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Proto-Indo-European religion[edit]

The existence of similarities among the deities and religious practices of the Indo-European (IE) peoples allows glimpses of a common Proto-Indo-European (PIE) religion and mythology. This hypothetical religion would have been the ancestor of the majority of the pagan religions of Europe, and of the Indian religions, as well as the religions that developed from them, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Indications of the existence of this ancestral religion can be detected in commonalities between languages and religious customs of Indo-European peoples. The scientific method of triangulation is used by historical linguists to reconstruct the names of gods and goddesses, the names and processes for religious rituals and many related elements of belief and practice. In addition, many texts relating to the Indo-European religions exist, such as mythological tales and descriptions of religious rituals, including explicit instructions on how to perform them. Archaeological evidence is difficult to match to any specific culture in the earliest period of the Indo-European culture, which is defined as the time when all Indo-European-speaking people could still understand each other and conservatively thought to be about 4000 BCE[1] [2]. However, there is a vast amount of archaeological evidence that can be connected to specific Indo-European cultures and especially religious topics, such as temple site digs, votive offerings and inscriptions. The names of gods and goddesses are often the first words we find written in each of the Indo-European languages.


Linguists are able to reconstruct the names of some deities in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language from many types of sources. Some of the proposed deities are more readily accepted among scholars than others. In order to present a consistent notation, the reconstructed forms used here are cited from Mallory and Adams Oxford Introduction[3]. Use of this source does not imply agreement in either direction. The laryngeals He Ha Ho have been capitalized to make them a little easier to read.

  • *pltH2wiH2 is reconstructed (p. 267, Oxford Intro.) as ‘Plenty’, a goddess of wide flat rivers that meander across the land. Forms include Hittite Lelwanni, a goddess, “the pourer” (p. 760, G&I; Greek Leto; in Latin, Latona, the eponymous ancestor of the Latins; and also Greek Ploutos, borrowed into Latin as Pluto. He is responsible for pushing the water up into the springs that form rivers; demonized by Christians as a god of the “underworld”; i.e. their hell. Even Walter Burkert recognizes this one, although he considers Greek Plataia an ‘Earth Goddess’, p. 17[4].
  • *priHxeHa is reconstructed (p. 208, Oxford Intro.) as ‘beloved, friend’, the god(dess) of the garden. She is known in Hittite as the object of the Purulli festival, and in Sanskrit as Priya. In Avestan she is demonized as Paurwa, but replaced by Anahita. In Greek she is recognized as Aphrodite, although this name does not quite fit the expected phonology, and apparently means the ‘goddess of the garden’, related to the word ‘paradise.’ In Latin Venus takes her place (not cognate), and in Old Norse she is Freya. In Russian she is worshipped under the name Paraskeva (re-christianized as St. Paraskeva), and possibly as Perun in southern Slavic-speaking areas, but see below for a more widely accepted identity of Perun. In Albanian she is Perendi, christianized as St. Prendi. J. Grimm refers to an Old Bohemian (Czech) form Priye, used as a gloss for Aphrodite (p. 303, Grimm[5]). Many of these goddesses give their names to the fifth day of the week, Friday. They are also very well known in lesser forms such as the Germanic Fairies and the Persian Peris, charming and seductive beings in folklore. There are also masculine forms of this deity, Sanskrit Prajapati, Greek Priapos borrowed into Latin as Priapus, and Old Norse Freyr.
  • *perkwunos, known as the ‘striker’ is reconstructed (p. 410, 433, Oxford Intro.) from Skt. Parjánya, and Norse Fjörgyn and Frigg. Fjörgyn was replaced by Thor among the Germanic-speaking people. Other forms are Slavic Perun, Old Prussian Perkúnos, Lithuanian Perkūnas, and Latvian Pērkons. These gods give their names to Thursday, the fourth day of the week.
  • Devis and Devas are found among all the Indo-Europeans, and the word is often used as a general word for ‘a god, any god (or goddess)’ and sometimes for a specific goddess or god, but see Pandemonium. Note that in Sanskrit, Avestan and Hindi, words that end in -a are masculine and -i is feminine. In the western languages the situation is reversed, so that words that end in -a are usually feminine and words that end in -i, or more often -us, and -os are usually masculine. Here the forms are divided into masculine and feminine forms for convenience.
    • *dyeu-, Devi or Dia, `goddess' is reconstructed (*déįų-iH2, see Tichy, p. 72 [6] and G&I, Vol. I p. 196[7]) from Sanskrit, Devi, a goddess with a major cult in India, devi ‘goddess’ ; Avestan, daevi ‘female demon’; Greek, dīa `goddess' and Demeter (etymology highly arguable), a grain goddess, with the vocative form Deo used to address her (although thea is the usual Greek word for ‘goddess’ and zea is the Greek word for spelt, a kind of grain); Latin, Dea Dia, a grain goddess, also dia and diva, ‘goddess’; Iberian Celtic, Deva; Irish dīa, dea, ‘goddess’; Old Polish Zhiva, Жива, a grain goddess, also Siebe; Lith. deive ‘goddess’; and Latvian dieve.
    • *deiwós-, Deva or Deos, `god' (masculine) is reconstructed (p. 408, Oxford Intro. and G&I p. 196, Vol. I[7], but from *dhy-, according to Jaan Puhvel) from Hittite sius ‘god’; and Sanskrit Devá `god; His/Your Majesty'. In Avestan, the daēvas `demons', (later Persian divs, also in Armenian folklore) were demonized by Zarathustra, but Armenian also has tir, tiwr ‘god, idol’ (p. 150, Mann[8]). Greek, dios ‘god’ (but usually theós); Oscan, Diovis; Latin, Jove, a particular god, also with forms deus, dives, ‘a god, a rich man’. Other forms are Welsh dewi; Irish dia, a god; ON Týr; OHG Ziu; Old English Tīw, a particular god; Old Polish Żywie; Lith. Diẽvas; Latv. Dievs, a god who causes the rye fields to ripen; and possibly Irish Dagda; and Slavic Dazbog.
    • *dyēus pHatēr is believed by Christians to have been the original name of the god of the daylit sky and the chief god of the Indo-European pantheon. This was based (p. 409, 431, Oxford Intro.) on Sanskrit Dyáus Pitā; Greek Zeus with a vocative form Zeu patēr; Etruscan Jūpiter, borrowed into Latin alongside the native form Dispater, (cf. also deus pater in the Vulgate, e.g. Jude 1:1); and Illyrian Dei-pátrous. However this appears to be merely a descriptive appositive in the form of a kenning: "Kennings drawn from family relationships are extremely common" p. 34, Olson and Sens[9].
  • *Haéusōs is the name of certain specific gods, usually the sun, the stars (especially the planet Venus), and hearth fires; a class of gods (‘those that shine with a golden light’); and a general word for ‘a god, any god.’ These gods are also general to the Indo-Europeans, but see Pandemonium.
    • *Haeus(os), is believed to have been the goddess of dawn (p. 409, 410, 432, Oxford Intro.) with forms in Hittite, aššu ‘lord, god’; Sanskrit, Ushās, goddess of dawn, but later the Ashuras are demonized; Avestan, Ahura Mazda, the good god of the Zoroastrians, and ahura, a good spirit; Greek, Éōs, a dawn goddess; and Latin, Aurōra, a dawn goddess. Gallic Esus is a god of hearths; and Old Norse, Aesir (pl.), and Old English Ôs (sg.), are general words for ‘a god, any god.’ Slavic, Iaro, is a god of summer; and Lithuanian Aušra is ‘dawn’; while both Latvian Auseklis, and Lithuanian Aušrinė are goddesses of the morning star, i.e. the planet Venus. The form Arap Ushas appears in Albanian folklore, but is there a name of the Moon. See also the names for the Sun which follow.
    • *Haeust(e)ro (p. 294, 301, Oxford Intro., but see the form “*as-t-r, with intrusive -t- [between s and r] in northern dialects” given on p. 702, and 780, G&I[7]) is seen in the Anatolian dialects as Estan, Istanus, Istara; in Sanskrit, Atri, fire but demonized and replaced with Agni; Avestan Atar, sacred fire of the Zoroastrians; Greek Hestia, goddess of hearth; Latin Vesta, goddess of the hearth; and in Old English Eostre, modern English Easter and Old Saxon Ostara, goddess of spring warmth. Armenian Astghik is a star goddess; and the Tibetan Buddhist goddesses like Green Tara are protective deities connected to stars or the planet Venus.
  • *deHanu- ‘River goddess’ is reconstructed (p. 434, Oxford Intro.) from Skt. Danu, a goddess of rivers; Irish Danu, mother of everyone; Welsh Dôn, and also a masculine form, Ossetic Donbettys. The name has been connected with the Dan rivers which run into the Black Sea (Dnieper, Dniester, Don, and Danube) and other river names in Celtic areas. This along with the many ethnonyms (the Danes, the Tuatha de Danaan, the Dacians, the Danoi (Greeks), etc.) was discussed extensively by Robert Graves in the White Goddess[10], a very popular but not very scholarly book.
  • *welnos is reconstructed as a god of cattle from Old Slavic Veles and Volos; and Lithuanian Velnias, “protector of flocks” (in archaic Lithuanian, vėlės means ‘shades’ or ‘spirits of the departed’); as well as Old Norse Ullr, and Old English Wuldor, and even the Elysian fields in Greek myth and ritual (according to Jaan Puhvel, p. 215, Analecta Indoeuropaea[11]). There may be a god of cattle in the northern lands (christianized as St. Vlas), but the argument is very thin. Some of these names were also once thought to be connected to Sanskrit Varuna and Greek Uranus or Ouranos, for example by Max Müller, p. 84, Comparative Mythology[12], and many other authors, Mircea Eliade, Bruce Lincoln and Georges Dumézil. They imagined this to be a sort of “binder god” but this is now rejected on linguistic grounds, (“the etymology is disputed” Michael Shapiro, p. 155, Vol. 10 of JIES[13]).
  • Divine Twins: There are several sets (the Indo-Europeans seem to be quite fond of twins), which may or may not be related.
    • The Sun and Moon are discussed in the next section.
    • Yama and Manu, the first mortals, (or the first gods to die), became the ancestors of everyone and king(s) of the dead. The first ancestor of men was called *Manu-, see Germanic Mannus, Hindu Manu (p. 411, 435, Oxford Intro.), and see also the Mythology section.
    • Horse Twins, often have a name that means ‘horse’ *H1ékuos, but the names are not always cognate (“no lexical set,” p. 432, Oxford Intro.). They are always male and usually have a horse form, or sometimes, one is a horse and the other is a boy. They are brothers of the Sun Maiden or Dawn goddess, and sons of the horse/grain mother and the sea god, continued in Sanskrit as the Ašvins. Other horse twins are: Greek, Dioskuri (Polydeukēs and Kastōr); borrowed into Latin as Castor and Pollux; Irish, the twins of Macha; Old English, Hengist and Horsa (both words mean ‘stallion’), and possibly Old Norse Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse born of Loki; Slavic Lel and Polel; Lithuanian Ašvieniai, identical to Latvian Dieva dēli, and possibly christianized in Albanian as Sts. Flori and Lori. The horse twins may be based on the morning and evening star (the planet Venus) and they often have stories about them in which they “accompany” the Sun goddess, because of the close orbit of the planet Venus to the sun, (Michael Shapiro, p. 137-166, Vol. 10, JIES[13], who references Donald Ward, The Divine Twins, Folklore Studies, No. 19, Univ. Calif. Press, Berkeley, 1968.).
  • The Sun and Moon are often seen as the twin children of various deities (for example in Welsh myth they are the children of Arianrhod), but in fact the sun and moon were deified several times and are often found in competing forms within the same language. The usual scheme is that one of these celestial deities is male and the other female, though the exact gender of the Sun or Moon tends to vary among the Indo-European languages. Here are two of the most common PIE forms:
    • *séHaul Sun with a genitive form *sHau-én-s, gives Hittite DUTU-liya (the raised D indicates that it is a deity); Hindu Svàr, also fem. Sūryā, and masc. Sūrya; Avestan, Hvara; Greek Helios (and Helen, the form in the Dorian Greek of the Spartans); Latin Sōl; Welsh Dylan; Old Norse Sōl; Old English Sigel and Sunna, modern English Sun. Other forms are Russian Zorya, and Zaria in folklore; Old Prussian and Lithuanian Saulė; Latvian Saũle; and Albanian Diell, seen in the name of Sunday and in demonized form as a name for the devil. Most of these forms are given from p. 556, in the Encyclopedia of IE Culture[14].
    • *méH1nōt Moon, gives Hindu Mas; Avestan, Mah; Greek Selene (unrelated), although they also use a form Mēnē; Latin, Luna and later Diana, (unrelated); ON Māni, Old English Mōna, modern English Moon; Slavic Myesyats; Lithuanian, Mėnuo (Mėnulis); and Latvian Meness. Encyclopedia of IE Culture gives the forms but doesn’t even have an entry for a moon goddess, p. 385[14].
  • A water or sea god is reconstructed (p. 438, Oxford Intro.) as *H2epōm nepōts ‘uncle/grandson/nephew of waters’ from Avestan and Vedic Apām Nápāt, and as *néptonos from Latin Neptūnus, Celtic Nechtan, Etruscan Nethuns, and Germanic Hnikar, the Nixies or water spirits, and the Neckar River, (see Puhvel[11]). Similarly, most major Lithuanian rivers begin with ne-. The god is demonized by Christians as Old Nick and christianized as St. Nick, patron saint of sailors. Poseidon (etymology highly arguable, but not cognate) fills the function of this deity in Greek.
  • *péH2usōn is reconstructed (p. 411, 434, Oxford Intro.) as a pastoral god, based on Vedic Pashupati, and Pūshān; the Greek god Pān, and the Roman god Faunus and the fauns. See also Pax.
  • There may also have been a savage dog or wolf (hellhound) guarding the underworld, such as Greek Kerberos borrowed into Latin as Cerberus, and Norse Garm; these names may be derived from a Proto-Indo-European root *gher- (thought to be an onomatopoeic reference to the dog’s growl)[15].
  • Lesser Spirits are found among all the Indo-Europeans and they still persist in folklore. They are especially popular where Christianity has demonized pagan gods, but they are very well known from classical sources too. They can conveniently be grouped according to where they are found in nature, however many of their names are cognate with the great gods and often their names are just plural forms. They usually “attend” their namesakes and share their sphere of power.

A fuller treatment of the subject of the Indo-European Pantheon would not merely list the cognate names but describe additional correspondences in the “family relationships”, festival dates, associated myths (but see Mythology section) and special powers. Once the cognate names are provided (the linguist’s responsibility) everyone can contribute to the research, and I would like to thank especially the Lithuanians, Armenians, Slavs and others who have been contributing information which would otherwise be very difficult to access.


Pandemonium is Jaan Puhvel’s word for the mutual demonization that occurred when Zarathustra demonized the gods of the Sanskrit speakers, and the Sanskrit speakers demonized the gods of the Zoroastrians (Avestan speakers) in turn. Conspicuous examples are the Devas and the Asuras. Sanskrit speakers referred to the Devas as good gods and the word devi, deva is a word for ‘a god, any god,’ whereas the Ashuras are demons in later Sanskrit literature. The Zoroastrians used the word ahura (cognate with Skt. ashura) as a word for ‘a god, any god,’ and Ahura Mazda was their highest god, whereas the daevas (cognate with Skt. devas) were demonized.

The observation of the mutual demonization was made as early as 1884, by Martin Haug who “postulated his thesis that the transition of both the words [Ashuras and Devas] into the designations of the demons.... is based on a prehistoric schism in religion....” according to Alfred Hillebrandt, p. 264, Vol. 2, Vedic Mythology[16]. The same observation is reported by Jacob Grimm, who describes the Persian introduction of dualism and various devils (p. 985, Teutonic Mythology). By the way, this dualism with its long complex history is the reason that the English words ‘divine’ and ‘devil’ have ultimately the same etymology, though they have the opposite meaning. The disparaging meaning given to Daevas had once been attributed by western scholars to a “moral reaction against Vedic polytheism” but it has “no longer any supporter,” according to James Darmesteter (writing in 1895, on page lii, in an intelligent introduction, Vol. 4, SBE[17]), and this was certainly the consensus view among western scholars in the 1800's. However modern western scholars like Mallory and Adams still refer to Zoroastrianism as a “religious reformation” of Vedic religion (p. 408-9, Oxford Intro.[3]).

This demonization is not limited to the Sanskrit and Avestan languages. The close correspondence between the Zoroastrian gods and the Germanic gods has long been recognized, see the Aesir-Asura correspondence which however appears to have been mangled at the moment. Furthermore, this dualism and demonization were absorbed by the Hebrews during their sojourn in Babylon according to Cox, and from there into Christianity, Cox again, quoting M. Bréal, see p. 174 and 562[18].


Indo-European myths may be defined as narratives which have certain elements, such as god/person X does Y in connection with god/person/being Z, where X and Z are cognates, respectively, in several IE languages, and Y is something specific like “kills monster”. Many IE myths have at their core some simple observation of nature or life, such as that the sun is “born” each morning and “dies” each night, or that wheat must be cut down and threshed (“killed and tortured”) before it can be used to make bread.

Types of sources for the reconstruction of Indo-European myths include: 1) actual mythological tales in which gods act like gods; 2) legends or histories. Many foundation myths of a country or city (including sometimes bare king-lists) consist of a reprise of the nature myths; and 3) folktales. Folktales are highly subject to borrowing but some examples can be determined to conserve native myths based on the forms of the names which modern storytellers are not always able to interpret correctly. Cox gives this list, p. 53-56[18]; see also Oxford Intro, which lists “myth, history, folklore”, p. 432[3]. Jacob Grimm gives a more complete list of types of sources including riddles and proverbs, but they must be used with care.

Indo-European Myths: The very brief list of myths which follows can be shown by the cognate names to descend from a common ancestor (as distinguished from a common source) in the Indo-European languages. Most of these were identified and described in 1887 by George Cox, in The Mythology of the Aryan Nations[18], and by many other authors.

Creation myths:

  • Cow Creation (“World made from the Body of a Giant or Bovine”, see below)
  • Birth of the Horse Twins from the grain/horse mother (p. 234, Cox, found in 7/11 language groups, which is a very conservative statistic)
  • Danu killed and cut open to produce a river (a Partition Creation myth, 3/11)

Cyclic Myths:

  • Spring kills Winter, usually with his sprinkler or his striker (p. 559, Cox, found in 4/11 language groups)
  • Cloud/cows stolen from the sun god by the wind god and then released (p. 232, Cox, 4/11)
  • Dying Corn God, dies, is reborn, causes seasons (Frazer, Vol. 8 and 9 of the Golden Bough[19], esp. Vol. 9, p. 412-423; 4/11)
  • Uncle Water melts the ice and releases the water causing flooding (G&I[7], 5/11)
  • Quest of the golden apples of immortality, usually by a wind god (p. 512, Cox, 4/11)

Culture Myths: Stories in which some godlike being teaches the “arts of civilization” (actually technologies) to humans are found in all cultures. The culture myths of the Indo-Europeans tell how the Culture Gods taught humans how to make fire, the proper way to kill and butcher an animal (sacrifice), religious rituals and law codes, smithing, weaving, ploughing and healing. Culture gods (e.g. Prometheus and Loki) sometimes have an intermediate position between gods and humans. They are certainly supernatural, but they often die or are tortured by other gods for their beneficence to humans, nevertheless they are often revived and worshipped like regular gods. Mallory and Adams call them Craft Gods and argue that they are not linguistically reconstructible, however Cox compares Greek Prometheus with Hindu Pramanthu (p. 421, Cox[18]). Smith gods, a subset of the Culture gods, are slightly reconstructible according to Mallory and Adams (p. 410, Oxford Intro.[3]).

Religious Uses of Myths: Many texts state specifically that telling or listening to a myth confers a blessing on the listeners. For example the text of the Táin Bó Cúalnge quoted below has a colophon that reads “A blessing be upon all such as shall faithfully keep the Táin in memory as it stands here and shall not add any other form to it.” Also telling myths is considered a way to praise and honor the gods so myths are often recited or sung especially at festivals for a particular god, see Schultz and Lavenda, pp. 229-232[20], or as another author puts it “The praises of their gods, and the achievements of their heroes, are usually chanted at their festival meetings”, p. 339, Vol III, Percy's Reliques[21], where he is basically quoting Tacitus' Germania c.ii. The telling of myths was apparently the original impetus for the tradition of Greek drama at the festivals of Dionysus, although by the time we have a written record of the dramas, they are not restricted in subject matter to the myths of any particular god, p. 5, Moulton[22].

Cow Creation Myth[edit]

The Myth of how the World was made from the body of a giant human or bovine is one of the best represented and most widely recognized myths of the Indo-Europeans. The following versions of this myth show the range of the material, and the approximate dates indicate the time span. The elements are (1) *Yemós, the ‘twin’ who is (2) dismembered by (3) *Mánu, his brother, and then the parts of the twin’s body are used to (4) create the world according to a specific formula “his bones are the rocks, his blood made the rivers and seas”, etc. While the substance of the formula is essentially folkloric (rocks do look like “bones of the earth”), the use of the formula in this particular context and the linguistic correspondence of the names makes possible the reconstruction of a Proto-Indo-European myth, as recognized by Cox, p. 189[18]. This myth is also described by Mallory and Adams, p. 129-130, in the Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture[14] and other modern authors, which is why it was chosen as an example.

  1. Sanskrit, the oldest source is the Rig Veda composed circa 2000 - 1000 BCE according to western scholars, earlier according to Hindu scholars.
    1. Yamá dies (it doesn’t say how): “Yamá surrendered his dear body,” see Rig Vedic hymn 10.13. This was published on p. 223, Vol. 2, in Vedic Mythology[16].
    2. Sanskrit (late 2nd millennium BCE), “Yama died as the first of mortals.” The original source is the Atharva Veda XVIII.3.13, and this was published on p. 222, also in Vol. 2, Vedic Mythology[16].
    3. later Sanskrit (1000 - 500 BCE). First a bull, then the wife of Manu, named Manâvî is killed (with Manu’s permission) in sacrifice by the Ashuras but without any world making. The original source is the Satapatha-Brâhmana: 1 Kanda, 1 Adhyâya, 4 Brâhmana 14-17. This was published pp. 29-30, Vol. 12 (trans. by Julius Eggeling), SBE[17].
  2. Avestan, the earliest part of the Avesta was composed before 600 BCE, Zoroastrians think earlier.
    1. Yima Kshaeta makes the world grow larger three times, but he does this while he is still alive. This version is clearly mythological. Yima is the Avestan form of Sanskrit Yama and Kshaeta means ‘shepherd’ later ‘shah, king.’ The original source is the Zend-Avesta, Vendidad, Fargard II, and this was published, p. 12-21, Vol. 4 (translated by James Darmesteter), SBE[17].
    2. Avestan “....Aži Dahâka and Spityura, he who sawed Yima in twain.” According to the editor of the text (Darmesteter), Spityura was a brother of Yima. The original source is the Zend-Avesta, Zamyâd Yasht, VIII: 46, published p. 293-297, Vol. 23, SBE[17].
    3. Pahlevi (Middle Persian), texts date to between 224 BCE and 664 CE. In this source Gayomard (older form Gaya Maratan ‘mortal life’) is killed by Ahriman (spelled Aharman in this translation). A cow and Gayomard are both killed. Out of the cow’s body grows the world, and from Gayomard’s body are born the first humans, his children Mâshya and Mâshyana (who are male and female) so he is the ancestor of everyone. The name Gayomard is not a good cognate with Yima Kshaeta, but Jaan Puhvel equates them on the basis of the similarity of the stories. The original source is the Bundahišn, Ch. 3, part 23, (“Gayomard spoke thus: ‘mankind will be all of my race’”) and Ch. 15, the whole of it. This is published in Vol. 5 (translated by E.W. West), p. 19 and p. 52, SBE[17]. An analysis of this was published by Jaan Puhvel, under the title Remus and Frater, pp. 300-311[11].
    4. Pahlevi (Middle Persian). Here there is only the bare statement: “Spîtûr was he who, with Dahâk, cut up Yim.” The original source is also the Bundahišn, Ch. 31, Verse 5, and this was also published in Vol. 5, on p. 131, SBE[17].
    5. Persian, from the Shah Namah written by Firdausi around 1100 CE. In this source, Jemshid is sawed in two by Zohak. Jemshid is the Persian form of earlier Yima Kshaeta. Zohak is the Persian form of earlier Aži Dahâka. Gaiúmart also appears in this text but he simply “passes away” after winning a battle against the son of Ahriman. The first section of the Shah Namah is ostensibly a history of the kings of Persia, although it is actually a reprise of old myths. As this source was produced in a Moslem cultural context, the beings are no longer “gods” but they still have many supernatural qualities. The Shah Namah has been published in English in many very bad verse translations. The one used here is Vol. 1 of the Shahnama of Firdausi, translated by Arthur George Warner and Edmond Warner, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London, 1905. There is also an abridged prose version of this on the net, transl. by Helen Zimmern, 1883, called The Epic of Kings.
  3. Latin (before CE 17). There are almost no mythological tales of Rome, but the early “history” of Rome is recognized as an historicized version of various old myths. Romulus and Remus were twin brothers, and they both have stories in which they are killed.
    1. Remus is killed by his brother Romulus at the foundation of Rome; and
    2. Romulus is dismembered by the senators, “...there were some who secretly hinted that he had been torn limb from limb by the senators...” There is no world-making here, but Romulus is the eponymous ancestor of the Romans, and the founder of Rome. One of the original sources for the stories of Romulus and Remus is Livy’s History of Rome Vol. 1, parts iv-vii and xvi. This has been published in an Everyman edition, transl. by W.M. Roberts, E.P. Dutton & Co. NY, 1912.
    3. Gemini is the Latin word for ‘twins’ though it usually applies to Castor and Pollux, see Horse Twins in the Pantheon section. They were worshipped all over the Roman world with votive altars with inscriptions, which remained after the Romans were gone. This may be the source of some names which appear in early Christian myths, see Other Correspondences.
  4. Celtic, in this case early Irish texts were written down between the 11th-14th centuries CE. In one myth a bull is killed and dismembered by another bull and the parts of his body are distributed around Ireland, which explains the names of many features of the landscape, though not the cause of their existence.
    1. “It was not long before the men of Erin [Ireland], as they were there in the company of Ailill and Madb early on the morrow, saw coming over Cruachan from the west, the Brown Bull of Cúalnge with the Whitehorned [Bull] of Ai in torn fragments hanging about his ears and horns.” Among the less revolting distributions is this one: “Then he raised his head, and the shoulder-blades of the Whitehorned fell from him in that place. Hence, Sruthair Finnlethe (‘Stream of the White Shoulder-blade’) is the name given to it.” The original source is the last chapter of the Táin Bó Cúalnge, usually called in English, The Cattle Raid of Cooley. These quotations are from The Ancient Irish Epic Tale, Táin Bó Cúalnge, transl. by Joseph Dunn, publ. David Nutt, London, 1914.
  5. The Germanic languages have information about both Ymir and Mannus, but they never appear in the same myth, rather they appear only in myths widely separated in both time and circumstances.
    1. A Roman text Germania 2 by Tacitus, writing in Latin, in CE 98, tells that Mannus, the son of Tuisto, was the ancestor of the Germanic people. We never see this person/being again, but the names Alamanni and German(s) are interpreted (perhaps by folk etymology) as ‘all-men’ the German name for themselves.
    2. In Old Norse texts written down in the 13th cent. but composed earlier, Ymir is a giant dismembered by Odin and Odin's brother gods to make the World with the formula: “Of Ymir’s flesh the earth was fashioned, And of his sweat the sea; Crags of his bones, trees of his hair, And of his skull the sky. Then of his brows, the blithe gods made Midgard for sons of men; And of his brain, the bitter-mooded Clouds were all created.” The original source is the Grimnismal 40-41, (Poetic Edda). This version is quoted from p. 21, The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, transl. by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, The American-Scandinavian Foundation, Oxford University Press, London, 1923.
  6. In Lithuanian, a folktale tells of a bull and 3 cows which are beheaded by Aušrinė, (the morning star) and then the land appears. The very end of the story reads:
    1. “The maiden upon returning released her bull. The bull knelt down and spoke in a man’s voice: ‘Chop off my head!’ The maiden did not want to chop it off, but she had to. She chopped the head off--a fourth of the seas disappeared, became land. Her brother emerged from the bull. She cut off the heads of all three cows, who were her sisters. All the seas disappeared, turned to land. The earth sprang to life.” The original source for this is a folktale called Saulė and Vejų Motina (“The Sun and the Mother of the Winds”), pp. 309-13, of M. Davainis-Silvestraitis’ Collection, Pasakos, Sakmės, Oracijos (“Tales, Legends and Orations”) publ. in Vilnius, 1973. The English version is from p. 67 Of Gods and Men by Algirdas J. Greimas, transl. by Milda Newman, Indiana Univ. Press, Indianapolis, 1992.

Conclusion This myth appears in 5/11 language groups (five out of eleven languages since Sanskrit and Avestan are counted as one when estimating the range of a myth). It seems that poor Yama is a personification of the cows which were killed and dismembered for food by the Indo-Europeans who were personified as “Man”. This resulted in the formation of the world from the various parts of the body of the cow. This process was ritualized as a “sacrifice” and --perhaps-- the narrative was developed to explain the practice. This presentation addresses only part of this myth, which can be reconstructed further to tell the tale of a great flood which Manu survives, and his subsequent institution of religious rites and law codes.

Other Correspondences[edit]

Correspondences have been noticed between the Indo-European religion and the myths and gods in other religions such as Christianity and Buddhism as well as in other non-Indo-European languages such as the Semitic languages and the Caucasian and Kartvelian languages. Strictly speaking, this is off-topic for a discussion of PIE religion, but it is included here because it seems to be of interest to some people. The Cow Creation Myth (to use this myth as an example because it has been discussed earlier) and one of the names in it-- *Yama --have correspondences in several unrelated languages and religions. In Hindu belief, Yama is the king of the dead because he was the first to die, but he is not a death god, that is, he never kills anyone. He only comes to welcome the dead humans when it is their time to die, so he is considered quite benevolent, however no one is happy to see him! In those languages where he is borrowed he sometimes becomes a death god who kills people, and in religions that have a cruel afterlife, he sometimes tortures the dead.

Mahayana Buddhism and Asian Languages: Sanskrit Yama was absorbed into Mahayana Buddhism. As the judge of the dead, and Buddhist king of hell, Yama was borrowed into Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan, and translated or borrowed into the languages of those countries, still with a name like “Yama.” Buddhist iconography in Nepal shows him with the head of a bull[23], but further east he looks like a government bureaucrat, pp. 152-3, Getty[24]. Other Sanskrit gods were borrowed into Mahayana Buddhism too, which is how Indra and Shiva came to be worshipped in Japan.

Yama is also equated to the Erlik Qan (King of the Dead) of the Mongolians by Getty[24], and from there he turns up in the Germanic languages in a poem by Goethe called Der Erlkoenig, which was set to music by Franz Schubert, and then turned into English by Sir Walter Scott as the poem The Erl-King, see the webpage by Bill Hammel. This is obviously a borrowing into the Germanic languages, but it retains something of Yama’s character as a psychopomp or “conductor of souls” as seen in Indo-European belief.

Languages of the Caucasus Mountains: Forms of Yama or Yima appear in the Nart sagas, folktales and songs about the Narts who were superhuman beings who lived in the old days. The Nart sagas are common to several families of languages in the area of the Caucasus mountains west of the Black Sea, including Ossetic (an Indo-European language), and the languages of the Chechens & Ingush; Circassians; Kartvelian-speaking Svans and Georgians which are not Indo-European languages. The examples which follow are all Circassian. In Saga 7, Lady Setenaya and the Magic Apple, Yaminizh is seen as a personification of cholera, who destroys the magic apple tree which gave life and health to the Narts. In Saga 39, a ballad, the hero cannot rest until he avenges his father’s death on Yamina, still thought of as cholera. The hero manages to do this, “he slew him in combat” (and marries his wife!), and so although the name is equivalent according to the translator, the character of *Yama is much different in the Circassian stories, see Colarusso[25]. The Circassian forms Yimis, in Saga 2, (possibly with an epithet Pshimaruquo ‘Prince of Death’ see note 10 on p. 17); Yaminizh, in Saga 7, with a suffix that means evil; and Yamina; along with Georgian Iaman; and Svan Yaman, are all forms of this name which show “influence in the Caucasus from the Iranian world” and the translator compares these names to Sanskrit Yama and Iranian Yima (p. 174, Colarusso[25]). This is just one of many borrowings from the Indo-European religion into the Nart sagas.

Semitic Languages: Among the Phoenicians, a sea-faring people. Yam is a god of the sea. In a Canaanite myth, translated from Ugaritic cuneiform of the Ras Shamra tablets which date from the 14th to the 12th centuries BCE, the god Baal kills Yam and scatters his body, though it doesn’t specifically say that the world was made from it, p. 44, Gibson.[26].

The Phoenician story has a similar structure to the Babylonian Creation myth Enuma Elis which may be dated to circa 1100 BCE, and is known in both Akkadian and Assyrian forms. In this story, Marduk kills Tiamat and then splits her body into two parts "like two halves of a flatfish" to make the sky from one part and the world, with mountains, rivers (the Tigris and Euphrates are named) and hills from the other part, pp. 66-67, Grimal[27]. This clearly shows the creation of the world from her body. The relationship of the names is not clear, although “there is no doubt that Yam-Nahar was the chief Ugaritic counterpart of the Babylonian Tiamat” according to Gibson, p. 7[26]. A Sumerian source has been offered for the name Tiamat.

In the Hebrew Bible, the word yam appears many times, for example, “you stirred up the sea (presumably translating yam) in your might”, Psalm 74:13. Christians interpret this as a victory of Yahweh over the sea which is supposed to represent forces of chaos, see for example the footnote on verses 12-17, in the St. Joseph Edition of the Bible[28]. However in Hebrew the word “yam” simply means a body of water, and appears in the names of various lakes and seas such as Yam Suph “Reed Sea” (usually called in English the Red Sea), while the concept of a combat between Yahweh and the sea in the Old Testament/Tanakh is rejected by van der Toorn, p. 869[29]. A story in which Yahweh does have power over a sea monster is the story of Jonah and the whale, traditionally told at Yom Kippur. However, in this story, no harm comes to the whale, it just spews Jonah up, and there is no world making (Book of Jonah in the Old Testament of the Bible.).

Christian religion: The name *Yama seems to correspond to James, the name in English of several Christian saints (also Gaelic Seamus). In most languages, the Christian saints James are known by a form of the name Jacob(us), but although the names Jacob and James cannot be linguistic cognates, the persons so named correspond in all points. St. James has various forms some of whom are martyred by being sawn in half, hence the English name for him/them, St. James Sawn-Asunder. Under the names James of Nisibus, James the Persian and in Latin James Intercisus (feast day 11/27), there is a wretched tale in which he/they are tortured to death by being--cut into pieces, see Holweck[30]. In the Syriac martyrologies, (the earliest martyrologies that we have--411 CE), one of the various Sts. James suffers the “nine deaths” in which his fingers and toes are cut off, etc., see Fiey[31]. Nisibus is a city in Persia, and these saints are clearly christianized versions of Persian Jemshid, going back to the IE deity Yima Kshaeta. Many Indo-European gods became saints in the Christian church, including quite a few Zoroastrian gods in the Syriac church. The Roman Catholic Church conceded the point in 1965 when it demoted 200 saints, including the patron saints of many countries, e.g., Santiago de Compostella, St. David of Wales, St. Patrick of Ireland, St. George of England, St. Andrew of Scotland, St. Nicholas of everywhere (Germany, Russia, Holland, looks like the Hanseatic League), and too many more to mention.

Correspondences like these, including entire pantheons, between the Indo-European religion and other religions and other non-Indo-European languages are so widespread that they cannot be explained as coincidences. The pattern of borrowings with the Nart sagas, the Mahayana Buddhist elements, and Christian saints, myths and rituals are fairly well understood historically, however the relationship between the Indo-European languages and the Semitic and Sumerian languages is not at all clear. Since these families of languages are not thought to be related, we shouldn’t expect to see cognates. Traditionally it had been assumed, partly because people believed that the Bible was historically accurate, that any similarities could be explained by borrowing from the Semitic (and Sumerian) languages into the Indo-European languages. However since many IE gods and myths show cognate forms across the Indo-European languages, the IE gods can be reconstructed as being in existence in the Proto-Indo-European language at approximately 4000 BC. That means that if they were borrowed, they would have to have been borrowed by 4000 BCE, the time of the beginning of the break up of the Indo-European languages. None of the great Mesopotamian or other Semitic-speaking cultures had developed into politically or militarily dominant states that early, so it's difficult to see why another culture would borrow entire pantheons from them.

As it is, there are still anomalies in the timelines and problems with the geographic distribution. In any case the difficulties remain unresolved and the subject is a sensitive one, since it concerns the supposed history of several different religions.


Religion is defined as “a set of beliefs...usually involving devotion and ritual observances...” (Random House Dictionary). The rituals of the Indo-European religions are often overlooked but they are very widely described in many places in the individual languages. Also about a billion Hindus maintain their ancient rituals every day: they still remember.

Émile Benveniste states that “there is no common term to designate religion itself, or cult, or the priest, not even one of the personal gods” pp. 445-6, Indo-European Language and Society[32]. He then provides the first example: the root *ŗta-, usually translated as ‘order’, and reconstructed from Vedic Ŗta, and Iranian arta ‘order’ which provide both an abstract word, and the name of a goddess (see also G&I p. 810, which gives *ar-(t(h)o-, with forms Hittite ara, UL ara, DAra, a Hittite goddess). This root also provides the Sanskrit forms ŗta-van (masc.), and ŗta-vari (fem.); and Iranian forms artavan (masc.), artavari (fem.), all meaning ‘the one who is faithful to arta, who is morally accomplished’ which are common types of formations for those who assist at rituals (e.g., priests and priestesses). Having dismissed the possibility that the Indo-Europeans could have had any basic religious concept, Benveniste states, “We have here one of the cardinal notions of the legal world of the Indo-Europeans to say nothing of their religious and moral ideas (pp. 379-381). He also adds that an abstract suffix -tu formed the Vedic stem Ŗtu-, Avestan ratu- which designated order, particularly in the seasons and periods of time and which appears in Latin ritus ‘rite’ borrowed into English as ‘rite(s).’ The same root appears as -ratri, the element in many names of festivals in India such as Shivaratri, the festival of the celebration of the marriage of Shiva; and in modern Hindi ārties are special hymns which are sung at the end of an offering to make sure the rites come out correctly[33]. Another suffix -ti gives Latin ars, artis ‘the technique for doing something’, and is borrowed into English as ‘art.’ This is one of the most widely attested words and most widely deified goddesses among the Indo-Europeans, and for many more examples see p. 810, G&I[7]; and p. 56, 57, Pokorny[34].

A list of reconstructed PIE religious terms is provided by Lyle Campbell (pp. 391-392, Historical Linguistics[35]), for which he credits Michael Weiss. Campbell gives only the bare root and a translation; wherever possible, a page number has been added from the Encyclopedia of IE Culture, abbrev. EIEC[14], which amplifies the information and gives some of the words in various languages. See also G&I, p. 832-7, ritual language.

  • *isH1ro ‘holy’
  • *sakro- ‘holy’ (derived from *sak- ‘to sanctify’) [p. 493, EIEC]
  • *kywen(to)- ‘holy’ [p. 493, EIEC]
  • *noibho- ‘holy’ [p. 493, EIEC]
  • *preky- ‘pray’
  • *meldh- ‘pray’ [p. 449, EIEC]
  • *gwhedh- ‘pray’ [p. 449, EIEC]
  • *H1wegwh- ‘speak solemnly’; [*uegwh-, p. 449, EIEC]
  • *ĝheuHx- ‘call, invoke’ (perhaps English god < *ĝhu-to- from ‘that which is invoked’, but derivation from *ĝhu-to- ‘libated’ from *ĝheu- ‘libate, pour’ is also possible). [p. 89, EIEC]
  • *kowHxei- ‘priest, seer/poet’ [p. 451, EIEC]
  • *Hxiaĝ- ‘worship’
  • *weik- ‘consecrate’ (earlier meaning perhaps ‘to separate’), [*ueik-, p. 493, EIEC; p. 29, Grimm Teutonic Mythology]
  • *sep- ‘handle reverently’ [p. 450, EIEC]
  • *spend- ‘libate’
  • *ĝheu- ‘libate’ and *ĝheu-mņ ‘libation’
  • *dapnom ‘sacrificial meal’ from *dap-, [p. 496, EIEC; p. 484, Benveniste]
  • *tolko/eH2- ‘meal’ (at least late PIE) [p. 496, EIEC]
  • *nemos ‘sacred grove’ (used in west and centre of the IE world)
  • *werbh- ‘sacred enclosure’

The study of Indo-European linguistics allows for a theoretical reconstruction of some of the original IE rituals by showing the common religious meanings of some PIE words. In a few cases it is thought possible to reconstruct the actual wording of ancient ritual texts, or at least the more formal ones because of the mnemonic qualities of verse. This more technical approach is the most valuable source for reconstructing Proto-Indo-European religion.

In the past many Indo-European rituals have been reconstructed based on comparative religion studies, including folkloric descriptions and descriptions from ancient literature, however much of this work had a political or religious agenda. Nevertheless the multiple descriptions provide a picture and a confirmation of the practice which is reconstructed from linguistic analysis. More recently modern archaeologists have described many sites which have religious elements that can be analyzed (as well as finding many new inscriptions!) and these have provided a welcomed correction to the loose speculation that was published in the past. Better standards of analysis of religion have also been developed in anthropological studies, see pp. 229-232, Schultz and Lavenda, abbrev. S&L[36], and p. 344-382, Haviland[37].

Ancestor Cult[edit]

Anthropologists list Ancestral Spirits as one of the types of supernatural beings and they are “seen as retaining an active interest in human society” p. 348-350, Haviland[37]. Called *patri- > Patris or Patrikas (e.g. `father', p. 194-5, EIEC) and *mater > Matris or Matrikas (e.g. `mother', p. 385-6, EIEC) both with diminutive endings in various cognate forms, they were worshipped among all the IE. Generally, people went to grave sites and offered food, flowers and lighted lamps or candles. The IE worshipped their own parents as a community at regular times of the year, especially in May and November.

The “honored dead” were assumed to persist in any location and were also worshipped in the same way under the name *Mannus, e.g. Latin Di Manes and many cognate forms in other languages. See the Mythology section for the myth that correlates to this. A more personal variation of this ritual was the commemoration of lost comrades by soldiers, which was very widespread among the Romans, and celebrated as the Rosalia, approximately May 1st.

Related Themes[edit]

Subsequent Development[edit]

The following sources are a small selection of the vast amount of information available on this subject. Links of a more general nature are listed under General Links.

  • Anatolian dialects (Hittite, Palaic, Luwian, and later Lydian, etc.)


  1. ^ In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth, by J.P. Mallory, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1989.
  2. ^ The Horse, the Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2007.
  3. ^ a b c d Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, by J.P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
  4. ^ Greek Religion by Walter Burkert, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1985.
  5. ^ Deutsche Mythologie by Jacob Grimm, (English title Teutonic Mythology, transl. by Stallybrass), George Bell and Sons, London, 1883.
  6. ^ A Survey of Proto-Indo-European by Eva Tichy, transl. by James E. Cathy, Hempen Verlag, Bremen, 2006
  7. ^ a b c d e Cite error: The named reference G&I was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  8. ^ An Indo-European Comparative Dictionary by Stuart E. Mann, Helmut Buske Verlag, Hamburg, 1984/1987.
  9. ^ Archestratos of Gela, by S. Douglas Olson and Alexander Sens, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000.
  10. ^ The White Goddess by Robert Graves, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, NY, 1948 and 1966.
  11. ^ a b c Analecta Indoeuropaea, (a collection of articles), by Jaan Puhvel, publ. by Innsbrucker Beitrage zur Sprachwissenschaft, Innsbruck, 1981.
  12. ^ Comparative Mythology, (Friedrich) Max Müller, Arno Press, NY, 1909, 1977.
  13. ^ a b The Journal of Indo-European Studies, publ. by JIES, Washington, DC., 1973.
  14. ^ a b c d Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, J.P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams, ed., Fitzroy Dearborn, London, 1997.
  15. ^ Alby, Stone (1994). "Hellhounds, Werewolves and the Germanic Underworld". Mercian Mysteries. 20. Retrieved 2007-10-07.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  16. ^ a b c Vedic Mythology by Alfred Hillebrandt, transl. by Sreeramula Rajeswara Sarma, publ. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1981 (orig. 1891).
  17. ^ a b c d e f Sacred Books of the East, transl. by various Oriental scholars, series ed. by Max Müller, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1879-1904.
  18. ^ a b c d e The Mythology of the Aryan Nations by George W. Cox, Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, London, 1887.
  19. ^ The Golden Bough James George Frazer, MacMillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1919-1920 (12 vol. edition).
  20. ^ Cultural Anthropology, A Perspective on the Human Condition, by Emily A. Schultz, and Robert H. Lavenda, Mayfield Publishing Co., Mountain View, CA 1995.
  21. ^ Reliques of Ancient English Poetry by Thomas Percy, ed. by Henry Wheatley, Swan Sonnenschein & Co., London, 1891
  22. ^ The Ancient Classical Drama, A Study in Literary Evolution by Richard G. Moulton, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1890.
  23. ^ Short Description of Gods, Goddesses, and Ritual Objects of Buddhism and Hinduism in Nepal compiled by Jnan Bahadur Sakya, publ. by Handicraft Association of Nepal, Kathmandu, 1989.
  24. ^ a b The Gods of Northern Buddhism by Alice Getty, Charles E. Tuttle, Co., Rutland, Vermont, 1914, 1962.
  25. ^ a b Nart Sagas from the Caucasus ed. and transl. by John Colarusso, Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, 2002.
  26. ^ a b Canaanite Myths and Legends by J.C.L. Gibson, T & T Clark Ltd., Edinburgh, 1977.
  27. ^ Larousse World Mythology, by Pierre Grimal, Prometheus Press, NY, 1965.
  28. ^ The New American Bible, Catholic Book Publishing Co., NY, c. 1970.
  29. ^ Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible ed. by Karel van der Toorn, et al., William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1999.
  30. ^ A Biographical Dictionary of Saints by F.G. Holweck, B. Herder Book Co., St. Louis, MO, 1924.
  31. ^ Saints Syriaques by Jean Maurice Fiey, ed. by Lawrence Conrad, The Darwin Press, Inc., Princeton, NJ, 2004.
  32. ^ Indo-European Language and Society by Émile Benveniste (transl. by Elizabeth Palmer, orig. title Le vocabulaire des institutions Indo-Européennes, 1969), University of Miami Press, Coral Gables, Florida, 1973.
  33. ^ Snatan Daily Prayer Diamond Books, New Delhi, 2004.
  34. ^ Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch by Julius Pokorny, Francke Verlag, Bern und München, 1959.
  35. ^ Historical Linguistics, An Introduction, by Lyle Campbell, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2004.
  36. ^ Cultural Anthropology, A Perspective on the Human Condition, by Emily A. Schultz, and Robert H. Lavenda, Mayfield Publishing Co., Mountain View, CA 1995.
  37. ^ a b Cultural Anthropology by William A. Haviland, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, NY, 1993.

General links[edit]

Category:Indo-European mythology Category:Indo-European deities Category:History of religion Category:Essential Importance Religion article Category:Articles vandalized by religious bigots since June 18, 2008 de:Indogermanische Religion fr:Religion proto-indo-européenne pt:Religião proto-indo-européia ru:Индоевропейская мифология {{paganism}}