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Soul searching

Soul searching, or the inscrutable word “soul” (part one)

If we expect someone to save our souls, this person won’t be an etymologist, because no language historian knows the origin of the word soul, and without a convincing etymology, how can anyone save the intangible substance it denotes? Yet nothing prevents us from looking at the main attempts to decipher the mysterious word.

Except for the Scandinavian runic inscriptions, all our texts in the oldest Germanic languages were written by Christian authors, and in those texts, the word soul meant what it does to us, but the idea of some perhaps immaterial, volatile, and immortal part of a human being predates the conversion of Europe by millennia. The Old English for soul was sāwol, a form very close to Gothic saiwola. We will see that in early Germanic, the form must have sounded approximately as it did in Gothic.

The Gothic version of the New Testament was written in the fourth century, that is, about 500 years before the oldest texts (not counting the runes) in any other Germanic language. Bishop Wulfila translated the Bible from Greek, and the Greek word he dealt with was psykhē (stress on the second syllable). The Gothic gloss on psychē occurred only once in the extant pages of the Bible (M 6:26; I’ll quote the Authorized Version: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”), so that we cannot know how broad the semantic scope of the Gothic word was. Yet even though the Gothic noun turns up only once, we have the support of the adjective samasaiwals “of the same mind,” a compound, somewhat reminiscent of English soul mate. It follows that saiwola also referred to one’s disposition.

King Alfred was not only a great king but also a great translator from Medieval Latin.
(King Alfred, Temple of British Worthies, Stowe. Philip Halling
via Geograph, cc-by-sa/2.0.)

Wulfila was a great master of variation and often used synonyms for rendering the same Greek nouns, adjectives, and verbs. This is not surprising. While translating a foreign text, we often do the same. Let us imagine that our original has beginnen (German) or commencer (French). We may, for the reasons perhaps not always clear even to ourselves, write begin in one sentence, start in another, and commence or initiate in a third one. Most translators probably do and have always done so. At least King Alfred, the greatest ruler of early Britain, resorted to this type of variation while translating from Latin into Old English.

Classical Greek had at least one synonym for psykhē, namely þȳmós “soul; breath, etc.” Breath is especially typical: it leaves the body and disappears. The Greeks sometimes represented the soul in the shape of a butterfly, but it was only one of several images for that elusive concept. In Homer, the souls of the dead were called eidola, and they resembled evanescent ghosts. On the other hand, Homer depicted souls as the doubles of the dead. The idea of some matter called soul goes back to the belief that the human body contains a substance capable of escaping and leading an existence of its own. This idea finds support in dreams (we seem to be doing all kinds of things while our body remains in its place) and in the belief that death is not the absolute end of our existence.

In Old Icelandic literature, we constantly read of a person’s double, who (which?) lives in a human body and protects it. Meeting this guardian presages death: once the hero of the tale meets the giantess who is his hamingja (such is the relevant Icelandic word; a feminine noun), it means that his protective spirit has left him and he is doomed, or to use the Scottish word, “fey.” As noted, the origin of soul has not been discovered, and below, I’ll be able only to list the ingenious hypotheses regarding its etymology, but the direction of the search is obvious: we should look for a word that in some way reflects the idea of the indestructible double of a human being, of one’s materialized essence freed from the body in sleep or after death.

A butterfly being released: a soul heading for Paradise?

Greek psykhē, immediately recognizable from English psyche, is not too helpful for understanding what the Goths or the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons understood by this word, because in the history of Ancient Greece, the view of the soul did not remain unchanged. But from Greece we have numerous vases and funerary stelas (or steles) with the images of the butterfly, presumably the soul of the departed, while from the Germanic Middle Ages only the word naming a theological concept confronts us. The ancient idea underlying saiwola remains and will probably forever remain hidden. Obviously, Wulfila never bothered about the etymology of saiwala, the word he used. But for some reason, it satisfied him and the Christian scholars elsewhere who later sought an equivalent for Latin anima.

Canova: Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss.
(Photo by Kimberly Vardeman, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

We should conclude that Wulfila, who knew the Greek noun and (as a matter of course) also Latin anima, had a clear idea of their equivalent in his language. Why did he? What did the saiwala “do” in the Gothic community? Did it fly, torment people in their sleep, fly or walk away from those who died? Did it resemble a bird (this suggestion has some support in the art of the Ancient Greeks) or an animal? When a shaman is in a trance, his soul takes on the shape of an animal or a bird and fights a similar beast or bird, the emanation of another shaman. What could the saiwala’s material substance be? Saiwala was certainly not a mere philosophical concept! Germanic clerics worked in close contact and occasionally met to discuss the words they should use in their translation from Latin and Greek. German and Dutch do have a cognate of soul (Modern German Seele, Dutch ziel), but the Old Norse noun was borrowed from Old English. It follows that the Scandinavians preferred not to use any of the words like hamingja and felt satisfied with a borrowing that meant nothing to them but enjoyed prestige in the rest of the Germanic-speaking world.

The question then is: “What could be the original meaning of Germanic saiwalō? (The reconstructed form with a final long vowel predated Gothic saiwala.) This will be the subject matter of the next post, but one consideration is worthy of note even here. There is no certainty that in this word, saiw– is the root and the rest some sort of obscure suffix. The Germanic noun can well be a compound, that is, sai-wala or saiw-ala. Be that as it may, the entity we expect to reconstruct should be something tangible and observable: a bird, a butterfly, a monster, a puff of breath—anything. We are not interested in etymological legerdemain for its own sake. Most probably, Wulfila had a physical object in mind when he used the word saiwala. Today, when asked to define soul, we are in trouble, but to Wulfila saiwala must have been as material as hamingja was to the Scandinavians. Mythological thinking did not indulge in abstractions. Such is my assumption, but of course there is no certainty that this assumption is correct. Soul searching is a complex and sometimes fruitless procedure.

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    May I presume a connection between ‘anemos’ (= wind : Greek) and ‘animus’, as for ‘spiritus’ ( = breath )? Similarly ‘thumos’ and ‘fumus’ for breath. In a cold climate you can easily tell when a creature is still breathing because you can actually see the breath. And I wonder whether Hittite ‘antuhsas’ ( = man) is anda+tuhsas ( = inside + breath )?

  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    May I suggest a perfunctory interpretation for Wulfila “saiwala” …
    “saiwala” = “self-will”
    This meaning is directly related to a common understanding we have for “soul”! Namely, that within us that “animates” us. Gives us life and volition.

    It also ties in with “Old English wyllan, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch willen, German wollen, ”

    Don’t you think

  3. Maggie Catambay

    This is such an interesting article!

    I would like to know more about hamingja. Who was the hero and in what saga?


  4. John Larsson

    In the Stockholm Archipelago there are relics from Old Norse and here ‘själ’ is the term for both Eng. ‘soul’ and ‘seal’. The large Danish island, ‘Sjælland’ probably means ‘Land of seals’. Skeat says that ‘soul’ might be connected to ‘water’ and the well-known Danish Knud Rasmussen has written a lot about Greenlandic mythology, where the seal is connected to human ghosts!

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