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The Metaphysics of Indo-European Tripartition, Part 1


Georges Dumézil

1,362 words

Part 1 of 6

Author’s Note:

This essay was originally written almost exactly thirteen years ago. I have withheld it from publication for all these years, because I considered the ideas in it a bit too speculative and daring. I believe, however, that those ideas are too interesting to be withheld indefinitely. In the hope that others may profit from them, I have decided that the time has come to publish this essay. I must emphasize, however, that these ideas are indeed highly speculative, and that the theory expounded herein remains a work in progress.

1. Introduction: Dumézil’s Tripartite Scheme

The most eminent scholar in the field of Indo-European studies is the late Georges Dumézil of the College de France. Dumézil’s contribution to this rather small field can be boiled down to two things: (a) he noticed that all Indo-European cultures exhibited a fundamental tripartite structure; and (b) he found that structure codified in the mythology of each Indo-European people. I will first simply describe this tripartition and then offer some examples of it. This topic is already familiar to many of my readers.

At the top of the Indo-European society is what Dumézil calls the first function. This embodies twin aspects: a juridical aspect and a sacerdotal aspect. It deals with the administration of justice, and with religion. This is sometimes, therefore, called the “priest-king” or “priest-jurist” function. The second function is the warrior or military class, which serves to protect the society as a whole and to make war on its enemies. The third function incorporates all those occupied with the production or supply of goods, services, and food. Thus, this class incorporates all merchants, farmers, tradesmen, skilled laborers, etc.

As to which function actually rules in Indo-European society, this is a complex question. In one way, it seems obvious that the first function rules. It plays an organizing, structuring role in society. Because it includes a juridical aspect, it is involved with the comprehension and application of abstract laws. Furthermore, since it also involves a religious aspect, it is the first function that provides the society access to the divine, the highest authority of all. However, in most Indo-European societies, it is from the warrior, or second function class, that rulers were derived. This is the case with the Indian Kshatriya, for example.

So which rules, the first function or the second function? The problem is easily solved by looking to Plato’s description in the Republic of the traditional timarchic society. The timarchy is a society ruled by members of the warrior class, who are educated and advised by members of the first function, or priestly class. This makes the warriors de facto rulers, but since the priests are making the laws, and serving as final authority, one could also contend that in real sense it is the first function that rules. The timarchy is, in fact, the form taken by most traditional Indo-European societies.

Let me now give some specific examples of tripartition in Indo-European cultures, and in Indo-European myth. In India we find three chief castes: brahmins (priests), kshatriyas (soldiers), and vaishyas (producers). A fourth caste, the sudras are simply the servants of the others. The twin aspects of the first function are represented by the gods Varuna and Mitra. The second function is represented by the powerful and bellicose god Indra. The third function is represented by the twin Asvins.

Moving very far away indeed, we find among the Celts the Druids (who were priests and jurists), the flaith (who were a military aristocracy), and the bo airig, which literally means “free men owning cattle.” Among the Germanic tribes we find a similar social tripartition, and similar gods. Odin and Tyr represent, respectively, the religious and juridical aspects of sovereignty. Like Varuna, Odin is portrayed as a wily magician. Like Mitra, Tyr is contract personified. Thor, who corresponds quite clearly to Indra, is the god of the warrior. Freyr and Freya represent the third function. It should be noted, in this regard, that anything having to do with production or fecundity is associated with the third function. Hence, Freyr and Freya, gods of sensuality, are third-functional gods. In the Roman pantheon, we have Jupiter (first function), Mars (second function), and Quirinius (third function). In Iran we find the Amesa-Spentas, aspects of the Good Lord Ahura Mazda. These include Asa and Vohu Manah, who represent cosmic order and morality and are thus first function deities. Xsathra is might or power, and thus is associated with the second function. Armaiti, Haurvatat, and Amerutat are patrons of, respectively, the earth, health, and immortality, and thus seem to be represent third function characteristics.

Tripartition is encoded in Indo-European myth in other ways as well. In one Scythian myth, for example, the gods send mankind four items: a chalice, a sword, a yoke, and a plow. The chalice is clearly a ritual object, representing the sacerdotal first function. The sword is obviously an object of war and thus is associated with the second function. The yoke and plow are for tilling the soil, and so are third function objects. In Irish legend, the Tuatha de Danaan were supposed to have had four great treasures. The first was the Stone of Destiny, which served in coronations. The second and third were the invincible sword of Lugh of the Long Arm, and a magic spear (these two together represent the second function). The fourth was the Cauldron of the Dagda, which was a kind of horn of plenty.

Tripartition is at the core of the Iliad. What gets the Trojan War started in the first place is the competition among the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite over which one Paris will choose as most beautiful. To ply him, Hera offers him sovereignty (first function); Athena offers him military prowess (second function); and Aphrodite offers him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world (third function). In choosing Aphrodite, and Helen, Paris dooms his nation by usurping the natural order of things: for the Indo-Europeans sovereignty and chivalry must always go before sensuality.

Having given a brief sketch of Indo-European tripartition, I am now going to argue that our ancestors were right to think that tripartition is more than just a social structure. The three functions are actually reflections of a deeper, tripartite metaphysics, and every level of reality exhibits this structure. Before I begin to argue for this, however, I want to very briefly touch on three points. First of all, I am not going to be arguing that “all things come in threes.” What I am dealing with here is a special form of threefold structure, not just triadicity as such. My procedure will be inductive. I will present numerous examples of aspects of reality structured analogously to the Indo-European social system. In sections seven and eight I will offer purely abstract accounts of the nature of these principles, prescinding from any specific application of them.

Second, I will not deal with the question of how the ancient Indo-Europeans could have possessed this advanced knowledge. I will assume I do not need to convince my readers that it is possible that our distant ancestors knew more, not less than we do.

Finally, it is inevitable that some will object to my procedure here by charging that the Indo-Europeans were simply trying to justify their social structure by “reading it into” the very structure of the cosmos. This objection will be voiced especially by those who object to features of Indo-European ideology that are “politically incorrect”: e.g., patriarchy, aristocracy, militarism, and, my favorite -ism of all, what Jacques Derrida called “phallologocentricism.” It is, of course, possible that the Indo-Europeans could simply have read their social structure into the heavens, but we need to at least consider that it might have been the other way around — that they might have read this structure in the heavens, and then built their society around it. But this objection is really beside the point, for the examples of tripartition I shall present here are mostly my own observations, my own application of the Indo-European categories to other regions of the real.


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