Georges Dumézil

Georges Dumézil

Georges Dumézil
Born (1898-03-04)4 March 1898
Died 11 October 1986(1986-10-11) (aged 88)
Alma mater École Normale Supérieure
Institutions École pratique des hautes études, Collège de France
Main interests
Proto-Indo-European society
Notable ideas
trifunctional hypothesis

Georges Dumézil (French: [dymezil]; 4 March 1898 – 11 October 1986, Paris) 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.


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 Georges 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) and, by the end of his life, he is said to have spoken many languages fluently. 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 that he entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1916, 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 them and was particularly influenced by Antoine Meillet. He aggregated in 1919 in Classics and 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 to generate a more beautiful interpretation (that was 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 Kemal Atatürk's attempt to create a modern, secular nation. 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, in Uppsala, Sweden, which allowed him to improve his skills in the Germanic stock of Indo-European.

In 1929, he 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. Georges Charachidzé, a historian and linguist of Georgian origin under Dumézil's tutelage, became a noted specialist of the Caucasian cultures and aided Dumézil in the reconstruction of the Ubykh language.[1]

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


Dumézil's politics are criticised much more often than is his monolithic scholarly work. Bruce Lincoln has leveled accusations of fascism against Dumézil.[2] The scholars Arnaldo Momigliano, Carlo Ginzburg and Lincoln[3] argue 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 (none of them thought that he was a supporter of German Nazism).[4] Lincoln states:

"[T]hose on the New Right, like Alain de Benoist, Jean Haudry, or Roger Pearson, cite Dumézil's writings 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-we may suspect them of appropriating nothing other than positions of the Old Right that have been brilliantly recoded and misrepresented first as ancient wisdom, and second as scholarly discourse."[5]

In the 1930s, Dumézil supported the monarchist "Action française" and held Benito Mussolini in high regard.[6] Dumézil's relations with De Benoist and Haudry were ambiguous,[7] 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).[8] Dumézil, in response to a text written by Momigliano indicating that Dumézil might have been keen on Nazi ideology, wrote "fascist and nazi conceptions of a hierarchical society have never been part of my intuition nor of my conduct".[9]

Such criticism of Dumézil has been emphatically disputed by Didier Eribon in his 1992 book Faut-il brûler Dumézil? Mythologie, science et politique.[10][11] In a survey article on Dumézil's work Dean A. Miller devoted two pages on the case and concluded that "at its worst, the effort tries to remove the importance of whole theoretical constructions on the basis of some adduced or invented political flaw found in the past, often the remote past, of their creator. This derogation is not simple-minded 'political correctness'. It is, [again] in my opinion, the blindest intellectual self-mutilation".[12]

Works in English



  1. (French) Georges Charachidzé (1930–2010). Encyclopædia Universalis. Retrieved 29 January 2012.
  2. Lincoln, Bruce (1991). Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice. University of Chicago Press. pp. 231–243. ISBN 978-0-226-48200-2.
  3. Lincoln, Theorizing Myth. Narrative, ideology, and scholarship (University of Chicago 1999).
  4. Arvidsson 2006:2, 241 ff., 306
  5. Lincoln Theorizing Myth (1999) p. 137.
  6. Arvidsson 2006:3
  7. Lincoln, Theorizing Myth (1999), p.123: "Dumézil was an entirely different sort of person from Pearson, Haudry, and de Benoist, infinitely more intelligent, decent, and much, much less crude. To the best of my knowledge, he had no dealings with Pearson, and over the years he maintained a cautiously ambiguous relation with the two others, both of whom courted him avidly."
  8. Lincoln, Theorizing Myth (1999), pp. 125-26.
  9. Dumézil, Esquissses de Mythologie, pp. 821–827, Paris,2003
  10. Georges Dumézil Summary
  11. Faut-il brûler Dumézil ?
  12. Miller D., Georges Dumézil: Theories, Critiques and Theoretical Extensions, Religion (2000) 30, 27–40, doi:10.1006/reli.1999.0239


Further reading

External links

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/7/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.