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The trifunctional hypothesis of prehistoric Proto-Indo-European society postulates a tripartite ideology ("idéologie tripartite") reflected in the existence of three classes or castes—priests, warriors, and commoners (farmers or tradesmen)—corresponding to the three functions of the sacral, the martial and the economic, respectively. The trifunctional thesis is primarily associated with the French mythographer Georges Dumézil who proposed it in 1929 in the book Flamen-Brahman, and later in Mitra-Varuna.
Sovereignty fell into two distinct and complementary sub-parts, one formal, juridical and priestly but worldly, the other powerful, unpredictable, and also priestly but rooted in the supernatural world. The second main social division was connected with force, the military and war while the role of the third, ruled by the other two, was productivity, herding, farming and crafts. Proto-Indo-European mythology was divided in the same way: each social group had its own god or family of gods to represent it and the function of the god or gods matched the function of the group.
Many such divisions occur in history.
- One example is the supposed division between the king, nobility and regular freemen in early Germanic society
- The three Hindu castes, the Brahmans or priests, the Kshatriya—the warriors and military—and the Vaishya—the agriculturalists, cattle rearers and traders—are associated with three philosophical qualities (gunas), Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas respectively. The castes are socio-economic roles filled by members of society.
The Shudra, a fourth Indian caste, is an "outer" or serf caste serving the other three. A 2001 study found that the genetic affinity of Indians to Europeans is proportionate to caste rank, the upper castes being most similar to Europeans whereas lower castes are more like Asians. The researchers believe that the Indo-European speakers entered India from the Northwest, mixing with or displacing proto-Dravidian speakers, and may have established a caste system with themselves primarily in higher castes.
- The three divisions of the ideal society described by Socrates in Plato's The Republic.
- Terje Leiren discerns a grouping of three Norse gods that corresponds to the trifunctional division; Odin as the patron of priests and magicians, Thor of warriors, and Freyr of fertility and farming.
- Bernard Sergent associates the Indo-European language family with certain archaeological cultures in Southern Russia and reconstructs an Indo-European religion based upon the tripartite functions. He has also examined the trifunctional hypothesis in Greek epic, lyric and dramatic poetry.
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The hypothesis was embraced outside the field of Indo-European studies by some mythographers, anthropologists, and historians such as Mircea Eliade, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marshall Sahlins, Rodney Needham, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Georges Duby.
On the other hand, Allen concludes that the tripartite division may be an artefact, a selection effect rather than an organizing principle used in the societies themselves. Benjamin W. Fortson reports a sense that Dumézil blurred the lines between the three functions and the examples that he gave often had contradictory characteristics, causing detractors to reject his categories as non-existent. John Brough surmises that societal divisions are common outside of Indo-European societies as well, and consequently the hypothesis has only limited utility in illuminating prehistoric Indo-European society. Cristiano Grottanelli states that while Dumézilian trifunctionalism may be seen in modern and medieval contexts, its projection onto earlier cultures is mistaken. Belier is strongly critical.
The hypothesis has been criticised by historians Carlo Ginzburg, Arnaldo Momigliano and Bruce Lincoln as being based on Dumézil's sympathies with the political right. Guy G. Stroumsa sees these criticisms as unfounded.
- According to Jean Boissel, the first description of Indo-European trifunctionalism was by Gobineau, not by Dumézil. (Lincoln, 1999, p. 268, cited below).
- Dumézil, G. (1929). Flamen-Brahman.
- Dumézil, G. (1940). Mitra-Varuna, Presses universitaires de France.
- Dumézil, Georges. (1958). The Rígsþula and Indo-European Social Structure. Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Ed. Einar Haugen, trans. John Lindow (1973). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-03507-0.
- Bamshad, Michael; Kivisild T, Watkins WS, Dixon ME, Ricker CE, Rao BB, Naidu JM, Prasad BV, Reddy PG, Rasanayagam A, Papiha SS, Villems R, Redd AJ, Hammer MF, Nguyen SV, Carroll ML, Batzer MA, Jorde LB (June 2001). "Genetic Evidence on the Origins of Indian Caste Populations". Genome Research 11 (6): 994–1004. doi:10.1101/gr.GR-1733RR. PMC 311057. PMID 11381027. Retrieved 2007-09-09. Cite uses deprecated parameter
- Leiren, Terje I. (1999). From Pagan to Christian: The Story in the 12th-Century Tapestry of the Skog Church. Published online: http://faculty.washington.edu/leiren/vikings2.html
- Bernard Sergent, Les Indo-Européens - Histoire, langues, mythes, Payot, 1995 ISBN 2-228-88956-3
- In the monograph Les trois fonctions indo-européennes en Grèce ancienne Vol. 1, De Mycènes aux Tragique, Économica 1998 ISBN 2-7178-3587-3
- Lebedynsky, I.. (2006). Les Indo-Européens, éditions Errance, Paris
- Lincoln, B. (1999). Theorizing myth: Narrative, ideology, and scholarship, p. 260 n. 17. University of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0-226-48202-6.
- Allen, N. J. Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.10.53
- Benjamin W. Fortson. Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction p. 32
- Gonda, J. (1974). Dumezil's Tripartite Ideology: Some Critical Observations. The Journal of Asian Studies, 34 (1), 139–149, (Nov 1974).
- Lindow, J. (2002). Norse mythology: a guide to the Gods, heroes, rituals, and beliefs, p. 32. Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-515382-8.
- Grottanelli, Cristiano. Dumézil and the Third Function. In Myth and Method.
- Belier, W. W. (1991). Decayed Gods: Origin and Development of Georges Dumézil's Idéologie Tripartite, Leiden.
- Wolin, Richard. The seduction of unreason: the intellectual romance with fascism, p. 344
- Arvidsson, Stefan. Aryan idols: Indo-European mythology as ideology and science, p. 3
- Stroumsa, Guy G. (1998). Georges Dumézil, ancient German myths, and modern demons. Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft, 6, 125-136.