In-Depth Guide to Germanic Mythology and Folklore
If you’ve ever read the Grimm’s fairy tales, browsed through comics, or watched any recent action movies, you’ve likely heard about Germanic mythology and its many deities and creatures. Some names that got their start in Germanic mythology and folklore include Thor, Baldur, Frigg, and Odin.
Germanic myths and folktales are important to cultures around the world, because of the wide scattering of peoples among Europe and the Americas. Folktales focus on entertaining the audience more than myths, but both folktales and myths tell cultural stories and lessons.
Fairy tales, folktales, and myths are a part of folklore, because folklore is a genre or type of oral tradition. The literal translation of the English word “folklore” means “lore of the people” and denotes the cultural importance of collecting such tales.
Germanic folklore includes a wide range of topics and a vast number of places. In this article, I will focus on Eastern and Continental Germanic folklore while referencing Northern Germanic or Norse folklore as necessary.
Table of contents
- Norse Mythology vs. Germanic Mythology
- The Germanic Languages
- Sources of Germanic Mythology and Folklore
- Cosmology and Germanic Myths of Creation
- Gods, Goddesses, and Other Deities
- Uolla (Volla)
- Uuodan (Odin)
- Donar (Thor)
- Frija (Frigg)
- Balder (Baldur)
- Sunna (Sol)
- Idisi (Dis)
- Germanic Creatures in Folktales and Myths
We have myth collections for Norse mythology, but not for Continental Germanic mythology, so our data is more complete for Scandinavian areas. The Northern Germanic or Norse deity list is also longer than the Continental and Eastern mythological deities due to their many minor deities. Continental Germanic folklore mostly consists of Saxon myths and legends, while Eastern Germanic folklore shares lots of features with Norse mythology.
The Brothers Grimm – die Gebrüder Grimm – compiled some information about the Continental and Eastern varieties of Germanic mythology. Yet they are more famous for collecting folktales and fairy tales.
It’s tradition in my family to receive a copy of Grimm’s fairy tales on the 10th or 11th birthday, but I wouldn’t recommend uncensored or full copies for children. Several publishers offer versions more suitable for children with lower reading levels and milder content. For adults, complete editions include more than 200 tales usually in one book. Here is an example of mine, which has seen some use over the years:
Many folk tales, legends, stories, and myths change depending on location, so there are many varying versions of each entry. People passed down most myths orally for hundreds to thousands of years before writing them down. The foundation of Norse mythology and the form it exists in today are the Prose and Poetic Eddas, which were recorded in Iceland during the 13th century. These myths tell the tales of creation, destruction, and rebirth of the world. Norse mythology is mostly synonymous with Germanic, and sometimes even Anglo-Saxon, mythology as a result of such detailed Norse records.
The Germanic language family breaks into the Germanic languages, which formed while the Germanic tribes moved around the European continent. The Germanic tribes involve peoples of the ancient European ethnic group that spoke a long-lost Germanic-based language. Germanic languages thus include German, English, Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish. Dutch, Yiddish, and the no longer spoken Gothic are related as well.
All these languages link to the unrecorded common language of the ancient Germanic peoples – Proto-Germanic. How well do you know the Germanic languages? Try testing your knowledge of the differences between Dutch and German.
A traditional myth features deities because it aims to explain a social or natural occurrence (why something is), and a folktale originates from a people group and is widely distributed or popular among the common people. Both myths and folktales are spoken traditions and cultural stories.
The Merseburg Charms, referred to in German as die Merseburger Zaubersprüche, are two interesting medieval spells written in Old High German. They come from continental Germanic myths focusing on six deities and multiples of three. Each charm describes a myth, which is then followed by a spell. The first Merseburg Charm, called MZ I or the blessing of release, focuses on the concept of freedom and valkyrie-like beings called Idisi.
The second Merseburg Charm, called MZ II or the horse-healing spell, focuses on six deities and the wonder of healing. The deities mentioned include Uuodan (Odin) and Frija (Frigg), the sister of Uolla (Volla). Balder (Baldur) and Phol. Sunna (Sol) and the mysterious Sinthgunt, sister of Sunna, are also present. You can find the two Merseburg Charms here at the Germanic Mythology website.
Germanic mythology follows multiple gods and goddesses, one of which is the primal cow. The primal cow goes by the names die hornlose Ur-Kuh, Audhumbla, Audhumla, or die Milchreiche. The Old Norse poem found in the Poetic Edda, the Völuspá, describes the creation, death, and rebirth of the world caused by this cow.
The origin myth of the primal cow explains that the glacial waters of the icy north (Niflheim) and warm winds of the fiery south (Muspellsheim) met in a magical space of power, so the first two living beings, the primal cow and the giant Ymir emerged.
Ymir birthed a race of giants, but the primal cow had the power of earth and gave birth to the first god, Buri the producer. Buri fathered Borr (Burr), and Boelthorn fathered Bestla. Borr and Bestla had three sons who became the first Asengötter (Aesir) – Odin, Vili, and Vé. Afterwards, Odin and his brothers destroyed Ymir, made the heavens and Earth, and created the first man (Ashr or Ask) and the first woman (Embla). Odin then led the gods to fight the giants.
The concept of fate was most important to Germanic mythology and folklore. The norns of fate affect all beings in the universe and live near one of the roots of the great ash tree Yggdrasill. Would you like to see how Japanese folklore addresses the concept of deities, nature, and creation?
Due to the localized nature of Germanic myths and folktales, you can address deities in Germanic mythology using many different names and spellings. Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology explains that the gods and goddesses of Norse mythology have Continental and Eastern German counterparts with the exceptions of Phol and Sinthgunt. Here is a list of deities that we have records that state their presence in Continental and Eastern Germanic mythology:
- Old High German: Uolla, Volla
- Old Norse: Fulla, Folla
- Roles: Uolla is the servant maid and sister of Frija. Her name roughly translates to “bountiful” or “fullness,” so she could possibly hold power over harvests or fertility.
- Old High German: Sinhtgunt, Sinthgunt
- Old Norse: not mentioned
- Roles: Sinthgunt is only mentioned in the second Merseburg Charm as the sister of the sun goddess, Sunna. Some believe that she is a goddess, and others believe she may be a valkyrie. Sinthgunt seems to have healing powers, and some possible translations of her name include “raid fight” or “the night-walking one.”
- Old High German: Uuôdan, Wuotan, Uuodan
- Old Norse: Óðinn
- Old Bavarian: Wûtan
- Roles: Uuodan has many names – over 170 – and most translate to “lord of frenzy” or “leader of the possessed.” Old Norse texts testify that he is the son of Bestla and Borr, and brother of gods Vili and Vé. He is the goddess Frija’s husband, and associates with magic, charms, healing, and incantations. He is frequently portrayed in early sources as frantic, wild, or unpredictable due to the power he holds over rage.
- Old High German: Donar
- Old Norse: Þórr
- Roles: Donar controls thunder, holds great strength, and excels at wielding weapons, such as axes and maces. Narratives featuring him are only recorded in the Old Norse language, but his legacy appears all over Germanic-speaking Europe in other forms, such as word choice and artifacts.
- Old High German: Frīja, Frîia, Friia, Frija
- Old Norse: Frigg
- Roles: Frija is Odin’s wife and the mother of Balder. Her name can roughly translate to “free,” “related,” or “one’s own.” She holds some power over healing, and has a close relationship to her maid servant, Uolla. Old Norse sources portray her as having the gift of prophecy and knowledge of many other deities and beings.
- Old High German: Balder, Palter
- Old Norse: Baldr
- Roles: Balder is the son of Odin and Frija, and his name translates to “hero,” “brave,” or “prince.” The second Merseburg Charm describes how his young horse hurt its leg. Everyone around him mended the horse’s wound, and some scholars believe that Balder might also be the other figure mentioned in the charm– Phol. Balder seems to be an approachable deity, resembling humans in many ways. Frija maintained a close relationship with him, and many beings in Old Norse sources spoke highly of him.
- Old High German: Sunna
- Old Norse: Sól, Álfröðull
- Roles: The second Merseburg Incantation attests that Sol is Sinthgunt’s sister. Many Old Norse sources claim that she is the moon god Máni’s sister. They also sometimes refer to her as Álfröðull, which means “elf beam” or “elf glory.” She is a fast warrior talented at driving chariots, and goes by many names and kennings.
- Old High German: Itis (sg.), Idisi (pl.)
- Old Norse: Dís (sg.), Dísir (pl.)
- Roles: Idisi are female deities that might be related to the Northern Germanic dísir, who associate themselves with fate. If not, then they may be closely connected to the valkyries of Norse mythology who represent the fortunes of war. They have the ability to restrict and impede armies.
Eastern and Continental Germanic creatures are more often malevolent than benevolent, but they have specific goals in mind when interacting with humans and other beings. You can refer to many of these creatures by more than one name due to the localized nature of Germanic folklore.
A Wechselbalg, or changeling, is a fairy-like being left in the place of a stolen human child. They tend to have huge necks and heads, which may help to identify them as imposters. Once identified, there are several ways to get the stolen child back. A famous case of a changeling sighting in Germany occurred in Hessloch near Odernheim in the Gau.
A Nachzehrer transforms into an undead monster like a ghoul, but devours energy like an uncivilized vampire. It associates itself with somber deaths and disease, but does hunt living people, especially family members, as well.
An Elwetritsch looks like a chicken with scales and antlers, but it cannot take flight very well. It lives in underbrush and vines, and its personality is curious and unassuming like a cat. It is frequently hunted like a game bird.
Often used as an excuse to convince children to sleep, a Nachtkrapp resembles a large bug, bear, and raven combination. Looking into its eyes or at the holes in its wings may cause death. It eats people, especially children, and hunts at night. The Wütender Nachtkrapp is kinder than the usual ones you may hear of, since it simply intimidates children into silence.
The Tatzelwurm resembles a dragon or lizard with a cat-like face. It is often venomous, breathes poison, and makes a hissing or high-pitched screaming sound. In Switzerland, this creature is usually referred to as the Stollenwurm and usually lives in the mountains. The side-effects of coming across this creature include headaches, dizziness, or death, but many have lived to tell the tale of their experience.
If you’d like to read about old Germanic values and warriors in action, then I recommend checking out the Hildebrandslied, which is the only surviving heroic poem written in Old High German.