Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Playing God, Chapter 3

Chapter 3: Deep Are the Roots

The question then is: “What does the root gu– signify?” The procedure consists in finding some word in Germanic and ideally outside Germanic in which gu– or g-, followed by another vowel and alternating with u means something compatible with the idea of “god.” Here, however, is the rub. Old Germanic guð– certainly existed, but we don’t know what it meant when it was coined centuries before it surfaced in texts. Several Sanskrit and Greek verbs meaning “to pour” have been pressed into service, to explain the origin of god. Among them are Sanskrit juhote, cognate with Greek khéo (from khewo: w stands for F, the letter digamma), Latin fundere, and Gothic giutan (gush may be related to it; otherwise, English has no modern reflexes of this verb, but German still does: gießen). What could “god” have to do with pouring? The great English anthropologist Edward B. Tylor wrote in his book Primitive Culture: “In certain mountain districts of Norway, up to the end of the last century, the peasants used to preserve round stones, washed them every Thursday evening (which seems to have some connection with Thor), smeared them with butter before the fire, laid them in the seat of honor on fresh straw, and at certain times of the year steeped them in ale, that they might bring luck and comfort to the house.”

Edward B. Tylor (1832-1917), the father of cultural anthropology
Edward B. Tylor (1832-1917), the father of cultural anthropology

Many more similar examples exist. Ethnographers described pouring the blood of sacrificial animals into the fire. On the island of Rügen, a medieval priest, prostrate at the feet a god, poured old wine from the goblet the god kept in his hands, filled it anew, and prayed for good fortune for himself and the community. In 1974, the American Indo-European scholar Calvert Watkins interpreted the Germanic word as the “libated one”: “…it is possible that the collective neuter ghutóm of the Germanic word for ‘god’ could refer to the spirit immanent in the heaped-up hallowed ground of a tumulus—perhaps of a kurgan, the characteristic Eurasian burial mound associated by archaeologists with Indo-Europeans.” This interpretation is not too different from the one implied in Tyler’s passage. Libation means “an offering of a drink,” so that the “libated one” should be understood as “the recipient of a libation.” Let us not forget that the Germanic protoform is supposedly a past participle.

By a curious coincidence, Gothic giutan “to pour” is related, not conjecturally but certainly, to the word Goth. Goti, as their non-Germanic neighbors called Goths, had no h; th in it is the result of the Greek spelling with the theta (this spelling has been retained in Goethe, which means “God,” probably a stub of a longer compound). And all over the place we find Gautar (those are the Old Engl. Geatas of Beowulf fame) and other tribes whose names are derived from the same root. What was so attractive in the idea of pouring that the root of giutan in different grades of ablaut turned up in ethnic names with such regularity? These questions still await a convincing answer. Yet to substitute “sacrifice” for “pour” and look upon the bearers of those names as worshipers of some god or gods would be too bold a leap into the unknown. Millennia ago, all people were “pourers” and “sacrificers.”

At present, many scholars share the etymology of god, as Watkins formulated it. But not too long ago, another but very similar Sanskrit root—it means “invoke”— was more often believed to be at the basis of the Germanic divine name. It sounds so much alike the one for “pour” that an attempt was once made to merge the two. However, modern researchers discovered insurmountable phonetic difficulties in connecting the verb for invoking with the word for god, though in this context “a being invoked by worshipers” makes better sense than “a libated one.” Among many other interpretations of this recalcitrant noun we find “purifier,” “the invisible, hidden,” “shining,” “apparition, something observed,” and “the one that is outside” (I am leaving out of account several nonsensical suggestions). A borrowing from Persian has been considered and refuted on excellent grounds. Finally, some people think that god is a loan from an unknown language. This of course may be true but dismisses rather than answers the question.

With some trepidation I would like to say that all the hypotheses mentioned above strike me as unconvincing. We know from the days of Scandinavian paganism that the Germanic word guð existed and that it referred to the highest beings in control of the world. However, they competed with other “multitudes,” and sacrifices were made to all supernatural forces. Consequently, “being invoked” or “being the recipient of offerings” did not characterize any group uniquely, and, in general, to call God “the libated one” is as strange as to coin a divine name (such names are called theonyms) cognate with incense, candle, or smoke. Also, the etymology of guð has to account for the universal use of such words in the plural. To Latin numen, mentioned earlier, Hebrew Elohim can be added. We need a group name. Watkins, it will be remembered, spoke about the spirit, not spirits, in a mound.

When converted Germanic clerics searched for the word corresponding to Latin Deus and Greek theós, they must have had enough to choose from in the native resources. For example, in Old Icelandic, the great gods (all together) were called not only guð but also regin, that is, “the governing, ruling forces,” not unexpectedly, a neuter plural. The regin were called holy; sometimes the epithet occurred with a reinforcing prefix. Germanic had two adjectives for “sacred.” One has come down to us as Engl. holy; the other is known from Gothic weihs and German words like Weihnachten “Christmas,” literally, “Holy Night.” Apparently, though the guð could be the holy ones and the governing ones, the word regin (assuming that some of its forms existed in the south) lacked the connotations important to the converted Christians or carried some connotations to be avoided. In practicing the new religion the Church tried to steer away from the vocabulary characteristic of pagan cults, and yet the learned missionaries decided to employ an old term for the most important word of the Christian faith.

It is hard to say boo, shoo, or even goo to a goose.
It is hard to say boo, shoo, or even goo to a goose.

The neuter plural guð was probably free from the unwanted associations inherent in the other words for the holy ones. As early as 1889, the great Indo-European scholar Karl Brugmann suggested that god was allied to the Sanskrit adjective ghorás “horrible” and Old Engl. gryrn “sorrow.” His etymology, though supported by Evald Lidén, another distinguished linguist, did not win the day because Brugmann wanted both ghorás and guð to be related to Greek theós, and here he was mistaken. But taking theós out of the equation does not damage the credibility of guð. The root of ghora-s (o was long in it) may have been a sound-imitative complex, like boo, which some won’t dare say to a goose, or hoo– in Engl. hoot. We also shoo the cat. Guð meant “terror” and struck fear in the worshippers. So much for good God. If this is how the Germanic word for “God” came into existence, it was not a past participle, and d (ð) was not a verbal ending or suffix.

As a postscript, I’ll say something about the Slavic word bog “god.” Its etymology is believed to be certain because its alleged Sanskrit and Iranian cognates mean “dispenser of wealth” and “god.” Russian bogatyi (stress on ga) means “rich.” Yet, with regard to bogatyi, we may be dealing with a case of late folk etymology. Bog, I suspect, belongs with Engl. bogey, Russian buka (the same meaning), and Germanic gu-. I have risked defying the recognized etymologies of two heavily charged words in Germanic and Slavic and supplied this suicidal postscript, because, when all is said and done, it is better to be hanged for a sheep than for a lamb. I also remembered that those who were sacrificed to Othin were sometimes hanged.

Image credits: (1) Illustration of E. B. Tylor from Folk-Lore: A Quarterly Review of Myth, Tradition, Institution & Custom. Photo. Elliot & Fry. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Little Goose Girl by Camille Pissarro (1886). Public domain via WikiArt.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Back to bar for a moment; it’s been suggested that this is an s-mobile variant of spar, which is native. Does that sound plausible to you?

  2. Jouna Pyysalo

    The exact match for the meaning “god” is now attested in Hittite, preserving a compound
    Hitt. gut·ani̯ei- (vb1.) ‘herrisch behandeln’ with meaning ‘behandeln’ belonging to the second part of the compound, Hitt. ·ani̯ei-.

    To see the full etymological details, please follow the link below
    then Ctrl+F the root PIE √gɦɑut- ‘Gott, Herr, Götze’ (a.) ‘fromm, pius, herrisch, ehrbar’ where the relevant Indo-European forms have been quoted.

    Thanking you already,

    Dr. Jouna Pyysalo
    PIE Lexicon Project
    University of Helsinki

    p.s. By means of clicking any Proto-Indo-European (PIE) reconstruction (in blue) the digitalised sound laws will generate you the respective Indo-European form (note that any errors in our code are marked with red).

  3. Fahim Ilyas

    What about the Persian ‘khudaa’ which means ‘god’?

  4. Inseob Hong

    Slavic word ‘bog’ is Korean.
    We call it as [복]

    All the etymology of English words are based on the Korean language.
    I have studied and have clear evidence on this matter.
    And so, I can give you related evidences of the ‘origin of words’.

Comments are closed.