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Soul searched for but not found

Souls searched for but not found (part two)

This is the second and last part of the series on the origin of the word soul. See part one in the post for 15 March 2022. The perennial interest in the etymology of this word should not surprise us. It is our inability to find a convincing solution that causes astonishment and disappointment. Those who can read German will find a good survey in the paper by Dr. Peter-Arnold Mumm in the 2018 Elke Ronneberger Festschrift. I’ll touch on the questions and comments in my next “gleanings.”

It is sometimes said that before Christianization, the ancestors of the Germanic-speaking people referred to souls only when they spoke about dead or unborn people. Allegedly, souls resided in some distant area, and hypotheses revolved round the place of that otherworldly realm. At first sight, such a hypothesis sounds reasonable. As mentioned a week ago, Bishop Wulfila knew how to translate Greek psychē into Gothic. Later, English- and German-speaking clerics had no trouble with the word for “soul” either. In this situation, a historical linguist has several options. Perhaps saiwol– is a native Germanic word and did refer to an entity existing before our birth and surviving the body after its death. This is thought-provoking guesswork, but references to such a state of affairs did not occur in any extant text.

In Old Scandinavian mythology and legends, life after death (only after death, not before one’s birth) is described in great detail. No immaterial substance is ever mentioned. On the contrary, the dead lead a busy life: fight, feast, compose poetry, sing songs, and occasionally return as malicious ghosts (so-called revenants). Last week, I mentioned a creature called fylgja. This is a human being’s protective spirit and may assume the form of a giantess or an animal, or some other creature. Meeting one’s fylgja (occasionally covered with blood) in real life or in a dream is a sign of imminent death: the protective spirit has deserted the body or perished. Allusions to what we call heredity also occurred, but nothing resembling the immortal soul is ever mentioned. The language of the Goths and other Germanic-speaking tribes has been most successfully searched for remnants of paganism. No hint of soul has turned up.

Sea burial: the god Baldr goes to the Other World.
(By W. G. Collingwood via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Among other things, reference to old mythology and literature is important, because the first three letters of saiwol– coincide with the root of the Germanic word for “sea.” Hence the idea that the two words are connected: after one’s death, human souls allegedly depart “overseas.” Sea burials are known very well (one is described in Beowulf, another in the myth of Baldr), but ships took bodies, not “souls” to the Other World. The seemingly obvious connection between soul and the word for “sea” was suggested by the great and almost infallible Jacob Grimm. Though his etymology looks convincing, unfortunately, the etymology of sea also remains a matter of dispute—a familiar quandary.

Two things should be said before we go on with this story. First: religious terms often fall victim to taboo or cannot be pronounced for some other reason. Perhaps saiwol– is a garbled version of some other word. This hypothesis, though supported by multiple evidence, naturally, does not explain anything. The other way out is reference to the substrate, that is, to some native and lost language of the Pre-Indo-European population from which the word for “soul” was borrowed. Here we face another blind alley, like the reference to taboo. The hypothetical source language is unknown and can never be known. Reference to it means: “Etymology is beyond recovery.” In Scandinavia, the speakers of Germanic interacted with Saami speakers and adopted some of their words and religious customs. Shamanism is not a Germanic phenomenon. Yet it exercised some influence on the ancestors on the Norwegians and Swedes. No Saami word for “soul” reached Old Norse. Nor is there a similar Celtic word for “soul” in Anglo-Saxon. To be sure, there is a third variant. The word may be “Nostratic,” that is, almost panhuman. My colleague, a specialist in Turkic and Altaic, alerted me to a word for “breath” in those languages which sounds very much like soul. Yet in Greek, Latin, Celtic, and Balto-Slavic, no match for it has been found.

Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910), an illustration to Lermontov’s poem The Demon: “Demon and an angel with Tamara’s soul.”
(Via Wikiart.org, public domain)

Some candidates, like Latin saeculum “age; generation, etc.” and Greek dzaō “to live” (the latter allegedly “by inserting l”!), were dropped almost at once, but aiólos “movable, agile, etc.,” a presumable cognate of soul, still has some supporters. Soul emerged from that reconstruction as a quick-moving animal (a mouse or a butterfly) leaving the body after its death. Some folklore supports this idea. (The absence of initial s in aiólos need not bother us. Time and again, we come across that equally agile word-initial consonant called s-mobile.) Yet the origin of the Greek adjective is far from clear, and we are once again reminded of the rule: “Never use an obscure word to explain another obscure one.”

There have been many attempts to present Germanic saiwalō as the compound sai– + wal. The first component resembles the Slavic and Baltic word for “force, strength,” and the second reminds us of the Germanic word for “a dead person” (as in Valkyrie and Valhalla). Part of this etymology is old, but Elmar Seebold (in his editions of Kluge’s etymological dictionary) discusses it at length (note that he misspelled the name of Levitsky or Lewitskij), and therefore, it has become known to many readers.

None of the hypotheses cited above is wrong by definition (naturally: they were offered by outstanding researchers!), but all of them illustrate the game I called last week etymological legerdemain, for which the respectable term is root etymology. Also last week, I mentioned Peter-Arnold Mumm’s paper on the origin of the word soul. He did not only examine all the earlier hypotheses but also proposed his own. He suggested that Germanic saiwalō is a compound, whose first component is related to Latin saevus “fierce, raging” and the second is wala– “dead person” (see it above). His reconstruction depends on the idea that the word for “soul” goes back to the belief in revenants (the dead returning to the human community). I have moderate enthusiasm for this hypothesis: the word “soul” must have meant something less frightening and perhaps less tangible. Also, as far I can remember, the best-known revenants were characters in Icelandic sagas, and all those living dead (or the undead, as they were called) appeared among the living if they were not buried properly.

My soul is dark.
(“Lord Byron” by Richard Westall via National Portrait Gallery, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

When the shining god Baldr was put on the funeral pyre, his father Othin (or Odin) whispered something to him. Many generations of scholars have tried to guess what he whispered. Of course, we will never know the answer. But from the ethnographers’ work we know what the survivors say to the departed. There are three main variants: “repose in peace,” “protect us while residing in the kingdom of the dead,” and “do not return.” From those rituals I don’t see much support in discovering the etymology of soul.

Since the oldest recorded word for “soul’ occurs in Gothic, it is discussed in the great etymological dictionary of Gothic by Sigmund Feist (1939). Feist argued for the Greek aiōlos as the word’s root and cited some ethnographic data in support of his reconstruction. Winfred P. Lehmann, in his 1985 reworking of Feist, returned to Jacob Grimm’s sea hypothesis, which Mumm dismisses as indefensible. Apparently, we know too little about the beliefs of Wulfila’s ancestors to reach a persuasive solution and have no clue to the origin of the word soul. I am really sorry,  and my soul is dark.

Feature image by Giga Khurtsilava on Unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    I cannot help thinking that there might be a connection between Greek ‘aiolos’, quick-moving, and the legendary serpent Illuyankas. No separate word ‘illuyas’ has appeared yet, but wriggly-snake seems an apt translation of ‘illuyankas’.

  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    Some points to consider…

    The most relevant ancient Greek word associated with “soul” to the present day is “πνοη” (breath) and not “aiolos” (ancient Greek god that controls the wind), as you and others have been using.

    Looking for a “substance” as the root for “soul” is delimiting and likely wrong. More likely, “soul” indicates that ‘life-force’ within us that ‘animates’ us. Last week I offered an interpretation for Bishop Wulfila’s “saiwala” as “self-will”. That, imho, fits our understanding of the meaning of “soul”. The words also closely match in sound.

    As for the “butterfly” as the “soul”, this is poetic license. Derived from the transmutation of a caterpillar into a butterfly upon its demise

  3. hjsuo

    Why do you ignore the possibility of Gr. psychein being sound imitation (onomatopoeia)? In the Bible God created man by blowing the soul into his nose. This proves that soul is the source of man’s life. It fits the life-force supposition for sai-wala. But we can lay back with a better conscience by including saiwala into the Indo-European breath-soul paradigm: Sans. atma, Gr. psyche, Lat. anima, Slav. dusha. If we interpret psychein as sound imitation, which is very possible, it may correspond to Mandarin chui(吹). By the way, the Mandarin soul 魂(hun) comprises of 云(cloud) and 鬼(ghost), in conformity with the Greek legend’s symbol of butterfly for the soul: man’s spiritual part that can leave the body and soar into clouds. If saiwala is really sound imitative, it may be a cognate or precursor of sigh, OE sican. The latter part -ala (*-alo) may be a suffix meaning belonging to, of the property of. So the derivation is *saiw- > *saig- > sican (w comes first, compare ward > guard). Or -ala may also be viewed as coming from or inspired by Lat. ala (wing) or halare (breathe)?

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