Editing Georges Dumézil’s Mitra-Varuna


Guilhem Vellut: Collège de France, Paris, 2016 (CC)

by Stuart Elden

In May 1940, the month of the invasion of France by Germany, a short book by the comparative mythologist and linguist Georges Dumézil was published. Entitled Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-Representations of Sovereignty, copies became very hard to find, and after the war Dumézil reedited the text with some changes. That revised edition appeared in March 1948. Forty years later, two years after Dumézil’s death, this second edition was translated into English by Derek Coltman with Zone books, though it has become hard to find and available only in libraries, pirated pdfs, or rather expensive second-hand copies. In 2023, the translation will become available again, in a new critical edition with HAU books.

Dumézil had studied languages at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, served as an artillery officer in the First World War, and taught briefly in a lycée and in Warsaw before undertaking his doctoral work. His two theses were published in 1924. Repeatedly advised his career lay outside France, he spent a formative few years in Istanbul and Uppsala, teaching literature and religious studies. With a remarkable gift for languages he would add several to his repertoire over his years of travel, later remarking that for him, a grammar was like a novel. Claude Lévi-Strauss once claimed that Dumézil only had to read a 100-page bilingual text to understand the language. Dumézil returned to France in 1933 and taught at the École Pratique des Hautes Études until his retirement. He was elected to a chair at the Collège de France in 1949, and to the Académie française in 1979.

Dumézil would do important research on languages, particularly of the Caucasus, and is acknowledged as one of the key reasons why the Ubykh language was preserved before the death of its final native speaker. Several of his publications, across a sixty-year career, would attest to the importance languages had to his work. But it is in his writing in comparative mythology that we find his most significant legacy. He would come to reject much of his earliest work, and dates his significant breakthrough to 1938, when he realised that many different mythic, social and religious traditions could be understood as divided along three broad lines. This was his famous trifunctional analysis.

The first function of sovereignty encompassed priests and kings; the second, warriors; and the third, producers or farmers. In Vedic India, the king and brahmin occupy the first position; the warrior class, kshatriya, the second; and the farmers and producers of the vaishya group the third. The three varna, sometimes known as castes, have parallels in several different traditions, notably Roman legends, with the flamen, the military, and the farmers. These social divisions are paralleled in the division between gods in Vedic, Roman, or Norse mythology: Varuna-Indra-Nasatya; Jupiter-Mars-Quirinus; Odhinn-Thor-Freya. Other traditions within the Indo-European language family relate to this in different ways, but broadly the first function is sovereign, the second martial, the third productive.

In this work, Dumézil is building on linguistic analyses which had analysed surviving languages to reconstruct their lost ancestor, generally called Proto-Indo-European. Although there are no surviving texts in that language, through the nineteenth and early twentieth-century much work had been done to reconstruct its vocabulary, and elements of its grammar. In mythology a related approach could be taken – the parallels between religious and social structures of different peoples cannot be dismissed as innate to all humans, or the product of contact and borrowing, but might be able to tell us something about their shared pre-historic ancestors. The idea of a distinct Indo-European people is far from uncontroversial, especially when characteristics of this people are supposed, and in the mid-twentieth-century such ideas often relate to a problematic racial ideal. Dumézil is not entirely immune from such a criticism, as some of his detractors have pointed out.

Mitra-Varuna approaches the first of the three functions, but its most important contribution is to recognise that the operation of sovereignty is itself divided. Building on a crucial 1938 article “La Préhistoire des flamines majeurs”, Dumézil shows how the Vedic and Latin names for a king, rāj- and rēg-, are etymologically related, and so too are the Vedic and Latin names for a priest, brahman and flamen. He argues that these are not two distinct claims, but two parts of the same claim. In these different traditions, there is a divide between the king and the priest as two aspects of sovereignty. He finds such a contrasts in the Roman gods, Jupiter and Dius Fidius, the mythic early kings Romulus and Numa Pompilius, in Norse mythology with Odinn and Tyr, and in the Vedic pair which gives this book its title, Varuna and Mitra. Sovereignty can be terrible, explosive power; or legal contractual obligations. Jupiter is the god who hurls thunderbolts, Dius Fidius the god of oaths. Or as Dumézil says in the book: “Mitra is the sovereign under his reasoning aspect, luminous, ordered, calm, benevolent, priestly; Varuna is the sovereign under his attacking aspect, dark, inspired, violent, terrible, warlike”.

The book Mitra-Varuna takes this initial insight, and explores it through a series of studies of contrasting pairs of gods, mythic figures or concepts, sovereignty in its worldly, juridical form, and in its magical, powerful one. He ranges across Roman history, Norse myths, and Indian and Iranian theology, to more limited analysis of the Greeks, Welsh and Irish. The second edition keeps most of the material from the first edition, with some additional notes to his own developing work and more recent scholarship, and some amended passages. He would continue to work on themes in this book throughout his career, notably in his masterwork Mythe et Epopée which appeared in three volumes between 1968 and 1973, and in Les Dieux souverains des Indo-Européens in 1977. Only parts of Mythe et Epopée are available in English translation – almost of the second volume across three English books, The Stakes of the Warrior, The Plight of the Sorcerer, and The Destiny of a King, and much of the third in Camillus.

Dumézil was a significant figure in the career of Michel Foucault, on whom I have recently completed a four-volume intellectual history with Polity books. Dumézil recommended Foucault to the University of Uppsala for the post he had held twenty years before, and would continue to support his career for the next thirty years. Foucault also acknowledges the importance of Dumézil’s ideas in many places, notably in his lecture courses. In the 1976 course published as ‘Society Must be Defended’, for example, Foucault makes uses of the twofold analysis of sovereignty Dumézil had advanced in Mitra-Varuna and developed in other works. Dumézil’s importance to other, better-known figures such as Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Émile Benveniste and Jean-Pierre Vernant is significant, as these and others would frequently attest.

As part of my new research project on Indo-European thought in twentieth-century France, I was keen to try to bring some of Dumézil’s work back into circulation. Mitra-Varuna seemed a good place to start. Zone did not want to republish the text, but HAU were enthusiastic about the idea. Rather than just reprint Derek Coltman’s fine translation, they liked my idea of a critical edition, comparing the two French editions of the text. That was a slow and painstaking task, but a good way to get to know the text in detail. In this new edition, smaller variants from the first edition are translated in endnotes, two longer passages in appendices. I took on the task of checking, completing and sometimes correcting all of Dumézil’s references, both to primary and secondary sources. He references texts in a wide range of languages, and Coltman had, quite understandably, simply copied these references over. But checking a few showed there were some errors, many somewhat cryptic abbreviations, and many references to classical sources were to older versions of texts, no longer widely available. Doing this slow labour opened a revealing window into how Dumézil worked, and consulting some of his archival papers at the Collège de France further illuminated that approach. I hope the work with the references will make the text more accessible to readers, removing some of the obstacles within the text so people can engage with the ideas.

I also wrote a substantial introduction to the text, expanding on many of the points touched upon here, including the background to the text’s writing, the changing situation between the 1940 and 1948 French editions, and something of the text’s arguments. I also discuss in much more detail the political controversies around Dumézil’s work, and the criticisms made by figures including Carlo Ginzburg and Bruce Lincoln. Dumézil certainly had traditional, if not reactionary political views, and, for a short period in the 1920s was close to Action française. Other aspects of his work are criticised for their political connotations, including the idea of a hierarchical society, or his emphasis on kings and warriors without equal focus on the third function. In this book he references the work of Stig Wikander, Otto Höfler, Mircea Eliade and Jan de Vries, all problematic figures in Europe’s intellectual history. The political is a highly charged aspect of his legacy.

In his 1943 book Servius et la fortune, Dumézil suggests that he had come across the problem he addresses there at the crossroads where four paths meet. These paths were his previous work on the conception and practice of royal power, particularly the contrast between its terrible and benevolent forms; on social order, and in particular the tripartite division; on the beginnings of Rome, especially its early kings, institutions, and religion; and studies of religious, juridical, and political vocabulary. Georges Canguilhem picks up on this claim and in his 1967 review of Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses, The Order of Things, suggests that “by virtue of their meeting at the Dumézil intersection, these four paths have become roads.” Early steps along all these paths can be found in Mitra-Varuna. I therefore suggest that it is an entirely appropriate book to re-introduce Dumézil’s pioneering, though undoubtedly controversial, work to Anglophone audiences.

About the Author

Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick. The fourth and final book of his intellectual history of Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Foucault, has just been published by Polity. His critical edition of Georges Dumézil’s Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-Representations of Sovereignty is forthcoming from HAU books in June 2023. He blogs at

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