“Wraith” has been used as a character or species name in various science-fiction and fantasy titles including Marvel’s Spiderman and X-men, Dungeons & Dragons, Stargate, Star Trek, Star Wars, The Elder Scrolls and Skyrim, Neopets, Warhammer and many others. These representations of wraiths vary so dramatically, one wonders what physical attributes historic wraiths actually posess, if any. Why is wraith such a common fictional creature when other Northern mythological creatures such as dullahan are not? First we must understand what a wraith really is.
The OED 1928 dates wraith back to 1513 in a translation of the Aeniad. Sir Walter Scott also used it in his writings on Scotland in the 1600-1700s. Historically, it is a synonym of ghost attributed to the Scottish dialect. The definition of wraith is “an apparition or specter of a dead person; a phantom or ghost.” But the etymology is listed ‘unknown’. There is no Proto-Indo-European or Latin roots and all similar words are found in Northern European languages.
Nevertheless, the Etymological Dictionary of the English Language explores the cognates of wraith and formulates a clearer definition. A particularly obvious cognate is wrath. Other cognates of wraith include wreath and writhe, both implying twisted shapes. The combined meanings tell us that wraiths are angry, twisted spirits.
One variation of wraith is particular to Ayrshire through the 1800s and spelt warth. Thus, wraith was revealed to be cognate with ward (n.), meaning guard, and the root of warden. Ward is synonymous to the Icelandic ‘vordr’ (gen. Vardar), also meaning a warden or guardian and predating the wraith (root is varda, vb.). However, the wards of Iceland are not supernatural figures or even people but ‘beacons’, piles of stones warning wayfarers of danger. This parent word may have given rise to the notion that a wraith gives warning of death.
In Norwegian, varda appears as varde, still referring to a beacon or pile of stones but produces an interesting variation. Vardyvle, composed of vard and vyle (evil, vile) is a curious word and refers to a fairy or sprite, guardian or attendant spirit, said to go before or follow a man, considered as an omen or boding spirit.
In light of the many cognates, the precise definition of wraith may be a twisted and angry spectral omen of death.
Considering this, Tolkien’s Ringwraiths -which certainly introduced the term to popular literature – reflect the word’s meaning well (men twisted into ghost-like servants of the evil ring who spread death). However, most wraiths such as Marvel’s (shapeshifters, psionic telepaths, invisibles), bear minimal relation to the name. Wraith is used more as a euphonous word for ghost. These new associations provide an even more ambiguous and inaccurate definitions. Perhaps these characterizations of wraiths will integrate in into the meaning as the next stage of the etymology.
Fisher, Jason. "Writhe-Wroth-Writhen and Ring." Lingwe: Musings of a Fish (blog). Entry posted June
7, 2007. Accessed October 22, 2012. http://lingwe.blogspot.ca/2007/06/
Skeat, Walter. "Wraith." In Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, 720. London, England:
Claredon Press, 1888.
Brockett, John Trotter. "Waith or Wraith." In Glossary of North Country Words, 319. N.p.: Baldwin
and Craddock, 1861.
"Wraith." In Oxford English Dictionary Online.