Going Beyond the Fairy Tales with Jacob Grimm

Photo of Jacob Grimm

Jacob Grimm

I recently got to download a Grimm book!

No doubt we’ve all heard of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, a collection of German tales compiled by the “brothers Grimm,” Jacob and Wilhelm, originally published in 1812. This collection has been reproduced and reprinted and added to and told and told again, over and over for two centuries, now. While many of the tales have now been sanitized, removing their original darker elements, in their original form, they reflected something of the true depth of real myth. It’s a collection everyone should become familiar with.

But this is not that book.

In university, years ago and to my joy and wonder, I discovered a set of four volumes entitled, Teutonic Mythology, translated from the original Deutsche Mythologie, put together by Jacob Grimm, the elder of the two brothers. He was a philologist — a studier of words and their history — as well as a jurist and mythologist. And his extensive studies of many languages and customs allowed him to trace links between the myths and mythical tales and practices of many European countries.

I have been a fanatic about myth since I became conscious. And as in all things, the older the traces of myth are, the more fascinated and enchanted I am. So I read as much as I could of the four volumes, back in my university days. And I have spent a couple of decades since then, trying to find them again. Somewhere, anywhere!

And now, through various downloading sites for more historic and even ancient books, and through Google Books, which seems to have been the main digitizer, I have finally found them. Hurray! I’ve downloaded all four volumes and am well into the first.

But here’s the thing. Two things, actually. First, Grimm was one of those who just assumed that the people reading his work knew the languages he quoted. So as he gives examples of ancient god names and sacred terms that seem to carry through from one language and culture to another (Anglo-Saxon, Old High German, etc.) — he doesn’t often make a translation. So I’m picking out a few words I recognize here and there or tracing the links I can detect, without actually knowing what the quotes are saying. Ah, those nineteenth century scholars. (Theologians and philosophers did the exact same thing.)

But there’s something funny too. Something that shows why not everything can be automated and why humans will always be necessary. I guess Google Books’ digitization process is meant to be kind of automatic. But the print may be faded or slightly unclear in places, in whatever books were used in this particular process. Or the digitizing program just didn’t recognize a symbol and came up a sort of “best guess.”

So take the word “Roman.” Much of the time, it reads “Eoman” in this book. Or, occasionally, “Boman.” It took me a while to recognize what was going on; I mean, this is talking about Germanic, Teutonic, Scandinavian stuff — remember Eomer and Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings? Yeah. So it took a few times before I realized, “Oh, ROMAN!”

Then there is “aU.” Which, it turns out, is a frequent instance of the word “all.” And what the heck is a “Uack hull,” which is being led to sacrifice?? Why, a “black bull,” of course. So here I am, trying to piece together words from fairly ancient Teutonic languages while also trying to decipher Google’s digitization mistakes. It’s kind of funny.

But for the most part, though, I’m doing it. And I am just loving finding out anew all those ancient linguistic connections and the earliest cultural traces of what are probably my favorite deities from any pantheon! (Loki is my patron god, after all; his ancient day is my birthday.)

Thank goodness for the Internet, and for Google’s digitization of a set of books I have looked for, like, forever! Rediscovering all these things is really wonderful. Or should I say, “reaUy womerful!”


    1. Nicola O. says:

      Sadly, I think that would drive me nuts. I had enough trouble with a recent digitization that skipped many, many periods.

      • Phyl says:

        Yes, it can definitely be offputting. I just want to read this very, very much, so I’ve managed to figure out most of the badly digitized words. And I suppose, since I’ve got the mindset that I can do some skimming over the quotes in the Teutonic languages, it’s probably easier for me to skim over stuff like “Uack hull” too. But I’m a weirdo. 😀

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