Wednesday, October 18, 2017

We Need To Talk About Gefjun: Toward a new etymology of an Old Icelandic theonym

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Date:November 28, 2014
The name of a deity often reveals something of their character, and can shed light on obscure elements in the mythology. Unfortunately the prehistory of a word is itself often obscure, and care must be taken not to project a meaning onto a word that was never truly there. The goddess name Gefjun has long been considered to mean ‘the giving one’, and the goddess interpreted as a generous deity of vegetation, but the superficial similarity of the name to the word gefa v. ‘to give’ is not reason enough to come to such a conclusion. As Sturtevant (1952, 166—7) pointed out, the root-final j in Gefjun would have caused i-umlaut of the root vowel, indicating an earlier *a. There is much evidence to suggest a connection to OI gǫfugr adj. ‘noble’ and Goth. gabei f. ‘riches’ but the nature of that connection is unclear. One possibility is that the name Gefjun is a deverbal from an unattested *gefja, pret. *gefjaði. Another is that it is a “Hoffmann formation” derived by the same manner as Óðinn, þjóðann, and possibly some goddess names as well. This essay consideres the etymology of Gefjun through comparative linguistics and investigation of Icelandic manuscript sources. In the end it is concluded that the word is most likely a Hoffmann formation meaning ‘she who rules/pertains to *gaƀī’, and possible meanings of *gaƀi are considered.
Image credit:
Terry Whalebone: