Wikander, Stig

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WIKANDER, STIG . Oscar Stig Wikander (19081983) was born in Nörrtalje, a small town close to Stockholm, Sweden, on August 27, 1908. He entered the University of Uppsala in 1925, majoring in classical and oriental languages. Wikander's mentor in Asian studies was the great Iranologist and Semitist Henrik Samuel Nyberg, whose principal ideas, expressed in the synthesis Irans forntida religionen (1937), exemplify the Uppsalian school's specific contribution to religious studies. In 1931, Wikander became a member of the prestigious Société Asiatique in Paris. He also studied at the University of Copenhagen under the guidance of Arthur Christensen, where he delivered on February 24, 1936, a paper entitled "Karnamak-i-Artaxer och den iranska historietradition" (Karnamak-i-Artaxer and the Iranian historical tradition). In 1938 Wikander defended his Ph.D. thesis on the Aryan Männerbund, under the supervision of Nyberg, but was awarded only a medium qualification: med beröm godkänd (cum laudatur approbatur ).

In Lund in 1943 Wikander submitted another paper, Feuerpriester in Kleinasien and Iran (The Fire Priests in Asia Minor and Iran), under the guidance of his colleague, Geo Widengren, which he hoped would establish his academic career. This paper was published with the same title in 1946. While writing Der arische Männerbund (The Aryan warrior bands) and before the beginning of World War II, Wikander built strong ties with the German academic community, in particular with Otto Höfler and Walther Wüst from Munich. Wikander's private correspondence as well as his articles published in Swedish journals before the war provide concrete testimony on his ambiguous position on the Nazi political, as well as academic, situation. In February 1944 he left for the Eastern Front (Greece and Turkey), enrolling in the Swedish Red Cross organization. After teaching Iranian languages at the University of Lund from 1941 to 1953, he was appointed professor of Sanskrit and Indo-European languages at the University of Uppsala. Wikander held this position until late 1974. He died on December 20, 1983, in Uppsala, after suffering during the last years of his life from the painful loss of his mental clarity.

During his life Wikander published numerous articles, but only three books: Der arische Männerbund (1938); Vāyu: Texte und Untersuchungen (1941), and Feuerpriester in Kleinasien und Iran (1946). They made him known as an eminent Iranist, although he was a controversial representative of the Uppsalian school. Even though he published no further books after World War II, these three works represent a common methodology: a historical and even social reconstruction on the basis of predominantly philological data. In these works, Wikander embraced Nyberg's distinction between Mithragemeinde and Gathasgemeinde, the general theory of a pre-Zoroastrian religion, and he used it as a basis for a philological analysis aimed at reconstructing the social institution and religious cults of the pre-Zoroastrian (Indo-Iranian or Arian) warrior communities, whose principles were very different from the moral Zoroastrian rules. Wikander aimed to prove that such warrior organizations had an important social, political, and religious role within Arian society. He argued that analysis of these structures should be the main focus of research into Indo-Iranian religions. At the same time Wikander supported Widengren's theory about the high gods of ancient Iran presented in Hochgottglaube im alten Iran (1938).

Wikander's 1938 thesis had been preceded by various ethnological and anthropological investigations undertaken during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (i.e., the work of such scholars as Leo Bittremieux, Leo Frobenius, Heinrich Schurtz, and Hutton Webster), most of them concerned with African secret societies. Though benefiting from many of these works Wikander was inspired mainly by Otto Höfler's Kultische Geheimbünde der Germanen (1934). Both Wikander and Widengren took into consideration the relevance of primitive African materials; while Widengren found identical structures between African and ancient Iranian ideas concerning the high gods, Wikander considered the political role of Arian warrior bands to be deeper than that of primitive African secret communities, emphasizing in this way the superiority of Arian structures.

Apart from his book on Vāyu, whom he treated as a high god of the war, Wikander continued to examine the paradigm of warrior bands and masculine society, but with a different theoretical approach. The conclusion of his controversial "Études sur les mystères de Mithras" (1950), meant to criticize Franz Cumont's theory of the Iranian origin of the Western Mithraic cults, suggests that this Western phenomenon could have had its origin among warrior bands from the Balkans that worshipped the god Sabazios. The existence of an Iranian influence could be certified in the Balkans by the common symbol of the Thracian or Danubian cavalier. Wikander's article on Indo-Iranian twin-gods, published as a tribute to Georges Dumézil, points out how the main attributes of Nakula and Sahadeva received, from gveda to Mahābhārata, new warlike connotations. Finally, at the Congress of Mithraic Studies (Teheran, 1975), Wikander presented the Avestan text Mihr Yasht as indicating a purely masculine society, comparable to the Roman society of mysteries and following the general pattern of the archaic Männerbund, but from a phenomenological, not historical or sociological, point of view.

Wikander conceived his other two books, Vāyu and Feuerpriester in Kleinasien und Iran, as complementary and circumscribed to the same purpose: to broaden the reconstruction of the morphology of the socio-religious observances of ancient Indo-Iranians, centered on the cults devoted to the high gods Mithra and Vāyu-Anahita. Though this general theory is considered outdated, Wikander's work on fire-priests can still be used as an introduction to the cults related to Anahita, being valuable for the multiplicity of sources (Greek, Latin, Byzantine, and Arabic) upon which Wikander built his arguments.

Almost all of these theories have been criticized or rejected, including the relevance of the high gods for the ancient Iranian area, the discontinuity between Indo-Iranian preexistent religious forms and Zoroastrian reform, the consistency of a particular cult specific to masculine societies devoted to the Vāyu-Anahita gods, and so on. In addition, Wikander's philological interpretation of key terms, such as the Vedic maryá, the Old Iranian mairya-, and the Middle Iranian mērak (or mērag ), which he thought proved the existence of warrior bands, seems doubtful. After World War II, Wikander abandoned the philological perspective of socio-religious reconstruction. On this point, he faced the same theoretical difficulties as Dumézil (at least before his Naissance d'archanges, 1945) in presuming to be able to reconstruct, on the basis of mere textual evidence, the three functions as social estates, real institutions of the ancient Indo-Europeansthat is, the sacerdotium, the caste of warriors, and the caste of growers and breeders (brāhmaa, katriya, and vaiśya ). However, by revising his methodology toward a more structural approach, Wikander could begin a fruitful dialogue with Dumézil.

In an article first published in the Swedish journal Religion och Bibel under the title "Pāava-sagan och Mahābhāratas mytiska förutsättningar" ("The legend of the Pāava and the mythical substructure of Mahābhārata," 1947) and later only partially translated by Dumézil in his Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus (1941), Wikander proposed the principle of homogeneity and coherence from old Vedic theology to the epic construction of Mahābhārata. By assuming Dumézil's theory of trifunctional partition, Wikander attempted to demonstrate that the five principal actors in Mahābhārata (Pāavas Yudhiira, Arjuna and Bhīma, and Nakula and Sahadeva) are the exact epic transposition of the trifunctional Vedic gods, namely Mitra and Varua, Indra, and the twin-gods Nasatyas. A second important article, published in Nouvelle Clio, "Sur le fonds commun indo-iranien des épopées de la Perse et de l'Inde" (1949), shows the extent to which Wikander preserved the relevance of the hypothesis of the common Indo-Iranian mythology, but from a new, Indo-European, comparative perspective. In this field, Wikander made a major contribution with his article "Germanische und indo-iranische Eschatologie" (1960), in which he emphasized the structural, mythological correlation between the Indo-Iranian and German-Scandinavian epic from an eschatological point of view. He expanded this view of Indo-Iranian eschatology in one of his six 1967 Haskell Lectures, "Indo-European Eschatology."

Few aspects of Wikander's work were sympathetic to the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, as was certainly the case with his compatriot, Widengren. One could invoke Wikander's criticism of Cumont's theory about the Iranian origin of the Western Mithraic cult or his general suspicion of the fervent pan-Iranian theories of Michael Rostovtzeff or Lars-Ivan Ringbom. More eloquent is a short passage from "The Indo-European Eschatology": "I am not qualified to take up those problems about Iranian influence on the religions of the Bible and the religions of the Greco-Roman syncretism. But, I cannot refrain from regretting that the discussion follows an all too old and antiquated pattern."

During the last period of his life Wikander turned his attention mainly to the phenomenon of Gnosticism. He published four articles on Gnostic symbols in the work of Erik Johan Stagnelius, the famous Romantic poet of Sweden. Wikander's "Ingmar Bergman's Mythic Ironies" on the Gnostic symbolism in some of Bergman's films, belongs to the same area of interest. It was based on a conference entitled "Bergman, a Gnostic?" held in Chicago in 1967. Wikander was also interested in Mircea Eliade's scholarly works on religious symbolism (in particular for their examination of the transition from archaic to modern societies). In addition, Wikander worked on projects concerning the epic literature of the Kurds, which he analyzed while traveling in Syria and Lebanon. He transcribed and translated several epic texts in an attempt to reveal the correspondence between the religious observances of contemporary Kurdish communities and Old Iranian ones. Many of Wikander's studies on Kurdish folklore remain unpublished.

There are many unpublished manuscripts in Wikander's archive at Uppsala University Library. The most relevant for the history of religions are the Haskell Lectures ("The Ideology of the National Epic," "Heroic Age or Mythic Age?" "Problems of Indian Epics," "Problems of Iranian Epics," "From Myth to History," and "The Indo-European Eschatology"), held in Chicago at the invitation of Eliade. These lectures show the influence of Eliade's work (in particular his Le mythe de l'éternel retour [1949] and parts of Aspects du mythe [1963]) on Wikander's thought (especially regarding the relation between myth and history). Another important manuscript entitled "Den ariska romantiken" (The Arian Romanticism) is a sort of history of nineteenth-century European oriental studies, with special attention given to Swedish authors. Wikander mainly analyzed the European adoption of the term Arian and the ideological development of its meaning according to English, French, German, and Italian Romantic and post-Romantic writers.

In 1947, Wikander and the Swedish linguist Bertil Malmberg founded the journal Studia Linguistica in Lund. Wikander also planned to publish with Kasten Rönnow a series called Quæstiones indo-iranicæ, but only one work was eventually publishedWikander's book on Vāyu. For several years he served on the advisory board for the Uppsalian journal for Asian studies, Orientalia Suecana. In 1974 the president of the Society for Mithraic Studies, Harold W. Bailey, invited him to join the advisory board of the Journal for Mithraic Studies. He also served with Franz Altheim, Dumézil, and Eliade on the scientific committee of Mankind Quarterly during the first years of its publication.

Wikander took part in a number of congresses, including the International Congress for Oriental Studies (Paris, 1948; Munich, 1957), the IAHR congresses (Amsterdam, 1950; Marburg, 1960), the first International Congress for Sanskrit Studies (New Delhi, 1972), and the second International Congress of Mithraic Studies (Teheran, 1975). He also served as visiting professor at Columbia University in New York (19591960), at Colegio de México (spring-summer, 1967), and at the University of Chicago (fall-winter 1967).

In conclusion, Wikander's academic works reveal a surprisingly complex personality, whose place in the framework of the history of religions should be fully reconsidered. Until then, the correspondence between Wikander and Eliade proves it to be extensive.

See Also

Indo-European Religions; Mithraism.


As of 2004 no monograph had been published on the life and work of Stig Wikander, in part because Wikander left few autobiographical traces. The Eliade-Wikander correspondence, discovered in 2001, brings forth, to the best of our knowledge, the most comprehensive biographical documentation published so far on Wikander.

Arvidsson, Stefan. Ariska Idoler: Den indoeuropeiska mytologin som vetenskap och ideologi. Stockholm, 2001.

De Jong, Albert. Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature. Leiden, 1997.

Dumézil, Georges. Mythe et épopée. 3 vols. Paris, 1986.

Hiltebeitel, Alf. The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahābhārata. Albany, N.Y., 1990.

Kahle, Sigrid. H. S. Nyberg: En vetenskapsmans biografi. Stockholm, 1991.

Lincoln, Bruce. "Warriors and Non-Herdsmen: A Response to Mary Boyce." In Death, War, Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice, pp. 147166. Chicago, 1991.

Littleton, C. Scott. The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of Georges Dumézil. 3d ed. Berkeley, 1982.

Nyberg, H. S. Irans forntida religioner. Stockholm, 1937. Translated as Die Religionen des alten Iran. Leipzig, 1938; 2d ed., Osnabrück, 1966.

Timus, Mihaela. "La bibliographie annotée de Stig Wikander." Stvdia Asiatica: Revue internationale d'études asiatiques 1 (2000): 209234.

Timus, Mihaela. "Addendum II: Other unpublished letters sent or received by Stig Wikander." Archœvs: Études d'histoire des religions 6 (2002): 383394.

Timus, Mihaela, ed. The Unpublished Correspondence Eliade-Wikander. Iassy, Romania, 2004.

Timus, Mihaela, and Eugin Ciurtin. "The Unpublished Correspondence between Mircea Eliade and Stig Wikander (19481977)." Archævs: Études d'histoire des religions 3/4 (2000): 157185, 179211; 5 (2001): 75119; 6 (2002): 325362.

Waldmann, Helmut. Heilgeschichtlich verfasste Theologie und Männerbünde: Die Grundlagen des gnostischen Weltbildes. Tübingen, Germany, 1994.

Widengren, Geo. Hochgottglaube im alten Iran. Uppsala, Sweden, 1938.

Wikander, Stig. Der arische Männerbund: Studien zur indo-iranischen Sprach- und Religionsgeschichte. Lund, Sweden, 1938.

Wikander, Stig. Vāyu: Texte und Untersuchungen zur indo-iranischen Religionsgeschichte. Lund, Sweden, 1941.

Wikander, Stig. Feuerpriester in Kleinasien und Iran. Lund, Sweden, 1946.

Wikander, Stig. "Pāavasagan och Mahābhāratas mystika förutsättningar." Religion och Bibel 6 (1947): 2739.

Wikander, Stig. "Sur le fonds commun indo-iranien des épopées de la Perse et de l'Inde." La Nouvelle Clio 12 (1949): 310329.

Wikander, Stig. "Études sur les mystères de Mithras." Vetenskaps Societetens i Lund Årsbok (1951): 3756.

Wikander, Stig. "Histoire des Ouranides." Cahiers du sud 36 (1952): 917.

Wikander, Stig. "Mithra en vieux-perse." Orientalia suecana 1 (1952): 6668.

Wikander, Stig. "Nakula et Sahadeva." Orientalia suecana 6 (1957): 6696.

Wikander, Stig. "Germanische und indo-iranische Eschatologie." Kairos 2 (1960): 8188.

Wikander, Stig. "Kurdish Tales on Animals." Edited by Marita Wikander and Jan Stolpe. Orientalia suecana 5152 (20022003): 429435.

Mihaela Timus (2005)