What Is the Meaning of the Old Norse Prefix Ginn-?

Written by Dyami Millarson

The current article is in many ways the sequel to my recent article on Ręgin.

Ginn- pertains to magic, wonder-working, supernatural power. It is used with words of sacral meaning. Ginnheilagr, Ginnręgin, ginnrúnar, Ginnungagap, Ginnungavé, Ginnungahiminn, and Ginnarr/Ginnir (= Othin) therefore mean ‘magico-holy, wonder-holy,’ ‘Sorcerer-Advisers, Wonder-Advisers,’ ‘magico-runes, wonder-runes,’ ‘Sorcerers’ (= Ginnungar) Open Space, Wonder-Men’s Expanse,’ ‘Sorcerers’ (= Ginnungar) Sanctuaries, Wonder-Men’s Holy Places,’ ‘Sorcerers’ (= Ginnungar) Heaven, Wonder-Men’s Sky,’ and ‘Magician, Wonder-Man.’ All of these will be treated in this article in that exact order. Afterwards, we will treat ginnvitni ‘magical fire’ and ginnfasti ‘magical fire,’ and then we will also talk about inchoation magic, which we may term ginnseiðr. At the end of this article, there will be a conclusion and an enumeration of interpretations. However, before we can properly start our discussion of each of these items, we should examine the Old Nordic verb ginna in relation to ginn-.

Etymology of Ginna

I propose a 3-stage semantic evolution of ginna: ‘begin, start; cut open’ in Ancient Germanic > ‘inchoate magically, initiate something by supernatural means, bewitch, cast a spell’ in Ancient Norse > ‘trick, deceive’ in Old Norse.

Is there evidence that the concept of commencing something is connected with magic in the Germanic worldview? Is it at all plausible to suppose within the context of Eurasian folk traditions that beginnings can take on magico-religious significance?

Chapter 17 of the Latin Indiculus superstitiōnum et pagāniārum is instructive, as it demonstrates that there is a traditional connection between beginnings and magic in the Germanic worldview: “Dē observātiōne pagāna in focō, vel in inchoātiōne rēī alicūjus.” (On the pagan observation in the hearth/fire, or in the beginning of something.) Magical or magico-religious beginnings and the magic of beginnings are themes in East Asian religions as well. For instance, a Shintō priest may consecrate a new building. A Dutchman has the honour of being the first Shintō priest of European descent (see here, here, here, here). He owns his own Dutch website dedicated to Shintō, of which this page gives a brief but excellent explanation of the connection between beginnings and Shintō rites: “Shintoceremonies worden uitgevoerd op momenten die een nieuw begin inluiden, zoals nieuwjaar, het begin van een jaargetijde, geboorte, de bouw van een huis, fabriek of kantoor, de inwijding van een gebouw.” (Shinto ceremonies are performed at moments that herald a new beginning, such as New Year, the beginning of a season, birth, the construction of a house, factory or office, the dedication of a building.) Likewise, when starting a new building project, Chinese folk religionists may sacrifice chickens (see here). In addition to chickens, they may also sacrifice other animals at the beginning of new projects (see here). In conclusion, the importance of beginnings is evidently a common thread throughout Eurasian folk religions. We may analyse rites related to magical beginnings as incohation magic, and we may consider initiation rites as a common form of incohation magic; Germanic blood sacrifices for good harvest, longevity, victory, and so on can also be interpreted as inchoation magic since they relate to magical beginnings.

Is there evidence that trickery and magic are connected in the Germanic worldview? Does fate play a role in this connection?

In my article on the Germanic Isis, I mentioned the Lombardic story of Godan and Frea. The latter tricks the former in order to bring about a favourable destined outcome — the action is a manifestation of the Roman necessitās. Through trickery, Frea bent fate to Her will; She is evidently a fate-bender, i.e. sorceress. I said in the same article that “if one knows the ways of fate, then one can also bend or change reality.” Her act of tricking Godan must therefore be analysed as a magico-religious rite, which is aimed at bringing about a new beginning. The result of this rite is that the Lombards receive their tribal name from Godan. I said also in the same article: “There is an old Christian view that the Nordic Gods are tricksters, adulterers, and sorcerers, which is actually a more interesting perception than it seems at first sight: we may interpret this as being congruent with the Gods ability to manifest as multiple beings, thus confusing mankind, which is trickery in Christian eyes. The function of this confusion is, however, to impart humanity with secret knowledge.” We may conclude the following: in the Germanic worldview, the concept expressed in Latin as fallere trick, deceive has a very close connection with the concept expressed in Latin as necessitās necessity, inevitability, and consequently it is connected with fātum fate, through which it is also connected with the concept expressed in Latin as fascinum witchcraft and Ancient Greek as μαγεία (mageía) sorcery; trickery, fate and magic are, in other words, three semantically close concepts in the Germanic worldview.

Is the Old Norse ginna the same verb as found in prefixed verbal compounds in West Germanic and East Gernaic languages? If so, it may be the only instance where we find the verb unprefixed in the Germanic languages.

There is no verbal root ginn- in Old Norse, which has the sense of Latin incipere start, commence, begin (see also Cleasby & Vigfusson). In its stead, we find ginna which semantically corresponds to the Latin fallere trick, deceive. There is no corresponding verb in West and East Germanic languages, so that we are naturally led to linking up the unprefixed North Germanic root ginn- trick, deceive l with the prefixed West and East Germanic ginn- begin. This seems a safe bet since there is no better explanation.

We may thus connect Old Norse ginna with Dutch beginnen and ontginnen and Gothic duginnan. All have a sense of the Latin incipere start, commence, but may also take on the semantic role of Latin incohere lay the foundation of, create, begin.

We may further connect the verb ginna with the sacral prefix ginn- as found in ginnheilagr, Ginnręgin, etc. We may at first analyse ginn- as just an intensifier like commonly found in Dutch (e.g. ijzer in ijzersterk), but given its association with different word types of sacral meaning, I prefer calling it a sacral prefix. We may also connect ginna with Old English gynn- as found in gynnwised and with the adjective ginn.

The original West Germanic verb behind the verbal root ginn- in the West Germanic daughter languages may also have had a sense of incīdere ‘cut open,’ which can then be used to explain the Old English adjective ginn open and the intensifier gynn-. The Dutch ontginnen dig out, develop land and Old Frisian untgunst hewn open are instructive for this. When asked, my father glossed ontginnen as open werken, klaarmaken voor landbouw make open, ready for agriculture. A nowadays rare sense of ontginnen is begin: “Laten we dat ontginnen.” (Let’s start that.) I have seldom used or encountered ontginnen in that sense. The senses of ontghinnen in Middle Dutch are approximately ‘begin; cut (into); manipulate; attack.’ We may assume that the modern and medieval senses of ontg(h)innen developed from ‘begin,’ and so the later senses must have passed through an earlier stage where ontginnen meant ‘make a beginning with, make an opening in.’ It is nevertheless curious that the original sense of ‘begin’ is retained alongside the newer senses. The semantic web of the Dutch, Middle Dutch, and Old Frisian cognates helps us contextualise the Old English adjective ginn, making it easier to understand how the sense of ‘open’ could have developed from an original sense of ‘begin.’ It is possible that the development of this sense from an original sense of incipere ‘begin’ is peculiar to West Germanic, but it may also have been lost or unattested in North and East Germanic.

Why should we, in the North Germanic semantic context, not interpret the prefix ginn- as related to cutting, but to seiðr? The attested meaning of the Old North Germanic verb ginna may be traced back to a sense of bewitching (Latin: fascināre) instead of a sense of cutting open (Latin: incīdere). By contrast, the adjective ginn and the prefix gynn- in Old English may be traced back to a sense of cutting open (Latin: incīdere) instead of a sense of bewitching (Latin: fascināre). It should, nevertheless, be added that cutting open and Seiðr are interrelated, but the relationship of Seiðr with Ginnungagap is not dependent on the notion of cutting open. Therefore, if one interprets Ginnungagap as a cut open space based on the Old English cognates of ginn-, then the existence of that cut open space is related to inchoation magic, i.e. the magic of beginnings, yet if one interpets Ginnungagap as a magical space, which corresponds to the semantic genealogy of Old North Germanic ginna, then it is also related to inchoation magic. The latter if-then scenario is the likelier one, since the meaning of Old North Germanic ginn- is more likely to correspond to the semantic genealogy of ginna than that of the Old English cognates which have their own semantic genealogy, but the point I was trying to make with regards to inchoation magic is that regardless of the truth of either if-then scenario, inchoation magic has something to do with Ginnungagap.

Ginnheilög Goð

The Ginnheilög Goð are Creator Deities who fashioned the Dvergar, as said in stanza 9 of the Völuspô. This is congruent with the Divine Trinity interpretation of Uppręgin. Stanzas 6, 9, 27 and 29 of Völuspô suggest that Ginnheilög Goð = Ręgin. Stanza 11 of Lokasenna suggests that Ginnheilög GoðÆsir and Ásynjur. Under the lemma ginn- on page 200 of their Old Icelandic dictionary, Cleasby and Vigfusson interpret Ginnheilög Goð as Gods distinct from Æsir and Vanir. Being distinct from the Vanir as well is plausible since the Ginnheilög Goð have the function of deciding matters concerning creation and are consequently fundamental to the natural or cosmic order like Othin and his brothers. On account of their functional similitude, the Ginnheilög Goð must be identified with Rögnir ok Ręgin Othin and the Divine Advisers, which the stanzas of Völuspô do not gainsay. The Odinic Divine Trinity responsible for the creation of man and the world, namely Othin and his brothers, have the function of being Divine Judges, the Ręgin par excellance, therefore Ginnheilög Goð who are fundamentally Odinic beings or manifestations.

Ginnręgin as Gods of the Ginnrúnar

Analysing the Ginnręgin as the Gods of the Ginnrúnar has merit; for it is said in the Völuspô of the Elder Edda that the Ginnręgin ‘made’ (gerðu) the runes. While the Elder Edda leads us to believe that the Ginnręgin are the originators of the Ginnrúnar, we may connect Them with Rögnir, the foremost of the Ręgin, Othin, who has a special relationship with the Rúnar as well; for Hroptr Rögna, which is a manifestation of Othin, is mentioned shortly after the Ginnręgin when the origin of the runes is discussed in stanza 142 of Völuspô in the Elder Edda. I interpet Hroptr Rögna to mean that Othin is the wisest among the Divine Counselors. One may analyse wisdom as hierarchical; for when it comes to wisdom, Othin is on a whole other level compared to the Æsir and Vanir. I interpret the consecutive lines ok gerðu ginnregin and ok reist Hroptr rögna from stanza 142 of the Völuspô as meaning that the Ginnręgin made the runes together, and this includes Othin as He is one of the Ręgin, but it is Othin alone, as the wisest or foremost of the Ręgin, who ‘carved’ (reist) the runes; I interpret Othin as having a very privileged role, like befitting to a King, compared to the others. We must, therefore, take away from this that Othin is one of the Ginnręgin, as he is also one of the Ręgin, and that Othin has a very prominent position compared to the rest; for He is the one to stand out from the crowd. For my interpretation, I assume that it should not be taken lightly that at first a group of supernatural beings is mentioned and then the attention suddenly shifts to an individual, who is even called the ‘Wise One’ (Hroptr) of the ‘Divine Counselors’ (Rögn/Ręgin), i.e. the outstanding one of the group; given this context, I am inclined to interpret this Hroptr (= Othin) as very privileged, having a high rank, and being the leader of the Ginnręgin. In conclusion, the two aforementioned lines of the Völuspô may be interpreted as giving a clear demonstration of the real power dynamic between the Ginnręgin and Othin.

Cleasby and Vigfusson say that Ginnręgin is used “in the same sense as ginnheilög goð in Vsp.; in Hým. 4 opp. to [T]ívar (dii); in Alm. [G]oð and [G]innregin are distinguished.” This is consistent with the view that the Ginnręgin are distinguished Gods, i.e. they distinguish themselves in terms of wisdom and age from the other Gods; for they are Wise Primordial Gods, namely Othin and his brothers. So, if Ginnręgin is distinguished from Tívar and Goð, and if Uppręgin are distinguished from Æsir and Vanir as I explained in my article on the etymology of Ręgin, then this supports the view that Ginnręgin and Uppręgin = Rögnir and his brothers = the Creator Trinity. In other words, Ginnręgin = Uppręgin = Odinic beings. The father and grandfather of Othin and his brothers, namely Borr and Búri, may even be included among the Uppręgin/Ginnręgin; for, like Othin’s brothers, They are not reported to have passed away and must therefore be somewhere. After all, what kind of beings are Borr and Búri? One may suppose that they are not Æsir, Goð, Tívar, Vanir, or Jötnar, but belong to Their own separate category, which highlights Their role as supernatural being distinguished from all others, namely Ręgin, Rögn, Uppręgin, or Ginnręgin. Borr and Búri are Gods of Birth, and since birth is a magical beginning, one can see how Borr and Búri may be closely associated with Ginn-.

Furthermore, since Othin is the All-Father and since it is possible to interpret Othin’s brothers as manifestations of Othin, we may also interpret Othin’s father and grandfather’s as manifestations, reincarnations or extensions of Othin Himself; Grandfather, father and son may therefore be an Odinic trinity. It would mean that Othin is a being which birthed Himself and He had, according to His divine judgement, reached perfection by the time He had become the grandson, thus creating a perfect trinity. On the other hand, we may also suppose the Divine Grandfather, Father and Son are truly distinct beings and not just reiterations of Othin. In either case, whatever the truth may be, it makes sense to address or refer to the primordial trinity of Grandfather, Father and Son as types of Ręgin; the Grandfather, Father and Son trinity must have great cosmic significance, and if so, it makes sense for Them to assume the role of Divine Advisors. A trinity of the Grandfather, Father and Son is also found in Tacitus: Tuisco, Mannus, and three (grand)sons — an exact parallel to the Nordic trinity of the grandfather Borr, the father Búri, and the three (grand)sons.

If the the trinity can be identified with the Ręgin, Uppręgin and Ginnręgin, one may compare Them to the Adityas of Indian folk religion, Celestial Beings whose mother is Aditi, the Limitless Being, the manifestation of the cosmos. The relationship of the Ādityas with Aditi may be compared to the relationship of the Ginnręgin with the Ginnungagap. The fact that the Adityas are Celestial Beings may also help us make sense of Uppręgin; the Ręgin are the Sons of the Cosmos, and since Their place in the cosmos is the Upphimin High Heaven, They are Celestial Beings, known as Uppręgin, and since Their wisdom of fate is so profound and They consequently possess unfathomable magical abilities to create and organise the world, They are the Ginnręgin. The Ādiyas are connected with sun worship, and since we may assume the Uppręgin are connected with Upphimin, we may likewise connect the Ręgin types with sun worship. In conclusion, the Ręgin must have a quintessential primordial celestial role; They are always there in the background.

“Gap var ginnunga”

Gap, which is the final element of the compound Ginnungagap, is cognate with Old English ᚷᛖᚪᛈ (gēap) ‘open space, expanse,’ Danish gab ’empty space,’ and Modern English gap. It is also related to the verb gapa ‘yawn, open one’s mouth’ and the Dutch gapen ‘yawn, open one’s mouth,’ which comes from an Indogermanic verb for ‘open one’s mouth, be wide open,’ and which is also related to the Greek χάος (cháos).

Ginnungagap looks like a kenning because ginnunga- has a limiting effect on gap: it specifies what type of gap is meant. Ginnungagap is a magico-religious space, of which the original name must be simply Gap and ginnunga is added to that name in order to emphasise the supernatural nature of the space; it is not just a space, but a magical space. Having said that, I interpret gap var ginnunga (stanza 3 of the Völuspô) as chaos was of (the) sorcerers.

Ginnungr, of which ginnunga is the genitive plural, later came to mean ‘jester,’ which, just like trickery, is to be regarded as extraordinarily closely related with sorcery; a semantic shift from sorcerer to jester is highly probable. The Gap animating or being animated by sorcerers, i.e. troll, belongs to an animistic worldview, which regards nature as peopled, and so it fits Germanic religion, which is inherently animistic.

This should not be surprising. Speakers of Germanic languages regard nature as peopled since time immemorial. One can still hear old stories of trolls in Scandinavian countries, for example. Trolls are forces of nature, beings of magic. The art of the trolls is sorcery. Given the importance of the trolls in the Scandinavian cultural landscape, it is perfectly sensible that the Germanic chaos be associated with trolls; equally important is the observation that trolls are the forces of chaos. In other words, trolls are beings of Gap, whence their magical powers come, just like Othin’s wisdom comes from Urth’s Well.

Who are the Ginnungar?

What is the relationship of the first beings with chaos in the Greek religion and what is the nature of these first beings?


In the Þulur, Ginnarr is listed as a Dwarf’s name, one of Othin’s names, and an epithet for a hawk. See pages 424, 426 and 436 respectively of Corpus Poeticum Boreale: The Poetry of the Old Northern Tongue.

The hawk is very similar to the falcon. The falcon/hawk can be analysed as a magico-religious symbol. As we have seen in the article on the Germanic Isis, it does have merit to compare Germanic and Egyptian folk religion. The importance of the falcon in the latter is instructive for the study of the former. The Canadian Museum of History explains the following on this page of theirs: “Horus is the son of Osiris and Isis, the divine child of the holy family triad. He is one of many gods associated with the falcon. His name means “he who is above” and “he who is distant”. The falcon had been worshipped from earliest times as a cosmic deity whose body represents the heavens and whose eyes represent the sun and the moon.”

A Dvergr is an Artisian Deity. As skilled craftsmen, the Dvergar practise Creation Magic, hence They are associated with ginn-. Dvergar are the equivalents of the Greek Ἥφαιστος (Hḗphaistos) and the Roman Vulcānus, but They are multiple beings, therefore They may be interpreted as Ἥφαιστοι and Vulcāni, in which case I am using the plural of Ἥφαιστος (Hḗphaistos) and Vulcānus to match the plurality of the Dvergar.

Ginnvitni and Ginnfasti

Ginn- in the cases of ginnvitni and ginnfasti must be analysed as poetical. On page 200 of their Old Icelandic dictionary, Cleasby and Vigfusson describe the use of ginn- in ginnvitni and ginnfasti as “an intensive sense only [found] in poets.” Cleasby and Vigfusson cast doubt on the reading of ginnfasti. Cleasby and Vigfusson interpret vitni and fasti as fire, but only fasti can be connected with the sense of fire, while vitni cannot, because vitni is used only in the sense of witness. Vigfusson attributes ginnvitni to Sighvat. So who is Sighvat? Vigfusson and Powell explain that on pages 117-124 of Corpus Poeticum Boreale: The Poetry of the Old Northern Tongue, where they include poetry of Sighvat from pages 124 to 150.

Ginnseiðr: Inchoation Magic

We may call inchoation magic Ginnseiðr. The use of ginn- with seiðr may seem tautological, but considering its reconstructed meaning, ginn- is associated with beginnings and helps to emphasise the inchoation-related aspect of seiðr.

When do the Germanic polytheists traditionally consider it proper to make a sacrifice? What determines this propriety?

Blood sacrifices mark new beginnings; for the Germanic peoples traditionally consider it proper to offer blood sacrifices at new beginnings. Ginnseiðr is the explanation for Germanic rites.


The Ginnręgin are Primordial Gods of Creation, Births, and New Beginnings. Synonyms of the Ginnręgin are Uppręgin and Ręgin. The leader of the Ginnręgin is Hroptr Ragna, whose name is also Rögnir, who is identical to Othin.

Othin is a distinguished being among the Æsir and Vanir. He belongs to His own category, therefore: the Ręgin. Being distinguished does not mean He cannot be part of other groups. Othin can be part of the Ginnręgin/Uppręgin and Æsir at the same time.

Supreme Gods of the Ręgin type pose no problem of any kind for the internal coherence of Germanic folk religion; for the existence of primordial supreme Gods, who are distinguished from the rest, is consistent with the known Germanic cosmogony and theogony from Ancient Germanic times to Old Nordic times. The Ręgin are undoubtedly native and ancient.

It may, however, be said that my interpretation of the Ginnręgin as laid out in this article and my interpretation of Uppręgin as laid out in another recent article is a reconciliation between the concepts of Ginnręgin and Uppręgin and the rest of Germanic theogony and cosmogony that previous generations have already deciphered. The philosophical question was how to make sense of these concepts and fit it into the whole of what is known with a decent degree of certainty.

Challenging the Conclusion with Pattern-Based Analysis of Alvíssmál

Just as we have used pattern analysis of Alvíssmál for making sense of Uppręgin, we will repeat the same investigation for Ginnręgin.

Interpretations of Ginnheilagr

  • On page 342 of this work, ginnheilagr is translated simply as ‘holy.’

Interpretations of Ginnrúnar

  • Edred Thorsson interprets ginnrúnar as ‘cosmic runes.’
  • Géza von Neményi interprets ginn- as Gunst- favour in German and so he interprets ginnrúnar as Gunst-Runen favour runes (see page XV of this work).
  • Fredrik Sander interprets ginnrúnar as utmärkelserunor runes of distinction in Swedish (see page 147 of this work). Utmärkelse may be understood as ‘accolade, praise, distinction, award.’ The noun comes from utmärka which means ‘to bestow honour upon someone, distinguish someone; distinguish between things, discriminate.’
  • Adolf Noreen interprets ginnrúnar as Grossrunen great runes (see page 257 of this work). Sophus Bugge likewise interprets it as storrunor great runes in Swedish (see page 334 of this work).
  • Thomas Birkett interprets ginnrúnar as ‘runes of power.’ It has also been interpreted as kraftrunor power runes in Swedish (see page 25 of this work and page 242 of this work for example) and Kraftrunen in German (see page 155 of this work for example). This is comparable to the translation of męginrúnar as kraftrunor power runes (see page 207 of this work). Ginnrúnar has also been interpreted as ‘mighty runes’ (see page 32 of this work), which is again comparable to that of męginrúnar.

Interpretations of Ginnungagap, Ginnungavé and Ginnungahiminn

  • Page 394 of this Latin work treats the etymology of “Ginnúngagap,” saying it can be derived from “Ginnúngr” or “Gínúngr” and “Gap.” The Latin work analyses “Ginnúnga” as a genitive plural. It also draws a comparison with “Ginnúngavé.”
  • A. Quak and Paula Vermeyden say in their Dutch chapter on Ginnungagap: “Voor het eerste deel, ‘ginnungi’ (ginnunga is gen. ev. of mv.) of ‘ginnungr’ zijn allerlei oplossingen gesuggereerd. Men heeft het o.m. in verband gebracht met een Germaanse woordstam *gin-, die ‘een geweldige, uitgestrekte leegte’ zou aanduiden, of met een ie. wortel *ghi- (opensperren). In beide gevallen zou Ginnungagap dan iets als ‘immense afgrond’ betekenen. Anderen brengen het woord in verband met een werkwoord ‘ginna’ (voor de gek houden) en weer anderen interpreteren ‘ginn-’ als ‘magisch geladen’. Ginnungagap zou een oerruimte zijn vol van de magische kracht die het scheppingsproces mogelijk maakte. De jongste suggestie is van Ursula Dronke. Zij meent dat het woord van origine niet Noords, maar Oudhoogduits is: ‘ginunga’ (spleet, gapende opening), een woord dat regelmatig in glossen te vinden is.” (All kinds of solutions have been suggested for the first part, ‘ginnungi’ (ginnunga is gen. sing. or plur.) or ‘ginnungr’. It has been connected, among other things, with a Germanic word root *gin-, which would indicate ‘a great, vast emptiness’, or with an IE root *ghi- (to open wide). In both cases Ginnungagap would mean something like ‘immense abyss’. Others associate the word with a verb “ginna” (to fool) and still others interpret “ginn-” as “magically charged.” Ginnungagap is said to be a primordial space full of the magical power that made the creation process possible. The latest suggestion is from Ursula Dronke. She believes that the word is not originally Nordic, but Old High German: ‘ginunga’ (slit, gaping opening), a word that is regularly found in glosses.)

Interpretations of Ginnarr

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