Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

The Trifunctional Hypothesis

Posted by Fredsvenn on November 11, 2016

The Capitoline Triad was a group of three deities who were worshipped in ancient Roman religion in an elaborate temple on Rome’s Capitoline Hill (Latin Capitolium). Two distinct Capitoline Triads were worshipped at various times in Rome’s history, both originating in ancient traditions predating the Roman Republic.

The one most commonly referred to as the “Capitoline Triad” is the more recent of the two, consisting of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. The earlier triad, sometimes referred to in modern scholarship as the Archaic Triad, consisted of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus and was Indo-European in origin. Each triad held a central place in the public religion of Rome during its time.

The three deities who are most commonly referred to as the “Capitoline Triad” are a group that supplanted the original Archaic Triad. This group, mirroring the Etruscan divine triad, consisted of Jupiter, the king of the gods; Juno (in her aspect as Iuno Regina, “Queen Juno”), his wife and sister; and Jupiter’s daughter Minerva, the goddess of wisdom.

Unlike the earlier Archaic Triad, which was fairly typical of a trio of supreme divine beings, this grouping of a male god and two goddesses was highly unusual in ancient Indo-European religions. It is almost certainly derived from the Etruscan trio of Tinia, the supreme deity, Uni, his wife, and Menrva, their daughter and the goddess of wisdom.

The original three deities thus worshipped, now more commonly referred to as the Archaic Triad, were Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus. This structure was no longer clearly detectable in later times, and only traces of it could be identified from various literary sources and other testimonies.

Georg Wissowa, in his manual of the Roman religion, identified the structure as a triad on the grounds of the existence in Rome of the three flamines maiores, who carry out service to these three gods. He remarked that this triadic structure looks to be predominant in many sacred formulae which go back to the most ancient period and noted its pivotal role in determining the ordo sacerdotum, the hierarchy of dignity of Roman priests: rex sacrorum, flamen dialis, Flamen Martialis, flamen quirinalis and pontifex maximus in order of decreasing dignity and importance. He remarked that since such an order did no longer reflect the real influence and relationships of power among priests in the later times, it should have reflected a hierarchy of the earliest phase of Roman religion.

Wissowa identified the presence of such a triad also in the Umbrian ritual of Iguvium where only Iove, Marte and Vofionus are granted the epithet of Grabovius and the fact that in Rome the three flamines maiores are all involved in a peculiar way in the cult of goddess Fides.

However Wissowa did not pursue further the analysis of the meaning and function of the structure (which he called Göttersystem) he had identified.

Georges Dumézil in various works, particularly in his Archaic Roman Religion advanced the hypothesis that this triadic structure was a relic of a common Proto-Indo-European religion, based on a trifunctional ideology modelled on the division of that archaic society. The highest deity would thus be a heavenly sovereign endowed with religious, magic and legal powers and prerogatives (connected and related to the king and to priestly sacral lore in human society), followed in order of dignity by the deity representing braveness and military prowess (connected and related to a class of warriors) and lastly a deity representing the common human worldly values of wealth, fertility, and pleasure (connected and related to a class of economic producers). According to the hypothesis, such a tripartite structure must have been common to all Indoeuropean peoples on accounts of its widespread traces in religion and myths from India to Scandinavia, and from Rome to Ireland. However it had disappeared from most societies since prehistoric times, with the notable exception of India.

In Vedic religion the sovereign function was incarnated by Dyaus Pitar and later appeared split into its two aspects of uncanny and awe inspiring almighty power incarnated by Varuna and of source and guardian of justice and compacts incarnated by Mitra. Indra incarnated the military function and the twins Ashvins (or Nasatya) the function of production, wealth, fertility and pleasure. In human society the rajah and the class of the brahmin priests represented the first function (and enjoyed the highest dignity), the warrior class of the kshatriya represented the second function and the artisan and merchant class of the vaishya the third.

Similarly in Rome Jupiter was the supreme ruler of the heavens and god of thunder, represented on earth by the rex, king (later the rex sacrorum) and his substitute, the flamen dialis, the legal aspect of sovereignty being incarnated also by Dius Fidius, Mars was the god of military prowess and a war deity, represented by his flamen martialis; and Quirinus the enigmatic god of the Roman populus (“people”) organised in the curiae as a civilian and productive force, represented by the flamen quirinalis.

Apart than from the analysis of the texts already collected by Wissowa, Dumezil stressed the importance of the tripartite plan of the regia, the cultic centre of Rome and official residence of the rex. As recorded by sources and confirmed by archeological data it was devised to lodge the three major deities Iupiter, Mars, and Ops, the deity of agricultural plenty, in three separate rooms.

The cult of Fides involved the three flamines maiores: they were carried to the sacellum of the deity together in a covered carriage and officiated with their right hand wrapped up to the fingers in a piece of white cloth. The association with the deity that founded divine order (Fides is associated with Iupiter in his function of guardian of the supreme juridical order) underlines the mutual interconnections among them and of the gods they represented with the supreme heavenly order, whose arcane character was represented symbolically in the hidden character of the forms of the cult.

The spolia opima were dedicated by the person who had killed the king or chief of the enemy in battle. They were dedicated to Jupiter in case the Roman was a king or his equivalent (consul, dictator or tribunus militum consulari potestate), to Mars in case he was an officer and to Quirinus in case he was common soldier.[9] The sacrificial animals too were in each case the ones of the respective deity, i. e. an ox to Jupiter, solitaurilia to Mars and a male lamb to Quirinus.

Besides Dumézil analysed the cultual functions of the flamen quirinalis to better understand the characters of this deity. One important element was his officiating on the feriae of the Consualia aestiva ( of the Summer), which associated Quirinus to the cult of Consus and indirectly of Ops (Ops Consivia). Other feriae on which this flamen officiated were the Robigalia, the Quirinalia that Dumezil identifies with the last day of the Fornacalia, also named stultorum feriae because on that day the people who had forgot to roast their spelt on the day prescribed by the curio maximus for their own curia were given a last chance to make amends, and the Larentalia held in memory of Larunda. These religious duties show Quirinus was a civil god related to the agricultural cycle and somehow to the worship of Roman ancestry.

In Dumézil’s view the figure of Quirinus became blurred and started to be connected to the military sphere because of the early assimilation to him of the divinised Romulus, the warring founder and first king of Rome. A coincident facilitating factor of this interpretation was the circumstance that Romulus carried with himself the quality of twin and Quirinus had a correspondence in the theology of the divine twins such the Indian Ashvins and the Scandinavians Vani. The resulting interpretation was the mixed civil and military, warring and peaceful personality of the god.

A detailed discussion of the sources is devoted by Dumézil to showing that they do not support the theory of an agrarian Mars. Mars would be invoked both in the Carmen Arvale and in Cato’s prayer as the guardian, the armed protector of the fields and the harvest. He is definitely not a deity of agricultural plenty and fertility.

It is also noteworthy that according to tradition Romulus established the double role and duties, civil and military, of the Roman citizen. In this way the relationship between Mars and Quirinus became a dialectic one, since Romans would regularly pass from the warring condition to the civil one and vice versa. In the yearly cycle this passage is marked by the rites of the Salii, they themselves divided into two groups, one devoted to the cult of Mars (Salii Palatini, created by Numa) and the other of Quirinus (Salii Collini, created by Tullus Hostilius).

The archaic triad in Dumézil’s view was not strictly speaking a triad, it was rather a structure underlying the earliest religious thought of the Romans, a reflection of the common Indoeuropean heritage.

This grouping has been interpreted as a symbolic representation of early Roman society, wherein Jupiter, standing in for the ritual and augural authority of the Flamen Dialis (high priest of Jupiter) and the chief priestly colleges, represents the priestly class, Mars, with his warrior and agricultural functions, represents the power of the king and young nobles to bring prosperity and victory through sympathetic magic with rituals like the October Horse and the Lupercalia, and Quirinus, with his source as the deified form of Rome’s founder Romulus and his derivation from co-viri (“men together”) representing the combined military and economic strength of the Roman people.

According to Georges Dumézil’s trifunctional hypothesis, this division symbolizes the overarching societal classes of “priest” (Jupiter), “warrior” (Mars) and “farmer” or “civilian” (Quirinus). Though both Mars and Quirinus each had militaristic and agricultural aspects, leading later scholars to frequently equate the two despite their clear distinction in ancient Roman writings, Dumézil argued that Mars represented the Roman gentry in their service as soldiers, while Quirinus represented them in their civilian activities.

Although such a distinction is implied in a few Roman passages, such as when Julius Caesar scornfully calls his soldiers quirites (“citizens”) rather than milites (“soldiers”), the word quirites had by this time been dissociated with the god Quirinus, and it is likely that Quirinus initially had an even more militaristic aspect than Mars, but that over time Mars, partially through synthesis with the Greek god Ares, became more warlike, while Quirinus became more domestic in connotation.

Resolving these inconsistencies and complications is difficult chiefly because of the ambiguous and obscure nature of Quirinus’ cult and worship; while Mars and Jupiter remained the most popular of all Roman gods, Quirinus was a more archaic and opaque deity, diminishing in importance over time.

The trifunctional hypothesis of prehistoric Proto-Indo-European society postulates a tripartite ideology (“idéologie tripartite”) reflected in the existence of three classes or castes—priests, warriors, and commoners (farmers or tradesmen)—corresponding to the three functions of the sacral, the martial and the economic, respectively. The trifunctional thesis is primarily associated with the French mythographer Georges Dumézil who proposed it in 1929 in the book Flamen-Brahman, and later in Mitra-Varuna.

According to Dumézil, Proto-Indo-European society comprised three main groups corresponding to three distinct functions: The function of sovereignty, the military function, and the function of productivity.

Sovereignty fell into two distinct and complementary sub-parts, one formal, juridical and priestly but worldly, the other powerful, unpredictable, and also priestly but rooted in the supernatural world. The second main social division was connected with force, the military and war while the role of the third, ruled by the other two, was productivity, herding, farming and crafts.

Proto-Indo-European mythology was divided in the same way: each social group had its own god or family of gods to represent it and the function of the god or gods matched the function of the group.

Many such divisions occur in history. One example is the supposed division between the king, nobility and regular freemen in early Germanic society. The three Hindu castes, the Brahmans or priests, the Kshatriya—the warriors and military—and the Vaishya—the agriculturalists, cattle rearers and traders—are associated with three philosophical qualities (gunas), Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas respectively. The castes are socio-economic roles filled by members of society. The Shudra, a fourth Indian caste, is an “outer” or serf caste serving the other three.

A 2001 study found that the genetic affinity of Indians to Europeans is proportionate to caste rank, the upper castes being most similar to Europeans whereas lower castes are more like Asians. The researchers believe that the Indo-European speakers entered India from the Northwest, mixing with or displacing proto-Dravidian speakers, and may have established a caste system with themselves primarily in higher castes.

The three divisions of the ideal society described by Socrates in Plato’s The Republic. Terje Leiren discerns a grouping of three Norse gods that corresponds to the trifunctional division; Odin as the patron of priests and magicians, Thor of warriors, and Freyr of fertility and farming.

Bernard Sergent associates the Indo-European language family with certain archaeological cultures in Southern Russia and reconstructs an Indo-European religion based upon the tripartite functions. He has also examined the trifunctional hypothesis in Greek epic, lyric and dramatic poetry.

Supporters of the hypothesis include scholars such as Émile Benveniste, Bernard Sergent and Iaroslav Lebedynsky, who concludes that “the basic idea seems proven in a convincing way”.

The hypothesis was embraced outside the field of Indo-European studies by some mythographers, anthropologists, and historians such as Mircea Eliade, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marshall Sahlins, Rodney Needham, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Georges Duby.

On the other hand, Allen concludes that the tripartite division may be an artefact, a selection effect rather than an organizing principle used in the societies themselves. Benjamin W. Fortson reports a sense that Dumézil blurred the lines between the three functions and the examples that he gave often had contradictory characteristics, causing detractors to reject his categories as non-existent.

John Brough surmises that societal divisions are common outside of Indo-European societies as well, and consequently the hypothesis has only limited utility in illuminating prehistoric Indo-European society. Cristiano Grottanelli states that while Dumézilian trifunctionalism may be seen in modern and medieval contexts, its projection onto earlier cultures is mistaken. Belier is strongly critical.

The hypothesis has been criticised by historians Carlo Ginzburg, Arnaldo Momigliano and Bruce Lincoln as being based on Dumézil’s sympathies with the political right. Guy G. Stroumsa sees these criticisms as unfounded.

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