Bruce Lincoln

American academic

Bruce Lincoln (born 1948) is Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Religions in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.



Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship , 1999

Lincoln, Bruce (1999), Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Even the unhappy example of scholarship on myth, particularly that on Aryan or Indo-European myth, is one forced to conclude that scholarly discourse is simply another instance of ideology in narrative form? The topic is a painful but important one for me, as I continue my struggle to extricate from a discipline, a paradigm, and a discourse that I adopted early in my academic career with insufficient critical reflection. To a certain extent, writing this book has been an attempt to undo my (Lincoln's) earlier lack of awareness and make amends for it (Lincoln 1999, p. xii)."
  • "As a student of history of religions, I (Lincoln) was taught that Fredric Max Muller inaugurated our discipline but his work on "comparative mythology" foundered on his own incompetence, as did the later attempt of Sir James George Frazer. The field was rescued, so the narrative went, by Dumezil with the support of some talented colleagues, Wikander, Otto Hoffer, Jan De Vries, and Emile Benveniste among them. Older scholars also entered my awareness, including Hermann Guntert, Herman Lommel, Walter Wust, Rudolf Much, Franz Altheirm, Richard Reitzenstein, and Hans Heinrich Schaeder, and many of these men were deeply involved with the Nazi movement. To that side of their work, however, I was largely blind. Instead of dangerous ideologues, I saw talented linguists, erudite Orientalist (a word not yet suspect), and trailblazing students of myth. Whatever questions I had—and they were not many—were deftly deflected. The "Aryan thesis" was fundamentally sound, I was told, although Hitler and Co. had badly abused it. But no one spoke of "Aryans'" anymore or located their (presumed) Urheimat in Scandinavia, Germany, or the North Pole. Rather, the postwar discourse dealt with Indo-Europeans, elided questions of race, and placed the origin of this sanitized people off to the east, on the Russian steppes. In the pages that follow, I hope to show that things are not so simple and the problems-moral and intellectual­ that attend this discourse and discipline are not so easily resolved.
    • (Lincoln 1999, pp. xii-xiv).
  • Herder developed his theory of Asia as the original homeland and site of human unity in the second volume of his Ideen, which appeared in 1785. One year later, the English Orientalist Sir William Jones (1746-94) delivered the famous lecture in which he posited the common origin of the languages to which others would later give the names "Aryan," "Indoger- manisch," and "Indo-European." After another three years,.Jones set the Urheimat of that linguistic commwlity also in central Asia. The coinci- dence is not the result of influence either scholar exerted on the other, but of common preconceptions based on their reading of the Bible. 54
  • "Reading Jones with these preconceptions and interests, Germans rapidly came to see themselves as a Volk with a much deeper, more glorious, and more heroic past than anyone previously dared to imagine. Germans were relieved of the need to compete with Greeks and Romans, for they now discovered themselves part of the same primordial group. Since India was assumed to be the oldest member of that group, interest in Sanskrit burgeoned, as did the prestige for all things ancient and Indic, particularly after publication of Friedrich Schlegel's Uber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (1808), which made the case for India as the Aryan homeland (Lincoln 1999, pp. 55-56)."
  • "One might think this position (that the English colonialist should convert their Indian "brethren" to the Gospel) would have endeared Max Muller to missionaries, but in fact it did not. Rather, they found him entirely too sympathetic to the "heathen" and suspected him of being insufficiently committed to the faith. Accordingly, in 1860 he was passed over for Oxford's Boden chair in Sanskrit, which carried responsibility for preparing the Sanskrit-English dictionary, both of which were intended, under the terms of Lt-Col Boden's will, to advance the conversion of Indians to Christianity, not to foster English understanding or respect for India (Lincoln 1999, p. 68, parenthesis added)."
  • "His accomplishments and large body of admirers notwithstanding, Jones's reputation has slipped in recent years, particularly since Edward Said traced the genealogy of Orientalism—that is, an acquisitive, dominating, classifying, and distorting exercise of knowledge and power in the service of Western imperial interests—directly to Sir William's door (Lincoln 1999, p. 84)."
  • First, the hypothesis for which Sir William Jones is most famous had deep antecedents and was always problematic. Most immediately, Jones was influenced by Jacob Bryant's bibliocentric attempt to trace all world mythology back to Ham and all right religion to Shem. 94
  • "Since the atrocities of the Nazis in the Second World War, the term "Aryan" has virtually disappeared from polite conversation. Scholars who wish to pursue the old discourse while marking their distance from its less savory aspects now use the term "(Proto-)Indo-European," also a coinage of the nineteenth century. In doing so, many sincerely believe they have thereby sanitized the discourse and solved the problems, but things are not so simple. Often such euphemizing attempts are incomplete, superficial, evasive, and disingenuously amnesiac (Lincoln 1999, pp. 94-95)."
  • To be sure, neither Jones nor anyone else was wrong to perceive strong and systematic similarities among Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, and the rest. The question is what one makes of these similarities, and one steps onto a slippery slope whenever analysis moves from the descriptive to the historic plane of linguistics. In specific, reconstructing a "protolanguage" is an exercise that invites one to imagine speakers of that protolanguage, a community of such people, then a place for that community, a time in history, distinguishing characteristics, and a set of contrastive relations with other protocommunities where other protolanguages were spoken. For all of this, need it be said, there is no sound evidentiary warrant.
    • Lincoln, B. (1999). Theorizing myth: Narrative, ideology, and scholarship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p.95
  • Dumezil was an entirely different sort of person from Pearson, Haudry, and de Benoist, infinitely more intelligent, decent, and much, much less crude. To the best of my knowledge, he had no dealings with Pearson, and over the years he maintained a cautiously ambiguous relation with me two others, both of whom courted him avidly. 123
  • However appealing it may be, this picture of a science dégagée is hardly credible. Political interests have often figured powerfully in discussions of Indo-European (aka "Aryan") religion and society. This was particularly true in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, not only in Germany-so much is obvious-but also beyond, and some of Dumezil's closest colleagues can be numbered among the worst offenders. 125
  • No Germanist was more influential on Dumezil than Höfler, nor more closely associated with him throughout his career, except the Dutch historian of religions Jan de Vries (1890-1964), whose Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte (1935-37) remains a model of encyclopedic learning.... Also noteworthy is the Swedish Indo-Europeanist Stig Wikander (1908- 83 ), who remained a close friend and made fundamental contributions to Dumezil's thought over a period of five decades. 125ff
  • Indeed, it is possible to perceive a certain confusion among them, reflecting the contradictory impulses of those on the French right in the late 1930s, whose nationalism made them antagonistic to Germany at the same time their ideology made them sympathetic to many of Hitler's positions. That Dumézil held such views is hardly surprising, given the circles he frequented during those years and what we know from his pseudonymous writings. 137
  • What differentiates him from others of like opinion is the intricate scholarly code he developed, through which he made the arcane data of Indo-European mythology serve as t11e vehicles for his views, and through which his work came to command t11e attention of scholars everywhere. the body of work he produced is so challenging, so dense, and so influential, it deserves continued attention but attention of a critical variety. 137
  • Finally, when those on the New Right, like Alain de Benoist, Jean Haudry, or Roger Pearson, cite Dumézil's wrtings in support of their postiions - their fondness for hierarchy and authority, for example, their antipathy toward egalitarianism and the ideals of the Enlightenment, or their triumphal view of "Indo-Europeans" as superior to all other peoples - we may suspect them of appropriating nothing other than postions of the Old Right that have been brilliantly recoded and misrepresented first as ancient wisdom, and second as scholarly discourse. 137
  • For his part, Eliade has been accused of using comparative method in an uncontrolled and tendentious fashion to advance both an idiosyncratic theology and political views that date to his involvement with the Romanian Iron Guard during the 1930s and 1940s. 13 In sinlliar fashion, Dumezil, who aligned himself with the Action Franc;:aise in his youth and flirted with the Nouvelle Droite in his later years, has also been charged with weaving fascist ideology into his reconstructions of Indo-European myths. 145
  • "Our own" chronology, of course, meant that of the Hebrew Bible or, more precisely, th at of then-current biblical exegesis, which set the creation at 4004 B.C.E. 12 And so, the game was afoot: a game in which the foreordained nature of the outcome is what made for such extraordinary sport, as Jones the rationalist scholar and fair-minded judge, Jones the enthusiast of Asia and pandit-in-the-making, set out to bring the chronology of the Puranas and that of the Bible into alignment and to establish that they both tell the same real, true, historic story. 194
  • This done, Jones moves to the second phase of his argument, in which he treats detailed king lists drawn from the Puranas. Here his task was not the forging of equations but the compression of over-lengthy reigns, to bring them within the bounds of what he judged plausible and convenient to his argument. After dismissing accounts of the first three Yugas in Hindu world history as "chiefly mythological," and drastically revising the time spans attributed to kings of the fourth, he was able to date the foundation of the Indian empire to roughly 2000 B.C.E. 16 Setting the creation of Manu/Adam some two millennia earlier brought it almost perfectly within the accepted biblical chronology And so it was done! In Sir William's eyes and those of his compatriots, this was a hard-won triumph, garnered by learning, ingenuity, and pluck. Science, religion , the unity of mankind, and, not least, the authority of both the Bible and the Laws of Manu were the intended beneficiaries of that triumph . 195
  • But footnotes - and all they imply- are the part of the scholarly endeavor wherein these values are most firmly embedded. To my mind, they represent some of what is best in scholarship: hard work, integrity, and collegial accountability. At the same time, however, they provide opportunities for misrepresentation, mystification, sycophancy, character assassi nation, skillful bluff, and downright fraud. 209
  • "Scholars from Sir William Jones to the PRESENT imagined this group (Aryans aka Indo-Europeans) as their most ancient ancestors and created for them an account of origins that, in its many variants, carried biblical, colonialist, racist, Orientalist, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and militarist valences at one time or another (Lincoln 1999, pp. 211-212, parenthesis and emphasis added).
  • "Conceivably, the Stammbaum theory is correct, although its logic involves leaps that are open to question. First, it explains the relation among the Indo-European languages as the result of divergence from a hypothetical protolanguage, or Ursprache. In theory, however, one can also explain this as resulting from processes of convergence, rather than divergence, as N. S. Trubetzkoy argued in a famous article published on the eve of the Second World War. Pace the Stammbaum, Trubetzkoy offered a wave model, in which each group in a string of peoples had its own language and interacted socially and linguistically with its neighbors (Lincoln 1999, p. 212)."
  • "Other authors have challenged the Stammbaum model on other grounds, observing that even if the historically attested Indo-European languages did descend from a single proto-language, the existence of this ancestral language by no means implies the existence of a single, ethnically homogeneous people who spoke it. Thus Franco Crevatin suggested that Swahili—an artificial lingua franca, spoken across vast portions of Africa as an instrument to facilitate long distance trade—may be a better analogue than Latin for theorizing Proto-Indo-European. His desire, like Trubetzkoy's, seems to be to imagine a more irenic, more diverse past as a means to guard against scholarly narratives that encode racism and bellicosity. In Crevatin's view there was a Proto-Indo-European language and there were people who spoke it for certain finite purposes, but no community of Proto-Indo-Europeans. Similar is Stefan Zimmer's position, intended as a rebuke of racist theories, hypothesizing a protolanguage spoken not be an ethnically pristine Urvolk but by a shifting, nomadic colluvies gentium, a "filthy confluence of peoples," (Lincoln 1999, pp. 212-213)."
  • All of these exercises in scholarship ( = myth + footnotes) suffer from the same problem . They attempt to reach so far back into prehistory that no textual sources are available to control the inquiry, but where archeology offers a plethora of data. In practice, all the remains found throughout Eurasia for a period of several millennia can be constituted as evidence from which to craft the final narrative, but it is often the researchers' desires that determine their principles of selection. When neither the data nor the criticism of one's colleagues inhibits desire-driven invention, the situation is ripe for scholarship as myth. Prehistory here becomes "pre-" in a radical sense: a terrain of frustration and opportunity where historians-cum -mythographers can offer origin accounts- complete with heroes, adventures, great voyages, and a primordial paradise lost- all of which reflect and advance the interests of those who tell them . Ideology in narrative form. 215
  • After 1880, attitudes shifted , and scholars ... argued in favor of locating the origins of the world-conquering Aryan people on their own soil in the Germanic north. And when the aggressive tendency to conflate the Aryan with the Nordic caused alarm in the 1920s and 1930s, scholars who had their reasons for opposing the Nazis,... advocated a homeland out on the Russian steppes.215
  • After the Nazis and their views had been defeated, Marija Gimbutas won considerable support for this thesis in a series of publications that began in 1956...The Soviet takeover of her native Lithuania was a transparent subtext.215
  • "The position I (Lincoln) urge is the following. First, we accept as established the existence of a language family that included Tocharian, Indic, Iranian, Armenian, Anatolian, Greek, Italic, Phrygian, Thracian, Baltic, Slavic, Germanic, and Celtic. Second, we acknowledge that the relations among these languages can be described in several fashions. Of the available hypotheses, the Stammbaum model is the most popular, but by no means the only one. It ought not to be accepted as long as others exists, and we ought not discard these others unless there is compelling reason to do so. In the absence of such compelling reason, we can remain agnostic, recognizing the existence of multiple hypotheses and maintaining a particularly skeptical posture toward those with histories of subtexts of racism. Third, we recognize that the existence of a language family does not necessarily imply the existence of a protolanguage. Still less the existence of a protopeople, protomyths, protoideology, or protohomeland (Lincoln 1999, p. 216)."


  • The debate around Dumézil, Pearson, Haudry, Indo-European scholarship, and Fascism made Lincoln add his support to those who felt that the Indo- European scene had to be cleaned up. In several articles, Lincoln argued that it could actually be proved that Dumézil's sympathies for French and Italian Fascism had influenced his scientific research of the 1930s. As a consequence of this, Lincoln became more or less persona non grata among the Indo-Europeanists of the United States, and references to his work declined. In the 1990s, Lincoln continued to critically study the history of Indo-European scholarship, which resulted in Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship. His studies of Indo-European mythology have now made him question the very belief in an objective historiography, and he sees the scientific search for knowledge as a site for political power struggles. The work of cultural studies is, according to Lincoln, "myth plus footnotes."
    • Arvidsson, Stefan (2006), Aryan Idols: Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science, translated by Sonia Wichmann, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.(306)
Wikipedia has an article about: