By Joseph Manning

I saw the new Ridley Scott movie, Prometheus, this weekend. Over at Language Log there is an ongoing discussion in an attempt to translate a sentence spoken in the movie, which is thought to be proto-Indo-European.

The movie’s connection to proto-Indo-European language and mythology doesn’t end there, however.

The film draws heavily upon common science fiction plot devices like “ancient astronauts” and panspermia. Indeed, one of the film’s opening sequences shows a human-like alien sacrificing himself on an Earth devoid of any life. As his body begins to decompose before his eyes, he collapses into a waterfall. Meanwhile, the audience is shown this alien’s DNA reforming in the water — hinting that cellular life on Earth has now begun to arise from his sacrifice.

This scene’s inspiration no doubt was drawn from the creation myths of the Indo-Europeans. “Analysis of all these tales indicates that the Proto-Indo-Europeans believed that the progenitors of mankind were *Man (Indic Manu, German Mannus) and *Twin, the latter of which was sacrificed and carved up by his brother to produce mankind.” J.P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans, Language, Archaeology and Myth, p. 140 (Thames & Hudson 1989).

In the Lay of Vafthruthnir in the Poetic Edda, the reader is “offer[ed] fragments of cosmogonic and mythological information.” The Poetic Edda, p. 42 (translated and edited by Lee M. Hollander). The king of the gods, Odin, “has heard of the wisdom of Vafthruthnir and . . . fares to see him in his hall, there to match his own lore against the giant’s.” Id. The two engage in a flyting, a poetic contest of wits. From this exchange we learn of  a primordial giant whose body formed the Earth and mankind.

Of Ymir’s flesh the earth was shaped,

the barren hills of his bones;

and of his skull the sky was shaped,

of his blood the briny sea.

This theme is common to proto-Indo-European mythology. Ymir is a Norse preservation of an ancient mythological figure also found preserved throughout the Indo-European societies.

“The Proto-Indo-European *yem– ‘twin’ underlies the name of a god common to the Indo-Iranians (Indic Yama, Avestan Yima) who becomes the progenitor of mankind. [T]he underlying form for the name of Remus, the brother of Romulus in the story of the founding of Rome, was actually *iemus, the early Italic form of Proto-Indo-European *yemos ‘twin.’ In Norse mythology, mankind is formed from the remains of a giant whose name, Ymir, has also been derived by some from the Proto-Indo-European word for twin. Furthermore, Tacitus relates how the early Germans were the descendants of Mannus and Tuisto, the latter of which again means twin. Among the Celts we have the tale relating the foundation of Emhain Macha, the ancient capital of Ulster, which was explained by recourse to a myth in which Macha gave birth to emuin ‘twins,’ again derived from Proto-Indo-European *yem-.” Mallory, supra.

This film scene where a giant “godlike” being is sacrificed and from his body a new world and mankind are created is a parallel to the proto-Indo-European mythology.


1 Comment

Filed under Proto-Indo-European

One response to “Prometheus

  1. For related reading, the following blogs have linked to this post in their own discussions. Enjoy!

    Dusk in Autumn

    The Blog That Time Forgot

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