Trifunctional hypothesis

The Trifunctional Hypothesis is a controversial conjecture proposed by French mythographer Georges Dumézil. The hypothesis states that Indo-European religion has societies and religions divided into three similar roles: warriors, priests, and farmers.

Three-way division

Dumézil divided the Proto-Indo-European into three categories: sovereignty, military, and productivity. He further subdivided sovereignty into two distinct and complementary sub-parts. One part was formal, juridical, and priestly, but rooted in this world. The other powerful, unpredictable, and also priestly, but rooted in the other, the supernatural and spiritual world. The second main division was connected with the use of force, the military, and war. Finally, there was a third group, who were ruled by the other two, whose role was productivity: herding, farming, and crafts.

The heart of the hypothesis is that both the society and the mythology are so divided. Each social group has its own god or family of gods to represent it, and that the function of both the group in its society and the function of the god or gods in the pantheon match. A recent alternate name for the hypothesis is function theory (not to be confused with the field within mathematics of the same name).

Historical examples

Dumézil believed that this tripartite division resulted in the arrangement of

Medieval feudal society (an historic example not noted by Dumézil) was divided into:

  • Oratores (those who pray), Bellatores (those who fight), and Laboratores (those who work)

Dumézil argued that this dual sovereignty was expressed by pairs of gods such as

Alternatively the roles can be represented by quasi-historical hero-figures, such as

They can also be represented by distinct religious confraternities, such as the

Criticism and controversy

The Trifunctional Hypothesis was published first in 1929 Georges Dumézil's book Flamen-Brahman, and was repeated later in Mitra-Varuna. It was immediately controversial.

Dumézil's trifunctional hypothesis has received a great deal of criticism, both before and since his death in 1986. Some commentators consider it as much a form of mythology as the myths which he studied. Others point out that the tripartite division may be more of an artifact of Dumézil's own way of understanding mythologies and societies rather than an organizing principle used in the societies themselves.

Critics of the tripartite system point out that there is no evidence that persons in these societies recognized an explicitly three-way division either of their gods or of their society, and that when there is written or mythological evidence, the caste or pantheon division is usually not three-way. For example the Norse gods were explicitly divided into two groups, the Aesir and the Vanir, not three; similarly, the caste system in India was(is) divided into four or five castes, again not three. If the critics are correct, then the trifunctional hypothesis would be an example of a selection effect.


Further reading

  • Arvidsson, Stefan. Aryan Idols. The Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science. Chicago 2006
  • Lincoln, Bruce. Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship. University of Chicago Press 2000.
  • Littleton, C. S. The New Comparative Mythology 1966. 3rd ed. Berkeley 1982.
  • Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore 1987.
  • J. Gonda, Dumezil's Tripartite Ideology: Some Critical Observations, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Nov., 1974), pp. 139-149.

See also

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