[Cross posted from a sideblog. Originally posted on 16 Sept 2016 and tagged #Lady of Knots.]
Nobody requested this one, probably because here is a standard, generally accepted interpretation that seems far less controversial than many other mythological names or words. Personally, I disagree with that interpretation, or at least the idea that we can be fully confident in it.
Typically the name is taken to be a compound of sigr ‘victory’ and a feminine equivalent to the word vinr m. ‘friend’ so that it means literally ‘victory-(female) friend’. The word sigr ‘victory’ is extremely common in compounded personal names and often, though not always, loses its stem-final r, such as in Sigurðr, Sigrún(where the r is part of the word rún), Sigfǫðr (a name of Óðinn, ‘victory-father’).
1. -yn: ‘(female) friend’ or something else?
The ‘(female) friend’ component comes from -yn, believed to be contracted from an earlier -vin, so that the original name was *Sigvin. I don’t believe it’s attested in that form, but it is a well enough attested alternation, such as in Bjǫrgyn ~ Bjǫrgvin ‘Bergen, Norway’. In my opinion there is a major obstacle to this etymology, which is the genitive of the name, Sigynjar (or perhaps *Sigvinjar). It appears in the genitive fairly frequently (because of its use in kennings for Loki) and I have never found an example without the j (that is, a consonantal “i” in manuscripts). The Old Icelandic word for an explicitly female friend is vina, and there is no trace of a word *vin, genitive *vinjar, with that meaning. There is an Old High German winia, but a hypothetical Old Icelandic cognate would be *vinja, genitive *vinju, and it seems unreasonable to propose yet another word meaning ‘(female) friend’ alongside an already existing word solely for the purposes of explaining one name, especially when there are other, much more likely explanations available.
There IS a word vin ~ vinjar, meaning ‘meadow’. It isn’t unthinkable that this could be the -yn in Sigyn, as Loki’s mother’s name Laufey also seems to refer to an element of landscape. Anatoly Liberman believes that Loki was originally a chthonic deity, and if that is true it might make some sense that his wife would be as well, but this is definitely a long way from certain, and there are not really very strong signs of Sigyn being inherently chthonic herself other than that she stays with Loki while he is chained up. Is that enough to go on? Maybe, but I personally think there are better possibilities.
There is no particularly compelling reason to believe that -yn must have come from an earlier -vin. It’s not impossible, but there’s no reason it couldn’t just come from a regular -yn. The y could have come by i-umlaut of a Proto-Norse *u, so *-unju > -yn or *-wunju > *-yn.
A Proto-Norse *unju has been proposed as a feminine name-forming suffix (equivalent to masculine *-unaz which has been proposed for jǫtunn, a possibly *Óðunn, and more) also appearing in Fjǫrgyn and Hlóðyn, and possibly extended into a longer Old Norse suffix –ynja that may have had a small amount of productivity in forming feminine equivalents to masculine words, such as ásynja ‘goddess (female áss), apynja ‘female monkey (api), ljónynja ‘lioness’, and karlynja (a weird word for ‘woman’ derived from karl ‘man’ in the Icelandic version of Genesis). It is controversial, however, as alternatives have been proposed for both Fjǫrgyn and Hlóðyn. Since Fjǫrgyn and Hlóðyn are alternate names for Jǫrð (‘earth’/the earth goddess), an ending vin f. ‘meadow’ actually does seem possible for both of them.
A Proto-Norse *wunju does not have any attested reflexes in Nordic languages (if not Sigyn), but would be cognate to Old English wyn(n) f. ‘joy’, which is also the name of the w-rune ᚹ. It is almost definitely related to Icelandic words like yndi n. ‘joy’. It is used in compounded personal names in Old English such as Ælfwynn.
Personally, I believe that of the several possibilities, a word cognate to Old English wynn is the most likely explanation, given that:
- we actually know it existed, even if in Old English rather than Old Norse — still better than an entirely hypothetical construct like *vin ‘girl-friend’
- there is precedence for its use in compounded personal names
- Sigyn does not show very strong signs of being an earth goddess like Fjǫrgyn/Hlóðyn which would increase the likelihood of vin f. ‘meadow’ (although this can’t be ruled out entirely), and that depends on the very speculative (and not widely accepted as far as I know) proposal that Fjǫrgyn and Hlóðyn are formed in such a way.
- If Fjǫrgyn and Hlóðyn are formed with an ending inherited from Indo-European (so that Fjǫrgyn is cognate to Lithuanian Perkūnė) then that is also a strong contender for Sigyn, but that is wrought with controversy and may not have actually existed.
2. Revisiting sig-
As mentioned above, sig- meaning ‘victory’ is a very common name element, and as such the fact that Sigyn is nowhere connected to victory in the preserved corpus of Norse mythology isn’t a problem. Nobody ever said that every deity must have a name relating to what they do, just that it’s very often the case. In fact, sometimes names go unchanged even after they become outdated and irrelevant, perhaps preserving a small piece of an earlier body of mythology.
However there is another word sig in Old Norse that could, without straining very hard, relate to Sigyn as we know her from the mythology, which Ásgeir Blöndal Magnússon, in his Icelandic etymological dictionary, linked to Sigyn.
A sig (2) n. is a rope that people use to rappel down a rock face or into a pit, or a rope with weights on the ends to hold something down. Either of the two uses of the word is mythologically relevant; the former because she likely had to physically descend (síga, p.part. sigat) beneath Hveralundr where Loki was tied down, and the latter because she cares for Loki while he is held down by ropes (sig).
For a goddess who receives very little attention in the Norse myths as we have them, Sigyn is distinguished by a remarkably early mention in the 9th century poem Haustlǫng, wherein Loki is called “the burden of Sigyn’s arms”. Therefore we know that already at a very early time – probably around 200 years before Vǫlsupá and over 400 years before Snorri’s commentary, Sigyn played an important role in Loki’s story, and this is further supported by the Gosforth cross:
Although there are plenty of reasons to believe that the story of Ragnarök as told by Snorri and even by Vǫluspá had changed substantially from earlier versions, Loki’s binding and Sigyn’s attending to him seems to have been very stable. I think that it’s very reasonable to identify the sig- element in Sigyn’s name with a rope, whether used for physical descent or tying down.
3. What does it mean?
I don’t think that what I’ve said here provides enough evidence to propose a translation exactly. The two elements I’m proposing are most likely are sig ‘rope for descending; weighted rope for holding things down’ and -*yn, a reflex of PGmc *wunjō ‘joy’.
Another possibility, though I think less likely and less demonstrably supportable, would be sig- and a reflex of *-unjō, which would probably mean something like ‘goddess of/relating to sig (‘rope’)’.
It’s also important to note that while I think my objections against identifying the second element -yn as meaning ‘(female) friend’ are strong, my rejection of sig- as ‘victory’ is not nearly as certain, especially given its extremely common use in personal names, not only in Old Norse but in many Germanic languages, including Old Norse/Icelandic Signý, a name often substituted for Sigyn in manuscripts (presumably because the scribe was unfamiliar with the name Sigyn and thought an error had been made in the manuscript that was being copied).
- Ásgeir Blöndal Magnússon. 1989. Íslensk orðsifjabók. Reykjavík: Orðabók Háskolans.
- Cleasby, Richard and Guðbrandur Vigfússon. 1874. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
- Krahe, Hans and Wolfgang Meid. 1969. Germanische Sprachwissenschaft. vol. 2: “Formenlehre”. Berlin: de Gruyter.
- Lehman, Winifred P. 1986. A Gothic Etymological Dictionary. Leiden: Brill. (on the name Fjǫrgyn)
- Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. trans. Angela Hall. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer. (for the “standard accepted definition”, also listed on Wikipedia, citing Andy Orchard)