The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Hesiod and the Vedas: Succession and Sacrifice in Th. 129-192

Matthew Strebe

The castration of the sky god Ouranos in Hesiod’s Theogony bears intriguing parallels with some of the Rg Vedic hymns, in terms of their treatment of the themes of succession, sacrifice, and ritual violence. Although such similarities may be an element of chance, in light of their strong commonalities and their mutual Indo-European linguistic heritage, it is probable that they are offshoots of a single root text or tradition, which is now lost. However, this is in contrast to much of the scholarly literature, which argues that Hesiod’s work is largely indebted to Near Eastern influences, primarily the Hurrian myth of Humarbi. Comparing the castration of Ouranos in the Theogony with several hymns from the Rg Veda in contrast with the myth of Humarbi and others, this project will attempt to show that certain aspects of Hesiod’s Theogony, while superficially influenced by the literature of the Near East, are clearly derived from Indo-European source material.

Methodology and Theoretical Approaches

The dominant opinion in scholarship of epic Greek literature is best articulated by the scholar M. L. West who stated that all such literature is Near Eastern literature.[1] While it is undoubtedly true that the literature of the Near East has exerted an influence on some aspects of Greek literature, particularly certain distinct motifs and tropes, it will be the contention of this project that the dominant influence is clearly the Indo-European source material, which provides the basic stratum for all epic literature from Ireland to Northern India. Indeed, the similarities between these geographically disparate canons are so great that it is impossible to deny their relation. Accepting this fact, the role of the scholar as an Indo-European comparatist is twofold. First, he must carefully sift through the surviving material to find the similarities, which can then be confidently attributed to the common oral or textual tradition, which no longer exists. Second, he must compare the material to uncover the differences, and then he must explore geographically close but otherwise unrelated traditions to discover the source of such divergence.

Although superficial similarities may be discovered through literary analysis, it is only by analysis of the languages at their roots, and the appearance of equivalent roots in the same context for the literatures in question, that a clear case for relation can be made. As such, the Indo-European comparatist is fundamentally a linguist, and his method is commensurate with his role. This “comparative method” in Indo-European poetics and linguistics is undergirded by a single hypothesis: “certain languages show similarities which are so numerous and so precise that they cannot be attributed to chance, and are such that they cannot be explained as borrowings from one language into another or as universal or quasi-universal features of many or all human languages.”[2] Further, the comparatist is able to declare that languages, if they fit within the hypothesis articulated above, are “related or cognate, from a common ancestor, termed a proto-language, which no longer exists.”[3] From linguistic similarities, the comparatist may confirm the relation of literary similarities, which manifest in the “form, nature, and function of poetic language and archaic literature among a variety of ancient IE peoples.”[4]

This project will have recourse to both literary and linguistic methods of comparison, though with a heavier emphasis on literary rather than linguistic examples. But before this author can begin to elucidate the affinities between the particular Greek and Sanskrit epics of antiquity in question, he will first have to make the case for the connection between Greek and Vedic sacrificial traditions, which are foundational for them. In this section, the author will first analyze the origins of sacrifice in Greek society as researched by Walter Burkert and Rene Girard, arguing that such a conceptual framework has a broader applicability beyond the Greek to other Indo-European societies, including the Indic. Second, this author will outline Bruce Lincoln’s theory of macrocosmic/microcosmic homology, showing how this specific motif appears in diverse Indo-European sources. He will argue that this model is explicative of the meaning of sacrifice in Indo-European society, as shown in the numerous examples that will be provided. Finally, he will apply these theoretical models to the literary traditions in question, Vedic and Greek, as well as in apposition to the Near Eastern works that are said to be influential in archaic Greek literature.

Sacrifice in the Indo-European Society

The Origins of Sacrifice as a Guiding Social Phenomenon

Walter Burkert, in his work Homo Necans, traced the development of sacrifice in the Greek tradition as an outgrowth of human violence, which needed to be contained and channeled into an appropriate outlet. To divert the violence away from people, the hunt of an animal was transformed into a sacrifice. Violence then became a social convention and safety valve, guarding against the inter- and intra-communal violence that had plagued the pre-history of man. Thus, sacrifice paradoxically both contains and unleashes violence. It is this uneasy equilibrium which presents the possibility that, should the sacrificial tradition become perverted or break down, much greater violence could be unleashed as a result.[1] Although this research was conducted on ancient Greek society, several considerations render it a reasonable theoretical model to apply to other Indo-European societies. If one accepts the premise that all Indo-European societies are derived from a single common ancestor, the proto-Indo-European civilization, it is reasonable to assume that many of the rituals that show parallels in the daughter civilizations do so because there was a single antecedent practice in the parent. Because the sacrificial rituals are so similar it can be inferred, post hoc ergo propter hoc, that the conditions giving rise to sacrifice in Greece were similar to conditions giving rise to sacrifice in Asia – not to mention the common human psychology that underlines sacrifice in general. However, it must be stressed that this is not proof, but merely an argument based on logic. As there is no textual evidence – and precious little physical evidence – attesting to the existence of this civilization, one can only rely on the similarities between daughter civilizations to make inferences about the parent.

Rene Girard’s most lucid contribution to this discourse is the idea of mimetic desire, and from this concept mimetic violence and mimetic sacrifice. Human groups constantly engaged in forms of violent rivalry, which threatened to escalate unless the inchoate violence was somehow contained. This mounting violence was born out of scarcity, out of a shared desire between groups for an object that one group could possess, but not the other. Aggression was initially sexual in nature, with violence directed towards other men for the purpose of gaining a partner. The desire may be innate, either to the species or to members of the group itself, but this specific form of desire is fundamentally social, for the object at hand is desired even more intensely because others desire it too: “No one fans my desire as effectively as the one who inspires it by desiring for himself, diabolically, or so it seems, an object I believe I desire independently of his influence. The more mimetic a desire is, the more intense it becomes.”[2] This rivalry is fundamentally mimetic. Each act of provocation by one group or party to a conflict precipitates a reciprocal act by the other group or party, until they mutually reach a crescendo of bloodshed that threatens to spiral out of control. If the rivals ever come face to face, and the object is forgotten, they are left only with the enmity engendered by their competition.

Violence is only averted at this point when the majority, or a significant number, or even a single member, of the antagonists arbitrarily choose a scapegoat from amongst themselves who is “promptly lynched.”[3] This victim, as the first casualty of violence between or within the group, becomes “the founding murder, the model of ritual sacrifice.”[4] This first sacrifice, initially the shameful terminus of violence, is transformed under the aegis of myth into a foundational act that then seeks to curtail violence. Girard states that the “miracle of the sacrifice is the formidable ‘economy’ of violence that it realizes [by directing] against a single victim the violence that menaced the entire community.”[5] The group is temporarily saved, but when faced with a similar situation, must have recourse either to a new foundational act of violence or a mimetic act founded upon the first. Thus, sacrifice is primarily mimetic, as each sacrifice is founded upon this original template. It is not a mimetic act of violence that precipitates further violence, but a mimesis of the founding murder, displaced onto an analogue. As the social purpose of the sacrifice is to avert violence from the human community, it was natural that this analogue became embodied in a non-human being, generally an animal.

The affinity for the animal felt by early hunters made for an easy transition from violence against fellow humans to violence against non-human animals. The outrage of flowing blood, so similar to the coursing fluid man knew was present in his own veins, caused shock and a feeling of guilt and fear; the humanness of the animal’s screams when it was slaughtered are painfully familiar to the death rattle of a mortally wounded man, gave pause; the suppleness of its flesh, or the coarseness of its hair, was similar to that of a man, which could be observed when the beast lay dead and lifeless upon the ground. All of this was capable of bringing a man to reflection on the consequences of his action, and perhaps the empathy naturally felt as an accompaniment to perceived affinities. Mimetic sacrifice can only be based on a realization that one’s self is equivalent with another self, with whom one must strive and overcome, otherwise the object of desire would have no power to cause desire, and thus it would not be striven after with such fervor. This is what makes the animal into the perfect scapegoat. Aggression against other men, against women, against both the in and the out-group, could thus become yoked to the animal. In death most similar to man, the animal could be used as an analogue for him in a ritualized, mimetic reenactment of the founding murder: the sacrifice.[6]

In broad strokes, this is the origin of sacrifice as a human phenomenon. It is a method of diverting the violence of a community first onto a human out-group, and finally onto a non-human animal, in order to remove violence from the community itself. It does this by arbitrarily choosing a victim, presumably though not definitively a member of the human community or out-group, and lynching him. This primeval murder is sanctified with the august mantles of tradition and religious ritual, so that the original victim is forgotten as an individual but preserved in ritual and poetry as a divine figure or demigod, whose sacrifice was foundational for the world. Such reigning mythologies range from the abstract – such as Purusha and Prajapati in the Rg Veda – to the concrete – such as the rape of Lucretia by Tarquin, which led to the foundation of Rome. The sacrifice and death of the first victim, which ended the communal violence, then serves as a mimetic archetype for further sacrifices, this time not of a human being but a non-human animal. From this basic structure, sacrificial traditions rose up in different societies, which were practiced in religious rituals and codified in epics and lyrics.

The Meaning of Sacrifice as Macrocosmic/Microcosmic Homology

Because the origins of sacrifice are similar, if not the same, for all these civilizations, it is not surprising that the preserved literature relating to sacrifice is highly conserved across all literary canons. A prominent example of a conserved aspect of sacrificial ritual preserved in epic is the macrocosmic/microcosmic homology, a movement from a greater essence to a lesser substance, or a lesser substance to a greater essence. In cosmogonic myths corresponding to this archetype, the world is created “from the dismembered parts of a primordial victim,”[1] usually a god. Divine essence is perverted and transformed into profane substance, where the unitary body of a god is sacrificed by the other gods, and his unity is broken along with the parts of his body to create the multiplicity of the material world. This transfer is always a movement from a greater to a lesser order: the father gives way to the son, autocracy to oligarchy, stasis to flux, unity to multiplicity, innocence to guilt. This ritualized motif is present in the Rigvedic Hymn to Purusha at RV X.90 and in the Aitareye Brahmana sec. II.6 in Vedic Sanskrit, the Old Russian “Poem on a Dove King,” the Old Frisian Code of Emsig, the Old Norse dismemberment of Ymir[2], the Middle Persian Zad Spram, and, as will be argued, the Ancient Greek Theogony, all of which point to its Indo-European prevalence and antiquity.[3]

This foundational movement from a pure and unified state does not just happen, but is almost always justified by a foundational crime. Girard argues that the sacrificial victim “must be killed because he is criminal, execrable, infinitely dreadful; otherwise, the agreement to kill him would never be reached, and his death would not reconcile the community. It is necessary that the victim first appear to “merit” his punishment, that he may later “merit” his divinity.”[4] For example, in Hesiod’s Theogony, Ouranos repeatedly rapes his wife, Gaia, to prevent her giving birth to their children. Gaia manages to smuggle her son, Kronos, a scythe, and he castrates his father and thus ends the stagnation he had wrought, bringing himself, the other gods, and complete cosmic order into being.

Purusha is not implicated in any crime in the Rg Veda, but Prajapati is in the Brahmanas. Accused of raping his daughter, Prajapati is dismembered by the other gods, and from his body they create the world. It may be an overly Christian interpretation to see in this type of cosmogony the kernel of original sin, but a sin of sorts there certainly was: just as Adam and Eve had to rebel against God’s command, in order to bring their world into being in a fundamentally fallen state, the gods must destroy one of their own, in the above two cases their own father, in the process of creation, thereby inaugurating the world as a tainted entity.

Burkert states that “the defining feature of myth is its connection with ritual,”[5] and if this is so, it follows that the tropes of myth are likely to reflect the practices of ritual. Indeed, though the macrocosmic/microcosmic homology begins in a transfer from divine essence to profane substance, it also moves in the opposite direction, from profane substance to divine essence. However, whenever the movement is reversed, this is marked by a change in emphasis from creation to maintenance, and a change of actor from deity to man. As an immortal god, or some other primordial victim, was sacrificed by the other gods in order to create the world, a mortal victim was sacrificed by other mortals to maintain it, sustaining the universe “against decay and ultimate collapse” by “shifting matter from a victim’s body to the [corresponding] parts of the universe.”[6] Man is not granted the power of creation, but the responsibility of tending to that creation in a symbiotic relationship between man and world, and thus between men and the gods. When the animal is slaughtered and its flesh burned on the βώμος, the ritual altar, its flesh is turned to smoke, which rises to the heavens and pleases the gods. The gods created everything, and it seems strange to think that they require a human action to be “pleased.” Their omnipotence dictates they ought to be sufficient in themselves. When the soma is cut by the Brahmin, the destruction of the plant was seen simultaneously as the murder of a god, and that god’s creation. Without the intercession of the human priest, the god would never come into being, marking the co-dependence of gods and men in the Vedic order. The world is, in a sense, redeemed through sacrifice to exist another day, the ritual serving to check and even reverse the movement of profanity that the gods initiated, and seemingly cannot stop on their own. The progression from greater to lesser that prevailed in the cosmogony is upended in the sacrifice: tainted flesh becomes unified with the divine pantheon, living creatures are apotheosized into gods, and pedestrian words become woven into the divine music.

There is a certain complementarity between men and the gods, for each is required to uphold one element of the world in order for the entire creation to be sustained. When one party in the sacrificial relationship breaks the terms of the contract in some way, there is always a breakdown in the order of the world that sacrifice is required to maintain. For example, the foundational murder can take place only once, to be maintained evermore in the mimetic institution of ritual sacrifice. When a member of the human community oversteps his bounds and reintroduces sacrificial violence against human beings, or usurps the role of creator from the gods, he receives the undying enmity of the poets in their epics and songs. This disapprobation may be observed in the case of the Celtic hero Fergus mac Roich, whose actions in epic are not cosmogonic in the sense that they create the entire phenomenological world, but cosmogonic in that they suggest aspects of the initial creative act. Fergus vows to “strike men’s jawbones from their necks, men’s necks from their shoulders” on down to “men’s feet and their toes, men’s toes and their nails,” repeating in the human world the cosmogony found preserved in Vedic and Orphic hymns.[7] As human actions are homologically compatible with divine actions, so too is the human sacrifice homologically compatible with the divine sacrifice. When Fergus kills the men, he does so in a way that it is evocative of the sacrificial ritual, simultaneously echoing the first act of cosmogony, while calling to mind the uneasiness surrounding it. Indeed, the reinstitution of human violence, replacing the sacrifice of the animal which was designed as a substitute for human conflict, returns to prominence the human conflict that sacrifice was designed to prevent.

Anxiety is always inherent in the sacrificial act. Although there may be succor in the avoidance of mob violence, there always remains the background moral stain brought about by the destruction of an innocent victim. Fergus’ action in this context can only be seen as a perversion, and such disquiet surrounding the misapplication of sacrificial violence is echoed in other traditions. When Achilles fights against Hektor before the gates of Ilium, the entire exchange is an inversion of battlefield etiquette. Where the two warriors are to engage in single combat, exchanging names and titles, as well as promises to honor the body of the loser,[8] Achilles taunts Hektor by saying

“μή με κύον γούνων γουνάζεο μὴ δὲ τοκήων:

αἲ γάρ πως αὐτόν με μένος καὶ θυμὸς ἀνήη

ὤμ’ ἀποταμνόμενον κρέα ἔδμεναι, οἷα ἔοργας,

ὡς οὐκ ἔσθ’ ὃς σῆς γε κύνας κεφαλῆς ἀπαλάλκοι,

οὐδ’ εἴ κεν δεκάκις τε καὶ εἰκοσινήριτ’ ἄποινα

στήσωσ’ ἐνθάδ’ ἄγοντες, ὑπόσχωνται δὲ καὶ ἄλλα,

οὐδ’ εἴ κέν σ’ αὐτὸν χρυσῷ ἐρύσασθαι ἀνώγοι

Δαρδανίδης Πρίαμος: οὐδ’ ὧς σέ γε πότνια μήτηρ

ἐνθεμένη λεχέεσσι γοήσεται ὃν τέκεν αὐτή,

ἀλλὰ κύνες τε καὶ οἰωνοὶ κατὰ πάντα δάσονται.

Implore me not, dog, by knees or parents. Would that in any wise wrath and fury might bid me carve thy flesh and myself eat it raw, because of what thou hast wrought, as surely as there lives no man that shall ward off the dogs from thy head; nay, not though they should bring hither and weigh out ransom ten-fold, aye, twenty-fold, and should promise yet more; nay, not though Priam, son of Dardanus, should bid pay thy weight in gold; not even so shall thy queenly mother lay thee on a bier and make lament for thee, the son herself did bear, but dogs and birds shall devour thee utterly.”[9]

Here, Achilles uses the word ἀποτέμνω[10], in its inflectional variant ἀποταμνόμενον, which generally means “to cut off from.” However, in the Iliad it is sometimes used in sacrificial and ceremonial contexts, often in the formulaic phrase “ὅρκια πιστὰ [+ τέμνω]” meaning “[to swear] true oaths by means of sacrifice,”[11] by allusion showing his scorn of religious compunction. He points towards perversion of the sacrificial rite when he says that “wise wrath and fury might bid me carve thy flesh and eat it raw,” considering that all meat was first sanctified through sacrifice before it was eaten. To both butcher a man in the manner of a beast, and to eat such deviant meat, is doubly insulting to the man and to the gods. He follows through on his promise to Hektor when, after killing him, he shows his disregard for the profound superstition regarding dead bodies by piercing the Achilles tendons of Hektor’s legs with spikes and drawing him, on his face, three times around the vast city walls. Only the personal intercession of Priam, Hektor’s father, is sufficient to move the impious Achilles to relinquish the corpse of the Trojan hero. It is one of the most haunting sequences in the Iliad, and it is impossible to miss the irony that later on, Achilles is himself killed by being pierced in the same body part. The disruption of the established order, represented in the sacrificial institution, reaches its apogee with the impious murder of Hektor, and it reaches its denouement with the death of Achilles, both connected by the body part afflicted. Perhaps it is not too much to see in this a further example of the macrocosmic/microcosmic homology. In his life, Achilles exceeded the bounds of propriety by perverting the etiquette of battle, the royal prerogative, funereal practice, filial piety and divine devotion, and tangentially, the institution of sacrifice in his vulgarization of sacrificial diction. In treating the body of another with such disrespect, Achilles invites the wrath of the Gods for transgressing their commands. With his death, the gods set right the disordered state of affairs in which he operated.

Sacrifice as Cosmogony in the Rg Veda and the Brahmanas

The Iranianist Richard Frye, in analyzing the mythologist George Dumezil’s trifunctional hypothesis, stated presciently that because Old Avestan and Vedic texts are the oldest extant manifestations of literary Indo-European culture, “it is the Vedic specialist who must pronounce on the validity of Dumezil’s theory.”[12] Though he only applied this to a single case, Frye’s logic holds true for any inquiry into Indo-European source material. Thus, before we can analyze whether the castration of Ouranos is derived from Indo-European source material, we must first turn to the Vedic corpus. As this is the oldest extant example of sacrificial literature, we cannot arrive at any firm conclusions regarding the genetic or historical nature of other texts in the Indo-European language family without exploring it first. To do this, the author will examine several Rg Vedic hymns relating to sacrifice, primarily the Hymn to Purusha and the Hymn to Prajapati, before turning to consider Hesiod.

Purusha as Primordial Sacrifice

Purusha’s sacrifice is extremely important to the narrative of the Rg Veda, as his death is what creates the world. Purusha is conceived of as a great giant, with “a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. He pervaded the earth on all sides and extended beyond it as far as ten fingers.”[13] Purusha, though the primordial man, is akin to the Orphic conception of Zeus referenced above, composing everything and everything being composed of him:

“It is the Man who is all this,

whatever has been and whatever is to be.

He is the ruler of immortality,

when he grows beyond everything through food.

Such is his greatness,

and the Man is yet more than this.

All creatures are a quarter of him;

three quarters are what is immortal in heaven.”[14]

Purusha is described as larger than life, the creator of all things, a cosmic giant that is greater than measure, yet ironically, only great through the consumption of food, which he himself was responsible for creating. Yet, though he is the progenitor of all beings, he is not equivalent with them. The bulk of his power and mass is located in heaven rather than on earth, for of “what is immortal in heaven” he comprises three quarters, but only one quarter of what is mortal on earth. This again leads to irony, as he grows great through food – an earthly and thus profane substance – but grows the greatest only in heaven, which is beyond the ken of earthly beings. The constant interplay between his description as a growing creator with his description as an immortal ruler reflects Lincoln’s macrocosmic/microcosmic homology, this only becomes clearer in other hymns dedicated to Purusha:

“The sacrifice that is spread out with threads on all sides,

Drawn tight with a hundred and one divine acts,

Is woven by these fathers as they come near: ‘Weave forward, weave backward,’ They assay as they sit by the loom that is stretched tight.

The Man stretched the warp and draws the weft;

The Man has spread it out upon this dome of the sky.

These are the pegs that are fastened in place;

They made the melodies into the shuttles for weaving.”[15]

The hymn is entirely cyclical and self-referential, always pointing backwards to the foundation as it moves forward to its manifestations in a perfect balance between macrocosm and microcosm: Purusha is both sacrificed and sacrificer, the “Man” referenced in both hymns being the same deity. He eats, but is himself eaten; he creates, but he is also created, as the line “from him Virāj [the female creative impulse] was born, and from Virāj came the Man” in RV X.90 indicates.[16] There is a further correspondence between the characters of Prajapati and Purusha when it is considered that Viraj is replaced by Prakrti in Sankhya philosophy, who then acts as Purusha’s mate – as Prajapati wished to mate with his daughter, Purusha mates with the female impulse that he both created and was created by.[17] Furthermore, “Purusha” is not even a proper name, being the common word for “man,” intimating that it may not even be the god Purusha who sacrifices himself, but the mortal man or “purusha” who prepares the sacrificial ground for the immortal god “Purusha,” an echo of the mundane origin of sacrifice maintained in the pedestrian name for the “sacrifice god.” Whether this connection was made theologically is unclear, but the wordplay was certainly intended as a further element of irony in this already laden work.

Purusha and Prajapati

It is unexplained why Purusha was chosen for violence, an omission Girard finds galling. He claims: “sometime in an indeterminate past there must have been a crime attributed to Purusha.”[18] Without a crime there is no demerit that allows for Purusha’s killing, and thus no merit in his death that leads to his deification. Girard locates an echo of the otherwise effaced crime in the Brahmanas, where the primordial creator god Prajapati is accused of incest with one of his daughters. It was inescapable for him to cohabit with one of his own creations, an unfortunate side effect of being the creator of all things in the world – such a handy rationalization did not, however, present itself to the gods. The Brahmanas begin the narrative of Prajapati’s crime in the following way:

“Prajapati, it is said, wished to possess his own daughter – which would be Dyaus or good Usas. I want to mate with her, he said, and he possessed her. The gods considered this a crime. It is he, they thought to themselves, who treats his daughter, our sister thus. The gods said to the god who reigns over the beasts: In truth, he commits a transgression, he who treats his daughter, our sister thus; let us pierce him. Rudra took aim at him and pierced him… when the wrath of the gods dissipated, they healed Prajapati and removed the spear from him.”[19]

Prajapati is killed but then revived, continuing to exist as the “sacrifice god,”[20] for his role in the world is integral as both the first sacrifice and the upholder of further sacrifices. The theme of destruction followed by reconstitution is a deeply Indo-European one, echoed in multiple literary canons and cultural traditions. The Germanic Merseburg charm, after “listing and identifying the gods called on, continues: bone to bone, blood to blood, limb to limb, let them be fast-joined!” is one example. The Celtic Cath Maige Tuired is another, where Nuada, king of the Tuatha de Danann, who lost his arm in combat had his son Miach reattach the arm “joint to joint of it and sinew to sinew.” When Nuada kills his son Miach, “365 different kinds of herbs grow from his body.”[21] In all cases, a body is dismembered and mystically reconstituted, in a cyclic chain of destruction and rebirth.

Thus we may return to the Hymn to Purusha at RV X.90, for with the dismemberment of Purusha, not only is the phenomenological world created, but also the foundation of that world in sacrifice, continuing the interplay between macrocosm and microcosm. The gods themselves create the sacrifice, axiomatically grounding not just the creation of the world, but also the continued existence of that world, in a mimetic repetition of the cosmic rite. Some of the relevant lines are below:

When the gods spread the sacrifice

With the man as the offering,

Spring was the clarified butter,

Summer the fuel, autumn the oblation.

They anointed the Man, the sacrifice born

At the beginning, upon the sacred grass.

With him the gods, Sadhyas,

And sages sacrificed.”[22]

Mimesis is the fundamental basis of this hymn’s metaphysics, as Purusha acts as the archetype for all further sacrifices. The traditional sacrificial items – ghee, fuel-sticks and enclosing-sticks, oblations – do not yet exist, and so are replaced with metaphors derived from Purusha himself, who as he is destroyed is forever enshrined in the future mechanics of the sacrifice and the fabric of the world. All the seasons are used in the sacrifice of the primordial giant, so that the Man creates the seasons, and the seasons are used to destroy the Man. The self-referential and cyclical nature of the hymn is maintained, along with the irony that the sages are present at the first sacrifice, when the purpose of the sage is to maintain a sacrificial rite that does not yet exist, but which they must nonetheless participate in to be of any relevance! From this primordial sacrifice, the entire world is created:

From that sacrifice in which everything was offered,

The melted fat was collected,

And he made it into those beasts who live in the air,

In the forest, and in villages

From that sacrifice in which everything was offered,

The verses and chants were born,

The meters were born from it,

And from it the formulas were born.”[23]

It is perhaps important that animals are created first, followed by the “verses and chants,” “meters,” and “formulas.” To perpetuate a sacrifice, it is of course necessary to have both sacrificial animals, and the verses with which to consecrate such a sacrifice as holy, but it is strange that human beings, who are required to actualize the sacrifice and recite the hymns, are not even present to do so. Perhaps such a foreshadowing acts as a further rhetorical device, complimenting the general thrust of the hymn. The sacrifice is so axiomatic, that not only did it create the world; its implements, formulae, and sacrificial beasts existed prior to the actors who could recognize and utilize them as such. Subsequently, the remaining parts of Purusha are used to create human beings in their appropriate castes:

“yát púruṣaṃ ví ádadhuḥ
katidhā́ ví akalpayan
múkhaṃ kím asya kaú bāhū́
́ ūrū́ pā́dā ucyete

brāhmaṇò ‘sya múkham āsīd
bāhū́ rājaníyaḥ kr̥táḥ
ūrū́ tád asya yád vaíśyaḥ
padbhyā́ṃ śūdró ajāyata

When they divided the Man,

Into how many parts did they apportion him?

What do they call his mouth,

His two arms and thighs and feet?

His mouth became the Brahmin;

His arms were made into the Warrior,

His thighs the People,

And from his feet the Servants were born.”[24]

However, when Purusha is dismembered, his parts are arranged not just to form the world, but also the fabric of society. Here, the Vedic culture displays a “sliding scale of excellence” for the body, from the top of the head to the soles of the feet.[25] The highest element, or the highest element of society, is accorded pride of place in the highest part of the human body, the head. The Brahmin is responsible for the establishment and maintenance of ritual, considered by Vedic civilization to be foundational to the establishment and maintenance of the world, making it natural to ground such foundational power in the locus of thought, sight, smell, taste, and hearing, the head. The head, though it is the integrated center of all sensibility, is nonetheless useless without the aid of the limbs, and so the analogy is extended to derive the warrior class or Ksatriya from the arms that bear the sword, the worker or Vaishya class from the legs that drive the plow, and the servant or Sudra from the feet which support the entire structure (and perhaps, who are crushed by it). The three subordinate castes are nothing without the metaphysically foundational work of the Brahmin, but the Brahmin is also nothing without the sustaining work of the Ksatriya, the Vaishya, and the Sudra. The sacrificial cosmology thus legitimates the ordering of society, and the order of society in turn legitimates the sacrificial cosmology.

This “sliding scale” also shows its Indo-European antiquity in a context unrelated to ritual sacrifice, as in the following Orphic verses:

Zeus is the first and last, one royal body, containing fire, water, earth, and air, night and day, Metis and Eros. The sky is his head, the stars his hair, the sun and moon his eyes, the air his nous, whereby he hears and marks all things.”[26]

Zeus does not suffer from dismemberment as does poor Purusha – this is displaced unto the character of his grandfather Ouranos – but the foundational elements of the universe are, just as with Purusha, located in his head. The connection between the sky and the head results in a doubled exaltation, for the metaphor of the highest part of the body is maintained, while there is added to it the reality of the sky as the highest part of the world, and the elements of the firmament as the highest part of the heavens. The stars, sun, and moon, the primary heavenly bodies visible to the unaided eye, are all considered to compose his head, resulting in a metaphor endearing but also sublime, and thus terrible: the highest of the Gods has woven himself into the fabric of the universe, so that his eyes blaze out from the heavens in a starry canopy upon his children, but the sun and moon are his eyes, shining forth both day and night, keeping an uninterrupted vigil on the creatures with which he was in a permanent state of struggle and antagonism, as related in Hesiod’s Works and Days, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, among other works.

Finally, it is said that:

“yajñéna yajñám ayajanta devā́s
́ni dhármāi prathamā́ni āsan

With the sacrifice the gods sacrificed to the sacrifice.

These were the first ritual laws.”[27]

Here Purusha is simultaneously sacrificed and sacralized, becoming, as Prajapati above, the “god sacrifice.” Thus, the first sacrificial act inaugurated a world ontologically dependent upon a foundation of sacrifice, which was codified in the “first ritual laws.” This is the idea of dharman, referred to above in the line “tā́ni dhármāi prathamā́ni āsan,” the Vedic antecedent to dharma, which translates to “Foundation.” [28] Conceptualized as an omphalos, dharman is the kernel of truth on which all other supports depend. By “making powerful” the institution of sacrifice, the gods put into existence the first support, derived from the kernel of dharman, from which humans below could interact with and support the Truth, “itself a support,” an example of the prevalence of the macrocosmic/microcosmic homology. By maintaining the sacrificial rite, people can reach “the men that have taken their seat upon the Foundation, upon the support of heaven.” Each support is derived from dharman, and each support in turn supports dharman. Thus, dharman takes on an “enigmatic” flair by which it is heaven but is also the means to get to heaven, reflecting the cyclical and self-referential obfuscations of the Vedic poets in the Hymn to Purusha. Spanning outward in higher and higher concentric rings of support, each buttressing the other in turn, one may manifest the supreme truth directly in action.[29] This foundation was sacrifice, but upon the edifice was built a fixed and unchanging social order – dharman created the universe, but what follows is a set of roles for each caste that must be followed with the same finality of physical laws. Dharman can thus be seen as the foundation of the world and of society, endlessly and repeatedly fulfilled through mimetic sacrifice. By making the entire world ontologically dependent upon the sacrifice of Purusha, the Vedic poets ensure the fundamental role of sacrifice in society, and the concomitantly fundamental role of the priest in maintaining the sacrificial cult.[30]

Sacrifice as Cosmogony in Hesiod’s Theogony

Hesiod’s Theogony is a cosmogonic work in the tradition of the creation hymns of the Rg Veda, and this heritage is borne out in certain resemblances between key figures in the narratives. The figure of Gaia or Earth bears resemblance to Prajapati, as she is described first as “the ever-sure foundation of all the deathless ones, who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus,” “Γαῖ’ εὐρύστερνος, πάντων ἕδος ἀσφαλὲς αἰεὶ ἀθανάτων, οἳ ἔχουσι κάρη νιφόεντος Ὀλύμπου,”[31] marking her as the progenitor of the pantheon of Olympian gods as Prajapati was the progenitor of all creation. Unlike Prajapati, she is not the creator of all gods, as other more primal forces such as the Dark, the Night, the Day, and the Aether, all arose apart from her and founded their own divine lineages amongst themselves. Like Prajapati, she creates the ocean god Pontus endogenously, “without sweet love.”[32] Next, she birthes Ouranos “equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods.”[33] Like Prajapati, having no other being to cohabit with, Gaia lies with Ouranos and bears a series of gods, among them Kronos, father of Zeus. Unlike Prajapati, the hatred of the gods does not pass to Gaia, whose copulation with her child passes by without comment, but to her son and husband Ouranos, as he is the first to transgress the natural order. Hesiod relates that Ouranos hid all his children away “in a secret place of Earth so soon as each was born, and would not suffer them to come up into the light,” and then indulges in a bit of authorial judgment: “Ouranos rejoiced in his evil doing,” “κακῷ δ᾽ἐπετέρπετο ἔργῳ Οὐρανός.”[34] The magnitude of the crime is reflected in the syntax, which places the long list of calumnies in a row before ending the line with the name of the criminal, Ouranos, drawing attention to the malefactor by physically placing him at the head of his deeds.

By valuing the action as evil, Hesiod is preparing his audience for the inevitable recompense such evil actions demand. During the daylight hours, when Ouranos is elsewhere, the Earth conspires with her son Kronos, saying “My children, gotten of a sinful father, if you will obey me, we should punish the vile outrage of your father; for he first thought of doing shameful things.”[35] The other gods took fear and trembled, but Kronos “took courage and answered his dear mother: “Mother, I will undertake to do this deed, for I reverence not our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing shameful things.”[36] The repetition of the phrase is itself interesting, but the formulaic usage for “shameful deeds,” “ἀείκια ἔργα,” uses the same word ἀείκης in this case as Homer does for the slaying of Hektor; it is shameful, an “outrage,” which Apollo keeps from the unspoilt body of his favored hero: “Ἀπόλλων πᾶσαν ἀεικείην ἄπεχε χροῒ φῶτ’ ἐλεαίρων.”[37] Furthermore, it seems that both Kronos and Gaia must justify to themselves their action by this mantra-like repetition of the same self-justifying phrase. Serving to repress the uneasiness in attacking a husband and mutilating a father, we almost feel a sense of solidarity with Ouranos, who despite his crimes, never has a speaking role, and thus never a chance to acquit himself; he is imputed by others to have done ill, and he is lynched by his accuser for doing so. It is too far a stretch to argue that the outrage of this scene is justification for calling the Theogony a sacrificial work. However, it must be remarked, that the same foundational outrage that led to the downfall of Prajapati is here echoed in the foundational outrage of Ouranos, who “first thought of doing shameful things [ἀείκια ἔργα],” and was thus the first to merit his punishment.

After concluding a pact with his mother, “the vast Earth rejoiced greatly in spirit,” and she gave unto him a “jagged sickle,” before revealing to him “the whole plot.”[38] Thus arrayed, Kronos hid in wait for his father’s amorous sojourning, burst upon him, and

“ὅ δ᾽ἐκ λοχειοῖο πάις ὠρέξατο χειρὶ σκαιῇ, δεξιτερῇ δὲ πελώριον ἔλλαβεν ἅρπην μκρὴν καρχαρόδοντα, φίλου δ᾽α᾽ὸ μήδεα πατρὸς ἐσσυμένως ἤμησε, πάλιν δ᾽ἔρριψε φέρεσθαι ἐξοπίσω.”

“in ambush the youth stretched forth his left and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him.”[39]

The blood then falls upon the Earth, which subsequently bears the Erinyes, the Giants, and the Nymphs, while the sea receives the testicles and births Aphrodite. As Ouranos’ seed brings the first gods into being, so too does his blood upon contact with mother earth bring into being a new race of gods. The sea, which until this point did not figure into the narrative, receives the entirety of his severed genitals, and in roiling foam, produces Aphrodite.

A Sacrifice?

Though it bears similarities to the sacrificial texts already examined, it is difficult to call this episode in the Theogony sacrificial, in light of the theoretical framework based on the work of Burkert, Girard, and Lincoln. Ouranos’ castration is not a movement from divine essence to profane substance, because the world already exists fully formed, being composed of the earth and the firmament, before he is even brought into being. His castration is prefigured in his “shameful” deeds, by which he merits the punishment and deification of the foundational sacrifice. However his dismemberment is not necessarily for some greater good, namely the creation of the world from his body, nor do they precede the creation of a sacrificial cult. Rather, it is the opening act of a coup that installs Kronos and his fellow siblings as the preeminent gods of the pantheon, a decidedly human, and thus profane, element. Ouranos’ “shameful deeds” maintain stasis without change, and his castration allows the progression of the world to continue while bringing into being new characters such as the Giants or Aphrodite, but this is a transfer from divine essence to divine essence. Although the act of dismemberment gives the narrative its grounding in more ancient forms of Indo-European narrative, perhaps it should not be given the great weight given to such an act in other traditions – the initial violence is not an act of sacrifice, though it fulfills a similar role in the cosmogonic process, as “only with the separation of Heaven and Earth and the emergence of their children from the womb of mother Earth can the next generation of gods truly be said to come into existence.”[40] Finally, the homological balancing act of man and god, the foundational purpose of sacrifice, is irrelevant because man has not yet even entered the narrative. This is in contrast to the myth of Purusha, whose parts are rearranged into the elements and castes of ritual, instantly created with his death. In short, the castration of Ouranos lacks the all-encompassing importance of the Hymn to Purusha. Purusha creates the world, but Kronos merely renders his father god irrelevant.

Sacrificial Remnants

Thus, it does not seem that Ouranos’ castration is meant as a sacrifice. However, it does share elements present in the sacrifice of Purusha, which may be remnants of a sacrificial origin in the folk literature that is elided in Hesiod’s rendering. To test this hypothesis, it is necessary to look deeply into the language used by Hesiod, and see if it has any sacrificial undertones, or if it is paralleled elsewhere. If a link between an explicitly sacrificial scene and the castration of Ouranos can be established linguistically, this may be a reflection of a buried sacrificial origin. As precious little sacrificial vocabulary shows up in the Theogony, it is necessary to search Hesiod’s other major composition, the Works and Days, as well as his contemporary, the poet Homer. Both Homer and Hesiod used the same dialect of Greek, Homeric, an art language derived from a mixture of the Attic, Doric, and Aeolic dialects then current in the Greek-speaking world. They also wrote roughly contemporaneously, and it is unclear whether Homer or Hesiod came first temporally, or whose work was first written down. As they wrote in the same dialect and around the same time, it is not unreasonable to assume that both Homer and Hesiod had access to a similar, if not an equivalent, poetic vocabulary, and that the words used by one would have been known, in the same meaning and context, to the other.

Kronos’ act is similar in some ways to a sacrifice. However, the implement he uses is not a sacrificial knife, but a sickle: the word ἡ ἅρπη is equivalent in Hesiod with τὸ δράπανον, a pruning knife or a scythe, and so Kronos’ weapon is more a farmer’s tool than a sacrificial implement. By contrast, the word ἡ μάχαιρα, which holds meanings as both a “large knife” and a “sacrificial knife,” appears in the Iliad as the operative tool in a sacrificial scene consecrating the battle between Menelaus and Paris:

“Ἀτρεΐδης δὲ ἐρυσσάμενος χείρεσσι μάχαιραν, ἥ οἱ πὰρ ξίφεος μέγα κουλεόν αἰὲν ἄωρτο, ἀρνῶν ἐκ κεφαλέων τἀμνε τρίχας: αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα κήρυκες Τρώων καὶ Ἀχαιῶν νεῖμαν ἀρίστοις.”

“And the son of Atreus drew forth with his hand the knife that ever hung beside the great sheath of his sword, and cut hair from off the heads of the lambs; and the heralds portioned it out to the chieftains of the Trojans and the Achaeans,” [41]

As described by Burkert[42], shaving the head of a sacrificial animal is the first violent action that marks it as no longer inviolate in Greek culture, sometimes accompanied with a ceremonial stoning with small pebbles or grains of corn. ἡ μάχαιρα would have been a word available to both poets denoting a specifically sacrificial knife, and because Hesiod did not use the word, it seems less likely that he intended the castration of Kronos to be considered as analogous to a first sacrifice, let alone any sacrifice.

If the word for “sacrificial knife” was not used explicitly, it may be possible that a word for “sacrifice” or the verb “to sacrifice” may show up. There are several words for “sacrifice” or the verb “to sacrifice” that show up in the Iliad: τὰ ἱρά, a substantive from ἱερός meaning “offerings”[43]; the related verb ἱερεύω “to sacrifice” shows up as well[44]; yet another derivative term, τό ἱερεῖον, a “victim” or “animal for sacrifice,” also appears[45]; τέμνω, meaning “to cut” or “to sacrifice”[46]; ῥέζω, “to do” as in “to do [sacrificially]”[47]; θύω, to “offer in sacrifice”[48]; and τό θύος, a “sacrifice.”[49] Of these, Zaidman and Pantel marked θύω as the most common verb for “consecrating an offering,” as it could be used in the context of both “bloody and bloodless sacrifices, to burnt offerings and to votive objects, and to offerings intended for the gods as well as to these designed for dead mortals or heroes.”[50] Perhaps other sacrificial terminology, such as the βωμός, or “sacrificial altar,” or the κάνεον, the sacred basket used for holding the barley, or perhaps the λουτήριον “the lustral pitcher,” or σφαγεῖον “bowl for catching blood,” or the utensils used for sacrificial cooking, the “τράπεζα” “table,” or “ὄβελοι” “spits,” or finally the “λέβης,” the sacrificial cauldron. None of these words appear explicitly in the Theogony, though the substantive of ἱερός[51] appears in Hesiod’s other poem, Works and Days, along with references to “gleaming thighbones,”[52] “drink offerings and burnt offerings,”[53] and finally to a “burning sacrifice.”[54]

Interestingly however, a derivative word, ἀποτέμνω from τέμνω meaning “to cut off from,” appears in line 188. As has been explored earlier, this Hesiod writes that as soon as Kronos

ποτμήξας ἀδάμαντι καββαλ᾽ἀ῏ἠπείροιο πολυκλύστῳ ἐνὶ πόντῳ, ὥς φέρετ᾽ἄμ πέκαγος… ἀμφὶ δὲ λευκὸς ἀφρὸς ἀπ᾽ἀθανάτου χροὸς ὤρνυτο • τῷ δἐ ἔνι κούρη ἐθρέφθη.

had cut off [ποτμήξας] the members [from his father Ouranos] with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away… and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden.”[55]

It is unlikely that the word has any special color to it, apart from its denotation “to cut,” from the Homeric usage. In the first place, there is no literary evidence that Hesiod intended for this to be taken as a first sacrifice, and in the second place, there is neither mention of special sacrificial implements, nor incantations or rituals. The scene depicts a singular act of violence, and little else. In the third place, the Homeric usage of τέμνω as referring to a sacrifice only occurs in a formulaic usage, “ὅρκια πιστὰ + [inflectional variation of τέμνω], meaning “to make oaths by means of sacrifice.”[56] Without the corresponding formulaic usage showing up in both Homer and Hesiod, there is nothing to connect the special sacrificial valence of the verb with its plain meaning. None of the specific sacrificial terminology is used in the Theogony, but its usage in both Homer and Hesiod’s other major work, Works and Days, points to its availability in the lexicon of the time. If Hesiod intended Ouranos’ castration to be sacrificial in character, it is likely he would have written the scene in an explicitly sacrificial setting, with ritual implements and explicit references to the sacrificial institution. Failing that, any sacrificial allusions might be found in ritual practice amongst the Ancient Greeks, but there is no evidence the poem was ever used ritualistically.

A Different Origin for Sacrifice

If the castration of Ouranos is not a sacrifice, are there sacrificial accounts in the Theogony, and if so, what do they say about the origins and functions of sacrifice in archaic Greek society? The only explicit mention of a sacrifice at all is in the narrative of Prometheus, in lines 507-716 – more than halfway through the poem, and certainly not making of sacrifice a grounding for Greek cosmology. After a dispute between Zeus and the humans, Prometheus took the side of the humans, and in a sacrifice:

“Τότ᾽ἔπειτα μέγαν βοῦν πρόφρονι θυμῷ

Δασσάμενος προέθηκε, Διὸς νόον ἐξαπαφίσκων.

Τοῖσ μὲν γὰρ σάρκας τε καὶ ἔγκατα πίονα δημῷ

ἐν ῥινῷ κατέθηκε καλύψας γαστρὶ βοείῃ,

τῷ δ᾽αὖτ᾽ὀστέα λευκὰ βοὸς δολίῃ ἐπὶ τέχνῃ

εὐθετίσας κατέθηκε καλύψας ἀργέτι δημῷ”

“Cut up a great ox and set portions before them [Zeus and the humans], trying to befool the mind of Zeus. Before the rest he set flesh and inner parts thick with fat upon the hide, covering them with an ox paunch; but for Zeus he put the white bones dressed up with cunning art and covered with shining fat.”[57]

Here, the operative word is δασσάμενος, the aorist middle participle from δατέομαι, which simply means “to divide amongst themselves” as amongst members of a banquet,[58] “to cut in two,” or “to tear to pieces.” In the Iliad, the word is often used to indicate that a city or spoils of war are being divided,[59] but never with any specific sacrificial significance. Rather, it seems that the first definition is most apt, for there are no explicit differences between humans, Prometheus, and Zeus, save that the humans and Prometheus serve the meal as children would do for their father. The mere fact that Zeus deigns to attend a banquet that they have put on is proof enough of the similarity of their station, which has not yet taken on a religious aspect. Indeed, this only occurs after Zeus uncovers the trick, grows angry, and like a feudal lord, demands greater tribute from his subjects by mandating that “because of this [trickery], the tribes of men upon earth burn white bones to the deathless gods upon fragrant altars,” “ἐκ τοῦ δ᾽ἀθανάτοισιν ἐπὶ χθονὶ φῦλ᾽ἀνθρώπων καίους᾽ὀστέα λευκὰ θυνέυτων ἐπὶ βωμῶν.”[60] When Prometheus again crosses Zeus by stealing fire for the mortals, Zeus fetters the god to a mountain in the Caucasus, and sends Pandora, the first woman, to “be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil,” “ὥς δ᾽αὔτως ἄνδρεσσι κακὸν θνητοῖσι γυναῖκας Ζεὺς ὑωιβρεμέτης ιῆκεν, ξυνήονας ἔργων ἀργαλέων.”[61] The specific sacrificial vocabulary was current, both in Homeric and Hesiodic corpuses, but Hesiod decided not to use any of the explicit terms that marked off a sacrifice from other forms of cutting and maiming.

What, then, is the significance of Prometheus? Before Prometheus’ tricks, the “great distinction between men and gods had not yet come about,” and “the only difference between the two groups was their disparate lifespans.”[62] Prometheus created the distinction between humanity and the gods, as his trick was of a fundamentally different character from past deceptions. While Kronos hid in wait for Ouranos to overthrow him, and Zeus marshaled the Olympians against Kronos for the same purpose, Prometheus attempted to trick Zeus for no discernible purpose. The only grounding given for the spectacle is a nondescript “when the gods and mortal men had a dispute at Mecone,”[63] which merely provided the reason for the banquet and the scene for Prometheus’ deception. When Zeus discovers the trick, he is angry, but he is unharmed save for his pride. In response, he devises a punishment for the mortals – not for the wily Prometheus! – who nonetheless had no speaking or acting role in the scene, but are nonetheless blamed for Prometheus’ act. They are “headed off at the pass,” their wiliness discovered and promptly contained before it can threaten Zeus’ hegemony. In this light, Prometheus can be simultaneously seen as the personification of human folly, and of human wiliness. His constant intrigues against the gods end in pyrrhic victories, as the small gifts he wins for men through his guile are matched fourfold by the curses he brings down on their heads. The playful trick ends in the eternal punishment of sacrifice, and the theft of fire ends in eternal enslavement and torture for poor Prometheus, and the “curse” of woman for mortal men. This sequence shows at one stroke the final reward meted out to the cunning, and the relationship between gods and men. While the gods are omnipotent, omniscient, and their decrees all-binding, men are always one step behind, forced to comply with such decrees as are placed upon them by the prerogative of the victor. Sacrifice is neither necessary nor axiomatic to this narrative, but shows up solely to create a binary between humanity and the gods: the gods receive sacrifice, not as sustenance, but as an unnecessary recompense for human trickery.

Conclusions: Hesiod’s Near Eastern and Indo-European Influences

If there is such a concordance on the origins of sacrifice, as has been stated previously, why is it that the first Greek cosmogonic narrative places a different emphasis on the sacrificial rite? Why does sacrifice show up only in the middle half of the Theogony, and not early on, where its emphasis would be maximized? Why does the story of Ouranos’ castration have clear sacrificial parallels, despite not being a sacrificial story? This has to do with Hesiod’s pervasive Near Eastern (NE) influences, which reach into the use of tropes, narrative structures, and the stylistics of his work as a whole. However, although the scholar M. L. West stated that “Greek literature is Near Eastern literature,”[64] it is arguable that, although there is significant NE influence on Hesiod, various aspects of his IE stylistic heritage shine through, and the interplay of both NE and IE material can serve to explain the unique story of Ouranos’ castration.

It is generally accepted that “the succession of the three rulers Ouranos, Kronos, Zeus, and the circumstances leading from one rule to the next have a remarkable parallel in the Hurrian saga of Anu overcome and succeeded by Kumarbi, and [he] in turn by the Storm god.”[65] Significant parallel details include “castration of the first god by the second, births from the seed or blood of the castrated god, the swallowing of the children by the father because they are dangerous, and the stone motif,” which appear almost sequentially in Hesiod, but are interspersed throughout the Hurrian story, though they are nonetheless compelling enough to draw our attention.[66] Zeus’ victory at the end of the Theogony “recalls examples of battles known from the literature of the ancient Near East, where the struggle between a god and a kind of dragon symbolizes the defeat of the old year by the new.”[67]

However, there are also distinct differences between Kumarbi’s castration of his father Anu and Kronos’ castration of his father Ouranos. Whereas in the Theogony, Chronus castrates his father Ouranos and throws the genitals over his shoulder into the sea, Kumarbi eats his father Anu’s genitals and then “conceives gods in his stomach.”[68] Further, differences also manifest in the accounts relating to Aphrodite’s birth. For Hesiod’s account, where Aphrodite is born from sea foam erupting from Ouranos’ severed genitals, there may be a parallel to the PIE “Dawn goddess” via √div > dyaus “sky,” or to Sri/Lakshmi in Vedic sources.[69] The latter has greater affinity, with Sri being the “goddess of beauty and abundance” in parallels with both Greek Kēr/Kar and Romes Cer-ēs – as Lakshmi, consort of Vishnu in the Mahabharata, she is said to “rise from the (butter-) foam of the (milk-) ocean when gods and demons cooperated to obtain amrta.”[70] Her association with Vishnu places her in parallel with Aphrodite, who is paired with Ares. Aphrodite is named as the “eldest of the three Fates,” in concordance with Lakshmi as the “goddess of Good Fortune.” Finally, Aphrodite’s girdle has a parallel with the Vedic ritual in which women were considered impure and had to wear a girdle; as with Aphrodite, “it is not impossible that this girdle became in course of times a means for inciting passion.”[71] The scholar Charles Penglase says that “this myth has no parallels of narrative to those myths which survive about the Mesopotamian goddess,”[72] indicating that Hesiod’s Aphrodite is likely of Indo-European descent.

However, the firmest case for Indo-European attribution comes from an alternative creation myth in the Rg Veda. In addition to the Hymn to Purusha and the account in the Brahmanas, the slaying of Vrtra in hymn I.32 provides a different creation myth in the Rg Veda (although the presence of the soma drink, which is a product of sacrifice, may place it in temporal lateness compared to the Hymn to Purusha). In the hymn, the Vedic god Indra is locked in an epic battle with the serpent Vrtra – the slaying of a serpent being a notable Indo-European motif[73] – and the battle is explicitly sexual in nature: Indra uses his vajra, or thunderbolt, to repeatedly smite Vrtra, and the two are contrasted as a bull “bursting with seed” and an emasculated ox respectively.[74] When Indra definitively kills the serpent, he simultaneously creates the world and anchors it in place, and releases the pent up waters, which Vrtra had obstructed, and in so doing “life burst forth under its two aspects of water and fire.”[75] Next, Indra “functions as a pillar in propping up the sky, which until then had been lying upon the earth,”[76] a motif that is explicitly developed by Hesiod into an anthropomorphized union between the sky god Ouranos and the earth goddess Gaia.

The connection to Hesiod may be found specifically in stanza seven:

“vŕ̥ṣṇo vádhriḥ pratimā́nam búbhūṣan purutrā́ vr̥tró aśayad víastaḥ

emasculated, Vrtra lay with limbs dissevered / scattered in many places – he who strove to be the equal of the mighty one.”[77]

It is likely that the line means Vrtra was literally castrated by Indra, in light of the epic battle they had just fought with each other, and the references to Vrtra’s dismemberment. Furthermore, the use of vadhri to refer to Vrtra does not necessarily entail metaphor, as evidenced by the decidedly non-metaphorical use of the adjective in the term vadhryasvah or “gelded horse,” found in RV X.69.10. Vrtra is also repeatedly described as being struck in his “vital part” or “marma,” in RV I.16.6 and III.32.4. After being dismembered, with multiple body parts lying on the field of battle, it is the genitals alone that fall into “billowing water,”[78] echoing the origin of Aphrodite in Hesiod’s Theogony, which is nowhere to be found in the Hurrian Kumarbi story. Indra’s own emasculation later on shows the pervasive motif of castration in the Vedic corpus, which in turn indicates its presence in the proto-Indo-European culture, and thus its accessibility for Hesiod. Though it shows clear influence from the myth of Kumarbi, it shows clearer influence from an Indo-European inherited motif, preserved intact in the Rg Veda.[79]

When Indra slew Vrtra, he “brought forth the Sun, Heaven, and Dawn.” Upon castrating Ouranos, Kronos brought into being the Erinyes, various giants and nymphs, and Aphrodite. Kumarbi, having eaten his father’s genitals, becomes pregnant and births three gods, one being the “Weathergod, who overthrows in turn Kumarbi,” clearly showing castration to be of cosmogonic significance. Thus, castration shows up in the Vedic, Greek, and Hurrian/Hittite epics, and the fact that castration does not show up as a feature of cosmogony in the Mesopotamian Epic of Creation with Tiamat’s dismemberment is reason to believe in its Indo-European origin for Hesiod, rather than a Near Eastern origin theory. These castration myths, which Kazanas considers “both developments of the proto-Indo-European motifs as preserved in the Vedic tradition,” likely derive from the cosmogonic sacrifice of the primordial giant Purusha in RV X.90.[80]

The distinct lack of sacrificial imagery in this hymn to Indra is likely responsible for the corresponding paucity of sacrificial references in Hesiod. Along with the change in emphasis, there is also a change in tone. Whereas the castration of Ouranos retains some of the inherently ambivalent sacrificial psychology by requiring a suppression of guilt and a justification of revenge, Indra’s actions against Vrtra are entirely triumphant. He destroys the serpent, creates the world, and asserts his masculine strength upon the weak and effeminate snake, which he repeatedly smites with no harm to himself. Furthermore, Indra’s exploits are martial rather than religious in nature, as he was a warrior god of the sky, described elsewhere in the Rg Veda as a destroyer of foes, an inveterate seducer, and a prodigious consumer of the hallucinatory drug soma, which he used to aid him in his exploits, making him worthy of the frequent comparison to Zeus made in scholarly literature. Similarly, despite the difference in authorial tone, Kronos first distinguishes himself by his willingness, above all the other gods, to do violence on their behalf, just as the other gods beseech Indra to save them from the menace of Vrtra. Although the cosmogony found in the hymns to Purusha and Prajapati are categorically sacrificial in nature, this may be a reflection of the ascendancy of the Brahmin caste over the Ksatriya caste, with Indra’s cosmogony representing the story of creation as told from a warrior’s perspective. That both stories remain intact in the same corpus indicates the importance granted to both viewpoints. Further, that elements of both stories may be found elsewhere, prominently in the Theogony as this author has argued, further indicates the antiquity of such a divergence in the basic cosmogonic mythos of the proto-Indo-European people.

Although both Kumarbi and Hesiod have many undeniable similarities, likely showing that they are related – or at least that the Near Eastern material has influenced Hesiod – it is clear the Greek author has derived the essential framework of his story from Indo-European source material. It has not been the author’s aim in this paper to deny the many and pervasive Near Eastern influences on archaic and classical Greek culture, or on the writings of Hesiod himself, for he concurs with Kazanas, that “classicists are certainly right in establishing Greek parallels with the Near East traditions, but they are just as certainly wrong to ignore the Greek affinities with the Vedic culture and with that of other Indo-European peoples and ascribe – as they do – such elements also to Near East influences.”[81] It is undeniable that Greek shows clear and pervasive influences from the Near East, but there is persuasive evidence of a connection, mediated through the common Indo-European culture between them, linking Greece and India, which should not be ignored. Rather, by taking into account both Near Eastern influences, and the correspondences that exist in Indic material, “which cannot be coincidental (though some of them may be due to independent development),”[82] we can obtain a richer picture of the development, and origins, of ancient source material.[83]

Works Cited

Calvert Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995): 3-27

Rene Girard, Sacrifice, (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press): 9-57

Walter Burkert, Homo Necans, (Berkeley: University of California Press): 1-81

Bruce Lincoln, Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991): 167-176

Margaret Clunies Ross, “Pseudo-Procreation Myths in Old Norse: An Anthropological Perspective,” TAJA 1.2-3 (1990): 151

Alex Wayman, “The Human Body as Microcosm in India, Greek Cosmology, and Sixteenth-Century Europe,” History of Religions, 22.2 (1982): 174-176

William Sayers, “Fergus and the Cosmogonic Sword,” History of Religions, 25.1 (1985): 32-33

Richard N. Frye, “Georges Dumezil and the Translators of the Avesta,” Numen 7.2 (1960): 164

Alex Wayman, “The Human Body as Microcosm in India, Greek Cosmology, and Sixteenth-Century Europe,” History of Religions, 22.2 (1982): 174-176

Alf Hiltebeitel, “Dharma,” (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press 2010): 19-28

Hesiod, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and the Homerica, (London: Harvard University Press, 1977):

Jenny Strauss Clay, Hesiod’s Cosmos, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003): 17

Louise Bruit Zaidman and Pauline Schmitt Pantel, Religion in the ancient Greek city, trans. Paul Cartledge, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005): 32

Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, trans., The Rig Veda: An Anthology, (New York: Penguin Books Inc., 1981):

Eliot Wirshbo, “The Mekone Scene in the Theogony: Prometheus as Prankster,” (American Philological Association, 1981): 103

Louis H. Feldman, “Homer and the Near East: The Rise of the Greek Genius,” The Biblical Archaeologist, 59.1 (1996): 13-18

Friedrich Solmsen, “The Two Near Eastern Sources of Hesiod,” Hermes 117.4 (1989): 413-422

Walcot, “The Text of Hesiod’s Theogony and the Hittite Epic of Kumarbi,” The Classical Quarterly, 6.3/4 (1956): 199-

M. Clarke, “The God in the Dew,” L’Antiquite Classique, 43 (1974): 66

Nicholas Kazanas, “Archaic Greece and the Veda,” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 83.1/4 (2001):1-42

Charles Penglase, Greek Myths and Mesopotamia: Parallels and Influence in the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod, (London: Routledge, 1994): 166

F.B.J. Kuiper, “The Basic Concept of Vedic Religion,” History of Religions 15:2 (1975): 110-115

L. West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007): 162-

Norman Brown, “The Creation Myth of the Rig Veda,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 62:2 (1942): 85-98


[1] Feldman 13

[2] Watkins 3

[3] Watkins 3

[4] Watkins 6

[5] Burkert 1-81

[6] Girard 9

[7] Girard 28

[8] Girard 22

[9] Girard 27

[10] Burkert 19-22

[11] Lincoln 167-176

[12] Clunies Ross 151

[13] Lincoln 167-170

[14] Girard 43-44

[15] Burkert 31

[16] Lincoln 170

[17] Sayers 32-33

[18] Iliad 21.250-260

[19] Iliad 21.345-355

[20] Bolded above.

[21] With inflectional variations at Iliad 3.73, 3.94, 3.105 3.252, 3.256, 4.155, and 19.191

[22] Frye 164

[23] All translations from the Rig Veda are from Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, and will be referred to by the book number, hymn, and line viz. RV X.90.1

[24] RV X.90.2-3

[25] RV X.129.1-2

[26] RV X.90.5

[27] Doniger O’Flaherty 31

[28] Girard 45

[29] Girard 51-52

[30] Girard 53

[31] Sayers 37-38

[32] RV X.90.6-7

[33] RV X.90.6-9

[34] RV X.90.11-12

[35] Wayman 175-176

[36] Wayman 174

[37] RV X.90.16

[38] Hiltebeitel 19

[39] Hiltebeitel 21-23

[40] Hiltebeitel 28

[41] Theogony 115

[42] Theogony 130

[43] Theogony 125

[44] Theogony 156-158

[45] Theogony 167-168

[46] Theogony 169-173

[47] Iliad 24.19

[48] Theogony 174-175

[49] Theogony 177-182

[50] Strauss Clay 17

[51] Iliad 271-274

[52] Burkert 5

[53] Iliad 11.707

[54] Iliad 6.94, 6.275 in a formulaic usage: “οἱ ὑποσχέσθαι δυοκαίδεκα βοῦς ἐνὶ νηῷ ἤνις ἠκέστας ἱερευσέμεν.” Also 18.559, 1.131

[55] Iliad 22.159

[56] Listed with inflectional variations at Iliad 3.73, 3.94, 3.105 3.252, 3.256, 4.155, 19.191; often in the formulaic phrase “ὅρκια πιστὰ [+ τέμνω]” meaning “[to swear] true oaths by means of sacrifice”

[57] Iliad 4.102, passim, often used in formulaic usage: “ῥέξειν… ἑκατόμβην” 23.864, 23.873

[58] Iliad 9.219

[59] Iliad 9.499

[60] Zaidman and Pantel 32

[61] Works and Days 136, 336

[62] Works and Days 337, “άγλαὰ μηρία”

[63] Works and Days 338, “σπονδῇσι θύεσσι”

[64] Works and Days 755, “μηδ᾽ἱεροῖσιν ἐο᾽αἰθομένοισι”

[65] Theogony 188-192

[66] Iliad 3.73, 3.94, 3.105 3.252, 3.256, 4.155, 19.191

[67] Theogony 536-541

[68] This usage is found in Odyssey 1.112

[69] Iliad 1.368, 9.333

[70] Theogony 556-557

[71] Theogony 600-602

[72] Wirshbo 103

[73] Theogony 535

[74] Feldman 13-18

[75] Solmsen 413-422

[76] Solmsen 413

[77] Walcot 199

[78] Clarke 66

[79] Kazanas 24

[80] Kazanas 24-25

[81] Kazanas 25-26

[82] Penglase 166

[83] Watkins passim

[84] Doniger O’Flaherty 148-149

[85] Kuiper 110-115

[86] Kuiper 110

[87] RV I.32.7

[88] Kazanas 32

[89] Kazanas 32

[90] Kazanas 32

[91] Kazanas 1-42

[92] Kazanas 33

[93] With the important caveat that influence does not necessarily mean origin, and origin does not necessarily mean influence.