Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Wild Hunt of Odin by Peter Nicolai Arbo

Harlequin’s black mask

This is the conclusion of the sequence begun three weeks ago: see the post for September 2, 2020. Last week’s gleanings delayed the climax.

In 1937, Hermann M. Flasdieck, an outstanding German philologist, brought out a book on Harlequin. It first appeared as a long article (125 pages) in the periodical Anglia, which he edited. Perhaps I may digress for a moment and say that, though the names of several outstanding students of language and literature are familiar even to non-specialists, other researchers, equally important, have never been in the limelight. Flasdieck is one of them. He wrote numerous excellent articles and several equally excellent books (all of them in German). Last but not least, he behaved with dignity during the Nazi years, when so many Germanic scholars did not only jump on the bandwagon but gleefully joined the engine driver. In his book on Harlequin, Flasdieck explored all the hypotheses about the origin of this figure and came to what looks like an almost irrefutable conclusion. I don’t know how many months or years he spent while writing that book, but, when he had completed work on it, he discovered a brief 1935 article on the same subject and with the same conclusions by the outstanding American philologist Kemp Malone. He added a few paragraphs recognizing Malone’s study, whose contribution did not make his own detailed survey redundant.

In broad outline, the etymology of Harlequin was known long ago, as the entries in Skeat’s dictionary, the original OED, and The Century Dictionary show, but none of those great authorities was quite sure of the name’s origin and formulated the conclusions as probable or at least possible. In the first essay of the series, I quoted Henry Cecil Wyld’s pessimistic formulation on this score and added that even then the dark picture he drew did not reflect the state of the art. Incidentally, among the few names of the authorities, the OED mentioned Carl A. F. Mahn. This is the same Mahn who revised Webster’s etymologies for the 1864 edition of the dictionary. (Specialists refer to it as Webster-Mahn.) Among other things, he wrote a book on the origin of the word harlot and quite correctly isolated the root of that word (it is the same as in Harlequin and several others). Beginning with Jacob Grimm (see again the post for September 2, 2020), all serious investigators concluded that the buffoon’s name was Germanic, even though the theater that made the figure famous is Romance, but Flasdieck and Malone showed that it was not just Germanic but English.

For the record: the word harlequin, without capitalization, first occurred in the 1092 Ecclesiastical History by Orderic(us) Vitalis, an Englishman. The book was of course written in Latin. He recounted the experience of a certain priest, also an Englishman, who, while in Normandy, met the familia Herlequini, a troop of damned souls from hell. Their leader had a club and was terrible to look at. Walter Map, another English cleric, possibly of Welsh descent, was active in the twelfth century. He, too, heard about the existence of the creature and in his work De Nugis Curialium “Of Priests’ Trifling Occupations” (see the origin of the English adjective nugatory!) spelled the name as Herlething. Most probably, the copyist misread the word Herleching, that is, Herleking (the spelling of ch for k was not too rare in Middle English). Walter did indeed tell a story of King Herla, allegedly an old king of Britons, the leader of the Wild Host. This story goes back to the remotest antiquity, because even Tacitus knew one version of it and mentioned the warriors Harii, resembling “the family.” In French, the troop is known as la mesnie Hellequin (with several variants; mesnie means “family”).

Two circumstances troubled etymologists. First, the variation ll ~ rl in Harlequin’s name. That is why some scholars believed that hell is the root. Second, the variation –kin ~ -king misled them and, as mentioned in the previous post of the series, even Jacob Grimm considered the possibility of kin being a diminutive suffix. Flasdieck went a long way toward clearing the ground in both cases. By contrast, Malone was apodictic: the solution seemed so obvious to him (and, in a way, it is, like all correct solutions!) that he wasted no time on refuting other people’s mistakes. But in etymology, clearing the ground is crucial. Thanks to Flasdieck’s painstaking analysis of every detail, we may say something that is exceptionally rare in the study of word origins, namely, that the solution he offered is not just clever, ingenious, probable, and so forth: it is correct. People tend to revive and defend discarded conjectures. Let anyone who will risk offering a different opinion about Harlequin first read Flasdieck.

Åsgårdsreien by Peter Nicolai Arbo
The wild hunt (via Wikimedia)

The Wild Host is the same as the wild hunt. The ancient belief in a troop of riding dead warriors has been recorded in myth and legend. The Grimms published not only a world-famous collection of folk tales but also two volumes of German legends (an excellent annotated English translation exists and is worth checking out). Unexpectedly, the procession, though frightening, is hardly ever dangerous: one should only keep out of its way. In one legend, the thirsty leader of the cavalcade even presents a helpful bystander (a boy) with a can of beer that never gives out. (Alas, the can came with a warning: the youngster was not allowed to tell anyone the secret of his treasure. He of course did, and the can stopped producing beer. In folktales, interdictions are cited only to be violated.) We may remember that the eleventh-century witness of the hunt was also unharmed, just frightened.

Pandora by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Pandora: interdictions are mentioned, only to be violated (image via Wikimedia)

The checkered career of the great Scandinavian deity Odin (Óðinn) seems to have begun among the dead. In the extant corpus, he appears as the god of Valhalla, the residence of the warriors killed in battle (they fight by day and carouse at night, a veritable Paradise), and numerous tales preserve the memory of that demon on horseback. He is described as the owner of Sleipnir, an eight-legged stallion that can both ride and fly. In the older scholarly literature, one can read that the belief in the wild hunt has a meteorological foundation: a powerful storm allegedly evoked associations with a furious procession of airborne spirits. But, more likely, the procession was believed to have caused tempests. The wild hunt might be primary.

Odin, Sleipnir, Geri, Freki, Huginn, and Muninn by Frølich
Odin, the Wild Hunter (image via Wikimedia)

All this sounds fairly convincing, but where does Harlequin come in? Herla king was a pagan demon, whose name referred to war (see the first post of this series). Predictably, after the conversion to Christianity, he was associated with the Devil. The devil of folk belief is a complicated figure. One of his functions is to dupe people, even though quite often, the Devil and imps are outsmarted by the clever protagonist of such tales. That is how he acquired the role of a trickster, successful or frustrated, another complex figure, because his functions vary between those of a wily deceiver and a culture hero. One short step separates a trickster from a buffoon. Ordericus Vitalis, mentioned above, said that in Normandy, no one would believe his story. Yet the English demon did cross the sea and became domesticated in northern France and beyond. Predictably, his name lost initial h. From France the h-less Arlequin traveled to Italy, to end up as a major character in the pantomime of the early modern period. He is still untrustworthy, still a trickster, and his black mask reminds us of his long-forgotten infernal origin.

Featured image: Åsgårdsreien (Wild Hunt of Odin) by Peter Nicolai Arbo via Wikimedia

Recent Comments

  1. nedirr

    Even more fascinating than usual, thankyou

Comments are closed.