Nick Allen of Oxford, anthropologist extraordinaire: some comments on his thinking about myth and epic, Part I

2022.02.07| By Gregory Nagy

I§0. The lamented death of my friend Nicholas Justin Allen on 21 March 2020 has taken away from me the intellectual delight of debating with him viva voce, time and again, about matters of intense mutual interest. In particular, our amicable debates tended to center on the works of Georges Dumézil about myth and epic. One particular piece of writing by Dumézil stood out for us: it was Part I of Volume I of Dumézil’s Mythe et épopée, originally published in 1968, about the epic poetry of India, exemplified especially by the Mahābhārata. To console myself as I contemplate the cruel loss of further opportunities for “live” debate with Nick Allen, I attempt here, in the first part of a bipartite essay, to re-engage with his lively mind by offering some comments on his thinking in a relevant article he published (Allen 2014, following up on an earlier work, Allen 2011). In the same article, Allen then goes on to apply these adjustments of his, formulated in terms of what he used to call his “pentadic” theory, to his own analysis of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. Here in Part I of my bipartite essay, I start by commenting on some insightful observations made by Allen (2014; also in his book, published in 2020) in comparing the Mahābhārata with Homeric poetry, and I will deal with these observations in their order of importance, as I see it, while citing the most relevant pages in Allen’s article. Later, in Part II, I will go on to make further comments on some aspects of Allen’s adjustments as they apply to Greek epic.

Nicholas Allen. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

I§1. According to the model of “trifunctionality” that we see being formulated by Dumézil in his many publications (I concentrate for the moment on his book published in 1968), various languages classified as “Indo-European” show inherited traces of three “functions” in social organization. For Dumézil, the male representatives of these “functions” can be described, in “ideological” terms, as {1} sovereigns/priests, {2} warriors, {3} producers of prosperity, vegetal and/or pastoral. In the case of the third “function,” I should add, it is in some cases important to make further distinctions. For example, “herding” can be nomadic or, instead, it can be tied to a homestead; also, more generally, there are also cases where the category of “producers” includes or excludes artisans. In any case, Allen (2014:3) refers to these three “functions” simply as F1 F2 F3. But Allen removes from the category F1 the designation that I have just described as “sovereigns,” arguing that sovereignty—let us refer to it hereafter more simply as “kingship”—can be a characteristic not only of F1 but also, for example, of F2. I will return to this matter at I§4.

I§2. Allen (p. 3) adds to these three functions two more, F4+ and F4-, and these additions give us the essence of his “pentadic” theory. He explains F4+ in terms of “transcendence,” and F4- in terms of “devaluation.” As we will see at §4 in the case of F4+, Allen’s formulation applies in situations where a hero can be assigned to more than one function. As for F4-, we will see in Part Two of this bipartite essay that it applies in situations where a negative rather than a positive aspect of a function is emphasized.

I§3. The five main heroes of the Mahābhārata, known as the Pāṇḍava-s, are fathered by gods who clearly represent the three male-centered functions of priest, warrior, and producer-of-prosperity:

{1} Yudhiṣṭhira is priestly, fathered by the god Dharma, who personifies what is sacral and who represents both ritual and the morality of ritual.

{2a} Bhīma is warlike, fathered by the god Vāyu, who personifies violent windstorms that destroy productivity

{2b} Arjuna is also warlike, fathered by the god Indra, who personifies violent thunderstorms that can either destroy productivity or promote it by bringing rain.

{3a} and {3b} The twins Nakula and Sahadeva are generally helpful to humanity, fathered by twin gods known as the Aśvin-s, who are personifications of unimpeded productivity for vegetation and herds.

I§4. But these five heroes of the Mahābhārata, whose epic identities I have just tried to summarize in terms of functions represented by their divine fathers, can also be identified in terms of different functions, as Allen argues throughout his article. The most obvious example is the fact that all five heroes are warriors who fight in war—not only Bhīma and Arjuna. Here, then, is a case of “transcendence,” in terms of the category that Allen calls F4+. Another example, specially highlighted by Allen (p. 4), is the fact that Indra, the father of Arjuna, is actually the king of the gods in Indic mythological traditions, and that Arjuna finds himself in epic situations where he is more kingly than Yudhiṣṭhira, who is king only by virtue of (a) his priestly knowledge and (2) his being senior by birth.

I§5. Such differences in function, as I will argue in Part II of this bipartite essay, can be explained in part by way of Allen’s “pentadic” theory—but there are aspects of Allen’s explanatory model that need to be debated, as we will see, especially in the light of the comparative evidence we find in Homeric poetry.


Allen, N. J. 2011. “The Indo-European background to Greek mythology.” In A companion to Greek mythology (ed. K. Dowden and N. Livingstone) 341–356. Oxford.

Allen, N. J.  2014. “Heroes and pentads: Or, how Indo-European is Greek epic?” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 57:1–19.

Allen, N. J. 2020. Arjuna-Odysseus: Shared Heritage in Indian and Greek Epic. London.

Dumézil, G. 1968, reprinted 1986. Mythe et épopée I. L’idéologie des trois fonctions dans les épopées des peuples indo-européennes. Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1971, 2nd edition 1986. Mythe et épopée II. Types épiques indo-européens: un héros, un sorcier, un roi. Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1973, 2nd edition 1978, 3rd edition 1981. Mythe et épopée III. Histoires romaines. Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1975. Fêtes romaines d’été et d’automne, suivi de dix questions romaines. Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1980. Camillus: A Study of Indo-European Religion as Roman History. Translated by A. Aranowicz and J. Bryson. Edited and with introduction by U. Strutynski. Berkeley and Los Angeles. = Part 2 of Mythe et épopée III = Dumézil 1973, plus Appendices 1 and 2 of Dumézil 1973, plus Appendices 3 and 4 of Dumézil 1975.

Dumézil, G. 1982. Apollon sonore et autres essais. Vingt-cinq esquisses de mythologie. Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1983. La Courtisane et les seigneurs colorés et autres essais.Vingt-cinq esquisses de mythologie (26–50). Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1983b. The Stakes of the Warrior. Translated by D. Weeks. Edited, with an Introduction, by J. Puhvel. Berkeley and Los Angeles. = Part 1 of Mythe et épopée II = Dumézil 1971.

Dumézil, G. 1985. L’oubli de l’homme et l’honneur des dieux, et autres essais. Vingt-cinq esquisses de mythologie (51–75). Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1986. The Plight of the Sorcerer. Translated by D. Weeks and others. Edited by J. Puhvel and D. Weeks. Introduction by D. Weeks. Berkeley and Los Angeles. = Part 2 of Mythe et épopée II = Dumézil 1971.

Dumézil, G. 1994. Le roman des jumeaux et autres essaisVingt-cinq esquisses de mythologie (76–100). Edited by J. H. Grisward, with preface at pp. 9–15. Paris.

Dumézil, G. [1995.] Mythe et épopée I, II, III. New combined and corrected edition of the original three volumes, with original paginations retained in the inner margins. Preface by J. H. Grisward, pp. 7–30. Paris.

Nagy, G. 1981. “Essai sur Georges Dumézil et l’étude de l’épopée grecque.” In Cahiers “Pour un temps”: Georges Dumézil, ed. J. Bonnet et al., 137–145. Aix-en-Provence. Rewritten as part of Chapter 1 in Nagy 1990b.

Nagy, G. 1990. Greek Mythology and Poetics. Ithaca, NY. Revised paperback edition 1992.

Nagy, G. 2020.02.14. “Comments on comparative mythology 1, about Apollo.” Classical Inquiries

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