The Myths of the Gods: Structures in Irish Mythology

Author: Alan Ward
Publisher: CreateSpace
Published: March 21st 2011
ISBN-13: 9781460984604

Synopsis: An application of Georges Dumézil’s tripartite diagnostic for Indo-European to the primary sources of Irish mythology (medieval manuscripts but also folklore collected in the 20th century). Comparison is made not only with the structures and remains of other traditions but also with structures in the wider field of Indo-European linguistics. Where this study differs from others in the same field is the “pincer attack” used – the author is a native speaker of Irish and so checked out all the texts in the original but is also a linguist with considerable experience of other Indo-European languages, including Vedic Sanskrit. If the reader finds that, despite its undoubted shortcomings, this analysis helps to situate the myths of the Irish gods in their wider, Indoeuropean, context, then it will have served its purpose.

Review: I decided to write this review as I read the book because I had so much to say and I was worried that I’d forget it all. So here it goes.

Chapter One The Irish Pantheon: The first thing that struck me as odd was the fact that the author has these neat little boxes that he put the Irish Gods in. Boxes like Shaman God, Sky God, Wind God, etc., and that is not something that anyone who knows the Irish Gods can say about Them, that They fit into neat little boxes. The other thing that struck me as odd was that he equated Gods with each other just because in different manuscripts they seem to be put into the same role or put into a trilogy with other Gods, forgetting that the myths are not perfect, written by Christian Monks, and are in some cases fragmented. To my mind he is also not taking into account that different Gods were worshipped by different tribes and just because they may have similar functions that does not mean they are equal. Some of his classifications actually boggle the mind…

Chapter Two Structure of the Irish Pantheon: In this chapter the author takes George Dumézil’s three function theory and applies it to the Irish Pantheon or rather his representation of it (Shaman God, Sky God and so on). I think that George Dumézil’s theory is a good one when applied generally to the Indo-European Pantheon but for the Irish Pantheon…I’m not so sure it works. To add to that he uses the associations of the four elements, which isn’t particularly Irish or Celtic for that matter.

Chapter Three The Celtic Pantheon: In this chapter he seems to think that just because some Deities are similar in name across the Celtic World then they must be the same Deity (Lugh and Lleu for example), I’m not sure how he came across this thought and by this point I’m starting not to care really. We know that the ancient pagan were HARD POLYTHEISTS and that means that each God or Goddess was a distinct Deity in His or Her own right…Add to that the fact that because we don’t know much about the Gaulish Gods he seems to think that using “interpretation Romana” helps with that, and to a certain degree it does, but not to the extent that he seems to have used it.

Chapter Four The Indoeuropean Pantheon: In this chapter the author uses the word Indoeuropean (yes unhyphenated) to mean the Indo-European daughter cultures rather than the reconstructed Indo-European Pantheon. The chapter is short and again uses the Shaman God, Sky God, etc., analogy to discuss in VERY brief terms the Vedic pantheon among a few others like the Norse, Roman and Greek pantheons (with the Roman and Greek he points out that they don’t fit in very well with the structure he has set up).

This ends Part One The Pantheon. You are probably wondering if there was anything I liked about this part, the truth is, yes there is something that I did like about this part. With every mention of a God or Goddess the author tells us from which manuscript he gets the name or story about the Deities he is using. This gives me a good build up of places to look if I am looking for a certain God or Goddess that I have not studied yet…

Chapter Five to Nine: I have to say I’m pretty impressed with the way the author interprets the myths to fit in with his pantheon structure. If you accept the structure, the myths he chose and the way he interprets them make perfect sense. I do see a few chinks in the armor, for example, when he talks about Nuadu and Ogma being alter egos even though they are together in one of the myths and he says this is the only time that happens as if that makes perfect sense.

Part Two The Myths was actually a delight to read. Putting some of the interpretations aside again the draw is that the author mentions exactly where he got his myths from and from what manuscripts. In some cases his interpretations are really good minus the attempt to box in the Gods. If you were ever confused by some of the myths this would be a great part to read, just to get a “clean” chopped up into little pieces that make sense version of these myths. This is part of the reason I’m giving this book a good grade. Read it only after you’ve studied the Gods enough to know when he is making sense and when he is not and read it only after you have read enough myths to know where the chinks in his armor occur.


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.