Who are the Indo-Europeans?

World Tree Heritage is primarily intended to discuss modern paganisms which have their roots in Indo-European polytheism. I wanted to make this introductory article for anyone who is unfamiliar with this term or has questions about it when they see future references to the Indo-Europeans.

Important disclaimer: There have beens heaps of articles and mounds of books written about the Indo-Europeans. If you put them all together, you may indeed create a 14,000 foot mountain out of paper. And many scholars disagree on subjects within the study of the Indo-Europeans. I am writing naught but a wee non-scholarly introduction. I cannot encompass everything here, but I encourage readers go to the their library to find out more.

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That said, let’s talk scholars. When I talk about Indo-European on this blog, I am primarily using J.P. Mallory, Shan Winn, C. Scott Littleton, Jaan Puhval, Nigel Pennick and Prudence Jones, and H.R. Ellis Davidson. Several of these authors are considered prominent scholars in the field of Indo-European studies. (However, most of the information in this article specifically could also be found on Wikipedia, if you wish to look there for more information.)

I also often use Ceisiwr Serith’s Deep Ancestors and Kirk S. Thomas’ Sacred Gifts. Both of these books are excellently researched and well-written. However, neither book is intended for scholars. Both authors are pagans writing for a pagan audience.

Last but not least, there is something I must make clear. Indo-European studies are the study of a vast linguistic tree. Half the world is part of the Indo-European family tree, which has ten major branches. The term Indo-European can only be considered a cultural term insofar as we accept that linguistics can be correlated to culture.

There is no Indo-European race, and I will not oblige racism in paganism. I am not talking about race or genetics when I discuss Indo-Europeans anywhere in this blog. (Race as we know it today is a concept created by European colonizers in the 1600s in order to suppress other people.) And in my not-so-humble opinion, racism has no place in modern paganism.

The Indo-Europeans

We can learn more about Indo-European (IE) polytheisms through their languages, cultures, and mythologies. These groups split between Indic and European branches. The Indic branches split between Tocharian, Vedic, and several Iranian groups like the Hittites. The European branches split between Eastern, Central, and Western groups. When comparing IE cultures, the strongest comparisons are the ones that you can find across these sub-cultures. For example, if you can find a myth or a word that is connected between Vedic, Greek, and Celtic groups, then you probably have a myth or word that can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European cultures.

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is a term to describe the groups that existed before the Indo-Europeans began to expand and settle everywhere from India to Ireland. There is — and has been — a lot of debate as to where the Proto-Indo-Europeans lived. Currently, most scholars agree this “homeland” was somewhere around the Caspian Sea. However, this is a best guess scenario, and it’s very hard to say for sure where IE cultures came from. PIE cultures existed from around 5000 – 3000 BCE, and scholars simply don’t have a lot of information to prove where PIE cultures resided before the expansion and creation of Indo-European languages and cultures.

What concerns us here is that polytheistic Indo-Europeans – from around 3000 BCE until the Middle Ages – had many important similarities. While there were linguistic and cultural ties, there were also mythological and religious similarities that can help modern pagans.

If you find commonalities between IE groups, then they may have existed in other IE cultures AND their religions. Again, if we can find a similar deity in the Vedic pantheon, the Greek pantheon, and the Celtic pantheon, then this deity was possibly a PIE deity, but, more importantly, you can likely find this deity in other IE polytheistic religions.

Reconstructing Polytheism for Our Modern Practices

How is this useful for modern pagans? First, please note that I am not talking about theology here, only reconstruction of pantheons, religious practices, and so on. I find using an IE framework is useful for reconstruction and a better understand of how our religious ancestors practiced their faith. I can use an example from my own experience.

Images from Wiki: Perkwunos – Slavic Perun, Gaulish Taranis, Norse Thor, Baltic Perkūnas

As a Heathen I primarily worship a Germanic/Norse pantheon. I have recently started a hearth devotional practice with other pagans. However, one problem I had when I started this practice is that there aren’t any hearth-specific deities in my pantheon. What do I do?

Even though medieval Scandinavian polytheists (aka “Vikings”) didn’t seem to have a hearth deity from their lore, we know hearth deities are common in Indo-European pantheons. We can guess that there is a hearth deity in Germanic pantheons, but their role has been left out of the mythology (which was written by Christians centuries after official conversion).

How do we know hearth deities are Indo-European? Hearth deities are present from the Vedic Agni to the Greek Hestia to the Irish Brighid (See what I did there?). One reconstructed name for the PIE hearth deity is *Wéstyā (see: Ceisiwr Serith in Sources). Furthermore, hearth deities are often associated with a round fire, from Vestal temples to the present-day Brighid’s fire in Kildare. From archeological finds in Romania and Albania, abandoned towns had round hearth fires that were intentionally dismantled — they were important for these people. Hearth deities hold a central importance in many IE polytheistic religions. So why wouldn’t the Vikings (or the earlier Germanic polytheists) have had a hearth deity, or at least a deity whose role encompassed the hearth fire?

Through comparisons like this, pagans can start to fill in the gaps and reconstruct our religions in ways that we otherwise could not do. I have since found interesting information on Frigg, Fulla/Volla, and Eostre as goddesses who may have been associated with the hearth fire.

Images from Wikipedia: Frigg and Fulla, Ēostre, and Friia and Volla

There are many applications for this kind of reconstruction. Perhaps there is a little known Baltic polytheist custom that a modern Baltic pagan wants to incorporate in their practice. While they should look at Baltic sources of information, they could look at Slavic sources, or even Vedic and Roman sources. Depending on what connections they find, they could start reconstructing that Baltic polytheist custom. Imagine how much we could add to our modern pagan practices by looking through an Indo-European lens.

Perhaps this seems weird to you, or maybe too syncretic, but modern pagans already do this a lot. For example, almost everything we know about ancient druids comes from Roman sources in Gaul (modern France), not Ireland. And considering syncretism, most Heathens use the Elder Futhark runes even though they worship specifically Norse deities. Medieval Scandinavians used the Younger Futhark, which is a smaller alphabet with a couple completely different runes. Whether you know it or not, you probably use some level of Indo-European syncretism.

Again, I think this lens is most useful for modern pagans to reconstruct practices, worldview, and cosmogeny. I am not saying that all Indo-European deities are the same, only that polytheists often worshipped these deities in the same way. We do not have to reinvent the wheel when our resources stretch to pan-Indo-European lengths.

Conclusion

As a member of ADF: A Druid Fellowship, I am constantly inspired by Indo-European polytheisms and our ability to cross-reference them in modern practice. There is fantastic work that several ADF scholars have produced, which give my personal practice a richer context and a deeper meaning.

That is why I wanted to start this blog. While I often talk about how to do “pagan” things in general terms, I am always focused on an Indo-European context. The central tenets of Indo-European practice can be applied to any modern paganism, with the appropriate tweaks.

I hope this article is insightful and interesting. If you want to learn more from online resources, I suggest the two below. While these websites are not the most pretty or exciting, they are chalk-full of fascinating information.

http://www.ceisiwrserith.com/index.htm

http://piereligion.org/pierintro.html

Sources

J.P. Mallory. In Search of the Indo-Europeans. Thames and Hudson. 1989.

Shan Winn. Heaven, Heroes, and Happiness. University Press of America. 1995.
(parts of which you can read here.)

C. Scott Littleton. A New Comparative Mythology. University of California Press. 1973.
(parts of which you can read here.)

Jaan Puhvel. Comparative Mythology. Johns Hopkins University Press. 1989.

Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group. 1995.
(parts of which you can read here.)

H.R. Ellis Davidson. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe. Syracuse University Press. 1988.
(parts of which you can read here.)

Ceisiwr Serith. Deep Ancestors. ADF Publishing. 2007.

Kirk S. Thomas. Sacred Gifts. ADF Publishing. 2015.

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