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If we wish to establish the real significance of a heathen Teutonic deity and the way in which it has developed in the course of the ages, we can not restrict ourselves to the study of literary documents, such as the Icelandic poems of the Edda or the sagas, but we have to look for information from other sources also. Scholars have been accustomed to draw for this purpose largely on folkloristic sources such as popular customs and superstitions. This method, indispensable as it may be for the reconstruction of the early Germanic religion, about which the extant sources have practically nothing to say, is open to serious objections.

As long as we might consider popular traditions as genuine modern representatives of original heathen religious practices, we seemed justified in using these folkloristic materials with as much confidence as the literary traditions of pagan times. They could even yield something more which the latter only gave by way of exception: some insight into the rites and practices of the heathen religion. A well known example of this kind is to be found in the study of modern agricultural customs, which threw an unexpected light both upon the cult of Nerthus, as Tacitus has ascribed it in his Germania, and even upon the scanty information about the Scandinavian Freyr-cult. The value of folkloristic material, however, has been seriously weakened in late years, by the ever increasing amount of proofs that a great deal of popular tradition is nothing but products of higher civilisation, debased to the level of the common people. So it is quite obvious that a popular tradition, which was once considered as a valuable remnant of [4] old heathen lore, may be of much later origin, even of quite modern extraction.

Now, of course, we should not be too sceptical. Although a great deal of present-day popular lore may be of a very problematic origin, it is still possible that ever and anon very interesting specimens of the highest antiquity may be found among the flotsam and jetsam of historical evolution. Only a careful study of popular traditions can enable us to make any definite conclusion.

The vestiges of the cult of Othin, in popular traditions, as we find them now-a-days in different parts of the Scandinavian territory, are a case in point.

1. Modern harvest customs in Scandinavia and Germany

In his interesting book “Wärend och Wirdarne” the Swedish scholar Hyltén-Cavallius has collected a great many instances of the survival of pagan deities in modern folklore. Among several traditions about Othin he gives the following important information: Some generations ago (i. e. in the latter half of the 18th century) the people of Wärend still had the custom of sacrificing something to the horses of Othin. They usually did it in the following way: people left untouched, when mowing a meadow, a 'few green blades of grass which were bent down and covered with moss, so as to prevent them from being damaged by cattle. The peasant said while doing so: “Othin shall have this for his horses” or “This is for the horses of Othin”. If any one should neglect to make this sacrifice to Othin's horses, he was supposed to be punished the following year by a bad hay-crop I).

In this custom we find a connection between the religious conceptions of Othin's horses and the rites of fertility. Before entering upon a discussion of the question as [5] to whether this piece of popular lore may be considered as a valuable proof for the theory, that Othin was originally a deity of fertility, we had better ask first: “Can we rely upon the trustworthiness of this Swedish tradition?” We find the same belief as far as Finland, where it has been taken down from the mouth of the Swedish speaking peasant Gabriel Raf, a man of about eighty years 2). He also said that it had been the custom in former days to leave a few blades of grass for Othin. - But the way in which this information was obtained is significant; the collector asked the man: “Have you ever heard anything about Othin?” Then he answered: “Certainly, old people sometimes mentioned Othin and when they were mowing the corn, they used to leave some straws for Othin, but whether it was a human being or an animal I never asked”. When collectors of folkloristic material put their questions in this way, they may be fairly sure of gleaning as many notes about old heathen deities as they like. The peasant is often inclined to answer in the affirmative either simply to show his good will or because he does not like to admit that he does not know about what his interrogator expects him to have heard 3).

Fortunately we may dismiss all doubts about the reliability of this information. Hyltén-Cavallius himself gives many instances of Othin's name having been known to Swedish peasants of the 19th century. Moreover we have the unquestionable testimony of later folklorists, who collected their material in a thoroughly scientific way. So we possess a much later communication from the same district, Wärend, about a peasant who said: “This year the rye grows badly, for Othin or his servant has taken something from every ear” 4).

But the same custom has been noted down in other parts of Sweden also, as e.g. in Blekinge 5) and Skåne. It is even known in the Danish islands, where the last [6] sheaf of corn is sacrificed to the horses of Jon Opsal, according to the tradition of Meen 6), while in the islands of Lolland and Falster this is done to the horses of Goen or to Goen himself 7). So it is beyond all doubt that in a well-confined part of Scandinavia (i.e. in Southern Sweden 8) and in the Danish islands) this custom has been practiced. As these parts of Sweden belong to the territory, which was once united with Denmark, we may surmise that this custom is possibly of Danish origin andthat it has spread to Sweden in the course of the Middle Ages.

Beyond this region we find the custom of making a sacrifice of the last sheaf as well as the popular belief about Othin and his horse. But now, they are quite distinct from one another. The corn is not sacrificed to Othin but to other mythical beings, partly in human, partly in animal shape. Moreover, even in the districts where the last sheaf is dedicated to Othin's horses, it is also said that the sacrifice is made to other supernatural beings. So the Swedish peasant leaves to the Gloso or Glosuggan, probably a vegetation-spirit in the form of a sow, not only three corn-ears or some straws on the field, but even a few apples on the tree and when he is threshing in the barn, he leaves some grains in the cornbox. The same custom is found in Norway, but the intention is here only to procure abundant harvest for the following year 9). Elsewhere the sacrifice is made to the underground-people or to the old man of the field, the åkergubben 1o).

So the custom to sacrifice the last sheaf to Othin seems to be a peculiar form of a much more common sacrifice to other mythical beings. It is then possible that from the beginning this practice has nothing to do with the heathen god Othin. Here, however, a serious objection to this reasoning may arise from those cases where the last sheaf is sacrificed to a being, whose name if not identical with Othin at least has a very close resemblance to it. [7] In Northern Germany the peasants left some balms of corn on the field for a demon, which was called by different names, such as W ô d or W ô l d and with another vowel W a u l or W a u d l and many forms more II). As early as 1593 a certain Nicolaus Gryse mentions in his book “Spegel des antichristlichen Pawestdoms vnd Lutherischen Christendorns” 12) this same custom and quotes even a small rhyme which the peasants sang while dancing round the corn-sheaf:

Wode, hale dynern Rosse nu Voder,

Nu Distel vnde Dorn,

Thom andren Jhar beter Korn.

In a modern variant from Saxony, in stead of Wode we read Frû Gaue; possibly this is a misinterpretation of Fra Gaue and whereas frô is an old word for “lord”,' its meaning may be “the Lord Gode(n);” it is generally assumed that we find the same name in the word Vergôdêndl,' which is the name for the last sheaf in Lower Germany.

Gryse firmly believes that this Wode is the same as the pagan deity Wodan. The German folklorist U. Jahn, after discussing a great many similar practices in which the corn-demon has the same name or is simply called “the Old One”, comes to the conclusion that there can be no doubt whatever about the identity of the corn-sacrifice to this “Old One” and that to “Wuotan” 13). In course of time the heathen god has been degraded to a simple spirit (Elementargeist) and he traces the line of development downwards through several intermediary stages where the last sheaf is not sacrificed to the “Old One”, but to other mythical beings, such as the Wichtelmann or Feldmann (Thuringia) or even the Erdmännchen and Erdbiberli (Aargau 14). [8]

In other parts of Germany we meet with the same practices. In Hessia and Schaumburg-Lippe a round piece of the rye-field was left unmown and had the name of Waulroggen; a stick with flowers set in the middle of it was called the Waulstab and the labourers shouted thrice: “Waul, waul, waul!" Again in Bavaria a sheaf of corn was left on the field for the Waudlgaul; beer, milk and bread were sacrificed to the Waudlhunde. In the 18th century there had been a harvest ceremony, called the Waudismähe. Jahn 15) adduces some sources from the Middle-Ages which confirm this custom: the town of Presburg had to pay every year a sum of money “an dem newen iare, daz man heyst dy Wud” and the church of Passau got, according to a charter of the 13th century, a contribution of oats, which was called “Wutfuter”. Here again it might be argued that this South-German Waudi is identical with the Low-German Wold or Wôde and hence may be considered also as representing the heathen god Wodan or Othin.

The harvest customs have been studied in later years with much care, especially by Mannhardt 16), Sir Frazer 17), Rantasalo 18) and Nils Lid 19). We are able on the ground of these investigations to form a fairly good idea of these practices, which are to be found in all parts of the world. Everywhere do we hear of a sacrifice to mythical beings, most commonly of a lower order than the gods and often called in ethnological treatises by the name of “corn-spirits”. The sacrifice to a demon with a special name is a higher developed form of a much more primitive custom. When we wish to know the exact relation between the original notion of the corn-spirit and the later individualised form of Wode or Wodan, we have to give an answer to the following questions:

  1. What is the original notion of the corn-spirit and along what way does its development go? [9]

  2. What is the original significance of the mythical being Wôde, Wold, Wauld and what is its relation to the harvest customs?

  3. Finally, what is the relation between this Wode and the pagan god Wodan-Othin?

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