In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indo-European Religions

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Hinduism Indo-European Religions
Alexis Pinchard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0168


Indo-European religions does not mean the religion of the Indo-Europeans. The notion of Indo-European is essentially based on linguistic evidence, that is, the systematic homologies that exist between several ancient languages, for example, Greek, Latin, Avestan, Sanskrit, Old Norse, Old Irish, Hittite, so that we can conclude that these languages sprang from a common origin. Thus it is impossible to define consistently such a notion by ethnic or biological features. Of course, far from being a neutral vehicle of thought, language fashions our experience of the world. Therefore the linguistic kinship should generate a cultural and spiritual community, at least an ideal if not a historical one. But the etymological Indo-European reconstructions concerning single items of the religious vocabulary are quite disappointing. The Proto-Indo-European names of gods, already known in the middle of the 19th century, are rare and seem to be theologically, mythologically, and ritually empty. A mere naturalistic allegory based thereon is not sustainable. Therefore, in 1938, the French scholar Georges Dumézil took over the hypothesis that, inside the various Indo-European areas, the same triadic structure was implicitly encapsulated in myths, epics, pseudo-histories, and rituals; he thus gave a functional turn to Indo-European religious studies: the Indo-European conception of divine and human societies was organized through a hierarchical division into three main functions—sovereign priests, warriors, and herder-cultivators. They were no longer a means to know a somehow mythical Proto-Indo-European origin, often reduced to the smallest common denominator, but a way to understand more consistently each culture with its own religious phenomena. In this respect instead of being directly based on linguistic data, Indo-European religious studies just proceeded in the same way as historical linguistics. However, such a theory could blur the question of whether a cultural fact is Indo-European or not. How to be sure that the similarities between two sacred narratives are not due to a historical influence or to a natural trend of the human mind? Can the structure of a narrative work like the structure of a verbal root? Moreover, to reduce the religious phenomena to the mere expression of social organizational forces leads to neglecting the speculative and soteriological dimensions in which the core of any religion consists. Therefore a new generation of scholars (Schmitt, Watkins, Nagy) opened a middle way between the old word by word comparison and the Dumézilian mere ideological structuralism: reconstructing the Indo-European myths and religious practices implies tracing back inherited formulas. The specific words used in telling the kernel of a mythic tale are supposed to be part of the myth itself. But most of these inherited formulas concern language itself, its levels, ontological status, and power; for becoming immortal implied deciphering the secrets of speech. So began philosophy. The author would like to thank several scholars and institutions who helped him a lot in making this article. Georges-Jean Pinault, directeur d’études at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Paris) shared much crucial information with me; Nick Allen, professor at Oxford University, corrected a large part of this work and suggested important entries. The library of the Center for Hellenic Studies (Harvard University) and of Yale University generously granted me access to some documents I needed. Many researchers also kindly sent their papers to me. Of cause the author remains entirely responsible for every defect or inaccuracy in this work.

General Overviews

Recent overviews about religion are to be found in general encyclopedias covering every aspect of Indo-European language and culture. Thus Mallory and Adams 2006 sums up for beginners the main results and questions of past research on the basis of linguistic evidence. Zimmer 2003 too keeps this etymological perspective but notices that it strongly reduces the possibility of reconstructing an Indo-European religion. The significance of the strictly linguistic evidence is discussed by Dumézil 1995. Therefore, Puhvel 1987 prefers to study mythological facts and to quote the primary sources at length. But in order to show that such a skepticism against etymology is not justified, Jackson 2002 uses the latest results of comparative linguistics and poetic for the reconstruction of a large Indo-European pantheon. Watkins 1995 and Nagy 1990 propose a synthesis: they continue Dumézil’s structuralist school, but they also pay attention to the inherited formulas and the ritual transposal of the myths. So they have some methodological disagreements with the pure philologist West 2007, which refuses the Dumézilian systematization. Bryant and Patton 2005 reminds us of the extreme difficulty of determining the exact origin in space and time of the Indo-European culture (see also Renfrew 1987, cited under Those Who May Sacrifice and the Question of Trifunctionality). To interpret Indo-European archetypes in terms of ethnicity is intellectually and politically dangerous. But it should be noticed that such a controversial debate does not have any direct impact for the reconstruction of the ritual and spiritual content of Indo-European religions.

  • Bryant, Edwin, and Laurie Patton, eds. The Indo-Aryan Controversy: Evidence and Inference in Indian History. New York: Routledge, 2005.

    Presents several papers of Indian scholars contesting the theory of an Aryan invasion in India during the second millennium BC. It deals with the question of whether Vedic culture is autochthonous in India. Archaeological evidence of the old Indus civilization gives place to various interpretations. Contains one paper by M. Witzel as an opponent of the “out of India” theory.

  • Dumézil, Georges. “Préface.” In Mythe et Epopée. 3d ed. Vol. 1. By Georges Dumézil, 39–58. Paris: Gallimard, 1995.

    Through the narrative of Dumézil’s intellectual biography, this short text presents the main methodological questions about the reconstruction of the Indo-European religion. The value of etymological correspondences between the names of gods and the necessity of a structural frame for comparative studies are discussed. Provides a useful warning against the naturalistic interpretation of mythology.

  • Jackson, Peter. “Light from Distant Asterisks: Towards a Description of the Indo-European Religious Heritage.” Numen 49 (2002): 61–102.

    DOI: 10.1163/15685270252772777

    Against the Dumézilian view that it is not possible to reconstruct a concrete pantheon on the base of comparative etymology, Jackson establishes a list of the main Indo-European deities sharing proper names, phraseology, and religious attributes. The famous case of Varuṇa is addressed. Includes methodological discussions and prospects for an Indo-European ritualistic. Useful both for undergraduates and advanced researchers.

  • Mallory, James P., and Douglas Q. Adams. The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Linguistic perspective: reconstruction of the PIE religious vocabulary in chapter 23, just as a “semantic category.” But admits a paucity of terms for the names of deities reconstructable to Proto-Indo-European. Provides a general sacred vocabulary and a critical survey of the various hermeneutic schools for comparative mythology: meteorological school, ritual school, functionalist school, structuralist school. Includes suggestions for further reading and several indexes (English words, Indo-European roots, words from various Indo-European languages). Only for undergraduates.

  • Nagy, Gregory. Greek Mythology and Poetics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

    Presents the Indo-European heritage in Greek ancient culture and society but focuses on the forces that transformed this heritage. Goes beyond Dumézil’s skepticism about the possibility of tracing Indo-European myths in Greece: epic episodes and particular rituals are viewed as parallel symbolizations of common Indo-European myths. Inherited poetics unites all these levels of the religious fact. Questions of method are discussed. Most useful for researchers.

  • Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1987.

    Survey of the main themes of comparative mythology: god and warrior, King and Virgin, Horse and Ruler, Fire in Water, Twin and Brother. The Introduction rehearses the various ways to interpret mythology. Assumes a Dumézilian perspective. Quotes primary sources. Contrasts the ancient Near East evidence, as a methodological lesson about proper procedure in comparative mythology. Still useful both for undergraduates and researchers.

  • Watkins, Calvert. How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Gathers many papers inspired by the same method: to reconstruct the Indo-European spiritual world both from narrative sequences and inherited formulas. Formal matching in stylistic features and shared views of the function of the poet are highlighted. These features justify the notion of “Indo-European” poetics. Irish, Vedic, Greek, Avestan data are studied. A large part of the book is devoted to the dragon slaying myth. Most useful for researchers.

  • West, Martin L. Indo-European Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199280759.001.0001

    Analyzes the self-representation of the poets as inspired seers. Provides a detailed list of the Indo-European mythemes associated with their reconstructed poetic formulation. The ritual language is presented together with medicine and magic practices. Can be used as an updated synthesis of the connection between formulaic evidence and religious background. Most useful for researchers.

  • Zimmer, Stefan. “Tendenzen der Indogermanischen Altertumskunde 1965–2000. II, Teil: Geistige Kultur.” Kratylos 48 (2003): 1–25.

    Summary of the results and remaining issues concerning the reconstruction of an Indo-European intellectual culture. Uses a quite skeptical perspective, because the linguistic evidence is viewed as not very large. Anti-Dumézilian. Contains an almost exhaustive bibliography. Most useful for researchers.

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