Souls Belong to the Lakes

Written by Dyami MIllarson

The Gothic term sáiwala, which is a cognate of the synonymous English term soul, may be related to the Gothic term sáiws, which is a cognate of the English term sea. Sáiws (pl. sáiweis) has a couple of meanings, namely lake, sea and marshland. Tacitus, Adam von Bremen and other sources of evidence point to the Germanic peoples as making offerings to sáiweis (pl.). If we may assume that the Germanic peoples sacrificed to sáiweis (lakes, seas, marshlands), then what does that mean for the relationship with the concept of sáiwala? It means that the soul itself is tied or connected to sacred sáiweis; the Urðarbrunnr Well of Urth, which is located at one of the three holy roots of the World Tree, may be interpreted as a sacred sáiws as well, or may at the very least be likened to it for insight’s sake.

After all, the sáiwala soul is connected with urðr fate from birth to death, and since urðr fate is connected with the Urðarbrunnr, it is not strange to suppose that the sáiwala soul shares a connection with the latter as well. We may suppose that the Urðarbrunnr is the beginning and end of the soul; it is whence the soul came and it is whither the soul will go. I recall watching a movie about knights in my youth where the corpse of a king was laid to rest on a raft and was then pushed to drift into the lake or sea (I am unsure of what kind of body of water it really was), and finally it was shot with a burning arrow so the raft would catch fire and would finally sink to the bottom of the sáiws (lake, sea). This scene might, coincidentally or not, been linked to a medieval Germanic ritual, as one can easily understand the burning of the king’s corpse as a way of sending the king’s soul into the sáiws.

This reminds me also of the bog mummies or bog bodies, and these finds have always made me consider the possibility that these were sacrifices according to the pre-Germanic tradition, which would be continued in Germanic times. Whether these were just sacrifices of ordinary humans or criminals is a moot point, because the Germanic peoples did not make such distinctions either in their time; any such execution, i.e. taking of a life, would have been accompanied by rituals as religion was an integral part of life (remember the social structure was more identical to that of a theocratic society as seen in the Middle Ages than anything we have in modern times where religious and secular affairs are separated, which would have appeared artificial and unfathomable to the ancients), and so what might now be regarded as the death penalty would then have been considered a sacrifice to the Gods, who could provide guidance of the sacrificial victim’s soul and with the proper rituals of dedication to the Gods, a vengeful spirit’s wrath could be averted.

It has been said that the Germanic peoples sacrificed their “worst men” to placate the Gods (see p. 59 of The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia), and this further supports the notion that the Germanic peoples may as well have sacrificed their criminals, although not all instances of human sacrifice necessarily need to have been executions of criminals; it is known that kings, who could not ensure good harvest, have been sacrificed. Additionally, Hangaguð God of the Hanged is another name for Othin and this appears to be connected with those who were killed by strangling. Killing living beings by binding with ropes to trees (i.e., strangling) seems to have been a consistent theme in ancient Germanic religion. The whole process must have been a magical rite similar to dancing around the maypole (cf. the German folk religious concept of Tanzbaum dance tree). Others have apparently had similar thoughts about the potential connection between bog mummies and sacrificial religion, it is definitely worth reading one such paper.

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One thought on “Souls Belong to the Lakes

  1. Where do you reckon the proto-Germanic words becoming meer or mer and sea or sea etc, branched off and does their so branching have significance?

    Also. I’ve read that funeral pyres and fire elements entered into the Germanic religion following the rise of Odinism, thereby displacing in some spots water or earth based customs in the popular imagination. Do you think there’s any truth there?

    Because when I read of the water based rituals like you describe, or the earth based ideas Grønbech postulates, I find they resonate firmly.


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