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Georges Dumézil

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Georges Dumézil

Bernard Sergent

translated by Chet Wiener


©adpf-ministère des Affaires étrangères



1. Early Years and First Meeting with Michel Bréal


Georges Dumézil was born in Paris on March 4, 1898.


The Dumézil family is a fine example of social advancement through the French educational system. His grandfather, a cooper in the southwest of France, did all he could for his son, Jean Anatole Dumézil (1857-1929) to attend lycée. The future general, Jean Anatole Dumézil, studied foreign languages and Latin and rose to the rank of general in the French armed forces. He developed a keen interest in Latin poetry which he passed on to his son Georges, one of two children he had with his wife Marguérite (née Dutier, 1860-1945). This child would go on to become one of the great minds of the French intellectual world, the most eminent mythologist of his generation (with Claude Lévi-Strauss), a professor at the École Pratique des Hautes Études and then the Collège de France, and a member of the Académie Française.

  Georges Dumézil was an excellent student. He studied Latin and Greek and was reading the Aeneid in the original (no easy matter!) by age nine. He also learned German and early on his father turned him on Greek mythology by suggesting he read the great historiographer of the ancient world, Berthold Georg Niebuhr (1776-1831).

  Thus his interest in mythology and peoples of the ancient world began with his earliest education. But the decisive turn for the future scholar took place when he was in lycée. One of his schoolmates introduced Dumézil to his grandfather, the great nineteenth century linguist, Michel Bréal (1832-1915). Bréal was the translator of the founder of comparative grammar, Franz Bopp’s (1791-1867) monumental and rigorous study of the grammar and vocabulary of Indo-European languages. The first edition of the translation appeared in 1866. In later years, Dumézil described Bréal’s introduction as “radiant.” For his part, Bréal recognized young Georges Dumézil’s interest in and gift for languages; he gave him his first Sanskrit-French dictionary and directed him towards his successor, Antoine Meillet (1866-1936) the premier French linguist of the first half of the twentieth century. Before entering a university Dumézil had mastered Sanskrit and Arabic—and all Meillet’s written work to that date.



2. Indo-European Studies

The general acceptance of the existence of the Indo-European family of languages derives from eighteenth-century research based on similarities between words—particularly numbers and kinship terms—in many European and Asian languages.

  Systematic study of these languages by Bopp and the Dane, Rasmus Khristian Rask led to higher degrees of specification. They noted that similarities among Greek, Latin, and the Germanic, Celtic, Baltic, Slavic, Iranian and Indian languages—were not limited to the level of vocabulary only. Grammatical similarities were even greater proof that the relationship was not due to chance or borrowings between languages.

  They concluded that this group of languages could only have descended from a common, no longer extant, parent language.  The language family, as well as the originary language came to be called “Indo-European.”

  In the mid-nineteenth century it was widely held that if such a parent language existed, a people with its own religion and culture must have existed too. Experts then sought to reconstruct this lost civilization through comparative study of myths and rituals of the various peoples speaking Indo-European languages.

  But despite great enthusiasm these efforts were eventually abandoned. Hardly a single name of a god or a hero common to more than one branch of the Indo-European languages was discovered. The terms designating rituals and priests were completely different. And the origins of the rituals and myths studied (such as the origin of fire) were found to share nothing specifically Indo-European about them.




The Indo-European explanation of the world is just one of humanity’s many dreams, and as far as its content is concerned it is not the most important dream.  But from the perspective of the conditions of its observation it is extremely important. . . In no other domain is it possible to follow the same ideology for thousands of years among eight or ten different human groups that have maintained it after total separation from one another. The picture one gets upon considering these creations side by side indicates, above all, the fertility of the human mind.

(Georges Dumézil, Mythe et épopée I)



3. Linguistics and Mythology

That was my real beginning. . . just imagine, in the Annales of the Musée Guimet. The book’s principles however were quickly called into question. And they were, I myself declare, more than questionable.

(Georges Dumézil, speaking about his 1924 dissertation in Entretiens avec Didier Éribon)


  Indo-European studies had diminished greatly by the end of the nineteenth century. Advances in linguistics were progressing in inverse proportion to studies of Indo-European civilization and religion.

  But Georges Dumézil would change all that. In the meantime he pursued his studies. The brilliant elementary and secondary school student was ranked number one upon entering the École Normale Supériure in 1916. World War I was underway. Like most young French men Dumézil was called up to serve his country. That was in 1917. He was an artillery officer. After being demobilized in February 1919 he passed the French agrégation in classics in December, and taught briefly in a lycée before leaving the position to work on his dissertation.

  Antoine Meillet was his dissertation director, and Dumézil began working on the research that fascinated him for the rest of his life. It is true that he had briefly considered devoting his life to physics, and particularly the new nuclear field. But his childhood predilections won out. Meillet suggested that since Dumézil was interested in myths he should examine similarities in words relating to religious and mythic entities in different Indo-European lexicons.

      Dumézil based his early research on the following remarkable similarity. In ancient India the drink of immortality was called amrta and in ancient Greece, ambrosia. The terms are extremely similar and both mean “nondeath.” Dumézil studied all myths in the Indo-European world which include the taking of immortal drinks. A striking book based on his dissertation was published in 1924, Le Festin d’immortalité. Étude de mythologie indo-européenne 1.


In 1924 my goal was to reconstitute an already Indo-European myth cycle on ambrosia, the drink that enables the Gods to be immortal. I did some inventing where elements were lacking, for example, with the Scandinavians. They do not provide the philologist with an immortal drink, so I promoted beer to this position. . .

My book was extremely clumsy. I never reread it and yet I’ve never quite reached the point of regretting having written it because from my point of view it was the first wobbly rung of the acrobat’s ladder that led me to the terrace I’m positioned on today. It’s by reflecting on the stupid things one says—in my case at least—that one eventually manages to discover some probabilities.

(Georges Dumézil, Entretiens avec Didier Éribon)



1.    Le Festin d’immortalité. Étude de mythologie comparée indo-européenne, Annales du Musée Guimet, n° 34, Paul Geuthner.









4. Turkey, the Caucasus and Sweden


Curiously, although he suggested the topic which led to Dumézil’s 1924 work, Meillet rejected it. This is one of many examples of the linguist’s leeriness of projects involving mythology.

Dumézil did not return to his teaching job at the lycée and found small jobs here and there. He was newly married when he learned that Meillet no longer supported him. Another member of his dissertation committee informed him that there was no place for him in the French the university system.

A specialist on Arthurian legend, Jean Marx, was less hostile towards work focused on myth. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had recently created a university division in the history of religions, and in 1925 Marx nominated Dumézil for the position.

Dumézil’s time in Turkey was of capital importance for the directions his career would go in. He learned Turkish which he had cause to use later on, notably during World War II as well as in subsequent research, and in 1929 he spent time with and learned the language of the Ubykh, a Caucasian people “discovered” in Western Turkey by a German traveler in 1912.  The Ubykh had taken refuge in a remote region after being defeated by the Russians in the 1860s. Dumézil also traveled extensively through the Caucasus, studying the languages and cultures of local tribes. Most significantly, he discovered the fascinating oral tradition of the Ossetes, the only Caucasian people a language from the Indo-European group. When Dumézil returned to Turkey and then to France he had trunks full of books on Caucasian languages, traditions and customs written in Russian and Caucasian languages. To this day, these comprise one of the most extensive collections of and on Caucasian cultures in the West.

  In 1931 he was named a lecturer in French at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. This afforded him the opportunity of pursuing studies of ancient German religion and of learning a Nordic language.


5. The Ossetes

Following his travels in the Caucuses, Dumézil became the leading (and for a long time the sole) specialist of Caucasian languages in France. He wrote the chapter on the three major Caucasian language divisions for Antoine Meillet’s and Marcel Cohen’s momentous Langues du monde.1 The Ossetes in turn were a major source in Dumézil’s mythological studies.

  The Ossete still live in the central Caucasus. They are the sole descendants of the medieval Alani, a branch of the Scythians, and thus speak a language of the Iranian group. Their mythology concerns a legendary people, the Narts, a heroic projection of themselves. There are two main aspects of these myths, and Dumézil published works relating to both. On the one hand, they concern elements found throughout European and central Asian tradition, such as heroes battling ogres, giants, and seven-headed dragons. On the other hand, this tradition has its roots in ancient Scythian religion, and beyond this, in the Indo-European tradition, as Dumézil explains in several books and articles,2

  A crucial moment in Dumézil’s career was the discovery of a document describing the division among the Narts into three families, the strong, the rich and the intelligent. This led to the publication in 1930 of an article on the Indo-Iranian prehistory of castes.3 Ancient Iranian and Indian societies were divided into three categories (which effectively correspond to the Indian caste system), and these are the same categories as those revealed in the Ossete Nart saga: priests, warriors and herdsmen. 

  This realization played a fundamental role in Dumézil’s subsequent work.


The Bor(i)atæ were rich in cattle (fons), the Alægatæ’s strength was their intelligence (zund) and the Æxsærtægkatæ were courageous (bœhatær) with their strength being their people (lœg).

Georges Dumézil, Mythe et épopée I.





1.   Les Langues du monde, Klincksieck, 1952.

2.   See Sheet 22.

3. “La Préhistoire indo-iranienne des castes,” Journal Asiatique, CCXVI.


6. 1938, The Three Functions

In October 1937 I went back to work on the Flamen-Brahman problem, taking it up again from square one. It was through this reexamination of motives, this autocritique, that I realized something I had been completely unaware of. For nearly fifty years I was drawing my conclusions from that particular discovery.

(Georges Dumézil, Interviews with Didier Éribon)


In 1933 Dumézil returned from Turkey. The Indianist Sylvain Lévi (1863-1935), who greatly appreciated his work, had secured a position for him at the École Pratique des Hautes Études teaching “Comparative Indo-European Mythology.” During this time Dumézil also attended Marcel Granet’s course on ancient China; Granet’s methods of studying texts had a strong influence on Dumézil. In 1935 Dumézil was named “Directeur d’études” at the École Pratique des Hautes Études; Sylvain Lévi, along with Antoine Meillet, who had changed his mind about Dumézil’s work, both supported his nomination.

  Dumézil made a decisive discovery while preparing course notes in 1938. In his 1930 article on the Indo-Iranian prehistory of castes he had made the conceptual connection between the Ossetes, the Ancient Iranians and the Indians.1 As interesting as this article was, its insights were limited to the Indo-Iranian world.

  The discovery of 1938 was much more significant. In ancient Rome there was a category of priests called flamen; three primary flamenes officiated over the worship of three gods: Jupiter, the greatest of the gods, Mars, the god of War, and Quirinus, the protector of community and agricultural production. Dumézil noted that the defining characteristics of these three corresponded to those of the Indo-Iranian “castes” he had previously studied. He immediately wrote the article, “La préhistoire des flamines majeurs”2 which revealed his discovery of the “three Indo-European functions”: (1) sovereignty, holiness and intelligence; (2) strength, particularly military, (3) abundance including agricultural production and the well-being of the community.


1.   See Sheet 5, and “La Préhistoire indo-iranienne des castes.

2. Revue de l’histoire des religions, CVIII, reprinted in Idées Romaines, Gallimard, 1986.


7. Germanic Mythology


The Old Icelandic Edda  is one of the most valuable sources of the medieval European tradition. Dumézil had been studying the Edda as early as his work on the “drink of immortality” in 1924,1 when he demonstrated its relation to ancient Greek, Roman and Indian myths. The Edda material was written down in the middle ages, but its mythic content is considerably older.

  In the late 1930s Dumézil was working on a sort of compendium on Germanic religion—none existed in French at the time. He was already in the process of presenting his earlier theses concerning the ancient origins of the Edda myths when he realized that his conclusions of 1938 would necessitate serious modifications. He devised the notion of the three functions (which he came to refer to as “trifunctionality” and “functional tripartition”) while examining Roman and Indo-Iranian material, but it apparently existed in the Germanic world as well.

  A text dating from the late pagan period in Sweden indicates that three Gods were worshipped in the temple of Uppsala: Thor, the powerful; Wodan, leader in war and source of courage; and Fricco, who had an enormous sexual organ and was the source of peace and pleasure. The very same Gods are found in the Egill Saga: Odhinn (=Wodan) is invoked against a king who had stripped Egill of his property; Thor is called upon to make him flee; and Freyr (=Fricco) and Njordhr are invoked against those who have damaged holy sanctuaries. These functions are found in all Germanic myths, thereby confirming the ancient origin of the Eddas: Odhinn is the sovereign god, master of magic (like Varun in the Indian tradition) and victory; Thor is the all-powerful, armed with his thunderbolt; and Freyr, along with his father Njordhr and his sister Freya are the gods of fecundity.




1.   See Sheet 3, and Le Festin d’immortalité. Étude de mythologie comparée indo-européenne.


8. A Discovery First Put to Use


When I returned to France in September 1940 I wrote up Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus, a sketch—more than a blueprint for what was to follow—which I only then saw in broad strokes.

(Georges Dumézil, Entretiens avec Didier Éribon)


Mythes et dieux des Germains was published in 1939,1 the year World War II began. Dumézil was mobilized and sent to Turkey because of his knowledge of the country and its language. This effectively saved him from being one of the million and a half Frenchmen imprisoned in May and June 1940. He was demobilized when Germany occupied France, and returned to his country.

  But the new regime removed him from his position at the École Pratique des Hautes Études because he had belonged to a Masonic lodge between 1936 and 1939; the Petain government sought to clear all government positions of Masons as well as Jews.

  Dumézil then eked out a meager a living giving private lessons. A saving hand came from a Catholic school in Pontoise, Saint-Martin; the school offered him a position teaching Latin. The next year, the new Minister of Education, Jerome Carcopino (1881-1970), a historian of antiquity, premitted Dumézil to return to his former position at the École Pratique. In gratitude to the Saint-Martin school, Dumézil continued to teach there every Wednesday until 1947.

  The war years turned out to be productive for Dumézil. He published a number of books between 1939 and 1948, mainly at Gallimard. These were divided into two series, Les Mythes romains,2 and Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus.3 Their titles indicate the important role Roman material had come to play in his work. They also contained a multitude of parallels between Roman and Scandinavian, Indian, Celtic and Iranian elements.



1.         Mythes et dieux des Germains. Essai d’interprétation comparative, Librairie Ernest Lerouse [Gods of the ancient Northmen, ed. Einar Haugen; intro. C. Scott Littleton and Udo Strutynski, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973].

2.   Horace et les Curiaces, 1942; Servius et la Fortune. Essai sur la fonction sociale de louange et de blâme et sur les éléments indo-européens du cens romain, 1943; Tarpeia. Essai de philologie comparée indo-européenne, 1947.

3.           Jupiter Mars Quirinus. Essai sur la conception indo-européenne de la société et sur les origines de Rome, 1941; Jupiter Mars Quirinus II. Naissance de Rome, 1944; Jupiter Mars Quirinus III. Naissance d’archanges, essai sur la formation de la religion zoroastrienne, 1945; Jupiter Mars Quirinus IV, explication de textes indiens et latins, 1948.


9 Rome Revisited

Dumézil had compared Rome’s priestly flamen to India’s highest caste, the Brahmin The discovery of the relationship of Roman theology and priesthood to its Indian and Iranian counterparts led to extensive examinations of Roman traditions—and a long series of discoveries.

  His first discovery was that some myths are structured by functional tripartition. The most important instance of structural tripartition concerns the foundation of cities and particularly what followed from the actions of Romulus, the son of the war god Mars. Soon after Rome was founded a war broke out between the Romans and the wealthy Sabine people. The Romans had abducted Sabine women in order to supply themselves with wives. The Romans were supported by Jupiter and the war ended with an alliance. Tatius, the Sabine chief came to Rome—and brought his gods with him. These Sabine gods were all associated with fecundity. Thus the gods of the first (Jupiter) and second (Mars) functions were associated with Romulus, while the Sabines provided the third function.

  Dumézil then noted that the organization of the Roman royal dynastic system fit into the Indo-European cultural heritage. For, at the same time that he elaborated the three functions, he discovered that sovereignty was divided into two aspects. He designated these aspects the Varuna side and the Mitra side, in accordance with Vedic sources.1 In considering pre-Etruscan Roman kings, Dumézil noted that Romulus, the first king, contrasted with Numa Pompilius, the second in much the same way that Varuna contrasts with Mitra. The third king, Tullus Hostilius spent his entire reign at war. The fourth, Ancus Martius, brought prosperity to the city, established a port and organized the city’s economic base. In this way, the first Roman kings successively illustrated the three functions, with Romulus embodying the Varuna aspect and Numa Pompilius the Mitra aspect of the first “sovereign” function.

  The Indo-European mythological parallels so ardently and unsuccessfully sought after in the nineteenth century began to multiply. King Numa’s talismans have their Celtic, Scythian and ancient Iran analogs. Narratives concerning the second Etruscan king, Servius Tullius, have parallels in Ancient India, as much in the motif of rents as the cow of abundance, and the hero Horatuus Cocles makes the same expressions with his eyes—or his eye2—as the Irish Cuchulainn and the Scandinavian Egill. . .


1. See sheet 14.

2. See sheet 15.



10 Iranian Theology

The oldest Iranian religious texts were gathered together in fourth century A.D. The ensemble is called the Avesta. The first writings concern a single sovereign god, Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda had a vaguely defined retinue, the Amesha Spentas, sometimes referred to as the “archangels of Mazdaism.” Dumézil was acquainted with Persian religion since his earliest research: one of the Amesha Spentas is called Amereta and corresponds to the Indian amrta and the Greek ambrosia. Dumézil wrote a chapter on the topic in Le Festin d’immortalité (1924).1 In 1945 he discovered that the names, the uses– and later the elements– relating to the six Amesha Spentas also divided into the three functions. The six were Vohu Manah, “Good Sense,” which corresponds to the Mitra side of sovereignty; Asha, “Order,” to Varuna, because the word corresponds to the ancient Indian Rta, the cosmic order guaranteed by Varuna; Khshathra, “Dominion,” is equivalent to the Indian ksatriya, “warrior”; Armaiti, “Benefecient devotion,” is the Earth and Mother to the Persians; Haurvatat is  “Integrity” and Ameretat is “Not-Dying.” Just as he had found in Rome, the first sovereign function is expressed in its two aspects (Mitra and Varuna) and the third is represented by several figures. Here, Khshathra represents the second function.

  Dumézil’s 1930 article demonstrated how India, ancient Iran and the Ossete tradition divided society into three categories according to the same criteria.2 “La préhistoire des flamines majeurs” brought these considerations to Roman theology.3 In 1945 Dumézil indicated that the most ancient Persian and Roman traditions used the same frame of thought for myths, pantheons and human organization. A common Indo-European heritage was making itself known again.



1. See Sheet 3.

1.      See Sheet 5.

2.      See Sheet 6.


11. Fecundity and Trifunctionality

What has struck me most about the myths and literatures I study is the incredible diversity of variants—proliferations, mutations, transfers and inversions, changes of emphasis, osmoses, etc.—which appear in the simplifications resulting from my presentation of them through a common schema.

(Georges Dumézil, Entretiens avec Didier Éribon)


In fact Dumézil’s discovery of 1938 led to two corollary discoveries. The first concerns the multiplicity of trifunctional organizations found not only in myths and the organization of gods and men but also in all orders of beings, objects and conceivable phenomena. The second concerns entire ranges of mythology that appear throughout the Indo European world. For instance, the myth of Rome’s origin1 is very closely paralleled in the first war of the gods in the Edda. That conflict is between the Ases and the Vanes. The former group includes Odhinn and Thor, and the latter includes Freyr, Njordhr and Freya, the gods of fecundity. As at Rome, the foundation myth (in this case of divine society) reveals the first two functions in opposition to the third.

  After Uppsala and Rome, Dumézil discovered divine triads organized according to the three functions in Iguvium, Umbria, and Lanuvium, Latium.

  Decisive moments in myths and tales are often concentrated in the scene of a choice. Paris must chose from among three options, Hera, offers sovereignty, Athena offers conquest, and Aphrodite promises him the most beautiful woman in the world. The Iranian king Feridun also offered his sons a choice: Salm sought riches and acquired the Roman empire, Toz was courageous and conquered Turkestan, and devout Eric inherited Iran and India. Gods and heros (Indra, Herakles, and Starcatherus of Danish mythology) commit errors that can be divided into three functions as well. The realm of the legendary Welsh king Lludd was beset first by “wise men who understood everything,” then by two dragons fighting each other, and then by a magician who stole all the kingdom’s food—just as royal inscriptions of the Persian King Darius beseeched Ahura Mazda to keep foreign armies, poor harvests and liars away.


I keep studying the same “geometric sites.” It is only that they reproduce. I mean we begin with a global, imprecise view. Then by working on the details of one or another point more and more previously obscure points become clear—as new problems crop up.

(Georges Dumézil, Entretiens avec Didier Éribon)



1. See Sheet 9.



12. Greece, a Separate Case

As always, Greece chose the best of what was available. Rather than accepting the perspectives on humans and things handed down to them by their northern ancestors, they preferred the risks and opportunities afforded by criticism and observation. They looked at mankind, society and the world with fresh eyes.

(Georges Dumézil, Mythe et épopée I)


By far the two most important mythologies of the Indo-European world are those of India and Ancient Greece. It is thus no surprise that throughout the nineteenth century they provided the main pillars for mythological comparisons.

  At first Dumézil did not stray from this pattern. His first book compares ambrosia to amrta,1 another book published the same year concerns the myth of the Lemnian women,2 then the third and fourth deal successively with the resemblance between the Greek Centaurs and the Indian Gandharca and Greek myths about the god of the heavens, Uranus, in relation to Indian Varuna rituals.3

  But reference to Greece figures neither in the article of 1938 nor in the books published between 1939 and 1945. Trifunctionality, bipartate sovereignty, the foundation myth as site of opposing functions and the innumerable motifs uncovered in investigations of royal talismans, warrior grimaces, the cow killed by the king, the woman drunk on gold, etc., are all furnished, defined and sustained with Indian, Iranian (Ossete and other), Roman, German and Celtic sources.

  Dumezil himself was surprised that Greece—which through its language had provided so much for the study of comparative grammar, and whose texts are so rich—was the Indo-European provenance that least contributed to comparative study.

  Later on, and in light of findings made over time, Dumézil distinguished myths where functional tripartition played a role (the judgment of Paris in 1953 and the sequence of Herakles’ life in 1956). But until then he wondered about this lacuna. He often explained that the accession of free thinking in Greece was the cause. Old frameworks of thought were ousted in an environment where the priesthood did not dictate dogma and notions of truth derived from discussion. Functional tripartition seemed to belong to Greek prehistory, not Greek history.


1. See Sheet 3.

2. Le Crime des Lemniennes. Rites et légendes du monde égéen, Paul Geuthner, 1924.

3. Le Problème des Centaures. Étude de mythologie comparée indo-européenne, Paul Geuthner, 1929; Ouranos-Varuna. Étude de mythologie comparée indo-européenne, Adrien Maisonneuve, 1934.



13 From the Veda to the Mahabharata


A large portion of the fourth volume in the Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus series (1948) discusses the discovery of Dumézil’s Swedish colleague, Stig Wikander (1908-1983). 1 In studyng the Mahabharata, the greatest Indian epic, Wikander noted that the Pandavas—offspring of the Vedic gods studied by Dumézil—themselves demonstrate the three functions.

  The Rig Veda is the oldest collection of hymns in India. It refers to a great number of divinities and a large portion of Dumézil’s work from 1938 onwards was devoted to studying its divine groupings. It was in studying Vedic texts that Dumézil discovered the three functions (sovereign, military, productive community) in the divine sovereign pair Varuna and Mitra2; the pairing off of war gods including Indra and the more violent Vayu, the Wind; and the whole set of gods (as in Iran, Rome and Scandinavia) which express the third function and out of which the twin Asvins emerge.

  In an article published in 1947 Wikander noted that the last two of the five Pandava, Nakula and Sahadeva, had a different mother from the others and also had the twin Asvins as their father. Concerning the three others, Bhima is the son of Vayu, Arjuna is the son of Indra and only Yudisthira is the son of non-Vedic father, Dharma. Still, dharma is the Hindu equivalent of the Vedic Rta and belonged to Varuna’s domain. Wikander concluded that however old the Mahabharata might be, it was structured in relation to the three functions.

  Dumézil immediately recognized the importance of Wikander’s discovery and published a translation of the article with his own commentary. After full scale study of the Mahabharata, Dumézil presented a superb analysis of it. This constituted most of the first volume of Mythe et épopée.3


It wasn’t until after 1945 that the effects of my little bomb of 1938 came to be felt. . . In Uppsala the Indianist Stig Wikander who was ten years younger than me found what he needed to explain the structure and meaning of the Mahabharata in my comparative analyses.

(Georges Dumézil, Entretiens avec Didier Éribon)


1.   Jupiter Mars Quirinus IV, explication de textes indiens et latins.

2.   See Sheets 10 and 14.

3.   See Sheet 19.


14. The Mitra-Varuna Structure


Mitra is the sovereign’s reasonable, clear-thinking, well-ordered, calm, benevolent and priestly aspect. Varuna is the sovereign as attacker, solemn, inspired, violent, awe-inspiring and military.

(Georges Dumézil, Mitra-Varuna)


In his work on Vedic hymnes, the great Indian scholar Abel Bergaigne (1838-88) had called attention to the fact that two divinities dominated the others as a function of what he called their “sovereignty.” One of Dumézil’s great discoveries was that the domain of this pair of sovereigns was not limited to ancient India. It could be found in various forms in a great portion of the Indo-European world; the first to kings of Rome, 1 in Iran, 2 as well as in the Germanic world where, in addition to the main god Wodan (or Odhinn) there was the peaceful Ziu (or Tyr), protector of justice.

  The typology revealed by Dumézil indicated that a violent, separated-from-humans Varuna aspect contrasted with the peaceful, close-to-humans Mitra aspect in cultures other than India. But, like India, these cultures belonged to the Indo-European language group.

  Varuna has an affinity for war: his Germanic counterpart, Odhinn is the bearer of victory, and Romulus created a kind of police to assure his power. Varuna’s mode of action is connected to maya, or the magic behind the creation of form and illusion; Odhinn is the god of intoxication and the god of the hanged man; Romulus’ police force was known as the lictors, “those who tie.”

  Mitra, whose name means “Contract,” is concerned with relationships among the population, like Tyr, who is the god of justice. He is more “priestly” in comparison to the magician Varuna. The second king of Rome, Numa, was the creator of religion and priesthood; he is a lover of Fides, which means “Confidence.” The Mitra aspect has more affinity with the third function than does the Varuna aspect. Thus in contrast to the war-like Romulus, the pious Sabine Numa took council from the water nymph Egeria.

  Additional examples of this bipartition have been uncovered in later work. Thus in Iran the Amesha Spentas contrast with Vohu Manah and Asha.3 And scholars following Dumézil have written about such pairs in other traditions, including Greece and the French epic.

The Mita-Varuna opposition is a structure, like functional tripartition,. The bipartition of sovereignty into these two opposing and complementary aspects is one of the main achievements of Dumézil’s Indo-European comparative studies. The phenomenon is not encountered outside of the Indo-European group.



1.   See Sheet 9.

2.   See Sheet 10.


15 Structure: The One-Eyed God and the One-Handed God

In an important circumstance for society—in Rome for human society, for the Scandinavians in divine society—in a situation of extreme danger, salvation is attained through a combination of successive and complementary actions by two characters, one being one-eyed. . . and the other losing an arm.

(Georges Dumézil, Entretiens avec Didier Éribon)


The combination of one-eyed and one-armed personages is less clear cut than the preceding pair. It is nonetheless recurrent, and this pair is related to the first pair of sovereign bipartition.

  In the Edda, Odhinn has one eye. He gave up an eye to attain wisdom. Tyr lost an arm when he put it in the mouth of a wolf and swore a false oath.

  In India these traits are not found in Mitra and Varuna, they pertain to other divine and sovereign beings. Bhaga, who is associated with Mitra is blind (it is Bhaga who divides the world’s goods among humans), and Savitr who is associated with Varuna, has golden hands. There is a similar Irish myth in which the king of the gods, Nuadu, loses his right arm and receives a silver arm to replace it. This episode led the gods to being able to come to an agreement with their adversaries. Nuadu’s successor, Lug, dances a magic jig on one leg with one eye closed.

  This double motif is also found in Roman mythology outside the domains of sovereignty or the divine. According to some sources, Horatius Cocles struck fear in the heart of his foes with a look from his one terrible eye, and Mucius Scaevola (“the left-handed”) daunted an enemy king by falsely swearing and then substantiating his oath by letting his left hand burn in a fire.



16 Structure: Fire and Wind


The comparisons Dumezil made between India and Rome between the 1940s led to the discovery of complex theological elements. Because of their systematic recurrence they too can be considered structural.

  Fire occupies a particular position in both Vedic hymns and Roman ceremonials. In the hymns, Agni (Fire) figures is called upon at the start of one invocation, but is most often appealed to at the end. As Cicero put it, Vesta, the goddess of fire, is “extrema”: she is either the last sacrificed or prayers end by calling upon her. In Iran, Atar (Fire) is sometimes invoked at the start of collective prayers, but is more frequently referred to at the end. And in Greece, similar prayers often begin by calling upon Vesta’s Greek counterpart, Hestia.

  But if Vesta, Agni and Atar usually appear at the end rather than the beginning, this is because the first position is usually reserved for someone else. The divinity which occupies that position is not left to chance. In Indian traditions invocations are opened with Vaya (Wind), and it has been speculated that the same holds true for Vaya’s ancient Persian counterpart. In Rome no specific god of the wind occupies this position; invocations often open with Ianus (Janus). Ianus is not the god of wind. Still, the nature of wind is to circulate and the name “Ianus” is derived from a root meaning “to go.”

  It is not difficult to understand these associations. Prayers and sacrifices must reach the gods, and wind and fire provide excellent vectors. In discerning the specific ceremonial positions of these divinities in sacrifices and invocations and in distinguishing a god of beginnings (Ianus), Dumézil revealed another specifically and solely Indo-European characteristic.


17. The Caucasus and Quechuan


The Northern Caucasus and the expanse that plunges down from the Black Sea towards the south is the Earth’s most interesting conservation zone of peoples and languages.

(Georges Dumézil, Mythe et épopée I)


Although secondary to his studies of myth, Dumézil never halted his work in linguistics. He began studying languages at a young age,1 and he always approached texts philologically. Specifically linguistic research was less interesting to him but he always kept abreast of it.

  Dumézil was a specialist in the languages of the Caucasus.2 In 1954 he returned there after a several year hiatus, and he continued to spend his summers there studying different languages until 1972. In several cases he was the first Westerner to do so. One notable case was that of the dying language Ubykh which has eighty-two consonantal and only two or three vowel sounds. Dumézil “discovered” Tevfik Esenc, “the last Ubykh speaker” (1897/1902-1992); although illiterate, Esenc had a keen awareness of his language, its sounds and its subtleties. He worked closely with Dumézil to accumulate whatever he could of the nearly disappeared language. Dumézil published a great deal on Ubykh as well as Circassian Cherkess.

  Less well known is a series of four articles published between 1954 and 1957 on the Quechua language. After a trip to Peru where Dumézil naturally took an interest in local languages, he noted a curious resemblance between the names of numbers one through six in Quechua and Turkish. Upon analyzing these similarities and developing formulas concerning their relations he revealed a range of vocabulary shared by Quechuan and Turkish. This research has yet to be followed up.


1.   See Sheet 2.

2.   See Sheet 4.



18. Shedding Vedic Light on Rome


[A]ll one need do is look to India: the Rig Veda hymns are not descriptions of rituals, they put forward and elucidate myths.

(Georges Dumézil, Entretiens avec Didier Éribon)


  In 1949 Dumézil was elected a professor of the Collège de France where he established a chair in Indo-European Civilization. Two of his principal supporters were the linguist Émile Benveniste (1902-1976) and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b.1908).

  During the 1950s Dumézil continued applying the methods which had proved so fruitful. More aspects of early Roman culture turned out to bear similarities to Vedic India. Curiously, the more India proved to be a source of detailed explanation on rites and gods the more Rome remained silent and ignorant of the reasons particular rituals were performed. The key element of Dumézil’s work consists in explaining Roman circumstances through Indian texts.

  Rituels indo-européens à Rome1shows how a number of ancient Roman rituals that were poorly understood by both their practitioners and subsequent Roman specialists could be understood by examining the Brahmana, the ancient Hindu religious texts explaining the relationship of the Vedas to sacrificial ceremonies. For instance, the Romans sacrificed a cow with calf in the middle of April (on Fordicidia, forda  means pregnant cow). The Vedas describe the sacrifice of an “eight-legged cow,” in other words a cow pregnant with calf. In addition, not only do Vedic texts explain how to perform the sacrifice of gravid cows, they also explain why gravid cows are to be sacrificed. And just as reasons behind why the temples to the Roman goddess Vesta are round when those devoted to other gods are rectangular was clarified by comparison to the shape of two of the three Vedic sacrificial fires, the Vedic texts on ancient asvamedha rituals shed light on the Roman horse sacrifice, the october equus.

  Déesses latines et mythes védiques 2 applies similar procedures to a study of four Latin goddesses, Mater Matuta, Angerona, Fortuna Primigenia, and Lua Mater. For example, in considering the first, the goddess of dawn, why is it that on the goddess’s festival day (Matralia, June 11) married women hold their sisters’ babies and have female slaves enter the Goddess’s temple only to chase them out again, hitting them with switches? Dumézil explains that in Vedic India Night and Dawn are sisters, Night gives birth to Day and Dawn takes care of the child. In the Roman festival, a woman takes the child (Day) from her sister (Night). But rather than having Dawn chase Night, a slave is substituted.


1.   Rituels indo-européens à Rome, Klincksieck, 1954.

2.   Déesses latines et mythes védiques, Bruxelles, Latomus, 1956.


19. Myth and Epic 1. The Mahabarata,Virgil, the Nartes


As an introduction to this whole hodgepodge, I would recommend the first volume of Mythe et épopée. . . where I return to and fully develop the analyses of my earlier articles and shorter studies.

(Georges Dumézil, Entretiens avec Didier Éribon)


Dumézil retired in 1968. His thought had evolved considerably since his initial discovery of 1938. Early on he tended to think that the distribution of social roles may have caused functional tripartition. He subsequently realized that it was more like an organizational system which the Indo-Europeans used to analyze and classify their world. He was also a severe critic of his own work; he disavowed everything he had written before 1938. After going over his earlier work he decided to take advantage of his retirement to put it all in order, pick out the strongest elements and try to come to conclusions about everything he had written during the three preceding decades.

  His first synthesis was published as Mythe et épopée I.1 Dumézil continued researching and writing after the book was published, although he originally intended it to be his definitive statement on the following topics: (1) an augmented analysis of the Mahabarata, beginning with Stig Wikander’s 1947 article and including analyses of all the major characters in the poem ; (2) three main components of the myth of Rome’s original ethnic composition, the foundation of Rome and its first kings,3 particularly in relation to the writings of Virgil and Sextus Propertius during the Augustan era; (3) a study of the Ossetes, particularly the three families revealed in the Nart saga,4 an examination of the entire Nart epos, and study of the episode which makes the interplay of the three families especially apparent, that is, when the Strong attack the Rich.

            A fourth section “Epica Minora” reviews the themes of the “triple blight” in India, Iran and elsewhere, and “the choice,” either as presented to three characters (Feridun’s sons,5 and the sons of William the Conqueror) or the choice of three put to one person (the judgment of Paris, Dron in the Mahabharata).


1.   Mythe et épopée. L’Idéologie des trois fonctions dans les épopées des peuples indo-européens, Gallimard, coll. « Bibliothèque des sciences humaines », 1968.

2. See Sheet 13.

3.   See Sheet 9.

4.   See Sheet 5.

1.      See Sheet 11.



20. Myth and Epic II and III. India, Iran, Ireland


Mythe et épopée (1971, 1973),1 that is “myth and epic,” is a less apt title for volumes II and III than it was for the first volume. The first volume was primarily concerned with studying how epic, that is literary material is a continuation or adaptation of ancient myths. The studies in the next volumes are devoted to epic fragments and lost epics (such as the Herakles epic). In Mythe et épopée I comparative mythology is a preliminary stage to the matters under discussion. Mythe et épopée II and III make direct and extremely interesting mythological comparisons. For example, the instance of the warrior who serves a king, eventually kills him and who usually commits three transgressions (the Indian Sisupala and Jarasandha, the Scandinavian Starkadhr, and the Greek Herakles); an extraordinary sorcerer of the Indo-European tradition (named Kavi Usan in the Iranian epic Shahnameh and Kavyas Usanas in the Mahabharata); and a proud king saved by his children and particularly his daughter (in India the kings Yayati, Yima, and Vasu Uparicara; in Ireland, Eochaid Feidlech). The daughter’s of Yayti and Eochaid Feidlech have the same name, Madhavi for the first and Medb for the second, both of which mean “drunkenness.”

      The third volume is even less concerned with epic per se. It concentrates on myths and rituals relating to Roman legend (e.g., the god Neptune and his festival, Neptunalia), Irish legend (e.g., Nechtan’s sacred well of trials), and the Indo-Iranian (e.g., the god Apam Napat who plays a similar role to Mechtan in Iranian trial narratives). Most of this volume is involved with Roman material. After Dumézil’s earlier research had pushed Rome’s inception from history into mythology he turned his attention to the historical epoch. He showed the extent to which Roman biographies, annals and the representation of real people were organized according to both the three functions and solar mythology. “Comparative mythology” therefore came to reveal a great deal about the lives of Camillus, Corolianus and Publicola, all of whom lived between the fourth and the sixth century BCE.

      The topics treated might be called “History and Myth” rather than “Myth and Epic.”


1.   Mythe et épopée ii. Types épiques indo-européens: un héros, un sorcier, un roi and Mythe et épopée III. Histoires romaines, Gallimard, coll. «Bibliothèque des sciences humaines».



21. Rome Revisted

After completing the series of studies comprising the Myth et épopée volumes, Dumézil worked regularly on a succession of particular topics. These included large scale monographs and what he called mythological “sketches” often grouped around geographical rather than thematic areas.

  In Les Dieux souverains des Indo-Européens1 Dumézil further developed topics concerning the Mitra-Varuna2 pair in a variety of Indo-European regions—a subject which had always fascinated him. He left further work on the second and third functions (war and labor) to future scholars.

  He published two monographs on Roman topics, Idées romaines3 in 1969 and Fêtes romaines d’été et d’automne4 in 1975. The first studies Roman thought and divinities, and considers functional tripartition in the Roman tradition. It is some three hundred pages long. In Fêtes romaines d’été et d’automne Dumézil returns to the Neptunalia festival5 and considers other seasonal Roman celebrations. He also reflects in this book on topics he continually returned to in his later “sketches.” Here they are called “Ten Roman Questions,” and include october equus,6 Fortune, and Camillus.7


They concern what I wasn’t going to deal with but what was worth attention. The main idea behind these Sketches was the formulation of a problem followed by, hic et nunc, the main elements of its solution.

(Georges Dumézil, Entretiens avec Didier Éribon)


1.  Les Dieux souverains des Indo-Européens, Gallimard, coll. «Bibliothèque des sciences humaines», 1977.

2. See Sheet 4.

3.  Idées romaines, Gallimard, coll. «Bibliothèque des sciences humaines», 1969.

4.  Fêtes romaines d’été et d’automne [ndt: Roman Festivals of Summer and Autumn] followed by Dix questions romaines, Gallimard, coll. «Bibliothèque des sciences humaines», 1975.

5. See Sheet 9.

6. See Sheet 19

7. See Sheet 20.



22. From the Ossetes to the Scythians

Dumézil worked on the Ossetes during his entire career and in many senses he considered it the point of departure for the greatest discovery of his life.1 The third section of Mythe et épopée 12marks the apogee of his work on the Ossetes. But a book published ten years later, in 1978, the year he was elected to the Académie Française, also presents a collection of articles and other writings on the topic. Romans de Scythie et d’alentour3 is a remarkable analysis of ancient Scythian society and religion developed in light of the Scythians’ descendants, the Ossetes.

  The analysis is thus a sort of historico-mythological anamnesis: what is already known about the Scythians from Book IV of Heroditus Histories and other ancient writings, archeology and vase decorations is clarified in light of Ossettian oral literature. No, Dumézil is not aiming to explicate the entire Indo-European heritage in this book. His elucidations concerning the god of war, the “warming” and “enlightening” goddess, the “female sickness” Heroditus describes the priestly Enarees as suffering from and which Zaemyc suffers from in the Ossete’s Nart saga, the theme of the blind son, the snow of feathers and cotton, the funerary rituals and the sovereign’s cauldron, all concern the specificity of a particular and continual cultural tradition lasting from the Scythians to the Ossetes.


1.      See Sheets 5 and 6.

2.      See Sheet 9.

3.      Romans de Scythie et d’alentour [ndt: Romans of Scythia and Environs] Payot, coll. « Bibliothèque historique”



23. A Quiet Return to Greece


I was busy with other more pressing and promising cases, and my recourse to Greek references had so led me astray before 1938 that I was only too careful afterwards. So I am glad that those who have come after me have turned to it.

(Georges Dumézil, Entretiens avec Didier Éribon)


The degree to which Greece was absent from comparative studies of Indo-European mythology has been noted.1 Except for a brief appearance in an article in 1953, after 1938 Dumézil mostly kept clear of the Hellenic world. In that article Dumézil broke his rule of adhering only to the oldest texts and, bowing to the evidence, noted how the judgment of Paris and the organization of the ideal city in Plato’s Republic were perfectly trifunctional.

            But reference to Greece was still absent from the larger works that followed. Besides the judgment of Paris and the trials of Herakles, the three volumes of Mythe et épopée did not cite ancient Greece, and no monograph on it was written. It remained a “separate case.”

            However, Hellenists such as Lucien Gerschel, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Francis Vian, Atsuhiko Yoshida, and Bernard Sergent uncovered trifunctional treatments in Hesiod’s myths of racial origins, the legends of Thebes, Spartan traditions and the Iliad. This led Dumézil to conclude with his colleagues that functional tripartition manifested in Greek civilizations, and that its Greek manifestation were even more complex than the formulas of the Vedic hymns or the dry prescriptions of Ancient Rome.

            After this point the Sketches2contained numerous notations concerning Greek myth, for instance on the Trojan king Laomedon’s three transgressions, the triple goddess Hecate, Apollo in comparison with the Vedic goddess Vac (“Word”), and Odysseus’ methods for overcoming Circe. Most significantly, Dumézil showed that even if the judgment of Paris is only alluded to obliquely in the Iliad, every time one of the three goddesses whose options Paris was to chose from is referred to or appears in the Iliad the language conforms to their offers and arguments in the judgment scene.


24. Georges Dumézil and Claude Lévi-Strauss


In addition to Dumézil, there is another great French mythologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss. The four volumes of his Mythologiques published between 1964 and 1971 comprise one of the major works of the twentieth century.1

            Dumézil and Lévi-Strauss are both “structuralists” but the term indicates at least as much difference as similarity when applied to their work and approaches. In fact, their fields of study can be opposed to each other point by point. Dumézil worked with texts from ancient cultures deriving from the same linguistic family with the aim of reconstituting that family’s common thought. For him, structuralism was methodological. Lévi-Strauss worked on oral literature (native North and South American myths gathered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) deriving from a number of language groups with the aim of trying to understand the human mind. For Lévi-Strauss, structuralism was a sort of doctrine. Paradoxically, (the philologist) Dumézil’s work in studying the thought and value systems of a given human group (Indo-Europeans) is anthropological, while (the anthropologist) Lévi-Strauss’s work in establishing psychological rules common to all humanity is philosophical.

            Still, Dumézil and Lévi-Strauss had a strong mutual respect and always supported each other. Dumézil had been instrumental when Lévi-Strauss obtained positions at the école des Hautes Études and the Collège de France, and Lévi Strauss supported Dumézil’s admission to the Académie Française.

            Beyond their common interest in mythology and their differing structuralist approaches (Dumézil’s was much less encompassing than Lévi-Strauss’s) they both recognized the seriousness, the rigor and the exhaustiveness of the other’s work and the ways that it ensured future advancements in the field—however different the ensuing results.


1. These volumes have been translated as The Raw and the Cooked, From Honey to Ashes, The Origin of Table Manners and The Naked Man, ndt.


25. The Question of Dumézil’s Politics

New ways of thinking about something are prone to misinterpretation. And, all things considered, it’s probably best when misinterpretations manifest right away, so that one can rectify them during one’s life time.

(Georges Dumézil, Entretiens avec Didier Éribon)


In the early 1920s Dumézil’s school friend, the historian Pierre Gaxotte, introduced him to Charles Maurras, a classicist and the leader of the powerful far rightwing movement, Action Française. Dumézil fell under his influence, and was close with Maurras for several years. But he broke with him in 1924. Apparently, even if he accepted Maurras’ nationalism Dumézil could not accept his anti-Semitism. Dumézil’s father had been a Dreyfusard. In the 1930s Dumézil wrote articles in the international section of Le Jour, a nationalist newspaper.

            Dumézil had always kept his association with the French rightwing in the background and it wasn’t until the 1980s that he was attacked for it in France. His intellectual career had seen heated debates and sometimes aggressive attacks, but these had been aimed at his work rather than his person. This changed in 1980 after articles by the likes of Carlo Ginzburg, Alain Schnapp, Jean-Paul Demoule and others held that Dumézil’s discovery of the three Indo-European functions and the theories behind some of his books—particularly Mythes et dieux des Germains (1939) which they alleged was unavailable in French libraries—were influenced by Nazi ideas. The historian of the ancient world Arnoldo Momiliano1 was the first to speak against Dumézil in 1963. Didier Éribon refuted his allegations as well as those that followed in 1992.2

            But why had these attacks been so attractive to people in Italy, France and the Untied States? The answer is political. In the aftermath of Worl War II and the horrors perpetuated by the Nazis in the name of Aryan, “Indo-Germanic,”  “ancestors” a great portion of international public opinion with little knowledge of linguistics and comparative grammar, has been suspicious of any author who works on the Indo-European case.

            Their first mistake was thinking there was any connection between Dumézil’s work and politics.  His early studies in linguistics date to the years before World War II, that is, before the many French people who were so tempted turned to rightwing nationalism.

            Their second mistake is in not realizing that Dumézil began his dissertation before the rise of the Nazis. In addition, “La préhistoire des flamines majeurs,” his article from 1938 on the three Indo-European functions, like the 1939 book, was developed from the article he had written in 1930 on the on the Indo-Iranian prehistory of castes.3 Hitler came to power in 1933. If Georges Marcenay (a.k.a. Georges Dumézil) was a French nationalist he was also intensely anti-Nazi. He favoreed Stalin’s hostility towards Hitler, and he hoped, as did a large portion of the French right of the period, that a French alliance with Italy could hold Germany at bay.

            Thus, despite the claims made against this line of thought, it is possible that the likes of Michel Bréal (who was Jewish) and Antoine Meillet (who sympathized with the Communists) and Dumézil could be Indo-European specialists without being Nazis.


1. Momigliano is a curious figure. He was an active fascist in the 1930s and became a democrat as soon as Mussolini began taking measures against Jews—a path which resembles Dumézil’s to a certain extent. Marco García Quintela has discussed Momigliano’s position in Dumézil (1898-1986), Madrid, Ediciones del Orto, 1999.

2. Didier Éribon, Faut-il brûler Dumézil? Mythologie, science et politique, Paris, Flammarion, 1992.

3.         See Sheets 5 and 6.



26. Dumézil’s Death and Posterity

Georges Dumézil died on October 11, 1986.

            Attacks on his political affiliations seem to have been what did Dumézil in. He responded to Momigliano’s first charges with humor, ironically noting how Momigliano employed the expression “Aryan ancestors,” since Momigliano himself had referred to Indo-Europeans as his ancestors. In contrast, Dumézil went on to point out, he had only used the term Aryen and its original form Arya to designate peoples of India and Iran, as these peoples themselves did. But the number of attacks increased throughout the 1980s.

            Bruce Lincoln, a specialist in the history of religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School became a sort of spokesperson for anti-Dumézil positions. Lincoln’s main argument is that Dumézil’s theories are directly related to his friendship with Pierre Gaxotte and the influence of Charles Maurras’ ideas. This was to be the subject of Lincoln’s review in the October 3, 1986 issue of the Times Literary Supplement of Dumézil’s, latest work, L’Oubli de l’homme et l’honneur des dieux: esquisses de mythologie. Dumézil was sent a copy of the article prior to its publication and a flurry of correspondence took place among Bruce Lincoln, Daniel Dubuisson and Dumézil. In a letter dated October 9 Dumézil was still urging Dubuisson to prevail upon Lincoln to modify some passages. But it was too late. Dumézil received the printed article the same day.

            Dumézil’s capacity for work was intact until the very end. He had just founded a new journal with Georges Charachidze, the Revue des études géorgiennes et caucasiennes.


            While he did not have many students, and he was never a dissertation advisor, Dumézil’s infuence among his contemporaries was considerable. Dumézil influenced the researach of Stig Wikander, Geo Widengren, Christian Guyonvarc’h, Louis Renou, Jan De Vries, Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin, Jean de Menasce, Marijan Molé, Émile Benveniste, Edgar Polomé, and all of them refer to functional tripartition when they came across it.

            Enthusiasm for Dumézil continues. The Hellenistic scholars who were influenced by Dumézil and brought Greece into the picture have already been mentioned.1 Indianists such as Jean Naudou in philosophy, Daniel Dubuisson on the Ramayana, Madeleine Biardeau on the epic and, at Oxford, Nick J. Allen on social structure, kinship and myth have all taken inspiration from Dumézil’s work. Joël Griswald applies Dumézilian thought to the medieval epic, and research in Roman culture is carried out in France and Belgium by Robert Schilling, Dominique Briquel, Jean Poucet, Frédéric Blaive and Jean-Luc Desnier. After Christian Guyonvarc’h and Françoise Le Roux, Alwyn and Brinley Rees and Claude Sterckx apply a “structural Dumézilanism” to Celtic cultures, as do Françoise Bader, Zoé Petre and Didier Pralon to the Greeks, and Émilia Masson to the Hittites. In the United States, after the works of Edgar Polomé, Donald Ward, C. Scott Littleton, Dean A. Miller, Jaan Puhvel and Udo Strutynski havedrawn on Dumézil’s research, Gregory Nagy of the Classics Department at Harvard has resolved a forty-five year old problem originally put forward by Dumézil: the three tribes into which the Dorians divided in ancient Greece were indeed trifunctional.


Georges Dumézil had no desire to found a school. He felt that his research had universal applications. His manes can remain calm: There is no Dumézil school, but a strong Dumézilian current exists and it has many channels.


1.      See Sheet 23.

27. Timeline


1898    Georges Dumézil is born on March 4, in Paris.


1.                  Ranked number one of entering students at the École Normale Supérieure.


1919 Earns the French agrégation in classics.


1920 Begins work on his doctoral theses.


1921 Travels to Warsaw


1924 Defends his dissertation, Le Festin d’immortalité and his supplementary dissertation, Le Crime des Lemniennes.


1925 Arrives in Turkey to be a professor at the University of Istanbul, a position he holds until 1929. First travels in the Caucasus.


1929 Le Problème des Centaures, his second large-scale work of comparative Indo-European mythology.


1931 Georges Dumézil becomes a lecturer in French at the University of Uppsala. He remains in Sweden until 1933.


1933 Thanks to Sylvain Lévi, Dumézil begins teaching at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. He teaches “Comparative Indo-European Mythology.” He also attends the sinologist Marcel Granet’s courses and writes editorials for Le jour until1938.


1938    Discovery of “functional triparition” and publication of the ground-breaking article, “La Préhistoire des flamines majeurs.”


1941 Expulsion from teaching for Freemasonry. Between 1941 and 1949, publication of several books in the series Les Mythes romains and Jupiter-Mars-Quirinus.


1949 Election to the Collège de France. Dumézil gives his position the name, chair of “Indo-European Civilization.”


1952 From 1952 to 1972 Dumézil travels regularly to Turkey and the Caucasus to study languages in the Caucasus. From 1952 to 1968 he publishes a great number of articles on specific points in the trifunctional heritage of various Indo-European peoples. 1952, Les Dieux des Indo-européens. 1958, Idéologie tripartite des Indo-européens.

1968 Retirement. 1968 to 1972, invitations to teach in Los Angeles and Chicago by Jaan Puhvel and Mircea Eliade. 1968 to 1973, publication of the three volumes of Mythe et épopée.


1978 Election to the Académie Française. Publication of Romans de Scythie et d’alentour.


1979 Publication of several books between 1979 and 1986, notably the Esquisses de mythologie.


1986 Dumézil and Georges Charachidzé found the Revue des études géorgiennes et caucasiennes. Dumézil dies in Paris on October 11.



28 Selected Bibliography

The Main Works of Georges Dumézil


When applicable the original publication date, original publisher and/or English language editions appear in brackets. For a complete annotated bibliography see Hervé Coutau-Bégarie’s L’œuvre de Georges Dumézil, Catalogue raisonné, Economica, 1998.




Les Dieux des Germains, Gallimard, 1959 [Gods of the ancient Northmen, ed.  Einar Haugen, intro. C. Scott Littleton and Udo Strutynski, University of California Press, 1973].


Du mythe au roman. La Saga de Hadingus (Saxo Grammaticus, I, V-VIII) et autres essais, [Puf, 1953] Gallimard, 1997 [From myth to fiction; the saga of Hadingus, tr. Derek Coltman, University of Chicago Press, 1973].


Fêtes romaines d’été et d’automne, suivi de Dix questions romaines, Gallimard, [1975], 1986 [portions appear in Camillus: A Study of Indo-European Religion as Roman History, tr. Patricia Barlow, Patricia Dowling, Annette Aronowicz, James M. Needham, Sosette Birsson, University of California Press, 1980].


Heur et malheur du guerrier, Aspects mythiques de la fonction guerrière chez les Indo-Européens, [PUF, 1969] Flammarion, 1996. [Destiny of the Warrior, tr. Alf Hiltebeitel, University of Chicago Press, 1971].


Loki, [Maisonneuve, 1948] Flammarion, 1995 [University of Chicago Press, 1990].


Mitra-Varuna, Gallimard, [1940] 1948 [Mitra-Varuna : an essay on two Indo-European representations of sovereignty, tr. Derek Coltman, Zone Books, 1988].


Mythe et épopée II, Types épiques indo-européens: un héros, un sorcier, un roi, Gallimard, [1971] 1986 [Excerpts published as The Destiny of a King, tr. Alf Hiltebeitel, University of Chicago Press, 1988.


Mythe et épopée III, Histoires romaines, Gallimard, [1973] 1990 [portions appear in Camillus: A Study of Indo-European Religion as Roman History, tr. Patricia Barlow, Patricia Dowling, Annette Aronowicz, James M. Needham, Sosette Birsson, University of California Press, 1980].


La Religion romaine archaïque, Payot, [1966] 2000 [Archaic Roman religion, with an appendix on the religion of the Etruscans, tr. Philip Krapp. Foreword Mircea Eliade. University of Chicago Press [1970] Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996].


Hervé Coutau-Bégarie has edited a collection of Dumézil’s prefaces and other theoretical texts as Georges Dumézil, Mythes et dieux des Indo-Européens, Flammarion, 1992.



Secondary Sources and Works on Dumézil



I don’t want what I’ve done to be turned into a textbook method: such approaches only present results and leave out the processes that enabled them to be reached. In these studies what is fruitful, what may be inspiring to researchers embarking in the field, even indirectly, is the story of the progression, its accidents and adventures. . .

Even supposing that I was completely wrong, that my Indo-Europeans are like Riemann’s and Lobachevsky’s non-Euclidean geometry, constructions existing outside of reality, that is still not so bad. All that has to be done is to move me to another section of the library, classified under “novels.”

Georges Dumézil, Entretiens avec Didier Éribon.



Concerning the objections to my principles, I have intense and decisive answers. I would like to say to the Lord, “nunc dimittis servum tuum, because you allowed me to see my small part of the truth.” And at the same time I know, because it is an inviolable law, I know that my work in fifty years, maybe in twenty or ten years, will only have historical interest, that at worst it will be reduced to rubble, and at best—which is my hope—it will be pruned, sharpened, transformed. Transformed according to what model? If I knew I’d begin the operation myself.

Georges Dumézil, Address upon Reception to the Académie Française.



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