Germanic Religion

Germanic Religion
   A collection of beliefs, practices, and heroic tales about the gods, humankind, and nature, Germanic religion was at the core of barbarian culture prior to the conversion of the barbarians to Christianity. Current knowledge of Germanic religion is based on versions of these myths set down in writing long after their original creation; the myths are best preserved in Scandinavian literature because the barbarian peoples of northern Europe were the last to convert to Christianity. Information about Germanic religion is also found in the works of ancient Roman and medieval authors, most notably Julius Caesar, Tacitus, Jordanes, and the Venerable Bede. Evidence from ancient burial sites and other archeological artifacts also provides information concerning early Germanic religious beliefs. The myths and legends of Germanic religion often tell tales of heroic virtues, describe many different gods and their personalities, and outline the ultimate end of the universe. Although the various Germanic peoples that entered the Roman Empire and its successor kingdoms ultimately converted to one form of Christianity or another, it is likely that their understanding of their new faith was much shaped by their traditional beliefs.
   According to the classical Roman writer Tacitus, the ancient Germans worshipped many gods who were similar to the gods of ancient Rome. Tacitus notes that the Germans worship Mercury "above all other gods," whom they honor with human sacrifices, probably captured prisoners of war, on high feast days. They also worshipped Hercules and Mars and sacrificed animals to them. These sacrifices to the gods took place, according to Tacitus and later literature, in sacred groves of trees or in wooden temples. Although influenced by his own society's beliefs and practices, Tacitus probably revealed the actual beliefs of the ancient Germans. Archeological evidence supports the widespread veneration of a fire god, and it is likely that Tacitus gave Roman names to deities honored by the early barbarians. His Mercury was probably the god Woden (or Odin) who was the chief of the gods, and Mars and Hercules probably represented the gods Tiwaz, a war god, and Thor, a god of thunder and champion of the gods.
   The pantheon of the gods of Germanic religion, however, is much larger than the three main deities mentioned by Tacitus. Indeed, Tacitus himself in another section of his Germania describes Nerthus, the earth mother who rides a chariot among the people. She is worshipped in a sacred grove and, as Tacitus reports, is secretly bathed in a lake by slaves after a procession; the slaves are then drowned in the same lake. Tacitus also mentions the Alci, who are compared with the Roman equine gods Castor and Pollux, and Manus, who is the ancestor of all the Germanic peoples. Among other important deities is Balder, or Baldr, who is the subject of one of the great and moving tales of the gods. A son of the chief of the gods, Balder dreamt of his death; his mother tried to protect him by extracting an oath not to harm him from all creatures except the mistletoe. Balder's brother, Hoder, was persuaded to throw a mistletoe dart at his brother, which kills him. Hoder was led to do this by another important god, Loki, a trickster who could change shape and sex at will and who could both deceive the other gods and protect them from trouble. He is sometimes seen as the dark side of the chief of the gods.
   Among the lesser gods, there is Heimdall, a rival of Loki; Ullr, an archer deity; and Bragi, a god of poetry and eloquence who has magic runes carved on his tongue. A number of female deities, such as Frigg, the mother of Balder who extracts the oath to protect her son, also appear in various tales, but they receive very little attention. The Vanir is another group of lesser gods, associated with fertility, health, and wealth. Finally, there are various spirits who appear in dreams or are thought to be ancestors who are protecting the family.
   Among the many myths of Germanic religion are those that address the ultimate end of individual people as well as the origin and end of the universe. There are various conceptions of the afterlife in Germanic religion. It appears that some believed that life continued after death and was inseparable from the body. The dead lingered for a time, walking among the living and sometimes persecuting them, and sometimes needed to be killed again. There is also evidence from various Norse sagas and archeological finds that suggests the existence of a world of the dead. The practice of ship burials in which the body is placed in a boat, set out to sea, and burned suggests the belief in a world of the dead on the other side of the sea. Other burial sites that include weapons, horses, ships, and other tools of everyday life may indicate the belief in the necessity of these things in the afterlife. Some burial sites seem to be pointing north, which may have been the location of the world of the dead in Germanic beliefs. There was also the belief in an underworld, the hall of Hel, which is the name of both the place and its ruler. It is not a place of punishment but a place where all the dead go, which is surrounded by a great fence to keep out the living. In some texts, the lowest level of Hel is a dark and foreboding place reserved for the wicked. Another place for the dead is Valhalla, which is the heavenly place for heroic warriors killed in battle. The warriors will live in this heavenly hall of 540 rooms until the end of time, feasting at great banquets, going into battle daily, and being restored to health by the next day.
   Germanic religion also contains myths of the creation and destruction of the world. As written down in the thirteenth century, the creation myth was built upon a number of older traditions and is at times contradictory. In the beginning, according to Germanic belief, there was a great void filled with magic forces. Before the emergence of the earth, a number of cosmic rivers and separate worlds emerged, and from one of the rivers the primeval giant, Ymir, was created. He gave rise to a race of terrible giants by sweating them out from under his arms and legs. Ymir was nourished by the milk of a great cosmic cow, who also gave shape to another primeval being, Borr, the ancestor of the gods. Three of Borr's sons, Odin and his brothers, rose up and killed Ymir and created the earth out of his body. His flesh made up the earth, his blood formed the waters of the earth, his hair the trees, his bones the mountains, and his skull, supported by dwarves, was the sky. In the middle of the earth the gods created a land for the first humans, who were created by the gods from two dead tree trunks, and their descendants.
   Germanic religion also had a myth concerning the end of the world that is contained in several epic tales from the Middle Ages. Ragnarok, which literally means "fate of the gods," though it is often translated "Twilight of the Gods," is the time of final destruction of the gods and of the world and everything in it. Although the primary account of the Ragnarök was written as the Germanic world was converting to Christianity and was clearly influenced by Christian eschatology, it does reveal important traditional Germanic attitudes toward the fate of the world. In this tale, the movement toward the end begins with the murder of Balder through the machinations of Loki. Although Loki is punished, his acts set in motion the chain of events that will bring about the final cataclysmic struggle. The great wolf, Fenris, breaks his fetters and leads forth the wolves who will devour the sun and moon. Loki too breaks loose and leads the giants and other evil forces against the gods, and a great battle ensues in which all the gods are killed. The sun will then burn out and the stars will sink into the sea as all of existence comes to an end. A new world, however, will rise from the ashes of the old world, new gods and humans will inhabit the world, and Balder and his brother Hoðr will rise again.
   Germanic religion gradually faded away, to be preserved only in the later sagas, especially those of Scandinavia of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. As a result of the efforts of Christian missionaries from the Roman Empire, the Anglo-Saxon missionary St. Boniface, the great Frankish emperor Charlemagne, and other rulers and missionaries, the barbarian peoples converted to Christianity during the early Middle Ages. The Ostrogoths and Visigoths converted in the fourth century, the Franks in the fifth, the Anglo-Saxons in the late sixth, and other peoples in the ninth and tenth. The last of the Germanic peoples to convert were those of Scandinavia and Iceland, those areas where most of the legends were preserved best.
   Wotan (seventh-century stele) (Bettmann/Corbis)
   See also
 ♦ Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People with Bede's Letter to Egbert and Cuthbert's Letter on the Death of Bede. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1991.
 ♦ Dumézil, Georges. Gods of the Ancient Northmen, trans. Einer Haugen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.
 ♦ Grimm, Jakob. Teutonic Mythology, 4 vols. Trans. James Stevens Stallybrass. London: Routledge, 1999.
 ♦ Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000.
 ♦ Jordanes. The Gothic History of Jordanes in English Version. Trans. Charles C. Mierow. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1985.
 ♦ Jolly, Karen Louise, Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
 ♦ Polomé, Edgar C. Essays on Germanic Religion. Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of Man, 1989.
 ♦ Russell, James C. The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
 ♦ Tacitus. The Agricola and the Germania. Trans. H. Mattingly. Revised trans. S. A. Hanford. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1982.
 ♦ Turville-Petre, Edward O. G. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1964.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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