When a Cognate Isn’t Cognate

Fyrnsidu has periodically seen bursts of activity in using native words as much as possible. Some of this is very easy, as we have the words either still in Modern English or in a very similar form to what is in Ásatrú. It can be rendered far more difficult, however, when we don’t have a known cognate at all.

It’s this difficulty that causes people to make cognates. We can solve it in one of two ways:

  1. Understand the Proto-Germanic word and make an educated guess as to the form in Old English (and possibly beyond) by applying the relevant sound changes.1Wikipedia, “Phonological history of English”.
  2. Produce new compounds that mirror what is used elsewhere, commonly Old Norse for our purposes. The parts of the compounds may already be attested on their own or may require some of the above, but are not otherwise attested as the compound itself.

Regardless of what is done, the resulting word is properly marked with an asterisk in order to show that it’s hypothetical (or perhaps outright incorrect, as the case may be). Many people are already accustomed to this to a degree when seeing Proto-Germanic words, as they’re all marked as reconstructions by way of comparative linguistics. Consider *Þunraz, which became Old English Þunor and Old Norse Þórr, but is not attested in extant sources. The names of runes in the Elder Futhark are frequently and properly seen this way, too.

It’s not enough to find cognates alone, though. The meanings must also be relevant. A classic example of this comes from Old Norse heimr “home, abode; land, world; village, ham”.2A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic, “heimr” pg. 192. This is cognate to Old English hām “home, house; property, estate”.3Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary“hām”. Only the first set of meanings of each is directly comparable. Any reference to heimr as a world cannot be translated as hām without drastically changing the meaning. This nuance is often lost in any attempted translation, though.

Fyrnsidu has had this issue and painfully so. In emulation of Ásatrú, a surprisingly large number of people will say that there are nine worlds, even though the Nine Herbs Charm4Sacred Texts, The Nine Herbs Charm. states that there are seven:

ðas VIIII magon wið nygon attrum.
Wyrm com snican, toslat he man;
ða genam Woden VIIII wuldortanas,
sloh ða þa næddran, þæt heo on VIIII tofleah.
þær geændade æppel and attor,

þæt heo næfre ne wolde on hus bugan.
Fille and finule, felamihtigu twa,
þa wyrte gesceop witig drihten,
halig on heofonum, þa he hongode;
sette and sænde on VII worulde

These worlds are not named within the text. This lack of information has not stopped people from making cognates of Norse worlds and assuming that they would equate exactly, even when there are centuries between the Anglo-Saxons and what was written down in Iceland.

Let’s use the list provided by Swain Wodening5Swain Wodening, Hammer of the Gods: Anglo-Saxon Paganism in Modern Times (2003) pp. 15-18. and the Wednesbury Shire6Wednesbury Shire, “The Nine Worlds“. Archived on 18 February 2014., among others. Vowel length for Old English has been added as needed.

  1. *Ēsageard for Ásgarðr. Comparable and cognate.
  2. *Wenahām for Vanaheimr. Indefensible. The Vanir are not attested in Anglo-Saxon mythology and they are barely attested in Norse mythology as a separate group.7Rudolf Simek, “The Vanir: An Obituary.” The Retrospective Methods Network Newsletter (2010) pp. 10-19. The meaning of the word is unknown. No cognates are known, so it cannot be reconstructed in Proto-Germanic, let alone Old English. The second elements have differing meanings.
  3. *Ælfhām for Álfheimr. Indefensible. The second elements have differing meanings.
  4. Middangeard for Miðgarðr. Comparable, attested, and cognate.
  5. *Eotenhām for Jǫtunheimr. Indefensible. The second elements have differing meanings.
  6. Hell for Hel. Comparable, attested, and cognate.
  7. *Sweartælfhām for Svartálfheimr. Indefensible. Black elves are unattested in English folklore, although dwarves are. The second elements have differing meanings.
  8. *Mūspell for Muspelheimr. Indefensible. *Mūspell is unattested in Old English, but cognates appear in Old Saxon as Mūdspelli and Mūtspelli and in Old High German as Mūspilli as events and not worlds. These and Old Norse Múspell all deal with fire, but these are the only similarities in extant sources. Etymology is unknown. The name for the Old Norse world is Múspellsheimr, not Muspelheimr.
  9. *Nifolhām for Niflheimr. Indefensible. The second elements have differing meanings.

As seen above, the original scholarship, which is presumably from Swain Wodening, is utterly lacking. Sadly, Wodening was a somewhat prolific poster of content online and his books were often the only printed resources for Fyrnsidu, especially after Garman Lord’s Thēodish books largely disappeared a decade ago. This original poor understanding spread to many of today’s adherents of Fyrnsidu. To make matters worse, it assumes that the Anglo-Saxons practiced the same things as the Norse, for which we have no such proof. It also presupposes that the one line in question from the Nine Herbs Charm is a proper and accurate representation of Anglo-Saxon polytheism.

This should underscore why it’s important to conduct scholarly discourse properly. In our efforts to reconstruct the religion, we must be careful not to introduce falsehoods. If we fail at this, we’ll only build upon a poor foundation and hurt ourselves later when everything comes crashing down.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Wikipedia, “Phonological history of English”.
2. A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic, “heimr” pg. 192.
3. Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary“hām”.
4. Sacred Texts, The Nine Herbs Charm.
5. Swain Wodening, Hammer of the Gods: Anglo-Saxon Paganism in Modern Times (2003) pp. 15-18.
6. Wednesbury Shire, “The Nine Worlds“. Archived on 18 February 2014.
7. Rudolf Simek, “The Vanir: An Obituary.” The Retrospective Methods Network Newsletter (2010) pp. 10-19.