The sign of the dead

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The sign of the dead  (1912) 
by Axel Olrik
Finnisch-ugrische Forschungen, Volume 12, pp. 40-44

Throndheim Society's transactions in 1903, gave in a special degree an impulse to the inquiry into Scandinavian loans which has been going on in late years.

This Närö-manuscript has among other things the following description of the heathen sacramental rite which the Laplander performs with his family before he goes to church to receive the Christian sacrament:

"When the day on which he is to communicate arrives, before he goes to church he (as well as his wife and children and all married and unmarried Finns who go to the Lord's Supper) first takes a glass of beer, or preferably a glass of spirits, if he has it, and dips three fingers in it with which he makes the sign of a cross on his forehead which is to signify Thor's crosshammer (this he does to assure Thor of his steadfast faithful service). A second time he dips his fingers into the beer or spirits and makes therewith three marks, one for each finger, on his bare breast (this he does so that jami, the dead, and especially his deceased kinsmen and family may guard him so that no confession of that or any other idolatry may come from his mouth or heart in case the priest should want to question him narrowly on that matter, thereupon he throws out the fourth part of the beer or spirits into his fire-place, if he is at home, or on the floor where he is standing if he is in a farm-house, to the heathen goddess Sarakka, and then puts the glass of spirits to his lips with these words: "dat le Sarakka Gare" (this is Sarakka's chalice) and when he has drunk it, casts himself upon his knees and makes this prayer to Saracha … This prayer I saw in Lappish at Lector von Westen's, but did not get time to copy it out."[1]

What I should especially like to draw attention to are the three marks which the Lapp makes on his breast when he wants to consecrate himself to the Jabmi, the dead. We see, moreover, that the action consists of two parts: 1st the consecration to the god of thunder and to the dead with the subsequent pouring out of the beer; and 2nd the drinking from the glass with the declaration that that is Sarakka's cup. The latter appears to be a distinct counterpart of the Christian communion; the words of consecration correspond to the words used at the administration of the sacrament in the Lutheran church. On the other hand the first part with its consecration & pouring out into the fire-place is purely pagan. The signing with the god of thunder's crosshammer before the offering corresponds to the account of the participation of Haakon, Athelstan's foster-son, in the sacrifice of the people of Trondheim which Snorre Sturleson gives. It seems strange that after the two consecrations heer should be poured four times on the ground; the first must certainly apply to the god of thunder, called up by the sign of the hammer. Perhaps the three others refer to the Jabmi, or the dead, summoned by the three marks. I shall come back to this point later.

That a so strongly marked individual cult as this consecration with the three marks was not created by the Lapps themselves is clear; and it can only have been borrowed from one source — the Scandinavians. A religious symbol consisting of three marks in a triangle is not infrequently met with in northern antiquities. This is especially the case in monuments of the time of the Migration, on bracteates and on the lowest ring on the larger of the Golden Horns from Gallehus. Since the Lappish sign consisted of three marks made by the fingertips at the same time (which therefore must have come to stand in a triangle), the Scandinavian and Lappish signs with regard to form are the same.

The only one who, so far as I know, has touched upon the history of this sign, is J. A. Worsaae in his famous lecture on the Golden Horns in the Antiquarian Society at Copenhagen in 1880, and in his Nordens Forhistorie, 1881 (p. 156 and 169). He interprets it as a sign of the triune godhead Odin-Thor-Frey. But since a real trinity conception of these gods is quite alien to northern sources, this interpretation must be exceedingly doubtful.

Another point in Worsaae's theory may perhaps be of greater interest. According to his explanation of the Golden Horns the pillars and plates where the three marks appear are the open doors of Helheim. That would indeed coincide remarkably with the Lappish doctrine that the sign signifies the dead. But until this archæological material is taken up and treated in a much more thorough way than hitherto, we can have no sure ground for determining this point. However, the very fact of having established an outward agreement between the Lappish and Scandinavian symbol is of interest.

Let us now turn to the tribe in the northern part of Europe where the worship of the dead has survived with remarkable insistency. Among the Lithuanians there is the following custom at burials: three pieces of bread and three spoonfuls of soup are thrown on the ground in honour of the goddess of the earth, Zemilene, in order that she may receive the dead well. This is also a triple offering to the kingdom of the dead just as in the case of the Lappish custom.[2]

The three marks as a plain symbol in the worship of the dead is found again in another place, but far off. In India, the Pariahs, in the district near Vellore, have small earthern altars with edge-shaped unhewn stones (which, according to later investigation, should be reckoned in the "thunderstone" class). At the ceremony they are smeared over with saffron, and three red aniline marks are made with the fingers on each stone. According to the belief of the people these stones represented in some places, the cholera or small-pox goddess; in others, the goddess Ganesa, in others again ancestors.[3] It seems to me probable that the original meaning of the three red marks was a consecration to the ancestors, and that their connection with small-pox is more modern.

At this moment I have no more evidence as to the religious use of the three marks, but I have drawn attention to this in the hope that others more qualified than I to speak on various points may be able to fill up the deficiencies.

On the other hand the three marks appear as a more practical symbol. In the picture-writing of the Egyptians they are placed after a word and mean then that the word is in the plural.[4]

There is possibly an original connection between these two ideas — "the dead" and "the many", for the dead are distinguished in superstition precisely by appearing as a company, not as individuals.

The whole matter then is connected with the ancient use of the number three, as I have shown in another connection. In many myths or tales three is the greatest or at least the most important and typical number of people brought on the scene in a company. Three means something that is neither one nor two, & has come to be fixed as a standing expression for "the many", — and consequently for "the dead".[5]

Copenhagen. Axel Olrik.

  1. »Naar nu Dagen er ankommen, paa hvilken hand vil communiceris, da førend hand hengaaer til Kirken, tager hand (det samme giør hans Kone og Børn, og alle saa vel giffte som ugifte Finner der gaae til Herrens Nadvere) et glas øll, men besynderlig et Glas Brendeviin, om hand det haver, og dypper de tre Fingre der udi, hvor med hand i siin Pande teigner et Kaars, som skal betyde Thors Kryds-Hammer (dette giør hand til at forsikkre Thor om sin stedsvarende troe Tieniste), anden gang dypper hand Fingrene i Øllet eller Brende viinen og sætter der med 3 Prikker, nemblig een for een hver Finger paa sit blotte brøst (dette giør hand paa det Jami, de dode, og besynderlig hans afdøde Frender og Slegtinger maa bevare ham, at der ingen bekiendelse maa udgaae af hans mund eller Hierte, om enten denne eller anden afgudsdørkelse, i fald Præsten der om nøye skulle ville inqvirere), derpaa udslaaer hand de 4re Parter af Øllet eller Brendeviinen udi sit Fyrsted, om hand er hiemme, men [paa] Gulvet hvor hand staaer, om hand er i et Bonde-Huus, til den afgudinde Saracha og sætter tillige Brendeviins-Glasset for Munden med disse Ord: dat le Saracha Gare (dette er Sarachæ Kalk), kaster sig saa, effter at det er uddrukket need paa sine Knæe, og giør denne Bøn til Saracha…» (p. 56).
  2. Zeitschrift für deutsche philologie XIV 162.
  3. Blinkenberg, Tordenvåbnet i kultus og folketro (1909) pp. 17, 94 (= The Thunder-weapen in religion & folklore [Cambridge Archæological and Ethno. Series], Cambr. 1911, pp. 8. 115).
  4. This is communicated to me by my colleague dr. C. Blinkenberg of the National Museum.
  5. See my »Epische gesetze der volksdichtung» (Zs. f. deut. alt. LII) pp. 4-5, 11-12; Dietrich, Die dreizahl (Rheinisches museum für philologie, NF LVIII) pp. 356-62.