Indo-European Studies I: I-E and modern Paganism

It’s been a while since I posted an essay…. summer just seems to rob one of time.   Hopefully this will complete my I-E Studies 1 course!

From its beginnings, ADF has defined itself in relation to Indo-European pagan traditions. What relevance do you think historical and reconstructed IE traditions from the past have in constructing or reconstructing a Pagan spirituality for the present and future? (minimum 600 words)

The Oxford Dictionary defines a tradition as “a custom or belief which is passed from one generation to the next”. However, we have already discussed how immensely difficult it is to identify any traditions at all as being specifically ‘Indo-European’ in the sense of having clearly had a common heritage originating with the Proto-Indo-Europeans.

We have noted, for instance, how even the most important traditions, such as burial rites, can change over long periods of time. We have noted the key role that contact with other cultures plays in the evolution of traditions. And finally we should note that our knowledge of the Pagan traditions of most of the Indo-European speaking peoples is slim indeed; with the exception of the ancient Indians, Greeks, and Romans who were literate while still Pagan, much of our knowledge of these societies has been filtered through foreign or Christianized eyes.

So given our body of evidence, what religious traditions can we consider to be uniquely Indo-European? I would suggest:

  • a belief in the ritual centrality of fire,
  • the *ghosti relationship between hosts and guests,
  • a unique perspective of the role of sacrifice in religion, and
  • a functional tripartite view of society.

Let us explore the relevance of each of these in turn.

The ritual centrality of fire in the religions of ancient Indo-European speaking peoples has a very relevant role to play in neo-Pagan spirituality. As Michael Dangler points out, Our Druidry is a fire religion. We have incorporated fire deeply into our rituals; as a means of providing hospitality to the Kindred, as a gateway to the heavens, and as a channel to send our sacrifices to the Gods. In addition, revel fires are an ubiquitous aspect of every Pagan festival.

The *ghosti relationship is a tradition that Our Druidry seems to struggle to incorporate. I believe that this is because it has become such a foreign concept to us. Most of us were raised on the maxim “Do not talk to strangers”. Even relatively modern incarnations of *ghosti, such as hitchhiking, have fallen in more recent decades due to this fear of people we do not know. But the need to trust strangers is absolutely central to *ghosti. I believe that Our Druidry pays lip service to the *ghosti relationship through the Kindred invocations, but does not fully embrace it. This could be because it is more of a secular tradition than a religious one, but I believe that more effort needs to be put into determining how the *ghosti relationship can be incorporated into modern Pagan spirituality.

The concept of ritual sacrifice is not unique to Indo-European speaking cultures. However, these cultures do seem to have a particularly unique perspective upon it. Formulated most concisely in the Latin “Do et Des” (“I give that you may give”), it implies a reciprocal transaction. The Indo-European speaking peoples did not view worship and offerings as a one-way bargain, or even as a hedged bet; a gift deserves a gift, a tenet central to Indo-European Pagan religions. Our Druidry recognizes the importance of ritual sacrifice by placing it at the heart of ritual. We make offerings to the Kindred in the best way that we know how and we fully expect an offering in return. Indeed it is now a common practice to no longer even attempt to divine whether the Kindred have accepted our sacrifice; it is assumed that they have, and the only real question is what blessings do they offer in return?

Finally we turn to the functional tripartition perspective of Indo-European speaking societies. For many people this is the most immediately recognizable tie that binds these cultures other than language itself, thanks to the popularity of Dumuzil’s work. Yet, ironically, it is also seems to be one of the most challenging aspects to incorporate into religious practice. Our Druidry encourages (but does not require) the use of certain sets of three: three hallows, three Kindred, three worlds. However, none of these seem to be definitively linked to the Indo-European tri-functions of magic/religion/sovereignty, warfare, and fertility/production/prosperity. ADF as a larger organization has made some attempts to accommodate the functional tripartition through the use of guilds, but the guild structure seems more horizontal than vertical. At this moment it seems that the adoption the I-E functional tripartition is more a matter of a personal approach to spirituality rather than an institutionalized path.

Indo-European Studies 1: Comparison

Choose one other Indo-European culture and compare and contrast it to the culture discussed in question 3 above with respect to each culture’s Indo-European nature.

In many ways, the story of the Celts and Romans demonstrates how interactions with other peoples, and the subsequent diffusion of beliefs and cultural practices, are more important to the evolution of a culture than is a common heritage.

Some 4,000 years ago, a group of migrants arrived in central Europe.  They, perhaps, spoke a language that historical linguists would call Proto-Italo-Celtic.   A few centuries later some of these migrants continued migrating, moving south into what we now call the Italian peninsula, leaving their cousins behind to become the Celts.  By the time they returned as conquerors the Italics, led by Rome, had become very estranged cousins indeed.

Looking at the differences between the La Tène Celts and the Roman Republic it seems clear that the Celts, entrenched in their deep forests, were the more conservative, retaining many traits of earlier Indo-European society while the Romans, by moving south, had become part of the great crucible of knowledge sharing that was the Mediterranean with its adjacent trade routes out through the Middle East, India, and onward to China.

For instance, the Celts retained their chieftain-ruled tribal nature which they shared with the Germanic peoples among others, while the Romans, inspired by the Greeks, deposed of their monarchs and adopted a democratic system of government which served as a central governance body as the state grew.  The Celts also seem to have retained a simple tripartite societal structure while Roman society became far more complex with different classes based more on wealth than on function.

As far as religious life went, our knowledge of La Tène Celtic beliefs is sketchy indeed with most archaeological evidence only dating back to after the Roman conquest.  With the Latins, however, it is clear that they quickly re-aligned themselves towards the east, subsuming many of their own divinities into Greek mythology and adopting eastern, non-Indo-European cults via the Greeks such as that of Bacchus and, later, Isis, to name just two.

The Latins and Celts shared a much closer common heritage than did the Latins and the Greeks.  However in the end, the closer contact between the latter two over the last few centuries before the common era meant that when the Romans came conquering, they were by far more like the Greeks in religion, government, and social structure than they were to the Celts.

Indo-European Studies 1: the La Tène culture

Choose one Indo-European culture and describe briefly the influences that have shaped it and distinguish it from other Indo-European derived cultures. Examples include migration, contact with other cultures, changes in religion, language, and political factors. Is there any sense in which this culture can be said to have stopped being an Indo-European culture?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘culture’ as: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time.  As a result, any discussion of ‘a culture’ needs to be firmly rooted in a particular location and historical period.

As such, we shall consider here the Celts of the La Tène culture from approximately 450 BCE until the Roman conquest of Britannia. Many influences helped to shape this culture, the most prominent possibly being the fact that from the La Tène ‘homeland’ in modern Switzerland, the culture spread far and wide over river-based trade routes (Chadwick, 24), from Iberia to Ireland and northern Italy and even into Asia Minor. This wide disbursement and subsequent supplanting and merging with numerous substrate cultures over a vast territory created a diaspora of localized versions of the culture.  The immediate result of this was the proliferation of individual Celtic tribes as we know from Caesar’s descriptions.

The far flung trading nature of the La Tène culture also caused it to come into contact with many other cultures including the Greeks, Etruscans, Thracians, and Scythians.  Additionally, the Celts would also have come into contact and conflict with the Germanic tribes, who eventually pushed the Celts out of central Europe.  According to Chadwick, these contacts heavily influenced both the Celtic political system (26) and Celtic art (216).   Serith further describes how these contacts may also have influenced Celtic religion, using the depiction of Cernunnos on the Gundestrup cauldron as an example.

However, despite their contact with various literate neighbours, the Celts do not seem to have taken to writing during this period.  As a result their language, already likely highly regionalized by the disperse nature of the culture, would have evolved steadily.  The general consensus amongst scholars is now that the ‘Q’ form of the language was the older, original form.  As such it continued on in in the more remote areas of the Celtic lands, including Iberia and Ireland, while the ‘P’ form took hold on the continent and from there spread to Britain and Wales (Chadwick, 28).

Despite their dominance of the continent during the third and fourth centuries BCE, the Celts found themselves first squeezed out of their former homeland in central Europe by Germanic tribes and then under assault by the Romans.  The La Tène culture is considered to have come to an end with the Roman conquest and subsequent Latinization of Hispania, Gaul, and Britannia.  Insofar as it makes sense to ask whether it ceased to be an Indo-European culture the answer, however, would be no; the only definitive characteristic of an Indo-European culture is their language, and the people of the La Tène culture simply left off speaking one such language, Celtic, for another, Latin.

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.

Indo-European Studies 1.1

Here is my first draft essay for the IE Studies 1 for the IP.  Have a read and let me know what you think!  Note: minimum word length is 300.  This essay clocks in at 450.


Describe several of the factors that define a culture as Indo-European and how those defining factors are useful in understanding that culture

Indo-European is a term used in linguistics to denote a family of languages encompassing most of the languages of Europe as well as the areas of Iran and India (Young).  It is believed that these languages all evolved from a single root language called Proto-Indo-European, the hypothetical speakers of which probably lived somewhere in the vicinity of neolithic Anatolia, the exact location and time being issues of much research and debate.

Since the term Indo-European specifically denotes a language, it is somewhat misleading to refer to the existence of an “Indo-European culture”.  A rather more accurate term would be “the culture of a racial group who speak an Indo-European language”, and as such the sole defining factor for such a group’s inclusion would by necessity be the language that they speak.

Of course, the notion that the races of so many modern peoples might have a common ancestry in the steppes of Asia Minor has proven irresistible to the imagination of many a scholar of the humanities.  A sizable amount of research has been devoted to attempts to discover similarities amongst the Indo-European speaking races, particularly in fields such as mythology, religion, law, art, and philosophy.  However, all such attempts to divine factors of similarity rely upon systems of comparative analysis which require leaps of various distances of faith for their conclusions.  Diffusion and evolution of beliefs is unceasing, and not even the most deepest held of traditions are immune from change.  For instance, one might assume that the funereal customs of a particular people would be very conservative indeed.  However, while Puhvel tells us that the Proto-Indo-Europeans buried their dead (36) there is evidence to suggest that later Indo-European speaking peoples practiced cremation as early as 2000 BCE (Hays).  If a belief system as fundamental as eschatology is subject to change over time, it seems unlikely that any other factor other than language can definitively be called a defining factor.

We have, then, finally one further question to explore; to what extent can the fact that a particular peoples speak an Indo-European language help us to understand their culture?  Historical linguistics has provided some insights into what the culture of the Proto-Indo-Europeans might have been like through cognate comparison.  For instance, Mallory tells us that fire (122-125) and horses (154) would have been particularly important to them. Unfortunately, using such lexical insights regarding the Proto-Indo-Europeans to extrapolate conclusions about the cultures of their descendents is a lost cause due to the previously mentioned issues of diffusion and evolution of beliefs and traditions.  However, when seeking to understand rather than to define, cultural comparative analysis methods can be employed with the help of historical linguistics to yield some measure of understanding.