The Northern Way

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology

Chapter 36


Page 1

By the anger of the gods diseases are decreed, yet also their mercy reveals healing remedies to man. All deities can be healers, they seem to give their names to the herbs and flowers whose healing virtues they make known. With the Greeks it is chiefly Apollo and his sister Artemis from whom this knowledge is derived; our Wuotan, where he touches Apollo rather than Hermes, represents him in the capacity of healer too (p. 149); our Holda and Frouwa, replaced by Mary in later legend. A special god of physic, Asklepios or Aesculapius, is Apollo's son and a mere emanation of him. Of divine heroes, those who practised this art were Herakles, Prometheus the giver of wholesome fire, and Chiron: to set by the side of these, we have the Norse Mîmir, our own Wate and Wieland, after whom a healing plant Wielands-wurz is named, and whose skill in smith-work resembles that of Prometheus; conf. chap. XXXVII.

As Homer celbrates Paeon's and Machaon's knowledge of medicines and wounds, so the Gudrunlied says of Wate:

Si hæten in langer zîta dâ vor wol vernomen (long known),

daz Wate arzet wære von einem wilden wîbe:

Wate, der vil mære, gefrumete manegem an dem lîbe.

The wild wife, who doctored (made a doctor of) this far-famed Wate, might well be a wise-woman, a half-goddess (p. 431-2). So in Scotch tradition (R. Chamb. p. 34) the mermaid points out healing herbs. Several such women appear in the Edda. Eir belongs altogether to the circle of goddesses: 'hon er lœknir beztr,' best of leeches, Sn. 36. I connect her name with the Goth. áirus nuncius, AS. ârian, ON. eira parcere, and OHG. Irinc (Goth. Eiriggs?); Eir would be the indulgent helpful goddess and errand-woman. But another passage, Sæm. 111a, significantly places her among the handmaidens of wise Meglöð (p. 423-4):

Hlîf heitir, önnur Hlîfþursa,

þriðja Thioðvarta,

Biört ok Blîð, Blîður, Frîð,

Eir oc Örboða.

Some of them seem to be giantesses, Hlîfþursa and Örboða, who in Sn. 39 is wife to Gýmir, and these fit in with the notion of wild wife; but the majority are transparent personifications of moral ideas, Frîð the mansueta or parca (Goth. freidian parcere), Hlîf tutela or parca, from hlîfa parcere, which comes to the same thing as Eir, and throws a welcome light on the Latin parca itself. All the more right have we now to place Biört in immediate connection with Berhta, as I conjectured on p. 272n., and Blîð with Holda: these healing women lead us on to wise women, divine women. And that the gift of healing is in question here, is plain from the preceding and not less important strophe:

Hyfjaberg þat heitir, en þat hefir leingi verit

siukom ok sâri gaman:

heil verðr hver, þôtt hafi ârs sôtt,

ef þat klîfr kona.

I translate it: Hyfjaberg this rock is called, and has long been to the sick and to wounds a solace; whole becomes any woman, though she have a year's sickness, if she climbs it. So that the rock is a holy place, dedicated to Menglöð and her maidens, where every sick woman that climbed it has found relief. The exact meaning of Hyfjaberg, or as some read it, Hyfvja-, Hyfara-berg, I cannot yet determine; enough for us, that such mount of healing accords admirably with the conception one has to form of the wise women of olden time: prophetesses, Parcae, Muses, all are imagined dwelling on mountains. Menglöð may without more ado be taken to mean Freyja (p. 306-7), in attendance on this highest goddess would stand the other maidens of like nature; and to the art of healing we have a right worshipful origin assigned. Now too it is conceivable, why Brynhildr, the valkyr dwelling on her mountain, had 'lif með læknîng' (pharmaca cum medela) ascribed to her in Sæm. 147b: she is a wise woman skilled in magic, a pharmaceutria, herbaria, and moreover understands the binding up of wounds (undir dreyrgar yfir binda, Sæm. 220b), like Hiltgund in Walthar. 1408. Oddrûn lends her aid to women in travail, Sæm. 239, and the Tristan has made Isote's knowledge of physic famous. At medicinal springs, by mineral waters, appears the white lady with the snake (p. 588n.), the beast of sovereign'st healing power, servant to Aesculapius himself. The Servian vila too is a physician, and heals wounds for a high fee, Vuk no. 321 (so the Bulgarian yuda or samodiva, Aug. Dozon's Bolgarski pensi no. 3, etc.).

We see from all this, that medical science in heathen times was half priestly, half magical. Experience and higher culture gave the priests a knowledge of healing powers in nature, from the sacredness of their office proceeded salutary spells, the use of remedies was backed by sacrifice, nay, great cures and the averting of pestilence could only be effected by sacrifice. Thus all through the Mid. Ages we find the christian priests also possessors, above other men, of medicine and the art of using it. Yet some part of the old pagan science passed into the hands of wise men and women, who by retaining superstitious rites, and misusing real remedies, incurred the reproach of sorcery. Like witchcraft (p. 1038-9), and for the same reasons, the old ways of healing fell mainly into the hands of women (see Suppl.).

A physician was called in Goth. lêkeis, OHG. lâhhî, AS. lœce, ON. lœknir, lœknari, (1) Swed. läkare, Dan. läge; the Engl. leech has sunk into the sense of peasant or cattle doctor. The MHG. lâchenœre, lâchenœrinne meant sorcerer, sorceress (p. 1037), though still perhaps implying the use of remedies, as in 'lâchenen und fürsehen,' Superst. D, 38 r., and lecken = healing, Quedlinb. witch-trials p. 77. From Teutonic nations the word must in very early times have spread to Slavs, Lithuanians, Finns: O. Sl., Boh., Russ. lèkar', Serv. lièkar, Pol. lekarz, Lith. lekorus, Fin. lääkäri; or can we have got it from the Slavs? I have tried to show a Teutonic root for it no. 300, a Slavic might be harder to find: to Sl. liek, lek (remedium) answers our OHG. lâhhan. Other names are taken from the notion of helping, bettering, as bêtan, böten (mederi p. 1036); ON. grœða (sanare), grœðari (chirurgus, medicus), from grôð (growth, getting on, gain); MHG. heilære (medicus), Karl 45. Our arzt appears already in OHG. as arzât, O. iii. 14, 11, MHG. arzet, M. Nethl. ersetre, Diut. 2, 223a; O. Fr. artous, artox; the root seems to be the Lat. ars, though arzât cannot come straight from artista. (2) The Prov. metges, Ferabr. 547. 1913, mege (Raynouard 3, 173), O. Fr. mires, mirre are from medicus. (3) The ON. 'lif' imputed to Brynhild is better spelt lyf, being the Goth. lubi (which I infer from lubja-leisei, herb-leasing = farmakeia, Gal. 5, 20), OHG. luppi, MHG. lüppe; from the sense of permissible, healing farmakon, arose that of poisonous, magical, just as our gift meant at first donum, then venenum. The luppari (veneficus) has a lupparâ (venefica) to match him, the herb-man his herb-woman, herbaria, pharmaceutria. In Saxo Gram. 16 a maiden cures wounds, at 25 he calls Wecha medica; and Thorlacius in Obs. 4, 279 has collected other instances of women healers. (4) Amongst our peasantry there are old women still who profess 'böten,' stroking, pouring, and charming by spells (Sup. I, 515. 865). It is remarkable that healing spells can only be handed down from women to men, or from men to women (I, 793; conf. p. 1107): we have seen how so ancient a worthy as Wate had learnt his art of a woman. It is principally shepherds that now pass for cunning mediciners (Sup. L, 35 French); formerly any kind of herdsmen and hunters: 'bubulcus, subulcus, venator,' C, int. 43. In the Mid. Ages itinerant leeches went about the country cheapening their drugs and skill to the people, usually attended by a man who played amusing tricks; for proofs see Rutebeuf's Diz de l'erberie (Méon nouv. rec. 1, 185-191; œuvres 1, 250-9; simil. in 1, 468-477), and the Easter play in Hoffm. Fundgr. 2, and in O. Boh. in Hanka 7, 198. These vagrant herbalists, quacks, lithotomists, are a mine of information on the methods of popular, leechcraft. Greg. Tur. 9, 6 mentions a conjuror and doctor Desiderius, who wore a coat of goat's hair; the O. Slav. bali means physician, but strictly conjuror, Glagolita 67b (see Suppl.).

Crescentia, a pious persecuted saint, receives from Peter or Mary, who fill exactly the place of pagan gods, the gift of healing all diseases, Kolocz. 267, or acc. to the O. Fr. poem (Méon n. r. 2, 71-3) only leprosy. She herself might pass perfectly for a wise woman, and is actually charged with being a sorceress. Queens too in ancient times are credited with power to quench certain maladies by their touch: in Rother 32b. 33a the queen strokes the lame and crooked with a stone; and a similar virtue was ascribed to hereditary sovereigns of France and England (Hone's Yrbk p. 799). If a woman has had seven sons in succession, the seventh can heal all manner of hurt (Sup. I, 786); by Ettner's Hebamme 906, Maulaffe 699, his touch cures wens at the throat. French Sup. L, 22 makes it the fifth son. There is no end of superstitions about this seventh or fifth son: in E. Friesland they say he becomes a walrider; does that mean one who rides to the foughten field? conf. wel-recke, p. 418n. What seems a counterpart of it is, that when 7 girls running are born of one marriage, one of them becomes a werwolf, I, 1121. A child that has never known its father is able to disperse tumours (fondre les loupes), L, 21. A firstborn child, that has come into the world with teeth, can cure a bad bite, K, 29. 37. All this borders closely on the power to bequeath or transfer the gift of prophecy and the art of weather-making, pp. 1088. 1107: the healing art was as much sacerdotal as the business of fortune-telling (see Suppl.).

The distinction between sacrifice and healing would perhaps be stated most correctly by saying, the one was aimed at sickness threatened, the other at sickness broken out. Preventive sacrificial rites have no doubt been preserved longest in pastoral life: herdsmen made their cattle run through the flames, once a year, (5) or whenever pestilence approached. But sacrifices were also performed in severe cases of actual sickness.

Our medical learning of today, as it did not proceed from the people, has by degrees banished nearly all our native names for diseases, and replaced them by Greek or Latin words. But as those names often bring us face to face with old-world notions about sickness and its cure, it will be needful to present at any rate the most important.

In the Mid. Ages krank has only the sense of debilis, infirmus, OHG. wana-heil, not of aeger, for which the term was siech, Goth. siuks, OHG. sioh; hence morbus was expressed not by krankheit, but by sucht, Goth. saúhts, OHG. suht, ON. sôtt, whereas now we attach to sucht the moral notion of hankering, and only retain its old meaning in a few compounds such as schwindsucht, gelbsucht, etc. There is the same relation between the ON. þrâ (desiderium, aegritudo animi) and lîkþrâ (lepra), conf. Sw. trå, helletrå, Dan. traa, helletraa, DV. 2, 180. General words, expressing also the bodily pain of sickness, are OHG. suero, MHG. swer, and OHG. MHG. wê, wêtago, wêtage (like our siechtage). But a sick man is also called in OHG. bettiriso (clinicus), O. iii. 14, 67; MHG. betterise, Parz. 502, 1. 813, 16; AS. beddrida bedridden: a term specially used of men enfeebled by age, 'der alte betterise,' who can no longer rise out of bed. In Scand. this painless ailment of great age was called Ana sôtt, from king Ön or Ani, who had secured long life by sacrificing his sons (p. 46), and at last lived on milk like a child again, Yngl. saga cap. 29 (see Suppl.).
It was christian to hold sickness a dispensation of God, heathenish to see in it the handiwork of sprites, and something elvish. Accordingly it is personified: it comes upon, surprises, attacks, seizes, takes hold of, overpowers man: daimwn epecrae, stugeroj de oi ecrae daimwn, Od. 5, 396 (the daemon afflicts; in the next line the gods heal). In the Hel. 92, 1: 'mid suhtium bifangan, bedrogan hebbiad sie dernea wihti. thea wrêdon habbiad sie giwittiu benumune;' and in Versus Hartmanni (Canisius ii. 3, 203: 'fugit pestis ab homine, quam daemon saevus miserat.' No wonder that in the Edda an oath is exacted from diseases, as from living creatures, to do no harm to Balder, Sn. 64. Like death or destiny (p. 406), pestilence carries off: 'suht farnam,' Hel. 125, 20; in the Swed. oath 'trå mig!' we must supply 'tage' take: ita me morbus auferat! In the Cod. Vindob. th. 428 no. 94 I find the phrase 'eine suht ligen, zwô suht ligen,' to lie one sickness, two s.; 'sich in die suht legen,' lay oneself (lie down) into, Reinh. 302. 320.

This daemonic nature of diseases makes people call them by friendly flattering names to keep them away, just as they do to horrible uncanny beasts, and avoid uttering their right name; they call a disease the good, the blessed, Schm. 2, 87. 3, 212. 222, and the pestilence is addressed as gossip. There will be more examples to quote in speaking of particular diseases (see Suppl.).


1. 'Læknis hendur'; 'læknir vera, ok kunna sâr at siâ,' Sæm. 194-5a. Back

2. 'Temperîe (medicine) ûz würze kraft,' Parz. 643. 23. 'Lâhhinônto temperando,' conf. Mous. 393. (Arz-ât, ers-etre are prob. from arc-iatroj: the Greek prefix arch- becomes erz- in German words. ---Trans.). Back

3. The Ed. of the Garin 2, 89 would derive mire from the Arabic emir; but a Fr. r is often developed out of d, t, as lerre latro, beurre butyrum (these by assimil. with an r already present). Back

4. Pomp. Mela 3, 6 of Gaulish women: 'putabantur igeniis singularibus praeditae, et sanare quae apud alios insanabilia sunt; whereas at Rome we find women forbidden to treat certain diseases. Back

5. One Roman rite I quote from Cato de re rust. 83: Votum pro bubus, ut valeant, sic facito. Marti Silvano in silva interdius, in capita singula boum votum facito, farris adorei libras iii. et lardi p. iv s. et pulpae iv s., vini sextarios tres. Id in unum vas liceto conjicere, et vinum item in unum vas liceto conjicere. Eam rem divinam vel servus vel liber licebit faciat. Ubi res divina facta erit, statim ibidem consumito. Mulier ad eam rem divinam ne adsit, neve videat quomodo fiat. Hoc votum in annos singulos, si voles, licebit vovere. Back

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