In Norse mythology, a dís ("lady", plural dísir) is a ghost, spirit or deity associated with fate who can be both benevolent and antagonistic towards mortal people. Dísir may act as protective spirits of Norse clans. Their original function was possibly that of fertility goddesses who were the object of both private and official worship called dísablót, and their veneration may derive from the worship of the spirits of the dead. The dísir, like the valkyries, norns, and vættir, are almost always referred to collectively. The North Germanic dísir and West Germanic Idisi are believed by some scholars to be related due to linguistic and mythological similarities, but the direct evidence of Anglo-Saxon and Continental German mythology is limited. The dísir play roles in Norse texts that resemble those of fylgjur, valkyries, and norns, so that some have suggested dísir is a broad term including the other beings.
Etymology and meaning
Scholars have associated the dísir with the West Germanic Idisi, seeing the initial i- as having been lost early in Old or Proto-Norse. Jacob Grimm points out that dís Skjöldunga in the Eddic Helgakviða Hundingsbana II (v. 52) is exactly parallel to ides Scildinga "Scylding queen" in Beowulf (l. 1168). He also suggests that Iðunn may be a reflex of the original form of the word. However, except for the Second Merseburg Charm, in which they work battle-magic, idis only occurs with the meaning "lady," sometimes "maiden." The words are not assumed to be directly related by some scholars, although the resemblance evidently led to influence on Old Norse poetic usage.
Other scholars group all female spirits and deities associated with battle under the class of idis, dis, valkyrie and other names such as sigewif (victory-women, associated by the Anglo-Saxons with a swarm of bees) and find the commonalities both linguistically and in surviving myths and magic charms sufficient cause to group together all variations on this theme from various Germanic cultures. Stories from these other cultures survive from earlier dates than the Eddas and it is difficult to conclusively construct a clear pre-Christian mythology without conjecture. However, the Germanic languages appear to have had a northward rather than southward progression from the initial contact with the speakers of Indo-European languages near Denmark or Jutland H. Davidson notes a similar northward progression of mythology where elements of Proto-Germanic concepts have morphed or been combined by the time of the recording of the Icelandic sagas.
According to Rudolf Simek, Old Norse dís appears commonly as simply a term for 'woman,' just as Old High German itis, Old Saxon idis, and Anglo-Saxon ides, and may have also been used to denote a type of goddess. According to Simek, "several of the Eddic sources might lead us to conclude that the disir were valkyrie-like guardians of the dead, and indeed in Guðrúnarkviða I 19 the valkyries are even called Herjans disir 'Odin's disir'. The disir are explicitly called dead women in Atlamál 28 and a secondary belief that the disir were the souls of dead women (see fylgjur) also underlies the landdísir of Icelandic folklore." Simek says that "as the function of the matrons was also extremely varied – fertility goddess, personal guardians, but also warrior-goddesses – the belief in the dísir, like the belief in the valkyries, norns, and matrons, may be considered to be different manifestations of a belief in a number of female (half-?) goddesses."
- Main article dísablót.
There is considerable evidence that the dísir were worshipped in Scandinavia in pagan times.
Firstly, a sacrificial festival (blót) honouring them, the dísablót, is mentioned in one version of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks konungs and in Víga-Glúms saga, Egils saga and the Heimskringla. According to Víga-Glúms saga it was held at Winter Nights (at the onset of winter). In Hervarar saga, the dísablót is also held in autumn, and is performed by a woman, the daughter of King Álfr of Álfheim, who "reddens the hörgr with sacrifices and is subsequently rescued by the god Thor after she has been abducted; John Lindow suggests that the passage depicts a model of heathen behaviour. In western Scandinavia, dísablót appears to have been a private observance; even the large gathering in Víga-Glúms saga was for family and friends.
In contrast, according to the Saga of St. Olaf in Heimskringla, at Gamla Uppsala the dísablót was celebrated during the month of Gói, i.e. in late February or early March, and accompanied by a popular assembly known as the Thing of all Swedes or Dísaþing and a yearly fair. When Christianity arrived, the assembly and market were moved to a Christian feast at the beginning of February:
At the time when heathendom still prevailed in Sweden, it was an old custom there that the main sacrifices were held in Uppsala in the month of Gói . . . Sacrifices were to be made at that time for peace and victory for the king, and people from all over Sweden were to resort there. At that place and time also was to be the assembly of all Swedes, and there was also a market and a fair which lasted a week. Now when Christianity was introduced, the general assembly and the market were still held there. But at present, when Christianity is general in Sweden and the kings have ceased residing at Uppsala, the market has been shifted to meet at Candlemas; . . . but now it lasts only three days. The general assembly of the Swedes is there.
The stated purpose of the dísablót at Uppsala is to sacrifice for peace and victory. Norwegian places called Disin, from Old Norse Dísavin, "meadow of the dísir," and the possible relationship of the word to the Indian dhīsanas have suggested to some scholars that the dísir were fertility figures.
There are also two mentions of a hall or temple of a dís. In the Ynglinga saga part of Heimskringla, Aðils, the king of Sweden, dies when he rides one of his horses around the dísarsálr at the time of Dísablót and he is thrown and brains himself on a rock. In addition, it also appears in Hervarar saga where Helga becomes so infuriated over the death of her father at the hands of Heiðrekr, her husband, that she hangs herself in the shrine.
Although Snorri Sturluson does not mention the dísir in the Prose Edda, he does list Vanadís—'dís of the Vanir'— as a name for Freyja, and öndurdís—'snow-shoe dís'—as a name for Skaði. Lotte Motz suggested that dís was the original Old Norse word for 'goddess' and had been replaced later by ásynja, which is simply the feminine of áss.
Relationship to other female figures
In many texts, the dísir are equated to or seem to play the same role as other female figures.
In Þiðranda þáttr ok Þórhalls, the youth Þiðrandi is killed by dísir dressed in black, riding black horses, while a troop of dísir dressed in white and riding white horses are unable to save him. The two groups represent the struggle between heathenry and Christianity. The benevolent dísir here play the role of tutelary spirits associated with a family, and Thorhall the Prophet explains them as fylgjur. The dísir are also referred to as if they are, or include, protective fylgjur in an exchange of verses in Hálfs saga ok Hálfsrekka. Útsteinn quarrels with Úlfr at the court of King Eysteinn of Denmark, saying he believes "our dísir" have come with him, armed, to Denmark; Úlfr replies that he thinks all the dísir of Útsteinn and his men are dead and their luck run out.
In Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, when the hero Helgi Hundingsbane first meets the valkyrie Sigrún, the poet calls her a "dís of the south"; Henry Adams Bellows rendered this simply "the southern maid".
The dísir are also equated with or play the role of norns. They give an impression of great age, but by the time of our texts, their significance had become blurred and the word had lost almost all distinct meaning.
Accordingly, some scholars have argued that dísir may be the original term for the valkyries (lit. "choosers of the slain"), which in turn would be a kenning for dís. As opposed to valkyrja and norn, the term dís never appears in the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. As stated above, dís has been regarded as cognate with Old High German itis, Old Saxon idis and the Anglo-Saxon ides, all meaning "lady",; and idisi appears as the name of the valkyries in the only surviving pagan source from Germany, the Merseburg Incantations (see below). Dís also had the meaning "lady" in Old Norse poetry as in the case of Freyja whose name itself means "lady" (frawjō) and who is called Vanadís ("lady of the vanir"). Adding to the ambiguous meaning of dís is the fact that just like supernatural women were called dísir in the sense "ladies", mortal women were frequently called by names for supernatural women, as noted by Snorri Sturluson in Skáldskaparmál:
|“||Woman is also metaphorically called by the names of the Ásynjur or the Valkyrs or Norns or women of supernatural kind.||”|
The name dís appears in several place names in Norway and Sweden. Moreover, it was a common element in girls' names as evidenced on runestones, and it still is in Iceland. The word appears as a first element in Old High German female given names such as Itispuruc and Itislant. More frequent are Old Norse given names such as Thórdís, Hjördís, Ásdís, Vigdís, Halldís, Freydís.
Old Norse sources
The eddic poem Hamðismál deals with how Hamðir and Sörli go to the Gothic king Ermanaric to exact vengeance for the cruel death of their half-sister Svanhild. On the way, they kill their reluctant brother Erpr. Knowing that he is about to die at the hands of the Goths, Sörli talks of the cruelty of the dísir who incited him to kill Erpr, who would have cut off the head of Ermanaric and made their expedition successful. In this poem, dísir appears as a synonym of norns and the translator Henry Adams Bellows simply translates dísir as norns:
In Reginsmál, the unmarried girl Lyngheiðr is called dís ulfhuguð (dís/lady with the soul of a wolf) as an insult. Later in the same poem, there is a stanza, where the dísir appear as female spirits accompanying a warrior in order to see him dead in battle, a role where they are synonymous with valkyries:
An additional instance where dís is synonymous with valkyrie is the skaldic poem Krákumál – composed by Ragnarr Loðbrók while awaiting his death in a snake pit. It features the line: Heim bjóða mér dísir (the dísir invite me home), as one of several poetic circumscriptions for what awaits him.
One source seems to describe the Dísir as the ghosts or spirits of dead women. In Atlamál, believed to have been written in Greenland in the 12th century, the character Glaumvör warns her husband Gunnar that she had a dream about the Dísir. Some of the surrounding text has been lost and it is not known what Gunnar may have said prior to this, and there is disagreement on which stanza number this should be given. A possible translation of the material is given as follows by John Lindow in his 2001 book Norse Mythology:
- "I thought dead women
- came hither into the hall,
- not poorly decked out.
- They wished to choose you,
- would've invited you quickly
- to their benches;
- I declare of no value
- these dísir to you."
- The article Diser in Nationalencyklopedin (1991).
- The article Dis in Nordisk familjebok (1907).
- Else Mundal, "The Position of the Individual Gods and Goddesses in Various Types of Sources - With Special Reference to the Female Divinities," (1990) Bergen Open Research Archive, pp. 310-11 (pdf).
- Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H. Davidson, Penguin Books, 1990, pp. 62-64, ISBN 0-14-013627-4
- August Fick, Vergleichendes Wörterbuch der Indogermanischen Sprachen Part 3 Wortschatz der Germanischen Spracheinheit, 4th ed. rev. Alf Torp, Hjalmar Falk, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1909, OCLC 491891019, "dîsî, dîsi," p. 206.
- Jan de Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, 2 vols., vol. 2, 2nd ed. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1957, repr. as 3rd ed. 1970, p. 299, note 2 (German); the etymology was proposed by K.F. Johansson, Über die Altindische Göttin Dhisana und Verwandtes: Beiträge zum Fruchtbarkeitskultus in Indien, Skrifter utgifna af Kungl. Vet. Samf. i Uppsala 20.1 (1918).
- Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, tr. James Steven Stallybrass, 4 vols., vol. 1, London: Bell, 1882, p. 402.
- Grimm, vol. 1, pp. 402-3; the promised treatment in the Supplement, vol. 4, does not appear to exist.
- De Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, vol. 1, 2nd ed. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1956, repr. as 3rd ed. 1970, p. 322 (German).
- E.O.G. Turville Petre, Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia, London: Weidenfeld, 1964, p. 222.
- Turville-Petre, p. 222.
- A Linguistic History of English: From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic by Donald Ringe, Oxford University Press, 2009, ISBN 0-19-955229-0
- Simek (2007:61–62).
- "Disablot", Nationalencyklopedin.
- Chapter 6, translated by John McKinnell, "Killer-Glum's Saga", The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, ed. Viðar Hreinsson, Volume 2, Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson, 1997, ISBN 9979-9293-0-8, pp. 267-314, p. 275: "A feast was held during the Winter Nights, and sacrifice made to the dísir, and everyone had to take part in this observance".
- John Lindow, Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, Oxford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-19-515382-0, p. 94.
- Turville-Petre, p. 221.
- Chapter 77; Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway, tr. Lee M. Hollander, p. 315.
- The article Distingen, in the encyclopedia Nationalencyklopedin.
- De Vries, pp. 298, 299.
- Chapter 29; Hollander, p. 33 translates dísarsálr "the hall of the goddess". See also Lindow, p. 94, de Vries, p. 456 (German) suggests a ritual killing.
- The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise, tr. Christpher Tolkien, London: Nelson, 1960, OCLC 503375723, p. 26: "hanged herself in the hall of the dís".
- Gylfaginning Chapter 35, Skáldskaparmál Chapter 28; Chapter 23. In both cases the compound using dís immediately follows one using goð, 'deity': Vanagoð, öndurgoð.
- Lotte Motz, "Sister in the Cave: The Stature and the Function of the Female Figures of the Eddas", Arkiv för Nordisk Filologi 95 (1980) 168-82.
- Turville-Petre, pp. 222-24. De Vries p. 297 also draws special attention to this story as an example of the dísir drawing close to fylgjur.
- Hygg við hjálmum | hingat komnar | til Danmerkr | dísir várar. . . . at Netútgáfan in modernised spelling, ch. 15; "Dead must be | All your dísir; | Luck is gone, I say, | from Hálfr's warriors", translation in Hilda Roderick Ellis [Davidson], The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature, Cambridge University Press, 1943, repr. New York: Greenwood, 1968, OCLC 442899, p. 134.
- Verse 16, dísir suðrænar, Old Norse and translation at voluspa.org.
- De Vries, p. 298.
- Including: Ström, Folke (1954) Diser, nornor, valkyrjor: Fruktberhetskult och sakralt kungadöme i Norden; Näsström, Britt-Mari (1995) Freyja: The Great Goddess of the North; and Hall, Alaric (2004) The Meanings of Elf, and Elves, in Medieval England.
- Calvin, Thomas. 'An Anthology of German Literature', D. C. Heath & co. ASIN: B0008BTK3E,B00089RS3K. P5.
- Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, tr., The Poesy of Skalds, The Prose Edda(1916; repr.)
- Hamðismál Guðni Jónsson's edition of the text with normalized spelling.
- The Ballad of Hamther in translation by Henry Adams Bellows (1936), at Sacred Texts.
- See Bellows' commentary
- Grímnismál at northvegr.org
- Thorpe's translation at northvegr.org
- Reginsmál at northvegr.org
- Bellows' translation at northvegr.org