DUMÈZIL, GEORGES . Georges Dumézil (1898–1986) was a French scholar who revolutionized the study of comparative mythology, especially comparative Indo-European mythology. In the early decades of the twentieth century, largely as a result of the eclipse of Max Müller's "solar mythology" (Dorson, 1955), the science of comparative mythology—especially comparative Indo-European mythology—reached a low ebb. However, the basic questions to which Müller and his adherents had addressed themselves—the curious thematic, if not in all cases etymological, parallels among a great many ancient Indo-European gods and heroes—remained unresolved. In the early 1920s a young French scholar named Georges Dumézil set out to find a viable framework in terms of which these questions might once again be approached.
Born in Paris on March 4, 1898, Dumézil attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and later the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. After serving as an artillery officer in 1917 and 1918, he returned to his studies at the University of Paris, where in 1924 he completed his doctoral thesis. Entitled Le festin d'immortalité: Étude de mythologie comparée indo-européenne (The Feast of Immortality: A Study of Comparative Indo-European Mythology, 1924), it marked the beginning of one of the twentieth century's most distinguished scholarly careers.
Dumézil's initial attempts (e.g., 1924, 1929) to develop a "new comparative mythology" were grounded in James G. Frazer's now largely discredited theory, first enunciated in the latter's masterwork, The Golden Bough (1890), that religion everywhere reflects an attempt to magically renew the world by periodically killing and replacing kings and other persons symbolic of divine beings. But the Frazerian model ultimately failed to provide the theoretical framework Dumézil was seeking. By 1938, however, he had made a major discovery and had begun to draw upon a wholly different theoretical base. The discovery was that the several ancient Indo-European-speaking communities, at least in their earliest periods, were characterized by a tripartite social class system that broadly resembled the three Aryan or "twice-born" castes of classical and later Indian society (i.e., Brāhmaṇa, Kṣatriyas, and Vaiśya). The new theoretical base was the sociology of Émile Durkheim and his followers, to which Dumézil was introduced by Marcel Granet. Although it is unfair to characterize Dumézil as a full-fledged Durkheimian (his fundamental training was in philology and the history of religions), he nevertheless came to adopt one of Durkheim's most famous maxims: that important social and cultural realities are inevitably "collectively represented" by supernatural beings and concepts (Durkheim, 1912).
In a remarkable series of books and articles written during the course of the next decade, Dumézil successfully combined his newly discovered evidence for tripartite social structures, Durkheimian sociology, and the traditional methods of comparative philology, and he arrived at a comprehensive model of the common Indo-European ideology—that is, the tripartite cognitive model in terms of which the ancient (and not so ancient) Indo-European speakers ordered their social and supernatural universes. The salient features, or functions, as Dumézil labeled them, of this ideology are as follows: (1) the maintenance of cosmic and juridical sovereignty; (2) the exercise of physical prowess; and (3) the promotion of physical well-being, fertility, wealth, and so on. At least some evidence of this cognitive model can be seen in every ancient Indo-European tradition, from Vedic India, whose three-fold caste system was collectively represented, respectively, by Varuṇa and Mitra (first function), Indra (second function), and the Aśvins, or Divine Horsemen (third function), to the Old Norse figures Týr and Odin, Thor, and Njord and Freyr, who reflect the same functional paradigm. Moreover, it soon became clear that the three functions are endlessly replicated in an extremely wide variety of cultural phenomena, including triads of epic heroes, threefold categories of diseases (and cures), and even tripartite conceptions of physical space.
At first glance, Dumézil's approach might appear similar to that of his longtime friend and colleague, Claude Lévi-Strauss. However, where Lévi-Strauss (e.g., 1963) is concerned with the universal structure of the human psyche, Dumézil's purview is limited to the Indo-European-speaking domain (Littleton, 1982, pp. 277–275), and he was the first to admit that non-Indo-European speakers, such as the Sino-Tibetans, the Hamito-Semites, the Uto-Aztecans, and the Bantu are constrained by wholly different cognitive models, predicated on other functional paradigms.
To be sure, Dumézil's theories and methods have not met with universal approval. Some critics suggest that on more than one occasion he imposed the tripartite model on data that are perhaps amenable to other interpretations (Littleton, 1982, pp. 186–202). Still others have claimed that he was a crypto-fascist (Momigliano, 1983 and Lincoln, 1991, pp. 231–267), an unfortunate accusation that has been laid to rest by Didier Eribon in Faut-il brûler Dumézil? (Is it necessary to burn Dumézil?, 1992). In addition, Nicholas Justin Allen (1987) has suggested that a "fourth function" exists outside of the tripartite paradigm and can be characterized as "other."
After spending several years teaching at the University of Istanbul (1925–1932) and a year as a lecturer at the University of Uppsala in Sweden (1932–1933), Dumézil returned to France and settled into a career at the University of Paris, punctuated by visiting professorships at other universities, including the University of Lima, Peru (1955), and the University of California at Los Angeles (1971). In 1948 he was appointed Professeur de Civilisation indo-européenne in the Collège de France, a position that was created for him, where he remained until his retirement in 1968. In 1979, in the autumn of his eightieth year, he was elected to the Académie française.
In 1925 Dumézil married the former Madeleine Legrand, a union that produced a son, Claude, and a daughter, Perrine (Curien). After suffering a massive heart attack, he passed away in Paris on October 11, 1986.
Major Works by Georges Dumézil
Dumézil published over seventy-five books and several hundred articles, reviews, replies, etc. For more comprehensive bibliographies of Dumézil's publications, see Rivière (1979) and Littleton (1982).
Dumézil, Georges. Le festin d'immortalité: Étude de mythologie comparée indo-européenne. Paris, 1924. Dumézil's doctoral thesis.
Dumézil, Georges. Mythes et dieux des Germains: Essai d'interprétation comparative. Paris, 1939. This book contains Dumézil's first systematic articulation of the tripartite ideology.
Dumézil, Georges. Jupiter-Maris-Quirinus I: Essai sur la conception indo-européenne de la société et sur les origins de Rome. Paris, 1941.
Dumézil, Georges. Les dieux des indo-européens. Paris, 1952. This book contains a comprehensive overview of Dumézil's model at midcentury.
Dumézil, Georges. Aspects de la fonction guerrière chez les indo-européens. Paris, 1956. Translated by John Lindow, Alan Toth, Francis Charat, and Georges Gopen as Gods of the Ancient Northmen (Berkeley, Calif., 1973).
Dumézil, Georges. L'idéologie tripartie des indo-européens. Brussels, Belgium, 1958. This monograph remains the best single introduction to Dumézil's basic ideas.
Dumézil, Georges. La religion romaine archaïque, avec un appendice sur la religion des Etrusques. Paris, 1966. Translated by Philipp Krapp as Archaic Roman Religion (Chicago, 1970). Dumézil's "bilan romain."
Dumézil, Georges. Mythe et épopée I: L'idéologie des trois fonctions dans les épopées des peuples indo-européens. Paris, 1968. The first volume of a magisterial series of books concerning how the tripartite ideology manifests itself in Indo-European epics.
Dumézil, Georges. Heur et malheur du guerriére: Aspects mythiques de la fonction guerriére chez les indo-européens. Paris, 1969. Translated by Alf Hiltebeitel as The Destiny of the Warrior (Chicago, 1970).
Dumézil, Georges. Mythe et épopée II: Types épiques indo-européens: un héros, un sorcier, un roi. Paris, 1971. Part 1 translated by Jaan Puhvel and David Weeks as The Stakes of the Warrior (Berkeley, Calif., 1983); Part 2 translated by Jaan Puhvel and David Weeks as The Plight of a Sorcerer (Berkeley, 1986); Part 3 translated by Alf Hiltebeitel as The Destiny of a King (Chicago, 1973).
Dumézil, Georges. Mythe et épopée III: Histoires romaines. Paris, 1973. Translated by Antoinette Aronowicz and Josette Bryson as Camillus: A Study of Indo-European Religion as Roman History. (Berkeley, Calif., 1980).
Allen, Nicholas Justin. "The Ideology of the Indo-Europeans: Dumézil's Theory and the Idea of a Fourth Function." International Journal of Moral and Social Studies 2, no. 1 (1987): 23–39.
Dorson, Richard. "The Eclipse of Solar Mythology." In Myth: A Symposium, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok, pp. 15–38. Philadelphia, 1955.
Durkheim, Émile. Les formes élémentaires de la vie religeuse. Paris, 1912. Translated by Joseph Ward as Swain as The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York, 1961).
Eribon, Didier. Entretiens avec Georges Dumézil. Paris, 1987. These "conversations," which the author recorded a few months before Dumézil died in 1986, are the closest the French mythologist ever came to writing a memoir.
Eribon, Didier. Faut-il brûler Dumézil? Paris, 1992. The definitive answer to Momigliano, Lincoln, and others who have accused Dumézil of being a "crypto-fascist."
Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough (abridged edition). New York, 1922.
Granet, Marcel. La civilization chinoise. Paris, 1929. Translated by Kathleen E. Innes and Mabel R. Brailsford as Chinese Civilization (New York, 1930). It was Granet who introduced Dumézil to the Durkheimian approach to religion.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Anthropologie structurale. Paris, 1958. Translated by M. Layton as Structural Anthropology (New York, 1963).
Lincoln, Bruce. "Shaping the Past and the Future." Times Literary Supplement (London), October 3 (1986): 1107–1108. Review of Georges Dumézil's L'oublie de l'homme et l'honneur des dieux.
Littleton, C. Scott. The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of Georges Dumézil. 3d edition. Berkeley, Calif., 1982.
Littleton, C. Scott. "Gods, Myths and Structures: Dumézil." In Encyclopedia of Continental Philosophy, edited by Simon Glendinning, pp. 558–568. Edinburgh, UK, 1999.
Miller, Dean A. The Epic Hero. Baltimore, Md., 2000. An important assessment of the role of the hero in the several ancient Indo-European epics; reflects current thinking about the nature and symbolism of the "second function."
Momigliano, Arnaldo. "Permesse per una discussione su Georges Dumézil." Opus 2 (1983): 329–341. The first scholar to accuse Dumézil of harboring fascist beliefs.
Strutynski, Udo. "Introduction." In Camillus: A Study of Indo-European Religion as History by Georges Dumézil, edited by Udo Strutynski, pp. 1–39. Berkeley, Calif., 1980. A succinct overview of Dumézil's contributions to Roman religion.
Wikander, Stig. Der arische Männerbund. Lund, Sweden, 1938. The late Stig Wikander was Dumézil's earliest disciple. This book had a profound impact on the evolution of his ideas, especially as they relate to the "second function"; that is, the Indo-European warrior ideology.
C. Scott Littleton (2005)
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