3.1. Indo-European studies: Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore, 1989.
Jaan Puhvel is a professor of Indo-European Studies and was apparently urged by his students to write the book. As a student of Georges Dumézil, the latter’s tripartite theory dominates the book. In this point he assumes a lot of previous knowledge. I miss the look towards the critics of Dumézil’s theory and some apprehension of the flaws. This was especially problematic in the first part of the book for me.
The book has three parts: The first chapters cover general Indo-European Studies, the second part looks at different mythologies and the third looks at different themes within the mythologies.
In the first part he covers definitions and discusses the different studies of myth and the difference of independent origination or diffusion. During these first chapters I felt like reacting to the outlined theories with anger. What angered me was the giving of a sublime domination of the IE Mythology above others. As I am quite versed in Mesopotamian mythology I found myself often questioning some points because I could tell some Mesopotamian parallels, which were not explained. After reading a few times through the explanation of why something is diffusion and how to tell when it is not, I’ve found myself still unable to really grasp the difference and would have liked to ask questions. This may be due as well as I read about the connection (Kavoukjian, 1987) and then there is a theory that probably the people living in Sumer before the Sumerians where IE (Whittaker, 1998, 2005). I really had to fight my way through the first chapters. I’ve found the quick look at Semitic Mythology way too cursory and had the impression that he (un)consciously left out information that could bring in other theories to consider than “his” (e.g. Armenian), in this way falling himself a bit into the trap he (rightly) criticized James Frazer for. I disliked some of his personal political insertions, probably quite amusing during lecture at university, but I’ve found them displaced in the book.
Finally in the second part of the book he treats some Indo-European traditions: Vedic and epic India, ancient and epic Iran, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Celtic myth, Germanic myth Baltic and Slavic myth. I liked the inclusion of the Indo-Iranian, which is often forgotten, though I’m still not sure why others as the Armenian are seen as inferior. Additionally I liked reading again something of the Balts. What stuns me the most is, that no proper sources are listed, none at all for the Balts and for the Iranian the recommended reading seems to be only about Zoroastrianism. All in all I found the information extremely valuable and he finally got me passionately reading.
In the third part he presents five IE themes and discusses them and we finally come into the real comparison. They are: God and Warrior, King and Virgin, Horse and Rider, Fire in Water (my favorite), and Twin and Brother. I’ve found this part very interesting and brilliantly put together bringing out real treasures that stir a hunger that on nearly 50 pages cannot be properly fed. As I haven’t read Dumézil (which is on my list for the future) I actually really would have liked a chapter only about the theme of the transfunctional Goddess, which he points at so often. The only problem I had here with the themes was that I could draw again many parallels to Mesopotamia which left questions about diffusion and cultural exchanges and universal or IE-Near Eastern universality open. I really liked the themes most, but some topics have unfortunately only been analyzed cursorily in the book. In some cultures, like the Celtic, some themes like cosmology are missing; I would have like to see here a comparison as well.
I find this book highly valuable, though the scholarly style will not fit well with everyone and one definitely needs to fill in some gaps he left open. I actually found myself using the book when researching some Myths and going through it for some special ritual topics. I want to read it again because I want to understand the difference between diffusion and independent origin and learn how to properly compare myths. But before I re-read it, I want to read some more books that hopefully will help me fill the experienced gaps.
Kavoukjian, M. (1987). Armenia, Subartu and Sumer. The Indo-European Homeland and Ancient Mesopotamia. Montreal: M. Kavoukjian.
Whittaker, G. (1998). Traces of an early Indo-European language in Southern Mesopotamia. Göttinger Beiträge zur Sprachwissenschaft(1), 111-147.
Whittaker, G. (2005). The Sumerian question: reviewing the issues. In W. H. v. Soldt (Ed.), (pp. pp. 409-429). Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten.