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Germanic Paganism

Germanic Paganism refers to the multitude of religious practiced prior to Northern Europe being converted. Germanic Paganism is also referred to as “Heathenism”. The term Germanic Paganism actually refers to a multitude of varying, similar beliefs that stretch from France to sections of Eastern Europe and from Ireland all the way south to Northern Italy. Germanic Paganism is often described as being “that stuff the Vikings believed in”. It is actually much deeper and more widespread than that. Many of us have ancestors who in some way, shape, or form practiced Germanic Paganism. Germanic Paganism should not be confused with Odinism, Asatru, Wotanism, or the other assorted New Age Pagan beliefs.

Nature Of Germanic Paganism

Germanic Paganism was a polytheistic set of religions revolving around two groups of gods and goddesses, the Aesir and Vanir. Though there were minor differences in practices regionally, the concept of two separate pantheons was universal. According to most Christian history texts, Germanic Paganism was a religion which existed from the late Iron Age to the early Medieval period when the last of the Northern European peoples were converted by force. The time it took for a full conversion was relatively short, with the first Roman provinces beginning to convert around 900 A.D. The Germanic Pagan Style belief was practiced until around 1500 A.D. when Iceland accepted conversion.

Germanic Pagan Creation

Germanic Pagan creation stories begin when the glacial waters of Nifleheim mixed with the warm winds of Muspellsheim. This allowed the first two beings to come forth, the giant Ymir and the cow Audhumla. Ymir fathered the race of giants while Audhumla created the first God, Buri. Buri in turn fathered a son Borr and Borr in turn fathered the gods Odin, Vili, and Ve. Odin, Vili, and Ve together destroyed the giant Ymir and created the heavens and the Earth from his body. This universe was supported by the world tree Yggdrasill. Yggdrasill served as a connection between the heavens, the Earth, and the underworld. Near one of the roots, the fountain of Mimir was created, which housed the water through which all the wisdom of the universe flowed. Near another root the Norns (the weavers of fate) lived. The branches were the home of a sacred bird whom, along with the god Heimdall, warned the gods of any incoming attacks. Odin, Vili, and Ve created the first two human beings from two trees. This man and woman were Ashr and Embla.

The Aesir

The term Aesir is believed to be derived from the old Teutonic term “áss” meaning god. The Aesir were the group of gods and goddesses who lived in Asgard. They were Odin, Baldr, Bragi, Forseti, Freyr (originally with the Vanir), Heimdall, Hod, Loki, Njord (originally with the Vanir), Thor, Tyr, Vili, Ve, and Vidar. The goddesses included Frigg, Sif, and Idun. I will mention Zisa, Tyr's wife, while at the same time stating that Zisa's role as a member of the Aesir is still up for debate. Many scholars believe she is the unnamed wife of Tyr mentioned by Loki. There is also some who speculate she is the true Germanic goddess of love. This is a debate that will more than likely never have an answer due to most of the evidence being destroyed during the period of conversion.

Gods of the Aesir

Odin

Odin stands as the chief of the Aesir. He is also called The All-Father and is considered to be the highest of the Norse pantheon of Germanic Paganism. Odin is considered to be the wisest of the Gods. He travels far from his home in Asgard, often times alone, on a search for knowledge and wisdom. This stands in stark contrast to not only other Germanic gods and goddesses but to other deities in other religions as well. Despite his great well of knowledge, Odin is constantly seeking more. He is also far from an all knowing individual, on the contrary he is constantly learning. Like the human beings he governs he maintains the constant need to learn more. There are many debates about his views on justice, nobility, and fairness. Many speculate that he maintained, as the All Father, the right to judgment of others as his alone. This would imply that there is an inherent, extreme understanding of justice. However, on the other hand there are those who say Odin has no interest in judgment or justice. The majority of neo-pagan groups and historians tend to favor the idea that he was a lawgiver as well as a seeker of knowledge.

Odin was also considered to be a great warrior. His weapon of choice was Gugnir (translated to “Swaying One”). The spear itself was created by the dwarfs known as the Sons of Ivaldi under the watch of the dwarf Dvalin. The spear was obtained from the dwarfs by Loki, who had been paying reparations for cutting the goddess Sif's hair. The spear was so well balanced that it can strike any target, no matter how unskilled or weak the wielder was. Odin was enigmatic in that he did not patron to all warriors, but only the greatest of warriors like the Starkaðr and the Volsung family. He was also very close to the Berserkers. Berserkers were a type of warrior who, through trance and other shamanistic means, put themselves into a deep, frenzied, battle lust.

Odin was also considered to be a great magician. His skill in magic and shamanism was unrivaled by any being. He considered any limitation on magic to be simply another barrier to overcome. He is also the first to perceive the FUTHARK rune system that is central to many Germanic Pagan magic and divination. In the story, Odin hung hung himself from the World Tree Yggdrasil by Gugnir for nine days and nights. During this time he meditated on the magic that would give him power in the nine worlds. He “sacrificed himself to himself” in a moment of personal growth in which he perceived the nine songs and eighteen runes that would give him the power he sought. This is considered a pivotal moment in many modern neo-pagan heathen religions and is replicated (with ropes for a night of course) in ritual quite often.

Frigg

Frigg, also known as Frigga, is the wife of Odin. She is considered to be an important deity in the Germanic Pagan Pantheon. Frigg is the mother Baldr and she has quite a few step children. They are Thor, Hermóðr, Heimdallr, Týr, Bragi, Víðarr, Váli, Skjöldur, and Höðr. Frigg's name means “beloved one” and she was often associated with the planet Venus. She is also symbolic of married women, whom were to call upon her during child birth, marriage, and other tumultuous moments in a woman's life.

Frigg is spoken of extensively in Gylfaginning by Snorri Sturluson. In this story, Baldr has visions of his death and so Frigg goes out to take oaths from all living things, that no harm shall befall Baldr. Now, after she has completed this task, the Aesir begin trying to kill Baldr, just to see if it will work. Nothing harms him at all. Loki see Baldr's invincibility and becomes extremely jealous. Loki then proceeds to change into a woman and question Frigg on Baldr's new found invincibility. After some time, Frigg admits that she did not get an oath from the mistletoe which “seemed to young for me to demand it's oath”. This proves to be the downfall of Baldr. Loki quickly retrieves some mistletoe and presents it to Höðr, who is blind. He tell Höðr that this will help him bring honor to Baldr and instructs him to shoot it at him. Höðr follows the directions of Loki and the mistletoe pierces Baldr's heart, killing him.

Frigg is mentioned in other stories, however many of them are incomplete and small passages. There is also a debate amongst scholars that Frigg and the Vanir Goddess Freyja are in fact the same being. Most practitioners of Neo Heathenism dispute this, citing that the the Goddesses govern very distinctly different areas. The day Friday is named for her.

She is one of many Goddesses and is a great example of the reverence that ancient Northern European cultures had for women. For instance, she is the only other being permitted to sit on the High Seat Hlidskajalf. Hlidskajalf was a chair which Odin could sit on and see anything in the universe. She was his confidant and more akin to what modern people would consider a wife then any other goddesses out of the ancient pantheons.

Tacitus's Germania

Much of what we know of early Germanic Paganism (and any Germanic Paganism for that matter) comes from Tacitus's Germania, where he equates Odin with the Roman God Mercury. It is through many of these equivalencies that scholars have learned to translate ancient Rune Writings. While Germania is not a perfect history, it still provides for important early accounts, as most of the history of early German civilization was destroyed during the period of conversion. In Germania, Tacitus provides brief overviews of the beliefs and origins of the German tribes. While the work is interesting, there is a lot of intermingling between Roman Pagan beliefs and Germanic Paganism, which clouds the subject matter a bit. You hear very little of the actual names of Gods and Goddesses. However the descriptions of the German society, structure, and military tactics are exceptionally important. The position of the priest class of ancient German Pagan beliefs is outlined very well in his work.

But to reprimand, to imprison, even to flog, is permitted to the priests alone, and that not as a punishment, or at the general's bidding, but, as it were, by the mandate of the god whom they believe to inspire the warrior.

The display of the power of the priest class in German society shows the serious impact that Germanic Paganism had in those times. Tacitus was very careful to record the powers the priests wielded. While his depiction of the priest class as a lawgiver is very prominent, it is only somewhat accurate. I will go more into this later though.

The other major important note from Germania is the idea behind marriage. There are many who believe that modern marriage rules and rites actually stem from Germanic Pagan rules regarding marriage.

Their marriage code, however, is strict, and indeed no part of their manners is more praiseworthy. Almost alone among barbarians they are content with one wife, except a very few among them, and these not from sensuality, but because their noble birth procures for them many offers of alliance. The wife does not bring a dower to the husband, but the husband to the wife. The parents and relatives are present, and pass judgment on the marriage-gifts, gifts not meant to suit a woman's taste, nor such as a bride would deck herself with, but oxen, a caparisoned steed, a shield, a lance, and a sword. With these presents the wife is espoused, and she herself in her turn brings her husband a gift of arms.   This they count their strongest bond of union, these their sacred mysteries, these their gods of marriage. Lest the woman should think herself to stand apart from aspirations after noble deeds and from the perils of war, she is reminded by the ceremony which inaugurates marriage that she is her husband's partner in toil and danger, destined to suffer and to dare with him alike both in in war. The yoked oxen, the harnessed steed, the gift of arms proclaim this fact. She must live and die with the feeling that she is receiving what she must hand down to her children neither tarnished nor depreciated, what future daughters-in-law may receive, and may be so passed on to her grandchildren.

His description is indeed interesting. It depicts marriage truly as an equal arrangement between man and woman, rather than man being in a dominant position. It shows the man having to bring gifts to the woman and the woman standing equal in arms to the man. However, Tacitus quickly turns back on his own statements when he presents an observation in the next chapter that runs counter to earlier statements.

Thus with the virtue of their women protected, they live uncorrupted by the allurements of public shows or the stimulant of feastings. Clandestine love-letters are equally unknown to men and women. Very rare for so numerous a population is adultery, the punishment for which is prompt, and in the husband's power. Having cut off the hair of the adulteress and stripped her naked, he expels her from the house in the presence of her kinsfolk, and then flogs her through the whole village. The loss of chastity meets with no indulgence; neither beauty, youth, nor wealth will procure the culprit a husband.   No one in Germany laughs at vice, nor do they call it the fashion to corrupt and to be corrupted. Still better is the condition of those states in which only maidens are given in marriage, and where the hopes and expectations of a bride are then finally terminated. They receive one husband, as having one body and one life, that they may have no thoughts beyond, no further-reaching desires, that they may love not so much the husband as the married state. To limit the number of children or to destroy any of their subsequent offspring is accounted infamous, and good habits are here more effectual than good laws elsewhere.

I find this important because it is at odds with modern day scholarly thinking on the subject of Germanic Pagan marriage. I will, of course, touch more on this later. I want to provide a good basis for thought though, so that we can all see the evolution of the modern view of the Germanic peoples. I have been led to believe, both through talking with certain historians interested in the subject and through my own research that this observation was primarily a mixture of Roman customs with a few misunderstandings. While I do not doubt that unfaithfulness was looked on as an extremely horrible thing, punishable under law, I have been led to believe that the wife held a majority of the power in most marriages. I will explain more on this later.

Authors Note

As I burn the oils I realize it is late at night. This is a work in progress. Any ideas should be posted to the discussion section and I will gladly listen to any constructive comments and criticism as well as things that should be added. Also, if you notice any grammatical mistakes please post those mistakes and I will fix them as quickly as possible.

Religion History


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