Contemporary Sociological and Ethical Implications of Indo-European Studies

Michael York


In viewing the organizational manifestations of religion, the father of contemporary sociology, Max Weber, proposed the church-sect dichotomy as a means to locate and/or measure dissension and change. There are two possibilities for further development of this investigative tool concerning the `ideal type'. One is to follow the line inaugurated by Ernst Troeltsch and convert the binary construct into a typology with the inclusion of additional `categories'. The other is to remain with the Weberian analytic and either (1) to substitute the initial constructs with more elucidating axes,[1] or (2) to distinguish between `sub-categories' of ideal types themselves. This last has been pursued by Bryan Wilson in formulating an understanding of different kinds of sectarian protest. What is also needed to complete the Wilsonian analysis would be a comparable differentiation of the `church' construct. (There is of course a third developmental possibility that has been followed by Roy Wallis and others in which the Weberian dualistic tool and the Troeltschian typology are combined. Wallis, for instance, has employed two axes - one concerning respectability-deviance; the other, singular-to-pluralistic legitimacy - and sees the organizational manifestation of religious behavior as taking the forms of either church, sect, denomination or cult.)[2]

I propose to employ a Weberian church-sect analytic to the Indo-European community. I choose this last term purposely since, for one, the church-qua-church no longer exists as Weber and Troeltsch understood it to have done so during its heyday in the middle ages. But, too, if we are to look into the Indo-European past, the pluralistic polytheism of the pre-Christian Indo-European stage would itself not conform to the comprehensive church-construct as it has been specifically delineated. This forces us onto a broader level in which the comparable framework becomes the community itself vis-à-vis whatever might be identifiable as a sub-community within the overall matrix. This structure conforms even more to the boundary-maintenance orientation of both the church and the sect when we consider in addition the role of any operative priesthood within the early or proto-community as well as in any hypothetical assembly which we might identify as the geographical Indo-European community over any subsequent range of time.[3]

The idea of the Indo-European institution of the priesthood, however, raises another issue - one which was brought home to me during a conversation with Bruce Lincoln last November in which he mentioned that he had `renounced' Indo-European studies because of its intrinsic flirtation with fascism and attraction to a fascistic mind-set. What might be identifiable as totalitarianism is inherent in any priesthood association. As an institution, a priesthood must distinguish itself from the public in some way. For instance, through celibacy, the Buddhist monkhood not only separates itself from its host community but in so doing also assumes the priestly functional duties for its society. When, on the other hand, priests marry and raise families as do the Brahmans of India, there is the tendency for necessary distinction from the society-at-large to be maintained through concepts of caste or race. Here we are already moving into the domain of racial superiority so traditionally associated with fascism. The same tendency toward `blueblood' separation, rank and survival has been maintained by `royal' families. In neither case, however, is this uniquely endemic to Indo-European culture but would appear to be a broader sociological phenomenon.

Another form of exclusivism - especially with regard to Indo-European studies - stems from the nature of the enterprise itself. From a traditional perspective, effort has been largely - and necessarily - directed toward identifying what is Indo-European and distinguishing it from what is not. This has been an imperative constraint in the very development of the field as a recognizable focus. But if this kind of `purity' has been the case in the past, Indo-European development has increasingly come to recognize the interaction of its matrix with those of other cultures. The important work on Old European culture by the late Marija Gimbutas or on substrate influences in general by many others working within the field of Indo-European studies suggests an increasing tendency toward transformation of `traditional' Indo-European studies into a more innovative or - to use the more fashionable term at present - postmodern area of concern: that is, the more comprehensive interest in cross-cultural studies.

My own interest in Indo-European origins stems from the influence of literary critic Hugh Kenner and elucidations he made concerning the etymological analyses of word components during the early 1970s at the University of California in Santa Barbara. A culmination of this analytical approach was certainly achieved by Calvert Watkins through his contributions to the American Heritage Dictionary which were themselves based on Julius Pokorny's Indogermanisches Wörterbuch. But along with Kenner's probings, the anthropology department of UCSB was at the time considering the hypothesis developed by Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir concerning language influence on the structure of thought itself. To my surprise, the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis has subsequently and generally been received unfavorably by the academic community at large - until at least its more recent re-surfacing under the guise of `deconstructionism' as delineated by Jacques Derrida. One explanation for resistance to the hypothesis concerning the possibility of lingual determinants on the thinking process - as well as to the contextural analyses of the French post-structuralists - relates to an inherent notion of totalitarian mind-control believed to be reinforced if thought is in fact determined by language and grammatical structure.

Bruce Lincoln does not stand alone in accusations of alleged fascistic tendencies within Indo-European studies or of Indo-Europeanists themselves. This has been a comment I have encountered on an occasionally regular basis from a range of critics including British-based eco-feminist Monica Sjoo as well as Islamic scholar Julian Baldick at King's College London.[4] Certainly, the contemporary feminist movement has spearheaded much of the allegations concerning patriarchal and destructive tendencies inherent in the Indo-European heritage. But inasmuch as that legacy is shared now by a good half of the world's population, even were the assertions to be true on any level, we must not hide from this possibility through ostrich-like renunciation and non-negotiable condemnation but must seek to understand all the more fully our own past and identity, both the likeable and the repugnant. Constructive change may only be possible through the sober facing of the truth, not through its denial. And as feminist critic and Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether states it, we cannot simply dismiss the Indo-European as a warmongering patriarch who destroyed a blissful matriarchal society. This only pushes the question back further a stage but does not answer it. We must ask, she argues, how did the Indo-European get that way in the first place?

If contemporary Indo-European studies attract a particular fascistic type of person, we are of course dealing in part with a psychological question. I do not propose to address this aspect of the problem at this point but simply to suggest it as a further area for reflection. The ethical answer seems, on the other hand, to be a clear one: in a progressive world and in any progressive and open-ended studies, we must ask all questions and deal with the ugly truth as much as with the more dynamic and positive if we are not to repeat the same mistakes of the past and remain in stasis. On the sociological level - especially in a world which strives to recognize the pluralistic right of cultural coexistence, the church-sect/community-sub-community dialectic may offer some insight into understanding traditional Indo-European dominance and exclusivism and any possibility for innovative or postmodern transformation.

In attempting to assess the sociological/theological dynamics of Indo-European cultural variations, I have approached the Indo-European world as if it were a single community whose daughter-cultures represent sub-communal units or identities within a broader society. Employing such a structural model allows an analysis along the lines of the church-sect evaluation. Consequently, in applying this sociological tool, I have looked among the major linguistic sub-families for their possibility in playing roles of sectarian identity, differentiation or protest within or against the larger host community. In this consideration, the language families conform naturally more to J. Milton Yinger's understanding of the `denominationalizing sect' in contrast to what has been called the `established sect' founded upon an original sectarian perception concerning an evil nature as part of society, but, as we shall see, there are exceptions even here. But vis-à-vis the hypothetical `mainstream' society, linguistic sub-cultural identity may be understood to accord with sectarianism in such areas as exclusivity, rejection/expulsion of deviance, a high level of lay participation, and a fundamental hostility or indifference to the environing society or world. But rather than a `priesthood of all believers' we have here instead what might be termed a `priesthood of all speakers'.

The Indo-European panorama may in one instance be adjudicated by the terminologies employed for the godhead: deus, theos, äss, god and baga or bog. From this perspective, I have labeled the sectarian divisions of the Indo-European community into `deists', `theists', `ässists', `godists' and `bagists'.[5] With the widespread retention of the deus-cognate among the Celts, Germanics, Balts, Romance and Indian language families, we can take the so-called `deists' as representative of the original or mainstream sociological sector. The antithetical ahura-äss community among the Iranians and Germanics as well as the related Iranian baga and Slavic bog may be seen as conforming to a sectarian protest movement - one which is poignantly exacerbated through the demotion of the deus-cognate (daeva) as the demonic or anti-divine embodiment among the Zarathustrian reformists along with the reflexive counter-association of the asuras as demonic entities in the late Rigvedic and subsequent Hindu periods. Moreover, the puritanical rehabilitation of the Iranian development is to be seen as conforming most closely to Wilson's ideal-type of the revolutionary sect.

In viewing this conflict between the `deist' church and the `ässist' sect, however, the Greek theos emerges as a more neutral designation for the godhead - one without any necessary divine or asurian colorings. The same applies for the Germanic god-terms where the divine-asurian conflict is itself retained in the battle between the Aesir and the Vanir and in the throne usurpation by the chief äss Wodan/Odin of the position formerly held by *Tîwaz/Tyr. In this picturing of the Indo-European community, then, the `bagists' are found among the Iranians and Slavs; the `ässists' among the Iranians and Germanics; the `theists' are Greek; and the `godists' are Germanic. Each of these developments may be approached as a sectarian differentiation from a host society or mainstream culture.

The terminology for the demonic reveals another aspect of the godhead or supernatural. The widespread adoption of the demon-cognate or loanword as well as such terms as Welsh cythraul `adversary' or Breton aerouant `serpent' are clear results of Christian influence, whereas the Homeric daimon denotes simply `divine power' and hence the influence that controls one's fate whether good or bad, and it is only through the ecclesiastical impact of New Testament teachings that Greek daimon, Latin daemon, daemonium come to be used exclusively as designations for `evil spirit'. Recognition of the negative supernatural nevertheless can be said to exist for the proto-Indo-European and/or pre-Indo-European through terms found for the spiritually hostile, frightful or injurious among the Germanics, Balts, Slavs and Indians. It is, however, through the Avestan and Old Persian daeva- and daiva-, respectively, that a sectarian protest via the Zarathustrian inversion of the deus-cognate is to be witnessed within the Indo-European community.

But if we have terms for the supernatural or the godhead in the Indo-European vocabulary, we must also examine the linguistic legacy for the individual's emotional approach to the spiritual. In other words, the quintessential feeling or attitude toward the divine godhead is one of awe, and it therefore becomes imperative to understand what we mean by the awesome if we are to comprehend what we might also mean by `God'.

The dictionary definition of the word `awe' invariably revolves around the `mingled' emotions of reverence, fear and wonder - especially as inspired by something majestic or sublime. We have important synonyms for `worship', `dread' and the `miraculous' within the Indo-European arena, and these in turn delineate important differentiations of the godhead or sectarian expression within the Indo-European community.

The Indo-European terms for worship and honoring derive from verbs for praying or making some gesture of homage, for verbs of honoring or other expressions of related feelings, and from notions of value, the pleasant or appearance. The three conceptual areas relate to three possibilities of the ways to picture the godhead: whether as something divine, something asurian or as something more neutral and between the other two. Words for worship are based on the act of worship, the appearance of what is worshiped or some kind of special quality which belongs to whatever is being worshiped. Once again, we find communities of thought or word-sharing.

But in themselves, the attitudes of reverence and fear do not delineate what we mean by awe. To complete this notion of the uniquely religious, we must also consider the idea of wonder. To some degree, the notion of astonishment is already contained in notions of fear or terror, and an important source for Indo-European synonyms denoting `wonder' are words for `(being) struck, stunned, rigid, displaced', etc.[6] On the other hand, and as Carl Darling Buck points out, `wonder' may turn to `admiration', and the Indo-European radical *(s)mei- is seen at the base of Sanskrit smi- `smile' and vismaya- `astonishment' along with Latin admīrâti and mīrābīlia, English miracle, marvel, etc.

Another source for notions pertaining to wonder, however, derives from the perception of something, that is, something seen. A `sight', perhaps akin to what the Hindu refers to as darshan, is either `something worth seeing' or `something unknown or of unusual form'.[7] This perception of the wonderful is already the sense of IE *(s)mei- from which our English word mirror becomes a derivative, and to the degree that something is worth seeing, we have already touched on the wonderful in the notion of `worth or value' embedded in acts or attitudes of reverence, honoring or worship.[8]

In summary, then, the magnificently stunning may be seen as religiously comprehended through feelings of veneration, terror and fascination. It is these same semantic notions already contained within the concept or feeling of awe which furnish the Indo-European community's various designations for the godhead. We can, accordingly, make some initial and provisional conclusions regarding hypothetical sectarian differentiations. The base term founded on the root *deiwo-s from *dei- `to shine' suggests the divine as something visual in the sense of the luminously wonderful - also as something of value, something worthy. Here the godhead is essentially understood as an aspect of wonder. This optical idea is perhaps that which forms the root idea beneath the possibly more `neutral' Greek theos - a root which may also have given rise to our Greek-derived words for the `theatre', `thespian', etc. Theos has been considered by some to be a substrate inheritance, a loanword from pre-Greek sources. On the other hand, the Greek theonymic generic might also be a derivative of the religious root *dhês- found also in various terms for the sacred (Latin festus, feriae, fānum, etc., Sanskrit dhisnya `godly, holy', Armenian di-k `gods') or perhaps of a related root *dhewes- `to fly about (like dust)'. In other words, theos may refer to the supernatural as the `rarely or obscurely seen'. [9]

The primary Indo-European sectarian break-away movement must be recognized through the use of Avestan ahura and Old Norse/Old English äss/os as designations for the godhead and their accompaniment by the Zarathustrian transformation of the divine cognate into the name for the demonic, that is, daeva. The Hindu reflex of this development is found in the full emergence of the word asura for the rival of the deva as well as in the progression of the nomen sura as the generic theonym in contrast to the antithetical asura. The etymology behind asura is cited as *ansu- - a radical which is itself thought to develop from the notion of `breath' (*an-). Since the asurian for the proto-Indo-European represents the primordial and invisible abyss, the primeval breath or wind of chaos associated with it is emotionally felt in terms of the terror of the unmanifest. It remains closest to the unknown or unseen horror against which the divine is the counter-force or creative reflex. In the asurian cultus, therefore, the element of dread in the awesome has come to take precedence.

On Indian soil, apart from the dragon Vritra and such subsequent Hindu developments as Mahishasura, Ravana, etc., it is the Vedic Adityas who conform the closest to a manifestation of the asurian godhead, and since these last include the god Baga among their number, the Iranian and Slavonic bog-cognates[10] may be seen as parallel developments or subtypes of the asurian. Baga-bog derives from a root signifying `to share out, apportion'. The otherwise functionally similar Greek daimon who is also a `divider' or `apportioner' might be understood as comprehending more of a focus on the material goods which are divided as opposed to the invisible (and hence frightening) divider itself (the baga). The asurian is more intimately connected to the terror of the unknown; the daimon, to the tangible product or what is physically seen.[11]

From this perspective, and especially in a Germanic milieu in which asuric and divine terms for the godhead survive side by side, a more neutral theonymic generic which I have surmised in the term `god' might be seen as a likely if not necessary development. As a derivative of a root *gheu- `to invoke' or *gheu- `to pour (an oblation)', this more neutral term would be seen as a product of the venerational act involved with the attitude of reverence or worship. In the Germanic-speaking world, then, the development of the designation `god' may be accepted as a successful sectarian innovation which separated its followers from the divine-asurian conflict embedded in the earlier Indo-European theology.

I wish to conclude simply by stating that this analysis is preliminary and tentative but perhaps potentially beneficial for providing an additional perspective on Indo-European ideology and any consequences this legacy may have for contemporary society and inter-social interaction. The theological orientation of proto-thinking itself would appear to carry little inclinational onus toward authoritarian manifestations. Fascism entails a sectarian elite vis-à-vis the society that it controls. We see this development emerging historically in the reformist faction centered on Ahura Mazda. But the question still remains whether this result is a necessary logical consequence of the Indo-European world outlook, or is it part of a broader collective phenomenon? To the degree that any tendency inherent in the Indo-European mind-set might point in this direction, however, we must consider all possibilities - from the economic and historical to the religious and ideological. To view the Indo-European world as a community interacting with both itself and others beyond its cultural domains but following established sociological forms of observed behavior may assist us in understanding our world as it really is.



Buck, Carl Darling (1949), A Dictionary of the Principal Indo-European Languages, Chicago.

Gustafson, Paul (1967), `UO-US-PS-PO: A restatement of Troeltsch's church-sect typology', Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 6.1:64-68 (Spring).

Hans, James S. (1991), The Origins of the Gods, Albany, New York: SUNY.

Johnson, Benton (1957), `A critical appraisal of the church-sect typology', American Sociological Review 22:88-92 (February).

Robertson, Roland (1970a), `The sociology of religion: problems and desiderata', Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 9.2:109-126 (Summer).

"      (1970b), The Sociological Interpretation of Religion, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Service, Elman (1971), Primitive Social Organization, New York: Random House.

Swatos, William H. (1977), `Quo vadis: Reply to Robertson', Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 16.2:201-204 (June).

Wilson, Bryan R. (1967) (ed.), Patterns of Sectarianism, London: Heinemann.

"       (1969), `A typology of sects', Sociology of Religion: Selected Readings (Roland Robertson, ed.), Harmondsworth: Penguin, pp 361-383.

"       (1973), Magic and the Millennium, London: Heinemann.

Yinger, J. Milton (1970), The Scientific Study of Religion, London: Macmillan.

York, Michael (1993), `Toward an Indo-European vocabulary of the sacred', Word: Journal of the International Linguistic Association 44.2:235-254 (August).

"     (1995), The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-pagan Movements, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

"      (1996), The Divine versus the Asurian: An Interpretation of Indo-European Cult and Myth, Bethesda, Maryland: International Scholars Publications.



[1] For instance, with Benton Johnson (1957), the variable axis is one of liturgical-ethical orientation measured along a continuum of behavioral justification.

[2] Other examples might be those of Roland Robertson's differentiation in terms of legitimacy as perceived by the effective leaders and the operative membership - yielding church, sect, denomination and institutionalized sect (Robertson, 1970b). For Paul Gustafson (1967), the two axes become the universalistic-particularistic concept of membership vis-a-vis the objective-subjective means of grace. For William Swatos (1977), on the other hand, one determinative axis is Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's `social organization for universe-maintenance' - what Robertson (1970a:101f) identifies as the rigid or flexible monopolistic-competitive tendency; Swatos' other axis is Johnson's acceptance/rejection of the social environment. Accordingly, the types which Swatos' model yields are called tentatively the church, entrenched sect, established sect, dynamic sect and denomination.

[3] Service (1971) identifies four stages in the evolution of human social organization: the band, the tribe, the chiefdom and the state. The early Indo-European community is chiefly tribal but ranges on the low organizational end from the nomadic hunting-gathering bands to, on the high end, the highly integrated tribes or chiefdoms held together by quasi-governmental regional polities led by powerful chiefs. Tribes are generally village-based and dependent upon domestication. The greater the organizational complexity, the greater is the political and economic structure for the redistribution of goods and resources. Tribal social organization is chiefly founded upon kinship, both consanguineal and affinal - augmented into `corporate kin groups' (lineages, clans, phratries, etc.) - and supplemented by non- or quasi-kinship collectivities or societies known as sodalities and characterized by self-conscious active association distinct from the more simple aggregate collections comprising both status groups (political or religious - e.g., priesthoods) and occupational groups (economic). The tribal community may be assessed in terms of the church-sect dialectic with particular regard to the institutions of `common property' (i.e., communally-owned resources), labor and exchange and the processes of group fission. For these ideas I am indebted and most grateful to Jonathan G. Anderson (Grinnell College) and his `A comparison of intentional communities and tribal cultures', a paper presented at the 20th Annual Conference of the Communal Studies Association, New Harmony, Indiana (17 October 1993). See his forthcoming `Intentional Communities' in Cross-Cultural Readings for Sociology.

[4] Dr. R. Julian Baldick, `The new comparative mythology of Georges Dumézil', Social Science and Religion Seminars, King's College London (9.12.91).

[5] Though there may be some overlap between my terms and traditional theological understandings of both `theism' and `deism', my hypothetical designations are formulated on a strictly linguistic basis and pertain solely to the theonymic generic employed by particular speakers. Any overlap with the traditional categories is accordingly fortuitous. Nevertheless, this does not preclude the possibility that any accidental similarities may yet become fruitfully subject to a future analysis along the lines of the determinative influence of vocabulary grammar.

[6] Greek `ekstasis, `ekplexis, Latin stupor, spasmus (English spasm), attonitus (French étonnement, English astonishment, thunderstuck), French ébahissement, Welsh syndod, Germanic words akin to Dutch verbazing, Lithuanian nustebimas, Old Church Slavic uzhas, German (er)staunen, etc.

[7] E.g., Irish iongantas, iongnadh; Swedish f”rvƒning; Gothic sildaleik, cf. English seldom.

[8] The visual sense of wonder is also that to be found beneath the Greek thauma, and we can surmise the identity of value as the root idea constituting the semantic paradigms understood in Welsh rhyfedd `beyond measure, wonderful', the Old Church Slavic chudo (cf. chuti `perceive'), OSC div, divo (from IE *dei- `to shine') and possibly such etymologically dubious or unknown terms for `wonder' or `the wonderful' as Greek thombos, Gothic afslauthnan, Latvian brŒnums and the Germanic complex which includes the English word wonder.

[9] On the other hand, like the Germanic cognates of `god' (vide infra), if a derivative of *dhês- as a religious verbal root (possibly an extension of *dhê- `to set, put'), theos might be another term which relates to the venerative aspects of the worshipping act itself rather than to the visual or wondrous.

[10] Iranian baga-, OCS bog–, Serbo-Croatian bog, Polish bog, Bohemian bh, and Russian bog.

[11] Compare the Old English asura cognate os (from Latin) meaning `mouth' (as an opening or cavity suggestive of the void of chaos?) and the Greek *bhag- derivative phagein `to eat'.