Photo of ribbon lightning by William N. Jennings, 1885.
The case of the Thunderer in Germanic ethnolinguistic groups is a difficult one to plot effectively, especially when speaking on the origins of his name. There are significant cognates in the Indo-European lexicon that do give credence to the formation to his name, but there hasn’t been – as far as I have seen – a coherent analysis of his name and the etymological lineage he bears.
Regarding the proposed model of Indo-European mythemes, the Germanic stands out as separate and distinct in the way it doesn’t follow said model. One form that some suggest, is that Týr is the original weather and sky god; chief of all the gods. This is mostly based on surface level linguistic speculations. (1)
The reason I make this claim, is because the similarities in consonance of the classical European cultures does not constitute the same functionality in other branches such as the Germanic cultures. Especially with most cultic elements being attributed to Þórr, as an active role of the weather and sky god in most recorded contexts, while also being the center of the traditional forms of worship. (2)
There is an even further split as the literature has portrayed Óðinn fulfilling the patriarch function, and the role of the king. In many cases there seems to be shared elements between the two, such as both sharing prophylactic and malevolent wind sorcery, and even sharing names that should be attributed to the other. (3)
This status of Óðinn should certainly be taken as a late addition to the Germanic narrative structures, with the Icelandic versions primarily influenced by classical literature.
The difference from the common model, is because other Indo-European cultures such as the Mediterranean cultures have deities such as Ζεῦ πάτερ, Jupiter, or reflections of a form extending from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European Dyēus Pəter. As an active divine epithet, it was crucial in the social structure of later Indo-European cultures of southern Europe.
Vedic areas did not hold their rendition of Dyáuṣ Pitṛ́ in the same light, but the form was foundational in the Rigvedic texts as a sort of deus otiosus or inactive Uranic figure. This seems to have been a multifaceted concept that developed differently based on regional cult variants at any given time, as most cults are built upon either hierarchical preference, population norms or mores.
The proposed etymological lineage of Þórr, stems from the root (s)tenh2 which based on my understanding of reconstruction, I transliterate to tenə. The zero-grade form being (s)ton̥ə, becoming the nominative compound (s)ton̥ərós which after shifting out of Northwest-Indo-European, then became þunaraz, and later þunraz in Proto-Germanic. (4)
This seems to be connected to an original word root of ten through the form tenh2 which would still be transliterated to tenə, which then gives a similar zero-grade format of ton̥. In the original form, the ten root holds the meaning of extension, or being outstretched. Which is easily able to be translated conceptually to the outstretched sky itself, extending above and across the earth. Additionally, the ten root extends to ténəus, and then becomes þunnuz in Proto-Germanic, and gives descendant words such as þynne, þunnur and the English word thin. (5) (6)
These terms seem to point to a synthesis of sorts at some point in history, creating the myriad versions of the Thunderer in Germanic languages:
- Proto-Germanic — Þunaraz, Þunraz
- Proto-Norse — Þunaraʀ, Þunaʀ
- Old Norse — Þórr, Þóarr
- Faroese — Tórur
- Norwegian, Danish and Swedish — Thor, Tor
- Old English — Þunar, Þunor, Þunær
- Middle English — Þunor and þonder
- English — Thunder
- Scots — Thuner
- Yola — Dunder
- Old Frisian — Thuner
- West Frisian —Tonger
- Old Saxon — Thunar, Thunær
- Old High German — Thonar, Donar
- Middle High German — Donar
- German Donar — Dutch Donar, Donner, Donder, Donre.
The Scandinavian branches dropped the medial (n) in the word at a late position in their history, while the continental and western sources withheld the medial (n), resulting in our current terminologies when speaking of thunder. I do not see these have having different roots, but shifts in dialects over time.
In the later form of the root, it seems to be a technical term for augury; to indicate, presage or foretell. Evidence for this form comes from the Latin use of the word portend. (7)
With this in mind, I recall the work of Tacitus who notes that the Semnones branch of the Suevi did hold augury in a high regard; the functions of the ravens Huginn and Muginn, the sparrow-speech of the wise King Dagr, and even the hero Sigurðr obtaining the knowledge of bird-speech are in line with this type of custom. (8) (9)
These types of divinatory customs are associated with the many Sky Father renditions, and/or other celestial figures and these methods are used to interpret the will and decisions of these gods.
While the shifted roots of ten and tenə contributed to linguistic development, the conceptual development must be looked at from other angles and similar cognate words must be observed, as the lineages based on the model for other cultural forms of the Thunderer seem like they are missing a step in the reconstruction efforts.
Indra, for example holds an esteemed height within Rigveda, the oldest piece of Indo-European spiritual literature – mentioned more than 200 times. Which is far more than any other deity in the corpus. He is noted as having a similar position to Þórr, but the components of his name are disputed among many linguists, despite it being rather clear.
One of the oldest recorded instances of this form comes from the Mitanni-Hatti treaty (KBo I 1 Vo 56), and the form seems to be IN-TAR in their Indo-Aryan tongue. This term has been related to the Hittite verb tarḫ, which gave way to the name of their weather god Tarḫunna. (10)
The root of this term has been noted as terh₂ or terə — meaning to cross or pass; overcome or conquer. The Hattian weather god was named Taru, from the same root. (11)
Consistent forms found throughout Anatolian cultures show that this is a common form for weather gods:
- Luwian — Tarḫunz
- Carian — Trquδ
- Milyan — Trqqñt
- Lycian — Trqqas, Trqqiz
The Celtic cultures also show the same etymological similarities:
- Gaulish — Taranis
- Old Breton — Toran
- Breton — Toran
- Old Cornish — Taran
- Cornish — Taran
- Middle Welsh — Taran
- Welsh — Taranu
- Old Irish — Tuirenn, Torann
- Irish —Torann
- Scottish Gaelic — Torrunn, Tàirneanach
A basic reconstruction for the original word in Proto-Indo-European would be terənós.
The root terə also is one of the closest forms that can be compared to the Germanic word Þurs. This would be a significant format to follow, based on premise that within Germanic myth, the þursar and the god Þórr are on opposing forces.
Tarḫunna repeats the dragon/serpent-slaying mytheme as other Indo-European storm-gods, an archetypal tale is meant to describe rebirth and renewal of life, with the dragon/serpent representing death or chaos. Chaos is meant to be overcome, or dominated.
This connection is the reason why there is such a tension in later Germanic myth between Þórr and the þursar, as there is an intrinsic cultic relationship between the two elements. A particular form to follow that likely merged with the aforementioned one is terh1 or terɐ which means to twist, bore or drill; pierce. This is a form that relates well to the concept of a thorn, which is noted by the corresponding rune poem as given in the Anglo-Saxon sources. (12)
The root has an indication towards cereal grains, and the act of threshing. Words developed from this root in Germanic languages are þyrel, þurh, þrum and þǫrmr which each have their prescribed roots as þurhilą, þurhw, and þruma. All of these relate to creating holes; an opening, or material that is bored through such as a tree trunk, or a stump, as other continental cognates give their meanings to imply beams and poles. The Scandinavian variant seems to be an edge, or the brim of a wide hole. When we look at the different renditions of the þursar, we can see the similarities to these other terms:
- Old Norse — þurs
- Old English — þyrs
- Middle English — þurs, thursse, thyrce, thurs, thirs
- German — turse
- Norwegian and Danish — tosse, tuss, tusse, tust
- Swedish — tuss, tusse
- Scottish Gaelic — tursa.
The mechanical function of this potential root serves as the aggression and action of this force when unfettered, creating holes and fractures in the flesh of the earth and the fabric of the firmament. In many ways, creating a threshold to cross as terə is implied to do, which would lend to negative connotations, as this being would be directly opposed to both the social or cosmological order. This damages the sanctity of order.
I hypothesize that in later mythopoetic renditions, this was separated to become a wholly separate set of beings that relied on entropy as their main function, hence their positions in late Germanic sources.
A final form is ters, which means a thirst or dryness. This gives the Old Norse terms þorskr and þorsti; þurstu being proposed in Proto-Germanic. It can relate to literal thirst, or towards a dryness of an object like harðfiskur, or dried fish. The Latin descendant of the suffixed ters root gives the word terrain. Based on this, we can place these beings as having a more chthonic nature, and thus within the Indo-European cosmogony – being inherently destructive and hostile towards the fundamental forces such as those aerial or celestial types. There is always this type of dualism in Indo-European macrocosmology.
Tenə, as it is given with the subscript (s), is based on cognates in Satem languages such as the following:
- Sankrit — stánati
- Old Church Slavonic — стенати (stenati)
- Russian — стенать (stenát)
- Lithuanian — stenati/steneti.
These terms come from the extended root of Proto-Indo-European sténh₂-e-ti; which can be rendered as (s)ténə-e-ti or (s)ténəti. These forms follow the similar route as postulated in Proto-Indo-Aryan and Proto-Indo-Iranian stánati. The Vedic and Iranic influence on Balto-Slavic languages is evident even today.
The interesting thing to note, is that in Middle-Iranian languages such as Parthian and Sogdian, the (s) was dropped and became the words, tndwr/tandur, and twntr/tundar respectively. These shifts are crucial, as they detail an emphasis on the initial dental. The modern Persian word is تندر, or tundar, and the Pashto term is tana. These words had formed before the actual word thunder had been created in Germanic languages. These were very likely formed from the retention of the ten root in Eurasian and other Asiatic languages based on interaction with Indo-European languages for a time.
The dropping of the (s) was also within the Centum languages at certain points, such as in Greek τείνω (teínō); τόνος (tónos), and Latin tono; tonos; tonus; tonere; tendere. Evidence of retention of the (s) is in Ancient Greek in the words στένω (sténō); Στέντωρ (sténtor), and German stöhnen. The proposed origin of this form is still said to be of (s)ten which means a groaning, or a sigh as a separate derivation of tenə. This very clearly comes from the low rumbling of thunder or howling winds often heard off in the distance during storms. A final note; the (s) subscript is what is known as an s-mobile, and likely derives from a remnant of an earlier gemination, and then was subject to a degemination process. The origin of the (s) was likely in reference to thunder in a genitive context of some sort – being owned by another being or object. (13)
But based on the overwhelming lack of the (s) in other cognates, it seems that this other being or object being left behind in favor of the resulting thunder as the sole focus. Indirectly detailing that the act of thundering was a characteristic of a certain being – the inanimate divine sky who was transitioning towards animation via violent storm. The result of this celestial violence was the power of thunder being kept as a taboo word and eventually fashioned into a separate and distinct divine form, and the original divine operator being forgotten or maintaining a more distant function as “the one who moves, but moves not”.
When looking under this lens, we may see this original being, this Sky Father as emanative; becoming various celestial or aerial divine forms over time — a different mask for the same force.
1. The first firmament element is inherent in the etymology of the Germanic Thunderer. The origin of this is from the Proto-Indo-European root TEN, denoting the expanse of the sky being the inanimate divine function.
2. (s)TEN is the second firmament element, and is an animate variation of (1), and is the audible prelude to the third firmament element; the howling sound of wind.
3. The third firmament element, or the meteorological element is noted by the shift to the word TENə which is Thunder and is an animate divine function.
4. The first chthonic element yields a notion of being a dry and cold landscape, being an inanimate divine form, which is characterized by the root TER.
5. The second chthonic element is characterized by the term TERɐ, which gives way to an action of aggression and damage by boring holes and creating negative spaces via fashioning thresholds within the cosmological, or natural order.
6. The primary aggression element is held within the root TERə, which has its origin in the characterization of the Thunderer, which later became another negative function that stood against the natural order of Indo-European cosmogony. This is an additional animate divine function and was an early cult function of the Thunderer being the one who overcomes or crosses the threshold of chaos and death that is representative of the dragon and/or serpent figures.
7. The retention and re-organization of these terms were likely kept as taboo words so as to not incur the wrath of the operant or active form of a celestial being; the result being the formation of a new entity or set of entities entirely.
8. (1), (2), (3), and (6) were merged together as both linguistic elements and concepts to create what we now as Þórr. This is primarily a celestial element.
9. (4), (5), and (6) merged together as both linguistic elements and concepts to create what we now know as Þurs. This is primarily a chthonic element.
10. This entire concept likely originated from an epithet about an all-encompassing Sky Father figure; resulting in the splitting into many different divine variations over time across many cultures.
1. Altgerm. Religionsgesch., I, pp. 170-175.; Mythes et dieux des Germains, 1939, ch 1: Mythologie indo-européenne et mythologie germanique; Mitra-Varuna, Georges Dumézil.
2. Saga Ólafs konungs Tryggvasonar 167: Þórr sat í miðju; Eyrbyggja Saga ch. 3, 4; Hann varðveitti þar í eyjunni Þórshof og var mikill vinur Þórs og af því var hann Þórólfur kallaður; Þórólfur Mostrarskegg fékk að blóti miklu og gekk til fréttar við Þór; Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, Descriptio Insularum Aquilonis: in hoc templo, quod totum ex auro paratum est trium deorum venerator populus, ita ut potentissimus eorum Thor in medio solium habeat triclinio.
3. Viðrir, from veðr; Gylfaginning ch. 6, 40; Skáldskaparmál 64, after poem 154.
4. American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots: (s)tenə.
5. American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots: ten.
6. American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots: ten, II.1.
7. American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots: ten, I.1.b.
8. Germania, Tacitus, ch 39: Vetustissimos se nobilissimosque Sueborum Semnones memorant; fides antiquitatis religione firmatur. Stato tempore in silvam auguriis patrum et prisca formidine sacram omnes eiusdem sanguinis populi legationibus coeunt caesoque publice homine celebrant barbari ritus horrenda primordia.
9. Ynglinga saga ch 21: Dagr hét son Dyggva konungs, er konungdóm tók eptir hann; hann var maðr svá spakr, at hann skildi fugls rödd. Hann átti spörr einn, er honum sagði mörg tíðindi; flaug hann á ymsi lönd.
10. Journal of Indo-European Studies; About the Mitanni-Aryan Gods, 2010, Arnoud Fournet.
11. American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots: terə2
12. Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem: Ðorn byþ ðearle scearp; ðegna gehƿylcum anfeng ys yfyl, ungemetum reþe manna gehƿelcum, ðe him mid resteð.
13. Indo-European s-mobile and Indo-European morphology, Kenneth Shields Jr., 1996.