Dumézil’s trifunctional ideology

My first draft of my second essay for IE Studies 1.  Feedback welcome, although I get that this is all pretty dry stuff!  Min word count 300, this essay 460.


George Dumezil’s theory of tripartition has been central to many modern approaches to Indo-European studies. Outline Dumezil’s three social functions in general, and as they appear in one particular Indo-European society. Offer your opinion as to whether you believe Dumezil’s claim that tripartition is central to IE cultures.

Dumézil, based primarily on a rigorous comparative analysis of myth, postulated the theory that a central motif running through the cultures of Indo-European speaking peoples was a trifunctional ideology.  The first function is that of sovereignty, which includes the priestly, judicial, and kingly.  The second function is that of the warrior.  The third function is that of fertility and prosperity, a function which many also associate with food production.  An example familiar to most is that of the judgement of Paris, where Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each offered the hapless Trojan prince a different bribe; the first of kingship, the second of military glory, and the third of love.

An example of how these functions have appeared in an Indo-European speaking society can be found in the Gallic Celts as described by Caesar.  He mentions that their society comprises the druidum (Druids), the equitum (knights), and the plebes (essentially, everyone else).  The Druids, Caesar tells us, are involved in all sacrifices, omen-taking, judicial matters, and teaching.  The knights are involved in warfare, which Caesar tell us was never ending among the Gauls.  Finally, we are led to believe that the plebes were essentially slaves, in that unlike Roman citizens they had no real political voice.

In considering the question of how central this concept might have been to Indo-European speaking societies it is important to understand that, as Allen tell us, while Dumézil took note of the fact that some of these societies had indeed formed castes which reflected the trifunctional ideology, he declined to argue that these castes had a genetic origin. That is to say, concrete manifestations of the ideology in later societal structures could just as well be viewed as evolutions of the ideology rather than a continuity of earlier structures.  Indeed, Mallory tells us that the lexical evidence suggests that the existence of a rigid caste system amongst the Proto-Indo-Europeans was unlikely (430).  Certainly, for some Indo-European speaking societies there is little evidence of trifunctional caste system.  These would include the Greeks, where the notion of the citizen soldier did away with the distinction between the second and third functions, and the Romans where the Patrician/Plebeian classes formed the primary basis for the social structure.  The centrality question also hinges on the time period being considered; to return to our Gallic example, the trifunctional social structure was upset after Caesar’s conquest and the subsequent suppression of the Druids.

However, regardless of whether the trifunctional ideology is or was central to the social structures of the various Indo-European speaking peoples, Dumézil’s work has made it clear that the concept was deeply ingrained in their perception of society.  As such it remains extremely valuable when trying to understand the cultures of these groups during specific historical periods.

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