The Gods of P.I.E.

I've previously written about the Proto-Indo-European family of languages.  Pretty much all the European languages, plus Sanskrit in India, plus a lot of languages across the Middle East, are all descended from an incredibly ancient language, called Proto-Indo-European, usually shortened to PIE.  There are people who've reconstructed PIE by comparing all the descendant languages and looking to see what they have in common.

The first PIE speakers originated somewhere north of the Black Sea (probably), some time about 4,000 BC, and then spread all over Europe, the Middle East and India.  They carried their language with them, and everywhere they went, PIE supplanted whatever languages were already there.  There's something about Proto-Indo-European that makes it particularly well suited to human brains.

Greek is a PIE language.  The Linear B tablets of Minoan and Mycenaean civilization are extremely early, archaic Greek, thus making Greek the earliest known PIE language for which there's a decent written record.

The PIE speakers also carried their religion with them.  The religion has proven chancier to reconstruct because names and deity relationships have changed more easily than the language.  Even so, some common elements have been found that surely must spring from the original religion.

If you know Greek, Roman, Norse or early Indian gods and goddesses then you already know the basic structure.

Father Sky is the easy one.  Zeus pater in Greek, Deus pater in Latin, which contracts to Iu-pater = Jupiter, Dyaus pitar in Sanskrit, who appears in earlyVedas but is later supplanted.  If you're wondering how Zeus/Deus/Dyaus managed to turn into Odin in the Norse version, so is everyone else.  I wasn't kidding when I said the deity names changed more than any other part of the PIE language.  And in fact Father Sky is the name that's changed least.  The other gods and goddesses have to be reconstructed by their relationships or domains.

An Earth Mother.  Like father (pater), mother (mater) in various forms is also incredibly ancient.  No surprises there.  The Greek version is Demeter.

Sun God.  Usually drives the sun around on a chariot.  Which is interesting because chariots came late in PIE time.  There must have been an earlier system.

A God of Thunder.  Thor and friends.

The Divine Twins.  Castor and Pollux.  Gemini.  Closely associated with horses, especially in Greek and Roman vase paintings.  In Vedic religion they're the Ashvins, divine twin horsemen.  The PIE speakers definitely rode horses; equus, iquo, ippos, hippos and its variants are an original, very early PIE word.

And some standard themes common across the PIE speaking world.

The Tree of the World.   The world is held up by a giant cosmic tree.  (No, it's not turtles all the way down).  Sometimes the tree is threatened.

A Battle Against a Snake.  Amazingly common theme across the PIE regions.

An Underworld guarded by a dog.  Cerberus and friends.

Conspicuous by their absence are the other divine twins: Apollo and Artemis, also Poseidon, Hades, Persephone, Dionysos, Hecate and Aphrodite.  Which isn't to say they weren't very early, but there's nothing to suggest they arrived with the Proto-Indo-European speakers.  They were probably already in place.

The Fates, Moirae, Norns or whatever you want to call them are an interesting case because, although they're a common theme across a wide region, there's no obvious connection to the rest of the pantheon. It's almost like there was a second mythology spread by the same people.

There's obviously a lot of mixing and matching involved, with a lot of linguistic analysis and the assumption that coincidences don't happen.  The earliest known good documentation about this are the Vedas in  Sanskrit and the Theogeny, written by Hesiod at about the same time as Homer was writing the Iliad.  But the Vedas are a pure religious text and Hesiod, Europe's first non-fiction author was writing about 3,300 years after his ancestral PIE speakers exploded across three continents.


Bill said...

Nice summarty.

Sharlene Mackay said...

I never knew that Greek was part of PIE. Thanks for the lesson Gary.

Amalia T. Dillin said...

This blogpost is fantastic.

Would Hephaestus fit the Thunder god category as the forger of the lightning bolts, since Zeus is Father Sky? I know the Vedic tradition definitely has a thunder god, too, but I guess I'm wondering why (if it is) the Thunder God and the Father Sky was conflated for the Greeks but no one else?

Gary Corby said...

I'm not sure Hephaestus isn't a later addition, but I really don't know. I would have thought his equivalent would be the other artificer gods?

Korgon said...

The oddness of Odin as chief god has been noted often. Looking at what's left, it seems pretty common to point out that Odin really has much more in common with Mercury (same as Hermes in Greek? My Greek/Roman mythology is a bit rusty) than with Zeus or the other equivalents. Tyr, however is a sky god in the same vein as Zeus or Jupiter. Tyr is the most commonly known name for the deity since much of our written record of him comes from the Eddas and other contemporary(ish) sources. Tyr's name in the continent, however, was Ziu.

The recognizing of Odin as chief god is a bit less confusing if you take into account the theory (not sure how widely supported, but I've read it many times in many places over the years) that at some point after P.I.E. religious traditions branched with their respective populations Odin supplanted the Zeus analog Tyr/Ziu/Tiw as the chief god.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Korgon, welcome to the blog.

Yes, Odin might be an admixture with some pre-existing religion.

That's interesting about Ziu!