The Northern Way

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology

Chapter 27

Chapter 27: Death

(Page 1)

To the olden time Death was not a being that killed, but simply one that fetched away and escorted to the underworld. Sword or sickness killed; Death came in as messenger of a deity, to whom he conducted the parting soul. Dying is announced, not caused, by his arrival. So to that child in the fairytale the angel of death had given a flower-bud: when it blossomed, he would come again.

And the Jewish notion, which Christianity retained, is in harmony with this. The soul of the beggar is fetched away by angels of God, and carried into Abraham's bosom, Luke 16, 22; or, as the Heliand 103, 5 expresses it: 'Godes engilôs andfengon is ferh, endi lêddon ine an Abrahâmes barm'; (1) and it completes the picture of the rich man's fate by adding the counterpart (103, 9): 'lêtha wihti bisenkidun is sêola an thene suarton hel,' loathly wights (devils) sank his soul into swart hell. A sermon in Leyser 126 has: 'wane ir ne wizzit niht, zu welicher zît der bote (messenger) unsers herren Gotis zu ture clopfe (may knock at the door). Welich ist der bote? daz ist der Tôt (death)'; and 161: 'nu quam ouch der gemeine bote (general messenger), der nieman ledic lât (lets alone), wie lange im maniger vorgât, daz ist der gewisse tôt.' 'Dô der Tôt im sîn zuokunft enbôt (announced), sô daz er in geleite,' he might escort him, Greg. 20.

There is no substantial difference between this and the older heathen view. Halja, Hel, the death-goddess, does not destroy, she recieves the dead man in her house, and will on no account give him up. To kill a man is called sending him to her. Hel neither comes to fetch the souls fallen due to her, (2) nor sends messengers after them. The dead are left alone to commence the long and gloomy journey; shoes, ship and ferry-money, servants, horses, clothes, they take with them from home for the hell-way. Some ride, others sail, whole companies of souls troop together: no conductor comes to meet them.

There were other gods besides, who took possession of souls. The sea-goddess Rân draws to herself with a net all the bodies drowned within her province (p. 311). Water-sprites in general seem fond of detaining souls: dame Holle herself, at whose dwelling arrive those who fall into the well (pp. 268. 822), has a certain resemblances to Hel (see Suppl.).

It is another matter with the souls destined for Valhöll. Oðinn sends out the valkyrs to take up all heroes that have fallen in fight, and conduct them to his heaven (p. 418): wish-maidens fetch his wish-sons, 'þær kiôsa feigð â menn,' Sn. 39. Their attendance and the heroes' reception are splendidly set forth in the Hâkonarmâl. But these messengers also take charge of heroes while alive, and protect them until death: they are guardian-angels and death-angels. How beautiful, that the gracious god, before he summons them, has provided his elect with an attendant spirit to glorify their earthly path!

I can see a connection between valkyrs and Hermes, who is wielder of the wishing-rod (p. 419) and conductor of souls to the underworld, yucagwgoj, yucopompoj, nekropompoj . These maids are Oðin's messengers, as Hermes is herald of the gods, nay Hermes is Oðinn himself, to whom the souls belong. Thus the god's relation to the dead is an additional proof of the identity between Wuotan and Mercury. A distinction appears in the fact that Hermes, like the Etruscan Charun (O. Müller 2, 100), conducts to Hades, but not, as far as I know, to Elysium; valkyrs, on the contrary, to Valhöll, and not to Hel. Further, the function of guardian-spirit is wanting to Hermes.

This idea of a protecting spirit finds expression more in the personified Thanatos (death) of the Greek people's faith. He is pictured as a genius, with hand on cheek in deep thought, or setting his foot on the psyche (soul) as if taking possession of her; often his hands are crossed over the extinguished torch. At times he appears black (like Hel, p. 313) or black-winged (atris alis): ton de pesonta eile melaj qanatoj, yuch d ek swmatoj epth (Batrach. 207) (3), and aleuato khra melainan (ibid. 85). But usually the departing dead is represented riding a horse, which a genius leads: an open door betokens the departure, as we still throw open a door or window when any one dies (Superst. I, 664). As a symbol, the door alone, the horse's head alone, may express the removal of the soul. (4) The Roman genius of death seems to announce his approach or the hour of parting by knocking at the door; (5) a knocking and poking at night is ghostly and ominous of death (see Suppl.).

Roman works of art never give Death the shape of a female like Halja, though we should have expected it from the gender of mors, and originally the people can scarcely have conceived it otherwise; the Slavic smrt, smert (the same word) is invariably fem., the Lith. smertis is of either gender, the Lett. nahwe fem. alone. And the Slav. Morena, Marana (Morena, Marzana), described p. 771, seems to border closely on smrt and mors.

These words find an echo in Teutonic ones. Schmerz, smart, we now have only in the sense of pain, originally it must have been the pains of death, as our qual (torment) has to do with quellan, AS. cwellan, Eng. kill: (6) the OHG. MHG. and AS. have alone retained the strong verb smërzen, smeortan (dolere). OHG. smerza is fem., MHG. smerze masc., but never personified. Nahwe answers to the Goth. masc. náus, pl. naveis, funus (conf. ON. nâr, nâinn p. 453), asqanatoj too can mean a corpse. (7) But this Grk. word has the same root as the Goth. dáuþus, OHG. tôd (orig. tôdu) masc., OS. dôd, dôð, AS. deáð, ON. dauði, all masc., the M. Nethl. dôt having alone preserved the fem. gender, which is however compatible with the Gothic form. The verb in Gothic is diva, dáu (morior), standing in the same relation to qnhskw, eqanon, qanatoj as the Gothic Tiv to the Slavic dan (day, p. 195). The ON. dauði I find used only of the condition, not of the person, while the Goth. dáuþus does express the latter in 1 Cor. 15, 55 (see Suppl.).

To this affinity of words corresponds a similarity of sentiments. The most prominent of these in our old poets seem to be the following.

As all spirits appear suddenly, (8) so does Death; no sooner named or called, than he comes: 'hie nâhet der Tôt manigem manne,' Roth. 277b. 'daz in nâhet der Tôt,' Nib. 2106, 4. 'dô nâhte im der Tôt' 2002, 3. 'Mors praesens,' Walthar. 191. 'der Tôt gêt dir vaste zuo,' Karl. 69b. He lurks in the background as it were, waiting for call or beck (Freidank 177, 17. 'dem Tôde winken,' beckon to D., Renn. 9540). Like fate, like Wurt, he is nigh and at hand (p. 406). Like the haunting homesprite or will o' wisp, he rides on people's necks: 'der Tôt mir sitzet ûf dem kragen,' Kolocz. 174. 'stêt vor der tür,' Diut. 2, 153. A story in Reusch (no. 36) makes Death sit outside the door, waiting for it to open; he therefore catches the soul as it goes out.

Luckless life-weary men call him to their side, complain of his delay: 'Tôt, nu nim dîn teil an mir!' now take thy share of me, Wh. 61, 2. 'Tôt, daz du mich nu kanst sparn!' 61, 12. 'wâ nû Tôt, du nim mich hin!' Ecke 145. (9) 'Mort, qar me pren, si me delivre!' Ren. 9995. 'Mors, cur tam sera venis?' Rudl. 7, 58. 'ô wê Tôt, dazt' ie sô lange mîn verbære!' shouldst forbear, shun me, MsH. 1, 89ª. 'por ce requier à Dieu la mort,' Méon nouv. rec. 2, 241. We know the Aesopic fable of the old man and Thanatos. To wish for death is also called seeking Death, (10) sending for Death, having him fetched: 'jâ wænet des der degen, ich habe gesant nâch Tôde (he fancies I have sent for D.): ich wil's noch lenger pflegen,' Nib. 486, 5. Of a slothful servant it is said he is a good one to send after Death, i.e. he goes so slow, you may expect to live a good while longer. This saying must have been widely diffused: 'en lui avon bon mesagier por querre la Mort et cerchier, que il revendroit moult à tart,' Ren. 5885. 'du werst ein bot gar guot zuo schicken nach dem Todt, du kommst nit bald,' H. Sachs 1, 478c. 'werst gut nach dem Tod zu schicken' iv. 3, 43d. Fischart geschichtkl. 84ª. 'du är god att skicka efter Döden,' Hallman p. 94. 'bon à aller chercher la mort,' Pluquet contes p. 2. In Boh.: 'to dobré gest pro Smrt posjlati,' Jungmann 4, 193ª. Can this lazy servant be connected with Gânglati and Gânglöt, the man and maid servant of the ancient Hel? Sn. 33.

Death takes the soul and carries it away: 'hina fuartanan Tôd,' O. i. 21, 1. 'dô quam der Tôt und nam in hin,' Lohengr. 186. 'er begrîfet,' Gregor. 413. Diut. 3, 53. ergreif, gript, Greg. 19, an expression used also of Sleep, the brother of Death, when he falls upon and overpowers: 'der Slâf in begreif,' Pf. Chuonr. 7076. He presses men into his house, the door of which stands open: 'gegen im het der Tôt sînes hûses tür entlochen (unlocked),' Bit. 12053. 'der Tôt weiz manige sâze (trick), swâ er wil dem menschen schaden und in heim ze hûs laden (entice),' Türh. Wh. 2281. 'dô in der Tôt heim nam in sîn gezimmer (building),' 'brâht heim in sîn gemiure (walls),' Lohengr. 143. 150. These are derivations from the original idea, which did not provide him with a dwelling of his own; or is he here an equivalent for Hel?

Probably, like all messengers (RA. 135), like Hermes the conductor of souls, he carries a staff, the symbol of a journey, or of delegated authority. With this wand, this rod (of wish), he touches whatever has fallen due to him: 'la Mort de sa verge le toucha,' Méon 4, 107. (11)

To Death is ascribed a highway, levelled smooth and kept in repair, on which the dead travel with him: 'des Tôdes pfat wart g'ebenet,' Turl. Wh. 22ª. 23b. 'dâ moht erbouwen der Tôt sîn strâze,' Bit. 10654. 'nu seht, wie der Tôt umbe sich mit kreften hât gebouwen,' Kl. 829. Like a shifty active servant, he greases the boots of the man he comes to fetch, in preparation for the great journey; in Burgundy his arrival is expressed in the phrase: 'quan la Mor venré graisse no bote,' quand la Mort viendra graisser nos bottes; Noei Borguignon p. 249 (see Suppl.).

A thoroughly heathen feature it is, to my thinking, that he appears mounted, like the valkyrs; on horseback he fetches away, he sets the dead on his own horse. In a folksong of wide circulation the lover, dead and buried far away, comes at midnight and rides off with his bride. (12) Possibly that horse's head at p. 841 stands more for Death's horse than for the dead man's. Both Hel and her messenger, like other gods, had doubtless a horse at their service; this is confirmed by certain phrases and fancies that linger here and there among the people. One who has got over a serious illness will say: 'jeg gav Döden en skiäppe havre' (Thiele 1, 138), he has appeased Death by sacrificing to him a bushel of oats for his horse. So the heathen fed the horse of Wuotan (p. 154), of dame Gaue (p. 252); the Slavs did the same for their Svantevit and Radegast (p. 661). Of one who blunders in noisily they say, in Denmark as above: 'han gaaer som en helhest,' he goes like a hel-horse, Dansk orbd. 2, 545ª. There are more things told of this hel-hest: he goes round the churchyard on his three legs, he fetches Death. One folktale has it, that in every churchyard, before it receives human bodies, a live horse is buried, and this is what becomes the walking dead-horse (Thiele 1, 137); originally it was no other than the Death-goddess riding round. Arnkiel quotes 1, 55 the Schleswig superstition, that in time of plague 'die Hell (13) rides about on a three-legged horse, destroying men'; if at such a time the dogs bark and howl in the night (for dogs are spirit-seers), they say 'Hell is at the dogs'; when the plague ceases, 'Hell is driven away'; if a man on the brink of death recovers, 'he has come to terms with Hell.' Here, as in other cases, the notion of Death has run into one with the personified plague. In our own medieval poems we never read of Death riding about, but we do of his loading his horse with souls. Thus, in describing a battle: 'seht, ob der Tôt dâ iht sîn soumer lüede (loaded his sumpter at all)? jâ er was unmüezec gar (high busy),' Lohengr. 71. 'daz ist des Tôdes vuoder mit in lüed und vazzet!' Ottocar 448ª. The Mod. Greeks have converted old ferrymanCarwn into a death's-messenger> Caroj; you see him crossing the mountains with his dusky throng, himself riding, the young men walking before him, the old following behind, and the tender babes ranged on his saddle. (14) The Lübeck Dance of Death makes him ride on a lion, and he is so represented in a picture also, Douce p. 160. 'Mortis habenae,' Abbo de bellis Paris. 1, 187. 322 (see Suppl.).


1. It is a beautiful image, that the dying return to God's bosom, children to that of their father, whence they had issued at birth. But the same thing was known to our heathenism, which called newborn and adopted children 'bosom-children, wish-children,' RA. 455. 464, and interpreted dying as departing to Wuotan, to Wish (p. 145). To heathens then, as well as christians, to die was to fare to God, to enter into God's rest and peace, 'Metod seon,' Beow. 2360, 'fêran on Freán wære,' the Lord's peace 52. So, to be buried is to fall into the mother's bosom (p. 642); mother and father take their children into their keeping again. [Back]

2. It is only in a dream-vision that she appears: 'postera nocte eidem Proserpina per quietem adstare aspecta postridie ejus complexu usuram denunciat. nec mane somnii praesagium fuit.' Saxo Gram. p. 43 [Back]

3. One would suppose from this passage, that Death took only the corpse of the fallen to himself, that the soul flew away to Hades, for it is said of her in v. 235 aidoj de bebhkei [Back].

4. O. Müller's Archäol., ed. 2, pp. 604. 696. For the horse's head, conf. Boeckh's Corp. inscr. no. 800. Marm. Oxon. p. 2, no. 63-7. R. Rochette's Monum. inéd. 1, 126. Pausan. vii. 25, 7. Gerhard's Antike bildw. p. 407. [Back]

5. Hor. Od. i. 4, 13: pallida mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas regumque turres. [Back]

6. Constant use will soften down the meaning of the harshest terms; we had an instance in the Fr. gêne, p. 800n. [Back]

7. Goth leik (corpus, caro), our leiche, leichnam, Eng. lich (cadaver); the OHG. hrêo, AS. hræw, MHG. rê (cadaver, funus), and Goth. hrâin (whence hráiva-dubô, mourner-dove) are the Lat. corpus. [Back]

8. Supra p. 325. Reinhart p. liii. cxxx; like Night, Winter, and the Judgment-day, Death 'breaksin.' [Back]

9. So beasts of prey are invited, Er. 5832: 'wâ nû hungerigiu tier, bêde wolf und ber, iwer einez (one of you) kume her und ezze uns beide!' [Back]

10. Straparola 4, 5 tells of a young man who from curiosity started off to hunt up Death. [Back]

11. In Danse Macabre p. m. 55, trois verges are wielded by Death. [Back]

12. 'The moon shines bright, the dead ride fast,' Bürger's life p. 37. Wh. 2, 20. 't maantje schijnt zo hel, mijn paardtjes lope zo snel,' Kinderm. 3, 77. 'månan skiner, dödman rider,' Sv. vis. 1, liiii. and even in the Edda: 'rîda menn dauðir,' Sæm. 166b. 167ª. Norw. 'manen skjine, döman grine, värte du ikkje räd?' Conf. the Mod. Grk. song in Wh. Müller 2, 64, and Vuk 1, no. 404. [Back]

13. He writes 'der Hell,' masc.; but the Plattdeutsch, when they attempt H. Germ., often misuse the article, e.g. 'der Pest' for 'die Pest.' [Back]

14. Ta trufera paidopoula j thn sell arradiasmena, Fauriel 2, 228. Wh. Müller 2, 8; conf. Kind 1849, p. 14 .[Back]

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