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War and Warriors: Indo-European Beliefs and Practices


As Georges Dumézil, the leading contemporary expert on comparative Indo-European mythology, long ago demonstrated, war gods and the ideology that is associated with them played an extremely important role in the pantheons of most, if not all of the early Indo-European-speaking societies. To cite several well-attested examples: the ancient Indic war god Indra, by far the most prominent of the Vedic divinities, the ubiquitous Roman god Mars, the Greek war god Ares, and the Norse god

Þórr (Thor), thunderbolt-wielder par excellence and the most popular of the ancient Scandinavian divinities. Moreover, heroes and demigods, like Arjuna, Herakles, Siegfried, Cú Chulainn, Arthur, and Achilles, all occupied important positions in their respective traditions. Indeed, like most pastoral nomads, modern as well as ancient, the ancestors of the Greeks, Hittites, Aryans, Celts, Germans, and so forth, seem to have regarded warfare as a fundamental fact of life and to have held both the war band and its collective representations in high esteem.

The Indo-European MÄnnerbund

As Stig Wikander pointed out (1938), the Männerbund, or war band, was clearly among the most important of ancient Indo-European social institutions. Examples of this phenomenon are legion, from the katriya caste (or class, at least in the earliest period) of traditional India to the ancient Germanic comitatus. Moreover, the presence of such a social stratumthat is, a class of military specialists whose prime purpose was to exercise physical prowess, either in defense of the society or in order to conquer new territorywas a uniquely Indo-European phenomenon. Armed with the shaft-hole battle-ax, among other weapons, and propelled by the light, horse-drawn battle chariot, this warlike elite greatly facilitated the spread, beginning around 3500 bce, of the several Indo-European communities from the Proto-Indo-European homeland in what is now southern Russia to the territory associated with this widespread language family in historic times.

Ambivalent Attitudes toward the Warrior

Nevertheless, despite his importance in the scheme of things, there seems to have been a deep-seated ambivalence in the Indo-European attitude toward the warrior, if not toward warfare, and this, too, is reflected in the belief system. On the one hand, the war leader, or *reĝ, from which Latin rex, Sanskrit rāj, Old Irish rig, and so forth, derive, together with his war band, was generally regarded as the immediate secular authority, and his commands were typically obeyed without question. On the other hand, the rex, rāj, and so forth, was everywhere subordinate toor at least no more prestigious thanthe priests or holy men (e.g., the Indic brahmans, the Celtic druids, the Roman flamines maiores ). And it is clear that ultimate sovereignty was vested in this most sacred of the ancient Indo-European social strata. Moreover, one finds everywhere a tension between the two classes in question, a sense that although the warrior was vital to the survival of the community, he was nevertheless a thoroughly ambivalent figure and prone to commit random acts of violence or treachery against nonwarrior members of his own society when not engaged in fighting external enemies. Indeed, throughout the ancient Indo-European-speaking domain one repeatedly encounters such concepts as furor (Latin) and ferg (Old Irish), as well as the Norse image of the berserkir, all of which are expressions of what was believed to be the warrior's inherent (and, on occasion, uncontrollable) ferocity.

Thus, the role of the warrior, and especially the warrior-leader, was steeped in paradoxes. He was at once at the apex of the social order and a potential threat to that order. Indeed, the contradiction here, which is reflected throughout Indo-European religious beliefs, is inherent in the profession of arms: it involves a social institution dedicated to the destruction of society. What follows is, in the main, a survey of these warrior-related beliefs, as interpreted by Dumézil.

The Ideology of the Second Function

According to Dumézil, the ancient Indo-Europeans conceived of the world and their relationship to it in terms of three fundamental, hierarchically ranked ideological principles, or "functions." In descending order, the so-called first function includes the social and supernatural manifestations of ultimate sovereignty and is typically manifested in a pair of divinities, such as the Vedic divinities Mithra and Varua, the Norse gods Tyr and Óðinn (Odin), and so forth, as well as in the priestly social strata mentioned above. The final function, or third function, reflects the sum total of activities and beliefs relating to the mass of society, the maintenance and promotion of fertility, physical well-being, and so on. However, it is the intermediate function, or second function, which includes the social, religious, and mythological manifestations of the exercise of physical prowess, that is of concern here, for it contains the ideology underlying the Indo-European conception of warfare and warriors.

As has been noted, that ideology is inherently ambivalent, for the canonical representations of the warrior figure are two in number. One is the apotheosis of the chivalrous warrior, the warrior who for the most part confines his violent behavior to the battlefield and does not habitually attack "civilians." This figure is perhaps best reflected by the aforementioned divinities Indra, Mars, and Þórr, as well as in the Indian epic hero Arjuna, and, at least to an extent, in the Greek figures Herakles and Achilles. The other representation of the warrior is diabolical in nature; the emphasis here is on unpredictability and sheer nastiness. Examples are to be found in the Vedic figure Vāyu, who is equated with the wind, especially the ill wind that blows up suddenly out of nowhere and does indiscriminate damage; the Norse antihero Starkaðr; and the aforementioned Greek divinity Ares, whose companions were Deimos ("fear") and Phobos ("fright"). Thus, the warrior has both a "light" and a "dark" side to his nature.

In several recent works, chief among them the second volume of the Mythe et épopée series (1971), Dumézil has suggested that this "dark/light" dichotomy can be detected throughout Indo-European ideology. That is, certain divinities are more remote from man, more unpredictable, and therefore "dark" in character (e.g., Varua as well as Vāyu in the Indic tradition), while others, like Mitra and Þórr, are closer to humans and therefore "light" in character. Thus, the distinction between the two types of warrior figures, which almost certainly is rooted in a perception of social reality, may be but one example of a much more deep-seated Indo-European ideological theme.

The Three Sins of the Warrior

However, even the most chivalrous of Indo-European warrior figures, divine as well as heroic, sometimes manifest "dark" traits. Typically, this involves the commission of three "sins," one against each of the three ideological functions. The best example, perhaps, can be seen in the ancient Indic traditions about the recalcitrant behavior of the otherwise "light" divinity Indra. In Mahābhārata 5.9.140, Indra slays Viśvarupa, the monstrous, three-headed son of Tva, who has been threatening the divine community. However, as Tva is chaplain to the gods, his son is by definition a divine brahman, and Indra has therefore committed an act of brahmanicide, an unpardonable sin (and act of rebellion) against the first function and its representatives. Later, Indra is confronted by the warrior demon Namucī with whom he had earlier sworn a pact of eternal friendship. As that pact contained the promise not to kill Namucī with anything either wet or dry, Indra forges a weapon made of foamwhich, in the eyes of the ancient Indians at least, was neither wet nor dryand, when the unsuspecting demon's attention is diverted, he decapitates him. This, of course, is a sin against his own function, as the slaying was done by trickery, rather than in a fair fight. Finally, the god assumes the form of a man called Gautama and, so disguised, has intercourse with the man's wife. This is an abuse of the ideology of the third function, that is, Indra performs an illicit act of procreation.

As a result of these transgressions, Indra progressively lost his first function, majesty, or tejas; his second function, physical prowess, or bālam; and his third function, beauty, or rūpam; all of which, as Wikander and Dumézil have demonstrated, were eventually reincarnated in the offspring of the epic hero Pau (Yudhisira, Arjuna, Bhīma, Nakula, and Sahadeva). The important thing here is that, from the standpoint of the Indo-European ideological system, Indra had by these acts clearly demonstrated his inherent recalcitrance and therefore his ultimate inferiority to Mitra, Varua, and other representatives of the first function in the divine scheme of things. The lesson, of course, is that warriors, even the best of them, are capable of disrupting the social and natural order and therefore not to be fully trusted.

Another canonical example of the "three sins" can be found in the Greek traditions about Herakles, who (1) refuses to obey his sovereign, Eurystheus, (2) slays a fellow warrior, Iphitos, in violation of what amounts to a truce, and (3) although legally married to Deianira, abducts and then violates Astydamia after killing her father and sacking his city. The third prime example involves the Norse warrior Starkaðr, who sacrilegiously sacrifices his sovereign to the god Óðinn, abandons his cohorts in battle, and, for money, slays the Danish king Olo while he is relaxing in a bath. Still other examples have been noted in the careers of Ares, Agamemnon, Siegfried, Sir Gawain, and Achilles.

As Dumézil puts it, what is the case here is a "drama in three acts," as it were, and in a very real sense it is a tragedy, as with each "sin" the warrior in questiongod as well as heroloses his powers or his life force. Thus, after violating Astydamia, Herakles is rendered powerless by his outraged wife and eventually causes himself to be burned on a funeral pyre, while Starkaðr commits suicide after killing Olo. The net effect is what amounts to a "cautionary tale": warriors, even the best of them, are ultimately unreliable, and if their furor, and so forth, is allowed to go unchecked, the social order as a whole may very well collapse.

The Killing of the Three-Headed Monster

Among the more important themes involving Indo-European warrior figures is the killing of a three-headed monster. As has already been seen, Indra's first "sin" stemmed from such a slaying. But the theme in question is distinct from that of the "three sins" and needs to be considered separately. Indeed, Indra is by no means the only Indic figure who slays a tricephalus. In gveda 10.8.8 Viśvarupa's slayer is called Trita-ptya, or the "third" of three ptya brothers, and although the figure is sometimes held to be a hypostasis of Indra, there is no clear implication that Trita-ptya's action is considered a "sin." The same can be said for the behavior of the onomastically related Iranian figure Thraetaona, who kills a three-headed monster called Aži Dahaka ("foreign snake").

Other reflexes of this theme can be found in the Greek story of Herakles versus the three-headed figure Geryon, the Norse myth of how Thor bested the giant Hrungnir, who is described as having a "three-horned" heart, the Irish account of the hero Cú Chulainn versus the three sons of Nechta Scéne, and the well-known Roman pseudo-historical account of the conflict between Horatius and the three Curiatii. The last two accounts are, or course, euhemerized, in that the three-headed monster has been transformed into a threefold set of human adversaries (in the Roman version they are a set of Alban triplets). Nevertheless, in the other accounts, the slayer performs the same service to his community: he eliminates a threat to the three fundamental elements of the tradition (i.e., the three functions)hence presumably the three heads or triple character of the adversary.

But the recalcitrance and, indeed, antisocial proclivities of the Indo-European warrior are also very much in evidence here. In the Roman version, for example, when the victorious Horatius (also the last survivor of a set of triplets) learned that his sister mourned the death of one of the Curiatiishe had been betrothed to himhe slew her in a fit of rage. As a result the Roman hero was forced to walk under a beam to divest himself of his furor before returning to polite society. Similar rituals of purification seem to have been characteristic of other early Indo-European societies; indeed the later Roman custom wherein a victorious army had to pass under a "triumphal" arch before it disbanded seems, in light of this evidence, to have been rooted as much in a need to divest the army of its collective furor as in a desire to humiliate the war captives that marched in chains behind the general's chariot.

The War of Foundation

Another widespread Indo-European theme in which warrior figures necessarily play an important part is what Dumézil variously calls "the war of foundation" and the "war between the functions," that is, a conflict between representatives of the first two functions and those of the third. The best examples come from the Germanic and Roman traditions. In the former, the Æsir, including Óðinn, Tyr, and, of course, Þórr, fight a war with the so-called Vanir divinities, the most prominent of whom are Njo̹rðr, his son Freyr, and his daughter Freyja. As described in the Ynglingasaga, the Æsir fight their Vanir opponents to a standstill, and then, in reconciliation, incorporate them into the pantheon, rendering it complete.

Although scholars such as the late Karl Helm have interpreted this myth as a reflection of the conflict that must have occurred between the earliest Germans and the indigenous inhabitants of northern Europe, Dumézil has found a parallel in the Roman pseudo-historical account of the Sabine War, as preserved by Livy and others, and is therefore convinced that the theme is in fact Indo-European. In the latter case, shortly after founding the city of Rome, Romulus and his companions trick their wealthy neighbors, the Sabines, steal their wives and daughters, and then, as part of the truce following an inconclusive war, incorporate the whole Sabine community into the Roman body politic. In both examples, the defeated groups clearly represent the third functionneither the Vanir nor the Sabines were famed for their military prowess, and each was closely associated with fertility and the mass of societywhile the victors represent the first two. Indeed, the Sabines eventually came to form one of the three founding tribes of Rome, the Titienses (named for the Sabine king Titus Tatius), completing a triad that also included the Ramnes (founded by Romulus and charged with priestly duties), and the warlike Luceres (reputedly named for the Etruscan hero Lucomon).

Thus, while the Roman version of the theme masquerades as history, it is as mythological in its roots as the Norse account of the conflict between the Æsir and the Vanir and ultimately stems from the same Indo-European mythologem. This conclusion is buttressed by several other examples of what appear to be "wars of foundation"or at least traditions about an internecine struggle that broadly conforms to the pattern just discussed. One is the Vedic reference to a conflict between "two forces," or ubhe vīrye, that are expressed in the principles later incarnated, respectively, in the vaisya (third function) and in the brahmaa and katriya (first and second functions). Another can be found in the Homeric accounts of the Trojan War (e.g., the Iliad and the Odyssey ), as well as in accounts of its aftermath (e.g., Euripides' The Trojan Women ). The Greeks, led by Agamemnon and, after he returns to the fray, championed by the famed warrior Achilles, represent the first two functions, while the Trojans, consistently described as possessing vast wealth, are, like the Vanir and the Sabines, almost certainly representatives of the third function. Moreover, the fate of the Trojan women closely parallels that of their Sabine sisters: they are abducted by the victorious Greek kings and heroes.

Yet another possible example of a "war of foundation" can be seen in the Irish accounts of the conflict between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomhoire, which culminated in the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh. After this battle, the defeated Fomhoiran figure Bres, who together with his kind seems generally to reflect the third function, is incorporated into the body politic created by the victorious Tuatha (first and second functions), rendering it complete.

Sword Cults

An important feature that appears in several ancient Indo-European traditions is what can best be described as the cult of the named, magical sword. Found among the Celts, Germans, and particularly the North Iranian-speaking steppe peoples (Scythians, Alans, Sarmatians, etc.), the cult seems to have spread westward in the early centuries ce. Perhaps the best-known example here is contained in the medieval tradition surrounding King Arthur's magical sword, Excalibur. Another example is Roland's famous sword, Durandel. But as early as the fifth century bce Herodotus described the Scythian practice of worshiping swords as manifestations of "Ares," and in the fourth century ce Ammianus Marcellinus described the Alanic custom of thrusting swords into the earth and worshiping them as "Mars." The modern Ossets, a Caucasian people who have the distinction of being the last descendants of the ancient Alans, still preserve an epic tradition in which magical swords play an important role (see, for example, Dumézil, Légendes sur les Nartes, Paris, 1930, pp. 6163).

Although this theme cannot be documented throughout the ancient Indo-European domain and may well be rooted in the steppe traditions, its subsequent distribution from Britain to the Caucasus renders it a potentially important element in the Indo-European warfare mystique.

The Warrior-Divinity as a Fertility Figure

To conclude this brief survey of Indo-European warrior figures and the beliefs and practices associated with them, it is necessary to point out that several of the best known of these figures also had strong associations with plant, animal, and human fertility. Mars, for example, in certain of his aspects (e.g., the so-called Agrarian Mars) was regularly worshiped as a fertility figure. The Norse god Þórr was also invoked as an agricultural deity, and his sexual prowess is in some respects as remarkable as his fighting ability. The same can be said for several other Indo-European figures who are otherwise clear-cut representatives of the "second function," including, as has been seen, the demigod Herakles.

The warrior also has important connections with the principle of sovereignty, that is, the first function. As Dumézil points out, the Indo-European king is everywhere drawn from the warrior elite and must undergo a ritual wherein he acquires symbols of the other two functions as well as those relevant to his own. He thus necessarily becomes a transfunctional (or better, perhaps, a parafunctional) figure. Indeed, all Indo-European royal consecration ceremonies, from ancient India to modern Britain, emphasize this element.

Thus, Dumézil's conception of this most important component of the Indo-European ideology is much more complex than it might seem at first glance. There was, for example, a Mars qui praeest paci and there were arma Quirini (that is, armed representatives of the "third function"). Moreover, most of the female warrior figuressuch as the Greek goddess Athena, who leaped into existence fully armed from the forehead of Zeus and who was typically portrayed in the costume of a warrior maidenwere also trifunctional figures in that they incarnated divine wisdom and the domestic arts as well as military prowess (cf. the three Irish Macha figures and the triple-figured Hindu goddess Durga). For the most part, however, these fertility attributes seem to have been secondary, and the prime function of figures such as Mars and Þórr, if not Athena, was to ensure military success.

In sum, despite their periodic bouts of antisocial behavior and occasional double-duty as agricultural divinities, to say nothing of their periodic elevation to the transfunctional role of king, the great Indo-European war gods, as well as their heroic counterparts (Arjuna, Achilles, Siegfried, Cú Chulainn, et al.), everywhere occupied a fundamental niche in the belief systems in question. And this niche was paralleled by that occupied by the warrior stratum in the real world of the ancient Indo-Europeans. Although never at the apex of the social or divine pyramid (unless elevated to the kingship), the warrior, mortal as well as divine or legendary, was a figure to be reckoned with, and the ideology associated with his was (and still is) perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Indo-European worldview.

See Also

Berserkers; Blades; Frenzy; Indo-European Religions, article on History of Study; Secret Societies.


Dumézil, Georges. Aspects de la fonction guerrière chez les Indo-Européens. Paris, 1956. Dumézil's basic statement on the Indo-European warrior; a fundamental contribution to "the new comparative mythology." Revised and expanded as Heur et malheur du guerrier (Paris, 1969) and translated by Alf Hiltebeitel as The Destiny of the Warrior (Chicago, 1970).

Dumézil, Georges. "L'enjeu du jeu des dieuxun héros." In his Mythe et popeé, vol. 2, pt. 1. Paris, 1971. Dumézil's discussion of the "light" and "dark" aspects of the warrior figure. Translated by David Weeks as The Stakes of the Warrior (Berkeley, 1983). Includes an excellent introduction by Jaan Puhvel.

Evans, David. "Agamemnon and the Indo-European Threefold Death Pattern." History of Religions 19 (November 1979): 153166. An analysis of an Indo-European warrior-related theme in Greek epic.

Helm, Karl. "Mythologie auf alten und neuen Wegen." Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 77 (1955): 333365. A critique of Dumézil's conception of the Indo-European warrior figure. Claims that the war between the Æsir and the Vanir reflects the Germanic conquest of Scandinavia rather than an Indo-European theme.

Littleton, C. Scott. "Some Possible Indo-European Themes in the Iliad. " In Myth and Law among the Indo-Europeans, edited by Jaan Puhvel, pp. 229246. Berkeley, 1970. Discusses the extent to which the Trojan War reflects the Indo-European "War of Foundation/War between the Functions" theme. Also analyzes Achilles as a trifunctional "sinner."

Littleton, C. Scott. The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of Georges Dumézil. 3d ed. Berkeley, 1982. A comprehensive assessment of Dumézil's theories. Includes a detailed discussion of the ideology of the "second function" (see, for example, pp. 120129).

Littleton, C. Scott. "From Swords in the Earth to the Sword in the Stone: A Possible Reflection of an Alano-Sarmatian Rite of Passage in the Arthurian Tradition." In Homage to Georges Dumézil, edited by Edgar C. Polmé, pp. 5368. Washington, D.C., 1982. Discusses North Iranian sword cults and the extent to which the pulling of a sword from the earth may have been part of an Alano-Sarmatian (or possibly Indo-European) warrior initiation ritual.

Miller, Dean A. The Epic Hero. Baltimore, 2000. A recent overview of the Indo-Eurtopean warrior ethos, with emphasis on epic heroes.

Strutynski, Udo. "Ares: A Reflex on the Indo-European War God?" Arethusa 13, (Fall 1980): 217231. A discussion of the Greek divinity Ares and the extent to which he commits the three canonical "sins." Methodologically important.

Strutynski, Udo. "Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense: The Warrior Sins of Sir Gawain." In Homage to Georges Dumézil, edited by Edgar C. Polomé, pp. 3552. Washington, D.C., 1982. Discusses the extent to which Gawain commits the three characteristic sins of the Indo-European warrior. An important work, as it demonstrates the persistence of this theme into medieval times.

Wikander, Stig. Der arische Männerbund. Lund, 1938. Established the presence of the Indo-European warrior band throughout the ancient Indo-European-speaking domain. Had a tremendous influence on Dumézil's subsequent theories about the Indo-European conception of the warrior class and its mythological reflections.

C. Scott Littleton (1987 and 2005)

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