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The Indo-Europeans, speakers of the prehistoric parent language from which most European and some Asiatic languages are descended, most probably lived on the Eurasian steppes some five or six thousand years ago. Martin West investigates their traditional mythologies, religions, and poetries, and points to elements of common heritage. In The East Face of Helicon (1997), Wes The Indo-Europeans, speakers of the prehistoric parent language from which most European and some Asiatic languages are descended, most probably lived on the Eurasian steppes some five or six thousand years ago. Martin West investigates their traditional mythologies, religions, and poetries, and points to elements of common heritage. In The East Face of Helicon (1997), West showed the extent to which Homeric and other early Greek poetry was influenced by Near Eastern traditions, mainly non-Indo-European. His new book presents a foil to that work by identifying elements of more ancient, Indo-European heritage in the Greek material. Topics covered include the status of poets and poetry in Indo-European societies; metre, style, and diction; gods and other supernatural beings, from Father Sky and Mother Earth to the Sun-god and his beautiful daughter, the Thunder-god and other elemental deities, and earthly orders such as Nymphs and Elves; the forms of hymns, prayers, and incantations; conceptions about the world, its origin, mankind, death, and fate; the ideology of fame and of immortalization through poetry; the typology of the king and the hero; the hero as warrior, and the conventions of battle narrative.


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The Indo-Europeans, speakers of the prehistoric parent language from which most European and some Asiatic languages are descended, most probably lived on the Eurasian steppes some five or six thousand years ago. Martin West investigates their traditional mythologies, religions, and poetries, and points to elements of common heritage. In The East Face of Helicon (1997), Wes The Indo-Europeans, speakers of the prehistoric parent language from which most European and some Asiatic languages are descended, most probably lived on the Eurasian steppes some five or six thousand years ago. Martin West investigates their traditional mythologies, religions, and poetries, and points to elements of common heritage. In The East Face of Helicon (1997), West showed the extent to which Homeric and other early Greek poetry was influenced by Near Eastern traditions, mainly non-Indo-European. His new book presents a foil to that work by identifying elements of more ancient, Indo-European heritage in the Greek material. Topics covered include the status of poets and poetry in Indo-European societies; metre, style, and diction; gods and other supernatural beings, from Father Sky and Mother Earth to the Sun-god and his beautiful daughter, the Thunder-god and other elemental deities, and earthly orders such as Nymphs and Elves; the forms of hymns, prayers, and incantations; conceptions about the world, its origin, mankind, death, and fate; the ideology of fame and of immortalization through poetry; the typology of the king and the hero; the hero as warrior, and the conventions of battle narrative.

30 review for Indo-European Poetry and Myth

  1. 5 out of 5

    Barnaby Thieme

    Good heavens, is this a superb and invaluable book. Following a comparative philological method, classicist M. L. West examines parallel mythological motifs in far-flung Indo-European cultures and languages and carefully suggests various reconstructions of a prototypical Indo-European mythology from which these common motifs derived. Even viewed solely as a compendium of motifs in the vast Indo-European culturo-linguistic zone, this book is a contribution of the highest order. Coupled with this Good heavens, is this a superb and invaluable book. Following a comparative philological method, classicist M. L. West examines parallel mythological motifs in far-flung Indo-European cultures and languages and carefully suggests various reconstructions of a prototypical Indo-European mythology from which these common motifs derived. Even viewed solely as a compendium of motifs in the vast Indo-European culturo-linguistic zone, this book is a contribution of the highest order. Coupled with this reconstructive analysis, this book sinks very deeply indeed into the old roots of gods and heroes and ancient ideas of the cosmos. What emerges is an Indo-European mythology that was populated by gods who embody natural phenomena, and who are not much involved with the creation of the cosmos or the maintenance of a moral order. The primary concern of this mythology is the activity of the hero, who is of a masculine type, primarily concerned with adventure, conquest, the winning of wives and lands, and the overcoming of death by winning glorious renown. The goddess makes little contribution to this vision, which is focused on military adventurism rather than fertility. This book paints an extraordinary and vivid portrait of the common cultural heritage of cultures spread from Ireland to Persia, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean -- an enormous and diverse area that shared a set of fundamental stories that are strikingly uniform in tone and style. It is hard to imagine a book that invites the reader to dig as deeply into the roots of mythology or to think as deeply about the nature of poetry. This is a remarkable achievement. This book is NOT recommended for the beginner ... A basic understanding of philology and some familiarity with the main mythological traditions touched upon -- particularly Greek mythology, Zoroastrianism, and Vedic Hinduism -- is highly recommended.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

    M.L. West has always been interested in how myths were shared across the Classical world. In the 1990s, he wrote a monograph titled The East Face of Helicon on how Greek epic drew heavily from the Near East. Thinking about what the Greek tradition kept from the Indo-European heritage common to many cultures of Europe and Asia led him to this much vaster project. Indo-European Poetry and Myth aims to synthesize and extend research on what aspects of the literature of antiquity – and even the Lith M.L. West has always been interested in how myths were shared across the Classical world. In the 1990s, he wrote a monograph titled The East Face of Helicon on how Greek epic drew heavily from the Near East. Thinking about what the Greek tradition kept from the Indo-European heritage common to many cultures of Europe and Asia led him to this much vaster project. Indo-European Poetry and Myth aims to synthesize and extend research on what aspects of the literature of antiquity – and even the Lithuanian and Latvian songs collected in the early modern era – go back to Indo-European times. The opening two chapters cover Indo-European poetry, revealing common poetic metaphors and principles of versification from Ireland to India. The bulk of the work, however, consists of comparisons of the mythologies of the Indo-European peoples, which West treats exhaustively with each chapter divided into a myriad of subthemes. For example, chapter 5 “Sun and Daughter” consists of the following sections: The divine Sun. The Sun as a deity. Attributes; the all-seeing god. Oaths by the Sun.––The Sun’s motion conceptualized. The solar wheel. The solar steed(s). The solar boat. The dark side of the sun. How old is all this?––Further mythical motifs.––Cultic observance. Salutation of the rising and setting sun. A taboo.––Dawn (and Night). Attributes; imagery. Dawn’s lovers. The Dawn goddess and the spring festival.––The Daughter of the Sun. The Vedic evidence. The Baltic and Slavic evidence. The Greek evidence. Daughters of the Sun in other traditions. Astronomical interpretations. Ritual aspects.––Conclusion. Because the subject is explored so exhaustively and the presentation is so dense, very few are going to read the whole thing. I have been keenly interested in Indo-European linguistics for years, but even I found myself skimming a few parts. However, there’s no denying that the book brings together in a single volume all the divergent research going on among specialists in the various languages. But the great flaw of this text is that it is too much a collection of earlier work on the subject, and thus reflects much speculation that has been overturned by later research. For example, West links a number of Greek words to Sanskrit or Iranian words, but Beekes’ recent work shows these Greek words to be borrowings from the Pre-Greek substrate language and not inherited from Indo-European. (Indeed, Beekes has conclusively shown that Pre-Greek was non-Indo-European, but West at one point even incorporates into the text the obsolete idea that Greece was inhabited by another Indo-European people before the Greeks, the old “Pelasgian hypothesis”.) So, I can recommend this to readers with an interest in the subject, but be prepared to take everything with a grain of salt (or more). A second edition with a more critical approach would do much to remedy this infelicity.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Koen Crolla

    Feels more like a personal reference work documenting a few decades of casual research than a book synthesizing information in a meaningful way. Haphazard structure aside, West systematically refuses to look at the context of neighbouring non-IE societies to determine which features are genetically Indo-European and which are areal borrowings, rendering any pretense at reconstruction suspect. The result is a work that, for all its exhausting length, can never be much more than frustratingly shal Feels more like a personal reference work documenting a few decades of casual research than a book synthesizing information in a meaningful way. Haphazard structure aside, West systematically refuses to look at the context of neighbouring non-IE societies to determine which features are genetically Indo-European and which are areal borrowings, rendering any pretense at reconstruction suspect. The result is a work that, for all its exhausting length, can never be much more than frustratingly shallow. PS. writing Greek in the Greek alphabet is fine, especially considering that West calls himself a ``professional Hellenist''. Not writing Gothic in the Gothic alphabet is also perfectly fine, and transcribing 𐌲𐌲 as gg instead of the more meaningful ng is certainly defensible. Writing Latin with every v replaced with u as if the last two millennia of Latin conventions didn't happen is beyond obnoxious, and obscures both meaning and etymology. PPS. West lists the distinguishable branches of literate Germanic poetic tradition as Old High German, Old Saxon, Old English, and Old Norse, and the next time I'm in England I'm going to pee on his grave.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Colvin

    Breathtaking erudition, delivered in a readable style. West has set himself to trace out the features of Indo-European poetry and myth from the preliterate period, using a method akin to stemmatics in textual criticism or to historical linguistic reconstructions. As a classicist, I particularly enjoyed the connections with literatures of cultures other than Greece and Rome: Ireland, Germany, Armenia, India, Old English, etc.. It is rather staggering to think of someone knowing all these language Breathtaking erudition, delivered in a readable style. West has set himself to trace out the features of Indo-European poetry and myth from the preliterate period, using a method akin to stemmatics in textual criticism or to historical linguistic reconstructions. As a classicist, I particularly enjoyed the connections with literatures of cultures other than Greece and Rome: Ireland, Germany, Armenia, India, Old English, etc.. It is rather staggering to think of someone knowing all these languages, let alone having enough familiarity with the various epics to produce a book of this sort. The warning in one of the other reviews below is accurate: you won't get the most out of the book unless you already know a good deal of mythology and preferably some classical languages. While West is scrupulous to translate the Old Irish, Sanskrit, Armenian, and other less commonly studied tongues, he frequently leaves Greek and Latin untranslated.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Thom Dunn

    Author describes himself as "a stranger in Paradise with a clipboard". Aye, and for 100 bucks, I wish this read better than a well-ordered file cabinet. Anyway, someone had to venture forth to try and make sense of it all. [LIST of parallels at end of back DJ blurb:]

  6. 4 out of 5

    David McBride

    It’s very good although like all IE poetics it’s very obscure and technical in lots of places, as well as not really as elucidating as one might hope. If you’re not interested in the specifics of his arguments you can reasonably skim the first sentences of each paragraph before he lists various passages from various cultures as evidence, which I did for the final chapter on heroic warfare as I didn’t really care much for it. He has a healthy skepticism of any real total IE religious reconstructi It’s very good although like all IE poetics it’s very obscure and technical in lots of places, as well as not really as elucidating as one might hope. If you’re not interested in the specifics of his arguments you can reasonably skim the first sentences of each paragraph before he lists various passages from various cultures as evidence, which I did for the final chapter on heroic warfare as I didn’t really care much for it. He has a healthy skepticism of any real total IE religious reconstruction beyond a few particulars common to nearly every culture and I think it’s important to keep in mind that the most prodigious texts are from Greeks and Aryans, both the oldest-well-attested branches of IE as well as closely related to each other in their own right. All in all it’s quite interesting, especially the chapters “Sun and Daughter” and “Poet and Poesy,” as well as “Kings and Heroes.”

  7. 4 out of 5

    Taylor Brown

    The breadth and depth of information is great. My only complaint is the structure. I didn’t come away with it with a comprehensive overview of the material. I would have preferred to have it organized more like a story, or at least a concluding chapter that ties everything together. It’s still fine as a reference work, it’s just not as interesting or effective as it could have been.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Almielag

    A lot of this is a real stretch but no less fun for that.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Calypso Rising

    This is one of my "grab when the house is burning down" books. Must have.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Artist Jen

    It wasn't what I was hoping for by the title. I was hoping for a book that would gather together what little science, anthropology and archaeology knows about the Indo-Europeans and their stories. The myths and legends and things they believed. Instead, it's a very academically wordy book with much guessing as to what these people believed by taking root words and trying to make them match up with things the author believes makes sense using Greek and Roman and Slavic texts. Phrases like "it has It wasn't what I was hoping for by the title. I was hoping for a book that would gather together what little science, anthropology and archaeology knows about the Indo-Europeans and their stories. The myths and legends and things they believed. Instead, it's a very academically wordy book with much guessing as to what these people believed by taking root words and trying to make them match up with things the author believes makes sense using Greek and Roman and Slavic texts. Phrases like "it has been suspected" are used a ton in this book. There are no epic poems or coherent Myths in this text at all. If you know your Greek and Roman myth, then you already know all the stories in this book.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Volsung

    An extremely useful, philological, language-based approach to its subject matter. ("Archaeology through words," as another reviewer aptly puts it.) Absolutely fascinating; but there is cause to be skeptical over certain more speculative interpretations (especially where underlying assumptions which are not foregone conclusions underlie the argument). Some conclusions are more sound than others. Extremely valuable book, however.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Maya

    Please see my full review at Celtic Scholar Please see my full review at Celtic Scholar

  13. 5 out of 5

    Simon Kearns

    Other than a decent dictionary, this is possibly the most valuable book I have on my shelf in terms of being a writer. Archaeology by means of words.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Sheikh Tajamul

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kim

  16. 5 out of 5

    Sattva

  17. 4 out of 5

    Robert Mealing

  18. 4 out of 5

    Elena

  19. 5 out of 5

    Mace Ousley

  20. 4 out of 5

    jeffrey

  21. 5 out of 5

    Şhåiry Malik

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jordan Hawkesworth

  23. 5 out of 5

    David

  24. 5 out of 5

    Shanthanu

  25. 4 out of 5

    Lolobull

  26. 5 out of 5

    Wade MacMorrighan (Author)

  27. 4 out of 5

    jennet wheatstonelllsl Proc

  28. 5 out of 5

    Andrei Zavaliy

  29. 4 out of 5

    Anise

  30. 5 out of 5

    Hans-Erik

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