The Indo-European Heritage

Over the past two hundred years linguists have been investigating the similarities between the languages that have come to be grouped together in the Indo-European family (spoken primarily in Europe, Iran and India), and attempting to reconstruct the features of the parent language from which they are all descended. Because, as language historians have discovered, language change obeys certain fixed rules, one can generalize about the way later forms of a language developed from older forms, and apply the same knowledge to compare two or more attested languages that are obviously related, and reconstruct what their earlier, non-attested parent language might have been like. Such reconstruction involves not only phonetics and grammar but also semantic history: how the meanings of words and word-roots have changed over time, and how some meanings have been derived from earlier, related meanings. From following this semantic history back to the earliest re-constructible forms of the parent Indo-European language (which we call Proto-Indo-European or PIE) a certain picture of
the culture of the earliest Indo-European-speakers emerges: we get a sense of what items in their environment were most important, which concepts were felt to be related, what specific concrete imagery was used to convey specific abstract ideas, etc.


Only within the last century, however, have scholars come to appreciate how much of the earliest cultural heritage of the Indo-Europeans can be reconstructed through comparative methods. By looking at the myths and rituals we find in attested Indo-European sources and analyzing the language used to express them, we quickly realize that, like the words and grammars of the languages themselves, the mythologies and religious practices of Indo-European peoples also point to a common source: they can be traced back to what must have been
the religious worldview of the original PIE-speaking community, a worldview that is still reflected in the traditions of later Indo-European cultures, despite all the changes that occurred as these cultures acquired their separate identities. Often a good understanding of this basic common pattern can help clarify aspects of later traditions that are obscure or poorly attested.


The Celts, as an Indo-European people, shared in this heritage: their beliefs and practices were rooted in the traditions they had received from the ancestors they had in common with other Indo-Europeans. Although they developed their own distinctive versions of this material, there is no reason to believe that these diverged more strongly from the PIE source model than what we can observe among neighboring ancient cultures. Since the pre-Christian Celts left very few written documents, and much of what we know of their religion comes from mute archaeological sources, a knowledge of their Indo-European background is absolutely necessary for interpreting the evidence we have about them.


The richest and oldest sources of Indo-European tradition available to us are the compilations of religious hymns and ritual instructions from ancient India known as the Vedas. Scholars disagree on when they were actually composed, but the prevalent consensus is that the earliest materials in them are from around 1500 BCE. For many centuries they were passed down as a strictly oral tradition which was the property of a specialized caste of religious professionals. They provide information about deities, the myths associated with them, and how they were addressed in ritual, as well as about the functions of rituals and the organizational principles involved in conducting them. Because of its abundance as well as its ancientness, this material provides a useful starting-point for comparison with other Indo-European traditions. Another important ancient source is the body of ritual texts from pre-Islamic Iran which, even though they relate to the reformed religion of Zoroastrianism, still reflect the symbolic patterns of the religion that preceded it. Ancient Italy -- before the Hellenizing of culture under the later Roman Republic -- also provides important ritual information. To this we can compare the scantier material we have from the Germanic, Celtic, Slavic and Scythian worlds -- much of which comes to us from later or indirect sources. Ancient Greek culture also shared in the Indo-European heritage to a considerable degree, but because of its geographical location it absorbed an equal amount of Near Eastern (mostly Semitic) material, so that Greek tradition is less immediately useful than others in comparative Indo-European work.


By means of such comparative methods, Indo-Europeanists have come up with a general picture of the common Indo-European belief system, of which we will now give a concise description: The Indo-European view of the world is an *eschatological* one: the world had a distinct origin, it grows through various phases, and it will eventually be destroyed. However, this process of creation and destruction is generally thought to be cyclic: countless universes have existed before this one, and will exist after it.


The original creative deity is originally conceived as a *monad*, such as the _hiranyagarbha_ ("golden womb") of Vedic tradition or the Cosmic Egg of the Greek Orphic mysteries. Dissatisfied by its singularity, this first Being divides itself into two. This gives rise to the *binary* polarities that provide the world with its most fundamental kind of diversity: night and day, summer and winter, male and female, sun and moon, dry and wet, this-worldly and Otherworldly, human and non-human, etc.


The existence of binary polarity then gives the means for developing the most important form of relationship, which sustains the universe and produces all of its rhythms and shifting balances, and is the concept that informs all Indo-European beliefs and practices: that of *reciprocal exchange*. Even if they appear to be opposed, each of the members of a binary polarity possesses something the other one lacks and needs; by exchanging these needed elements, then, each can sustain the other. This is well illustrated by the PIE reconstructed word *_ghosti-_, which is the origin of both the English words "guest" and "host". Originally the term designated two people bound by mutual obligations of hospitality: sometimes one of them would be in a position to give gifts or help, sometimes the other, but it was assumed that the giving went both ways and was to the advantage of both parties. Indo-European thought expands this concept to all the binary polarities in the universe, and sees it as the ideal way to encourage harmony between them. Heaven and the Underworld, gods and humans, seemingly opposed groups of gods and seemingly opposed groups of humans, all benefit by providing the other with what the other lacks, while receiving a complementary gift in return. In the case of humans dealing with gods, the exchange from the human side takes the ritual form of *sacrifice* -- designating something from the human realm as now belonging to the realm of the gods.


The existence of something which can bridge the gap between two fundamental poles leads to giving that third element an importance equal to that of the poles themselves, and thus to an appreciation of *ternary* structures in the universe. The third element can be: red Dawn or Sunset between white Day and black Night; Earth between Heaven and the Underworld; a god who moves freely between two seemingly opposed groups of deities; a goddess with two consorts, etc. As a rule, it is the element of transition: it provides movement and change. By extension, three becomes a perfect number, which provides completion -- as, for example, with the beginning, middle, and end of a story, or of any other process taking place in time. For this reason divine powers are often seen as being triple in nature, indicating that they are operative everywhere and at all times. The significance of the number three can be intensified by augmenting it to nine (three times three) or even twenty-seven (three times nine -- the number of the lunar mansions in Vedic astrology, for example).