Two of the most prominent Goddess facings for the Indo-European world would have to be Durga and Pallas Athena. I have written extensively elsewhere as to various vital coterminities between Their respective theologies – however something occurred to me recently that has as-yet lain unaddressed. A similarity of these theonyms – ‘Durga’, and ‘Pallas’. For you see, it appears quite likely that a very closely related understanding is being communicated by each – even though upon the surface, these look to be rather dissimilar in purely linguistic terms.
We shall start with the facing that is less familiar to the Western audience.
‘Durga’ ( दुर्गा – note the long -a) as a theonym means ‘The Inaccessible’; and while I have previously observed that it’s part of a complex of Mountain / Settlement related theonymics for the relevant Indo-European Goddess (consider: Parvati (Mountain), or various ‘Goddess of the City’ understandings (like ‘Polias’, and also including ‘Protector of the City’ – ‘Polioukhos’) – these frequently overlapping because, of course, a rocky outcrop is a good strongpoint upon which to build a settlement), of an understandable nature due to Her situation as the supreme and ultimate refuge, as well as mountain-dweller and Goddess of a People … it is also worth noting the traditional understanding for how She acquired that name – by slaying the demon Durgamasur [‘Durga (the) Demon’].
To quote from the Brahmavaivarta Purana –
“durgo daitye mahāvighne bhavabandhe ca karmaṇi।
śoke duḥkhe ca narake yamadaṇḍe ca janmani॥
mahābhaye’tiroge cāpyāśabdo hantṛvācakaḥ।
etānhantyeva yā devī sā ḍurga parikīrtitā॥”
And, per the translation which my associate, S.S., had provided –
“The word ‘Durga’ stands for a daitya [Demon] who was a great obstruction representing worldly bondage, karmas, sorrows, hells, Yama’s rod [Death], births, great dangers, disease and ‘a’ represents the killer of the same. Therefore the one who destroys them all is famed as ‘Durgā’.”
Now, ‘Inaccessible’ is certainly one translation for दुर्ग (‘Durga’ – short ‘-a’], another is ‘Fort’; and a third is ‘Enclosure’. Indeed, the somewhat folk-etymology for this ‘Durga’ that is also the name of a most formidable demon, is ‘Difficult’ [Dur] + ‘To Go’ [Gam] (or, rather more figuratively, ‘Prison’ – as in ‘Difficult to Escape’).
Where am I going with this?
Simple. Consider ‘Vritra’ (or, for that matter, ‘Vala’). These refer to the two major serpentine / draconic demonic adversaries of the Vedas. And more literally, ‘Enveloper’, ‘Encloser/Enclosure’. Both of whom, of course, also have fortified lairs where ill-gotten treasures are stored and hoarded prior to Liberation by at least one Deity and/or Priests.
Now, the deities that smite these demons are often accorded particular epithets which are similarly derived – Vritraghni , Vritrahan, being the prominent exemplars. ‘Slayer of Vritra’, or more figuratively – ‘Smasher of the Obstacle’ (or, we might suggest: ‘Breaker of the Enclosure’). Certainly, destroying a fortification is an indelibly important quotient to the narrative in question in its Vedic expressions. With this fortification, in symbolic terms, being not only the fortification inhabited by the creature – but the creature itself in its encircling, constricting, blocking role. It is the ‘problem’ and the ‘problem”s symbolic place of residence.
One of the particularly prominent figures accorded such an honorific is, of course, the Vedic Saraswati – in RV VI 61 7, and for reasons that are somewhat linked to those found in RV VIII 100 for Devi Vak.
In short, in the former we have Saraswati (described also in somewhat riverine terms, as we should perhaps expect) engaged in the rigorous smiting of the enemies of the Gods; in the latter, we have Vak Devi (aka Saraswati) engaged in enabling Indra to carry out His great act of dragon-slaying ‘gainst Vritra.
And in both cases, this is the same Goddess Who is later known as Parvati, Durga. Something that is quite prominent, in some ways, when we consider RV VIII 100 11, wherein the ‘generation’ or ‘summoning’ (‘Invocation’ we should perhaps say) of Vak by the assembled Gods … is a direct forerunner for the congealment of Devi Durga in the prominent later Shakta scriptures when She is being brought forth to combat Mahishasur by the assembled Pantheon.
So, what we can therefore suggest is that Durga ( दुर्गा ) being called Durga ( दुर्गा ) due to the slaying of Durga ( दुर्ग ) … is thus a continuance of this pattern. A Smiter of the Adversary, Smasher of the ‘Enclosure’.
With the notion, likewise, of the ‘Durga’ (‘intractable [problems]’) that are being smited (and overcome) by Durga(a) , also being meant in a more generalized sense than a simple literal demon (or, rather, the demon slain coming to symbolically stand for other problems that the Devi has been asked by the devotee to assist with the successful resolution of).
These understandings can therefore guide our search for similar elements within other Indo-European spheres. These should be theonyms or epithets for Goddess figures – which are of ‘practical’ relevance for the devotee.
One possible example would be the ‘Soteria’ [‘Saviour’ / ‘Saviouress’ – Σωτειρα ] epithet frequently encountered for certain Goddess(es). Another, the ‘Alea’ [ ἀλέᾱ ], meaning ‘escape’ and linking to the notion of providing a route to refuge. A third would be the intriguing Πτολίπορθος ( Ptoliporthos ) – ‘Sacker of Cities’ (and ‘Fortifications’); only fragmentarily attested – indeed, its main occurrence is a Xanthian inscription, which may induce some to presume that it’s actually an exclusive trait of the Maliya Goddess that was co-identified with Athena by the Lycians. Yet the περσέπτολι (Perseptoli) and περθόμεναί τε πόληες (Perthomenai Te Polies) found in Callimachus’ famed Athena Hymnal and the 11th Homeric Hymnal respectively show that the conceptual understanding is most definitely (also) a Greek one.
However, the better deployment of the relevant framework would be that most prominent of Athena epithets: “Pallas”. And while this is not quite so direct in its saliency for the mortal supplicant, there is nevertheless a most intriguing and multi-layered figurative resonancy to be explored here. Which may have some further, future bearing upon our reconstruction for the broader Indo-European typology of Her Worship.
Who is Pallas ? Well, that is quite the question. There appear to potentially be several figures bearing this name. We do not intend to get into the intricacies of these matters here – suffice to say that the major Pallas we are concerned with is the one slain by Athena, and whose skin She flays off to form a protective covering. That being the famed Aegis we have so often heard of elsewhere – although again, there are an array of names attached to the figure who provided the hide in question (including rather interesting mention of a ‘Gorgon’ slain by Her for this trophy).
‘Pallas’ in direct reference to Athena either means, in effect, ‘The Spear Wielder’ (from ‘Pallo’) as cited in the Suda; or ‘Young [Woman]’ (from ‘Pallax’; and which would resonate interestingly with the ‘Kumara’ term utilized for Rudra at His Emanation – the archaic Proto-Indo-European mythic root for which also informs the Birth of Athena myth as we have elucidated elsewhere); or refers to Her subjugation of the giant Pallas of such a name.
It would be tempting to explore several potential alternate etymologic resonancies for ‘Pallas’ in light of what we have shown viz. Durga(masur) and Vritra / Vala. For example, whether there is just such an intentional resonancy with elements from the Proto-Indo-European *tpelh, which refers to a ‘fortification’ (and is also the source of the ‘Polis’, ‘Polias’ we have aforementioned pertaining to a City). Or, for that matter, from PIE *Pel, which refers to a ‘Pelt’ or a skin, a ‘Covering’ (c.f Latin Pellis) – and gives Greek πέλτη (Pelte) which designates a hide shield.
If the former, then it is not hard to see the saliency with regard to what we see with ‘Durga’ – or the fortification associated with Vritra and Vala. If the latter, then the linkage with a ‘covering’ should connect it not only to these coiling encirclers of serpentine form (who do, after all, ‘cover’ with their ‘envelopment’ as well as with their fortifications and fastness), but also with the actual utilization for Pallas’ flayed skin by Athena.
Why does this interest us?
Because what we clearly behold here is a parallel construction – a scenario wherein a general mythic typology has been co-expressed in coterminous fashion. Athena or Durga, Foremost Warrior of the Gods, slays a demonic and adversarial figure whose name connotes ‘barrier’, ‘obstruction’, ‘covering’. And, as a result of this, takes even the name of this enemy as a trophy of Her great victory over same.
In terms of this ‘naming’, it is interesting to note the figurative resemblance also between the quality of the giant Pallas which Athena adopts … that of the skin, which forms such an impervious shield to its bearer – and the ‘Durga’ quality which so aptly comes to describe, well, Her. That is to say – the ‘Invincible’, the ‘Indomitable’, the ‘Invulnerable’, and one may fairly hail : the ‘Inescapable’.
Now in figurative, or ritual understanding – it would be interesting to postulate whether there might be another coterminity to explore … or perhaps, to reconstruct.
In a modern Hindu personal devotion context, ‘Durga’ ( दुर्ग ) is utilized as an effective shorthand for particular barriers, obstacles, dire circumstances that the devotee finds themselves confronted with and for which they are beseeching the mighty Goddess Durga ( दुर्गा ) for Her assistance to overcome. Just as She vanquished the demon of that name and characteristic – so She is implored to likewise destroy these problems and liberate us from their turmoil. Some of these difficulties may, indeed, be demonically impelled – and therefore the invocation of the great slayer of even the mightiest of their kind ought certainly function as warding and as warning to get rid of them. However the mythic metaphoric resonancy is still present even where a literal demon is not necessarily directly responsible for such obstructions or perils.
As I say – it would be tempting to ponder whether such a similar understanding might have prevailed amidst other Indo-European people, and in this case quite specifically the Greeks. With, in just such a manner, the Goddess prayed to to smash apart and cleave through particular immensely weighty challenges in a humble devotee’s life in manner resonant to Her prior mythic deeds of adversarial demon-smiting.
Now it may, perhaps, be suggested that I am making over-much out of a single Athena epithet. But that is not the case. There are quite an array of circumstances in the mythology – Her mythology – which similarly map with reasonable directness onto the relevant Vedic understandings which underpin this later Durga hailing.
One example for this concerns the figure of Enceladus – another giant, subdued by Athena dropping a mountain upon him. There are various features to the combat (particularly in those other depictions of it wherein it is Zeus and/or Dionysus involved in the slaying via Thunderbolt) which resonate with reasonable closeness to the combat of Brihaspati against Vala from the RigVeda (wherein the Vajra is given the form of a meteor – a great stone falling from the skies upon Vala’s stony stronghold to sunder it and its occupant open) – which, likewise, becomes an almost ‘generalized’ ritual metaphor and mythic understanding to be deployed by subsequent generations of devotees. That particular Vedic encounter also shows up in somewhat ‘euhemerized’ form in the Ynglinga Saga – wherein Odin carries out the relevant deed of smashing and piercing a ‘covering’ of earth to reveal an ill-gotten hoard of wealth in the form of cows. Exactly as Brihaspati does (i.e. through invocatory prayer – magical song) – except with the key detail that the ‘covering’ is actually not merely a mountain fastness which must be penetrated as well as a certain demon-dragon by the relevant name of ‘Enclosure’ / ‘Covering’ having become forgotten by Sturluson’s time or recounting.
Now it may seem rather curious to observe that this mythic combat between a Sky Father deific expression (Odin, Zeus, Brihaspati, Dionysus, etc.) appears to potentially have informed one undertaken by Athena – and yet as we have repeatedly demonstrated elsewhere, Athena’s mythology draws quite heavily from that Sky Father deific complex. This is no contradiction – as similarly, we find right there in the archaic skeins of the Vedas as well as more recent Hindu scripture, the Goddess engaging in deeds that are similarly coterminous with those of that other deific.
Similarly, we find quite the eminent pattern of ‘double-ups’ in various other Classical presentations of combats against dire demonic threats – various accountings have Zeus confronting Typhon / Typhoeus … others have Athena prominently taking up station alongside Zeus (or Dionysus), seemingly these Two alone of the Gods in this battle-line. Hence we can tell that this linkage and this coterminity is quite an ancient and a pervasive one.
Another ‘double-up’ of sorts is presented to us by the constellation of Draco. Pseudo-Hyginus’ account has this being a gigantean serpent vanquished by Athena, Who hurled it broken in body into the sky. However, the same source also reports that particular constellation to have resulted from Herakles carrying out a dragon-slaying of a different (well, at least, a different myth) Draco – that of the Garden of the Hesperides. It is not hard to suggest how Hercules’ daring raid of that protected location in pursuit of wondrous golden fruit encircled by a serpentine and multicephalic dragon, might likewise be running off something of the archaic Proto-Indo-European mythology so prominent in these other aforementioned mythic encounters.
In either case, it should seem that as applies the mythic causation for the constellation of Drako, we once again have much the similar situation to both Indra and Saraswati sharing Vritraghni (‘Slayer of Vritra’, ‘Smiter of Obstacle’, ‘Smasher of Enclosure’) epithetics.
To speak more directly of giant-slaying – this is, per the Suda, the rather direct meaning of two Athenian epithets: Gigantoleteira and Gigantoletis. This is worth mentioning, as other than those specific gigantes aforementioned, as a general clade we seem to find frequent mention or evocative illustration of these Gigantes as being serpentine in their description. Serpentine legs are quite common, with serpentine tresses another frequent feature. Phrased another way – it should seem prima facie evident that there are certain quite prominent co-identifying features for this particular class of adversaries and the famed draconic foes of Indo-European Gods found both elsewhere within the Classical mythology as well as in considerable prominence further to the East.
This also presumably helps to explicate part of the reasoning for the Aegis of Athena having such demonstrably ‘serpentine’ characteristics (as seen frequently in both art and the literary canon). It is, after all, the flayed skin of a slain Giant.
So what does all of this actually mean in practice ?
Well, on one level, it’s an interesting demonstration of yet another foundational coherency between the Hindu and Hellenic Indo-European mythic (and likely religious) complexes. The same figures, perceived slightly differently – yet nevertheless remarkably, resonantly recognizable if one knows just how to look.
On another level, as earlier indicated, it opens up a potentially intriguing avenue for the resurrective understanding for Hellenic (or, for that matter, other Mediterranean – and, indeed, further afield) devotion. We already know from comparative analysis in other areas of ritual metaphysics that the notion of particular acts and understandings relevant for a human devotee (or priest) can be construed as a resonancy for a mythic combat. We find exactly this with Vedic ritual manuals invoking the concept of ‘Upasads’ (‘Sieges’, ‘Attacks’), and cognate understanding with the name of Gunnlöð [‘Invitation to Battle’] in the same requisite space for a cognate reconstructive undertaking.
So therefore – as we have Durga named Durga precisely because She is able to conquer the seeming ‘unconquerable’ difficulties and obstacles encountered by both God and Man alike (the former set more within the realms of myth, and the latter acting in resonancy and ‘echoing’ of same down here in the ‘sidereal’) … perhaps Pallas Athena, too, might have such an understanding for the archaic Greek devotee. In a more specifically congealed sense than the generalized notions of Athena as Saviour(ess), that is. And with the particular mythic circumstances and essence-tial characteristics of this or that combat against a demonic foe providing guide for how to ask for the requisite Help in the situation in question.
Some of which might literally require the vanquishing of Demons. Or sieging of fortifications and cities.
वर्त्रघ्नी वष्टि सुष्टुतिम
Vrtraghni Vasti Sustutim
‘Foe-Slayer Claims Our Eulogy’