The Northern Way

The Cult of Othin

Chapter 2

Page 1

Traces of the Cult of Woden on the Continent and in Britain.

Outside the limits of the Scandinavian area very few traces of the cult of Woden have been preserved. Yet there is evidence enough to show that the two chief sides of the god's character which are presented in Ynglinga s. 6, 7, namely the crafty, magical, bardic side on the one hand, and the warlike side on the other, were both known to the non-Scandinavian Germans. The first appears from the Latin interpretation (Mercurius) and from the Merseburg magical verses. So also in the Old English Leechdoms (III. 34, 23) Woden is represented as dealing in divination: "then Woden took nine 'twigs of glory' (chips for divination); then he struck the adder so that it flew in nine pieces." It is possible also that the ancient English regarded him as the inventor of the (Runic) alphabet. In the dialogue of Salomon and Saturn the following passage occurs: "Tell me who first invented letters? I tell thee, Mercurius the giant" (Mercurius se gygand). It is, of course, possible that the Graeco-Latin god is meant. There is another possible reference in the Runic poem. 1. 10:--"'Os' is the beginning of every speech" etc. The meaning of the passage is exceedingly obscure. It is not unlikely that the poem has been revised by some person who did not thoroughly understand his original. In the older poem os might have meant Woden. On the other hand Wodan (Woden) as the giver of victory is most clearly depicted in the Langobardic saga (Origo Gentis Langob.; Paulus, Historia Langob. I. 8). In this character he was known also to the English, cf. Ethelwerd II.2: "the pagans after worshiped Woden as a god with sacrilegious honour, and offered him sacrifice for the acquisition of victory or valour."

Sacrifices to Woden are mentioned by Tacitus (Germ. 9) who states that "they consider it right to sacrifice even human victims to Mercurious on certain fixed days." According to Jonas of Bobbio (Mabillon, Acta sanctorum ord. Bened. II. p. 26) Columbanus (about A.D. 620) found a party of Sueui engaged in "sacrifice" to Wodan. They were sitting round a large vessel full of beer; but the nature of the ceremony is not described. According to Ethelwerd sacrifices were offered by the English to Woden (see above).

The custom of devoting a hostile army to Woden (cf. p. 7) was also known to the continental Germans. The clearest case occurs in Tacitus' description of the war between the Chatti and the Hermunduri (Ann. XIII. 57):--"The war turned out successfully for the Hermunduri, while for the Chatti it was all the more disastrous, because in the event of victory they (i.e. bot sides) had dedicated their opponents' army to Mars and Mercurius. By this vow both horses and men, in short everything on the side of the conquered is given up to destruction. And so the threats of our enemies recoiled upon themselves." Another example of the total destruction of an army, which may very well have been due to a vow of this kind, is supplied by Tacitus' account of the scene of Varus' disaster (Ann. I. 61). It seems likely also that the English invaders of Britain practiced a similar rite, if one may judge from certain entries in the Saxon Chronicle, especially the entry under the 491:--"Ælle and Cissa besieged Anderida and slaughtered all who dwelt therein; there was not a single Briton left there." It has been mentioned above (p. 7) that amongst the Scandinavians this dedication was symbolized by the casting of a javelin over the enemy's army. Some such idea may have been in the mind of Coifi, the chief priest of the Northumbrians, who according to Bede (H. E. II. 13), as soon as he had given his vote for the change of faith, hurled a spear into the heathen temple. A very early example of the total destruction of a vanquished army in obedience to a vow of this kind is given by Orosius v. 16. After narrating the defeat of Caepio and Mallius by the Cimbri (B.C. 105) he proceeds:--"The enemy captured both camps and acquired an immense quantity of booty. They proceeded to destroy everything which they had captured in accordance with a novel and unusual vow. The clothing was torn to shreds and cast away; the gold and silver was thrown into the river; the corslets of the men were cut to pieces; the trappings of the horses were broken up; the horses themselves were drowned in the waters; the men were hanged on trees, with nooses round their necks. No booty was allowed to the conqueror and no pity to the conquered." It is true that the nationality of the Cimbri and Teutons has not yet been satisfactorily ascertained. On the whole the evidence is perhaps somewhat against the supposition that these tribes were Germanic. Yet there is no doubt that they had lived in the closest proximity to Germanic tribes, and consequently they may have shared their religious beliefs and usages. The practice of destroying even the inanimate property of a vanquished enemy was known among the Germans of the North at a much later time, probably as late as the fourth century. This is shown by the immense quantities of weapons and other articles, which have been found deposited in the bogs of Thorsbjærg and Nydam (in Slesvig and South Jutlan).

A most singular custom is attributed by Procopius (Gothis War II. 14) to the Eruli, a tribe which it has hitherto proved impossible to identify with certainty with any of the Germanic nations known in later times. Procopius states simply that they lived formerly beyond the Danube, but his acquaintance with the geography of northern Europe was apparently not extensive. The Eruli are first mentioned in the third century, at which time they appear almost simultaneously on the Black Sea and on the frontier of Gaul. On the whole it seems most probable that their original home was on the southern shores of the Baltic. However this may be, it is quite clear that they were a Germanic tribe and still heathen when part of them were admitted into the Roman empire by Anastasius (A.D. 512). They seem to have been the only important Germanic tribe known to Procopius which had preserved their heathendom till within living memory; for the Goths, Vandals, Gepedes, and Langobardi had long been Christian, and even the Franks were nominally converted before the end of the fifth century, though according to Procopius (G. W. II. 25) they still continued to practice human sacrifices. There seems to be no adequate reason for doubting that the cult of Woden was known to the Eruli. It was certainly practiced by all the tribes whose territories lay along the Elbe, the Saxons, Langobardi and Hermunduri; probably also by the Goths whose original home lay far to the East. Procopius simply states that the Eruli worshiped a great number of gods, whom they deemed it right to appease with human sacrifices. There is however some evidence of a different kind (cf. p. 39 f.), which would seem to show that the Eruli had preserved one feature of the cult in a singularly pure form. Procopius' statement about the customs of the Eruli is as follow:--"They had many laws which differed from those of the rest of mankind; for when they became aged or sick they were not allowed to live. As soon as one of them was overtaken by old age or disease it became incumbent on him to request his relatives to put him out of the way as quickly as possible. The relatives made a great pile of logs, reaching to a considerable height, and setting the man on the top they sent up one of the Eruli against him with a dagger. This man had to be chosen from another family, for it was not lawful that the executioner should be related to the victim. And when the man who had been chosen to slay their kinsman had returned, they proceeded forthwith to set all the logs on fire, beginning at the extremities of the pile. When the fire had died out they collected the bones and buried them without delay in the ground." Reference has already been made (p. 13 f.) to a custom, which would seem to have prevailed among the ancient Scandinavians, of marking a dying man with the point of a javelin; and it has been pointed out that the passage in Ynglinga s. 10, in which this rite is described, implies that it was regarded as a substitution for death in battle. Now is it possible that this rite was a relic of a still earlier custom, according to which the dying man was actually stabbed to death? Such an explanation would obviously harmonize very well with the purpose of the rite, and it would be in full accord with the general conception of Othin and Valholl (cf. p. 26 f.). Then the custom attributed to the Eruli at the end of the fifth or beginning of the sixth century will represent simply an earlier stage in the history of the same rite. It is true that the weapon used by the Eruli is stated to have been a dagger and not a javelin; but a discrepancy in such a detail as this may be due to inaccuracy on the part of Procopius. Examples of voluntary death in the Scandinavian legends are rare. Yet there are two cases of special significance: Hadingus, a hero who frequently appears under Othin's protection, commits suicide by hanging himself (Saxo. I. P. 60), and Starcatherus, the foster-son of Othin and his typical hero, requests and receives death at the hand of Hatherus (Saxo VIII. p. 405 f.). In the latter case the killing is done with a sword. A singular custom of killing the old is mentioned in Gautreks s. 1, 2 (F.A.S. III. p. 7 ff.). The victims suffered voluntarily; man and wife were put to death together by being thrown over a precipice. Among the Germans of the Continent, there is, so far as I am aware, no evidence for such custom beyond the passage quoted above from Procopius. Tacitus only says (Germ. 6) that persons who have succeeded in making their escape after a disastrous battle, and have lost their shields in so doing, frequently strangle themselves to death, and so put an end to their dishonour. With this passage may be compared Ragnars s. Loðbrókar c. 9 (F.A.S. I. 261 ff.), where the defeated Eirekr son of Ragnar is offered full freedom and favour by killing Eysteinn, yet prefers to be killed (probably as a sacrifice). The survivors of the Cimbri also killed themselves after the battle of Vercellae according to Plutarch (Marius 27, see below), and their wives followed their example. The same was the case with the women of the Teutons after the battle of Aquae Sextiae (Florus III. 3; Heironymus, Ep., ad Ageruchiam).

Very little is known of the ritual practiced by the ancient Germans in their human sacrifices. The general employment of hanging however as a means of capital punishment renders it probable that this was at least one of the methods practiced. According to Tactitus (Germ. 12) "traitors and deserters were hanged on trees," while cowards and others were suffocated on marshes. The officers of Varus' army, according to Tacitus (Ann. I. 61) were "slaughtered at the altars"; some of the troops appear to have been buried alive, others possibly were hanged. The custom of hanging captured enemies was certainly known to the Goths. Thus according to Jordanes (c. 48) the Ostogothic king Vinitharius, in order to strike terror into the Anti, hanged their king Boz with his sons and seventy of their nobles. Hanging seems to have been much practiced by the Cimbri. In Orosius' account of the Roman disaster on the Rhone, the Roman captives are stated to have been hanged on the trees (cf. p. 31 f.). After their defeat at Vercellae, according to Plutarch (Marius 27), the fugitives attempted to hang themselves by any means that lay ready to hand:--"As there were no trees at hand the men tied their necks, some to the horns and some to the legs of the oxen; then they applied goads to the oxen and, as the latter rushed off, they were dragged along and crushed, and thus met their death." According to the same chapter (cf. Florus III. 3) the women also either hanged or strangled themselves. The expression aporia dendrwn "through lack of trees" deserves consideration, because it distinctly implies the existence of some suicidal rite in which tree-hanging formed an essential feature. There is not however sufficient evidence for determining whether the rite was practiced generally or only under special conditions. It is conceivable, for instance, that some vow had been made which involved death in case of defeat. On the other hand it is possible that the Cimbri, like the later Eruli, held it unlawful to die a natural death; consequently, when all hope of further successful fighting was gone, sacrificial suicide was the only course left open.

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