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A review of Mallory’s In Search of the Indo-Europeans

-Michael J Dangler

Mallory, J. P. In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archeology, and Myth. Thames and Hudson, London. 1989.

This will be a terribly short review, I’m afraid. I’ll be the first to admit that this book was both over my head and rather confusing. That’s what I get for hubris.

I saw this book on the ADF reading list when I first started working on my Dedicant’s Program. The designation of “advanced” is what drew me to the book at first. I thought I could handle this book, despite having no background in linguistics or non-western history. The extent of my studies about India have been that Alexander the Great didn’t make it across the Indus. Beyond that, it’s been entirely secondary sources.

This woefully unprepared reader was still able to get something out of the book, however. Mallory’s first chapter is more or less devoted to debunking a few past scholars who had obvious fallacies in their arguments. One can tell he gets a kick out of the musings of some of those scholars, in particular the ones who describe all languages as being derived from Irish. (p.11)

Some of the basics of Indo-European theory are presented in the first chapter as well, and it is interesting to note that, while no direct proof exists that a Proto-Indo-European culture existed, and indeed can be postulated with only “extensive argument,” (p.7) it is the only cohesive theory which explains the similarity in languages, cultures, and myths throughout Europe and Asia. It may occur in the future that another theory will supplant IE studies, making our century of information and work pointless.

Chapter 2, about the Indo-Europeans in Asia, was especially confusing to me, since my knowledge of west Asian history and geography is extremely limited. Mallory’s descriptions of invasions become pointless when you can’t remember where the invaders came from or where they were going. It’s even more confusing when you look at these invaders and you have no idea which branch of the IE family they come from!

Chapter 3 was a breath of fresh air for me, relatively speaking. The IE cultures in Europe, at least, I’m somewhat familiar with. I found Mallory’s note that the Greek deities don’t all have Indo-European names interesting, though he doesn’t waste time delving into this. In this chapter, I also started to notice his conservativism in dating cultures. While some of his predecessors had dated certain cultures back to the dawns of time, Mallory is much less likely to give those same culture that much breathing room. His dating of the Germanic cultures on p. 87 is a good example of this.

Chapter 4 includes some Proto-Indo-European cultural norms. An important point is made almost immediately, in response to the idea that IE culture is an overly warlike and aggressive culture: “Warfare. . . can be found anywhere, and there is no reason for assuming an inherently warlike character for the Indo-Europeans.” (p.111) He also notes that to assume a genetic inheritance from common ancestors is absolutely ridiculous. This point refutes several ideas I have come across in my study of history, which often ascribes IE cultures the attributes of “warlike” or “patriarchal” based on their linguistic family.

An interesting point on p. 114 is that only three words for different seasons seem to be reconstructible from Proto-Indo-European, instead of the four that we celebrate today or the two that the Celts are said to follow. I found this terribly interesting, as it has a bearing on the entire society of the IE cultures, as well as on modern Neo-Pagan beliefs. It is also interesting to note that linguistic evidence points to a patrilineal system of familial organization, and, presumably, also governmental organization. (p.123) Of course, there is also strong evidence that the system of government was not patrilineal, as the word for ‘strength’ is a feminine noun, and that the masculine for ‘king’ was only used later in IE cultures. (p. 125)

Chapter 5, I am afraid, will require a second reading or three before I can fully comprehend it. The chapter’s focus on sacrifice to each of the tripartite system’s deities is something that I, quite honestly, am still somewhat ignorant of. On the surface, it seems to make sense, but I won’t say yet that I fully understand it well enough to critique it.

The last three chapters of this book deal mainly with the IE homeland problem, which is a problem that was not solved and probably will not be solved in my lifetime. I found these particular chapters boring, and will also come back to them. Again, I found the constant mention of different IE cultures and non-IE cultures to be very, very dizzying. My poor geographic knowledge of the Baltic and India only complicated matters, and I was lost several times.

The book was, in the end, terribly informative. It was dry, it was boring, and my poor Middle Eastern/Slavic geography was a terrible hindrance. When I read it again, I expect it to make twice as much sense as it did this time.

I would caution my readers, however, that this is not the book to start with if you have no background in IE history. If you have trouble with geography (I usually don’t) then this book is certainly not for you, despite Mallory’s very visual style. I do think, though, that the book is an excellent resource, providing good information with some comic relief thrown in occasionally. You will learn something from this book, no matter how much you know or don’t know. Just don’t expect to learn it all on the first run.

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