Posted by: aediculaantinoi | November 10, 2012

Dumezilian Thoughts…?!?

Admittedly, what follows here may be a bit random-seeming; but, here we are nonetheless…!?!

I was watching an episode of Moyers & Company earlier tonight, which I DVR’d a few weeks ago and only now have had a few moments to view. The topic that Bill Moyers and his panelists addressed was the existence of a plutocracy in the U.S. While the episode aired before the election, nonetheless the plutocracy is still around and will be relevant for the foreseeable future in the U.S. and throughout the world. The simple reality is that something like the top 10 earners in the U.S. brought in more income in a year than the bottom 97%. 22% of people in New York City earn less than $9,000 a year, while a very small percentage earn over $2.2 million a year. This inequality gap is huge, to say the least, and the history of the United States has actually been characterized by those types of numbers from colonial times onwards, although the actual take-home pay of the top bracket has been much higher in recent decades than it ever has been previously.

And, because this is the type of person that I am, I was struck by something as this was being discussed. In many Indo-European societies, there is a division amongst the gods in terms of the “tripartition” that Georges Dumezil and his heirs have discussed (whether you like their overall theories or not) between the first two functions–i.e. the First Function/Sovereignty and the Second Function/Warrior castes–and the Third Function (i.e. the Cultivators/Workers), and this is often reflected in particular Indo-European cultures’ pantheons, including in “wars of the gods” narratives in mythology. Generally speaking, the Third Function groups don’t come off very well in these fights: the Olympian Gods become dominant over the Titans, the Giants, and various other “monstrous” races; the Aesir are successful over the Vanir, but also the Giants and others; the Devas of Indian myth win out over the Asuras; and in Irish myth, the Tuatha De are successful over the Fomoiri (and the Fir Bolg). Not only this, but in some cases, the Third Function groups are often characterized thereafter as “evil” and “fallen” and “sinful” in various other ways, and this characterization carries over in our viewpoints within modern polytheism. The recent difficulties in some Heathen groups over recognizing Loki as a valid deity with whom to have relationships is one such example of this, and it isn’t likewise the case in other forms of polytheism (e.g. Set, while sometimes feared and always respected, is not as demonized in modern Egyptian polytheism in the same way that Loki is).

When we look at the Irish situation, we see that the heroes are deities like the Dagda, and Ogma, and Lug, whereas the “bad guys” are deities like Bres–and, some wouldn’t even reckon him a deity, given his alignment with the Fomoiri. However, he’s actually half Tuatha De–and he shares this mixed parentage with Lug, who is also half Fomoiri through his mother. Bres has the secrets of reaping and sowing, which are extorted from him at the end of Cath Maige Tuired in return for his life after his people’s defeat by the Tuatha De under Lug’s leadership.

But, there is something very important to remember in all of this: the First and Second Functions could not exist without the Third Function, and in fact the surplus food, and as a result all other economic benefits possible, are the result of the Third Function class’ production. The First and Second Function figures, thus, are the “one-percent,” in many respects, the gods of the elites and the rich, and have been held up quite often as the only gods worth worshipping. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love many of those gods a great deal. But, as someone who is most certainly toward the lower sections of income earners in the actual society that I live and exist in today, my sympathies are not with the people who gripe about paying higher than 15% in taxes who make several million dollars a year. (In fact, I’m envious at the moment of those who make $20,000 a year!)

I wonder, thus, what sort of societal dysfunction this might inadvertently bring about when so many modern polytheists–who, on the whole, aren’t in the upper income brackets–are worshipping the gods of the 1% of the various premodern cultures, and are ignoring the gods of the 99% of those cultures. As much as we’d like to imagine that we can worship any god, and that any god is eager for our worship these days (which, on the whole, I think they are), at the same time, I have to wonder if there are more “social-class appropriate” deities that we should pay heed to as well, and that we should attempt to rehabilitate.

Something that a lot of people seem to forget about the Fomoiri as well is that, unlike every other race that was said to have come to Ireland (and invaded it, really), the Fomoiri never have a story of arrival. They’re always there when the other races arrive (except in the earliest Irish poetry from the Leinster dynasts, where the Fomoiri and the “people of the sid” are said to be the same). In other words, the Fomoiri are the indigenous race of Ireland. As much as many modern pagans and polytheists want to claim indigeny for their practices, or to have some solidarity with indigenous peoples and to claim a congruence in their mindsets, it is noteworthy that the indigenous race of Ireland is demonized and downplayed while a group of colonizing invaders is hailed as the one-and-only divine race of the Irish. (Unless you’re from Tory Island, of course!) If mixed parentage is not a detriment to Lug, then shouldn’t reverence for Fomoiri and for Tuatha De alike not be a detriment to modern Irish polytheists?

These are just some thoughts that I think bear further consideration. There has never been a religious notion that has been entirely separate from the socioeconomic and political contexts of its own culture, and the same is true today; and that being the case, it is good for us to be aware of these realities in the premodern worlds from which these traditions emerge, and what they might reflect in terms of our own present cultural, socioeconomic, and political situation.


  1. Some good food for thought here!

    To be honest I had never heard of the growing (?) movement of claiming indigeny in paganism. How does that work? How close does it get to the ideas of certain pagans who think they can “be” Native, or of any other race? This makes me… wary, I suppose.

    • I wrote about this (i.e. “The Indigeny Debate”) on a few months ago. There are an increasing number of polytheists–particularly recons of various sorts–who speak about their own practices as being indigenous. I love and respect many people who claim this, but I don’t think we can really state this without some disingenuousness, given that very few people who claim this are “indigenous” in terms of being a colonized, persecuted minority that has been systemically excluded from mainstream culture in a given society (i.e. the plight of most modern indigenous peoples), nor are they practicing a religion that has grown up side-by-side with a particular culture on a given piece of land for thousands of years (i.e. most polytheists talking about this are in the U.S. and aren’t doing Native American practices). Folks who do this, I think, can certainly claim to be of a diasporic religion, but not of an indigenous one, and the distinction is very important. While ultimately the various polytheistic religions were indigenous to their various areas, it’s tough to argue that one is practicing Celtic or Egyptian or Norse polytheism in an indigenous fashion when one grew up in the U.S., even in strongly ethnic families, communities, or traditions.

      Anyway…it certainly makes me wary as well, because ultimately the term is often used to say “We’re authentic in our spirituality, and you’re not” to some implied “you” or other.

  2. As I have become more involved in Kemetic practices I see somewhat less simliarities between Set and Loki. Set’s actions, while violent and later vilified, were within ma’at, while Loki’s were/are not seen in a similar vein. Also, Set did have a historical cultus and there is still little evidence for Loki having the same.

    Also, on the idea of modern polytheists focusing heavily on the gods, you can extend that further from the three camps. There is still not as much talk about ancestor veneration or working with localized spirits. I know it’s happening and I know there are some who discuss such things but it’s still nowhere near as easy to find that sort of information as it is to find about honoring the Gods.

    • Soli, just have to jump in here that your statement that there’s little evidence for Loki having historical cultus is not true (and I don’t mean to single you out – a number of people repeat this falsehood). There are folk traditions to this day in parts of the world involving Loki, there are places named for him – both evidence of historical cultus. & this is what I know, not being a Heathen or a scholar – I’m sure there is plenty more others who are more informed could add.

    • Definitely agree re: too much focus on gods, not enough on land spirits or ancestors or other types of divine being.

      I suspect the Loki debate will go on and on…though on the question of historical cultus, it’s well within the overall argument I’m presenting here that oftentimes the “vilified” beings in mythology didn’t have as high-status a cultus, and therefore the evidence for their cultus is all the more likely to be missing, if not actively suppressed or mistaken for something else. Any non-high-status deity often ends up going a similar way. We know tons about Jupiter, for example, because he was a high-status deity and there’s lots of monuments of various sorts to him that survive; the same isn’t true of any number of other deities who might only be known from being named in an antiquarian-esque collection by Varro, Augustine, or another high-status writer.

  3. Interesting, thought provoking article.

    It also made me consider how much of the information that comes down to us about how people worshipped and understood the Gods is conveyed via elite texts e.g. royal Egyptian tombs or Graeco-Roman literature. Another way to connect more directly with how the 99% venerated the Gods might be through focusing on localised myth and cult rather than the versions of the Gods put forward in epic etc.
    Popular gods such as Dionysus and Demeter, although they are Olympians, are also strongly connected with Third Function occupations.

    • Precisely–there could quite literally be entire pantheons of gods we don’t know about that were revered by poorer people, and never get mentioned in high-status literature or monuments, and perhaps only had an oral transmission for their cultus, and/or aniconic representations, etc.

      It does bring up another interesting possibility, though: given that most modern polytheists are, whether they’d like to admit it or not, more plebs than anything, are the old gods of the elites who are now largely our gods going to adapt as well to be more domestic and familiar in their valences rather than national and powerful? Gods on the breadlines, as it were, as opposed to being hailed from within the halls of power…?

      Re: Dionysos, Demeter, et al.–certainly, which is one of many reasons why I find the trifunctional argument a bit wanting a large part of the time. What royal deity of any worth, for example, isn’t superlative in magic, warrior might, and fertility, for example? And yet, the strict Dumezilian interpretation doesn’t often allow for complete trifunctionalism in the ruling figure, given they have to be a Sovereignty Figure first and foremost, etc. In any case…

  4. This raises a bunch of very interesting questions and I for one am in complete agreement, in particular with the question of third function deities. What I find more interesting, however, is the process where deities that are nominally first or second function, none-the-less make appearances in third function roles. This, naturally, is also reversed in some cases – recently I’ve been reading about Aristaios and his ‘apotheosis’ in mythology. Here we have a nominally second function deity mediating between third and first functions who, partakes of both, but appears to go off and do his own thing separate from the roles he himself helped to create.

    • This is one of the reasons that I think the trifunctionalist argument falls apart, as I was saying elsewhere in this comment thread. Any figure of genuine worth to a society tends to be related to all of the functions in some valence or other, thus what is the point of having separate functions that (implicitly) don’t overlap? Some figures are definitely of one and only one type, but far too many others are ambiguous in one manner or other; and third function figures are all over the damn map, as I suspect that was kind of a catch-all concept for Dumezil and many of his followers. (Though, with N. J. Allen in more recent decades, the “Fourth Function” of “liminality” has become more of the catch-all category, for those who accept that it is a viable category at all.)

  5. This makes me curious what the pantheon of a social outlier would look like? I think it is a fairly safe assumption, and this isn’t meant to insult anyone, that we Pagans/polytheists have a fair share of our “social outliers” no?

    On an additional side note I’ve always thought of Isaac Bonewit’s group, ADF Druidism, as being highly “married to” (for want of a better term) Dumezilian trifunctional theory and would love to get your opinion on the group. I’ve enjoyed the in-person rituals of theirs I’ve attended but there’s something about the way the group is set up that doesn’t sit right with me…

    • Yes, I think we do–which is ironic, because the gods many of us worship are not those socially outlying gods. Sure, many more pagans are happy about paying some homage to Shiva and Kali, and yet within Hinduism, those gods aren’t the gods that many people worship for all sorts of reasons. Yes, there are vocal factions now for Loki and other gods or classes of deity that may not have been “socially acceptable” to the elites and the “central” cultural/religious forces of their day, but may have in fact played a much larger role in the lives of everyday people…so, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing at all. But when you get people who are economically downtrodden and socially marginal, who say they have a great relationship with Zeus…well, it might be viable and real, but it sort of makes me think that the version of Zeus they’re dealing with may not be the one who is King of Gods and Men, if you see what I mean…not that it has to be, either, but at the same time, the distinction does need to be made, and there are versions of Zeus that are more for the common person, etc.

      From what I know of ADF, I like what they’re trying to do, and many of their members are friends or acquaintances of mine that I hold in very high regard. What I don’t like about them is: 1) their over-burdening of the term “druid,” which under their definition is far too wide-reaching as to become meaningless; 2) their insistence that only Indo-European deities be the ones honored, when in fact we don’t even know if that’s the case for many supposed Indo-European deities or cultures (!?!); and 3) their ritual structure is a bit too universal, when in fact the actual realities on the ground of each individual Indo-European culture are far more diverse and localized and specialized than can be accounted for in a generalized structure that tries to always trace back to (and thus derive some sort of implied authority from) Indo-European prototypes. As Indo-European isn’t something that we even know with any certainty existed in an actual viable form or not, it seems pretty odd to try and base a whole religion on it…as odd as it would be, in many respects, to decide to be a Jedi, because each is as purposefully constructed and prone to re-interpretation in each generation as the other happens to be in actuality. (There’s a joke in linguistic circles that the language that has changed the most over the last two centuries is Proto-Indo-European, and it’s true!)

  6. I wonder if on a “what’s actually happening” level it isn’t true that there are multiple spirits/gods laying claim to and/or participating in the identity of each of the gods we know of from mythology?

    And just to be sure I’m understanding you correctly in your suggestion of a different Zeus for the average/ordinary person: are you suggesting a different god entirely or that Zeus would be acting in a different capacity rather than an “elite” one? If the latter that may account for why it’s appropriate for many of us, less-than-the-top-of-the-hierarchy Pagans/polytheists, to worship “elitist” gods.

    Alternatively, I’ve been leaning more towards each individual deity and spirit needing to be experienced directly by each individual worshiper in order to be understood and the high likelihood that when you get to know them on their own terms the gods might be highly different from the image we’re used to from mythology.

    All that being a combination of speculation and cautious interpretation of new experiences…

    You’ve touched on many of the issues that I have, well issues, with in ADF. And very eloquently! I too am on good terms with a member or two and found them on the whole to be a very pleasant experience. Regarding their use of the term “druid” my own personal objection to it is it simply sounds a little too Dungeons and Dragons for my taste. I certainly see where you’re coming from as well though.

    Additionally, their prohibition against non-IE deities was intended, from what I understand, to serve two functions: first it was meant to prohibit cultural misappropriation of Native American tribal practices/beliefs and second since they believe their liturgy has been designed from an IE point of view then only IE gods would appropriately be worshiped using that formula.

    Finally, regarding their liturgy itself: frankly much of it seems taken whole cloth from the organizations with whom Bonewits was originally affiliated. If that isn’t “excellence in scholarship” then I don’t know what is😉 To be fair to ADF and Bonewits however it needs to be pointed out that their group is intended to be wholly Neo-Pagan and not a “hard” reconstruction from what I understand. ADF members who feel they’re being misrepresented feel free to step in! I do agree with you though about the subtleties of the cultures represented and their ritual intricacies being important. Perhaps I’m more of a reconstructionist than I thought eh?

    In any regard, I wanted to get your opinion on their group as they’re (to the best of my knowledge) the only local group who does regular public ritual that I can participate in and feel comfortable with the experience overall.

    I appreciate it!

    • It could very well be. The Voudun notion that “my Eshu needs to speak with your Eshu” sort of reminds me of this possibility: perhaps each deity does appear to each person in a way that is largely determined by that person alone (although not “determined” in the sense of chosen, whether consciously or unconsciously, but just context-dependent), even though there are some characteristics that tend to persist over time, space, and individual experience where it comes to certain deities, lest there be no possibility at all of properly identifying the deity-in-question. (When is Zeus no longer Zeus, and instead Indra, Ba’al Hadad, Taranis, or someone else, e.g.?)

      That there were different epithets and manifestations of particular deities reckoned in ancient cultures leads me to suspect that one of several possible things was happening (which are not mutually exclusive options): a number of smaller localized deities were absorbed into a larger deity when intra-pantheonic syncretism occurred as political powers expanded over larger geographical regions (e.g. the various city-states of Greece coming to share a common culture and language, and having local cults absorbed into larger deities as localized epithets, etc.); and/or, the deity-in-question simply is acting in a particular aspect when one encounters that epithet, in the same way that an individual human might “wear many hats,” and may be a very different person concerned with very different things when one encounters them at work, at the gym, with their family at home, with their family at the store, with this group of friends as opposed to that one, etc.

      If ADF people and groups and rituals serve a purpose and fill a gap in your life, then I say go for it! I have yet to attend an official ADF function of any sort, and have only dealt with ADF folks on a basis outside of their direct work, which I have no problem with at all. (When they start trying to tell me something about P-I-E culture or Celtic things or druids, of course, I often have problems with that!)

      It’s somewhat ironic, I think, that they are so Proto-Indo-European focused, when those three letters are the majority of the initials of their founder–Philip Isaac Emmons Bonewits. I suspect he’s chuckling in some otherworld or other over that to this very minute! 😉

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