Indo-European Poetry and Myth

Indo-European Poetry and Myth

Indo-European Poetry and Myth

Indo-European Poetry and Myth


The Indo-Europeans, speakers of the prehistoric parent language from which most European and some Asiatic languages are descended, most probably lived on the Eurasian steppes some five or six thousand years ago. Martin West investigates their traditional mythologies, religions, and poetries, and points to elements of common heritage. In The East Face of Helicon (1997), West showed the extent to which Homeric and other early Greek poetry was influenced by Near Eastern traditions, mainly non-Indo-European. His new book presents a foil to that work by identifying elements of more ancient, Indo-European heritage in the Greek material. Topics covered include the status of poets and poetry in Indo-European societies; metre, style, and diction; gods and other supernatural beings, from Father Sky and Mother Earth to the Sun-god and his beautiful daughter, the Thunder-god and other elemental deities, and earthly orders such as Nymphs and Elves; the forms of hymns, prayers, and incantations; conceptions about the world, its origin, mankind, death, and fate; the ideology of fame and of immortalization through poetry; the typology of the king and the hero; the hero as warrior, and the conventions of battle narrative.


Since my programmatic article 'The Rise of the Greek Epic' (JHS 108 (1988), 151–72) much of my work has been related to the Homeric poems and the tradition behind them. My 1997 opus The East Face of Helicon began as an investigation of the extent to which that tradition was modified under the influence of Near Eastern poetry, though in the event the volume grew to take in more than Homer. The present work may also be seen as part of a series of 'Prolegomena to Homer', or, if you like, to Greek literature.

However, Greece is not here the central point of reference. My subject is the Indo-European poetic and narrative tradition as a whole, and while Greek poetry supplies part of the evidence, it is not itself the object of inquiry. That is one reason why it would not have been appropriate to call the book The North Face of Helicon. Another reason is that a different kind of relationship is involved. Helicon, once it was colonized by the Muses, did face east and did not face north; the Indo-European element was a heritage from the past, not a continuing irradiation.

It remains the case that I write as a professional Hellenist, as much an amateur in Indo-European studies as in oriental. I have furnished myself with a working knowledge of some of the relevant languages. I have explored the literatures, roaming far and wide through unfamiliar landscapes, some rugged, some lush, a stranger in Paradise with a clipboard. But when it comes to the reconstruction of proto-Indo-European roots constipated with hypothetical laryngeals, I defer to the authority of the pundits—those blackbelt analysts whom I personally hold in the highest admiration, but whom some may view as the unreadable in pursuit of the unpronounceable.

Specialists may look askance at my practice of quoting the Vedic texts with punctuation and capitalized initials for names, and adjusting them as necessary to restore the metre where it has suffered in transmission. I see no merit in the convention of transcribing the verses exactly as transmitted in the samhitā text, that is, often unmetrically (where it is obvious that an older form has given way to a newer one) and with no punctuation to guide the reader. We do not do this with Greek or Latin texts; why do it with Indian ones? It may be argued that punctuation and capitalization prejudice the interpretation. But if one is going to make use of a text, one must at some point come to an opinion on its articulation and interpretation; usually this will be uncontroversial, and in any case it is only reasonable to share it with the reader, using the means customary with texts in other languages.

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