Georges Dumézil was a twentieth-century comparative mythologist like Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung, but unlike either of them, he thought that myths could only be properly understood in their original historical context – and not as part of a universalistic theory that ignores that context. For that reason, Dumézil chose to focus on analyzing the various Indo-European mythologies and religions in relation to each other, and not in relation to other mythologies or religions outside of that historically-linked community.
(If you’re unfamiliar with the term “Indo-European,” see Who Were the Indo-Europeans and Why Do They Matter?)
Dumézil’s primary contribution to Indo-European studies was his theory of “trifunctionalism,” the idea that a particular arrangement of three societal “functions” lay at the heart of Indo-European life and thought. This arrangement manifested itself most straightforwardly in the social hierarchy, which consisted of three classes that corresponded to the three functions. However, as the word “function” implies, the three classes were distinguished not just according to differing quantitative amounts of power, but also qualitatively in terms of the “functions” that each of the three groups served within society. The Indo-Europeans’ gods, too, were organized into this trifunctional structure.
What, then, are these three functions?
The first function is that of sovereignty, and corresponds to the highest social class – that of rulers, priests, and legal specialists. This function is divided into two aspects, one “magical” and the other “juridical.” The former “consists of the mysterious administration, the ‘magic’ of the universe, the general ordering of the cosmos. This is a ‘disquieting’ aspect, terrifying from certain perspectives. The other aspect is more reassuring, more oriented to the human world. It is the ‘juridical’ part of the sovereign function.”
The Indo-Europeans’ gods of the first function tend to include one god who falls into each of these two categories. One is a “magician-creator” who rules “by virtue of [his] creative violence,” while the other is a “jurist-organizer” who rules “by virtue of [his] organizing wisdom.” The two types of sovereign gods form an “antithesis,” but complement one another rather than being in conflict.
The second function “carries the trait of physical force in all its manifestations, from energy, to heroism, to courage.” Its “insatiable champions… vanquish demons and save the universe.” In human society, the second function is the class of warriors, who carry out the orders of the first class and fight on behalf of their people. The gods of the second function are warriors whose intellectual abilities are inferior to those of the first, but who possess the necessary strength to actually put the decisions of the intellectual gods into action.
The third function “is the generative function. It is the domain of the healers, of youth, of luxury, of fecundity, of prosperity; also the domain of the healing gods, the patron deities of goods, of opulence – and also of the ‘people,’ as opposed to the small number of warriors and kings.” The third function’s human social class consists of the farmers, herders, and other “common people” engaged in productive physical labor, who provide the goods necessary for the sustenance of themselves and of the rest of society. Its gods are those who preside over fertility, abundance, and peace. They tend to be simple but wealthy and fun-loving.
For Dumézil, “The Indo-European vision of a smoothly functioning world required an ‘organization’ in which the representatives of the first function commanded, the second fought for and defended the community, and the third (the greatest number of them) worked and were productive. In their eyes, it was in this hierarchy that one found the harmony necessary to the proper functioning of the cosmos, as well as that of the society. It’s an Indo-European version of the ‘social contract.’”
Although a similar social organization can be found in various non-Indo-European societies, what makes the Indo-European concept distinct is just how foundational and pervasive it was in their worldview, theology, cosmology, mythology, and political philosophy. It touched every aspect of their way of life and their outlook on life.
Trifunctionalism in Norse/Germanic Mythology
The Germanic peoples, including the Norse, were one of the branches of the Indo-European family tree. Thus, it should come as no surprise that their social organization, religion, and mythology all had the kind of trifunctional structure described above. Since this is a site on Norse mythology, after all, it makes sense to draw from Norse mythology for examples with which to illustrate Dumézil’s trifunctional schema as it applies to mythology and religion.
The Norse gods of the first function are Odin and Tyr. Odin, the chieftain of the gods known above all else for his vast knowledge and fits of ecstatic inspiration, is the “sovereign magician” who rules through his inscrutable power and wisdom.
Tyr, meanwhile, is the “jurist-god” and “heroic legal expert.” This is illustrated, for example, in the famous myth in which Tyr sacrificed his hand so that the monster Fenrir would stop menacing the gods. Dumézil comments that “with his sacrifice, [Tyr] not only procures the salvation of the gods but also regularizes it: he renders legal that which, without him, would have been pure fraud.”
Fascinatingly, therefore, the two Norse gods of the first function both have disfigurements that illustrate their role in the trifunctional hierarchy. The counterpart to Tyr’s loss of his hand is Odin’s loss of one of his eyes, which he sacrificed in order to gain yet more esoteric wisdom.
The Norse god of the second function is Thor, the indefatigable champion fighter who defends the gods from their enemies.
Although Odin, Tyr, and Thor are all war gods, they preside over very different aspects of war, and those differing aspects are emblematic of their trifunctional roles. Thor is the god concerned with the physical fighting itself, while Odin governs ecstatic battle frenzy and magic. Tyr is the “jurist of war” who decides the time, place, and manner of battle. And since the law can be used to gain victory over an opponent just like war, it’s a kind of metaphorical battle, a connection which the Norse certainly noticed.
The main gods of the third function are Freyr and his father Njord, both of whom are characterized by their great wealth, their tendency toward hedonism, and their bringing “peace and plenty” to their worshipers.
In an illustration of how deeply-rooted the trifunctional model was in the Norse psyche, Odin, Thor, and Freyr – the signature gods of each function – were frequently depicted together as a shorthand for the totality of divinity. This can be found in, for example, the German historian Adam of Bremen’s famous description of the three statues in a holy site in Sweden, and the text of several magical charms. In fact, this “trinity” – or “tripartite formula” – was so pervasive that it endured well into the Christian era, where it could be found alternating with the Christian trinity in the text of magical charms.
The main flaw in Dumézil’s work, in my view, is that he sometimes overstates his case by trying to explain too high a level of detail though his comparative theory – as if any similarity, no matter how superficial, between any recorded aspect of any two Indo-European religions must be the result of a common Proto-Indo-European inheritance. The general patterns in Indo-European thought that Dumézil describes definitely seem to be there, but they’re just that: general patterns. The more Dumézil tries to account for the specifics of any one Indo-European religion, the more he has to stretch the data and his interpretive logic to fit his preferred conclusions. This quibble aside, however, the core of Dumézil’s thought is a tremendous gift to anyone who wants to better understand any Indo-European religion, including that of the Norse and other Germanic peoples.
Want to learn more about the Norse branch of Indo-European mythology and religion? While this site provides the ultimate online introduction to the topic, my book The Viking Spirit provides the ultimate introduction to Norse mythology and religion period. I’ve also written a popular list of The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books, which you’ll probably find helpful in your pursuit.
 Benoist, Alain de. 2002. Priests, Warriors, and Cultivators: Alain de Benoist’s Interview with Georges Dumézil. In Tyr, Vol. 1. Translated by William Wallace. p. 41.
 Dumézil, Georges. 1973. Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Edited by Einar Haugen. p. 118.
 Benoist, Alain de. 2002. Priests, Warriors, and Cultivators: Alain de Benoist’s Interview with Georges Dumézil. In Tyr, Vol. 1. Translated by William Wallace. p. 43.
 Dumézil, Georges. 1988. Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty. Translated by Derek Coltman. p. 115-116.
 Ibid. p. 113.
 Benoist, Alain de. 2002. Priests, Warriors, and Cultivators: Alain de Benoist’s Interview with Georges Dumézil. In Tyr, Vol. 1. Translated by William Wallace. p. 44.
 Ibid. p. 45.
 Ibid. p. 46-47.
 Dumézil, Georges. 1988. Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty. Translated by Derek Coltman. p. 121.
 Ibid. p. 142.
 Ibid. p. 118.
 Ibid. p. 127.
 Dumézil, Georges. 1973. Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Edited by Einar Haugen. p. 44-45.
 Ibid. p. 4-6.