BMCR 2013.08.04

Myth, Ritual, and the Warrior in Roman and Indo-European Antiquity

, Myth, Ritual, and the Warrior in Roman and Indo-European Antiquity. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xiv, 289. ISBN 9781107022409. $99.00.


Ritual and the Warrior brings together three ideas. Firstly, it studies the space, topographic position or the topology (the formula I prefer) of the warrior in historical Rome, or rather the Rome of the primordia ciuitatis. In so doing, Woodard expands upon a previous essay1 regarding the construction of sacred space in Rome that explored the topology of sacrifice. Secondly, Woodard updates an old dossier of comparative Indo-European mythology put together by the historian of religions Georges Dumézil2 with a number of novel proposals. These are essentially inspired, as the third idea of the book, by the specialized studies on the contemporary difficulties of American soldiers returning home from war, as the myths that are studied are re-labelled as the Indo-European myth of the “dysfunctional warrior” or its equivalent, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”. However, the current situation with low intensity wars since the fall of the Berlin Wall has not been the reason for the appearance of soldiers who fall victim of crises on returning home. Similar situations were recorded in past wars, including in Antiquity and the remotest Indo-European past, as found in mythical traditions and rites amongst the historical communities who shared in this culture. This is Woodard’s thesis.

Organised into two different parts, the first five chapters of the book deal with Roman times, with Woodard then offering a comparison with the Indo-European period, together with a general interpretive chapter.

The Roman chapters explore the rite of the poplifugium, the ritual held on the fifth of July to commemorate the flight of the people from the point where they had met at the moment of the disappearance of Romulus, who is presented as an example of the warrior in crisis, and also the topography where these acts took place according to tradition and ritual practices. Woodard indicates that it may have taken place in the Comitium, in the centre of the Forum in Rome, or in the Campus Martius. The explanation for this is diachronic: the first location is outside of Rome, when the pomerium of the city was limited to the Palatine Hill, and the second is derived from the extension of the pomerium which included the Forum, making it necessary to move the location where the ritual was held to the Campus Martius. Woodard refers to these spaces as the locations of the “Smaller and Larger Poplifugia”. However, the matter is more complex, as the poplifugium has a parallel in the festival of the Nonae Caprotinae, held two days later to commemorate the victory of the Romans over their enemies installed at the gates of Rome (Gauls or Latins). The victory occurred with the decisive support of their women slaves, who had sex with the invaders, thereby assisting the Roman attack on their enemy’s camp. Chapter Five marks the pivotal point of the argument, briefly introducing comparative elements that are then explored in greater detail, briefly sidetracking to explore two other Roman festivals, the Regifugium and the Mamuralia.

The second part explores the elements that define the myth of the dysfunctional warrior. The myths that are examined come from the cycle of the Nartic heroes of the Caucasus, some of which are variations of ancient Iranian traditions, Vedic traditions and subsequent episodes mainly narrated in the Mahabharata, and episodes from the life of the Irish hero, Cú Chulainn. Woodard also includes two Roman examples of dysfunctional warriors: Camilus, a variation on Romulus as the second founder of Rome, and Semo Sancus, amalgamated with Heracles as a mythical and “prehistoric” variation on the subject in the Italic context.

The starting point is an identification of the problem posed by the warrior returning home in an altered physical and mental state after combat. To solve this situation, the different traditions present an episode in which the warriors are removed from social life by fleeing to a remote space, an event that could possibly be classified amongst the rituals of separation that form a part of rites of passage. However, a weakened warrior who is far removed from the community cannot be of any use to it and must be reintegrated; for this reason, Chapter Eight, which occupies more than a quarter of the book, presents the relationships between the dysfunctional warrior and the erotic woman, focusing on examining the bodily hexis derived from an interplay of glances that are exchanged, or avoided, between lascivious women and irascible warriors (I would like to emphasise this analysis as one of the most attractive and original aspects of the book). The erotic woman joins together with the action of the clairvoyant woman with whom she is occasionally confused, and another decisive role is played by an episode of crossing through water, or washing in cold water, calming the warrior’s ferocious nature. Finally, order is recovered thanks to some kind of ritual of social constitution or inauguration.

As a part of this argument, Woodard emphasises the confrontations and tensions between warriors and the people they defend, and to whom they may well also represent a serious threat. The myth of the dysfunctional warrior is therefore situated at the social and symbolic intersection between the warrior and his community. For this reason the fertility, sexuality and political solidarity of the people confronting the warrior are important in myths, rituals, and the subsequent analyses. The central element of this confrontation is the paradoxical defeat of the warrior at the hands of women and common people, which serves as an inevitable prerequisite for his reintegration as a member of a peaceful society. From a methodological perspective, here it is important to draw attention to three different aspects.

Firstly, we can see the inspiration of Dumézil, something that is quite rare amongst Anglo-Saxon classicists. As we have already seen, this inspiration can be seen in the prolongation of a Dumezilian theme, and especially in the validity of the analysis according to the ideology of the three functions, in order to understand the Roman aspects of the myths and rituals that are explored.

Secondly, there is the linguistic dissection of the key words that describe the ritual gestures and actions in two directions: defining their meaning as closely as possible, and then going on to reveal the Indo-European roots of the terminology. The reiteration of these analyses is presented as a kind of subtext that gradually constructs an argument in favour of the antiquity of the myths and rituals described by these words.

Thirdly, in the mythological analyses, Woodard takes a type of ‘light structuralist’ approach. This is important because he shows how useful it can be in explanatory terms, far removed from the debate on methodological modes and the all-too-frequently announced death of structuralism. Nevertheless, I wonder if a stricter structuralist interpretation might actually have enriched several of his arguments. Structuralism is used in two ways: firstly to highlight the basic themes of the narratives of the dysfunctional warrior, but secondly it is used in a number of more particular or detailed analyses in order explain the affinity between characters, actions and other aspects. A more detailed examination of the structural relationships between the themes used by each tradition to define different moments in the warrior’s life might have been even more illuminating. An analysis of this kind could also, for example, help to examine the relationships between heat and cold, water and fire, and the changing way in which they are attributed to warriors or women in the different versions of the myths.

Woodard’s argument focuses closely on the problem he aims to resolve, which is admirable, but this tight focus nevertheless means that a number of other questions are left unanswered.

For example, a wide range of interpretations are possible regarding Romulus, and we could ask whether the obscure episodes in which he took part according to tradition have anything to do with the idea of the dysfunctional warrior, as Woodard points out, or with the perception of royalty as tyranny in Republican Rome. Woodard defends his proposal based on the arguments of comparative mythology, although a more extensive discussion of alternative interpretations may have been necessary.

In turn, it would be possible to interweave the networks of relationships with other warrior figures, without straying away from the central argument of the book. The myth of the dysfunctional warrior could have been contrasted with the subject of the three sins of the warrior begun by Dumézil. Subsequently, F. Blaive 3 identified the myth of the “impious warrior” as being Indo-European, and, in his wake, M. Meulder and C. Sterckx have studied figures – mostly historical and many of them Roman – whose actions follow this scheme. Another variation is provided by Genucius Cipus, who after winning a campaign finds himself at the gates of Rome with an omen announcing that if he enters the city he will become king, but as a faithful citizen of the Republic prefers to retire as a peasant on a plot of land given to him by the state. 4 This myth defines the territory of the city in terms of the three functions: the urban centre for the first function, the surrounding space dedicated to agriculture (the third function), and the distant space where its enemies reside (the second function). It is possible that a variation of these themes is operating in the topologies studied by Woodward in highlighting the relevant role of the Campus Martius to the north of Rome, with connotations of the second function, and the Aventine Hill to the south with its agrarian cults, associated with the third, while the urban centre, ruled by Jupiter from the Capitoline hill, occupies the first.

Woodard’s text explores a difference defined by the French anthropologist P. Clastres between warriors as such and individuals who go to war. 5 Their relationship with warfare is radically different: the first are beings for death, who in exchange for a brief life obtain fame and glory (the dilemma of Achilles), while the second group, who may still be brave in combat, still live peaceful lives in ordinary times. From this perspective, the protagonists of the book form a part of the first group. But in historical Rome, a Mediterranean city whose men are citizens and soldiers, there is no room for them. In this sense, Heracles/Semo Sancus, Romulus, Horatius or Camillus are, in comparison to ordinary Roman legionaries, extraordinary beings whose memory was kept alive in the city for reasons worthy of a specific study. ​


1. Indo-European Sacred Space. Vedic and Roman Cult. Urbana-Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

2. Horace et les Curiaces. Paris: Gallimard, 1942; Aspects de la fonction guerrière chez les Indo- Européens. Paris: P.U.F., 1956; Heur et malheur du guerrier. Aspects mythiques de la fonction guerrière chez les Indo-Européens. Paris: P.U.F., 1969, with a thoroughly revised second edition: Paris: Flammarion, 1985.

3. F. Blaive Impius Bellator. Le mythe indo-européen du guerrier impie. Arras: ed. Kom, 1996.

4. See G. Piccaluga, Terminus. I Segni di Confine nella Religioni Romana. Rome: Ateneo, 1974, pp. 212- 226. The consideration that follows is far removed from the proposals of Piccaluga.

5. P. Clastres, “La desgracia del guerrero salvaje”, in Investigaciones en antropología política Barcelona: Gedisa, 1988, p. 217-256 (specifically p. 221-222). ​