Looking at other modern Germanic languages shows that the aural similarities between these words is no mere coincidence. In Modern German their relationship is even clearer: it has heil [both salutary as in Modern English hail and meaning “whole, unhurt, in one piece”] and heilig [“holy, sacred thing; saint”]. Dutch has heil [“prosperity, salvation”] and heel [“whole, all, entire”]. Norwegian has heil [“whole, healthy”] and hellig [“holy”], while Swedish has hel [“whole”] and helig [“holy”]. (“holy”; “whole”)
The consistency of these words across the family of modern Germanic languages suggests that at some point in the past, a close relationship existed in the minds of Germanic speakers between the ideas of “wholeness” and “holiness”—or at least between whole things and holy things. Similarly, the fact that this relationship survives in both West Germanic (Mod. English, Dutch, German) and North Germanic (Norwegian, Danish, Swedish) suggests a semantic unity that existed before the two language families diverged. To test this hypothesis, we can trace the words whole and holy back to their use in earlier forms of the language to determine when the divergence of meaning occurred—and whether that divergence is due to some change in the language, or to the shifting relationship of Germanic speakers with religious concepts.
Removing the 15th Century unetymological spelling initial h(w)- as wh- (as in hwæt > what) in whole brings us to Middle English hal, hol, or hool, [“sound, healthy, intact” or “whole, undivided”]. (“whole”) This in turn is descended directly from Old English hal, the sense of which can be seen in the promise of the Danish coast guard to Beowulf: “…swylcum gefiþe bið / þæt þone hilderaes hal gedigeð.” (Beowulf line 300) This word was an important component in common Old English greetings; Beowulf, meeting Hrothgar, wishes him “Wæs þu, Hroðgar, hal.” (Beowulf line 407) Its use as a salutation is analogous to archaic Modern English hail, Modern German heil, and Latin salve.
Similarly, Modern English holy < Middle English holi, hali < Old English halig. (“holy”) Unlike the Modern English form of the word, halig is used exclusively as an adjective, describing something which is holy or sacred in a religious sense (usually the Christian God). Thus Hrothgar, in his speculation on the reason for Beowulf’s coming to Heorot, says, “…hine halig god / for arstafum us onsende…” (Beowulf line 381) One might also think of one of the many appellations of God in Cædmon’s Hymn, halig scieppend. (Fulk and Pope 4)
A look these words in cognate Germanic dialects helps to narrow the semantic gap between them. Otfrid, in the Old High German Evangelienbuch, uses the OHG heil (cognate with hal) both as a salutation (“Heil thu”, quadun sie, “Krist! / thu therero liuto kuning bist”) (Otfrid 1 I:113) as well as to render salvatio (“Nu will ih scríban unser héil”). (Otfrid 4 XXII:27) In Old Norse, this word appears as the feminine noun heill, which can be translated as “good luck” but also “omen.” (“*xailaz I”) In fact, hal and its cognates seem particularly associated with omens: OE hel and OGH heil are both used to translate Latin omen, augurium and auspicium. (Green 17)
According to Tacitus, the religion of the Germani centered closely around the practice of divination—consulting oracles to know the will of the gods. Such ceremonies seem to have usually been accompanied by sacrifices (the ON term for consulting an oracle is fella blótspán; the element blót- specifically suggests a blood sacrifice), and would hopefully result in a favorable omen. It seems likely, then, that hal originated as a word referring to the oracular practice, and later to general welfare or good luck. A similar sort of shift has occurred between Latin auspicium [“augury”] and Modern English auspicious [“of good omen, indicating future success”].
The Old English adjectival endings -eg and -ig are descended from the Proto-Germanic adjectival ending, used to form adjectives from nouns or verbs and communicating the sense “having the qualities of.” (“-y, suffix1”) Halig and its cognates could thus be applied to describe those who possess and give hal, the material goods associated with the oracular ceremony used to seek hal, as well as the ceremony itself.
Green suggests that OE hal and its cognates originally referred to the good fortune which came from, or could be withheld by, the gods, and which was sought in the religious practice of consulting the oracle through sacrifice. He further argues that the nature of the good fortune desired by the Germanic peoples may be seen in the meanings which hal’s modern descendants have retained: whole, heal, health.
Heil therefore came from the gods, directly or through an intermediary, whilst heilag could be applied to the originator, the transmitter or the recipient of this gift from above… Like the Christian sanctus, the Germanic term heilag denoted a quality of divine origin, but unlike sanctus the gift it presented was not to be enjoyed in the afterlife, but in the here and now. (Green 19-20)
But it is unnecessary to limit the concept of hal in this way. Allowing that hal is the gift of the gods, it does not follow that its application to the intangible, or for that matter the afterlife, was a strictly Christian innovation. When Wulfila renders the “teaching which brings salvation” as laiseinai hailai, does it really represent a new stage in the development of hal, or might he be using a concept which would have been familiar to his audience when he translates salvation as a kind of spiritual good fortune? (Wulfila An Titus 1:9) It is safer to assume a close connection in the mind of the early Germanic speakers between the natural and supernatural, than to insist they had no idea of blessing beyond their physical needs.
In Modern English, the words holy and whole are separated not only by meaning, but by context: one belongs to the realm of the spiritual, the other to the physical. But by tracing these words back to an earlier form of the language, we see that this is a relatively recent divide. For the speakers of early Germanic, health and success—”good fortune”—was inextricable from their interaction with the divine, a relationship preserved by those languages’ earliest Christian writers. The gap between the two concepts widened over the course of centuries, as the ideas of physical well-being and religious practice became less and less associated with one another.
Green, Dennis Howard. Language and History in the Early Germanic World. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
“hale, adj. and adv.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 24 September 2017.
“holy, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 9 September 2017.
Otfrid von Weißenburg. Das Evangelienbuch. http://titus.uni-frankfurt.de/texte/etcs/germ/ahd/otfrid/otfri.htm. Accessed 9 September 2017.
“Sanctus”. Valpy, F. E. J. An Etymological Dictionary of the Latin Language. London, Printed by A.J. Valpy, sold by Baldwin and Co., 1828.
“whole, adj. (and int.), n., and adv.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 9 September 2017.
Wulfila. The Wulfila Bible. http://wulfila.verbix.com/index.html. Accessed 9 September 2017.
“*xailagaz”. Orel, Vladimir E. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. Leiden, Brill, 2003.
“*xailaz I”. Orel, Vladimir E. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. Leiden, Brill, 2003.
“*xailaz II”. Orel, Vladimir E. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. Leiden, Brill, 2003.