The Northern Way

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology

Chapter 38


Page 1

A yet stronger power than that of herb or stone lies in the spoken word, and all nations use it both for blessing and cursing. (1) But these, to be effective, must be choice, well knit, rhythmic words (verba concepta), must have lilt and tune; hence all that is strong in the speech wielded by priest, physician, magician, is allied to the forms of poetry.

Expressions for 'saying, singing' pass into the sense of 'conjuring': aoidh (p. 899) becomes epaoidh, Od. 19, 457, epwdh, our 'sprechen, singen' become besprechen, besingen, schwören (Goth. svaran = respondere) beschwören (Goth. bisvaran orkizein); so jurare conjurare, cantare incantare. The OHG. galstar, AS. galdor, gealdor, ON. galdr (incantatio) have sprung out of galan = canere; the AS. spell, strictly dictum, fabula, Goth. spill, was tortured into meaning magic spell (and charm, Fr. charme is from carmen).

Opposed to blessing is cursing, to the wholesome the hurtful. For the former the Goth still used his native word þiuþeins eulogia, from þiuþjan eulogein; the OHG. segan dicatio, dedicatio, benedictio, comes from Lat. signum, the AS. segen meant merely signum in the sense of flag; MHG. segen, like our own, stands for magic as well. Kakologein is in Ulph. ubil-qiþan maledicere, but flêkan simply plangere, while the OHG. fluochôn (MHG. vluochen, our fluchen) is already maledicere, imprecari, and fluoh maledictio (masc., quite distinct from fem. fluoh, rupes). OS. farflôcan maledicere, harm-quidi maledictum. Another word is OHG. farhuâzan, MHG. verwâzen (2) detestari, condemnare, appar. allied to AS. 'hwâtung divinatio,' Poenit. Ecgb. 2, 23. 4, 19. AS. wergan (misspelt wirgan, wyrgan) maledicere, detestari, strictly damnare, Goth. vargjan, OS. waragian. AS. cursian, Engl. curse. The ON. bœn precatio, AS. bên (p. 31) both border on imprecatio (see Suppl.).

Cursing, 'becrying, becalling,' may indeed be done aloud, but as a rule both blessing and cursing require soft murmured whispered speech. OHG. huispalôn sibilare, Graff 4, 1239, AS. hwistlian, as whistling and hissing are imputed to the serpent who fascinates; MHG. wispeln: 'wispeln wilde vogel zemt, hunde ez letzet und lemt,' Renn. 22370; the asp will hear no wispelwort, Ms. 2, 202b; 'aller würmel (insects') wispel unde mürmel,' Mart. 74c, for murmeln is the same thing too, OHG. murmulôn, murmurôn, our mummeln, mompeln, to mumble. Paul. Diac. 1, 13 in describing manumissio per sagittam, adds: 'immurmurantes, ob rei firmitatem, quaedam patria verba,' a Langobardic hallowing spell. (3) Similar expressions are OHG. mutilôn, Graff 2, 707, and our protzeln, pretzeln, pröpeln, signifying first the sound of water simmering, and then very appropriately the muttering of a spell: 'protzeln and wispeln over the sick man' is to mutter a charm or blessing; in some parts prebeln, Nethl. preevelen; Franke's Welb. 134a has pretzeln (see Suppl.).

But the most legitimate and oldest word of all is the Goth. runa, commonly the equivalent for musthrion, sometimes for boulh, sumboulion. I believe it meant in the first place what is spoken softly and solemnly, then secondly a mystery: sumboulion is secret counsel. From secret speech to secret writing is but a step, as the ON. mâl means both speech and sign. For grafh, gramma Ulph. always puts mêl, not runa, because none of the passages happen to speak of secret writing; one might wager that runa was the familiar term for this, as the early Franks had rûna = litera. OHG. rûna, AS. rûn, character magicus, mysterium, Cædm. 211, 12. 250, 6. 262, 9, this last with an obvious reference to 'bôcstafas' in 262, 7. ON. rûn litera, but runa linea, which coexistence of û and u assures us of a strong verb 'riúna, raun, runum,' whence also raun (tentamen, experiment), reyna (tentare), perh. reynir (service or rönn tree, p. 1215). The OHG. rûnên susurrare, rûnazan murmurare, MHG. rûnen, our raunen, AS. rûnian, Engl. round, keep the original meaning of secret whispering, and OHG. ôr-rûno is a confidant, one who rounds things in your ear. The ON. transitive rýna is secretum scrutari, literas scrutari, and supplies the link to raun above. In Ben. 378 sanfte rûnen stands opposed to public singing. Finn. runo is a song (p. 901). And now a term that has often come before us becomes perfectly clear, and what is more, proves a good fit all around: the wise-woman of the ancient Germans is called Aliruna, because she is alja-runa, and speaking secret words not understood of the common folk, has skill at once in writing and in magic; hers is the Gothic runa, hers the AS. rûncræft. Ali can only mean 'other (than common), strange, not vulgar and profane,' and thus heightens the meaning of runa. And this name of the heathen priestesses could easily be transferred to the holy herb (p. 1202) which perhaps pertained to their ritual.

The olden time divided runes into many classes, and if the full import of their names were intelligible to us, we might take in at one view all that was effected by magic spells. They were painted, scratched or carved, commonly on stone or wood, 'run-stones, runstaves'; reeds served the same purpose (p. 1083-4). The OHG. hahalrûna, îsrûna, lagorûna are named after the letters 'hahal, îs, lago'; clofrûna and stofrûna remain doubtful, the latter appar. the mere tip (stupf, apex). Hellirûna means necromancy, death-rune, and plainly refers to Halja, Hella; I connect with it our höllen-zwang, control over hell, by which is understood the mightiest of magic spells, such as Doctor Faust possessed. Holzrûna is to be taken not of a thing, but of a person, the wood-wife, lamia (p. 433), not without some allusion to her moaning and muttering. The OHG. women's names Kundrûn, Hiltirûn, Sigirûn, Fridurûn, Paturûn, are properly those of valkyrs, but also traceable to a non-personal kundrûna, hiltirûna, sigirûna, fridurûna, paturûna; and it is worth noticing, that the personal names lack the final –a, and are consigned to a different declension. From the MHG. knierûnen (to croon over one's knee), MS. 2, 137a, may be inferred a subst. knierûne. The AS. beadorûn, Beow. 996 is litera belli = bellum, rixa; while helrûne 324 and burgrûne (p. 404n.) are a personal furia, parca, death's messenger; a gloss in Lye puts it for pythonissa. In Sæm. 194-5 Sigrdrîfa, i.e. Brynhildr, herself a valkyr, enumerates to Sigurð the runes which it was most needful for her to know: the goblet she hands him is 'fullr lioða ok lîknstafa, gôðra galdra ok gamanrûna,' full of lays and leech-staves, good spells and runes of bliss. She goes on to name sigrûnar, ölrûnar, biargrûnar, brimrûnar, mâlrûnar, hugrûnar, runes of victory, of ale, of the rock, the sea, speech and thought. I am only doubtful as to ölrûn, because the proper name Ölrûn is evidently the Aliruna of Tacitus; we can scarcely derive all the alirûnes from alus, ölr, ale, and I would rather hazard a guess, either that Ölrûn stands for Elrûn, Elirûn, having got confounded with ölrûn, or that the û of the second syllable converted the a of the first into ö (quite the rule in declension and conjugation, not in composition). In Sæm. 165b sakrûnar contentiones. Danish folksongs often speak of ramme runer, powerful runes 1, 235. 280. 2, 33. 3, 335. 4, 47 (see Suppl.).

Oðinn passed for the inventor of all runes (p. 181-2), and in him is lodged the greatest command of words. Yngl. saga cap. 7: 'þat kunni han enn at gera með ordum einum (do by words alone), at slöckva eld ok kyrra siâ, ok snûa vindum. Oðinn vissi of allt iarðfê, hvar fôlgit var (earth-fee, where it was hid), ok hann kunni þau lioð, er upplaukz fyrir hönum (unlocked itself to him) iörðin ok biörg ok steinar ok haugarnir, ok batt (bound) hann með ordum einum þâ er fyrir biuggu (dwelt), ok gekk (went) inn ok tôk þar slîkt er hann vildi.' Afzelius in Sagoh. 1, 4 mentions, too briefly and indistinctly, a strange Swedish folktale of one Kettil Runske of Kettilsås in Alsheda, who stole Odin's rune-sticks (runekaflar), and with them cast a spell on his hounds and bulls, nay at last on the merwoman that would have come to Odin's aid. By this Odin seems to be meant a shepherd or giant representing the former god; the surname runske evidently has to do with the acquisition and possession of the staves.

Songs and runes then can do very great things. They are able to kill and bring to life, as well as prevent from dying; to heal or make sick, bind up wounds, stanch blood, alleviate pain, and lull to sleep; quench fire, allay the sea-storm, bring rain and hail; to burst bonds, undo chains and bolts, open mountains or close them up, and unlock treasures; to forward or delay a birth; to make weapons strong of soft, dull the edge of a sword; loop up knots, loose the bark off a tree (p. 1085), spoil a crop (fruges excantare); call up evil spirits and lay them, to bind thieves. These wonders lie in the very nature of poesy (p. 907-8). The Rûnatal, Sæm. 28-30, specifies eighteen effects of runes (see Suppl.).

Curses, imprecations have a peculiar force of their own. Our MHG. poets have 'tiefe fluochen,' deeply, Ms. 2, 188a; 'swinde fluochen,' vehemently, Helbl. 2, 518 and zorn-vluoch, wrath-curse 1, 656. Full of meaning is the phrase: 'ich brach des vluoches herten kiesel,' I brake yon curse's stubborn flint, MsH. 2, 339b, its action is hard as pebbles, and not easy to break. Walther says 73, 29:

Zwêne herzelîche flüeche kan ich ouch,

die fluochent nâch dem willen mîn.

hiure müezen's beide esel und der gowk

gehœren, ê si enbizzen sîn.

wê in (woe to them) denne, den vil armen!

(two round curses ken I eke, hitting whomso I bespeak; them both ass and gowk shall hear, ere they baited be this year, etc.). Curses received on an empty stomach are the more effectual. It is the vulgar opinion in Ireland that a curse once uttered must alight on something: it will float in the air seven years, and may descend any moment on the party it was aimed at; if his guardian angel but forsake him, it takes forthwith the shape of some misfortune, sickness or temptation, and strikes his devoted head. So in the Pentam. 2, 7 a curse takes wing, and mounts to heaven: 'mesero le' mardettiune dessa vecchia l'ascelle, che sagliettero subeto 'n cielo.' When a horse has been cursed, his hair is thought to be luminous: 'a cavallo iastemmiato luce lo pilo,' ibid.

Specimens of the most vigorous cursing might be picked out of our old poetry; one in the Edda, Sæm. 144a,

nio röstom er þû skyldir neðar vera,

ok vaxi þer â baðmi barr!

may remind us of the phrases culled from our common people's talk, pp. 181-2. 952n. In a minnesong, Ben. 82: 'der nider schar, daz die vor kilchen lægen!' the low set, may they lie outside of church (in unconsecrated ground), (4) 'der bluomen schîn sol iemer sîn von ir gewalt gescheiden,' put out of their reach. The runes on a tombstone will occasionally end with a curse against him that shall roll away or remove the stone: 'at ryði sa verði (may he turn to rust) sa stain þansi velti!' So Latin deeds of the Mid. Ages wind up with imprecations on the violator, but scriptural ones pronounced by the church.

Here is a string of curses from a MHG. poem: 'God from thee thy wife release! Fish, fowl, worm, beast and man Storm the stronghold of thy peace! Where'er thou go, Be grace thy foe! All good women's greeting shun thee! Thy seed, thy crop be cankered too, The curse that dried Gilboa's dew Rest upon thee!' MsH. 3, 52 (see Suppl.).

Though as a rule sowing is to be accompanied by prayer and blessing, there are some plants that thrive better under cursing: 'Nihil ocimo (basil) foecundius, cum maledictis ac probris serendum praecipiunt, ut laetius proveniat, sato pavitur terra. Et cuminum qui serunt, precantur ne exeat,' Pliny 19, 7 [36]. (5) 'Napos serere nudum volunt, precantem sibi et vicinis serere se,' 18, 13 [35].


1. Pliny 28, 2 (3-5) examines the force of 'verba et incantamenta carminum' in many striking examples. Back

2. 'Var hin verwâzen (begone, with a curse to you), vil gar verteilter snê!' Ms. 1, 23a. 'nu var von mire verwâzen' and 'êweclich verlorn!' Ls. 3, 77. 'var von mir verstôzen!' MsH. 3, 441b. Back

3. Ter novies carmen magico demurmurat ore, Ov. Met. 14, 57. Back

4. A surname of Outkirk must have meant the Excommunicated: Rudolphus de Solodoro cognomine vor chilchun, Hartmannus dictus vor kilchon (A.D. 1260). Solothurner wochenbl. 1827, pp. 128. 160. Back

5. Fischart's Garg. 244b: 'diss furmans gebett treibt schif und wagen, ein hauptmansfluch etzt durch neun barnisch. ich könt dannoch wol basilien, quendel und kressen setzen, dann dieselben vom fluchen gedeien. darumb wards jenes mannes entschuldigung vor dem richter, warumb er sein weib gereuft hette, nemblich darumb weil er hat rauten setzen müssen' ; his excuse for thrashing his wife was, he had to plant some rue. Back

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