Germanic paganism refers to the theology and religious practices of the Germanic peoples from the Iron Age until their Christianization during the Medieval period. It has been described as being "a system of interlocking and closely interrelated religious worldviews and practices rather than as one indivisible religion" and as such consisted of "individual worshippers, family traditions and regional cults within a broadly consistent framework".
Germanic paganism took various forms in different areas of the Germanic world. The best documented version was that of 10th and 11th century Norse religion, although other information can be found from Anglo-Saxon and Continental Germanic sources. Scattered references are also found in the earliest writings of other Germanic peoples and Roman descriptions. The information can be supplemented with archaeological finds and remnants of pre-Christian beliefs in later folklore.
Germanic paganism was polytheistic, with similarities to other Indo-European religions. Many of the Germanic deities appeared under similar names across the Germanic peoples, most notably the god known to the Germans as Wodan or Wotan, to the Anglo-Saxons as Wōden, and to the Norse as Odin, as well as the god Thor – known to the Germans as Donar, to the Anglo-Saxons as Þunor and to the Norse as Þórr.
The Common Germanic period begins with the European Iron Age, contemporary to the Celtic La Tene culture to the south, growing out of earlier traditions of the Nordic Bronze Age. Early Germanic history remains in the prehistoric period until the earliest descriptions in Roman ethnography in the 1st century BC.
The earliest forms of the Germanic religion can only be speculated based on archaeological evidence and comparative religion. The first written description is in Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico. He contrasts the elaborate religious custom of the Gauls with the simpler Germanic traditions.
— The Gallic War 6.21
Tacitus describes both animal and human sacrifice. He identifies the chief Germanic god with the Roman Mercury, who on certain days receives human sacrifices, while gods identified by Tacitus with Hercules and Mars receive animal sacrifice. The largest Germanic tribe, Suebians, also make sacrifices, allegedly of captured Roman soldiers, to a goddess who is identified by Tacitus with "Nerthus".
Nerthus is revered by Reudignians, Aviones, Angles, Varinians, Eudoses, Suardones and Nuithones. Nerthus is believed to directly interpose in human affairs. Her sanctuary is on an island, specifically in a wood called Castum. A chariot covered with a curtain is dedicated to the goddess, and only the high priest may touch it. The priest is capable of seeing the goddess enter the chariot. Drawn by cows, the chariot travels through the countryside, and wherever the goddess visits, a great feast is held. During the travel of the goddess, the Germanic tribes cease all hostilities, and do not lay their hands upon arms. When the priest declares that the goddess is tired of conversation with mortals, the chariot returns and is washed, together with the curtains, in a secret lake. The goddess is also washed. The slaves who administer this purification are afterwards thrown into the lake.
According to Tacitus, the Germanic tribes think of temples as unsuitable habitations for gods, and they do not represent them as idols in human shape. Instead of temples, they consecrate woods or groves to individual gods.
To the use of lots and auguries, they are addicted beyond all other nations. Their method of divining by lots is exceedingly simple. From a tree which bears fruit they cut a twig, and divide it into two small pieces. These they distinguish by so many several marks, and throw them at random and without order upon a white garment. Then the Priest of the community, if for the public the lots are consulted, or the father of a family about a private concern, after he has solemnly invoked the Gods, with eyes lifted up to heaven, takes up every piece thrice, and having done thus forms a judgment according to the marks before made. If the chances have proved forbidding, they are no more consulted upon the same affair during the same day: even when they are inviting, yet, for confirmation, the faith of auguries too is tried. Yea, here also is the known practice of divining events from the voices and flight of birds. But to this nation it is peculiar, to learn presages and admonitions divine from horses also. These are nourished by the State in the same sacred woods and groves, all milk-white and employed in no earthly labour. These yoked in the holy chariot, are accompanied by the Priest and the King, or the Chief of the Community, who both carefully observed his actions and neighing. Nor in any sort of augury is more faith and assurance reposed, not by the populace only, but even by the nobles, even by the Priests. These account themselves the ministers of the Gods, and the horses privy to his will. They have likewise another method of divination, whence to learn the issue of great and mighty wars. From the nation with whom they are at war they contrive, it avails not how, to gain a captive: him they engage in combat with one selected from among themselves, each armed after the manner of his country, and according as the victory falls to this or to the other, gather a presage of the whole.
The reputation of Tacitus' Germania is somewhat marred as a historical source by the writer's rhetorical tendencies. The main purpose of his writing seems to be to hold up examples of virtue and vice for his fellow Romans rather than give a truthful ethnographic or historical account. While Tacitus' interpretations are sometimes dubious, the names and basic facts he reports are credible; Tacitus touches on several elements of Germanic culture known from later sources. Human and animal sacrifice is attested by archaeological evidence and medieval sources. Rituals tied to natural features are found both in medieval sources and in Nordic folklore. A ritual chariot or wagon as described by Tacitus was excavated in the Oseberg find. Sources from medieval times until the 19th century point to divination by making predictions or finding the will of the gods from randomized phenomena as a tradition among Germanic cultures.
While there is rich archaeological and linguistic evidence of earlier Germanic religious ideas, these sources are all mute, and cannot be interpreted with much confidence. Seen in light of what we know about the medieval survival of the Germanic religions as practiced by the Nordic nations, some educated guesses may be made. However, the presence of marked regional differences make generalization of any such reconstructed belief or practice a risky venture.
We do know, however, that in Tacitus' day the Germans discerned a divinity of prophecy in women, and virgin prophetesses, such as Veleda, were honored as true and living goddesses.
Jordanes' Getica is a 6th-century account of the Goths, written a century and a half after Christianity largely replaced the older religions among the Goths. According to the Getica, the chief god of the Goths was Mars, whom they believed was born among them:
Now Mars has always been worshipped by the Goths with cruel rites, and captives were slain as his victims. They thought that he who is the lord of war ought to be appeased by the shedding of human blood. To him they devoted the first share of the spoil, and in his honor arms stripped from the foe were suspended from trees. And they had more than all other races a deep spirit of religion, since the worship of this god seemed to be really bestowed upon their ancestor. — Getica
Saint Columbanus in the 6th century encountered a beer sacrifice to Woden in Bregenz. In the 8th century, the Germanic Saxons venerated an Irminsul (see also Donar's Oak). Charlemagne is reported to have destroyed the Saxon Irminsul in 772.
The Old High German Merseburg Incantations, the only pre-Christian testimony in the German language, contains a Sinthgunt who is the sister of the sun maiden Sunna (Sól). She is not known by name in Nordic mythology, and if she refers to the moon, she is then different from the Scandinavian (Mani), who is male. Further, Nanna is mentioned.
Unfortunately, due to their early conversion to Christianity, little is known about the particulars of the religion of the East Germanic tribes, separated from the remaining Germanic tribes during the Migration period. Such knowledge would be suited to distinguish Proto-Germanic elements from later developments present in both North and West Germanic.
The Franks, Lombards, Alamanni, Anglo-Saxons, Continental Saxons, and Frisians were Christianized between the 6th and the 10th century. By the end of the 10th century, only the Scandinavians remained pagan.
Early medieval North Germanic Scandinavian (Viking Age) beliefs are much better documented than its predecessors, notably via the records of Norse mythology in the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, as well as the sagas, written in Iceland during 1150–1400.
Sacrifices were known as blót, seasonal celebrations where gifts were offered to appropriate gods, and attempts were made to predict the coming season. Similar events were sometimes arranged in times of crisis, for much the same reasons.
The goddess Frijja seems to have split into the two different, clearly related goddesses Frigg and Freyja. In Nordic mythology there are certain vestiges of an early stage where they were one and the same, such as husbands Óðr/Óðinn, their shamanistic skills and Freyja/Frigg's infidelity.
Through the efforts of Missionaries and assimilation of peoples into Christian culture most of Western and Central Europe became Christian. This took many generations and occurred from the fifth to tenth centuries, with the Gauls and Anglo-Saxons in the 6th and 7th centuries, Germanic peoples on the continent during the 7th and 8th and then the Slavic Peoples and Scandinavians during the 10th and 11th centuries. The process of Christianization was gradual and only would truly take root after the conversion of the king and the nobility and the emergence of Christian institutions such as the church and clergy. Sometimes, the subjects of a lord who converted to Christianity would even refuse to follow his lead (as happened to the Swedish kings Olof of Sweden, Anund Gårdske and Ingold I) and they would sometimes force the lord to rescind his conversion (e.g. Haakon the Good). The attempt of the deposed Christian monarch Olaf II of Norway to retake the throne resulted in a bloody civil war in Norway, which ended in the battle of Stiklestad (1030). In Sweden, in the early 1080s, Inge I was deposed by popular vote for not wanting to sacrifice to the gods, and replaced by his brother-in-law Blot-Sweyn (literally "Sweyn the Sacrificer"). After three years of exile, Inge returned in secret to Old Uppsala and during the night the Christians surrounded the royal hall with Blot-Sweyn inside and set it on fire. However, Inge did not immediately regain his throne and Eirik Arsale briefly came into power before being usurped by Inge. Overtime however the popularity of pagan beliefs died down and by the 1100's it had dwindled substantially, Adam von Bremen (c. 1050-c. 1081/85) gives the last report of vigorous Norse paganism.
In France, the French King Louis d'Outremer crushed a revolt by the Normans led by a certain Thormod (Tormod, Turmod), a renegade Christian who sought to make a pagan of the young duke Richard of Normandy (943).
During the High Middle Ages, Scandinavian paganism became marginalized and blended into rural folklore. In folklore and legend, elements of Germanic mythology survived, and appears in the guise of fairy tales such as those collected by the Brothers Grimm and other folk tales and customs (see Walpurgis Night, Holda, Berchta, Weyland, Krampus, Lorelei, Nix), as well as in medieval courtly literature (Nibelungs).
Most sources documenting Germanic paganism have presumably been lost. From Iceland there is substantial literature, namely the Nordic Sagas and the Eddas, but most of this was written long after Iceland's conversion to Christianity. Some information is found in the Nibelungenlied. The closest literary source may be Beowulf, which some scholars believe was composed as early as the eighth century, and therefore within living memory of Anglo-Saxon paganism. Limited information also exists in Tacitus' ethnographic work Germania.
Further material has been deduced from customs found in surviving rural folk traditions that have either been mildly superficially Christianized or lightly modified, including surviving laws and legislature (Althing, Anglo-Saxon law, the Grágás), calendar dates, customary folktales and traditional symbolism found in folk art.
A great deal of information has been unearthed by recent archaeology, including the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo royal funerary site in East Anglia and the royal temple at Gefren/Yeavering in Northumberland. The traditional ballads of the Northumbrian/Scottish borders, and their European counterparts, have also preserved many aspects of Germanic belief. As York Powell wrote, "The very scheme on which the ballads and lays are alike built, the hapless innocent death of a hero or heroine, is as heathen as the plot of any Athenian tragedy can be."
Although perhaps singularly most responsible for the destruction of pagan sites, including massacres, such as the Massacre of Verden and the subsequent dismantling of ancient tribal ruling systems, the Frankish emperor Charlemagne of The Holy Roman Empire is said to have acquired a substantial collection of Germanic songs, which was deliberately destroyed after his death by his successor, Louis the Pious.
Germanic paganism was polytheistic, revolving around the veneration of various deities. Some deities were worshipped widely across the Germanic lands, albeit under different names. Other deities were simply local to a specific locality, and are mentioned in both Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic texts, in the latter of which they are described as being "the land spirits that live in this land".
Across the Germanic world, there was some variation in the places where pagans worshiped, however, it was common for sites displaying prominent natural features to be used. Tacitus claimed that the 1st century tribes of Germany did not "confine the gods within walls... but that they worshiped outdoors in sacred woods and groves", and similarly there is evidence from later continental Europe, Anglo-Saxon England and Scandinavia that the pagans worshiped out of doors at "trees, groves, wells, stones, fences and cairns". In some later cases, temples would be built on such sites, the most notable being the Swedish Temple at Uppsala, which, according to Adam of Bremen, writing in the 11th century, was built around a grove that was "so holy that each tree is itself regarded as sacred".
Images of the various gods played a part in worship, although Tacitus noted that while among the early Germans "effigies" were used and even taken into battle, they were not "human [in] appearance". Surviving examples of Germanic effigies, such as the phallic idol recovered in a bog in Broddenbjerg, Denmark, show that among some of the continental Germanic peoples at least, religious idols were naturally human-like wooden shapes that had been roughly carved to make their appearance more human-like.
- The sacrifice is like this: Of all the living beings that are male, nine head are offered; by whose blood it is the custom to appease the gods. Their bodies, however, are hung in a grove which is beside the temple. The grove is so sacred to the heathen that the individual trees in it are believed to be holy because of the death or putrefaction of the sacrifical victims. There, even dogs and horses dangle beside people, their bodies hanging jumbled together.
Among the Alemanni of the 6th century, animal sacrifice by means of decapitation seems to have played an important role; according to the testimony of Agathias of Myrina, writing in the context of the Gothic War (535–554),
— Agathiae Myrinaei historiarum libri quinque. Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae, Series Berolinensis 2. Walter de Gruyter. p. 18f.
Human sacrifice was also practiced. Tacitus recorded that the early German tribes in the 1st century practiced public human sacrifices "in a grove hallowed by auguries of the fathers". The practice of human sacrifice, often associated with sacred groves or trees, would continue among the Germanic peoples to the eve of Christianization. Ibn Fadlan famously describes the sacrifice of a female slave as part of a Viking ship burial that he witnessed in 922. In Iceland, the medieval author of the Landnámabók (presumably Ari Frodi, fl. 1100) describes a human sacrifice that had allegedly been performed at the Thorsnes thing in the 9th or 10th century.
In certain cases, slaves were killed alongside their masters at death. Such cases have been found from Anglo-Saxon England, and are also recorded in the 10th-century account of Ibn Fadlan, who witnessed a ship burial among the Rus tribe in which a willing female slave who had belonged to the deceased was treated like royalty, becoming drunk and having sex with whichever men she chose, before she was simultaneously strangled and stabbed to death and then burned upon her master's pyre.
There was no singular unifying set of festivals across the Germanic world. Despite this, these festivals likely all held a similar function and structure, described by Thor Ewing as being "a public celebration of the divine, where the local community or the nation renewed its bonds through sacred worship... In renewing the people's pact with the divine, they also renewed their sense of community".
Tacitus relates that the early Germans celebrated only three seasons, the equivalents to spring, summer and winter, while the Law Book of Iceland, from a thousand years later, indicates that the Germanic Icelanders divided the year only into summer and winter.
Elements of Germanic paganism have survived for centuries after Christianisation, partly within Germanic Christianity, partly as part of secular folklore. A scholarly revival of interest in ancient Germanic traditions arose as early as the 16th century, culminating in the "Viking revival" of 19th-century Romanticism, and by means of popular works such as Wagner's Ring Cycle, these traditions became part of modern-day popular culture. Germanic neopaganism in the sense of a new religious movement was influenced by Romanticism but arises later, in the early 20th century, apparently first in Germany in the years prior to World War I, but had mostly disappeared again by the end of World War II. A second, ongoing revival of Germanic religion originated in North America and in Iceland in the early 1970s.
Elements of Germanic paganism also survive within certain Germanic given names, such as Alfred "elf-counsel", or originally theophoric names, such as Ingrid, Thorsten or Oswald. Traces of pagan mythology and worship are also found in toponymy. Theosophic toponyms in England include Woodway House, Wansdyke, Wednesbury and Thundersley. Scandinavia has many theophoric placenames, in particular named after Odin or after Thor.
The names of the days of the week are based on a Roman scheme, introduced in the 2nd century (first attested by Vettius Valens; the pre-Christian Germanic calendar did not have a seven-day week). However, as the Latin names were translated into early Germanic still before Christianization, the days remain named for Germanic deities according to their interpretatio germanica.
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