Category Archives: Rig Veda, The

The Boundaries Of Myth

Late in Homer’s Iliad the “ghost of stricken Patroclus,” (Homer, 23: 124) appears before Achilles in a vision. In this scene the living and the dead, the realm of the mortal and the realm of the shadowy afterlife bridges a gulf which normally separates them and serves as a metaphor for a human’s desire to understand what will become of their mortal essence once they die, Achilles “stretched his loving arms / but could not seize [Patroclus], no, the ghost slipped underground / like a wisp of smoke,” (Homer, 23: 117). Humanity’s place in the universe is uncertain and dangerous and so myth attempts to address these unknowns by defining the boundaries which separate us from wild animals, or between men from women, the hero from the citizen, or between the living and the dead who, like Patroclus, continue to look to the living for remembrance. These myths guided the peoples of Proto Indo-European descent towards an understanding of how humanity should live and what humanity’s purpose is within the greater cosmic fabric of the universe.


The Rig Veda:The Boundary Of The Classes

For there to be death there must first come a creation and the earliest Proto Indo-European myths each deal with this subject. However, unlike later myths whose audience consisted of the ordinary citizen who might have the leisure to contemplate the fate of their own soul, these earliest myths were written by and performed for priests and the gods they prayed to. These myths show how the earliest people dealt with and attempted to make sense of the unknown, be it invaders from foreign lands, or droughts and floods which ruined the annual crops. Their world was full of immediate dangers and mystery, unlike later myth which tends to deal with more esoteric concerns, and so their myths helped make sense of what was affecting their daily lives and gave these people a semblance of control over their destiny if only they carried out the proper rituals and appeased the gods who they believed were in control of the universe.

Responsible for these rituals were the priests (the Brahmin), one of the four classes created when “the gods [created] the world by dismembering the cosmic giant, Purusa,” (Rig Veda, 29). The other classes, the warrior class who fought, the People, and the servants (slaves), were also created out of this act of dismemberment (sociogony) when Purusa (known here as the Man) was divided into multiple segments; “his arms were made into the Warrior, his thighs the People, and from his feet the Servants were born,” (Rig Veda, 31). Here the act of creating society and the class structure is born from the sacrifice of the Man and in this way all of society is connected to the Man, a sort of shared consciousness common to all classes, but also deeply relegated to their proper place within society.

From the rest of the Man, the entire universe is created (cosmogony), “From his navel the middle realm of space arose; from his head the sky evolved. From his two feet came the earth, and the quarters of the sky from his ear,” (Rig Veda, 31). What we have here, and what the priests may have ritualized in the temples to honor this act of creation, was human sacrifice. Though as grisly as this may sound to us, the act of an individual giving up their life for the greater good of society is the deeper meaning. Each of the classes must work together and within their boundaries to maintain order in society and the universe. Death is transformed into life and the boundary between the two is no longer two separate states, but rather one continuous existence, “With the sacrifice the gods sacrificed to the sacrifice,” (Rig Veda, 31).


The Prose Edda: The Geographic Boundary

While the earliest, least sophisticated peoples may have taken these creation myths at their word – actual human sacrifice and all – later myths attempted to explain the nuances of creation as having a more tangible existence. In the Prose Edda, Gangleri asks Odin (disguised as three kings), “‘How were things set up before the different families came into being and mankind increased?’”, (Prose Edda, 13). Odin explains how the world was divided into three regions: foggy Niflheim, fiery Muspellsheim, and the Ginnungagap melt-zone. From the boundary between Muspellsheim and Ginnungagap, “The likeness of a man appeared and was named Ymir,” (Prose Edda, 14). As in the Rig Veda creation myth, a being is sacrificed to create the earth and order, and a hierarchy is established, “It is my belief that this Odin and his brothers are the rulers of heaven and earth,” (Prose Edda, 15). In fact the very structure of this myth suggests man’s proper place in creation where the gods rule from Heaven like a panel of judges, and man lives below, “behind Midgard’s wall,” (Prose Edda, 18) in Asgard (Troy) where Odin can, “see through all worlds and into all men’s doings,” (Prose Edda, 18).

However, unlike the Rig Veda in which the cosmic consciousness is one with all creation, including all of mankind, this later myth sets up a strong dividing line where man not only must know his place in society here on Earth, but also on the cosmic scale where he is subservient to the gods. Odin sits not only as a king, but also as a judge who is keeper of the law. This suggests, along with mankind living behind the wall of Midgard the further refinement of human civilization into cities with laws that apply to everyone and not just the laborers and slaves born from the less desirable cuts of the sacrificed Man who live under the warriors and priests that were formed from the better cuts of the Man.

Yet man does at least have the opportunity to interact with the Gods as Gangleri does when Odin holds court for him. The boundary between the two worlds is crossed (albeit temporarily) and man – here a king, not a priest –  is educated as to how the universe was created and what his place in it should be. Unlike the priests who performed the rituals of the Rig Veda in order to maintain the delicate balance of the universe, most likely in secret rituals hidden away from the average worker toiling away in the fields, the mysteries of the universe are revealed to a political elite who can then use this knowledge to order the laws of their societies in the image of the gods.


Myths From Mesopotamia: The Boundary Between Male And Female

The two creation myths we’ve explored so far have been exclusively a male endeavor, the Man is sacrificed to create the universe, and the Frost Giant, Ymir is another male figure from whom the physical world is ordered over which Odin, yet another male, rules and judges. These myths may have been adequate to explain how the universe was ordered on the grand scale, however, the sexual union between man and woman is how humanity creates life on Earth.

As we see in later myths, the male is responsible for creation and holds the power of creation, yet the female originally held this power. The Babylonians believed Tiamat, a female goddess, was the progenitor god, a goddess who gives birth to the gods, much like Aditi does in the Rig Veda, “Apsu, the first one, their begetter / And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 233). Tiamat, an ocean goddess, is identified with the fertility symbol of the fish, and it is her mixing with the fresh waters of Apsu (symbolic of the mixing of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) which brings about life. Once again we see how the mixing of boundaries, as with the Niflheim and Muspellsheim zones, is responsible for creation.

Ancient belief also held that the female was complete in herself since she alone could give birth (parthenogenesis). This female realm is one of pure mythos where the moon (the cosmic) regulates the menstrual cycle, where she is able to self-produce milk to feed the infant, and where the baby is born from an ocean of life inside of her. Yet while Tiamat (the woman) is responsible for bearing all life, her cosmic power is usurped by the male destructive force. When Tiamat shows compassion towards the gods who disturbed her, “And Tiamat became mute before them; / However grievous their behavior to her,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 233), this sets in motion a war that will eventually be her undoing, a war in which a male, Marduk, is able to consolidate power from the other gods in order to succeed. In fact his victory is very much like a rape, “He shot an arrow which pierced her belly, / split her down the middle and slit her heart,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 253). Through force (overthrow) the male takes the power of creation away from the woman, or at least contains it so that he may use it for his own advantage, “He divided the monstrous shape and created marvels {from it},” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 255).

This myth attempts to explain why the male is necessary at all in the act of creation and sets up the distinction where the male becomes a creator Sky God who rules above everyone, while the woman is relegated to the realm of Earth. Together they are both necessary in the act of creation – the compassionate woman who nourishes and the powerful male who fights – yet a hierarchy is clearly established where the male reigns above the woman through force.


Myths From Mesopotamia: The City / Wilderness Boundary

Similar to Marduk, Gilgamesh is a male authority figure who uses his power to get what he wants from women, “Gilgamesh would not leave [young girls alone], / The daughters of warriors, the brides of young men. / The gods often heard their complaints,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 52). Marduk is interfering with the order of his society by disrespecting the union between a lawfully married man and woman, and as we explored previously with Odin and Gangleri, the laws of society are based directly from the image of the god rulers. Yet unlike our previous characters, Gilgamesh is not a god but rather a mortal hero (however, he is still at least still semi-divine), as well as someone who probably actually existed in the third millennium B.C.E. Thus the gods are no longer at the center of the story with their cosmic struggles of creation, but the focus here is more human and the story more grounded in a reality of kings and rulers and unlike the gods who have the power to do as they please, humanity – including the hero – must abide by the laws of society.

Gilgamesh’s actions creates discord within the city walls and it is these city walls which separates civilization from the unknown wilderness; within is order, law, culture, and the people who worship the gods; outside is chaos and disorder. This contrast is highlighted between the relationship between Enkidu, a wild-born man who has no concept of civilization, and Gilgamesh who rules in the city, albeit with little regard to the people he rules over. Yet the two need each other in that Gilgamesh needs the friendship of someone who is his equal, while Enkidu benefits from the civilizing force of the city. In a sense the two friends cross their respective boundaries and form a sort of marriage in which the partnership is a benefit to each other as well as to their civilization.

Overall we see a tempering of the two respective states man could live in (wild vs civilized) and by joining together both men are improved. After Enkidu has sex with the socially experienced Shamhat, “The gazelles saw Enkidu and scattered,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 56), and “he had acquired judgment {?}, had become wiser,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 56), in other words he becomes civilized because he now possesses reason, unlike the wild animals, and so is kicked out of the world of beasts, much like we see in the Book of Genesis, another Semitic text dealing with the attainment of (forbidden) knowledge which then separates humanity from the wilds. And with the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh has given up his independence in favor of a mutually beneficial relationship, one which he mourns deeply when Enkidu dies, “Gilgamesh mourned bitterly for Enkidu his friend,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 95).


The Heroic Boundary

The key element which makes a hero a Hero is that, unlike the gods who cannot die, the mortal can. The hero’s actions against great odds while knowing he could be killed are what makes him a hero, but this quest for heroic status – immortality – is a fictional immortality. Unlike women who can self-regenerate (Tiamat through parthenogenesis, or through just regular mortal childbirth), the male hero must find his immortality in great deeds and from the stories that are told about him after he dies.

One of the common great deeds in myth is through the slaying a monster: Gilgamesh must slay Humbaba, “Thus the weapons of Gilgamesh succeeded against Humbaba,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 74), Indra slays the dragon, “He killed the dragon who lay upon the mountain;” (Rig Veda, 149), Sigurd kills Fafnir, “Sigurd plunged the sword up under the left shoulder, so that it sank to the hilt,” (The Saga of the Volsungs, 63), and Heracles performs his labors. This heroic state of the monster killer is contrasted to the fate of Enkidu who does not have the heroic capacity to face the inevitability of death and so his body rots into the Earth, “Vermin eat [like (?)] an old [garment],” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 123). And so even more than slaying a monster, it is the slaying of death, or the overcoming of the fear of death, which separates a hero from the rest of us. However, Gilgamesh admits that, “I am afraid of Death,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 95), and in a reversal from earlier in the story, “I saw the lions and was afraid,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 95), and so his journey of finding actual immortality (to become like a God) is a failure, but as a hero his immortality lives on in the fame his deeds brought him.


Medea: The Boundary Of The Oath

In Euripides’ play, the Nurse tells us of Medea, “And she herself helped Jason in every way. / This is indeed the greatest salvation of all – / For the wife not to stand apart from the husband,” (The Medea, 59). In this we are shown the sanctity of the union between man and woman (a sanctity which Gilgamesh earlier had disrupted), and the great power that comes when a man and woman are joined together (marriage). And as we have seen in earlier myths, this union is a civilizing force that holds society together (as with Enkidu and Gilgamesh). Though men and women differ on the cosmic scale, it is necessary for them to work together in order to reproduce and maintain the cosmic cycle of life and regeneration Female), and power and security (male). Yet Jason, though he is the man and maintains the hierarchy where women are subservient to their husbands, does not honor his responsibility to uphold the sacred bond between himself and his wife, “And poor Medea is slighted, and cries aloud on the / Vows they made to each other,” (The Medea, 59). Perhaps as the hero Jason felt himself not beholden to this earthly responsibility towards the law, but Medea, though a woman, is not as powerless as we might assume.

Medea is an aristocrat and so she understands that power comes from being ruthless as well as from possessing intelligence (a luxury afforded the wealthy in a civilized society) similar to the knowledge Shamat uses to subdue Enkidu. However, unlike Tiamat who was willing to look past the rowdy gods who annoyed her rest, Medea is not compassionate. Medea is a foreigner in her husband’s land (patrilocal society) and while she cannot rely on her own family to help (she did kill many of them, after all), aiding her is her homeopathic knowledge of poisons and potions making her a sort of perverted fertility goddess, as we see with her cauldron of rejuvenation. In other words, this makes her a dangerous person to break a vow with, which might be one of the (misogynist) reasons Hesiod describes women as, “a great affliction to mortals as they dwell with their husbands,” (Theogony, 20). Yet Medea gives voice to all women who have given up their families, their friends, and their homelands for the sake of their husbands and children. Medea longs for equality, “I would very much rather stand / Three times in the front of battle then bear one child,” (The Medea, 67) yet in spite of this she has given her life to Jason. When Jason breaks this vow, he incurs the full weight of her wrath. Medea has nothing in her world except Jason and the favor of his family; without that she has nothing left to lose.

Thus the breaking of the oath of marriage literally kills the order of the family, “Your children are dead, and by their own mother’s hand,” (The Medea, 103). And unlike previous myths from which the bodies of the slain were used as ingredients of creation, here it a sacrifice, quite literally since these were her own children, to the sanctity of the oath of marriage. Order has been restored through vengeance and death. Thus medea possess both the traits of the male hero and the female life-bringer.


The Boundary Of Duty And Honor

“What if I put down my studded shield / and heavy helmet, prop my spear on the rampart / and go forth, just as I am, to meet Achilles,” (Iliad, 545). As we have seen earlier with Gigamesh who also had a crisis of confidence, here Hector questions the point of the war. He wonders if it would be better, “to give back Helen,” (Iliad, 545) in hopes of saving Troy from the vengeance of his enemy. Yet unlike Medea who does not hesitate to sacrifice her family for the sake of the oath between her and Jason, Hector thinks of his son, “and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms, lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless gods,” (Iliad, 211). Perhaps there is more to civilized life than war and death? The child, too seems to intuit the danger of war, “but the boy recoiled, / cringing against his nurse’s full breast, / screaming out at the sight of his own father,” (Iliad, 211), but it is ambiguous if the child is frightened by the possibility of his father’s death in battle, or is terrified by the possibility Hector might waver in his duty to fight for the family (a true hero must face death, after all).

Hector’s Hamlet-like soul-searching is contrasted with Achilles who will, “show no mercy, / no respect for me, my rights – he’ll cut me down / straight off,” (Iliad, 545). Like Gilgamesh who wavered and failed in his bid for god-like immortality, Hector, too does not meet the qualification of a true hero, like Achilles. Yet unlike Enkidu who was wild and barbarian but not of heroic stock, it is the invaders outside the city walls, the men, like Achilles, who are willing to give up their lives in a moment’s notice who are the heroes of the story. The hero is not found behind walls contemplating his mortality, but rather exists outside civilization, much like Sigmund and Sinfjotli do when they don the wolf skins and live as heroes, yet outlaws, too (The Saga of the Volsungs, 44). In fact the hero has become incompatible with civilization, as we see with Hercules whose ancient PTSD brought on by years of heroic deeds causes him to destroy his family. There is no heroic glory and immortality in the city, only temporary safety from men (men metamorphosed into wolves) like Achilles. The city is full of intelligent people who are quick to use their intelligence over the sword in an effort to preserve their lives and honor, people like Medea who used her power to uphold these virtues, and Hector who only wears the armor of a hero, “The rest of his flesh seemed all encased in armor, / burnished, brazen – Achilles’ armor that Hector stripped,” (Iliad, 552), but is really an imposter who is chased around his safe city walls by the truly heroic man / wolf. In the end Hector performed his duty, but his wavering in how to perform his duty was his downfall, a duty Achilles does not fail to uphold.

In this essay we have explored several distinct boundaries found in common all through early Proto Indo-European myths. These boundaries attempt to define humanity’s proper place within a universe that otherwise is dangerous and unforgiving. And much like the gods who rely on humanity to continually worship them and give them a meaningful existence less they cease to exist altogether, humanity relies on myth to give their own lives meaning, to create order out of chaos just as the gods did when they created the universe. By creating myth, humanity ultimately creates the whole universe, a universe of law and duty and order, a universe where humanity understands their role amidst a vast, uncertain wilderness.

The Rig Veda: Conquest over Tiamat

“He divided the monstrous shape and created marvels (from it).

He sliced her in half like a fish for drying:

Half of her he put up to the roof of the sky,

Drew a bolt across and made a guard hold it.

Her waters he arranged so that they could not escape.” (The Epic of Creation, 255)

The Mother-Goddess Tiamat is serving multiple purposes here. FIrst (though in no particular order), she is a metonymy for the ocean, an emanation / pathogenesis, “And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,” (233) of life, which Marduk cuts in half (like Moses will later in another Semitic text, the Hebrew Bible), but she is also a source of fertility / nourishment (a fish) from which Marduk will create the world (cosmogony) from.

Second, she is part of the older generation which Marduk battles against (theomachy) and succeeds in overthrowing and securing his position of power when he takes the Tablet of Destinies, “Wrested from him the Tablet of Destinies,” (254) which cements his fate as the supreme ruler (Sky-God) and establishes his pattern for celestial hierophany (the heavenly sacred order).

This overthrow is also significant because since Marduk is male and Tiamat is female we have a fiction (mythos) explaining how the patriarchy has wrestled power away from the matriarchy. Tiamat, like the Ginnungagap, is a mixture of two forms. Here this mixture is of the waters, the fresh (as represented by the progenitor God Apsu) and the salt waters. Fertile Tiamat had been the goddess who the successive gods, such as Marduk, emanated from (like Aditi is in the Rig Veda), but now Marduk in his bid for power seeks to gain this power of creation for himself and whom the other gods have given him commission to do so, “We hereby give you sovereignty over all of the whole universe,” (250) and, “They gave him an unfaceable weapon [the winds] to crush the foe,” (250). Tiamat’s mysterious female powers of creation (the fertile waters) are now under Marduk’s (a male’s) complete control, “LUGAL-DIMMER-ANKIA is his name. Trust in him!” (259). Marduk, the Bull-Calf of the Sun is the new, masculine Warrior-Sky-God.

One other point to address is that, like Zeus later, Marduk, a male, has taken on the previously feminine role of birth and creation. The second generation of Gods emanated from Tiamat, but now the world and all subsequent generations can be brought into existence through the violent effort of the dominant male. What had once been a mysterious emanation that can’t be easily explained, can now quantified through Marduk’s actions with Taimat’s corpse.

Third we have the cosmogony where after having killed off the old generation (overthrow), the new world can be created according to Marduk’s plan. Marduk, now the God-Sky-King creates the world through the corpse of the Proto-Godess, Tiamat. And from this cosmogony, man – a slave race – is created from the blood of Qingu (blood anthropogony), “He created mankind from his blood,” (261).

All-in-all, this myth justifies Marduk’s violence. Tiamat originally was willing to show compassion (a female trait), “Even though their ways are grievous, we should bear it patiently,” (234) towards the younger generation for causing trouble and for killing the progenitor god, Apsu. Yet Marduk does not need compassion, he is a violent male, yet he still has to justify his violent actions and this mythos explains / justifies how and why Marduk slew Tiamat to create the world we now (as Babylonians, anyway) are slaves in and worshipers of the Sky-God, Marduk.

page 39 of 352 of The Rig Veda

Aditi and the Birth of the Gods

7- “you drew forth the sun that was hidden in the ocean.” I love this image of the sun being born out of the sea. It makes sense, too since you’d see a sunrise come up out of the water. This is coupled with the image of a milk swollen breast and so the aspect of life giving is ripe here.

page 39 of 352 of The Rig Veda

Aditi and the Birth of the Gods

6- The footnotes try to explain the importance of mist as being both water and air, matter and spirit – all things connected. Creation is in this imagery, like a stellar nursery of atoms that create solar systems. The image mist rising like dust from dancers is beautiful, feminine, too.

page 37 of 352 of The Rig Veda

Aditi and the Birth of the Gods

3- The first line repeats the final line of (2). This repetition is repeated again at the end of (3) and beginning of (4). Musical effect?

This is a very female image of a woman giving birth to the quarters of the sky. I always had the impression that sexuality has been far less taboo as imagary in this part of the world as opposed to others. I wonder why that is?

page 37 of 352 of The Rig Veda

Aditi and the Birth of the Gods

2- The lord of sacred speech is like a manual laborer, a smith, working the bellows to create the universe. It’s magical but also workmanlike, too – effort went into this creation.

There is the paradox of “existance was born from non-existance”. The early Greek philosophers would not have liked this idea.

page 33 of 352 of The Rig Veda

The Creation of the Sacrifice

7- Harmony, wisdom are apparant in the final stanza. Tradition is established with the wise men looking to those who came before and taking up the tradition as if like a charioteer taking up the reins. Order is good, rituals are passed down generation to generation, thus is wisdom.

page 31 of 352 of The Rig Veda

The hymn of man

15- Order has been established which is represented by the green twigs that keep the fire from spreading, but there is also plenty of fuel, too. The Man is now a sacrifical beast. Is this becuase the Man is everything and so anything we sacrifice to the Man is, in effect, the Man being sacrifices to the Man? Order is maintained through this system?

page 31 of 352 of The Rig Veda

The hymn of man

12- His arms were made into the Warior – seems straightforward, arms=armed=war. His thighs were the People, which again seems sensible sinec that is the largest muscle in the body and it must labor. His feet the Servants were born = servants are trodden on but support the whole structure = necessary, but not glamorious work.

page 30 of 352 of The Rig Veda

The hymn of man

6- So the gods are now born and they spread the sacrifice with the Man. Were they making the sacrifices and now it’s being distribuited? There is hint of seasons being created (spring butter, summer fuel, oblation in fall). Harvest, perhaps? Does feel like distribuition and order being imposed on the world.

page 30 of 352 of The Rig Veda

The hymn of man

5- This part is confusing: From the Man, Viraj (female) is born and from Viraj the Man is born. Is this a transference rom a purly spirtual being into something physical through the use of Viraj? Incorporal to corporal? Reminds me of God creating Mary and then being born (as Jesus) through Mary.