What Is the Original Meaning of Uppręgin?

Written by Dyami Millarson

Uppręgin, which occurs in stanza 11 of Alvíssmál in the Elder Edda, is a compound noun, namely it consists of the prefix upp- and the noun Ręgin.  The latter is cognate with Rögnir, Rögnuðr and Rögn, which are all found on page 669 of the Latin work Lexicon poëticum antiquæ linguæ septentrionalis by Sveinbjörn Egilsson, who interprets Rögnir and Rögnuðr as epithets of Othin, and Rögn as a neuter plural which means Gods (Latin: “[D]ii”). For a contemporary discussion of Rögnir and Rögnuðr as epithets of Othin, also see page 164 of Petersen’s Nordisk mythologi, which was published 3 years after Sveinbjörn Egilsson’s work was published. Sveinbjörn Egilsson regards Rögn as another form (Latin: “alia forma”) of Ręgin. He also notes under Rögn that Hroptr Ragna, i.e. Hroptr of the Rögn/Ręgin, is an epithet of Othin.

Furthermore, we may connect ręgin with the verb ragna curse, swear, the neuter noun ragn swearing, cursing and the element ragna- such as found in the world-ending event Ragnarökkr and the personal names Ragnarr (think of Ragnar Lothbrok), Rögnvaldr, Ragnviðr, Ragnfríðr, Ragndís (attested in Old Swedish), *Ragnálfr (< runic Ragnælfʀ), Ragnhildr, Ragnvör, Ragnþrúðr, Ragnlaug, Ragnheiðr, Ragnbjörn, Ragnfastr, and Ragnleif (see here for the personal names; see page 80 of this Swedish book for the runic form Ragnælfʀ). The Elder Edda itself draws the same etymological connection between rögn/ręgin and Ragnarökkr in stanza 47 of Vafþrúðnismál, where Ragnarökkr is referred to as the time when the Ręgin/Rögn die (Old Nordic: “þá er ręgin deyja”). Outside of Old Nordic, we may connect ręgin/rögn with Gothic ᚱᚨᚷᛁᚾ (ragin) ‘advice, task, law,’ ᚱᚨᚷᛁᚾᛁᚾ (raginīn) ‘advisor,’ ᚱᚨᚷᛁᚾᛟᚾ (raginōn) ‘advise, rule.’ We learn from this that advice can apparently carry the weight of law, reminding us of the English expression “his word is law,” which corresponds to syn wurd is wet in Shire Frisian, and we learn that having the role of advisor is, according to the Germanic worldview, closely connected with the quality of rulership, giving us reason to believe that when Othin gives advice in Hávamál, He does so as a ruler, namely the Ruler of the Universe, and therefore His word is law.

Outside of Old Nordic and Gothic, we also find the root attested in Ancient Nordic, the precursor to Old Nordic. The stone of Noleby (KJ 67, Vg 63) contains ᚱᚨᚷᛁᚾᚨᚴᚢᛞᛟ, which may be transliterated as raginakudo. The last element -kudo is connected with the Gothic suffix -kunds, which is found in gumakunds ‘male,’ kwinakunds ‘female,’ gōdakunds ‘noble,’ himinakunds ‘heavenly,’ erþakunds ‘earthly,’ innankunds ‘belonging to the family.’ We may connect -kunds with Old English -cund and Old Norse -kunnr, and we may also connect these suffixes with Gothic kuni ‘kin,’ Old English cynn ‘kin,’ Old Norse kyn ‘kin.’ We may therefore regard the suffix -kudo and its cognates as a kinship term, hence we may also interpret raginakudo as ‘related with the Rögn/Ręgin.’ It so happens that raginakudo is cognate with Old Nordic ręginkunnr, which means divine, i.e. related with the Rögn/Ręgin. A parallel to this formation is the Old English gōdcund, which means divine, i.e. related with the Gods

How should we, then, make sense of Ręgin? What is its original intended meaning? We may regard the Old Scandinavian verb ragna as originally having meant give advice, and since it was so closely associated with the Ręgin/Rögn, it came to mean ‘curse, swear,’ i.e. utter words which carry negative magical power. After all, the words of advice from the Gods inherently carry magical power, and while earliest interpretation of this must be positive, the origin of the later interpretation of this as negative, which is attested in the association with expelling curses, must ultimately be sought in foreign influence, namely that influence which came to the Scandinavian lands in the form of an alien religion, affecting language and culture. In conclusion, we may interpret the Ręgin/Rögn not as the cursing or swearing ones, i.e. not as those who utter negatively loaded words, but as the advising or counselling ones, i.e. those who say positively loaded magical words. We may, then, also interpret this to mean that the Ręgin/Rögn give advice while They are rulers, whose words determine the law. Compare this to Ecclesiastes 8:4 in the Latin Bible: “Et sermo illius potestate plenus est, nec dicere ei quisquam potest: Quare ita facis?” (And his speech is full of power, and no one can say to him: Why do you do this?) Since the Ręgin/Rögn are not just any rulers, but they are apparently the Rulers of the Universe, we can interpret Their words as having cosmic significance in the sense that those words determine the laws to live by in our universe. They are thus the Gods of Order; for law and order are inherently associated since the dawn of time. Ręgin/Rögn are apparently the originators of old social rules. In other words, ancient customs, such as the blood sacrifice (Old Nordic: blót) for maintaining the relationship with the Gods, can be attributed to the Ręgin/Rögn.

Directional and Stationary Hypotheses

The prefix upp- occurs in a multitude of Old Nordic words. One example that immediately comes to mind is Uppsalir, which literally means Up-Halls in the sense that they are halls in an elevated position. Thus, we may render Uppsalir as Elevated Halls. The prefix Upp- is cognate with the Old English adverb upp(e) and the Gothic adverb iup, which mean up. We should consider that up can mean either of two things when we use it to refer to something’s relative position in two-dimensional space: relative to an elevated position, up is either directional or it is stationary. So, up can mean that something is moving towards an elevated position or is located at an elevated position — a distinction maintained in Old English where upp is used for a direction and uppe for a location. Therefore, we must ask the practical question: which of these two meanings is applicable to upp- in Uppręgin? The prefix upp- occurs in a similarly enigmatic Eddaic term: Upphiminn. The same question applies here: does it refer to the sky in an elevated position or the sky moving towards a higher position? If we follow the example of Uppsalir, which is a most sacred site for the Germanic folk religionists and where upp- also appears to have a magico-religious meaning, then we may interpret Uppręgin and Upphiminn as the Elevated Gods and the Elevated Sky. Carrying the sense of upper or elevated, one may interpret this as referring to rank in a cosmic hierarchy; one may therefore interpret it in the Dutch language as Oppergoden Highest or Supreme Gods and Opperhemel Highest or Supreme Heaven. Following the same logic, supreme leader is, for example, rendered as opperbevelhebber in Dutch. We should, however, also consider the Dutch word ophemelen, which literally means ‘to lift someone up into the sky’ and is, therefore, understood to mean ‘to praise or speak highly of someone, to put someone on a pedestal.’ Here op-, which is cognate with Old Norse upp-, clearly exhibits a directional meaning.

So if we suppose a verb *uppragna in Old Nordic (compare Shire Frisian opsizze recite from memory, literally say up(wards) and opneame recite one by one, literally name up(wards)), we may interprete that as ‘giving advice in an upward direction, passing on advice upwards,’ and then we may suppose that Uppręgin are those who pass on advice to beings in an elevated realm, hence advisers to the Gods. Taken in its original meaning, Ręgin means Advisors and this is merely an aspect of the Æsir, but not confined to them; it makes sense, therefore, that the term may be applicable to other beings in the universe as well. We should, nevertheless, bear in mind that Ręgin carries the connotation of being a ruler, therefore it should be closely associated with the Othin and the Æsir, yet we may also say that if it is strongly associated with Othin and the Æsir and if the Álfar are strongly associated with the Gods as the lore suggests, then it must also be applicable to the Álfar by extension — which is, perhaps, also suggested by runic Ragnælfʀ and Old Swedish Ragndís — and hence by extension to the Dvergar, who are counted among the Álfar and, as a consequence of this fact, frequently exhibit the element -álfr in their names. We must also remember that the Dvergar are wise beings, as seen in the Alvíssmál, and they could indeed play the role of shamanic intermediaties between the lower and higher realms. In fact, the Alvíssmál suggests there is competition between the Æsir and Dvergar to prove who is wiser; as it turns out, the Æsir are wider than the Dvergar. The context of where Uppręgin is mentioned in the Alvíssmál effectively excludes Álfar, Æsir, and Vanir as beings, and since we are looking for a Ręgin-like race of beings who could match the other Gods, namely the Æsir, Vanir and Álfar, to some extent and may therefote be considered deserving of the title Ręgin, the Dvergar seem a fitting match, particularly considering their profound wisdom as demonstrated in Alvíssmál, where the term Uppręgin is also encountered.

If, however, we suppose that Uppręgin means Supreme Advisors or Advisors in an Elevated Position, then we may connect this with the Æsir, sitting in their Seats of Judgement, namely the Rökstólar as mentioned in the Völuspá. Since the Æsir have already been mentioned in the same place where the Uppręgin are mentioned, we may make sense of this by distinguishing the ordinary Æsir from their supreme judges or advisors, reminiscent of the distinction between Hroptr and the Rögn as seen in the epithet Hroptr Ragna, namely Othin and His brothers or His multiple manifestations.

Bábu Rájendralál Mitra says on page 48 of this work: “The esoterics of Buddhism inculcate a trinity of Gods as supreme Arbitors of the universe; and Odinism doth the same. The Buddhists bave their Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and their counterparts appear among the Scandinavians as Odin, Thor and Frigga. Adam of Bremen, who lived about the middle of the 11th century, in describing the principal temple of Odin, says, “This nation has a most noble temple which is called Upsala, situated not far from Sictona or Birka. In this temple are statues of three gods entirely made of gold. The people worship them. Of them Thor the most powerful, occupies the floor in the centre, Woden and Fricco bave places on the sides.” This position of the Odinic Trinity is unmistakeably the same as that which the Buddhist trinity occupy to this day on the coyers of Tibetan Manuscripts or on the Sanchi gateway.”

As I have mentioned recently, Othin may manifest himself in multiple forms, and therefore Uppręgin may be understood to refer to multiple iterations of Othin, most probably a trinity of Othin-judges. Would it not seem fitting if the Æsir have a trinity of supreme judges, and that these supreme judges have their own mysterious language? The image of the three Divine Judges is akin to that of the three Nornir, and in being connected with fate, we may suppose that they utter mysterious words like the Oracle of Delphi. After all, today’s legal experts use highly specialisted language, of which the vocabulary will seem unusual and mysterious to outsiders, so that the words need to be interpreted for them. Different spheres of life have their specialised vocabulary, and so we may expect the same of the Nornir, Dvergar, Æsir, Álfar, Jötnar, etc. and by extension, we may perhaps expect this of the Creator Trinity as well. We can easily imagine the Creator Trinity using highly specialised language during creation, and as they continue to shape the world in their image, they take on the role of Supreme Advisors or Supreme Judges. Since the supposed Divine Judges would play a role that is so similar to that of the Nornir, we may feel compelled to regard them as identical. However, if we instead suppose that the Uppręgin may be identical to the Nornir, we must again suppose a directional rather than stationary interpretation of upp-. Nornir, Dvergar, and Othin and his brothers are undoubtedly wise beings, and therefore they make for good contenders for being the right match with Uppręgin.

Closer Analysis of the Prefix Upp-

We should, to make up our minds, take a look at a larger sample of Old Nordic words with upp- and before making any judgements related to the issue of interpreting Uppręgin, we should definitely also take the time analyse Alvíssmál, where Uppręgin is attested, so we can better weigh the options for interpreting Uppręgin.  Giving heed to the wider context in which the word is used, we can seek to better comprehend the meaning of what the all-wise Skáld, the Dwarf who is the composer of the verses, is trying to convey with Uppręgin and what led Him to this word choice. As we can seek to unravel the mystery of this word, we must finally also consider others’ interpretations and juxtapose them with our own.

The stationary, locative or static upp- answers the question of “where?” yet the directional, motional or dynamic upp- answers the question of “in what direction?” The distinction may be obscured by idiomatic translation, but the original type of upp- can still be determined.

Examples of the stationary, locative or static upp- are: uppdalr ‘elevated valley, inland valley,’ Uppsalir ‘Upper Halls, Elevated Halls,’ Upphiminn ‘Upper Sky,’ Uppheimar ‘Upper Worlds, Elevated Worlds,’ upphlutr ‘upper part of kirtle,’ etc.

Examples of the directional, motional or dynamic upp- are: uppréttr ‘upright, erect, facing upwards,’ uppþunnr ‘thin towards the top, thin upwards,’ uppmjór ‘slim towards the top, slim upwards,’ upprisa ‘resurrection,’ uppfæðsla ‘act of raising up, fostering’ uppęldi ‘act of raising up, fostering,’ uppgjöf ‘remission’ [think of ‘giving up’], uppskár ‘communicative’ [skár means open, so think of ‘opening up’], upphögg ‘cutting up,’ uppsmíð ‘raising a house, building a house,’ uppfyllning ‘fulfillment’ [think of ‘filling up’], uppgrip ‘abundance,’ upphillingar ‘phenomenon of when rocks and islands look as if elevated above the sea,’ etc.

Let us now take a look at Old English examples.

Examples of the stationary, locative or static up- in Old English are: Upengel ‘upper angel,’ Uprodor ‘upper sky,’ upeard ‘upper earth,’ upflēring ‘upper floor,’ upcund ‘celestial,’ etc.

Examples of the directional, motional or dynamic up- in Old English: upgān ‘go up,’ upgang ‘act of going up, ascent,’ upriht ‘upright, erect, facing upwards,’ upfæreld ‘upward journey, ascension,’ upcuma ‘come up,’ etc.

The examples are quite clear. The parallels between Upengel and Uppręgin, between Uprodor and Upphimin are particularly instructive. The similarity in the locative and motional uses of up(p)- suggests a system which has a common origin in the deep past. Namely, we observe that (1) pure nouns generally go together with stationary up(p)-, (2) adjectives usually go together with the directional up(p)-, (3) verbs usually go together with the directional up(p)-, and (4) nouns of which the derivation can be directly traced to verbs (or adjectives) go with the directional up(p)-. The exception to observation number 2 is Old English upcund because it literally means “related to up, belonging to up, derived from up.” We can understand this since -cund may be analysed not as properly an adjective but as a suffix, like we have seen with Ancient Nordic ᚱᚨᚷᛁᚾᚨᚴᚢᛞᛟ (raginakudo) and Old Nordic ręginkunnr.

Although we can easily see that the Gothic ragin is connected with the verb raginōn, we must bear in mind that not ragin is derived from this verb, but the other way around: raginōn is derived from ragin by adding the verbal suffix -ōn to the root. We may similarly analyse the Old Nordic verb ragna as being derived from rögn/ręgin, of which the root is ragn-; for the last point, please consider the fact that the nominative plural is ręgin/rögn while genitive plural is ragna. We should, then, classify Uppręgin as a formation which matches observation number 1. The Old English formation Upengel may serve as our closest parallel in this case just like the closest parallel to Upphiminn is Uprodor in Old English. Since we now know the linguistic context in which the Skáld/poet used the term Uppręgin, we have a decent idea of what he meant to convey and how he thought about upp- while compiling the poem; we are fortunate to be able to pry into his mind with the help of linguistic analysis. In conclusion, although we may still compile a larger sample size of words with up(p)- in Old Nordic, Old English and other Germanic languages to draw more definitive conclusions, we may already consider the directional hypothesis reasonably disproven and the locative hypothesis reasonably proven, which is fortunate, because it means we do not need to worry about whether to identify Uppręgin with the Nornir or Dvergar, but now the identification is actually quite straightforward: the Creator Trinity or the Three Divine Judges, namely Othin and his brothers. It implies that Othin and his brothers have 3 holy functions: (1.) creating the world, (2.) creating mankind, and (3.) creating order. Function number 3 is about properly managing their creations after the creation events; the Creator-Gods, therefore, continue to look after the well-being of their creations and are known as Uppręgin ‘Upper Gods’ in that function.

Discussion of Interpretations

Admittedly, an inherent weakness of the hypothetical identification of Uppręgin with the Dvergar is the fact that Dvergar are not traditionally considered Gods, but they can be described as lesser Gods or Spirits; for they are not as high-ranking as the Æsir or Vanir in the Germanic polytheist-animist system. Furthermore, the term Ręgin is rather associated with these High Gods in the lore than with the Dvergar, which makes the identification with any of the High Gods much more appealing than any identification with the Low Gods, such as the Dvergar. Even more reason to not identify the term with the Dvergar is that it implies rulership as we have seen when we analysed the Gothic cognates. In Germanic tradition, rulers are the ones who give advice, as they are expected to be the wisest. Being an advisor, therefore, has strong connotations of being a ruler and actually a Philosopher-King. Othin’s sayings in Hávamál may be analysed in this traditional context, and thus we should understand Othin in Hávamál as a ruler or king who gives very wise counsel. What the identification of Uppręgin with Othin has going for it from the outset is the fact that Rögnir and Rögnuðr is an epithet of Othin and additionally there is the fact that we must assume Ręgin are closely associated with rulership, i.e. wielding political power, which implies a functional correspondence with the Æsir who are portrayed as Divine Lords (Old Nordic: Dróttnar, Gothic: ᚠᚱᚨᚢᛃᚨᚾᛊ Fraujans, Latin: Dominī, Greek: οἱ Κῡ́ριοι hoi Cūrioi).

Petersen translates Uppręgin as Uplifting Powers (original Danish: “[O]padvirkende [K]ræfter”), which means he adheres to a motional interpretation of upp-. As a result, Petersen identifies the Uppręgin with the Dvergar. However unfortunate while the concept of uplifting powers seems intriguing, Petersen’s interpretation does not seem likely to be correct. I should also point out that opadvirkende is a quite obscure word in Danish, as it does not at all occur frequently. Jacob Grimm, who, unlike Petersen, adheres to a locative interpretation, translates Uppręgin with the Latin term Superī, which means ‘the ones who are above.’ Indeed, Superī is a very fitting translation, but the problem is that it only translates upp- and therefore it does not catch the whole sense; rather, it should be Superī Conciliātōrēs ‘Upper Advisors’ in Latin. Cleasby and Vigfusson translate Uppręgin as Heavenly Powers. My slight criticism of this translation is that the translation is as though it matches Uppmęgin ‘Upper Powers’ rather than Uppręgin ‘Upper Advisers,’ notwithstanding that Męgin does actually not have a plural. Translating Uppręgin as Heavenly or Celestial Advisers, instead, seems fine by me, because as long as we emphasise the personhood in Ręgin, it can quickly become obvious to our readership that the Ręgin are the very manifestations of wise counsel, i.e. Ręgin are to be understood as Advice Gods.

Winifred Faraday says on page 30 of The Edda: I. The Divine Mythology of the North: “The Regin (of which Ragna is genitive plural) are the ruling powers, often [sic: sometimes] called Ginnregin (the great Gods), Uppregin (the high Gods), Thrymregin (the warrior Gods). The word is commonly used of the Aesir in Völuspa; in Alvissmal the Regin seem to be distinguished from both Aesir and Vanir.” Faraday erroneously says often, but he means to say sometimes.

Comparison Between Uppręgin, Baugręgin, and Hęlręgin

Egilsson notes under the lemma Reginn that “Baugreginn,” “Hofreginn,” and “Helreginn” exist — which is relevant to our analysis. On page 40, he interprets Baugręgin, which he spells with two n‘s, as “Wight of Rings” (Latin: Numen Annulōrum), which may remind us of the “Lord of the Rings” concept as popularised by Tolkien and Wagner in the forms of Sauron and Alberich/Nibelung respectively. Finn Magnusen translates Baugręgin as “the Ring-God” (original Danish: kreds-guden, ring-guden) and identifies it as an epithet of Mímir (see page 234 of his Eddalæren). Rydberg likewise identifies Baugręgin with Mímir. Konrad Schwenck says on page 102 of his work that Baugręgin must be interpreted as Ringręgin and he assures us that the identification with Mímir is beyond reasonable doubt. Ludvig Christian Müller glosses Baugręgin on page 365 of his book as God of Wealth or Heaven (Danish: “Rigdoms- eller Himmel-gud”).

The interpretation of Baugręgin as Mímir is not inconsistent with my interpretation of Ręgin as Divine Rulers, i.e. High Gods, which, by definition, excludes the Gods of the lower strata. Therefore, we can safely say that such an interpretation of Baugręgin does neither contradict nor challenge our identification of Uppręgin with Othin; to the contrary, it supports it for a number of reasons, since Mímir has a very close relationship with Othin, even likeness to Othin, as borne out by the following facts:

  • Both Mímir and Othin are closely connected with fate and wisdom. The Mímisbrunnr, the spring named after Mímir, demonstrates Mímir’s close connection with fate and wisdom.
  • An epithet of Othin is Vinr Míms Friend of Mím which we may interpret as Vinr Mímis Friend of Mímir. Compare how we may interpret Óđr as Óđinn.
  • Mímir‘s embalmed head shares wisdom (knowledge of fate) with Othin, which only cements the close relationship between the two. Since Othin is in the possession of Mímir’s head, one may even argue that Mímir’s entire being is an attribute or an aspect of Othin, therefore Othin is one with Mímir.
  • Mímir is a High God for sure. He is one of the Æsir. The Þulur suggest that He is one of the Jötnar. Whether He is both or either does not matter for identifying Him as a high-ranking God.
  • Othin sacrificed His eye to Mímir for wisdom once again demonstration His close relationship with Mímir and showing that the nature of the relationship is Their common appreciation for wisdom.
  • Mímir is a proven Advisor-God or Philosopher-God, therefore the meaning of the name Ręgin fits Him. He acts as an advisor to Hœnir and he is beheaded once the Vanir find out that Hœnir cannot act without His advisor.

Egilsson glosses Hęlręgin as gigās Giant on page 321 of his dictionary. In the second footnote on page 67 of his work De godsdienst der oude Noormannen, Louis Suson Pedro Meyboom lists Hęlręgin as one of the Jötnar Giants based on Skáldskaparmál. See page 555 of this work to verify that Hęlręgin is listed as one of the Jötnar in Skáldskaparmál. On page 190 of this work, Mannhardt interprets Hęlręgin as Todesherrscher Death-Ruler, whilst arguing convincingly that the Jötnar are connected with the Todeswelt Death Realm.

Wishing to make sense of Hęlręgin, my first intuition is to connect Hęlręgin with Hęl, since:

  1. Hęl is the Ruler of Hell while Hęlręgin means Hell-Ruler, and
  2. Hęl is of Giant descent while Hęlręgin is listed as a Giant.

Using Patterns Found in Alvíssmál to Make Sense of Uppręgin

Alvíssmál employs the normal Eddaic alliterative verse, which consists of stanzas. The stanzas of Alvíssmál also follow the normal Eddaic pattern; each stanza has 6 lines. However, what is peculiar about Alvíssmál is that there is a Dvergr named Alvíss who usually enumerates 6 beings in each line and gives a word in the language of those beings — I will hereafter refer to Him as Dvergaskáld Poet of the Dwarfs. We may expect the following order in which the beings are named: the holiest first and the least holy last, therefore the high-dwelling beings first and the low-dwelling beings last. We must bear in mind that folk religions usually exhibit a traditional belief in a tripartite division of the world: the high realm (= the sky), the middle realm (= the earth), and the low realm (= the underworld). For instance, the Sámi, the Greenlanders, the Khanty, the Yoruba, and the Māori have this old belief. The Nordic peoples likewise exhibit a traditional belief in upper worlds, middle worlds, and nether worlds. It would then make sense for the Dvergaskáld to organise the beings enumerated in His poem according to the tripartite order of these worlds. This hypothesis, which is aimed at finding an upper-middle-nether realm order in Alvíssmál, may be called the tripartite cosmos hypothesis.

Overview of Others’ Interpretations of Uppręgin

  • Bellows interprets Uppręgin as “the holy ones high.”
  • G.A. Gjessing interprets Uppręgin as “Heaven-Gods” (Norwegian: himmelguder).
  • On this page of his website, Taylen Carver includes in his list of beings living in Hęl: “Uppregin (“Upper Powers”, deities who live in Hel but perform significant functions in the world above, e.g. Sól, Máni).”

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