Book Review: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language.

Anthony, David W. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Reading fiction, for me at least, is an incredibly easy thing. I can just shut down my brain and let the words wash over me. Reading non-fiction, typically academic works in the field of Heathenry, is the opposite. The language is dense, the concepts not always very clear, and the evidence is found in footnotes and throw away statements by dry academics who are not writing for people looking to build a tradition from their work, but rather analyze the data before them and draw conclusions for an audience consisting of other academics. David Anthony's writing in The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World is clear, concise, and avoids relying too much on jargon (although it helps to be somewhat familiar with archaeological terms, especially as they are used by the Russian / Soviet scholars).

Anthony's primary focus is to present the evidence for the Pontic-Caspian steppes as the ancient homeland of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) peoples, and he does so impressively, taking us through the archaeological and linguistic evidence that show how the original progenitors of the Indo-European daughter peoples came to be. And in doing so, he provides both a reasoned defense of the Comparative Model of reconstruction, as well as a convincing argument against the concept of folkishness as it is understood in Heathen circles.

First, the Comparative Model. Anthony is an archaeologist, writing largely to other archaeologists, about a hotly debated concept. For many archaeologists, the idea of a Proto-Indo European people was hard to swallow, and the work being done in the field of PIE linguistics was largely ignored. The first third of the book is a survey of the concept of comparative linguistics, building the case towards the idea that there was a Proto-Indo-European people and language which eventually broke apart as her daughter cultures left the Pontic Caspian steppes and settled the world, from as far west as Ireland eastwards into the Indus Valley and further western China.

Anthony is not an uncritical cheerleader of the idea that linguistics is a predictor of culture, as he often shows evidence that even though language may encode a cultural outlook, it does not, in fact, determine it:

In the patrilocal, patrilineal society reconstructed by linguists for Proto-Indo-European speakers, all lineage heads would have been males. The appearance of adult females in one out of five kurgan graves, including central graves, suggests that gender was not the only factor that determined who was buried under a kurgan. Why were adult females buried in central graves under kurgans even on the Volga? Among later steppe societies women could occupy social positions normally assigned to men. About 20% of Scythian-Sarmation "warrior graves" on the lower Don and lower Volga contained females dressed for battle as if they were men, a phenomenon that probably inspired the Greek tales of the Amazons. It is at least interesting that the frequency of adult females in central graves under Yamnaya kurgans in the same region, but two thousand years earlier, was about the same. Perhaps the people of this region customarily assigned some women leadership roles that were traditionally male. (Page 329)

Even then, his defense of the technique is reasoned, fair, and persuasive. Linguistic does encode certain symbols; awareness of these symbols, of what the language actually means as opposed to what we assume it means, gives us the tools to decode the actual meaning being communicated in the language and poetry of the Lore.

In tracking the growth of the Indo-European material and linguistic culture, Anthony makes some very salient points to the idea of cultural identity, particularly what it meant to the ancient Aryans - the very first of the literate Indo-Europeans, who invaded and supplanted the previous Indus Valley Harappa culture and who viewed Aryan-ness as a fundamentally linguistic category:

According to their own texts, they conceived of "Aryan-ness" as a religious-linguistic category. Some Sanskrit speaking chiefs, and even poets in the Rig Veda, had names such as Balbûtha and Brbu that were foreign to the Sanskrit language. These people were of non-Aryan origin and yet were leaders among the Aryans. So even the Aryans of the Rig Veda were not genetically "pure"-- whatver that means. The Rig Veda was a ritual canon, not a racial manifesto. If you sacrificed in the right way to the right gods, which required performing the great traditional prayers in the traditional language, you were an Aryan; otherwise you were not. The Rig Veda made the ritual and linguistic barrier clear, but did not require or even contemplate racial purity. (Page 11)

Anthony argues that the Indo-European "invasion" should not be interpreted as a wholescale volkwanderung but rather more like a franchising system. A chief / family would migrate into an area, occupy it, and using the superior technologies of domesticated horses, wagons, and bronze weapons, dominate the people who were already there. But by accepting them as clients, thus legalizing or normalizing inequality, they in the end did not create a permanent slave class but rather a group of people who, over time and cultural adoption, could enter into Indo-European culture, and become themselves Indo-European. That's why the genetic make-up of a place would largely stay static, whereas the cultural markers - linguistic and material culture - could radically change over time.

The concept of linguistic and cultural (but not genetic) dominance strongly refutes the concepts of genetic superiority and/or exceptionalism upon which folkish ideas ultimately rest. While there is a genetic component to a population, the input of that component is somewhat marginal to the success of that population. The Proto-Indo-Europeans stamped into our language specific semiotics that are at the core of what we think and do that their influence is far outweighed than the genetic imprint they have had on us. For example, everyone that speaks an Indo-European language today in order to communicate must think in terms of number and tense, in order to communicate that idea. Whereas genetically, all that remains is an adaptation for lactose tolerance.

For seekers looking into deep insight into Indo-European language and religion, there are not a lot of new things introduced in this work to draw you to read it. This work is a survey of the current state of PIE scholarship. It is important to remember that this is ultimately a defense of the theory that the Pontic-Caspian steppe was the original homeland of the Indo-European peoples. This thesis, it should be noted, is not unique or original to Anthony, but has been in circulation for years. Anthony's contribution here is to aggregate the Soviet and Russian archaeological data that heretofore been unknown in the west, and in so doing, provide convincing evidence to support that theory.

For Heathens looking to deepen their knowledge of the Indo-European world, who are looking to be introduced into the techniques of comparative Linguistic and Mythological reconstruction, who are looking to become familiar with Indo-European studies, this is an excellent primer to the current state of the scholarship. And for someone who has focused on the late heathen period, there is still a lot of useful data to consume here. I'll leave you with two examples on why these studies are so important for Heathens looking to get a deeper understanding of our religion.

The first is the importance of the horse in Indo-European religion. We know from the Eddas, and from archaeology, that horse sacrifices were the highest of animal sacrifices conducted by the Elder Heathens. But for a people who were largely maritime, whose horses were not at the center of their economic lives, why was this case? Because for a long time before the late heathen period, the horse was essential to survival. According to Anthony, horses were originally domesticated as a source for winter meat, largely due to a feature of Horse foraging behavior. Horses have the instinct to paw at the snow cover to remove it, and reach the grass below:

Horses are easier to feed through the winter than cattle or sheep, as cattle and sheep push snow aside with their noses and horses use their hard hooves. Sheep can graze on winter grass through soft snow, but if the snow becomes crusted with ice than their noses will get raw and bloody, and they will stand and starve in a field where the is ample winter forage just beneath their feet. Cattle do not forage through even soft snow if they cannot see the grass, so a snow deep enough to hide the winter grass will kill range cattle if they are not given fodder. Neither cattle nor sheep will break the ice on frozen water to drink. Horses have the instinct to break through ice and crusted snow with their hooves, not their noses, even in deep snows where the grass cannot be seen. They paw frozen snow away and feed themselves and so do not need water or fodder. In 1245 the Franciscan John of Plano Carpini journeyed to Mongolia to meet Güyük Khan (the successor to Genghis) and observed the steppe horses of the Tartars, as he called them, digging for grass from under the snow "since the Tartars have neither straw nor hay nor fodder." during the historic blizzard of 1886 in the North American Plains hundreds of thousands of cattle were lost on the open range. Those that survived followed herds of mustangs and grazed in the areas they opened up. (Page 200)

So we have a source of food that is vital for the most dangerous time of the year, a gift of necessary and success that provides meat at the darkest and coldest times. Over time, the horse as meat-animal gives way, through the invention of riding, and its use as a draft animal, so that meat becomes secondary, and then only at great need, or during the ancient customs of ritual. Ritual is always deeply, deeply conservative. When Cato wrote down the Carmen Arvale the song was in a form of Latin so old that the singers probably didn't even understand the words. Combined with the horse's usefulness for riding, the invention of the wheel revolutionized the ancient Indo-Europeans. The introduction of the wagon, as transport to carry water, food, tents, and supplies, allowed the Pastoralist nomads of the PIE peoples to suddenly break free of the river valleys at the forest edges of the Steppes, and find forage and pastures deep into the steps, because they could bring with them greater number of supplies than on foot or even on horseback. The Wagon became, for them, a symbol of home and safety and eventually, sovereignty. This symbol of the wheel became so important we see its use again and again, in symbols and in myth. The wagon was so important that we see it presented as a symbol for sovereignty, as with the story of the processionals of Freyr, and, in Germania, of Nerthus. As late as the viking age, we still see more wagon burials than any other type. Such behavior might not simply be born of economics, but rather be an expression of ritual and cultural traditions that stretch back thousands of years to the earliest peoples who spoke the language from which ours descends.

In the end, I think everyone will have to review the evidence and come to their own conclusions. However, given the preponderance of evidence, and even more importantly, the ability of linguistic and mythological techniques to make predictions regarding linguistic evidence that is later found to be true, I place myself firmly in the comparative camp. It may be a technique that gets over used, at times, but the fundamentals are sound, and given the evidence, it remains necessary if we are to dig deeper and discover a better heathenry, closer to what our Elders would recognize.

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