Blogging Our Troth, part 5: The Indo-Europeans, Part 3

I've got one more excerpt (for now) on the speakers of Proto-Indo-European languages, and next week I'll post something else. The usual disclaimer applies: This is the current working draft of a section of Our Troth 3rd edition, and it's subject to change between now and the eventual publication date (hopefully 2020, but that's not a promise!) Drop me a line or leave a comment if there's anything that you think I should change, delete, add, or otherwise improve. Thanks to everyone for reading this far—more will follow!

The religion of the Indo-European people has been much debated, and several scholars reconstruct it differently from what is presented in this book. For reasons of space, we can’t get too deeply into the controversies; consult the sources cited if you need to delve more deeply. 

The scholar Georges Dumézil and his followers have made the most sweeping attempts to reconstruct an original structure. According to Dumézil, the Proto-Indo-Europeans’ deities filled three main functions, mirrored in three main social roles: sovereignty, force, and abundance. Deities of the first function are divine rulers; Dumézil subdivided this role into a deity of law and justice, and a deity of magic and cosmic order. (In the Vedas of India, these would be Mitra and Varuna; in Norse mythology, they would arguably be Tyr and Odin.) Deities of the second function are warriors who defend the cosmic order; the Norse god in this function would be Thor. Finally, third-function deities provide fertility, healing, and prosperity, and provide for the common people; often they are seen as a pair of twins. The third-function deities in Norse mythology would be the Vanir. Dumézil argued that this three-fold division affected almost every aspect of society. Indo-European descendant cultures tend to emphasize the number three and tripartism in ritual and social structure. For instance, there are comparative suggestions that at rituals, a constellation of three different types of animal was sacrificed. Healing was carried out in three ways, each reminiscent of one of the functions: magical spells, surgery, and herbs (Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon, pp. 537-539). Human sacrifices were generally done in three different ways, hanging, stabbing, and drowning—also corresponding to the three functions.

However, while Dumézil assembled an impressive range of information from all over the PIE cultural sphere, he has been criticized for relying on impressions and assertions rather than actual information (cf. Page, “Dumézil Revisited”, and Lincoln, Death, War and Sacrifice, pp. 244-258for instance). The structures which he claims to be common to the Indo-European folk cannot be proven to exist within any individual branch (discussed briefly in Chapter 9), and so there is some doubt as to how far they can be taken in regards to the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Certainly in Norse mythology, there is considerable overlap among the divine functions; Frey, for example, supposedly a third-function deity, was also the founder and patron of the Swedish kingly line, and could certainly fight when needed. It’s worth noting that the threefold division of social classes is not unique to the Indo-Europeans—the Aztecs had a similar division, for example. Nor does it encompass all the social roles: traders and craftsmen, for example, have no obvious place in the tripartite hierarchy. Societies—and their religious expressions—were and are more complex and nuanced than any simple model can capture.

The richness of Indo-European religious thought is shown by reconstructed words such as *yewes- for “religious law”, *weghw- for “vow”, and *aiw- for “vital force” or “spirit.” Their language seems to have had two words for “sacred”, one meaning “filled with power” (*spent-) and one meaning “set apart from the world” (*ya­­g-); this distinction is made in several Indo-European traditions even when the words are not preserved. Proto-Indo-European had roots for “good” and “bad”, *esu- and *dus-, but these probably just meant “favorable” and “unfavorable”, without moral connotations. What was moral was to follow the social and cosmic order (*ertus) and human laws (*dhemi-, derived from *dhe- “to place; to lay down”). The metaphor of law as something “laid down” survived even when the word itself was replaced, as in both Germanic and Italic: law and lex both come from *legh-, “to lay down.” A lawbreaker was a *wergh, cognate with Norse vargr. (Mallory and Adams, Oxford Introduction, pp. 276-277) “To believe” was *kred-dhe-, literally “to place one’s heart”; to be “holy” was to be “complete, whole” (*kailo-). The root *deru- meant “firm, solid, strong”; from this root come our words “true”, “trust” and “troth” (as well as “tree”). There is debate over whether we can reconstruct a PIE word for “priest”, but whoever worshipped in Proto-Indo-European society did so in familiar ways: roots that reveal something of their practices include *prek- and *meldh-, “to pray”; *gheuə- “to invoke”; *sengwh- “to sing”; *gwerə- “to praise”; *peu- “to purify”; *dap- “sacrificial meal”; and *spend-, *leib-, and *gheu- “to libate; to make an offering”. (Dowden, European Paganism, pp. 250-251) The root *gheu-, “to pour,” is especially interesting, because it is probably the source of our word “god”; etymologically, a “god” is “one who is poured to; one who receives what is poured out.” (Watkins, The American Heritage Dictionary, pp. 30-31) The root *wet- meant“to inspire, spiritually arouse.” In this sense it survives in Latin vatesand Irish fáith, both meaning “soothsayer,” and in two Old English words, wōd, “madness,” and wōþ, “song.” The combination of this root with a PIE-derived suffix meaning “master of”, *-ono-, is the source of the Proto-Germanic name *Woðanaz—Woden, Wotan, Óðinn.

Several religions derived from Indo-European culture posit two tribes of godly beings, one of which upholds cosmic order and receives worship. The other is identified with the forces of chaos and destruction, and may be appeased or banished in ritual, but is never asked for blessings. In Vedic India, the divine “good guys” are devas opposed to the demonic asuras; in Persia the situation is reversed, and the good ahuras are opposed to the demonic daevas. Both derive from Proto-Indo-European; the PIE word for “god” (*deiwos) is related to the word for “bright” (*dyeu-). The PIE word *ansu- meant something like “ruler” or “governor”; it survives in Sanskrit asura, Persian ahura,the Gaulish god’s name Esus, the Gothic word anses (defined as “demigods” by the historian Jordanes), and the Old Norse Æsir(Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon, pp. 8-9). While the linguistic roots have shifted, the Greek Titans and the Norse Jötnar, or possibly Muspili, seem to fit the role of destructive forces. (York, “Towards a Proto-Indo-European Vocabulary of the Sacred,” pp. 235-237) Also common to PIE cultures is a myth of the “War of the Functions,” in which the gods of rulership and force fight against the gods of fertility and abundance, ending in the integration of the two groups; the Norse version of this myth is the war between the Æsir and Vanir. Lastly, the Proto-Indo-Europeans knew a myth concerning a cataclysmic battle between two cosmic armies, with the Gods and/or heroes fighting the personified forces of chaos, ending in total destruction and the beginning of a completely new order of things. In some Indo-European traditions this battle has already occurred, in the mythic past, such as the Irish Second Battle of Moytura and the Indian Kurukshetra War. In others, such as the Norse Ragnarök, it lies in the future.

Judging by practices preserved in early Indo-European descendant cultures, the greater gods received their offerings from the priestly families of the clans and tribes. The knowledge of the correct ritual procedures and hymns, the right to conduct sacrifices and receive a portion of the offerings, were the property of particular families and were passed down from father to son. The horse sacrifice (*ekwo-medhyo-, literally “horse-drunkenness”) was the most elaborate ritual, associated with kingship and kingly power. If properly worshipped, the gods would grant prosperity to the people; we can reconstruct the phrase *dotores weswam, “givers of goods”, as a term for the gods. (Lincoln, Death, War, and Sacrifice, p. 6) We can even reconstruct a phrase of prayer, with descendants surviving in several Indo-European languages, showing what the gods were asked to do: *pah- uiro- peku-, “protect men and cattle!” (Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon, p. 212)

The steppe peoples built no temples; as far as we can tell, worship was centered on the household. Proto-Indo-European had two words for “fire”: one was grammatically an inanimate noun, *paəwr-. The other, *egni-, was grouped with nouns for animate objects, suggesting a PIE belief in fire as a living being; this is the root of the Vedic god Agni, who was seen as accepting sacrifices and distributing shares to the gods. In India in the Vedic period, sacrifices were made to fire kindled on the altars. A round altar, the garhapatya, was and still is stationed in the west and represents the earth and the family, while a square altar, the ahavaniya, represents the sky and the gods. The Greeks and Romans had a similar duality of shape, with the family hearth fire maintained on a round altar and the offerings to the gods made on a rectangular altar. (Della Volpe, “From the Hearth,” pp. 165-167) Both square and round arrangements of burned stones and bones, almost certainly fire altars, have also been excavated from the Bronze Age and Iron Age of Scandinavia. This similarity between cultures at nearly the opposite ends of the Indo-European world implies that the Proto-Indo-Europeans sacrificed at similar enclosures. These may have been made on top of kurgans; the mound may have functioned as an altar, where sacrifices could be made to the gods and the ancestors. (Kaliff, Fire, Water, Heaven and Earth, pp. 75-84, figs. 3-9) The father and mother of each family or clan probably made offerings at their hearth fires to their ancestors, and perhaps to the minor deities of the household as well: the powers of the courtyard, the livestock, the trees and groves, all the host of godlets who protected the people from calamity. (Della Volpe, pp. 157-167)

Each sacrifice was a recreation of the world. In the mythos of the Indo-Europeans there had been two primal beings: “Man” (*Manu) and “Twin” (*Yema or *Hiemos). Man, the first priest, had sacrificed Twin, the first king, who went on to become lord of the dead, the first to die and find the path for all others. Man then created the world from the body of Twin. His flesh became the soil, his bones the stones, his breath the wind, his blood the waters, his vital energy fire, his eye the sun, his mind the moon, and his skull the vault of heaven. Whenever a priest sacrificed, he was recreating the primal sacrifice, renewing the cosmic and social order. All those who participated in the sacrifice were acknowledging their common descent and kinship, for it was believed that the first humans had been shaped from the dismembered parts of Twin. Each birth was a bringing together of the primal elements, a recreation of Twin. Each death was a recreation of the original dismemberment. Different social classes of humans had come from different parts of Twin—rulers from the head, warriors from the arms, workers from the legs—and so the myth and the sacrifices based on it upheld the social as well as the cosmic order. (Puhvel,Comparative Mythology, pp. 286-290;Lincoln, Death, War and Sacrifice, pp. 167-175) There seems to have been a PIE myth about a warrior named *Trito, “Third”—possibly the younger brother of *Manu and *Yema, and possibly the paradigm of the warrior function just as *Manu’s sacrifice established the priestly function. The cattle of *Trito were stolen by a three-headed serpent. With divine help, “Third” slew the serpent and recovered the stolen cattle. The phrase “he slew the serpent”, *gwhen- ogwhi-, has been reconstructed from appearances in several descendant languages (Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon, p. 365. The story is not preserved in Germanic texts, but it seems to be depicted on one of the Golden Horns of Gallehus, Iron Age treasures discovered in Denmark. See Lincoln, “The Indo-European Cattle-Raiding Myth.”)

There is good linguistic evidence that the Indo-Europeans worshipped a Sky-Father or Bright Father, *Dyeus pəter,whose name survives in the Latin Jupiter and Sanskrit Dyaus-pita, and, minus the “father”, in Greek Zeus and Norse Týr. He may have had a female consort, *Diuone(Jackson, “Light From Distant Asterisks”, p. 73). Jackson further suggests that *Dyeus may have had a counterpart god of the night sky, whose name would have been something like *Uorunos, “the one who covers.” Dumézil theorizes a double sky-rulership, in which the Bright Father (who may have been seen as one-handed) governed human law, social mores, the day, light and summer, while his counterpart, the “Seer” (perhaps seen as one-eyed), represented cosmic law, ancestral custom, and the powers of magic, night, and darkness; this possibility is further discussed in the chapter on Tyr.

The Indo-Europeans probably knew a Storm Lord, *Perkwons (a name which survived in Old Norse as Fjörgynn, the mother of Thor), the god who brought the life-giving rain and snows. He was also the warrior god who protected the herds and the people from enemies, wielding a great axe, hammer, or club—his very name is derived from *perkw-, “to strike”. Some sculptures from the steppe cultures depict a powerful, mustached male figure carrying axes, clubs or hammers (Telegin and Mallory, The Anthropomorphic Stelae of the Ukraine, especially figs. 8, 9, 10-1). Although it is difficult to be certain who is portrayed, these stelae could well represent the Storm Lord. The great enemy of the Storm Lord was the Dragon, a terrible serpent-like creature who swooped down out of the sky during stormy weather and devastated the land before being bested by the Storm Lord. To any resident of the American prairies, the “dragon” is instantly recognizable as a tornado: it was only when the Indo-Europeans left the steppes and moved into areas with less violent weather that the “dragon” developed into a mythical beast. 

Other important celestial deities included the Sun Goddess (*Swel-), the daughter of the Bright Father; the expression *suens kwekwlos, “the wheel of the Sun” can be reconstructed for PIE.We can also reconstruct the Dawn Goddess(*Ausos), who may also have been called “sky daughter”, *dhugater diwos; and the Twins (*Diuos sunu)who were often considered to be the daughter and the sons or grandsons of the Bright Father. In some Indo-European traditions, the Twins are identified with the Morning and Evening Stars, which were regarded as two separate entities; in other traditions they are identified with the horses that pull the Sun. They were seen as horsemen or closely associated with horses, and were known to be helpful, bringing wealth and rescuing persons in distress. (Mallory and Adams, Oxford Introduction,p. 432) Artifacts from the steppe cultures depicting twinned human or horse figures (Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans, figs. 121-122; Telegin and Mallory, The Anthropomorphic Stelae of the Ukraine, especially figs. 23-1,2, 24-3) may well be depictions of the Twins. The Moon (*Men-) was an unusual deity, for he died and was reborn every month; his name is derived from a root meaning “to measure” (*me-), since his cycle of phases measured time.

Death was personified by a female figure, *Kolyo, “The Coverer” (related to the Norse goddess Hel), who was seen as half living and half decaying, and who bound the dead in unbreakable bonds. (Lincoln, Death, War and Sacrifice, pp. 78-80) The dead were thought of as choosing to cross one of two different bridges, each of which led to a different afterlife (Lincoln, pp. 119-127). Several Indo-European traditions also show the dead being ferried across a river by an aged ferryman (Lincoln, pp. 62-75). 

The terrestrial powers were even more numerous than the sky deities. Every grove and spring had its protecting powers. The two most important powers were the Lord of Water and the Moisture Mother. The Lord of Water (*Nepto-no-) was god of the waters beneath the earth. Paradoxically, he was also the ancestor of Fire, seen as a kind of radiance or vital energy within the water. Fire is poetically called “descendant of water” in several IE traditions—including Old Norse skaldic poetry, which preserved the kenning saevar niðr, “descendant of seas”, for fire. (Ynglingatal 4; see Puhvel, Comparative Mythology, pp. 277-283; Mallory and Adams, Oxford Companion, p. 438) The Moisture Mother was the goddess of the fertile well-watered soils upon which the crops and the grasses depended for life. In several Indo-European traditions, she is the spouse and/or sibling of the Sky-Father; in others, she is the counterpart of the Striker, *Perkwons. The Indo-European word *dhghomyo-, which ultimately gave rise to the English “human”, is derived from *dhghem, “earth”—perhaps reflecting the return of human bodies after death to the Moisture Mother’s keeping. One version of the Moisture Mother was the goddess *Danu, “River.” She may have been regarded as the ancestress of many Indo-European tribes: the Danavas of India, the Danaans of Greece, the Tuatha de Danaan of Ireland, and the Danes of Denmark, all seem to preserve her name. Many rivers of the steppe country still bear her name, including the Don, the Donets, the Dniepr (“River to the Rear”), and the Dniestr (“River to the Front”); the Danube (“Holy River”) is also hers. (Dexter, “Reflections on the Goddess *Donu”)

The Indo-Europeans had an alcoholic drink for ritual (and perhaps other) use, called *medhu, probably very similar to the fermented honey mead of Northern Europe.  They were familiar with both verse-riddles and chanted magic: for instance, one Old Norse riddle (set to Heiðrekr by Óðinn in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks) has analogies throughout the Indo-European world, as do Old English and Old High German healing charms (Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon, pp. 519-536). Comparative studies of magic and spells in Indo-European cultures, together with alterations of “taboo” words in PIE, show that spoken curses and spells were known and feared by the Proto-Indo-Europeans (Huld, “Magic, Metathesis and Nudity”).Wolves and bears were sacred or taboo: their original Indo-European names (*vlkos and *rktos) ended up either respelled, or replaced by euphemistic names, in many Indo-European languages. (For example: the words “bear” and “bruin” and their Germanic cognates mean “the brown one”, while the Russian word medved’ literally means “honey-knower.”) No evidence for Indo-European shamanism has yet been put forward, but there is evidence for the use of intoxicating plants or brews—sometimes identical to *medhu, sometimes a different substance, such as the soma of Vedic India. 

History, law, rituals, myths, and other forms of knowledge were transmitted orally by poets, whose training might take many years. Indo-European poetry involved the use of complex meters and rhythms, various stylistic devices, and special vocabulary. Many of these features are shared in detail by medieval Irish, ancient Greek, Germanic, Vedic, and other Indo-European poetic traditions. A poet—or *wekwom tekson, “weaver of words”, as he would have called himself—would have been rewarded by chieftains and warriors for making songs of praise. His poems, in turn, would confer *klewos ndhgwhitom, “undying fame,” upon their subjects. This symbiotic relationship between rulers and the poets who praised them is widespread in Indo-European cultures. (Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon, pp. 12-14, 68-84)

Della Volpe, Angela. “From the Hearth to the Creation of Boundaries.” Journal of Indo-European Studies, vol. 18, no. 1-2 (1990), pp. 157-184.


Dexter, Miriam Robbins. “Reflections on the Goddess *Donu.” Mankind Quarterly,vol. 31, nos. 1-2 (1990), pp. 45-57.


Dowden, Ken. European Paganism: The Realities of Cult from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.


Huld, Martin. “Magic, Metathesis and Nudity in Indo-Eu­ropean Thought.” Dorothy Disterheft, Martin Huld, and John Greppin, eds. Studies in Honor of Jaan Puhvel. Part One: Ancient Languages and Philology. Journal of Indo-European Studies, Monograph 20. Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of Man, 1997. Pp. 75-92.


Jackson, Peter. “Light from Distant Asterisks: Towards a Description of the Indo-European Religious Heritage.” Numen, vol.49 (2002), pp. 61-102.


Kaliff, Anders. Fire, Water, Heaven and Earth: Ritual Practice and Cosmology in Ancient Scandinavia: An Indo-European Perspective. Stockholm: Riksantikvarieämbetet, 2007.


Lincoln, Bruce. “The Indo-European Cattle-Raiding Myth.” History of Religions, vol. 16, no. 1 (1976), pp. 42-65.


Lincoln, Bruce. Death, War and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideol­ogy and Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.


Mallory, J. P. In Search of the Indo-Europeans. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1989.


Mallory, J. P. and D. Q. Adams. The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.


Page, R.I. “Dumézil Revisited”. Saga-Book of the Viking Society, vol. 20 (1978-81), pp. 49-69. 


Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore and Lon­don: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.


Telegin, D. Ya and J. P. Mallory. The Anthropomorphic Stelae of the Ukraine: The Early Iconography of the Indo-Euro­peans. Journal of Indo-European Studies, Monograph 11. Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of Man, 1994.


Watkins, Calvert, ed. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.2nd ed. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.


Watkins, Calvert. How to Kill a Dragon. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.


York, Michael. “Toward a Proto-Indo-European Vocabulary of the Sacred.” Word, vol. 44, no. 2 (1993), pp. 235-254.