The Nordic sphere of Indo-European religion is a paradox. At once it has a fragmentary textual canon that’s substantively post-Christianization and by various turns interpolated, euhemerized, cryptic, and occasionally just plain missing.
Yet it also manages to preserve quite an array of authentic and archaic elements within its troves.
By which I don’t (just) mean all of those wondrous Skaldic verses, the fine poetic scripture in authentic metre, and the occasional weapon-sacrifice or runestone with texts of a different nature upon them …
But rather, conceptual elements. Often ‘hidden in plain sight’ – and in various cases that we detail from time to time, arcening back not just to the pre-Christianization era … but, as we can demonstrate due to strong Vedic concordancy, seemingly right the way back to the PIE Urheimat, itself. When what would eventually become ‘Vedic’ and ‘Eddic’ traditions (and their bearers) were still truly one even in human, sidereal terms.
Other exemplars we have chosen to highlight in previous pieces have included that deed of Odin encountered in the Ynglinga Saga of utilizing ‘magic’ to open up the earthen ramparts of hills where stolen cattle had been hidden (c.f. Brihaspati doing much the same thing in the Vedas), and the situation of Odin conveying the Mead of Poetry (Kvasir – ‘That Which Is Pressed’) from the Hnitbjorg (‘Clashing Rocks’ – Press-Stones) in Eagle form (c.f. Agni-Rudra in Raptor (‘Shyena’ – Falcon / Hawk) form bringing the Soma … etc.).
We have recently added to this suite with our piece critically-exegetically re-examining the situation viz. Rindr in light of Vedic ritual conceptry likewise.
But let us get on with today’s analysis.
Some weeks ago I had been idly looking at the etymology of ‘Jormungand’.
Now, I had thought that this was basically ‘Big Stick’ [to translate rather crudely]:
‘Jormun’, we all know [‘Great’, ‘Mighty’, etc.] ; and ‘Gandr’ effectively a staff .
It seemed straightforward enough. I’d figured that a very large length of wood , a bough , was a logical way to refer to a serpent.
Except then I began looking into the ‘Gand’ component (c.f. ‘Gandalf’ … which, it should appear, means rather more than an Elf with a Staff … ) .
The ‘Gand(r)’ itself is attested in later usage as referring to malign magic. ‘Gandr’ itself also shows up to mean a ‘Wolf’ in Skaldic usage (e.g. ‘hrótgandr’ , ‘Roof-Wolf’, for ‘Fire’ as attested in the Þulur (Elds heiti 1); and ‘skæriligr [..] hallar gandr’ , the ‘bright wolf of the hall’, as encountered in Sturla Þórðarson’s Hrynhenda 10 3-4 ).
As applies the former, one line of thought is that the people casting said magic would be waving around yon Gandr (i.e. staffs, staves), hence the name. This seemed to be potentially linked to the Sami in later times – and certainly, the notion of Finns or Lapplanders as being sorcerers (and linked to the Elves) is something that occurs at various points in a pervasive understanding that must surely have come down from the pre-Christian canon (even if particular of its most vitriolic attestations should appear to be in texts rather well into Christian-era) .
Except that totally doesn’t explain how nor why a Wolf would be termed such.
After all – unlike Snakes, Wolves are not generally renowned for their overt visual resemblance to long pieces of wood.
Instead, I would suppose that ‘Gandr’ ought be understood as connoting some baleful and devouring element. Indeed, likely of magical provenance.
And which also – unsurprisingly – can connote ‘Death’.
At some point in the not-too-distant future I intend to more closely examine this particular element – demonstrating its tangible application with relation to not only an array of ‘witches’ (and c.f. also Hyrrokin), but also Valkyries (indeed, a similar term – ‘Leikn’ – is utilized to link both clades in various occurrences, inter alia ; the name of Göndul is also most pertinent), and that particular of the forms attested for the Consort(s) of Odin , Gríðr.
The Wolf in this case being a ‘tangible expression’ that might be perceived for the spell or force in question. And therefore coming with not only the ‘symbolic connotations’ of the Wolf in more general terms – but also something much more directly commensurate with how the Vedic sphere thinks of certain sorts of baleful magics. That is to say, the manner in which the spell is spoken of as being a ‘Kritya’ [‘Executor’ / ‘Enaction’], and in the Atharva Veda (for example), we find it described as having taken on the figurative (and perhaps even somewhat literal) appearance of a predatory creature in shape – hence its ability to track its target and find him or her unerringly.
Albeit perhaps we might best regard the ‘Gandr = Wolf’ situation as a speciation, and that an underlying sense of meaning to ‘Gandr’ in this regard might be a more general ‘Monster’ as well as ‘Magic’ [c.f. Witczak’s comment on Proto-Germanic *Gandaz] – with, of course, the notion of a ‘Baleful Sending’ that underpins even the modern English ‘Monster’ (viz. ‘Demonstrate’ – coterminous Latin rooting, as we have discussed previously) also proving pertinent.
This has important implications viz. Jormungandr – and, for that matter, the Wolf that Odin is to fight at Ragnarok.
How so? Well, let us address the first of these pairings first.
Consider the following:
It has long been observed that Jormungandr is cognate to Vrtra et co. And, as a brief aside, as we have earlier demonstrated – the actual position of the Nordic mythic chronology is … as with Vritra, the Hydra, etc., that of the Striker/Thunderer deific having already slain the monster in question. See our earlier ‘The Triumph Of The Thunder-God – Restored : An Analysis Of A Husdrapa Hailing Of Thor’s Victory Over Jormungandr Via The Vedic Verses‘ for further elaboration.
Meanwhile, the situation of Odin contra the Fenris Wolf (and we note the ‘Fen’ of ‘Fenrir’ – often translated as exactly that to produce a ‘Fen-Dweller’), also known as ‘Vanagandr’ (and the supposition in Cassel’s ‘Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend’ is patently peculiar that this might mean ‘Wand of Hope’; we would instead tentatively suggest the ‘Vanr’ that is ‘Wanting’, or its descendant, the ‘Van-‘ as in ‘Without, Un-‘ or ‘Under’, due to how this might interact with the Waters thusly involved within the general mythic typology at issue (the Demon Dragon does, after all, hoard Waters, hunger for Waters; or might attack from within (‘under’) Waters); or, if ‘Ván’ is indeed to be taken at something approximating face value, then ‘expected’ might, perhaps, prove vaguely closer to the mark (Vánagandr as ‘Dreaded Gandr’, perhaps?); in either case, the supposition of a ‘River’ linkage – by which I mean, simply taking the points at Gylfaginning 34 and Lokasenna 41 directly – is the integral element here for our typology), we might tentatively link to that other Demon-Dragon of the Waters of Vedic lore, Vala … as slain by Brihaspati (and resonating with other occurrences for the Sky Father bringing down such a beast that we can find attested within the Hellenic mythos, for example).
This is interesting, as the presumption that the same ‘pattern’ which has befallen Thor contra Jormungandr (i.e. that there has been a ‘re-setting’ for the combat to have not yet taken place and being relegated to Ragnarok, despite the ‘proper’ position (as still attested in Germanic texts for Thor’s mighty deed) per broader Indo-European comparanda being that the event has already occurred) might also be in evidence viz. Odin contra Fenrir … helps to answer a lingering question we have had viz just what exactly might have happened to the opponent of Odin that is ‘missing’ from that Ynglinga Saga occurrence we had mentioned way back toward the parodos to this piece.
That is to say – the situation of Odin utilizing the Nordic equivalent to Brihaspati’s mantra-based pious invocation to open up the Earth and Hill so that the stolen wealth of Cows might be recovered … matches up exactly with Brihaspati’s deed – with the exception of an opponent, a Vala, there to be smited by the Lord of the Songs of Prayer [Galdrafodr, we might say]. We have sought to ‘reason around’ this in the past, noting that ‘Vala’ can also mean a ‘covering’, or a ‘cave’ – and so therefore, that Odin sundering open the ‘covering’ or ‘cavern’ within which the stolen wealth of Cows is held (encircled like the golden hoard of a dragon or a serpent of immense size, one might suggest) might implicitly resonate with the sundering of the Serpent itself, with something having become ‘lost in translation’ between the intentional double-meaning of ‘Vala’ (or, rather, the PIE formulation which would have preceded it, and also been ancestral to the eventual Old Norse that has come down to us for this precise formulation to the tale’s telling) as both Opponent and geomorphic obstacle … and the (notoriously heavily euhemerized) Ynglinga Saga presenting us with only the latter.
Very handy, therefore, to have identified a potential ‘location’ for the brother of Vritra, Vala, in the Nordic mythos – as the brother of Jormungandr, Fenrir (or, if you prefer, ‘Vanagandr’). And assumedly subject to the same ‘temporal shunt’ as Jormungandr had been – even if we do not have the rather handy direct Skaldic attestations for the ‘proper’ temporal positioning as we do Jormungandr (to the best of my knowledge, at any rate).
But how does this notion of ‘Gandr’ as meaning ‘Magic’ pertain to Vritra?
Here is an excerpt from the Srimad Bhagavatam [VI 9 11- 18] concerning the creation of Vritra:
11 Tvaṣṭṛ whose son was slain (by Indra) then performed a sacrifice for the birth of an enemy, the killer of Indra: “Oh enemy of Indra grow in strength and kill the enemy (Indra) without delay” (prayed Tvaṣṭṛ).
12 Then arose from Dakṣiṇāgni [i.e. ‘Fire of the South’] or Anvahārya-pacana, a demon terrific in appearance like the god of death, at the end of the destruction of the worlds, at the end of Yugas.
13 Everyday he increased in size, in all directions, to the extent of the distance covered by the shot of an arrow. He looked like the burnt top of a mountain and was bright like the mass of evening clouds.
14 His hair of the head and beard was red like heated copper and his eyes were fierce like the mid-day Sun.
15 He, as it were, held the vault of the heaven pierced with his brilliant trident. He was dancing and roaring and was shaking the earth by his gait.
16 By his deep valley-like mouth he was as if drinking the surface of the sky, and was licking the stars with his tongue, and was as it were swallowing the three worlds.
17 He was now and then yawning his mouth which displayed his terrible tusks—seeing him people were stricken with panic and ran away to all the ten directions.
18 That most ferocious wicked demon was called Vṛtra as he, the son of Tvaṣṭṛ, covered the whole world with the darkness, by the shadow of his person.”
We have often thought that there’s a rather pointed .. sectarian undertone to the iconographic description there – this being a Vaishnava text, after all, and a Shaivite-resemblance for Vritra … well …
But I digress from our purpose.
The SB verses above is not something wrought from whole cloth.
It’s a fairly direct carrying forward of that which is attested in the Shatapatha Brahmana [SBr] (and that is partially why I quote both SB and SBr texts here – because too often we seem to encounter this bizarre presumption that the Pauranika era texts are somehow almost a divorced ‘separate canon’ to the Vaidika. They are not. Here’s an example wherein the essential myth is quite readily, identifiably the same in its core particulars – albeit with some … points of distinction that we shall not get into here):
“1 Tvashtri, seeing his son slain, brought Soma suitable for witchery, and withheld from Indra.”
[XII 8 3, Eggeling translation]
And, in substantively more detail ..
“8 Tvashtri was furious, and exclaimed, ‘Has he indeed consumed my Soma uninvited?’ However, he himself desecrated the sacrifice, for what pure (Soma) there was left in the tub he let flow (into the fire), saying, ‘Grow thou, having Indra for thy foe !’ The moment it reached the fire, it developed (into human shape), or, as some say, it so developed whilst on its way (to the fire). It became possessed of Agni and Soma, of all sciences, all glory, all nourishment, all prosperity.
9 And since it so developed whilst rolling onwards (vrit), it became Vritra; and since he sprang forth footless, therefore he was a serpent. Danu and Danâyû received him like mother and father, whence they call him Dânava.
10 And because he (Tvashtri) said, ‘Grow thou, having Indra for thy foe!’ therefore Indra slew him (Vritra). Had he said, ‘Grow thou, the foe (slayer) of Indra!’ he (Vritra) would certainly have forthwith slain Indra.
11 And because he (Tvashtri) said, ‘Grow thou!’ therefore he (Vritra) grew an arrow’s range sideways and an arrow’s range forward: he forced back both the western ocean and the eastern one; and in proportion as he extended did he devour the food.”
[I 6 3, Eggeling translation]
The latter Brahmana is pointedly oriented around the notion of , as you can see there, Vritra as a ‘consumer’, a ‘devourer’ , and that particular quality (and interestingly, with a seeming ‘undulating’ quality to be inferred as well).
But our major attention is affixed upon this concept of Vritra having been created via magical means – Tvastr having undertaken a Rite which then produces the ‘Revenge Gambit’ in question [and which .. gets out of control, we might suggest and/or infer based around what then eventually ensues].
Why does all of this matter for Old Norse mytho-linguistic comparanda?
Because prima facie – this notion of ‘Gandr’ as connoting a ‘Devouring’, Monstrous creature such as a ‘Wolf’ … and a malign (indeed, outright ‘Maleficarum’) manifestation of sorcery … should appear to be pretty exactly what is observed in these Vedic (and subsequent) excerpts dealing with Vritra.
We might even ponder whether the pointed ‘Fire’ utilization for ‘Gandr’ in Skaldic usage may also find conceptual resonance to a certain degree in the manner for Vritra’s manifestation out of the Offering-Fire. Certainly, the fact that it is the Southern Fire that is mentioned should seem vaguely pertinent given that other figure of world-ending purport from the Nordic eschatology that comes from Flames of the South.
Perhaps Jormungandr, too, had some ‘sorcerous’ begetting – that was obscurated in the later presentations of the myth.
Certainly, the notion of the Demon-Dragon as ‘Revenge Gambit’ against the Striker/Thunderer deific is somewhat more broadly attested. The (breif) account of the Hydra given in Hesiod’s Theogony has this dispatched ‘gainst the Hero by Hera, after all [and this may also resonate with the situation encountered, if memory serves also in the SB, of Parvati being responsible for somebody who’d offended Her being incarnated as Vrtra; and c.f. likewise the ‘Danu’ mention in SBr I 6 3 9 as quoted above].
Now, it must be noted here that there is a clear and obvious inference – that I believe to be incorrect – which one might seek to draw from all of this. And that is that the figure responsible for the authoring of Jormungandr (and, for that matter, the Fenris Wolf) in the later Nordic presentations of the occurrence (i.e. Loki) ought be the same as that attested for the conjuring of Vritra in the archaic Vedic (and also subsequent Pauranik) presentations of the myth (i.e. Tvastr).
This interpretation cannot stand. Why? Because Tvastr, per various RV etc. materials, should seem to be Indra’s Father. And there are an array of other elements – the provision of the Empowering Elixir (in Three Vessels, no less), the Song-Smith typology for the creation (or ‘Shaping’) of the Worlds, the marriage to blessed Rachana (i.e. Vak Devi), and His Status as (a) Rudra – that render that aforementioned ‘simple, obvious’ conflation patently improbable.
The simple truth is that it is demonstrably the case that much has ‘shifted’ when it comes to the Nordic end of things – we can see this quite clearly when, as noted above, we consider the situation of the Striker/Thunderer deific having already slain the Demon Dragon of the Waters in other Indo-European mythic spheres. For whatever reason, by the time the tale gets to Sturluson, we seem to find Loki having been pushed into a greater prominence in the mythology in broader terms – potentially having even ‘overwritten’ the deeds and saliency of other figures so that he might do so. ‘Stand in their place’, that is. But with more baleful purport – whether subtle or overt surely to be inferred from such a ‘substitution’ and its inherent shifting change. This is a phenomenon that no doubt requires greater examination at some other point (with a greater quotient of examples from the Germanic textual corpus to support the contention) – but is not our purpose to get into herein.
Suffice to say it is an interesting question to ponder how a myth might become ‘twisted’ in such a fashion. Whether it is the simple human-handed happenstance of a man like Sturluson ‘editorializing’ or merely mis-presenting elements for more innocent reasoning (a mistake in transcription or researching, mayhap); or whether a rather darker potentiality springs to mind – that of such manipulative malfeasance having been wrought by … other than human hands and influence, and for correspondingly ‘pseudo-mythic’ purpose. That is all we shall openly proffer upon that matter for the present moment.
All in all, there is something that is, no doubt, distinctly ‘unsatisfying’ – to have come so far (a mere three thousand years or more) back venturing through the aetheric pathways afforded to us via intertextual , theological , and linguistic disciplines … only to find that we find ourselves at something of an ‘impasse’ as to how to ‘properly’ reconstruct the mytheme in question.
However, even though there is a lingering … ‘dysjunction’ to be noted – this ought not overpower the coterminity we have revealed, all the same.
Hidden, as so many things may very well turn out to be, within the words themselves … something that has perhaps unwittingly preserved the actual state of affairs for us to uncover – when situated alongside the greater ‘depth’ that can be afforded via the ‘triangulation’, the additional ‘dimensionality’ of the comparative Indo-European approach.
As a recent commenter on our site [‘Seaxwulf’] had put it in response to a recent work of ours:
“But what can’t apparently be so readily subverted is etymology. It’s ironic that in recording names faithfully, despite the occasional tweaking of a decaying narrative, Snorri left an interpretive legacy that with discoveries in hand can be revived.”
Without necessarily intending to suggest it’s all Sturluson (nor more especially that it ‘Always Has Been’) – we would most certainly have to agree.
Albeit whilst also appending a remark of the late, great, Terry Pratchett:
“The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.”
So it would seem with ‘Gandr’, and that ‘Great Gandr’ that is the Serpentine Adversary in Nordic mythic perspective.
Fitting, then, that in other Indo-European presentations for the mytheme, it is the greater Power of Speech Who enables the Striker/Thunderer [viz. Thor, Indra] deific to set things back to rights.
Or, of course, the Sky Father [viz. Brihaspati, Odin] to wade in and shout the scenario back to its rightful outcome ensuing.
And that, is most certainly a ‘Magic’ more powerful than the dread specters – serpentine or wolf-shaped – that might so happen to make themselves known via the (Demonic) ‘Gandr’ potency.
In the case of the latter, at least, it is as a Spear against a Staff.