Indo-European Mythology 1.1 – Primary Sources

Wow it has been a while since I last finished an essay!

1. List and discuss the major primary sources for the mythology of three Indo-European cultures, including their dates of origin and authorship (if known). Discuss any important factors that may cause problems in interpreting these sources, such as the existence of multiple revisions, or the presence of Christian or other outside influences in surviving texts. (minimum 300 words)

Let us be very specific in the cultures which we are to consider.  Let us consider, first, the primarily Athenian culture of the Greeks in the Classical era (c.f. 500-400 BCE), the La Tène Celtic culture prior to the Roman conquest, and the Northern Germanic culture of the Norse up to the general adoption of Christianity in Iceland circa 1000 CE.

For the Classical Greeks, we have a wealth of primary sources.  Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, written down probably in the 8th century BCE, are the most famous.  Also of significant value are Hesiod’s Theogany and Works and Days from the 7th century BCE and the Homeric Hymns, a collection of religious odes from various authors dating from the seventh through fifth centuries.  The extant plays of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, and even Aristophanes  from the Classical era provide fertile ground for exploration.  Beyond these there are numerous other texts from the period, including works of history, philosophy, science, and poetry which contain references to myth.  Finally there is also a significant amount of archaeological sources including statues and vase.  Insofar as there are any issues with interpreting the sources, there is only the quantity of them and the fact that they occasionally expose conflicting versions of many of the same myths.

In stark contrast to the Greeks, the La Tène Celts left few primary sources for their mythology.  What they did leave were entirely non-literary, the Gundestrup cauldron (first century B.C.E.) being by far the most important, requiring significant interpretation and correlation with later, post-La Tène era sources.  Even these remain quite sparse until well into the Christian era.  While there are a fair number of inscriptions and visual representations of myth in the pre-Christian Gallo-Roman culture, they largely demonstrate a syncretism of Roman and Gallic religious beliefs and divinities, and trying to extract information about the earlier Celtic myths from this material poses a significant challenge.  The Irish and Welsh literary renditions of Celtic myth were recorded a millenium or more later by peoples long since Christianized and would be of limited value indeed in trying to reconstruct La Tène-era mythic beliefs.

 Somewhat between the richness of the Classical Greeks and the sparseness of the La Tène Celts lies the Northern Germanic Norse culture.  Here, like the Celts, the mainland Germanic speaking peoples did not commit their knowledge to writing, with the exception of a few scattered runic inscriptions.  However, we are fortunately indeed for Iceland which adopted Christianity at a slow pace, retaining many of its Pagan stories and beliefs even as it took to writing.  Here there is a relative wealth of sources, the most important being the Prose Edda (~1223 C.E.) of Snorri Sturluson as well as the Poetic Edda, a collection of Icelandic poetry dating from the 13th Century.  Despite being written down more than two centuries after the official adoption of Christianity in Iceland, these sources seem to be quite faithful to the Pagan stories which they record, such that Puhvel notes that “Germanic myth ranks with Vedic and Roman as the third mainstay for triangulating Indo-European reconstruction” (191).

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