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The Indo-European Legacy

The Indo-European Legacy

From "In Search of the Indo-Europeans"; Language, Archaeology and Myth by J.P. Mallory (1989, Thames and Hudson Ltd., London). $19.95. Pages 270-272:

If we must have concrete legacies, then the best claim is that of horse domestication and the social consequences this revolution in transportation and warfare brought to the world. In addition, the Indo-Europeans are at least one of the candidates for the inventors of wheeled vehicles, although a number of non-Indo-European peoples have every bit as good a claim. But such instances of historical priority hardly constitutes the type of legacy that persist uniquely among the Indo-Europeans.

Ideology is often regarded the central core of culture and it is here that some would see the most striking evidence for the Indo-European legacy. We have already seen how the Domezilian school not only acknowledges the genetic relationship of the Indo-European languages but also the persistence of an inherited ideology.

The new comparative mythologists maintain that the trifunctional ideology of the Proto-Indo-Europeans permeates the religious texts of the ancient Indians and Iranians, emerges in the epic poetry and drama of the Greeks, hides behind the facade of history among the early Romans, and expresses itself in the prose tales of the medieval Germanic and Celtic people.

Even with that overlay of Judeo-Christian ideology which characterizes European culture, the Indo-European ideological structure still surfaces, as we see in the medieval tendency to equate the three sons of Noah -- Japhet, Shem and Ham -- with the three estates of society: nobles (warriors), clerks (priests) and serfs (cultivators).

C. Scott Littleton has even suggested that this tripartite division of society extended unconsciously to the framers of the American Constitution, who, in dividing the totality of their state into three branches, were as much the heirs of their Proto-Indo-European ancestors as Zarathustra or the brahmans of ancient India.

It is natural to query whether social tripartition, and all of its attendant expressions in myth, literature, law, medicine, and folklore, is uniquely Indo-European. To many, the system proposed by Dumezil seems so natural as to be universal, and hardly the specific legacy of an Eneolithic people of Eastern Europe.

Yet the "new comparativists" argue that, even if such a system of priests, warriors and herder-cultivators seems natural, it is the treatment of this structure as a special class of concepts requiring and receiving almost endless elaboration in all spheres of cultural ideology and behavior that makes it truly unique to the Indo-Europeans.

Littleton has argued that similar methods applied to myths of other language groups would reveal other systems of ideology, ranging from the seven-fold (astral) ideological paradigms of the Semites, to the four-fold (directional-based) systems of certain American Indian groups.

Indeed one may argue that tripartition itself need not result in the Indo-European system. Lawrence Krader, in his study of the non-Indo-European Buryat Mongols, observes that their "triple division of the social world" is carried through into the spirit world and the three souls of men. The Buryat spirits are arranged according to the three different Buryat social classes, aristocrats, commoners and slaves, categories that are tripartite but not those of the Indo-Europeans.

Whether or not one is confident that such an ideological inheritance exists, the most secure legacy of the Indo-Europeans is surely to be found in the language spoken by over two billion people in the world. It is irrelevant whether we regard ourselves as Europeans, Asians, Africans or Americans; we cannot escape this legacy if we speak an Indo-European language.

We cannot ask questions of where, when, who or how, or answer them with our most fundamental actions, without making frequent recourse to an inherited system of speech that our linguistic ancestors shared 6,000 years ago.

The common linguistic heritage of the Indo-Europeans was only discovered in the eighteenth century and it has seldom, if ever, impinged on the behavior of the different Indo-Europeans. History provides little evidence that different Indo-European groups ever recognized their mutual kinship. If the ancient Greeks disparaged an Indian as barbaros, the Indian dug into the same linguistic legacy to dismiss his non-Aryan neighbors with precisely the same word, barbaras.

If kinship of the Indo-Europeans was overlooked in the past, it hardly needs emphasizing that it is absent today. In characteristic hyperbole, Hitler once wrote that the collapse of the Aryans would see the light of civilization extinguished in the world; given the distribution of nuclear arms on this planet, it is far more likely that it will be Indo-Europeans who will end it themselves.

Yet we need not finish pessimistically, but rather hope to remind, the great superpowers, that whatever their political differences, when they speak to one another, they do so in words that were once common when they shared the same language, the same home and the same beliefs.

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