The Northern Way

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology

Chapter 16

Chapter 16: Wise Women

(Page 1)

The relation of women to the gods is very different from that of men, because men alone can found famous houses, while a woman's family dies with her. The tale of ancestry contains the names of heroes only; king's daughters are either not named in it at all, or disappear again as soon as they have been introduced as brides. For the same we hear of deified sons, but not of deified daughters; nay, the marriage of mortals with immortals issues almost always in the birth of sons. There are therefore no women to be placed by the side of the heroes, whom in the preceding chapter we have regarded as a mixture of the heavenly and earthly natures: the distaff establishes no claim to immortality, like the sword. To the woman and the bondman, idle in battle, busy in the house, the Anglo-Saxons very expressively assigned the occupation of weaving peace: heroic labours suited men.

But that which women forfeit here, is amply made up to them in another sphere. In lieu of that distinct individuality of parts given to heroes, which often falls without effect in the story, they have general duties assigned them of momentous and lasting influence. A long range of charming or awful half-goddesses mediates between men and deity: their authority is manifestly greater, their worship more impressive, than any reverence paid to heroes. There are not, strictly speaking, any heroines, but whatever among women answers to heroes appears more elevated and spiritual. Brunhild towers above Siegfried, and the swan-maid above the hero to whom she unites herself (see Suppl.).

In other mythologies also it is observable, that in the second rank of deities female beings predominate, while the first is reserved almost exclusively for the male, but the divine heroes we have spoken of come only in the third rank. I have on p. 250 partly accounted for the longer duration of the tradition of several goddesses by its having left more abiding, because more endearing, impressions on the mind of the people.

There is no harder problem in these investigations, than to distinguish between goddesses and half-godesses. Every god's wife must ipso facto pass for a real goddess; but then there are unmarried goddesses; e.g., Hel. One who cannot be shown to be either wife or daughter of a god, and who stands in a dependent relation to higher divinities, is a half-goddess. Yet such a test will not always serve, where a mythology has been imperfectly preserved; for the very reason that half-goddesses stand higher than half-gods, the boundary-line between them and the class of great gods is harder to hit. The line may be disturbed, by particular races promoting divine beings of lower rank, whose worship got the upper hand among them, to a higher; it is true the same thing seems to occur in hero-worship, but not so often.

The mission and function of half-goddesses then may be roughly defined thus: to the upper gods they are handmaids, to men revealers.

It is a significant feature in our heathenism, that women, not men, are selected for this office. Here the Jewish and christian view presents a contrast: prophets foretell, angels or saints from heaven announce and execute the commands of God; but Greek and Teutonic gods employ both male and female messengers. To the German way of thinking, the decrees of destiny assume a greater sacredness in the mouth of woman, soothsaying and sorcery in a good as well as bad sense is peculiarly a women's gift, and it may even be a part of the same thing, that our language personifies virtues and vices as females. If human nature in general shows a tendency to pay a higher resperct and deference to the female sex, this has always been specially characteristic of Teutonic nations. Men earn deification by their deeds, women by their wisdom: 'Fatidicae, augescente superstitione deae,' p. 95 (see Suppl.).

This Germanic reverence for woman, already emphasized by Tacitus, is markedly expressed in our old systems of law, especially the Alamannian and Bavarian, by doubling the composition for injury (RA. 404): the defenceless one thereby receives protection and consecration, nay, she is to forfeit the privilege the moment she takes up man's weapons. And not only does a worship of woman show itself in the minne-songs of our Mid. Ages, but in a remarkable formula of chivalry occuring both in folk-songs and in court-poems: 'durch aller frouwen êre,' by all women's honour, Wolfdiet. 104. Morolt 855. 888. 2834. Morolf 1542. Ecke 105. 117. 174. Roseng. 2037. MsH. 3, 200ª; 'durch reiner (pure) frouwen êre,' Ecke 112; 'durch willen (for the sake) aller frouwen;' thus one hero cries to another 'nu beite (stay), durch willen aller meide!' Rab. 922-4; 'durch willen schner wîbe,' Ecke 61; 'durch ander maget (other maids') êre,' Gudr. 4863; 'durch elliu wîp,' in the name of all women, Parz. 13, 16; 'êre an mir elliu wîp,' respect in me all women, Erec 957; 'êret an mir elliu wîp!' says a woman in Parz. 88, 27, to ensure attention to her prayer; 'allen meiden tuot ez ze êren (do it in honour of),' Gudr. 1214, 3; 'êre und minne elliu wîp!' is the injunction on giving a sword, Trist. 5032; 'tuon allez daz frouwen wille sî,' do all that may be woman's will, Bit. 7132; 'als liep iu alle frouwen sîn,' as all women are dear to you, Laurin 984. Their worship was placed on a par with that of God: 'êret Got und diu wîp,' Iw. 6054; 'durch Got und durch der wîbe lôn (guerdon)' Wh. 381, 21; 'wart sô mit riterschaft getân, dês Got sol danken und diu wîp,' may God and the ladies requite it, Wh. 370, 5; 'dienen Got und alle frouwen êren,' Ms. 2, 99b; of Parzivâl it is even said: 'er getrûwete wîben baz (better) dan Gote,' Parz. 370, 18. These modes of speech, this faith, can be traced up to a much earlier age, as in O. i. 5, 13: 'dô sprah er êrlîcho ubaral, sô man zi frowûn skal'; and v. 8, 58: 'ni sît irbolgan wîbe,' ye shall not bully a woman, Etzels hofhalt. 92-3; 'sprich wîben übel mit nihte' says the poem of the Stete ampten 286. The very word frau is the name of a goddess, conf. p. 299 on the meanings of frau and weib (see Suppl.).

But more than that, when the hero in stress of battle looked upon his love (OHG. trûtin, trûtinna, MHG. triutinne), thought of her, named her name, he increased thereby his strength, and was sure of the victory. We might even bring under this head the declaration of Tacitus: memoriae proditur, quasdam acies inclinatas jam et labantes a feminis restitutas constantia precum et objectu pectorum. From the poems of the 13th century I will quote the principal passages only:

und als er dar zuo an sach (on saw, looked at)

die schnen frowen Eniten,

daz half (holp) im vaste strîten (fight hard). Er. 933.

swenne mich der muot iwer ermant (the thought of you mans),

sô ist sigesælic (victorious) mîn hant:

wand (for) iwer guote minne

die sterkent mîne sinne (nerve my senses),

daz mir den vil langen tac (all the long day)

night wider gewesen mac (nought can vex). Er. 8367.

diu dâ gegenwurtic saz (who there present sat),

diu gehalf ir manne baz (she holp her man better).

ob im dehein zwîvel (if ever a doubt) geschach,

swenn (whenever) er si danne wider (again) an sach,

ir schne gap im niwe kraft (strength),

sô daz er unzagehaft (undismayed)

sîne sterke wider gewan (his strength regained)

und vaht (fought) als ein geruowet (rested) man. Er. 9171.

der gedanc (thinking) an sîn schne wîp

der kreftigete im den lîp (life, body). Er. 9229.

swenne im diu muoze (opportunity) geschach

daz er die maget (maid) reht ersach,

daz gap ir gesellen (to her fellow, lover)

Gâwâne manlîch ellen (élan). Parz. 409, 13. 410, 5.

nu sach er daz si umb in was in sorgen (in fear for him),

alrêst er niuwe kraft enpfant (felt). Lohengr. p. 54-5.

den Heiden minne nie verdrôz (never wearied),

des (therefore) was sîn herze in strîte grôz. Parz. 740, 7.  

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page