The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of George Dumézil By C. Scott Littleton


This edition of the book was printed in 1982 so it is considerably older than most of the books I have read on the theories of myth. It is mainly concerned with George Dumézil’s theories and the author tells us that he is not an Indo-Europeanist and is looking at these theories from the point of view of a social anthropologist. The author defends his right to write about Dumézil’s theories by arguing that Dumézil’s comparative mythology is based upon sociological and anthropological assumptions heavily.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part is about the backgrounds of both the Proto-Indo-European culture and Comparative mythology. The second part is about the development of the tripartite system and the third part is about the people who supported the theory, the people who went against it and an anthropological assessment of it. The book also contains an Appendix, which is split into two parts. The first part is a survey of the recent (in 1982) contributions made by both Dumézil and others and part two is a reprint of a paper on the differences between Dumézil and Lévi-Strauss that originally appeared in the Journal of Asian Studies in 1974. The book also has a references cited section, which is huge and very interesting.

The introduction gave us two very important pieces of information that are the basis of Dumézil’s work and will help the reader move forward through the book. The first is the assumptions that are the basis of Dumézil’s comparative analysis of the varied social and mythological forms presented by the ancient Indo-European speaking world and the second is an overview of the tripartite system.

The first chapter in part one discusses the nature and location of the Proto-Indo-European culture. It starts with linguistics and moves on to archeology. It is short but gives the general idea of where Dumézil’s ideas on the Indo-Europeans started. Chapter two discusses comparative mythology, Frazerian anthropology, and Durkheimian sociology. Those two chapters form the background to the Dumézil system.

Part two is made up of three chapters and it talks about the development of the tripartite system and how it evolved.  Chapter three covers the years between 1924 and 1938.  During this period Dumézil was very enthusiastic about Indo-European matters and this enthusiasm caused him to develop many theories regarding the nature of the Indo-European myths and rituals, which he later was forced to discard.  Despite that though it was also during that period that he began to be aware of the functional relationship between social and supernatural phenomena, it was this awareness that allowed him to discover the tripartite system and see it as the keystone of a common Indo-European ideology.  The next chapter discusses the years between 1938 and 1949.  It was during these years that his system started to develop and his way of thinking changed.  He no longer subscribed to the Frazerian-Mannhardtian approach but turned to the social method.  Dumézil recognized that the tripartite system was not merely an Indo-Iranian phenomenon but was a unique and widespread I-E trait manifesting itself in social organization, myth and religion.  He was able to show that the tripartite system was present in ancient Iran, India, Rome, as well as the Germans and Celts.  He was also able to show common concepts and patterns that were present in the I-E cultures.  He was able to show that all these elements were part of a common I-E ideology.  Chapter five discusses the years between 1949 and 1966.  During these years Dumézil perfected his tripartite system and laid out the course of action that he and his colleagues will take to further their studies of cultures like the Celtic, Baltic and Slavic cultures.  The final chapter in part two deals with the years from 1966 to the present (the time the book was published of course).  During these years Dumézil continued on his research and wrote many articles and books.

The final part of this books looks at the disciples, and critics of Dumézil and gives us a glimpse of what they thought of him and his theories and why.  It also has an anthropological assessment of the system and theoretical implications of it.  There is also a chapter on recent contributions in the field.

The book was a pleasure to read.  I had read bits and pieces of George Dumézil’s tripartite system but the overview given in the beginning of the book really put things into perspective for me.  Also it was a good thing to see how the system developed and the assumptions it was based on.  Also some of the data he based the system on and the live examples that the book included.  I also liked the fact that the author included the people who followed him and their contributions in the field as well as the critics of the system and what their thoughts were on it.  The author’s own anthropological assessment was also something that I very much enjoyed reading and assimilating.  The book gives you the minimum you need to really get interested in George Dumézil and his tripartite system.  It is an excellent introduction to George Dumézil.

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