This is the second and final installment in the series on the origin of the word soul. To see part one as of March 15, 2022. The eternal interest in the etymology of this word should not surprise us. It is our inability to find a convincing solution that causes astonishment and disappointment. Those who can read German will find a good survey in Dr. Peter-Arnold Mumm’s article in the 2018 Elke Ronneberger Festschrift. I will address questions and comments in my next “gleanings”.
It is sometimes said that before Christianization, the ancestors of German speakers only referred to souls when talking about dead or unborn people. Apparently the souls resided in a remote region and speculation revolved around the location of this otherworldly realm. At first glance, such an assumption seems reasonable. As mentioned a week ago, Bishop Wulfila knew how to translate Greek psyche in gothic. Later English and German speaking clerics had no problem with the word “soul” either. In this situation, a historical linguist has several options. May be saiwol– is an indigenous Germanic word and referred to an entity existing before we were born and surviving in the body after death. It is a sobering conjecture, but references to such a state of affairs do not appear in any extant text.
In ancient Norse mythology and legends, life after death (only after death, not before birth) is described in detail. No immaterial substance is ever mentioned. On the contrary, the dead lead full lives: fighting, feasting, composing poems, singing songs and sometimes returning as malevolent ghosts (so-called ghosts). Last week I mentioned a creature called fylgja. It is the protective spirit of a human being and can take the form of a giantess or an animal, or another creature. Meeting one’s fylgja (sometimes covered in blood) in real life or in dreams is a sign of impending death: the protective spirit has deserted the body or perished. Hints of what we call heredity have also occurred, but nothing resembling the immortal soul is ever mentioned. The language of the Goths and other German-speaking tribes has been most successfully searched for vestiges of paganism. No reference to soul appeared.
Among other things, the reference to ancient mythology and literature is important, because the first three letters of knowwow– coincide with the root of the Germanic word for “sea”. Hence the idea that the two words are linked: after death, human souls go “overseas”. The marine burials are very well known (one is described in Beowulfanother in the myth of baldr), but the ships carried bodies, not “souls”, to the Otherworld. The seemingly obvious link between soul and the word for “sea” was suggested by the great and almost infallible Jacob Grimm. Although its etymology seems convincing, unfortunately the etymology of Wed also remains a matter of dispute – a familiar dilemma.
Two things need to be said before continuing with this story. First: religious terms are often victims of taboo or cannot be pronounced for another reason. May be saiwol– is a scrambled version of another word. This hypothesis, although supported by multiple proofs, naturally does not explain anything. The other issue is the reference to the substratethat is to say, to a mother tongue and lost from the Pre-Indo-European population from which the word “soul” was borrowed. Here we are faced with another impasse, like the reference to the taboo. The hypothetical source language is unknown and can never be known. A reference to this means: “The etymology is irretrievable.” In Scandinavia, Germanic speakers interacted with Sami speakers and adopted some of their religious words and customs. Shamanism is not a Germanic phenomenon. Yet it has had some influence on the ancestors of Norwegians and Swedes. No Saami word for “soul” reached old norse. Nor is there a similar Celtic word for “soul” in Anglo-Saxon. Of course, there is a third variant. The word can be “Nostratic», that is to say, almost panhuman. My colleague, a specialist in Turkish and Altaic, alerted me to a word for “breath” in those languages that sounds a lot like soul. However, in Greek, Latin, Celtic and Balto-Slavic no correspondence has been found.
Some candidates, such as Latin saeculum “age; generation, etc..” and Greek dzaō “live” (the latter allegedly “by inserting I”!), were abandoned almost immediately, but aiolos “mobile, nimble, etc..”, an alleged relative of soul, still has some supporters. Soul emerged from this reconstruction as a fast-moving animal (a mouse or a butterfly) leaving the body after death. Some folklore supports this idea. (The absence of initial s in aiolos no need to bother us. Time and time again we come across that equally nimble word-initial consonant called s-mobile.) Yet the origin of the Greek adjective is far from clear, and we are once again reminded of the rule: “Never use an obscure word to explain an obscure one.”
There have been many attempts to introduce Germanic saiwō as compound know– + wall. The first element resembles the Slavic and Baltic word for “strength, strength”, and the second reminds us of the Germanic word for “a deceased person” (as in Valkyrie and Valhalla). Some of this etymology is old, but Elmar See bold (in its editions of Kluge’s Etymological Dictionary) discusses it at length (note that he misspelled Levitsky or Lewitskij’s name), and as a result he became known to many readers.
None of the hypotheses cited above are false by definition (of course: they have been proposed by distinguished researchers!), but they all illustrate the game that I called last week the etymological sleight of hand, whose respectable term is root etymology. Also last week, I mentioned Peter-Arnold Mumm’s article on the origin of the word soul. He not only considered all previous hypotheses, but also offered his own. He suggested that the Germanic saiwō is a compound, the first component of which is cognate with Latin savus “fierce, raging” and the second is wow– “deceased person” (see above). Its reconstruction is based on the idea that the word “soul” refers to the belief in ghosts (the dead returning to the human community). I have a moderate enthusiasm for this hypothesis: the word “soul” should mean something less frightening and perhaps less tangible. Also, as far back as I can remember, the most well-known revenants were characters from Icelandic sagas, and all of these undead (or the undead, as they were called) appeared among the living if they weren’t not buried properly.
When the shining god baldr was placed on the funeral pyre, his father Other (or Odin) whispered something to him. Many generations of scholars have tried to guess what he whispered. Of course, we will never know the answer. But from the work of ethnographers we know what the survivors say to the deceased. There are three main variations: “rest in peace”, “protect us while you reside in the realm of the dead”, and “do not return”. Of these rituals, I don’t see much support in finding the etymology of soul.
Since the oldest recorded word for “soul” occurs in Gothic, it is discussed in the Great Etymological Dictionary of Gothic by Sigmund Feist (1939). Feist pleaded for Greek aiolos as the root of the word and cited some ethnographic data in support of its reconstruction. Winfred P. Lehmannin his 1985 revamp of Feist, returned to Jacob Grimm Wed hypothesis, which Mumm rejects as indefensible. Apparently we know too little about the beliefs of Wulfila’s ancestors to arrive at a convincing solution and have no idea where the word originated. soul. I’m really sorry, and my soul is dark.
Background image by Giga Khurtsilava on Unsplash