Nymphs and Gnomes

The last chapter has brought us down to earth. Now we shall round off our theological tour by surveying a miscellany of deities and supernatural beings who, while not constituent elements of our terrestrial environment like the Waters or the Earth-goddess herself, inhabit some part of it.

If Indo-European religious experience was in part a response to the orderly beauties of the heavens and the tumultuous dramas of the troposphere, another part of it was prompted by the more numinous aspects of the natural landscape. Away from human settlements, out in the wild where we do not feel at home, the encounter with forest or mountain may arouse exultation, awe, or unease. The oldest Indo-European holy places seem to have been situated amid nature, associated with trees, groves, or springs. Hittite gods had their stelai set up in such places, and numerous writers from antiquity on tell of the sacred trees and groves of the Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, and Slavonic peoples.1 We have seen that rivers and springs were themselves objects of veneration. There are many records too of worship directed towards holy trees.2

But here we are concerned with the more personal beings that live Out There, in trees or caves or underground, not fixed in one spot but seen unpredictably in different places, or not seen but manifested in mocking voices or mischievous pranks. They are for the most part not unique individuals but pluralities such as nymphs, elves, dwarfs, or giants. They have only occasional dealings with humankind, and contact with them is best avoided.

1 Gurney (1977), 27, 35 f.; Tac. Germ.. 7. 2, 9. 2, 39. 1, 40. 3, 43. 3, Ann. 1. 59, 61, 2. 12, etc.; Clemen (1928), 15. 27, 26. 23, 46. 3, 72. 13; id. (1936), 93. 3, 95. 2, 96. 8, 97. 9, etc.; C. H. Meyer (1931), 20. 23, 22. 23, 23. 20, 43. 38, 44. 5, 45. 16, 58. 15, 59. 21. Cf. Grimm (1883-8), 66-87, 1309-12, 1454; Feist (1913), 353 f.; Unbegaun (1948), 422, 429; de Vries (1956), i. 351-3; M. Green (1986), 21; Vaiia (1992), 177-9.

2 Max. Tyr. 2. 8, 'the Celts revere Zeus, but the Celtic effigy of Zeus is a tall oak', cf. Val. Fl. 6. 90; Grimm (1883-8), 75 n. 1, 648-54; Mannhardt (1905), i. 9-70; id. (1936), 442 f. = Clemen (1936), 112; C. H. Meyer (1931), 6. 21, 26. 37, 30. 35; Vendryes (1948), 281; de Vries (1956), i. 350 f.; id. (1961), 187-90; Biezais-Balys (1973), 413, 424; Vaiia (1992), 140-2.

Though basically similar to us in form, they are often differentiated from the human race by their larger or smaller size, or by having some admixture of animal features, or extra heads or limbs, or some other peculiarity.

In the case of sylvan deities there is some fluctuation between plural and singular. Are the woods, after all, one domain or many? In Indic mythology we have on the one hand the nymphs called Apsarases (on whom more below), on the other Aranyani 'Mrs Forest', who is praised in a late hymn of the Rigveda and called 'mother of wild creatures' (mrgOnam mataram, 10. 146. 6). In Greece we have Silenus and Sileni, Pan and Panes; in Italy Faunus and Fauni, Silvanus and Silvani, Silvana and Silvanae; in Lithuania Medeine 'Wood-girl' and Medeines.3

Some of these have appellations derived directly from words for 'forest', 'wood'. There may be one such name with a wider than regional attestation, remaining from a late Indo-European stratum. An Illyrian god Vidasus, known from a group of inscriptions from Croatia and corresponding to Silvanus in other Balkan inscriptions, appears to be derived from *widhu-'tree, forest', a word represented in Celtic and Germanic. It has been argued that he has a counterpart in the Norse god V15arr, whose name (apart from the long first vowel) recalls viir 'tree, forest' and who is said to live amid long grass and brushwood (Grimnismal 17). Nothing else is recorded about him, however, except that he will avenge his father Odin at Ragnarak by killing the wolf Fenrir.4

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