The Principal Germanic Gods

Jakob Grimm


If Wodan and Donar can be regarded as lofty gods of heaven, then Ziu or Tius may be regarded as even more so since his name directly expresses the idea of the sky, while Wodan signifies the air, Donar the storm. Just as Wodan directs victories, so Ziu reveals himself as the actual war god, Saxnot as the sword god, Donar as hammer god, Wodan as spear god. Like Wodan, Ziu also seems to roar down from the sky as a storm.

The old Nordic name Tysdagr (Tuesday) coincides to that of the Eddic god Tyr. Represented in the Edda as Odin's son but in the song of Hymir as son of the giant Hymir and his mistress, he seems subordinate to the former in power and importance. But he also completely accords with him, insofar as both direct battle and war and the glory of victory emanates from one as from the other. Primeval times attributed all glory to the warlike; indeed along with Wodan and Ziu it had need of a third war god, Hadu. The subtler differences in the cult are now concealed from us. Undoubtedly, mountains were hallowed to Ziu as to Wodan and Donar. It will only remain uncertain which god, whether Wodan or Ziu, is meant by a particular name.

Ziu is brave and eager for battle like Ares, granting abundance of fame, but also cruel and bloodthirsty; he raves and rages like Zeus and Wodan. He pleases ravens and wolves who follow him on the battlefield, although these creatures again must be assigned more to Wodan. Battle songs were certainly also composed in Ziu's honor, possibly warlike dances were held, to which I link the still existing and widespread custom of the ceremonial sword-dance which was completely proper to the god of the sword. Besides a sword the war god is appropriately given a helmet. The Edda does not emphasize the war sword, it makes no mention of Saxnot from whom the Saxons took the name Schwengenoss (sword comrade) because they carried the stone sword or placed the god at the head of their tribe.

TyrThe Edda represents Tyr as one-handed because the wolf in whose jaws he had placed his right hand as a pledge, tore it off at the elbow. I prefer to accept the appropriate explanation by Wackernagel: Tyr appeared one-handed because he would only grant victory to one of the combatants, in the same way that Hadu, another god of fortune in war, or Pluto and Fortune with the Greeks and Romans, are represented as sightless because they blindly distribute their gifts. Since victory was held to be the greatest fortune, the god of fortune is provided in full degree with the most striking qualities of fortune in general, namely partiality and changeability. [Image: Ziu/Tyr, Germanic god of war, descendant of the old Indo-European sky-god. His name is etymologically related to Greek Zeus, Latin Jupiter, and Indo-Aryan Dyaus, which indicates that he must have played a much more prominent role in the earliest Germanic religion. His right hand was bitten off by the monstrous wolf Fenrir, into whose mouth he had placed it as a pledge of cosmic security, when the wolf, destined to devour the sun and the moon, allowed himself to be bound in the net that will hold him fast till Ragnarok.]

Tyr and Fenrir

There is a god called Tyr. He is the boldest and most courageous and has power over victory in battle; it is good for brave men to invoke him. It is a proverbial saying that he who surpasses others and does not waver is "Tyr-valiant." He is also so well informed that a very knowledgeable man is said to be "Tyr-wise." Here is one proof of his daring. When the gods tried to persuade the wolf Fenrir to allow the fetter Gleipnir to be placed on him, he did not believe that they would free him until they put Tyr's hand in his mouth as a pledge. Then, when the Aesir would not loose him, he bit off the hand at the place now known as the "wolf-joint." So Tyr is one-handed and he is not called a peace-maker.

Snorri Sturluson, Deluding of Gylfi 25.

Tyr is described as Odin's son. His mother, whose name is unknown to us but whose beauty is alluded to in the adjective allgullin (all golden), was a giant's daughter who bore to Odin his immortal son.


FreyrThe next god in power and fame in old Nordic belief is Freyr; with the Swedes he seems even to have occupied the third place. His name ["Lord"] of itself proclaims how widely his worship prevailed among the other German tribes, a name sacred enough to be given to the Supreme Being even in Christian times. The original meaning of Freyr, Frauja, Frô, seems to be: the happy, gladdening, beneficent holy lord, which could be a reference to a worldly ruler as well as to a deity. [Image: ithyphallic Frô/Freyr, god of fertility, an eleventh-century Swedish figurine.]

Frô's godhead seems to hold a middle place between the notion of the supreme lord and that of a being who brings about love and fruitfulness. He has Wodan's creative quality, but performs no deeds of war; horse and sword he gives away, when consumed with longing for the fair Gerd, as is sung in one of the most glorious lays of the Edda. Snorri says, rain and sunshine are in the gift of Freyr; he is invoked for fertility of the soil and for peace. The Swedes revered him as one of their chief gods, and Adam of Bremen says that at the temple of Uppsala his statue stood by those of Thor and Wodan. Adam calls him Fricco, which is precisely parallel to the frequent confusion of the two goddesses Freya and Frigg. But he paints him as a god of peace and love: "Tertius est Fricco, pacem voluptatemque largiens mortalibus, cujus etiam simulachrum fingunt ingenti priapo; si nuptiae celebrandae sunt, (sacrificia offerunt) Fricconi," "The third god is Fricco, who bestows peace and pleasure to mortals and whose likeness they fashion with an immense phallus; if marriages are to be celebrated, they offer sacrifices to Fricco."

Then there is the story, harmonizing with this, though related from the Christian point of view and to the heathen god's detriment, of Freyr's statue being carried around the country in a wagon in the manner of a king. The people flock to meet the car, and bring their offerings; then the weather clears up and men look for a fruitful year. Live animals were presented, particularly oxen, which seems to explain why Freyr is reckoned among the poetic names for an ox; in like manner, horses were consecrated to him, such a one was called Freyfaxi and accounted holy; and human victims fell to him in Sweden.

As a fertility god he is a friendly, kindly deity, in contrast to the two gods previously mentioned and to Wodan's one side, for as god of wishes, Wodan also seems amiable and creative like Frô.

Freyr's beloved, afterwards his wife, was named Gerd. She came from the race of giants but is nevertheless included among the female Aesir. The Edda describes her beauty in a charming story: when Freyr looked down from heaven, he saw her enter a house and close the door, and then air and water sparkled from the radiance of her arms. His courtship of her was difficult and was only made successful by the skill of his loyal servant Skirnir.

Freyr possessed a boar, Gullinbursti, whose golden bristles lit up night like day, ran with the speed of a horse and pulled the god's wagon. His sacred, golden-bristled boar was celebrated on helmet insignia, in baking and at festive banquets. Therefore in Freyr's cult boars are used as expiatory offerings. The Swedish folk bake cakes in the shape of a boar on Yule Eve. Even our Christmas cake is referred to as the back of the Yule boar. Gullborst is the name of a plant which is also called Eberwurz (boar's root).

The Edda provides Freyr with a magnificent sword which swings of its own accord against the race of giants. The fact that he gave it away in distress later caused his destruction and is regarded as the cause of his death when at the time of Ragnarok he had to fight with Surtr and lacked his good sword. The dwarfs had made a wonderful ship, Skithblathnir, which could fold up like a cloth for glittering Freyr, the benevolent son of Njord.

German mythology would know little about Njord, had not Tacitus fortunately mentioned details of a goddess, Nerthus, whose identity with the god is evident.

Njord, who rules over the sea, appears much celebrated, admittedly chiefly by peoples who lived on the seaboard. According to the Edda he rules over wind, sea and fire. He longs to be away from the mountains of the interior and down by the cool shore amidst the song of the swans. A water plant, the spongia marina, bears the name Niardar vöttr, "Njord's glove", which was elsewhere certainly transferred to Freya or Mary.


BaldurBaldur, Balder, or Palter is a god of light according to his entire nature, a pure innocent, almost feminine god. His heavenly home is called Breitablick, Broad Glitter, which could be a reference to the Milky Way. In order to avert danger from the beloved god, Frigga took oaths from water, fire, earth, stones, plants, beasts, worms, indeed from all personified sicknesses, that they would spare him. A sole plant, the mistletoe, had not taken the oath because it was too young. A bough of it killed Baldur. [Image: "Baldur" by E. Fogelberg (1840).]

All creatures -- men, animals, plants, stones -- weep for the dead Baldur. The Edda describes how the pure, innocent god, struck down by blind Hödr at Loki's instigation with mistletoe, must journey, wept over by all, down to the underworld, with nothing able to fetch him back, while Nanna, his beloved wife, follows him to death.

The myth of Baldur, one of the most beautiful and spiritual of the Edda, has fortunately been passed down to us by another, divergent version. There is no more apt example of the pervasiveness of the myth of the gods. The song about Baldur's foal, preserved in the Merseburg Fragment as one of the earliest poems of our national antiquity, relates the following:

When Phol (Baldur) and Wodan once rode to the forest, Baldur's foal sprained its foot and at once the greatest concern of the heavenly Gods was shown to set it to rights again. But neither Sindgung and Sunna, nor Frua and Fulla, were able to do it; only Wodan, skilled in magic, could conjure the foot, bone to bone, blood to blood, limb to limb, so that it was healed.
This entire event is as little known in the Edda as in other old Norse sagas. However, what was known even before the 10th century, is a pagan saying in Thuringia that has retained its essential content in conjuration formulae which are still alive among Scottish and Danish country folk, except that what the pagans believed of Balder and Wodan is applied to Jesus.

I have been successful in tracing the content of the Merseburg Charm about Baldur's foal to an earlier magical formula and as a result to prove irrefutably the relationship just asserted for this. What, however, is particularly remarkable is that it makes its appearance in a very remote region in Scandinavia. Jesus, so it runs, traveled to the heath, where the foal he was riding broke a leg; whereupon Jesus dismounted and healed it by putting sinew on sinew, bone to bone, flesh to flesh, binding it with leaves so that it would remain in the same place.

Two formulas, the old Thuringian and the Norse, the latter in the 10th, the former circulated only in the 18th century, have certainly the same foundation: a myth about the pagan Baldur. Jesus may have been substituted here both for Wodan, the god who was successful in magic, as well as for Baldur, whose foal suffered injury. I incline to the last opinion, because in fact Christ was known to Northlanders as hviti Kristr -- "the White Christ" -- and Baldur also as hviti as, the White God, from his radiant glittering color -- indeed, even other similarities between Christ and Baldur, the purest, most spotless god of the pagans, have been emphasized.

No effort is needed to lend deeper meaning to this simply represented fable. As soon as the Sun god's horse is lamed and he is forced to interrupt his course, everyone is in danger and nothing is more expedient to the kindly deities, than to overcome this speedily. To undertake healing and magical conjurations was a woman's business; therefore here also four goddesses attempt magic, although vainly. Only Wodan, the supreme head of all the gods, is successful in providing a solution.

As far as can be seen, a god with the unfamiliar name of Phol was honored by the Thuringians and Bavarians, i.e. according to ancient nomenclature the Hermunduri and Markomanni. However, alongside this name they also seem to have given him other names, Paltar and Balder, while among Saxons and Westphalians, Baldag, Bældæg, was used and the Anglo-Saxon bealdor ["prince, lord"] passed into a common noun. The time of Midsummer was sacred to Baldur, and John seems to have taken his place among Christians.

Among the Aesir, the Edda introduces Forseti, a son of Baldur and Nanna, who like his father dwells in a glittering hall built of gold and silver called Glitnir and, as with Baldur himself, is called the wisest, gentlest god and the one most gifted with speech whose utterance is irrevocable. He is said to be the wisest judge among gods and men, he settles all affairs under dispute. Forseti is linked with the Frisian god Fosite who loved islands and was worshipped on Helgoland. Both provide us with widespread evidence of the worship of Baldur.