Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

The one-handed god and the one-eyed sovereign

Posted by Fredsvenn on September 17, 2014

The one-handed god and the one-eyed sovereign

Dumezil observed that a wide range of Indo-European cultures produced myths—philologically related to one another—in which the universe was governed by one-eyed and one-handed gods acting in concert. These closely parallel two ancient Indo-European conceptions of justice represented by the one-eyed sovereign (wild, unreliable, ruling through bravado) and the one-handed sovereign (solemn, proper, ruling by the letter of the law).

These conceptions of justice and their attendant myths were originally described at length by prominent philologist Georges Dumezil (1898-1986) in his 1948 book Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty.

The one-eyed gods tended to rule though magic, strong personalities, and mad bravado. The one-handed gods, by contrast, represented the rule of law—the ordering and arrangement of society through contracts, covenants, and statutes.

Dumezil observed that a wide range of Indo-European cultures produced myths—philologically related to one another—in which the universe was governed by one-eyed and one-handed gods acting in concert. The one-eyed gods tended to rule though magic, strong personalities, and mad bravado. The one-handed gods, by contrast, represented the rule of law—the ordering and arrangement of society through contracts, covenants, and statutes.

In many narratives, the one-handed god loses his hand or arm after breaking a contract or reneging on a deal—illustrating the idea that in times of crisis, the law must be bent or broken, though the price for doing so can be dear.

In Nordic mythology, for example, a young wolf named Fenrir is thought (by shrewd prognosticators attuned to supernatural wolf strength) to be capable of destroying the world of the gods. The one-eyed god Odhinn thus tries to get Fenrir to submit to a leash. This he does through deceit: Odhinn presents the leashing as a challenge—see how long it takes you to get out of it. The savvy wolf suspects, correctly, that the leash is magic and will subdue him for eternity. So as a gesture of goodwill, Tyr, a god representing the rule of law, offers to put his hand in Fenrir’s mouth as a pledge to the wolf that there is no hocus-pocus afoot—if Fenrir cannot get out of the leash, Tyr will lose his hand. The wolf submits, the world is saved, but at the cost of Tyr’s hand.

In Roman mytho-history (Romans liked to give their history a mythic burnish), one-eyed Horatio Cocles (“Cocles” being derived from “Cyclops”) and soon to be one-handed Mucius Scaevola team up to defeat Lars Porsenna, an invading Etruscan determined to sack Rome.

According to Dumzeil, the one-eyed Cocles “holds the enemy in check by his strangely wild behavior.” Citing the Roman historian Livy, Dumezil writes that “remaining alone at the entrance to the bridge, [Cocles] casts terrible and menacing looks at the Etruscan leaders, challenging them individually, insulting them collectively.” He also deploys “terrible grimaces.”

Cocles’ antics stop Porsenna temporarily, but the surly Etruscan soon brings war upon Rome again, and this time it’s Scaevola, whose mind ran in a more statesmanlike track than his comrade Cocles, to the rescue. He warns Porsenna that he has 300 assassins at his disposal—it’s a bluff, but Scaevola burns his hand in a fire to convince his enemy his threat is bona fide. Porsenna agrees to leave Rome.

In many narratives, the one-handed god loses his hand or arm after breaking a contract or reneging on a deal—illustrating the idea that in times of crisis, the law must be bent or broken, though the price for doing so can be dear.

Dumézil compares Varuna and Mitra with other figures like the gods Savitr (the creative initiater of movement, who is connected with night and dusk) and Bhaga (the fair distributer, who is connected with dawn and midday) of India, the Germanic deities Odin (mystical) and Tyr (prudent), the early Roman kings Romulus (unpredictable founder) and Numa (conservative legislator), and the Irish-Celtic gods Lugus (name derived from proto-Celtic for “oath”) and Nodens (the derivation of this name is uncertain).

A strange motif of unclear meaning involving eyes and hands also plays a role in this concept and extends the metaphor to other figures and stories. While there is nothing particularly significant involving the eyes and hands of Mitra and Varuna (or indeed Romulus and Numa), Odin and Lugus are both one-eyed gods and Tyr and Nodens are both one-handed.

Tyr is probably the oldest of the Germanic deities, his name being an abbreviated form of Tiwaz, which derives from the same PIE word that gave us Zeus, Dios, deus, and theos. Tyr is regarded as the father of the Germanic pantheon while Nodens was the original ruler of the Tuatha de Dannan, a legendary race of people who conquered Ireland from the Fir Bolg. Additionally, two early Roman heroes, Horatius Cocles and Mucius Scaevola, are respectively one-eyed and one-handed.

Zeus seized power from his father Cronos with the assistance of Cyclopes and strange hundred-handed creatures (it is worth noting as well that Cronos governed the world without laws while Zeus provided order; there is a legend that Romulus was killed by leading aristocrats due to his arbitrary rulership and replaced with Numa to bring stability).

In the cases of Cocles and Lugus, their eyes were lost in battle while both Scaevola and Tyr were required to sacrifice their hands to uphold oaths. These early Romans are typically regarded as being at least partially historical, but it seems clear that these ancient legends were superimposed upon the real figures for the purposes of narrative.

Tyr

Týr is a god associated with law and heroic glory in Norse mythology, portrayed as one-handed. Corresponding names in other Germanic languages are Gothic Teiws, Old English Tīw and Old High German Ziu and Cyo, all from Proto-Germanic *Tīwaz. The Latinised name is Tius or Tio.

Old Norse Týr, literally “god”, plural tívar “gods”, comes from Proto-Germanic *Tīwaz (cf. Old English Tīw, Old High German Zīo), which continues Proto-Indo-European *deiwós “celestial being, god” (cf. Welsh duw, Latin deus, Lithuanian diẽvas, Sanskrit dēvá, Avestan daēvō “demon”). And *deiwós is based in *dei-, *deyā-, *dīdyā-, meaning ‘to shine’.

In the late Icelandic Eddas, Tyr is portrayed, alternately, as the son of Odin (Prose Edda) or of Hymir (Poetic Edda), while the origins of his name and his possible relationship to Tuisto suggest he was once considered the father of the gods and head of the pantheon, since his name is ultimately cognate to that of *Dyeus (cf. Dyaus), the reconstructed chief deity in Indo-European religion. It is assumed that Tîwaz was overtaken in popularity and in authority by both Odin and Thor at some point during the Migration Age, as Odin shares his role as God of war.

Gaius Mucius Scaevola

Gaius Mucius Scaevola was a Roman youth, famous for his bravery. In 508 BC, during the war between Rome and Clusium, the Clusian king Lars Porsena laid siege to Rome. Mucius, with the approval of the Roman Senate sneaked into the Etruscan camp and attempted to murder Porsena. It was the soldiers’ pay day. There were two similarly dressed people on a raised platform talking to the troops. He misidentified Porsena and killed Porsena’s scribe instead.

Mucius was captured, and famously declared to Porsena: “I am Gaius Mucius, a citizen of Rome. I came here as an enemy to kill my enemy, and I am as ready to die as I am to kill. We Romans act bravely and, when adversity strikes, we suffer bravely.” He also declared that he was the first of three hundred Roman youths who volunteered to assassinate Porsena at the risk of their own lives.

“Watch this,” he declared. “so that you know how cheap the body is to men who have their eye on great glory.” Mucius thrust his right hand into a fire which was lit for sacrifice and held it there without giving any indication of pain, thereby earning for himself and his descendants the cognomen Scaevola, meaning ‘left-handed’.

Porsena, shocked at the youth’s bravery, dismissed him from the Etruscan camp, free to return to Rome saying “Go back, since you do more harm to yourself than me”. At the same time, the king also sent ambassadors to Rome to offer peace.

Mucius was granted farming land on the right-hand bank of the Tiber, which later became known as the Mucia Prata (Mucian Meadows). It is not clear whether the story of Mucius is historical or mythical.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: