The Tripartite Structure and Deistic Reflection

One of the guiding questions of my research has been, what role or purpose do the Norse gods serve within the context of the ancient Norse society? Since they are apparently not morally perfect, or even good, it would appear that they are not meant to guide their believers in that way, differing drastically from the functions of the gods or messiah figures in most religions. For example, most theologians would agree that it would be good to live your life as similarly to Jesus as possible (WWJD). However, what if the Norse gods are not meant to guide people, but are just reflections, albeit extreme dramatizations, of the current society in which the believers already live? This idea is supported by their conception of what the universe looks like. They conceptualized a giant ash tree, called Yggdrasil, as the center of the earth. In the center of the tree is Asgard, the home of the gods, who represent order. Traveling away from the center is Midgard, home of the humans. Around the atmosphere of the tree is Utgard, the home of the “ice-giants”, who represent chaos. This conception of the world reflects the real situations of the ancient Northmen and how they live. A typical Viking settlement would have the home in the center, representative of order (Asgard), then the farm surrounding the house, tame but not necessarily as “orderly” as the house (Midgard), and beyond that, the forest, which would be vast and wild, unchartered territory (Utgard).

The gods of Asgard and the giants of Utgard are perpetually at war. This war will eventually end in the doom of the gods, called Ragnarok. This constant war is not presented as a battle between good and evil, but between order and chaos. Therefore, I believe they serve to reflect the Norse/Viking society, which did not necessarily value “goodness” in a moral sense, but did value order, because it was necessary to the continued survival of the clan(s).  The gods did not instruct their believers in a didactic way, but upheld already existing conventions. Georges Dumėzil’s “Tripartite Structure”, as applied to this pantheon, supports that argument. Some questions that spring off of this idea of perpetual war that I can use to guide further research are, what implications does it have that the gods do not even win the war? And is it significant that we know at the start of the sagas that the gods are in fact already dead? Or will die? What purpose does linear time serve to this idea of perpetual war? Are the gods both alive and already dead to the characters in the sagas, similar to how the Christian god is both always present and has already died as Jesus?

Georges Dumėzil studied a range of Indo-European tales and identified a deistic organization that many cultures share. “Dumėzil has sought to demonstrate that the earliest I-E speaking societies of India, Europe, and elsewhere shared a common set of such ‘collective representations’. Most if not all of these early I-E societies, he asserts, were characterized, at least in their earliest known periods, by a hierarchically ordered, tripartite social organization, each stratum of which was collectively represented in myth and epic by an appropriate set of gods and heroes” (Littleton, 148). Dumezil makes the argument that these societies, including the Vikings, possessed a “tripartite ideology” that was able to travel and spread geographically. This ideology refers to a tendency to divide phenomena in general into three related categories. This notion reminded me of the Christian Holy Trinity. For the Indo-European societies that Dumezil studied, (not Christianity) he came up with three overarching categories: the priestly stratum, the warrior stratum, and the herder-cultivator stratum (in descending order of importance). This hierarchy applies in general to all the early I-E societies, but I believe in the pre-Christian Icelandic society, it holds with a few tweaks. For example, the “priestly” function is expanded to include the King or clan leader, represented by the gods Odin and Tyr. It is expanded, not altogether changed, because some sagas will still show the importance of the mystic or the shaman, although the “priest” is usually a “priestess” (called a Völva…) The Vikings add a judicial as well as a mystic quality to the first function. Additionally, the third function, the herder-cultivator, is expanded to include a female fertility function, represented by the goddess Freyja.  That leaves the warrior function, fulfilled by Thor. I believe this tripartite structure serves to uphold the order of the Viking clans, because it makes specific categories for the leaders, the warriors, and the peasants. I will use examples from specific sagas, such as Sigurdr’s Saga, where this structure is particularly evident, to further this argument.

Citation:

Littleton, C. Scott. “The Comparative Indo-European Mythology of Georges Dumézil”. Journal of the Folklore Institute. Vol 1, No. 3. Dec. 1964, pp.147-166. JSTOR

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One thought on “The Tripartite Structure and Deistic Reflection”

  1. That post in specific made me reflect on a lot of the ideas in American Gods regarding how the Gods sort of take root and exist in different cultures.
    I hadn’t really considered the fact that the existence of Norse Gods is sort of odd because, unlike in monotheistic religions, they don’t provide a moralistic example. Unlike the pantheistic religions of Buddhism and Hinduism, they also don’t account for an overarching philosophy. In that way, they’re most similar to the Gods of Greece and Rome, which possibly explains why those three religions no longer exist.
    In addition to how they depict and instruct behavior in their society, I wouldn’t downplay the explanatory role that God stories often played.

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