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Shooting one’s bolt from North to South

I was twelve years old when I first read Jack London’s novel Martin Eden, and it remained my favorite book for years. Few people I know have heard about it, which is a pity. Jack London was a superb story teller, but his novels belong to what is called politely the history of literature—all or almost all except Martin Eden. Shortly before the end, we are allowed to read Martin’s thoughts: “He had shot his bolt, and shot it hard, and now he was down on his back.” The phrase struck me as wonderfully picturesque, and I never forgot it. I thought about it while writing my previous post, and John Cowan, as I learned from his recent comment, had a similar association. The bolt is indeed “shot,” and it seems that the Anglo-Saxons locked their doors only with the help of a bolt (or scyttel, the ancestor of Modern Engl. shuttle). This may have been the reason they borrowed the dialectal Scandinavian adjective for “crooked” and turned it into kaigjo– “key” (that is, if my reconstruction is right). Perhaps the borrowing coincided with the invention of a more sophisticated key, or they might have observed such an implement in the houses of the Vikings, their uninvited neighbors. By the year 1000, the date of the first attestation of key in English texts, the Vikings were everywhere, especially in the north of the country.

Today I would like to say something about latches in several languages and the role of bolts and thresholds in the myths of medieval England, Scandinavia, and beyond. My story begins with Grendel, the monster conquered by Beowulf. Little is known about Grendel except that he was a cannibal and an enemy of mirth, while the king’s hall was the center of merriment and joy (fun, as we today would say), where, among other things, the retinue listened to songs of exile and of women’s mourning for their husbands. Grendel is said to belong to Cain’s progeny. This Christian allusion must be a late touch, almost a metaphor. Although it is unlikely that the Beowulf poet invented the monster’s name, despite a probable connection between it and some place names, nothing can be said about Grendel’s prehistory. Since he lives with his mother, we only know that the story is an example of the type “The Devil and his dam.” His name, we suppose, reflects his essence.

A bolt of lightning
A bolt of lightning

The etymology of Grendel remains controversial. Among the proposed hypotheses several are reasonable, and it is hard to choose the best. I’ll very briefly go over the most plausible ones. The name reminds one of grind. Grendel was perhaps a kind of grinder, though swallowing twelve warriors in one go can hardly be called grinding: “gulper” or “glutton” would fit him better. Then there were Old Icelandic nouns grand “evil” and grindill “storm.” Neither word has cognates in English. Grindill had irresistible appeal to those nineteenth-century scholars who identified all mythological figures with natural forces. To them Grendel was the embodiment of spring floods. Also, the noun grand “sand, bottom of a body of water” has been reconstructed. This word, if it were of any use, would have pointed to Grendel as a water demon, which he certainly was. However, it is strange that, given such an appellation, we do not find any cognate of Grendel outside Old English.

I would not have embarked on this topic but for one more suggestion that seems especially attractive to me and has a direct bearing on the subject at hand. Old Engl. grindel meant “bar, bolt.” Bolts, it will be remembered, are at the center of the present post. Originally, bolt, with a broad spectrum of cognates, meant “arrow” (hence a bolt of lightning), like Old Engl. scyttel, mentioned above. “Peg, bolt for the door” would be easily associated with an outer boundary, and it is characteristic that in Hessen (Germany) grindil ~ grendel means “enclosure.” For comparison: the cognates of Old Saxon fercal “lock, bolt, bar” are Russian porog “threshold” (stress on the second syllable: see more on thresholds in a recent post) and Sanskrit Parjána, the name of the weather god in a Vedic hymn. I believe that Grendel, assuming that this creature has respectable mythological roots, was known at one time as the master of the underworld and that his name meant something like “enclosure for the dead” and “bolt, bar.” If so, it referred to a latch that did not allow the dead to leave his kingdom. In Scandinavian mythology, the reigning divinity of the Underworld was a female goddess called Hel (one l!). This name is related to Engl. hell; its root means “to hide,” as is still obvious in German hehl-. Grendel’s mother is stronger than her son. Originally she did not need offspring, but with time a story of mother and son or husband and wife (“The Devil and his dam”) developed: the terrible deity acquired a male companion.

I find partial confirmation of my belief in the myth of Loki, a Scandinavian demon who, although accepted by the gods as one of their own, ultimately rebelled against them. Stories of his once ruling the underground kingdom have come down to us (both of our greatest medieval authorities—Snorri Sturluson, an Icelander, and Saxo Grammaticus, a Dane, recorded them), and he never lost his ambiguous status of both a monster and a god. If the history of Grendel’s name is a problem, the origin of Loki is a quagmire. At least a dozen etymologies compete for recognition. As usual in such cases, some of them have been refuted, some forgotten, and a few look equally or almost equally good. The almost obvious derivation of Loki from the verb lock or some of its cognates runs into serious difficulties, whose discussion here would take us too far afield.

The god of death Odin on his eight-legged horse.
The god of death Othin on his eight-legged horse.

It may perhaps be advisable to choose the following solution. One of the forms that corresponds to Loki is German Loch “hole.” Loki in his most primitive form seems to have been a divinity of the Underworld, like Grendel, as I represented him above, a personified enclosure or grave, or bolt (bar, latch). He did not let his “population” out. Othin, the supreme god of the ancient Scandinavians, was, according to one tale, Loki’s sworn brother, and Othin was certainly a god of death. He killed his victims; Loki kept watch over them. The two had a good deal in common.

It will be remembered that the word deadline is an Americanism, and before it began to refer to the time at which some task has to be finished, it meant a real dead line around a stockade for prisoners, the line they might not cross on the peril of death. I think both Grendel and Loki were such “dead lines” or, more probably, bars (bolts), the earliest “keys” of the Germanic-speaking peoples. As noted, the Russian cognate of the Old Saxon word for “lock, bolt” means “threshold.” The connection is too apparent to need elucidation. We can now wrap up our story of keys, bars, and thresholds. The words for them no longer fill us with horror: a latch is just a latch, and a key is a key. To alleviate our fears, latchkeys were invented. To put the kibosh on the monsters, people opened a café called Loki in Reykjavík and a restaurant in Harvard Square (Cambridge, Massachusetts) that they named Grendel’s Den. The latter is not an underwater establishment, but, to remain true to the spirit of the myth, it has a bar. Pity the demoted gods or rejoice in their downfall.

Image credits: (1) Lightning by Andrei. CC BY 2.0 via svnbg Flickr. (2) Odin. CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    To shoot one’s bolt, as used in the novel, is a double metaphor. The original term bolt ‘door bar’ was applied to the short, strong arrow shot by a crossbow by a very natural metaphor. Now crossbows have the advantages of accuracy in skilled hands (as in the William Tell story), power (they can pierce plate armor even at long range), and ease of learning and use (military longbows, by comparison, require lifelong training and exceptional strength). However, the tradeoff is that since they must be mechanically cranked rather than drawn, their rate of fire is low. A crossbowman who has shot his bolt takes almost a minute to shoot again, whereas a longbowman can shoot up to 12 arrows a minute. So someone who has shot his bolt has made his best effort and will need time to recover and try again — if his enemy, in this case disease, gives him the chance.

  2. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš (@EugeenLV)

    There is a pattern in Latvian mythology of cosmic creation of the black snake ( the black worm, to be more precise) milling flour (“Melna čūska miltus mala/ Vidū jūras uz akmeņa”, coreference to the painting by Jānis Rozentāls). This idea would justify grinding for monsters especially if importance of molars is taken into account. Moreover, this fragment gives very interesting notion of colour names for black/white – melns-milti (from malt) – balts.

    Scyttel in turn looks to be related to Scyld , Lithuanian word for a shield is skydas which might be a borrowing from Germanic though Baltic roots give similar words (Endzelīns-Būga debate). Russian has щит. Protective function is obvious. Old Norse skjöldr gives a hint that there might something in its ending of one more -old word.

  3. Olivier van Renswoude

    It might be a trace of old mythology, it might be nothing, but it’s interesting that when the poet of the Old Saxon Hêliand sings of fercal manag ‘many a bolt’, they aren’t on just any door, but the doors of hell.

    And with the possible meaning of both Grendel and Loki as ‘encloser’, it’s striking that Grendel’s spawn Jörmungandr, the great serpent that encircles Middle-earth, is the ‘encloser’ par excellence.

  4. […] the metaphor does go back to shooting arrows from a crossbow, and, if anyone is interested, I can quote a few […]

  5. […] the previous posts, some space was devoted to the phrase to shoot one’s bolt. At that time, I did not realize that as early as 1375 it was already possible to say a fool’s […]

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