Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Playing God, Chapter 1

Chapter 1: “Good God! Or Why Do the Heathens Rage?”

While dealing with the etymology of the adjective bad, I realized that an essay on good would be vapid. The picture in Germanic and Slavic with respect to good is trivial, while the word’s ties outside those two groups are bound to remain unclear. Especially troublesome is Greek agathós “good,” from which we have the given name Agatha. Statistics is lacking on whether all the women bearing this name are good (let us hope they are), but I have nothing to add to the long discussion on the possible genetic ties between the Greek and the Germanic adjectives. Perhaps good and agathós are allied in some obscure, still undiscovered way; perhaps they are not. Guesswork will lead us nowhere. So I decided to turn to one of the hardest words in Germanic etymology, namely god. Here too I am unable to promise an original solution, but a few things I am going to say may be of interest to some of our readers.

My choice of god instead of good was not fortuitous. For centuries English speakers believed that God is called this because He is good. Among our earliest lexicographers Skinner (1671), Bailey (1721), and Johnson (1755) wrote so in their dictionaries. The great William Camden held the same view. Even today I sometimes receive letters that ask me to confirm the fact that the two words are not cognate. It seems strange to many that a minor thing like the discrepancy between the vowels can drive a wedge between such seemingly indissoluble concepts as “god” and “good.” Later we will see that gods were not meant to be good. The old root for good had a long vowel, while god had short o (for once, modern spelling—oo versus o—can be trusted). Short and long vowels can alternate, but according to certain rules. One of them states that short and long o never meet in the same Germanic root. The system of vowel alternations is called ablaut (the British rather common term is gradation): compare ride / rode / ridden. Ablaut is like a cage, and the rows of vowels squeezed into it are like non-intersecting railway tracks. Occasionally this neat system seems to break down and we witness derailment, but first, all cases of derailment are suspect, for they need special pleading, and second, short o and long o hardly ever “derail.” The verdict is final: god is not allied to good.

By definition, the idea of a single omnipotent being called “god” is present only in monotheistic religions. At one time, all human societies passed through the stage anthropologists call animism. Some tribes still believe that all objects (stones, trees, and so forth) are animate. Greek myths tell us about rivers and groves whose immortal guardians should not be offended. European folk tales celebrate the same plot. Some such guardians rise to the level of the supreme masters and mistresses of the elements. The terrible Russian Baba Yaga (stress on –ga) questions everyone who tries to invade her precincts. The vengeful Artemis punishes poachers and even those who happen to see too much by chance (thus, Actaeon stumbled on this virgin huntress naked, whereupon he was transformed into a stag and torn apart by his own hounds), while the jealous Apollo did not allow anyone to outdo him at a musical contest, as the fate of the luckless satyr Marsyas shows. Since Baba Yaga is a creature of so-called lower mythology, we don’t call her a goddess, contrary to Artemis, but their functions are similar: they control the forest.

The ugly Baba Yaga and the graceful Artemis: more similar than different.
The ugly Baba Yaga and the graceful Artemis: more similar than different.

The European pagan religions known to us have some traits of monotheism because in the family of gods and goddesses one of them is allowed to rise above everybody else (such is Zeus in the Greek pantheon and Woden, that is, Othinn, in Scandinavia), but in the south, as well as in the north, pagans were far from losing faith in the other omnipotent beings. Yaga, Zeus, and the rest were so-called speaking names, like Engl. April or Melody. I know a man called Frog. Sometimes we understand what such names designated, but more often we don’t. Thus, Thor (Þórr) is simply “thunder.” The obscure Scandinavian god Ullr can probably be interpreted as “Glory.” Quite often ancient people migrated to a new region, adopted the language of the indigenous population, but stuck to their old spirits, demons, and protectors. This is what happened to the Greeks. Some names of their divinities are almost certainly “foreign” and have no Greek etymology, but Zeus “shining” is native. Both he and Thor started their career as sky gods. Although the myths that have come down to us are relatively late, they may contain hints of prehistory. Thus, Frey, originally a Scandinavian fertility god, means “Lord.” However, in the extant tales he is no longer a supreme deity, and only one episode shows him occupying a seat from which he can see the entire world.

Not all offerings are treated alike.
Not all offerings are treated alike.

The Greeks, Romans, and the Scandinavians made their gods anthropomorphic, that is, endowed them with human bodies and characteristics: they fall in love, commit adultery, enjoy one another’s humiliation, and in Greece actively interact with human beings (a situation uncharacteristic of Scandinavia). As a prelude to the Trojan War, three goddesses allowed Paris, a hero, to decide which of them was the most beautiful. Each tried to bribe Paris in a truly scandalous way. What was a mortal man’s opinion to them? Vying for the laurels (nay, the apple) of Miss Olympus! But of course, sacrificial plants, animals, and quite often humans brought to the altars of the gods were also bribes, and the recipients of the gifts watched jealously and decided whether they had received enough. The same might happen in a monotheistic religion; God looked on Abel’s offering with favor but was displeased with Cain’s.

As far as we can judge, at a very early state of human existence, people believed that they were surrounded by numerous spirits that inflicted diseases, both physical and mental. They feared the deleterious agents and tried to propitiate them. Today we know very little about that stage of religion, but in Scandinavian myths and folklore alongside Thor, Frey, and others, we encounter “multitudes”: elves, dwarfs, giants, and trolls. Some have individual features, while others merge with the crowd. Elves must have been quite evil and very different from those populating the British landscape, for the word elf is related to German Alp “nightmare” (more about them will be said in Chapter 2). The etymology of dwarf is uncertain, but I believe that its root is allied to Engl. dizzy (the details are too technical for the present context; those interested in them may consult my dictionary). The original dwarfs (dwarves, if you prefer) seem to have prevented people form making rational decisions. Troll is also a partly obscure word. If it is akin to Engl. droll, the ancestors of trolls made people stupid.

The important thing is that, most probably, dwarf was at one time a word of the neuter grammatical gender (it, rather than he or she); troll was certainly neuter. This grammatical detail sheds some light on the fact that the Germanic word for “god” was also neuter and that originally it occurred only in the plural. Is it then possible that in the beginning the supernatural beings called gods were not different from dwarfs, trolls, elves, and the rest? In a serial, every episode must stop when the viewers are clamoring for more. Wait until next week.

Image credits: (1) Baba Yaga by Viktor M. Vasnetsov (1917). Public domain via Wikimedia. (2) Artemis, drawing after interior tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix. MCAD Library. CC BY 2.0 via MCAD Library Flickr. (3) The Offerings of Cain and Abel by Jan van Eyck (1425). Public domain via WikiArt.

Recent Comments

  1. […] what was said last week it follows that pagans did not need a highly charged word for “god,” let alone “God.” They […]

  2. […] this event by writing something light and entertaining. Enough wrestling with words like bad, good, and god! Anyone can afford a week’s break. So today I’ll discuss an idiom that sounds trivial […]

  3. […] I think was the origin of wife. For comparison, I can refer to the scholarship on the word god (see a series of fairly recent posts devoted to it). In Germanic, only the plural (neuter plural!) gods existed. […]

  4. Inseob Hong


    Thanks for your postings.

    I would say that all the etymologies of word is originated from Korean language.

    Etymology of god is also derived from Korean language.
    It is surprising and amazing.
    It is true.

    I am the author of “English is originated from Korean language (1)”.
    My name is Inseob Hong.

    I would like to cooperate with you.
    Please contact me if you want.

    Thank you very much.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *