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A Catalogue of Heroes: Going Indo-European

Some of my previous blog posts led me to a discussion with a friend, Peter Long, who mentioned a theory on Indo-European mythology and its link to Harry Potter. Obviously, I needed this content for my site, especially as it fits perfectly as a second appetiser for my new blog series, A Catalogue of Heroes, and because Peter neatly foreshadows several concepts I will be discussing in my next posts about Norse gods and heroes. If you have not had your fill after this post, go to Peter's own blog and read to your heart's content.

A common question on fantasy forums is “What’s your favourite mythology?” To which I usually cheat and answer Comparative Indo-European mythology - why pick one favourite when I can love so many of them? Comparative Indo-European mythology is a scholarly field looking at myths and beliefs held in common by the people of the Indo-European language groups, a grouping sprawling all the way from the Irish myths that Jo Zebedee told us about to those of India. Doing so provides each individual group better insight into their own myths and an idea of what our common ancestors, the proto-Indo-Europeans, thought. It is a careful and difficult discipline, for cultures tend to throw up similar myths anyway (for example, there are good parallels to Orpheus in Commanche and Pawnee traditions) and borrow from each other (the Greek Aphrodite is a dead ringer for the Semitic Astarte). Generally, scholars look for three separate sources to attest something as being of shared Indo-European origin, although there are cases where two sources mirror each other and little else, such as the links to rats/moles, plagues/healing and archery shared by Apollo and Rudra, or the virtually identical taboos of the Flamen Dialis and Brahmins. It is a very useful source of ideas to any would-be fantasy author; we can use their gods as models for our own, use the evidence of divergent cultures for our own worldbuilding. And, of course, steal a thousand ideas for our own ideas.

Depicted above, a typical writer at work

Our ancestors had a somewhat ambivalent view of heroes to judge from their myths, particularly when it came to warriors. Their skill and courage was necessary for the tribe’s survival but also made them potential oppressors of their own people. Honour could prevent them from oppressing their own people, but also lead them to tragedy. Since Jo mentioned them, I’ll use an Irish example, Cuchulainn, whose story shows close parallels to the Iranian hero Rostam. Both were distinguished by the youthful slaying of fearsome beasts (Cuchulainn killed a hound, Rostam an elephant), their association with a famous horse that shares the hour of their death (Liath Macha and Rakhsh) and their near invulnerability in battle and dying retaliation against their killers. Their key similarity however is their unwitting filicide. Both father children (Conlae and Sohrab) in a foreign land, leaving behind a piece of jewellery (a gold ring and a seal) for the son to carry so they know them. However, both men come upon their sons without knowing them and when being bested in a wrestling competition, stab their sons. Only afterwards do they truly know who their sons are; the ultimate warriors are heartbroken at killing the thing most precious to them. They are not the only great Indo-European warriors to suffer such a fate as according to some tales, the Russian bogotyr Ilya Muromets performs the same act. Not all Indo-European heroes are so soaked in blood and tragedy. The Dioskouroi, Castor and Pollux, came to be seen as helpers of mankind in their godly roles, patrons and rescuers of travellers. In this they echo many of the Divine Twin pairings found such as the Indian Asvins, and their sons Nahula and Sahadeva, and the Latvian Dieva Deli; split fatherhood, their associations with horses and cattle, and association with a Sun Maiden (Helen’s name is a possible cognate with Helios). However both the Dioskouroi, and Nahula and Sahadeva, engage in warfare with their cousins, leading to the death of Castor, and Nahula’s and Sahadeva’s sons. They are not free from the violence of history.

If those names made you think of these guys first, you need this blog.

Another example of parallel ambiguous heroes can be found in the Norse Starkad, Indian Shishupala, and the Greek Heracles (although the latter two parallel each other far less well than they do Starkad). All three commit great acts of valour as well as great acts of villainy, largely thanks to the gods’ struggle over their actions. Starkad is cursed by Thor with a set number of crimes, disgruntled that the lad is the grandson of a giant who beat him in love, while Odin gives him blessings to counteract this. Sisupala’s three eyes and very name mark him as demonic and linked to the god Rudra (who shares many aspects with Odin) and is destined to be slain by Krishna, who promises Sisupala’s mother to forgive the young lad a hundred crimes. Crime number a hundred and one comes when Krishna is being crowned and the two bandy insults over Rukmini, who had been betrothed to Sisupala but stolen away by Krishna. And of course Heracles is beset through his life by Hera as revenge for his father Zeus’ illicit affair, with Athena protecting him. Their crimes are linked too. All commit acts against the highest authority of the king/god (Starkad commits regicide in Odin’s name, Sisupala steals a sacrificial horse, Heracles defies Zeus); against honourable warfare (Starkad flees a battle, Sisuapala and Heracles commit sneak assaults); and against the common people (Starkad takes a bribe to kill another king, Sisupala and Heracles both commit sexual misdemeanours). Finally, all die while transferring their power, or trying to, to their killer. Starkad promises his executioner invulnerability if he jumps between the head and the collapsing body; Sisupala’s ‘radiance’ leaves his body and enters Krishna’s; Heracles gives his poisoned bow and arrows to his helper Philoketes. The division of the crimes is no accident. This tripartite division of authority, warfare, and the common people (money/sex/fertility) is one of the common marks of Indo-European mythology in the current interpretation. This is largely thanks to the work of Georges Dumezil and his trifunctional hypothesis of Indo-European society. While it seems dubious that all Indo-European societies were organised by castes of Rulers, Warriors and Producers, nevertheless echoes of a division in a sacral sense can be seen all over Indo-European myth and history, from the Rig Veda to the legendary kings of early Rome, from the oath of a Mitanni King to the enemies of Ilya Muromets. To pick another example in detail, its there in the Iliad; Hera offers Paris sovereignty, Athena offers him victory in war, and Aphrodite offers him the most beautiful woman in the world. It is there in the gods themselves. In the majority of Indo-European pantheons (the Greek is a notable exception to all of this) we have the two gods of authority, the gods of magic and oaths - Varuna/Mitra; Odin/Tyr; Dagda/Nuada; Jupiter/Dius Fidius; Ahura Mazda/Mithra; Then there is the god of warriors, the storm god, the rain bringer, the dragon/serpent slayer - Indra, Thor, Taranis, Mars (although the Greeks/Romans gave storms to Zeus/Jupiter) And finally, the god of fertility and wealth - the Asvins, Freyr/Vanir, Toutatis, Quirinus Want to know somewhere else this can be found? Harry Potter. Think about it.

Also known as the ultimate click-bait.

Hermione is the most magically gifted of the three and by far the most likely to obey the rules. She’s the one that goes on to be Minister of Magic, she’s the authority figure. She is of course the only girl of them, and both Varuna (through his son Arjun) and Odin have moments of transvestism. Harry is the most belligerent and likely to break the rules out of the three. His warlike nature is often as much bane as boon. His enemies all have serpentine imagery and his own usage of it implies a certain closeness to them, as can be seen in Thor, or the Irish Lug, or the warlike Indian Rudra - or Starkad and Sisapala. They are (mostly) sky gods; Harry’s greatest skill is flying. Ron comes from a large family and is clearly subordinate to Harry, just like the Asvins were to Indra and the Vanir were to the Aesir. Money is central to the Weasely family, although usually due to the lack of it, although they do strike it lucky twice (the lottery win and Harry’s loan to the twins). You could see the twins as being a lot like the Divine Twins - sometimes of this order - with their rescues of Harry, or Arthur as being very much of the Producers in his concern for Muggles. We’re beginning to stretch it here though.

If the name Hermione reminds you of this woman, however, you have been reading this blog too much.

Source: Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Is this an exact fit? No, although cultural drift means none of the Indo-European mythologies are an exact fit for each other anyway. Was JK Rowling influenced directly by Indo-European myth here? I doubt it. But its one example of the cool ways you can take the myths of our heritage, and the theories around them, and use them to enrichen your own worlds and heroes. The great heroes of Indo-European myth might remain ambiguous figures, under attack from conflicting desires and forces, protectors yet destroyers, but yours? Yours can be whatever you want.

The subject of Comparative Indo-European Mythology is a far bigger one that can be done justice to in one post. For those interested and wishing to know more, there are a number of academic texts available. Jaan Puhvel's Comparative Mythology is by far the most accessible and easily found work on the subject and would be the ideal starting point, but people might also wish to consider the works of Georges Dumezil and Jan de Vries, while CS Littleton's The New Comparative Mythology offers a view of the scholarly discourse on the subject.

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