preta (Re: demons and possession in old sources)

N. Ganesan naga_ganesan at HOTMAIL.COM
Tue Apr 3 13:17:25 UTC 2001

Consider the tamil words
pEy = 1. devil, goblin, fiend; 2. wildness
3. evil; 4. madness, 5. frenzy
pEtu =  bewilderment, confusion, consternation, possession.

The meaning of "pEtu" indicating frenzy, possession etc.
underlies the meaning of "pEy" as well. In fact,
Kannada has "pEtu, hEde" = demon (DED 3635) listed
in the DED entry starting as "pEy".

"pEy/pEtu"(= demon) is camparable with "cEy/cEtu" (= 1. red
and 2. child, calf). "cEtu Ampal" = red  water-lily.
The meaning of "cEtu A" refering to milch cow with a calf
is strengthened with evidence from sangam and post-sangam
textual references.  "cEtA" usually comes along with
dairy products like milk, butter or ghee.

Sanskrit "preta" with the meanings of dead person, the spirit
of the dead person appears  related with Kannada-Tamil pEtu (= spirit,
demon, spirit possession). pEtu > (skt.) prEta (Cf. kamuku > kramuka)
with the intrusive insersion of "r" (Note 1).

Kannada beLu/bELu (= tamil vEL), mentioned as in vENugrAma (Skt.),
is absorbed in beLagaum town name. Dr. Palaniappan's post:
Like beLu/bELu in beLagaam, -u in pEtu changes to -a in prEta.

prEta < drav. pEtu/pEy is strengthened by the fact that bhUta and
preta worship survives well to this day Dravidian lands.

Dr. L. Werth wrote: <<
... possession in ritual, foremostly by goddesses (like those you refer to)
is an important feature of non-brahmanical religion - linked frequently to
bloody sacrifice
- in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in India. The people I was with drank the
blood of buffaloes and goats they sacrificed when the goddess was in them.
... I also believe such practices can at least be traced into the Devi
(as analyzed by David Coburn): the frenzy of the goddess killing the
buffalo demon in myth parallels possession. ...
Now, I was wondering how long back this sort of spirit possession in
South Asia can be traced. >>>

Title searches with strings "Goddess Ellamma" (3-10 feb 2001) and
"Buffalo sacrifice" (14-20 feb 2001) in this list archives
may be interesting, I hope.

The god/demon spirit possession is really ancient. Parpola's recent
paper deals with it elaborately.
"The kaLam worship is at least two millennia old in South India
(cf. Old Tamil poems Akam 22 and KuRuntokai 362) but there is some
evidence to suggest that it is likely to go back even to the
Proto-Dravidian speaking Indus civilization (cf. Parpola 1997:182-186)."
[in p. 184 from A. Parpola, The iconography and cult of KuTTiccAttan,
175-206, Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia, Harvard UP, 1999).

N. Ganesan

Note 1:
There are words from Dravidian loans in Sanskrit with a
hypercorrect insertion of "r". See discussion in Kuiper,
Aryans in the Rgveda, p. 70-71. Examples:
a) > pravAla/pravADa
b) tami_l > dramiDa
c) kamuku > kramuka
d) From tamil words like tONi/toLai/tuNi > Skt. droNa
(vessel, archery master in the MBh).

K. Zvelebil, Tamil literature, E. J. Brill, 1975, p. 53
"It is obvious that the Sanskrit drAviDa, Pali damila, damiLo
and Prakrit dAviDa are all etymologically connected with
"tamizh" [48]

[48] The *r* in tamizh > drAviDa is a hypercorrect insertion,
cf. an analogical case of DED 1033 Ta. Ma. kamuku, Tu. kaGgu,
"areca palm"; Skt. kramu."
Get your FREE download of MSN Explorer at

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list