The Indo-European Roots.

By Maria Kvilhaug

The Indo-European language family includes most modern European, Anatolian, Iranian and South Asian, having its roots in a “proto-Indo-European” culture that existed in Central Asia and Eastern Europe around the 5th and 4th millennia B.C. before they spread eastwards and westwards, carrying with them a warlike ideology and a pantheon dominated by male sky-gods. By the 2nd millennium B.C. they had come to dominate Northern India, Western Europe, Anatolia and the Aegean. Some archaeologists have suggested that these were the same people who gradually overthrew the more peaceful and egalitarian goddess-worshipping Neolithic and Megalithic cultures.

The Indo-European connection is the historical background for the many similarities etween Old Indian myths of the Vedas and Old Norse myths and the Eddas.

From about 2500 B.C., a new, agricultural people arrived in Scandinavia from the Southeast. If the earlier settlers had not been Indo-European, these new people certainly were. For the next 2000 years, this new culture spread into Scandinavia and came to dominate most of it. Only the nomad Sami ancestors managed to escape their total cultural domination, fleeing inland and northwards to arid mountain and tundra areas where agriculture simply could not happen.

The Battle-Axe people brought with them horses, the first evidence for warfare, hierarchy, gender division, patriarchy and copper. They seem to have worshipped, among other gods, a sky-god related to thunderbolts. Their culture gradually replaced the older, Megalithic and more communal culture.

We know very little about how this dramatic social change was experienced by the inhabitants of Northern Europe, and to what degree the older cultures survived, if at all. By the time Scandinavia entered the Bronze Age from about 1700 B.C., the culture was probably dominantly Indo-European. But that the event may have found its way into myth and legend is not entirely impossible. In this respect, I find it extremely interesting to contemplate the account of Snorri Sturluson, who in 1225 wrote about the invasion of the Aesir into Scandinavia:[1]

“Near the middle of the world was constructed that building and dwelling which has been the most splendid ever, which was called Troy. We call the land there Turkey…Twelve kingdoms were there and one high king, and many countries were subject to each kingdom. In the city there were twelve chief languages….[a prince was born, and turned out to be a hero, excelling in strength, beauty and courage,(quite like Heracles)] we call him Thor….[he married] a prophetess called Sibyl, whom we call Síf…[they had many descendants before Woden].

…a son whose name was Woden, it is him we call Óðinn. He was an outstanding person for wisdom and all kinds of accomplishments. His wife was called Frigida, whom we call Frigg. Óðinn had the gift of prophecy and so did his wife, and from this science he discovered that his name would be remembered in the Northern part of the world and honored above all kings. For this reason he became eager to set off from Turkey and took with him a very great following, young people and old, men and women, and they took with them many precious things.

And whatever countries they passed through, great glory was spoken of them, so that they seemed more like gods than men. And they did not halt their journey until they came north to the country that is now called Saxony. Óðinn stayed there a long while and gained possession og large parts of that land.

There Óðinn put in charge of the country three of his sons…From all these people great family lines are descended. Then Óðinn set off north and came to a country [Jutland in Denmark] and gained possession of all he wished in that land… After that Óðinn went north to what is now called Sweden…

And such was the success that attended their travels that in whatever country they stopped, there was then prosperity and good peace there, and everyone believed that they were responsible for it because the people who had power saw that they were unlike other people they had seen in beauty and wisdom.  Óðinn found the conditions in the country attractive and selected as a site for his city the place which is now called Sígtuna [an ancient cultic centre near Uppsala]. He also organized rulers there on the same pattern as it had been in Troy, set up twelve chiefs in the place to administer the laws of the land, and he established all the legal system as it had previously been in Troy, and to which the Turks were accustomed.

After that he proceeded north to where he was faced by the sea, the one which they thought encircled all lands, and set a son of his over the realm which is now called Norway. He is called Sæming and the kings of Norway trace their ancestry back to him, as do earls and other rulers…

The Aesir [gods] found themselves marriages within the country there, and some for their sons too, and these families became extensive, so that throughout Saxony and from there all over the northern regions it spread so that their language, that of the men of Asia, became the mother tongue over all these lands. And people think…that the Aesir brought the language north to this part of the world, to Norway and to Sweden, to Denmark and to Saxony…”

It is of course impossible to know if Snorri just invented the story based on Medieval European traditions, or if he actually based himself on old legends. It is interesting to note that the idea that the original Aesir were the descendants of Thor corresponds with a 1st century A.D. claim that the Germans believed that they were the descendants of a semi-divine hero, “the earth-born god Tuisto” and his son Mannus, (corresponding to Thor´s son Magni).[2]

The Old Norse language, however, which was spoken in Scandiavia and dominated its western and southern coasts at least by the time of the Bronze Age, belongs to the Indo-European language family. We must also explore the fact that there are some very important concepts as well as linguistic connections that point to a shared origin of the mythological and conceptual worldview that lies behind the Old Indian Vedas and the Old Norse Edda lore.

There are approximately 450 different languages belonging to this family, half of which as so.called Indo-Aryan. The language family includes most modern languages of Europe, Iran and South-Asia. It was predominant in ancient Anatolia as well, from where Snorri Sturlusson claimed that the Aesir ancestors originated.[1] Records of this language were written down as early as the Bronze Ages in the form of Anatolian languages and Mycenaen Greek.

There is a great uncertainty as to the origin of the Indo-European language family. Many believe that it originated in a particular culture, the so-called “Proto-Indo-Europeans”, who in this case likely existed during the late Neolithic area (some time between the 6th and 4th millennium BC). There is no direct evidence for this culture ever having existed, except through the study of language which appears to give certain clues, as well as many basic mythological concepts which are shared by most Indo-European speaking cultures, just like we saw there were certain basic mythological concepts which are shared by most Uralic and Finno-Ugric speaking cultures. The commonly held words that are shared by most Indo-European languages suggest that these “Proto-Indo-Europeans” lived in a forest-steppe zone probably around the Pontic-Caspian steppe in Eastern Europe. Their culture was likely pastoral, nomadic, hierarchic and warlike.

Archaeological records show that during the late Neolithic, before these “Proto-Indo-Europeans”, there were two main cultural groups in Europe. The northwest was dominated by the Megalith-builders and their abstract art. The southeast was dominated by agriculturalists and their figurative art, focusing especially on images of women, pregnancy and shapechanging. These figurines are often painted with exactly the same kind of abstract symbols employed by the Megalith-builders, so that there appears to have been a cultural connection between them.[2] These societies had a remarkable stability, often there is evidence of millennia of peaceful continuation, and no signs of organized warfare. They were obviously relatively peaceful and without signs of any significant hierarchy, they appear to have been communal and egalitarian and focused on the home and the hearth, the symbol of the pregnant woman or goddess obviously representing something of particular and central importance. There have been speculations about a priestly caste at the top of the hierarchy, but this is based on the assumption that any organized society must have a leadership, and not on any actual evidence. Women appear to have been of equal worth and value to men – in some areas there are reasons to believe that they may have been occupying a central space in the communities.

From around 3500 BC and onwards, the archaeological record speaks the slow spread of a culture that was remarkably different. Whether this “new culture” spread through migration and invasions, or whether it just developed independently out of the older culture, is unknown. But the finds speak of a cultural revolution where a new kind of culture replaced, little by little, the older cultures.[3]  At 2000 BC, the peaceful and communal cultures of the past had largely given way to the new one, which was more hierarchic, focused on the individual, and which had a different pantheon. It has been suggested by some that this new culture trend is evidence for the spread of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, and that these brought their language with them. This did not happen in one invasion, but through many different waves of migration over the course of several millennia.

Further evidence that could indicate that this cultural revolution actually did take place  through migrations and invasions are the many legends as well as evidence that Indo-European speaking cultures certainly invaded older non-Indo-European cultures in more recent times: The Indo-European Myceaneans replaced the older, Minoan culture which shared many symbolic-religious similarities with the earlier Neolithic cultures of Europe. The white-skinned Hyksos invaded Egypt and held power over the dynasties there for more than three centuries before they were finally driven out. In India, the Aryans conquered and replaced the older Indus Valley civilizations, which also held much symbolism in common with the Minoans. Even in Snorri´s tale of the Aesir as ancestors “from Asia” – usually dismissed as pure fiction – tells of how a new group of people from Anatolia began to spread in Europe, conquering the lands and marrying their women, and spreading their language, introducing themselves as a higher caste led by warlords, kings and priests. Apart from the fact that all these legends speak of Indo-European invaders, they also share some important traits such as their worship of a Thundergod born of the Earth goddess. In each of these cases, it would appear that the invaders both influenced the older cultures with their languages, their myths and their societal order, but they also adopted and integrated peaces of the older and often far more civilized and advanced cultures and their mythical concepts and languages.

The Indo-European cultures of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages often did not possess a written language, but some of them soon acquired one, probably influenced by the civilizations that they either conquered or interacted with. This is especially true of the Greeks and the Indians. But the Greeks recorder little of their earliest religious practices – the myths left to us have often been separated from their place in ritual and religion. Apart from the Indian culture, most of the Indo-European descendants today have given way to some of the great monotheistic religions, mainly Christianity and Islam, with roots in Semitic religion and myth. Thus most of the original Indo-European myths have been either lost or altered, and we can only trace a few glimpses of basic similarities. Only India has largely continued the old ways into a modern time, and only India has left us a prehistoric treasure of the Indo-European past: the written records of early hymns about gods and rites called the Vedas, as well as an impressive body of ancient discourse about religion and philosophy. There are many obvious contact points between ancient Indian concepts and Old Norse mythology, a connection that may be due to a common origin reaching back some 5000 years or more.

The Indo-European Invasion Thesis

It is traditionally thought that India was invaded by the Indo-European tribe of Aryans around 1500 BC, when the Indus Valley civilization fell. These are thought to have entered the Indus Valley and the plains of India from central Asia via the mountain passes of Afghanistan. Some of these groups went into Iran, and we know that there are very close affinities between the Iranian religion of the Zoroastrian Avesta scriptures and the religion of the Vedic scriptures that descendants of the Aryans recorded. This thesis also suggests that the Aryans were of the same original stock that went west into Europe. Their language was an Indo-European tongue which developed into Sanskrit, still considered the sacred language of Hinduism. The early invaders worshipped primarily the fire god Agni, the warrior god Indra, and the hallucinogenic plant Soma, which was also a god and a ritual drink. The Aryans conquered the Indian tribes and regarded themselves as superior – the caste of warriors, kings and priests – whereas the indigenous people of India were assigned their places in the lower caste hierarchies. By 1000 BC they had reached the Ganges region which soon became the “Aryan homeland”. Knowledge of the Aryans comes mostly from their sacred text, the Rig Veda Samhita, which is also the earliest literature of Hinduism.

The Aryan invasion scenario in India reminds us the passage in Snorri Sturlusson´s Prose Edda (as well as a similar one in his Ynglinga Saga, Heimskringla) where he describes how a people from Anatolia, present day Turkey, descended upon Northern Europe in a prehistoric past.

Snorri´s account is usually dismissed by scholars as pure fiction, a typical one for his time, when it was fashionable for European cultures to claim a Classical heritage – after all the great Romans also traced their ancestry back to Troy! Yet if we overlook the detail, dismissing most of them as fictional, we can still see a rather credible scenario at the core of this story – a people from the southeast who moved throughout Europe, changing its culture, its language and its societal order, placing themselves at the top or the hierarchy as war-leaders and priests. As such, the story is in perfect accordance with the Indo-European invasion thesis – Anatolia was in fact a place where people back in those days certainly were Indo-European. There is also archaeological evidence that a new culture did spread from the southeast to the northwest during the late Neolithic – a culture that was more hierarchic, more warlike, more male-dominant than the earlier native cultures: From around 2500 BC, there is evidence that a new culture type gradually came to dominate Scandinavia and that this culture type spread into the North from the Southeast. We do not know if any of the earlier migration groups were also Indo-European, but the new culture type certainly was.

It should be noted that there are historians who have proposed a different thesis of internal cultural transformation. This trend points to archaeological evidence: The late Neolithic/early Bronze Age developments of new and different cultures were rather more gradual and happening over such stretches of time that we cannot really speak of an  “invasion” as such. Regarding Europe, Marija Gimbutas also pointed out this fact and suggested that the changes may have happened through gradual migration of a new culture combined with invasions. She pointed out that the changes were so radical, not only in societal and religious areas, but also in symbolism, art and craftsmanship, that it was not possibly a local development, but a complete revolution. When there are local changes, one can usually see a gradual, internal development in architecture, pottery and art as well as in religious imagery, burial customs and town planning. What we are seeing in the case of prehistoric Europe is rather a completely different culture in all respects, popping up in different localities, first in Eastern Europe, and then gradually, as if through migration, throughout the rest of Europe. [1] However, the “non-invasion” thesis goes further and claims that the changes were local and internal – happening within the cultures themselves.

Regarding India, this non-invasion thesis claims that the Aryan culture was an internal development of the Indus Valley culture. This thesis is based on the idea that the Indo-European language is far older and was spoken all over Eurasia even as early as during the Neolithic.[2] Thus according to this thesis, all the known Indo-European cultures are not the result of the spread of a particular Proto-Indo-European culture, but results of local changes during the late Neolithic, from Western Europe to India. This thesis may appear to be at odds with the many legends and myths of invasion known to us, and one could argue that it seems odd that the entire Eurasian continent was subject to such local changes quite independent of each other but which led to relatively similar cultures that were dramatically different the earlier cultures that they replaced.

Of course, invasions may have taken place and changed these cultures locally, yet the cultures that were changed may also have been Indo-European to start with. A similar pattern of invasions and cultural changes happened in the Middle-East, yet the invaders there were often nomadic, Semitic people. We are possibly facing a commonplace ancient scenario where old Bronze Age cultures from Europe to India, both Indo-European and not, interacted with each other through trade and travelling and shared many important cultural and religious trends. At some point, all these cultures eventually encountered the challenge of warlike nomadic tribes, both Indo-European and not, causing changes whether they conquered or just wroak havoc to the older orders. This may have happened many times in a given culture. The pattern of invasion and migration resulting in profound cultural changes all across the Eurasian continent began as early as the Neolithic era and continued to propose a challenge to the more or less civilized cultures that evolved ever since.

We may understand this pattern better if we see it in the light of what happened in Europe and Asia during the late Iron Age: Warlike and semi-nomadic tribes such as the Germans, the Celts and the Huns moved through Europe (and in the case of the Huns, also through Asia), threatening the borders of the civilized worlds such as the Roman, the Persian and the Chinese empires. These empires were all different, and only the Roman and Persian cultures were Indo-European, yet they held a lot in common because they were all advanced civilizations extending culturally in all directions, interacting with each other through trade routes. The Celts, Germans and Huns were also different from each other. The Celts and Germans were both Indo-European, yet the Huns were probably of Turkic or Mongolian origin and definitely not Indo-European: Yet their lifestyles, attitudes and culture had more in common with each other than they had with the civilized world. Their movements across the continent proposed the same kind of challenges to and influenced great changes in the empires that they challenged. Eventually, the Goths succeeded in destroying the Roman Empire, just as Mongolian tribes much later followed in the path of the Huns and changed China, also providing serious challenges to Europe.

The example above is just one of countless similar scenarios that happened over thousands of years. It would appear that the great invasions of “barbaric” tribes into civilized cultures is something that has happened for a long time in many places, and that it simply does not have anything to do with what language family either the invaded or the invaders belonged to. The cultural and linguistic connections between Indo-European cultures may thus be extremely ancient. Cultural and linguistic similarities may be due to either shared origins reaching back into unknown prehistory, and also due to intense and very long-term cultural interaction across the world. The obvious diversity and differences between these Indo-European cultures may similarly be due to interaction with various other linguistic/cultural groups over time. In the North, we have seen that Finno-Ugric trends played an important role, although western Scandinavian culture had become predominantly Indo-European by the time of the Bronze Age.

[1] Gimbutas

[2] Flood, 1996, p.30-31

[1] Snorri Sturlusson, Prologue, Prose Edda, and Ynglinga Saga, Heimskringla.

[2] Gimbutas, NBNBNBNB

[3] Rodenborg, Gimbutas


[1] Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda introduction

[2] Tacitus, Germania, 2


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