The History of English Podcast - Episode 24 Germanic Mythology

Welcome to the History of English podcast, a podcast about the history of the English


This is episode 24, Germanic Mythology.

The last time I looked at the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus, and I used his

book Germania to explore early Germanic society.

In this episode, I’m going to continue exploring Germanic culture, but this time I want to

focus on Germanic mythology and religion, and the impact that Germanic mythology has

had on modern English.

But before I begin, I want to note that I’m going to discuss the Germanic runic writing

system in the next episode.

I had originally intended to discuss it this time, but it’ll actually fit better in the

next episode.

So next time, I’m going to discuss the Gothic tribes and their language, which was the first

Germanic language to be written down and recorded for posterity.

So next time, we’ll focus on the early written forms of the Germanic languages.

But now, let’s turn to the very broad topic of Germanic mythology, and I want to begin

this topic by establishing a general time frame.

So far, my focus has been on the early Germanic tribes, at a time when there was a more or

less common culture and a common language.

But our knowledge of this early period is somewhat limited.

I’ve looked at some of the archaeological evidence and some of the linguistic evidence,

and last time, I used Tacitus as a source.

But Tacitus only tells us a little bit about Germanic mythology.

In addition to Tacitus, there are a few other early written sources which mention a few

things about the early Germans and their religious practices, but most of what we know about

Germanic mythology comes from much later written sources.

Most of these later sources were written several centuries later, during the early

Middle Ages, so it’s difficult to know how much of this mythology was inherited from

the original Germanic tribes, and how much was developed at a later date, after the tribes

began to fracture.

From these later sources, we know the most about the mythology of the northern Germanic

tribes in and around Scandinavia, who were the ancestors of the Vikings.

With respect to the western Germanic tribes, which included the Angles and the Saxons,

there are relatively few written records which actually discuss their religion and mythology.

And there are even fewer records concerning the eastern Germanic tribes, which included

the Goths.

We do know that the Gothic missionary Wafilis converted the Goths to Christianity in the

4th century, but very little is known about their specific beliefs before that conversion.

So why do we know so much about the mythology of the northern Germanic tribes?

Well, it’s a matter of timing.

Writing was very limited among the early Germanic tribes.

The tribes did develop a runic writing system, which they used for inscriptions, but most

of what we know about these tribes comes from the Romans and other literate peoples.

But from the 6th century onward, writing became more and more prevalent throughout the Germanic


The spread of writing and the Roman alphabet was also accompanied by the spread of the

Roman religion, Christianity.

In fact, as we’ll see in later episodes, the spread of writing and Christianity were

very closely linked.

But for purposes of Germanic mythology, this creates a problem.

By the time most of these tribes had adopted writing and began to write about their own

cultures, they’d already been converted to Christianity.

And this is generally the case with the Goths and their language, which we’ll explore

next time.

Most of the written evidence of the Gothic language comes in the form of the Gothic translation

of the Bible, so we know virtually nothing about their pre-Christian beliefs.

And this is generally true of the western Germanic tribes as well, though we do have

some limited writings about mythology in Old English and other western dialects.

But in the north, the northern Germanic speakers didn’t convert to Christianity until much

later, well after they had adopted writing.

So the early northern Germanic writers gave us a very detailed description of their religious

beliefs during this period before Christianity.

But again, did the beliefs of the Old Norse speakers in the 10th century reflect the beliefs

of the early Germanic tribes 8 or 9 centuries earlier?

Well again, that’s a little difficult to say.

But there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, religious views tend to be very conservative.

They don’t tend to change very much over time.

As we look at the later writings of the Germanic tribes, most of these written accounts were

based on oral traditions which date back centuries to the time of the early Germanic tribes.

But beyond these very general statements, we can only compare the Old Norse accounts

with the limited written accounts of the western Germanic tribes and the early accounts of

the Roman writers.

And by comparing these various sources, modern historians can make some general conclusions

about the mythology of the original Germanic tribes.

So, let’s look at the earliest known written sources.

Interestingly, the first written account of Germanic religion comes from Julius Caesar.

After he conquered the Celtic Gauls in the 1st century BC, Caesar wrote a first-hand

account of the Gallic Wars.

Though the book focuses on Gaul and its Celtic-speaking inhabitants, Caesar does make a few references

to the Germanic-speaking tribes to the northeast of Gaul.

And specifically, he distinguishes the Germanic tribes from the Celtic tribes.

And one way in which he does this is to distinguish their religious practices.

As I noted in the episode about the ancient Celts, the Celtic religious leaders were the


But Caesar noted that the Germanic tribes didn’t have Druid priests.

The Druids routinely used sacrifices as part of their religious practices.

But Caesar wrote that the Germanic tribes didn’t have the same high regard for sacrifices

that the Celts had.

And later historians have actually confirmed that the Druids were not a feature of the

Germanic tribes.

But Caesar’s comments about sacrifices have been largely discounted.

We now know that the Germanic tribes actually did believe in sacrifices, and in fact, they

routinely made sacrifices to gain favor with the gods.

Now before we leave Caesar, I should note that he made one other important comment about

the religious beliefs of the Celtic Gauls.

He noted that they worshipped many gods, but that Mercury was their preeminent god.

The Celts actually called their primary god Lugus.

But the Romans tended to associate the gods of foreign people with their own Roman gods.

And of course, Mercury was a Roman god, not a Celtic god.

So for some reason, the Romans associated Mercury with the preeminent Celtic god.

And Caesar confirms this by noting that the Celtic Gauls worshipped Mercury above all


And this reference is actually very important when we get to the writings of Tacitus.

So let’s jump ahead to Tacitus.

Remember that Caesar wrote in the first century BC.

And as I discussed last time, the next major source of information about the Germanic tribes

was Tacitus in his book Germania written at the end of the first century AD.

So about 150 years after Caesar.

And thanks to Tacitus, we get a bit more detailed description of Germanic religion.

Tacitus begins his discussion of Germanic religion by noting that they worshipped Mercury

above all other gods.

And so we see the same connection that Caesar had made with respect to the Gauls a century

and a half earlier.

Once again, we see that the Romans equated the Germanic gods with their own gods.

And again, for some reason, they associated the preeminent god of the Germans with Mercury,

just as they had done with the Celtic god, Lucas.

Of course, the early Germans didn’t actually worship the Roman gods.

They worshipped their own gods.

And we know that the preeminent god in Germanic mythology was Woden or Odin.

And just to be clear about that name, because you do see it written both ways, the later

Norse speakers in Scandinavia called the god Odin.

But the Anglo-Saxons called him Woden.

The later Norse speakers tended to drop the W sound when it appeared before a vowel.

So Odin, without the W, developed as a later version of the same name.

But since this is a podcast about English, I’m going to use the Anglo-Saxon version

of the name Woden.

So Woden was the primary Germanic god.

But did these early Germanic tribes actually call their god Woden during this very early

common Germanic period?

Well, we don’t know.

Since the Romans didn’t use the Germanic names, we can’t say for certain what the

original Germanic tribes called this god.

And we don’t have any written accounts which refer to the god by his later Germanic name

Woden until the 3rd century, shortly after Tacitus.

But linguists have used reconstructions to determine that the original name of the god

would have been something like Wodenaz.

So it’s likely that the early Germans did refer to this god by a very early version

of his later name.

But again, the Romans just called him Mercury.

And we can still see that connection when we look at the days of the week, which I discussed

back in episode 18.

Remember that the Romans had a day named after Mercury, which was basically Mercury’s Day.

And that name still exists in modern Romance languages like French, where the name is Mercury.

And the later Germanic tribes were influenced by the Roman association of Mercury with Woden,

so they substituted Roman Mercury with Germanic Woden.

And the day became Woden’s Day, or as we know it today, Wednesday.

So the connection between those gods can still be found in the modern names for that day

of the week.

Tacitus also refuted Caesar’s earlier statements regarding Germanic sacrifices.

He noted that, in fact, the Germanic tribes did make both animal and human sacrifices

on specific days.

And later archaeological discoveries have confirmed that the Germans did make animal

and human sacrifices.

Tacitus also notes that the early Germans didn’t believe that their gods lived in temples.

Instead, they preferred to conduct religious ceremonies in forests or groves.

And here we see some strong similarities between the Celtic and Germanic religious practices.

Tacitus also tells us that the early Germans discerned the will of the gods by casting


As he described it, the process involved cutting a tree branch into many different pieces and

placing specific markings on each piece.

The pieces were then cast onto a white cloth.

And a priest, if it was a public ceremony, or the head of the family, if it was a private

ceremony, they would select three pieces at random.

And the markings on those pieces would then be read to determine the will of the gods

or to predict the future, which could essentially be the same thing.

These little pieces of wood, or for that matter, any such objects which were read in this random

manner, were called klutum by the early Germanic tribes.

This word was eventually shortened and it became hlot in Old English.

And it eventually became lot in Middle English.

Around the 12th century, the word cast was borrowed from Old Norse, meaning to throw.

And that word produced words like outcast, meaning to throw someone out.

And it produced phrases like cast away and cast off.

And that word cast was often used in conjunction with the concept of throwing lots.

And it produced the phrase to cast lots, meaning to throw objects in a random manner with some

larger purpose in mind.

So you might cast lots, or in a game involving dice, you might cast a die, which is just

another form of casting lots.

And even today, if we cast our lot with someone, we’re basically rolling the dice.

We’re picking a side and letting fate have its way.

Interestingly, this Germanic word lot was later borrowed into early French and Italian,

and there it produced new words like lottery and lotto.

This comes from the fact that the early version of those games involved putting objects in

a container and shaking them up and selecting certain pieces.

This was a game of chance, which involved a form of casting lots.

So from there, we got the terms lottery and lotto, again, all derived from this original

Germanic method of predicting the fates.

Now in addition to casting lots, Tacitus described another way in which the Germanic tribes predicted

the fates.

He said that they observed the sounds and flights of birds, as well as the neighs and

snorts of horses.

And he said that the early Germans could discern the will of the gods by paying close attention

to those signs.

Now the Germans were not the only ones who thought that the future could be predicted

by observing the flight patterns of birds.

The Romans did that as well, and in fact the Romans coined their own term to describe the

process of trying to predict the fates or the future in any of these random ways.

They called these signs the auspices.

And this term actually came from the process of watching birds in the sky.

The Latin word for bird was avis, which later became avis.

Remember from the last episode that early Latin didn’t have the v sound, it had the

w sound.

So weenum became veenum and later veeno.

Well the same thing happened with the Latin word for bird.

Early on it was avis, and it later became avis.

And from that later version of the word we get modern English words like aviary, for

a place where birds are kept, and aviation, for the process of flying like a bird.

Well early on the Romans combined that original version of the word avis with the Latin verb

to watch, which was spectra.

Of course that word gives us English words like spectate and spectator.

Well when you combine the words for bird and watch, you got a bird watcher.

So avis and spectra produced the word auspice, which again was literally a bird watcher,

or someone who predicted the will of the gods by observing the flight patterns of birds.

And there are some linguists who think that this word auspice actually predated the Romans.

The Latin words for bird and watch both come from Indo-European root words.

And there’s some evidence that the original Indo-Europeans also combined the same two

root words to produce an even earlier version of the word auspice.

But at any rate, the Romans definitely used the word, and they called the process of watching

birds auspicium.

This word later produced the English word auspicious, meaning a favorable or good sign.

By the way, just as the Romans kept a close eye on the movement of the birds in the sky,

they also paid close attention to the movement and the alignment of the stars.

Of course, the Greeks did this, too, and they thought that the particular alignment

of the stars could be a good omen or a bad omen.

From an earlier episode, we know that the Greek word for star was aster, and that ultimately

gives us the word astrology, which also involved the process of observing stars in the sky.

But it was the Romans who gave us the word for what astrologers watch, which is constellation.

Since a constellation is a group of stars associated with each other, the Romans combined

the word come, meaning with, and stella, which was their word for star, and it produced the

word constellatus, which became constellation.

But the early Romans had actually developed a separate word to refer to a star or group

of stars in the sky, and this separate word came from a separate Indo-European root word,

which originally meant to shine.

This Latin word was cetus.

So the Romans combined this word with that same prefix come, meaning with, to describe

the process of observing the stars, perhaps because you were with the stars as you observed

them to determine the fates.

This combination of come and cetus produced the word considera, and this is the origin

of the modern English word consider, meaning to review or contemplate something.

Well unfortunately when you look for signs in the night sky, you sometimes get bad news,

and the Romans created a word for that which literally meant the stars were out of alignment.

They combined the word da, meaning apart or away from, and the word aster, meaning star,

to produce the word disaster.

So lots, casting lots, lottery lotto, auspicious, astrology, consider, and disaster, all of

those modern words come from this early process of trying to discern the will of the gods

by observing random events, either pieces of wood or birds or stars or some other random


So once again we’ve digressed from early Germanic into Latin, but I wanted to make

some historical connections between those words for you.

So now let’s turn back to the Germans, and at this point we’ve basically exhausted

what Tacitus has to tell us about early Germanic mythology.

So from here we have to look to other sources for information about Germanic religion and


As I noted earlier, the Germanic languages began to be written down a few centuries after

Tacitus, and these early writings reveal a lot more about the specific Germanic gods

and the religious practices of the early Germanic people.

And by comparing these later sources from different regions, we can discern some common

features that were likely inherited from the earlier Germanic tribes during the common

Germanic period.

We know that the early Germans had their own pantheon of gods.

It wasn’t just Woden.

There were lots of gods with their own unique histories and personalities.

Much of what we know about these gods comes from later sources, especially writings from

Old Norse sources in Scandinavia.

But as I noted earlier, these sources were written many centuries later, so it’s unclear

how much of this Norse mythology can be traced back to the original Germanic tribes.

But there are a few aspects of these various gods which did have a later impact on the

English language, so I’ve picked through the various mythologies and selected a few

bits and pieces which relate to later English, and also relate to our modern culture in general.

As I noted earlier, the primary Germanic god was Woden.

And he was worshipped by the early Germanic tribes during the common Germanic era.

He was considered the head of all royal Germanic families.

And even the Anglo-Saxon kings ultimately traced their lineage back to Woden.

Not surprisingly, Woden was a war god.

And this is consistent with the Germanic emphasis on war.

He was the god of those who died in battle.

He sat upon a throne in the sky and looked down upon the world.

And when warriors died in battle, they would go to Woden’s heavenly home called Valhalla.

And it was common for early Germans to use the phrase, journey to Woden, or be a guest

of Woden, to mean to die.

In later mythology, Woden is described as having one eye and wearing a wide-brimmed

hat and a cloak.

He controlled the wind and the water, and he could walk on waves and could arrive through

the air in the form of a storm.

He also rode an eight-legged horse.

I’ve noted that Wednesday was named after Woden, but beyond that, the name of Woden

doesn’t produce any other words in modern English, at least none that I’ve been able

to identify.

However, Woden’s influence on modern culture can be seen in other ways.

It’s especially evident in certain Christmas traditions, which were borrowed from the Germanic


It appears that the early Germanic tribes were like most ancient peoples of Europe in

that they held a specific mid-winter festival.

These festivals were usually held around the time of the winter solstice, which was the

shortest day of the year.

This date marked the beginning of winter, and in ancient societies, this marked the

beginning of a potentially dangerous period.

The growing and harvesting season was over, and if the tribe didn’t have enough food

stored, the following months could bring starvation and death.

So going all the way back to the Stone Age, many of these ancient societies would hold

a festival around this time of the year, around the winter solstice.

They would make sacrifices to the gods to ensure divine protection during the winter


To avoid having to feed cattle throughout the winter, most of the cattle would be slaughtered.

So with fully harvested crops and lots of slaughtered animals, food was abundant.

And throughout the year, fruits and grains had been fermenting.

And now, late in the year, all of this fruit and grain finally completed the fermentation

process, and that meant wine and ale, lots of it.

So drinking was a prominent feature at these celebrations as well.

So these festivals were all about eating, drinking, and making sacrifices.

And this type of mid-winter festival was the last big celebration of the year, just before

winter began.

Well the Germanic tribes had their own mid-winter festival, and it was probably part of the

same ancient tradition which had been handed down from their ancestors over the centuries.

The Germanic version of this mid-winter festival evolved into a specific festival which would

last 12 days, and we know this celebration today as the Yule.

And the reason we know that name is by looking at the names of the months, which were used

by the later Germanic tribes before they converted to Christianity and began to adopt the Latin

names which we still use today in English.

For example, in the Old English dialect of the Anglo-Saxons, December was known as the

Ara-Geola, which meant before the 12-day Yule festival.

And the following month, basically modern January, was called After-Geola, which meant

after the Yule festival.

Most of the other Germanic languages also named those months after the Yule period,

including the Gothic language which was attested as early as the 4th century.

The word Eola eventually evolved into the modern version of the word Yule.

Now as Christianity expanded into northern Europe, the church had a choice to make.

It could either condemn these pagan festivals, or it could co-opt them.

If the church rejected the festivals, it would tend to alienate the native people.

But if it adopted these celebrations, then it would be easier to convert the native

population to Christianity.

And ultimately, that’s what the church did.

It accommodated the beliefs and traditions of the native peoples by adopting the Yule

festival into the existing Christmas celebrations.

And the terms Yule and Yuletide, meaning Yule time, passed into English with their modern

associations with Christmas.

As I mentioned, the Germanic Yule festival lasted for a period of 12 days.

And from this 12-day festival, we got the 12-day Christmas celebration, which began

on December 25th.

This 12-day celebration of Christmas was actually very common in much of Europe during the Middle

Ages, including the British Isles.

And some elements of that 12-day celebration still exist there.

But very little of the 12-day celebration has made it to modern America.

Of course, we still have the song, the 12 days of Christmas, and some people light a

candle at Christmas for each of the 12 days of Christmas.

But these are merely remnants of the 12-day celebration, which owes its roots to the Germanic

Yule festival.

By the way, it was common in the early Germanic period to burn a large tree throughout the

12-day celebration.

It was sort of like a big bonfire that burned for 12 days.

This log was called the Yule log, and that tradition was also incorporated into the later

12 days of Christmas.

As people began to have homes with fireplaces, they would burn a log in the fireplace each

day during the 12 days of Christmas.

So if you ever wondered what a Yule log was, well, now you know.

So you may ask, what does all of this have to do with the Germanic god Woden?

Well, during the Yule period, it was believed that supernatural and ghostly events would occur.

One of these events was the so-called Wild Hunt, in which Woden would lead a ghostly

procession across the sky.

And many historians believe that this was the ultimate origin of certain ideas and aspects

that would later play a role in the figure of Santa Claus.

The Yule-time figure of Woden had a long white beard, and he rode a gray horse across the


By the time of the later Norse traditions of the 13th century, Woden, or Odin, still

had a long white beard, but now he had a blue hood, and his horse had eight legs, and he

bore gifts.

These aspects of Woden later influenced the figure of Sinterklaas, which developed in

and around Belgium, the Netherlands, and parts of northern Germany.

Sinterklaas developed as part of the December celebration of Saint Nicholas, who was a real-life

person who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and who was the patron saint of children.

So Sinterklaas was based around this particular celebration in and around the Netherlands.

And the name Sinterklaas was actually derived from the name Saint Nicholas.

Sinterklaas eventually got mixed in with the English figure of Father Christmas, thereby

completing the evolution from the northern European Sinterklaas to the anglicized Santa


He still has his long white beard, and he still bears gifts, and he still lives in the

cold and icy north, now the North Pole.

In some depictions he still has a hood, only now it’s red instead of blue, and he still

rides through the sky at night during Christmas time, only instead of an eight-legged horse,

he now has eight reindeer.

So you can see how some of these ancient Germanic figures and religious traditions have filtered

down to us in modern Christianity and modern English.

So I’ve talked a lot about Woden, and modern historians believe that Woden was actively

worshipped in some early form by the original Germanic tribes.

But what about the other gods which appear in later Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythologies?

Were they also worshipped by the original Germanic tribes?

Well, that’s a tougher question.

I’ve noted in earlier episodes that just as Wednesday was named after Woden, Tuesday

was named after the god Tiu, or Tir as he was known in Old Norse.

And you might also remember from a very early episode of the podcast that Tiu is cognate

with the Greek god Zeus and the Roman god Jupiter.

The names of all of those gods originated with an original Indo-European word which

meant sky-father.

So, since Tiu had roots within the original Indo-European language that continued throughout

the Germanic period, that suggests that even the earliest Germans had some concept of this

god Tiu.

But in later Norse mythology, Tiu or Tir doesn’t play that same prominent role that Zeus plays

in Greek mythology or Jupiter plays in Roman mythology.

So what happened to Tiu?

Well, we can’t say for certain.

But he was still a sky god in the later Norse mythology.

For example, he could arrive from the sky as a storm.

So the fact that he was a sky god seems to have been retained from the original Indo-European

version of the god.

But he’s clearly subordinate to Woden in the Germanic pantheon of gods.

In fact, he’s sometimes depicted as the son of Woden.

So was he downgraded at some point?

Well maybe.

Tacitus may actually give us a clue to this.

You might remember from the last episode that Tacitus began his book Germania by dividing

the Germanic tribes into three separate groups.

And he stated that each of those tribal groups were descended from the three sons of an ancient


The god’s name was Manus.

And Tacitus also states that the father of Manus was a god named Tuisto.

And that’s all he says about Tuisto.

But some modern scholars think that Tuisto was the earlier version of Tiu or Tir.

And if so, that would make sense given what we know about Zeus and Jupiter.

That would make Tuisto the ultimate father, or more precisely the grandfather, of the

Germanic tribes.

But again, Tacitus doesn’t tell us anything else about Tuisto.

And we know from Tacitus himself that Tuisto was not the primary god worshiped by the Germans.

So perhaps around the time of Tacitus in the first century AD, Tiu held a lofty status

in the overall pantheon of Germanic gods, but he wasn’t actively worshipped in the

way that Woden was.

At any rate, by the time we get to the later Anglo-Saxon and Norse versions of Tiu, we

can see lots of parallels with Woden.

They were both sky gods, and they were both gods of war.

And scholars believe Tiu was a god of war because the later Romans equated him with

the Roman god Mars, which is also how French Marti, named after Mars, became English Tuesday,

named after Tiu.

Now let’s move on to another Germanic god.

In fact, let’s discuss probably the most famous Germanic god in modern Western culture,

because even Hollywood knows about this god.

Of course, I’m talking about Thor.

Again, we know from earlier episodes of the podcast that Thursday was originally Thorsday.

He was a popular deity and was also known as the Thunder God.

In fact, his name literally meant thunder in Old Norse.

And it comes from the same Germanic root as the English word thunder.

So Thor and thunder are cognate.

Thor was a great warrior with incredible strength, and of course his famous weapon was a hammer,

which could be thrown and which would automatically return to his hand.

He was named after thunder because he announced himself through thunder and lightning.

So was Thor around during the time of Tacitus, or was he a later creation?

Well, we don’t have any specific references to Thor during the time of Tacitus, so we

can’t say for certain that he was being worshipped at that time.

But some modern scholars speculate that Thor may indeed have been around at this very early stage.

In fact, they speculate that Thor was actually a very old god and may have even predated

Woden and he may have held a higher position than Woden at some point in the Germanic pantheon of gods.

Again, this is only speculation.

But the reason why some scholars have proposed this view is the fact that Thor is so closely

associated with thunder.

I noted that the words thunder and Thor were cognate.

Well, the word thunder has very strong Indo-European roots.

The word appears in very similar forms in both Latin and Persian as well as the Germanic


And they all share the same root with the Sanskrit word for thunder as well.

So if Thor was closely associated with thunder, then there may have been deeper roots among

the original Indo-Europeans.

Many ancient agricultural societies had specific thunder gods.

And those gods were extremely important because they controlled thunderstorms and rain.

And that meant they were responsible for the fertility of the land.

And in fact, Zeus was a thunder god and was one of the oldest gods in Greek mythology.

So if the original Indo-Europeans had a distinct thunder god, that god may have passed on to

the early Germans as a very early version of Thor.

Again, this is all speculation, but it’s an interesting argument.

Outside of Thursday, which comes from Thor’s name, and thunder, which comes from the same

root as Thor, the only other word in English connected to the name Thor is thorium, the

chemical element which was named after Thor by a Swedish chemist in the 1800s.

So we’ve covered the gods which gave us the names of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

Now let’s turn to Friday.

Friday was named after a Germanic goddess.

But the precise one is a matter of some debate.

Most scholars attribute the source of the name Friday to the goddess Frigga.

Frigga was the wife of Woden.

But Germanic mythology also had another goddess named Freya.

And because of the similarity of the names, the two are often confused.

And there’s actually some evidence that the two goddesses originated as a single goddess

in very early Germanic mythology.

And later, the original goddess evolved into two separate goddesses.

In fact, Freya was only known in northern Germany.

And the southern Germanic regions only recognized a goddess whose name was almost identical

to Frigga.

So, as the early tribes began to migrate and separate from each other, the original goddess

may have taken on distinct identities within the northern and southern tribes.

But keep in mind that our sources of knowledge about these goddesses come from much later

Nordic accounts.

So by the time of these later sources, these separate versions of the original goddess

may have just been considered completely separate goddesses altogether.

As I noted in an earlier episode, Friday is generally attributed to Frigga, the wife of


But it appears that some of the Germanic tribes named the day after Freya instead.

For example, many scholars think the name of the day in Icelandic is named after Freya.

And remember that Freya was only known in the northern regions.

So that connection makes sense.

Now in addition to Freya and Frigga, there’s another Germanic goddess which I need to mention

because she’s also important to modern English and modern Christianity.

The goddess was called Eastra.

She represented increasing sunlight and therefore she came to represent spring and fertility

as well.

The name of the goddess actually has its origins in the original Indo-European language.

The Indo-European word aus meant to shine, specifically shining at dawn.

And so this word came to be associated with the sun rising in the morning.

And this Indo-European word aus ultimately produced the word east as in the place or

direction where the sun rises in the morning.

This Indo-European root word also produced a Roman goddess, Aurora, the goddess of the


And, of course, the name Aurora has passed into modern English as another word referring

to dawn.

But amongst the Germanic tribes who descended from the same original Indo-Europeans, that

same original Indo-European root word produced the name of this Germanic goddess, Eastra.

And it also produced another Germanic word, Austrin, which originally referred to the

sunrise feast which was celebrated at the spring equinox.

And in fact, the name of the goddess Eastra was probably derived from this Germanic word

for the sunrise feast.

Since the spring equinox marked the beginning of spring, which was the start of the planting

and growing season, it was considered a time of fertility.

And the goddess Eastra came to represent the springtime.

And she therefore became a goddess of fertility.

Of course, the importance of Eastra to modern English and Christianity is the fact that

her name is the source of the word Easter.

Shortly after the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, they incorporated certain aspects

of the spring Austrin celebration into the early Christian celebrations commemorating

the resurrection of Christ.

The timing of the Christian celebrations coincided with the Germanic spring celebration.

The Christian celebration also represented a rebirth of sorts, so its connection with

the fertility goddess Eastra made sense.

So the Anglo-Saxons made this connection, and they borrowed the goddess’ name as the

name of the Christian celebrations.

By the way, have you ever wondered what the Easter bunny and Easter eggs have to do with

the resurrection of Christ in the Bible?

Well, here’s the connection.

Bunnies and eggs represent fertility.

Obviously, rabbits reproduce very quickly.

And eggs are new chickens and birds just waiting to hatch.

So these fertility symbols were closely associated with spring fertility.

And so these pagan springtime fertility symbols, including the name of the spring fertility

goddess, they became associated with the springtime Christian holiday celebrating a different

type of rebirth.

But I should note that this association of the name of the Christian holiday with the

spring fertility goddess, that was somewhat unique to the Anglo-Saxons.

Almost all neighboring languages use a variant of the Latin pascha to name this holiday.

But again, just like with the combination of the Yule celebrations with Christmas, we

can see the mixing of Germanic pagan traditions and Christian traditions as Christianity spread

in northern Europe.

Now beyond the gods and the goddesses which I’ve mentioned, there were many other Germanic

deities as well.

Most of those didn’t have much of an impact on modern English, so I’m not going to address

all of them here.

But I did want to mention one other god before I conclude this episode.

And that’s the Germanic god Loki.

Loki was a trickster god.

And he’s found his way into modern popular culture thanks to movies like the Avengers.

But he’s important to our story because he was the father of a daughter goddess named


According to later Norse mythology, Hel was banished to a cold, dark, misty world where

she became the goddess of the dead and came to represent the realm of the evil dead.

And as Christianity spread into northern Europe, it borrowed the name of this goddess just

like it had borrowed the name of Eostre for Easter.

The goddess Hel who oversaw the realm of the evil dead became the word for the Christian

concept of the place where bad people go when they die.

So the modern term Hel, spelled H-E-L-L, it was taken directly from the name of this Germanic


But the use of the term was secured within English when it was used in the King James

Bible to translate the Greek word Hades, referring to the same place.

Now speaking of the place where dead people go when they die, the early Germans were like

many ancient people in that they believed a dead person would continue to live after

death in his or her grave.

Therefore, a corpse was buried with everything the person might need in the afterlife.

And this is largely determined by examining the grave evidence from this period.

Then it appears that the Germanic people believed that there was a realm of the dead

within the ocean or other bodies of water.

When prominent tribe members or leaders died, a special ship was prepared for the deceased

final voyage.

The deceased person was then buried with the ship.

This process is actually documented throughout later Germanic literature after writing was

adopted by the Germanic tribes.

For example, Beowulf begins with a description of this ceremony.

In one modern English translation, the passage reads in part,

The king’s dear comrades carried his body to the sea’s current, as he himself had ordered

when he still gave commands.

The nation’s dear leader had ruled for a long time.

There at the harbor stood the ring-carved prow, the nobles’ vessel, icy, sea-ready.

They laid down the king that they had dearly loved, their tall ring-giver, in the center

of the ship, the mighty by the mast.

Great treasure was there, bright gold and silver, gems from far lands.

As you may know, in 1938, archaeologists unearthed an Anglo-Saxon ship loaded with artifacts

at Sutton Hoo in eastern England.

The ship was part of a large Anglo-Saxon burial ceremony which probably dates back to the

early 7th century.

And this find is extremely important to Anglo-Saxon scholars, but we’ll deal with all of that

when we get to the Old English period.

The main point here is to show the connection between the dead and the sea, which was a

prominent feature of Germanic mythology.

The northern Germanic tribes had access to the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, so they

believed that the kingdom of the dead existed at the bottom of the sea.

But the southern and eastern Germanic tribes were landlocked, so they tended to believe

that the kingdom of the dead existed in certain lakes.

The ritual of ship burial was linked to this belief, because a dead king might need his

ship to travel to this underworld kingdom of the dead.

And we can also see this belief in certain words in modern English.

For example, the words sol, s-o-u-l, and sea, s-e-a, they both derive from the same

common Germanic root word.

That original Germanic word was sywas, and it meant lake or inland sea.

And that word eventually became sea in modern English.

But that root word also produced the later Germanic word sywelo, which meant something

belonging to a lake or deriving from a lake.

And that term later evolved into the modern English word sol.

The word sol can be specifically traced back to Germanic dialects spoken in southern and

eastern Germany, where lakes were considered the place where souls returned to death.

But interestingly, that early word for soul isn’t found in the early northern Germanic


So it appears that the word sol was originally connected to the lakes, but not the sea.

By the way, many scholars also think this is the connection to the old belief that the

stork delivered newborn babies.

This belief apparently originated within the Germanic regions of northern Europe, and it

reflects the idea that there’s a place beneath the lake where souls live, in this case souls

that haven’t yet been born as humans.

Also, remember that the original Germanic concept of hell was not a place of fire and

brimstone, that’s the Christian version.

The original Germanic version was an underwater kingdom of dead souls.

And in fact, there’s some interesting etymology here as well.

The name of the goddess Hel, H-E-L, and her underwater kingdom, called Hel, actually that

can be traced back to the original Indo-European language.

The Indo-European root word was Kel, which meant to cover or conceal.

But remember Grimslaw, the original K sound became an H sound in the original Germanic


So, Kel became Hel.

But again, it came from a root word meaning to cover or conceal.

So we can see that connection to an underwater kingdom, which is concealed or covered by

a lake.

But that same original Indo-European root word, Kel, passed into Latin as Kella, spelled


And if you remember back to the history of the letter C, the Latin K sound shifted to

an S sound before an E or an I in early French.

So Latin Kella became French Cell.

And from French, the word passed into modern English in basically the same form.

And today, we have the word Cell, as in jail cell, to mean a place where a person is concealed

or contained.

So Cell and Hel both come from the same original Indo-European root word.

Hel is the Germanic version, and Cell is the Latin and French version.

Now I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Germanic gods and goddesses, but I should

also note that Germanic mythology also involves lots of other mythological beings and creatures.

For example, it features beings like giants, dwarves, Nixies, and elves.

Of course, J.R.R. Tolkien used many of these creatures in his books, like The Hobbit and

The Lord of the Rings.

And the Brothers Grimm also collected many folktales which involved these same creatures.

And these beings and creatures then passed to many other works of literature and fantasy.

So we see these creatures throughout Western literature today, but most of their characteristics

can be traced back to Germanic mythology.

So I’m going to conclude this episode about Germanic religion and mythology on that note.

In this episode, we’ve seen how the religion of the early Germans had a significant influence

on modern English, as well as modern Christianity and our modern Western culture.

Next time, I’m going to move the story of the Germanic people forward a bit.

I’m going to look beyond the early common Germanic period to the later period around

the 3rd and 4th centuries.

During this time frame, new distinct tribes began to emerge.

And one of those tribes was the Goths.

And also during this period, some of the early Germans began to adopt writing.

And we’ll look at the development of Germanic runic writing.

And we’ll look at the Gothic translation of the Bible and related religious texts.

And this is all very important because it marks the first time that we have the German

people writing down their own language for later generations to read.

So we can read their words in their own languages.

So next time, we’ll look at the Goths and the written language of the early Germans.

Until then, thanks for listening to the History of English podcast.

I’m Chris.

I’ll see you next time.

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