From Academic Kids

Georges Dumézil (March 4, 1898 - October 11, 1986) was a French comparative philologist best known for his analysis of sovereignty and power in Indo-European religion and society. He is considered one of the major contributors to mythography, in particular for his creation of the trifunctional hypothesis of social class.

Dumézil's father was a classicist and so he became interested in ancient languages at a young age - it was been said that he could read the Aeneid in Latin at the age of nine. During his time in secondary school, he was also influenced by Michel Bréal, one of his classmate's grandfathers, who was at the time one of the leading French philologists. By the time he entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1916, then, he was already on the road to studying linguistics and the classics.

His studies were delayed by WWI, however, when Dumézil was drafted and served as an artillery officer. After the war he resumed his studies, where he was particularly influenced by Antoine Meillet. He agregated in 1919 in Classics and then received his doctorate in 1924 after writing a thesis comparing the common origins of the Greek ambrosia and a similarly named Indian drink Amtra which was said to make its imbiber immortal. The dissertation was controversial because some of the examiners, such as Henri Hubert thought that Dumézil took liberty with the facts in order to generate a more beautiful interpretation (this would come to be a common criticism of Dumézil's work).

Feeling that he had little place in the French academy, Dumézil moved to Turkey in 1925 to teach at the University of Istanbul, created as part of Ataturk's attempt to create a modern, secular nation. As a result he learned Turkish and developed an interest in the Ubykh and travelled widely in Russia, Turkey, and the Caucasus. As a result, he became one of the premier experts of Caucasian languages to work in French. In 1931 he took another position, this one in Uppsala, which allowed him to hone his skills in the Germanic stocks of Indo-European.

The trifunctional hypothesis

In 1937 Dumézil published Flamin-Brahmin, the first full statement of his 'trifunctional hypothesis'. In this as in Mitra-Varuna, his most accessible work, Dumézil analyzed the Indo-European idea of sovereignty into two distinct and complementary parts: one formal, priestly, juridical and rooted in this world; the other powerful, unpredictable, and rooted in the "other," supernatural/spiritual world. Finally, there was a third group, the ruled. For instance, this tripartite division resulted in the arrangement of Brahimn, Kshatriya, and commoner castes in India and the distinction between Kings, Priests, and commoners in Europe. He argued that this dual sovereignty was expressed by pairs of gods such as the Sanskrit Mitra/Varuna, the Roman Dius Fidius/Jupiter Summanus, or the Scandinavian Tyr/Odin; alternatively by quasi-historical hero-figures, such as the Roman Romulus/Numa; or by distinct religious confraternities, such as the Roman flamens/Luperci or Indic brahmins/Gandharva.

By the mid-1930s Dumézil's star began to rise. In 1935 he left Uppsala to take up a chair in the "Comparative Religion of Indo-European Peoples" at the prestiguous École Pratique des Hautes Études. He was named a professor at the Collège de France in 1949, and was finally elected to the Académie Française in 1978 thanks to the patronage of his colleague and fellow student of myth, Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Dumézil's trifunctional hypothesis has weathered a good deal of criticism since his death, and some commentators consider it as much a form of mythology as the myths he studied. Nevertheless, many themes of his work have continued to remain at the center of ancient religious studies: for example, his impulse to comparative study, and his basic insight that polytheistic gods must be studied not simply by themselves, but in the pairs and ensembles in which their worshippers grouped them.

Dumézil is also well known for mentoring many younger French scholars. Michel Foucault, for instance, benefitted from his patronage when Dumézil arranged for him to teach temporarily in Uppsala early on in his career.

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Preceded by:
Jacques Chastenet
Seat 40
Académie française
Succeeded by:
Pierre-Jean Rémy
de:Georges Dumézil

fr:Georges Dumézil

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