Gothic paganism

Gothic paganism was the original religion of the Goths.

Spearhead of kovel
The Spearhead of Kovel (early 3rd century)
Pietroassa Inschrift
A drawing of the Elder Futhark inscription from the Ring of Pietroassa (3rd or 4th century), read as gutani[o]wi hailag. The seventh letter *here substituted as o) was destroyed when the ring was cut in half by thieves in 1875. The reading of the damaged part is disputed, but it is clear that the inscription begins with the name of the Goths (Gutani) and ends with the word for "holy, sacred" (hailag).


The Goths first appear in historical record in the early 3rd century, and they were Christianized in the 4th and 5th centuries. Information on the form of the Germanic paganism practiced by the Goths before Christianization is thus limited to a comparably narrow and sparsely documented time-window in the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The center of the Gothic pagan cult was the village or clan (kuni), and the ritual sacrificial meal held by the villagers under the leadership of the reiks. The reiks saw themselves as the guardians of ethnic tradition. This was expressed starkly in the Gothic persecution of Christians in the 370s, when the reiks Athanaric saw this privilege threatened by the new religion, responding by the persecution of converted Goths (but not of Christian foreigners): according to the Passio of Sabas the Goth, Sabas was executed for professing Christianity (or rather for refusing to sacrifice to the tribal gods), while his companion, the priest Sansalas, was let go because he was a foreigner.

After the Goths had settled in Scythia in the 2nd century, it is probable that a process of ethnogenesis was set in motion, and that most of the "Goths" of the 3rd and 4th century were not in fact descended from Scandinavia but (much as was the case with the "Huns" in the following century) consisted of a heterogeneous population which was united under the name of "Goths" by virtue of having submitted to the elite formed by the ruling dynasties of the reiks.

Gothic paganism was thus a purely tribal religion, in which polytheism and ancestor worship were one and the same. We know that the Amali dynasty deified their ancestors, the Ansis (Aesir), and that the Tervingi opened battle with songs of praise for their ancestors.

The gradual Christianisation of parts of the Gothic population came to a turning-point in the 370s. A civil strife between the Christian reiks Fritigern and the pagan reiks Athanaric prompted Roman military intervention on the side of the Christian party, leading to the Gothic War (376–382). In 376, the Romans allowed a number of ostensibly Christian Goths, including bishops and priests, to cross the Danube, but these "looked like clowns to the pagan Romans, and utterly scandalized the Roman Christians", supposing that they were in fact pagan Goths who had dressed up as Christian clerics in order to be granted asylum by the Romans.

Religious practices

The word god itself is cognate with the Gothic word guth for a pagan idol (presumably a wooden statue of the kind paraded by Winguric on a chariot when he challenged the Gothic Christians to worship the tribal gods, executing them after they refused). It became the word for the Christian God in the Gothic Bible, changing its grammatical gender from neuter to masculine in this new sense only. The name of the Goths themselves is presumably related, meaning "those who libate" (while guth "idol" is the object of the act of libation). The words for "to sacrifice" and for "sacrificer" were blotan and blostreis, used in Biblical Gothic in the sense of "Christian worship" and "Christian priest".

One peculiarity which separates the Gothic pagan period from all other forms of Germanic paganism is the absence of weapons as grave goods. While pagan warrior graves in Scandinavia, England and Germany almost invariably contain weapons, and the practice is discontinued with Christianization, the pagan Goths do not seem to have felt the need to bury their dead with weapons.[1] This may arrise from the fact that weapon burials begin to become prominent among pagan peoples in the 5th and 6th centuries, possibly as a method of permanently establishing prestige upon certain families through burial ritual in a period of a heightened economy and increased inter-group competition, thus well after the Christianization of the Goths.

A pagan Gothic belief in witches is attested with the story of the haliurun(n)ae (c.f. Anglo-Saxon hellrúne) who were expelled from the tribe by king Filimer, after which they mated with evil spirits and gave birth to the Huns, who eventually destroyed the Gothic empire. Wolfram compares the rejection of necromancy or witchcraft by the Goths with the pagan Scandinavian rejection of the seiðr of Finnic sorcerers or shamans.

Gothic deities

Regarding the individual gods worshipped among the Goths, very little can be said with certainty. They did have a cult of a god of war, identified with Roman Mars, presumably a manifestation of Germanic Tiwaz, perhaps (on the basis on the letter names) called *Teiws in Gothic, among the Tervingi perhaps also known as "The Terwing", as the supposed eponymous ancestor of the tribe. Perhaps related too to the lost sword legend of Tyrfingr, 'the finger' of the god Tyr causing sudden death on touch to its enemies. Another important god may have been called *Fairguneis, identified with Roman Jupiter. Then, there was Gaut or Gapt, the ancestor of the Amali dynasty, and presumably eponymous of the entire people of the "Goths"; it is unclear whether this deity should be considered independent of those just mentioned, or if it is just another name by which either of them was also known; in any case, Old Norse Gaut in later centuries was considered another manifestation of Odin in Scandinavia. It may also be significant, that in the Eddaic tradition, Odin himself is said to have come to the north from the "Black sea region/Turkland", i.e. the lands some believe was formerly and later inhabited by some ancestors of the Goths. If Gapt was the original "ansic" ancestor, later identified with Wodan-Odin, the Gothic letter name *ansuz (aza) may testify to his importance. The Aesyr were considered the folk which the god Odin ('The one' in Slavic) led in his 'Wuoth' ('raging') Ghostly Host charging through the nights and battlefields. These are identified as 'The Aes' (or Asians) of Antiquity, where the Indo-Iranian Alans were considered as the first gens that came off Asia beyond the Western Scythians or Sarmatians in the steppes ethnic geography for the Greek and classical sources. But these may be echoes that hark back to an older influence from many centuries earlier, when it is visible in the archaeological records the introduction of steppes elements among the earliest Germanic cultural horizon, or in the formation of the proto-Germanic ethnogenesis at the end of the Bronze Age. Finally, the letter name enguz may testify to the existence of the god Ingwaz among the Goths, but there is no additional evidence for this. The river Danube may have also been deified, as *Donaws. In the light of comparative evidence from later forms of Germanic paganism, it seems possible that the "Germanic trinity" of Wodan-Tiwaz-Thonar may have had a parallel among the Goths, with Gapt, Teiws and Fairguneis; but this does not imply that Gapt should be assumed to have had the attributes typical of Viking Age Odin.[2][3]

See also


  1. ^ Wolfram p. 111: "Apparently [weapons] were of no use to the deceased Goths in the hereafter"
  2. ^ Wolfram, p. 112: "The assumption of a Gothic Woden does not seem likely"
  3. ^ Wolfram here follows Karl Helm, "Wodan" (1946), pp. 45-47 and already Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte (1913), II.i, pp. 37f., see also Richard North, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, Volume 22 of Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England (1997), p. 138.



Athanaric or Atanaric (Latin: Athanaricus; died 381) was king of several branches of the Thervingian Goths for at least two decades in the 4th century. Throughout his reign, Athanaric was faced with invasions by the Roman Empire, the Huns and a civil war with Christian rebels. He is considered the first king of the Visigoths, who later settled in Iberia, where they founded the Visigothic Kingdom.

Germanic paganism

Germanic paganism refers to the ethnic religion practiced by the Germanic peoples from the Iron Age until Christianisation during the Middle Ages. From both archaeological remains and literary sources, it is possible to trace a number of common or closely related beliefs throughout the Germanic area into the Middle Ages, when the last pagan areas in Scandinavia were Christianized. Rooted in Proto-Indo-European religion, Proto-Germanic religion expanded during the Migration Period, yielding extensions such as Old Norse religion among the North Germanic peoples, Continental Germanic paganism practiced amid the continental Germanic peoples, and Anglo-Saxon paganism among the Old English-speaking peoples. Germanic religion is best documented in several texts from the 10th and 11th centuries, where they have been best preserved in Scandinavia and Iceland.

Gothic Christianity

Gothic Christianity refers to the Christian religion of the Goths and sometimes the Gepids, Vandals, and Burgundians, who may have used the translation of the Bible into the Gothic language and shared common doctrines and practices.

The Gothic tribes converted to Christianity sometime between 376 and 390 AD, around the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Gothic Christianity is the earliest instance of the Christianization of a Germanic people, completed more than a century before the baptism of Frankish king Clovis I.

The Gothic Christians were followers of Arianism. Many church members, from simple believers, priests, and monks to bishops, emperors, and members of Rome's imperial family followed this doctrine, as did two Roman emperors, Constantius II and Valens.

After their sack of Rome, the Visigoths moved on to occupy Spain and southern France. Having been driven out of France, the Spanish Goths formally embraced Nicene Christianity at the Third Council of Toledo in 589.

Gothic persecution of Christians

Two main outbreaks of persecution of Christians by the 4th-century Gothic authorities are recorded, in 347/8 under Aoric (according to Auxentius of Durostorum) and between 367 and 378 under Aoric's son, the iudex (kindins) Athanaric.

The persecution of Christians under Athanaric shows that Christians were still a minority among the Tervingi in the 370s, but that they had become numerous enough to be considered a threat to Gothic culture. It is remarkable that Athanaric did not persecute Christians in general, but specifically converted Goths, while Christian foreigners were left alone. Athanaric's motive was thus the protection of the Gothic nation and its gods and not the persecution of Christianity as such.The Terving ruler Athanaric opposed the spread of Christianity among the Goths, fearing that the new faith would destroy Gothic culture.

According to the historiographer Sozomenos (Eccl. Hist. 6.37), Athanaric appointed Winguric (Wingureiks, Wingourichos, also Jungeric) to eradicate the Christian faith from the Gothic lands. In Crimea, Winguric placed an idol in a chariot and paraded it before a tent used by Christians for their church service; those who worshipped the idol were spared, and the rest were burned alive in the tent.

A total of 308 people died in the fire, of which only 21 are known by name. This happened in or close to the year 375.

A few years later, during the reign of Valentinian and Theodosius (383–392), Gaatha, the widow of a peer of Winguric's, and her daughter Dulcilla (or Duclida, Duklida) gathered the remains of twenty-six martyrs and with he help of some priests and a layman named Thyellas transferred them to Cyzicus.

The martyrs who died under Athanaric's persecution known by name are three clerics and 18 laypeople (11 men, 7 women).

To this are added the four children of Wereka and Batwin (two sons and two daughters), plus an anonymous man who came to the tent and confessed Christ as Winguric was about to burn it and was martyred together with the others, to arrive at the number of "twenty-six martyrs" whose remains were transported by Gaatha. The 21 martyrs known by name are recorded with multiple variants in manuscript tradition:

Werekas (or Ouerkas, Vercus), a papa or priest,

Batwin (or Bathouses, Bathusius), a bilaifs (minister?)

Arpulas (Arpilus), a monk,

eleven laymen: Abippas (Abibus), Hagias (Agnus), Ruias (Reas), Egathrax (Igathrax), Eskoes (Iscous), Silas, Sigetzas (Signicus), Swerilas (Sonerilas), Swemblas (Suimbalus), Therthas (Thermus), and Philgas (Phillus),

seven laywomen Anna, Alas (Alla), Baren (Beride, also recorded as Larissa), Moiko (Monco), Kamika (Mamika), Oneko (Virko), and Anemais (Animais, Animaida),The list includes Syrian, Cappadocian and Phrygian names, even though the victims were all Goths. This may reflect the Christian practice of assuming a new "Christian name" at baptism, and in any case documents the close connection of the Gothic church with those of Asia Minor (where the invading Goths in the mid 3rd century first came into contact with Christianity).The "26 Gothic martyrs" are commemorated in Orthodox Christianity on 26 March, but in the Gothic calendar fragment on 29 October (gaminþi marwtre þize bi Werekan papan jah Batwin bilaif. aikklesjons fullaizos ana Gutþiudai gabrannidai "remembrance of the martyrs who with Werekas the priest and Batwin the bilaif were burned in a crowded church among the Goths"). The same fragment for 23 October proscribes remembrance of "the many martyrs among the Gothic people, and of Fridaric" (þize ana Gutþiudai managaize martwre jah Friþareikeis), Fridaric being an otherwise unknown Gothic martyr.

Later (medieval?) Eastern Orthodox martyrologies enumerate "Twenty-six Martyred Goths", listing the 21 names given above, but adding one Constans as a twelfth layman, plus queen Gaatha along with her daughter Dulcilla and her son Agathon.

Sabbas the Goth was martyred in 372 in what is now the Wallachia region of Romania. Nicetas the Goth was also martyred in 372.


The Goths ( Gothic: Gutan or Gut-þiuda; Latin: Gothi) were an East Germanic people, two of whose branches, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, played an important role in the fall of the Western Roman Empire through the long series of Gothic Wars and in the emergence of Medieval Europe. The Goths dominated a vast area, which at its peak under the Germanic king Ermanaric and his sub-king Athanaric possibly extended all the way from the Danube to the Don, and from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.The Goths spoke the Gothic language, one of the extinct East Germanic languages.

History of the Germanic peoples
Pagan society
(until about
Early Middle Ages)

This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.