BMCR 2007.10.53

Indo-European Poetry and Myth

, Indo-European poetry and myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xii, 525 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780199280759. £80.00.

Table of Contents

This important book asks a big question and meets a real need. Taking for granted the stemma provided for Indo-European (IE) comparative philology, it asks how much in the poetry and mythology of the IE-speaking world goes back to the preliterate period when the IE languages were beginning to differentiate and to expand territorially. An introduction quickly presents the IE-speaking world, the primary sources and some considerations of comparative method, and thereafter the book moves from the linguistic craft of the poet via gods towards heroes. All students of early Greece will be aware of the work of Martin West (henceforth W.). They will expect a book pitched at the highest level of scholarship and displaying prodigious erudition, and they will not be disappointed.

As W. recognises, no one could read everything that might be relevant, but the range of primary sources is impressive (“I have furnished myself with a working knowledge of some of the relevant languages,” says the Preface modestly). After Greek the main recourse is no doubt to Indo-Iranian — mainly to texts in Avestan and Sanskrit (the two epics as well as the Vedas), but also to Ossetic oral traditions collected since the 19th century. Celtic material, including Gaelic, and Germanic, including Ango-Saxon, are frequently cited, and one welcomes the greater than usual use of Baltic. I revert later to the treatment of Italic sources. As regards folklore the emphasis is less on the Romance world than on Germany, and the same applies to the secondary literature.

In situating the IE speakers in space and time W. follows mainstream philological opinion. He locates the speakers of the protolanguage in or around the fourth millennium BCE and somewhere north of the Black Sea and Caspian (in “Eurostan” — a new label for what others call the Urheimat or Homeland), and he does not mention competing theories that situate them in Asia Minor some millennia earlier. Considerable emphasis is placed on the chronology of different levels of the stemma: Greece-India similarities point back only to the Graeco-Aryan level of about 2300 BCE; Rome-India ones point back to ‘mature IE’ in the first half of that millennium; and only comparisons involving Anatolian reach back to the protolanguage proper in the fourth millennium — assuming the similarities result from common origin, not ‘horizontal’ transmission. W. is notably careful to avoid common origin explanations of similarities that could be due to contact, and he keeps open the possibility of a direct Greece-Iran contact via Iranian raiders who may have occupied Mycenae around 1600 BCE.

The chapters on poetry (including metrics) and poetic language cover ground that some readers will have met in works by Rüdiger Schmitt, Marcello Durante, Enrico Campanile, Calvert Watkins and others, but they establish the pattern for the rest of the book, conveying a vast amount of well-organized information with great concision. After treating deities in general, the focus zooms in to certain divine types such as gods of heaven or thunder, then to lesser breeds among the supernaturals. A return is made to linguistic forms, both those used to address supernaturals (“oral rituals,” as Marcel Mauss called them) and those such as the catechisms and riddles that (according to W.) were the genres typically used in transmitting conceptions of cosmology. The last three chapters cover mortals, especially as they appear in epic, with their life courses, ambitions and battlefield behaviour.

Rather than trying to provide a compendium of the whole field — vast and undelimited as it is — the book is explicitly presented as a personal vision or vista. Anyone interested in the field will have a somewhat different personal view and will be able to list points that might have been included but are not. Thus even greater use could have been made of the Mahabharata:1 for instance, the section on the hero’s child as an object of pathos could have mentioned Arjuna’s son, Abhimanyu. Little use is made of Buddhist sources or of the Nibelungenlied, and none at all of the Nuristani branch of Indo-Iranian whose “tribal” traditions, though less copious than Ossetic, are otherwise comparable. The section on Father Sky might have noted that Dyaus or dyaus is quite often grammatically feminine. The comparison between Achilles’ treatment of Hector’s corpse and Cú Chulainn’s of Etarcomol’s (p. 492) could have been credited to previous scholars.2 It is not certain that Rigvedic references to Dasas are to be interpreted in historicist mode as referring to natives conquered by “Aryan invaders” (e. g. p. 453) — many think that the reference is to fiends. The view that Helen is originally a solar goddess who later “becomes” a mortal can be challenged.3 But in so enormous a field such piecemeal comments are not really the point. We need to ask whether there are any systematic limitations to the personal view we are offered.

One limitation lies in its relationship to another view presented by the same author. W.’s last major comparative undertaking, The East Face of Helicon, Oxford 1997, argued that early Greek poetry down to Pindar and Aeschylus was “pervaded by influences from West Asiatic literature and religious thought” (p. 459). In the present book, as one turns from the details about funeral rituals on the penultimate page to the final witty elegy, one feels acutely the absence of a conclusion bringing together the two works, which were originally conceived as constituting a single undertaking (as is clear from the Preface to the earlier one). The East Face is often referred to, but no attempt is made to estimate the relative weight or differential distribution of the West Asian and IE inputs to Greek poetry and myth — a pity, since W. must by now be better equipped than anyone else in the world to tackle the topic. Given that a comparative linguist would probably establish the contours of a language family before tackling loan phenomena, one question that arises is whether, had the books been written in reverse order, they would have turned out differently. Take for instance the motif of the overburdened Earth and her complaint to a supreme god. As has long been recognised, Ge’s complaint to Zeus, which causes the Trojan war, parallels Prithivi’s complaint to Brahma, which causes the central Mahabharata war. Since a third parallel occurs a millennium earlier in Atrahasis (a Babylonian mythological poem), W. judges that the motif is not Graeco-Aryan but rather spread both west and east from Mesopotamia. However, the argument from chronology does not merit so much weight, and Graeco-Aryan common origin remains likely.

The major limitation is in the treatment of the IE work of Georges Dumézil. W.’s attitude to that scholar’s trifunctionalism is presented on p. 4: “As the system is essentially a theoretical taxonomy, it is hardly capable of proof or disproof. You may find it illuminating and useful, or you may not. Personally I do not. But one must acknowledge Dumézil’s breadth of learning and combinatorial brilliance, and give due credit for his real discoveries.” Thereafter Dumézil is cited some seventeen times, but not to great effect and not for his later work (eight significant books postdate 1973, not to mention new editions). Though a number of keen Dumézilians are also frequently cited (e. g. Jaan Puhvel, Bernard Sergent and Dean Miller), the book essentially avoids the French comparativist and the issues he raises. This has a number of consequences. Firstly, again and again, where topics come up on which Dumézil has interesting things to say, he is simply not mentioned. Secondly, the range of relevant genres is unduly restricted: for W. the most promising Latin sources are the earliest poets, aspects of religious ritual and language, and subliterary material such as charms (p. 16). This is to underrate the value of early Roman pseudohistory to comparative studies of IE myth — a topic to which Dumézil devoted much attention and which even here is cited several times. Thirdly, despite a warning against setting up a stereotype (p. 411), the category of “hero” becomes unduly homogenized: for instance, in the Mahabharata the Pandava half-brothers (six of them, if Karna is included), are all of them clearly heroes, but equally clearly they are heroes of deliberately contrasted types, except for the relatively homogeneous pair whoincarnate the Divine Twins. Finally, and most important, despite acknowledging Dumézil’s brilliance and erudition (as do so many who then go on to ignore him), W. in effect consolidates the divide that already exists within IE comparativism (as in several of the narrower philologies) between those who build on Dumézil and those who do not. The impression is given, firstly, that the trifunctional schema is something imposed by the analyst rather than embedded in or constitutive of the ideology of the early IE speakers themselves (etic rather than emic, as anthropologists say); and secondly, that to recognise and explore the schema is an option that a prudent and seasoned scholar can reasonably decline.

Ultimately, this damaging divide seems to rest on whether one thinks atomistically or in terms of structures, that is, on whether one finds it congenial to view things in themselves or in their mutual relations. W. is aware that Dumézil thought structurally, and notes (p. 419) the “matching structure” of king plus priest in Rome and in India. He even suggests (p. 100), without elaborating, that “bipolarity (not trifunctionality) is the fundamental structuring principle” of IE thought. But in general he does not look for structures or perceive the need to do so; and the organization of the book reflects this. Thus the Vedic gods Mitra-Varuna and the Divine Twins (Ashvins) are treated in the chapter on Sky and Earth, while Indra comes two chapters later. Fair enough. But in certain important contexts these gods are juxtaposed by the texts in a particular order (M-V., I., Twins), and these facts about the gods are not a priori any less important for comparativism than the gods’ individual attributes and etymologies. To ignore facts about grouping and ordering is arbitrary. As for doubts about whether the functions are susceptible to proof, it seems to be primarily a matter of just how much of the evidence one is willing to ignore in this way. W. shows triumphantly what a long way IE comparativism can go without taking Dumézil seriously, but we certainly do not yet know how much further still the other “option” will take us.

To recognise that the personal view presented by W. is, theoretically speaking, pre-Dumézilian is by no means to endorse Dumézil’s position in all respects (the trifunctional schema is arguably an incomplete and slightly blurred apprehension of an ideology whose structure was actually pentadic). Nor is it to deny the superlative quality of this beautifully produced volume.4 The index is relatively slight, but how could it be otherwise in a work that has (according to my estimate) something approaching 12,000 references? It is a book for repeated consultation rather than a quick read through, and since all who have comparative interests will want to own it, a paperback edition is definitely needed. Many classicists who never plan to read beyond the Mediterranean should also want it just as much since, if they are curious about what the IE dimension can contribute to their understanding of early Greece, they will need to comb practically the whole book and compile their own index locorum. Despite its limitations, this is a landmark publication in an area of study whose importance is likely to grow — not only for classics but also for the humanities more generally.


1. In this review diacritics will be omitted from Sanskrit names.

2. According to William Sayers, Emania 14 (1996): 68.

3. Lowell Edmunds, “Helen’s divine origins”, Electronic Antiquity 10.2 (May 2007): 1-45.

4. I noticed only around twenty misprints — impressively few in a work that quotes from so many languages. Most concern single letters, and often only their diacritics. The consistent anglicization of Varuna (omission of subdot) is surprising. The only slip I noticed concerned Skanda (p. 463), who led the gods, not the Danavas, as is rightly stated elsewhere.