How far the Eddic deities are derived from animistic spirits of different departments of nature is a moot point. The origin of nature worship must be sought primarily in the fact that man viewed rivers, hills, trees, thunder, wind, and the like, as alive in the same sense as he himself was. As he was alive, moving and acting, so things around him, especially those which moved and acted, or in any way suggested life, were alive. They had varying capabilities and spheres of action. Some were in motion — rivers, clouds, sun and moon, trees swayed by the wind. Some were vast entities — a huge tree, a broad river, a high mountain. Some acted or did things — the clouds poured down rain, the trees swayed in the wind, or brought forth leaves and fruit, earth produced vegetation, thunder crashed and rolled, the sun gave light and heat. Some seemed beneficial to man; some were antagonistic. They did more or less the things which man did: they were alive: they possessed power. Hence the more alive they were and the more power they possessed, man saw stronger reasons for standing in awe of them and even propitiating them. When man discovered himself possessed of a soul or spirit, he naturally ascribed such a soul or spirit to these powers or parts of nature. And as man’s soul could leave his body in sleep or at death or become separable from it, so could the spirit or soul of a mountain, a tree, a river. Thus in time the spirits of parts of nature might be and were conceived as altogether detached from them. Thus a way was open to ever-increasing hosts of nature spirits, no less than to the dowering of certain nature spirits — those of greater entities, e.g., the sky, a mountain, earth, sun, moon — with a


more elaborate personality. These were on their way to be regarded as divine, as gods or goddesses. So also groups of nature spirits were conceived as having a chief, on the analogy of human society, and these in time might become personal divinities of a part of nature. Such deities tended to become more and more separate from the objects which were their source, more and more anthropomorphic, yet lofty divine beings, ruling sky, sun, moon, earth, sea. Hence the number of such gods found in all polytheistic religions, separate from, yet connected in some way with, these natural objects. They tend to become ever wider in their sphere of influence, yet betray by certain links the source from which they sprang. All deities were not necessarily nature spirits, but many of them were, though the connexion may be difficult to trace.1

In Teutonic polytheism some of the deities can be traced to a source in nature. Tiuz was perhaps at first the sky. Odin, whatever he became in later times, may have originated in connexion with the wind on which the souls of the dead were thought to be borne. Thor is in origin the personified thunder, though this connexion was forgotten in Icelandic literature, because in Icelandic and Old Norse the word for “thunder” corresponding to the name of Thor had gone out of use. The connexion of other deities with nature has been noted in discussing the separate divinities. Some of the giants originated in hostile nature powers, embodiments of frost, ice, storm, the mountains. Individual names of giants throw little light on their origin, but Thrym, Thor’s opponent, whose name means “noise,” and is connected with ON thruma, “thunder-clap,” is a kind of counterpart of Thor as Thunder-god. Another giant being, the eagle Hræsvelg who causes the winds, is a personification of the wind. So, too, the Midgard-serpent is the personification, in gigantic animal form, of ocean as it was supposed to encircle the earth.

In the following sections we shall see how different parts of nature were regarded by the Teutonic peoples and especially by the Scandinavians.


Jörd, mother of Thor by Odin, is said to be both wife and daughter of Odin by Snorri, who counts her among the Asynjur. He and the skald Hallfred speak of her as daughter of Anar (Onar) and Night. The kennings for Jörd were, among others, “Flesh of Ymir,” “Daughter of Anar,” “Odin’s bride,” “Co-wife of Frigg, Rind, and Gunnlod.” She is also called Hlodyn. “The hard bones of the green Hlodyn “are spoken of by the skald Volu-Steinn.2 Inscriptions to Dea Hludana are found in Lower Germany and Friesland, on altars consecrated to her by fishermen. The meanings proposed for Hludana vary with the suggested derivations. These remain uncertain, as does the identity of Hlodyn and Hludana.3

Still another name for Thor’s mother is Fjorgyn, which must be a title of Jörd’s. But there was also a male Fjorgynn, Frigg’s husband, i.e., Odin, though Snorri, mistaking the meaning of mśr, “beloved,” “maiden,” “wife,” calls Frigg “daughter of Fjorgynn.”4 In these two similar names or appellatives we may see those of a primitive Sky-god and Earth-goddess, their son being Thor. When Odin took the place of the Sky-god, Fjorgyn or Jörd was regarded as his wife and Thor as his son. The name is connected with Sanskrit Parjanya, Lithuanian Perkknas, Latin quercus, “oak,” and Gothic fairguni, “mountain,” OHG Fergunna, the name of a mountain covered with oaks. Hence the supposition that Heaven and Earth, as a divine pair, were venerated on a wooded mountain. The union of such a pair was regarded in many mythologies as the source of all things, Earth being a female. Often, too, they were parents of gods and men.5 If such a divine pair were venerated by the Teutons, what Tacitus says of Nerthus as Mother-Earth is significant. Jörd, Fjorgyn, perhaps also Freyja, were forms of the Earth-goddess.

Tacitus speaks of a temple of the goddess Tamfana, worshipped by the Marsi, which Germanicus levelled to the ground.


The tribes had held a festival of the goddess early in winter, and, when drunk, were surprised by Germanicus and put to the sword. Various derivations have been proposed for Tamfana, e.g., a connexion with Icelandic þamb, “fulness,” þomb, “abundance”; with ON tafn, “sacrificial animal”; and Latin daps. Tamfana was apparently a goddess of fertility, of harvest, hence a form of the Earth-Mother.6

Anglo-Saxon formulae of the tenth century for restoring fertility to fields which had suffered from hostile magic are interesting, as showing how memories of an older Earth cult survived into Christian times. The ritual was partly sacrificial, with spoken spells. One of these runs: “erce, erce, erce, eorthan modor.” The mother of Earth, rather than Earth herself was invoked. A similar Lettish phrase forms a parallel — Semmesmate, “mother of Earth.” The meaning of erce is uncertain. Grimm connected it with the traditional German Frau Harke or Herke. Some connexion with ero, “earth,” is also possible. The other charm runs: “Hale be thou, Earth (folde), mother of men; be faithful in God’s embrace, filled with food for use of men.” This was said before beginning to plough.7 Folde, “Earth,” occurs also in ON as “fold,” and a similar appeal is found in Sigrdrifumal where Brynhild cries: “Hail to the gods, hail to the goddesses, hail to the generous Earth” (fjolnýta fold).8 The Earth, as a productive source of what is good for men, and as spouse of the Heaven-god, lies behind these formulae. Ritual survivals of an old Earth cult are collected in Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough.

Obscure references to the magic or strengthening power of Earth occur in the Eddic poems, as in the formula from Guthrunarkvitha and Hyndluljod already mentioned. In Havamal Earth is said to cure drink: hence before drinking ale one should exorcise it through the magic strength of Earth. Because of the magic strength of Earth, a newly born child was laid upon it. The vitality or soul of the child issued from Mother-Earth. When the child had again been lifted up by the midwife and


acknowledged by the father, it could only be exposed in exceptional cases. Scandinavian terms for “midwife” are Jördgumma, Jördemoder, “earth-mother.”9

Children or their souls were believed to come from Mother-Earth, as this rite shows, and as is found in many folk-beliefs regarding their coming out of hollow trees, i.e., from the earth, out of ponds, lakes, wells, or caves.10 Connected with this was the rite by which men swore brotherhood. They let their blood flow together into a footprint. Another rite was called “going under the earth.” A long sod was cut so that its ends were fast to the earth. It was propped up with a spear, and the parties to the pact crept through it. All then let their blood from a cut vein flow on the earth under the sod, afterwards touching it, swearing to avenge each other, and calling the gods to witness. The mixing of blood with the earth signified that all had come from a common mother.11


The myth of Sun and Moon as children of Mundilfari has already been referred to. Sun is “Moon’s bright sister,” and she drives the horses Arvak, “Early-wake,” and Alsvid, “Allstrong,” harnessed to the chariot of the sun which the gods had fashioned for lighting the world out of the glowing matter from Muspellheim. Under the horses”shoulders the gods set windbags to cool them, though in some records this is called “ironcoolness.” Moon steers the course of the moon.12 The poems on which this account of Snorri’s is based say that the horses wearily drag the weight of the sun, but the gods have set under their yokes a cool iron.13

In giving the kennings for “sun,” Snorri cites verses of Skuli Thorsteinsson (c. 980 A.D.) which refer to the sun as “goddess.” The Eddic poems also call the sun “shining goddess,” and in front of her stands Svalin, “Cooling,” as shield, otherwise mountains and sea would be set on fire. The sun is “Glitnir’s goddess,”



These symbols cut on rocks and stones in Scandinavia during the Stone and Bronze Ages represent the sun as a disc or wheel rolling through the sky. See p. 198.


Glitnir being the sky, the heavenly palace of Forseti.14 Snorri also says that Sol, “Sun,” is reckoned among the Asynjur.15 When the giant artificer asked for sun and moon as well as Freyja for his reward, this shows that they may be regarded as deities.16 Some of the names given to the sun in Alvissmal are interesting. Dwarfs call it “deceiver of Dvalin”; elves name it “fair wheel.” The sun deceives Dvalin, a dwarf, because dwarfs turn to stone if caught by its light. The name “elf-beam” for the sun refers to the danger which elves encounter from it.17

In Voluspa the poet says that the sun cast her hand over the rim of Heaven and had no knowledge of where her home should be. The moon knew not what might was his, nor the stars where their stations were, till the gods held council. Then they gave names to night and new moon, full moon, morning, evening, midday, and vesper. This account of the sun is best explained as a description of the Northern midsummer night, when the sun is at the edge of the horizon, but does not sink beneath it, and remains near the moon. This suggested to the poet a disordered state of things: hence he added a stanza telling how the gods set order among the heavenly bodies.18

The analogy of other religions would suggest that with all these myths a cult of sun and moon existed in Scandinavia. Cæsar, on insufficient evidence, says that the Germans worshipped no other deities than those which were objects of sight and benefited men by their power — the sun, the moon, and fire (Vulcan).19 This points to some cult or magical rites, and is partly corroborated by what Tacitus says. Beyond the Suiones (Swedes) is a sluggish sea, supposed to engirdle the earth. The setting sun is so vivid there as to obscure the stars. People believe that the sun can be heard emerging from the sea, and horses and rays streaming from his head are seen. These horses correspond to the Eddic horses of the sun. Tacitus also tells how Boiocalus, king of the Ansivari, invoked the sun and stars. Cæsar’s opinion about a cult of the moon is not corroborated from other sources, yet superstitious beliefs about new and full


moon found in later times may have existed in his day and have given occasion to his assertion. The Suevic prophetesses, e.g., warned the tribesmen not to fight before new moon.20 Sunna is mentioned in the Merseburg charm as one of the Idisi. Procopius says that in Thule, by which he means Scandinavia, the sun does not appear at the winter solstice for forty days. Watchers on the mountains look for its rising and inform the people that this will happen in five days. A great feast is then held.21 In later centuries the Church forbade the cult of sun and moon or observances in connexion with them. They were not to be called lords, said S. Eligius. The Saxon Indiculus Superstitionum mentions the custom of the pagans who say: Vince, luna, at an eclipse. The Anglo-Saxons were told in the laws of Canute that heathenism honoured heathen gods, sun and moon. The worship of sun, moon, and stars, new moon, and the shouting and noise at an eclipse, by which the moon was supposed to be aided, are denounced in Burchard’s collection of ecclesiastical decrees.22

In folk-custom there are many survivals of rites by which the power of the sun was supposed to be increased and fertility aided. Further reference need not be made to these, but the mention of the chariot of the sun in the Eddas is interesting because of certain archaeological finds.

In the Stone Age symbols of the sun were carved on stones in Scandinavia — circles with or without inner rays in the form of a cross, or with several rays from centre to circumference, or concentric circles, sometimes with an inner cross or with lines joining the two circles. These circles show that the sun was regarded as a disc or wheel rolling through the sky. This symbolism was continued in the Bronze Age,23 but now more interesting finds show the reverence for the sun in that period. In 1902 a bronze disc decorated with spirals and overlaid with gold was found at Trundholm in Seeland. It stood on a bronze wagon with six wheels, set upright on the axle of the hindermost pair. Resting on the axles of the two foremost pairs of wheels



Sun carriage, with horse and wheels, of bronze covered with gold. Found at Trundholm, Seeland. Described on p. 198.


is the figure of a bronze horse. The wagon on which is the disc of the sun does not appear to have been drawn by the horse; both horse and disc are on the wagon.24 Other representations of the sun, whether ornamental or used in cult or magic, have been found. A bronze disc, with concentric ring ornamentation, and with triangular pendants attached to the upper part of the disc, was found at Eskelheim in Gotland. It was probably part of the ornamentation of a horse’s trappings.25 More elaborate is a decorated bronze disc, fifteen inches in diameter, mounted on a ring of metal, six inches deep, with ten wheels, each with four spokes from a central ring. This was found at Ystad in Schonen.26 All these different kinds of discs represented the sun.

Snorri tells how Gangleri spoke of the sun’s swift course, as if hasting to destruction. To this Har replied that he who seeks her comes close and she cannot but run away. Two wolves cause this trouble. Skoll pursues her, and Hati Hrodvitnisson leaps before her, and he is eager to seize the moon. They are progeny of a giantess in Ironwood who bears many giants for sons. Hrodvitnir, “Mighty wolf,” is the Fenris-wolf, father of the brood.27

This account is based on verses of Grimnismal and Voluspa. The former says:

“The wolf is called Skoll, who in Ironwood
    Follows the glittering goddess;
Hati the other, Hrodvitnir’s son,
    Runs before the bright bride of Heaven.”

The latter tells how the giantess in Ironwood bore Fenrir’s brood. Among these was one in troll’s form, the robber of the sun. Nothing is said of the moon, as in Snorri’s account.28 In Vafthrudnismal Fenrir himself swallows the sun at the Doom of the gods, but the sun bears a daughter before that, and she will follow her mother’s path.29 This deed of Fenrir’s belongs to the end of the world: the pursuit of the sun by his wolf-sons


goes on always. Both incidents refer to the myths of an eclipse as caused by a monster devouring sun or moon, which was driven off by people making noises. Snorri gives another myth. One of Fenrir’s brood, mightiest of all, is Managarm, “Moonhound,” who will be filled with flesh of all who die and shall swallow the moon, sprinkling Heaven and the air with blood. This precedes the great storms and darkening of the sun at the Doom of the gods. Snorri is paraphrasing and quoting a passage in Voluspa which, however, speaks of the swallower of the sun (tungl, “sun,” not “moon”) and not of Managarm, whom he must have introduced from some other source.30

Vafthrudnismal says that Delling, “Day-spring,” is father of Day. Nor is father of Night. The steed which draws the shining Day to benefit mankind is Skinfaxi, “Shining mane,” the best of horses in the eyes of heroes; his mane burns brightly. The horse which brings Night for the noble gods is Hrimfaxi, “Frosty mane.” Foam falls from his bit each morning, and thence come the dews in the dales — a statement made also of the Valkyries’ steeds. Night as daughter of Nor is named also in Alvissmal.31

Snorri elaborates this. Night’s father, Narfi, is a giant in Jötunheim. Night is swarthy and dark, as befits her race. She was given first to the man Naglfari (who bears the same name as the corpse-ship in Voluspa), and by him had a son Aud. Then she was married to Anar, and from them Jörd was born. Next Delling, of the race of the Æsir, had her, and their son was Day, radiant and fair like his father. All-father took Night and Day and gave them two horses and two chariots, and sent them up into the Heavens to ride round about the earth every two half-days. Night’s horse, Hrimfaxi, bedews the earth with foam every morning. Day’s steed, Skinfaxi, illumines earth and air with his mane.32

This elaborate genealogy may be due to knowledge of such theogonic genealogies as that given by Hesiod. The skalds worked this up, and Snorri has put it into prose. Thus it is not



Bronze sun disc mounted on a metal ring with ten wheels. From Ystad in Schonen. See p. 199.


genuine Scandinavian mythology. The parallels are Night, Nox; Nor, Erebus; Day, Dies; Jörd, Terra; while Aud (Authr) perhaps is Æther, and Anar is Amor.33 The origin of Day from Night is genuine mythology, as with the Celts and others, who held that night precedes or gives rise to day, darkness to light. The light of day comes gradually out of the darkness of night, whereas darkness falls over the light of day, extinguishing it. Man also, asleep and inert during darkness, rises to fresh activity with the light. A pre-existing state of darkness, out of which light and life have proceeded, is thus very widely presupposed. Tacitus says of the Teutons that they count the number of nights, not of days, for night seems to precede day.”34

“Delling’s door” is mentioned in Havamal. Before it the dwarf Thjodrörir “sang might for the gods, glory for elves, and wisdom for Hroptatyr” (Odin). This door would be that through which day or the sun came forth. In the Hervararsaga one of Gestumblindi’s riddles is: “What is the marvel outside Delling’s door, which shines on men in every land, and yet wolves are always struggling for it?” The answer is, the sun, the wolves being Skoll and Hati.35


Cæsar’s reference to a cult of Vulcan means a cult of the visible fire. Superstitious reverence for fire, e.g., on the hearth, or fire as a sun-charm, as a medium of sacrifice, or the like, may lie behind his words. In Scandinavia a fire-ritual was used in establishing a claim to property in land. Fire was carried round it, or a fiery arrow shot over it.36 Consecrated fires burned in temples, for such a fire in a temple in Iceland belonging to Thorgrim was never allowed to go out. There were also fires in the midst of temples over which kettles hung and across which toasts were carried.37 The Anglo-Saxon laws of Canute speak of the honouring of fire as a heathen rite.38


Needfire, fire kindled by means of friction, was used in many rites, especially where new fire was required. This is mentioned in the Indiculus Superstitionumde igne fricato de ligno, id est nodfyr, and also in one of Charlemagne’s Capitularies — illos sacrilegos ignes quos niedfyr vocant.39 It was used to kindle fire in time of cattle-plague, and through such a fire cattle were driven, all fires in houses having first been extinguished. Bonfires at midsummer festivals were also kindled from needfire.40

Fire plays its part in Eddic cosmogony — in the Muspellheim conception, and in the final conflagration. The giant Surt with the flaming sword is guardian of this final fire and he will burn up the world. It may be that Surt was a Volcano-god or a Volcano-demon, originating in Iceland.41 A story in the Landnama-bók may be cited in this connexion. Thorir was an old man, his sight dim. One evening he saw a huge, ill-looking man rowing in an iron boat. He came to a house and dug beside it. During the night fire and lava burst from this place and did great destruction. The huge man was obviously a Fire-demon or Fire-giant.42

Fire was used in Scandinavia as elsewhere to cure diseases. Hence the sayings in Havamal that “fire is the best gift for men “and that “fire cures diseases.”43


Many hills were called after Odin, either as places of his cult or as indicating that the dead, whom he ruled, were within them. Others were called after Thor. Folk-belief peopled certain hills with the dead, especially in Iceland, and these were held to be sacred.”44 Hill-giants are demoniac beings inhabiting hills, or personifications of the hills. A cult of mountains as such in Scandinavia is not easily proved. Agathias in the sixth century says that the Alemanni worshipped mountains.45 The ecclesiastical prohibitions include sacrifices super petras et saxa,


whether these are to be regarded as hills or great stones or outcrops of rock or megalithic monuments. Some stones seem to have been ruins of older temples and shrines — “stones (lapides) which in ruinous places or woods are venerated,” is a phrase in one of the canons of the Synod of Nantes.46 Examples of the cult of spirits dwelling in stones are found in Iceland, and the Landnama-bók tells how Eywind settled Flatey-dale up to the Gund stones, and these he hallowed or worshipped.47


Trees and groves were sacred among the Teutons, the grove being a temple, a centre of religious and political life, the scene of cult and sacrifice. Tacitus mentions several such groves in connexion with the cult of Germanic deities — the silva Herculi sacra near the Weser; the lucus Baduhennae in North-west Germany; the grove where the Semnones sacrificed to the regnator omnium Deus; the island castum nemus of Nerthus; the grove where the brothers called Alcis were worshipped.48 Lives of Christian missionaries and other documents show the reverence for such groves at a later time among the Frisians, Lombards, Saxons, and others. On the branches of the trees sacrificial victims were hung. Adam of Bremen describes a grove near Upsala where animals were sacrificed, and other groves were sacred in Scandinavia. We read in the Landnama-bók of the Icelander Thore who hallowed and worshipped a grove and offered sacrifice to it.49 Where Christianity prevailed, such groves were cut down and destroyed.

Single trees were also held sacred, such as those worshipped by the Alemanni, mentioned by Agathias, or others spoken of in contemporary documents over a period of several centuries.50 They were sacred in themselves or dedicated to a god, e.g., the robur Jovis dedicated to Donar at Geismar or the huge tree with spreading branches ever green in winter at Upsala, with a spring beside it at which sacrifices were offered. A living man was


sometimes thrown into this spring, and the whole place was tabu.51

Trees were associated with the souls of the dead, with elfins and spirits, as well as with the spirit indwelling in the tree. Many superstitions prove this, and trees, branches, and twigs figure prominently in fertility rites. As spirits of the dead dwelt in trees, so the Swedish Tomte or Brownie, successor to an ancestral ghost, dwells in the Vårdträd or “ward-tree,” the lime or elm growing before the house. If it is cut down, the prosperity of the house ceases, or, again, the Tomte dies with the tree and then dwells in the house in the rafters made from it. The Tomte acts as a guardian spirit of the house and family. Such protective trees are also associated with a community.52 Analogous to this is the North German belief in the Klabautermann, a helpful Brownie of a ship, dwelling in the mast made from a tree which, as a sapling, was split in order to pass a sickly child through it, and then joined together again. If the child died its soul passed into the tree. Such trees have a peculiar form after this treatment and are used in ship-building.53

As we shall see in a later Chapter, the mythic ash Yggdrasil and the tree Lærad are linked to such sacred trees as the Vårdträd and the sacred tree described by Adam of Bremen. There may be a hint at the sacredness of trees in the myth of the creation of Ask and Embla out of tree-stumps.

Earlier and later folk-belief knew many varieties of more or less elfin beings connected with the woods, in whom may be seen earlier forest spirits, sometimes in new shapes and names. The fairies and fées were fond of the woodlands, though those are seldom directly linked to Tree-spirits, except e.g., where trees are sacred to certain elves, or where mortals sleeping below trees are subject to fairy enchantment. Even peculiarly woodland or tree elfins are more or less independent of their environment. The spirit animating a tree, rock, or stream always tended to be separable from it, and as there are many trees, rocks, or parts of a river, there would be many spirits animating



The designs of boats, to the left and right, upper corner, are from rock-carvings at Bohuslan, Sweden, and date from the early Bronze Age. Some of these boats, of which there are many carvings, have a high and narrow stem, terminating in an animal’s head. The stern is decorated in the same way in some examples. The bronze razors (right) have spiral designs representing boats. These were common in Scandinavia, and the boat design is sometimes associated with circles having a cross or dot inside or lines radiating from the circumference. These may be sun symbols. Some have seen a sun symbol in the boat also, as if a myth of the sun’s crossing the ocean at night in a boat had been current in Scandinavia in the Bronze Age. See p. 198 and J. Dechelette, Manuel d’ archéologie, ii, chapter 4.


these, but apt to appear apart from them and to assume a distinct form. Teutonic folk-lore knows the distinctive forest elfins by different names — OHG scrato, MHG holzmuoja, holzrûna, waldminne (cf. AS wuduælf); in South Germany Fanggen, Saligen or salige Fräulein (“blessed maids,” a euphemism), wilde Leute; in Mid-Germany Moosweibel, Moosfräulein, Holz- or Buschfrauen. In North Germany they are little known or have assumed the qualities of dwarfs. Corresponding to these are the Danish Skogsnufa, “Forest-maidens,” Askefruer, “Ash-women”; the Swedish Skogsrå, “Wood-goblin,” Skogsfru, Wood-wife, and the Löfviska. Male Wood-spirits are less common — Waldmannlein, Wildmännel, Schrat, and the Swedish Skogsman. The Ivithja, a female forest being mentioned in Hyndluljod, and the Troll-wives called Iarnvithja, “Ironwood women,” by Snorri, were more monstrous than elfin, and nothing definite is known of them.54

The Teutonic Schrat (Scrato), Latin Pilosus, is a wild, shaggy, male Wood-spirit, also a form of the nightmare spirit, with eyebrows meeting, who appears singly. Another form is Schretel, Schretzel, a small elfin in houses. The woodland Schrat is akin to the Fauns of classic tradition and to the Treespirits of Teutonic paganism to whom temples and trees were dedicated.55 The wildiu wîp of early Teutonic belief were beautiful, long-haired forest spirits, usually appearing singly. They are the agrestes feminae mentioned by Burchard, who says that when they will they show themselves to their lovers, and with them these say they have pleasure, and when they will they leave them and vanish.56 In Gudrun Wate learned the healing art from one of them. They were famed for spinning. In one version of Wolfdietrich to the sleeping hero came a shaggy Wood-wife, Rauhe Else, or Rauh Ells, on all fours like a bear, asking his love. He called her a devil’s child: she cast spells over him and he became like Nebuchadnezzar. When she next sought his love, he agreed, if she would be baptized. She carried him to her own land, bathed in a Fountain of Youth, and


became the lovely Sigeminne.57 Similar amours occur in later story, and such wildiu wîp and agrestes feminae resemble the puellae, dominae, matronae, seen in forests in medieval legend, native Teutonic fées, like Saxo’s virgines sylvestres and the Eddic Swan-maidens who love the forest.

The Moos- and Holzweibel and Buschfrauen, akin to dwarfs though taller, live in companies, in the heath, in hollow trees, or underground, though they also appear singly. They may be golden-haired, but are mostly shaggy, clad in moss or with moss on their faces, which are old and wrinkled. Their backs are hollow, their breasts pendent. The shaggy, mossy woodland gave the type of these woodland folk, of Rauhe Else, and of the Fauns. The less common males of these groups are both kindly and tricky to the woodman. They have a queen, the Buschgrossmütter. They beg or take food. When bread is baked, a loaf is left for them at a certain spot, for which one of their own loaves is afterward placed in a furrow or on the plough, and they are angry if it is not accepted. For other services they give a reward of a twig or leaves which afterwards turn to gold. They both cause and cure diseases. As worms or insects they creep from trees into men’s bodies, and these must then wish them back into the tree in order to be rid of them. But in time of plague a Holzfräulein will give herbs which are effective against it, and if a Wildmännlein was caught and intoxicated, he supplied secret knowledge, e.g., of cures. On the whole, these Teutonic Wood-folk are kindly; they help with harvesting, hire themselves to peasants, tend cattle, and bring good luck to the house, or one will act like a Kobold or Brownie in a house, requiring only bread and cheese as wages.58

Wood-folk care for and protect the creatures of the wild. The Skogsfru is Lady of those pursued by the hunter, and may put him on their track. Sometimes the Wood-folk themselves appear as animals — the Holzfrauen as owls, the salige Fräulein of Tyrol as vultures, guarding the chamois, the Fanggen as wild cats; the Danish and Swedish Wood-wife has a


semi-animal form or wears beast-skins or a cow’s tail. Wood-wives and Moss-wives are pursued by the Wild Huntsman or the devil, and seek human protection. Three crosses were marked on a fallen tree in order that the Wood-wife might sit within them, for the Wild Hunter fears the cross, and for such aid men were richly rewarded.59 But a wood-cutter who refused this aid was seized and clasped by a Moss-wife, and afterwards became ill. A peasant who mimicked the Hunter as he pursued a Moss-wife found part of her body hanging at his door next morning. This pursuit of the Wood-wives resembles the North German belief in the Wind’s Bride, driven before the Hunter.60

Some of the Wood-folk are earlier Tree-spirits. Whoever would fell a tree must kneel before it with uncovered head and folded hands. In Denmark, where the Elder-mother dwelt under an elder-tree, he who desired to take part of it had to ask her permission thrice. The life of the Fangge is bound up with that of a tree, like a Dryad’s. If any one twists a young tree until the bark comes off, a Wood-wife dies, for she lives beneath the bark.61 All this is in accord with animistic beliefs about Tree-spirits. The antiquity of the Wood-folk as compared with man and his modern ways, is seen in their preference for old methods. They say that there has never been a good time since people began to count the dumplings in the pot and the loaves in the oven, or to “pip” or mark loaves and put caraway seed in them, which they cannot endure — a distaste shared by certain dwarfs. Hence they cannot now enjoy the peasants’ bread, and these in turn lose their prosperity.62

Where the Wood-folk are supposed to dwell together (as in Mid-Germany), they have many elfin and dwarf characteristics, e.g., abducting women and children. The solitary Wood-wife resembles a fée; the solitary male is rather a gigantic or monstrous being. As spirits of the dead often took up their abode in trees, according to older Teutonic belief, there is some connexion between them and the Wood-folk, as there is between


a House-spirit, with its seat in the “house-tree,” and the ancestral ghost. In South Tirol where the Wild-folk hang on a traveller’s back until he faints, there is an example of Wood-spirits acting like the Mahr or nightmare. A Moss-wife also attacked a strong peasant and so weighed upon him that he sickened and became wretched.63 The characteristics of really distinct supernatural beings are apt to be ascribed impartially to the different groups.


The universal belief in the sacredness of streams, springs, and wells is due to the fact that water, moving, glittering, making audible sounds, is thought to be living and also tenanted by spirits. These spirits were made more and more personal, though still linked to the waters to which they owed their origin. The waters are both beneficent and dangerous. They cleanse, heal, give drink to the thirsty, fertilize, but they seek and take human life on occasion — the rushing, swollen stream, the cataract, the tempestuous sea.

The sacred fountain was often near a sacred tree, as at Upsala. Such fountains gave oracles and healed the sick when the due ritual was observed. In Christian times resort to wells and springs in the old pagan manner was forbidden, though often the guardianship of these was transferred to a saint, who now performed miracles by its means.

In Scandinavia there are occasional references to the cult of water, e.g., the worship of a cataract by Thorsteinn in Iceland, who sacrificed and carried all leavings of food to it. He was a seer and predicted how many of his sheep would perish in winter. One autumn he said: “Kill what ye will, for I am now fey, or the sheep are, or perhaps both.” That night he died, and all the sheep rushed into the cataract and perished.64

Sometimes human victims were sacrificed to the waters or to the spirits dwelling in them, as when the Franks in 539 A.D. threw the women and children of the Goths into the river Po


as an offering and in order to know the future.65 Before beginning a long voyage Scandinavian sailors offered a human victim to protect them against the rapacity of Ran.66 The Normans also offered victims to the Sea-god before setting out on their raids.67 The human sacrifices to the Frisian deity Fosite, after violation of his sacred spring, were offered on the sea-shore, and if Mogk is right, they had originally been offered to a Seademon, in accordance with a long-continued Frisian belief that the sea demanded the sacrifice of those guilty of robbery. Human victims were thrown into the sacred waters at Upsala.68 Less sinister offerings were also made to springs and wells, and survivals of these in Christian times were denounced in canons of Synods and in Penitentials.

The varied extents of the waters — the broad and deep ocean, the lake, the mere, the river, now larger, now smaller, no less than their varied appearance, terrible or attractive, helped to give form and character to the beings associated with them. Many of these were dangerous, some because of their specious beauty. Death and danger lurked in the depths of lakes or swollen rivers, but were not unknown to the limpid, sparkling stream or the clear pool, in which dwelt beautiful Water-elfins. These, like other spirits, were regarded by ecclesiastical writers as demons, and stories told how their wailing or spiteful cries were heard when they realized that a new faith was ousting their supremacy.

The more monstrous Water-spirits were like the giant Hati’s wife who, whether a Sea-demon or not, tried to wreck the ships of Helgi and Atli, as her monstrous daughter, Hrimgerd, confessed.69 These are types of the Hafgygr and Margygr, “Sea-giantess,” of old Norse literature. The Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, gives vivid pictures of the terrible beings who haunted inland waters or marshes. The mother of Grendel, seen on moors, fens, and fastnesses, dwelt in a mere surrounded by gloomy trees and rocks. She is called merewîf, brimwylf, and grundwyrgen. The mere was of unknown depth; its waves


mounted murkily to the clouds; fire was seen on its surface by night. There, too, sea-snakes, dragons, and niceras were seen, “those that, in early morning, often procure disastrous going on the sea-road.” These niceras, like the OHG nichus, feminine nichessa, seem to have betokened actual sea-monsters, but the words also included Water-spirits. The different forms of the word are AS nicor, plural niceras; Middle English nykyr, meaning also “siren”— “nykeren that habbeth bodyes of wyfmen and tayl of nisse”;70 ON nykr; Norse and Danish Näk; Swedish Näck; German Nix, English Nix, Nixie. The widespread use of the word is significant of a common belief.

Other words denoted the Water-spirit, e.g., the German Wasserman or a local form, Hakemann, who seized children with a hook; the older Wazzerholde, Wasserjungfrau, Wasserfräulein, Seejungfer, Seeweibel; the Danish Havfolk, Havmaend, Havfrue; the Swedish Strömkarl and Vatten-elfvor (“Water-elves”), the Hafsman and Hafsfru; the Norse Grim or Fossegrim. The Norse Näk is also known as Säetrold or Vigtrold. Medieval literature knows the Merminne, Merwîp, Merwîf, Merfrouwe, female supernatural beings of the sea and waters. The Marmennil, the present-day Marbendill, is mentioned in the Sagas. The Landnama-bók tells how Grim pulled up a Marmennil and demanded to know the future from him or he would never see his home again. He prophesied Grim’s death, and other matters which came true.71

The male Water-spirit is usually old, like a dwarf, with green hat and teeth, or even green hair and eyes, though he may appear as a golden-haired boy, as a kind of centaur (in Iceland and Sweden), as a horse, or in full or half fish form. He is to be recognized by his slit ears and by his feet, which he keeps hidden. Although his dwarf aspect does not appear prominently in older tradition, the dwarf Andvari in Reginsmal took the form of a fish and dwelt in the water.72

All Water-elfins love music, and the Näk sits or dances on the water, playing enchanting music on his golden harp. The



Sea-giantess or siren attacking sailors in their boat. From an Icelandic MS of the Physiologus, c. 1200 A.D. See p. 190.


Strömkarl’s lay has eleven variations, the eleventh belonging peculiarly to him, and if a mortal plays it, every person and thing must dance. If a black lamb was sacrificed to him, the offerer’s head being averted, he taught him this music; as did also the Fossegrim to the person who offered a white he-goat on a Thursday evening. If it was lean, the pupil got no further than tuning his fiddle: if fat, the Fossegrim guided his hand, grasping it till the blood came, and now he could play so that trees danced and waterfalls stood still.73 The Näk assumed youthful form to entice girls. The Swedish Näck has a passion for women in childbed, and takes the husband’s form, though his equine hoofs remain. If the woman does not perceive these and admits him into her bed, she becomes demented. The Icelandic Nykr, as a grey horse, tempts someone to mount him, and then dashes into the water — a trait of other Water-spirits.74 The Nix and his kind were cruel, and even Water-maidens staying too long ashore at a dance, or other Water-spirits intruding on his domain, were slain by him. The drowned were his victims, one or more yearly, and here may be seen a relic of human sacrifice to the waters. The Nix also slew and ate children born to him by his captive human wife. Like other elfins, the Waterman knows where treasure is hid, and will communicate the secret to favoured mortals.75

Other elfin traits are seen in the communities of Nixen or of each Nix and his family in their gorgeous palaces under the water, or in an Icelandic story of Water-elves who entered a house every Christmas Eve to hold revel, some of their number watching for dawn. Each time, they killed the servant, left alone in the house; but one Christmas Eve the servant concealed himself, and, long before dawn, struck the planks of the house and cried: “The dawn! the dawn!” All fled to the water, leaving costly vessels behind, and some were killed in their haste to escape.76 The Nix and his kind abduct women as wives, for whom, in turn, human midwives are required. The midwife is warned by the wife not to eat food or take more than her due


when offered to her, and sometimes valueless articles given to her turn to gold.77 Young children were stolen by them, and a Wasserkopf — a Nix’s child with a large head, or a Wechselbalg or changeling was left in place of the stolen child.78

The female Water-spirits have many different names in the older literature,79 and the Norse Sea-goddess Ran corresponds to these in so far as they are hostile to man and are unpleasing of aspect. But not all are of this kind, though there might be danger to mortals in too close an acquaintance with them. These have more of an elfin character. They are beautiful, and sit combing their long locks in the sun, but they may also have a homely appearance, as when they come ashore to market, when they may be recognized by the wet edge of skirt or apron. According as they pay much or little for what they purchase, a dear or a cheap season will follow. Sometimes they are naked, but hung round with moss or sedge. The Nixe’s exquisite song beguiles unwary youths, who, like Hylas, are drawn into the waters. The drowned are also her victims, and children falling into wells come into her power.80 In earlier Teutonic belief the Nixen are hardly distinguishable from the Swan-maidens, and like most of these water beings possess prophetic gifts. Hence they are also called wisiu wîp. The Nibelungenlied tells how Hagen heard water splashing on the Danube, where certain wisiu wîp or merewîf were bathing. They would have fled, but he seized their garments, and they floated before him like water-hens. On his restoring their garments, they foretold what would befall the Nibelungs.81

These female water beings sometimes marry men, but their husbands must not see them naked or enquire into their origin — common forms of tabu in such supernatural marriages. As the Swan-maiden was powerless without her wings, so the Nixe who comes ashore to dance is grieved if her partner retains her gloves, and in one story several of them returned sorrowfully to the water, which was seen to be reddened with blood, because


their father had slain them.82 Youths in love with Nixen have followed them to their home, like one who descended with an Elbjungfer into the water at Magdeburg, but was slain by her relations. In a variant, she herself was the victim, and her lover, standing by the water, saw it reddened with her blood.83 The Nixen have flocks and herds which come ashore, and mingling with ordinary animals, render them prolific.

The attraction of the woods has been well expressed by Emerson and Meredith, and men still delight in their mystery, their silence and their voices. They were more dreadful when peopled with supernatural beings, akin to the evil Forest-spirits of savages, “in their obscured haunts of inmost bowers.” In bygone ages vast forests stretched across large parts of Europe, and wide morasses occupied land now under cultivation. From these strange sounds were heard, or by night the Will o’ the Wisp flitted eerily over them. On wide moorlands moss-covered boulders protruded from the heath, or grey stones, with a suggestion of shadowy forms lurking among them, stood singly or in circles, or grass-grown tumuli dotted its surface. Such was the region encircling small reclaimed areas, and we do not wonder that men peopled it with the objects of their imagination or their fear — demons, spirits, divinities of wood, stream, immemorial rocks, and fells, and with ghosts of those who lay under the “hooves of the silent vanished races.” Some were monstrous, some beautiful, but all were more or less dangerous. In the forest men worshipped the gods, for the earlier temples were often groves, not to be approached lightly. The men of the township would go in procession to a sacred well, to a hoary tree in which an image was set, to rocks or boulders in which dwelt a spirit, or to the circle or tumulus to invoke the dead. They lit fires or placed candles by tree, stone, or well, or by the cross-ways, and offered sacrifices there. Even after the Germanic peoples became Christian, these beliefs in the lesser supernatural beings and these customs continued. Through


long centuries the Church continued to condemn them, but they were too deeply rooted to be easily displaced.

Thus the Council of Tours, 567 A.D., denounced the pagan observances at sacred trees or springs or stones, called “places of the pagans,” and some years later the Council of Auxerre speaks of vows offered at these instead of in churches. These and similar decrees concerned the Frankish population.84 Eligius, bishop of Noyon (ob. 658 A.D.), who laboured among the Frisians, denounced the veneration of stones, wells, trees called sacred, bringing lights to these or offering vows at them or in sacred enclosures (cancelli) or at cross-roads.85 The eighth century Homilia de Sacrilegiis shows that Frankish Christians were still resorting to the old altars, groves, trees, and rocks, to offer animal or other sacrifices and to celebrate feasts, or to pray at springs or rivulets. There was an observance of Neptunalia in mare, perhaps some feast of a Water-god or Water-spirit.86 S. Boniface counted as capital sins among the Germans to whom he taught Christianity, offerings at stones or to springs and trees.87 In Charlemagne’s time, as his Admonitio Generalis shows, the cult at trees, fountains, and stones still continued, with the placing of lights at these, and other customs. Such practices were forbidden, and these sacred things were to be destroyed.88 Among the Saxons, who were still pagan, the use of votive offerings at fountains, trees, and groves was punishable by fines varying according to a man’s quality.89 Sacrifices at fountains are mentioned in the Indiculus Superstitionum.90 How difficult it was to root out these customs and beliefs is seen in the fact that the Penitential of the tenth century “Corrector” in Burchard’s collection of decrees still enquires: “Hast thou gone to any place other than the church to pray — to fountains, stones, trees, or cross-roads, and there burned a candle or torch in reverence to such a place, or offered or eaten there bread or any such oblation, or sought there the welfare of body or soul?”91

Such superstitions remained popular in spite of all prohibitions


and continued long after the time here spoken of, not only among the common people but among those of higher rank. Few, indeed, of the superstitious customs and beliefs of the Middle Ages cannot be traced to the earlier centuries when pagans began to flock into the Church in large numbers without clearly understanding the new religion and without having abandoned either their pagan ways of looking at things or many of their customs. But the rites and beliefs to which they adhered were rooted in a far distant past, and had been dear to the folk for long generations. The springs and wells and rocks had been sacred from prehistoric times, and, in the thought of the different religions, were inhabited by divinities or spirits. Hence the old sacred wells were still visited, as well as sacred stones and trees, in the hope of gaining a boon — healing, fruitfulness, prosperity — from them or from the spirits, mainly now of an elfin kind, supposed to dwell in them. A small offering was made or a candle lit to propitiate the genius loci. The old sacred place, familiar for generations, and visited in a hopeful mood, seemed friendly and easily propitiated. Men thought, wrongly no doubt, that it was nearer to their lives than the Church’s sacred Persons, though the Virgin and the saints were beginning to assume a familiar form and to be invoked about the minor ills and blessings of life as well as about things which loomed more largely and terribly on the human horizon.

Those who persisted in such practices were excommunicated or subjected to penance, lighter or heavier, or to a fine. They had been deceived by the demons inhabiting these sacred spots, and the rites were execrable in the sight of God.