Email the Prof

English 426B Mythology
Syllabus Glossary
Cultures Homepage


By the seventeenth century, similarities among several European languages had been noted. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries languages from India and the Middle East were added to the list. Eventually scholars were able to reconstruct a hypothetical language (it was never written down) called proto-Indo-European (PIE).

As with any living language, PIE was constantly changing, so as different groups migrated away they carried different forms of the language with them. Time, isolation from other speakers, and contact with other languages led to further changes. Thus today the Indo-European languages are by no means mutually intelligible.



Much has been adduced about the culture of the Indo-Europeans, although the location of their homeland continues to be argued. Reconstruction of their proto-language reveals that the horse was of central importance to the culture, but cows, sheep, and pigs also were domesticated, as, of course, was the dog. Houses apparently were constructed of wattle and daub (a conclusion based on linguistic rather than archeological evidence) and were clustered into small villages, perhaps on the basis of clan affiliation. Some villages were fortified. Copper (or perhaps bronze) was known; silver probably was known, and perhaps gold. The earliest Indo-Europeans travelled with wagons and oar-powered boats. They certainly used bows and arrows, and may have had some sort of thrusting weapon. And the list goes on.

Mythologists speculated that, if language could inform us regarding proto-IE material culture, it could reveal the nature of the original Indo-European gods. Because the method of linguistic reconstruction is comparative, this new discipline originally was called Comparative Mythology.


Maxwell Müller isolated the name of a god that occurs in a number of I-E languages.

Dyaus Pitar (Sanskrit)
Zeus Pater (Greek)
Ju piter (Latin)
Tiwaz ____ (Germanic)
Dei Patyros (Illyrian)
superscript DSius ____ (Hittite)

The reconstructed proto-Indo-European form would be: *dyeus pschwater

The second word unequivocally means "father." Müller concluded the first word meant "shining," and so reasoned that the "Shining Father" was a metaphor for the sun. Müller's methodology was a great step forward and gave birth to an important school of mythological interpretation, although today his conclusions are in doubt. First, the root meaning of *dyeus is not "shining," but "bright." The reference may be to the sky generally instead of the sun. Further, while Müller assumed "father" to refer to the sun's role as impregnator, fertilizer, of Mother Earth (a reference that works even better for a "sky" father), it is quite possible that the term was already metaphorical for the god's role as an authority figure. And finally, *dyeus may already have taken on the general meaning of "divinity" or "god" (English deity is derived ultimately from the same word). Müller's "sun god" is probably an abstraction parallel to the modern Christian "God the Father." The proto-Indo-Europeans did deify the sun, but in figures such as Sol (Germanic), Sulis (Continental Celtic), and Surya (feminine; Sanskrit).


Based on his analysis of the name of the PIE god (see above), Müller developed a theory of solar mythology that postulated three steps:

1) PIE culture created metaphors for the sun.

2) Through the "disease of language" the metaphors were no longer understood to be metaphoric.

3) the old metaphor came to be understood literally as a proper noun.

The theory has intrinsic difficulties. As we have seen (above), the solar connection is unlikely. Further, the theory assumes that the myths as told are corruptions that must be reconstructed by modern, educated scholars before their "true" meaning can be recovered. Finally, while Müller understood that his methodology had to be rooted in careful linguistic analysis, many other proponents of the theory argued wildly by analogy.

Some followers of Müller's approach - both the careful and the careless - quickly modified the original theory and espoused nature mythology. In this view deities were associated with one or more natural phenomena such as a thunderstorm. The approach had all the inherent weakesses of Müller's original theory.


Even careful linguistic analysis had limited success, and solar mythology came to be dominated by analogists. When new, more "scientific" ideas of evolution came to the fore in intellectual circles, solar (and nature) mythology became the subject of ridicule. One critic demonstrated that Max Müller was a sun god by pointing out that his name derived from mill, and a millstone "obviously" was nothing more than a metaphor for the sun. Thus Müller did not actually exist, but was simply a "disease of language."

Comparative mythology, as solar mythology originally and properly was called, passed out of favor. The fact remains, though, that Müller and others demonstrated that many Indo-European cultures had gods and goddesses whose names derived from proto-Indo-European. The issue would lie dormant while other approaches to myth came to the fore, but eventually scholars would return to the issue of an underlying body of Indo-European myth (see below)




Homepage | Syllabus | Next Page | Previous Page