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The existence of similarities among the deities and religious practices of the Indo-European peoples allows glimpses of a common Proto-Indo-European religion and mythology. This hypothetical religion would have been the ancestor of the majority of the religions of pre-Christian Europe, of the Dharmic religions in India, and of Zoroastrianism in Iran.
Indications of the existence of this ancestral religion can be detected in commonalities between languages and religious customs of Indo-European peoples. To presuppose this ancestral religion did exist, though, any details must remain conjectural. While similar religious customs among Indo-European peoples can provide evidence for a shared religious heritage, a shared custom does not necessarily indicate a common source for such a custom; some of these practices may well have evolved in a process of parallel evolution. Archaeological evidence, where any can be found, is difficult to match to a specific culture. The best evidence is therefore the existence of cognate words and names in the Indo-European languages.
The main functionaries of the hypothetical Proto-Indo-European religion would have been maintained by a class of priests or shamans. There is evidence for sacral kingship, suggesting the tribal king at the same time assumed the role of high priest. This function would have survived as late as 11th century Scandinavia, when kings could still be dethroned for refusing to serve as priests (see Germanic king). Many Indo-European societies know a threefold division of a clerical class, a warrior class and a class of peasants or husbandmen. Such a division was suggested for the Proto-Indo-European society by Georges Dumézil.
Examples of the descendents of this class in historical Indo-European societies would be the Celtic Druids, the Indian Brahmins, the Latin Flamen and the Persian Magi. Historical Indo-European religions also had priestesses, either hierodoules (temple prostitutes), dedicated virgins, or oracles, e.g. the Roman Vestal Virgins, the Greek Sibyls or the Germanic Völvas (see also witch).
Linguists are able to reconstruct the names of some PIE deities from names occurring in widely spread, old mythologies. Some of the proposed deities are more readily accepted among scholars than others.
The Proto-Indo-Europeans may have distinguished between different races of gods, like the Aesir, and Vanir of Norse mythology and the Titans and Olympians of Greek mythology. Possibly, these were the *Deiw-o-, literally "celestial, those of the sky/daylight" (Deva, Daimon, ablaut variant *Dyēus) and the *Ansu-, literally "spirits, those with vital force" (Aesir, Asura, Ahura, see Aesir-Asura correspondence).
Widely Accepted Deities
- *Dyēus Ph2ter is believed to have been the original name of god of the daylit sky and the chief god of the Indo-European pantheon. He survives in Greek Zeus (also Dias), Latin Jupiter, Sanskrit Dyaus/Dyaus Pita, Baltic Dievas, Germanic Tiwaz (ON Tyr, OHG Ziu), Armenian Astwatz, and the Gaulish Dispater (c.f. also deus pater in the Vulgate, e. g. Jude 1:1).
- *Plth2wih2 Mh2ter (Dg'hōm) is believed to have been the name of an Earth Mother goddess, see Prthivi. Another name of the Indo-European Mother-Earth would be *Dhghom Mater, as in Albanian Dhe Motë, Avestan Zamyat, Slavic Mati Zemlja, Lithuanian Žemyna, Latvian Zemes Mate, Greek Demeter.
- A thunder god, possibly associated with the oak, and in some traditions syncretized with Dyeus. A name *Perkwunos root *per-kw- or *per-g- is suggested by Balto-Slavic *Perkúnos, Norse Fjörgyn, Albanian Perëndi and Vedic Parjanya. An onomatopoeic root *tar is continued in Gaulish Taranis and Hittite Tarhunt. A word for "thunder" itself was *(s)tene-, continued in Germanic *Þunraz (thunder personified), and became Thor.
- *H2ausos is believed to have been the goddess of dawn, continued in Greek mythology as Eos, in Rome as Aurora, in Vedic as Ushas, in Lithuanian mythology as Aušra or Auštaras, in Armenian as Astghik and possibly also in Germanic mythology as Eastre.
Additional gods may include:
- Greek Poseidon was originally a chthonic god, either a god of the earth or the underworld, from poti daon "lord of Da", cf. Demeter from Da mater "Mother Da". Another etymology may be proposed, *don referring to "the waters", as the Vedic goddess of the rivers, Danu, who shares a name with the Celtic mother god. Poseidon being "the master of the waters", more conform to the functions of a god of the sea (and possibly also the (supposed) primordial seabed or watery abyss).
- *Velnos, maybe a god of the night sky, or of the underworld, continued in Sanskrit Varuna, Greek Uranos (which is also a word for sky), Slavic Veles, Armenian Aray and Lithuanian Velnias.
- Divine twins, brothers of the Sun Maiden or Dawn goddess, sons of the Sky god.
- There may have been a sea-god, in Persian and Vedic known as Apam Napat, in Celtic as Nechtan, in Etruscan as Nethuns, in Germanic as Njord and in Latin as Neptune, possibly called *Néptonos. This god may be related to the Germanic water spirit, the Nix.
- The Sun, *Sawel, and the Moon *Menot/Men- deities, possibly twin children of the supreme sky-god *Dyeus, continued in Hindu mythology as Surya and Mas, in Iranian mythology as Hvar and Mah, in Greek as Helios and Selene or, later, Apollo and Artemis, in Latin mythology as Sol and Luna, in German mythology as Sol and Mani, in Baltic mythology as *Saulē and *Mēnō. The usual scheme is that one of these celestial deities is male and the other female, though the exact gender of the Sun or Moon tend to vary among subsequent Indo-European mythologies.
According to the Russian painter and scholar Alex Fantalov, there are only five main archetypes for all gods and goddesses of all Indo-European mythologies. He also proposes that these five archetypes were possibly the original deities of the pre-PIE pantheon. These, according to Fantalov, are:
The sky and thunder gods were heavenly deities, representing the ruling class of society, and in subsequent cultures they were often merged into a single supreme god. On the other hand, the Earth god and the Cultural Hero were earthly gods, tied to nature, agriculture and crafts, and in subsequent cultures they were often split into more deities as societies grew more complex. And while it seems there existed some enmity between the Thunderer and the God of the Earth (which may be echoed in myths about battle of various thunder gods and a serpentine enemy, see below), the Cultural Hero seems to be a sort of demigod son of either the sky god or the thunder god, and was considered to be the ancestor of the human race, and the psychopomp. Together with the character of Great goddess, who was a wife of the ruling sky god, the cultural hero thus balanced between the heavenly god of the sky/thunder and the more chthonic god of the earth/underworld.
Other scholars contest the use of Fantalov's reduction to only 5 deities, or these particular deities, as original forms.
There seems to have been a belief in a world tree, which in Germanic mythology was an ash tree (Norse Yggdrasil; Irminsul), in Hinduism a banyan tree, in Lithuanian mythology Jievaras, and an oak tree in Slavic and Celtic mythology. In classical Greek mythology, the closest analogue of this concept is Mount Olympus; however, there is also a later folk tradition about the World Tree, which is being sawed by the Kallikantzaroi (Greek goblins), perhaps a reborrowing from other peoples.
One common myth which can be found among almost all Indo-European mythologies is a battle ending with the slaying of a serpent, usually a dragon of some sort: examples include Thor vs. Jörmungandr, Sigurd vs. Fafnir in Scandinavian mythology; Zeus vs. Typhon, Kronos vs. Ophion, Apollo vs. Python, Heracles vs. the Hydra and Ladon, Perseus vs. Ceto in Greek mythology; Indra vs. Vritra in the Vedas; Perun vs. Veles, Dobrynya Nikitich vs. Zmey in Slavic mythology; Teshub vs. Illuyanka of Hittite mythology; Θraētaona, and later Kərəsāspa, vs. Aži Dahāka in Zoroastrianism. There are also analogous stories in other neighbouring unrelated mythologies: Anu or Marduk vs. Tiamat in Mesopotamian mythology; Baal or El vs. Lotan or Yam-Nahar in Levantine mythology; Yahweh or Gabriel vs. Leviathan or Rahab or Tannin in Jewish mythology; Michael the Archangel and, Christ vs. Satan (in the form of a seven-headed dragon), Virgin Mary crushing a serpent in Roman Catholic iconography, Saint George vs. the dragon in Christian mythology. The myth symbolized a clash between forces of order and chaos (represented by the serpent), and the god or hero would always win. It is therefore most probable that there existed some kind of dragon or serpent, possibly multi-headed(cf. Śeṣa, the hydra and Typhon) and likely linked with the god of underworld and/or waters, as serpentine aspects can be found in many chthonic and/or aquatic Indo-European deities, such as for example the many Greek aquatic deities, most notably Poseidon, Oceanus, Triton, Typhon (who carries many chthonic attributes while not specifically linked with the sea), Ophion, and also the Slavic Veles. Possibly called *kʷr̥mis, or some name cognate with *Velnos/Werunos or the root *Wel/Vel- (VS Varuna, who is associated with the serpentine naga, Vala and Vṛtra, Slavic Veles, Baltic velnias), or "serpent" (Hittite Illuyanka, VS Ahis, Iranian azhi, Greek ophis and Ophion, and Latin anguis), or the root *dheubh- (Greek Typhon and Python).
Related to the dragon-slaying myth is the "Sun in the rock" myth, of a heroic warrior deity splitting a rock where the Sun or Dawn was imprisoned. Such a myth is preserved in Rigvedic Vala, where Ushas and the cows, stolen by the Panis were imprisoned, connected with other myths of abductions into the netherworld such as the mysteries of Eleusis connected with Persephone, Dionysus and Triptolemus.
There may have been a sort of nature spirit or god akin to the Greek god Pan and the Satyrs, the Roman god Faunus and the Fauns, the Celtic god Cernunnos and the Dusii, Slavic Veles and the Leszi, Vedic Pashupati, Prajapati and Pushan, the Germanic Woodwose and Herne the Hunter; There may also have been a female cognate akin to the Greco-Roman nymphs, Slavic vilas, the Huldra of Germanic folklore, the Hindu Apsaras, the Persian Peri. A possibly similar type of spirit may be found in Jewish mythology, Azazel and the Se'irim, as well as in Arabic mythology, the Jinn.
There may also have been a savage dog or wolf guarding the underworld, such as Greek Kerberos, and Norse Garm. It is also likely that they had three fate goddesses, see the Norns in Norse mythology, Moirae in Greek mythology, Sudjenice of Slavic folklore and Deivės Valdytojos in Lithuanian mythology.
The various Indo-European daughter-cultures continued elements of PIE religion, syncretizing it with innovations and foreign elements, notably Ancient Near Eastern elements, the reforms of Zoroaster and Buddha, and the spread of Christianity and Islam.