The Northern Way

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology

Chapter 26

Chapter 26: Souls

(Page 1)

Languages treat the living life-giving soul as a delicate feminine essence: Goth. sáivala, akin to sáivs the sea, an undulating fluid force, OHG. sêola, sêla, MHG. sêle, NHG. seele, AS. sáwl, ON. sâl, Swed. Dan. själ, and hence Finn. sielu; Gr. yuch; Lat. Ital. anima, Fr. âme, O. Fr. sometimes arme, Span. alma; Russ. Serv. dusha, Slov. duzha, Boh. duše, Pol. dusza, Lith. duszia, Lett. dwehsele. They all distinguish it from the masc. breath and spirit, anemoj

, which goes in and out more palpably; often the two names are next door to each other, as Lat. animus and anima, Slav. dukh and dusha. (1)

And this intimate connection may be recognised in the myths too. The soul freed from the fetters of the body is made to resemble those airy spirit forms of chap. XVII (conf. pp. 439. 630). It hovers with the same buoyancy, appears and vanishes, often it assumes some definite shape in which it is condemned to linger for a time (see Suppl.).

It is a graceful fancy which makes the departing soul either break into blossom as a flower, or fly up as a bird. Both these notions are connected with metamorphosis into plants and animals in general, and are founded on the doctrine of metempsychosis so prevalent in early antiquity. Immortality was admitted in this sense, that the soul still existed, but had to put up with a new body.

Its passing into a flower I can only infer. A child carries home a bud, which the angel had given him in the wood; when the rose blooms, the child is dead (Kinder-leg. no. 3). In Rhesas dainos p. 307, a rosebud is the soul of the dead youth. The Lay of Runzifal makes a blackthorn shoot up out of the bodies of slain heathens, a white flower by the heads of fallen christians, Karl 118b. When the innocent are put to death, white lilies grow out of their graves, three lilies on that of a maiden (Uhland's Volksl. 241), which no one but her lover may pluck; from the mounds of buried lovers flowering shrubs spring up, whose branches intertwine. In Swedish songs lilies and limes grow out of graves, Sv. vis. 1, 101. 118. In the ballad of 'fair Margaret and sweet William':

Out of her brest there sprang a rose,

And out of his a briar;

They grew till they grew into the church-top,

And there they tyed in a true lovers knot. (2)
In Tristan and Isote I believe it to be a later alteration, that the rose and vine, which twine together over their graves, have first to be planted. In a Servian folksong there grows out of the youth's body a green fir (zelén bor, m.), out of the maiden's a red rose (rumena ruzhitsa, f.), Vuk 1, no. 137, so that the sex is kept up even in the plants: (3) the rose twines round the fir, as the silk round the nosegay. All these examples treat the flower as a mere symbol, or as an after-product of the dead man's intrinsic character: the rose coming up resembles the ascending spirit of the child; the body must first lie buried, before the earth sends up a new growth as out of a seed, conf. chap. XXXVII. But originally there might lie at the bottom of this the idea of an immediate instantaneous passage of the soul into the shape of a flower, for out of mere drops of blood, containing but a small part of the life, a flower is made to spring: the soul has her seat in the blood, and as that ebbs away, she escapes with it. Greek fables tell us how the bodies of the persecuted and slain, especially women, assumed forthwith the figure of a flower, a bush, a tree (p. 653), without leaving any matter behind to decay or be burnt; nay, life and even speech may last while the transformation is taking place. Thus Daphne and Syrinx, when they cannot elude the pursuit of Apollo or Pan, change themselves into a laurel and a reed; the nymph undergoing transformation speaks on so long as the encrusting bark has not crept up to her mouth. Vintler tells us, the wege-warte (OHG. wegawartâ, wegapreitâ), plantago, was once a woman, who by the wayside waited (wartete) for her lover; he suggests no reason for the transformation, conf. Kinderm. no. 160 (see Suppl.).
In the same way popular imagination, childlike, pictures the soul as a bird, which comes flying out of the dying person's mouth. That is why old tombstones often have doves carved on them, and these the christian faith brings into still closer proximity to spirit. (4) A ship founders: the people on shore observe the souls of those who have sunk ascending from the wave toward heaven in the shape of white doves. (5) The Romance legend of the tortured Eulalia says: 'in figure de colomb volat a ciel.' As a bird the little brother, when killed, flies out of the juniper-tree (machandelbom, Kinderm. 47). To the enigma of the green tree and the dry, each with a little bird sitting on it, the interpretation is added: 'ir sêle zen vogelen sî gezalt!' their (the christians') soul be numbered among birds, MS. 2, 248b. In the underworld there fly scorched birds who were souls (sviðnir fuglar er sâlir voro), like swarms of flies, Sæm. 127ª. The heathen Bohemians thought the soul came out of the dying lips as a bird, and hovered among the trees, not knowing where to go till the body was buried; then it found rest. Finns and Lithuanians call the Milkyway the path of birds (p. 357 n. )i.e. of souls.

The Arabs till the time of Mahomet believed that the blood of a murdered man turns into an accusing bird, that flits about the grave till vengeance is taken for the dead.

According to Polish folk-tale every member of the Herburt family turns into an eagle as soon as he dies. The first-born daughters of the house of Pileck were changed into doves if they died unmarried, but the married ones into owls, and to each member of the family they foretold his death by their bite (Woycicki's Klechdy 1, 16). When the robber Madej was confessing under an appletree, and getting quit of his sins, apple after apple flew up into the air, converted into a white dove: they were the souls of those he had murdered. One apple still remained, the soul of his father, whose murder he had suppressed; when at length he owned that heinous crime, the last apple changed into a gray dove, and flew after the rest (ibid. 1, 180). This agrees with the unresting birds of the Boh. legend. In a Podolian folksong, on the grave-mound there shoots up a little oak, and on it sits a snow-white dove (ibid. 1, 209). (6)

Instances of transformation into birds were given above, (p. 673-6. 680), under woodpecker and cuckoo. Greek mythology has plenty of others (see Suppl.).

The popular opinion of Greece also regarded the soul as a winged being (yuch pneuma kai zwufion pthnon (7) says Hesychius), not bird, but butterfly, which is even more apt, for the insect is developed out of the chrysalis, as the soul is out of the body; henceyuch is also the word for butterfly. A Roman epitaph found in Spain has the words: M. Porcius M. haeredibus mando etiam cinere ut meo volitet ebrius papilio. (8) In Basque, 'arima' is soul (conf. arme, alma, p. 826), and 'astoaren arima' (ass's soul) butterfly. We shall come across these butterflies again as will o' the wisps (ziebold, vezha), and in the Chap. on Witches as elvish beings (see Suppl.).

When men are in a trance, or asleep, the soul runs out of them in the shape of a snake, weasel or mouse (chap. XXXIV and Suppl.).

Of will o' the wisps a subsequent change will treat; synonymous with them I find wiesenhüpfer, wiesenhüpferin, meadow-hopper, e.g. in the Mägdelob (printed 1688) p. 46; its explanation, from their dancing on marshy meadows, is right enough, but perhaps too limited. Hans Sachs is not thinking of ignes fatui, when he more than once employs the set phrase: 'mit im schirmen, dass die seel in dem gras umbhupfen,' fence with him till their souls hop about in the grass iii. 3, 13ª. iv. 3, 28ª. 'und schmitz ihn in ein fiderling, dass sein seel muss im gras umbhupfen' iv. 3, 51b; he simply means that the soul flies out of him, he dies. Therefore the same superstition again, that the soul of the dying flutters (as bird or butterfly) in the meadow, i.e. the meadow of the underworld spoken of in p. 822. (9) Just so the Bohemians make the soul fly about in trees, Königinh. hs. p. 88. 106; hence both souls and elves dance to and fro in the meadows at night. Strange, that a minnesänger already makes the soul of a drunken (as if entranced) man jump: 'mîn sêle ûf eime rippe stât, wâfen! diu von dem wîne darûf gehüppet hât' (MS. 2, 105b). (10) So the souls of the drowned keep jumping up out of the jars, p. 496 (see Suppl.). Shooting stars are supposed to be the souls of dying men (p. 722); not only heroes and other men, but separate limbs of their bodies were fixed in the sky as stars, chap. XXII.

These are the simplest (if you will, rudest) notions as to the nature of the soul, and to them I ascribe a high antiquity.

More polished, more deeply rooted in ancient myths, is the opinion of the soul's passage into the domain of the underworld across a water which divides the realm of the living men from that of the dead.

The Norse narratives of the death of Baldr has the remarkable incident, that the âses placed his body on board a vessel, in which they erected the funeral pile, set it on fire, and so committed it to the sea at high water (Sn. 66). (11) In the same way the corpse of the deified hero Scild (p. 369) is adorned and carried into a ship, which drifts away on the sea, nobody knows whither, Beow. 55-----105. Sigmundr bears the body of his beloved son Sinfiötli to the seashore, where a stranger waits with a skiff, and offers a passage; Sigmundr lays the dead in the boat, which has then its full freight, the unknown pushes off and sails away with the corspe, Sæm. 170-1. Fornald. sög. 1, 142. Frotho's Law p. 87 lays down distinctions of rank: 'Centurionis vel satrapae corpus rogo propria nave constructo funerandum constituit; dena autem gubernatorum corpora unius puppis igne consumi praecepit; ducem quempiam aut regem interfectum proprio injectum navigio concremari.' The dead Iarlmâgus is conveyed in a ship by his widow to a holy land, Iarlm. saga cap. 45. A Swedish folk-tale (Afzelius 1, 4) speaks of a golden ship lying sunk near the schlüsselberg at Runemad; in that ship Odin is said to have carried the slain from Bråvalla to Valhall. In the O. Fr. romance of Lancelot du lac, ed. 1591, p. 147 the demoiselle d'Escalot arranges what is to be done with her body: 'le pria, que son corps fût mis en une nef richement equippée, que l'on laisseroit aller au gré du vent sans conduite.' (12) And in the romance of Gawan a swan tows a boat in which lies a dead knight (Keller's Romvart 670). Was it believed that the corpse, abandoned to the sacred sea and the winds, would of itself arrive at the land of death that was not to be reached under human guidance?

Here it is the corpse that is transported, in other legends merely the soul when released from the body: it is over again the distinction we noticed above, p. 827. In the Nialss. cap. 160, old Flosi, weary of life, is even said to have taken a battered boat, and thrown himself on the mercy of the sea-waves: 'bar â skip ok lêt î haf, ok hefir til þess skips aldri spurt sîðan,' never heard of since.

The Greeks believed that Charon ferried the souls in a narrow two-oared boat over the Styx, Aceron or Cocytus to the kingdom of Hades. For this he charged a fare,ta porqmia, therefore they placed an obolos (the danaka) in the mouth of the dead. (13) This custom of putting a small coin in the mouth of a corpse occurs among Germans too, Superst. I, 207 where a modern and mistaken reason is alleged for it [lest they come back to visit buried hoards]: originally the money could be no other than that same naulum.

One stormy night a monkish figure wakes a boatman who lies buried in sleep, puts passage-money in his hand, and demands to be taken across the river. At first six monks step into the boat, but no sooner is it fairly launced, than suddenly it is fill by a throng of friars black and white, and the ferryman has scarcely room left for himself. With difficulty he rows across, the passengers alight, and a hurricane hurls the ferryboat back to the place of starting, where another set of travellers wait and take possession of the boat, the foremost of whom with fingers cold as ice presses the fare-penny into the boatman's hand. The return voyage is made in the same violent way as before. (14) The like is told, but less completely, of monks crossing the Rhine at Spire. (15) In neither story can we detect the purpose of the voyage; they seem to be early heathen reminiscences, which, not to perish entirely, had changed their form (see Suppl.).

Procopius de bello Goth. 4, 20 (ed. Bonn. 2, 567), speaking of the isalnd of Brittia, imparts a legend which he had often heard from the lips of the inhabitants. They imagine that the souls of the dead are transported to that island. On the coast of the continent there dwell under Frankish sovereignty, but hitherto exempt from all taxation, fishers and farmers, whose duty it is to ferry the souls over. (16) This duty they take in turn. Those to whom it falls on any night, go to bed at dusk; at midnight they hear a knocking at their door, and muffled voices calling. Immediately they rise, go to the shore, and there see empty boats, not their own but strange ones, they go on board and seize the oars. When the boat is under way, they perceive that she is laden choke-full, with her gunwhales hardly a finger's breadth above water. Yet they see no one, and in an hour's time they touch land, which one of their own craft would take a day and a night to do. Arrived at Brittia, the boat speedily unloads, and becomes so light that she only dips her keel in the wave. Neither on the voyage nor at landing do they see any one, but they hear a voice loudly asking each one his name and country. Women that have crossed give their husbands' names.


1. Where soul stands for life, vitality, a neuter word is used, OHG. ferah MHG. verch, AS. feorh, ON. fiör; but we saw (p. 793), how far from vita and bioj there arose the sum total of all that lives, the world, Goth. faírhvus. [Back]

2. Percy 3, 123; variant in Rob. Jamieson 1, 33-4. [Back]

3. Therefore der rebe (vine) belongs to Tristan's grave, diu rôse to Isote's, as in Eilhart and the chap-book; Ulrich and Heinrich made the plants change places. [Back]

4. Servati Lupi vita S. Wigberhti, cap. 11: Verum hora exitus ejus.....circumstantibus fratribus, visa est avis quaedam specie pulcherrima supra ejus corpusculum ter advolasse, nusquamque postea comparuisse. Not so much the soul itself, as a spirit who escorts it. [Back]

5. Maerlant 2, 217, from a Latin source. [Back]

6. Na téj mogile wyróst ci dabeczek, na niéj bieluchny siada gotabeczek. [Back]

7. yuch d ek swmatoj epth, flew out of the body, Batrach. 207. yuch de melewn exepth 211. ek melewn qumoj ptato, Il. 23, 880. [Back]

8. First in Ambr. de Morales's Antiquidades de las cindades de España, Alcala 1575, fol. 31b; thence in Guter, and in Spon's Miscell. erud. antiq. p. 8. [Back]

9. Those who are neither saved nor damned come into the green meadow, Heinse's Ardinghello 1, 96. [Back]

10. Conf. Helbl. 1, 354: 'vrou Sêle, tretet ûf ein rippe.' Renart in his bucket at the bottom of the well (p. 807), to humbug Ysengrin, pretends he is living in paradise there, and that every soul, on parting from the body, has to sit on the bucket-pole till it is penitent, then it may climb down, and leave all its ills behind, Renart 6804-13. [Back]

11. What deep root this custom had taken in the North, may be gathered from the fact that bodies were also buried in a boat [on land], doubtless so that on their journey to the underworld, when they came to a water, they might have their ferry at hand. 'Hâkon konûngr tôk þar skip öll et âtt höfðo Eirîks synir, ok lêt draga â land upp; þar lêt Hâkon leggja Egil Ullserk î skip, oc með hânom alla þâ menn er af þeirra liði höfðo fallit, lêt bera þar at iörð oc griot. Hâkon konûngr lêt oc fleiri skip uppsetja, oc bera â valinn,' Saga H. gôða, cap. 27. 'Unnr var lögð î skip î haugînum,' Laxd. p. 16. 'Asmundr var heygðr ok î skip lagðr, þræll hans lagðr î annan stafn skipsins,' Islend. sög. 1, 66. 'Geirmundr heygðr ok lagðr î skip þar ûtî skôginn fra garði,' ibid. 1, 97. Probably the bodies of the great were first laid in a coffin, and this put in the boat, which was then buried in the hill. Gudrun says: 'knör mun ek kaupa ok kisto steinða,' Sæm. 264b. No boats have been found, that I know of, in ancient barrows of Continental Germany. [Back]

12. Cento novelle antiche 81: La damigella di Scalot; the 'navicella sanza vela, sanza remi e snaza neuno sopra sagliente' is carried down to Camalot, to the court of Re Artu. [Back]

13. Diodor. 1, 90. Eurip. Alc. 253. 441. Aen. 6, 298. At Hermione in Argolis, supposed to be no great distance from the underworld, no money was given to the dead, Strabo 8, 373. These coins are often found in ancient tombs, K. Fr. Hermann's Antiq. 198. [Back]

14. Neue volksmärchen der Deutschen, Leipz. 1792. 3, 45-7. [Back]

15. D.S. no. 275; earliest auth. an account by Geo. Sabinus (b. 1508 d. 1560). Melander's Joc. no. 664. [Back]

16. Ta men alla Fraggwn kathkooi ontej, forou mentoi apagwghn oudepwpote parascomenoi, ufeimenou autoij ek palaiou toude tou acqouj, upourgiaj tinoj, wj fasin, eneka. legousi oi tauth anqrwpoi ek peritrophj epikeisqai taj twn yucwn parapompaj sfisi. On this passage and one in Tzetzes, consult Welcker in Rhein. mus. 1, 238 seq. Conf. Plutarch de defectu oracul. cap. 18 (ed. Reiske 7, 652): O de Dhmhtrioj efh twn peri thn Bretannian nhswn einai pollaj erhmouj sporadaj, wn enias daimonwn kai hrwwn onomazesqai, pleusai de autoj istoriaj kai qeaj eneka, pomph tou basilewj, eij thn eggista keimenhn twn erhmwn, ecousan ou pollouj epoikountaj, ierous de kai asulouj pantaj upo twn Bretannwn ontaj. afikomenou d autou newsti, sugcusin megalhn peri ton aera kai dioshmeaj pollaj genesqai, kai pveumata katarraghnai kai pesein prhsthras. epei d elwfhse, legein touj nhsiwtaj, oti twn kreissonwn tinoj ekleiyij gegonen. wj gar lucnoj avaptomenoj fanai deinon ouden ecei, sbennumenoj de polloij luphroj estin, outwj ai megalai yucai taj men analamyeij eumeneij kai alupous ecousin, ai de sbeseis autwn kai fqorai pollakis meh, wj nunl, pneumata kai zalaj trepousi, pollakij de loimikoij paqesin aera farmattousin. ekei mentoi mian einai nhson, en h ton Kronon kateimcqai frouroumenon upo tou Brtarew kaqeudonta. desmon gar autw ton upnon memhcanhsqai, pollouj de peri auton einai daimonas opadoij kai qerapontaj. This kronos asleep on the holy island far way, with his retinue of servants, is like a Wuotan enchanted in a mountain, conf. Humboldt in Herm. Müller p. 440-1. Welcker's Kl. schr. 2, 177. [Back]

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