CTP Prelim – Indo-European Mythology

1.List and discuss the major primary sources for the mythology of three Indo-European cultures, including their dates of origin and authorship (if known). Discuss any important factors that may cause problems in interpreting these sources, such as the existence of multiple revisions, or the presence of Christian or other outside influences in surviving texts. (minimum 300 words)

 

When dealing with different civilizations and their stories and beliefs it is sometimes difficult to find trustworthy and complete sources for information.  Such is the case with most pre-Christian Indo-European civilizations.

The Greeks are probably the most studied IE culture in mainstream education.  I remember learning about the Olympians in middle school.  The sources for Hellenic lore are pretty well known and include Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  I read both of these in high school and then again in college.  Hesiod also contributed to the lore with Theogeny and Works and Days (Hellenic Times).  Homer assumed that his audience already knew the stories of the Olympians (Hellenic Times).  He also makes them moody and human like, showing the gods’ shadow sides along with the beneficent.  Hesiod’s stories dealt more with the beginning stories (Morford Lenardon 31).  The original Greek lore tends to be fairly accurate, but you have to be aware of any biases that the translators may have had.  Their religious, political, and societal positions may, and often do, sneak into their translation work.  This can leave the reader with a less that neutral interpretation of the original document. (Jones Pennick 9)

The Norse Mythologies run into a similar, but different issue.  The ancient Germanic peoples passed tales and myth mainly by word of mouth so there weren’t many written records from the time when they existed.  The people that wrote the stories and histories were separated from the ancients by both time and space.  Tacitus, a Roman historian, wrote about the Norse in the first century AD (Davidson 15).  As a foreigner, he would probably have been more interested in things that were unusual and unique rather than similar to his own experience so he probably did not record a full picture of Germanic life (Davidson 18).  The Prose Edda, one of our main sources for Norse myths, was not written until the 13th century by Snoori Sturluson, a Christian monk (Davidson 25).  While he did use older sources such as the Poetic Eddas, and the Voluspa when recording the tales, he was relying on some sources that were written by those that may not have had his neutrality.  It is entirely possible, and fairly probable, that while Sturluson tried to keep his religious leanings and biases out of his work, those that came before him may have not done the same thing and therefor affected the recording of the stories.

There is also very little written mythology when it comes to the Celtic peoples.  We run into the same issues with the Celtic myth sources as we do with the Norse.  The sources we do have were either written by Christian monks, or by people looking to conquer them.  The Celts had an oral history, so it wasn’t until the monks and bards of the Middle Ages started writing things down that any real written record existed.  Unfortunately this means that we only know what the scribes wanted us to know.  In the case of Julius Caesar, some of his writings were probably used as propaganda pieces to get funding for his war effort (Puhval 168-169).  He is, of course going to depict the Celts and the savage villain in these works.  The Christian monks transformed the stories to better fit the Christian mythology.  Just as they “Christianized” some of the Gods and Goddesses (Ford 19), they altered the myths to better fit into their world view.

  1. Summarize, then compare and contrast the myths of at least two Indo-European cultures with respect to the following topics (you need not use the same two cultures as a basis of comparison for each topic): (minimum 300 words for each)

 

Tales of Creation

            There are several different types of myths that commonly occur across cultures.  The overall theme may be the same, but how that these are brought to life in the stories can be dramatically different.  Three of these types of myths are: Tales of Creation, Tales of Divine War, and Tales of the Fate of the Dead.  We shall start by looking at tales of creations, then move to tales of divine war, then finally examine the fate of the dead.

The mythologies of most cultures will include a story that relates how the world, culture, or country began.  One such story in Norse mythology is that of how the body of Ymir was used to create Midgard, the land of we humans.  The story is as follows:

In the beginning there was fire and warmth in the south and cold and ice to the north.    In between was a void called Ginnungagap (Davidson 27).  When the fire and ice met, a figure appeared.  Its name was Ymir.  Ymir was a giant.  It is said that the first people came from an arm and the race of frost giants came from his feet. Ymir was not the only thing in the gap, however.  There was a cow that licked at the ice in which Ymir was incased.  Ymir fed on the cow.  From the cow came Buri, who then created Bor.  From Bor came three brothers, Odin, Vili, and Ve.  Eventually Ymir was killed by these three brothers.  Once he was slain, parts of his body were used to form the world we humans inhabit.  His blood formed great bodies of water like oceans and lakes. His bones created mountains and his teeth created rocks and pebbles.  The sky was formed from his skull.  His eyebrows formed a wall that separated Midgard from the giants.  I find it interesting that blood equated with water and the structure and foundation of the body – the bones, is what the earth, the foundation of our existence, sprang from.  Pebbles and rocks, smaller pieces of earth were made from the smaller pieces of the skeleton, the jaws and teeth.

For Greeks, in the beginning there was Chaos, a great nothingness, Eros, Night and Erebus.  Out of this came Gaia, the Earth.  Gaia then Created Uranus, the sky, the mountains and the ocean.  Together Gaia and Uranus created the Titans, Thunder, Lightning and Bright (Morford Lenardon 41-45).

Both of these myths begin with nothing-ness and disorder.  Both have creatures that propagate asexually.  The Norse has Ymir, the cow and its offspring Buri.  For the Greeks, Gaia is the mother of all for she created her own consort as well as other parts of herself such as the mountains and oceans.

Both of these myths also have a sense of the new over throwing the old.  In the Norse myth, the first being is killed by the next generation.  In the Greek myth, while Uranus is not killed, he is defeated which allows the second generation to assume control and procreate forming yet another group of beings, which then, in turn over throws them.

The Norse story is also an example of what Rev. Kirk Thomas a sacrifice to “maintain cosmic order” where in a sacrifice is made to create order from chaos.  Ymir is sacrificed and from him, a new, more ordered world is formed.

Tales of Divine War

It seems that in most of the world’s mythologies, no one can get along.  Someone is always fighting someone else over something.  The Indo-European Mythologies are no exception.

The Norse have two groups of Gods, the Aesir and the Vanir.  The Aesir were concerned with high level ideas such as inspiration, war and divination (Davidson 7) but the Vanir were more down to earth, literally, they dealt with fertility, luck, prosperity, and all the everyday needs of mankind.  At some point there was a great war between the raced of gods.  The details are sketchy, but we do have details about the truce.  It seems they got tired of fighting one another and decided it was time to figure out how to make peace.  Two deities from each side were exchanged.  Njord and Freyr went to the Aesir and Hoenir and Mimir went to the Vanir (Davidson 45).

The Greeks had a different type of war.  It was a war between generations.  The Olympians fought their parent, the Titans.  Cronus was afraid that he would be overthrown by his offspring, so, as each one was born, he ate them.  Eventually his wife Rhea had enough and tricked Cronus into eating a stone (Morford Lenardon 54).  This caused him to regurgitate not only the stone, but the children he had eaten.  Zeus and his fellow Olympians went to war against Cronos and the Titans.  Not all of the Titans fought against the Olympians though.  He was also joined by the Cyclopes and hundred handed that had been locked in Taratarus by Gaia and Uranus.  Eventually the Titans were defeated and locked up in Tartarus to suffer (Morford Lenardon 59-60).

The Norse divine was a war of social standing.  The Aesir were the more philosophical, higher functioning types and the Vanir were concerned with everyday items.  In this story, a truce was made and the two parties found ways to work together.

The Greek war did not have such an ending.  Their war was about overthrowing the old ways.  While some of the Titans joined forces with the Olympians, there was no truce between warring parties.  The defeated were punished, not brought into the fold of the victors.

Fate of the Dead

In every society there are questions as to what happens to us when we die.  It seems there are as many answers to that question as there are people who ask.  Each culture also has its own idea as to what happens when people pass away.

The Norse were a warring race and the dispensation of the dead reflects that.  There were three places a soul could go, two of which were for those that died in battle.  Valhalla was the hall of Odin (Davidson 149) and Folkvang, the hall of Freya.  There were home to those that died while fighting.  Half went to each hall with Freya getting the first pick of the dead.   Those that died outside of battle due to illness or natural causes like age went to the realm of the goddess Hel.  Her hall is Helheim.  Those souls in Valhalla and Folkvang trained for Ragnorok while those in Helheim rested.

The Greek realm of the dead is more complicated.  When a person dies, Hermes leads to the underworld or Hades.  From there they meet three judges, Minos, Rhadanthus, and Aecos.  Hopefully their relatives buried them with coins for Charon, the ferryman.  Through Hades run five rivers, Styx, the river of hatred, Acheron, the river of pain or woe, Lethe the river of forgetfulness, Phlegethon, the river of fire and Cocytus the river of wailing.  After the rivers there are a few places you may end up depending on how you liked your line.  If you were a horrible person and committed crimes against the Gods you would probably end up in the Fields of Punishment.  If you weren’t bad, but not great either you might go to the Asphodel Meadows.  The Virtuous people that honored the gods an lived righteous lived went to the Elysium fields and if you were reborn from Elysium 3 times you got to retire to the Isle of Blessed (Morford Lenardon 323-325).

The most obvious difference in the two takes is the complexity of the Greek tale as compared to the relative simplicity of the Norse one.  It is obvious from the types of homes of the dead that the Norse placed a great amount of value on warrior members of society and physical prowess while the Greeks valued moral and religion orthopraxy.

  1. Explain how each of the following elements of ADF ritual does or does not resonate with elements of two different Indo-European cultures (you need not use the same two cultures as a basis of comparison for each element): (minimum 100 words each)

            When deciding on the Core Order of Ritual and the pieces and parts that would make it up, the cultures of Indo-European peoples were examined to find commonalities.  Elements of the Core Order of Ritual can be found in most of the IE cultures, but not necessarily all of them.

Earth Mother

The Earth Mother is a concept that appears in multiple cultures.  In the Greek myths this figure is called Gaia.  She is the Earth herself and the mother of everything.   From her springs forth the sky, the Titans, and two species of monsters.  From those things, the rest of existence is formed.  Today, the name Gaia has become a popular way to name anything that has to do with the earth (Morford Lenardon 43).

In the Norse myths there is an Earth Mother figure.  Her name is Nerthus, which literally means “Earth Mother”.  There’s not much detail or many stories about her, mainly just references, but she is there, especially for the Danish peoples (Davidson 110).

Deities of Land

In the IE cultures land deities were concerned with fertility and prosperity. Any deity that is concerned with the fields, forest and trees, could be considered a land deity.

For the Norse, the class of gods known as the Vanir were the ones closest to mankind (Davidson 92).  They include deities such as Freyr and Freya, both deities of fertility, love, and other earthy things.  Demeter and Persephone are linked with the changing of the season in Greek myths.  Persephone goes under the ground for six months of the year.  During that time her mother Demeter mourns her loss causing the plants to die and wither.  When Persephone re-emerges from her visit to Hades, the plants bloom and produce food again (Morford Lenardon 275).

 

 

Deities of Sea

The lands of the Greeks and the Norse are surrounded by water, so it is logical that they would each have some form of sea deity in their lore.   The most well know Greek sea god is Poseidon (Morford Lenardon 121).  He can provide smooth sailing for those who please him, but if he becomes angry he can cause earthquakes and storms with the strike of his trident.  The Norse have Aegir, Ran and Njord.  Njord is the god of ships and is therefore associated with the sea (Davidson 132).  Aegir and his wife Ran are more representative of the sea itself.  It is said that unwary seafarers may find themselves caught in Ran’s net or on a ship that is being eaten by Aegir (Davidson 128-129).

 

Deities of Sky

For centuries when humans look up at the sky the wondered what was up there and what was beyond the clouds.  For the Greeks the sky was Uranus (Morford Lenardon 45).  He was created by Gaia, the Earth.  He surrounds her and nourishes her with rain.  He is also the consort and father to the Titans, as well as monsters that he has locked in Tartarus, the underworld.

For the Norse, there is Thor, not the sky itself, but as the God of Thunder, he has weather associations (Pennick Jones 147-8).  It is said that when thunder rolls across the sky that means that Thor has struck something with his hammer.  This also produces lighting.  As the oak tree seems to be stuck often by lighting, is too is associated with Thor.

Outsiders

The outsiders are those who are against the current rulers or inhabitants of the land and/or those that would disrupt or do harm to them.  In Norse Mythology, during the creation of Midgard a wall was created from Ymir’s eyebrows to keep the Frost Giants from the land of the humans (Davidson 27). These frost giants are also the enemy of the Gods as well as the beings that will be fought at Ragnarok, the Nordic apocalypse (Davidson 38).

For the Greeks, if you are working with the Olympians, the outsiders could be the Titans, especially Cronos, since he decided to devour his children to keep them from defeating him.  Not all of the Titans would fall into this category though.  Some of them sided with Zeus and the Olympians during the war (Davidson 59).

Nature Spirits

Nature spirits can be seen as the spirit residing within the creatures of nature or as otherworldly beings such as trolls and fairies.  We have the Norse to thank for several of the Nature spirits we talk about in today’s world.  These include dwarves (Davidson 114) and elves (Davidson 156).

The Celt saw deity within nature (Green 167).  An example if this is the Paps of Anu, where in the Celts saw the curves of the goddess Anu in surrounding hills (Puhval 184).

The Celts also had the sidhe, or fairies.  These too, are deities.  When the Tuatha De Dannan were defeated, they were not killed.  Instead they retreated under the hills where their power and size diminished from the great gods and goddesses into the spirits of nature known by some as the fey or the fairy folk (Ellis 197).

Ancestors

Ancestor worship and veneration is important in a lot of world religions both past and present.  They are the source of our deep knowledge and the foundation upon which we have built our current existences.

For the Norse it was so important that the dead be honored and visited that some burial mounds were built so that visitors could go inside the mound itself to honor their ancestors (Davidson 126).  They were also remembered and celebrated on certain holy days (Davidson 155).

The Celtic festival of Samhain was used to honor their dead.  They believed that on this night the dead walked among the living and communication was the easiest (Green 122).

  1. Discuss how the following seven elements of ADF’s cosmology are (or are not) reflected in the myths of two different Indo-European cultures. For this question, please use the same two cultures as a basis of comparison for the entire question. (minimum 100 words each)

            The Cosmology that ADF adheres to was created after looking at the lore from various Indo-European cultures.  Just like the components of ADF ritual, not all of the elements used by ADF appear in all cultures.

Upperworld

In ADF cosmology the upper world is the realm of the Shining ones, a place of order above the realm of Man.

In both the Norse and the Celtic worlds, there is no clear cut upper realm.  For the Celts, while there are solar deities and deities associated with the weather and the sky, the gods seem to reside in the middle realm rather than in a separate realm above us.

In Norse cosmology, the sky is made from Ymir’s skull (Davidson 27), but it is not the realm of the gods.  The gods reside in Asgard, a separate realm, but not really an upper one.

Middle World

 

In ADF the Middle realm is where we as humans reside.  We share this space with all the spirits of nature, both seen and unseen.

In both the Celtic and Norse cosmology, the middle realm is also where humans reside.  In the Norse mythologies it is known as Midgard.  There is no special name for it in Celtic Mythology.  In both cultures the middle realm is where the Earth is and it contains the spirits of man and nature.  It seems to be where the gods do their work.  The Celtic gods and the NorseVanir have closer ties to the middle realm than the Norse Aesir.

Divisions of the Middle World

Although popular in ADF, the division of the middle world into the three parts of Land, Sea, and Sky, isn’t really evident in the lore. The Triple division of Land, Sea, and sky that is very popular in ADF seems an accurate enough concept.  This is especially true because what is now the United Kingdom is made up of Islands.  That the ancients saw the land as beneath them, the sky as above them, and the sea is around them makes logical sense that the ancients would divide the realm that way, but it is not borne out in the lore.

Instead, the Irish tales have the middle world is divided into five parts.  There is Ulster in the North, Munster in the South, Connaught in the West, Leinster in the East, and Mide in the Middle (Puhval 175-176).   The Norse don’t have divisions of Midgard.

 

Underworld

In the ADF cosmology the Underworld is the realm of the dead.  For the Celts and the Norse, internment was one standard burial practice.  This would literally place the dead under the ground and the world of the living.   When the Tuathe de Dannan were defeated they retreated underground as well.  Though they did not die, their power diminished to the point that they were no longer gods but spirits of nature (Ellis 197).

The way to the hall of Hel, where people who died of sickness or of natural causes reside in the Norse tales, is considered the underworld.  It is said the Odin’s horse carried it rider “down” to bring back Balder (Davidson 162).

Fire

In ADF cosmology fire is one of the hallows of the sacred center.  It transforms our offerings and carried them to the Shining Ones.  In Norse mythology the fire was most dramatically utilized in the burial pyre (Davidson 160).  It was also one of the two elements of creation in the story of Ymir and the creation of Midgard.  Fire resided on the southern side of the great gap (Davidson 198).

Fire was important to the Celts as well.  It was a purifying and blessing force.  Cattle would be driven between great bonfires to be blessed for the coming season (Hutton 179).  Ay this is the relighting of the fire of the hearth at Imbolc.  The old fire would be extinguished, the home thoroughly cleaned and then the fire relit.

 

Well

The well is another hallow in the ADF’s ritual sacred center.  It is the opening through which we communicate with and send offerings to the ancestors.  It links to the waters that flow throughout the world.  In ritual we put a bit of silver on the well to honor it.

The Celts have a history of throwing offerings into bodies of water (Ellis 220).  Archeologist have found everything from swords to tablets at the bottom of rivers, lakes and other waterways.  Wells and springs are also places of healing (Ellis 166-167),  and were seen as homes to local deities (Jones 183), and had links to the underworld (Green 145).

The Norse have the Well of Urd and the Spring of Fate that was in the Realm of the Aesir (Davidson 26).  This is the place the gods would meet and discuss matters, kind of like the water cooler of the gods.  This speaks to water and wells as a communication device.

 

Tree

In ADF Cosmology, the tree spans the upper and lower realms and resides in the middle realm.  It links the worlds.  This parallels the Norse tales of Yggdrasill, the Norse World Tree. The branches stretch upwards and at its roots are the worlds of the giants, the Aesir, and the realm of the dead (Davidson 26).  There is an Eagle at the top of the tree and a snake at the bottom.  A squirrel carries their angry messages back and forth (Davidson 27).  It sits in the middle of all the worlds.

The Celts don’t have a single world tree like the Norse.  They gathered in groves called nemetons (Ellis 168).  These groves may have also been places for political as well as religious meetings (Pennick and Jones 85).  A meeting place, not of realms but of people.

  1. To what extent do you think we can offer conjectures about Indo-European myths in general? Are the common themes strong enough that the myths seem like variations? Or are the differences so powerful that the themes are less important than the cultural variations? (Minimum 300 words)

            Whenever you attempt to categorize items retrospectively, you run the risk of making the data fit the theory.  It is a part of the human condition to try and put everything in neat little boxes.  It makes everyone feel better when things are neatly sorted and categorized.  Unfortunately sometime when we so this we end up trying to make the data fit our own pet theories instead of letting things stand on their own.  It is a bias that everyone should be aware of, though that is easier said than done.

Having said that, I do believe there are some themes that seem to be common to Indo European myths.  Sky Gods, for example, seem to turn up in most mythologies.  There are the deities such as Uranus that is the sky itself, but also deities like Bel , the sun, or Thor the god of thunder who are not the sky as a whole, but are things we humans associate with it.

There are also classes of stories such as creation myths, flood myths, and tales of the other/under worlds that most cultures seem to have in common.  The stories may be radically different, but the themes are the same.

There are also things, however, that may show up in a few cultures but not all of them.  The Upperworld is an example of this.  While it does appear in the Vedic myths, it does not really show up in Celtic or Nordic tales.

Some stories have tales of twins or goddesses as purveyor of sovereignty, but not all.  In conclusion, I think that while there are definitely some themes, elements, and deity types that span the Indo European mythologies, there are also those that are very different or do not appear at all.  I don’t think that is can be an all 0or nothing answer.  It is more of a sometimes with some elements, but not all the time with everything.  Much like life in general, the myths very rarely all fit into the little tiny boxes as neatly as we wish they would.

Works Cited

Davidson, H.R. Ellis.  Gods and Myths of Northern Europe.  New York: Penguin

Books, 1982. Print.

Ellis, Peter Berresford.  Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc.

  1. Print

Ford, Patrick K. The Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh Tales.  Berkeley: University of

California Press. 1977. Print.

Green, Miranda.  The Gods of the Celts. Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books. 1986. Print

Hutton, Ronald.  The Pagan Religions of Ancient British Isles. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell,

Inc. 1991. Print.

Jones, Prudence and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. New York, Barnes

and Noble, Inc. 1999. Print.

Littleton, Scott C. The New comparative Mythology Revised Edition.  Berkeley:

University of California Press. 1973. Print

Mallory, JP. In Search of the Indo-Europeans.  New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc.

  1. Print

Morford, Mark P.O. and Robert J Lenardon.  Classical Mythology Fourth Edition.

White Plains: Longman, 1971. Print

Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press. 1989.

Print.

“The Sources of Greek Mythology”.  The Hellenic Times. 2005.  Web. 5/28/2015.

Thomas, Kirk “Nature of Sacrifice”. Ar nDraiocht Fein; A Druid Fellowship,

Inc. Web  7/17/2014

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