Cosmogonic Duel

“Thor The Thunderer, Triumph And Death” by Glen Angus.


The theme of a central myth in the reconstructed mythology of the Proto-Indo-European society. Most probably it was conceived when this community entered the phase of militarization and expansion, which induced the social promotion of warriors and the huge rise of the importance of their patron deities. Warrior gods did not become the makers of the Universe, as this role was already taken, but became its “secondary creators”. In this way the primary positive character of the myth on cosmogonic duel grew to be the highest rank ➚ cultural hero.

The opposing sides in the cosmogonic duel were the ➚ Thunderer, keeper and guarantee of the existing world order and his enemy, initially in the form of the ➚ snake. The latter represented the destructive (chaotic) forces, and disturbed the cosmic harmony.
As the myth developed the Thunderer was constantly anthropomorphized. During this process a human aide appeared to fight at the god’s side, such as Rjishvan supporting ➚ Indra against ➚ Pipru or ➚ Heracles helping Olympians in the war with ➚ Gigantes. At the same time the Snake was gradually teratomorphized (monsterized), anthropomorphized or both (see TYPHON).

Thunderer’s victory was of cosmogonic importance, because it restored the harmony (world order) from before the Snake’s intervention.
The primary object of the dispute was ➚ water, the life-giving element. Snake seized and hidden (bound) it in a cave (➚ Underworld), in this way condemning the world to death (compare with the battle of Indra against ➚ Vritra, and in a degraded form with e.g. ➚ Cadmus against the spring-guarding dragon).

Later variants exchanged water for cattle (see COW); cp. Indra vs. the ➚ Panis, Indra vs. ➚ Vala, ➚ Krishna vs. ➚ Kaliya, ➚ Hercules vs. ➚ Cacus, ➚ Helios vs ➚ Odysseus crewmen. Model character of this duel is resembled in Sanskrit gáviṣṭi “battle” which literally means “battle over a cow”.

In the youngest versions of the myth on cosmogonic duel the battle was fought over a woman (see ➚ Perseus versus sea monster, ➚ Menelaus versus ➚ Paris, ➚ Bhima-1 versus Kichaka, ➚ Batraz versus ➚ Tykhyfyrt Mukara; compare with the most popular legendary theme: brave youth freeing a girl from the castle guarded by a monster/wizard).

Battle of Thunderer and Snake (or their hypostases) could also concern other positive values such as:

– treasure (see ➚ Sigurd versus ➚ Fafnir; compare with the identity of the concepts of “treasure” and “cattle”),

– power (see ➚ Zeus versus Typhon, ➚ Apollo versus ➚ Python) or

– security (see ➚ Thor versus ➚ Jötnar, ➚ Krak versus Wawel Dragon).

It was also common to join multiple objects of dispute:

– Paris took from Sparta not only ➚ Helen, but also great treasures [1-4], with cattle among them [5],

– wife, children and cattle were stolen from ➚ Fraoch (compare with DAVID OF SASSOUN),

– ➚ Fereydun and ➚ Zahhak fought over women (➚ Arnavaz and Shahrenaz) and power.

Myth on the cosmogonic duel frequently appeared in the “collective” version: Olympic gods fought Gigantes, because ➚ Alcyoneus stole the cattle of Helios [6], whereas in Iliad ➚ Achaeans are the multiplied hypostasis of Zeus and Trojans of the Snake (compare with the respective symbolism in [7], where ➚ eagle – bird of Zeus – stands for Greeks, while snake – for the Trojans).
Analogous approach can be observed in:

– the war between the army of ➚ Rama and ➚ Rakshasas of ➚ Ravana,

– conflict of ➚ Pandavas versus ➚ Kauravas,

– struggle of ➚ Axsartagkata versus ➚ Borata or

– forces of ➚ Conchobar against warriors of ➚ Ailil and ➚ Medb.

The oldest version of the collective variant of the cosmogonic duel is battle of ➚ Devas againts ➚ Asuras over ➚ Amrit (compare with the war of Kafir gods agains ➚ Yushas (II); see ZHIVUT).

Regardless of its individual or collective variant, the cosmogonic duel had two clearly distinct phases: the first resulted in the Snake’s victory. In the second phase, Thunderer prevailed, but only after receiving some help from outside. For example:

– initial success of ➚ Illuyanka in the fight against the storm-god ➚ Tarhuna, which turned to defeat after the god was supported by his son,

– double intervention of ➚ Signy into conflict of Siggeir with ➚ Sigmund, which proved saving for the latter,

– freeing of Zeus from the Typhon’s captivity by ➚ Hermes and ➚ Aegipan [8],

– support of Achaeans by ➚ Neoptolemus and ➚ Philoctetes,

– Krishna’s help for Pandavas and ➚ Balarama’s for Krishna (see KALIYA),

– assistance of Ulaid by ➚ Cúchulainn,

– support of ➚ Axsartagkata by ➚ Kafty Sar Xuandon-Aldar.

Such scenario of the cosmogonic duel testified the equivalence of the opponents and had an unquestionable emotional value. Ternary scheme of “defeat – help – victory” was often reduced to the “initial fiasco – final victory”, but apart from simplification, the first phase could be varied: the number of failures of the cosmic defender increased (see MICHAJLO POTYK) or the Thunderer’s opponent saved his neck (see two encounters of ➚ Dobrynya Nikitich with ➚ Zmey Gorynych and Achilles (2) with ➚ Hector).

During the cosmogonic duel, the Thunderer acted in the holy wrath or fury (Greek mēnís, Latin furor, Celtic ferg, Sanskrit mainyú, Avestan aēšma, old Icelandic modhr, Gothic mōths, German Wut, Polish gniew), compare with:

– old Welsh guith “fight” and modern Welsh gŵyth “fury”,

– epithet of Indra – śatámanyu “whose wrath is one-hundredfold”,

– Greek mēnin áeide, theá, Pēlēiádeō Achilēos “sing goddess, the wrath of Achilles, Peleus’ son” as the first words of Iliad,

ríastrad “warp spasm” that affected enraged Cúchulainn, giving him the agnomen siabartha “the distorted one” (Táin Bó Cúailnge, compare with BERSERKERS).

Thunderer’s fought with lightning, primarily materialized in the form of stone (boulder, rock). In later versions lightning was replaced by a club (mostly oak) or arrow (see VAJRA), throwing (stone) disc (see CHAKRA), hammer (see MJÖLLNIR), trident and finally sword.

The rank of the myth on cosmogonic duel was so high that its scheme was used by the priestly caste to create their own version, where the Thunderer’s counterpart defeated the Snake using his intellect instead of physical qualities (see RIDDLES).


[1] H o m., Il., III, 285; [2] H o m., Il., VII, 350; [3] H o m., Il., XIII, 626; [4] H o m., Il., XXII, 114; [5] S t e s i c h., in P. Oxy. 2619, fr. 16, 4; [6] A p d., I, 6, 1; [7] H o m., Il., XII, 199, ff.; [8] A p d., I, 6, 3.

R. S c h r ö d e r, Thór, Indra, Herakles, “Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie” 76, 1957; L. A. G i n d i n, Le mythe indo-européen du dieu de l’orange poursuivant le serpent. Reconstruction du schema, (in collective work:) Exchange et communication. Melanges C. Lévi-Strauss, Paris 1969; V. V. I v a n o v, V. N. T o p o r o v, Otrazheniya mifa o pojedinkie v gomerovskich gimnach, (in collective work:) Antichnaya balkanistika II. Pryedvaritelnye materialy, Moskva 1975; V. V. I v a n o v, V. N. T o p o r o v, Mif o pojedinkie i mifilogja Apollona (na materiale I-III gomerovskich gimnov), (in collective work:) Slavyanskoje i balkanskoje jazykoznaniye. Antichnaya balkanistika i sravnitelnaya grammatika, Moskva 1977.


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