“Nearly all my labors have been devoted, either directly or indirectly, to the investigation of our earlier language, poetry and laws. These studies may have appeared to many, and may still appear, useless; to me they have always seemed a noble and earnest task, definitely and inseparably connected with our common fatherland, and calculated to foster the love of it. My principle has always been in these investigations to under-value nothing, but to utilize the small for the illustration of the great, the popular tradition for the elucidation of the written monuments.” -Jacob Grimm (1785–1863)
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were an era in which the idea of a common German culture really emerged as a cultural and political force. Among the multitude of German intellectuals to make their marks on history, perhaps the most significant (after Goethe and Alexander von Humboldt), was Jacob Ludwig Karl Grimm. Jacob Grimm, along with his younger brother Wilhelm, are most well known today because of their collection of fairy tales (first published in 1812, but not particularly child-friendly for the time). Jacob Grimm was a philologist (one who studies the history of a language through written historical sources), a librarian, jurist, folklorist, and briefly an elected member of parliament (the 1848 Frankfurt Parliament). His linguistic studies proved pivotal for the study of both German and English (as English is a Germanic language). He was the author of a monumental history of Teutonic mythology, co-author of the famous collection of fairy tales, and co-author of the Deutsches Wörterbuch, the largest dictionary of the German language — a project which was not actually completed until 1961. Jacob Grimm is rightly remembered for his work in collecting fairy tales but his legacy goes way beyond this. He deserves to be remembered as one of the most important European scholars of the first half of the nineteenth century — a man whose work is just as relevant to those living today as it was to nineteenth-century Germans and linguists studying the Indo-European languages.
Deutsche Mythologie (1835)
In terms of quality, the Deutsche Mythologie is one of the most important contributions to the study of ancient Germanic societies and belief systems. Jacob Grimm’s early life was dominated by the specter of French expansionism. The French invaded much of what is now Germany and created a client state called the Confederation of the Rhine. While French nationalism had its basis in radical identity politics and military expansionism under Napoleon, German nationalism emerged partly in reaction to this. With no single, united, Germany, scholars looked increasingly toward that which united Germans — language. There were, of course, regional variants and dialects but a clearly German language existed across the many states and confederations which, at various times, occupied the German lands. Beginning with Luther’s Bible and use of the German-invented movable-type printing press, German literature took center stage. In the eighteenth century, German intellectual giants (most notably Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) had an international impact. With regard to folklore, the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder emphasized the importance of folklore, custom, and language as unifying elements which, together, create a nation. Herder was pushing back against the rage for all things Greek. One historian even referred to the powerful eighteenth century Greek influence on German culture as the ‘tyranny of Greece over Germany. Herder focused, instead on local customs in the German lands. His work proved to be a significant influence on Jacob Grimm.
The Brothers Grimm began their folklore studies by collecting and publishing a collection of fairy tales. It was only two decades later that Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie was published. Jacob Grimm focused on the early history of the German people, a cultural analysis which worked well with his linguistic interests also centered on the ancient origins of the German language. While the Children’s and Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm offer a delightful, and gruesome, introduction to the tales passed down through generations, Deutsche Mythologie goes directly toward the ancient Pagan source of the culture itself.
“The Grimms believed that the earliest history of all peoples was the folk sagas and that history had neglected them because they contained no “facts.” Jacob was one of those who believed that, to the contrary, sagas contained more historical substance than anyone thought. He likened medieval literature to medieval cathedrals. the “anonymous expression of the soul of a people.” In Deutsche Mythologie, where he added oral history to written stories, he described a world of swan maidens, pixies, kobolds, elves, dwarfs, and giants, all retreating as Christianity spread across Europe.” -Peter Watson, ‘The German Genius.’ p.266
The metaphysical substructure of Germany and, indeed the West more generally, is fundamentally pagan. Parliamentary government, the way it exists now, was born out of Germanic pagan assemblies called ‘things.’ These were popular among the Norse and existed throughout Scandinavia. The Icelandic Althing, the world’s oldest surviving legislature, was established by pagan Norse settlers in the tenth century. The connection between language and representative government was present even at this early stage. The Pagan assemblies, or things, were religious as well as political. They served as checks on the king or tribal leaders power, which was far from absolute. The Germanic assembly, known as the ‘thing,’ went back centuries before the fall of the Roman Empire and was even depicted on the Column of Marcus Aurelius (193 CE, see below).
Jacob Grimm also analyzed a popular Pagan motif, the Wild Hunt (Wilde Jagd). The opening of this article includes a monumental depiction in paint of the Wild Hunt from 1872 by Norwegian artist Peter Nikolai Arbo. The scene it depicts, which survived in various forms through folk traditions, was popularized from a scholarly perspective by Jacob Grimm. The Wild Hunt depicts a group of people, usually led by a god (such as Odin), moving across the night sky collecting the souls of the dead.
“Another class of spectres will prove more fruitful for our investigation: they, like the ignes fatui, include unchristened babes, but instead of straggling singly on the earth as fires, they sweep through forest and air in whole companies with a horrible din. This is the widely spread legend of the furious host, the furious hunt, which is of high antiquity, and interweaves itself, now with gods, and now with heroes. Look where you will, it betrays its connexion with heathenism.” -Jacob Grimm
The gods of the ancient Germans and those of the Scandinavians were often the same but with different names (ex: Odin (Scandinavia) is Wotan (in parts of Germany) Thor is Donar, and so on). In Arbo’s painting, it is Odin who leads the hunting party. As a side note, much of the imagery of the Wild Hunt has been co-opted as Christmas imagery — Odin as Santa Clause, the reindeer referencing the Scandinavian origins of the story, the nighttime flight, and the reindeer Donner and Blitzen (‘Thunder’ and ‘Lightning,’ referencing both the God Thor and the two goats who pulls his chariot, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr).
Linguistics — Grimm’s Law
In the realm of linguistics, an understanding of a link between Sanskrit and various European languages was coming to light in the eighteenth century, thanks to pioneering work by British philologist William Jones (1746–1794). With the rise of German nationalism in the early nineteenth century, linguistics analyses developed rather quickly. With the German language as a unifying element of a nation, German scholars became interested in the history and development of their language. The Brothers Grimm approached this through studying folk tales, mythology, and the language itself through written historical sources. Their work, particularly that of Jacob Grimm, provide an interesting analysis of the connection of written and oral sources for national identity. This was, after all, the age before nationalism had become corrupted by the aggressive militarism of the latter decades of the century (though this development had already taken hold in France). Jacob Grimm noted key sound changes which occurred as languages developed. He identified systematic changes within the German language family. Grimm’s Law describes these shifts in stop consonants as they developed in Proto-Germanic languages. Specifically, he noted that the following sound changes occurred:
‘P’ -> ‘F’ (ex: ‘ped’ (Latin) -> fuß (German) -> ‘foot’ (English)
‘D’ -> ‘T’
‘K’ -> ‘H’
‘T’ -> ‘TH’
‘B’ -> ‘P’
‘G’ -> ‘K’
Children’s and Household Tales 1812
The Brothers Grimm collected many of their tales from a single source — a storyteller, Dorothea Viehmann (1755–1815). Viehmann was of Huguenot descent (her ancestors fled France after Louis XIV cracked down on religious toleration). This influenced some of the themes in her tales. She also seems to have had an excellent memory, recounting her stories without changing a single word.
The first edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales was published in 1812 and contained 86 stories. Later editions followed. The first few of these added stories (including many from Viehmann). Later translations (from the mid-19th century) include alterations of the tales to make them more child-friendly and suitable for a middle class readership. This included removing sexual references and changing the wicked mothers into stepmothers. Some stories did have, and continued to have, anti-Semitic references.
The original 1812 edition contained many of the most famous tales in the entire work: Rapunzel, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Rumpelstiltskin. These stories serve as an important insight into German peasant culture over the course of the centuries. Hansel and Gretel, for example, may date back to the Great Famine in the early fourteenth century when desperate and poor parents abandoned their children in the wilderness. Dark realities are ever present in the tales, adding to their value as both historical documents (of a rich oral tradition) and reflections of deep aspects of the human condition.
Jacob Grimm was one of the most important scholars in German history and made a global impact which has rendered his name immortal. He united the oral and written accounts of a language and its folk traditions, helping to forge a national identity. He stood on the shoulders of giants like Herder as well as more humble figures like Dorothea Viehmann. While twentieth century German nationalism rightly deserves to be condemned, nineteenth century German nationalism should be viewed in a different light (particularly the nationalism of Germans in reaction to the French in the early part of that century). Jacob Grimm allows one to reconceptualize the positive elements of this nationalism. Perhaps, this was best expressed by Johann Gottfried Herder in the quote below.
“Every one loves his country, his manners, his language, his wife, his children; not because they are the best in the world, but because they are absolutely his own, and he loves himself and his own labors in them.” -Johann Gottfried Herder