus as their ancestor.
The Germanic languages have information about both Ymir and Mannus (cognates of *Yemo- and *Manu- respectively), but they never appear together in the same myth. Instead, they only occur in myths widely separated by both time and circumstances. In his book Germania 2, which was written in Latin in around 98 A.D., the Roman writer Tacitus claims that Mannus, the son of Tuisto, was the ancestor of the Germanic people. This name never recurs anywhere in later Germanic literature, but the name Alamanni has been interpreted (perhaps by folk etymology) as "all-men."
Fire in water
Another important possible myth is the myth of the fire in the waters, a myth which centers around the possible deity *H2epom Nepōts, a fiery deity who dwells in water. In the Rigveda, the god Apám Nápát is envisioned as a form of fire residing in the waters. In Celtic mythology, a well belonging to the god Nechtain is said to blind all those who gaze into it. In an old Armenian poem, a small reed in the middle of the sea spontaneously catches fire and the hero Vahagn springs forth from it with fiery hair and a fiery beard and eyes that blaze as suns. In a ninth-century Norwegian poem by the poet Thiodolf, the name sǣvar niþr, meaning "grandson of the sea," is used as a kenning for fire. Even the Greek tradition contains possible allusions to the myth of a fire-god dwelling deep beneath the sea. The phrase "νέποδες καλῆς Ἁλοσύδνης," meaning "descendants of the beautiful seas," is used in The Odyssey 4.404 as an epithet for the seals of Proteus.
Culture deities occur in many Indo-European cultures. Examples include the Greek Prometheus, the Norse Loki, and the Ossetian Pkharmat. The similarities between the three deities are striking. Prometheus and Pkharmat both steal fire from the gods and give it to humanity. All three deities are punished for their actions by being chained and tortured by some kind of animal. For Prometheus and Pkharmat, this animal is a bird (an eagle for Prometheus and a falcon for Pkharmat), which comes every afternoon to devour their livers. For Loki, this animal is a venomous serpent, which drips its poison onto his face.
The story of a global flood is a widespread myth, found throughout Indo-European cultures and other cultures as well (for example, Noah and Utnapishtim myths). In Hindu mythology, the Matsya Avatar of Vishnu warns the first man, Manu of the impending flood. Manu builds a boat and survives the flood due to Matsya's assistance. In Greek mythology, Deucalion and his family survive the flood after being warned to build a boat by Deucalion's father Prometheus. Deucalion's sons Aeolus, Ion, and Dorus become the founders of the three main lines of modern Greeks.
Most Indo-European traditions contain some kind of Underworld or Afterlife. It is possible that the Proto-Indo-Europeans may have believed that, in order to reach the Underworld, one needed to cross a river, similar to the Greek concept of the river Styx, guided by an old man (*ĝerhaont-). It is also possible they may have believed that the Underworld was guarded by some kind of watchdog, similar to the Greek Cerberus, the Hindu Śárvara, or the Norse Garmr.
World tree and serpent
The Proto-Indo-Europeans may have believed in some kind of world tree. It is also possible that they may have believed that this tree was either guarded by or under constant attack from some kind of dragon or serpent. In Norse mythology, the world ash tree Yggdrasil is tended by the three Norns while the dragon Nidhogg gnaws at its roots. In Greek mythology, the tree of the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides is tended by the three Hesperides and guarded by the hundred-headed dragon Ladon. In Indo-Iranian texts, there is a mythical tree dripping with Soma, the immortal drink of the gods and, in later Pahlavi sources, an evil lizard is said to lurk at the bottom of it.
Ritual and sacredness
Émile Benveniste states that "there is no common [IE] term to designate religion itself, or cult, or the priest, not even one of the personal gods". There are, however, terms denoting ritual practice reconstructed in Indo-Iranian religion which have root cognates in other branches, hinting at common PIE concepts. Thus, the stem *hrta-, usually translated as "(cosmic) order" (Vedic ṛta and Iranian arta). 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" (pp. 379–381). He also adds that an abstract suffix -tu formed the Vedic stem ṛtu-, Avestan ratu- which designated order, particularly in the seasons and periods of time. The same root and suffix, but a different formation, appears in Latin rītus "rite".
- *isH1ro ‘holy’
- *sakro- ‘sacred’ (derived from *sak- ‘to sanctify’) [p. 493, EIEC]
- *k̂wen(to)- ‘holy’ [p. 493, EIEC]
- *noibho- ‘holy’ [p. 493, EIEC]
- *prek̂- ‘pray’
- *meldh- ‘pray’ [p. 449, EIEC]
- *gwhedh- ‘pray’ [p. 449, EIEC]
- *H1wegwh- ‘speak solemnly’; [*uegwh-, p. 449, EIEC]
- *ĝheuHx- ‘call, invoke’ (perhaps English god < *ĝhu-to- from ‘that which is invoked’, but derivation from *ĝhu-to- ‘libated’ from *ĝheu- ‘libate, pour’ is also possible). [p. 89, EIEC]
- *kowH1ei- ‘priest, seer/poet’ [p. 451, EIEC]
- *Hxiaĝ- ‘worship’
- *weik- ‘consecrate’ (earlier meaning perhaps ‘to separate’), [*ueik-, p. 493, EIEC; p. 29, Grimm]
- *sep- ‘handle reverently’ [p. 450, EIEC]
- *spend- ‘libate’
- *ĝheu- ‘libate’ and *ĝheu-mn̥ ‘libation’
- *dapnom ‘sacrificial meal’ from *dap-, [p. 496, EIEC; p. 484, Benveniste]
- *tolko/eH2- ‘meal’ (at least late PIE) [p. 496, EIEC]
- *nemos ‘sacred grove’ (used in west and centre of the IE world)
- *werbh- ‘sacred enclosure’
Benveniste also posits the existence of a dual conception of sacredness, divided into a positive side, the intrinsic, otherworldly power of deities; and a negative side, sacredness of objects in the world that make them taboo for humans. This opposition is found in word pairs such as the Latin sacer/sanctus and Greek ἅγιος/ἱερός.
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