horns / antlers

george thompson gthomgt at ADELPHIA.NET
Mon Jul 10 02:56:16 UTC 2006

Dear List,
A few weeks ago Victor Mair posted the following question to the 
Indo-Eurasian list.  Recently I was able to respond.  But that list's 
moderator found it offensive, so that it has not been published there.  
I seek to publish it on this list, since I think that it has scholarly 

I hope that this list will be able to judge for itself the value of my 
response to Victor Mair's post.

George Thompson.
Dear List,

A few weeks ago Victor Mair sent this post:
Dear List,

In our discussions on various aspects of the deer, we may have touched
upon R.g Veda CLXIII, where the sacrificed horse is explicitly compared
to a deer. The horse is even said to have horns!

verse 9: "Horns made of gold hath he."

verse 11: "Thy horns are spread abroad in all directions" (sounds more
like the spreading antlers of a deer rather than the horns of a bovine,
ovicaprid, etc.; **I wonder whether it might be advisable to translate
this as "antlers" rather than "horns"?**)

Both of these verses remind me of Scythian steppe art (e.g., Pazyryk)
where horses were often outfitted to resemble deer. WHY IS THIS?

I believe that it is because humans probably first domesticated (and,
yes, yoked and rode) reindeer -- which are far more placid than horses
(I've seen them up close in large, diffuse herds) and only then
domesticated the horse by analogy based on their experience with
reindeer. Hence, the horse may be thought of as a sort of surrogate
reindeer. (At least that's my humble theory!)



Since there has been no response to this very interesting suggestion, I 
will break my silence on this list, in order to encourage further 
discussion.  I am also encouraged by recent posts that call attention to 
recent Altaic studies   I think that the list's focus on academic 
fraud-busting, while valuable to some extent, has become a distraction.  
Fraud-busting is surely a good thing.  But as for me, I take more 
pleasure in creating than in destroying, in discovering new things than 
in mocking old and quite obvious cliches.

One reason why I have been slow to respond is that I have been taking 
some time to look at antlers & horns in early Vedic [mostly Rgveda and 
Atharvaveda].  And to some extent also in early Avestan.  There is some 
literature also on Indo-European which I don't know very well but which 
I could cite if anyone is interested.  In any case, I apologize to 
Victor for this very very tardy response.  But perhaps my slow response, 
as careful as I can make it, will yield some fruit.

Victor's reference to RV 1.163 refers to the second of a pair of hymns 
to the sacrificial horse in the Rgveda.  The first of these is quite 
literal and graphic, and quite detailed in its description of the 
dismemberment of the horse. The second, which Victor refers to,  is 
shorter, more symbolic, and more obscure.  Instead of giving details of 
the sacrificial dismemberment of the horse, this hymn offers the bandhus 
that link the horse to his celestial correlatives.  One of the list's 
moderators, the non-Vedicist, seems to think that correlative thinking  
does not occur yet in the Rgveda.  The other, of course, knows better.  
Two birds in the same tree, a mystery, as the Vedic poet who composed RV 
1.163 also once said, in his famous riddling hymn.
It is unambiguous that this hymn, RV 1.163, twice refers to the horse's  
zRGga [I apologize to the list for using the Harvard-Kyoto transcription 
method, but at least it is unambiguous], always glossed as 'horn', and 
in this hymn once in a bahuvrihi compound, hiraNyazRGga, 
"golden-horned", and again in the plural zRGgANi..  That this is plural 
rather than dual may actually be significant.  While reference to pairs 
of horns is fairly frequent in the RV, reference to plural horns [i.e., 
three or more] is more frequent.  And plural horns are also indicated by 
compounds referring to four-horned creatures, many-horned creatures, as 
well as 1000-horned  [there is also reference once to a bull with 
three-layered horns [tridhAtuzRGga]that is, Agni, the god of fire.  I 
see without surprise that no Vedicist has ever suggested a clue about 
what that might mean, but maybe Steve Farmer can make a prediction of 
some sort based on comparative evidence of some sort, as is his wont.

Grounded as I am in local philology, and as averse as I am to grandiose 
models of human behavior that predict how we all have behaved in the 
past and how we all will behave in the future, I will say this about the 
Vedic material concerning horns and antlers.

.I think that Victor's suggestion is viable and very much worth 
pursuing.  I have argued on this list & elsewhere that there is good 
evidence that suggests that traces of Central Asian shamanism are 
preserved in the Rgveda.  I think that Victor has now offered us the 
possibility of more evidence for such traces. So, I would take seriously 
the suggestion that the RV hymn 1.163 may be referring to antlers [of 
reindeer] rather than to horns, and I think that there are other 
passages in Vedic and Avestan that may also do that.

And I reaffirm my opinion that there is more evidence of Central Asian 
shamanism in the Rgveda than is generally  acknowledged.

Victor, I hope that this is of use.

Best wishes,


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