The Ancestral European Religious Vocabulary

Michael York

Lyceum of Venus of Healing

Academy for Cultural and Educational Studies


The Proto-Indo-European Pantheon of Divine Ancestors:

*Sawel (Sun) *Ausos (Dawn) *Zemos (Earth) *Menot (Moon) *Dyeus (Shining Sky) *Egnis (Fire) *Endrus (Lightning)


In re-conceiving an ancestral vocabulary of the sacred which would have been used by the original speakers of the Indo-European mother tongue and before their subsequent dissemination, there are various aspects of religious life which need to be addressed. Foremost is the reconstruction of the pantheon itself, that is, the theonyms employed and toward which cult expression and adoration would have been directed by the proto-Indo-European.  Since the Indo-European conceived deity as opposed to non-existence or what today is termed the asurian, there is a further nomenclature for this area as well. No lexicon of the sacred, however, would be complete without the stock of terms relating to the cult act itself. It is in this area that we are able to understand the forms of worship employed by the devotee.  Both the theonyms and the devotional terminology in their turn border on the metaphysical as that realm of the numinous which constitutes the dynamic substrate of belief and veneration. This has its own body of identifiable linguistic radicals. And as a special aspect of this last, we must also include a focus on desiderative roots.

For the fundamentals, we are asking two questions: (1) What were the approximate designations the proto-Indo-European may have used in his acts of worship and ideological perceptions? and (2) What information concerning sacred matters can be gained from these designational roots and their derivatives? Of course, such a compilation can only be hypothetical. Apart from the differences of scholarly opinion concerning the lines and forms of linguistic change, the reconstruction of the appropriate lexical roots is itself based on theonyms and terms whose semantic interpretation is often either unknown or strongly contested. This is of course a severe obstacle from the onset.

Moreover, in seeking the proto-vocabulary, we are forced to restrict ourselves to those roots which bequeath derivatives in at least three Indo-European language-families - if not more - and ones which conform to a general pattern of wide distribution. For analytic purposes, I have considered there to be ten sub-families or branches within the overall Indo-European language family: (1) Indo-Iranian, (2) Armenian including Thracian and Phrygian, (3) Greek, (4) Albanian including Venetic and Illyrian, (5) Latin-Italic, (6) Celtic - here including Ligurian, (7) Germanic, (8) Balto-Slavonic, (9) Tocharian and (10) Anatolian. I am well aware of the largely tentative and highly debatable nature of these classifications but nevertheless propose in them a beginning approach and practical utility.  In addition, I have generally not considered a root as widely distributed if it does not also appear in Indo-Iranian or at least Armenian.

Of course, the possibility that a term in one language is a loan-word from another rather than a mutually derivative cognate cannot be ruled out.  There also remains the possibility that early terms and/or roots have been replaced and hence lost in the daughter languages and are therefore no longer detectable or survive as only isolated instances.  Nevertheless, with these shortcomings in mind, let us proceed toward at least a beginning approximation of an Indo-European vocabulary of the sacred.[1]

But before we begin with the pantheon's designations, let us first realize that along with the contemporary currents of goddess-spirituality, an exploration into Indo-European or proto-Indo-European ideology and cult practice has important and relevant implications in the current on-going theological conversation as Western society struggles continually to come to viable terms with its large-scale, industrialized, bureaucratic and depersonalizing secular conditions. Comparative mythology along with archaeology are delineating an Indo-European outlook which the linguistic evidence helps to complete and give body to the skeletal reconstruction. I am in full accord with Michael Everson's statements that "The most successful methodology to deal with the reconstruction of the kind of data we have ... will be found to take not only archaeology and linguistics into account, but anthropology and poetry, and the study of archetypes in mythology, mysticism, and religion." In other words, "a proper archaeomythology must make explicit use of the once-suspect tools of intuition and feeling" (Journal of Indo-European Studies 17.3&4, 1989:292).

Using the various resources at our disposal, one finds for the proto-Indo-European a dynamic paradigm of deity which polarizes over and over again between the luminous and dark, the positive and negative, the creative and destructive, the material and spiritual, the masculine and feminine, and so forth. These polarities, however, are to be seen as constantly shifting, with no fixed alignments, but ever changing combinations. Under the subsequent Levantine influence through Judaeo-Christianity, however, these various possibilities became rigidified as a single binary opposition between the masculine, luminous, positive and spiritual on the one hand, and the materialized feminine of darkness and negativity on the other. But for the Indo-European, the feminine could equally be positive and bright, the spiritual could be dark and negative, and the masculine could be fully manifest in and as the physical. The Indo-European saw all these polarities as together constituting the great round of nature which spirals through a ceaseless process of birth, death and rebirth. The dynamic of this natural cycle was expressed foremost in a pantheon of seven divine ancestors comprising a family mutually responsible for itself as the entire cosmos including humanity.

Now baring in mind that any reconstruction of theonymns and the other terminology which might have belonged to a vocabulary of the sacred is highly tendentious and hypothetical, a suggested name for the Indo-European deities as a whole is *deywo-s. This designation, from which we derive our English words for `deity' and `divinity', relates to the same root signifying `brightness, light' which gave rise to the titular head of the pantheon, *Dyeus, the god of light and the bright sky, secondarily the god of weather and especially the engendering principle of rain which impregnates the earth and causes vegetation to grow. The *Dyeus paradigm becomes one of the most ubiquitous figures throughout the various Indo-European daughter-cultures ranging from, among others, the Greek Zeus, the Roman Jupiter and the Nordic Tyr or Germanic *Tiwaz from whom we derive our name for the day of the week which is Tuesday.

But if *Dyeus is the chief deity, the first of all divinities for the Indo-European is the earth. The mythological and religious records, however, reveal a multiplicity of different names for the earth, and this undoubtedly reflects the earth's foremost manifestation as a local deity. As the nomadic Indo-Europeans encountered indigenous peoples in the lands they came to settle, there was undoubtedly a frequent adoption of local place-names including that for the earth herself. This last indicates the already existing and deeply established terra mater cults among the peoples with whom the Indo-Europeans merged. Among the various theonymns for the divinized earth which are possible, however, one ranges through a tightly contiguous area which includes the Persians, Phrygians, Greeks, Illyrians, Balts and Slavs. I have therefore chosen *Zemos to be representational of the Earth Mother goddess within the Indo-European pantheon. (More correctly according to Indo-European phonetics, the ‘Earth’ should be *Dhghemos, but I am opting here for the simpler if inaccurate *Zemos). Derivatives of this name include the Persian Zamin, the Greek Demeter and the Greek/Phrygian Semele/Zemelo, the mother of Dionysus. An even wider range of designations for `man' in the sense of `earthling' derives from the same root behind the name of *Zemos, for example, our English word `human'.

*Zemos is the mother par excellence. Maternity along with fertility are her foremost qualities. The Greek poet Hesiod recognized the Earth Mother as the first of all beings. She is not only the first goddess, she is the first deity. Through a comparative analysis of the various Indo-European myths, in parthenogenetic manner, the primordial earth goddess was understood to give birth to her first born - the god of light *Dyeus. For an accurate understanding of our ancestral ideology, we must realise that the succession myth in which a son violently replaces a father - such as Saturn castrating Uranus - is a non-Indo-European Levantine import. The Indo-European cosmogony follows a different course.

There is, however, one major variant in the mythic tale of the terra mater and her *Dyeus offspring. With the prevalent picturing of the universe as a series of polarities, the very concept of duality infuses all Indo-European religious perception. One essential understanding of duality is already contained in the paradigm of the Earth Mother and the Sky Father as the primordial parents of all creation. Even with *Dyeus as the polar child of the terra mater - with the maternal earth as the source of all being, the two subsequently emerge as husband and wife in the theogonic narrative. Nevertheless, the deification of duality itself by our Indo-European ancestors takes the form of twinship. In the primal variant of the terra mater's parthenogenetically engendering *Dyeus, she is also seen as giving birth to a pair of twins. In this variant of the proto-myth, the twin of *Dyeus is usually the moon.

The proto-designation for the moon among the Indo-Europeans appears to have been *Menot. But once again, we find a variety of lunar names - perhaps betraying with those of the earth the presence of an earlier neolithic cult which the Indo-Europeans encountered and absorbed from their predecessors. In general, lunar theonyms  which survive among the Indo-European daughter-languages are secondary developments from roots designating `shining'. *Menot itself is also a secondary development from a root which signifies `to measure' and gives rise to the more ubiquitous designations for `month' - including our English word for mensality itself. The Indo-European moon-deity is primarily a divinity of time. But as the twin of *Dyeus, *Menot is itself expressive of duality. The Indo-European deity of the moon survives as much as a goddess as a god. In Greek and the Romance languages, the moon is female. Among Germanic-speaking peoples including the English as well as the Vedic Indians, the Balts and the Slavs, the moon is regarded as masculine. This either/or gender identity of *Menot is reflected mythologically in various ways, but generally the moon-deity does not take part in the primary theogonic engendering of the remaining *deywo-s or divine gods and goddesses. As a goddess, the moon tends to remain virginal - as exemplified in the Greek goddess Artemis. As a god, the moon may enter into a rivalry with *Dyeus over the female - sometimes their mother the Earth; more usually, however, with the offspring of *Zemos and *Dyeus, the goddess of the dawn.

The designation for the goddess of the east and the morning light is another fairly ubiquitous theonym which we find represented by the Vedic Ushas, the Greek Eos, the Latin Aurora and the Germanic Ostara (the English Easter). She is the most exalted and most loved goddess of the Rig-veda from India. She is invariably praised for her beauty. As a prototype, she precedes, and is eventually displaced by, the goddess of love, the Levantine imported Greek Aphrodite. But behind the Greek goddess of beauty, who is simultaneously both refined and promiscuous, we find the Indo-European dawn-goddess whose name we reconstruct as *Ausos. Unlike the moon, she is invariably a goddess. She does have, however, an alternate designation. For whereas *Ausos identifies her and locates her as the goddess of the east, she is also known through a feminized form of the name *Dyeus itself. From this secondary paradigm, we have such theonyms as the Greek Dione and the Latin Diana and Juno among others.

The Indo-European proto-myth of its gods tells of the infatuation which *Dyeus had for his beautiful daughter *Ausos. In the subsequent consummation of this love, a coitus interruptus occurs as *Dyeus is shot by an arrow either from the jealous moon-god or goddess (first variant) but usually by the outraged sibling born from *Dyeus' spilled semen as it falls to the earth (second variant). As this is myth and we are dealing with mythic time, the normal cause and effect sequence is suspended. *Dyeus’ sibling offspring is born as a result of the very union he interrupts. I shall return to this part of the myth in a moment, but first let us understand that, in this reckoning, the offspring of the lord of brightness and the goddess of dawn is the sun.

The solar proto-theonym may be understood as *Sawel. It has wide distribution among the daughter languages as the Sanskrit Sûrya, Greek Helios, Latin Sol, Lithuanian Saulâ and Old High German Sunna. Our English word `sun' belongs with this paradigm as well. *Sawel or its variant form *Swel also gives rise to the Sanskrit word for `heaven' (svargas), the name of the Slavonic fire- and sun-god Svarog, and the Greek goddesses of light (Helen) and the moon (Selene) and possibly that of Hera as well. Another possible derivative from this same complex is the Nordic fire-god Surtr whose name signifies `black'. Consequently, as with *Menot, *Sawel can be either a god or a goddess, but with the sun-deity, the proto-pantheon of the proto-Indo-European is in a sense completed.

The word for `totality' in proto-Indo-European is the same as that for the number `five'. The root concept behind this understanding stems apparently from the number of fingers in a hand. The ideological framework of the proto-Indo-European is reckoned in terms of five - symbolizing completion. With the pantheon, the inherent totality of the cosmos and the godhead which it comprises is symbolized by the figures of bright heaven and earth and their children the sun, moon and dawn. To give them their proto-designations, these are *Dyeus and *Zemos and their offspring of *Sawel, *Menot and *Ausos. Or, to put these in their cultic and numerological order: *Sawel, *Ausos, *Zemos, *Menot and *Dyeus, that is, Sun, Dawn, Earth, Moon and Light.

But the proto-pantheon already contains the dual-god of the moon, the deity of mortal demise and immortal regeneration. In fact, the pantheon of totality is infused with the notion of duality, and this precept was so important to the proto-Indo-European, that it was divinized in itself. Consequently, the Indo-European pantheon contains both duality and totality - the totality of the proto-pantheon of sun, dawn, earth, moon and light and the duality of the divine twins. These last were comprehended as part of totality - sometimes sun and moon but chiefly as the bright sky and the moon - and also as something supplemental to totality itself, an extension which is simultaneously contained within and external to the allness of totality. In this dynamic, the divine twins are variously understood as the children of *Dyeus (the Dioscuri) and/or as *Dyeus himself and his twin or alter ego. But twinship itself is simultaneously suggestive of both identity and contrast.

In the multiple variations of ancient mythologies and religious perspective, for the Indo-European twinship occurs over and over again. Consequently, for *Dyeus, there are many twins, and any of his various twins may have a twin of their own. In the first variant of the proto-myth, *Dyeus himself has a twin in the moon-god (or goddess) *Menot. In the second variant of this myth, *Dyeus' twin his is own offspring born from the interruption of his union with his daughter *Ausos, the dawn. Here, both *Dyeus and his son, whom we might name *Endrus, are both sons of the terra mater and, though born at different times, are mythological twins. The third variant to the proto-myth still plays with the ubiquitous notion of twinship, but in this development, *Endrus is a twin sibling to the dawn-goddess *Ausos who shoots an arrow into *Dyeus' thigh during the coition his father (and still brother) has with his sister. Of the semen which falls to earth from his father-brother who recoils in the pain caused by the arrow, *Endrus' twin-brother is engendered as the fire-god *Egnis.

Stricktly speaking, though *Endrus is emblematic of the lightning, he is found chiefly as it wielder. In all essentials, he differs little from *Dyeus himself: the attribute of both Zeus and Jupiter is the lightning bolt, while in India this passes to Dyaus' son, the god Indra. The designation for the lightning is generally found in that for thunder. Here we are already moving into the secondary archetype for the sky-father. From a root *(s)ten- which signifies `to thunder', we have chiefly Germanic and Celtic god-names (Donar, Thor and Taranis). Another secondary archetype designation derives from that of the oak, the tree traditionally most struck by lightning. In the theonym *Perkwu-s, we find an antecedent of such rain or terrestrial deities as the Vedic Parjânya, the tabooed Greek *Peraunos, the Albanian Peràndi, ?the Gallic Cercunnos, the Scandinavian Fjôrgyn, the Lithuanian/Latvian Perkûnas/Pêrkons, as well as the Slavonic Perun. From the same theonym, we also derive designations for both the female earth and man. Consequently, the protonyms of *Sten and *Perkwu-s may be considered as epithets of *Dyeus which suggest his secondary nature which in turn become divinized as *Dyeus' own alter ego or twin known foremost through the theonym *Endrus.

The lightning bolt or flash, which we comprehend with *Endrus, does not appear to have engendered theonyms itself. Instead, from the paradigm of a root which denotes vitality, we have the name for Indra's `lightning bolt', the Vedic vajra as well as, through both Latin and Germanic, such English words as `vegetable', `vigor', `velocity', `vigil', `awake' and `watch' - asserting the vital wakefulness which is the prerogative of deity. This `vital wakefulness' is then symbolized in the lightning bolt which is the `weapon' of deity, the weapon of illumination and insight.

The proto-designation of *Endrus itself gives rise to both the Vedic Indra and the Greek Andrus - with its underlying etynom producing such additional theonyms as the Latin-Sabine Neriô, Gallic Naria and Nerios, Old Germanic Nerthus and Old Norse Njôr∂r. The basic root behind this entire paradigm denotes `vitality, mana, (miraculous) life force; man; strength'. *Endrus himself signifies `man' - especially as an immortal but matter- or earth-derived being. Consequently, in the deification expressed by this paradigm we reach the apogee and/or essence of the earth-mother archetype.

But the twin of *Endrus is not only God or *Dyeus (the Latin Deus) but also the mortal expression of humanity itself - one we have already seen represented in part by the moon-deity. The primary manifestation of this archetype, however, is the deity of fire, *Egnis. The Vedic Agni, the Latin ignis, together with the human being - especially collective humanity - are the Dioscuri, the divine twins par excellence. But like all Indo-European twin figures, *Egnis himself/herself represents a duality. First, like the sun and moon gods, *Egnis can manifest as either a male or a female deity. The Vedic Agni is a masculine god, but the Greek and Roman fire divinities, Hestia and Vesta, although bearing names derived from a different root, are goddesses. The Lithuanian fire-deity is female as well.

The divine secondary figure's fire manifestation as a duality, however, is best captured in the pairing of flame and blackness. The dark aspect of the deity is either the black coal which feeds the fire or the black, ashen aftermath of the fire's burning. This is why the name of the Norse fire-god Surtr denotes the `black-one' - his name being cognate to the English word `swarthy'. Fire also produces smoke, and `cloud-rising' or `dust-producing' epithet-type radicals which appear to belong to the secondary figure give rise not only to the Irish god Donn (the `dark' or `brown' one) and the Greek god of death Thanatos, but also to local names of the Gallic Mercury and epithets belonging to the Greek Dionysus. A related morpheme signifying `choking' and correlated with the wolf appears to be the source of the Thessalonian Greek Zeus Thaulios, the Thracian war-god Kandaôn, the Illyrian Daunus and the Latin Faunus.

The divine secondary figure is undoubtedly the most complex of the deity prototypes - one which overlaps with virtually all the other archetypal configurations.  The selection of *Egnis as the proto-designation for this paradigm is at best arbitrary. Another theonymic constellation which fits with the base figure of this category is centered on a further root meaning `to shine' or `light' (*leuk-) and has been one source for an Indo-European designation of the `moon'. From the same base root come the Latin-Oscan Jupiter epithet of Lûcetius, the Gallic Mars' epithets Leucetius and Loucetius, perhaps the Celtic Lugus, and the Norse Logi `fire'/Loki (the trickster). As with the twofold nature of the fire-deity, the name of the Gallic Lugus translates as either the `bright one' or the `black one'. But it is important to recognize that, through the secondary figure of the Indo-European pantheon, darkness too takes its place within or as part of deity.

The secondary figure by its very nature suggests membership in a duality. In this connection, we may surmise here the inclusion of the proto-Indo-European epithet-producing roots for both the number `two' (yielding the Phrygian Doias and Germanic Tuisto) and the notion of `pairing or holding together'. This last has produced the Vedic and Avestic gods of death, Yama and Yima, the sacrificed Roman hero Remus, and the sacrificed cosmological Old Norse giant Ymir. The names of all these mean simply the `twin'.

When we consider the secondary role of the lord of light as a weather-god, whether *Dyeus or *Endrus, the areas of concern are associated with rain and, by extension, water in general. The *Dyeus paradigm includes the Celtic river-names of Dêvona and Tanaros and also the Latin water-deities Jûturna and Janus, while the *Perkwu-s constellation contains the Greek spring-nymph Herky(n)na.

Another water paradigm can be formed around the Latin god Neptunus. While the French linguist Françoise Bader associates Neptunus with the Greek Nereus, the Germanic Nerthus and the Sanskrit Nirriti and considers these names as based on a preposition (*ne-) signifying downward motion, I follow a more traditional course and link Neptunus with the Irish well-guardian Nechtan and the Sanskrit/Avestic water-descendant Apam Napa(t) as well as the rain-bearing Greek wind Notos and the Cymric/Old British-Latin `angler, fisher' `cloud'-god Nudd/Nodens. While Bader's associated figures mediate on the interconnections between `above' and `below' and involve immersion into and emergence out of the world ocean, I see my paradigm containing the notions of `binding, connecting; and flowing' with an underlying suggestion of `issue' and derivative conceptions of `offspring', `connection' and `water'.

In Indo-European mythology, the classification of water gods remains among the more paradoxical and uncertain areas. In the Indo-European cosmological view, the world ocean is at best an ambivalent entity. It constitutes the border between the earth and the all-surrounding abyss. In its fresh water manifestation, it is the source of life through the heavenly rain, but in its salt-water identity, it becomes a metaphor and entryway to chaos or the void. Bader sees her paradigm as constituting another class of divinities in addition to the *deywo-s. But apart from differences of opinion over which figures belong to the Neptunus constellation and which belong to some other, in essentials I believe Bader and I are in general agreement concerning an aspect of the godhead which is cosmologically marginal.

Whether Neptûnus is also to be connected with the Greek naphtha remains uncertain, but from the related Indo-Iranian and Irish traditions, it becomes clear at least that the hypostasis reflects the "paradoxical concept of `fire in water'." [2] What the final connection of the Apâmnapât-Nechtan avatar with petroleum might be cannot at this stage be properly evaluated, but there are nonetheless two viable interpretations of this union between fire and water.  The most obvious is the phenomenon of lightning emanating from the rain cloud. In this sense, Neptûnus et al. are reflexes of the weather-god and are thus allonyms of the lord of light (Jupiter and cognates) at least in his secondary function. 

On the other hand, the "mysterious and brilliant essence embodied in water" - especially relating to `inspired poetry' [3] - is undoubtedly the psychedelic substance of the Soma-/Haoma- and related traditions.  The sacral hallucinogenic-intoxicative aspect of the old cult is invariably associated with the secondary figure. The use of special water from a sacred well was evidently a part of the shamanic ritual, and the Latin cognates of puteus  (`well') and puteal (`hollowed burial spot of the lightning bolt') reveal the interconnection of the primary and secondary figures in the formulation of the sacramental cult pertaining to `luminous glory'.

The Vedic Indra is twinned as much by the fire-god Agni as he is by the deified plant Soma. In fact, throughout the Rig-veda, Agni is identified as both Apam Napat and plant-life in general. The fire-water identity in the growth of vegetation is itself one of the divine twins of which humanity is the other. On another level, the mystical state which the Indo-European gained through the psychedelic intoxicant was regarded as itself the alter ego of collective humanity in its place among the immortals. Another complex of dualistic thought borrows from the symbolism of the horse and chariot. The twins could be the charioteer who drove and the archer who was carried by the chariot, or the twins might be the horseman and the steed itself, or yet again the twins were sometimes assumed to be the two chariot-drawing horses themselves. In a yet-to-be elucidated understanding, the equine duality is further expressed in such composite figures as the Greek centaur with human upper part and the lower half of a steed or, vice versa, the horse-headed Vedic Dadhyac.

A collective name for the divine twins is the Vedic Ashvins, literally the `horsemen'. Their name is cognate to that of the Gallic horse-goddess Epona who is frequently depicted iconographically as flanked by two horses. Beneath these theonyms is an *ekwo-s or `horse' etymon, and it is perhaps noteworthy to point out the usual steed manifestation of the primary figures of Rohita (Sanskrit) and Rudiobos (Gallic).

In Indo-European mythology, the relationship between the divine twins could be either harmonious as in the case of the Ashwins or Dioscuri, or antagonistic as with Romulus and Remus. The rivalry between the two figures, whether they emerge as brothers and/or twins or uncle and nephew is usually over a contested female - whether the personification Roma, or the Irish Isolde or Grainne, or the Pythia's tripod fought over by Apollo and Dionysus. The prototype of this interaction is the rivalry of *Dyeus and *Endrus (or the Vedic Rudra) over *Ausos in the cosmogonic proto-myth. The kernel idea behind these conflicts is the natural opposition between light and darkness, death and life, creation and destruction which constitute the dynamic of the cosmos.

On the other hand, the harmonious relationship of the divine twins is expressed variously as the two male figures being lovers, or in the ancient Indo-European institution of phratrogamy - that is, the sharing of a common wife between two brothers, or yet again as the two twins being brother and sister and the parents of the human race. Once again, the divine twins are themselves emblematic of the entire cosmos but here of the essential harmony between all polarities, or between humanity and deity, which is the kinetic vitality of the universe itself. The proto-Indo-European religious perception is a deep affirmation of life.

When we add the divine twins to the proto-pantheon, we have an emergent cultic sequence of seven figures, the divine parents: *Sawel the sun, *Ausos the dawn, *Zemos the earth, *Menot the moon, *Dyeus as light or the bright sky, *Egnis as fire and the shadow, and *Endrus as lightning and collective humanity. The divine twins of *Endrus and *Egnis are in a sense already contained within the proto-pantheon - chiefly through the figures of *Dyeus and *Menot. But in the expanded pantheon which embraces both totality and duality - especially duality as in part auxiliary or supplemental to wholeness, there is a creative gender differentiation. In the seven-figured pantheon there are two full goddesses *Zemos and *Ausos, Earth and Dawn, and two full gods, *Dyeus and *Endrus, Light and Man. The other figures, those of Sun, Moon and Fire, can appear as either goddesses or gods. This means that the pantheon in some instances might break down into five goddesses and only two gods or, vice versa, into five gods and two goddesses. The other possibilities are three goddesses and four gods, or four goddesses and three gods. Unlike the Chinese strictly balanced equilibrium between yin and yang, the Indo-European bias is always toward a gender imbalance of one degree or another as expressive of the dynamic behind universal growth. This vitality is perhaps best known to us in the West through classical Greek culture. The achievement which was this culture is a derivative of the essential Indo-European spiritual quest for adventure and discovery.

The Indo-European pantheon as a whole, however, enters into another kind of duality - here not a polarization between internal dynamics but instead a binary antagonism between the all of reality including the coming-to-be of reality and the annihilative void of non-existence. The world-outlook of the Indo-European pictures the cosmos as a semi-precarious, god-won order - like an island-bubble - immersed within the `sea' of chaos. The external void, though, engages through its own inertia and oblivion-seeking drive to snuff out existence. But to do this, the non-existent `forces' of annihilation must cloak themselves with the garments of reality in order to enter upon the stage of reality and begin combat and subterfuge. Taking the designations of the Indo-European anti-gods, the Vedic asuras, the Avestic ahuras and the Nordic aesir, we can term this fundamental Indo-European dichotomy as the asurian versus the divine. This dichotomy is a radically different understanding of duality than that which is perceived as the operative mode of vitality within the divine pantheistic unity itself.

Because of taboo deformation and the use of substitute-placating naming for asuric beings, a proto-nomenclature of the asurian is much less evident than that which we may deduce for the divine. It can be surmised that the seven Adityas of the Vedic tradition were originally formulated as a reflex of the seven basic archetypes comprising the divine pantheon. If the gods are conceived of as luminous and vital-physical offspring, the asuras would be expected to conform to expressions of darkness, decay and emptiness.

There is, however, a perpetual possibility of confusion in that darkness and negativity, etc. are also part of the natural round and hence expressions of divinity no less than are light and the positive. In other words, both the `negative' divine and the asurian can share the same metaphors for their expression. In myth, the asurian is distinguished chiefly through links with the volcano, the storm wind and the drought or rainless sky. It is through the idioms of destruction, deprivation and/or darkness underlying these phenomena that the proto-vocabulary for the asurian must be sought. An examination of the linguistic evidence produces three chief conceptual morphemes through which the asurian may have been first known - the notions of `covering' (i.e., darkness), `blowing' (i.e., breath, air and [destructive] wind), and `rulership' (i.e., the ability to exercise the powers of deprivation).

Through the use of creative fear as well as the innate pagan tendency to worship virtually everything, the Indo-European resorted to devotion not only of deity but also of its antithesis, the asurian. Worship is literally the `creation of value', and the worshipper by worshipping endeavors to make the worthwhile out of the antagonistic and worthless. Part of this process is the act of veneration itself. Another `religious tool' is the use of substitute naming. In worship, employment of euphemism is ritual flattery, and in this manner, the various asurian entities were named, honored and eventually conflated or confused with the various daughter-cultures' emergent pantheons.

Although there are several roots designating what could be taken as asurian qualities (e.g., deception, bewitchment, exhaustion-death, pain and fear), few of these roots have given rise to asuric theonyms. A general category of `evil' appears to be comprised in various morphemes (e.g., *dus- and the *mel- extension of *mel-yo-, etc.) But beside the areas of death, decay and destruction and the more general domain of evil, the asurian is frequently known through the absence of light as well as the absence of matter. Even so, the almost ubiquitous root for the word `night' [*nekw-(t-) from which the theonyms of Sanskrit Naktâ, Greek Nyx, Latin Nox and Norse Nòtt develop], although deducible as an asurian prototype, does not carry any specifically implicit asuric denotation. Even less so is the root for `darkness' (*regwos-) which has produced Greek Erebos, Icelandic rǿkkr- (`dark'), Sanskrit rajanî (`night'). In fact, the area of primordial darkness suggests what might amount to an expected ambivalence when considering Chaos as the metaphorical `mother' of Gaia, the earth.

However, notions of darkness, destruction and deprivation are latent in the root signifying `to cover' (*wer-) which yields one of the clearest examples of an asuric theonym (presumably, the `coverer'), that is, the Vedic Vrtra and Varuņa (the `binder') and the Greek Ouranos (the `encompassing sky').[4] The primal ambivalence of the asurian figure may be further suggested if Varuņa's name and the root behind it are to be traced originally to a water-morpheme [*aw(e)-; *awed-, *awer-] with the meaning `to be wet, moisten, flow'). Varuņa-Uranus is primarily a derivative of the masculine personification of the cosmic seas of chaos.

A homophone to the water-root [again *aw(e)- but here with the variations of *awê(i)- and *-] signifying, in this case, `to blow, or breathe' undoubtedly relates to the `element' most readily associated with the spacial void, namely, air. Again we have an ambivalent term yielding on the one hand the Greek atmos (`breath') but on the other, and more often, words relating to wind, weather and storm and thus such asuric theonyms for the wind-god in Sanskrit/Avestic as Vâyu-h/Vâyuş and Vâta-h/Vâtô and in Lithuanian/Latvian as Vejôpatis/Vêja mâte (cf. Vêjş and Vêja dêls). This same wind-morpheme has an extension which may be interpreted as an expression of frenzy, i.e., `to be mentally or spiritually stirred up; to be demoniacally possessed'. This last has yielded Old Norse/Old English/Old High German designations for Óðinn /Wóden/Wuotan. We have thus in this one notion comprehending breath, wind and storm [*aw(e)-/*wât-] perhaps a rare proto-Indo-European designation for the asurian.  It is, however, a similar and ambivalent root meaning `to breathe' [*an(ə)-] which has produced an extension (*ansu-) signifying `spirit or demon' - a term which has given us not only the Sanskrit/Avestic words for the `breath of life' (ashu-/añhu-; cf. Greek atmos) but also the very terms of asura- and ahura- from which the contemporary designation of asurian is a formation. (Related to this paradigm are also the Venetic ahsu-/âsu `cult statue', Germanic *ansuz [Old Norse âss, Old English ôs], Gothic-Latin anses `demigods' and perhaps the Gallic theonym Esus.)[5]

Beside the Varuņa-Uranus and Vâyu-Odin hypostases, we have a third asuric theonym based on the Indo-European *aryo- (`lord, ruler') - itself a development of an apparently cult-oriented verbal root *ar- (`to fit together'). The primary morpheme has given rise to the Latin words arma (‘arms'- chiefly defensive), ritus (`rite' - cf. Sanskrit ŗtena) and ars (`art, skill, as well as the Greek aristos (`best') whence English aristocracy. The Sanskrit/Avestic ŗta-/aşa- (`settled order, truth') - a concept which expresses the proper cosmic, ethical and ritualistic arrangement of component parts - also originates from this base.  Since asuric theonyms in Sanskrit, Avestic and Old Irish (Aryamân, Airyaman- and Êremôn), the Germanic royal names of Hermann and variants (Gothic *Aîrmanareiks, Anglo-Saxon Eormenrîc, Old Norse Jôrmunreker and Middle High German Ermenrîch) as well as the Old Norse for the `midgard serpent' (iôrmungandr) derive from the same source, we most likely have an interrelated conceptional constellation from which the cognatic names have been taken concerning the asurian to be repelled (Aryamân), the shaman-guardians who ward off the asurian (the *aryo-/aristocracy) and the means by which the act is achieved (ritus and [sacred] arma).[6] The sum of the process and resultant established balance or order is ŗta-/aşa-, and the nomen of the chaos-demon *Aryo-men- toward which the cult effort is directed may be accepted as a chief designation for the asurian employed by the proto-Indo-European.

Ritual itself for the Indo-European may be considered as consisting principally of one of three types: (1) honoring the gods, (2) repelling the asurian, and (3) placating the asurian.  In a sense, the first two are correlates of one another since the correct and proper worship of the devas would be in itself a deterrent to the asuras.  The third type, on the other hand, is akin to the hieros gamos in that the aim of the cult is the transformation of the asurian into the divine. Its more simplistic form which I have already mentioned, that of ritualistic flattery, euphemism and/or atonement, is an attempt to elicit neutral if not positive behavior from the asurian which in real terms would amount to its deflection.  The final idea of all Indo-European positive, that is, deva- or deity-oriented, worship appears to be contained in a root referring to `separating or conquering' (*weik-) and yielding both belligerent terms as well as those concerning magic and religion (e.g., Latin victima  `victim', English witch).[7] In other words, in a single root-notion are combined the ideas of both battle and wonder-working - the essential duties of the *aryo-guardians.

Proper ritual is something which is fitted together, i.e., the process contained by the verbal root signifying `to fit together' (*ar-).  From the proto-lexicon we find morphemes which would delineate a basic liturgy comprising an initial invocation, a purification, perhaps a declaration of belief, a libation, ritual praising, the expression of gratitude or a devotional entreaty, an offering, a communion, and a conjectured formulaic conclusion. The overall essence of the Indo-European liturgy is comprised in honoring deity through praise and veneration. We can imagine that the chief place of worship for the proto-Indo-European was the sacred grove composed primarily of the oak-tree.

For the scarcely attested worship and/or direct appeasement of the asurian by the Indo-European as something separate or distinct from the praise and veneration of deity we find two pardigmatic roots. One denotes `to worship or reverence' (*yag-) and the other ‘to pay, atone or compensate' (*kwei-[t-]). The second has come down to us in the English language in the forms pain, penalty and punish. The general emotion beneath the worship of the asurian we can surmise in a morpheme which carries the idea of `having awe or fear over something returning' (*tyegw-).

Underlying ritual and, indeed, a divine pantheon itself is the devotee's perception of the numinous.[8] We have seen that the gods originate in the domains of luminosity, physical vitality and, perhaps additionally, the mind.  Of course, the ubiquitous root *dei-, denoting `to shine or be bright', largely expresses what for the Indo-European comprised the essence of the holy. Nevertheless, in the proto-lexicon we find at least a dozen additional roots which are suggestive of the numinous itself. Apart from these, there are also radicals indicating the shadowy, twilight realm from which or in which the gods may be thought to become manifest. Other sources for the proto-perception of alternate reality are to be sought in roots for `growth', `fortune', `goodness', and `wholeness' (i.e., `holiness' and/or `health'). The etynoms for `great(ness)' (*meģ[h]-) and `joyful astonishment' (*[s]mei-) are significant as well and fall into categories more or less of their own. Then, too, associated with the ambiguity of chaos itself, we have a possibility of several roots which seem to have given rise to words descriptive of the metaphysical nature of the asurian.

I wish to concentrate here only on the two radicals, *meģ(h)- and *(s)mei- . The *meģ(h)-root survives in the English much, and if muchness or abundance were considered in a qualitative rather than a quantitative sense, we might then encounter an equivalent to the terms `numinous', `mana', `mysterium tremendum', etc. This would be that wondrous and rich vitality or energy which Rudolph Otto (1923:7) calls the mental state sui generis of religion and "like every absolutely primary and elementary datum, while it admits of being discussed, it cannot be strictly defined." Accordingly, though the word retains the idea of something `big', its fundamental notion may have approximated `great' in the sense of `wondrous' rather than in that of `large'.

The root *(s)mei-, while revealing a slightly smaller range of survival among the lingual branches than does *meģ(h)- is still widespread and comes closest to expressing what Joseph Campbell (1962:462) calls "the sense of wonder and delight in the numinous." The combination of the ideas of `smiling' and the `miraculous' in the same morpheme probably is associated with that old mantic center of Indo-European cult, the well, in the still waters of which our ancestor presumably first saw his or her own reflection. Accordingly, the Latin derivative mîrus (`wonderful'), which Calvert Watkins (1969:1541) presupposes to have meant originally `causing to smile', has produced the English mirror and admire as well as the words miracle  and marvel. From the same root, via the Germanic branch, have come the English smile and smirk.[9] Consequently, in a single morpheme we find an expression for the Indo-European's focus of wonder as well as his joy associated with it.

The numinous appears to be chiefly associated with the earth and the vital energy inherent within it - to which the luminous manifests as counterpart and offspring. The mysterium tremendum et fascinans, which Campbell (1962:47) says "would break upon us all even now were it not so wonderfully masked," has been described as a kind of non-visible glowing. And though essentially invisible, it is said to be present in whatever is complete, whatever is whole, that is, healthy and holy.  When, however, we reach back to the antecedent state of the matter-energy continuum, to the primal void of chaos, we find a characteristic ambiguity in the common generative condition for both the divine and the asurian.  It is this ambivalence which is reflected in the root *an(ə)- (`to breathe') from which are derived the asuric extension *ansu- as well as Sanskrit, Greek and (?) Armenian words for `wind', on the one hand, and Latin, Celtic and Germanic words for `soul' (e.g., Latin animus/anima; cf. Tocharian âñm- `life, spirit'), on the other.  Of the four `elements' air, water, earth and fire, the first is that which is chiefly associated with the void of the pre-state.

Nevertheless, chaos is also frequently described in aquatic terms. The primal sea shares the same ambiguity in that it is both anti-mother as well as ancestor of the earth and, finally, of light.  It is perhaps in this sense that the ubiquitous root *- with the denotations of both `to divide' and `to flow' takes on an even greater significance, for here we have the notions of `division' and `primal water' combined.  Accordingly, and along with the numinous associations of this proto-level, *- has produced the form dâmos (`people') whence Greek dêmos as well as the cult-oriented extension of *dâp-.[10] It is, however, the Greek daimôn which has perhaps most directly continued *-'s original sense of animistic/animating spirit.

To be included within the Indo-European vocabulary of the sacred are the proto-roots concerning willing, wishing, desiring - a category of ideas that often appears intimately connected with various aspects of worship and, in particular, to the concept of deities as wish-projections. Well-established desiderative roots within the proto-language number to at least thirty comprehending `wishing, choosing, desiring, striving and favoring', with at least three being widely distributed throughout all the daughter-branches. Desiderative roots are to be found beneath both theonyms and the words or etynoms associated with the acts of worship and the animistic substratum in Indo-European belief. In the full analysis, however, an understanding of the placing of optative roots within the vocabulary of the sacred depends on an appreciation of Indo-European cosmogony which sees the entire cosmos as a reflex of an undefined, pure will.

In conclusion, I must stress that this review can, in the present assessment, only represent a tentative beginning toward understanding the semantic aspect of the proto-vocabulary in shaping the inherited albeit obscured foundation of indigenous Western and East Indian ideology. The importance of such a study, I would argue, is still suggested by the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis concerning the principle of linguistic relativity in which speakers of any specific language "are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation" than are the speakers of some other language. In other words, "language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual's mental activity, for his analysis of impressions for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade." [11]

Of course, the lexicon of sacred terminology is only one area - albeit an important area - which would influence a speaker in his conscious and unconscious selection of significant experience into meaningful categories, or would formulate "the language habits of our community [that] predispose certain choices of interpretation."[12] The self-contained system of meanings is naturally broader than the religious vocabulary; moreover, the semantic patterns of a language are only one aspect of the grammar that also includes the structural patterns (phonology, morphology and syntax) which equally play a role in the perception, decipherment and labelling of experience. Beyond this, in understanding a world-view from its lingual point of inception, ethnolinguistic analysis also seeks the frequency of occurrence of linguistic idioms in everyday speech.  On this level, of course, an accurate determination of habitually used devices in any unwritten, dead language is well-nigh difficult if not impossible, but through the vocabulary and whatever syntax is discernible we have perhaps at least a first step toward the re-establishment of a viable, transnational (though not universal) and contemporary mythopoeic structure to underlie what Northrop Frye terms the human factors of "emotion, value, aesthetic standards, the portrayal of objects of desire and hope and dream as realities, the explicit preference of life to death, of growth to petrifaction, of freedom to enslavement."[13]



Cardona, George, Henry M. Hoenigswald and Alfred Senn (eds.) Indo-European and Indo-Europeans. Philadelphia: 1970.

Ernout, A. and Antione Meillet. Dictionnaire Etymologique de la Langue Latine. Paris: 1967.

Larson, Gerald James (ed.) Myth in Indo-European Antiquity. Los Angeles: 1974.

Pokorny, Julius. Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch. Bern: 1959.

Tucker, T.G. Etymological Dictionary of Latin. Halle; rep. Chicago, 1976 (originally published in 1931).

Watkins, Calvert (1969). "Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans" and "Indo-European Roots." The American Heritage Dictionary. ed. William Morris). Boston: 1969:1496-1550.



[1] For this analysis, I have in the main consulted Pokorny (1959) - taking additional suggestions chiefly from Watkins (1969); Ernout-Meillet (1967); and Tucker (1931).

[2] Cf. P.K. Ford, "The Well of Nechtan and `La Gloire Lumineuse'" in Larson (1974:67-74).

[3] Ford in Larson (1974:69 et passim).

[4] The idea that the Vedic Varuņa (from the verbal root - `to cover, to encompass') and the Greek Uranus are cognate was prevalent among nineteenth and early twentieth century Sanskrit specialists: e.g., L. v. Schroeder Arische Religion (1923:I 322ff); J. Muir Original Sanskrit Texts (1858:V 76); A.A. Macdonell Vedic Mythology (1898:28) & A Vedic Reader (1917:247); A. Barth, Religions of India (Boston, 1882:16); K. Bohnenberger, Der Altindische Gott Varuna (1893:22); J. Darmesteter, Ormazd et Ahriman (Paris, 1877); and M. Bloomfield, Religion of the Veda (New York, 1908:136f). G. Dumézil in Mythes et Dieux des Germains (Paris, 1939:24n3) also considers Varuņa (from a root *wer- `to envelop, bind') and Uranus as cognate but later (Mitra-Varuna [1940] and Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus IV [1948] denies the strength of the etymological link between the two. On the other hand, Pokorny (1959:1160-2) considers *wer- (`to cover') as the source of the Sanskrit nomina as well as Old Irish  Êriu (`Ireland', i.e., `encircled land, island' [324]) whence [24] Êremôn, but the Greek Ouranos he places with another *wer- signifying `high, raised spot' which, beside *worsos (`high') yielding *worsanos, forms the German Riese (`giant') and the English wart [1151f]. Tucker (1931:253), on the other hand, understands Ouranos, Doric ôranos (*o-<w>or-) as a development of *wêr- (`to go round, enclose, cover, keep close, protect, `see to' [keep a `close eye' upon]').  Uranus as `the coverer', that is, `the (night) sky', would also be readily understood as `the high (heavens)'.

When one considers the range of Indo-European taboo deformations from *erek `louse' (Pokorny, 1959:335), *knid- `louse, louse egg, nit' (608), *lûs `louse' (692), *morwî- `ant' (749), *pûk- `bushy-haired' > `fox' (849 [and Watkins, 1969:1536]), *r°ķtho-s (875 [and Watkins 1500]), *wl°kwos `wolf' (1178f) and *wl°p `fox, wolf' (1179) to such body parts designations as *okw- `eye' (775ff [and Watkins 1531]), *sp(h)elģh(en, -â) `milt; spleen' (987) and *udero- `abdomen, womb, stomach' (1104f [and Watkins 1547]) [cf. *krep- `body' (620) and *nogw- `naked' (709)] and especially in such concepts as *kwsep- `dark' (649) and *wesperos/*wekeros `evening, night' (1173f), the etymological difficulties between ` Varuņa ' and `Uranus' may also be results of deliberate taboo alteration. Nevertheless, Paliga (TheJournal of Indo-European Studies 17.3&4, 1989:330) considers Ouranós `sky' as a pre-IE (Urbian) derivative from a root *OR-/*UR- `big, huge'.

[5] Pokorny, 1959:38f [*an(ə)-]; 48 [*ansu-]. For Esus (*ansu-, *esu-, *xon-s-us-s; cf. Hittite hassus `king'), see Haussig (1973:135) and E. Polomé, Études Germaniques 8 (1953:42).

[6] Dumézil, Le troisième souverain (Paris, 1949:167). Dumézil later denied the identity of Êremôn and Aryaman in his L'idéologie tripartite des Indo-Européens (Bruxelles, 1958:94). Pokorny (1959), on the other hand, considers Aryaman/Airyaman as signifying `hospitality' and, along with New Persian êrmân (`guest'), descending from 1.*al- `beyond; over there' (24f).  He refers to Êremôn as a late and scholarly creation from Êriu `Ireland' (24, 324), while the Germanic royal names are related to Old Norse jôrmuni (`cattle, horse') under the morpheme *ar-/arm- (58; see also 328). For the *aryo-, *Aryo-men- and Ermanaric et al., see J. Puhvel in Cardona (1970:376-8). J.P. Mallory (In Search of the Indo-Europeans, London, 1989:130) considers that the Indic Aryaman "may share a Celtic cognate with the Gaulish Ario-manus and Old Irish Airem."

[7] Cf. Pokorny (1959:1128f) who, however, gives two roots: 1.*weik- (`to separate') and 2.*weik- (`energy; life power').

[8]The term ‘numinous’ coined by Rudolf Otto (The Idea of the Holy, tr. Harvey 1925:7) - is a development of the Latin numen  (`divinity, deity, divine power') which Pokorny (1959:767) and Watkins (1969:1531) trace to *neu- (`to nod'), but which Tucker (1931:170) would consider rather as a development of *neu- (`to call, i.e., invoke'). Generally related to the concept of mana, the numinous is frequently taken as a perception by a so-called primitive peoples who have not `progressed' beyond the animistic stage of religion. Nevertheless, as sophisticated a people as the Japanese continue to worship the kami - a term which is usually considered as an equivalent to the Roman numina.

[9]Cognatic words for `smiling' also appear in Sanskrit, Greek, Latvian and Tocharian; for `laughing', in Old Church Slavonic.

[10] Cf. especially Pokorny (1959:176f).

[11]Benjamin L. Whorf, Collected Papers on Metalinguistics (Foreign Service Institute, Dept. of State, Washington, D.C.; 1952:5, 11) - from "Science and Linguistics" and "Linguistics as an Exact Science," Technology Review 42 & 43 (April & Dec. 1940); also to be found in Language, Thought and Reality (ed. J.B. Carroll; New York, 1956:212, 221).

[12]E. Sapir in D.G. Mandelbaum (ed.), Selected Writings of Edward Sapir (1949:162).

[13]N. Frye, The Stubborn Structure, London & New York: Methuen, 1970:17.