Welcome to the Dumézilian Trifucntionalist Anthropological theory of Proto-Indo-European Society

By Charles Edward Andrew Lincoln IV

“ “Cleric, Knight and Workman representing the three classes”, a French School illustration from Li Livres dou Santé (late 13th century, vellum), MS Sloane 2435, folio 85, British Library/Bridgeman Art Library; losslessly adapted from https://web.archive.org/web/20060115103059/http://www.uflib.ufl.edu/hss/medieval/. An inhabited initial from a 13th-century French text representing the tripartite social order of the Middle Ages: the ōrātōrēs (those who pray — clerics), bellātōrēs (those who fight — knights, that is, the nobility), and labōrātōrēs (those who work — peasants and members of the lower middle class).” Image and description from Wikipeida. I claim no ownership.

Georges Dumézil originated this theory as a formulation in the field of anthropology — specifically within the study of comparative mythology. Dumézil’s key formulation is that Indo-European societies — starting with Proto-Indo European societies — organize the realm of human social interaction into three functions. Those three functions represent to the religious, the warlike, and economic duties key for social organization. Each of these functions operate separately. This organization of human activity leads to a hierarchy. The first function is the priestly function relates to the notions of the sacred but also relates to aspects of custom, law, and order. The second function is the warlike function related to military activity and defense of society. The third function is the productive function related to agricultural productivity.

Dumézil identifies the earliest manifestation of the tripartite distinction in Proto-Indo-European mythological constructs. Each portion of society had a link to a god to represent that social group’s function. Dumézil identifies these functions in cross-mythological schemes. Dumézil analyzes the myths as representations of the values in society. Such an idea is not unique to Dumézil. Indeed, interpreting myths or religion as a way to justify society relates to a long tradition of societal and anthropological analysis.

For the first function of the priestly activities, Dumézil identifies gods linked to Vedic India, the Mahabaratha, Norse Mythology, and Roman mythology. Respectively, in Vedic India, the gods Mitra and Varuna relate to the priestly function of sovereignty relating to notions of sacred and magical activities. But also the priestly function relates to justice and notions of law as outlined in contracts. Likewise, in the Mahabaratha, the hero Yudhishthira relates to the priestly function. In the Norse mythological tradition, Odin and Týr relate to the priestly function of law and a connection to the notion of the mystical or magical.

Roman mythology directly reinforces the idea of a tripartite system of the Archaic Triad of the divine Roman mythology — consisting of Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus. Here, of the gods in the Archaic Triad, Jupiter is most closely associated with the sovereign function relating to law, justice, and the idea of the sacred.

The second function deals with the military and defense of people. It relates to notions of physical activitiy and idea of nobility. Dumézil notes that in Vedic India, the gods associated with this function are Indra and Vāyu. Dumézil identifies the heroes Arjuna and Bhima as related to nobility and physical defense. In Norse mythology, Dumézil identifies the god Thor is most closely related to the physical activity of warlike functions. Finally, in the Roman pantheon, Mars in the Archaic Triad represents the warlike function.

The third function relates to the idea of fertility in social activity. Specifically, this fertility function relates to farmers and agricultural activity. But it also relates to craftsmen and merchants. Likewise, in Vedic India, the two Ashvins relate to the fertility function. In the Mahabaratha, the heroes Nakula and Sahadeva relate to the fertility function. In Norse mythology, Dumézil identifies several gods related to the function of fertility. Those gods in the Norse mythological construct are Freyr, Freyja ,Njord , and the gods Vanes. In the Roman Archaic Triad, the god, Quirinus relates to the fertile function.

Dumézil argued that the three functions of Indo-European society lasted naturally from the Middle Ages until 1789 when the French Revolution led to the abolishment of the tripartite Ancien Régime.[1] Dumézil argues that the Estates General of 1789 led to the end of the tripartie system.[2]

More recently, the French economist Thomas Piketty adopted Dumézil’s trifunctional understanding as well in his Capital and Ideology (2019) book on wealth and income inequality in the modern world. Reviewing Piketty’s work, Idrees Kahloon writes, “[a]dopting a theory of the French philologist Georges Dumézil, Piketty writes that early societies were “trifunctional” — in ways largely determined by birth, you were a member of the clergy, the warrior-nobility, or the peasantry.”[3] Kahloon points out that Piketty compares the notion of Dumézilian triuctionalinism as “similar, he notes, can be seen in “Planet of the Apes” and “Star Wars.””[4] Kahloon further identifies that Piketty notes that “[d]uring this period of limited mobility, inequality was justified by the notion that the castes were interdependent — like the limbs of the body.”[5] Piketty’s serious treatment of Dumézil’s theories shows that such analysis is warranted and makes sense within the conception of constitutional interpretation.

Concurrently, a society has all three parts within itself. One might expect that such a society acts justly if all the parts of the society act as each is meant to act. This is not always so.

[1] Dumézil argues that the Estates General of 1789 led to the end of the tripartite system. Bagge, Sverre. “Old Norse Theories of Society. From RígsÞula til konungs skuggsiá.” (2000).

[2] Dumézil expressly wrote, “le schéma tripartite est mort en Occident avec les États généraux de 1789, quand la noblesse et le clergé ont baissé le pavillon devant le tiers état. On a enfin répondu à la question : qu’est-ce que le tiers état ? Eh bien, c’était la ruine du système trifonctionnel.” Georges Dumézil, « Le parcours initiatique d’un “parasite” des sciences humaines » (interview de Didier Sanz), Autrement, Paris, passion du passé,‎ 1987, p. 57.

[3] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/09/thomas-piketty-goes-global

[4] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/09/thomas-piketty-goes-global

[5] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/09/thomas-piketty-goes-global

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Charles Lincon

Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, Hegelian dialectics, Attic Greek, masters University of Amsterdam.