By Anatoly Liberman
Wednesday’s child is full of woe, and so was Wednesday’s Germanic father, the great and formidable god Woden, known in Scandinavia as Othin (the spelling is Anglicized) and in Germany as Wuotan (those are phonetic variants of the same name; in early Scandinavian, w- was lost before o, and in German, long o yielded uo). No one is sure about his descent, but he must have risen from the lowest depths to the highest peak of power and kept an army of select warriors ready for the last battle with the giants. He knew that this battle would result in the end of the world, with law or order gone and his troops devastated, for he and the other gods would perish. But the inevitable end did not deter him from preparing for the final confrontation with chaos. Anyone burdened with such knowledge would be full of woe. In England, the god’s name must have had the variant Weden, a form that has been preserved in the word Wednesday (Woden’s/Weden’s day) and numerous place names like Wednesfield.
The medieval Scandinavians told many tales of Othin’s deeds. For nine days he hung from a tree (it was a self-inflicted torture); then he pierced himself with a spear, bent down with a terrible scream, and picked up the runes. Why anyone needed the runes (those are letters of an alphabet whose origin remains a matter of debate) is unclear. They appeared in Denmark at the beginning of the 2nd century CE, someone’s puzzling gift to an illiterate populace, and were used for magical purposes (or so it seems) and for short, often undecipherable and usually uninspiring inscriptions reminiscent of modern graffiti (“so-and-so carved the runes”), but old age lends them glamour. Othin sacrificed one eye to obtain wisdom, and when someone saw a one-eyed male with a hood covering half of his head, he knew who his terrible guest was. Usually such a visit did not augur well. Othin also stole the mead of poetry from the giants. At a certain stage he became a god of death, and in later folklore he is remembered as the leader of the Wild Hunt, a parade of animated corpses flying through the air. He presided over Valhalla (also an Anglicized form), and those who fell in battle were invited by valkyries, warrior maidens, to join him there; the guests spent their time fighting by day and feasting at night. Once Othin promised eternal friendship to Loki, a suspicious character, a god whose loyalties were given to the giants and whose ties with the Other World are unmistakable.
No other Scandinavian (and, presumably, Germanic) god had so many various functions, and for several centuries scholars have been trying to reconstruct every step in his career. One of the main clues to their reconstruction has been Othin’s name. As a rule, the nature of things cannot be inferred from words. This also holds for divine names, which sometimes tend to be misleading when it comes to the deity’s function rather than origin. For example, another great god of the Germanic pantheon was called Thor (Thursday is dedicated to him). Thor meant “thunder,” but as time went on, Thor turned into a giant slayer, and the extant myths preserved few traces of his link to stormy clouds, thunder, and lightning. The Greeks believed that Aphrodite was born from the sea because her name suggested this descent to them (aphros “foam,” stress on the second syllable), and she was worshipped as a goddess of seafaring. Yet they may have been deceived by folk etymology.
Everybody who has studied the place of Woden/Wuotan/Othin in the religious beliefs of the pagan Germanic tribes has turned to the help of etymologists. I will skip the older hypotheses and dwell only on the conjecture that I find convincing. The Greeks knew a goddess called Ate (stress on the first syllable; the second vowel is long). Like so many other deities, Ate is a personified quality. She was the personification of moral blindness and of the inability to distinguish right from wrong. In the earliest myths of the human race, good and bad, right and wrong never bothered the gods, who did only what was expedient. According to the Iliad, Ate duped Zeus, and he flung her from Olympus to earth, where she wanders about, treading on our heads and causing infatuation and delusion.
The first serious students of Greek looked for some Germanic cognate of Ate/ate beginning with w-, but the idea to connect the adjective woth– “mad,” the root of Woden’s name, with Ate did not occur to them. Yet, as has recently been shown, the two are probably related, and their relatedness makes sense. Our distant ancestors populated the world with the hosts of dangerous “spirits,” all of which caused pain and derangement. Thus, giddy is related to god, dwarf to dizzy, and troll to droll (originally “looking foolish”), if my etymology of dwarf and troll is right; the derivation of giddy from the root of god is secure. Elfin meant “raving mad,” and a shot from the elves brought on lumbago. I share the unpopular idea that bog, the Slavic word for “god,” is indistinguishable from Engl. bogey/bug(bear). Supernatural creatures filled people with awe and were worshipped out of fear. Being possessed by a god (enthusiastic, from theos “god”) could lead to ecstasy (in that state one produced great poetry and saw the future) or madness. Othin, let it be remembered, stole the mead of poetry. But he could also blind his opponents. In his dealings he was unscrupulous, and his perfidy is a recurring motif in the tales told of him. The best-known cognates of his name are German Wut “fury” and Latin vates “seer, prophet; poet” (the same root as in Vatican). Yet these are secondary meanings. The story of Woden apparently began with the loss of rational thinking.
Thor did not preserve his ties with the sky, but Othin managed to live up to his name. Whenever madness and fury took possession of humans, the results were attributed to Othin. A solitary traveler or accompanied by a few gods, he suddenly appeared in a tale told by Snorri Strurluson, the great Icelandic mythographer of the 13th century, with a retinue of berserks. Since berserks fought like crazy, understandably, they needed affiliation with Othin. The myth of the mead of poetry must have been old, for “madness” and “poetry” are among the meanings of the same Germanic word. Mead was a potent drink, and people believed that inebriation, like madness, contributed to ecstasy and the emergence of the poetic gift. We no longer look on alcoholics and drunks as particularly inspired. When shamanism spread among the medieval Scandinavians, it was natural to associate a shaman’s trance and some of the corresponding rituals with Othin, and fury made him an ideal god of war and death, as well as the leader of the wild hunt. It is sometimes said that the name given to a newborn baby will affect its life. My linguistic superstitions do not go so far, but I have little doubt that (W)othin/Woden had a name that shaped his entire career. Ate too could have developed along the same lines, but Zeus got rid of her and saved his family (but not mortals) from many troubles. The mythology of the Germanic speaking peoples turned out to be grimmer.
The Romans identified Woden with Mercurius. Latin Mercurii dies has come down to us as Italian mercoledi, French mercredi, and so forth. All of them mean “Wednesday.” The old gods, it seems, never die.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”