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Indo-European Poetry and Myth [Paperback]

M. L. West
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

9 Feb 2009
The Indo-Europeans, speakers of the prehistoric parent language from which most European and some Asiatic languages are descended, most probably lived on the Eurasian steppes some five or six thousand years ago. Martin West investigates their traditional mythologies, religions, and poetries, and points to elements of common heritage. In The East Face of Helicon (1997), West showed the extent to which Homeric and other early Greek poetry was influenced by Near Eastern traditions, mainly non-Indo-European. His new book presents a foil to that work by identifying elements of more ancient, Indo-European heritage in the Greek material. Topics covered include the status of poets and poetry in Indo-European societies; metre, style, and diction; gods and other supernatural beings, from Father Sky and Mother Earth to the Sun-god and his beautiful daughter, the Thunder-god and other elemental deities, and earthly orders such as Nymphs and Elves; the forms of hymns, prayers, and incantations; conceptions about the world, its origin, mankind, death, and fate; the ideology of fame and of immortalization through poetry; the typology of the king and the hero; the hero as warrior, and the conventions of battle narrative.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (9 Feb 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199558914
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199558919
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 15.5 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 467,492 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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...the ideal guide in a complex field of learning. (International Review of Biblical Studies)

About the Author

M.L. West is Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An extremely comprehensive and brilliant work 17 Sep 2010
By Alby
This is a magnificent piece of work by M.L West, a really excellent study. I'm an anthropology grad student, although I'm not particularly well-versed in Indo-European studies, frankly. Comparative ethnology, however, is something I'm very familiar with, albeit mostly in the context of Austronesian studies. Austronesian studies is a comparatively easy affair - cultural diversification occurred almost in isolation, on mostly previously uninhabited islands throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Indo-European-speaking cultures, however, developed in areas of linguistic and ethnic diversity. Indo-European speakers came into contact with speakers of Dravidian, Uralic, Afroasiatic, even Sino-Tibetan, languages, as well as, presumably, other unattested language groups spoken in Europe and Asia before the arrival of the Indo-European languages. This makes teasing out the strands of common culture rather more difficult than in Austronesia, and applying the same methodology as we use elsewhere seems daunting.

Fortunately, there are brilliant scholars like West on hand to cover the topic and give it the attention it deserves, without overloading it with the ridiculous ideological rubbish that seems to have influenced Indo-European studies since its foundation. West writes very accurately. He doesn't leave an observation to chance without interrupting his flow and erudition, and this (fairly large) work is never a muddle.

The subject is also absolutely fascinating. I shan't go into it too much, simply because the nuances West has put into the work might be ignored if I gloss it over. I simply recommend it, both as a book to read (slowly!) or as a reference. The topics covered are comprehensive, and range from poetic metre to gnomes.
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Erudite and entertaining - what a delight1 10 Mar 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I cannot emphasise too strongly how much I enjoyed this book; I read it slowly - it would have been a crime to dash through it. I am amazed at the erudition and delightful style of the book - how easily it could have been as dry as dust as it explored the resonances in a dozen languages of the early Indic-European poetry and myth. But, believe me, it was readably and enjoyable. I know neither ancient Latvian, Iranian, Irish, Greek or any of the other languages (surprise!) Professor West quotes with such aplomb, but his (in themselves poetic translations) took me as near as I ever shall get to the rhythms and feelings of the original. I found the thematic approach both interesting and helpful- Poet and Poesy, Storm and Steam, Hymns and Spells, Arms and the Man and eight other evocative chapter headings. Surely students of literature, mythology, anthropology and linguistics will get a great deal from this book, but so will the ordinary but interested reader. it has given me months of pleasure (which will show you how slowly I read it!) but I deliberately took my time to savour it. I consider it a tour de force.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extremely important survey 11 Aug 2010
By Christopher R. Travers - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In this work, M. L. West sets out to offer a general survey of Indo-European comparative mythology and poetry. The scope is substantial, the topic intimidating, and obstacles substantial. Yet Prof. West produces a work which is right on target, offering a great deal of food for thought Several sections of this book had me in ecstatic delight as my notions of Indo-European comparative themes were challenged and broadened. This is a worthy read for anyone who seriously studies these things.

Obviously the primary audience of this work is the academic audience of professors and university students (presumably at the graduate degree level). However, the work is written so as to be quite accessible. Interested individuals generally will find it to be of interest.

A secondary and probably unintentional audience for this book is the "reconstructionist Neopagan" community, particularly Greek (Hellenismos), Roman Recon, and Germanic Recon/Asatru/etc. This work provides a great deal of insight into the traditional mythologies and will help deepen the understanding of such practitioners substantially. (As a note, reconstructionist Neopagans tend to be interested in reconstructing and reviving old pagan practices, so of course this work is of interest to this form of paganism.)

In particular I found his discussion of spinning motifs and king/horse connections quite interesting. Additionally his discussion of female sovereigns raised a number of points I hadn't come across before and in some cases found his insights quite amazing.

Highly recommended.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A great big ragbag of hypotheses on a common cultural inheritance among the Indo-European peoples 25 Sep 2013
By Christopher Culver - Published on Amazon.com
M.L. West has always been interested in how myths were shared across the Classical world. In the 1990s, he wrote a monograph titled The East Face of Helicon on how Greek epic drew heavily from the Near East. Thinking about what the Greek tradition kept from the Indo-European heritage common to many cultures of Europe and Asia led him to this much vaster project. INDO-EUROPEAN POETRY AND MYTH aims to synthesize and extend research on what aspects of the literature of antiquity -- and even the Lithuanian and Latvian songs collected in the early modern era -- go back to Indo-European times.

The opening two chapters cover Indo-European poetry, revealing common poetic metaphors and principles of versification from Ireland to India. The bulk of the work, however, consists of comparisons of the mythologies of the Indo-European peoples, which West treats exhaustively with each chapter divided into a myriad of subthemes. For example, chapter 5 "Sun and Daughter" consists of the following sections:

The divine Sun. The Sun as a deity. Attributes; the all-seeing god. Oaths by the Sun.---The Sun's motion conceptualized. The solar wheel. The solar steed(s). The solar boat. The dark side of the sun. How old is all this?---Further mythical motifs.---Cultic observance. Salutation of the rising and setting sun. A taboo.---Dawn (and Night). Attributes; imagery. Dawn's lovers. The Dawn goddess and the spring festival.---The Daughter of the Sun. The Vedic evidence. The Baltic and Slavic evidence. The Greek evidence. Daughters of the Sun in other traditions. Astronomical interpretations. Ritual aspects.---Conclusion.

Because the subject is explored so exhaustively and the presentation is so dense, very few are going to read the whole thing. I have been keenly interested in Indo-European linguistics for years, but even I found myself skimming a few parts. However, there's no denying that the book brings together in a single volume all the divergent research going on among specialists in the various languages.

But the great flaw of this text is that it is too much a collection of earlier work on the subject, and thus reflects much speculation that has been overturned by later research. For example, West links a number of Greek words to Sanskrit or Iranian words, but Beekes' recent work shows these Greek words to be borrowings from the Pre-Greek substrate language and not inherited from Indo-European. (Indeed, Beekes has conclusively shown that Pre-Greek was non-Indo-European, but West at one point even incorporates into the text the obsolete idea that Greece was inhabited by another Indo-European people before the Greeks, the old "Pelasgian hypothesis".)

So, I can recommend this to readers with an interest in the subject, but be prepared to take everything with a grain of salt (or more). A second edition with a more critical approach would do much to remedy this infelicity.
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You Will Not Be Disappointed 17 Dec 2009
By Stephanie - Published on Amazon.com
This is a concise compendium of the full scope of Indo-European religious narratives, catagorized into gods, godddesses, and identifable mythic themes. Dr. West is thorough, yet conveys an extraordinary amount of data in the easy-to-read, flowing style of an experienced writer. No doubt, this text will set the standard in this field for many years to come.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not for the Layman 2 Oct 2013
By SisterInArms - Published on Amazon.com
The book is full of citations and connections from one civilization to another, but it is written as an academic publication and not one that you can just flip through and find what your looking for. Herodotus and Homer are relied on heavily. Gilgamesh is mentioned once. Sumerian doesn't even appear in the Index. It is not a book that has any fluid stories of ancient myths you've never heard. Rather it is a book that breaks down gods and goddesses and legends names and tries to interconnect them by translating names and attributes and connecting them from civilization to civilization by root words and translations of those words. I did not agree with some of the authors conclusions. If you are interested at all in connecting gods and goddesses or Indo-European or Greek or Norse studies, check it out and make your own conclusions. It didn't really give me what I was looking for.
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely Essential; A quantifiable bible of insight into what our Ancestors (may) have thought and did. 3 July 2014
By G. Ridgeway - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is certainly not a book that one should sit down and try to read cover to cover in one go, because it is dense, packed into every page is wonderful insight and knowledge into what our ancestors may have thought and did, from their view of the Gods, to households, the land and much more.
This book is absolutely essential reading for anyone who practices Paganism, in whatever stripe that may be.
Whenever in my studies and practices I come to a point where I wish to know what my ancestors may have thought or did in regards to the gods and their beliefs this is the first book I reference. It has proven time and again to be a masterful tool which helps give insight and guidance in thought and deed. It’s a spending tome, but quite honestly worth every penny.
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