The Northern Way

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology

Chapter 37


Page 1

Pliny has thrown a peculiar charm over his Natural History by not disdaining to record minutely even the superstitious views of the vulgar about animals and plants. How his reverence for antiquity, his elegance of exposition, stand out against the dry gravity of our present students of nature, who never wast a glance on the customs of their country, and to whom all the force and grace of Teutonic idiom is but small beer (see Suppl.).

'Krût, steine unde wort hânt an kreften grôzen hort' (herb and stone and wholesome word have of healing powers rich hoard), says our Freidank 111, 6; and as there lies in dwarfs a special acquaintance with the healing virtues hidden in herbs (pp. 450-1n. 457), it is worth noticing, that in the mouth of a king of that race, Goldemar (pp. 453. 466. 509) is placed the dictum, 'Christianos fidem in verbis, Judæos in lapidibus pretiosis, et Paganos in herbis ponere,' Meibom's Script. 1, 186. Paganism does present a rich store of mythical notions on the origin and manifold virtues of these plants.

1. Herbs

As among men, so among Herbs, the noble tower above the base: they were created by gods in some secluded sacred spot, they sprouted up where innocent blood had been shed, they were brought over by birds, and so on. Under the goddess's footfall the flowers springs up, as all growth withers where sorrowing lovers part. On the mountain's top, to which the lover had carried up his dying love, and poured out her last reviving draught, grew healing herbs that blessed the land at large (Marie de Fr. 1, 268). Mountains foster what is rarest in the realm of plants. Zeus and Hera laid them down on Ida's top (Il. 14, 347):

toisi d upo cqwn dia fuen neoqhlea poihn,


lwton q ershenta ide krokon hd uakinqon,

puknon kai malakon, oj apo cqonoj uyos eerge

(under them bountiful earth teemed up a new vegetation, dew-sprinkled clover and saffron and hyacinth, thick and soft, etc.). A similar bed of flowers still haunts the imagination of our Minnesingers (Walth. 39. 40. Hadloub 2, 194-5), but men have to gather the grass and flowers for that amid singing of birds. To the Medieval way of thinking it was most natural to make healing herbs grow out of the graves of holy men, as we plant flowers on the tomb and pick some for remembrance. Even on the huorco's barrow grows wound-healing rosamarina, the plucking of which turns men into doves, Pentam. 4, 8. The saint's grave nourishes a peartree, whose fruit cures the sick forthwith (Greg. Tur. mirac. 1, 47). We have seen p. 1178n. how at the foot of a holy statue a nova species (quite the Homeric neoqhlhj above) grew up to the skirt of the robe, and then became a healing plant (1); with this I connect what Pliny tells us 24, 19 [109]: 'herba in capite statuae nata, collectaque alicujus in vestis panno et alligata in lino rufo, capitis dolorem confestim sedare traditur' (see Suppl.).

Many herbs and flowers are named after gods, but as we are seldom told the occasion of a name being given, it admits of more than one explanation. The god produced the plant, or he uses it, he loves it, loathes it, in shape or colour it resembles some part of his person, his raiment, arms, and so forth. Thus the names Baldrs brâ (p. 222, conf. supercilium Veneris), Freyju hâr (p. 303) come from the beaming lustre of the flower; Forneotes folme (p. 240), Niarðar vöttr (p. 218) from the leaves lying like five fingers side by side. Donner-rebe (-vine) is the Lett. Pehrkones. Donnerkraut, Donnerbesen (p. 183) may, like barba Jovis, be accounted for by the bushy tanglement of their tendrils; but how Perunika (p. 183) stands related to Perun, I do not know. Devil's-bit is from the marks of teeth supposed to be visible in its root, and due to diabolic agency. A great many names are taken from beasts, especially those of our native fable, and fancy has been equally busy on them.

Of flowers and herbs the Sanskrit distinguishes the wholesome by the adjunct 'friend,' the hurtful by 'foe,' as Ramâpriya, dear to Lakshmi = lotus, Yamapriya, dear to Yama = ficus indica, conf. Pott's Etym. for. 2, 424-7. This agrees with OHG. gota-fargezzan, marrubium album (Graff 4, 279), MLG. got-vorghetene (Brun's Beitr. p. 48) and the phrase 'ergaz im Got,' Gramm. 4, 175 (supra p. 21); the herb is our andorn (horehound).

Other plants beyond a doubt derive their divine names from their healing power being first made known to mortals by the gods. With the Greeks, Athena and Artemis appear to have been active in this line; and I think they are represented amongst our goddesses by Frigg and Freyja, or whoever took their place afterwards, St. Mary above all. The artemisia was apparently discovered or revealed by Artemis [Pliny 25, 36, 25], the proserpinaca by Proserpine 27, 12 [104]. The parqenoin was shown by the divine Parqenoj, as Pliny relates, 22, 17 [20]: 'verna carus Pericli Atheniensium principi, cum in arce templum aedificaret repsissetque super altitudinem fastigii et inde cecidisset, hac herba dicitur sanatus, monstrata Pericli somnio a Minerva, quare parthenium vocari coepta est, assignaturque ei deae.' Of the lappa he says, 24, 18 [116]: 'medetur et suibus, effossa sine ferro; quidam adjiciunt et fodientem dicere oportere, Haec est herba argemon, quam Minerva reperit, suibus remedium qui de illa gustaverint;' argemon = albugo in the eye. Hermes pulls out of the ground for Odysseus the farmakon mighty against magic: mwlu de min kaleousi qeoi, Od. 10, 305 (p. 369). Does the Iris owe its name to the messenger of the gods, or the white hue of the lily, or other causes? In christian times an angel reveals the angelica in a dream, Aw. 1, 159 (see Suppl.).

The names borrowed from animals may gain much in meaning by the animals themselves being connected with the service of gods. Thus there need only a myth underlie such names as bären-klane, wolfs-milch, OHG. wolves-zeisala, AS. wulfes-tæsel, and AS. hræfnes-leác, to bring to light some relation in which the herb stands to dawn (p. 743-4), to the hero suckled by the she-wolf, to the cordial conveyed by the god's messenger. We find a convincing example in the spechts-wurzel, pecker's root, brought by the sacred bird (p. 673), who probably gave his name to one of the grand woods of our olden time, Spehtes-hart (Spessart): not only does it serve to burst open the plug, but he protects the peony especially from being plucked (p. 973). The healing paiwnia was associated with Paiwn the divine physician, and it is precisely the wounded Ares that he doctors (Il. 5, 900); in which I see a new point of connection between Ares and Roman Mars, whose bird the woodpecker was. Athena too was named Paiwnia. Now I think it is not without a bearing on this matter, that our Zio himself has a herb named after him: ON. Tý-viðr, Dan. Tys-ved, daphne mezereum (p. 199), which might have been in OHG. Zio-witu, Ziowes-witu, i.e. Martis arbor, lignum, frutex; but instead of exactly this name, we find a corresponding one, which I believe I can explain more correctly now than at p. 428, note 2. I then thought of Sigelint, but as the spelling Cigelinta, i.e. Zige-linta, preponderates (Graff 5, 627), as Zîlant (659) seems synonymous, and as beside Zeiland we have in Austria to this day Zillind, Zwilind, Zwilinde meaning the same daphne, (2) the real old spelling comes to light, Zio-linta, answering in form and substance to Týviðr. For linta is not only lime-tree, but also liber, bast, and we call the plant indifferently seidel-baum and seidel-bast (for zeilinde-baum, -bast), and it is commonly applied as a healing drug (Höfer 3, 135). An AS. Tiwes-wudu, Tiges-wudu, Tiges-lind is readily inferred. Now whether daphne and pæonia be related or distinct, matters nothing to their mythical analogy; Pliny says the peony was also called pentorobon, pentorobon, from its bearing four or five peas; its Boh. name is wlci lyko, i.e. wolf's bast, Fr. garou, i.e. loup-garou, werewolf. I will now pick out a few remarkable names of plants from F. Magnusen's Lex. 758-9. The viola Martis, Fr. violette de Mars, is in Iceland called Týs-fiôla, Týrs-fiôla: this may be a mere translation of the Latin name, which alludes more to the month than the god, like our own märz-viole. There is more in the Norw. Tyri-hialm or Thor-hialm, Thoralm, Thor-hat for aconitum or monk's-hood, to which answers our eisen-hütlein (iron hat), Swed. Dan. storm-hat, apparently from the flower resembling in shape a helmet or hat; but the same plant is called wolfs-kraut, wolfs-wurz, Dan. ulve-urt, Engl. wolf's bane, Dan. ulve-bane, ulve-död, which may be understood of Týr's fight with the wolf, and moreover likened to the wolf's bast and garou above, as several other names waver between daphne and aconitum. And wolf's bast may even suggest the three bands laid on the Fenris-ûlfr, 'læðîng' (Dan. leding, Molb. dial. lex. p. 317), 'drômi' and 'gleipnir,' S. 33-4-5. There was yet another name for daphne given on p. 377: Wieland's berry, together with a Scand. Velands urt for the medicinal valerian; names which carry us back, if not to a god, to one of our greatest heroes of old, whose father was the wise leech Wate (see Suppl.).

But there is only a small number of herbs named after gods or heroes, compared with those referable to goddesses and wise women. Most of these are now given to Mary, who in this case, as in that of pretty little beetles (p. 694) and brilliant stars (p. 726), replaces the elder Frouwa. Frauen-schühli is trefolium melilotus, whose flower resembles a shoe, in some places Marien-pantöffelchen; was Cypripedium calceolus Veneris formed in imitation? Fraua-menteli, ösa (our) fraua-menteli (Tobler 204b), alchemilla vulg., from its leaves being folded mantle-wise. Fraua-seckeli (-satchel), geum rivale, ibid. Freyju-hâr stands for several kinds of fern (supra p. 303); does it independently answer to herba capillaris, capillus Veneris in Apuleius's Herb. 47, or was it borrowed from it? Frauen-trän, Marien-thräne, orchis mascula (Stald. 1, 296), reminds of 'helenium e lacrimis Helenae natum,' Pliny 21, 10 [33], still more of Freyja's golden tears, 'grâtr Freyju,' Sn. 128. 132 (conf. p. 325), and the flowers and precious stones that drop when goddesses laugh or weep (p. 1101); a costly wine is called unser liebfrauen-milch. How a flower came to be called Mother-of-God's mirror, is told in the nursery-legend. Frauen-schlössli, frauen-schlüssel, primula veris, Stald. 1, 124, otherwise himmels-schlüssel (heaven's key), schlüssel-blume; because it unlocks the spring, or opens treasure? it has yet more names, and is the medicinal betonica, of which more anon. As these plants are all natives of our meadows, it is not likely that their names were drawn from Latin, and only came into vogue in the last few centuries; though in OHG. glosses we find no herb compounded with frouwa. It were too daring to trace the oster-blume (ôster-gloie, Ms. 2, 61a) back to Ostarâ, Eástre, as the form of name can, like maiblume, be explained by the season of its blossoming; these maybells were offered in sacrifice (p. 58), were borne by white-women (p. 963), and to pick them before sunrise is recommended in Sup. I, 1075 (see Suppl.).

Flowers are a feminine adornment, young maidens twine the wreath, sage matrons cull the herb. Marner says prettily, Ms. 2, 174a: 'ez riuchet (smells) als ein edel krût ûz einer megde hant.' Why should not the wise women of even our earliest eld have been skilled in herb-lore? it is ascribed to witches and old women still, and apparently it is not without a meaning that from healing herbs the witches select names for themselves or their admirer (p. 1063). All witches' herbs may most appropriately be called beschrei-kraut, beruf-kraut (speak ill, becall, bewitch), though the names have also been applied to particular plants.

The culling and fetching of herbs had to be done at particular times, and according to long-established forms (see Suppl.).

Mostly before sunrise, when the day is young: 'herba quacunque a rivis aut fluminibus ante solis ortum collecta, ita ut nemo colligentem videat,' Pliny 24, 19 [107]. 'praecipiunt aliqui effossuris (anagallida), ante solis ortum, priusquam quidquam aliud loquantur, ter salutare eam, tum sublatam exprimere; ita praecipuas esse vires,' 25, 13 [92]. 'aiunt, si quis ante solis ortum eam (chamelaeam) capiat, dicatque ad albugines oculorum se capere, adalligata discuti id vitium' 24, 14 [82]. 'et hanc (Samolum herbam) sinistra manu legi a jejunis' 24, 11 [63]. 'radicem (pistolochiae) ante solis ortum erutam involvunt lana' 20, 4 [14]. The viscus was gathered at new moon, prima luna 24, 4 [6]; the verbenaca 'circa Canis ortum, ita ut ne luna aut sol conspiciat' 25, 9 [59]. Unseen by man or heavenly body, silent and fasting, shall the collector approach the sacred herb. Lilies of the valley are to be culled before sunrise, devil's-bit at midnight of St. John's eve, Sup. I, 190. 1075.

Pliny 25, 3 [6] tells of a plant called by the Romans herba Britannica, because brought from the isles between Germany and Britain (ex oceani insulis extra terras positis 27, 1): 'Florem vibones vocant, qui collectus priusquam tonitrua audiantur (is not that between lightning and thunder?) et devoratus, securos a fulminibus in totum reddit. Frisii, qua castra erant, nostris demonstravere illam; mirorque nominis causam, nisi forte confines oceano Britanniae velut propinquae dicavere; non enim inde appellatam eam quoniam ibi plurima nasceretur certum est, etiamnum Britannia libera.' Here we have a plant held in esteem by the ancient Germans themselves, and the injuction to gather it before hearing thunder (that year?) sounds quite Teutonic. It protected from lightning, was therefore sacred to the Thunder-god, like the house-leek, which is also called donner-wehr. AS. glosses render the Britannica by hœwen-hýdele; hæwen is glaucus, the second word may come from hûð praeda, of hýðe portus; in the latter case it would mean something like blue sea-flower. Anyhow it was a water-plant, hydrolapathum it is thought. I would gladly recognise in it the seeblatt so sacred to the Frisians and Zealanders (p. 654), whose flower is said to be white or yellow; its names nixblume and mummel call to mind the Indian names for the lotus, Ramâpriya, dear to Rama or Lakshmi, and Srîvâsa, Srî's house = Lakshmi's, who came up out of the sea (see Suppl.).


1. The healing power imparted by the skirt of the garment was very likely suggested by the Biblical 'touching of the hem,' Matt. 9, 20. 14, 36. Mk 6, 56. Luke 8, 44. Back

2. This too in districts that say Er-tag and not Zis-tag for Tuesday (pp. 124. 201); so that in the plant's name Zio-worship took a wider range. Back

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