German 2313 Northern Myths and Legends
Welcome to German 2313!
Northern Myths and Legends
No Prerequisites
Instructor: Dr. Charles A. Grair
Office: FL 260
Office Hours: Monday and Wednesday
12:00-2:00, and by appointment.
• Full text of Syllabus, Course Plan, and
Lecture notes are available online.
Course Website:
Johann Gottfried Herder
1744 - 1803
A major figure of German intellectual history, he
influenced romantic age conceptions of culture and
Champion of folk culture and folk literature.
Jacob (1785-1863)
Wilhelm (1786-1859)
Interested in German history and cultural identity.
They studied folk tales, sagas, mythology, and
especially language and language history.
What is a myth?
• From the Greek word mythos, literally “utterance.”
• Colloquially, myth often denotes a common,
though untrue story.
• Originally a traditional story of gods and
goddesses in a cosmic setting in a remote past.
• An oral phenomenon, often survives in several at
times contradictory versions (esp. the case for
Germanic myth).
• Myth separate from religious beliefs and from
ritual practices, though often closely connected
• Myths represent a community’s distinctive view of
the world, its values and its goals, things of
collective importance.
What is a Legend?
• From a Latin root referring to collecting or
• Traditional stories of mortal heroes instead of
divine figures.
• Legends usually regarded as “history” by preliterate peoples, often have actual historical
basis (though greatly fictionalized).
• Legends celebrate people at the top of a
society, such as heroes, kings, dynasties, and
are usually linked with specific places and
What is a folktale or a fairy tale?
• Folktales generally refer to stories about common
people, such as peasants and villagers.
• Fantastic elements are common, but feature only
lesser figures of popular imagination, witches,
giants, trolls, elves, dwarfs, etc.
• There is no historical basis to folk tales; the events
are “timeless” and set in a land far far away and
long long ago.
• Folk tales represent a peasant perspective rather
than the heroic perspective of legends or the
cosmic perspective of myths.
What is a saga?
• Collections of long narratives about a particular
individual, enterprise, locale, or family are often
termed sagas.
• A more precise definition refers to the prose
tales composed in Iceland from 1150 to 1450 CE,
based on traditional oral sources.
• Many different kinds of sagas were written in
Iceland, such as sagas of kings and saints, or of
ancient heroes.
• Icelandic family sagas are based on local history
passed down from the Viking age.
What can we learn from a myth?
• Myths provide a basic foundation for religion.
• Myths provide a context for cosmic and social order.
• Myths reveal what is important or sacred in a society.
• Myths provide continuity in belief and social
stability, thus also a legal or constitutional function.
• Myths provide the structure for rituals that define
and maintain identity.
• Myths thus help to guide behavior and give meaning
to life.
How can one interpret a myth?
1. Anthropological Perspective
This approach examines the functions the myths play
in the lives of people in a particular culture. In this
context, myths reflect cultural beliefs.
• What phenomena or events are explained in myths?
• What values are promoted by myths?
• What rituals celebrate or reenact myths?
• What cultural beliefs are supported or justified by
2. Psychological Perspective
This approach focuses on myths as projections of the
human psyche, as a way of speaking about the human
condition in ways not otherwise possible.
Sigmund Freud used Greek myths to describe the
processes of the unconscious mind, as a way of dealing
with instinctual drives by objectifying them.
Carl Jung saw “archetypal” myths, universal characters
and themes that recur in the mythologies of different
peoples and that reflect ideal and timeless models of the
human view of ourselves.
3. Theological Perspective
This approach views a society’s myths as their
struggle to comprehend the divine.
Some theological scholars condemn all mythologies
except their own as heretical or demonic, while
others view each mythology as simply another facet
of the revelation of the divine presence in the world.
Comparative mythologists have traced images and
attributes of ancient gods and goddesses that are still
alive in contemporary religions.
4. Aesthetic Perspective
This approach, common in older treatments of the
myths, looks at the value of the myths for art and
Because mythological figures represent the way a
society imagines supreme power and perfection,
these figures often represent normative standards of
Classical mythology has been a recurring source for
artistic inspiration from the Renaissance until the
contemporary age.
5. Comparative Perspective
Comparative mythologists analyze myths from different
cultures and periods to discover the underlying
similarities in mythological traditions.
Joseph Campbell (e.g. The Hero with a Thousand
Faces, 1949) stresses the formal, literary properties of
myths, the fixed narrative patterns or structures that
recur in many western myths.
The danger in many such readings is the reductionist
tendency to ignore the cultural specifics of a myth in
order to reveal more general patterns, “mono-myths” or
What can myths tell us?
Myth and folk stories, legends and sagas will allow us to see how
these people viewed themselves, how they envisioned their society,
their world and the cosmic order. Rather than reduce the stories into
rigid patterns or universal archetypes, we will examine the myths to
see what they reveal about the people who told these stories.
• What can myths teach us about their culture and their world?
• In what ways are their perspectives similar or dissimilar to
our own views of the world?
• What do they tell us about the worldview of their heroes?
• What virtues or goals inspire them? What do they fear?
• What details seem especially important to the poets and their
• And why?
Where does Germanic mythology begin?
Where did the Germans come from?
The term “Indo-European” (or “Indo-Germanic”) is
linguistic, and describes the languages that descend from a
common tongue (Proto-Indo-European, or PIE). ProtoIndo-European probably originated around 4500 BCE in
the steppe region between the Black and the Caspian seas.
By 2500 BCE, this language had separated into various
dialects that gave rise to a large number of daughter
PIE was an inflected language like Latin, Russian, and
German. It was first postulated in 1786 by a British judge
in India, Sir William Jones, who found systematic
similarities between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin.
Pontic-Caspian Region
Indo-European Reconstruction
PIE has been reconstructed by comparative linguistics.
A good example is the semantic field for a cart or
wagon in which terms can be found in daughter
languages: *kwekwlos is a reconstructed term that
means disk, wagon, circle, or (English) wheel in various
Indo-European languages. *rot-eh2- is another term
with cognates in Old Indic and Avestan meaning
chariot, and with cognates that mean “wheel” in Latin,
Old Irish, Welsh, Old High German (Rad), and
Lithuanian. Similar terms for axle, thill (harness pole),
and “going by vehicle” suggest that PIE speakers bred
horses, traveled by wagons and (probably) fought in
Indo-European History
PIE was spoken c. 4500 BCE in the Pontic-Caspian
region by tribes sharing a linguistic unity with India
(Vedic, Sanskrit), Persia, Greece, the Italic languages as
well as the Celts, Slavs and Germans. Many IndoEuropean tribes and languages died out in antiquity
(Hittite in Turkey, Tocharian in western China, etc.).
The oldest texts in an Indo-European language are from
Anatolia c. 1920 BCE. Hittite and related languages
represent an early branch with few close relatives.
The Indo-Iranian and Greek branches separated later;
these tribes settled to the east and the west of the IndoEuropean “homeland.” Germanic groups were among the
last branches to radiate from the steppe region.
European Haplogroups
Indo-European Mythology
Some parallels between Germanic and Greek myths:
• Well developed polytheistic system (Germanic less systematized
than Greek mythology).
• “Human-like” gods living as extended families ruled by a
patriarchal male sky-god.
• Competitive and individualistic gods, with ordinary human
• Struggle with monstrous beings (Titans / Frost-Giants) for
control of the earth.
• Generally favorable attitude toward human affairs, desire prayers
and sacrifices, but do not demand exclusive obedience.
• Generally amoral, certainly not embodiments of goodness,
morality, or transcendent justice.
• Not omnipotent, but ruled by fate just as humans are; not eternal.
Differences between Greek and Germanic myths:
• Greek myths preserved in many written, highly literary
works. Homer and Hesiod provided authoritative
accounts of mythological figures.
• Stable versions of the Greek myths thus preserved.
• Germanic myths were rarely recorded in writing.
• All Germanic myths were recorded in the Christian era,
no longer part of an active belief system.
• “Mixed feelings” of writers about past pagan mythology.
• Transformation of myth from oral to written literature.
• Much of the mythological lore of the Germanic tribes
was lost.
What makes German German?
Germanic languages are distinguished from other IndoEuropean languages by the First, or Great Consonant Shift,
which had probably occurred by 500 BCE. Jacob Grimm
described the Sound Shift, now named Grimm’s Law.
Sound Shift 1,2,3
Germanic and Latin (unshifted) cognates
P >F
T > TH
piscis / fish
pater / father
cornet / horn
B > P
D > T
G > K
lubricate / slippery (better examples in Slavic pairs)
dentist / tooth
Here, these consonants shift to
grain / corn
replace the ones “lost” in the first
consonant shift.
BH > B
DH > D
GH > G
such aspirates (bh, dh, gh) in PIE died out in Latin and
Greek as well, though in different ways, so there are
no neat word pairs to illustrate this sound shift, though
it can be illustrated with cognates from Sanskrit:
bharâmi / bairan (OHG) to bear, carry
Germanic Languages
The Second Germanic Sound Shift
separates High German from Low and North Germanic, probably
already accomplished by 300 AD.
Gothic (first sound shift)
F – TH – H (ch)
Compare the following
Triads of simple words
from Latin, English, and German
Hochdeutsch (second shift)
V/F – D* –
PF/FF* – Z/SS* – K/ch*
duo – two – zwei
tres – three – drei
• Word Pairs with (unshifted) Low German and High German:
that / das
pepper / Pfeffer
cake / Kuchen
tide / Zeit
deed / Tat
•Germanic always accents first syllable, as in: Veróna > Bérn
This practice led to a sloughing off of suffixes and endings in general, and led
Germanic poetry to emphasize alliteration rather than end rhyme.
Who are the other peoples in the North?
• The Finns, members of a different linguistic group
(the Asian Finno-Ugric family), lived in present-day
Finland, parts of Sweden, and along the Baltic
• The Saami (Laplanders) are linguistically related to
the Finns, but have a distinctly different cultural
lifestyle. They are “indigenous” European tribes.
• The Celts originally ranged over most of Western
Europe, but by recorded history had been pushed to
the margins of their territory, living in Ireland,
Brittany in France, Cornwall and Wales in Britain.
They had great interaction with Germanic peoples.
• The Slavs inhabit large areas around the Baltic sea
and throughout eastern Europe.

German 3313 Northern Myths and Legends