Proto Indo-European Mythology: Nick Allen Was More Of A Seer Than We Realised

Proto Indo-European Mythology: Nick Allen Was More Of A Seer Than We Realised

by Koenraad Elst - Monday, May 25, 2020 05:45 PM IST
Proto Indo-European Mythology: Nick Allen Was  More Of A Seer Than We Realised Poseidon with his trident.
  • In his work, Nick Allen’s discusses one of the many similarities between Sanskrit and Greek mythologies.

    He elaborates on one of them, analyses it deeply and adds a momentously new insight to it.

Professor Nick Allen (1939-2020) was a scholar of anthropology and Indo-European (IE) studies who taught from 1976 until his retirement in 2001 (and informally, until his death) at Wolfson College, Oxford.

He had done the fieldwork for his doctorate in Nepal, and did research about the near-extinct Kafir religion of Nuristan.

On the IE heritage, he belonged to the school of Georges Dumezil, perfecting and correcting the latter’s doctrine of trifunctionality (an application of the triguna scheme), and elaborating his emphasis on the common descent of the various IE mythologies from a common Proto-Indo-European (PIE) template.

I met him a number of times at conferences in Oxford and in Louvain-la-Neuve. He died on 21 March 2020, fittingly on Spring Equinox.

Comparative Mythology

In Nick Allen’s work, what first drew my attention was his 1998 paper “The Indo-European Prehistory of Yoga” (International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol 2, p 1-20).

It discusses one of the many similarities between Sanskrit and Greek mythology, apparently inherited from a common Proto-IE (PIE) source.

Allen zooms in on one of them, analyses it deeper than anyone had hitherto done, but that far, he only elaborates an instance of a generally accepted paradigm, viz, that, like the IE languages, the IE mythologies descend from a common PIE source. But then he adds a momentously new insight, as we shall see.

For an example of this general paradigm, we find many versions of the story of a hero obtaining immunity from wounds except in one spot, and later getting killed through that spot.

Thus, Achilles is dipped into a magic potion at birth, but his mother holds him by the heel, so that is where he is later shot; Duryodhana appears naked before his mother, whose eyes have acquired magic power by always being blindfolded, but he wears a loincloth, and there (prudishly: “in his thigh”) he gets mortally wounded; in Germanic mythology, similarly, the sun-god Balder acquires immunity from all plants except the mistletoe, and is shot by an arrow made of mistletoe; and the hero Siegfried bathes in the blood of the dragon he has slain, but a leaf falls on his shoulder, and there he later gets shot.

Or to take this example of dragon-slaying: it is widely done by the thunder-god or his son: Indra, Zeus, Siegfried, Beowulf, and others. Even outside the IE world (which is only part of an even older and larger family), the Babylonian god Marduk slays the dragon Tiamat.

Another property of thunder-gods, or gods in general, across the Indo-European world is the power to take any shape. On this established understanding of the gods, the poets have the thunder-god, a paragon of masculinity, take on other shapes useful in seducing a desired women.

Thus, Indra seduces Ahilya by masking as her lawful husband Gautama; Siegfried (son of the thunder-god Donar/Thor) seduces Brunhild by taking the shape of her husband Gunther; Zeus often takes shapes to seduce his many paramours, eg, he becomes a bull to seduce princess Europa.

These are perhaps jocular variations invented by the poets to illustrate this fundamental divine power, but the deeper essence reveals itself later in the philosophical doctrine of Maya, which sees the world as a fictional shape taken by the supreme being.

A final example from the Indo-European mythologies is the motif of four world ages of descending quality. The Hindu notion of Krta, Treta, Dvapara and Kali Yuga is not substantially different from the Greek notion of a Golden, Silver, Bronze and Iron Age, or the Germanic notion of a Spear, Sword, Wind and Wolf Age.

Even in non-IE cultures as far as Mexico, variations on this motif appear.

So, Hindu civilisation is challenged to come out of its cocoon and realise its specific place within the larger genealogical tree of mankind’s ideas and myths.

That will then emphasise the differences too, where Hinduism has built on a common heritage but taken it further.

Thus, several mythologies attribute to gods the power to take shape, but only Hindu civilisation has developed it into the vedantic doctrine of Maya.

In the case of Homer’s Odyssey, which we are going to discuss, a few examples of similarities with the Sanskrit hymns are these.

While Odysseus is away from home for 20 years, his wife Penelope is getting increasingly besieged by suitors; ultimately they number 108, which in Hinduism is the sacred number par excellence.

They are put to a test: drawing Odysseus’ bow. But only Odysseus (who has just returned to his home island, in disguise) can draw it, just as only Arjuna can draw the bow during the contest for Draupadi’s hand (and just like Rama when competing for Sita’s hand).

Or for something very different, when camping on sun god Helios’ island, Odysseus and his men are sworn to abstain from eating his cows; but his men defy his orders, kill and eat the cows, and get divinely punished for their cow-slaughter by drowning to death.

It is my observation that, while some mindless Hindus only get elated by this because “it proves that ancient Hindus conquered the world”, many orthodox Hindus don’t like these international similarities, neither in mythology nor in language. For them, it detracts from the unicity of Sanskritic tradition.

They fear that positing any relation at all between things Indian and things non-Indian, whether through an invasion from a foreign homeland or even through an emigration from an Indian homeland, is a ruse by “the foreign hand” to belittle Hinduism and deprive it of its greatness and originality.

Yet, hold your horses, because acknowledging these similarities turns out to do great honour to the Hindu version.

The Hard Journey To Bliss

So, as part of this project of discovering ancient common motifs that manifest in both Sanskritic and Greek traditions, Allen discusses the commonalities between Odysseus’ journey from the nymph Calypso’s island Ogygia to the blissful island of Scheria belonging to the god-like Phaeacan tribe, and Arjuna’s journey from the Dvaita Forest to the Himalaya and ultimately to Indra’s heaven.

They are no less than 23 in number:

1. Larger journey. For both heroes, as we know, the transit in question is part of a much longer round trip. The Pandavas set off from their royal capital before their exile and will return there. Odysseus sets off from Ithaca before the Trojan War and will likewise return.

2. Stasis. Before the transit both heroes are, as it were, becalmed. The Pandavas have spent 13 months in Dvaita forest and show no signs of moving. Odysseus has spent seven years in Ogygia, and Calypso hopes to keep him there indefinitely.

3. Depression. The Pandavas are deeply depressed and lament their situation at length. Odysseus spends his days weeping on the shore of Ogygia.

4. Visitor with instructions. Vyasa arrives unexpectedly with instructions for the whole party to move on and for Arjuna himself to go to heaven (3.37.20). Hermes arrives unexpectedly with Zeus' instructions for Odysseus to depart (5.77).

5. Intermediary. Neither visitor speaks directly to the hero. Vyasa deals only with Yudhisthira (Arjuna's eldest brother), Hermes with Calypso.

6. Female's farewell. Draupadi and Calypso both make touching goodbye speeches.

7. Uneventful start. Arjuna goes north to the Himalayas, travelling alone and fast until he is well into the mountains. Odysseus sails alone before a favorable wind for 17 days until he comes in sight of Scheria.

8. Unwearied. Arjuna travels night and day without fatigue. Odysseus does not sleep for the seventeen days.

9. A complex ordeal (we shall come back to its detailed structure later). Arjuna undertakes four months of tapas. Following a change of scene while the sages visit Siva, the story returns to earth for the fight, after which god and hero are reconciled. As for Odysseus, his raft is progressively destroyed by the storm. Then comes a lull. The hero's sufferings resume as he faces the problems of landing, until his final success at the river mouth.

10. Emaciation. Though most manuscripts ignore it, some refer, reasonably enough, to Arjuna's emaciation following the tapas. The sages worry, but the god reassures them, and they rejoice. During the lull Odysseus rejoices, and his joy is compared to that of a group of sons worried about their father. The father has suffered a long emaciating illness, and when, at last, the gods relent and the father mends, the sons rejoice. This rapprochement, like some others (eg, 13), is between the Sanskrit main story and a Homeric simile.

11. Divine enemy and supporter. When Siva comes to earth, he initially treats Arjuna as if he were an enemy. When Poseidon becomes aware of Odysseus, he treats him as his enemy. However, in both cases, the divine enemy is balanced by a divine friend, for during his ordeal Arjuna receives support from Indra disguised as a Brahmana and when Poseidon has departed Odysseus receives help from Athene.

12. Painful bodily contact. Arjuna's battle with Siva starts with an exchange of arrows and progresses to wrestling. Odysseus is thrown by a wave against a rough rock and clasps hold of it as the wave rushes past. [Note that this motif of wrestling with a god also appears in the Bible, where Jacob wrestles with Elohim, thus becoming Israel, “wrestles with God” (Genesis 32:28). KE]

13. Lump of flesh with injured extremities. Siva reduces Arjuna to what looks like a lump of organic matter, a pinda, with damaged limbs. The wave which throws Odysseus against the rock rebounds from the cliffs and plucks him off again, stripping the skin from his hands. He is like an octopus dragged from its hole with pebbles adhering to its tentacles.

14. Unconscious. Arjuna falls to the ground unconscious in front of Siva. Odysseus falls to the ground unconscious on landing.

15. Prayer. Arjuna revives and prays to Siva, begging for forgiveness. Just before he lands, Odysseus prays to the river god, begging for his kindness.

16. Offering. Arjuna makes a clay image of Siva and offers to it a garland, which the god takes and puts on. Odysseus gives to the river god the veil of the goddess Ino, which he has been using as buoyancy aid. The god returns it to Ino, who duly takes it in her hands.

17. Restoration. Arjuna is physically restored by the touch of Siva. Odysseus is physically restored by Athene's hypnotherapy.

18. Cardinal points. After his encounter with Siva, Arjuna meets the four Lokapalas. During the storm, Odysseus is buffeted by the four wind gods, Euros, Notos, Zephyr, and Boreus, who are linked with east, south, west, and north, respectively.

19. Three-plus-one structure (a point we shall come back to). The four Lokapalas include Indra, but the king of the gods stands apart from the other three in various particulars. Among the four winds, Boreus, who is 'king of the winds' (Pindar 4.181), stands apart, for when Athene calms the other three winds she lets Boreus continue blowing until the lull.

20. City with park. Indra's heaven contains a divine city Amaravati, inhabited by gods, with blossoming trees and a park. The Scherian city (unnamed) belongs to the Phaeacians, who are near kin to the gods (agkhitheoi gegaasi; 5.35), and it contains Alcinous' park and his ever-fruitful trees.

21. Wheeled vehicle. Arjuna goes to the city in a chariot belonging to Indra, its king. Odysseus walks to the city behind the mule-cart that Nausicaa borrowed from her royal father.

22. Throne. Arjuna shares his divine father's throne in his palace. Odysseus is seated next to the king on a throne which has just been vacated by Alcinous' favourite son.

23. Disappointed nymph. In heaven, the Apsara Urvasi is misled by Indra into thinking that she will enjoy sex with Arjuna, which indeed she wants to do. Nausicaa is misled by Athene into thinking that she will very soon be getting married; and when she meets Odysseus, she hopes it will be to him.” (Allen 1998: 5-7)

This list gives an idea of what kinds of similarities are possible here. But more importantly, in the aggregate they get evidential value:

“In parts of their careers, Arjuna and Odysseus show similarities so numerous and detailed that they must be cognate figures, sharing an origin in the proto-hero of an oral proto-narrative. For present purposes many questions about this proto narrative can be left unanswered. Was it told in prose or in verse or in a mixture of the two? Was it told in the Urheimat or original homeland (whatever the location and date of that logically necessary zone of space-time), or did it diffuse somewhat after the dispersal began? It does not matter. The similarities cannot be explained either by chance, or by Jungian archetypes, or by diffusion of the Homeric epics from Greece to India; and if they are as striking as I think then, one way or another, they must be due to common origin in a proto-narrative.” 
(Allen 1998:2)


One explanation, explored by the Spanish philologist Fernando Wulff Alonso (The Mahabharata and Greek Mythology, 2008, in English 2014), is that the similarities are due to recent borrowing, via the post-Alexandrine Indo-Greeks.

Many things Indian have been attributed to Greek transmission, eg, Nyaya logic from Aristotelian logic, the Buddha statue copying the Apollo statue, astrology (or at least horoscopy) borrowed from Babylon and immediately passed on to the Hindus, the art of theatre and even the sari have been claimed as presents from the Greeks.

In some cases, this proposed transmission might even correspond to historical facts, but in the case of the epics and background of ancient mythology, this is extremely unlikely.

Such an extensive literary borrowing can hardly have taken place without leaving a trace, such as the borrowing of words and names. Even Wulff Alonso cannot pinpoint any unmistakable borrowing.

The first Hindu treatises on astrology have the names of the Zodiac in transcribed Greek; they were translated only later, and some technical terms passed from Greek into the normal Sanskrit lexicon, eg, kentron/kendra.

But no such loans can be found in the epic, except for Yavana, “Ionian, Greek” itself, common in general usage. The wars around which both the Mahabharata and the Homeric epics were woven, took place a thousand years before the Indo-Greeks. Their causes in the respective epics are very different, as is the cast of protagonists.

Whereas a number of literary motifs are parallel, the historical core is very different, no imitation there.

Finally, even Alexander, by definition earlier than the Indo-Greeks, had already heard that the Hindus too have “an Iliad”, ie, a war epic.

Far more likely is an explanation ultimately developed by Georges Dumezil and elaborated by Nick Allen: the two have a common source.

The narrative got reapplied to historical events in the second millennium, but was in outline older, as were the myths at the background. They belong to a common PIE heritage.

So, instead of a diffusion from historical Greece to historical India, we have a diffusion from the PIE homeland to all the IE branches, including India and Greece.

Siva And Poseidon

One of the pairs of gods of related provenance, though now less obvious to recognise as similar, are Siva and Poseidon.

The historical differentiation of Greeks and Hindus have also had its effect on these two, eg, Siva is not particularly associated with the sea, as is Poseidon. This is probably due to geography: Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, where the Mahabharata is set, is land-locked, whereas seafaring was a way of life for the Greeks.

Yet, both are, among other things, gods of the underworld, and both are depicted with a trident (an object allotted by the Church to that more recent underworlder, Satan). Both put our heroes, Arjuna c.q. Odysseus, to the test during their journey.

But there is a difference, as Allen observes:

Arjuna’s journey is in several senses a yogic undertaking: for a start, the hero is explicitly ‘yoked to Indra’s yoga’. In ancient Greece one finds hints of yoga-like religiosity, especially in Pythagoreanism, but there is nothing obviously yogic or Pythagorean about Odysseus’ journey.

Thus, Odysseus is repeatedly thwarted by Poseidon because he has provoked the god’s anger. Arjuna, by contrast, has to contend with Siva in a yogic challenge, which he meets by ascetic exercises.

These include the weeks-long practice of the oldest described Hatha Yoga contortion, viz, the Vrksasana, or tree pose.

These are completely absent in the Odyssey. Siva is the ideal yogi, and is depicted as a typical ascetic, sitting in meditation pose, and with the fruit of meditation: the enlightened third eye.

Poseidon is not, though Jungian psychologists still associate him with a second-best option: altered states of consciousness, depth psychology and the subconscious, which is compared to an ocean full of exotic life forms.

Poseidon does without a Third Eye, but his son Polyphemos has one: a single eye, for that is how people who have forgotten about yoga, distortively remember this esoteric concept.

Once this non-comprehended remnant of a symbol starts leading its own life, story-tellers weave playful anecdotes around it, such as Odysseus poking his single eye out. And that is then the rather mundane reason why father Poseidon is angry with our hero.

So, in India we have a consistent and lofty symbol, Siva as the ideal yogi, and in Greece only a remnant, a similar character with similar symbols (trident, relation to the Third Eye through his son’s single eye).

Allen comments:

In parts of their careers, Arjuna and Odysseus show similarities so numerous and detailed that they must be cognate figures, sharing an origin in the proto-hero of an oral proto-narrative. (…) So, if both stories descend from a proto-narrative, there are two possibilities. Either the proto-journey was like the Greek and contained nothing relating to yoga, in which case the yogic aspect of the Sanskrit story was an innovation that developed in the Indian branch of the tradition. Or the proto journey was like the Sanskrit and was quasi-yogic or proto-yogic in character, in which case Greek epic tradition largely or wholly eliminated that aspect of the story. I shall argue for the second scenario, claiming both that the proto-narrative shared certain features with yoga and that the telling of such a story makes it likely that there already existed ritual practices ancestral to yoga as we know it. (…) I argue that some significant and fairly precisely identifiable features of yoga go back to the culture of those who told the proto-narrative, who (…) may well have been proto-Indo-European speakers.

Implications For The Homeland Debate

A suspicion arises that needs to be verified further, viz, that after comparison, the myths indicate the anteriority or greater authenticity of the Indian version.

Nick Allen has repeatedly shown that in many parallel motifs in the Mahabharata and in Homer’s epics, the Indian version contains a spiritual element lacking in the European version.

So, yoga existed in the Indo-European homeland, but the Greeks lost it.

The logical explanation, which stares him in the face but which he as an invasionist fails to draw, is that this dimension was lost in the rough and tumble of the trek to their historical habitat.

The most precious elements are the ones that get lost most easily, such as in a corpse, where the brain starts disintegrating at once whereas the skeleton can last for centuries.

Similarly, the twists in the story were more or less preserved but the subtle yoga teachings in it were gradually forgotten, with only a remnant like the Single Eye reminding of it.

In that case, India was their common homeland, but only the stay-behind Indians had the comfort of a stable situation where they could preserve the most subtle layer of their stories.

The invasionist explanation would be that the Aryan barbarians did not have this profound layer to their narratives, but reinterpreted these once they interiorised the native Indian tradition of yoga.

This is not impossible, but in that case they would not so much have added a new content to their old stories, but adopted the appropriate aboriginal stories that transmitted the yoga doctrines.

This promising first impression needs to be verified in closer research, informed by a knowledge of Indian spirituality. At any rate, we must thank Nick Allen for this extremely important paper.

Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.
Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

An Appeal...

Dear Reader,

As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.

Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.

We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.

Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.

Become A Patron
Become A Subscriber
Comments ↓
Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

Latest Articles

    Artboard 4Created with Sketch.