Creeping towards Pantheon

I’ve been reading West’s Indo-European Poetry and Myth (Oxford, 2007) and have just gotten through the substantial material. I’ve never seen a clearer formulation of the IE paradigm of divinity as rendered in poetic culture. Naturally, I have some persistent questions which I will explore later. I would like to say that it is a great book researching the IE pantheon, but the problem is that every IE culture clearly had a far more robust pantheon than what he presents. As a summary, I offer here a very brief list of his findings regarding the gods of the Indo-Europeans as visible in the common mythologies of its constituent cultures. I thus also give his equations, and I should point out that the Indo-European forms are in his own ‘Mature Indo-European,’ rather than the more usual Proto-Indo-European forms.

The Sky-God and Earth-Mother

*Dyeus and *DhéGhom, The Shining, All-Seeing Father of All and the Dark, All-Embracing Mother, the divine pair of the Sky and the Earth are at their heart the Spirit-Supernal and the Spirit-Fundament who together evoke and manifest the generative principles of all reality and material form. My own understanding of them brings in the oriental Yin-Yang dichotomy and the Celtic veneration of all divine couples in that all divinities who may be considered generative take part in their blessed and visceral commingling.

West lists the following as derivatives of *Dyeus: the Vedic Diyaus, the Greek Zeus, the Italic Jupiter and the Norse Tíwaz (leg. Tyr or Tiw as in Tuesday). Zeus according to West attracted the thunder god’s attributes even as the Celtic and Norse thunder gods attracted *Dyeus’. *DhéGhom finds her own derivatives in the Greek Gaia or Gé and the Gaelic Domun or Donn, while it is also visible in the Latin humus.

The Divine Solar Twins

These are drawings of the Gokstad Tent-poles, ninth-century grave-goods found in a ship burial in the 1880s.

The saviors, helpers of those in war and on the sea, and youthful twins who have deep associations with horses, have their Vedic counterpart in the Aśvins, the Greek in the Dioskouroi, the Roman Castor and Polux, and the Anglo-Saxon Hengist and Horsa. West notes that they are probably the source of the twin horse-heads common (so he says) in Anglo-Saxon and Viking architecture. The principle is believable enough, though I would like to check into just how common this motif may have been. West omits them, probably because he is a Classicist, but the Emain Macha or Macha’s Twins certainly fit this model as well. West also has a lot of interesting suggestions as to associations of horse races on holidays with a solar significance since they are, through their horses and their father, *Dyeus. The association with Macha causes me to doubt West’s assertation that they like their sister are purely the offspring of their father, the Sky, as the depictions of Epona with twin horses suggest to me a close motherhood as well, but I have as of now nothing with which to back this distinctive moment of UPG.

The Dawn

The sister of the Divine Twins, the Golden, and Smiling daughter of the Sky, whose rose-tipped fingers greeted Greek heroes every morning as aóus, had her Vedic equivalent as Uşas, and Aurora in Rome. West asserts likewise that she was the pattern for both Eostre among the Anglo-Saxons and Brigantia among the Celts.As such, she would be Brighid, but I have an irrational resistance to this. I have less trouble believing that she is the Gerðr of Freys wooing, but I need to look into this more.

This is an illustration of Freys wooing of Gerd. The Eddas say that her arms shone, an image taken very seriously by the artist. Here, Skirnir, Freys man-servant, addresses her.

The Sun

References to the veneration of the Sun, Moon, Stars, Winds, and other similar elements abound in all Indo-European cultures, but the Sun is of especial interest to scholars for several various reasons. One of these (and the one on which West focuses in his exposition) is the popularity and subsequent reaction against the idea that the solar cult was the central, defining element of most primitive and especially IE religion. West’s thesis on this matter is that there is clear evidence of a solar cult, but that it was not of absolute, central importance. West emphasizes the spoked wheel as an emblem of this cult but does not pursue all of the ramifications.

The Indo-European *s.h2w.l found voice in Vedic as Sūrya, in Greek as Helios, in Roman as Sol Indiges, as Sól (and Sunna) in Germannic and (rather ironically) as “Sùil Dhè,” ‘the Eye of God’ in a charm in Scots Gaelic. While this is considered overtly Christian, it cannot be insignificant that etymologically this ‘Christian’ voice is invoking “the Lamp of Dyaus” (‘eye of God’ as  a literal translation), the common formulation for the Sun in every Pre-Christian language in the IE family. Like the Sky-Father, the Sun is the All-Seeing, and so a natural witness to oaths.

Associations with Mitra in Vedic mythology and (so far as I am concerned) Mithras in later Imperial Rome make good sense as Mitra is a god of justice and law-keeping.

The Thunder-God

Everyone loves a Thunder-God! Donar, Thor, Zeus, Heracles, Tarann, Taranis or even the Vedic Indra are all, by West’s calculations, first and foremost the Indo-European Thunder-God combined with some attributes of the Sky-Father or, in the case of Heracles, a stripped-down, humanized derivative. Posessor of the Divine Weapon (a hammer in some instances, a lance in others, and in some cases some kind of indeterminate bludgeoning weapon made of a material that cannot get lost), his striking fury sparks flame which can be hidden in trees; thus, certain trees – most often the oak – are sacred to him.

*Perkwuno- was his MIE name, according to West, and in every culture there is a memory of a cosmogonic and perhaps theogonic tale of how the Thunder-God, whom I will call Taranis from here on out, loosed the waters of the world by bashing in the head of the monstrous, horned serpent who had collected them all to himself. These waters are likened to cattle, and thus he is the cattle-rustler par excellence. His MIE name finds a Norse equivalent in Fiǫrgynn and Fiǫrgyn, father and mother of Thor, and the Vedic Parjanya. West draws a distinction between versions of his name that harken back to the older IE form and the more recently derived, onomontopoeic form found in Thor and Taranis. He points to Thor’s parents as a cultural memory of this older cult.

Completely aside from West, I think it very interesting that there are some gods beyond the borders of IE mythology who bear a striking (ho-ho!) similarity. Shango from Africa gets into trouble with his consort as he sleeps around (after the fashion of Zeus), enjoys his drink and fighting (after the fashion of Thor), and has a problematic relationship with his brother, Ogun, whose provenance is metallurgy. I would have liked for him to have had Èsù, the trickster, for a brother (à la Loki), but then we can’t have everything can we?

The Way-Walker

Of all the gods, West cannot produce a unitive IE root for the god of ways and by-ways. He suggests, in his chapter on elves, dwarves, gnomes and giants, that Pan, Hermes and Mercury are really reflexes of the same god: a divinity whose purpose and purview was to travel and manage the routes between the worlds. As such, he also governs the wilds as those places through which one must travel, business transactions as those events and tasks which necessitate travel on the ways, and wealth as that for which we seek. Thieves, poets and any who must travel the unknown reaches for the sake of their lives and livelihoods look to the Way-Walker, and I, personally, have a difficult time separating these images that West presents from the images of the horned god so often referred to by the name Cernunnos. The Horned One finds association with each of these aspects and is even accompanied by Apollo and Mercury on occasion, the two gods who together cover travel, poetry, ecstatic states and all manner of psychopompery.

Moreover, West’s suggested connection between Pan (or. Paon) and the Vedic Pūṣan as stemming from a MIE *peh2, to watch over or gaurd (West cites the Latin pāstor),  makes a lot of sense considering the parallels that he cites. As he says:

The probability of the identification depends on the degree of similarity obtaining between the functions of the two deities. … Both are pastoral gods, with a special affinity with the goat. Pūṣan has goats to pull his car, and goats were sacrificed to him on occasion. Pan has goat’s legs. Both have bushy beards and keen sight: Pūṣan goes about surveying everything; Pan roams the mountains and climbs the peaks to view the flocks. Pūṣan … is a gaurdian of roads who protects the wayfarer from wolves and brigands. Pan’s province includes ‘the rocky tracks,’ and in Hellenistic Egypt he was worshipped as εύοδος, ‘of good journeying’. (p. 282: I have ommitted his citations)

The associations with sight and pathways double with Hermes whose ability in these areas make him ‘good at finding things that are hidden’ and knowing ‘where animals have strayed.’ This leads West to note that setting Pan as Hermes’ son suggests that there is a cultural memory of their being one and the same. He also notes that Mercury, according to Caesar, was preeminent among the Celts and adds that this was probably Mercury as an analogue to Hermes, that is Pan, the ‘patron of roads and journeys.’

I know that the Wiccans love to point out that the ‘horned god’ was demonized by Christians, but lately it has seemed to me that the Way-Walker really was targeted by the forces of Orthodoxy. The image of the devil with his horns, hooves and pronounced sexuality, not to mention his trickery and association with wild places, seems so close to this image Pan that it almost seems a foregone conclusion, but this is hardly the place to expand on this.

The Smith God(s?)

West mentions the Smith-God and how there is a variation on the god of crafting in all IE cultures: Weyland in the North, Gobhniu in the Gaelic West, and so on. Hephaestus and Vulcan, he suggests, were originally fire gods modified with attributes of the Smith, but it seems to me that deities of craftsmanship seem more proper to the ‘lower’ gods of the elves and dwarves, even as geotectonic forces seem ever applied to the more eruptive forces of giants and dragons. This is certainly a topic that I think needs more attention from me.


*Hņgwni-, or ignis among the Romans, the god of fire is one of the most intriguing figures in my opinion, primarily because he appears in many religions. He is known as Tatewari or Gradfather Fire among the American Huichol and Zhu Rong in Chinese folk religion. He is always accompanied, deliberately or not, by some benefit to humanity through sacrifice, esoteric knowledge or just plain old toasty marshmallows! Like the Smith-God, Agni seems to me a little attended deity since Brighid seems to have attracted some elements in the Gaelic world, and I can’t off the top of my head think who would equate in the Norse pantheon. Candidates would include Logi and Loki, but this is not altogether satisfactory.

Wind & Water

As I mentioned above, veneration of the elements was widespread. In Scots Gaelic, the Christian god is still conceived as Rìgh nan Dùl: King of the Elements. In the Auraicept na nÉces, there is an off-hand reference that Gaelic is better than Latin because there are more elements (dula) in Gaelic. This applies to language and letters, but so far as I am concerned the implication carries to platonic elements as well since the Auraicept lists grus, linn and clach as such elements. West points out that this veneration of elements is tied to an IE conception of them as animate

forces – in the Greek, literally ‘souled’ as the word for a living thing in English comes directly from the Greek term for ‘wind.’ It makes good sense; the word ‘spirit’ is the same as the Latin word for ‘breath.’ In the case of wind, most IE cultures have a conception of different winds, sometimes three or more, that have differing attributes and traits.

Jormungandr of Norse myth suggests the Vedic thunder god who rescued the waters from a great serpent by striking it in the head with his sacred weapon.

Water, on the other hand, is only considered as a single entity, but it seems to be the fluidity that is venerated. West notes in interesting mythic reflex that seems common throughout all IE mythologies: that in the deeps of the watery element is a fire, and this is associated with a great serpent of some kind. Again, this is something that I would like to look more into. The water itself is not the serpent, but it is somehow bound up with the water.

The God of Nobility

West notes that there seems to have been an IE god of nobility who represented the people. His name, which emerges in Vedic mythology as Aryaman, paralleled that of his people. He presided over marriages, legal matters and inheritance, but he also has solar associations. As such, the Celtic Jupiter-Taranis seems to have some of his attributes as the pillar on which he stands would seem analagous to the Germanic Irminsul or world-pillar. West also notes the analogy with the Yggdrasil, the World-Ash whose name translates as ‘the Steed of Yggr.’ Yggr, meaning the Frightening, seems to also be associated with Odin, but there’s a lot of seems in here …

And what of the rest … ?

My difficulty with West’s approach is that, however useful and enjoyable it was, it never addressed the issue of all the gods not mentioned. Where do the fertility gods and goddesses fit in? Was there no Indo-European god or goddess of the hearth? Brighid in Western, Early Modern Scotland serves the same function as the Greek goddess Hestia, but are we really to entertain the notion that Hestia and this manifestation of Brighid are really extensions of the Dawn? Something doesn’t seem quite right about this. How do the Morrígan, Bodb Catha and Medb relate to Freyr and Aphrodite, particularly when Venus as a planet and goddess seems to find an analogue (if not something more) to Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love, war and sex? What of the medical gods and familial gods? What do we make of Ogmios, Hecate, or even the Dagda who seems on the one hand a version of Mercury and on the other a version of Zeus? I realize that West’s purpose was literary and not practical, but I feel that there must be some kind of acknowledgment of each culture’s internal coherence in order to really come to grips with their individual spirits.


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