The Northern Way

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology

Chapter 15

Chapter 15: Heroes

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Between God and man there is a step on which the one leads into the other, where we see the Divine Being brought nearer to things of earth, and human strength glorified. The older the epos, the more does it require gods visible in the flesh; even the younger cannot do without heroes, in whom a divine spark still burns, or who come to be partakers of it.

Heroism must not be made to consist in anything but battle and victory: a hero is a man that in fighting against evil achieves immortal deeds, and attains divine honours. As the gradation of ranks the noble stands between the king and the freeman, so does the hero between God and man. From nobles come forth kings, from heroes gods. nrwj estin ex anqrwpou ti kai qeou sunqeton, o mhte anqrwpoj esti, mhte qeoj, kai sunamfoteron esti (Lucian in Dial. mortuor. 3), yet so that the human predominates: 'ita tamen ut plus ab homine haveat,' says Servius on Aen. 1, 200. The hero succumbs to pains, wounds, death, from which even the gods, according to the view of antiquity, were not exempt (p. 318). In the hero, man attains the half of deity, becomes a demigod, semideus: hmiqewn genoj andrwn, Il. 12, 23; andrwn hrwwn qeion genoj, oi kaleontai hmiqeoi, Hes. erg. 159. Jornandes applies semidei to the anses (supra p. 25), as Saxo Gram. pronounces Balder a semideum, arcano superûm semine procreatum. Otherwise in ON. writings we meet with neither hâlfgoð nor hâlfâs; (1) but N. Cap. 141 renders hemithei heroesque by 'halbkota unde erdkota (earthgods)'.

Heroes are distinct from dæmonic beings, such as angels, elves, giants, who fill indeed the gap between God and man, but have not a human origin. Under paganism, messengers of the gods were gods themselves; (2) the Judeo-christian angel is a dæmon. Rather may the hero be compared to the christian saint, who through spiritual strife and sorrow earns a place in heaven (see Suppl.).

This human nature of heroes is implied in nearly all the titles given to them. For the definite notion of a divine glorified hero, the Latin language has borrowed heros from the Greek, though its own vir (= Goth. vaír ON. ver [[poet. - sea?]], (3) AS. OHG. wer, Lett. wihrs, Lith. wyras) in the sense of vir fortis (Tac. Germ. 3) so nearly comes up to the Sanskr. vîra heros. Heros, hrwj, which originally means a mere fighter, has been identified with rather too many things: herus, Hrh, Hraklhj, even Arhj and areth = virtus, so that the Goth. áirus, ON. âr, âri [[ari - eagle?]] = nuntius, minister, might come in too, or the supposed digamma make a connexion with the aforesaid vîra look plausible. More undeniably, our held is a prolongation (4) of the simple ON. halr [[poet. - man]], AS. hæle vir: the name Halidegastes (like Leudogastes) is found so early as in Vopiscus; and a Goth. haliþs, OHG. halid, helid may be safely inferred from the proper names Helidperaht, Helidcrim, Helidgund, Helidniu, Helidberga, (5) though it is only from the 12th century that our memorials furnish an actual helit pl. helide; the MHG. helet, helt, pl. helde, occurs often enough. Of the AS. hæleð I remark that it makes its pl. both hæleðas and hæleð (e.g., Beow. 103), the latter archaic like the Goth. mênôþs, whence we may infer that the Gothic also had a pl. haliþs, and OHG. a pl. helid as well as helidâ, and this is confirmed by a MHG. pl. held, Wh. 44, 20. In OS. I find only the pl. helidôs, helithôs; in the Heliand, helithcunni, helithocunni mean simply genus humanum. M. Dut. has helet pl. helde. The ON. höldr [[poet. - man]] pl. höldar (Sæm. 114b 115ª. Sn. 171) implies an older höluðr (like mânuðr = Goth. mênôþs); it appears to mean nothing but miles, vir, and höldborit (höld-born) in the first passage to be something lower than hersborit, the höldar being free peasants, bûendr. The Dan. helt, Swed. hjelte (OSwed. hälad) show an anomalous t instead of d, and are perhaps to be traced to the German rather than the ON. form. If we prefer to see both in halr and in haliþs the verb haljan occulere, defenders, tueri, the transition from tutor to vir and miles is easily made; even the Lat. celer is not far from celo to conceal.

Beside this principal term, the defining of which was not to be avoided here, there are several others to be considered. Notker, who singularly avoids heleda, supplies us in Cap. 141 with: 'heroes, taz chît, hertinga alde chueniga'. This hertinga suggests the AS. heardingas, Elene 25. 130, whether it be a particular line, or heroes in general that are meant by it; and we might put up with the derivation from herti, heard (hard), viri duri, fortes, exercitati, as hartunga in N. ps. 9, 1 means exercitatio. But as we actually find a Gothic line of heroes Azdingi, Astingi, and also an ON. of Haddîngjar, and as the Goth. zd, ON. dd, AS rd, OHG. rt correspond to one another, there is more to be said for the Gothic word having dropt an h in the course of transmission, and the forms hazdiggs, haddîngr, hearding, hartinc being all one word.(6) Now if the ON. haddr means a lock of hair (conf. p. 309), we may find in haddîngr, hazdiggs, &c. a meaning suitable enough for a freeman and hero, that of crinitus, capillatus, cincinnatus; and it would be remarkable that the meaning heros should be still surviving in the tenth century. No less valuable to us is the other term chucnig, which can hardly be connected with chuning rex, as N. always spells it; it seems rather to be = chuonig, derived either from chuoni audax, fortis (as fizusig from fizus callidus), or from its still unexplained root. (7) Other terms with a meaning immediately bordering on that of her are: OHG. dëgan (miles, minister); wîgant (pugil); chamfio, chempho (pugil), AS. cempa, ON. kappi [[hero, champion]]; the ON. hetja [[hero]] (bellator), perhaps conn. with hatr odium, bellum; and skati, better skaði, AS. sceaða, scaða, properly nocivus, then prædator, latro, and passing from this meaning, honourable in ancient times, into that of heroes; even in the Mid. Ages, Landscado, scather of the land, was a man borne by noble families. That heri (exercitus), Goth harjis, also meant miles, is shown by OHG. glosses, Graff 4, 983, and by names of individual men compounded with heri; conf. ch. XXV, einheri. The OHG. urecchio, hrecchio, reccho, had also in a peculiar way grown out of the sense of exsul, profugus, advena, which predominates in the AS. wrecca, OS. wrekio, into that of a hero fighting far from home, and the MHG. recke, ON. reckr is simply a hero in general. (8) Similar developments of meaning can doubtless be shown in many other words; what we have to keep a firm hold of is, that the very simplest words for man (vir) and even for man (homo) adapted themselves to the notion of hero; as our mann does now, so the ON. halr [[poet. - man]], the OHG. gomo (homo), ON. gumi [[poet. - man]] served to express the idea of heroes. In Diut. 2, 314b, heros is glossed by gomo, and gumnar in the Edda has the same force as skatnar (see Suppl.).


1. Hâlftröll, hâlfrisi are similar, and the OHG. halpdurinc, halpwalah, halpteni (ON. hâlfdan) as opposed to altdurinc, altwalah. Back

2. At most, we might feel some doubt about Skîrnir, Frey's messenger and servant; but he seems more a bright angel than a hero. Back

3. With this we should have to identify even the veorr used of Thôrr (p. 187) in so far as it stood for viörr. Back

4. Fortbildung: thus staff, stack, stall, stem, stare, &c. may be called prolongations of the root sta. ---Trans. Back

5. In early docs. the town of Heldburg in Thuringia is already called Helidiberga, MB. 28ª 33. Back

6. The polypt. Irminon 170b has a proper name Ardingus standing for Hardingus. Back

7. Graff 4, 447 places chuoni, as well as chuninc and chunni, under the all-devouring root chan; but as kruoni, AS. grêne viridis, comes from kruoan, AS. grôwan, so may chuoni, AS. cêne, from a lost chuoan, AS. côwan pollere? vigere? Back

8. Some Slavic expressions for hero are worthy of notice: Russ. vîtiaz, Serv. vitez; Russ. boghatyr, Pol. bohater, Boh. bohatyr, not conn. either with bôgh deus, or boghât dives, but the same as the Pers. behâdir, Turk. bahadyr, Mongol. baghâtor, Hung. bâtor, Manju bâtura, and derivable from b'adra lively, merry; Schott in Erman's zeitschr. 4, 531 [Mongol. baghâ is force, bia, and -tor, -tur an adj. suffix]. Back

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