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Comparative Mythology * Jaan Puhvel (1987)

Comparative Mythology

If I am not mistaken, Jaan Puhvel was born in Estonia in 1932 and he was a student of Georges Dumézil (in Upsala) and follows his path in comparitive mythology. By now living and teaching in America for many years, Puhvel displays an amazing ability to play with the English language, making this book a fun read at times. Puhvel wanted to write a basic book about comparitive mythology (“mythology” in his usuage means “the study of myth”). Puhvel starts with describing the Indo-European “traditions” (Vedic India, Epic India, Ancient Iran, Epic Iran, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Celtic Myth, Germanic Myth and Baltic and Slavic myth). However Puhvel does not really say much new (but some new findings are enclosed) this book is nicely short, clear and the writer immediately starts with cross-referencing. He grantly displays his 30 years of experience with elaborate sentences which seem to smoothly flow from his pen with humour and wordplay. After this part follow five “themes” (God and warrior, king and virgin, horse and ruler, fire in water and twin and brother) which are not as thematically as I hoped, more again retelling of parts of different myths, but again with some nice theories. Inspite of being a student of Dumézil, Puhvel does not necessarily follow the firsts conclusions. On page 200 he writes: “Yet this is still mainly schematic and typological. The Indic god with whom Odin has most in common is not Varuna but Rudra-Siva.” which point is -of course- elucidated. A goal of this book is to put the Greek mythology back to the place where it belongs:

Greece is a special case for the comparative mythologist. Being somehow the central reference point for mythology at large, Greek myth tends to carry disproportionate weight in any comparison. […] For the purposes of this book, however, Greek myth must be stripped of its unfair advantage and placed squarely into the frame of our study.

It is very true that virtually all Westerners have been taught about Greek (and Roman) mythology at school, but not or hardly about other mythologies and that Greek mythology is the starting point of scholars in the field. Hopefully Puhvel’s voice will change the tide.
To close off I want to give another quote so that you get an idea of the tone of this book:

The son Matsya ‘Fish’ will become the eponymous founder of the Matsya tribe to the west, but the beautiful girl smells so fishy that she has to be turned back to the fisherfolk. As a nubile oarswoman she is seen on the river by the saintly ascetic Parasara, who is touring the local hermitages. He imperiously desires her; like Poseidon in Homer he creates a misty boudoir for their privacy, vowes to restore her virginity (lest father find out), promises to deodorize her, and has his way.

(p. 75) “The girl” is the twin-daughter of Girika, wife of the king of Cedi (Vasu “in an early stage in his career).
Yep, there are more boring books to read about the subject, and worse too!
1987/9 The John Hopkins University Press * isbn 0801834139

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