Mar 31, 2020, 2:38 PM
by Daniel (or Dan) McCoy
Georges Dumézil was a twentieth-century comparative mythologist like Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung. Dumézil’s primary contribution to Indo-European studies was his theory of “trifunctionalism,” the idea that a particular arrangement of three societal “functions” lay at the heart of Indo-European life and thought. This arrangement manifested itself most straightforwardly in the social hierarchy, which consisted of three classes that corresponded to the three functions. However, as the word “function” implies, the three classes were distinguished not just according to differing quantitative amounts of power, but also qualitatively in terms of the “functions” that each of the three groups served within society. The Indo-Europeans’ gods, too, were organized into this trifunctional structure.
What, then, are these three functions?
The first function is that of sovereignty, and corresponds to the highest social class – that of rulers, priests, and legal specialists. This function is divided into two aspects, one “magical” and the other “juridical.” The former “consists of the mysterious administration, the ‘magic’ of the universe, the general ordering of the cosmos. This is a ‘disquieting’ aspect, terrifying from certain perspectives. The other aspect is more reassuring, more oriented to the human world. It is the ‘juridical’ part of the sovereign function.”
The Indo-Europeans’ gods of the first function tend to include one god who falls into each of these two categories. One is a “magician-creator” who rules “by virtue of [his] creative violence,” while the other is a “jurist-organizer” who rules “by virtue of [his] organizing wisdom.” The two types of sovereign gods form an “antithesis,” but complement one another rather than being in conflict.
The second function “carries the trait of physical force in all its manifestations, from energy, to heroism, to courage.” Its “insatiable champions… vanquish demons and save the universe.” In human society, the second function is the class of warriors, who carry out the orders of the first class and fight on behalf of their people. The gods of the second function are warriors whose intellectual abilities are inferior to those of the first, but who possess the necessary strength to actually put the decisions of the intellectual gods into action.
The third function “is the generative function. It is the domain of the healers, of youth, of luxury, of fecundity, of prosperity; also the domain of the healing gods, the patron deities of goods, of opulence – and also of the ‘people,’ as opposed to the small number of warriors and kings.” The third function’s human social class consists of the farmers, herders, and other “common people” engaged in productive physical labor, who provide the goods necessary for the sustenance of themselves and of the rest of society. Its gods are those who preside over fertility, abundance, and peace. They tend to be simple but wealthy and fun-loving.
For Dumézil, “The Indo-European vision of a smoothly functioning world required an ‘organization’ in which the representatives of the first function commanded, the second fought for and defended the community, and the third (the greatest number of them) worked and were productive. In their eyes, it was in this hierarchy that one found the harmony necessary to the proper functioning of the cosmos, as well as that of the society. It’s an Indo-European version of the ‘social contract.'”
Although a similar social organization can be found in various non-Indo-European societies, what makes the Indo-European concept distinct is just how foundational and pervasive it was in their worldview, theology, cosmology, mythology, and political philosophy. It touched every aspect of their way of life and their outlook on life.