Dumézil and the Details

(1998)  Dumézil and the Details, in Cosmos 14:103-117, special edition devoted to the papers delivered at the session on Georges Dumézil, AAA, December 1998.

The name of Georges Dumézil is immutably linked to the reconstruction of the tri-functional social ideology of the Indo-Europeans, which he posited and then so thoroughly and elegantly documented over the course of his long career. Because of this legacy Dumézil looms large as the master of the grand design, one who took the recondite and sometimes detail obsessed world of Indo-European studies and lifted it to a level where an overarching sense could be brought to that remote and enigmatic world of the cultural forebears of so many in Eurasia. Yet, when one reads through the work of Dumézil, one is forcefully struck by the rich detail of the individual studies of Indo-European myth, whether studies of the full panoply of the Nart Sagas of the Ossetians (1930; 1943; 1952; 1956; 1958; 1960; 1965; 1978) or of narrower matters regarding heroes in the Maha–bha–rata (1970a; 1971a; 1971b) or in the Norse sagas (1970a; 1970b; 1973b). In short, Dumézil was a master in the study of details, even if such details often served as road markers along the route to the great tri-functional goal. I shall argue that the study of such detail is just as important a part of Dumézil’s legacy as is the scheme of tri-functional social ideology (1968). Specifically I shall examine what comparative linguists and mythologists do, and by means of some simple mathematics try to prove that the examination of certain types of detail is in fact the fundamental principle upon which all comparative work rests. In particular, I shall try to argue that in mythology it is precisely the odd, unmotivated elements in a myth that constitute the best data for comparative work.

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