TIED Home | Verbix Main Site

Proto-Indo-European Language and Religion.

Studying Indo-European languages linguists came to a conclusion that certain parts of lexicon seem more stable than other ones: words denoting kinship, for example, have preserved in different languages just like they sounded millenniums ago in the Proto-language. The same goes with the religious fund of the language - beliefs disappeared long ago, but words survived and can tell us much more about the cults of ancient Indo-European than the research of archaeology.

Language and religion are actually two basic components of culture. Cultural independence of a nation can be reached when people can worship their gods and speak their language. Scientists used to think that art was another basis of every nation's culture. The latest discoveries show it is not: archaeological cultures, distinguished mainly by pottery and paintings found on ancient sites, do not always match the ethnic division of the population. Linguistic boundaries seldom coincide with the borders of archaeological cultures, art is not an indicator of a nation, but one of its characteristics.

Religion and language have a lot in common. Both aspects of the human life depend greatly on the psychological image of a nation, including the influence of climate, geographical position, conditions of living. Language and religion reflect how people understand the world around: for example, the ancient population of Greece worshipped chthonic deities, called the goddess of earth which was always feminine. After Indo-European Achaeans came to Greece and acquired the religion of aborigines, the word for 'earth' in Greek was also feminine and, moreover, its primary meaning denoted 'mother' or 'grandmother' (e.g. Greek aia).

See more about Greek chthonic cults in J. Charles Day's Essay

The religious system of ancient Indo-Europeans can be studied rather well, for it was preserved in its basic features till the historical period. The last relics of Indo-European paganism existed among Prussian and Lithuanian tribes until the 15th century. Even after Yagaila, the prince of Lithuania, accepted Christianity, his people worshipped their ancient gods for more than two centuries. A major fund of folk songs, prayers and fairy tales all over Europe (especially in Northern and Eastern Europe where Christianity never managed to take deep roots) can still tell us a lot about how our ancestors worshipped natural forces and deities. Rich mythology or European and Asian nations, invaluable epic works like Rigveda, Avesta, Edda, Odyssea show us the inner world of ancient inhabitants of Earth. But the language which is based not only on morphology and phonetics, but also on semantics - the language is one of the most important sources to study history and culture of those whom we call Indo-Europeans.

Main sources for studying the Indo-European religion and mythology include mythological texts of ancient civilizations. Besides, descriptions of myths given by strangers and ancient historians (like Herodotus' depiction of Scythian and other Asian beliefs and myths, or Caesar's stories in his Bella Gallica). Folklore texts, especially those mentioning mythological characters, and fragments of traditional epic, including even single words and personal names.

        § 1. The Indo-European Pantheon.

The main subject of the Indo-European mythology, as we now can believe, was marked by the root *deiwo- which could be literally translated as 'daylight, day-sky'. This deity was understood by ancient people as a supreme power on the sky, and later as the whole community of gods. This is why the words for 'day', 'sky' and 'god' show stable identity in all classical Indo-European tongues:

Hittite šiuna- 'god', but šiwatt- 'day, daylight'
Luwian tiwaz- 'sun god'
Old Indic deva 'a god', Dyaus 'god of daylight, sky god', divasa 'sky', diva- 'day'
Greek Zeus, genitive Dios 'god of clear sky'
Latin deus 'god', dies 'day'

This stem looks as one of the most stable in Indo-European and can be found in most of the branches. Moreover, even the syntactical combination remains identical in Indo-European dialects: many of them call the supreme god *deiwos patér:

Old Indic Dyaus pitar
Greek Zeus patér
Latin Iupiter, Diespiter
Umbrian Iupater
Illyrian Deipaturos

The same model can be seen in Luwian tiwaz tatiš or in Latvian Debess tévs 'sky-father'. Thus, a masculine deity was supreme among gods, which once more confirms the theory of patriarchate in the Proto-Indo-European society. Sky, daylight was regarded as the father of the world. It seems that the terms 'day' and 'sky' were never divided from the term 'god of daylight'; all other known roots for 'sky' used to mean some adjacent natural objects, like *nebho- which apparently denoted the clouded sky only.

ZeusThe global father *deiwo- has a corresponding feminine power, the earth which was considered as the mother of the world. Indo-European was sure that the relationship between deities were as simple as that of the people: the father-sky fertilizes the mother-earth, which in its turn gives birth to herbs and cereals. A tradition to oppose two major powers of the world was typical for Indo-Europeans: father - mother, father was masculine and clear, mother was black and feminine. Indo-European languages always make the word 'earth, ground' feminine:

Greek Démétér 'fertility goddess', literally 'ground-mother'
Phrygian ma 'ground goddess'
Hittite Dagan-zipas 'soul of earth'
Old Russian mat' syra zemlja 'mother ground'

Partial proofs can be given by analyzing the words for 'ground' in Indo-European: Slavic *zemja (feminine), Lithuanian z'eme. (feminine), Sanskrit prthiví (feminine), Greek aia (feminine), German Erde (feminine) etc. The main function of the earth was to give birth to every living being and plant. The man was understood also as one of the ground's creations - the common belief of the Fertile Crescent that the man was made of ground characterizes not only the Bible, but also the Indo-European mythology. It is seen clearly from the linguistic data: several languages show the same root for the words 'man' and 'ground', i.e. the man was literally translated as 'made of ground':

Latin humus 'ground', homo 'man'
Lithuanian z'eme. 'ground', z'mogus 'man', z'mone.s 'men'
Gothic & Old English guma 'man'

It seems that the father-daylight and the mother-earth were the most ancient among all natural deities. This couple, according to ancient concepts, was the one who generated the universe. However, as the society was developing, new deities appeared, and the number of members of the pantheon increased.

The god of thunder became especially popular in the Late Indo-European period, when the elements of the class society emerged among the tribes. Tribal leaders and their militia composed of the strongest men worshipped the thunder god, the patron of war and power. Sometimes he acquired also some functions connected to fertility, but that was rather rare. Along with the increasing role of tribal aristocracy the thunder god acquired supremacy over other gods of the pantheon, though he was never popular among ordinary people.

The Indo-European stem denoting the thunder god was *perk-; this is seen in the following cognates:

Slavic Perun (thunder god)
Lithuanian and Old Prussian Perkunas (thunder god)
Latvian Perkuons
Old Indic Parjanya (thunder god)
Old Icelandic Fjorgyn (not quite a god, but a goddess - the mother of the thunder god Tor)
Hittite Pirwa- (one of gods)

Oak was always symbol of the thunder god in Indo-European languages. The thunder god, naturally, lived somewhere higher than people - on the top of the mountain (like on the Olympus in Greece), or on the rock, or on the top of the highest tree - an oak. The very stem *perk- denoted something like that, which is confirmed by some cognates within the family: Latin quercus < *perkos 'oak', Gothic fairguni 'rock', Hittite peruna- 'rock', Old Indic parvata- 'mountain'.

Often the figures of the father-daylight and the thunder god coincided, as it happened in Greece where Zeus was called the Thunderer, and among Italic tribes where Diu-piter also became the god of thunder and the head of the pantheon. It is interesting that both Italic and Greek mythology preserved similar legends telling about how the Thunderer seized the supremacy from another ancient god (Zeus - from Kronos, his father, who in his turn from Ouranos, the sky-god). Something like this is found in Old Indic mythology where Varuna the sky god conflicts with Indra the Thunderer (by the way Varuna and Ouranos are obviously cognates). The son slains his father: Zeus kills Kronos, and Indra, Zeus's Indic counterpart, does the same with his father Dyaus Pitar. In Slavic mythology, Perun was the son of Svarog, the father of all being and the sky god (remember Sanskrit svarga- 'sky'). This mythological plot is another proof of the theory that initially the daylight god was more important than his descendant.

Actually, Proto-Indo-Europeans were fond of creating a bipolar system of the world: good and evil, right and left, man and woman. Different myths tell the same: the god of thunder fights with the evil god, the ruler of the underground world, the King of the dead. The name of this anti-god appears to be common Indo-European: the root *wel- is the most frequent:
Old Russian Veles, Volos, Vles (the cattle god)
Lithuanian Velnias, Vielona
Latvian Velns, Vels
Old Indic Vala (a daemon who steals cattle) and Vrtra - the main enemy of Indra

Opposed to the thunder god who lives up on a mountain or on the top of the highest tree, the underworld chief's residence is always situated deep under water or in the underground kingdom. It seems strange, but the kingdom of the dead was associated in mind of Indo-Europeans with pastures and cattle which are supposed to have been symbols of the other world. A lot of terms connected to death and the underground world derivate from this very root: Old Icelandic valholl, Lithuanian ve.le. (a soul of a dead person), Tocharian A walu (dead), Luwian ulant- (dead). The root *wal- in Indo-European meant also 'sovereign', but we are not sure about the relations between these two terms.

The myth where the thunder god kills his rival with a spear appears frequently in the epic of numerous Indo-European nations, including Greek, Hittite, Slavic etc. Christianity acquired this tale as well - St. George kills the Dragon.
A Baltic sun symbolThe sun god was also important for Indo-Europeans. Usually the perception of the sun is different depending on the climate. Indic and Near East people, living in hot and dry climate, considered it cruel and always sacrificed much to make the sun milder, in order to keep the soil wet and fertile. Vice versa, Slavic and Baltic people living in north-eastern Europe prayed to the sun to appear more often, and solar celebrations in spring and summer were among the best holidays. It looks like in the Proto-Indo-European times, there were at least two different cults of the sun. The distinction is especially clear in Old Indic mythology, where two different deities, Surya and Savitar, denoted the sun in its different forms: the midday sun (dangerous and cruel for the people) and the evening sun (mild and kind). There was also a goddess of the morning light Ushas. The sun also had its symbols in all religions: in Egypt it was a boat on which the sun is moving over the sky. Indo-Europeans believed that the sun is moved by three of four white horses which were very important for the cult. Horses was the favourite Indo-European sacrifice, and they always accompany the sun god: Apollo in Greece, Mitra in Iran, Jarila among Slavs. Indra, who was worshipped also as the sun god, again ruled a chariot of four horses.

        § 2. Symbols of the Indo-European Religion.

Nowadays we cannot even imagine what was the role of symbols in the life of ancient people. In this sphere their life was much deeper than ours: we know history, astronomy, biology, but a person who lived five thousand years ago knew nothing about the nature except what he saw by his own eyes, and everything around seemed weird and uncanny to him. Sky objects, change of seasons, animals and their behaviour - that all was explained as the will of gods or divine powers, because there was no other explanation. When people wanted to have a good harvest or to get a wild boar for supper, their first intention was to ask the super powers for help. The man thought in a usual way: if gods give me a hand, they will require their share of my booty, so I have to sacrifice a part of the boar to gods. Sometimes this helped, sometimes no, and people invented new forms of sacrifices, and rituals accompanying them. The ancient man was afraid of everything, this is why every word, every gesture and sign could turn harmful for his life, as he imagined it. Everything became a symbol to him.

Among objects which played the most important role in the Proto-Indo-European beliefs we should emphasize sacred animals. It is scientifically proved that animalism was one of the earliest stages of the religious development of mankind, preceding to polytheism. People who lived on hunting had to worship animals because they depended on them too much and were afraid of them. Later when agriculture and cattle breeding were taken up people realized that gods were human-like. The transitional stage of religion existed in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia when people described gods as a human body with a head of an animal.

It is hard to say now which animals were deified by ancient Indo-Europeans. However it is clear that people often put a taboo on pronouncing the name of sacred animals. An interesting example is the Indo-European word for 'bear': the stem was *rkto-, and those tribes who did not have to hunt bears called it its real name: Indic rks.as, Latin ursus, Greek arktos, etc. But those nations who live in the north, in the forest zone, made the bear a deity and used an euphemism instead of its name: Slavic languages say medved' which is literally 'who eats honey, honey-eater', Germanic languages have bear, Bär which primarily means 'brown, fulvous'. Baltic tongues invented the word meška, a derivative from the noun miškas 'forest'.

SviatovitThe same example concerns the snake. Each language has its own euphemism: Slavic *zmeja literally means 'living on the ground', Latin serpens is a participle 'creeping'.

This tradition of replacing names for animals by euphemistic nicknames takes us back to the epoch of animalistic cults, when each animal was a totem of a tribe or a family. In Ancient Egypt, each city had its own totem animal, a crocodile or an elephant. The same fact is discovered about the ancient population of Italy: the Picene people got their name from Latin, for they worshipped a woodpecker (Latin picus).
The next interesting symbol which obviously existed in Proto-Indo-European times was the cult of the Twins. The Twins are considered to be the sons of the sky, they are associated with the good and make good things for people. In legends they often come down from the sky and became the first human beings on Earth. Among divine twins we call remind Greek Dioskouroi, two suns of Zeus, Old Indic Ashvinas, etc. Brothers who created the humanity include Indic Yama and his sister Yamí, which are close to Old Icelandic Ymir, a mythological hero, and Latin Romulus and Remus.

Sometimes in Indo-European epic stories the first state is founded not by twins, but by three brothers and their sister - this plot is met rather frequently. In Slavic mythology the city of Kiev was founded by three brothers - Kij, Schek and Khoriv and their sister Lybed'. The oldest brother became the first prince of the new state. Practically the same story is told by Herodotus in his "Historia" about the early history of Scythians: three brothers, Lipoxais, Arpoxais, Kolaxais, gave birth to three main Scythian tribes. And this is not a Herodotus' fantasy, because modern Ossetic people, descendants of Scythians, still keep similar legends. Parallels are found also in Celtic (three Irish brothers Findeamna and their sister) and in Armenian.

Long before computer men invented the binary count system, it seems to have existed in the Proto-Indo-European society. The binary opposition of phenomena was the way Indo-Europeans understood the nature and the world as a whole. It was preserved well in later religions like Zoroastrism, but it is seen even more clearly in the light of the linguistic data. Two linguistic genders symbolized the opposition of two classes of things - active (people, animals, gods and divine powers) and inactive (trees, materials). All living beings were divided again into two major groups: people and gods, mortal and immortal creatures. In several languages the words for 'man' and 'mortal' are the same: Greek brotos, Sanskrit mrta-, Hittite danduki, and Tocharian on-uwan'n'e (im-mortal). Here it is interesting to note that people believed there were two languages on Earth - those of men and of gods. This mythological perception existed in Old Icelandic, Old Irish, Hittite and Greek beliefs: remember that Homerus was sure that the word 'blood' in gods' language was ikhór, while in Greek it is ahima. In fact this ikhór is just another ancient Indo-European stem, Hittite ishar: but the term, as we can state now, was used in context of religious beliefs of Proto-Indo-Europeans. The same thing about the fire: there was two terms meaning 'fire' in Indo-European:

*pur- (inanimate fire):
Hittite pahhur (fire)
Oscan purasiai (fire in a home fireplace)
Tocharian tsamoy pwarsa (let it grow with the help of fire)

*ogni- (living fire, fire-god):
Slavic *ogni (fire)
Latin ignis (fire)
Sanskrit Agni (god of fire)
Hittite Agniš
Lithuanian šventoji ugnis (sacred fire)

The impact of beliefs and myths on the language in the Proto-Indo-European epoch was much stronger than ever. These two spheres of culture were tied up together, and ancient people could not imagine life without religion, nor language without religion. Therefore it is natural that priest played very important role in the system of living, regulating the religious rituals and providing a link between people and gods.

If we are talking about the reconstructed Proto-language of Indo-Europeans, I think we can be sure that the Proto-religion can also be restored. Sure - with the help of linguistics. Certainly this is not even one per cent of the question. This essay is just trying to show the basic route between the language and the religion of our ancestors. And to show that they are in fact quite similar...