Considerations Of Method

Many who have written on Indo-European poetics, mythology, and religion have tended to proceed in a rather naive way, ignoring historical and geographical coordinates. As soon as they find a parallel between two individual traditions, say between Greek and Indian myth, they at once claim it as a reflex of 'Indo-European', without regard either to the groupings of the Indo-European dialects or to the possibilities of horizontal transmission. Greater sophistication is needed.49

In the light of the earlier discussion it will be seen that application of the comparative method can take us back to different levels of antiquity, depending on the location of the material compared. Schematically:

46 The fullest collection of the external sources was made by Wilhelm Mannhardt and published posthumously under the title of Letto-Preussische Gotterlehre (Riga 1936); cf. also Clemen (1936), 92-114. For the songs cf. Rhesa (1825); K. Barons, Latvju daii}as (1894-1915, 2nd edn. 1922; 8 volumes) (LD), from which 1,219 stanzas with variants are edited and translated in Jonval (1929); folk-tales etc. in Schleicher (1857). The evidence for the Lithuanian pantheon is laid out by Usener (1896), 79-119, with the help of Felix Solmsen. See also Mannhardt (1936); Gimbutas (1963), 179-204; Biezais-Balys (1973); H. Biezais, Baltische Religion (Stuttgart 1975); Greimas (1992); P. U. Dini and N. Mikhailov, Mitologia baltica (Pisa 1995).

47 C. H. Meyer (1931) collects sources in non-Slavonic languages. See further Unbegaun (1948); Gimbutas (1971), 151-70; N. Reiter, 'Mythologie der alten Slaven', in Wb. d. Myth. i(2). 165-208; Varia (1992) (survey of literary sources: pp. 29-34).

Level 1

Proto-Indo-European (PIE)

Level 2


'Mature' Indo-European (MIE)

Level 3




Italic Celtic Germanic, Baltic, Slavic Greek Armenian Aryan

It is to be noted that these levels are stemmatic, not synchronic. A significant parallel observed between Homer and the Rigveda should take us back to Level 3 and (according to the argument presented earlier) to about 2300 bce, the time of the Sixth Dynasty in Egypt; one between Italic and Celtic will likewise take us to Level 3, but perhaps only to 1300 bce, contemporary with Mycenaean Greece or early Vedic India. An agreement between Celtic and Iranian will take us back to Level 2, sometime in the first half of the third millennium. To get back to the deepest level, to PIE, we shall require a comparison involving Anatolian.

An archaeologist is interested not only in the deepest layer of his site but in all the others too. 'Indo-European' in the title of my book is a shorthand term. I am not concerned only to reach the PIE stratum, throwing aside whatever does not fulfil the criteria for reaching it. Levels 2 and 3 are just as interesting, indeed more so, as the finds are more abundant, varied, and coherent. In practice it will not be very often that we can reach Level 1: it requires the PIE material to have survived on both sides of the stemma for two thousand years or more from the time of the Anatolian secession to the time of our earliest direct evidence, and much of the Indo-European heritage was lost on the Anatolian side under the influence of alien cultures. Most of the time, therefore, the evidence will take us no further than Level 2 or 3. It would be very tiresome if I were to point this out explicitly on every occasion, so I ask the reader to note it and not to impute my economy to negligence.

Sometimes I am aware, or the reader may discover ahead of me, that certain things which I attribute to Indo-European (PIE or MIE) are also to be found in Semitic or other non-Indo-European cultures. That does not lessen the value of the results, as my object is to identify whatever is Indo-European, not just what is distinctively or exclusively Indo-European. As another researcher in the field has written, 'since the aim of the present work lies solely in the reconstruction of a culture and not in its evaluation in comparison with other cultures, the question whether individual features of Indo-European culture can or cannot also be found among non-Indo-European peoples is entirely outside our concern'.50 Nor is the reconstructive method invalidated by objections on the lines 'the parallel motifs that you note in this and that source need not imply a common Indo-European prototype, because they occur all over the world'. If a motif is indeed universal, all the more likely that it was also Indo-European.

There are of course standards to be applied. The parallels used must be specific and detailed enough to indicate a historical connection; and we have to discount those where the historical connection looks likely to be horizontal rather than the result of common descent from primeval times. The Indo-Europeans did not simply divide and divide into more and more separate peoples who proceeded to develop in isolation from one another. Most of them were in communication with neighbouring peoples over long periods, and with different ones at different times. In some cases parts of their populations undertook long migrations that brought them among quite new neighbours. Wherever peoples were together, it was possible for elements of language and culture to cross the frontiers by diffusion. In such cases philologists speak of a linguistic area or Sprachbund, and they describe a change (such as the satem shift) that affects contiguous rather than cognate languages as an 'areal' phenomenon.51 They are usually able, on phonological or morphological grounds, to identify elements that a language has acquired by horizontal transmission and not by inheritance, for example Iranian loanwords in Armenian or Celtic ones in German. It is not so easy in the case of myths and motifs, unless they are tied to specific names.

According to our stemma, significant parallels between Homer and the Rigveda ought to take us back to the time of the Graeco-Aryan language or Sprachbund. The premise is that all contact between mello-Greeks and mello-Aryans was severed by about 2300 bce. However, the archaeologist Janos Makkay has marshalled a series of plausible arguments for the thesis that a band of Iranian-speaking invaders from the steppes occupied Mycenae itself at the beginning of the Late Helladic period, around 1600.52 This would have

50 Campanile (1990b), 11. See also Müller (1897), 185-9.

52 J. Makkay, The Early Mycenaean Rulers and the Contemporary Early Iranians of the Northeast (Budapest 2000). This might account for the presence in the Homeric language of Iranian loan-words such as to^ov 'bow' (this already in Linear B) and yojpvTo; 'bowcase'. So Durante (1976), 30: 'certo e che un ethnos iranico ha intrattenuto rapporti con la grecita nella fase micenea, se non ancor prima. Testimonia in tal senso la voce to^ov ... La perfetta corrispondenza con pers. taxs "arco", di cui si ha un antecedente nell'antroponimo scitico Ta^apis, rivela che si tratta di un iranismo.' Cf. ibid. 31, 36, on the name of the Dana(w)oi and its possible relationship to Avestan danav- 'river', Vedic danav- 'dripping water', and the river-names Danube, Don, Dnestr, etc. According to myth ('Hes.' fr. *128), it was the Danaai who made Argos well-watered. Danae and her son Perseus recall the names of Iranian tribes, the Turanian Danavas (Yt. 5. 72-4, 13. 37 f.) and the Persians.

been a southward swoop parallel to that of the Indic group who took over Mitanni at the same period. If it really happened, it would provide a channel by which Aryan poetry might have directly influenced early Mycenaean poetry, short-circuiting the stemma. It is hardly likely that all Greek-Indic and Greek-Iranian parallels could be so accounted for, but it remains a theoretical consideration to be borne in mind.

Both in the Mycenaean age and in subsequent centuries Greece was much exposed to contacts with the Near East, including Anatolia. So if we find parallels between Greek and Hittite myth, religion, or idiom, we must ask whether it is a case of independent inheritance from Indo-European or of horizontal transmission. At a later period the problem is similar with regard to Greece and Italy.

Under the Roman empire there were extensive trade connections linking southern with northern Europe. The literacy that gave us our Celtic and Germanic texts was the gift of a clergy schooled in Latin letters. Some scholars have sought to derive as much as possible in these literatures from Classical models and to play down the element of native tradition. They have certainly gone too far in this, but the possibility of Classical influence must always be considered. The Germans were also subject to Celtic influences from an early date, certainly from well before the beginning of the Christian era to long after.53

Let me give an example of horizontal transmission. The doctrine of metempsychosis is both Greek and Indian. The Greek and Indian doctrines must be historically connected, because they correspond point for point. Souls pass into the body of a higher or lower creature according to their conduct in their previous incarnation; this cyclical process continues over thousands of years; pure conduct will eventually lead to the divine state; the eating of meat is to be avoided. Such a system is not reliably attested for any other people. But we cannot regard it as Graeco-Aryan heritage, because it is absent from the earliest stratum of Indian literature, the Vedas, and equally from the earliest Greek literature, and it stands out in sharp contrast to earlier Indian and Greek ideas about death. It appears as it were from nowhere in both countries at about the same time, around the sixth century bce, and we must suppose that it reached them from a common source, probably across the Persian empire, even though no such doctrine is attested in Iran.54

It is not only contacts between Indo-European peoples that come into question. In some cases others may have functioned as middlemen. Certain shamanistic elements common to Nordic and Indian myth may have come to

53 Cf. Feist (1913), 483; de Vries (1956), i. 64, 137, 171. 54 Cf. West (1971), 61-7.

both areas from the neighbouring Finno-Ugric peoples of north and central Asia.55 Some myths that occur both in India and in Greece can be traced to the far-reaching influence of Mesopotamia. For instance, in one of the poems of the Greek Epic Cycle, the Cypria, it was related that once upon a time Earth was oppressed by the excessive numbers of people milling about on top of her. Zeus took pity on her and conceived the plan of lightening the burden by means of the Trojan War. A similar myth is found in the Mahabharata. The earth once complained to Brahma of the ever-increasing weight of mankind, and Brahma created death to alleviate the problem. Some have inferred from the coincidence that an Indo-European tradition lies behind the story, although it appears only in a late phase of the Greek epic tradition and at an even later date in India. What is more to the point is that a similar myth is attested over a thousand years earlier in Mesopotamia. The natural conclusion is that the Greek and the Indian poets were both using a motif somehow derived from Mesopotamia, not one inherited from Graeco-Aryan antiquity.56 Similar considerations apply to the Hesiodic and Indian Myths of Ages, or to the currency of the animal fable in both Greece and India.57

When we have parallels that extend all the way from India or Iran to the Celtic world, their probative value may be rated particularly high, because horizontal transmission seems virtually ruled out. But even then we must be cautious. The heroic traditions of both India and Ireland portray warriors using horse-drawn chariots. We might be tempted to infer that this was an Indo-European style of warfare. Similarly, as we shall see in Chapter 5, the myth of the Sun's horse-drawn chariot is widely diffused among Indo-European peoples, and we might well conclude that this was an Indo-European myth. But it cannot be so, for archaeology tells us that the war-chariot with spoked wheels—the only type of vehicle light enough for horses to pull at speed—first appeared east of the southern Urals around 2100-2000 bce, long after the Indo-European cultural continuum had been broken up. Chariot warfare as a military reality and as a heroic motif, and the myth of the solar chariot, must have spread across the Indo-European territories long after the Indo-European peoples themselves had done so. These novelties were no doubt widely disseminated in the space of a few centuries; it is likely enough that chariot-borne warrior bands were instrumental in their rapid

56 Cypria fr. 1; MBh. 1. 58, 3. 142, 11. 8. 20-6, 12. 248-50, etc.; V. Pisani, ZDMG 103 (1953), 127 f. = Schmitt (1968), 156 f.; id. (1969), 64 f.; Durante (1976), 61; W. Ruben, Sitzb. Ak. Wiss. DDR 1973 (24), 50-5; C. Vielle in L. Isebaert and R. Lebrun (edd.), Quaestiones Homericae (Louvain-Namur 1998), 275-90; West (1997), 480-2.

57 Myth of Ages: West (1997), 312-19. Animal fable: ibid. 319 f., 502-5.

diffusion. But they cannot, as they stand, go back to the archetypal mythology of the proto-Indo-Europeans.58

This is a devastating result for us seekers of Indo-European mythology. If ideas and myths could spread so far and so fast over lands that had been Indo-Europeanized long before, how can we ever know if we are getting back to an original common heritage? Perhaps we cannot. Perhaps we must content ourselves with identifying 'isomyths', elements shared by a particular pair or a particular constellation of peoples, acknowledging that they may date only from a comparatively late phase in the long history of the diaspora.

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