What Are Meinvættir?

Written by Dyami Millarson

Meinvættir, of which the singular is Meinvættr, are Harmful Spirits. The first element is derived from the Old Norse noun mein, which means harm, crimemisdeed, mischief, disease, ailment, cancer. Mein is found in many Old Norse compounds: dauðamein deadly disease, fótarmein affliction of the feet, meinsęmi disease, meinsęmd disease, andlitsmein facial affliction, höfuðmein head affliction, męginmeingjarn extremely mischievous, kverkamein literally throat disease, by which bronchitis is understood, meinfang trouble, tunglmein literally moon affliction, by which scurvy is understood, meinvargr harmful wolf or beast, meining injury, harm, meinúðigr injurious, harmful, meinfullr injurious, harmful, meinka cause harm, meingöra cause harm, offend, meingörð offence, meinhægr harmless, causing no offence, meineiðr false oath, perjury, meineiða commit perjury, meinsæri perjury, meinlæta chastise, kynjamein miraculous affliction, i.e. disease of which the cause lies in magic, meintręgi affliction, meinbugir taboos, meinbæginn troublesome, meinyrða verbally abuse, meinblandinn poisonous, meinkvikęndi harmful creature, living organism that is dangerous.

The Old Norse noun mein is cognate with Norwegian mein harm, obstacle, Danish men injury, Swedish men handicap, Old Frisian mēn harm, Old English mān wicked act, crime, sin. We can connect the Old Norse term meineiðr with Shire Frisian meineed false oath, perjury, Dutch meineed false oath, perjury and Old English mānāþ false oath, perjury. Oath-breaking is traditionally considered a grave crime among the Germanic peoples (see here, see page 39 of this book, and see page 19 of this document); oath-breakers, along with other criminals, go to Náströnd Beach of Corpses in the afterlife. A perjurer in Old Norse is a meinsærismaðr or meinsvari, the latter of which is cognate with Old English mānswara perjurer, which we can connect with Old English mānswerian swear false oaths, commit perjury. Although Meinvættir are Mean Spirits, mein is actually not cognate with Dutch gemeen nasty, wicked, mean and the English adjective mean.

Keeping in mind the negative meanings of mein in Old Norse, the negative meanings of the Old Norse compounds with mein and the negative meanings of the aforementioned cognates of mein, namely men, mān, meineed, mānāþ, mānswara, mānswerian, we can see how Meinvættir are to be interpreted: they intentionally harm others and are thus, quite unambiguously, deliberately evil beings. While they are such malicious beings, no oaths are possible with them without harmful consequences and therefore prayers to them will not have the intended outcomes whilst their powers cannot be rendered favourable through worship; they will not do mankind any favours, but only cause harm, since that is simply in their nature as malicious consciousnesses. In conclusion, Meinvættir are the very embodiments of evil intentions; they are the Spirits of Crime, Wickedness, Evil, Mischief, Injustice, Perjury, Disease, Affliction, Cruelty, Injury; they are the causes of evil and disease in the world.

Consequently, we can compare Meinvættir to the conception of evil beings in the plural as inherited from the Middle Ages: they are called devils among the English, duivels among the Dutch, duvels among the Shire Frisians, Teufel among the Germans, and djävlar among the Swedes. All of these are perceived as demonic beings, who cause harm, and with whom no pacts without harmful outcomes can be made. The Old Norse equivalent of all these terms is djöflar, and one may say in Old Norse: “Meinvættir eru djöflar.” (Meinvættir are devils.) All the aforementioned cognates are not of Germanic extraction; for they are borrowed from the Latin concept of diabolī. Meinvættir are, by contrast, a generally forgotten indigenous Germanic concept, which came to be replaced by the foreign djöflar due to conceptual overlap. Cleasby and Vigfusson make a similar statement about djöflar in their Old Norse dictionary: “[O]f course in the old Saga time the word was almost unknown; the evil spirits of the [H]eathens were [T]rolls and [G]iants.”

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