Weird, Hey?


My interest in the derivation and meaning of the English word ‘weird’, nowadays a word still very much in vogue, was initially aroused by a television programme on the archaeology of Wales that described how a narrow path and ledge were painstakingly cut in the granite of a Welsh mountainside to enable a few, undoubtedly important, people to view the colourful northern lights, visible in the sky at certain times of the year, from an elevated vantage point.  The word ‘weird’ was mentioned as a term of religious significance in the old Druidic Celtic religion of the Welsh that preceded the introduction of Christianity to England by several centuries.  In other words, ‘weird’ is a colourful old English word that harks back to our forgotten pagan past.  Apparently, the term ‘weir,’ that is, to dam up a stream or river by erecting a stone wall across its banks, is derived from ‘weird’.  So, even in ancient Celtic religion, there is an interesting connection between bodies of water and the idea of the supernatural or divine evoked in religious thought and practice.  The Christian rite of baptism using consecrated or Holy water is originally of Celtic origin.  Hence, we can still appreciate the significance of the divine in the process of becoming a person identified by a name.  In fact, modern-day depth psychologists point out that the Self is imbued with an aura of the religious or spiritual.  Right up to Roman times, quantities of metal, weapons, pottery and coins were regularly deposited in the Thames by travellers endeavouring to assuage the water spirits before attempting to cross the river.


Weird is derived from the Old English ‘wirde’ or ‘werde’ which, in turn, comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘wyrd,’ from ‘weoran’ to be or become, referring to fate, fortune or one of the three Fates and akin to the Old Saxon ‘wurd’, meaning fate, and the Old High German ‘wurt’ (hence, the English word ‘worth’).  In addition to fate or destiny, weird also refers to a prediction as well as a spell or charm used in witchcraft.  Witches were still being burned at the stake in seventeenth century England.  The Fates were referred to as the ‘weird sisters’ and Shakespeare uses this expression for the three witches in Macbeth - “The weird sisters, hand in hand, Posters of the sea and land”.


Manton Hirst

Amathole Museum