Indo-European Caste Systems and Cosmologies

(Version 1.6)

Copyright © 1991, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

Note: This essay will make more sense if you first read Indo-European Paleopaganism and its Clergy, elsewhere on this website.

Our story so far: In the first few episodes of our continuing saga, “All My Oakgroves,” we’ve established two key concepts for understanding the world(s)views of the Indo-European Paleopagans. The first concept is a polytheological and sociological one called the “trifunctional ideology,” discovered by Georges Dumezil and his followers. The second is a related cosmological one of the “Three Worlds plus Fire,” identified, I believe by me, from a variety of Dumezilian and other Celtic and IE studies.

Several decades ago, Dumezil noticed that the same major characters kept showing up in all the different IE myths and legends of which we had records; furthermore, they seemed to reflect a common social structure among all the IE cultures. There were usually two deities who ruled over matters of magic and law; he called this the “first function” of “magical and judicial sovereignty.” Examples include Odin and Tyr, respectively, from the Norse pantheon, and Mitra and Varuna from the Vedic. The “second function” includes the war gods (often, but not always, thunder gods as well) such as Thor and Indra. Then you have the “third function” of fertility; this was usually handled by brother-sister pairs such as Freyr and Freya or else by twin brothers such as the Vedic Asvins.

The IE cultures all had stories of two “Wars in Heaven:” the first, a battle between the current Gods and a previous generation of (often monstrous) deities, such as the Formorians (Irish), Giants (Norse), Titans (Greek), Devas (Iranian), or Asuras (Vedic); the second, a war between deities representing the first two functions on one side against those representing the third function on the other, such as that between the Norse Aesir and Vanir. The current Gods, of course, beat the previous ones (though often taking some of them into their ranks), and the deities of first two functions either conquered or established a truce with the third function deities, resulting in the divine status quo of the myths.

The social structures depicted in the IE myths and legends reflected the three functions: clergy (who were responsible for magical/religious and judicial functions), warriors, and producers (farmers, fishers, herders, craftspeople, etc.). Leading each IE tribe was a “king” who had responsibilities towards all the other functions and who was usually married to the local Earth Goddess. Dumezilians speculate that the “war between the functions” stories represent memories of IE conquests of local (non-IE or earlier-IE) peoples by invading clergy and warriors. This fits well with the usual theories of bloodthirsty patriarchal Indo-Europeans raping, pillaging, and looting their way across Europe and Asia, though not so well with more recent studies (such as those by Colin Renfrew) indicating that IE cultural diffusion may have been rather more peaceful than that, albeit stressful to the changed cultures.

As for cosmology, the IE tales make constant references to land, sky, and various sorts of waters (lakes, rivers, springs, the sea, etc.) as comprising all of normal physical reality. For example, there was one famous Celtic chieftain who reportedly said that he had only three fears: that the sky would fall down upon him, that the sea would overwhelm him, and that the earth might open up under him. I believe references to these three events occurring as punishments for oath breaking can also be found. Parallels often existed between the functions and the “Three Worlds:” clergy were associated with the Sky, warriors with the Waters, and producers with the Land. Fire was viewed as extremely sacred and existed in all Three Worlds (caste-wise, it was associated with the kingship which affects all other castes). Multiple associations were created between aspects and incidents of mythology, the caste system, the Three Worlds plus Fire, sacred trees, the multiple deaths of kings, and so forth — not all of which fit perfectly.

During the 1990’s, it became increasingly clear to me that these views of IE polytheology, sociology, and cosmology are just too simple. As (my wife) Deborah Lipp pointed out, they leave no room for the forgotten or rejected people and spirits who exist in every society and religion, and they ignore a number of complexities. In fact, I think I was suffering from “monothink” — the popular Western fantasy, based on monotheistic thinking patterns, that there is one best explanation for everything — as have almost all the other Western scholars I’d been studying. So I decided to try using “polythink,” by taking a polytheistic, pluralistic approach to the same materials. New answers quickly became a parrot.

In Alwin and Brinley Rees’ classic Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, they discuss the ancient Irish and Welsh cosmology and social systems from a Dumezilian approach. Most of their discussion focuses on the Irish, so I’ll concentrate on them for now. The Irish caste system had the king on top, then the druids, then the warriors. So far, so good; this is the same IE social structure I just reviewed. But their third “producer” caste was split into an upper and a lower class. The upper producer class consisted of the wealthy farmers and advanced artisans, the lower producer class of the folks who got stuck with the society’s dirty work — agricultural serfs, satirists, clowns and jugglers, kitchen help, etc.

Each of the castes traditionally had a province of Ireland symbolically connected to it: Connacht for the druids, Ulster for the warriors, Leinster for the free farmers, Munster for the serfs. But in some of the old tales, Munster was split in two: East Munster for the regular serfs and West Munster for the weird ones. A similar cosmology of “provinces” arose in ancient Wales.

The “weird ones” included social outsiders such as foreigners, aboriginal (pre-Celtic?) people, sorceresses, madmen, criminals, etc., plus various types of supernatural “Outsiders,” such as elves, giants, Formorians, banshees, and so forth. In short, when we talk about the Outsiders, we mean people and spirits associated with aboriginal mysteries, female power, danger, magic, and chaos in general — frightening concepts to a patriarchal culture obsessed with maintaining the cosmic order. There is also a hint (via the aboriginal and female power concepts) that this part of the cosmology is intimately associated with the local Earth Goddesses.

The people at the very bottom of the social scale were thus associated with the forces of primordial chaos. I believe the ancient Vedics had a very similar caste system, with the Sudras (or “untouchables”) separated from the lower part of the producer caste and associated with female power, demons, and magic. Paradoxically, in Ireland and Wales (and India?) these forces of chaos were intimately connected with the king who resided in the center of the system (in the “Middle Province”) and who was the primary guardian of order. So while the ancient Irish and Welsh had one cosmology of four provinces plus the center, they simultaneously had one of five provinces plus a center/outside combination.

Naturally every physical province had all kinds of people living in it, and indeed these cosmological/social patterns were apparently repeated within each province and within each caste. Among the members of the clergy caste, for example, the druids per se, who presided over sacrifices and were judges as well (the magical and judicial rulerships), corresponded to themselves. The diviners/poets corresponded to the warrior caste, because of their connections to death and the ancestors (for divination) and the creation of epic poetry celebrating the accomplishments of the warriors. The bards corresponded to the farmers (as providers of musical nourishment and support), and the lesser musicians (no doubt along with the servants who helped with various druidic activities) to the serfs. Perhaps the highest ranking local or national druid (or “Archdruid”) corresponded to the local king or national “high king” and also had a connection to the Outsiders. The myths about Merlin show this, as well as the Norse myths about Odin, who was king as well as chief magician of the Aesir.

Simultaneously, although the Rees brothers don’t make this explicit, the other castes had members who corresponded to these druidic subcastes. Among the serfs, for example, we can find sorcerers (= magicians), satirists and soothsayers (= poets and diviners), clowns and jugglers (= bards), etc. If indeed every major caste had subcastes within it reflecting the larger pattern, then you could very quickly get many subcastes. If the larger pattern had then been reflected into each of the subcastes to produce sub-subcastes, you would have eventually gotten a result similar to the Hindu caste system (and I guess that’s exactly what happened in India).

Is this all confusing? Very. Yet, as the Rees brothers put it, “the co-existence of contradictory cosmological systems is by no means peculiar to Celtic traditions.” They make a very good argument that we may need to think of the lower half of the “third function” as a distinct, if not separate, “fourth function.” Perhaps the “Outsiders” constitute a fifth function as well.

Another way to consider this “fourth function,” however, is as the “shadow side” of the third. As most of you know, IE metaphysics seem obsessed with the alternation of polarities, usually described as “dark” and “light.” There’s a dark half to every Celtic day, month, and year, for example. The “dual” first function (magical vs. judicial) of the clergy, the confusion over the roles of “berserkers” vs. “heroes” in the second (warrior) function, and the roles of the third (producer) function’s twin (or sister-brother) deities, would be much clearer if we assumed that each function has a “dark” (= dangerous) side and a “light” (= safe) side.

That would give us a pattern where the first function would consist of the dangerous magician and the safe judge; the second function would be the dangerous werewolf/berserker and the safe hero; and the third function would give us the dangerous serf and the safe producer (though that might not be enough to account for the distinctions between upper and lower class producers). The Outside/Center function then consists of the dangerous Outsiders and the safe king. What the mythologies make clear, of course, is that these “dangerous” and “safe” categories do not equate with “evil” and “good,” since you can have, for example, good Outsiders and evil kings. However, the conservatism of most tribal societies would lead to prejudices for and against the safe/dangerous polarities.

The Three Worlds of the Land, the Waters, and the Sky, don’t work properly for Lithuanian mythology and cosmology, however, despite the myths and language being thoroughly IE. Instead, they used terms that are usually translated as “Sky,” “Land,” and “the Underworld.” The Vedic peoples are said (in English) to have used “Sky,” “Middle Air,” and “Land” as their Three Worlds, while the Norse had a total of Nine Worlds instead of three. During a cosmological lunch at the Wellspring Festival in 1991, J.D. LaBash, Paul Maurice, Ian Corrigan (who drew the illustration you see here to the right), myself, and several other participants came to some tentative conclusions of how one cosmology can reconcile all these seemingly different systems.

Firstly, Mircea Eliade pointed out in several of his books the nearly universal tendency for tribal peoples to have a cosmology with a vertical axis (a World Tree, a shamanic pole, a magic mountain, etc.). In Indo-European terms, that vertical axis may have originally reached from a “Celestial Realm” in the far heavens (where dwelt the distant creator deity and sometimes the major tribal deities), through the “Middle Realm” (of ordinary mortal activity), and down to an Underworld or “Chthonic Realm” (where demons, dead people, old deities, and other chaotic beings dwell — i.e., a lot of the “Outsiders”).

Secondly, the Three Worlds of the Land, the Waters, and the Sky may all be seen on a horizontal axis filling the Middle Realm, and reflected into the Celestial and Chthonic Realms as well. The ancient Irish, for example, had “Lands” in the Celestial Realm and underneath the ocean (which was equated with what I’m calling the Chthonic Realm). There were also Celestial and Chthonic “Waters,” and possibly types of “Sky” as well. This sort of multiplication could be done in various ways by the different IE cultures, including dark/light variations, leading to different numbers of what are usually translated as “Worlds.”

Thirdly, Fire, as a primeval divine force, was seen as existing in, and communicating between, all Three Realms and all Three Worlds. The stars, sun and moon were Celestial fire; underground coal, peat, or volcanic fires were Chthonic. In the Middle Realm, fire existed in the Sky (lightning, smoke), on the Land (camp, hearth and forest fires), and even in the Waters (alcoholic beverages, soma).

Fourthly, some of the confusion in IE cosmological studies may have been caused by the translators. We have to remember that none of these ancient peoples used modern English, so the words we see in translations may not be precise matches from culture to culture. As one example, the term in Sanskrit that gets translated as the “Middle Atmosphere” or “Middle Air” may really mean (local or near) “Sky,” while the word usually translated as “Sky” in Vedic cosmological studies may translate better as what I’ve called the “Celestial Realm.” I don’t read Sanskrit so I don’t know for sure, I just have my suspicions.

So how can we tie all of this up into a nice neat package? We can’t. Some of our confusion about Indo-European cosmologies can be explained, if not simplified, when we realize that the IE peoples loved to combine simple units into amazingly complex patterns (look at Celtic art, for example). Just as castes could be subdivided to reflect other castes, then divided again to display a dark/light polarity; so too there could be Worlds within Realms (or vice versa?), each split along the dark/light line.

They might even have been split again along an Otherworld/This world polarity (which would explain why there are so many ways to get into Faerie — via Sidhe hills, ocean voyages, diving into lakes, becoming a bird and flying there, etc.). The “Otherworld” is a concept that shows up universally in religions as the “place” where spirits live. Usually it’s perceived as interpenetrating mundane reality or “This world” in which most people live their lives, but with particular locations where it is easiest to contact. The Otherworld isn’t the same as the Chthonic or Celestial Realms, but it is connected to them, as it is to the Three Worlds. The supernatural Outsiders might have been viewed as living mostly in the Otherworld and using its connections to travel throughout the realms and worlds. Each IE culture would have associated various sorts of beings, from the demonic to the divine, with each of the “places” we’ve defined. Among the Irish, for example, the Outsiders were usually chthonic, but were sometimes associated with very distant lands, waters, or skies. The dark/light split might also throw some light (you should pardon the expression) on the “good demons” and “evil gods” in different IE myths, many of whom are said to be descended from both dark and light spirits.

To put all of this into geometric terms, visualize the Three Worlds and the Three Realms as representing the horizontal (or “X”) and vertical (or “Y”) axes of IE cosmology. The Light and Dark distinction would then be a third (“Z”) axis and the “This World” vs. “Otherworld” distinction would be a fourth dimensional (“W”) axis — which kind of figures.

What does all this mean for Neopagan Druids? To begin with, it gives us a useful vocabulary with which to discuss these ideas. It also means that those of us who are comfortable working with the Three Worlds of Land, Waters, and Sky can continue to do so. Others may prefer to focus on the Three Realms of Celestial, Middle, and Chthonic existence (OK, all you Lithuanian Pagans??). The dark/light or dangerous/safe polarity can be used, as can the Otherworld/Here polarity (just don’t get trapped into evil/good dualisms). Fire burns through all these categories of reality (yes, there is dark fire — consider Balor, the “evil sun god,” for example) and can be used symbolically to tie them all together (with the smoke carrying the sacrifices up to the Celestial Realms).

Another way to view Fire in these IE cosmologies is in balance with a sacred Well, which ties into the popular (at least among IEs) fire-in-the-water symbolism. This usually seems to associate the Well with the Chthonic Realm and wisdom, and the Fire more with the Celestial Realm and knowledge or inspiration. The symbol of the World Tree then makes a nice triplicity linking the solar fire with the earthly waters.

Copyright © 1991, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is retained, and everything in this notice box is included. If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

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