How linguistics helps us reconstruct ancient fire mythology

Report on the ‘Martin Burr Fund’ grant offered for a monograph on the Norse God Loki

written by Riccardo Ginevra (Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University)

The historical and comparative approach to Indo-European poetic language and myth has developed greatly in the second half of the 20th century, particularly thanks to the efforts of, among others, Rüdiger Schmitt (1967; 1968), Enrico Campanile (1977; 1990) and Calvert Watkins (1995). By means of this methodology, linguists have been able to highlight several parallels between the poetic phraseology, divine names and mythological narratives occurring in texts in the Indo-European languages of oldest attestation, in particular Hittite, Vedic and Epic Sanskrit, Ancient Greek and Latin.

Sources in Old Norse and in the other ancient Germanic languages, however, have been somewhat overlooked by scholars of comparative Indo-European poetics, mainly because, in comparison with, for instance, Hittite and Greek (already attested in the 2nd millennium BCE), these languages were first written down at a relatively late date (the Early Middle Ages). The antiquity of a tradition’s written sources, however, should not be the main criterion in assessing its importance in reconstruction: in contrast, as demonstrated by Calvert Watkins (1995: 414ff.) in his classic discussion of dragon-slaying myths, Germanic traditions often preserve very archaic features of Indo-European poetics and myth. In my opinion, this truth may be even further demonstrated by a linguistic analysis of the names, phraseology, and narratives concerning the mischievous Scandinavian god Loki, a topic to which I have devoted much of my PhD research at the Università per Stranieri di Siena and the University of Cologne between 2015 and 2018.

My interest in Loki actually arose in 2014, when I was still a Master’s student at the Università Cattolica of Milan, writing a thesis on the several parallels between (among others) some Ancient Greek myths involving the god Hermes (the – at least partial – reflex of an ancient fire-god, as already argued by van Berg 2001) and the titan Prometheus (the “Fire Thief” par excellence), and some Norse mythological narratives involving Loki, who had already been analyzed as a fire-deity by Jacob Grimm in his Deutsche Mythologie (1835). Even though Grimm’s interpretation of Loki was later challenged on various grounds (cf. e.g. Liberman 1992:131), the god’s association with fire is supported not only by parallels in Scandinavian folklore (cf. e.g. Heide 2011) and archaeology (cf. Gestsson 1961), but also by the linguistic analysis of his myths both within their Scandinavian context and in comparative Indo-European perspective, as I have proposed in two publications (Ginevra 2018a; 2018b) and as I argue extensively in a corresponding monograph, on which I am currently working and whose preparation has been partially supported by the “Martin Burr Fund” from the Philological Society.

Depiction of Loki from an Icelandic manuscript (16th-century).

As a first example of the inner-Norse and comparative evidence for Loki’s interpretation as a fire-god, I would like to discuss the Norse myth of Loki’s capture and binding (Vǫluspá 35; prose finale of Lokasenna; Gylfaginning 50), whose plot may be briefly summarized as follows: the gods capture Loki and bring him to a cave, where he is chained to three stones and a venomous snake is fixed above him, in such a manner that the reptile’s poison constantly drips into his face; standing by his side, Loki’s wife Sigyn tries to collect the snake’s venom into a basin, but, every time she has to leave her husband’s side in order to pour the liquid away, the snake’s poison drips directly into Loki’s face and the god shakes so violently that the whole earth trembles, causing earthquakes.

Now, according to Norse cosmology, earthquakes were caused by the violent movements of underground fires (cf. Konungs skuggsjá 14 ms. b.,Brenner 1881:30 “You also said that so vast are the fires in the bowels of the land that earthquakes arise out of fire’s violent movements”); furthermore, the poison which torments Loki may be analyzed as a reflex of the Old Norse kenning “poison of the fire” for ‘water’ (cf. Sigvatr Þórðarson, Lausavísa 1.2–4 “snake of the poison of fire” = “snake of water” = “fish”). These considerations allow for the interpretation of Sigyn’s act of collecting and pouring out the poison which drips onto Loki’s face as a mythical representation of the pouring of water or other liquids onto fire, possibly reflecting corresponding pre-Christian Scandinavian fire-rituals which have been reconstructed by Kaliff 2005 on the basis of archaeological evidence.

This is further supported by Sigyn’s name (actually to be scanned as Sígyn, as shown by Skaldic meter), which may be the Old Norse outcome of a Proto-Indo-European formation *sei̯k-én-ih2/sei̯k-n̥-iéh2‘she of the pouring’, a reflex of the root *sei̯k‘pour’ which is widely attested in Vedic Sanskrit in the context of fire-rituals, cf. Rigveda 8.9.7cd “Here he will pour (siñcād – another reflex of the root *sei̯k) the most honeyed soma and the hot milk in the presence of the fire-priest”. The same reconstructed formation *sei̯k-én-ih2may also underlie Vedic °sécanī– ‘pouring’ (upa-sécanī- ‘id.; pouring ladle’ in RV 10.21.02c; 10.105.10a), and it would closely parallel the (Latinized) Celtic river-name and theonym Sēquana (modern-day river Seine in France), which is the reflex of a similar formation *sei̯k-en-eh2 ‘she of the pouring’.

Depiction of the myth of Loki and Sigyn on the Gosforth Cross (mid-11th

As a further example of the comparative evidence for Loki’s identification as the reflex of an Indo-European fire-god, let us take into consideration the Norse myth of Loki’s wager with the dwarf Brokkr (as told in Skáldskaparmál 35): as a punishment for shaving all the hair off the head of Thor’s wife, Loki has to forge beautiful gifts for the gods; after having done so, Loki pledges his own head in a wager with the dwarf-smith Brokkr, challenging him to forge better treasures; when Brokkr succeeds and wins the wager, Loki tries to flee, but is soon captured by Thor, and his lips are finally sewn together by Brokkr.

Several parallels for this narrative may be found in the Sanskrit myth of Fire’s cursing by the seer Bhr̥gu (Mahābhārata 1.5–7; 9.46.12–20), in which the god Fire betrays the trust of Bhr̥gu’s wife and is therefore cursed by the seer to become an “eater of everything”, thus losing control over his own mouth; ashamed, Fire flees, but his hiding place is discovered by the gods, who convince the supreme god Brahma to restrain Fire’s mouth (slightly modifying Bhr̥gu’s curse).

Various phraseological and structural parallels between these Norse and Sanskrit narratives allow for the reconstruction of an Indo-European “Myth of the Mouth of the Fire-god”, in which, after committing a crime against a woman, the fire-god risks losing control over his head or mouth because of a wager or curse; the fire-god flees, but is later found by the other gods, and his mouth is restrained – either literally (Loki) or metaphorically (Fire).

Furthermore, these correspondences allow for the assumption of a direct connection between the Norse god Loki’s rival Brokkr and the Sanskrit god Fire’s opponent Bhr̥gu, whose names may in fact be traced back to *bhr̥g-nó– and *bhŕ̥g-oṷ- respectively, two related formations which are derivatives of one and the same root *(s)bh(h2)g– ‘crackle, roar’, among whose reflexes are, for instance, Homeric σφαραγέομαι ‘crackle, sizzle’ and Vedic Sanskrit sphūrjáyant- ‘crackling, sizzling’ and bhūrjáyant- ‘id.’ (reflexes of *[s]bhr̥h2g-éi̯e- ‘crackle, sizzle’). The possibility of a common etymology for the names of their respective enemies thus supports an identification of Loki as the Norse counterpart to the Sanskrit god Fire.

Depiction of character with his mouth stitched (currently interpreted as a reference to the myth of Loki and Brokkr) on the Snaptun Stone (10th-11th century).

As these two examples suggest, an analysis of Loki’s mythology from a comparative Germanic and Indo-European perspective allows for the identification of several inherited features of religious onomastics, poetic language, and narrative structures in Scandinavian pre-Christian religion and myth, improving our understanding of the meaning and origin of these ancient texts. Thanks to the partial support of the Philological Society’s “Martin Burr Fund”, my book-length discussion of these topics hopefully will, on the one hand, match the late Martin John Burr’s academic interest in Comparative Philology and Old Germanic languages and cultures, and, on the other hand, contribute to the Philological Society’s mission “to investigate and promote the study and knowledge of the structure, the affinities, and the history of languages”.


van Berg, Paul-Louis. 2001. Hermes and Agni: a fire-god in Greece?. In: M. E. Huld, K. Jones-Bley, A. Della Volpe and M. Robbins Dexter, Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference, 189-204. Washington DC.

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Gestsson, Gisli. 1961. Mynd af Loka Laufeyjarsyni. Árbók Hins íslenzka fornleifafélags 58:47–51.

Ginevra, Riccardo. 2018a. Old Norse Brokkr, Sanskrit Bhr̥gu- and PIE *(s)bh(h2)g– ‘crackle, roar’. In: David M. Goldstein, Stephanie W. Jamison, and Brent Vine (eds.), Proceedings of the 28th Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference, 71–93. Bremen.

Ginevra, Riccardo. 2018b. Old Norse Sígyn (*sei̯k-n̥-i̯éh2– ‘she of the pouring’), Vedic °sécanī– ‘pouring’, Celtic Sēquana and PIE *sei̯k ‘pour’. In: David M. Goldstein, Stephanie W. Jamison, and Brent Vine (eds.), Proceedings of the 29th Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference, 65–76. Bremen.

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