[Paleopsych] Nick Allen: From Mountains to Mythologies

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Nick Allen: From Mountains to Mythologies
Key Informants on the History of Anthropology
ethnos, vol. 68:2, june 2003 (pp. 271-284)

Oxford University, UK

How did I become an anthropologist? The remoter beginnings must lie in family 
history. Several of my forebears served in India, most but not all of them in 
the army. My father was a Celtic numismatist, who started his career in the 
British Museum and, after many years as a civil servant, ended up administering 
the British Academy, first as Secretary (succeeding Mortimer Wheeler) and then 
as Treasurer (Turner 1976). He surely transmitted to me a love of research, 
albeit more by example than by words.


In 1947 the family followed my father when he was sent to Hong Kong by the 
Ministry of Shipping, but it is difficult to say whether those two childhood 
years in the colony significantly influenced my eventual career choice. I 
assi­milated little about Chinese culture but recall being impressed by van 
Loon’s Story of Mankind, a present for my ninth birthday.
Back in England, at prep school, I enjoyed climbing trees and being a Boy 
Scout. I then went to Rugby, where Rugby football was invented. The stress on 
physical fitness and outdoor activities continued--we were required to take 
exercise at least three times a week; and in addition to the team games I often 
played squash and rackets. Combined with the influence of my mother, who had 
serious climbing experience in the Alps, this laid the basis for my own 
climbing, which in turn was to lead me to the Himalayas.

Looking back, I note the extraordinarily narrow and intense focus on Latin and 
Greek. A few O levels were rapidly disposed of in the first year at Rugby, and 
thereafter eyes were firmly fixed on an Oxbridge classical scholarship. To that 
end, year after year, we read the ancient texts and translated Macaulay or 
Churchill into Ciceronian Latin, Shakespeare or Metaphysical poets into Greek 
iambics or Ovidian elegiac couplets.1 We did not bother with A levels, and for 
five terms in the top form (the Upper Bench), I was taught very much like 
students beginning the Oxford course in Lit. Hum.: outside class we each spent 
an hour a week solo with the senior classics master in his study. He also took 
a group of us around Italy, and became a friend as well as a teacher. What a 
strange education it was! Elitist to a degree, single-sex (and thus lived in an 
atmosphere tinged with homosexuality), extraordinarily apolitical (I mean of 
course overtly), and so traditional that my only formal exposure to science 
might well have been one term on the amoeba and similar beings.

If boarding school domesticity was oppressive, the Upper Bench repre­sented 
spiritual liberation; and in our teacher’s study, ranging beyond the great 
writers of prose and poetry, we listened to Beethoven string quartets and 
looked at art books.2  I was encouraged, and flourished.

However, I came to feel that I wanted a wider perspective on life. I do not 
know how it happened. Relevant factors probably included my mother’s brother 
(father of the anthropologist Alfred Gell) who, when studying at Cambridge, had 
changed from Moral Sciences to Medicine and ended up as Professor of Immunology 
and Fellow of the Royal Society (Silverstein n.d.); the embel­lished 
reminiscences in The Story of San Michele by the Swedish doctor, Axel Munthe; 
and rebellion against a prediction I heard that I was surely destined to become 
a lawyer or diplomat. Certainly, like many teenagers, I wondered how I could 
make the world a better place, and although I was not sure that doctors could 
do so, I saw that medicine would allow me to enlarge my intel­lectual range, 
and that, whether or not it was really to be my vocation, tactically it would 
be easy enough to make a case for the transfer. So after taking a scholarship 
to New College,3 I spent my last two terms at school studying elementary 
science with the thirteen-year-olds. Medicine in Britain did not at that time 
demand particularly high entrance qualifications, and after my first term at 
Oxford (1957), I was regarded as having caught up.

I was thinking vaguely of some sort of medical research, and after an 
undistinguished performance in Finals I was lucky to be taken on for a year’s 
research for a BSc in neurophysiology. This was both instructive and 
chasten­ing. I loved thinking and reading about the brain and nervous system, 
but I did not enjoy doing experiments, surely because I was not good at it.

Everyone assumed that I would proceed to the clinical course, and although I 
was less and less sure where I was heading, I duly transferred to St. Mary’s 
Hospital in Paddington. After Oxford, the London environment was sordid and 
depressing, but I cannot simply say that I detested medical school; it was 
rather that I felt out of place. It was interesting talking to 
patients--some­times heart-warming, and I liked gaining elementary acquaintance 
with vast new fields of knowledge and experience such as obstetrics and 
gynaecology (at last women were entering my interests - I had lacked both 
sisters and girl friends), meeting death at close quarters, and so on. But what 
was I doing? Ideas came and went. Perhaps I could become a dermatologist so 
that, having no medical emergencies, I could devote evenings and weekends to 
some­thing more congenial (but what?); or an expedition doctor, so that I could 
travel (but to what end?); or, recalling my teenage idealist angst, a family 
plan­ning expert, so that I could help save the world from over-population (but 
would I really want to look back on a life spent distributing pills and 
con­doms?). I really had no idea what to aim for. I went for a long climbing 
season in the Alps, and did my first six-month job as junior hospital doctor.

Anthropological Apprenticeship

It was on the shelves of the uncle mentioned above that I happened across the 
History of Anthropology by Haddon (of the Torres Straits Expedition). Though I 
had once heard some anatomy lectures by the biological anthropologist Le Gros 
Clark, I knew nothing of anthropology as a discipline. But here I found a 
subject that somehow straddled the arts-science divide, that gave opportunities 
to indulge a love of languages and travel, that could lead to an academic 
career, above all perhaps (though I hardly realised this straightaway) allowed 
one the freedom to range widely across the intellectual world, across space, 
time and topic. At the least, one could hope in fieldwork to record what no one 
else had recorded or would record (this salvage aspect of ethnography remains 
im­portant to me); and at best one could hope to make discoveries about 
humanity, or human nature, or the human mind - anyway something grand and 

I wrote to my former moral tutor at New College, Geoffrey de Ste Croix, the 
Marxist classical historian, and he advised me to apply to the newly founded 
Linacre College. I am enormously grateful for that advice, if only because--to 
jump forward to 1967--it was there that I met my wife. But first I went to talk 
with Godfrey Lienhardt, who must have been in charge of admissions. I remember 
him reassuring me that most Institute students who wanted jobs in the subject 
seemed to get them. In my naivety, I was just slightly jolted: in that period 
of full employment, with the fairly easy life I had led, it had simply not 
occurred to me that I might fail to get the sort of job I wanted. I also lacked 
the social awareness to feel guilty at leaving behind studies that must have 
been well subsidised by others, and since I liked learning new things and could 
now if necessary fund myself by locum medical jobs, I was little wor­ried by 
the charge of being a perpetual student. Around that time I found 
my­self--still a hitch-hiker--sitting at a New College Gaudy next to a 
contemporary who was a bank manager with a Jaguar car and two children. I was 
no hippie, but I did feel that the life I was aiming for would be more 
interesting than his.4

So in 1965-66 I studied for the Diploma, the ancestor of the present-day MSc, 
being supervised throughout by Rodney Needham. The subject lived up to my 
hopes, and it was an exciting year, both intellectually and socially. Even now, 
35 years on, I find it hard to present a balanced account of it, evalu­ating 
the personalities and ideas I encountered or failed to encounter. Need­ham 
himself, a curious and difficult person, was in some ways inspiring. He had a 
genuine respect for erudition and boldness of thought, whether expressed in 
English, French, German or Dutch, whether shown by anthropologists or 
orientalists or philosophers, and many of the enthusiasms he transmitted have 
remained with me. Equally important perhaps, many of the topics he dispar­aged 
or ignored remain among my limitations and weaknesses. One must also remember 
the period: no Marxism, unless one turned to Gluckman, no Said, no Gender 
Studies or Medical Anthropology as such, pretty little Applied Anthropology, 
nil on China or Japan, and one could go on. The transition from medicine was 
not easy. Perhaps one day I shall dare to look back on my old essays as 
historical documents. They were always short, often unfinished, surely pretty 
awful, and my exam results were again disappointing.

What of my other teachers? When Needham asked early on where I might like to do 
fieldwork, the first place that came to mind was the Himalayas, on which I had 
recently read a mountaineering book by Fosco Maraini. Having himself served in 
the Gurkhas, Needham welcomed the idea, and sent me to David Pocock for the 
optional paper on Indian Sociology. Pocock (from whom I first heard mention of 
the Beatles) seemed to me a somewhat peppery figure, one who did not suffer 
fools gladly. For Evans-Pritchard too I had slightly mixed feelings, though of 
a different kind. His lectures, published posthum­ously in his History of 
Anthropological Thought, were somewhat dry to listen to, and I knew too little 
intellectual history to appreciate their significance;5 moreover, I was never 
at ease when invited to join the drinking circle at the pub. On the other hand 
‘E-P’, as he was called, could be extremely kind and encouraging. He teased me 
over the copper bangle he wore, which he claimed would do more for his 
arthritis than any medicines we quacks could prescribe, and he called me his 
‘Benjamin’, affectionately, I supposed. John Beattie was sound and sensible, 
though I was left in little doubt by Needham that I should
regard him as a boring old functionalist. Francis Huxley was stimulating and 
intriguing, with his psychoanalytic curiosity, but no doubt at the time I found 
Edwin Ardener too difficult - it was only later that I came to penetrate the 
flowery language and appreciate the insights beneath it. Peter Riviere, Wendy 
James and Bob Barnes had yet to join the Institute teaching staff, and the 
Lienhardts left little impression on me until they became colleagues.

After the Diploma and another Alpine season, I returned to hospitals for a year 
to complete the requirements for medical registration and to make some money. A 
job in surgery and casualty at Banbury was a six-month ordeal, and confirmed, 
if confirmation was needed, that medicine was not my calling. On the other 
hand, six months in psychiatry at Edinburgh were truly enriching, even if I 
always felt that psychiatrists were working in the dark. I wrote to Needham 
proposing that I write a BLitt on the anthropology of the body, a topic that 
had scarcely yet become recognised, but he advised me, no doubt wisely, to 
concentrate on Himalayan ethnography in preparation for field­work. Soon after, 
E-P exerted himself to obtain for me a grant from the Nuffield Foundation, and 
although I was by now determined to proceed in one way or another, this was a 
great help.

The pre-fieldwork thesis took me most of eighteen months. Apart from immersing 
myself in the ethnography and history of Nepal and neighbouring areas, I 
studied Nepali at soas, together with Alan Macfarlane and Pat Caplan. We were 
all to have money from a project organised by Fürer-Haimendorf, that urbane 
Austrian aristocrat with his roots in Vienna diffusionism, who in spite of a 
chair at soas energetically continued his fieldwork trips up to and beyond 
retirement. As for the writing, I had been interested in semantic change at 
least since reading Ullmann’s Semantics in 1964, and the high point of my 
library research came when I found a Dravidian-type kinship terminology (Lall 
1911) reported from near the north-west tip of Nepal but ignored in subsequent 
literature. This set me thinking about the history of kinship terminologies 
within the framework of the Tibeto-Burman language group, but it took me some 
years to realise that the hypothesis proposed in my BLitt thesis was wrong, 
being too cautious and too respectful of previous authority. Before leaving for 
fieldwork in 1969 I visited Paris and met among others Dumont, Pocock’s 
predecessor at Oxford, and Sandy Macdonald, the philo­logically sophisticated 
anthropologist/Himalayanist from whom I was to learn a lot. I also dropped in, 
as one still can, to the Collège de France, where I heard Dumézil lecturing to 
an audience of three (I did not meet him personally until the 1980s). I was 
still climbing a good deal, and before starting the field­work was able to join 
some Outward Bound instructors on a climbing expe­dition in the Western 
Himalayas. Like many in that hippie period, we travelled overland to India, and 
we then managed the first ascent of an unclimbed 20,000 foot summit--of course 
by Himalayan standards a mere pimple. We were a joint Indo-British expedition, 
so my first experience of India was of a success­ful collaborative undertaking.

After the climbing I moved on to Nepal by myself. I have written elsewhere 
(2000a) about the twenty months of fieldwork that followed, so I shall be 
brief. I chose a Tibeto-Burman group from the Middle Hills, who were 
essen­tially unstudied, and settled in a peasant household. I was supposed to 
be focusing on social change, which I interpreted as meaning that I must learn 
all I could about the old traditions that were disappearing--the salvage 
orien­tation again. This meant using my Nepali to study the unwritten tribal 
lan­guage, and using that in turn to study the tribal mythology and ritual that 
were being absorbed into the Nepalese style of Hinduism (Allen 1997).

Having already digested the regional literature, and being fairly hardened to 
feeling myself an outsider, I experienced little culture shock. The details 
that come to mind are trivial: the first time I ate with my fingers, the 
difficulty of sitting cross-legged for long periods, the lack of distinction 
between the morning and evening meals - if breakfast was rice and dal, so was 
dinner. More deep-lying was the embarrassment I felt when invited for tea to 
the house of a Blacksmith untouchable. I could not compromise the purity of my 
kindly higher-caste landlord, but hated having to refuse. My medical training 
had included no experience of general practice and, in the absence of nurses 
and pathology laboratories, turned out to be of little help. I was haunted for 
many months, as many other students must have been, by the sense that nothing I 
was learning was of sufficient academic interest to add up to a DPhil, and 
indeed progress during the first year was unsatisfactory. It was only then that 
a trip to Kathmandu gave me access to work by the Summer Institute of 
Lin­guistics on the phonology of other unwritten languages in Nepal, and showed 
me how I ought to have been tackling Thulung. Apart from pointing me to­wards 
mythology and fourfold social structures, the Thulung reinforced my awareness 
of fieldwork as a dip in the river of social, cultural and environ­mental 
history. Thus I was never tempted to essay a synchronic account of their life, 
much of which I inwardly dismissed as ‘boring’ Hills Hinduism.

Returning to Oxford was academically harder than leaving it had been, and 
writing up was at first desperately, almost paralytically slow. My first paper, 
on ‘vertical classification’ (responding to Needham’s teaching as expressed at 
Canterbury on anthropology and medicine, together with others on ritual, but 
although it would have been an obvious path to follow, I could not enthuse 
about medical anthropology. In those days we were mercifully free from the 
contemporary pressure to finish doctorates in four years, and I took my full 
seven. Meanwhile I got married, and was interviewed for an anthropology 
teaching job at Newcastle. Fortunately, I was not offered it, and soon after a 
better one came up at Durham (following an initiative by Lucy Mair). It was at 
Durham that I wrote an account of the Thulung language and my doctoral thesis 
on Thulung mythology, as well as a few papers, including a couple on kinship 
terminologies which derived from my BLitt. I was already seeing myself less as 
a descriptive ethnographer than as a Tibeto-Burman cultural comparativist, and 
as a teacher I enjoyed initiating a course on Anthropology and Language.

Quarter Century at the Oxford Institute

I could happily have stayed on in Durham, but in 1975 my father died, just 
around the time when Ravindra Jain resigned to return to India. Ravi was 
Pocock’s successor as India specialist at the Oxford Institute, and the post 
was advertised. I was quite doubtful about applying, and had a long 
heart-to-heart talk with David Brooks, another Institute student who was 
teaching anthropology at Durham. On the one hand I loved Oxford, with its easy 
bicycl­ing and old masonry, and it would be good to be near my widowed 
mother--as it has been and still is. Nor did I underrate the privilege of 
interacting with Oxford students or of being in such an international centre of 
research. On the other hand, I foresaw difficulties in crossing the gap from 
student to colleague. In particular, I had puzzled a good deal over my 
supervisor’s Belief, Language and Experience and concluded that it was open to 
severe criticism; but Needham did not like criticism from anyone--let alone a 
former student.

Eventually I applied, but my hesitation at first seemed justified. During my 
first term Needham was appointed Professor, and the next academic year was 
tense. I shall not analyse the conflicts that divided us, but as junior member 
of staff I had to write the minutes of one particularly strained staff meeting. 
The minutes were sent to the relevant authorities, the Proctors, who wrote back 
noting that the University Statutes did not oblige the Professor of Social 
Anthropology to be Head of Department. The Professor packed his books, moved 
off to All Souls, and minimised dealings with colleagues. Edwin Ar­dener became 
Chairman of the Department, and the position devolved on the rest of us 
according to seniority, reaching me in the last year or two be­fore the arrival 
of John Davis in 1990. After the initial difficulties Oxford has proved a good 
environment in which to develop in one’s own way.

In my research I continued for a while as a Himalayanist, studying Tibetan with 
Michael Aris, reviewing books, publishing bits and pieces, mostly on myth. 
Perhaps the most interesting paper (1981) explored the connection be­tween 
landscape and bodies: again and again in this region we find tracts of 
territory across which particular shrines or areas are linked one-for-one with 
the body parts of supernatural beings. Meanwhile, when sabbatical leave at last 
allowed it, I planned a new spell of fieldwork, which I hoped would take me to 
Tibeto-Burman speakers in the eastern Himalayas, but ended up being in the 
west, some eight hours from Simla. This too I wrote about in 2000a.

By the mid 1980s I was becoming over-extended, spreading myself too thinly. My 
general reading in anthropology lagged far behind what I felt to be incumbent 
on a teacher. Apart from Institute administration, I was Vicegerent at Wolfson 
College for two years, and my research interests were moving in several 
directions at once. Ethnographically, I now had behind me two spells of 
fieldwork, neither adequately published, which interlinked much less than I had 

Theoretically, I had retained my interest in the formal study of kinship, but I 
now wanted to transcend the Tibeto-Burmans or Sino-Tibetans and work at the 
level of world history, returning to questions that Morgan posed but answered 
wrongly. Moreover, ever since Needham had recommend­ed me to read Mauss’s 
Anthropologie et Sociologie, I had been fascinated by the workings of that 
outstanding anthropological mind. I had bought his Oeuvres in the 1970s and 
felt obscurely that far more could be made of them than had been made so far: 
this eventually led to Carrithers et al. (1985), and later, under the stimulus 
of Bill Pickering and David Parkin, to James & Allen (1998) and Allen (2000b). 
My post at Oxford was tied to India, not the Himalayas, and following the 
example of Dumont, and of Mauss before him, I wanted to learn Sanskrit. 
Acquiring Coulson’s Teach Yourself volume, I worked through the exercises 
twice, in different summer vacations, much helped by knowing some Nepali and 
Hindi. But this opened up not only Indology--itself vast enough--but the even 
vaster field of Indo-European studies. Here too Need­ham had sowed seeds by 
encouraging me to read Dumézil, and although du­ring the Diploma year I found 
the subject matter far too difficult, I sensed the grandeur of Dumézil’s vision 
and the quality of his erudition, and started buy­ing his books (I now have 
more than twenty). I tried to carry on all these interests simultaneously, but 
something had to give, and it was the Himalayan work (though I still intend to 
publish my doctoral thesis). The three other types of research interlink at 
least to some extent, but the West Himalayan experience stands apart and fell 
by the wayside. Regrettably too, though I reviewed a fair number of current 
publications on South Asia, my general anthropology remained patchy--some might 
say lamentably so, and I relied heavily on what I heard in seminars or came 
across in other contexts.

Without any conscious planning, my interests developed roughly as had those of 
Lévi-Strauss--kinship, then modes of thought (classification etc.), then 
mythology, which seem to range in that order along the science-arts continuum. 
First, then, some remarks on kinship. When Lévi-Strauss saw cross-cousin 
marriage as expressing a relationship between entities that exchange women, he 
was focusing on the intragenerational dimension; but the intergene­rational 
dimension can be treated similarly: thorough assimilation of alternate 
generations expresses a relationship between entities that exchange children. 
Indeed, to generate what are truly elementary structures of kinship, one must 
combine these two exchange relationships in their simplest (binary) form. The 
result is a model kinship system of maximal logical simplicity, one from which 
any attested structure can be generated by transformations such as are arguably 
both historically and semantically plausible (Allen 1998a).6 It was only well 
after I first proposed the theory that I saw its possible bearing on ritual: if 
weddings dramatise intragenerational exchange, did not initiation originally 
dramatise intergenerational exchange? In any case, ‘tetradic theory’, as I 
called it, is hopefully a contribution to understanding human origins. Although 
I do not think it has been refuted, rather few colleagues have referred to it 
(ex­ceptions include Per Hage, Wendy James and Irina Kozhanovskaya), but this 
may be because the sort of question it asks is (still?) deeply unfashionable 
within Anglophone social anthropology, and my attempts to publicise it 
elsewhere have been inadequate. No doubt the theory ought to be presented in 
the light of the substantial literature on kinship and social origins, but 
perhaps that task is best left to others, less committed to my particular point 
of view and less impatient with what seem to me the cross-purposes and 
confusions of the past.7

Guided by Dumézil and Biardeau, I saw fairly early on that an Indo-European 8
approach to the Hindu world would need to take off from the Mahâbhârata, not 
the Vedas, but it was only in the later 1980s that my own take-off began. The 
starting point was a comparison which Dumézil in his mature work had regarded 
as unpromising, namely that with ancient Greece. One part of the career of 
Arjuna, the central hero of the Sanskrit epic, turned out to parallel one part 
of the career of Homer’s Odysseus, in such a detailed and well struc­tured way 
that the two narratives must have a common origin. Some years later a family 
bicycling holiday in Ireland prompted me to explore early Irish narratives, and 
I recall my joy at finding the same narrative pattern in the ca­reer of 
Cúchulainn (Allen 2000c). This might seem merely a matter of literary history 
but, quite apart from the extra pleasure and understanding it can give to a 
reading of the texts, it has many culture-historical and sociological 
rami­fications. For instance, it can help one try to rethink the significance 
of the Vedas, the interplay of Aryan and non-Aryan, the history of yoga. 
Moreover, Dumézil had already seen in effect that the proto-Indo-European 
speakers had a form of primitive classification, in the sense of Durkheim and 
Mauss, but the form he proposed was too compressed.9 Once the compression is 
corrected, many topics take on new aspects, including Indian theories of 
king­ship, space, substance and society. Dumont’s binary structuralist 
interpretation of caste turns out to be a partial view of a structure that is 
larger and more com­plex (Allen 1999). More generally, one sees that, again and 
again, independent invention has been given the credit that in fact belongs to 
common origin.

I shall just mention three other areas that I have touched on within the field 
of Indo-European cultural comparativism (1998b, 2000d, 2002). Firstly, if the 
Zuñi and the Chinese included colours within their forms of the primitive 
classification, what of the early Indo-European speakers? The question led me 
not only to the variously coloured four horsemen of the Apocalypse, but also to 
what I see as a survival of the old pattern in an Arthurian narrative told in 
twelfth-century French by Chrétien de Troyes. This was all great fun.10 
Secondly, the subfield of Indo-Iranian comparativism has usually focused on the 
literate religions--Zoroastrianism in Iran, Vedic Hinduism in India, but the 
mountain peoples of north-east Afghanistan, not Islamised until the 1890s, have 
interesting data to contribute, bearing for instance on the articulation of 
cosmic time. Soon afterwards I found, virtually by accident, and entirely to my 
surprise, that the Buddha’s life-story partly follows the same pattern as the 
epic heroes with whom I was familiar.


It will probably be obvious by now why in 2001 I retired early--though not very 
early, since I was 62. I miss the active day-to-day involvement with the young 
minds both of students and new colleagues, but the break is not total; valued 
attachments continue with both Wolfson College and the Insti­tute. 
Fundamentally, I have to look at my life as a whole. Although I have published 
around sixty papers (and eighty reviews) and, with various degrees of 
justification, find my name on the covers of a number of academic works, the 
gap between what I have published and what I would like to publish has not been 
declining, but rather growing alarmingly, and I was impatient to tackle the gap 
while I still had the health and energy (my father was 65 when he died). Also, 
though I may be flattering myself here, perhaps writing now offers my best 
chance of repaying the debts I have contracted to society (that into which I 
was socialised), and to that subsociety which is the University.

Immediately on retirement, my wife and I left for a peaceful and refreshing 
year in India. Half was spent in the semirural university founded by 
Rabin­dranath Tagore in West Bengal, half in the crowded and polluted city of 
Pune, probably the leading Indian centre for Sanskrit studies. I returned with 
yet more drafts, a somewhat better knowledge of Sanskrit, new friends, and a 
broader knowledge of the country than when I taught about it. So, recalling my 
1972 paper, I see retirement less in terms of stepping ‘down’ than of step­ping 
up--into an indefinite sabbatical.
Here then is a list of topics that I hope to explore. It is not complete: for 
instance, it omits certain topics related to Scandinavia and mediaeval France, 
on which I have only the germs of ideas; and one can still hope for a few new 
ideas, as yet unforeseen.

The Mahâbhârata battle compared with the Trojan War.

Mahâbhârata-Odyssey comparisons.

Biography of the Buddha.

Roman pseudo-history.11

Early Irish literature in the light of Indo-European comparison.

Plato (whose thinking is far more ‘Indo-European’ than Aristotle’s).

Given the record so far, my chances of covering all six topics at book length 
are slim; still, in all cases I can build on either published articles or 
unpub­lished drafts, so the aspirations may not be totally unrealistic. We 
shall see. Obviously I am no Dumézil, either as regards command of the primary 
and secondary literature, or as regards fluency as a writer, but it is 
encouraging to reflect that, after retiring aged seventy, that astonishing 
scholar published more than a dozen books.

I hope that this work on myth and epic, despite its philological aspect, will 
be regarded as anthropology; but it may eventually find its place within some 
other discipline, perhaps even one as yet unrecognised. In any case, even if in 
a way I have returned to the Latin and Greek from which I started, it is 
certainly to anthropology that I owe the theoretical insights, the compara­tive 
range and, above all, the freedom of thought that the narrower philo­logies 
themselves would hardly have afforded.

The emphasis of the last few pages has deliberately been on ideas, 
abstracted--awkwardly perhaps, to anthropologists--from the professional and 
socialcontext in which they were elaborated. What of the students, colleagues, 
friends and family, both in the uk and elsewhere, who contributed either to the 
elabora­tion or to the reasonably tranquil state of mind that made it possible? 
Lists of acknowledgements, however heartfelt, can be dry as well as invidious, 
so I close by expressing a hope directed at the students, of whatever 
discipline, who will carry on the long tradition of scholarly curiosity about 
humanity: may you not be too much trammelled by short-term pressures. My 
Sanskrit primer is inscribed ‘summer 1977’, but it took me sixteen years to 
publish a paper that made use of the language, and I have still to publish 
drafts that use it to greater effect.


  1. In preparation for exams where one handed in only twelve lines of verse in 
a classical language.

  2. A post-retirement book (Saunders 1967) gives a good idea of our teacher’s 
taste but not of the freshness with which he conveyed it to a 
seventeen-year-old. Sociology is absent, and so is the Orient, save via 
Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.

3. I was runner-up to Edward Hussey, now at All Souls College, Oxford, an 
expert in the Presocratics.

  4. The prolonged period as a student accustomed me to a relatively thrifty 
life­style, but it scarcely politicised me. The single day I committed to an 
Aldermaston (for uk nuclear disarmament) March indicates the direction of my 
sympathies, then and now, but also my reluctance to spend much time on such 
murky issues. In general, any efforts I made to synthesise a coherent personal 
ideology were scrappy, spasmodic and provisional; it was easier to luxuriate in 
internal multi-vocality.

5. Paine describes the lectures as ‘disconcertingly "flat" (1998:136), and 
Beidelman is no more enthusiastic (1998:282). I was not conscious then, as I am 
now, of disagreeing with E-P’s views on Durkheim and the anthropology of 

6. I was at first disconcerted that this model has no place for the familiar 
genealogical levels or generations, but those egocentric categories, whose 
membership ages and dies off, are here subsumed by the sociocentric generation 
moieties, which are constantly replenished.

7. The most enjoyable spin-offs from the kinship work were the opportunities to 
meet academics in Russia for the first time (1992) and to serve on the jury for 
the magnificent doctorat d’état by François Héran (1993).

  8. The Mahâbhârata contains a short version of the other Sanskrit epic, the 

  9. The need to expand Dumézil’s schema was recognised by the Rees brothers 
(1961, a book which my father passed on to me later in that decade), but their 
argument was neglected.

10. Serious fun, of course, even adventure - as research can be, perhaps should 
be. Like a rock climber, a comparativist must take some risks.

11. Dumézil showed how much Roman ‘history’, from Romulus down to at least 
Camillus in the fourth century b.c., is historicised Indo-European myth, but he 
did not exhaust the topic (Allen n.d.).

Allen, Nicholas J. 1972. The Vertical Dimension in Thulung Classification. 
Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, 3(2):81-94.
--. 1981. The Thulung Myth of the Bhume Sites and Some Indo-Tibetan 
Comparisons. In Asian Highland Societies: In Anthropological Perspective, 
edited by Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, pp. 168-182. New Delhi: Sterling.
--. 1997. Hinduization: the Experience of the Thulung Rai. In Nationalism and 
Ethni­city in a Hindu Kingdom: The Politics of Culture in Contemporary Nepal, 
edited by David N. Gellner, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka & John Whelpton, pp. 
303-323. Am­sterdam: Harwood.
--. 1998a. The Prehistory of Dravidian-type Terminologies. In Transformations 
of Kinship, edited by Maurice Godelier, Thomas R. Trautmann & Franklin E. Tjon 
Sie Fat, pp. 314-331. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.
--. 1998b. Varnas, Colours and Functions: Expanding Dumézil’s Schema. 
Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft, 6:163-177.
--. 1999. Hinduism, Structuralism and Dumézil. In Miscellanea Indo-Europea, 
edited by Edgar C. Polomé, pp. 241-260, [Journal of Indo-European Studies 
Monograph No. 33]. Washington: Institute for the Study of Man.
--. 2000a. The Field and the Desk: Choices and Linkages. In Anthropologists in 
a Wider World: Essays on Field Research, edited by Paul Dresch, Wendy James & 
David Parkin, pp. 243-257. Oxford: Berghahn.
--. 2000b. Categories and Classifications: Maussian Reflections on the Social. 
Oxford: Berghahn.
--. 2000c. Cúchulainn’s Women and some Indo-European Comparisons. Emania, 
--. 2000d. Imra, Pentads and Catastrophes. Ollodagos, 14:278-308.
--. 2002. The Stockmen and the Disciples. Journal of Indo-European Studies, 
--. n.d. The Indra-Tullus comparison. To appear in Indo-European Language and 
Cul­ture: Essays in Memory of Edgar C. Polomé, [special issue of General 
Linguistics 40], edited by Bridget Drinka & Joseph Salmons.
Beidelman, T.O. 1998. Marking Time: Becoming an Anthropologist. Ethnos 
Carrithers, Michael, Steven Collins, & Steven Lukes (eds). 1985. The Category 
of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History. Cambridge: University Press.
Coulson, Michael. 1976. Sanskrit: An Introduction to the Classical Language. 
[Teach Yourself Books]. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Evans-Pritchard, Edward E. 1981. A History of Anthropological Thought, edited 
by André Singer. London: Faber.
Haddon, Alfred C. 1934. History of Anthropology. London: Watts.
Héran, François. 1993. Figures et Légendes de la Parenté. Paris: Institut 
National des Etudes Démographiques.
James, Wendy & Nicholas J. Allen (eds). 1998. Marcel Mauss: A Centenary 
Tribute. Oxford: Berghahn.
Lall, Panna. 1911. An Enquiry into the Birth and Marriage Customs of the 
Khasias and the Bhotias of Almora District, UP. Indian Antiquary, 40:190-198.
Maraini, Fosco (trans.) 1961. Karakoram: the Ascent of Gasherbrum iv. London: 
Mauss, Marcel. 1973 (1950). Anthropologie et sociologie. Paris: Presses 
--. 1968-69. Oeuvres (tomes i-iii). Paris: Minuit.
Munthe, Axel. 1927. The Story of San Michele. London: Murray.
Needham, Rodney. 1972. Belief, Language and Experience. Oxford: Blackwell.
--. (ed.). 1973. Right and Left: Essays on Dual Symbolic Classification. 
Chicago: Uni­versity Press.
Paine, Robert. 1998. By Chance, by Choice: A Personal Memoir. Ethnos, 
Rees, Alwyn & Brinley Rees. 1961. Celtic Heritage. London: Thames and Hudson.
Saunders, A. Norman W. 1967. Imagination All Compact: Understanding the Arts. 
Lon­don: Methuen.
Silverstein, Arthur M. n.d. Philip George Houthem Gell, 1914-2001. To appear in 
Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society.
Turner, Eric G. 1976. Derek Fortrose Allen, 1910-1975. Proceedings of the 
British Academy, 62:435-457.
Ullmann, Stephen. 1962. Semantics: An Introduction to the Science of Meaning. 
Oxford: Blackwell.
van Loon, Hendrik W. 1948 [1922]. The Story of Mankind. London: Harrap.

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