comparative mythology

Brahman – Alexander Jacob (2012)

I recently reviewed a book of Jacob published by Manticore Press. In it, he frequently refers to two of his older works. I got myself a copy of Brahman, a study of the solar rituals of the Indo-Europeans.

Even though the book is published in a German row of scholarly works, it is in English.

The book that I previously reviewed is published on a ‘niche’ publishing house. In my review I say that Jacob sometimes seems to cut corners. Curious if he would make his points better in a scholarly publication I started reading Brahman. It was immediately clear that Jacob’s writing style is the same here.

In a book with short chapters, Jacob constantly bombards his reader with loads of information. He also seems to assume that his readership is as knowledgeable as himself. Just as in the other book he seems to say that God-names in different cultures are just that: different names for the same entity (for example: “Ymir is sacrificed by Wotan (Enlil/Ganesha) and his brothers” p. 139). In his lists he mentions Gods from different cultures asuming that you know them all. The same with books. In this-and-this book you can read… I know quite some holy and mythological works, but I do not always immediately know to what culture the author refers every time.

I will give you a (relatively easy) quote to give you an idea of Jacob’s writing style:

In the Germanic Edda, the First Man, or “giant”, Ymir is killed by his great-grandson Wotan, who is the counterpart of the Iranian Wata/Vayu. The macroanthropomorphic Ymir who develops in the Mid-region, Ginnunga-gap, is the counterpart of Prajapati/Brahman, while his female partner Shatarupa is represented in the form of the cow Audhumla, who feeds Ymir with her milk. Ymir and Audhumla are thus the Germanic form of the First Man, Gayomaretan, and the Bull of Heaven, of the Iranian Bundahishn. This cow also produces, by licking the “ice-blocks”, a man called Buri, whose grandson is said to be Odin (Wotan), the wind-god. We have seen that the Kassites called Vayu Burias (Boreas). So we may assume that the Germanic Buri is the name of the first form of the wind-god, Vayu, whereas Wotan/Wata is that of the same force that, much like Shu, later sustains our universe within the Mid-region between heaven and earth. (p.135)

The chapters are somewhat thematic, but almost the entire book the red thread (from the subtitle) completely eluded me. The book mostly reads as a display of information. Towards the end there either appeared, or I started to recognise it, some structure. Not that I can now summerize the book easily, but the thesis seems to be that once there were two main cultures. The Indo-European was the solar, fire worshipping culture that spread over the globe. Jacob describes a primal man from whom the universe was created. Also he interweaves a phallic basis for the myths (the World Tree is actually a phallus that connects heaven and earth, etc.)

The book is interesting, yet again Jacob’s approach is not my own, but as there is quite some stress on Mesopotamian and other mythologies from that region and time, it expands my ‘usual information’. An index would have been a welcome addition though.

2012 Georg Olms Verlag, isbn 3487147408

Indo-European Mythology And Religion – Alexander Jacob (2019)

A while ago I got myself three recent Manticore books. When I had just started reading the present title, the publisher contacted me to tell me about yet another new title. Manticore is hard to keep up with.

I know Jacob from another Manticore title. In my review I noted Jacob has a different approach from my own and that he can be quite pedantic. Now I may add that his conclusions sometimes seem extremely easy.

Read More »Indo-European Mythology And Religion – Alexander Jacob (2019)

Fate And The Twilight Of The Gods – Gwendolyn Taunton (2018)

Rather than publishing the texts in one of the journals that Taunton publishes through Manticore Press, this time she bundled two essays into a small book of 116 pages.

The first essay is about fate in Norse religion, mostly about the Norns. The second is “an exegesis of Voluspa”. Both essays look like summaries of books that have long been available, in English even. The first text mostly quotes Bek-Pederson’s The Norns In Old Norse Mythology and Winterbourne’s When The Norns Have Spoken. The second text has a longer bibliography, but often refers to Rydberg and Grimm. More interestingly several issues of a periodical called History Of Religions are used.

There seem to be but a handful of thoughts and conclusions that are Taunton’s own. Some of these conclusions would not have been mine, but Taunton also has a couple of things that I do not think I ever heard of or looked at that way.

What I find strange is that Taunton uses quite a bit of ‘second hand quoting’. She refers to an author who is referred to by another author. Personally I would have looked up the original work and quote from there. In one occasion this leads to the strange situation in which Taunton first refers to Dumézil’s Mitra-Varuna and then claiming that Dumézil left Tyr out of the equation for political reasons and even says that he should have had Tyr on the second function, while in the book that was referred to, Dumézil lengthily explains why Tyr is one of the halves of the double function on the first function.

“Fate And The Twilight Of The Gods” is an alright read that does not bring many new insights, but still has some things to think about. Like I said, it summarizes earlier investigations into fate and Ragnarök, so it easily brings you up to speed about these subjects, as far as the English language goes of course.

2018 Manticore Press, isbn 9780648299660

Im Namen Des Wolfs – Andreas Hebestreit (2013)

A German book about “rites des passages” focusing on the Celts. Would that be political correctness? Not really, since the author does not shy to refer to Jan de Vries and Otto Höffler and he even uses the term “Indogermanisch” rather than “Indo-European”, so it looks like he really wanted to focus on the Celts. Obviously it is hard to draw the line that firmly.

“In The Name Of The Wolf” is a relatively expensive book for its size (125 pages) and does not really seem to contain many new insights. It is good that after Kershaw there are still people conducting research to Männerbünde” and warrior initiations of times passed though. Hebestreit seems to be a well-read and multi-lingual author since he not only refers to titles written in German, but also titles written in French and even some Scandinavian titles. The largest part of the bibliography is in German though.

The author seems to like the term ‘rites de passage’. Since he quotes Eliade, I am sure he knows that a ‘rite de passage’ is not the same a an initiation into a warrior bond.

That said, Hebestreit tells a story in which Celtic warriors go down not so much a Wicker Man, but a wicker-wolfs-head during their initiation. He refers to Roman authors, Teutonic sources, a range of anthropologists and investigates the meaning of the wolf in ancient societies onwards to more recent one (after Christianisation).

I like to think that I read German, actually I frequently do, but somehow a text of a century old is easier to me than a recent one. Also in the little book of Hebestreit I have the feeling that I miss a lot of details and nuances and I feel incompetent to go into his theories in detail. Therefor I will refrain to informing you that there is another book about Medieval warrior initiations which may not bring much really new, but there sure are elements that were new to me.

2013 Lit Verlag, isbn 9783643801562

The Grail – two studies – Alexander Jacob (2014)

And again Numen Books comes with an interesting title. This publisher is quickly developing the good habbit of publishing books about subjects that are (just) off the map for other publishing houses, while remaining within (relatively) scholarly fields. Books by (mostly) scholars about not-too-popular subjects so to say. Readable, nicely presented and thought-provoking too.

The present title promises “two studies” of the subject of the Grail. Alexander Jacob found a not too famous essay of Leopold von Schroeder (1851-1920) that this Estonian scholar published in 1910 in the German tongue. Jacob added an essay of similar length of himself making a book of a little under 300 pages. Von Schroeder’s and Jacob’s approaches are alike and when you expect 300 pages about the Grail, you might be disappointed. Both authors wrote massive pieces of comparitive mythology in which the Grail might be the final subject, but it is not touched upon that much. Von Schroeder describes a lot of Indian mythology -and here and there compares it to other mythologies- to show that the Grail is actually a vessel representing the sun.
Jacob goes a step further. He also uses mostly Indian mythology to go beyond the sun-vessel idea to find phallic symbolism at the basis of most mythology and -of course- most particularly the stories surrounding the Grail.
Both authors come up with a staggering amount of comparisons that I do not always find too convincing. Both indeed make a more than a few interesting remarks and make ‘un-Dumézilian’ conclusions that invite to rethink my own limited approach. Jacob also critices Von Schroeder in a somewhat annoyingly pedatic tone like by saying Von Schroeder (or Evola) is wrong, rather than he has a different opinion himself. Both authors make some slips when referring to Germanic mythology, but since they both seem to have Indian mythology as speciality, I asume the information there is all valid. The bottom line is that the source for both authors lays in the Far East (or perhaps a little futher back in time) and it is from that staring point, elements of the Grail stories are explained.

Like I said, another interesting new Numen book for those who like some good old comparitive myth.

2014 Numen Books, isbn 9780987559890

The Mystery Of The Grail * Julius Evola (1994/7)

Well, this is a different kind of book of our Italian thinker. Quite like in the book of Koenraad Logghe (1997), we have here a Traditionalistic approach to the grail legends. Evola compares the grail stories to several mythologies, sometimes the same as Logghe. Evola also finds initiation symbolism in the stories, but he traces the sources further back. This comparitive method makes quite a nice read and however I cannot follow the author all the time, he makes some interesting points. Towards the end the grail stories start to make up less and less of the text and Evola passes through Hermeticism and Rosicrucians to Ghibellism, a subject that pops up in more of his works. He also sets out against Guénon and his ideas about Freemasonry and thus suddenly ends a book about the grail with a lot lot of different paths.
Overall the books make a nice read, but I have the idea that Evola lost structure and felt the need to tread different sidepaths all at the end of the book. He once more shows himself an interesting thinker, but in several opinions, Evola runs off wildly from my own ideas. No worries of course, Evola has more sides that I do not follow him with.
1996 Inner Traditions, isbn 0892815736

How To Kill A Dragon * Calvert Watkins (1995)

This is something different! I have used the category “comparitive mythology”, but in fact this is “comparitive poetry”. The author uses the same texts as, let me say, Georges Dumézil, but where Dumézil compares what the texts say or imply, Watkins compares the texts themselves; the words, word-order, conjugations, etc. Watkins’ focus is the Indo-European realm and his aim is to show that Indo-European languages are comparable (and hence have a common source). Where investigators of myth and faerytale find “themes”, Watkins finds “formulas”; basic sentences that he finds in many different texts from many different parts of the world. One such formula is “HERO SLAY SERPENT”. Therefor Watkins compares dragon-slaying myths in many parts of his book.
The book is very technical and probably meant for fellow linguistics, so there are large parts that I just skipped through since I could not grasp what the author was talking about. More interesting to me are the many, many quotes from all kinds of Indo-European texts, expecially when the authors sets them side by side. Also interesting are the parts in which Watkins takes one ‘family’, such as German or Irish, and teaches his readers about that language by comparing it to others (especially the discussion of the Germanic word “bani” around page 420 and the “bone to bone, blood to blood, etc.” parts of the Mersebürger Zaubersprüche on page 523/4).
Quoting Eliot T. Bundy on page 116, Watkins summarizes his field of investigation:

‘What is required … is a thorough study of conventional themes, motives, and sequences … in short, a grammar of choral style … [reflecting] systems of shared symbols … ‘. these poems are ‘the products of poetic and rhetorical conventions whose meaning … is recoverable from comparitive study’. And in conclusion, ‘in this genre the choice involved in composition is mainly a choice of formulae, motives, themes, topics, and set sequences of these that have, by convention, meaning not always easily perceived from the surface denotations of the words themselves … we must … seek through carefull analysis of individual odes to the thematic and motivational grammar of choral compositions’.

Watkins is (fortunately for me) mostly interested in myth and ritual and quoting so many of them, he cannot always just focus on the words themselves, so here and there the book is more comparitive myth, like in the nice paragraph about apples that heal snakebites on page 427.

Something different indeed, but a field of investigation that might interest people who enjoy comparitive myth and similar fields. Watkins’ book makes a nice introduction.
1995 Oxford University Press, isbn 9780195144130

The Origins Of The World’s Mythologies * E.J. Michael Witzel (2012)

A new approach in the field of comparative myth! Where Mircea Eliade created the discipline of comparative myth and Georges Dumézil structured Indo-European mythology, Witzel largely breaks with both these authors and takes several steps ahead and takes a path in which he stands alone so far and from which many things have yet to be worked out. A brave step in the conservative world of scholarship. Witzel uses different disciplines to come to his conclusions, most notably linguistics, genetics and comparative myth; an approach that he coined “historic comparative myth”. Along the lines of genetics, linguistics and archeology scholars know what peoples came from where and from what predecessors. Witzel uses these trails to compare the mythologies. Genetics has found out that all current humanity stems from one mother. Not that there was one couple at some point, it is just the descendants of other lines did not make it. Linguists are by now beyond groups such as Indo-European and Semitic and have found overarching language groups like Nostratic. Witzel takes his comparative mythology yet another step further (initially, and then a couple more) by reaching a family that he calls “Laurasian”. What is not Laurasian mythology today is “Gondwana” which is in fact the origin or Laurasian mythology. Our common female ancestor is called the “African Eve” and her descendants left Africa (the ‘out of Africa’ theory) some 65.000 years ago and then spread around the world. Along that path Laurasian mythology was developped, other peoples sticked to the Gondwana type. Witzel says to be fairly able to reconstruct the Laurasian “story line” and by comparing Laurasian myth to non-Laurasian, he even catches glimpses of Gondwana mythology. More even, what is common in both, will eventually be the ultimate source of all mythologies: “pan-Gaean”, into which the author gives a peek as well.
Witzel’s book is not a ‘comparative myth’ book, but a book in which Witzel explains and builds his theory. He also looks at (possible) counterarguments and deals with questions that are left. Indeed, his theory is a theory in childhood, but after 20 years of investigation, Witzel found it time to present it to the world and have his colleagues stab at it.
I suppose the book will raise quite some resistance. Linguistics say that reconstruction of language beyond a few thousand years is impossible and Witzel has to work with reconstructions based on reconstructions (of language and mythology) to go back tens of thousands of years. The book makes staggering jumps in time and, like I said, leaves little of the theories of Eliade and especially Dumézil, but it does confirm with my Traditionalistic outlook (in a way) that there is a common origin of everything. “The Origins Of The World’s Mythologies” makes an interesting read with tons of little facts and comparisons and a fresh, new theory to think about.
2012 Oxford University Press, isbn 9780199812851

Myth And Law Among The Indo-Europeans * Jaan Puhvel (editor) (1970)

Myth and LawThis book is formed by the texts of lectures that were given at a 1967 congress about the study of comparative folklore and mythology at the University of California. The congress was led by Jaan Puhvel who was also editor of the book. Puhvel is a Dumézilian scholar and that fact and the title of the book led me to get myself a copy. The book is fairly easy to find second hand, but the price can get pretty high. Of course the book is filled with ‘Dumézilian’ essays. Apparently also that can become irritating! After the third text about ‘the threefold death’ and yet another text destilling the three functions out of some Greek text, I get the idea. I think I prefer the texts of Dumézil himself or perhaps just a more in depth analysis. In any case, the book opens in a very promising way with a nice text about linguistics of Calvert Watkins, the great In Defense Of Euhemerus by Kees Bolle and the only text about law Comparative Legal Reconstruction In Germanic by Stephen Schwartz. Towards the end things become a bit too typically Dumézilian with too little new information. It is nice to find some new scholars who follow this structure and there were some known names and of course references to other books, but I must admit that this work did not make me more enthousiastic about Dumézilian scholars. Maybe a more recent work of this kind, if there are any.

1970 University Of California Press, isbn 0520015878

The War Of The Gods * Jarich Oosten (1985)

The War Of The GodsNot a new subject, comparitive mythology, but a new approach; to me of course. Contrary to the Dumézilian approach, Oosten uses the cultural anthropological angle to look at things. However he refers to Dumézil quite a bit, he sees problems with the tripartite structure (see here). Whereas Dumézil compares different myths and characters and structures therein by comparing the functions of for example Gods, Oosten uses “the social code” (cf. the subtitle of this book “the social code in Indo-European mythology”). This means that not the function of a God is of interest, but his/her relation to other Gods and entities. “The structure of the myths was determined by the relationship between different kin-groups (paternal relatives, maternal relatives, affines.” (p.165) In this manner the following kind of structure is identified by Oosten: “Wife-takers associated with warfare received women from wife-givers associated with religion and wealth.” (p. 165) Or a longer quote:

The ancient myths reveal the structure of a pantheon that did not represent a state, or a kingdom, but a family, ruled by a father-god. Relations between different groups of gods were based on kinship.

However I fail to see the significance of these relations and the conclusions are often comparable ‘that other system’, it is sometimes refreshing to see that all Aesir stem from giants (which in this idea are the original Gods), who fought against and then merged with the Vanir. The treaty between the Aesir and the Vanir resulted in mead and Oosten has identified “the cycle of the mead” in all Indo-European mythologies.
It is not that Oosten has come to new conclusions to me, but the way he builds towards his conclusions is both interesting and sometimes hard to follow. I have the idea that he jumps conclusions quite frequently (two comparable situations are generalised) and with the myths I am most familiar with, he is rather sloppy in the retelling of them. Also, however much Oosten opposes the structure of Dumézil, the only thing that he presents himself is a way to dissect myths, while the theory of Dumézil also has practical applications. Oosten’s approach is focused on the texts, while Dumézil can be applied to the actual religion.
All things considered, I find this little book (150 pages) well worth reading, since it forced me to look at things slightly differently, but for me as a practitioner, this is mostly an intellectual game.
1985 Routledge Kegan Paul, isbn 071020289X