Real old time-y religion, myth in culture, antiquity to modernity, wild speculation
Sometime in the late 18th century, William Jones discovered Proto-Indo-European, what some may describe as the ursprach or mother tongue of all languages. Jones was a member of the East India Company and was based in India at the time. Upon beginning his study of Sanskrit as an attempt to more fully understand Hindu culture, Jones realized that Greek, Latin and Sanskrit were all exceedingly similar, so much so that these similarities could not be the result of coincidence. As this hypothesis was expanded and confirmed, it was realized that languages as disparate as Hittite and the Tocharian languages of West China stemmed also from this one root. Not just the languages were similar, but also their mythologies and rituals.
Much of this information has been compiled through comparing similarities between languages and fragments of languages from these time periods, as archaeological evidence has proved hard to come by.
The PIE term for “a god” was likely “deiwos”, from which we likely get the Latin “deus” and the Sanskrit “deva”.
Some of the variations of Gods in PIE religion include:
- A sky father, “dyeus”, god of the day lit sky, believed to have been the chief deity in the pantheon. His consort is believed to have been the “earth mother”, probably a symbolic motif on the cycle of night/day. The sky father’s role as protector and provider mirrors the relative calm of day in prehistory, where large predators would be sleeping and food would be easier to spot. At the end of the day he rests in the earth mother, and no longer stands guard over the realms of men. It is believed the Greek god Zeus may have derived from this original sky father.
- “The broad one”, reconstructed as “plenty”, a goddess of wide, flat lands and the rivers that meander across them. The choice of goddess over god here perhaps symbolizes the yielding, fertile quality of the land as associated with similar traits in the female human.
- “Perkwunos”, the striker, the god of thunder, whose name is derived from an early word for “oak”. The connection with oaks and thunder can perhaps be explained by the commonplace happening of lightning striking the tops of tall trees. In Norse mythology, the god Thor could strike enemies hiding under an oak tree, but not under smaller trees such as beech. Another myth held that oak trees contained a fire within them that lightning could set free, perhaps a symbolic representation of the transfer of electricity from the tree into an unsuspecting bystander. The name “Perkwunos” may have also evolved into “Parjanya”, a deity of rein in the Vedic myths.
- “Hausos”, one of the most important goddesses of PIE religion, is the personification of dawn as a gorgeous young woman, symbolizing not only the rising sun but also spring and the warmth of youth. The name derives from a root phrase translating roughly as “the shining one”. There are also related etymological facets of Hausos’ name that point to her being worshiped as a goddess also of love and desire, perhaps an allegorical reference to the increased frequency of mating and reproduction associated with spring. It is hypothesized that Hausos was freed from imprisonment by a God, a motif later reflected in Greek mythology in the forms of Dionysus and Chronos. This perhaps hints at the notion that spring frees the world from the cold time of winter, and from relative stasis once more comes love-play and warmth.
- “PriHeh”, “beloved” or “friend”, later to become the Sanskrit “priya”, the love goddess. Other forms may include the Norse “Freyja”.
Jaan Puhvel, an Estonian-American Indo-Europeanist (one who studies PIE related material), has isolated what he believes to be a major schism between religions in prehistory. The linguistic artifacts of this schism survive to modern day in the variants of root words “asura” and “deva”, respectively in their modern forms, “angel” and “devil”. Eastern Iranian peoples and those from the surrounding areas classified the Vedic “deva” as lies, and later as demonic influences. The Vedic people in response, or perhaps to begin with, classified the “asuras” as demonic influences as well. Perhaps the first of many such disagreements, the results of which now shape our society and our culture in dramatic fashion.
Many of the myths from this period, and also later myths in the Greek, Norse and Vedic canon, involve specific aesthetics and motifs, recurring characters and situations. One of the most primary of these myths is the battle between the serpent and the hero. It can perhaps be interpreted as follows: the snake is the representation of the chaotic, animal self, without reason or the ability to self-reflect, without the qualities of compassion and peacefulness, without the higher functions (the snake crawls on its belly, it is most often the lowest animal in myth.) The hero, on the other hand, is that most triumphant and rightful version of ourselves, he or she who embodies strength and nobility, the doer of great and often superhuman deeds, our highest self so to speak.
Perhaps what we are seeing here, and let it be known that this is my own personal conjecture, is the great psychological battle between the roots of desire and animal urge, and the newfound capacity for higher thought our ancestors would have been experiencing at the dawn of historical culture. The snake is our unconscious mind in the Freudian sense, the miasma of urges unknown to us that bubble to the surface in neurosis. The hero is our newfound human mind, the capacity for reason and reflection, the divine mind (or at least the precursor to it.)
Indeed, in line with Joseph Campbell, I believe it may be wise to view religious myth and myth in general as signposts pointing towards inner experience, as opposed to descriptions of actual happenings in the historical, physical world.
Related to this dragon-slaying myth is the notion of the Sun being trapped in a rock or some other supposedly impenetrable locale, later to be freed by our intrepid hero. This lends some small credence to the notion that this basic myth is an allegory for the perennial battle between conditioning, animal reflex; and responsive, intelligent, minded behavior. In this example it is the sun that represents our higher brain, and the rock, the unconscious/animal mind that has trapped it. We all experience this tension between our ideal and actual selves in our daily lives, whether its in our choice of diet (not having that McDonalds on the way home), or whether its in a difficult moral choice between personal gratification and doing the right thing by another.
Other myths at the time include cyclic myths relating to the passage of time and the seasons, culture myths in which godlike or divine beings teach the arts of of civilization to man, and the typical flood myth whereby the world is renewed through mass destruction.
Why did our ancestors so commonly use myth in their lives? Many texts state that the telling of or listen to a myth can confer some form of blessing on those who experience it. In this sense then perhaps myth is a form of programming, a mnemonic device that contains short-form symbolic representations of important facts about life, the process of living, the environment in which life takes place, and the inner life itself. The “blessing” here would be the increased responsiveness to one’s environment, the ability to make better, cleaner decisions with regard to difficult situations, or perhaps the ability to avoid the situation of difficulty altogether. The aforementioned myth about the lightning god Perkwunos may have been a simple and sensible warning to avoid standing under tall trees during thunderstorms, and likely was effective more than once in saving one of our ancestors from a crispy fate.
Myths were, and are, often recited as festivals and rituals, as a way to pay homage to and worship the gods. This, coupled with the kind of magical thinking we see today in such banal situations as Christian prayer and the notion that money is equivalent to wealth, likely created a situation where our distant grandfathers believed they could curry the favor of these abstract deities for personal and societal gain. There are commonly known examples of this kind of worship all throughout human history, from the rain songs of the Native Americans to the Occultism of Aleister Crowley, many people believe that through ritual activity, chanting, the telling of fable and myth, that divine or otherworldly powers can be bestowed onto the individual.
It is believed by some that these performances are likely to have led to the development of drama and the forms of acting and play in Greece, and it is easy to see why. The more dramatic and sophisticated your ritual, in theory, the more purchasing power it will have with the gods, which probably led to a sort of capping phenomena between tribes and religions, whereby ever more wild displays were encouraged as a sign of piety.
Many of these myths may have also had a dual function as forms of thinly-veiled social criticism, in somewhat similar fashion to the role in ancient society of the court jester or joker. By dressing legitimate critique of deleterious social patterns, behaviors, perhaps corruption in authority, in the language of humor and flippancy, we can get through into consciousness otherwise heavily repressed and suppressed information. Last night, I was watching a White House Correspondents Dinner featuring Late Night comic Seth Meyers telling jokes about the political class in North America. Comments that would, under any other circumstance, be met with derision, scorn or even outright aggression, were welcomed, and so then perhaps we can come to see myth as a method by which individuals can “soften the blow” of hard truths, especially in situations involving a potentially hostile and deadly authority.
Using the comparative study of languages, it is theorized that the Proto-Indo-European had developed animal husbandry and quite likely the wheel, making chariots possible. We know that the cow was of specific importance to these ancestors, most notably in the predominant creation myth of the time, which appears in five out of the eleven major groups of the Indo-European family of languages.
In this myth, Manu, or man as we know him, dismembers Yama, the “twin”, whose remains are then used to create the world. It is theorized that Yama is a personification of the cow, which was used as a food source by the Indo-Europeans, personified as Manu. The idea that “the world” is formed out of the remains of the cow is an obvious allegory; the only way “the world”, or human life, can continue is through the sacrifice of the cow, its flesh is the energy which powers the world. There may be a tentative link here also between the worship of the cow as sacred and the use of psilocybin mushrooms, which tend to grow prolifically in the dung of grazing herd animals.
We see reflected in the above many themes and motifs which reflect the religious aesthetics of our own time; strange tales and stories bubbling up from the deep unconsciousness of man’s prehistory, perhaps equally indicative of the deep structure of mind as they are of external cultural habits and behaviors. What we can learn from these tales is that although incomprehensibly far removed from the technological connectivity of modern living, our ancestors wrestled with many of the same problems and trials, and mythologized them in much the same way.
We share a common lineage in genetics, and now it would seem language, mythology and religion have also been passed down to us from what we might call our original family. Seeing this, we must recognize that divisions based on race, religion, belief system, country of origin, are all situations of not being able to see the forest for the trees; of being so far removed from their original context that one comes erroneously to believe these aspects of our lives hold more difference than similarity.
In a time of such immense unrest along arbitrary lines, anything which points to our greater brotherhood as human beings, I feel, is worth sharing. Hopefully through similar investigations as those mentioned above, we can find ourselves inching ever closer to the recognition of our mutual interdependence, our truest identity; that each and every man, woman and child is themselves the story of mankind, the great Human Being, and indeed, the cosmos itself, playing at being human.