Germanic paganism

Germanic paganism

Germanic paganism refers to the religious beliefs of the Germanic peoples preceding Christianization. The best documented version of the Germanic pagan religions is 10th and 11th century Norse paganism, though other information can be found from Anglo-Saxon paganism and West German paganism. 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.

The Germanic religion was a polytheistic one with some underlying similarities to other Indo-European traditions. The principal gods of Viking Age Norse paganism were "Odin" (Old Norse: "Óðinn", Old High German language: "Wodan", OE: "Wōden") and "Thor" (North Germanic: "Þórr", Old High German language: "Donar", Old English language: "Þunor"). At an earlier stage, the principal god may have been "Tiwaz" (Old Norse language: "Týr", Old High German language: "Ziu", Old English language: "Tiw").


Most sources documenting Germanic paganism have presumably been lost. From Iceland there is a substantial literature, namely the Nordic Sagas and the Eddas, relating to the pagan period, but most of this was written long after Iceland's conversion to Christianity. Some information is found in the "Nibelungenlied". The literary source closest to the pagan period may be "Beowulf", which some scholars believe was composed as early as the eighth century , and therefore within the lifetime of pagans from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Suffolk, which remained officially pagan until 680. However, "Beowulf" is unlikely to have been composed in Suffolk, its creator was clearly Christian, and it reveals little or nothing about pagan beliefs or rituals. 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 Angl-Saxon pagan Sutton Hoo royal funerary site in East Anglia and the royal pagan 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 pagan 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."

The majority of the literary evidence for Germanic paganism was likely intentionally destroyed when Christianity slowly gained dominant political power in Anglo-Saxon England, then Germania and later Scandinavia throughout the Middle Ages. Although perhaps singularly most responsible for the destruction of pagan sites, including purported 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 pre-Christian writings, which was deliberately destroyed after his death.Fact|date=November 2007

Pre-Migration Period


The earliest forms of the Germanic religion can only be speculated on 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 Germans differ much from these usages, for they have neither Druids to preside over sacred offices, nor do they pay great regard to sacrifices. They rank in the number of the gods those alone whom they behold, and by whose instrumentality they are obviously benefited, namely, the sun, fire, and the moon; they have not heard of the other deities even by report." — "The Gallic War (6.21) [ [ De Bello Gallico, Liber VI (in Latin)] ]

Caesar's description contrasts with other information on the early Germanic tribes and is not given much weight by modern scholars. It is worth mentioning his note that Mercury is the principal god of the Gauls:

They worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular, and have many images of him, and regard him as the inventor of all arts, they consider him the guide of their journeys and marches, and believe him to have great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions." — "The Gallic War (6.17) [ [ De Bello Gallico, Liber VI (in Latin)] ]

The worship of deities identified by the Romans with Mercury seems to have been prominent among the northerly tribes.


A much more detailed description of Germanic religion is Tacitus' "Germania", dating to the 1st century.

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 Isis.

Another goddess, 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 around the countryside and wherever the goddess visits, a great feast is held. During the travel of the goddess, these tribes do not go to war and touch no 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. [ [ Tacitus' "Germania", Chapter 40] ]

According to Tacitus, the Germanic tribes think of temples as being 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.

Divination and augury was very popular:

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 amongst 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 an obsession of Germanic cultures. Or as Tacitus puts it "To the use of lots and auguries, they are addicted beyond all other nations."

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.

Migration Period

During the Migration Period, Germanic religion was subject to syncretic influence from Christianity and Mediterranean culture.cite book|last=Russell|first=James|authorlink= |coauthors= |title=The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation|publisher=Oxford University Press|date=1994|location=USA|pages=272|url=|doi= |id= ]

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, who 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.

In the Old High German Merseburg Incantations, the only pre-Christian testimony in the German language, appears a "Sinhtgunt" 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.

The Goths were converted to Arianism in the 4th century, contemporaneous to the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire itself (see Constantinian shift).

Unfortunately, due to their early conversion to Christianity, little is known about the particulars of the religion of the East Germanic peoples, 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, Alamanni, Anglo-Saxons, Saxons, and Frisians were Christianized between the 6th and the 8th century. By the end of the Migration period, only the Scandinavians remained pagan.

Viking Age

Early medieval North Germanic Scandinavian (Viking Age) paganism is 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.See Viga-Glum’s Saga (Ch.26), Hakon the Good’s Saga (Ch.16), Egil’s Saga (Ch. 65), etc.] cite book|last=Adam of Bremen|first= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae pontificium Book IV|publisher= |date= |location= |pages=Ch.26-28|url= |doi= |id= ]

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.cite book|last=Davidson|first=H.R. Ellis|authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Gods and Myths of Northern Europe|publisher=Penguin|date=1965|location= |pages=p. 110-124|url= | doi|id=978-0140136272 ]

Middle Ages

In 1000 AD, Iceland became nominally Christian, although continuation of pagan worship in private was tolerated. Most of Scandinavia was Christianized during the 11th century. Adam von Bremen gives the last report of vigorous Norse paganism.ibid] Sometimes, the subjects of a lord who converted to Christianity refused to follow his lead (this happened to the Swedish kings Olof of Sweden, Anund Gårdske and Ingold I) and would sometimes force the lord to rescind his conversion (e.g. Haakon the Good).cite book|last=Þorgilsson|first=Ari|authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Íslendingabók|publisher= |date= |location= |pages=Ch.7, etc.|url= |doi= |id= ] 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")."" Ch.28, etc.] 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. [Orkneyinga saga] For a slightly different account of the same incident see [ "The Saga of Hervör and Heithrek" (c. 1325)] , in translation by Nora Kershaw.] However, Inge did not immediately regain his throne and the pagan Eirik Arsale briefly came into poweribid] before being usurped by Inge.

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).

Modern Influence

The Germanic gods have affected elements of every day western life in most countries that speak Germanic languages. An example is some of the names of the days of the week. The days were named after Roman gods in Latin (named after "Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn"). The names for Tuesday through Friday were replaced with Germanic versions of the Roman gods. In English and Dutch, Saturn was not replaced. Saturday is named after the Sabbath in German, and is called "washing day" in Scandinavia.

Also, many place names such as Woodway House, Wansdyke, Wednesbury, Thundersley and Frigedene are named after the old deities of the English people.


Elements of common Germanic mythology and religion may be reconstructed from elements common to North and West Germanic, see common Germanic deities.

ee also

West Germanic
*West Germanic deities
*Anglo-Saxon polytheism
*Dutch mythologyNorth Germanic
*Norse paganism
*Norse mythology
*Norse godsSouth Germanic
*Paganism in the Alpine regionModern
*Germanic Neopaganism
*Germanic mysticism



*Peter Buchholz (1968) Perspectives for Historical Research in Germanic Religion, "History of Religions", vol. 8, no. 2, 111-138.


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