Ancient Mythology: The Proto-Indo-European Pantheon

  1. The Indo-European Languages
  2. The Proto-Indo-European Pantheon
    1. The Sky Father
    2. The Dawn Goddess
    3. Mother Earth
    4. The Thunderer
    5. The Nephew Of Waters
    6. The Smith God

There is something fascinating about the Gods of cultures past. No matter if you’re talking about the deities of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts or Scandinavians – there is something almost primordial in these stories, hinting at their origins shrouded deep within human history.

And indeed old they are! Comparative Mythology (literally the comparison of different aspects of a culture’s myths and legends to another) has yielded astonishing results, proving that the gods of these ancient peoples are much older than anyone expected and rooted in the mythical world of the Proto-Indo-European Pantheon.

There are many gods within this assembly of deities which we will recognize in the Norse Thor, the Roman Jupiter, the Vedic Indra and many other supernatural beings in the various Indo-European pantheons. Their functions and their names changed over time, however, thus to get to the root of their position within the PIE-Pantheon and society, comparing the oldest sources will yield the most reliable results.

The Indo-European Languages

The oldest documented Indo-European languages belong to the now extinct Anatolian branch from around 1900 BC, though it is questionable how reliable these sources are, as the relation between Anatolian and Proto-Indo-European is still debated. Anatolian exhibits some characteristics – and more crucially, fails to do so in some other respects – which suggests that it in fact doesn’t descent from PIE but rather from an even older language, from which both in turn descent. The missing of some basic vocabulary concerning wheeled vehicles is sometimes brought forward to strengthen the claim of this hypothesis (Anthony 2007).

The next older and possibly more reliable sources in Indo-European languages appear in Greek and Sanskrit, roughly about the same time. Whilst the Vedas, the ancient religious text of the Hindu’s, are still considered to be one of the most important sources for the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European mythology (Puhvel 1987), Greek is considered less reliable because of it’s strong Near Eastern influence.  Next up in terms of chronology we’ve got the Roman and the Norse myths, which together with the Vedic sources form the three most important mythologies used to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European Religion. Despite the fact that the Eddas, the most important sources of Norse mythology, were only written down at the beginning of the last millenium, the sheer volume of material contained within still makes them a valuable source of Indo-European myth, as demonstrated in the reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European creation story in a previous article (Mallory & Adams 2006).

The Proto-Indo-European Pantheon

Steppe

In regards to the gods which where worshipped by the Proto-Indo-Europeans there are only a few which we can confirm for certain. Amongst them is the Sky Father, the Earth Mother, the Dawn Goddess, the Thunderer, a Sun Goddess, the Divine Twins and a Dragon or Serpent. Some of them might sound more familiar than others, but most of them have manifestations in the major Indo-European Pantheons (Matasovic 2018). The word god itself seems to have been *deiwos, meaning something like “sky, day, shine, be bright”. Whilst the modern English word deity ultimately derives from this word the more common word “god” comes to us from the PIE word *ghutóm, “that which is called/invoked” (Mallory & Adams 2006). 

The Sky Father

Zeus
Zeus, one of the deities which the Sky Father developed into.

The Sky Father was the chief deity of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, as is attested by its Greek and Roman counterparts Zeus and Iupter, both descendant from *dyews, the Sky Father (Matasovic 2018). The Germanic God Tiwaz (Tiu/Ziu in Old High German, Tyr in Old Norse) is also cognate to these two deities. It seems, however, that he has lost his position as chieftain of the gods over time and was replaced by Wodan/Odin, who also took over many of his functions (Reichert 2002).

The Dawn Goddess

Sun Rise Steppe

The Dawn Goddess seems to have been of major importance to the Proto-Indo-Europeans demonstrated not only by the numerous cognates which survived in ancient and modern Indo-European languages, such as the word easter, but also by her connection with the sky. Mallory & Adams reconstructed the name of the deity to be *hausos, “dawn”, whilst she was also frequently called *dhughtēr diwos, “daugther of the Sky God”, in the Vedas, as well as in Homeric Poem (Matasovic 2018).

Mother Earth

Villendorf Venus
A Venus figurine, one of the female goddesses revered by the Old Europeans who made it into the pantheon of the Western Yamnaya. By User:MatthiasKabel – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9444845

According to some traditions this deity might have been the wife to the Sky God, although this is not attested throughout all Indo-European mythologies (Matasovic 2018). Mother Earth is not just a goddess, but the earth itself, as displayed by the meaning of her name “the broad one” (Wikipedia 2020).

The Thunderer

Thor
Thor’s battle with the Ettins by Mårten Eskil Winge

perkwunos is another god attested in a few Indo-European languages, namely the Germanic, the Baltic and the Slavic branch. Because he is only attested in these three and not across a broader spectrum his status as a PIE-deity is debatable. Perhaps he just developed amongst the North-Western Indo-Europeans (Mallory & Adams 2006).

The Nephew Of Waters

Neptune
By Dudva – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79781628

According to Mallory “some propose a *neptonos […] ‘grandson/nephew of waters” (Mallory 2006). The existence of this god, however, is only attested in Indo-Iranian an possibly, but not certainly, in Old Irish and Latin, where this god’s linguistic descendant would be Neptune (Mallory & Adams 2006).

The Smith God

Wayland the Smith
Wayland the Smith.

There possible was a deity or at least a myth concerning a powerful smith as is attested by the myth of Wayland the Smith in many different Indo-European languages. Whether this was an actual god or just a mystic figure remains unclear (Mallory & Adams 2006).


Unfortunately this is about as much as we can say about the gods and goddesses of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. As was the case with the Proto-Indo-European creation story the proportion of information we can reconstruct for certain is restricted to the information that’s been passed down to us through the generations. And only if identical or similar stories, tales, myths and gods are being passed down in multiple Indo-European languages we can say for certain that they were present in the Proto-Indo-European pantheon. Apart from the gods there seems to be a vast number of legends and stories inhabited by other mythological creatures which share a common PIE origin, but this will be the topic of another article.

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