I-E Myth I: Compare and Contrast

OMGs!  I finally finished another essay!  I have been struggling with Indo-European Mythology I for, like, ever.  Mostly because I thought that I had to back everything I said up with primary sources which was a huge PITA.  However, it turns out that secondary sources are acceptable, so onwards ho!

2.  Summarize, then compare and contrast the myths of at least two Indo-European cultures with respect to the following topics (you need not use the same two cultures as a basis of comparison for each topic): (minimum 300 words for each)

Tales of Creation

As Puhvel tells us, creation myth amongst Indo-European cultures is a particular troublesome topic; many of the best known creation myths, such as that in Hesiod’s Theogony are demonstrably an import from other, non-Indo-European, cultures.  Setting aside these products of diffusion leaves precious little to work with.

Germanic myth reveals a creation tale related to the giant Ymir.  The Poetic Edda contains the poem Vafþrúðnismál which tells of how Ymir’s flesh became the Earth, the mountains were made of his bones, the sky from his skull, and the oceans from his blood.  The poem Grímnismál adds that Midgard was fashioned by the Gods from Ymir’s eyebrows and the clouds from his brains.  In the Prose Edda, we are further told that it was Odin and his brothers Vili and Vé who killed Ymir and created the world from him.

In Rome, older myths found themselves subsumed into mythic stories.  Here we have the foundation story of the foundling brothers Romulus and Remus.  According to legend, the brothers were brought up by a she-wolf until they were discovered by a shepherd.  Following some adventures, they decided to build a city but quarrelled over the location.  After an attempt at augury failed to bring them to agreement, the quarrel escalated until Romulus killed Remus and became the sole founder of Rome.

Puhvel suggests that these, and other similar Indo-European myths, point to a possible proto-Indo-European creation myth involving two entities, one representing ‘man’ and the other his ‘twin’.  According to comparative re-creation, man must kill his twin in order to bring the world into being, creation thus being an act of sacrifice. Mallory suggests that the proto-Indo-European myth likely echoed the tripartite functions, with the skull/brains representing the sovereign function, the arms/bones representing the warrior, and the genitals representing the fertility function (435).

Tales of Divine War

The stories of Indo-European speaking peoples, like most peoples on the planet, are replete with myths of divine warfare.  The Irish text Cath Maige Tuired tells the tale of the second battle of Mag Tuired.  The story opens with the plight of the Tuatha Dé Danann who are being oppressed by the Fomoire.  The situation is not helped by the Dé Danann king, Bres the Beautiful, who is himself half-Fomoire.  With the situation going from bad to worse for the Tuatha, Bres is finally forced to abdicate and returns to his Fomoire kin to plot revenge.  Nuada reclaims the kingship but quickly hands it over to a newcomer by the name of Lugh in deference to Lugh’s many skills, after which the two sides prepare for war.  The battle is fierce, and culminates in the face-off between Lugh and Balor, the king of the Fomoire.  As Balor prepares to smite Lugh with his evil eye and orders his men to lift the great eyelid that covers it, Lugh puts a sling shot through the eye, causing it to roll backwards and smite the Fomoire instead.  Bres is captured and is forced to ransom his farmer’s almanack for his life.

Meanwhile, from the Norse we receive the myth of the war between the Aesir and the Vanir.  Unfortunately we have only a smattering of tantalizing tidbits drawn from peripheral works with which to piece together the conflict.  These come from Snorri’s Prose Edda and Ynglinga Saga, as well as a small mention in the Poetic Edda.  The general outline of the myths seems to be that a Vanir witch named Gullveig came to the halls of the Aesir and was slain by Odin.  War between the two sets of gods ensued.  During one truce in the war, the gods all spit into a cauldron and from their spittle was formed a wise man who was then murdered by dwarves, his blood becoming mead.  The war ends with the killing and beheading of the Aesir Mimir and his subsequent existence as a magic 8-ball for Odin.

Mallory has hypothesized that these myths may reflect an older story which tells of a war between the first two of the Dumézilian functions (magic and warrior) against the third function (fertility) which results in the incorporation of the third function into society (436).  In the Celtic version, this third function is represented by Bres who is beautiful and knowledgeable in agriculture — both associated with the third function.  With the Norse story, the third function is represented by the Vanir, who are considered fertility Gods and Goddesses.

Tales which describe the fate of the dead

One of the most compelling tales of the fate of the dead from Indo-European speaking peoples is that of the Valkyries of Odin from Norse myth.  References to these battle maidens are scattered throughout Norse writing. The poem Darraðarljóð from the Njáls saga, for example, describes the Valkyries as women weaving on a loom made of human entrails and bones, in which only they have the power to choose the slain.  Davidson tells us that such women, strongly associated with ravens, would stalk the fields of war and decide which warriors amongst the dead were worthy of the journey to Valhalla and which were not (61).  Once within the halls of Odin, the Valkyrie would feast the dead warriors with pork and mead (149).

In rather stark contrast to this vivid picture of an afterlife of food, drink, and ogling buxom Nordic blondes stands the more enigmatic Celtic view.  Tír na nÓg, the Celtic Otherworld, is oft cited as a potential place of the dead, but there are no real attestations as evidence.  Meanwhile the classical writers are known to have linked Druidic belief to the reincarnation of souls.

However there is at least one compelling link between the Norse and Celtic myth here, for it is difficult to consider the Valkyrie as the Battle Ravens of Odin without then bringing to mind An Mórrígan, the Great Red Queen of the Irish stories, along with her sisters Badb and Macha.  Like the Valkyrie, she also strides through the battlefields, deciding which warriors should live and which should die (Jones).  Whether these Celtic Goddesses then ferried the doomed warriors off to an afterlife of beer and pork rinds seems doubtful.  Nonetheless, the resemblance of the Norse and Celtic battle women, and particularly their association with ravens and crows, both of which are famous as battlefield carrion birds, certainly seems to hint towards an earlier myth now long forgotten.

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