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Georges Dumézil (March 4, 1898, Paris – October 11, 1986) was a French comparative philologist best known for his analysis of sovereignty and power in Proto-Indo-European religion and society. He is considered one of the major contributors to mythography, in particular for his formulation of the trifunctional hypothesis of social class in ancient societies.

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Life and work

Book signed by Georges Dumézil and offered to Maurice Halbwachs.
Maurice Halbwachs Collection of Human and Social Sciences Library Paris Descartes-CNRS

Dumézil's father was a classicist and so he became interested in ancient languages at a young age—it has been said that he could read the Aeneid in Latin at the age of nine. During his time in secondary school, he was also influenced by Michel Bréal, a leading French philologist who was the grandfather of one of his classmates. By the time he entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1916, then, he was already on the road to studying linguistics and the classics.

Dumézil's studies were delayed by World War I, when he was drafted and served as an artillery officer. After the war he resumed his studies, where he was particularly influenced by Antoine Meillet. He aggregated in 1919 in Classics and then received his doctorate in 1924 after writing a thesis comparing the common origins of the Greek ambrosia and a similarly named Indian drink Amrita which was said to make its imbiber immortal. The dissertation was controversial because some of the examiners, such as Henri Hubert thought that Dumézil took liberty with the facts in order to generate a more beautiful interpretation (this would come to be a common criticism of Dumézil's work).

Feeling that he had little place in the French academy, Dumézil moved to Turkey in 1925 to teach at the University of Istanbul, created as part of Atatürk's attempt to create a modern, secular nation. As a result he learned Turkish and developed an interest in the Ubykh language and travelled widely in Russia, Turkey, and the Caucasus. As a result, he became one of the premier experts of Caucasian languages to work in French. He compared the Etruscan language with the Caucasian languages. In 1931 he took another position, this one in Uppsala, Sweden, which allowed him to hone his skills in the Germanic stocks of Indo-European.

In 1929 Dumézil published Flamen-Brahman, the first full statement of his trifunctional hypothesis; the idea was repeated in Mitra-Varuna, perhaps his most accessible work.

Dumézil's influence rose in the mid-1930s. In 1935 he left Uppsala to take up a chair of Comparative Religion of Indo-European Peoples at the prestigious École Pratique des Hautes Études. He was named a professor at the Collège de France in 1949, and was finally elected to the Académie Française in 1978 thanks to the patronage of his colleague and fellow student of myth, Claude Lévi-Strauss. In 1984 he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca.

Dumézil is also well known for mentoring many younger French scholars. Michel Foucault, for instance, benefitted from his patronage when Dumézil arranged for him to teach temporarily in Uppsala early on in his career.

Many themes of Dumézil's work have continued influence in ancient religious studies: for example, his impulse to comparative study, and his basic insight that polytheistic gods must be studied not simply by themselves, but in the pairs and ensembles in which their worshippers grouped them.

Criticism

Aside from Dumézil's scholarly writings, his personal opinions have received some criticism. Bruce Lincoln especially has leveled accusations of fascism against Dumézil.[1] Scholars like Momigliano, Ginzburg and Lincoln[2] have argued that Dumézil was in favor of a traditional hierarchical order in Europe, that his Indo-European dualism and tripartite ideology may be also related to Italian and French fascist ideas, and that he was in favor of French fascism (but not of German Nazism).[3] In the 1930s Dumézil supported the monarchist "Action française" and held Benito Mussolini in high regard.[4] Dumézil's relations with de Benoist and Haudry were ambiguous[5], but among his "closest colleagues" were Otto Höfler (who was in the SS-Ahnenerbe), Jan de Vries (a Nazi collaborator) and Stig Wikander (who had an ambiguous relation to Nazism).[6]

Bruce Lincoln also wrote that writers like Alain de Benoist, Jean Haudry, or Roger Pearson have frequently cited Dumézil's work "in support of their positions — their fondness for hierarchy and authority, for example, their antipathy toward egalitarianism and the ideals of the Enlightenment, or their triumphal view of "Indo-Europeans" as superior to all other peoples".[7]

However, Dumézil's scholarly writings contain neither claims of superiority of the Indo-European people or culture, nor any political statement connected to fascism. Moreover, Dumézil, in response to a text written by Arnaldo Mimigliano indicating that Dumézil might have been keen on Nazi ideology, wrote "fascists and nazis conceptions of a hierarchical society have never been part of my intuition nor of my conduct".[8]

Notes

  1. ^ Lincoln, Bruce (1991). Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice. University of Chicago Press. pp. 231–243. ISBN 978-0226482002.  
  2. ^ Lincoln 1999
  3. ^ Arvidsson 2006:2, 241 ff., 306
  4. ^ Arvidsson 2006:3
  5. ^ Lincoln 1999 :123
  6. ^ Lincoln 1999:125-26
  7. ^ Lincoln 1999 :137
  8. ^ Dumézil, Esquissses de Mythologie, pp. 821-827, Paris,2003

References

  • Arvidsson, Stefan. Aryan Idols. The Indo-European Mythology as Science and Ideology. University of Chicago Press. 2006. ISBN 0226028607
  • Lincoln, Bruce. Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship. 2000.
  • Littleton, C. S. The New Comparative Mythology. 3rd ed. Berkeley 1982.
  • Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore 1987.

Further reading

  • Haugen, Einar "The Mythical Structure of the Ancient Scandinavians: Some Thoughts on Reading Dumézil" in Introduction to Structuralism, edited by Michael Lane, Basic Books, 1970, ISBN 0456095089.

External links

Cultural offices
Preceded by
Jacques Chastenet
Seat 40
Académie française
1978-1986
Succeeded by
Pierre-Jean Rémy
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