Book review: The Land East of the Asterisk

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Wendy Doniger

Book: Indo-European Poetry and Myth 
Author:  M.L. West.
Publisher: Oxford, 525 pp., £80, May 2007, 978 0 19 928075 9

Nineteenth-century German and British linguists, building on some 18th-century hunches, uncovered the connections between members of a large (and rather dysfunctional) family of languages that included ancient Greek, Latin, Hittite (in ancient Anatolia), Vedic Sanskrit (in ancient India), Avestan (in ancient Iran), the Celtic and Norse-Germanic languages and, ultimately, French, German, Italian, Spanish, English and all their friends and relations. They called the family Indo-European or Indo-Germanic or Indo-Aryan, and assumed that, some time in the fourth millennium BCE, the single parent language, Proto-Indo-European (as easy as PIE), broke apart to give birth to the more ancient languages of the group, which continued to branch off into sub-groups. There are no attested examples of the parent language before the break-up; the Indo-European speakers almost certainly had no knowledge of writing, and the earliest example of any Indo-European language that we have is a 14th-century BCE Anatolian treaty in Hittite that calls on the Hittite version of several Vedic gods. The reconstructed, hypothetical forms of Indo-European therefore, are usually designated with an apologetic or apotropaic asterisk. Thus *H1ekwo-, for instance, or more simply *ekwos, the PIE word for ‘horse’, yields the Latin equus, Gallic epos, Greek hippos, Sanskrit as´va, Old English eoh and so forth.

Martin West, who has written what is surely the definitive book on Indo-European language and religion, states his case well: ‘The assumption of a single parent language as the historical source of all the known Indo-European languages ... is still a hypothesis, not an observable fact, but it is an inescapable hypothesis.’ The Indo-European map links languages together in a group that is distinct from other groups, such as those that include Chinese or Tamil, say. The evidence that the Indo-European languages are related lies primarily in their grammar and vocabulary. Thus ‘foot’ is pada in Sanskrit, pespedis in Latin, pied in French, fuss in German, foot in English and so forth, and nouns and verbs behave entirely differently from their Hebrew or Navajo counterparts.

Indo-European linguistics assumes a diffusionist, centrifugal cultural movement: the political centre sends out armies and imposes its rule on neighbouring lands. The paradigm is Latin, which did indeed diffuse outwards to all the lands the Romans conquered, which therefore speak languages that we call Romance. Linguists then constructed, on the Roman model, an earlier family tree diverging from the centre, in this case not Rome but the Caucasus (or somewhere else in Central Asia). West calls the original common territory ‘Eurostan’ and remarks: ‘If it be asked what sea the worshippers of these prehistoric divinities went down to in *nawes and sailed on and foundered in, the likely answer is the northern Black Sea or the Sea of Azov.’ The mythical land of the family home might just as well be thought of as *Indo-Europe, the land east of the asterisk.

The evidence for this family is archeological as well as linguistic, but language is at the heart of Indo-European Poetry and Myth. Despite enormous variations in languages, there are ‘unshakeable structures’ that ‘the casual eye’ may miss (the casual eye could be forgiven for thinking that hippos is hardly a ringer for as´va), but not the eagle-eyed Indo-Europeanist. West promises to spare us the technical details, but there is no other way to do the job right, and in fact he gives us pages and pages of examples to back up his argument for the existence of unique and widespread patterns of Indo-European language, poetry and myth. Indo-Europeanists are not noted for their prose style; a list of phonemes is often their idea of a snappy sentence. But West writes with both elegance and humour, as when he tells us that he hopes to avoid ‘the charge of flogging a dead dragon’.

The range of his erudition is truly impressive. He has published on many aspects of both Greek and Indo-European culture, but for this job he assumed that he needed Vedic Sanskrit (‘the Vedic pantheon ... may be considered our best indicator of the Indo-European situation’). And, as he himself confesses, he writes

as a professional Hellenist, as much an amateur in Indo-European studies as in oriental. I have furnished myself with a working knowledge of some of the relevant languages ... I defer to the authority of the pundits – those black-belt analysts whom I personally hold in the highest admiration, but whom some may view as the unreadable in pursuit of the unpronounceable.

Yet he often rushes in, and stumbles, where pundits fear to tread. For example, he believes, rightly, that ‘oral epic about human heroes must have existed’ at the time of the Rig Veda (c.1500 BCE), but cites the Sanskrit epics (Mahabharata and Ramayana) alongside the Veda as evidence for the existence of Indo-European phenomena, even though they were not composed until 500 BCE at the very earliest, and some parts as late as 300 CE. He even cites, on the same level, the Puranas (c.500-900 ce), which were composed more than two thousand years after the Veda, by which time the alleged footprints of the Indo-European speakers had been trampled over by Scythians, Huns, Turks, Chinese, Christians and God knows who else. Surely he wouldn’t play so fast and loose with the chronology of Greek texts; is this the ghost of the Orientalist idea of ‘timeless eternal India’ haunting the argument? Despite this blurring of timelines, the Indian materials are brilliantly integrated into the argument and, indeed, bear much of its weight.

West reconstructs the Indo-European world on increasingly complex levels: first language (grammar and vocabulary); then poetry; then myth. Poetry, with some of the formal solidity of language and some of the inspirational idiosyncrasies of myth, mediates between them. The poetic parallels can be quite striking, and West makes the most of them. Of a certain pattern of three proper names, for instance, he says: ‘It is hard to avoid the inference that this was a traditional formula from the common poetic inheritance. Here we seem to find a remnant of the Indo-European storyteller’s building work: a recognisable structural component, with the lineaments of its verbal patterning still in place.’

Then comes myth, about which West deduces a great deal. An Indo-European word for a deity ‘that has left representatives in nearly all branches of the Indo-European family’ is *deiwos, based on the root *diw/dyu (the bright sky or daylight) and designating a sky-god; it developed into deus in Latin, deva in Sanskrit, divo in Russian and, eventually, English ‘Tuesday’. That there is no feminine counterpart of *deiwos (‘different languages created feminine forms in divergent ways’) is significant, though far from airtight support for the sound hypothesis that the PIE people worshipped few goddesses, and these happy few ‘played ‘little part in ruling the world’ (though this is a rather macho definition of the main function of a deity). The PIE goddesses were generally natural entities with feminine names, terrestrial goddesses, personified abstractions of feminine gender, or spouses or associates of male gods, named after their husbands. West accepts as ‘essentially sound’ Marija Gimbutas’s suggestion that the European mother goddesses reflect ‘the influence of a pre-Indo-European substrate population for whom female deities had a far greater importance than in Indo-European religion’, though he admits that ‘this reconstruction’ is ‘based largely on iconic evidence’.

Very few individual PIE gods can be identified by name, but some ‘have preserved in recognisable form’ a mythological pattern of some detail. For example, the myths of the births of the divine equine twins (the Vedic As´vins, Greek Dioskouroi and Roman Gemini, Castor and Pollux) have common themes: ‘the union of mortal bride and immortal bridegroom, the substitution of a facsimile for the wife, the motif of horse-metamorphosis, and the birth of a son or sons with equine characteristics’, as well as the habits of riding horses through the sky and rescuing men ‘from mortal peril in battle and at sea’. Unlike the other two, the As´vins are not, as West asserts of the basic model, the children of the sky god *Dyeus Zeus/Jupiter/Dyaus-Indra, but of the sun god. Yet he is right that ‘the common features are clear and the inference obvious ... There is a rare consensus among comparativists on this conclusion.’ And there are other correspondences, such as ‘the reddish beard that seems to be a distinguishing feature of the Indo-European thunder-god’, the myth of the acquisition of fire by theft from heaven, ‘a prototypical god of ways and byways’, and ‘the archetypal Indo-European dragon-slaying myth’.

A few of these are attested throughout the PIE world. A myth of the dissection of a primal being or androgyne, associated with male-female twins who commit incest, is distributed among Norse, Germanic, Iranian, Vedic, Greek and Roman mythologies, pointing to ‘an Indo-European myth in which the origin of man was bound up with the creation of the world from the body of a giant or proto-human killed and carved by the gods’, as Bruce Lincoln established twenty years ago. But more often, the patterns are found in a sub-group. A story told in the Welsh Mabinogion and in the Indian Mahabharata, about the search for the oldest animal, diverges on details such as the list of animals (though an owl appears in both); ‘Yet the narrative pattern is so alike and so distinctive that the resemblance is hard to account for except on the hypothesis of common inheritance.’ So, too, the Italo-Celtic, Indo-Iranian and vestigial Greek terms for the king and his consort ‘must be archaic survivals from what was once a more general usage’. The rich and carefully documented instances pile up until they assume a most persuasive shape.

The ghost of Max Müller hovers benignly over West’s balanced treatment of solar mythology, for which Müller was often ridiculed. (‘There was a time,’ he lamented in 1897, ‘when the very existence of solar and celestial mythology was denied, and when, as usual in the absence of knowledge and argument, it was ridiculed as drawn from that bank with unlimited liability, the inner consciousness of German professors.’) West notes, with characteristic caution, that ‘the words for “sun” in nearly all branches of the Indo-European family ... are related. Quite how they are related is a problem of great complexity that has not yet been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.’ Recalling the solar component of the myth of the equine twins, and the PIE image of the sun as a horse, or driving a chariot with horses, he remarks: ‘Müller’s critics were right to castigate his excesses and those of the nature-myth school generally. But the reaction against that approach sometimes went too far. There was such a thing as solar mythology in Indo-European tradition.’ West also traces through ancient Indian, Scandinavian, Greek, German and Baltic sources the haunting image of the goddesses of night and day passing a shuttle back and forth across a loom, their actions corresponding to the journey of the sun: ‘Of this beautiful prehistoric vision only fragmented echoes remain in the Rig Veda and the other traditions at our disposal.’

As West progresses from grammar to poetry to myth, he finds himself on progressively shakier ground in his argument for a unique and extensive Indo-European pattern. For linguistics is a science, and the study of myth is not. He is well aware of this:

Comparative Indo-European mythology remains and is bound to remain a poor relation of comparative Indo-European philology. It is easy to see why. People change their gods and their mythologies more readily and quickly than they change their declensions and conjugations, and more capriciously. Rules can be formulated to predict how a given Indo-European phoneme will turn out in Old High German or Pale Dry Tocharian, but the mutations of divinities or of mythical motifs are subject to no rules.

Yet he often falls prey to the same temptation that did in Müller and his ‘Science of Mythology’ 150 years ago, which is to draw conclusions from the art of mythology with a confidence more appropriate to the science of linguistics.

The evidence that West amasses for words and grammatical structures seems incontrovertible; the linguistic units are so very close in so many details that there must have been a historical link between them. When we come to myths, however, the sands shift under our feet. Forest nymphs and the supernatural women who mark the fates of children in their cradles do not have the same names in different countries, yet West insists that ‘the unity of the conception over such a large part of the Indo-European area ... makes it likely that it goes back to the deepest level of Indo-European ... The hypothesis of a common Indo-European background seems unavoidable.’

How then are we to account for the variation in names? ‘When deities are especially dangerous, it is common to avoid the name that is most truly theirs and to replace it with some substitute.’ More generally, there may be semantic parallels even when the vocabulary diverges, ‘provided that they are distinctive enough to suggest a common origin’. It seems to me that, if you are using words as the basic units of your argument, it enormously weakens your case to ignore words when they don’t in fact provide the link you want. At the very least, it forces you to shift from fairly hard to fairly soft criteria of ‘the unity of the conception’.

Nymphs are Indo-European but they are also far more than Indo-European; in particular, the type of nymph known as a swan-maiden (part of the still broader category of animal wife) is widely attested in other cultures. And this leads on to a more general problem that all Indo-Europeanists must come to terms with. Even if we do assume that there is a link between specific Indo-European myths, how did the linkage actually work? The assumption that certain PIE words (let alone poetic structures and mythic conceptions) are similar because they are all derived from a common source is challenged by two other basic possibilities: diffusion (also called horizontal transmission) and independent development (or universalism).

All three explanations can work in several different ways. That is, if the same story occurs in ancient Greece and ancient India, it may be a uniquely Indo-European story transmitted from PIE to several, if not all, of the branches (the Indo-Europeanists’ hypothesis); it may be a uniquely Indo-European story transmitted from one branch to another after the break-up (diffusion); or it may be a story shared among Indo-European-speakers but also by other cultures, because the Indo-European-speaking people got it from the other culture, because the other culture got it from the Indo-European-speakers, or because each of them got it separately. (In the case of stories this would involve the assumption that all god’s chillun got the story from some shared basic human capacity – Jungian, Freudian, Lévi-Straussian or what you will.)

West is aware of the alternatives to his basic argument for the Indo-Europeanist hypothesis. In defending ‘the hypothesis of a common Indo-European background’ for forest nymphs, he adds: ‘Neither independent development nor diffusion has any plausibility as an explanation.’ And he insists that ‘neither Classical learning nor any other form of horizontal transmission can account for the extraordinary parallel’ between the Welsh and Indian variants of the story of the search for the oldest animals; that is, he sees these, too, as derived from a common source. Yet, even while he expresses ‘certainty’ that the linguistic evidence establishes kingship as an Indo-European institution, and a ‘diffident hope’ that the narratives of kingship may also constitute ‘something of a common ancestral heritage’, he hedges: ‘We have tried to tread carefully, conscious of the power of horizontal transmission especially in the realm of stories and story patterns.’ More generally, ‘when we have parallels that extend all the way from India or Iran to the Celtic world ... horizontal transmission seems virtually ruled out.’

A good example of the horizontal transmission or diffusion hypothesis is provided by horse-drawn chariots with spoked wheels, which are remarkably similar in Irish and Indian heroic traditions but attested only by 2100-2000 BCE: long after the Indo-European break-up, and hence Indo-European in some sense but not PIE. Yet the techniques of chariot construction and warfare ‘spread like a wave ... across Indo-European territories that were already well on the way towards developing separate languages and cultures’. West sees this as

a devastating result for us seekers of Indo-European mythology. If ideas and myths could spread so far and so fast over lands that had been Indo-Europeanised long before, how can we ever know if we are getting back to an original common heritage? Perhaps we cannot. Perhaps we must content ourselves with identifying ‘isomyths’, elements shared by a particular pair or a particular constellation of peoples, acknowledging that they may date only from a comparatively late phase in the long history of the diaspora.

The horses that pulled those chariots involve us in the even thornier challenge of the hypothesis of independent origination. On the one hand, wherever Indo-European-speaking cultures have been identified, horse remains have been found. ‘The partnership of man and horse goes far back into Indo-European prehistory,’ West says. The Indo-European speakers, like the cowboys of the 19th-century American West, rode over other peoples’ land and stole their cattle. Cattle-rustling was the basic job description of all the Indo-European speakers, from the Celts to the Indians; closely parallel myths from Greece, India, Iran, Northern Europe, the Near East and Scandinavia allow us to reconstruct a Proto-Indo-European cattle raiding myth. The texts reveal that all the Indo-Europeans were crazy about horses. A 14th-century BCE Hittite text on the training of horses uses words of Indo-European provenance. A specific historical tradition from Indo-European prehistory is strongly suggested by ‘parallel epithets and other predicates’. Horses, observed in affectionate, minute detail, pervade the poetry, and ‘a poetic vocabulary for referring to horses developed at an early date.’

But it doesn’t follow that, wherever people had horses, they spoke Indo-European languages. ‘The close relationship presupposed between heroes and their horses is such that they can speak to each other at critical junctures. This motif – like the historical mastery of the horse – is the common property of Indo-Europeans and the Turkic peoples of central Asia.’ These talking horses are Indo-European, but not only Indo-European; horses are necessary but not sufficient to establish an Indo-European presence; Indo-European culture is contained within the broader range of horse-having cultures. The ancestor of the horse, the so-called ‘Dawn Horse’, or Eohippus, much smaller than the modern horse, lived throughout Europe as well as North America in the Eocene age, literally ‘the dawn of time’, some 60 to 40 million years ago. The horse was probably domesticated in several places, and it didn’t happen all at once even in Central Asia. ‘The notion that the Sun-god commands a yoked team of animals of some kind is not exclusively Indo-European,’ West admits. ‘But where the horse or team of horses is found in connection with the sun in non-Indo-European settings, as in Egypt in the Amarna period and in China, it may be assumed to be a borrowing from an Indo-European source.’ Such an argument is hopelessly non-falsifiable; anywhere you find a horse, you simply ‘assume’ an Indo-European borrowing. Nevertheless, the spread of the Central Asian horse (and, after 2000 BCE, the chariot) suggests, in general, a chronological correlation between the arrival of horses and of Indo-European speakers.

When we turn from things (such as horses) to ideas we get into even deeper waters. Take the doctrine of transmigration. At first glance it seems to be a case of horizontal transmission: the Greek and Indian doctrines can’t be PIE because they don’t appear in the earliest layers of Indian and Greek literature (the Vedas and Homer). But West insists that they ‘must be historically connected’ because they correspond point for point and are not attested for any other people. In fact, a number of the features of this theory are attested in other cultures, and it isn’t true that the idea of transmigration ‘appears as it were from nowhere in both countries at about the same time around the sixth century BCE’. It appears from somewhere in India; there are early stirrings of the theory in texts from 1500 BCE and 900 BCE, so why could it not have been carried from India to Greece? Yet West concludes: ‘We must suppose that it reached them from a common source, probably across the Persian Empire, even though no such doctrine is attested in Iran.’ Why could it not have gone from India to Mesopotamia? Or why not regard it as a widespread human reaction to death? (Let’s table that suggestion for a moment.)

Mesopotamia is one of West’s two default non-Indo-European sources; he traces the myths of an overcrowded earth and the Four Ages (in both India and Greece) ‘to the far-reaching influence of Mesopotamia ... over a thousand years earlier. The natural conclusion is that the Greek and the Indian poets were both using a motif somehow derived from Mesopotamia,’ rather than handed down within the Indo-European world. He assumes a Near Eastern rather than an Indo-European source for animal fables, too, and notes strikingly similar Near Eastern and Indo-European phraseology about human emotions, concluding that ‘there is little that points to its being peculiarly Indo-European.’ The concepts of the navel of the earth and the world pillar or world tree, shared by Vedic, Greek and Germanic evidence (‘This seems more than a coincidence’), might be considered Indo-European, but West thinks they come from the Near East – or else from shamanism. Shamanism is his other default source, to which he also attributes the resemblances between shamans and Apollo, speaking of ‘the diffusion of shamanistic motifs from the Finno-Ugric peoples, from the east to Scandinavia and from the north, across Scythia and Thrace, to the Greeks’.

The widespread distribution of shamanism well beyond PIE borders raises the final and potentially most devastating challenge: independent origination. The Husband’s Return (as in the Odyssey) is a story pattern ‘well known to folklorists ... a prime example of the wandering folk-tale, diffused without regard to linguistic boundaries’, and hence not (merely) Indo-European. So, too, the story of the father who accidentally kills his son (or the son his father) might be ‘an inherited Indo-European theme or just a wandering folk-tale’. West claims that its distribution matches the Indo-European map, though in fact it is also attested outside this area (and Freud would have told him why). And, indeed, West grants that ‘on the other hand it is just the kind of dramatic motif that might readily be taken over from one people to another and attached to different national heroes. This is, I think, the prudent diagnosis.’

When faced with a pattern of words or myths that exists both inside and outside the Indo-European linguistic range, the only ways to demonstrate that it is, in fact, Indo-European are to establish one-way historical diffusion from PIE, which is hard to do, or to isolate within the broader theme a narrower Indo-European sub-set, which is also hard to do, since it is notoriously difficult to prove that anything made up by human beings does not exist in the world at large. Thus, for instance, the image in the Odyssey of clashing rocks that smash one of the birds who bring the ambrosia to Zeus is Indo-European in that it corresponds closely to the Rig Vedic image of the bird that loses its tail feathers as it brings the Soma to Indra. But West goes on to identify it as ‘a version of the widespread folk-tale motif that the elixir of life is located on the far side of a narrow portal that closes behind the traveller to prevent his return, so that one might get to the elixir but not bring it back to the world of men.’ (In fact, this seems to be not universal but a Pacific Rim myth, attested from India, through Central Asia, China, Siberia, across the Bering Straits and down the west coast of North and South America.)

How much detail is enough to label the sub-set Indo-European? This is a highly subjective criterion. ‘Of course, many of the purposes for which people require gods are universal,’ West admits. ‘If we find a god of healing here, there and everywhere, we cannot assume them to be historically connected unless they show more distinctive identifying features.’ It is significant that he uses the term ‘distinctive features’, taken from the far more rigorous field of linguistics; this is the sound of a linguist whistling in the dark.

Discussing ‘the voluntary death of the man’s wife’ (in a section labelled ‘Suttee’), or the idea that gods sometimes roam the earth disguised in human form, West casually remarks, without further comment, that these customs or ideas are ‘not confined to Indo-European peoples’. On the other hand, a number of features that he regards as Indo-European seem to me to be similarly unconfined: comparisons of a multitude to grains of sand or the stars of the sky, of good-looking men and women to gods and goddesses, of a woman’s face to the moon. The image of death as sleep is, unsurprisingly, ‘not distinctively Indo-European’ – but only because it is, again, found in Mesopotamia.

Claude Lévi-Strauss has answers for one, though not all, of these quandaries. In one stroke (in his essay ‘Split Representation in the Art of Asia and America’, in Structural Anthropology), he stopped the fight between historical diffusion and independent origination by pointing out that even an imported idea takes root only if it also responds to something already present in the importing culture. We may still want to know whether historical contact took place; if there are a number of shared specific details, it probably did. But the borrowing is also evidence for independent origination, in the sense that the culture already had/liked/wanted that idea (in contrast to all the incompatible ideas that it did not borrow). Thus, even if the idea of reincarnation did come from Greece to India (which is unlikely but not impossible), we would have to explain why the Indians took up that idea when they did not take up, for instance, Greek ideas about love between men; and then we must note how different the idea of transmigration in the Upanishads is from Plato’s version of the story. In the light of this insight, anything that occurs throughout the Indo-European world is Indo-European, whether or not the Indo-European speakers borrowed it from or lent it to some other cultures. All that is unique is the linguistic structure. And that world of words and stories is beautifully laid out for us in this important book.

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