Comments on comparative mythology 2, about an Indo-European background for ancient Greek myths about Hēraklēs, son of Zeus

2020.02.21 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. In the previous posting, Classical Inquiries 2020.02.14, I started to reckon with a view expressed by the linguist Georges Dumézil in a book with the title Apollon sonore, which he published in 1982, toward the end of an extraordinarily productive life. He makes it clear in this book that he views the ancient Greek myths about the god Apollo and the hero Achilles, prime mythological figures in Homeric poetry, as not Indo-European. Having spent a whole lifetime working on successful projects of reconstructing myths preserved in languages described as “Indo-European” by linguists, Dumézil must be taken most seriously whenever he says that the Greek language, which is Indo-European, preserves some myths that are decidedly not Indo-European. But his line of thinking about Apollo and Achilles can still be reconciled, I will argue here, with an alternative way of viewing ancient Greek myths about these two figures—precisely in terms of an Indo-European linguistic background. To make such an argument, however, I need to start the overall analysis not with the god Apollo and the hero Achilles but rather with the god Zeus and the hero Hēraklēs.

Marble statue of a bearded Hercules, 1st century CE, with restorations dating from the 17th century.
Marble statue of a bearded Hercules, 1st century CE, with restorations dating from the 17th century. Image via Flickr.


Marble statue of a bearded Hercules, 1st century CE, with restorations dating from the 17th century.
The same statue from another angle. Image via the Met.


§1. I decided not to start with Apollo and Achilles despite the fact that I have argued extensively, in earlier work starting with Nagy 1976, recast in 1979:69–117, also in 1994a and 1994b, recast in 2004:131–143, that the ancient Greek myths about the god as well as the hero—and even their names—can be traced back, precisely in the context of their roles in Homeric poetry, to an Indo-European background. The reason for my decision was simply this: as I was reading through the 1,437 pages of Dumézil’s monumental Mythe et epopée volumes I/II/III, the first editions of which appeared in 1968/1971/1973—I am counting here the assembled pages in the unified volume published posthumously in 1995—I found practically no mention of either Apollo or Achilles in the context of their roles in Homeric poetry.

§2. In the case of Achilles, this hero is not even mentioned anywhere in Mythe et épopée except for a solitary footnote in volume I (1968:496 = 1995:524), where Dumézil cites an article by Atsuhiko Yoshida (1964) concerning the poetic description of the Shield of Achilles in Iliad 18. Comparably marginal in all three volumes of Mythe et épopée are Dumézil’s rare mentions of Apollo, as for example in the same footnote mentioning Achilles, where Dumézil also cites another article by Yoshida (1966)—this one concerning the visualization of Apollo in the sculptures of the East Pediment of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

§3. For the most part, in any case, Dumézil elided Apollo as well as Achilles in Mythe et épopée I/II/III, and his reason for doing so was quite simple: as I already said at the beginning of this essay, he viewed Apollo and Achilles as non-Indo-European figures—even if the two of them eventually became absorbed into Greek traditions that Dumézil accepted as Indo-European.

§4. Dumézil formally outlined such a view in his publications subsequent to Mythe et épopée I/II/III, starting with the first eight Esquisses of Apollon sonore, published in 1982 (and already cited in his postscript of 1986 for the third edition of Mythe et épopée I, p. 643, = p. 671 in the posthumous edition of the unified one-volume collection of 1995).

§5. By contrast with Apollo and Achilles, on the other hand, Dumézil demonstrated already in the first edition of his Mythe et épopée II (1971:117–145, = pp. 785–815 in the posthumous edition of the unified one-volume collection of 1995) that Zeus and Hēraklēs were Indo-European constructs. The vital importance of this demonstration cannot be underestimated, and that is why I focus my comments here on this particular pairing of god-and-hero in my overall attempt at tracing the Indo-European background of ancient Greek myth and epic—as preserved primarily in Homeric poetry.

§6. My comments, then, are intended as a supplement to the demonstration already achieved by Dumézil, who had not yet considered the evidence of Homeric poetry when he was reconstructing the Indo-European background for myths linking Hēraklēs with Zeus in Mythe et épopée II (1971). Instead, he analyzed there only the relevant mythology reported in the world history of Diodorus of Sicily, dated to the first century BCE, and in the Library of “Apollodorus,” dated to the second century CE.

§7. Here I add the evidence to be found in Homeric poetry for reconstructing the Indo-European background of myths about Hēraklēs and Zeus in their roles as heroic son and divine father. The centerpiece of this evidence is a passage in Iliad 19.95–133 telling how the immortal god Zeus impregnated a mortal woman, Alkmene, and thus fathered the hero Hēraklēs, whose genealogy as a demigod incurred the antagonism of the goddess Hērā, sovereign consort of Zeus.

§8. I repeat here what I have said about this Homeric passage at §13 in Classical Inquiries 2019.08.15:

In a volume edited by Jacques Bonnet, published in 1981, which was a collection of essays paying tribute to the wide-ranging intellectual influence of Dumézil (I look back with some nostalgia at the title given to that volume: Cahiers “Pour un temps”: Georges Dumézil), I contributed a piece (Nagy 1981, rewritten in Nagy 1990b:7–17: “Homer and Comparative Mythology”) arguing for the importance of adding the comparative evidence of Homeric poetry in reconstructing the Indo-European heritage of myths about Hēraklēs, and I focused on Iliad 19.95–133 (Nagy 1981:140 and 145n16; also 1990:12n32), following the earlier work of Olga Davidson (1980) on this same Homeric passage. I quote here what can serve as a summary of my argumentation in that piece (again, Nagy 1990:12n32): “the compressed retelling of the Herakles story in Iliad 19.95–133 is a clear attestation of the same Indo-European pattern that Dumézil has reconstructed from such nonpoetic retellings as in Diodorus [of Sicily] (4.8–30).”

§9. A question remains: what aspects are primarily “Indo-European” in the pattern of mythmaking that links the god Zeus with the demigod Hēraklēs? For Dumézil, those aspects come together in what he views as a pattern of trifunctionality to be found in myths about three “sins” that the hero commits in the course of his lifetime—three “sins” that violate three functions of the social and cosmic order as represented by Zeus together with his sovereign consort Hērā. These three “sins,” in the analysis of Dumézil, are especially visible in the nonpoetic retellings of Diodorus (4.8–30), and I analyze the details at §2 in Classical Inquiries 2019.09.20. Here I merely summarize the essentials:

(A) Hēraklēs violates a sovereign function linked with Zeus when this hero momentarily hesitates to accept the god’s plan for him to follow the orders of Eurystheus as king by performing Labors imposed by this king. Even though Eurystheus is inferior to Hēraklēs as a hero, he is socially superior to Hēraklēs because he is king. Thus Hēraklēs violates the warrior’s code of honor.

(B) Hēraklēs violates a war-making function linked with Zeus when this hero murders another hero, Iphitos, by way of trickery. Thus, once again, Hēraklēs violates the warrior’s code of honor.

(C) Hēraklēs violates a reproductive function linked with Zeus when this hero disregards the protocols of courtship by attempting to marry the princess Iole without formally divorcing his wife Deianeira. Thus, once yet again, Hēraklēs violates the warrior’s code of honor.

§10. In my view, such essentials of trifunctionality are not necessarily the primary Indo-European feature of the myths linking Hēraklēs and Zeus—or of any other Greek myths. That said, however, I close for now by affirming the validity of trifunctionality as an explanatory model formulated by Dumézil—and as summarized in my essay on Homer and comparative mythology, that is, in Chapter 1 of Greek Mythology and Poetics (Nagy 1990:16–17). In terms of Dumézil’s formulation, society as reflected in Indo-European languages tends to subdivide along the following three lines of institutional organization:

(1) sovereignty and its sacredness, validated by the authority of priests or priestesses

(2) warfare

(3) reproductivity of humans, of animals, and of vegetation, especially as exemplified in the institution of marriage, in pastoralism, and in agriculture.

In postings to come, I hope to analyze further examples of such trifunctionality—as also of other Indo-European features—in ancient Greek mythology.



Bonnet, J., ed. 1981. Cahiers “Pour un temps”: Georges Dumézil. Aix-en-Provence.

Dumézil, G. 1968, 2nd ed. 1979, 3rd ed. 1986. Mythe et épopée I. L’idéologie des trois fonctions dans les épopées des peuples indo-européennes. Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1969, 2nd ed. 1985. Heur et malheur du guerrier: Aspects mythiques de la fonction guerrière ches les Indo-Européens. Paris. There is an especially important citation to be found in the comments of Vidal-Naquet 1986:138n111.

Dumézil, G. 1970. The Destiny of the Warrior. Translation of Dumézil 1969 by A. Hiltebeitel. Chicago.

Dumézil, G. 1971, 2nd ed. 1986. Mythe et épopée II. Types épiques indo-européens: un héros, un sorcier, un roi. Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1973, 2nd ed. 1978, 3rd ed. 1981. Mythe et épopée III. Histoires romaines. Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1975. Fêtes romaines d’été et d’automne, suivi de dix questions romaines. Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1980. Camillus: A Study of Indo-European Religion as Roman History. Translated by A. Aranowicz and J. Bryson. Edited and with introduction by U. Strutynski. Berkeley and Los Angeles. = Part 2 of Mythe et épopée III = Dumézil 1973, plus Appendices 1 and 2 of Dumézil 1973, plus Appendices 3 and 4 of Dumézil 1975.

Dumézil, G. 1982. Apollon sonore et autres essais. Vingt-cinq esquisses de mythologie (1-25). Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1983. La Courtisane et les seigneurs colorés et autres essais. Vingt-cinq esquisses de mythologie (26–50). Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1983b. The Stakes of the Warrior. Translated by D. Weeks. Edited, with an Introduction, by J. Puhvel. Berkeley and Los Angeles. = Part 1 of Mythe et épopée II = Dumézil 1971:13–132 = Dumézil 1995:681–800.

Dumézil, G. 1985. L’oubli de l’homme et l’honneur des dieux et autres essais. Vingt-cinq esquisses de mythologie (51–75). Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1986. The Plight of the Sorcerer. Translated by D. Weeks and others. Edited by J. Puhvel and D. Weeks. Introduction by D. Weeks. Berkeley and Los Angeles. = Part 2 of Mythe et épopée II = Dumézil 1971.

Dumézil, G. 1994. Le roman des jumeaux et autres essais. Vingt-cinq esquisses de mythologie (76–100). Edited by J. H. Grisward, with preface at pp. 9–15. Paris.

Dumézil, G. [1995.] Mythe et épopée I, II, III. New combined and corrected edition of the original three volumes, with original paginations retained in the inner margins. Preface by J. H. Grisward, pp. 7–30. Paris.

Nagy, G. 1979/1999. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore. Revised ed. with new introduction 1999.

Nagy, G. 1976. “The Name of Achilles: Etymology and Epic.” In Studies in Greek, Italic, and Indo-European Linguistics Offered to Leonard R. Palmer (ed. A. M. Davies and W. Meid) 209–237. Innsbruck. Recast as Ch. 5 and Ch. 6 (= pp. 69–93 and 94–117) in Nagy 1979.

Nagy, G. 1981. “Essai sur Georges Dumézil et l’étude de l’épopée grecque.” In Cahiers “Pour un temps”: Georges Dumézil, ed. J. Bonnet, 137–145. Aix-en-Provence. Rewritten as part of Chapter 1 in Nagy 1990.

Nagy, G. 1990. Greek Mythology and Poetics. Ithaca, NY. Revised paperback edition 1992.

Nagy, G. 1994a. “The Name of Achilles: Questions of Etymology and ‘Folk Etymology’.” In Studies in Honor of Miroslav Marcovich. Illinois Classical Studies 19.2:3–9. Recast as Ch.6 (= pp. 131–137) in Nagy 2004.

Nagy, G. 1994b. “The Name of Apollo: Etymology and Essence.” In Apollo: Origins and Influences, ed. J. Solomon, 3–7. Tucson. Recast as Ch.7 (= pp. 138–143) in Nagy 2004.

Nagy, G. 2004a. Homer’s Text and Language. Urbana and Chicago, IL. Available online at

Vidal-Naquet, P. 1986. “The Black Hunter Revisited.” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 212:126–144.

Yoshida, A. 1964. “La structure de l’illustration du bouclier d’Achille.” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire 42:5–15.

Yoshida, A. 1966. “Le fronton occidental du temple d’Apollon à Delphes et les trois foncions.” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire 44:5–11.


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