On the Divinity of Earth and Heaven

Written by Dyami Millarson

We are wont to say ‘heaven and earth’ in Modern English, ‘heiven an yird’ in Modern Scots, and ‘hemel en aarde’ in Modern Dutch. Despite the fact that people might be inclined to think that the close association of heaven and earth is non-Germanic, this association is actually Germanic. However, the ancients had a habit of saying ‘earth and heaven.’ A Latin dissertation from 1861 says the following: ‘in loco Völuspae quem supra p. 8 adscripsimus aliisque poematis eddicis (Hammarsh. 2, Vafþrudnism. 20, Oddrûnargr. 18) iörð nê upphiminn, iörð eða upphiminn, iörð ok upphiminn, tum in harmonia evangeliorum saxonixa p. 88, 15 ertha endi upphimil, in carminibus denique anglosaxonicis (Andreas 799, Grimmii myth. 1186, Genes. 99, Exod. 26. 76. 429, Crist 968. 1129, Nauta 105) eorðe and upheofon sive uprador.’ We are interested, for our purpose, in the Old Norse expression jörð ok upphiminn, the Old Saxon expression ertha endi upphimil and the Anglo-Saxon (= Old English) expression eorðe and upheofon. The same expression as in the aforementioned old Germanic languages may be reconstructed for Proto-Germanic on the basis that these are genuine old expressions in Germanic. We learn from this that the ancients used to say it the other way around as they put earth before heaven rather instead of putting heaven before earth. So, while heaven and earth were already associated in Germanic times, it is relevant to note that the Germanic traditional order was different from our most common order nowadays. The ON. upphiminn, OS. upphimil and AGS. upheofon mean exactly the same thing: up-heaven or high heaven. The Dutch equivalent is ophemel, which is quite understandable in Dutch if one reasons logically, and one might be tempted to connect this with the familiar Dutch verb ophelemen, which means ‘to praise.’ I have always been tempted to interpret the verb as meaning ‘to lift in the air,’ as one might imagine that ancients had such a habit when they praised or celebrated someone. However, the Shire Frisian verb himmelje means ‘to store’ and this might provide us with a clue that Dutch hemelen might not originally be connected with OS. himil.

As became evident from my recent article where I discussed Erce at great length, it is absolutely certain that the ancient Germanic tribes venerated Mother Earth, which the Anglo-Saxons called eorþan modor, the Norsemen jörðr and Tacitus, who described the Germanic peoples of yore in Latin, mater terra. As a consequence, Germanic religion truly merits the term nature religion, which is a term that was, contrary to Wikipedia (last accessed 1 January 2022) claiming the term to have been coined only recently, already known in the High German language in the 19th century as Naturreligion, and the Dutch equivalent natuurreligie was already in use at that time as well as well. In conclusion, as we know that Jörðr is the spirit of the earth and the earth is the symbol of nature, it may be said that the Germanic peoples worshipped nature; the Germanic peoples certainly seem to have had a deep respect for nature. From the perspective of this profound respect for nature and from an animistic perspective which asserts that the world is inhabited by spirits or vættir as they are called in Old Norse, it makes sense to wonder: if jörð is a divinity and jörð is closely associated with himinn, then would jörð ok upphiminn not both be divinities? The divinity of himinn is expected from this animistic perspective, and while jörð exists in such close association with himinn, we can infer that the relationship must be equivalent to that of husband and wife. We know that the Jörðr is the mother of Thor and we know that Thor is Othin’s son, so we can say that Jörðr is Othin’s wife and must thus be identical to himinn in the physical world. The Germanic Tīwaz, who is called Týr in Old Norse and Tīw in Anglo-Saxon, is the Germanic equivalent of Ζεύς, who is the Greek Sky-God and head of the Greek pantheon. The question arises, if Othin is the head of the Germanic Gods, and if Tyr is the original name of the Sky God and may be equated with himinn, was Othin ever called Týr? Yes, although Týr has been called the son of Othin, we know that Othin has plenty of names where he is called Týr: Rúnatýr, Gautatýr, Sigtýr, Valtýr, Geirtýr, Hroptatýr, Veratýr, Reiðartýr, Hertýr, Fimbultýr, Hangatýr. This abundant use of the name Týr, which may be translated in this context as ‘heavenly being’ or simply ‘God,’ seems to suggest a connection with himinn.

Seeing the names Sigtýr and Valtýr, a favourite quote of mine by early 20th-century John Arnott MacCulloch comes to mind: “Still another term for gods is tivar, “shining ones,” related to Sanskrit devas. It occurs in some of the Eddic poems. The forms sig-tivar, val-tivar, “battle-gods,” also occur.” Thus, one may not just interpret himinn to be represented by a single being, but also by a plurality of beings. In other words, himinn is not necessarily equal to a single Týr, but may also be equal to a plurality of Tívar (which is the Old Norse plural grammatical form of Týr). While himinn might be equated with either single Týr or plural Tívar, might jörð perhaps be interpreted as both singular and plural as well? Indeed, this might be the case, as the Germanic peoples worshipped many matres et matronae, which might be equated with the Dísir. After all, Freyja is also called Vanadís, which means ‘Goddess of the Vanir‘ and implies that the Dísir were connected with fertility (based on what we know about Freyja and the Vanir), and there is also the concept of Landdísir, which means that the Dísir were connected with nature or the earth. So we have gone in full circle: we know that the Germanic peoples, as they were animists, believed the natural world to be inhabited by a multitude of spirits, and as I have pointed out the native terms, you now know that the earthly spirits might be called Landdísir and the spirits who are up high in the heavens might be called Tívar. Additionally, there are vættir called landvættir ‘supernatural beings of the land, ergo of the earth,’ and although I have found but a single mention of the plural form landálfar in an Icelandic book written by Jóni Espelin, published in 1862 and titled Íslands Árbækur í sögu-formi, the lemma landálfr (id est the single form of landálfar) has been adopted in the Latin dictionary of the Old Nordic language by Sveinbjörn Egilsson: “LANDÁLFR, m., genius terrae tutelaris.” (LANDÁLFR, masculine [noun], a tutelary spirit of the earth.) The Viking poet Egill Skallagrímsson mentioned landálfr in one of his poems that was recorded in the Old Norse saga about him:

Lögbrigðir hefir lagða,
landálfr! fyrir mér sjálfum
(blekkir brœðra sökkva
brúðfang) vegu langa.
Gunnhildi á ek at gjalda
(greypt er hennar skap) þenna
(ungr gat ek læ launat)
landrekstr (byli granda).

Chapter 59 of Egils saga Skallagrímssonar. The emphasis is mine.

Landálfr is rendered as ‘land-demon’ in the version of Wiki Saga:

‘Law-breaker, land-demon,
Long voyage lays on me;
He bane of his brothers,
Beguiled by his bride.
Gunnhilda the guilt bears
(Grim queen) of my exile:
Fain am I full swiftly
Her frauds to repay.’

English translation of Chapter 59 of Egils saga. The emphasis is mine.

Egill is invoking the landálfr in his poem and whoever the landálfr may be identified with from a theological point of view, we already know that this being is connected with fertility. A Latin-annotated edition of Egils saga says on page 370 the following about the semantic interpretation of landálfr: “LANDÁLFR, Rex (ut modo Land-áss, Deus). Alfi nempe inter Deos hominesque medii. G. Pauli. Magna invidia & ironia est in hoc nomine, collato cum altero, LÖGBRIGDIR.” (LANDÁLFR, King (like recently Landáss, God). The elves [are] no doubt half [= the middle] between Gods and men. G. Pauli. Great spite & irony is in this noun, [when] brought together with the other, LÖGBRIGDIR [which means ‘law-breaker’].) The same book offers the following translation in Latin, whilst rendering landálfr as ‘Genius terrae tutelaris’ (tutelary earth spirit):

Genius terrae tutelaris, legum violator,
Stavit longas vias mihimet:
Matrimonium corrumpit
Fratrum (suorum) hostem.
Gunnihilldae, mulieri noxiae,
Debeo hoc exilium;
Atrox illius animus est:
Minorennis injurias rependere potui.

Latin translation of Chapter 59 of Egils saga. The emphasis is mine.

Whilst landálfr is rendered as genius terrae, we can say with a degree of certainty that the landálfr is a plaatsgeest (i.e., the spirit of a place) as one might call it in Dutch or a genius loci (i.e., the spirit of a place) as one would call it in Latin. As it is also described with the adjective tutelaris in Latin, we can say it is a tutelar, which is usually a warden of a something in particular, such as a family clan or place. We might understand tutelaris as ‘protective,’ and therefore we might compare the landálfr with the Icelandic vörðr, which is a kind of tutelar following a person from birth to death (cp. the function of the nornir, the fylgjur and the hamingjur). I may delve much deeper into the issue of the landálfr, but I will leave it for now.

The sex of the landvættir may be assumed to be varied if they include both landdísir and landálfar, which may be interpreted to be female and male respectively. This means that jörð may be interpreted as a multitude of both female and male deities or spirits. Then, might the same be the case for upphiminn? Indeed, there is nothing that seems to exclude the Ásynjur (Goddesses) from the term Tívar, which, like the plural form Vanir, does not appear to be a sex-specific term, and thus we may bring upphiminn in connection with both males and females. Finally, we can say that if jörð ok upphiminn are interpreted as hosts of spirits, we can assume they can say they are both female and male, no matter whether they are earhtly or heavenly. However, if jörð ok upphiminn are interpreted as husband and wife due to their close association and therefore queen and king of the cosmos, we may say that jörð is female corresponding to the grammatical gender of jörð and that upphiminn is male corresponding to the grammatical gender of uphiminn.

While it may be tempting to say solely female beings are associated with jörð and solely male beings are associated with uphiminn, the reality is that both female and male beings live in the realms of jörð ok uphiminn; this is completely logical. However, when we get to the essence of what jörð ok uphiminn are, we realise that they are female and male; all the other beings, which live in their embrace, are but their children, and this is the cosmic symbolism of the fact that, although beings of any sex can live in either realm, the realm itself is underlying a specific sex; the grammatical gender of the nouns dictates this, and the fact that we know that the earth is associated with a Goddess makes it easy to conclude heaven is associated with a corresponding God, who has the function of fertilising the earth. Othin, as he is a God who produces many children, fits the image of a very fertile deity. I will close this article with these philosophical insights into the Germanic universe:

  1. Various beings, of either biological sex, inhabit earth and heaven;
  2. Earth is nevertheless fundamentally female, heaven is male whilst the former is fertilised (hence female noun), the latter is the fertiliser (hence male noun);
  3. All the beings inhabitating earth and heaven are children of earth and heaven.

This shows that grammar, nature symbolism, and basic human relationships (father-mother-child) are important for understanding Germanic religious culture.