Methods of reconstruction
Schools of thought
Portrait of Friedrich Max Müller
, a prominent early scholar on the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European religion and a proponent of the Meteorological School
The mythology of the Proto-Indo-Europeans is not directly attested and it is difficult to match their language to archaeological findings related to any specific culture from the Chalcolithic. Nonetheless, scholars of comparative mythology have attempted to reconstruct aspects of Proto-Indo-European mythology based on the existence of similarities among the deities, religious practices, and myths of various Indo-European peoples. This method is known as the comparative method. Different schools of thought have approached the subject of Proto-Indo-European mythology from different angles. The Meteorological School holds that Proto-Indo-European mythology was largely centered around deified natural phenomena such as the sky, the Sun, the Moon, and the dawn. This meteorological interpretation was popular among early scholars, such as Friedrich Max Müller, who saw all myths as fundamentally solar allegories. This school lost most of its scholarly support in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Ritual School, which first became prominent in the late nineteenth century, holds that Proto-Indo-European myths are best understood as stories invented to explain various rituals and religious practices. The Ritual School reached the height of its popularity during the early twentieth century. Many of its most prominent early proponents, such as James George Frazer and Jane Ellen Harrison, were classical scholars. Bruce Lincoln, a contemporary member of the Ritual School, argues that the Proto-Indo-Europeans believed that every sacrifice was a reenactment of the original sacrifice performed by the founder of the human race on his twin brother.
The Functionalist School holds that Proto-Indo-European society and, consequently, their mythology, was largely centered around the trifunctional system proposed by Georges Dumézil, which holds that Proto-Indo-European society was divided into three distinct social classes: farmers, warriors, and priests. The Structuralist School, by contrast, argues that Proto-Indo-European mythology was largely centered around the concept of dualistic opposition. This approach generally tends to focus on cultural universals within the realm of mythology, rather than the genetic origins of those myths, but it also offers refinements of the Dumézilian trifunctional system by highlighting the oppositional elements present within each function, such as the creative and destructive elements both found within the role of the warrior.
Scheme of Indo-European migrations from c. 4000 to 1000 BC according to the Kurgan hypothesis
One of the earliest attested and thus most important of all Indo-European mythologies is Vedic mythology, especially the mythology of the Rigveda, the oldest of the Vedas. Early scholars of comparative mythology such as Friedrich Max Müller stressed the importance of Vedic mythology to such an extent that they practically equated it with Proto-Indo-European myth. Modern researchers have been much more cautious, recognizing that, although Vedic mythology is still central, other mythologies must also be taken into account.
Another of the most important source mythologies for comparative research is Roman mythology. Contrary to the frequent erroneous statement made by some authors that "Rome has no myth", the Romans possessed a very complex mythological system, parts of which have been preserved through the characteristic Roman tendency to rationalize their myths into historical accounts. Despite its relatively late attestation, Norse mythology is still considered one of the three most important of the Indo-European mythologies for comparative research, simply due to the vast bulk of surviving Icelandic material.
Baltic mythology has also received a great deal of scholarly attention, but has so far remained frustrating to researchers because the sources are so comparatively late. Nonetheless, Latvian folk songs are seen as a major source of information in the process of reconstructing Proto-Indo-European myth. Despite the popularity of Greek mythology in western culture, Greek mythology is generally seen as having little importance in comparative mythology due to the heavy influence of Pre-Greek and Near Eastern cultures, which overwhelms what little Indo-European material can be extracted from it. Consequently, Greek mythology received minimal scholarly attention until the mid 2000s.
Although Scythians are considered relatively conservative in regards to Proto-Indo-European cultures, retaining a similar lifestyle and culture, their mythology has very rarely been examined in an Indo-European context and infrequently discussed in regards to the nature of the ancestral Indo-European mythology. At least three deities, Tabiti,
Api, are generally interpreted as having Indo-European origins, while the remaining have seen more disparate interpretations. Influence from Siberian, Turkic and even Near Eastern beliefs, on the other hand, are more widely discussed in literature.