Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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On the off chance that there's still anyone left out there who would contend that there has been an ongoing tradition of Goddess-worship in the English-speaking world since antiquity, I have some bad news for you: the word “goddess” itself proves that you're wrong.

But this very fact opens the door to an exciting possibility.

Compare the words for “goddess” in Modern English and its sister Germanic languages:

Modern English goddess  


Old English gydin

German Göttin

Yiddish gettin

Dutch godin

Frisian goadinne

Afrikaans godin

Swedish gudinna

Danish gudinde

Norwegian gudinne

Icelandic gyðja

Note that the Modern English word differs from that of every other Germanic language (including, interestingly, Old English). With the exception of Modern English and Icelandic, all consist of the Common Germanic word *god + the Common Germanic feminine suffix *–in, sometimes with accompanying vowel mutation in the first syllable. Icelandic differs in that it adds a different feminine suffix, -ja, as in Frey/Freyja.

[Linguistic excursus: Although for historical reasons we tend to think of the word god as masculine, in fact this was not the case in antiquity. God was anciently a word of neuter gender, and could be applied to any deity irrespective of gender. The addition of the feminine ending thus specifies the deity's gender but does not delimit it. In those days, as today, all goddesses were gods, but not all gods were goddesses.]

The Old English word for goddess, gydin, follows the same pattern—with the same suffix—as the other non-Icelandic Germanic languages. (OE y would seem to have been pronounced as an umlaut, roughly equivalent to Modern German ü or Modern French oeu, as in boeuf.)

The Modern English word does not follow this pattern. Like all the others, it too consists of god + feminine suffix, but in this case the feminine suffix in question is the Norman French –ess. The Modern English word “goddess” is a hybrid: a French suffix on an English root. As such, of course, it cannot possibly predate the Norman Conquest of 1066; in fact, its first occurrence seems to date to the 14th century. The earliest example cited in the OED dates from between 1340 and 1370: Proserpine þat ye holden godesse… (Proserpine, whom you hold [to be a] goddess...).

Interestingly, the appearance of the new word coincides with the period known as the “little Renaissance”: that influx of Latin literature into the English-speaking world, with resultant cultural efflorescence, of which Geoff Chaucer ( d. 1400) is the major luminary. This Classical learning introduced to the literati of 14th century England a concept previously unknown to them: that of a female deity. Lacking a counterpart to Latin dea in their own language, they coined a new word, “goddess,” which has been in use ever since.

Note the implications for claims of ongoing goddess-worship. The Anglo-Saxons, who by all accounts honored goddesses, had their own word for the concept, gydin. By the 14th century, this word no longer existed in English; otherwise there would have been no need to recreate it. If the word for “goddess” did not survive, then the concept of “goddess” cannot have survived either. It’s as simple as that. There is no ongoing tradition of goddess-worship per se from ancient times to modern ones among speakers of English. The language itself proves as much.

Of course, the unbroken survival of the word and concept “goddess” in the other Germanic languages does not necessarily prove continuity of goddess-worship among speakers of those languages, either. One can maintain the concept of a female deity without necessarily worshiping one. But the English evidence is, alas, unequivocal.

Let us not think, however, that this means an end to the word gydin's career. Robert Cochrane, the father of the contemporary Old Craft movement, uses the word as a synonym for “goddess” in several of his letters.

And, of course, one must ask: if the word gyden had continued in use among English-speakers, what would we today call her?

The question is linguistically valid and, pleasingly, the answer is not far to find. If Anglo-Saxon gydin had survived and (mutatis mutandis) undergone all the usual sound changes, we would today call the Goddess Gidden.

It is a mystery word, evocative. My reader, I give it to you. Try it out and see how it tastes on your own tongue.









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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Gwion Raven
    Gwion Raven Monday, 20 April 2015

    Oh Stephen! How I do love the word Gidden. I just used it yesterday in a multi-traditional Pagan gathering and saw a few quizzical looks indeed. "What was that word you said between gods and goddesses?"

    A good friend of mine from Minneapolis introduced me to the word.

    Thanks for writing about this lovely word.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Monday, 20 April 2015

    Thanks Gwion, stay tuned: more tomorrow.

  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale Monday, 20 April 2015

    Gidden. I like it.

    I like words. gyðja isn't a word for goddess, though. Gythia is the feminine form of godhi, meaning priest or chieftan. It's a word for a human. As you pointed out, god/ godh is neutral gender. Adding a gender turns it into a word for a human. The gender specific god words in Icelandic are Asa and Asynja, plural Aesir and Aesynjur.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Monday, 20 April 2015

    According to Cleasby-Vigfusson, gyðja is the feminine form of both goð, "god" and goði, "'priest'", and so means both "goddess" (as in the Eddas) and "'priestess'" (as in Hyndlu-ljoð and Ynglingasaga), which is interesting, to say the very least. I'd never noticed this before, Erin: thanks for drawing my attention to it. Gidden bless you for your close reading!

  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale Monday, 20 April 2015

    Thank you! Gidden bless you as well!

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