Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Playing God, Chapter 2

Chapter 2: On God and Grammar

From what was said last week it follows that pagans did not need a highly charged word for “god,” let alone “God.” They recognized a hierarchy of supernatural beings and the division of labor in that “heavenly” crowd. Some disturbed our dreams, some bereaved us of reason, and still others inflicted diseases and in general worked evil and mischief. The best policy was to propitiate them by invocations (charms) and offerings. The Greek for what we today gloss as “god” was theós (as in theology), and the same word is present in Engl. enthus-i-asm, going back to Greek via French. The word from which this adjective is formed means “possessed by a god” (again remembering that in our language and in Classical Greek the word god carried quite different overtones). Being “enthusiastic” might suggest ecstasy (the highest pitch of poetic inspiration) or madness. The line separating the two states was tenuous. A close English analog of enthusiastic is giddy, the epithet going nowadays all the way from “dizzy” to “silly,” while a dizzying speed makes us lose control of ourselves. Giddy is obviously and easily allied to god and thus means “possessed by a god.”

The main problem is not only to find the meaning of the ancient root of the word god but to understand what that word once meant and how it could rise in importance over so many other words for “supernatural spirit.” The word god did not show up in the earliest runic inscriptions, but in the Gothic Bible, translated in the fourth century from Greek, it occurs many times. The translator, Bishop Wulfila, needed an equivalent for theós and, apparently, had no trouble finding it. The word was guþ (þ, the letter called thorn, had the value of Engl. th in thin). Wulfila also needed a word for “(Jewish) temple” and coined the compound gudhus, which, let it be noted, was spelled with a d, rather than with a thorn. His word for “a pagan temple” was alhs. Gothic guþ occurs only in contraction as , evidently, to preserve it from desecration, with a horizontal stroke over it (the same happens in the genitive gþs and the dative gþa).Therefore, we cannot be quite sure what vowel stood between g and þ, but, judging by many words like guda-faurhts “god-fearing” and the form elsewhere in Germanic, it was indeed u.

Ecstatic, enthusiastic, giddy.
Ecstatic, enthusiastic, giddy.

Naturally, the God of the New Testament had to be he. But masculine nouns ended in –s in Gothic (so dag-s “day”), while had no ending. The evidence from Old Icelandic is especially telling. The word for “God” sounded as guð (ð = th in Engl. this) and was neuter. Moreover, except in the text of the Bible, where it referred to the Christian God and was therefore masculine, it occurred only in the plural. While masculine nouns in Gothic ended in –s, Old Icelandic masculine nouns ended in -r (for instance, dag-r “day”), but guð never had -r. Gothic myths disappeared together with the rest of Goths’ oral tradition (an irreparable loss; only some items of the Gothic vocabulary give us a glimpse of their ancient beliefs), while from Iceland we have a collections of old songs (both mythological and heroic) and a splendid piece of prose containing pre-Christian myths. Those are The Poetic (or Elder) Edda and Snorri’s Edda.

The gods (in the neuter plural!) are often mentioned in both books, and of course there was no need to speak of God in the context of a polytheistic religion. However, Thor, Baldr, Frey, Loki, and others were not maggots in a multitude (according to legend, dwarfs were created like maggots), but distinct male figures and had to be referred to as such. This was easily done. The Scandinavian gods formed two families: the Ǽsir and the Vanir, so that one god was either an áss or a vanr. We can conclude without any hesitation: the ancient speakers of the Germanic languages had the word for “gods” and used it only in the neuter plural (in this they behaved exactly like the Romans: the relevant word was numen). Those “gods” were not deities in some lofty sense of the term but supernatural creatures, like elves, who, in Scandinavia, formed a special bond with the Ǽsir. Judging by the English word elf-shot, their arrows caused lumbago. The Old English adjective ylfig meant “raving mad”; consequently, sending people mental diseases was also within their power. Last week, I noted that elf is related to the German word for “nightmare.” It is amazing how often our distant ancestors associated derangement with the invisible hostile creatures on the lookout for human victims.

I am now returning to the question about why, when the time came to choose a word for the Supreme Being of the Christian religion, the choice fell on god. But before answering it, we have to look at the efforts by the newly-converted pagans, or rather their clerics, to deal with phonetics and grammar. The Goths and the Scandinavians (assuming that the situation in Gothic at one time was the same as in the North), abstracted the singular from the neuter plural, turned it into a masculine noun, but allowed it to remain without an ending. However, the plural was still needed while speaking about false gods, or idols. Wulfila coined the noun ga-liuga-guþ (ga– is a collective prefix, and liuga– is the root of the verb liugan “to tell a lie”). It also seems that, in principle, he preferred to use þ for the name of God, and d elsewhere, but this rule does not work in all cases with sufficient clarity. Old English clerics, when they spoke of the gods in the Christian context, used the ending of the masculine strong declension.

This is King Alfred the Great, a really great English monarch. The first part of his name means "elf," testifying to people's belief in the elves' might.
This is King Alfred the Great, a really great English monarch. The first part of his name means “elf,” testifying to people’s belief in the elves’ might.

The Germans, like the speakers of all the other Germanic languages, distinguished between the nouns of the so-called strong and weak declensions (they still do). Details are of no consequence here, but it is characteristic that the word for “God,” historically belonging to the strong declension, was, in the cases other than the nominative, given the ending of the weak one, typical of some names. Such changes are not rare. In Icelandic, two forms competed: Goð and Guð. The alternation reflects the differences in the pronunciation of this word in two Scandinavian dialects. Much later, for enigmatic reasons, Guð acquired an extra consonant and is now pronounced as Gvuth. God proved to be a hard word to deal with. Compare the Modern English taboo forms for “God” and “Lord”: Golly, Lor’, and many others.

Regardless of the primordial meaning of the sound complex god, one wonders how it was formed. According to the prevailing opinion, Old Germanic guð, an ancient past participle, consisted of the root gu– and the ending –ð; –ð is akin to –d in an English past participle like adore-d. Similarly, in Engl. old and cold, final –d is an obliterated trace of a past participle: the original meaning of these adjectives must have been “nourished” and “frozen.” What then was the meaning of gu-?

Hundreds of pages have been written on this subject, but the answer still evades us. This is not surprising, for we are dealing with an elusive entity. The word for “God” in other languages, such as Greek theós, Latin deus (theós and deus are not related!), and Turkish-Mongolian tengri (the latter means “god” and “heaven”), presents similar difficulties. Only Slavic bog looks transparent, but I am not sure that this transparency is not deceptive. The next chapter will be devoted to the mysterious root gu– and a possible solution of one of greatest mysteries of Germanic etymology.

To be concluded.

Image credits: (1) Orpheus in a Wood by Henri Martin (1895). Public domain via WikiArt. (2) Orpheus by Franz Stuck (1891). Public domain via WikiArt. (3) The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “King Alfred the Great.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Recent Comments

  1. cameron

    It’s interesting that you would turn to “god” so soon after “bad”. Just as historical coincidence has led English “bad” and Persian “bad” (with almost exactly the same pronunciation) to mean the same thing, likewise pure coincidence has led English “god” and Persian “khoda” (or “khuda”) to look temptingly similar enough that many people have claimed they’re related.

Comments are closed.