Aryan Idols: Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science

By Stefan Arvidsson. Translated by Sonia Wichmann. 2006. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 320 pages. ISBN: 0-226-02860-7 (hard cover).


Reviewed by William Hansen, Indiana University

[Review length: 913 words • Review posted on February 22, 2007]


In 1786 William Jones gave a talk in Calcutta to members of the Asiatick Society of Bengal in which he called attention to the presence of striking similarities in Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and a number of other languages, and suggested that the languages must be genetically related. Presently the name “Indo-European” (hereafter IE), with its variant “Indo-Germanic,” was minted for the languages as a family. The term “Aryan” also gained international currency, partly because scholars thought it might have been the IE peoples’ own designation for themselves (the word is cognate, for example, with “Iran”).

Just who were the Proto-IEs, that is, the ancestors of the speakers of Indian, Iranian, Anatolian, Hellenic, Italic, Celtic, Slavic, Baltic, and Germanic languages? Where did they live before they spread out over much of the world? What sort of culture did they have? What did they look like? In the book under review the Swedish historian of religion Stefan Arvidsson traces scholarly characterizations of the IEs from the inception of the concept to the present day. The literature is fascinating if only because it has been so powerfully conditioned by the particular ideologies of the scholars, prompting Arvidsson to wonder whether there is something about the nature of research into the IEs that makes it especially prone to ideological abuse. Although the author is not the first to observe that IE scholarship teems with bias and fantasy, he is perhaps the first to trace its history in detail and to situate the major players, including a number of folklorists, in their political and intellectual milieus.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries European classifications of peoples were typically founded upon the biblical ethnography of Genesis, according to which the earth was populated by the offspring of Noah’s three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Accordingly it was inferred that the world’s languages were probably reducible to three great families, and indeed similarities had already been observed in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, which were given the name “Semitic,” from Noah’s eldest son. Jones’ observation that certain other languages similarly shared a common source led to the notion of a second major family of related languages. The growing interest in and esteem for India among European scholars at this time made the ancient Indians seem to be the very image of the mysterious Proto-IEs and so India became the favored candidate for their original home.

Physical anthropologists (called “racial anthropologists” by Arvidsson) now joined in the discussion, which heretofore had been the province of philologists, and the IEs presently came to be described as a tall people with blond hair, blue-eyes, straight noses, and narrow skulls. According to this construction the IEs were not a group of peoples who spoke related languages but a branch of humanity that shared certain physical characteristics. They constituted an Aryan race.

Tensions arose between the culturalist approach of the philologists and the naturalist perspective of the anthropologists. Should one classify peoples by the languages they spoke, similar languages implying similar cultures, or by their appearance and intelligence? And what was one to do when the two approaches disagreed? The modern Indians spoke languages that descended directly from Sanskrit, and they could point to the high culture of ancient India; however, the Indians themselves were brown, not white. Among the explanations proposed to account for this inconsistency was that the aboriginal white Aryans of India had mixed with lower races, resulting in physical and cultural degeneration. Inasmuch as the naturalist perspective came to predominate, Indians were revised down “from Aryan brothers to niggers” (49), Sanskrit lost its status as a privileged language, and India ceased to be the supposed original home of the Proto-IEs.

Not surprisingly, Nazi scholars had a lot to say about Aryans. Some scholars built upon nineteenth-century humanist scholarship, stressing the IEs as spreaders of culture and order, a mission emblematized in IE myths about the struggles of light and darkness. The image of the IE was that of a noble, freedom-loving, life-affirming farmer. Other Nazi scholars adopted the cultural evolutionists’ image of the Proto-IEs as primitives, but revalued this state as a positive one. For them the ideal Aryan was a youth who belonged to an ecstatic warrior brotherhood. Georges Dumézil, a scholar with Fascist sympathies, imagined IE society as being a tripartite hierarchy consisting of rulers, warriors, and producers.

The feminist Marija Gimbutas was exceptional in not idealizing the IEs; indeed, she demonized them as patriarchal invaders who destroyed the peaceful, matriarchal culture of Old Europe. In the present day Bruce Lincoln, seeking “to topple all Indo-European, Indo-German, and Aryan idols” (308), has criticized IE scholarship for its emphasis on origins and for its residual anti-Semitism.

When societies change, Arvidsson concludes, they have a need for new myths. “Indo-European research has, in many ways, been an attempt to write the origin narrative of the bourgeois class--a narrative that, by talking about how these things originally were, has sanctioned a certain kind of behavior, idealized a certain type of person, and affirmed certain feelings” (319-320). Myth turns history into fate, he observes, whereas historiography reveals it to be the result of decisions.

Arvidsson’s study is intelligent, clearly-written, and sometimes witty. Rich in detail and thought, the book is very informative and thought-provoking. Its subtitle, however, is oddly misleading, since in fact the author has little to say about IE mythology as such, and bothersome errors such as many misspelled words and a wrongly-titled chapter (124) escaped the notice of the proofreader.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.