Proto-Indo-European Society: A short Introduction

Table of Contents:

  1. Social Structure of Proto-Indo-European Society
    1. Social Hierarchy
    2. Family
  2. Proto-Indo-European Customs and Laws
    1. Customs and Laws
    2. Indo-European Poetry

Societies do not just emerge out of nothing. They are the result of interactions between people with different ideas and concepts about the world and its inhabitants over several millennia. In fact, if we had detailed knowledge about the entirety of the history of mankind, we could trace back the origins of every single society to one or, in most cases, multiple previous societies which participated in the formation of the new one. And modern Western society is no exception to this rule.

One of the earliest traceable societies that influenced our modern world is the Proto-Indo-European society, consisting of a people ancestral to most of Europe, the near East and Southern Asia. As is the case with Proto-Indo-European Mythology, what we know about PIE society comes down to us mainly by the linguistic comparative method, enriched by archaeological finds. In this article we’re going to take a look at what this society was like in terms of organisation, family structure and customs and we will see how these have influenced and keep influencing our own societies today. We’re going to take a top-down approach and start with the basic social structure of Proto-Indo-European society, beginning with its hierarchy and working our way down to the individual members of a family group. Afterwards PIE customs and laws will be examined, with the intention to shed some light on daily life in this prehistoric society.

Social Structure of Proto-Indo-European Society

Social Hierarchy

Proto-Indo-European society was structured hierarchically, as opposed to an egalitarian one, such as modern or ancient Hunter-Gatherer societies. There were leaders and followers, people who ruled and people who obeyed, and there are indications that they were not only divided by status but by wealth as well (cf. Mallory 2006). The latin word “rex”, meaning “king”, ultimately derives from PIE *h₃rḗǵs, related to the modern English verb “to reign” (cf. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/h%E2%82%83r%E1%B8%97%C7%B5s, 03/05/2020). Mallory argues that the person described with this term didn’t only have political power, but appears to have had “religious functions” as well, something implied by *h₃rḗǵs etymologie: “…with some arguing that the word derives from the concept of a king who stretches out his arms in rituals” (Mallory 2006). This is also attested in the Proto-Indo-European chief deity *dyeu-pter (cf. Watkins).

These King-Priests asserted their social standing through the hosting of feasts for their followers (cf. Mallory 2006). The divine aspect of royaltie in PIE societies is also seen in later Indo-European society, notably in Rome (cf. ibid), but also among the early Germanic tribes, whose leaders often claimed descent from the gods.

In addition to these leaders there possibly was a class of warriors to support their claim to divine royalty, a theory which is known as “The Trifunctional Hypothesis” by George Dumezil. This separation into different social classes might be origin of the medieval European social divide into Nobility, Clerics and Commoners, as well as India’s caste system (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Indo-European_society#Social_structure, 03/05/2020).

At the other end of the social spectrum there seems to have been servants (possibly slaves?), who served the socially more fortunate ones (cf. Mallory 2006).

In between there was the people, represented by PIE *teuteha-, still found today in the German endonym for German (“deutsch”, archaic “teutsch”, from Old High German “diutisk” related to the modern English word “teutonic”). These commoners might have specialized in a small number of different occupations, such as herdsmen, carpenters, weavers, fighters and smiths. The latter two might have had a somewhat distinguished social standing, the former because of his ability to support a king-priests ambition and the latter because metal working was associated with magic (cf. ibid.). The Germanic and Celtic terms for Iron stem from the root *isarno-, “properly “holy (metal),” from eis-, perhaps so called because the first iron was
derived from small meteorites.” (Watkins).

Family

The Proto-Indo-European term for family, “*ĝénh1es-“, interestingly is a compound consisting of the words for “to be born” and “house” (cf. Mallory 2006). So family seems to have been whoever was born in (probably) the same house, although  there are indications that extended family, people who were probably born in different houses, played an important role as well, perhaps in something comparable to a clan (cf. ibid). Proto-Indo-European society thus would have been organized into several Priest-Kings at the top, ruling over different clans which could be split up further into even more closely related family units.

Analyzing the shared vocabulary of modern Indo-European languages one comes to the conclusion that there was a considerably larger corpus of terminology for male relatives than for female ones. Thus we can assume that  PIE-society “was patriarchal, patrilocal (the bride leaving her household to join that of her husband’s family), and patrilineal (descent reckoned by the male line).” (Watkins). These include terms for “father”, synonymous with “head of the household”, “grandfather”, “uncle”, “brother” and “nephew”. The latter two extended over their modern meanings, “brother” extending to other “male blood relations” and “nephew” also meaning “grandson”. Likewise “sister” could refer to other female relatives than just ones sister (cf. ibid).

The wedding between men and women was reconstructed by Eric Hamp and commenced in two separate phases: Firstly, a wedding had to be proposed, which doesn’t necessarily mean that a future husband proposed to his future wife. It seems more likely that two families, or clans came together to negotiate a marriage between their two houses and, perhaps even more importantly, a brideprice. After this price was exchanged the wife was “led away”, probably to the husbands homestead and family, after which the wedding was over (cf. Mallory 2006).

Altogether men seemed to have been of greater authority and importance than women in PIE society, as was the case with most successive Indo-European societies. An exception might be early Germanic society, where, according to Tacitus, at least some women held almost divine status and were greatly revered (cf. Tacitus). Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much information on childhood or on the raising and education of children. A possible Proto-Indo-European term for child, “*teknom”, gave rise to different words meaning “servant” in the Germanic languages (“thane”), an indication that children helped out where ever they were needed, as was customary in later ages (cf. Mallory 2006).

Mallory sums up the PIE family as follows:

“The husband and wife constituted the ‘master’ and ‘mistress’ of the household, which might consist of children, grandchildren, and perhaps unrelated slaves or servants. Of course within a given household not every husband and wife, of which there might be several (father and mother, sons and wives), would be ‘master’ and ‘mistress’ but only the most senior ones.”

(Mallory 2006);

Proto-Indo-European Customs and Laws

Customs and Laws

Many customs and laws practiced by the Proto-Indo-Europeans have come down to us through the ages. For example, in modern English we’ve got the words guest and host, which interestingly derive from the same PIE root word *ghostis. Host has come down into English directly over Middle and Old English, whilst the word guest derives from Old Norse. The fact that both words ultimately derive from the same Proto-Indo-European root word implies that giving (hosting) and taking (being a guest) were seen as part of the same thing in Proto-Indo-European society. As a guest you were expected to be a host if the need arises. The word guest in it’s original meaning might not have referred to extended family and friends coming over, but to people from a different clan, a complete stranger perhaps, who might not be as friendly as one might think. This is attested by the modern English term “hostility” from Latin “hostes”, meaning “enemy”. So as a member of Proto-Indo-European society one was obliged to host a guest, despite the fact that this guest might be an enemy (cf. Mallory 2006).

Why anybody would host someone who might be an enemy is explained by the PIE word for law; “*dhéhrmen-/ i-, is ‘that which is established’ and derives from *dhéhr ‘put, establish’” or “*legh- ‘lie’, i.e. ‘that which is laid out’”. Later Mallory specifies, that these laws have been laid out by the gods and thus have to be obeyed (ibid.). In modern High German the word for law is “Gesetz”, literally “that, which has been set”, a term, which still bears great similarity to the meaning of the original PIE term, although I am not aware of an etymological relation.

The host-guest example can be extended to a general give-take dilemma. Similar as a guest is expected to be a host, when the need arises, someone who provides a gift is expected to present a “counter-gift” of equal value. This is attested by the descendants in modern Indo-European words of different Proto-Indo-European words for giving and taking. For example, whilst the PIE root *nem- means “to distribute” in Greek, it came to mean “to take” in German (New High German “nehmen”) (cf. Calvert).

Oaths and oath-breaking seem to have been taken very seriously as well, the latter being ritually punished. To take an oath originally required “a practice of walking between slaughtered animals as part of taking an oath” (ibid.).

Indo-European Poetry

Poetry seems to have played a big role in Proto-Indo-European society and might have been a means to record their own history, similar to modern illiterate societies oral history. They were certainly used to immortalize great leaders and kings and perhaps even some of the PIE deities have had their beginnings in great poems about such leaders (cf. Mallory 2006). Most interestingly some phrases used in these ancient poems can be reconstructed by looking at the oldest available sources of Indo-European poetry, such as Homer and the Vedas:

“imperishable fame,” *klewos dhgwhitom (kleu-, *dhgwhei-); “holy (mental) force,” *isrom menos (eis-, men-1); and the “weaver (or crafter) of words,” the Indo-European poet himself, *wekwm teks-on (wekw-, teks-). The immortality of the gods (*-mto-, from mer-) is emphasized anew by the vivid verb phrase nek-1 ter-2, “to overcome death,” appearing in the Greek word nektar, the drink of the gods. And at least one three-member formula (in the sense of the word in traditional oral poetry) can be reconstructed for the poetic language of prayer, on the combined evidence of four languages, Latin, Umbrian, Avestan, and Sanskrit: “Protect, keep safe, man and cattle!” (p- w-ro- peku).

(Calvert)

Summary

Proto-Indo-European society was a complex one with a sophisticated, albeit male dominated hierarchy, and has no doubt contributed to their success in spreading across Eurasia. In this article I have focused on two aspects of Proto-Indo-European society, social structure and customs, which have not been discussed in this blog yet. Mythology had a great impact on this society as well, of course. For further reading I recommend this article on Proto-Indo-European deities, my reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European Myth of Creation and an article on Proto-Indo-European life in general.

References:


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