The Early Germanic Dragon


The Early Germanic Dragon

Smaug of The Hobbit is arguably the most famous of all modern dragons, although his creation is heavily indebted to early Germanic tradition (which is hardly surprising, given Tolkien’s interests). Like his counterparts in Beowulf, Völsunga saga, and the Eddas, Smaug is a large serpent-like hateful creature with a vulnerable underside and makes his bed on a hoard of ill-gotten treasure, which he greedily guards. And like the Beowulf-dragon, Smaug flies and breathes fire.

However quintessential the dragon may seem to early Germanic legend and later spinoffs in the manner of Tolkien, it may come as a surprise to some that the usual word for ‘dragon’ in the early Germanic languages—Old English draca (masc. n-stem), Old Norse dreki (masc. n-stem), Old High German trahho (masc. n-stem)—is ultimately a loanword, from Latin dracō ‘dragon,’ itself a borrowing from Greek drákōn ‘dragon, huge serpent, python.’ (ModE drake is the reflex of OE draca, while dragon is a loanword from Medieval French, itself a reflex of Latin dracō.) In fact, the early Germanic languages lacked a unique inherited word for ‘dragon’ and—barring the derivatives of dracō—used a term that meant broadly ‘creeping creature, of either the reptile or larvae family’:

OE wyrm ‘reptile, serpent, snake, dragon, creeping insect, worm, maggot’
ON ormr ‘serpent, snake, dragon, worm, maggot’ (and the related yrmi ‘vermin’ < *gawurmija, a collective formation)
OHG wurm ‘snake, serpent, dragon, worm’
Gothic waurms extant three times with the meaning ‘snake, serpent’

The Proto-Germanic noun *wurmiz (with variant *wurmaz), whence all these forms stem and which must have also meant broadly ‘a creeping creature,’ evidently preserved an inherited meaning also found with cognates outside Germanic, at least in part, cf. Latin vermis ‘worm, maggot,’ Lithuanian varmas ‘insect, mosquito,’ Old Church Slavonic vьrmьje ‘insects.’

The Latin loanword never fully supplanted the reflexes of *wurmiz, but in OE and ON, the ‘worm’ forms when used to denote specifically a ‘dragon’ were largely restricted to a literary or poetic register. And this is still the case with the reflex in Modern English.

And why was the Latin word borrowed? The commonly accepted view is that dracō entered West Germanic initially as a technical term denoting a very specific kind of war-standard introduced into the Roman military in the second century AD by “Scythian” i.e. Sarmatian units (Homann 1986: 131; Lebedynsky 2001: 203-206). These ‘dragons’ (windsock standards with a dragon-head mount) are clearly described by Arrian (Tekhne Taktite 35.2-4) in the second century, for example, and are illustrated in a number of contemporary and later sources (see figure below):

In their charge the [cavalry] sections are distinguished by their standards, not merely Roman but also Scythian, so as to make the charge more colourful and terrifying. The Scythian standards take the form of serpents [drakontes] of even length and hanging from staves. They are made by sewing pieces of dyed cloth together, with their heads and whole body right down to their tails like snakes, so as to produce as terrifying a likeness as possible. When the horses are halted one sees these devices as no more than pieces of coloured cloth hanging down, but when the horses are in motion, they are filled out by the breeze and look remarkably like beasts and even hiss as the rapid movement sends the air through them. (Translation in Hyland 1993: 73)

Once the term dracō was adopted as a term describing a dragon-shaped standard, it evidently began to be used more broadly at the expense of ‘worm,’ eventually becoming the common word for ‘dragon’ in the Germanic languages.


‘Dragons’ from Trajan’s Column (Lebedynsky 2001: 204)

Reenactor with a “dragon.”

To see a reconstruction of the one of these “dragons” in action, with their howling sound,  watch the section between 39:48 and 41:03 of this Time Team episode:



Homann, H. & T. Capelle. 1986. “Drache.” In Beck, H. et al. (eds.), Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertums. De Gruyter. 6: 131-137.
Hyland, A. 1993. Training the Roman Cavalry, From Arrian’s Ars Tactica. Sutton.
Lebedynsky, I. 2001. Armes et guerriers barbares au temps des grandes invasions. Errance.

A Brief Linguistic and Folkloric Look at Early Germanic Giants


A Brief Linguistic and Folkloric Look at

Early Germanic Giants

While the modern reader is apt to think of giants as—well—“gigantic” beings by definition, the meagre sources suggest that this was not necessarily the case with speakers of the Early Germanic languages. For those in Medieval Scandinavia at least, a giant was a more nebulous concept, its size being greatly variable, it seems. In Saxo Grammaticus’ story of king Svipdager (1.21), for example, an amorous giantess named Harthagrepa stalks the king, but when the latter points out that “the size of her body was unwieldy for human embraces,” she replies,

don’t let the sight of my strange largeness affect you. I can make the substance of my body small or great, now thin, now capacious. Sometimes I shrivel at will, sometimes expand. At one moment my stature reaches the skies, at another I can gather myself into the narrower proportions of men.

Instances of mating between (evidently human-sized) gods and giants can be found in the Edda: Freyr and Njörðr marry giantesses (Gerðr and Skaði respectively), while Óðinn seduces the giantesses Gríðr, Gunnlöð, Jörð, and Rindr.

It seems—leastwise in the Medieval Scandinavian tradition again—that in order to be a giant, a certain wildness or frightening uncouthness was as significant as the potential for bigness, such that with proper attire and fitting manner, a human could pass him- or her-self off as a giant. And Saxo Grammaticus (1.13-14) has king Gram do exactly that:

On entering Götaland he put on goat-skins to intimidate anyone who appeared in his path; accoutred thus in an assortment of animal hides, with a terrifying club in his right hand, he impersonated a giant.

And what did speakers of the early Germanic languages call these creatures? A number of words for ‘giant’ are extant, which are listed below with the reconstructed late Proto-Germanic parent forms:

*wrisō (masc. n-stem, with variant *wrisjō) > ON risi (m n) ‘giant,’ OS wrisi-līk ‘gigantic,’ OHG riso (m n) ‘giant’ > ModG Riese ‘giant’
*þurisaz (masc. a-stem, with variant *þur(a)s-) > OE þyrs (m) ‘giant,’ ON þurs (m) ‘giant,’ OHG duris (m a) ‘devil, evil spirit, giant,’ OS thuris- (in the place-name Thurislōhun); and borrowed into Finnish at an early date as turisas (‘god of war’)
*etunaz (masc. a-stem) > OE e(o)ten (m) ‘giant,’ ON jötunn (m a) ‘giant’
*antiz (masc. i-stem)  > OE ent (m i) ‘giant,’ Bavarian dialect Enz ‘monster.’

The reflex of at least one of these reconstructed terms appears to have existed in Gothic, leastwise as an onomastic element. Underlying the Latinized Gothic personal name Thorismodus (Schönfeld 1965: 236-237) is almost certainly *Þaurismoþs, which suggests the existence of a *þauris (masc. a-stem), to give the expected Wulfilian form. (If the other three also existed in Gothic, the expected forms would be *wrisa, *ituns, and *ants.)

Attempting to reconstruct the connotations of these forms is far from straightforward. In OE, the common terms were ent (ca. 55x) and the Graeco-Latin loan gīgant (25x). Þyrs (ca. 13x) is found mainly in (early) glosses and poetry, and four of the mere six instances of e(o)ten are from the poetic text Beowulf. And so these two latter lesser-used words would seem to have belonged to a literary / archaic register. The OHG and OS corpora lack the reflexes of *etunaz. In the broad history of German, the reflexes of *antiz and *þurisaz clearly lost ground to that of *wrisō: the two former are preserved here and there in German dialects (Lloyd 1998: 2/869-870).

Cleasby-Vigfusson (1962: 498, 750) note that “in popular Icel. usage rísi denotes size, jötunn strength, þurs lack of intelligence” or “surliness.” To what extent this was true for the Proto-Germanic foregoers is impossible to say with any certitude. If Greek rhíon (< *wriso-?) ‘any projecting part of a mountain’ is indeed etymologically related to *wrisō (Frisk 1970: 2/658; Orel 2003: 472), the latter word may have in fact stressed size, a connotation preserved in risi. And if *etunaz is a derivative of *et- ‘eat’ (Orel 2003: 86), the Icelandic connotation of ‘strength’ would be a natural extension of ‘gargantuan eater.’ And if *þurisaz is ultimately from the verb *þurjana > ON þyrja ‘to rush forward, sweep forth,’ with a figurative extension ‘to rush at, attack,’ (De Vries 1977: 627; Lloyd 1998: 2/869-871; Kroonen 2013: 552), or alternatively from *þurēna > ON þora ‘to dare’ (Orel 20013: 429-430), then the connotation may have been perhaps that of malignant surliness or unreasoning belligerence, a meaning seemingly preserved partly in the Finnish borrowing turisas (‘god of war’) and leading naturally to the sense ‘devil, evil spirit’ in OHG duris. The origin and connotations of *antiz are obscure.


Cleasby, R., & G. Vigfusson. 1962. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. OUP.
De Vries, J. 1977. Altnordisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. Leiden: Brill.
Frisk, H. 1970. Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. Heidelberg: Winter.
Kroonen, G. 2013. Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic. Leiden: Brill.
Lloyd, A., et al. 1998. Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Althochdeutschen. Göttingen / Zürich: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht.
Orel, V. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. Leiden: Brill.
Saxo Grammaticus. 2008. The History of the Danes, Books I-IX. Transl. by Peter Fisher. D.S. Brewer.
Schönfeld, M. 1965. Wörterbuch der altgermanischen Personen- und Völkernamen. Heidelberg: Winter.

Answering the Call of Nature in Early Germanic


Answering the Call of Nature

in Early Germanic

Reconstruction of Medieval Norwegian Storehouse cum Latrine, based on description in Grettis saga

Reconstruction of a Medieval Norwegian storehouse-cum-latrine, based on a description in Grettis saga

At one point or another, just about every learner of a second language, I should think, wants to know the words for at least a few “dirty” things in that language, that is, words for certain body-parts or body-functions. Well, such a desire got the better of me lately, and so I looked into how speakers of the earliest Germanic languages would have said ‘to go to the washroom.’ Old English had gān / gangan tō gange ‘to go to [the] privy,’ where gang (lit. ‘going’) = ‘latrine, privy.’ A further option was gān / gangan ūt lit. ‘to go out,’ i.e., to the outhouse. The same idiom existed in Old Norse as well, to wit, ganga til gangs (lit. ‘to go to [the] privy’), where gangr (lit. ‘going’) also served as the word for ‘latrine, privy.’ Old High German gang could also mean ‘latrine, privy,’ although I was unable to find an attestation of *gangan zi gange, but this may be owing to the smaller size of the OHG corpus. The presence then of an identical construction in at least two different branches of the early Germanic languages suggests that the phrase ‘to go to the privy’ (where ‘privy’ = lit. ‘going’) was inherited from late Proto-Germanic, to be reconstructed as perhaps *gangana te / to gangai. It seems likely then that the same idiom also existed in Gothic and that Wulfila would have said *gaggan du gagga, with gaggs (masc. a-stem, lit. ‘going’) = ‘latrine, privy.’

Drawing from Jesse Byock’s translation of Grettir’s Saga (2009 OUP, p. 54)

Are You Coming or Going? (In Gothic or Old English)


Are You Coming or Going?

(In Gothic or Old English)

The pairs Gothic qiman / gaggan and Old English cuman / gan, when used as simple verbs of motion, are commonly equated with Modern English ‘to come / to go’ respectively, but this is somewhat of a misrepresentation. Consider the following OE examples:

ga hider (Gen. 27.21) ‘come (lit. ‘go’) here’
Nero cwæð, “gang me near hider” (Blick. Hom. 179.30) ‘Nero said, “come (lit. ‘go’) closer to me here”’

In Modern English, ‘to come,’ not ‘to go,’ must be used when the local reference is to a first-person speaker, but this clearly did not apply in Old English, as these examples show. The restriction was likewise not observed in Gothic:

jah insandida skalk seinana hweilai nahtamatis qiþan þaim haitanam, “gaggiþ, unte ju manwu ist allata” (L 14.17) ‘when it is was time for dinner, he sent his slave to say to the guests, “come (lit. ‘go’), as everything is ready now”’
letiþ þo barna gaggan du mis, jah ni warjiþ þo (Mk 10.14) ‘let the children come (lit. ‘go’) to me, and do not stop them’
jabai hwas gaggiþ du mis (L 14.26) ‘if anyone comes (lit. ‘goes’) to me’

The examples given above suggest that gaggan / gan were – or leastwise could be – used to mean ‘to come’ when the focus was on the leaving of a spot, i.e., on the beginning of the action of coming, seemingly with the connotation that the potential mover was blocked in some way, held back by necessity, reticence, authority, etc. Thus, “let the children ‘go’ to me” = ‘do not hold them back (ni warjiþ þo ‘do not stop them’) but let them leave that spot and proceed to me,’ and “‘go,’ as everything is ready” = ‘there is no need now to wait here any longer; you are free to proceed to table.’

In the following example, qiman, and not gaggan, is used because the focus is not on the leaving but on the arriving: “have you come here to torment us?” = ‘are you here now to torment us?’:

qamt her faur mel balwjan unsis? (Mt 8.29) ‘have you come here to torment us before it is time?’

The same applies in the following OE example:

hi ferdon þa and comon and cwædon to Iosue (Josh 7.3) ‘then they returned [lit. ‘went and came’] and said to Joshua’

How the Heck Are You? (In Gothic)


How the Heck Are You? (In Gothic)

The equivalent of Modern English ‘how are you?’ or ‘how are you doing?’ is not extant for Gothic, but it can be reconstructed with a fair degree of certitude based on comparanda from the other early Germanic languages.

In Old English, the verb magan (> ModE ‘may’) ‘to be able to, can’ was also used intransitively to mean ‘to be strong, to have power or influence, to prevail’ and figured in questions and statements about a person’s well-being: e.g. “Hu mæg he?” Hig cwædon þæt he wel mihte (Ælfric Gen. xxix) ‘“How is he?” They said that he was well’ (cited in Bosworth-Toller 1964: 665). The same goes for the Old Norse cognate mega, which has roughly the same semantic field as OE magan (and typically appears modified here by the adverbs vel ‘well’ or illa / lítt ‘ill / a little’): “Hversu mátti Þorleifr?” – “Vel mátti hann” (Sturl. i.89) ‘“How was Þorleifr [when you left him]?” – “He was well”’ (cited in Cleasby-Vigfusson 1962: 420). (The Modern Swedish expression hur mår du? ‘how are you?,’ first extant from the early sixteenth century (Svenska Akademiens Ordbok: v.2 1), appears to be a direct continuation of the old idiom.) The situation is more or less identical with the Old High German cognate (ga)magan and its later reflex (again commonly modified with an adverb meaning ‘well, ill,’ or the like): cf. the Early NHG daz sich unser herr der kunig wider nider gelegt hat und daz er gar ubel mag (Deutsche Städtechronik 1.156.16) ‘that our lord the King has lain down again and that he is quite unwell’ (cited in the Grimms’ Deutsches Wörterbuch, ‘mögen’). It would appear then that the use of the reflex of Proto-Germanic *magana in expressions of well-being was a Proto-Germanic inheritance.

And so, what is the likely equivalent in Gothic, if one assumes that the same usage was present there as well? For the question, one would expect *hwaiwa magt? (‘how are you?’ sing.), and for possible answers *waila mag (‘I’m well / fine’) or *ubilaba mag (‘I’m not well / not fine’). If Gothic followed similar word-order principles as OE and ON, which seems very likely, then the adverb would presumably be shifted leftwards here, as in the OE and ON examples and as shown in the reconstructions, given that the wellness or unwellness (i.e., the ‘rheme’ here) would naturally be highlighted in the answer, cf. ModE ‘well he is.’


Bosworth, J. & T.N. Toller. 1964. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Oxford: OUP.
Cleasby, R. & G. Vigfusson. 1962. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: OUP.
Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm auf CD-ROM und im Internet.
Svenska Akademiens Ordbok.

Gothic Cats


Gothic Cats

The Gothic word for ‘cat’ is not extant but was likely *katto (f on), with *katta (m n) / *katts (m a) for ‘tom-cat.’ This is suggested by the early Germanic cognates OE catte (f on) / catt (m a?), OHG kazza (f on) / kazzo (m n), ON köttr (m u). (The Proto-Norse u-stem *katt-u-z is seemingly a secondary analogical form extended from the acc. pl. *kattunz of an original masc. n-stem *katta, a development seen elsewhere, e.g., with örn (Orel 2003: 24-25; Kroonen 2013: 32).) The Germanic word is commonly thought to be a borrowing from (Vulgar) Latin, to wit, catta / cattus. (For a different etymology, see Kroonen (2013: 281-282).) In fact, the introduction of the domestic cat into transalpine Europe seems to have gone hand and hand with Roman northward expansion and cultural influence, for archaeological research suggests that the domestic cat was unknown to Germania before the centuries AD. Even in Southern Europe, remains of cats are uncommon from the late BC and early AD periods: while the remains of many dogs have been uncovered at Pompeii, for instance, there is none of cats. Once introduced into Germania, the domestic cat spread rather slowly, judging from osteological indices: at Roman-Iron-Age Feddersen Wierde, for example, cat bones amounted to a mere 0.01% of the total finds of domestic animal bones, while at the Viking-Age settlement of Schleswig they reach 2.5% (Tiefenbach et al. 2000: 333). And with regard to the Wielbark and Chernyakhov cultures (archaeological cultures linked to the Goths of the Pre-Migration Age), finds of cat bones were apparently insignificant enough that they fail to be mentioned in some overviews (e.g. Leiber 1995: 60; Heather & Matthews 1991: 87, 90), although cats do seem to have been kept at some Chernyakhov settlements at least (Kazanski 1991: 49).


Heather, P. & J. Matthews. 1991. Goths in the Fourth Century. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Kazanski, M. 1991. Les Goths, Ier-VIIe siècles ap. J.-C. Paris: Errance.
Kroonen, G. 2013. Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic. Leiden: Brill.
Leiber, C. (ed.). 1995. Schätze der Ostgoten. Stuttgart: Theiss.
Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. Leiden: Brill.
Tiefenbach, H. et al. 2000. “Katze.” In Beck, H. et al. (eds.), Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde. Vol. 16. Berlin / New York: De Gruyter.

Bilbo’s Birthday

Bilbo’s Birthday

tolkien-monogramYesterday, September 22, was Bilbo Baggins’ birthday. Not surprisingly, this prompted celebratory notes in the Tolkien viral world. With this seemingly trivial detail brought to the fore, one might pause and ask why Tolkien chose this date. The period of September 21-24 is of course the timeframe wherein the autumnal equinox falls (depending on the year) and marks the end of summer, with its rank growth, and the beginning of fall, with its vegetal decline. One of the major themes of The Lord of the Rings (and of The Silmarillion) is the fleetingness of things in this world, a fallen world wherein loss, decline, and death are inescapable. And so the birthday celebration that opens The Lord of the Rings is bitter-sweetly underscored with a reminder of the death and loss inherent in life. Bilbo, who has eluded aging thanks to his possession of the Ring, is soon to lose this unnatural boon and begin his unavoidable date with decline, just as summer is poised to yield to fall. Indeed, he is almost entirely eclipsed as both the Ring and the focus of the narrative shift to Frodo, who was also born on September 22 and who is thus also doomed to suffer the same loss, the loss of the Ring and the narrative shift away from him to Sam at the end of the book.

On Gothic Wings


On Gothic Wings

The Gothic word for ‘wing’ is not extant, but what is it likely to have been? The early Germanic languages have a variety of words which may serve as comparanda in order to reconstruct the possible Gothic form(s). Old English has feðra (fem. o-stem, pl.) ‘wings,’ literally ‘feathers,’ extant only in the plural with this sense. Old Norse has vængr (masc. ja-stem) ‘wing,’ from a Proto-Norse *wā-ing-ja-, a derivative of the Proto-Germanic root *wē- ‘blow’ (De Vries 1977: 671). Old High German has fedarah (neut./masc.? a-stem) / fedarahha (fem. o-stem) / feddah (masc. a-stem) ‘wing,’ and Old Saxon fetherak* (masc. a-stem). These latter forms are collectives derived from the OHG/OS words fedara/fethera* (fem. o-stems) ‘feather,’ whence Modern German Fittich ‘wing.’ In addition, there is in OE also feðerhama (masc. n-stem) ‘wing, plumage,’ lit. ‘feather-covering,’ likewise OS fetharhamo* (masc. n-stem) ‘plumage,’ and ON fjaðrhamr (masc. ja-stem?) ‘feathered haunch,’ i.e., an Icarian appendage, according to Cleasby & Vigfusson (1962: 156).

The Norse word vængr would seem to be an innovation proper to North Germanic (De Vries 1977: 671); Middle English weng- > ModE wing is ultimately a loanword from Norse (Onions 1966: 1008). The existence of fjaðrhamr suggests at least that the word for ‘feather’ may have been used to denote ‘wing’ originally in Norse. Likewise the Middle German form vlugel (> ModG Flügel ‘wing’) appears to be a more recent innovation (Seebold 2002: 305) and so can be set aside. This then leaves the OE/OHG/OS words as the most likely direct reflexes of the Proto-Germanic form(s).

A consideration of cognates in some of the other ancient Indo-European languages does indeed suggest that the use of the word ‘feather’ to mean also  ‘wing’ as found in OE/OHG/OS was an IE legacy. Consider, for example, Hittite pattar ‘feather, wing,’ Sanskrit pátram ‘wing, feather,’ Latin penna (< *pet-nā) ‘feather’ and in the plural ‘feathers, wings,’ Ancient Greek pterón ‘feather, wing,’ beside the derivative ptérux (pter-ug-) ‘wing.’ The heteroclitic Proto-Indo-European stem *pétH²-r/n-, whence these words derive, meant as much as ‘flier,’ which captures both the senses of ‘wing’ and ‘feather.’

So what then might the Gothic word for ‘wing’ have looked like? Proto-Germanic *feþrō (fem. o-stem) ‘feather, wing’ (Kroonen 2013: 138-139) would by regular sound-change yield a Gothic *fiþra (fem. o-stem) ‘feather, wing.’ Given the existence of the OHG/OS suffixed forms, beside Ancient Greek ptérux (pter-ug-), a suffixed form *fiþraks (masc. a-stem) is also a possible variant: the suffix -k- is at times found optionally in such contexts in the early Germanic languages (e.g. OE cran / cranoc ‘crane,’ and OHG krano / kranuh). The forms feðerhama, fetharhamo, and fjaðrhamr, as well as the Gothic verb -hamon, also suggest a Gothic *fiþrahama (masc. n-stem). In fact, all three reconstructed words *fiþra, *fiþraks, and *fiþrahama may have co-existed in Gothic. If the appendage itself was meant apart from its feathers (as in a cooked wing), then the more generic word liþus (masc. u-stem) ‘body-part, limb’ might have conceivably been used.


Cleasby, R. & G. Vigfusson. 1962. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: OUP.
De Vries, J. 1977. Altnordisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. Leiden: Brill.
Kluge, F. 1926. Nominale Stammbildungslehre der altgermanischen Dialekte. Halle: Niemeyer.
Kroonen, G. 2013. Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic. Leiden: Brill.
Meid, W. 1967. Germanische Sprachwissenschaft von Dr. Hans Krahe, III Wortbildungslehre. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Onions, C.T. (ed.). 1966. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Oxford: OUP.
Seebold, E. (ed.). 2002. Kluge, Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache. 24th ed. Berlin / New York: De Gruyter.