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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Oses and Osern and Aesir (Oh My)

The English language is an amazing inheritance: every word a story.

In Norse thought we find the fascinating idea that, as with humanity, there are different tribes of gods. One of these tribes is known collectively as the Aesir. This is a plural form; the singular, unfortunately, is áss. In Icelandic, this rhymes with house, but there's no denying that it's jarring to the eye of the English-reader.*

The English-speaking ancestors knew these gods as well, but unlike the good old pagan word god, ôs came to refer specifically to a pagan god, and so fell out of common usage. Eventually the word became extinct.

But—as pagan things do—the word survived covertly; in this case, hidden in plain hearing in personal names. All those names—they seem slightly old-fashioned to us now—that begin in Os- preserve the memory of the Aesir.

Osbert = bright god

Osborn = god-born

Oscar = god-spear (gar = spear, as in garfish or garlic, “spear-leek”)

Osgood = good god

Osmund = god-protection

Oswald = the rule ("wield") of a god

Oswin = god-friend

I suppose Osman Spare was a "god's man." There were many other examples in Old English onomastics as well (including Osred, “god-rede,” and Osfrith, “god-peace,”) but most of them are unfamiliar to the modern eye.

In the ôs-names, because of their compound nature, we see compensatory shortening of the initial vowel. If we apply the usual laws governing sound-changes to ôs—i.e. if we artificially age the word**—we can say that if it had continued in current use since antiquity, we would today, in all probability, be calling a pagan god an ose (rhymes with nose).

We don't know what the nominative plural of ôs was in Old English; it simply hasn't come down to us. Perhaps, if we may take aesir as a pattern, it would have formed the same kind of plural (once more common in English than it is today) that we see in child/children, ox/oxen, brother/brethren: hence, osern or osren.

But my guess is that likely the plural would eventually have regularized itself, and that we would today be talking about (and probably praying to) oses.

English is a fine old pagan language, the sacred language of the witches, and every word's a story.

Os byþ ordfruma ælere spræce,

wisdomes wraþu ond witena frofur
and eorla gehwam eadnys ond tohiht.

Ose is the wellspring of every speaking,

pillar of wisdom, help to the wise,

to the noble a blessing and joy.

(Old English Rune Poem)

*Reading modern heathen literature in English, its texts salted liberally with ass and blot, can be quite the eye-opening experience for the raw beginner. It's amazing, of course, how quickly one's eye gets used to it. Here, as elsewhere, context is all. Me, I'm an ass-man myself. (Grins.)

**If there isn't a linguistic term for this process (I, at least, don't know one), there should be. I owe a personal debt of gratitude to J. R. R. Tolkien for teaching me the ropes.


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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.


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