Indo-European Studies 1 (Part 1)

  1. Describe several of the factors that define a culture as Indo-European and how those defining factors are useful in understanding that culture. (minimum 300 words)

There are several key elements that distinguish an Indo-European culture. First and foremost, there are profound linguistic similarities. As Ceiswir Serith says in Deep Ancestors, “Indo-European” is a linguistic term, and insofar as language correlates to culture (and religion), then Indo-European can also be considered a cultural term (Serith, 11). While this is useful, it is not a hard-and-fast definition. Language has shifted over space and time, but the study of linguistics has shown for over a hundred years that there are marked similarities between the roots of Indo-European words, leading to the theoretical construction of Proto-Indo-European.

Another key element that distinguishes an Indo-European culture is mythic tropes. There are several key themes in myth and folklore that occur throughout the Indo-European world, suggesting their importance to the cultures of that time (Puhvel, 4). There are correlations between myths about the beginning of the world (or Man and Twin), the thunder god fighting his nemesis the world serpent, and even mytho-religious symbolism around kingship and horse sacrifice. Depending on how much myth was written down, scholars today need to supplement the written word with archeology (as is the case with the horse sacrifices), but the repeating motifs throughout Indo-European cultures show that they are all interrelated with a potential common ancestor and that these myths had important themes to those peoples.

A final key element to defining an Indo-European culture is what Dumezil calls the tripartite social structures. This theory is based on the argument that important mythic structures reflect the social structures of those cultures. They are “representations of important social and cultural realities” (Littleton, 4). The tripartite structure usually places a magico-religious leader and a law-oriented leader at the top of the structure, with important warriors below these leaders, and finally the workers and producers at the bottom level. These correspond to deity structures in a single pantheon. While not perfect, the tripartite theory helps bridge the gap between religion and culture.

Language and story are how humans have, throughout the ages, reflected on their cultural values and passed down both virtue and warning. The similarities among elements such as language, myth, and social structure can help us better understand the culture of various historical Indo-European groups. It is also useful that we can compare these elements from culture to culture because not every Indo-European culture left behind the same types of artifacts. For instance, the Romans left behind beautiful statues, timeless epics, descriptions of annual festivals, and so on. There is a treasure trove of information from which to reconstruct current practices. If you travel north towards Gaul, there is comparatively little that we know about these cultural groups. In fact, much of what we do know in a religious sense comes from the Romans, who were at war with the ‘barbarians’ of the north. However, if we use Gallo-Roman syncretism, along with comparing Indo-European myths, we get a better idea of what the culture – and religious practices – of the Gauls were like. Through comparison and being mindful of broad Indo-European themes, we can surmise much more about the practices of the Gauls than if we did not use comparative methods.

  1. Choose one modern culture descended from an IE source, and describe briefly the influences that have shaped the modern culture and distinguish it from other IE-derived cultures, focusing primarily on religion. Is there any sense in which this culture can be said to have stopped being an IE culture? (minimum 400 words)

This question is difficult, not least because (per my last answer) an Indo-European culture can really only be called a culture insofar as language – words, ideas, stories – affect culture (and for our purposes religion). Also, in the modern world, we have countries based on the notion of nation-states, which is a very different beast from ancient Indo-European cultures. So in one sense, any culture – or rather country – that is descended from an Indo-European source is still Indo-European if the majority of the people living there speak an Indo-European language. On the other hand, maybe there is a distinction between modern nation-states and ancient cultures because our ideas of culture and identity are so vastly different. Ergo, no modern culture can claim to be an Indo-European culture.

Despite all this, I will attempt to discuss a modern culture and compare it to the Pan-Indo-European cultural themes I laid out for the last question. I’ll discuss the United States (U.S.) because it was originally part of England, which is an Indo-European descendant culture. However, I want to quickly discuss religion in the U.S. There is no government-sponsored religion in the U.S. However, Christianity is the largest religion in the country, followed by those unaffiliated from religions (including agnostics and atheists). Christianity, stemming from Judaism, has its roots in the Middle East and non-Indo-European cultures. Christianity has influenced, and been influenced by, Indo-European cultures over time, but I’d be hesitant to say this either helps or hinders an argument for the U.S. to be an Indo-European culture.

Language: I’m going to discuss the U.S. for this example. I have already gone over the importance of language in defining an Indo-European culture. There is no official language on a national level, however, 36 states list English as their official language. English is the most commonly spoken language, with Spanish as the second most common language. Both are Indo-European languages. However, widely spoken non-Indo-European languages include Chinese languages and Tagalog (Filipino). Another notable non-Indo-European language is Arabic. While two Indo-European languages are the most common languages spoken, the U.S. on a cultural level is not limited to Indo-European language.

Mythic tropes: However, if we put aside religion and look at mythic tropes, we get a more interesting picture. Ceiswir Serith discusses three important goddesses in a potential U.S. pantheon: Liberty, Minerva, and America/Columbia. Liberty (or Libertas) and Minerva originally come from Roman culture. America is the personification of the U.Ss and fits into the Indo-European Sovereignty Goddess type. An interesting detail from this video is a picture of Minerva inspiring the creation of the steamboat, morse code, the printing press, and electricity in the Apotheosis of Washington mural of the US Capitol Building. Even this mural titled to express the deification of George Washington is very Indo-European: an important historical warrior-leader is deified after his death. Cu Chulainn, born of a princess of Ulster, was a renowned fighter. Hercules was born to the queen of Tyrins and was also a renowned warrior. There are also plenty of stories about George Washington that did not factually happen but remain persistent in U.S. culture nonetheless (like his chopping down the cherry tree). You can see Serith’s video here. I think stories and myths are pervasive in cultures because of their relevance and meaning. Our species seems to thrive on story. While it is very interesting to consider how Indo-European mythic tropes are present in the U.S today, I don’t know that this could prove that the U.S. is an Indo-European culture. And this small glimpse at mythic tropes is only one perspective of many myths from many cultures that many people in the U.S. know.

Tripartite system: While the U.S. doesn’t have any nobility, I think there could be an argument for a tripartite society in the U.S. Our government would certainly fulfill the law-god function. I don’t know that there is a particular person, or small group of people, that would fulfill the magico-religious function. The U.S. military is a more formalized version of the warrior class. And there are a great many people who participate in the creation and selling of goods, as well as the production of food. There are also many other kinds of specialized jobs in the modern world, but all of these are largely analogous to the producer class. By and large, the U.S., and most modern countries, generally follow Dumezil’s tripartite social theory.

I think it’s a stretch to claim that any modern culture is an Indo-European culture. Even the term “Indo-European culture” is a bit of a stretch that is mostly useful to compare similar cultures to one another. Cultures are so fluid and varied. We treat polytheist Indo-European cultures as one thing (or else pieces of a single puzzle) when really they were many varied groups and cultures that evolved over time. In In Search of the Indo-Europeans, Mallory warns against this kind of assumption that is often in the scholarly literature about the Indo-Europeans. He condones the “tendency of nineteenth- and even twentieth-century writers to portray the Proto-Indo-Europeans as a single people constrained within their homeland, perfecting their language and then bursting out all over the earth” (Mallory, 22). I’m not sure that we can claim that any modern culture is a continuation of an Indo-European culture. This seems to be a false analogy to me.

It’s harder to pinpoint whether a modern culture stopped being an Indo-European culture. The languages have mostly continued, the mythic tropes are alive and well, and it’s fairly easy to map out tripartite societies in modern countries. I think because of the prevalence of Christianity, I hesitate to claim any modern culture in Indo-European in a religious sense. The Abrahamic religions came from non-Indo-European cultures, and they are some of the largest religions in the world. All I can settle on is that the cultures of countries that are descendants of Indo-European cultures are just that: descendant cultures. They have been, and still are, influenced by Indo-European culture, but I don’t think one can call them a modern Indo-European culture whole cloth.

References

  • Ceisiwr Serith (2020, August 4). Towards an American Paganism [Video]. YouTube.
  • Littleton, C. S. (1973). The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of Georges Dumezil. University of California Press.
  • Mallory, J.P. (1989). In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth. Thames and Hudson.
  • Puhvel, J. (1987). Comparative Mythology. John Hopkins University Press.
  • Serith, C. (2009). Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. ADF Publishing.

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