The Northern Way

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology

Chapter 20

Chapter 20: Elements

(Page 1)

From gods, half-gods and heroes, from the whole array of friendly or hostile beings that, superior to man in mind or body, fill up a middle space betwixt him and deity, we turn our glance to simple phenomena of nature, which at all times in their silent greatness wield an immediate power over the human mind. These all penetrating, all absorbing primitive substances, which precede the creation of all other things and meet us again everywhere, must be sacred in themselves, even without being brought into closer relation to divine beings. Such relation is not absent in any mythology, but it need not stand in the way of the elements receiving a homage to some extent independent of it and peculiar to themselves.

On the other hand, it is not the religion, properly speaking, of a nation, that ever springs from the soil of this elemental worship; the faith itself originates in a mysterious store of supersensual ideas, that has nothing in common with those substances, but subjugates them to itself. Yet faith will tolerate in its train a veneration of elements, and mix it up with itself; and it may even chance, that when faith has perished or is corrupted, this veneration shall keep its hold of the people longer. The multitude will give up its great divinities, yet persist for a time in the more private worship of household gods; even these it will renounce, and retain its reverence for elements. The history of the heathen and christian religions shows, that long after the one was fallen and the other established, there lived on, nay there live still, a number of superstitious customs connected with the worship of elements. It is the last, the all but indestructible remnant of heathenism; when gods collapse, these naked substances come to the front again, with which the being of those had mysteriously linked itself (see Suppl.).

To this effect I have already expressed myself (pp. 82-84) in speaking of a worship of nature by our ancestors, which is indeed supported by early testimonies, but these are often perverted into an argument against the heathen having had any gods. The gods stood and fell from other causes.

Water the limpid, flowing, welling up or running dry; Fire the illuminating, kindled or quenched; Air unseen by the eye, but sensible to ear and touch; Earth the nourishing, out of which everything grows, and into which all that has grown dissolves;---these, to mankind from the earliest time, have appeared sacred and venerable; ceremonies, transactions and events in life first receive their solemn consecration from them. Working as they do with never-resting activity and force on the whole of nature, the childlike man bestows on them his veneration, without any particular god necessarily intervening, though he too will commonly appear in combination with it. Even today the majesty and might of these eldest born of things awakes our admiration; how could antiquity have forborne its astonishment and adoration? Such a worship is simpler, freer and more dignified than a senseless crouching before pictures and idols.

All the elements are cleansing, healing, atoning, and the proof by ordeal rests mainly upon them; but man had to secure them in their purest form and at the most seasonable times.

We will consider them one by one.

1. Water.(1)

Passages proving that the Alamanns and Franks worshipped rivers and fountains are cited at pp. 100-1 and in the Appendix. (2) The people prayed on the river's bank; at the fountain's brink they lighted candles and laid down sacrificial gifts. It is called 'fontibus venerationem exhibere, ad fontanas adorare (conf. Legg. Liutpr. 6, 30), ad fontes votum facere, reddere, exsolvere, orare ad fontes, offerre ad fontes, munus deferre, ad fontes luminaria facere, candelam deferre.' This last no doubt was done only or chiefly at night, when the flame reflected from the wave would excite a religious awe. (3) The Saxons also were fonticolae: wyllas and flôtœter are named in the AS. laws as objects of reverence. Beside the passage from Cnut (p. 102), the Poenitentiale Ecgberti says 2, 22: 'gif hwilc man his ælmessan gehâte oððe bringe tô hwilcon wylle'; 4, 19: 'gif hwâ his wæccan æt ænigum wylle hæbbe (vigilias suas ad aliquem fontem habeat)'; the Canones Edgari § 16 forbid wilweorðunga (well-worship). I am not sure that a formal worship of water in Scandinavia is implied in the saga quoted above (p. 102), where vötn is mentioned; but that water was held sacred is a thing not to be doubted. A lay in the Edda has near the beginning the remarkable words: 'hnigo heilög vötn af himinfiöllom,' fell holy waters from heaven's hills. The Sclaveni as early as Procopius (B. Goth. 3, 14) sebousi potamouj (worship rivers); and as late as Helmold (1, 47) it is said of the Slavs at Faldera: lucorum et fontium ceterarumque superstitionum multiplex error apud eos habetur (see Suppl.).

Above all was the place honoured, where the wondrous element leaps up from the lap of earth; a spring is in our older speech ursprinc (-ges), and also prunno. (4)

Often enough the first appearing of a spring is ascribed to divine agency or a miracle: Wuotan, Balder, Charles the Great, each made the reviving fountain flow out of earth for his fainting host (p. 226). Other springs are charmed out of the rock when struck by a staff or a horse's hoof; (5) a saint plants a bough in the ground, and water bubbles up. But there are two theories even more generally received: that the water of sacred brooks and rivers is in the first instance poured by gods and superior beings out of bowls or urns; and that springs and wells are guarded by snakes or dragons lying near them (see Suppl.).

Water drawn at a holy season, at midnight, before sunrise, and in solemn silence, bore till a recent time the name of heilawâc, heilwâc, heilwœge. The first form, retaining the connecting vowel after a long syllable, proves the antiquity of the word, whose sacred meaning secured it against change. MS. 2, 149b: 'man seit (saith) von heilawâge uns vil, wie heil, wie guot ez sî, wie gar vollekomen der êren spil, wie gar sîn kraft verheilet swaz wundes an dem man versêret ist,' how good for healing wounds, etc. Martina 116: 'Got, du fröude flüzzic heilawâc,' and in a like sense 248. 283. Applied to Christ and his cross, Mar. 224: 'der boum ist gemeizzen, dâ daz heilwœge von bechumet, daz aller werlte gefrumet,' the tree whence cometh h. And more generally, 'ein heilwâge,' Diut. 1, 352; much later, in Anshelm's Chron. of Bern 1, 308, 'heilwag' among other charms and magic appliances. Lastly, in Phil. von Sittewald (Strasb. 1677) 1, 483: 'running spring-water, gathered on holy Christmas night, while the clock strikes twelve, and named heilwag, is good for pain of the navel,' Superst. 804. In this heilawâc we discover a very early mingling of heathen customs with christian. The common people believe to this very day, that at 12, or between 11 and 12, on Christmas or Easter night, spring-water changes into wine (Superst. 54. 792), (6) Wieselgren p. 412; and this belief rests on the supposition that the first manifestation of the Saviour's divinity took place at the marriage in Cana, where he turned water into wine. Now at Christmas they celebrated both his birth (epiphany, theophany, p. 281) and his baptism, and combined with these the memory of that miracle, to which was given a special name, bethphania. (7) As far back as 387, Chrysostom preaching an Epiphany sermon at Antioch says that people at that festival drew running water at midnight, and kept it a whole year, and often two or three (no doubt for thaumaturgic uses), and it remained fresh and uncorrupted. (8) Superstitious Christians then believed two things, a hallowing of the water at midnight of the day baptism, and a turning of it into wine at the time of the bethphania: such water the Germans called heilawâc (9), and ascribed to it a wonderful power of healing diseases and wounds, and of never spoiling (see Suppl.).

Possibly even in Syria an old pagan drawing of water became veiled under new christian meanings. In Germany other circumstances point undisguisedly to a heathen consecration of water: it was not to be drawn at midnight, but in the morning before sunrise, down stream and silently (Superst. 89. 775), usually on Easter Sunday (775-6) to which the above explanations do not so well apply; this water does not spoil, it restores youth, heals eruptions, and makes the young cattle strong. (10) Magic water, serving for unchristian divination, is to be collected before sunrise on a Sunday in one glass from three flowing springs; and a taper is lighted before the glass, as before a divine being (Superst. H. c. 55-57). (11) Here I bring in once again the Hessian custom mentioned at p. 58: on Easter Monday youths and maidens walk to the Hollow Rock in the mountains, draw water from the cool spring in jugs to carry home, and throw flowers in as an offering. Apparently this water-worship was Celtic likewise; the water of the rock-spring Karnant makes a broken sword whole again, but du muost des urspringes hân underm velse, ê in beschin der tac (ere day beshine it). Parz. 254, 6. Tit. 5456. 5732. (12) Curious customs show us in what manner young girls in the Pyrenees country tell their own fortunes in spring water on May-day morning.

We need not suppose that the peculiar properties of medicinal springs are the point here; no, it is the normal efficacy of the refreshing, strengthening, re-animating element. (13) Many places in Germany are called Heilbrunn, Heilborn, Heiligenbrunn, from the renewing effect of their springs, or the wonderful cures that have taken place at them. Heilbronn on the Neckar is called Heilacprunno in the oldest documents. (14) But certain springs and wells may have stood in especial repute. Of high renown are the ON. Mîmisbrunnr [[Mimir's Well or Mimir's Spring]] and Urðarbrunnr [[Urth's Well or Urth's Spring ]] (p. 407), which Sn. 17 calls 'brunnr miöc heilagr.' [[a well most holy]] A Danish folksong (1, 318) tells of a Maribokilde, by whose clear waters a body hewn in pieces is put together again. Swedish lays celebrate Ingemos källa (Vis. 1, 244-5). We remember that old Frisian fount of Forseti, 'whence none drew water save in silence,' pp. 229, 230 (see Suppl.). Sacrifices were offered at such springs. Of the salutary effort of hot and chalybeate springs people must have been aware from immemorial time, witness the Aquae Mattiacae in the Roman time and those 'aquae calidae' near Luxeuil (p. 83). When the Wetterau people begin a new jug of chalybeate, they always spill the first drop or two on the ground, they say 'to clear the dust away,' for the jugs stand open, but it may have been once a libation to the fountain-sprite. (15) Not only medicinal, but salt springs were esteemed holy: ancient accounts of these will be presented in a later chapter. The Mid. Ages cherished the notion of a jungbrunnen: (16) whoever bathes in it is both cured of diseases and guarded from them; in it Rauchels shed her shaggy skin, and became the beauteous Sigeminne (p. 433-4); such a spring has sometimes the power even to change the bather's sex (see Suppl.). (17)

In a spring near Nogent men and women bathed on St. John's eve (Superst. L. 33); Holdberg's comedy of Kilde-reisen is founded on the Copenhagen people's practice of pilgriming to a neighbouring spring on S. Hans aften, to heal and invigorate themselves in its waters. On Midsummer eve the people of Östergötland journeyed according to ancient custom to Lagman's bergekälla near Skeninge, and drank of the well (Broocman 1, 187. 2, 676). In many parts of Germany some clear fountain is visited at Whitsuntide, and the water drunk in jugs of a peculiar shape. Still more important is Petrarch's description of the annual bathing of the women of Cologne in the Rhine: it deserves to be quoted in full,


1. Franc. Petrarchae De rebus familiar. epistolae, lib. i. ep. 4: Aquis digressum, sed prius, unde ortum oppidi nomen putant, aquis bajano more tepentibus ablutum, excepit Agrippina Colonia, quae ad sinistrum Rheni latus sita est, locus et situ et flumine clarus et populo. Mirum in terra barbarica quanta civilitas, quae urbis species, quae virorum gravitas, quae munditiae matronarum. Forte Johannis baptistae vigilia erat dum illuc applicui, et jam ad occidentem sol vergebat: confestim amicorum monitu (nam et ibi amicos prius mihi fama pepereat quam meritum) ab hospitio traducor ad fluvium insigne spectaculum visurus. Nee fallebar; omnis enim ripa praeclaro et ingenti mulierum agmine tegebatur. Obstupui, dii boni, quae forma, quae facies, quis habitus! amare potuisset quisquis eo non praeoccupatum animum attulisset. In loco paullum altiore constiteram, unde in ea quae gerebantur intenderem. Incredibilis sine offensione concursus erat, vicissimque alacres, pars herbis odoriferis incinctae, reductisque post cubitum manicis, candidas in gurgite manus ac brachia lavabant, nescio quid blandum peregrino murmure colloquentes. [A few lines omitted.] Unum igitur ex eo [amicorum] numero admirans et ignarus rerum percunctatus vergiliano illo versiculo: 'Quid vult concursus ad amnem, quidve petunt animae?' responsum accepi: pervetustum gentis ritum esse, vulgo persuasum, praesertim femineo, omnem totius anni calamitatem imminentem fluviali illius diei ablutione purgari, et deinceps laetiora succedere; itaque lustrationem esse annuam, inexhaustoque semper studio cultam colendamque. Ad haec ego subridens: 'O nimium felices' inquam 'Rheni accolae, quoniam ille miserias purgat, nostras quidem nec Padus unquam purgare valuit nec Tiberis. Vos vestra mala Britannis Rheno vectore transmittitis; nos nostra libenter Afris atque Illyriis mitteremus, sed nobis (ut intelligi datur) pigriora sunt flumina.' Commoto risu, sero tandem inde discessimus. [A few lines omitted.] The letter is of 1330 and addressed to Card. Colonna. We find it quoted so early as by Kaisersberg (Omeiss 35c) [Back]

2. In Poland and Silesia, and perhaps in a part of Russia, girls who have overslept matin-time on Easter Monday are soused with water by the lads, and flogged with birch twigs; they are often pulled out of bed at night, and dragged to a river or cistern, or a trough filled with water, and are ducked. The Silesians call this schmagostern (even Estor's Oberhess. idiot. has schmakustern = giving the rod at Easter); perh. from Pol. smic, Boh. smyti, so that smigust would be rinsing [Suppl. says, 'better from smagac to flog']. The Poles say both smic and dyngowac, dyngus, of the splashing each other with water (conf. Hanusch, p. 197), and the time of the year seems to be St. John's day as well as Easter. In the Russian gov. of Archangel, the people bathe in the river on June 23, and sprinkle kupálnitsa (ranunculus acris), Karamzin 1, 73-4 [the same is also a surname of St. Agrippina, on whose day, June 24, river-bathing (kupálnia) commences]. Everywhere a belief in the sacredness of the Easter-bath and St. John's bath. [Back]

3. Mone's Anz. 3, 221. 340, who gives a forced and misleading explanation of the word. Another name is schändleback (beck that brings shame, confusion): such a one was pointed out to me on the plain near Cassel, and Simpliciss. 5, 14 mentions the schändlibach by Oberneheim, which only runs when misfortune befalls the land. [Suppl. adds the MHG. schantbach, Weisth. 1, 760, and 'der schanden bechelin,' Frauenlob p. 186]. So, when the Lutterborn by Herbershausen (Helperhusen) near Göttingen runs, it is a dear season; but when the spider builds in Helperhouse mill, and the swallow in the millwheel, the times are good. [Back]

4. Al. 'Glomuzi, Zlumici'; now the Lommatsch district. [Back]

5. Capitul. an. 794 (Pertz 3, 74): 'experimento didicimus, in anno quo illa valida famis irrepsit, ebullire vacuas annonas (empty ears), a daemonibus devoratas.' [Back]

6. The Peruvians believe in a rain-goddess, who sits in the clouds with a pitcher of water, ready to pour it out at the right time; if she delays, her brother with thunder and lightning smites the pitcher in pieces. Garcilaso de la Vega's Histt. Incarum peruanorum 11, 27; conf. Talvj's Characteristik der volkslieder, p. 126. [Back]

7. I will here add, from Anton's Coll. on the Slavs, the substance of a Wallachian song, which the children sing when the corn is endangered by drought: 'Papaluga (father Luga), climb into heaven, open its doors, and send down rain from above, that well the rye may grow!' [Back]

8. Is this covering merely to protect the maiden's modesty, or has it some further reason? We shall see that personations of spring and summer were in like manner enveloped in foliage. [Back]

9. Kind, pp. 86-7, gives some variant forms, but all the explanations appear to me farfetched. Both the Greek and the Servian names have the reduplication so characteristic of folk-words. [Slav. dozhd is rain, and zhd represents either gd or dd; if this be the root, dodo-la may be a dimin.] [Back]

10. Roman de Rou, v. 11514 (the passage extracted in the notes to Iwein, pp. 262-3). [Back]

11. Revue de Paris, tome 41, pp. 47-58. Villemar adds, that children throw pins into the fountain, while they call out: 'ris donc, fontaine de Berendon, et je te donnerai une épingle!' and the fay of the fountain is supposed to be made friendly by the gift. Conf. 'libamina lacui exhibere', p. 596. [Back]

12. Don Quixote 1, 52 (Ideler 2, 435). And in other places it was the custom in time of drought, to carry the bodies of saints about, Flodoard. rem. 4, 41. [Back]

13. As the girl who oversleeps herself on Easter morning is ducked (p. 590). [Back]

14. Sup. I, 343: the lazy maid, on carrying home her first grass, is ducked or splashed, to prevent her going to sleep over grass-cutting. [Back]

15. The spirits cannot abide spitting (p. 514). [Back]

16. Villoison in Maltebrun, Annales de voy. 2, 180. Artemidorus's Oneirocrit. 2, 27 (Reiff 1, 189) admits well-nymphs: numfai te gar eisin en tw freati. Fauriel: to stoiceion tou potamonu. [Back]

17. Formages, whence fromages. [Back]

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