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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

A bridge between Asia and Europe: the Indo-Europeans according to Georges Dumézil

Daniel Dubuisson

Texte intégral

1January 2006

2The Indo-Europeans were only discovered just over two centuries ago. The English scientist, W. Jones, who was staying in India at the end of the 18th century, put forth an Indo-European hypothesis based on the lexical and grammatical similarities that he observed between classical languages and Sanskrit. He established that those who would subsequently later to occupy the largest part of Eurasia (from the polar circle to Gibraltar, and from Iceland to Central Asia), the territories that Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan occupy today, as well as the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, must have come together in prehistoric times.

3Consequently, the Roman, Germanic, Celtic, Baltic, Greek, Indo-Iranian, Anatolian languages, to which we could also add Albanian and Armenian, belong to a vast language family and have a history that, according to authors, stretches back more than four millennia!

4There are two points that should be noted:

  1. The Indo-European language, the so-called mother tongue, does not exist anymore. The language that we call “Indo-European” is a “schematic” one, of which is reduced to a framework of lexical and morphological facts that linguists have “restored” based on ancient languages. In turn, these languages have been affirmed by texts and/or inscriptions, such as Latin, Homeric Greek, Avestan, Hittite or Vedic Sanskrit, to name only the oldest ones and those that have left the most traces. Thus, based on the Sanskrit word, mâtar, old Irish, mathir, Armenian, mayr, Greek, mêtêr etc., and using regular and well-known phonetic rules, the Indo-European prototype mâter* (the asterisk is generally used to indicate a restored form) can be reconstructed. However, this prehistoric word, a simple phonetic skeleton, obviously tells us nothing about the social, psychological or institutional realities that it referred to.
  2. Likewise, the Indo-Europeans have not left any material evidence. Or rather, given the previous point, it is impossible to attribute a definite Indo-European origin to archaeological remains. To do so, an inscription confirming the origin would have had to be made. And yet, the Indo-Europeans did not know how to write. In other words, locating their settings of origin remains the object of much discussion and controversy among specialists.

5The discovery of the Indo-Europeans and Indo-European languages contributed to another, entirely different, (r) evolution, that occurred from the middle of the 19th century onwards. In the wake of comparative grammar, it became possible to imagine “comparative mythology”. This, in turn, encouraged the emergence of a history and science of religions whose subjects and themes were independent of the exegetic tradition centred on the Bible. Comparative Mythology by F. M. Müller (1856), which preceded his famous Essays on the Science of Religion (1867), summarises this major turning point in the history of ideas and academic disciplines.

6Unfortunately, this first comparative mythology inspired many, overly faithful and allegorical readings that appreciated the Antiquity. Thus we saw “solar”, “agrarian” and “storm” mythologies flourish. This way of reading and interpreting the myths exclusively and mechanically was discredited at the end of the 19th century. Only the work of J. G. Frazer’s, Le rameau d’or (The Golden Bough), was able to maintain its authority for a while longer. It achieved this by adding certain famous themes such as “scapegoat” or “ritual murder of the old King”, which were meant to regenerate the vital forces that bring nature to life.

7The early works of Georges Dumézil (1898-1986) fitted into the “naturalistic” and “Frazerian” trends that were predominant between the middle of the 1920s and the middle of the 1930s. However, what one could call the first “Dumezilian” theory, introduced from 1938 onwards, was inspired by radically different principles. At the end of a study on them, Dumézil noticed by chance that there was a plausible connection between the series of the three major priests of Ancient Rome (the flamens of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus) and the old Vedic theory of the three social classes or varna (priests, warriors and producers). Moreover, he drew a very general conclusion from this that would prove to be extremely fruitful. According to his conclusion, the connection between the sets of facts, Indian and Roman, could be explained by the presence of a single underlying ideology, which had been inherited from ancient Indo-European prehistory. This ideology, both in terms of form and content, found its raison d’être in India’s case. If the Indo-Europeans had conceived and analysed both their own universe and that of the Gods by using an ideology that juxtaposed and which placed three principles or social functions in a hierarchy, it is because this ideology was itself the faithful reflection of a society that was organised in a similar way. During the 1940s, Dumézil defined “the ideology of the three functions” as both the abstract “replica” of an ancient social tripartition and the principles of vision that were in a position to justify or legitimise its existence.

8However, the facts soon made Dumézil review this mechanist and “image within an image” model. Historical research illustrated that these social realities were often lacking, especially in Rome! In other words, the theory deriving from his “image” model, which was almost everywhere seemed very difficult to defend. Through successive changes, revisions and repentance, Dumézil corrected his first model and wrote a second, different theory, which developed during the 1960s. By renouncing his attempt to answer the question related to the origin of the three function’s idelogy he effectively set the ideological facts free from all narrow sociological determinism. From then onwards, he tried to defend a comparative approach founded exclusively on attempts to find similar structural series. It was through the act of transposition, from myths or religious texts to epics or literature, that they became clearer. Thus, in the Indian Mahâbhârata or Râmâyana, the heroes embody various qualities (solidarity, complementarity, opposition, twinship, etc.), that mirror the main functional traits of the Gods who had brought them into the world or inspired their characters. The two “systems” are structurally homologous. Thus, through his work, Dumézil stated that if the comparative and structural evidence attained a sufficiently high degree of complexity, they had their own demonstrative capacities.

9Finally, we can observe that these two “Dumezilian” theories, and it is by no means their least interesting feature, are a good reflection of one of the major alternatives that several human sciences specialists since Durkheim, have been confronted with. On one hand, like all materialistic approaches, the symbolic systems, in terms of form as much as content, are considered to be a more or less faithful expression of reality (social and psychological) that is fundamentally different from them. On the contrary, these very systems are known for their independence and dynamism that come from within themselves. The debate thus remains open…

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