8 November 2008

Georges Dumézil. On Romans and Indo-Europeans

There are books that make us see the world in a completely different way. They open new, and very often quite unexpected horizons in our understanding of human life, history or society. In my case, one of these books is George Dumézil’s Archaic Roman Religion (1966; English translation: 1970).

Georges Dumézil (1898-1986) wrote extensively about the ancient Romans and about Indo-Europeans. His classical erudition is unimaginable by today’s standards: I don’t think it is possible today to find someone whose knowledge of the classical world can be in the least comparable to his. In this sense, his writings are invaluable, a real treasure. (For a good introduction to Dumézil’s life and work, you can take a look at this web-site; it’s worth a visit).

In Archaic Roman Society (original title: La Religion Romaine Archaïque), Dumézil offers a complete description of the religion of the Romans from the foundation of the city (probably in the 8th c. BC) to the times of the Civil Wars (at the beginning of the 1st c. BC). Before I read this book, I was still influenced by the stereotype that sees the Roman gods and rituals as mere adaptations of the Greek originals, e.g. the Roman god Mars as the local version of the Greek Ares, and so on. What I discovered in this book was a completely different picture: below the surface of the highly-Hellenised pantheon and imagery, there was an extraordinarily rich world of archaic rituals and divinities. Dumézil describes it in detail and compares it to the religious practices of other ancient societies. In some cases the correspondences are striking, e.g. the ones between Rome and Vedic India. One gets the idea that there are some deep links between the religions of these two distant Indo-European (IE) peoples, and that these similarities must derive from a common IE religion or society. This apparently simple truth is, however, based on some important misconceptions, as I will try to show below.

Dumézil carried out most of his research in the first half of the 20th c., when the traditional model for IE, including its chronology, had not been challenged. It was thought that, by the fourth millennium BC, the proto-Indo-Europeans were still a single society with their own religious thoughts and their own types of social structure. When they started to spread throughout the world, they brought with them their language and also many aspects of their societies, including religious thoughts. Dumézil and other authors discovered many similarities between the various IE societies, which they used as evidence for their theories. Dumézil developed the Tripartite Theory, which sees IE religion as a reflection of the tripartite structure of the original IE society. Most of his writings revolve about this theory, which he tried to refine with plenty of examples, e.g. using the inscriptions of the Mitanni. The good thing about it is that in his search for the 'original' IE society, he offers a very rich description of the ancient world of Eurasia. In my opinion, however, his theory is nowadays untenable. First, because the traditional chronology of IE, as we have variously seen in this blog, is basically wrong (see e.g. this post, or this one). The evidence for this alternative model was not available in Dumézil’s time, which explains why the old chronology was unanimously accepted. On the other hand, it is obvious that the diffusion of religious thoughts or other ideological elements is independent from the diffusion of languages. The parallelisms discovered by Dumézil and other scholars are no doubt interesting and mostly true, but they do not work as proof of the original unity of the Indo-Europeans. His idea of the tripartite functions can hardly be conceived as an exclusive characteristic of the Indo-Europeans. The same can be said about religious elements and any other cultural item: there is nothing exclusively IE in them. They were shared by societies that spoke both IE and non-IE languages.

Dumézil wrote at a time when historical linguistics and IE studies were still dominated by traditional ideas that can no longer be tenable. Does this mean that Dumézil’s writings must be discarded as basically wrong? Not at all. As I said before, they show extraordinary erudition and richness in every detail. Dumézil belonged to a great tradition of French scholars who made important contributions in the field of Classical and IE studies in the second half of the 19th c. and the first half of the 20th c. The list includes, among others, the following names: Bréal, Bailly, Benveniste, Ernout, Meillet, Dumézil, Grimal. I can only express my deepest admiration for them.


JoseAngel said...

It's a consolation that you do find something in his theories... imagine reading and writing so many books only in order to be proved wrong. For a dusty shelf we write. But that's the way knowledge works: other people use bits and pieces from what one does, while our pet theory or System or Solution is often ignored or discarded.

Jesús Sanchis said...

You're right. Theories get old and tend to be discarded or rescheduled. But the wisdom of some authors remains alive. By 'wisdom' I mean, in this context, the ability to use one's erudition and imagination to connect ideas in an intelligent way. An ability that some of the critics of Dumézil, Frazer, etc. have very little of. Their criticism only reaches the 'general theory' level.