1. Early Years and First Meeting with Michel Bréal



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Georges Dumézil

Bernard Sergent

translated by Chet Wiener
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1. Early Years and First Meeting with Michel Bréal
Georges Dumézil was born in Paris on March 4, 1898.
The Dumézil family is a fine example of social advancement through the French educational system. His grandfather, a cooper in the southwest of France, did all he could for his son, Jean Anatole Dumézil (1857-1929) to attend lycée. The future general, Jean Anatole Dumézil, studied foreign languages and Latin and rose to the rank of general in the French armed forces. He developed a keen interest in Latin poetry which he passed on to his son Georges, one of two children he had with his wife Marguérite (née Dutier, 1860-1945). This child would go on to become one of the great minds of the French intellectual world, the most eminent mythologist of his generation (with Claude Lévi-Strauss), a professor at the École Pratique des Hautes Études and then the Collège de France, and a member of the Académie Française.

Georges Dumézil was an excellent student. He studied Latin and Greek and was reading the Aeneid in the original (no easy matter!) by age nine. He also learned German and early on his father turned him on Greek mythology by suggesting he read the great historiographer of the ancient world, Berthold Georg Niebuhr (1776-1831).

Thus his interest in mythology and peoples of the ancient world began with his earliest education. But the decisive turn for the future scholar took place when he was in lycée. One of his schoolmates introduced Dumézil to his grandfather, the great nineteenth century linguist, Michel Bréal (1832-1915). Bréal was the translator of the founder of comparative grammar, Franz Bopp’s (1791-1867) monumental and rigorous study of the grammar and vocabulary of Indo-European languages. The first edition of the translation appeared in 1866. In later years, Dumézil described Bréal’s introduction as “radiant.” For his part, Bréal recognized young Georges Dumézil’s interest in and gift for languages; he gave him his first Sanskrit-French dictionary and directed him towards his successor, Antoine Meillet (1866-1936) the premier French linguist of the first half of the twentieth century. Before entering a university Dumézil had mastered Sanskrit and Arabic—and all Meillet’s written work to that date.

2. Indo-European Studies

The general acceptance of the existence of the Indo-European family of languages derives from eighteenth-century research based on similarities between words—particularly numbers and kinship terms—in many European and Asian languages.

Systematic study of these languages by Bopp and the Dane, Rasmus Khristian Rask led to higher degrees of specification. They noted that similarities among Greek, Latin, and the Germanic, Celtic, Baltic, Slavic, Iranian and Indian languages—were not limited to the level of vocabulary only. Grammatical similarities were even greater proof that the relationship was not due to chance or borrowings between languages.

They concluded that this group of languages could only have descended from a common, no longer extant, parent language. The language family, as well as the originary language came to be called “Indo-European.”

In the mid-nineteenth century it was widely held that if such a parent language existed, a people with its own religion and culture must have existed too. Experts then sought to reconstruct this lost civilization through comparative study of myths and rituals of the various peoples speaking Indo-European languages.

But despite great enthusiasm these efforts were eventually abandoned. Hardly a single name of a god or a hero common to more than one branch of the Indo-European languages was discovered. The terms designating rituals and priests were completely different. And the origins of the rituals and myths studied (such as the origin of fire) were found to share nothing specifically Indo-European about them.


The Indo-European explanation of the world is just one of humanity’s many dreams, and as far as its content is concerned it is not the most important dream. But from the perspective of the conditions of its observation it is extremely important. . . In no other domain is it possible to follow the same ideology for thousands of years among eight or ten different human groups that have maintained it after total separation from one another. The picture one gets upon considering these creations side by side indicates, above all, the fertility of the human mind.

(Georges Dumézil, Mythe et épopée I)

3. Linguistics and Mythology

That was my real beginning. . . just imagine, in the Annales of the Musée Guimet. The book’s principles however were quickly called into question. And they were, I myself declare, more than questionable.

(Georges Dumézil, speaking about his 1924 dissertation in Entretiens avec Didier Éribon)
Indo-European studies had diminished greatly by the end of the nineteenth century. Advances in linguistics were progressing in inverse proportion to studies of Indo-European civilization and religion.

But Georges Dumézil would change all that. In the meantime he pursued his studies. The brilliant elementary and secondary school student was ranked number one upon entering the École Normale Supériure in 1916. World War I was underway. Like most young French men Dumézil was called up to serve his country. That was in 1917. He was an artillery officer. After being demobilized in February 1919 he passed the French agrégation in classics in December, and taught briefly in a lycée before leaving the position to work on his dissertation.

Antoine Meillet was his dissertation director, and Dumézil began working on the research that fascinated him for the rest of his life. It is true that he had briefly considered devoting his life to physics, and particularly the new nuclear field. But his childhood predilections won out. Meillet suggested that since Dumézil was interested in myths he should examine similarities in words relating to religious and mythic entities in different Indo-European lexicons.

Dumézil based his early research on the following remarkable similarity. In ancient India the drink of immortality was called amrta and in ancient Greece, ambrosia. The terms are extremely similar and both mean “nondeath.” Dumézil studied all myths in the Indo-European world which include the taking of immortal drinks. A striking book based on his dissertation was published in 1924, Le Festin d’immortalité. Étude de mythologie indo-européenne 1.
In 1924 my goal was to reconstitute an already Indo-European myth cycle on ambrosia, the drink that enables the Gods to be immortal. I did some inventing where elements were lacking, for example, with the Scandinavians. They do not provide the philologist with an immortal drink, so I promoted beer to this position. . .

My book was extremely clumsy. I never reread it and yet I’ve never quite reached the point of regretting having written it because from my point of view it was the first wobbly rung of the acrobat’s ladder that led me to the terrace I’m positioned on today. It’s by reflecting on the stupid things one says—in my case at least—that one eventually manages to discover some probabilities.

(Georges Dumézil, Entretiens avec Didier Éribon)



  1. Le Festin d’immortalité. Étude de mythologie comparée indo-européenne, Annales du Musée Guimet, n° 34, Paul Geuthner.

4. Turkey, the Caucasus and Sweden
Curiously, although he suggested the topic which led to Dumézil’s 1924 work, Meillet rejected it. This is one of many examples of the linguist’s leeriness of projects involving mythology.

Dumézil did not return to his teaching job at the lycée and found small jobs here and there. He was newly married when he learned that Meillet no longer supported him. Another member of his dissertation committee informed him that there was no place for him in the French the university system.

A specialist on Arthurian legend, Jean Marx, was less hostile towards work focused on myth. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had recently created a university division in the history of religions, and in 1925 Marx nominated Dumézil for the position.

Dumézil’s time in Turkey was of capital importance for the directions his career would go in. He learned Turkish which he had cause to use later on, notably during World War II as well as in subsequent research, and in 1929 he spent time with and learned the language of the Ubykh, a Caucasian people “discovered” in Western Turkey by a German traveler in 1912. The Ubykh had taken refuge in a remote region after being defeated by the Russians in the 1860s. Dumézil also traveled extensively through the Caucasus, studying the languages and cultures of local tribes. Most significantly, he discovered the fascinating oral tradition of the Ossetes, the only Caucasian people a language from the Indo-European group. When Dumézil returned to Turkey and then to France he had trunks full of books on Caucasian languages, traditions and customs written in Russian and Caucasian languages. To this day, these comprise one of the most extensive collections of and on Caucasian cultures in the West.

In 1931 he was named a lecturer in French at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. This afforded him the opportunity of pursuing studies of ancient German religion and of learning a Nordic language.
5. The Ossetes

Following his travels in the Caucuses, Dumézil became the leading (and for a long time the sole) specialist of Caucasian languages in France. He wrote the chapter on the three major Caucasian language divisions for Antoine Meillet’s and Marcel Cohen’s momentous Langues du monde.1 The Ossetes in turn were a major source in Dumézil’s mythological studies.

The Ossete still live in the central Caucasus. They are the sole descendants of the medieval Alani, a branch of the Scythians, and thus speak a language of the Iranian group. Their mythology concerns a legendary people, the Narts, a heroic projection of themselves. There are two main aspects of these myths, and Dumézil published works relating to both. On the one hand, they concern elements found throughout European and central Asian tradition, such as heroes battling ogres, giants, and seven-headed dragons. On the other hand, this tradition has its roots in ancient Scythian religion, and beyond this, in the Indo-European tradition, as Dumézil explains in several books and articles,2

A crucial moment in Dumézil’s career was the discovery of a document describing the division among the Narts into three families, the strong, the rich and the intelligent. This led to the publication in 1930 of an article on the Indo-Iranian prehistory of castes.3 Ancient Iranian and Indian societies were divided into three categories (which effectively correspond to the Indian caste system), and these are the same categories as those revealed in the Ossete Nart saga: priests, warriors and herdsmen.

This realization played a fundamental role in Dumézil’s subsequent work.
The Bor(i)atæ were rich in cattle (fons), the Alægatæ’s strength was their intelligence (zund) and the Æxsærtægkatæ were courageous (bœhatær) with their strength being their people (lœg).

Georges Dumézil, Mythe et épopée I.

1. Les Langues du monde, Klincksieck, 1952.

2. See Sheet 22.

3. “La Préhistoire indo-iranienne des castes,” Journal Asiatique, CCXVI.
6. 1938, The Three Functions

In October 1937 I went back to work on the Flamen-Brahman problem, taking it up again from square one. It was through this reexamination of motives, this autocritique, that I realized something I had been completely unaware of. For nearly fifty years I was drawing my conclusions from that particular discovery.

(Georges Dumézil, Interviews with Didier Éribon)
In 1933 Dumézil returned from Turkey. The Indianist Sylvain Lévi (1863-1935), who greatly appreciated his work, had secured a position for him at the École Pratique des Hautes Études teaching “Comparative Indo-European Mythology.” During this time Dumézil also attended Marcel Granet’s course on ancient China; Granet’s methods of studying texts had a strong influence on Dumézil. In 1935 Dumézil was named “Directeur d’études” at the École Pratique des Hautes Études; Sylvain Lévi, along with Antoine Meillet, who had changed his mind about Dumézil’s work, both supported his nomination.

Dumézil made a decisive discovery while preparing course notes in 1938. In his 1930 article on the Indo-Iranian prehistory of castes he had made the conceptual connection between the Ossetes, the Ancient Iranians and the Indians.1 As interesting as this article was, its insights were limited to the Indo-Iranian world.

The discovery of 1938 was much more significant. In ancient Rome there was a category of priests called flamen; three primary flamenes officiated over the worship of three gods: Jupiter, the greatest of the gods, Mars, the god of War, and Quirinus, the protector of community and agricultural production. Dumézil noted that the defining characteristics of these three corresponded to those of the Indo-Iranian “castes” he had previously studied. He immediately wrote the article, “La préhistoire des flamines majeurs”2 which revealed his discovery of the “three Indo-European functions”: (1) sovereignty, holiness and intelligence; (2) strength, particularly military, (3) abundance including agricultural production and the well-being of the community.
1. See Sheet 5, and “La Préhistoire indo-iranienne des castes.

2. Revue de l’histoire des religions, CVIII, reprinted in Idées Romaines, Gallimard, 1986.
7. Germanic Mythology
The Old Icelandic Edda is one of the most valuable sources of the medieval European tradition. Dumézil had been studying the Edda as early as his work on the “drink of immortality” in 1924,1 when he demonstrated its relation to ancient Greek, Roman and Indian myths. The Edda material was written down in the middle ages, but its mythic content is considerably older.

In the late 1930s Dumézil was working on a sort of compendium on Germanic religion—none existed in French at the time. He was already in the process of presenting his earlier theses concerning the ancient origins of the Edda myths when he realized that his conclusions of 1938 would necessitate serious modifications. He devised the notion of the three functions (which he came to refer to as “trifunctionality” and “functional tripartition”) while examining Roman and Indo-Iranian material, but it apparently existed in the Germanic world as well.

A text dating from the late pagan period in Sweden indicates that three Gods were worshipped in the temple of Uppsala: Thor, the powerful; Wodan, leader in war and source of courage; and Fricco, who had an enormous sexual organ and was the source of peace and pleasure. The very same Gods are found in the Egill Saga: Odhinn (=Wodan) is invoked against a king who had stripped Egill of his property; Thor is called upon to make him flee; and Freyr (=Fricco) and Njordhr are invoked against those who have damaged holy sanctuaries. These functions are found in all Germanic myths, thereby confirming the ancient origin of the Eddas: Odhinn is the sovereign god, master of magic (like Varun in the Indian tradition) and victory; Thor is the all-powerful, armed with his thunderbolt; and Freyr, along with his father Njordhr and his sister Freya are the gods of fecundity.


1. See Sheet 3, and Le Festin d’immortalité. Étude de mythologie comparée indo-européenne.
8. A Discovery First Put to Use
When I returned to France in September 1940 I wrote up Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus, a sketch—more than a blueprint for what was to follow—which I only then saw in broad strokes.

(Georges Dumézil, Entretiens avec Didier Éribon)
Mythes et dieux des Germains was published in 1939,1 the year World War II began. Dumézil was mobilized and sent to Turkey because of his knowledge of the country and its language. This effectively saved him from being one of the million and a half Frenchmen imprisoned in May and June 1940. He was demobilized when Germany occupied France, and returned to his country.

But the new regime removed him from his position at the École Pratique des Hautes Études because he had belonged to a Masonic lodge between 1936 and 1939; the Petain government sought to clear all government positions of Masons as well as Jews.

Dumézil then eked out a meager a living giving private lessons. A saving hand came from a Catholic school in Pontoise, Saint-Martin; the school offered him a position teaching Latin. The next year, the new Minister of Education, Jerome Carcopino (1881-1970), a historian of antiquity, premitted Dumézil to return to his former position at the École Pratique. In gratitude to the Saint-Martin school, Dumézil continued to teach there every Wednesday until 1947.

The war years turned out to be productive for Dumézil. He published a number of books between 1939 and 1948, mainly at Gallimard. These were divided into two series, Les Mythes romains,2 and Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus.3 Their titles indicate the important role Roman material had come to play in his work. They also contained a multitude of parallels between Roman and Scandinavian, Indian, Celtic and Iranian elements.

1. Mythes et dieux des Germains. Essai d’interprétation comparative, Librairie Ernest Lerouse [Gods of the ancient Northmen, ed. Einar Haugen; intro. C. Scott Littleton and Udo Strutynski, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973].

2. Horace et les Curiaces, 1942; Servius et la Fortune. Essai sur la fonction sociale de louange et de blâme et sur les éléments indo-européens du cens romain, 1943; Tarpeia. Essai de philologie comparée indo-européenne, 1947.

3. Jupiter Mars Quirinus. Essai sur la conception indo-européenne de la société et sur les origines de Rome, 1941; Jupiter Mars Quirinus II. Naissance de Rome, 1944; Jupiter Mars Quirinus III. Naissance d’archanges, essai sur la formation de la religion zoroastrienne, 1945; Jupiter Mars Quirinus IV, explication de textes indiens et latins, 1948.
9 Rome Revisited

Dumézil had compared Rome’s priestly flamen to India’s highest caste, the Brahmin The discovery of the relationship of Roman theology and priesthood to its Indian and Iranian counterparts led to extensive examinations of Roman traditions—and a long series of discoveries.

His first discovery was that some myths are structured by functional tripartition. The most important instance of structural tripartition concerns the foundation of cities and particularly what followed from the actions of Romulus, the son of the war god Mars. Soon after Rome was founded a war broke out between the Romans and the wealthy Sabine people. The Romans had abducted Sabine women in order to supply themselves with wives. The Romans were supported by Jupiter and the war ended with an alliance. Tatius, the Sabine chief came to Rome—and brought his gods with him. These Sabine gods were all associated with fecundity. Thus the gods of the first (Jupiter) and second (Mars) functions were associated with Romulus, while the Sabines provided the third function.

Dumézil then noted that the organization of the Roman royal dynastic system fit into the Indo-European cultural heritage. For, at the same time that he elaborated the three functions, he discovered that sovereignty was divided into two aspects. He designated these aspects the Varuna side and the Mitra side, in accordance with Vedic sources.1 In considering pre-Etruscan Roman kings, Dumézil noted that Romulus, the first king, contrasted with Numa Pompilius, the second in much the same way that Varuna contrasts with Mitra. The third king, Tullus Hostilius spent his entire reign at war. The fourth, Ancus Martius, brought prosperity to the city, established a port and organized the city’s economic base. In this way, the first Roman kings successively illustrated the three functions, with Romulus embodying the Varuna aspect and Numa Pompilius the Mitra aspect of the first “sovereign” function.

The Indo-European mythological parallels so ardently and unsuccessfully sought after in the nineteenth century began to multiply. King Numa’s talismans have their Celtic, Scythian and ancient Iran analogs. Narratives concerning the second Etruscan king, Servius Tullius, have parallels in Ancient India, as much in the motif of rents as the cow of abundance, and the hero Horatuus Cocles makes the same expressions with his eyes—or his eye2—as the Irish Cuchulainn and the Scandinavian Egill. . .
1. See sheet 14.

2. See sheet 15.


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