Indo-European Caste Systems and Cosmologies 1.5.1

Note: This essay will make more sense if
you first read Indo-European
Paleopaganism and its Clergy, elsewhere on this website.

Our story so far: In the first few episodes
of our continuing saga, “All My Oakgroves”, we’ve established
two key concepts for understanding the world(s)views of the Indo-European
Paleopagans. The first concept is a polytheological and sociological
one called the “trifunctional ideology,” discovered
by Georges Dumezil and his followers. The second is a related
cosmological one of the “Three Worlds plus Fire,” identified,
I believe by me, from a variety of Dumezilian and other Celtic
and IE studies.

Dumezil had the brilliant insight that the
same major characters kept showing up in all the different IE
myths and legends of which we had records; furthermore, they
seemed to reflect a common social structure among all the IE
cultures. There were usually two deities who ruled over matters
of magic and law; he called this the “first function”
of “magical and judicial sovereignty.” Examples include
Odin and Tyr, respectively, from the Norse pantheon, and Mitra
and Varuna from the Vedic. The “second function” includes
the war gods (often, but not always, thunder gods as well) such
as Thor and Indra. Then you have the “third function”
of fertility; this was usually handled by brother-sister pairs
such as Freyr and Freya or else by twin brothers such as the
Vedic Asvins.

The IE cultures all had stories of two “Wars
in Heaven:” the first, a battle between the current Gods
and a previous generation of (often monstrous) deities, such
as the Formorians (Irish), Giants (Norse), Titans (Greek), Devas
(Iranian), or Asuras (Vedic); the second, a war between deities
representing the first two functions on one side against those
representing the third function on the other, such as that between
the Norse Aesir and Vanir. The current Gods, of course, beat
the previous ones (though often taking some of them into their
ranks), and the deities of first two functions either conquered
or established a truce with the third function deities, resulting
in the divine status quo of the myths.

The social structures depicted in the IE myths
and legends reflected the three functions: clergy (who were responsible
for magical/religious and judicial functions), warriors, and
producers (farmers, fishers, herders, craftspeople, etc.). Leading
each IE tribe was a “king” who had responsibilities
towards all the other functions and who was usually married to
the local Earth Goddess. Dumezilians speculate that the “war
between the functions” stories represent memories of IE
conquests of local (non-IE or earlier-IE) peoples by invading
clergy and warriors. This fits well with the usual theories of
bloodthirsty patriarchal Indo-Europeans raping, pillaging, and
looting their way across Europe and Asia, though not so well
with more recent studies (such as those by Colin Renfrew) indicating
that IE cultural diffusion may have been rather more peaceful
than that, albeit stressful to the changed cultures.

As for cosmology, the IE tales make constant
references to land, sky, and various sorts of waters (lakes,
rivers, springs, the sea, etc.) as comprising all of normal physical
reality. For example, there was one famous Celtic chieftain who
reportedly said that he had only three fears: that the sky would
fall down upon him, that the sea would overwhelm him, and that
the earth might open up under him. I believe references to these
three events occurring as punishments for oath breaking can also
be found. Parallels often existed between the functions and the
“Three Worlds:” clergy were associated with the Sky,
warriors with the Waters, and producers with the Land. Fire was
viewed as extremely sacred and existed in all Three Worlds (caste-wise,
it was associated with the kingship which affects all other castes).
Multiple associations were created between aspects and incidents
of mythology, the caste system, the Three Worlds plus Fire, sacred
trees, the multiple deaths of kings, and so forth –not all of
which fit perfectly.

Over the last few years, it’s become increasingly
clear that these views of IE polytheology, sociology, and cosmology
are just too simple. As (my wife) Deborah Lipp pointed out, they
leave no room for the forgotten or rejected people and spirits
who exist in every society and religion, and they ignore a number
of complexities. In fact, I think I’ve been suffering from “monothink”
— the popular Western fantasy, based on monotheistic thinking
patterns, that there is *one* best explanation for everything
— as have almost all the other Western scholars I’ve been studying.
So I decided to try using “polythink,” by taking a
polytheistic, pluralistic approach to the same materials. New
answers quickly became a parrot. In this essay, I’d like to share
them with you.

For the first time in several years, I’ve
re-read Alwin and Brinley Rees’ Celtic Heritage, in which
they discuss the ancient Irish and Welsh cosmology and social
systems from a Dumezilian approach. Most of their discussion
focuses on the Irish, so I’ll concentrate on them for now. The
Irish caste system had the king on top, then the druids, then
the warriors. So far, so good; this is the same IE social structure
I just reviewed. But their third “producer” caste was
split into an upper and a lower class. The upper producer class
consisted of the wealthy farmers and advanced artisans, the lower
of the folks who got stuck with the society’s dirty work — agricultural
serfs, satirists, clowns and jugglers, kitchen help, etc.

Each of the castes traditionally had a province
of Ireland symbolically connected to it: Connacht for the druids,
Ulster for the warriors, Leinster for the free farmers, Munster
for the serfs. But in some of the old tales, Munster was split
in two: East Munster for the regular serfs and West Munster for
the weird ones. A similar cosmology of “provinces”
arose in ancient Wales.

The “weird ones” included social
outsiders such as foreigners, aboriginal (pre-Celtic?) people,
sorceresses, madmen, criminals, etc., plus various types of supernatural
“Outsiders,” such as elves, giants, Formorians, banshees,
and so forth. In short, when we talk about the Outsiders, we
mean people and spirits associated with aboriginal mysteries,
female power, danger, magic, and chaos in general — frightening
concepts to a patriarchal culture obsessed with maintaining the
cosmic order. There is also a hint (via the aboriginal and female
power concepts) that this part of the cosmology is intimately
associated with the local Earth Goddesses.

The people at the very bottom of the social
scale were thus associated with the forces of primordial chaos.
I believe the ancient Vedics had a very similar caste system,
with the Sudras (or “untouchables”) separated from
the lower part of the producer caste and associated with female
power, demons, and magic. Paradoxically, in Ireland and Wales
(and India?) these forces of chaos were intimately connected
with the king who resided in the center of the system (in the
“Middle Province”) and who was the primary guardian
of order. So while the ancient Irish and Welsh had one cosmology
of four provinces plus the center, they simultaneously had one
of five provinces plus a center/outside combination.

Naturally every physical province had all
kinds of people living in it, and indeed these cosmological/social
patterns were apparently repeated within each province and within
each caste. Among the members of the clergy caste, for example,
the druids per se, who presided over sacrifices and were judges
as well (the magical and judicial rulerships), corresponded to
themselves. The diviners/poets corresponded to the warrior caste,
because of their connections to death and the ancestors (for
divination) and the creation of epic poetry celebrating the accomplishments
of the warriors. The bards corresponded to the farmers (as providers
of musical nourishment and support), and the lesser musicians
(no doubt along with the servants who helped with various druidic
activities) to the serfs. Perhaps the highest ranking local or
national druid corresponded to the local king or national “high
king” and also had a connection to the Outsiders. (Consider
that Odin, who was king as well as chief magician of the Aesir,
learned “seidr” — “women’s magic” — from

Simultaneously, although the Rees brothers
don’t make this explicit, the other castes had members who corresponded
to these druidic subcastes. Among the serfs, for example, we
can find sorcerers (= magicians), satirists and soothsayers (=
poets and diviners), clowns and jugglers (= bards), etc. If indeed
every major caste had subcastes within it reflecting the larger
pattern, then you could very quickly get many subcastes. If the
larger pattern had then been reflected into each of the subcastes
to produce sub-subcastes, you would have eventually gotten a
result similar to the Hindu caste system (and I’ll guess that’s
exactly what happened in India).

Is this all confusing? Very. Yet, as the Rees
brothers put it, “the co-existence of contradictory cosmological
systems is by no means peculiar to Celtic traditions.” They
make a very good argument that we may need to think of the lower
half of the “third function” as a distinct, if not
separate, “fourth function.” Perhaps the “Outsiders”
constitute a fifth function as well.

Another way to consider this “fourth
function,” however, is as the “shadow side” of
the third. As most of you know, IE metaphysics seem obsessed
with the alternation of polarities, usually described as “dark”
and “light.” There’s a dark half to every Celtic day,
month, and year, for example. It’s occurred to me that Dumezilian
writings about the “dual” first function (magical and
judicial), the confusion over the roles of “berserkrs”
and “werewolves” in the second (warrior) function,
and the roles of the third (producer) function’s twin (or sister-brother)
deities, all would be much clearer if we assumed that each function
has a “dark” (= dangerous) side and a “light”
(= safe) side.

That would give us a pattern where the first
function would consist of the magician (dangerous) and the judge
(safe); the second function would be the werewolf/berserkr (dangerous)
and the hero (safe); and the third function would give us the
serf (dangerous) and the producer (safe). The Outside/Center
function then consists of the Outsiders (dangerous) and the king
(safe). What the mythologies make clear, of course, is that these
“dangerous” and “safe” categories do not
equate with “evil” and “good,” since you
can have, for example, good Outsiders and evil kings. However,
the conservatism of most tribal societies would lead to prejudices
for and against the safe/dangerous polarities.

J.D. LaBash of Stone
Creed Grove, ADF, has repeatedly mentioned to me that the Three
Worlds of the Land, the Waters, and the Sky, don’t work properly
for Lithuanian mythology and cosmology. Instead, they used terms
that are usually translated as “Sky,” “Land,”
and “the Underworld.” The Vedic peoples are said (in
English) to have used “Sky,” “Middle Air,”
and “Land” as their Three Worlds, while the Norse had
a total of Nine Worlds instead of three. During a cosmological
lunch at Wellsprings in 1991, J.D., Paul Maurice, Ian Corrigan
(who drew the illustration you see here to the right and as the
background for this page), myself, and several other participants
came to some tentative conclusions of how one cosmology can reconcile
all these seemingly different systems.

Firstly, Mircea Eliade pointed out in several
of his books the nearly universal tendency for tribal peoples
to have a cosmology with a vertical axis (a World Tree, a shamanic
pole, a magic mountain, etc.). In Indo-European terms, that vertical
axis may have originally reached from a “Celestial Realm”
in the far heavens (where dwelt the distant creator deity and
sometimes the major tribal deities), through the “Middle
Realm” (of ordinary mortal activity), and down to an “Underworld”
or “Chthonic Realm” (where demons, dead people, old
deities, and other chaotic beings dwell — i.e., a lot of the

Secondly, the Three Worlds of the Land, the
Waters, and the Sky may all have been on a horizontal axis filling
the Middle Realm, and reflected into the Celestial and Chthonic
Realms as well. The ancient Irish, for example, had “Lands”
in the Celestial Realm and underneath the ocean (which was equated
with what I’m calling the Chthonic Realm). There were also Celestial
and Chthonic “Waters”, and possibly types of “Sky”
as well. This sort of multiplication could be done in various
ways by the different IE cultures, including dark/light variations,
leading to different numbers of what are usually translated as

Thirdly, Fire, as a primeval divine force,
was seen as existing in, and communicating between, all Three
Realms and all Three Worlds. The stars, sun and moon were Celestial
fire; underground coal, peat, or volcanic fires were Chthonic.
In the Middle Realm, fire existed in the Sky (lightning, smoke),
on the Land (camp, hearth and forest fires), and even in the
Waters (alcoholic beverages, soma).

Fourthly, some of the confusion in IE cosmological
studies may have been caused by the translators. We have to remember
that none of these ancient peoples used modern English, so the
words we see in translations may not be precise matches from
culture to culture. As one example, the term in Sanskrit that
gets translated as the “Middle Atmosphere” or “Middle
Air” may really mean (local or near) “Sky,” while
the word usually translated as “Sky” in Vedic cosmological
studies may translate better as what I’ve called the “Celestial
Realm.” I don’t read Sanskrit so I don’t know for sure,
I just have my suspicions.

So how can we tie all of this up into a nice
neat package? We can’t. Some of our confusion about Indo-European
cosmologies can be explained, if not simplified, when we realize
that the IE peoples loved to combine simple units into amazingly
complex patterns (look at Celtic interlace, for example). Just
as castes could be subdivided to reflect other castes, then divided
again to display a dark/light polarity; so too there could be
Worlds within Realms (or vice versa?), each split along the dark/light

They might even have been split again along
an Otherworld/This world polarity (which would explain why there
are so many ways to get into Faerie — via Sidhe hills, ocean
voyages, diving into lakes, becoming a bird and flying there,
etc.). The “Otherworld” is a concept that shows up
universally in religions as the “place” where spirits
live. Usually it’s perceived as interpenetrating mundane reality
or “This world” in which most people live their lives,
but with particular locations where it is easiest to contact.
The Otherworld isn’t the same as the Underworld (Chthonic Realm)
or the Celestial Realms, but it is connected to them, as it is
to the Three Worlds. The supernatural Outsiders might have been
viewed as living mostly in the Otherworld and using its connections
to travel throughout the realms and worlds. Each IE culture would
have associated various sorts of beings, from the demonic to
the divine, with each of the “places” we’ve defined.
Among the Irish, for example, the Outsiders were usually chthonic,
but were sometimes associated with very distant lands, waters,
or skies. The dark/light split might also throw some light (you
should pardon the expression) on the “good demons”
and “evil gods” in different IE myths, many of whom
are said to be descended from both dark and light spirits.

To put all of this into geometric terms, visualize
the Three Worlds and the Three Realms as representing the horizontal
(or “X”) and vertical (or “Y”) axes of IE
cosmology. The Light and Dark distinction would then be a third
(“Z”) axis and the “This World” vs. “Otherworld”
distinction would be a fourth dimensional (“W”) axis
— which kind of figures.

What does all this mean for Neopagan Druids?
To begin with, it gives us a new vocabulary with which to discuss
these ideas for the next couple of years. It also means that
those of us who are comfortable working with the Three Worlds
of Land, Waters, and Sky can continue to do so. Others may prefer
to focus on the Three Realms of Celestial, Middle, and Chthonic
existence (OK, all you Lithuanian Pagans??). The dark/light or
dangerous/safe polarity can be used, as can the Otherworld/Here
polarity (just don’t get trapped into evil/good dualisms). Fire
burns through all these categories of reality (yes, there is
dark fire –consider Balor, the “evil sun god,” for
example) and can be used symbolically to tie them all together
(with the smoke carrying the sacrifices up to the Celestial Realms).

Another way to view Fire in these IE cosmologies
is in balance with a sacred Well, which ties into the popular
(at least among IEs) fire-in-the-water symbolism. This usually
seems to associate the Well with the Cythonic Realm and wisdom,
and the Fire more with the Celestial Realm and knowledge or inspiration.
The symbol of the World Tree then makes a nice triplicity linking
the solar fire with the earthly waters. At least, these are the
directions our evolving ADF cosmology has been growing during
the last several years! Stay tuned for further developments….

Copyright 1991, 1999 c.e., Isaac Bonewits.
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