[NB] Indo-European Permutations

Stacey’s been reading up on her Indo-European myths lately, most especially the rival god/brothers, and it has brought Dumezil circling back into our discussions. Because I have been thinking so much about the Kabbalistic material from the point of the view of the Fall, I started to plug that into his model. What happens if we look at Dumezil’s exploration of Indo-European myth as the study of a thorough permutation of the sefirotic diagram? It goes interesting places almost right away.

Looking to Dumezil, the first thing we come face to face with is his three functions: the sacral, the military, and the productive. Applying a kind of ‘rule of three’ here akin to that of the Sefer Yetzirah, I’m attempting to differentiate rather than conflate. When I do that, I start to see all kinds of resonances between Dumezil’s three functions.

Dumezil often identifies the ‘sacral’ function with the sovereign function. I don’t think the evidence bears this out. The sovereign function in Indo-European myths can be exercised from within any of the three functional nodes. Indra, for example, function as an exemplar of the military function in myth and exercises a sovereign authority. Similarly, Frey possesses a sovereign function in many Norse myths despite being firmly rooted in the productive function.

A closer look at the sacral suggests that its primary function is legislative, defining and negotiating social boundaries. The sacral’s boundary-making activity defines an inside and outside that gives its members a sense of belonging and unity. In so doing, it generates modes of exclusion and inclusion. It defines good and evil. When the sacral figure is not themselves a sovereign, they do tend to serve as the ancilla of the sovereign because the sovereign’s rule is over a body of people, and that unity is defined by the sacral.

Dumezil’s functional study of myths and Levi-Strauss’s structural studies reinforce each other on key points. Levi-Strauss’s observation that the myth develops according to a logic by which binary differentiations are then resolved helps us see what is going in the myths of rivalry that orchestrate each functional body of myths. Dumezil reveals, at each functional level, a set of rival male figures in Indo-European myths.

In his study of sovereign (sacral) power in Mitra-Varuna, for example, we find two rivals for sacral authority. Within any specific Indo-European pantheon, one of those rivals takes precedence over the other. In either case, though, the rival power’s presence is maintained as a secondary figure. Thus among the Romans, Dumezil notes the favoritism given to the law-giving, oath-sustaining, Mitra-like Numa, while the destructive force embodied by Romulus was delimited in commemoration. Contrariwse, the Norse favor the destructive liberator, the Varuna-like Odin, while delimiting the oath-sustaining Tyr in discrete legal events.

If the sacral does not itself occupy the sovereign realm, then these functions manifest in the favoritism for specific sorts of sacral power, the sort through which we can divide its officiants into the rough and ready category of goes (Varunic) and magi (Mitraic).

Proceeding through each of the three Dumezilian functions, we find the rivalry duplicated. This sympathy of rivals replicates the division that orchestrates the sefirotic diagram and generates the pillar of severity and mercy. Rival forms of military action and production each relate to mythic corollaries that both facilitate their reproduction in life and assigns them to different times and spaces in order to ameliorate their rivalry.

The sefirotic diagramming of the three functions thus makes the structure of society one of the exemplars through which the divine manifests, with the functions here serving as the horizontal, elemental divisions. Between them, though, is an essential vertical third. Whereas the account of the Fall places the Serpent in the middle pillar, here we encounter a thorough permutation in which it is the woman who becomes the tongue that differentiates between the male rivals.

In case the permutation isn’t obvious, consider how pervasively one of the rivals is identified with a serpent. Not for nothing did Calvert Watkins suggest that dragon killing formed the archetype for Indo-European mythopoetics. Whether it is the gross details (the rivalry of naga and garuda, of the world tree with its eagle in the heavens and serpent at the roots) or the small details (like Odin transforming himself into a snake), the pattern appears again and again.

Female figures are present at each level and serve to distinguish the rivals. The figure at the heart of the sacral power are the women who occupy an uneasy place between outsiders and wives. Dumezil makes much of the Roman injunction that the Mitraic flamen priests be married and that must be placed alongside the Varunic abduction of Sabine women who are the mythical antecedents to those wives.

The warrior function (best articulated, perhaps, in Kris Kershaw’s One-eyed God) requires a similar doubling of feminine behavior, this time between the absent (dead or mourning) wife from a present bewitching woman who supports one rival and hinders another. In some cases, it is ambiguous whether these positions are occupied by the same woman, but the structure seems stable enough. Thinking in terms of the channels, it’s worth noting that the figures like Odin who emanate from the severe and goetic Binah, seem to run between it and Gevurah, often with a special relationship to these female witch figures (valkyries and seidhkona alike).

The productive function uses the woman as a synecdoche for the land and for authority over the land. To turn to Frey, we see in the wooing of Gerda the taming of the earth for agricultural production, with the rivalry moderated into straightforward marriage, though in the shadow of the wooing and marriage is the inevitable conflict between Frey and Beli, Frey and Surtr, both jotunn like Gerda herself, powers of the earth.

This functional snapshot is synchronic (a snapshot of an ideal society without movement), but the myths themselves are diachronic (an account of transformations to which this ideal is subject). Especially in myths, where the diachronic dimension is artificially modeled on historical time, we need to be careful about overstating the role of time. In many cases, the temporal elements in myths are merely symbolic, illuminating logical-affective sympathies and antipathies operating within the synchronic model.

Especially with myths, then, we need to be careful about reading them too literally, too much like a contemporary novel with its more concrete deployment of time. In myths, time is an abstract form of relation before it is a reference to the progress of time in daily life. This is doubly the case for Roman and Hebraic myths which prefer to dress themselves in the appearance of actual history.

This caveat, too, places the mythic material at the lunar and symbolic level where time is abstracted, it places it in proximity to the operations of Yesod. Like the kabbalistic material proper, this structure is suspended between a double distortion, one that draws it toward the transcendent and eternal, and another that draws it toward the immanent and historical.

Tellingly, some close students of Dumezil’s work like N. J. Allen have posited the existence of this fourth ‘function’ which, in fact, is dual, directed both to the transcending and the non-existent. Despite the linguistic divide, the distortions implied in the myths of the Semitic Tanakh and the broadly distributed Indo-European pattern seem to play on a common theme.

I have called this tree a thorough permutation of the sefirotic tree, but what does that really mean? There are a few good takeaways from that and I want to start by returning to the question raised by Bruce Lincoln regarding the role linguistic analysis plays in the study of myth. This sort of examination both supports and complicates Lincoln’s assertion that philological studies overemphasize the importance of language to myth.

Since the Hebraic material originates in Semitic languages rather than Indo-European ones, this parallelism definitely supports Lincoln’s sense that the mythic structures comparativists discover don’t depend upon this or that linguistic structure for their existence. Instead, they seem to be rooted in some more fundamental dimension of human experience, though we can’t necessarily say what that fundamental dimension is on the basis of this comparison (I clearly have some religious-magical notions of what that is).

At the same time, it is difficult to escape the notion that there is a great deal of sympathy between the philological and Kabbalistic project. Both put a great deal of stock in the languages with which they work and go to great lengths to explore the ways in which linguistic realities exert a force over extra-linguistic ones, whether that is through social structures or magical operations. This gives new meaning and relevance to Volosinov’s/Bakhtin’s observation about the first philologists being the priests of conquering nations.

Where do secular and sacred philology overlap? Where do they diverge? Where are they in outright opposition to each other? Arguably, philology may be one of the sciences where the link to magic has not been entirely purged, which also means it is one of the points at which the secular and sacred are in closest contact, for the good and ill of both. I suspect it is at this point that we ought to more properly locate Lincoln’s discomfort around fascism, as a not entirely articulate discomfort with the charismatic forces bound up in the word.

It’s also here, though, where we ought to locate a specific form of revelation, in which a well-ordered myth and its ritual exploration opens channels, serves as channels, for the highest spiritual forces. While this can be turned toward corrupt ends, the charisma that animates this structure doesn’t necessarily turn to fascism.

I find the way in which the female figures appear primarily as props for the rivalry of the two divine powers more than a little problematic. However, in portraying this problematic exploitation as mythical, as one permutation among many, I hope to also draw your attention to a permutation within this Indo-European permutation, the one that gives birth to things like Tantra and devotions to the Mahavidaya. From within this story of rivals, there is born another in which the rivalry is negated in their annihilation by a more powerful feminine force, a middle pillar exercise of a quite different stripe.

This is one of the strengths of bringing the Kabbalistic frame to bear on this material. We don’t have to accept the specific mythic permutation as gospel (pardon the double entendre). Rather, we can use it as a frame from which we can stage another permutation, one that might provide us with channels that do not depend upon the displacement and negation of female agency.


6 thoughts on “[NB] Indo-European Permutations

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