Reflections on the Merseburg Incantations

Wodan Heilt Balders Pferd (Odin heals Baldur's Horse), by Emil Doepler (1905)

Wodan Heilt Balders Pferd (Odin heals Baldur’s Horse), by Emil Doepler (1905)

As a student of both history and the German language, I find die Merseburger Zaubersprüche, or The Merseburg Incantations fascinating from every possible standpoint.  For those who don’t know, they are two poems in Old High German written in the 9th or 10th centuries and are the only surviving written references to any pagan beliefs in that language.

The first charm is very simple to understand.  It talks about the Idisen freeing either themselves or captured warriors from chains, depending on whose interpretation you go by.  The second charm, however, describes a scene in which Wodan and Phol, a name which has survived nowhere else, rode through the woods when Balder’s horse breaks its leg.  The first two lines read as follows:

Phol and Wodan were riding to the woods,

and the foot of Balder’s horse was sprained

Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait….   Why was Balder’s horse without him?  And who the Hel is Balder’s horse to begin with?  Balder’s horse goes completely unmentioned in all of the Scandinavian and Icelandic lore, which is all very detailed and has survived the test of time quite well. Wodan, however, has an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir who all familiar with the Norse mythos know of. Strange that the only surviving German pagan document makes reference to Balder’s horse, who seemingly must have been of great importance.

The name Phol seems quite strange as well.  In English, ph makes an f sound.  In modern German, the only words which use the ph as an f are borrow words from Latin, such as phonetisch, meaning phonetic.  Many assume that Phol is simply an otherwise unknown name for Balder.  Some have equated Phol with a male version of Uolla, a Goddess’ name, who maybe the German pagans equated with Balder.

Personally, I believe that far too often, scholars of Germanic paganism elevate the Norse version of the myths to a pan-Germanic status, meaning that all tribes in continental Europe, Britain and Scandinavia believed in the same myths with all of the same Gods and Goddesses that we know today from the works of Snorri Sturluson and the like.  We just assume that maybe they had some extra deities.  When the few historical references to pagan Germany that we have use names of Gods and Goddesses we do not know from the Norse mythos, i.e. Nerthus (mentioned in Tacitus’ Germania), we just assume it is a simple latinization or a female version of Njörd, Norse God of the Sea.

We know from the much more extensive records of the Greeks and Romans that though there were some commonly agreed upon main deities, every region, village and family had their own localized Gods and Goddesses.  The same was most likely true of the pagan Teutonosphere.  There were more than likely many Gods, Giants, Dwarves and Elves whose names were common place to a Bavarian that would have been completely alien to the Geats.

Balder’s death is a key staple in the Germanic mythos and, in my opinion, was probably one of the agreed upon parts of the mythology between all Germanic peoples.  In the Norse account, Wodan whispers a spell into Balder’s ear before setting fire to his funeral ship, and that spell is what gives Balder the ability to return from Hel to rule after Ragnarok. In the incantation, the end reads:

So Sinthgunt, Sunna’s sister, conjured it.

and Frija, Volla’s sister, conjured it.

and Wodan conjured it, as well he could:

Like bone-sprain, so blood-sprain, so joint-sprain:

Bone to bone, blood to blood,

joints to joints, so may they be glued.

Wodan is the only one of the Gods who can fix the leg of Balder’s horse.  According to the Norse myths, Wodan himself uses his horse Sleipnir to travel the nine worlds rather indiscriminately.  Is it not possible that Balder, were he to have a horse, would have used his for the same thing?  He was, after all, the son of the Allfather.  It would only make sense that he would have some similar characteristics.  In the German myths, perhaps, right before Ragnarok is to begin, Wodan attempts to ride Balder’s horse to the gates of Hel where the horse is to wait for his son, but the horse’s leg breaks.  In a proto-Wagnerian way, this would seem rather fitting.  Balder would need the horse to return from the dead and the horse’s leg breaks, making it impossible to bring him back, thus dooming the worlds to never be reborn.  The Goddesses descend to help Wodan try to mend the horse’s leg, but only Wodan himself finally succeeds in the end, for only his words and his spell can bring Balder back.

So if my hypothesis is correct, Phol was never another name for Balder, but one for Balder’s horse!  Germans, being much closer to Roman influence, would have been exposed much more to Latin, particularly in its academic and political uses.  Only the priests and nobles were literate at this time.  The actual text appears to be written in a Latin alphabet.  Is it not possible that the scribe used a Latin means of writing an f sound to spell a version of the word foal? After all, he is the God of rebirth and the Spring.  It would be fitting for his steed to be a foal.  The modern English word foal is derivative from the Old High German folo, the modern German being Fohlen.  The word uuolon in the charm is often translated as foal, but I cannot find another source in which uuolon is used.  Folo seems to be the go-to Old High German word for Foal.

In closing, it is important to look at these texts from every possible angle.  Only with the utmost scrutiny can we begin to understand what is being said here.  Please feel free to comment with any feedback or input you may have.

For Balder!

4 Comments

KO

Great article, thanks. Maybe you will write about the Heliand poem from the early 9th century. It is arguably much more relevant, showing the adaptation of Christian scripture to the heroic ethos of the Germanic peoples — something we could use a little more of. Are you listening, Matt Heimbach and Tom Buhls?

Jon V.

Thanks for the feedback! I’m definitely going to be doing more articles in a similar vein. I’ll have to go over the Heliand poem again. You might see an article on it in the near future. Your suggestion is appreciated!

-Jon V

KO

Thanks for your reply. Since you accepted that recommendation so kindly, you might also like Eric Goldberg’s Struggle For Empire, an excellent history on the life and time of Louis the German. It provides the historical context of the Heliand. Of all the 3rd generation Carolingians, Louis was the most like his grandfather in combining culture, piety, and martial vigor.

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