BMCR 2007.02.36

Indo-European Sacred Space. Vedic and Roman Cult

, Indo-European sacred space : Vedic and Roman cult. Traditions. Urbana-Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xi, 296 pages).. ISBN 9780252092954. $50.00.

Table of Contents

This book proposes an ambitious comparative study between the religious topography of Rome and the ritual construction of space destined for the celebration of Vedic sacrifices. R. D. Woodward (hereinafter W.), following in the footsteps of G. Dumézil (and E. Benveniste), highlights the Indo-European inheritance in Roman rites. The first chapter presents the question of the Indo-European inheritance in Rome as it was left by Dumézil on his death in 1986; chapter two examines Terminus in his dual aspect as a divine figure and marker stone; the third chapter explores the rites that define the ager romanus, and the fourth examines these same rites in comparison with Vedic rituals for the organization of sacrificial space. In the final chapter W. offers a summary of his conclusions.

W’s complex arguments are well signposted with detailed introductions and concluding sections to each chapter. The detailed structure of the Table of Contents, available on-line, is not included in the printed version, in which we only find the titles of the chapters, somewhat cryptic in nature. In general terms, although his concentation on the historical and cultural contexts of each religion may prevent his work having a broad readership amongst Indo-European scholars working with linguistics or religions, W. puts forward arguments to overcome this resistance to contribute towards generalizing a type of research that is still seldom found from international scholars.

The first chapter (The Minor Capitoline Triad, pp. 1-58) offers a summary of Dumézil’s arguments supporting the continuity of Indo-European ideology in Roman religion, and reviews the criticisms levelled against Dumézil’s position, facing up to the sociological problem — I would so far as to refer to it as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ — of the underlying evolutionism of the “P[roto] I[ndo]-E[uropean] divine social structure and of the human structure it mirrors” (p. 17). W. then goes on to explore the archaic triad formed by Jupiter, Mars and Qurinus, as “the Anglo-European tradition dismisses the recognition of an archaic triad” (p. 21), leading him to discuss the positions of authors working under the long shadow of Momigliano’s criticisms of Dumézil in the 1980’s.1 This presentation supports a study of the reorganization of the cults of the Capitol begun by Tarquin the Proud, in contrast to the Etruscans. W. presents the gods who remained in the Capitol (Juventas, Terminus and Mars), and proposes that Terminus, as “the god of Titus Tatius” represents the third function, Juventas, protector of the warriors, the second, and above them, Jupiter as the first. And so the Indo-European ideology remains in the “minor capitoline triad” (p. 52) of the new theological context. Finally, W. highlights the presence of Mars amongst the gods of the Capitol, through a careful criticism of sources.

The second chapter is concerned with Terminus (p. 59-95). Ever faithful to the comparative method, W. contemplates the Irish stone of Fal and the Lingam of Shiva as parallels of the religious meaning and ritual function of the god. They are ritual stones that define in an abstract manner the space they reign over, indicate frontiers, and serve as focal points around which rituals take place. The lingam of Shiva also has its antecedent in the yupa, a post to which sacrificial victims were tied in India, and which defined the sacrificial space that served as a columna mundi. After offering an examination of the yupa, W. establishes the similarity between Terminus, the lingam of Vishnu, the yupa and other posts as the result of an Indo-European inheritance. This context includes the rituals held in the termini sacrificales witnessed by the gromatici that allow W. to identify five similarities with the rituals held around the yupa : it is set in a particular position before being lifted in a particular hole, it is daubed and decorated or dressed, offerings are made in the hole, and the participants dress in a particular way. Furthermore, neither yupa nor termini are the places where the victim is sacrificed.

To understand the title of Chapter 3, “Into the Teacup” (pp. 96-141) we have to wait until p. 130, describing the scholarly discussion of the relationship between the rites of the Ambarvalia and those celebrated by the Arval Brothers in the Dea Dia Sanctuary as a ‘storm in a teacup’. Following in the steps of A. Alföldi (in a proposal highly criticised by historians, although supported implicitly by W.), W. reviews the seven rites known to greater or lesser degrees, held at points in different directions, some 5 or 6 miles from the Capitol: the Terminalia held on the Via Laurentina, the Ambarvalia held at an unknown Festi, the rites of Dea Dia held on the Via Portuensis, the rites of Fortuna muliebris held on the Via Latina, the Robigalia on the Via Claudia, the rites held around the statue of Mars on the Via Apia, and the division between the ager romanus and the ager Gabinus on the Via Prenestina.

Here I would highlight a series of arguments. For example, the difficulties Strabo (5.3.2) had with the Ambarvalia: the rite would be held in different locations and, as a right of circumambulation, is explained with the help of a rite which, according to Cato, was carried out by peasants to ensure a prosperous harvest (walking around the fields). The author also includes an examination of the suovetaurilia and mysterious Manius, which determines where the sacrifice would have been made, and argues that he would have been an earth god, fitting for a rite of purification. Finally, W. invents the expression ‘ambarvalic festival’ (p. 124) to define the rights including circumambulation and sacrifices held around the ager romanus. In this context, W. presents the debate about the performance of the cults of Dea Dia and the ambarvalia, concluding that the cult to the goddess would be “ambarvalic”.

Vedic comparisons form the focal point of chapter 4 (The Fourth Fire, pp. 142-240). W. reminds the reader of the comparison established by Dumézil between the Roman fires and the three fires of the Vedic sacrifice which, situated in a restricted space — Devayajana — are sufficient for most public rituals, but which require an extension for the solemn rites of the Soma. Then the Devayajana is extended to the east, in an area known as Mahadevi, through the ritual transfer of the fire Ahabaniya, where an offering is made to the gods to the easternmost extreme of the new area, where the most important ceremonies will be carried out. This is the fourth fire that protects the Soma.

The thrust of W.’s argument is that the way that the space of the urbs is defined by the pomerium and its fires is equivalent to the Devayajana, just as the ager Romanus corresponds to the Mahadevi. W. considers both the specific conditions at Rome — such as the impossibility of carrying out a circumambulation of the ager Romanus — and the more general differences between livestock-based Vedic society and sedentary Roman society. Furthermore, the places that delimit the ager Romanus, a further ‘four fires’, are not known in equal measure. The weight of the demonstration thus falls on the comparison of the rituals of the Soma with the cults of Dea Dia held by the Arval Brothers, with W. stopping to explore the carmen avale and the gods it mentions. Here emphasis is given to the relationship between Mars and the Semons, studied together with figures such as Semo Sancus, Fisus Sancius or Hercules. W.’s account of Hercules’ clash with Cacus considers its considerable atmosphere of Greek-Italian folklore, and its level of Indo-European inheritance. These stories highlight the role of the limits and the affinity between the hero and his companion, which at the sanctuary of Dea Dia, is how Mars and the Semons appear. These analyses serve to indicate the equivalence of the Roman gods with Indra and the Maruts.

The final chapter (From the Inside Out. Postscript, p. 241-267) details the ideas discussed throughout the book. Emphasis is given to the relation between the yupa and terminus and to the reformulation of the relationship between Mars and the agrarian domain, prolonging an old debate. W. has no doubts about Mars the warrior and his function as a protector of the fields. Yet the agrarian facet of Mars and his relationship with fecundity is also present, according to W., in a secondary manner, through his close association with Terminus. This is an ancient relationship, as both gods were in the Capitol from the outset, and refused to leave with the other gods.

W.’s book offers much, particularly its methodological deliberations, the analysis of the plea of the peasant according to Cato, and of the carmen arualis, whose value transcends the place they occupy in the book’s thesis. What is surprising of a linguist like W. is the moderate use of etymologies suited to advancing the argument ( theos related to the Latin festus on p. 150; the linguistic interpretation of ‘amb’-, on p. 157-158; of Semons on p. 183; of Mars, on p 222). New formulas also stand out, such as the “minor capitoline triad” (p. 52), or the expression columna mundi instead of axis mundi. Less transcendental are expressions such as the adjective ‘Ambarvalic’ in reference to defining rituals (p. 124) or “allorituals” to designate the variations of the same ritual theme (p. 140).

In what is a well edited book, I have found only a few misprints: on page 35, the date of Cornell’s book is 1995, not 1955; on page 131, Chiriassi, not ‘Chiriasi’; on page 166, epulum instead of ‘eplum’; and in the bibliography, on p. 280, the title of Gonda 1956 is ‘Kingship’, not ‘Kinship’, and on p. 278 the edition year of Boyle and Woodard is 2000, not 2004. Finally, there are several issues open to debate.

Firstly, a book that focuses on rituals differs from studies inspired by Dumézil on the Indo-European inheritance found in the Roman literary tradition. The direct dialogue of W. with the work of Dumézil (p. ix) may be understood in this way. However, in some cases it would pertinent to quote, rien que pour memoire, the works of D. Briquel (on p. 36-37 on Ancus Marcius, or on p. 47 on Attus Navius) or J. Poucet (as an analyst of literary traditions). Beyond the scope of the Dumezilian tradition, the absence of the monography by G. Piccaluga on Terminus (1974) is surprising. More specific are the lack of references to the studies of J. Scheid to explain the ritus greaecus (p. 189); of J. Kellens, questioning the historical authenticity of Zarathustra (p. 194); or of B. Lincoln, for the comment on the three-headed monster (p. 199). Furthermore, and in more general terms, to re-valorize the work of Dumézil, W. bases his work on that of N. Allen. This is perfectly acceptable, although it would not have been excessive to also mention the work of D. Dubuisson, P. Sauzeau or B. Sergent. It is somewhat surprising to observe the tenacious persistence of the linguistic and cultural blocks in a sphere of studies that is so necessarily cosmopolitan.

My second objection is that W. explains his work on the comparison of religions on the basis of references to the work of linguists which, based on historically constituted languages, reconstructs Indo-European roots. This analogy is not sufficient. To maintain that an Indo-European root * ner- is the origin of the Greek anér or Sanskrit nar- is not the same as saying that two (or more) similar rituals or myths, seen in different historical cultures, are ‘reflecting’ a common past (p. 33-35; also p. 88-90). The use of terms such as “to reflect” or “to mirror” implies a ‘reification’ of a myth or ritual, and reifying a myth is not the same as reconstructing a word, as this would be an act more befitting of a prehistoric sacerdos, something which few scholars, W. included, aspire to be.

The fact is that we know very little about prehistoric types of religion; neither Dumézil or his followers have stopped to consider the generally accepted situation that the parallels seen in historical contexts have a prehistoric origin (see recently E. Lyle in JI-ES 34, 2006, p. 99-110). However, I do not believe that the alternative is the notion of ‘reflex’ that inevitably suggests ‘identity’. The prehistoric reference of the myth or ritual considered would rather be another ‘version’ of the myth in the Lévi-Straussian sense, and therefore simultaneously different and analogous to the historical ‘versions’ we know. Is it possible to identify prehistoric versions of historical religious phenomena? This is a difficult question to answer; the partial approximations that do exist, (for example, K. Kristiansen and T. Larsson, The Rise of Bronze Age Society, Cambridge U.P., 2006, chapter 6, on twin gods) are debateable in one way or another. I believe it is more appropriate to accept uncertainty, than to accept a ‘ready-made’ yet erroneous solution.

W. also includes the experiments of Dumézil with elements of Indo-European roots in contemporary politics (p. 39). These are not the happiest writings of the wise comparatist. The Indo-European inheritance is evident in modern-day India, as W. recalls, and in traditions from further afield. However, it is wiser to avoid current debates, as we could conclude that the attacks of September 11th could be understood as a trifunctional crime: the Twin Towers, at the ‘economic capital’ of the USA clearly represent the dual nature of F3; the attack against the Pentagon is self-evident as F2, and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania probably intended to attack the Capitol or the White house, as a clear F1 target.

None of these debatable issues detracts from the validity of a book that combines interpretive audacity and sound scholarship as an excellent guide to the field in question. This does not mean that the comparison between the Roman rituals connected with the territory of the urbs and the spatial dimension of the Vedic sacrifice, should obtain an immediate consensus. However, the proposition can only serve to increase study, following W., by exploring the spatial implications of religious reflection, appears to be a promising approach.


1. The authors discussed include M. Beard, J. North, S. Price, Religions of Rome, 2 vols., Cambridge; T. Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome, London; the influential paper by A. Momigliano is, “Georges Dumézil and the trifunctional approach to Roman Civilization”, History and Theory 23/3, 1984, pp. 312-330. My position in this debate has been published: M. García Quintela, “Dumézil, Momigliano, Bloch, between politics and historiography”, Studia Indoeuropaea. Revue de mythologie et de linguistique comparée, 2, 2005, pp. 187-205.