The Northern Way

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology

Chapter 6

Chapter 6: The Gods

(Page 1)

Now, I think, we are fully prepared for the inquiry, whether real gods can be claimed for Germany in the oldest time. All the branches of our language have the same general name for deity and have retained it to the present day; all, or at any rate most of them, so far as the deficiency of documents allows the chain of evidence to be completed, show the same or but slightly varying terms for the heathen notions of worship, sacrifice, temples and priesthood. Above all there shines forth an unmistakable analogy between the Old Norse terminology and the remains, many centuries older, of the other dialects: the Norse æsir, blôta, hörgr, goði were known long before, and with the same meanings, to the Goths, Alamanns, Franks and Saxons. And this identity or similarity extends beyond the words to the customs themselves: in sacred groves the earliest human and animal victims were offered, priests conducted sacrifices and divinations, 'wise women' enjoyed all but divine authority.

The proof furnished by the sameness of language is of itself sufficient and decisive. When the several divisions of a nation speak one and the same language, then, so long as they are left to their own nature and are not exposed to violent influences from without, they always have the same kind of belief and worship.

The Teutonic race lies midway between Celts, Slavs, Lithuanians, Finns, all of them populations that acknowledge gods, and practise a settled worship. The Slav nations, spread over widely distant regions, have their principal gods in common; how should it be otherwise in Teutondom?

As for demanding proofs of the genuineness of Norse mythology, we have really got past that now. All criticism cripples and annihilates itself, that sets out with denying or doubting what is treasured up in song and story born alive and propagated amongst an entire people, and which lies before our eyes. Criticism can but collect and arrange it, and unfold the materials in their historical sequence.

Then the only question that can fairly be raised, is: Whether the gods of the North, no longer disputable, hold good for the rest of Teutondom? To say yea to the question as a whole, seems, from the foregoing results of our inquiry, altogether reasonable and almost necessary.

A negative answer, if it knew what it was about, would try to maintain, that the circle of Norse gods, in substance, were formerly common to all Germany, but by the earlier conversion were extinguished and annihilated here. But a multitude of exceptions and surviving vestiges would greatly limit the assertion, and materially alter what might be made out of the remainder.

In the meanwhile a denial has been attempted of quite another kind, and the opinion upheld, that those divinities have never existed at all in Germany proper, and that its earliest inhabitants knew nothing better than a gross worship of nature without gods.

This view, drawing a fundamental distinction between German and Scandinavian heathenism, and misapprehending all the clues which discover themselves to unprejudiced inquiry as infallible evidence of the unity of two branches of a nation, lays special stress upon a few statements on the nature of the heathen faith, dating from about the sixth century and onwards. These for the most part proceed from the lips of zealous christians, who did not at all concern themselves to understand or faithfully portray the paganism they were assailing, whose purpose was rather to set up a warning against the grosser manifestations of its cultus as a detestable abomination. It will be desirable to glance over the principal passages in their uniformity and one-sidedness.

Agathias (d. before 582), himself a newly converted Greek, who could only know from christianity coloured reports what he had heard about the distant Alamanns, thus exhibits the Alamannic worship as opposed to the Frankish: dendra te gur tina iluskontai kai reiqra potumwn kai lofouj kai toutoij wsper osia drwntej 28, 4. Then follow the words quoted on p. 47 about their equine sacrifices.

But his contrast to the Franks breaks down at once, when we hear almost exactly the same account of them from the lips of their first historian Gregory: Sed haec generatio fanaticis semper cultibus visa est obsequium praebuisse, nec prorsus agnovere Deum, sibique silvarum atque aquarum, avium bestiarumque et aliorum quoque elementorum finxere formas, ipsasque ut deum colere eisque sacrificia delibare consueti. Greg. Tur. 2, 10.----Similarly, Einhard (Æginhard) in Vita Caroli cap. 7, about the Saxons: Sicut omnes fere Germaniam incolentes nationes et natura feroces et cultui daemonum dediti, nostraeque religioni contrarii.---Ruodolf of Fuld, after quoting Tacitus and Einhard, adds (Pertz 2, 676): Nam et frondosis arboribus fontibusque venerationem exhibebant; (1) and then mentions the Irminsûl, which I shall deal with hereafter (see Suppl.).----Lastly, Helmold 1, 47 affirms of the Holsteiners: Nihil de religione nisi nomen tantum christianitatis habentes; nam lucorum et fontium ceterarumque superstitionum multiplex error apud eos habetur............Vicelinus..............lucos et omnes ritus sacrilegos destruens, &c.'

Conceived in exactly the same spirit are the prohibitions of heathenish and idolatrous rites in decrees of councils and in laws. Concil. Autissiod. anno 586, can. 3: Non licet inter sentes aut ad arbores sacrivos vel ad fontes vota exsolvere; conf. Concil. Turon. II. anno 566, can. 22.----Leges Liutpr. 6, 30: Simili modo et qui ad arborem, quam rustici sanguinum (al. sanctivam, sacrivam) vocant, atque ad fontanas adoraverit.---Capit. de partibus Sax. 20: Si quis ad fontes aut arbores vel lucos votum fecerit, aut aliquid more gentilium obtulerit et ad honorem daemonum comederit. And the converters, the christian clergy, had for centuries to pour out their wrath against the almost ineradicable folly.---It is sufficient merely to allude to the sermons of Caesarius episcopus Arelatensis (d. 542) 'Contra sacrilegos et aruspices, contra kalendarum quoque paganissimos ritus, contraque augures lignicolas, fonticolas,' Acta Bened. sec. 1, p. 668.  

ENDNOTES:

1. Adam of Bremen again copies Ruodolf, Pertz 9, 286.  (back)

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