Friday, January 14, 2011

Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty

Book Review: Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty by Georges Dumezil (transl by D. Coltman) Zone Books 1988- orig 1948

This was a fascinating account of comparisons of various Indo-European linguistics, myth, and social functions. Various comparisons of Roman, Vedic, Celtic, Germanic, Iranian, Greek, and Slavic notions of kingship and social function as revealed through myth and tradition are undertaken. The chapter headings are all couplet deities or heroes that display the contrasting yet complimentary styles of kingship. The idea was that kingship was kind of alternated between magician-warrior, binding, creative, wild, fem, dark, chaotic aspect represented by Varuna, Romulus, Wotanaz, Odin, Lugh, Jupiter, the Gandharvas, the Kentaurs, the Luperci, and the one-eyed god in general – and the other sovereign aspect was that of the more rational judge, legislator, orderly, contractual form represented by Mitra, Numa, Tiwaz, Tyr, Nuada of the Silver Arm, Fides, the priesthood (Roman flamines, Vedic brahmins) and the one-armed god in general. Mitra was the lord of contracts and Varuna was the enforcer, or binder of the contract (thus he carries the noose). The binding aspect is yet another association of Varuna with the titan Ouranos – not to mention linguistic similarities and many other aspects in common. Anyway, it seems that in these myths there was often an alternating power scheme of the two couples where one dominates for a while then the other.

The first comparison is of the Luperci – or wild wolf men in Rome associated with the wild king Romulus, who slays his brother Remus, and founds Rome. Later there was a festival one day a year where the Luperci effectively rule (as chaos) where the women were whipped with strips of goat skin to make them fertile just as Romulus and the Luperci originally did in the myth to the women of a conquered tribe. The chaotic rule of Romulus is followed by the very ordered rule of Numa, a judge-like character who makes laws, moral rules, and contracts. The Roman senate comes about by this style and Numa is in league with the priesthood (flamines). The Luperci as a wild gang of men who exhibit animal-like behavior are compared with the Kentaurs (Centaurs) of Ancient Greece – the wild horse-men and the Gandharvas of India (note the linguistic similarities). The Gandharvas (male) and Apsaras (female) are erotic spirits associated with music and sexuality. They are the celestial musicians mentioned in Buddhist texts. There they are said to be fed by smells. The Gandharvas are said to follow Varuna as king. The kentaurs are also educators of heroes, of Asklepios and of Achilles. The Gandharvas, Kentaurs, and Luperci often appear naked while for the priests nudity is often forbidden. He compares the statutes of the Roman priesthood and the brahmins. Both had many taboos. Avoiding funeral pyres, horses, battle, and drunkeness, to name a few.  In any case, Dumezil shows that the Romans and Vedic society probably had a similar origin somewhere back in time. The whole juxtaposition of sacred disorder and sacred order is strangely complimentary. In times of war the strength of wildness becomes valuable so that madness needs to be accessible through occasional worship. The Roman festival of the Lupercalia took place for one day a year where the mad men were in charge and the priests and judicial officials were out of sight. Earlier it was probably celebrated longer. The Gandharvas are considered monstrous demons in an Iranian Avestan text. In any case, Dumezil shows without a doubt that they have many exact similarities to the Kentaurs and Luperci and many habits that are taboo to flamines and brahmins. He also equates the Indian Manu with the judicial Numa and Manius of Rome as well as the more obvious Mannus of Germanic peoples. These are all early ancestors of these people, likely as well of common mythic origin. Manu is associated with the idea of faith, or sradda as Numa is associated with the god Fides, from which comes the words confide, and confidence – very similar to sradda as faith. Confidence in the laws and in the performance of proper sacrifice are what is portrayed as leading to a successful and meaningful life. Confidence in the laws between gods and men is akin to religious faith.

Vedic society was separated into priest, warrior, and herdsman-cultivator. Then there is a new synthesis of priest and warrior to make a pact of power. Mitra-Varuna is given in the Vedas several times as a single deity and in that order. In the Mitanni-Hittite treaty recorded around 1400 BC in Assyrian, Mitra-Varuna is invoked to seal the deal (as are Indra and the Ashvin twins). In the Avestan texts we see Mitra-Ahura, where Ahura Mazda is assumed to be developed from Varuna as an asura. Mitra is the friendly king while Varuna is the terrible king. Mitra is the lord of contracts and friendship. Friendship was sealed with the exchange of gifts. In the Satapatha Brahmana, Mitra and Varuna are contrasted as intelligence and will, as decision and act, and as the waning and waxing moon. Traditions also equate mitra with day and Varuna with night, Mitra with right and Varuna with left. They each receive different types of sacrifice according to their nature. Mitra receives milk and Varuna receives soma. Some of these notions may also apply to Zeus and Ouranos, to Jupiter Summanus and Dius Fideus. The wife of Manu, Ida, teaches him the bloodless sacrifice. Manu is said to be a descendent of the sun. Manu’s daughter Ila joins with the son of the moon god and gives birth to Pururavas, the first Gandharva king. So Manu heads the solar dynasty and Pururavas heads the lunar dynasty. Pururavas, like many of the wild kings had an chaotic nature, died a violent death, and was scorned by the rishis. Ila communicated between the solar and lunar dynasties and was said in some myths to alter from man to woman, changing sex monthly.

Dumezil makes an interesting case equating the Persian festivals of the spring and autumnal equinoxes with the sovereignty forms of Mitra and Varuna. He notes that the Mazdeans changed much of the pre-Mazdean Vedic dogmas but that changing seasonal traditions is more difficult to effect. Mihragan in spring is associated with Mithra and the end of the world and Narouz in the fall is associated with Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda – or Varuna) and the beginning of the world. Since many animals couple (creativity and mating associated with the wild gods) in the autumn and cease coupling in the spring, this matches the pattern. The circle of the year then is complimentary. Varuna is the waxing moon and Mitra is the waning moon. Yim, or Yima instituted Nauroz. He is said to be in the bloodline of the Gandharvas. Yama in India is said to be the son of a Gandharva and to be the first man to experience death. Mihrjan was instituted by Faridun, the law abiding hero who establishes justice after the tyrannical reign of a monster.

Dumezil does make an observation that Indra had an ability to bypass the strict observance of the sacrifice and perhaps this represents mere special circumstances or a reform of earlier rules, as Indra seems to eclipse the power of Varuna in what have been interpreted as later parts of the Vedas. Also of similar interest is the depiction of Iranian Mithra in warrior manifestation, armed with none other than the vajra (Ir. vazra) which is the weapon of Indra. Dumezil notes the word denoting hammer or axe  (likely borrowed) in Finno-Ugric languages as vasara, or vaecer in Lapp. In the Vedas, Indra alone wields the vajra but Indra is also amalgamated with the fighter Vtrahan as Indra-Vtrahan. In Persia it was apparently Mithra who merged with the fighter as Vrthragna, lord of offensive victory. This represents an evolution, or reform and so the Iranian Mithra does not wholly follow the pattern. Dumezil also notes that the relationship between Zeus and Ouranos is different from that of Mitra and Varuna. Zeus is the luminous day sky and Ouranos the night sky. Ouranos was hurled away after his defeat to far beyond space and time. The Indians say, “Mitra is this world, Varuna is the other world.” Zeus was probably influenced by deities from the Aegean area but obviously he is the thunderbolt warrior as well. Dumezil sees the pantheon of Zeus, Poseidon, and Pluto as different from the Indo-European models. So he sees a lot of Ancient Greek tradition as a combination of Indo-European and Aegean forms.

Dumezil sees the tripartite formula in Scandinavian as Odin – magician-king, Thor – champion-warrior, and Freyr as the peaceful producer. This denotes the same social structure noted in Indian society. Odin rides the wild hunt at night while his co-ruler Tyr represents the more rational form of day. The Romans referred to Tiwaz as Mars Thincsus, noting he had some military connections but his main function was to preside over the assemblies, called Thing. These assemblies were convened to make tribal decisions and enact laws. He is a law god and associated more with the rules of war than war itself. The Scandinavian Berserker-warriors clad in wolf-skins and bear skins are connected with Odin, and are not unlike the Gandharvas, Kentaurs, and especially the Luperci. Caesar mentioned that the Germanic tribes thought that prolonged habitation would cause them to lose the taste for war, succumb to peasant greed, get too used to comfort, get too attached to wealth, and to see as unfair a system that was depicted as fair and equal.   Probably for these reasons land was re-distributed annually and this arrangement kept the tribes closer to the wild war god motif than the judicial one although the judicial god king was no less important.

In Celtic tradition, both Irish and Welsh, there is King Nuada of the Silver Arm also called Nodens. He loses an arm in battle and is then pronounced unfit to rule until a silver replacement arm is made for him. A king not possessed of all body parts is said to be unfit to rule. Tyr loses his right hand while tricking the dangerous wolf Fenris so that he can be bound. The weaponry of Tyr/Tiwaz is the manipulation of the law to which all are bound and must accept. He tricked Fenris but he did it legally and so Fenris was obliged to accept his binding. His placing his hand in the wolf’s mouth is the pledge or wager that must be accepted according to law. Other one-armed heroes include the Roman Mucius the Left-Handed who had a similar function.

The One-Eyed god Odin is referred to as the inspired magician king. The one eye refers to the second sight or inner sight, India has a whole series of info on this as the third eye of Shiva and the enlightened ones in Buddhist works. In Celtic terms there is the Fomorian Balor who battles with his powerful eye and his grandson Lugh of the Long Hand who smites magically as well by bulging out one eye. There is a one-eyed Roman hero called Cocles as well. The eye is the preferred weapon of the mad warrior type. Shiva also smites a few demons with his third eye. The Irish hero Cuchulain is another that produced a smiting grimace – no wonder as he was said to be fathered by Lugh himself. There are many-eyed deities and thousand armed deities in the Buddhist traditions also but these can be seen as practical manifestations evolved to envision deities with more power to aid others in their Bodhisattva aspects. Thus Chenrezik has eleven heads and a thousand eyes to see the suffering of all beings and a thousand arms to better alleviate the suffering of beings.

Dumezil then gives some interesting reasons why there were two battles of Mag Tured in Irish myth. He says it is because there are two types of warrior to be made supreme hero. Nuada loses his arm in the first battle. The magic eye of Lugh wins the second battle. After the first battle there is a uneasy compromise based on law and a Fomorian (Bress) is king for a while. In the second battle the victory is total as it is won with magic. So in the 2nd battle they avenged the legal blackmail that resulted from the first.

The last section compares the deities Savitr and Bhaga who appear in Vedic/Iranian and Bhaga as Bogu early Slavic contexts. These two deities are typically twinned in the Vedas. Savitra animates and creates as a solar deity and Bhaga distributes. Bhaga lost his eyes and Savitr lost his hands. They each got replacements given by the gods.  They were mutilated in the context of sacrifice, the sacrifice which Savitr normally propels and Bhaga apportions. After their mutilations and replacement parts they were set up to preside over sacrifices offered by men. It is the first fruit of the sacrifice that cut off the hands of Savitr and then the eyes of Bhaga. Then they offered it to Pusan and it knocked out his teeth. When they offered it to Indra, he made it gentle using the magic formula called brahmana. This first sacrifice is equated to the sacrifice of Prajapati by Rudra’s arrow – for marrying his own daughter, but also to the sacrifice of Daksa, also equated to Prajapati. In some versions it is the wrath of Rudra that causes the mutilations. Here again is the danger of the wild god. There is a custom of saying, “I look on you with the eye of Mitra” when receiving the sacrifice to tame its danger.

The Cyclops and the Hundred-Handed Giants in Greek myth are other manifestations of arms and eyes that have relevance. The Hundred-Handed Giants are the first children of Uranus and Gaia and the Cyclops are included s the second wave of their children. Uranus imprisoned their monstrous forms but much later Zeus frees them and they help him overcome the titan Kronos, another son of Uranus. Zeus does unbind those bound by Uranus/Ouranos in a similar way to that which Indra supercedes the sacrificial rules regarding the functions of Varuna. The magician Wodhanaz and the combatant Thor may have a similar relationship. In Rome it is the priesthood that unbinds the bindings ordered by Romulus. He notes that the sovereignty of Zeus is helped to become established by the one-eyed and hundred-armed ones descended from and victimized by Uranus.

The concluding section compares the contrasting yet complementary sovereignty couple to ideas like the yin and yang of China which pervades not only government but all sorts of things as the two poles or extremes of all fundamental qualities. Perhaps it is in this way that the rhythm of the two extremes balance each other out as in the early Roman kings alternating between the two styles. In my own opinion there is also a resemblance to the American political system where two differing styles of government seem to alternate in a fairly regular pattern. In comparing the yang and yin to Mitra and Varuna he does note the commonly held notion of Varuna representing a fundamenytal female quality. Mitra and Varuna were basically joined into one form to perform their functions as gods to men. In the Satapatha Brahmana it is said that “Mitra ejaculated his seed into Varuna.” He notes that Varuna/Ouranos is heaven and Mitra more so represents earth. This would be opposite to the Chinese version where Heaven is yang and male while Earth is yin and female. Dumezil even suggests that this may have influenced Indian philosophy in the Samkya system where there is the male Purusha (Spiritual self) and the female Prakriti (Matter). In Vedanta a similar antithetical yet complimentary couple appears as Brahma and Maya. In some Vedic texts Mitra is regarded as the brahman. Maya is the great illusion made by the great magician – Varuna. He also notes that the Mitra-Varuna couplet is not to be seen like the Asvin twins as they are more or less identical and perform together a single function.

Wow, this was a really cool book by one quite scholarly in his comparisons. It shows rather without doubt that the Indo-European myths are all related. But there were changes, reforms, and even some likely reversals of functions. Reforms in the Iranian versions are very notable and some reversals of functions in the Celtic and Germanic forms are evident as well. The Greeks seem to be more syncretistic with other Mediterranean traditions and perhaps the Persians with other Middle Eastern traditions. The Romans seem to be very similar to the Vedic in these analyses but there are differences as well as each culture developed in different ways. I would love to read his book on Ouranos-Varuna written before this one in the 1930’s but I do not think it is even available in English. I heard a strange story about Dumezil when reading a review – that he once maimed a horse to see how long and where it would go before dying – in imitation of the horse sacrifice. If true it is rather disgusting but perhaps it is not true.