The Northern Way

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology

Chapter 31

Chapter 31

(Page 1)

A preceding chapter has treated of Souls in their state of separation from the body and passage to another dwelling-place: these are the souls that have found their rest, that have been taken up into hades or heaven. Thenceforward they sustain only a more general connexion with earth and the living; their memory is hallowed by festivals, and in early times probably by sacrifices. (1)

Distinct from these are such spirits as have not become partakers, or not completely, of blessedness and peace, but hover betwixt heaven and earth, and in some cases even return to their old home. These souls that appear, that come back, that haunt, we call spectres (ghosts).

The Roman expression for peaceful happy spirits of the dead was manes, for uncanny disquieting apparitions lemures or larvae; though the terms fluctuate for 'manes' can denote spectral beings too, and 'lemures' can have a general meaning (Creuzer's Symb. 2, 850-866). Larva betrays its affinity to lar (p. 500), and the good kindly lares were often held to be manes or souls of departed ancestors. So in our German superstition we find instances of souls becoming homesprites or kobolds, (2) and still oftener is there a connexion between unquiet spirits and spectres (3) (see Suppl.).

For the quiet spirits and their condition, our language has a beautiful adj., OHG. hiuri laetus, mitis, AS. heoru, Beow. 2744, ON. hýr, MHG. gehiure, our geheuer when we say 'es ist geheuer,' all is quiet, happy, peaceful. The contrary is expresed by OHG. and OS. unhiuri dirus, saevus, AS. unheoru, Beow. 1967 (unhiore 4822. unhýre 4236. Cædm. 138, 5), ON. ôhýr, MHG. ungehiure, our ungeheuer: 'es ist ungeheuer,' there's something wrong. But both words go further, God is called hiuri, the devil unhiuri; ungeheuer is monstrum, portentum in general. The Gothic form would be hiuris, which seems nearly allied to haúri (pruna, ember), ON. hyr ignis, and is therefore the shining, the bright; if an OHG. gloss in Graff 4, 1014 be correct, even the non-negative hiuri may signify dirus, viz. fiery in a bad sense, such as we shall find presently in connexion with ignes fatui. Much the same in meaning with hiuri and unhiuri are holdo and unholdo (pp. 266. 456), though these are applied more to spirits and daemons than to human souls; yet Notker renders 'manes' by unholdon, so that holdo and unholdo also appear synonymous here.

The OHG. kispanst fem. (our gespenst n., spectre) meant properly suggestio (from spanan, suggerere); but as the forms of confession dealt much with devilish suggestion and enticement, (4) men came to use it habitually of ghostly delusion and illusion. Boner 94, 54 has 'diu gespenst' (why not gespanst?) for phantom, apparition. The neuter is found in the Mære vom schretel und wazzerber 92 quite in the above connexion: 'des tiuvels vâlant und sîn gespenste'; even earlier, Herbort 3500 couples gespenste and getwâs. Keisersperg (Omeiss 39) has des teufels gespenst (praestigium): not till recent centuries did the term become really common, and some spelt it gespengst.

We also say spuk; it is a LG. word, which first occurs in the Chron. saxon. (Eccard p. 1391) in the form spôkne; Detmar 1, 136 has spuk, and 2, 206 vorspok praesagium. Nowadays spôk, Nethl. spook, spookzel, Swed. spöke, Dan. spökenis A.D. 1618, spögelse spectrum spög jocus; we should therefore expect a MHG. spuoch, Mod. spuch, but it is nowhere to be found. Gespüc indeed stands in Berthold, Cod. pal. 35, fol. 27b (see Suppl.).

More precise is the ON. aptrgânga fem., Laxd. saga p. 225, as if anima rediens, Dan. gienfärd, gienganger, Fr. revenant, Saxo Gram. 91 says redivivus; conf. our phrase 'es geht um,' something haunts (lit. goes about); 'at hann gengi eigi dauðr,' that he walk not when dead, Fornald. sög. 2, 346. To haunt is in L. Sax. dwetern, on the Harz walten (Harry's Volkss. 2, 46).

The regular word in ON. is draugr, Fornm. sög. 3, 200: Oðinn is styled 'drauga drôttinn,' Yngl. saga cap. 7, and a gravemound draugahûs, Sæm. 169a. The word is lost in Sweden and Denmark, but lives in the Norweg. drou, droug (Hallager 20c). It seems to be of one root with OHG. gitroc, MHG. getroc, delusive apparition, phantom, used of elvish and fiendish beings (p. 464); but our verb triegen, OHG. triokan trôc (fallere) has no corresponding driuga in the Northern languages. (5) The Edda uses the analogous svik (fallacia, fraus) likewise in the sense of a ghostly jugglery, Sæm. 166b. 167a. And that is also the meaning of the terms giscîn and scînleih quoted in 482; they can refer to spectres as well as to wood-sprites (see Suppl.).

The glosses yield a number of old words for the Lat. larva. To begin with the earliest, the Florent. 982b gives talamasga, and the later M. Nethl. coll. (Diut. 2, 220) talmasge, Kilian too has talmasche larva, talmaschen larvam induere; it is the O.Fr. talmache, tamasche in Roquefort, who explains it as masque, faux visage, and 'talmache de vaisseau' is a figure fixed on a ship. (6) Other glosses have flathe, and scraz, scrat (p. 478). Mummel is both larva and kobold (p. 506). Anything uncanny and alarming, monstrum, prodigium, portentum, praestigium, acquires the meaning of spectre too. Again, getwâs (p. 464), Herbort 842. 12856. 'ein bôse getwâs, Vom gelouben 530; the M. Nethl. ghedwaes, Hor. belg. 6, 249 agrees with the Lith. dwase, spectre [v. the LS. verb dwetern above]. In Martina 10 we read 'daz geschrudel;' and in Stald. 2, 27. 59. 64 das nachthuri, das ghüdi. The ON. vofa is spectrum, from vofa ingruere, imminere; the draugr is also called a dôlgr, foe, Fornald. sög. 2, 368. Fornm. sög. 3, 200, and from this perhaps comes the Upland dödöljor, manes defunctorum (Ihre's Dial. lex 32b), if not from dylja (celare), Sw. dölja (see Suppl.).

Now it is remarkable that even the ON. draugar are described as begirt with fire: 'hauga eldar brenna,' Fornald. sög. 1, 434. 'lupu upp hauga eldarnir' 1, 518. Loka daun (p. 242) is the Icel. name of a fiery exhalation. To this day it is the popular belief all over Germany, that souls which have not attained heavenly peace roam at night like bewildered birds, in fiery shape, (7) on field and meadow, conf. wiesenhüpfer p. 829. The traveller, who takes them for village lights, they lure out of his way, now approaching, now retiring: they perch on his back like kobolds (Superst. I, 611), and flap their wings together over him (Deut. sag. no. 276); they lead into bogs, on deceptive devious tracks, hirrlig-spor (St. 2, 45), exactly like the butz, p. 507. The pedestrian tries to keep one foot at least in the carriage-rut, and then he gets on safely, for ignes fatui have power on footpaths only. According to Villemarqué's Barzasbreiz 1, 100 the spirit is a child with a firebrand in his hand, while he whirls round like a flaming wheel; now he appears as a sick horse, and when the herdsman would lead him into the stable, hurls the brand at his head; now as a bleating goat gone astray, that after sundown shews itself on the pond, and tempts the traveller into the water, then scampers off to tease him. In Etner's Unwürd. doctor p. 747, 'fire-men and frisking goats' are coupled together.----The phenomenon has a vast variety of names. Our commonest one is irlicht (err-light) and, from its resemblance to a burning wisp of straw, irwisch and on the Rhine heerwisch; in Austria feuriger mann and fuchtelmann (Höfer 1, 251) from fuchteln to burnish or jerk to and fro, viz. the fiery blade. (8) In Pictorius p. 524 zeusler from zeuseln, züseln to toy with fire; otherwise zünsler, zündler, and in Fischart's Garg. 231 zunsel-gespenst, conf. Höfer sub v. zinserl. In Low Germ. gloiniger (glowing) man; tückebold, tukkebode, not from tücke malice, but from tuk a quick movement (Reinh. p. 109) or zucken to dart to and fro, conf. HG. ziebold butterfly; in Westph. smalgenfür, which I can hardly make out. More generally known are dwerlicht (whirling flame); elflicht; dwellicht (from dwelen, dwalen to stray); Nethl. dwaallicht; droglicht (deceptive again), drogfackel, and in Nassau druckfackel, Kehrein's Nas. 31-2. Dan. lygtemand (lantern-man), blaasmand (Molbech's Dial. 39) and vätte-lys (light of wights, sprites); Swed. lys-eld, lyktgubbe; Engl., with that fondness for christening which we noticed under homesprites (p. 504), Will with a wisp, Jack in a lanthorn. Lat. ignis fatuus (Ann. corbei. an. 1034); Fr. feu follet (follis, p. 508), fifollet (Pluquet's Contes p. 13), farfadet, sauterai, also, acc. to Mém. des ant. 4, 406, a quela incomprehensible to me. Slovèn. vezha (butterfly, witch), shkopnik, -niak (straw-man, from shkopa, MHG. schoup), smotava (from smota, error), slep ogeni (blind fire); svétylko (light, dim.), bludicka (from blud, error); Pol. blednica; Laus. bludne swieczke; Russ. bludiáshchiy ogóni. I do not know any very old names even in Teutonic languages, unless it be irreganc and girregar in a Königsberg MS. (Grundr. 345); but Irreganc in Ls. 2, 314 is the name of a wandering scholar, and irrefogel in Haupt's Zeitschr. 1, 438 means the same, conf. Schm. 3, 588; the Titurel 576 has 'ein irregengel vor allem valsche.' The two words vätteölys and elf-licht, shewing a close connexion with wights and elves, are perhaps the oldest we have. Sindri (scintilla), a dwarf's name in the Edda, Sæm. 7b, suggests the Slav homesprite Iskrzycki (iskra spark, p. 513). A story is told of an irwisch getting caught, and a great many more coming soon after to claim him back: this represents them as an elvish people, who stick to one another. (9)

Will o' wisps had once, no doubt, a wider meaning, which has now been narrowed down mainly to two classes of unblessed spirits, the souls of unchristened babes, (10) and those of men who in their lifetime dealt wrongly by the cornfield, who respected not the sacredness of landmarks. (11) Unrighteous land-surveyors (Swed. skiäll-vrängare) may be seen hovering up and down the furrows with a long fiery pole, as if re-measuring the wrongly measured; whoso has ploughed of his neighbour's land, whoso has moved the mark-stone, on him falls the curse of wandering as a will o' wisp. Hence about ploughing debatable strips, one hears the people say: 'ik mag nüt spüken gan,' conf. Deut. sag. nos. 284-5. Thiele 1, 58 (see Suppl.).

Another class of spectres will prove more fruitful for our investigation: they, like the ignes fatui, include unchristened babes, but instead of straggling singly on the earth as fires, they sweep through forest and air in whole companies (12) with a horrible din. This is the widely spread legend of the furious host, the furious hunt, which is of high antiquity, and interweaves itself, now with gods, and now with heroes. Look where you will, it betrays its connexion with heathenism.

The Christians had not so quickly nor so completely renounced their faith in the gods of their fathers, that those imposing figures could all at once drop out of their memory. Obstinately clung to by some, they were merely assigned a new position more in the background. The former god lost his sociable character, his near familiar features, and assumed the aspect of a dark and dreadful power, that still had a certain amount of influence left. His hold lost upon men and their ministry, he wandered and hovered in the air, a spectre and a devil.

I have already affirmed on p. 132 a connexion between this wütende heer and Wuotan, the god being linked with it in name as in reality. An unprinted poem of Rüdiger von Munir contains among other conjuring formulas 'bî Wuotunges her.' Wuotunc and Wuotan are two names of one meaning. Wuotan, the god of war and victory, rides at the head of this aërial phenomenon; when the Mecklenburg peasant of this day hears the noise of it, he says 'de Wode tüt (zieht),' Adelung sub v. wüthen; so in Pomerania and Holstein, 'Wode jaget,' W. hunts (p. 156). Wuotan appears riding, driving, hunting, as in Norse sagas, with valkyrs and einheriar in his train; the procession resembles an army. Full assurance of this hunting Wode's identity with the heathen god is obtained from parallel phrases and folktales in Scandinavia. The phenomenon of howling wind is referred to Oðin's waggon, as that of thunder is to Thôr's. On hearing a noise at night, as of horses and carts, they say in Sweden 'Oden far förbi.' (13) In Schonen an uproar produced perhaps by seafowl on November and December evenings is called Odens jagt. (14) In Bavaria they say nacht-gejaid or nacht-gelait (processio nocturna), Schm. 2, 264. 514; in German Bohemia nacht-goid = spectre, Rank's Böhmerwald pp. 46. 78. 83. 91. In Thuringia, Hesse, Franconia, Swabia, the traditional term is 'das wütende heer,' and it must be one of long standing: the 12th cent. poet of the Urstende (Hahn 105, 35) uses 'daz wuetunde her' of the Jews who fell upon the Saviour; in Rol. 204, 16 Pharaoh's army whelmed by the sea is 'sîn wôtigez her,' in Stricker 73b 'daz wüetunde her'; Reinfr. v. Brnswg. 4b 'daz wüetende her'; Mich. Beheim 176, 5 speaks of a 'crying and whooping (wufen) as if it were das wutend her'; the poem of Henry the Lion (Massm. denkm. p. 132) says, 'then came he among daz wöden her, where evil spirits their dwelling have.' Geiler v. Keisersperg preached on the wütede or wütische heer. (15) H. Sachs has a whole poem on the wütende heer, Agricola and Eiering relate a Mansfeld legend. It is worth noticing, that acc. to Keisersperg all who die a violent death 'ere that God hath set it for them,' and acc. to Superst. I, 660 all children dying unbaptized, come into the furious host to Holda (p. 269), Berhta and Abundia (p. 288), just as they turn into will o' wisps (p. 918): as the christian god has not made them his, they fall to the old heathen one. This appears to me to have been at least the original course of ideas (see Suppl.).


1. Between the christian All-soul's day (Nov. 2), on which the people visit churchyards and hang garlands on graves, and the three Roman holidays when the under world opened (mundus patet) and the 'manes' ascended (Creuzer 2, 865. O. Müller's Etrusk. 2, 97), there is a manifest connexion. On the night of Nov. 2 the Esthonians set food for the dead, and rejoice when they find any of it gone in the morning. In the Fellin district near Dorpat the departed souls are received in the bath-room, and bathed one after the other, Hupel's Nachr. p. 144, conf. Possart's Estland p. 172-3; exactly as food is set before angels and homesprites (p. 448). Back

2. I confine myself here to one Hessian folktale. Kurt, a farmer at Hachborn, would not quit the farm even after his death, but lent a hand in the fieldwork as a good spirit. In the barn he helped the labourer to throw sheaves from the loft: when the man threw one, Kurt would throw another. But once, when a strange servant got up into the loft, he would not help; at the cry 'You throw, Kurt!' he seized the man and flung him on the thrashingfloor, breaking his legs. Back

3. Isengrim changes into Agemund (p. 511). Back

4. 'Von des teufels gespenste,' instigation, Oberlin's Bihtebuoch 36. Frisch 2, 302a; but he thinks it conn. with Lat. spectrum. Back

5. AS. dreogan dreáh, though answering letter for letter, never means fallere, but agere, patrare, tolerare, to dree; agreeing with the ON. driugr, frequens. Back

6. Ducange sub. v. talamasca, petma, delusio imaginaria; the author. cited are Hincmar in capit. ad presb. dioec. cap. 14; Regino 1, 213; Burchardus wormat. 2, 161, who says: 'larvas daemonum, quas vulgo talamascas dicunt, ante se ferri consentiat.' Extr. from Concil. namnetense cap. 10; conf. Schmeller 2, 640. Back

7. In Lausitz the ignis lambens that plays about the tops of forest trees is called feuermann, Laus. monatsschr. 1797. p. 749. Back

8. These fiery exhalations also settle on the masts of ships, Marienleg. 87, 96, or the spears of warriors. The former kind the ancients named after the Dioscuri, Pliny 2, 37, the moderns call it 'feu de St. Elme.' For the flaming spears I have old authorities: 'signa (also, pila) militum arsere,' Tac. Ann. 12, 64. 15, 7. 'duae puerorum lanceae, emissis flammis, lumen euntibus praebuerunt, ibantque fulgurantes hastae,' Greg. tur.mirac. Mart. 1, 10. And a modern instance in Zeiller's Miscell. (Nürnb. 1661) p. 143-4. Deut. sag. no. 279. None of these refer to souls, they are rather happy omens of victory, as will be shewn in ch. XXXV. Shooting stars indeed pass for souls (p. 722), even with the Greenlanders (Majer's Myth. lex 2, 240) and Mongols (Bergmann 3, 42). Back

9. Ad. Kuhn (Pref. to Märk. sagen p. ix) is for regarding all kobolds as orig. fire-divinities, and the domestic hearth-fire as the foundation of their worship. Both kobolds and will o' wisps are called follet (p. 508-14), and kobolds, like fiery dragons (p. 691), bring money or corn; but the adder too is of kobold nature (p. 691), and the dominae bring gifts (p. 287), and so do devils. Back

10. Braunschw. anz. 1760 no. 86, 35. Praetorii Weltbeschr. 1, 262-9. Laus. monatss. 1797 p. 747. So far back as the Anegenge 180a. 190b: 'wâ mit diu armen chindelîn daz fiwer haben geschoufet, diu dâ ungetoufet ân ir schulde scheident von hinne;' but here the fire of purgatory is meant. Back

11. Ungerechte siebner, Möser's Patr. phant. 3, 309. 'fürig marcher,' will o' wisps, in Hebel's poem. Mone's Anz. 1835, 408. 1838, 223. Westendorp p. 511. Back

12. Yet there are some brausende geister (blustering spirits) that go singly too, as 'jungfer Eli' in the Davert, Deut. sag. no. 121. Their name of 'braus. g.' is vouched for by Plitt's Nachr. von Wetter p. 42. Back

13. Loccenii Antiq. sveog. cap. 3. Geijer Sv. häfd. 1, 268. Back

14. Nilsson's Skandinavisk fauna 2, 106. Back

15. Omeiss 36 seq.; his description deserves a place here: 'And they that so run, run mostly at the fron-fasts, and chiefly at the fron-fast before Christmas, that is the holiest tide. And every one runneth as he is in his raiment, the peasant as a peasant, the knight as a knight, so run they in a string, and one beareth the krös before him, another his head in his hand, and one runneth before, that crieth, Flee out of the way, that God give thee thy life! Thus speak the meaner sort thereon. I know nought thereof.' [Back]

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