Dumézil's father was a classicist and Georges became interested in ancient languages at a young age (it has been said that he could read the Aeneid in Latin at the age of nine) and, by the end of his life, he is said to have spoken many languages fluently. During his time in secondary school, he was also influenced by Michel Bréal, a leading French philologist who was the grandfather of one of his classmates. By the time that he entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1916, he was already on the road to studying linguistics and the classics.
Dumézil's studies were delayed by World War I, when he was drafted and served as an artillery officer. After the war, he resumed them and was particularly influenced by Antoine Meillet. He aggregated in 1919 in Classics and received his doctorate in 1924 after writing a thesis comparing the common origins of the Greek ambrosia and a similarly named Indian drink Amrita, which was said to make its imbiber immortal. The dissertation was controversial because some of the examiners, such as Henri Hubert, thought that Dumézil took liberty with the facts to generate a more beautiful interpretation (that was a common criticism of Dumézil's work).
Feeling that he had little place in the French academy, Dumézil moved to Turkey in 1925 to teach at the University of Istanbul, created as part of Kemal Atatürk's attempt to create a modern, secular nation. He learned Turkish and developed an interest in the Ubykh language and travelled widely in Russia, Turkey and the Caucasus. As a result, he became one of the premier experts of Caucasian languages to work in French. He compared the Etruscan language with the Caucasian languages. In 1931, he took another position, in Uppsala, Sweden, which allowed him to improve his skills in the Germanic stock of Indo-European.
In 1929, he published Flamen-Brahman, the first full statement of his trifunctional hypothesis; the idea was repeated in Mitra-Varuna, perhaps his most accessible work.
Dumézil is also well known for mentoring many younger French scholars. Michel Foucault, for instance, benefitted from his patronage when Dumézil arranged for him to teach temporarily in Uppsala early on in his career. Georges Charachidzé, a historian and linguist of Georgian origin under Dumézil's tutelage, became a noted specialist of the Caucasian cultures and aided Dumézil in the reconstruction of the Ubykh language.
Many themes of Dumézil's work have continued influence in ancient religious studies: his impulse to comparative study, and his basic insight that polytheistic gods must be studied not simply by themselves but in the pairs and the ensembles in which their worshippers grouped them.
"[T]hose on the New Right, like Alain de Benoist, Jean Haudry, or Roger Pearson, cite Dumézil's writings in support of their positions—their fondness for hierarchy and authority, for example, their antipathy toward egalitarianism and the ideals of the Enlightenment, or their triumphal view of ‘Indo-Europeans’ as superior to all other peoples—we may suspect them of appropriating nothing other than positions of the Old Right that have been brilliantly recoded and misrepresented first as ancient wisdom, and second as scholarly discourse."
In the 1930s, Dumézil supported the far-right, anti-democratic Action française and held Benito Mussolini in high regard. Dumézil's relations with De Benoist and Haudry were ambiguous, but among his "closest colleagues" were Otto Höfler (who was in the SS-Ahnenerbe), Jan de Vries (a Nazi collaborator) and Stig Wikander (who had an ambiguous relation to Nazism). Dumézil, in response to a text written by Momigliano indicating that Dumézil might have been keen on Nazi ideology, wrote "fascist and Nazi conceptions of a hierarchical society have never been part of my intuition nor of my conduct".
Such criticism of Dumézil has been emphatically disputed by Didier Eribon in his 1992 book Faut-il brûler Dumézil ? Mythologie, science et politique [Should Dumézil Be Burned? Mythology, Science and Politics]. In a survey article on Dumézil's work Dean A. Miller devoted two pages on the case and concluded that "at its worst, the effort tries to remove the importance of whole theoretical constructions on the basis of some adduced or invented political flaw found in the past, often the remote past, of their creator. This derogation is not simple-minded 'political correctness'. It is, [again] in my opinion, the blindest intellectual self-mutilation".
Works in English
Archaic Roman Religion. Trans. Philip Krapp. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Camillus: A Study of Indo-European Religion as Roman History. Ed., Udo Strutynski, tr. Annette Aronowicz and Josette Bryson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980 [selections from Mythe et épopée III and Fêtes romaines d'été et d'automne]
The Destiny of a King. Trans. Alf Hiltebeitel. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1973 [Mythe et épopée II.3]
The Fate of the Warrior. Trans. Alf Hiltebeitel. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1970
From Myth to Fiction: The Saga of Hadingus. Trans. Derek Coltman. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1973.
Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Ed. and Trans. Einar Haugen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. [English and French].
^Bruce Lincoln, "Shaping the Past and Future" [Review of Georges Dumézil, L'Oubli de l'homme et l'honneur des dieux], Times Literary Supplement (Oct. 3, 1986): 1107–8; reprint in Bruce Lincoln, Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 231–43.
^Arnaldo Momigliano, "Premesse per una discussione su Georges Dumézil", Opus 2 (1983): 329-42; Engl. trans. "Introduction to a Discussion of Georges Dumezil", in Studies on Modern Scholarship, by Arnaldo Momigliano, eds. G. W. Bowersock & T. J. Cornell (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 286-301.
^Arnaldo Momigliano, "Georges Dumézil and the Trifunctional Approach to Roman Civilization", History and Theory 23, no. 3 (1984): 312–20.
^Carlo Ginzburg, "Mitologia germanica e nazismo: Su un vecchio libro di Georges Dumézil", Quaderni storici 19 (1984): 857–82; Engl. trans. by John & Anne C. Tedeschi as "Germanic Mythology and Nazism", in Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, by Carlo Ginzburg (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 126–45.
^Bruce Lincoln, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999), esp. pp. 121–37.
^Lincoln, Theorizing Myth (1999), p.123: "Dumézil was an entirely different sort of person from Pearson, Haudry, and de Benoist, infinitely more intelligent, decent, and much, much less crude. To the best of my knowledge, he had no dealings with Pearson, and over the years he maintained a cautiously ambiguous relation with the two others, both of whom courted him avidly."
^Georges Dumézil, "Une idylle de vingt ans (A. Momigliano, OPVS, II, 2 pp. 329-341", in L'Oubli de l'homme et l'honneur des dieux et autre essais: Vingt-cinq esquisses de mythologie (Paris: Gallimard, 1985), 821–7.
^Miller D., Georges Dumézil: Theories, Critiques and Theoretical Extensions, Religion (2000) 30, 27–40, doi:10.1006/reli.1999.0239
Arvidsson, Stefan. Aryan Idols: The Indo-European Mythology as Science and Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. ISBN0-226-02860-7
Dosse, Françoise. "Georges Dumézil: An Independent", in History of Structuralism, vol. 1: The Rising Sign, 1945-1966. Trans. by Deborah Glassman. London–Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, pp. 32–6.
Dubuisson, Daniel. Twentieth Century Mythologies: Dumézil, Lévi-Strauss, Eliade. Trans. by Martha Cunningham. Equinox Publishing, 2006; reprint New York: Routledge, 2014.
Lincoln, Bruce. Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Littleton, C. Scott. The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of Georges Dumézil, 3rd edn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982 (1st edn. 1966).
Olender, Maurice. "The Indo-European Idea Between Myth and History", chap. 2 of Race and Erudition. Trans. by Marie Jane Todd. Cambridge, Mass.–London: Harvard University Press, 2009, pp. 31–88.
Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft 6, no. 2 (1998): 119–238.
Einar Haugen. "The Mythical Structure of the Ancient Scandinavians: Some Thoughts on Reading Dumézil", in Introduction to Structuralism. Edited by Michael Lane. New York: Basic Books, 1970. ISBN0-465-09508-9.
Gerald James Larson, C. Scott Littleton, & Jaan Puhvel, eds. Myth in Indo-European Antiquity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.
Robert A. Segal, ed. Structuralism in Myth: Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Dumézil, and Propp. Introductions by Robert A. Segal. New York: Garland, 1996.