Trifunctional hypothesis

This part of a 12th-century Swedish tapestry has been interpreted to show, from left to right, the one-eyed Odin, the hammer-wielding Thor and Freyr holding up wheat. Terje Leiren believes this grouping corresponds closely to the trifunctional division.

The trifunctional hypothesis of prehistoric Proto-Indo-European society postulates a tripartite ideology ("idéologie tripartite") reflected in the existence of three classes or castes—priests, warriors, and commoners (farmers or tradesmen)—corresponding to the three functions of the sacral, the martial and the economic, respectively. The trifunctional thesis is primarily associated with the French mythographer Georges Dumézil[1] who proposed it in 1929 in the book Flamen-Brahman,[2] and later in Mitra-Varuna.[3]

Three-way division

According to Dumézil (1898-1986), Proto-Indo-European society comprised three main groups corresponding to three distinct functions:[2][3]

  • one formal, juridical and priestly but worldly;
  • the other powerful, unpredictable, and also priestly but rooted in the supernatural world.

In the Proto-Indo-European mythology each social group had its own god or family of gods to represent it and the function of the god or gods matched the function of the group. Many such divisions occur in the history of Indo-European societies:


Supporters of the hypothesis include scholars such as Émile Benveniste, Bernard Sergent and Iaroslav Lebedynsky, who concludes that "the basic idea seems proven in a convincing way".[15]

The hypothesis was embraced outside the field of Indo-European studies by some mythographers, anthropologists, and historians such as Mircea Eliade, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marshall Sahlins, Rodney Needham, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Georges Duby.[16]

On the other hand, Allen[17] concludes that the tripartite division may be an artefact, a selection effect rather than an organizing principle used in the societies themselves. Benjamin W. Fortson reports[18] a sense that Dumézil blurred the lines between the three functions and the examples that he gave often had contradictory characteristics, causing detractors[19] to reject his categories as non-existent. John Brough surmises that societal divisions are common outside of Indo-European societies as well, and consequently the hypothesis has only limited utility in illuminating prehistoric Indo-European society.[20] Cristiano Grottanelli states that while Dumézilian trifunctionalism may be seen in modern and medieval contexts, its projection onto earlier cultures is mistaken.[21] Belier is strongly critical.[22]

The hypothesis has been criticised by historians Carlo Ginzburg, Arnaldo Momigliano[23] and Bruce Lincoln[24] as being based on Dumézil's sympathies with the political right. Guy G. Stroumsa sees these criticisms as unfounded.[25]

See also


  1. Terje Leiren discerns another grouping of three Norse gods that may correspond to the trifunctional division: Odin as the patron of priests and magicians, Thor of warriors, and Freyr of fertility and farming.[8]


  1. According to Jean Boissel, the first description of Indo-European trifunctionalism was by Gobineau, not by Dumézil. (Lincoln, 1999, p. 268, cited below).
  2. 1 2 Dumézil, G. (1929). Flamen-Brahman.
  3. 1 2 Dumézil, G. (1940). Mitra-Varuna, Presses universitaires de France.
  4. Bernard Sergent, Les Indo-Européens - Histoire, langues, mythes, Payot, 1995 ISBN 2-228-88956-3
  5. Dumézil, Georges. (1958). The Rígsþula and Indo-European Social Structure. Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Ed. Einar Haugen, trans. John Lindow (1973). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-03507-0.
  6. Turville-Petre 1964, p. 103.
  7. Polomé 1970, p. 58—59.
  8. Leiren, Terje I. (1999), From Pagan to Christian: The Story in the 12th-Century Tapestry of the Skog Church
  9. Vries 1970b, p. 93.
  10. 1 2 Davidson 1990, p. 147.
  11. Vries 1970b, p. 94—97.
  12. In the monograph Les trois fonctions indo-européennes en Grèce ancienne Vol. 1, De Mycènes aux Tragique, Économica 1998 ISBN 2-7178-3587-3
  13. Bamshad, Michael; Kivisild T, Watkins WS, Dixon ME, Ricker CE, Rao BB, Naidu JM, Prasad BV, Reddy PG, Rasanayagam A, Papiha SS, Villems R, Redd AJ, Hammer MF, Nguyen SV, Carroll ML, Batzer MA, Jorde LB (June 2001). "Genetic Evidence on the Origins of Indian Caste Populations". Genome Research. 11 (6): 994–1004. doi:10.1101/gr.GR-1733RR. PMC 311057Freely accessible. PMID 11381027. Retrieved 2007-09-09. Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthors= (help)
  14. Lebedynsky, I.. (2006). Les Indo-Européens, éditions Errance, Paris
  15. Lincoln, B. (1999). Theorizing myth: Narrative, ideology, and scholarship, p. 260 n. 17. University of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0-226-48202-6.
  16. Allen, N. J. Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.10.53
  17. Benjamin W. Fortson. Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction p. 32
  18. Gonda, J. (1974). Dumezil's Tripartite Ideology: Some Critical Observations. The Journal of Asian Studies, 34 (1), 139–149, (Nov 1974).
  19. Lindow, J. (2002). Norse mythology: a guide to the Gods, heroes, rituals, and beliefs, p. 32. Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-515382-8.
  20. Grottanelli, Cristiano. Dumézil and the Third Function. In Myth and Method.
  21. Belier, W. W. (1991). Decayed Gods: Origin and Development of Georges Dumézil's Idéologie Tripartite, Leiden.
  22. Wolin, Richard. The seduction of unreason: the intellectual romance with fascism, p. 344
  23. Arvidsson, Stefan. Aryan idols: Indo-European mythology as ideology and science, p. 3
  24. Stroumsa, Guy G. (1998). Georges Dumézil, ancient German myths, and modern demons. Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft, 6, 125-136.


  • Davidson, Hilda Ellis (1990), Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin Books, ISBN 0-14-013627-4 
  • Polomé, Edgar Charles (1970), "The Indo-European Component in Germanic Religion", in Puhvel, Jaan, Myth and Law Among the Indo-Europeans: Studies in Indo-European Comparative Mythology, University of California, ISBN 9780520015876 
  • Turville-Petre, Gabriel (1964), Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, OCLC 645398380 
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