The Northern Way

The Cult of Othin

Chapter 2

Page 2

The allusions to the prevalence of hanging among the Cimbri are so frequent that there can be little doubt that they practiced either the cult of Woden or at least some cult which employed very similar rites. An account of their methods of sacrifice is given by Strabo (VII. p. 294). "Their women accompanied them on their march and were attended by holy prophetesses with gray hair and white clothing. These had linen mantles fastened by a buckle, bronze girdles and bare feet. When prisoners were brought into the camp, they met them sword in hand and , after consecrating them, they led them to a bronze bowl, capable of holding about twenty amphorae. They had a ladder on which she climbed... . Standing above the bowl she cut each man's throat as he hung suspended. They practiced divination from the blood as it gushed out into the bowl. Others slit them asunder and disemboweled them, proclaiming victory to their own people." With the last sentence may be compared the Scandinavian rite of cutting the "blood-eagle" (cf. p. 20), which is represented in Orkneyinga s. 8 as a sacrifice to Othin for victory. It is noticeable that in these Cimbric sacrifices, as in the sacrifice of Vikar (cf. p. 3 f.), hanging and stabbing seem to be combined, though it is not stated that the hanging was of such a nature as in itself to cause death. For the combination of sacrifice with divination Scandinavian parallels can be found, though I am not aware that there is any evidence for the practice of divination at human sacrifices. It ought to be mentioned however that a rite still more closely resembling that of the Cimbri is attributed by Diodorus (v. 31) to the Gauls.

The Old English poem Beowulf has already been quoted (p. 18) in illustration of the Scandinavian custom of hanging captured enemies. The same poem contains apparently an allusion to another very curious custom, whether English or Scandinavian is not clear. After describing now Herebeald, son of Hreðel king of the Geatas, was accidentally killed by his brother Hæðcyn, the poem goes on to describe the grief of Hreðel, concluding as follows (1. 2444 ff.):--"Thus it is grievous for an old man to endure, that his young son should ride on the gallows. Then shall he utter a dirge, a sorrowful song, when his son hangs, a joy to the raven, and he himself, aged and experienced as he is, can not help him or serve him in any way." There is no indication that the person hanged was a criminal, and the context does not admit of the supposition that he had been captured in war. It is not quite clear how far the passage is intended as a simile. If the poet is thinking of Herebeald in 1. 2445-6, it would seem to show that the bodies of dead persons were hung on the gallows. Otherwise it must be inferred that he was acquainted with some custom similar to that practiced by the Eruli (p. 33 f.), though in this case death was brought about by hanging.

It has been mentioned (p. 21) that the invention of the "wedge" order of battle was ascribed to Othin by the Scandinavians. There is no evidence for the existence of such a belief among the continental Germans. The "wedge" however was well known and was recognized even in the very earliest times as the Germans' favourite method of warfare (cf. Caesar, B.G. I. 52; Tacitus, Germ. 6). It has also been suggested in explanation of Ynglinga s. 6, that the typical Othin-worshiper in early times was a light-armed warrior. Now the Germans of the first century were certainly light-armed, their favourite weapon being the javelin. Tacitus' statements (Germ. 6) convey the impression that this was due to their inability to procure defensive armour. Such however can not have been the case with the Eruli in later times, for this tribe appears to have continued to practice light-armed warfare at a time when all the neighboring tribes were well provided with defensive armour. Jordanes (c. 23) states that "at that time (i.e. in the fourth century) there was no nation which did not possess in its army a body of light-armed troops selected from among the Eruli." In his account of the battle between the Huns and Gepidæ (Gepedes) he compares the light equipment of the Eruli with the heavy armour of the Alani (c. 50). The equipment of the Eruli is described by Procopius (Persian War, II. 25) as follows: "The Eruli wear neither helmet nor coat of mail nor any other protection except a shield and a thick cloak; girded with this they proceed to battle." He adds that their slaves fought even without shields. Procopius' statement is corroborated by Paulus (Hist. Langobard. I. 20): -- "At that time (about the end of the fifth century) the Eruli were experienced in the arts of war and had acquired great glory by the slaughter of many nations. Whether for the sake of fighting with greater freedom, or to show their contempt for any wound inflicted by the enemy, they used to fight unprotected, covering only the loins." This absence of defensive armour is probably to be ascribed to the conservative instincts of the tribe, backed by the sanction of their religion.

In Ynglinga s. 10 Othin is stated to have instituted the custom of cremation, and to have declared that every man should possess in Valholl the property which had been burnt with him on his pyre (cf. p. 22). Cremation was practiced by the ancient Germans in the time of Tacitus (Germ. 27) and continued long after, though it had apparently been given up by the Franks before their conversion. It was practiced, at least partly, by the English after their conquest of Britain, and by the Eruli until the beginning of the sixth century (cf. p. 33 f.). By the Old Saxons it seems to have been practiced even towards the end of the eighth century. It was prohibited by an edict of Karl the Great in 785. Tacitus seems to have been struck by the simplicity of the German funeral rites. He states that they had no monuments except a mound covered with grass. Yet he adds that weapons and in some cases horses were thrown on to the pyre. The funeral customs of the ancient Germans therefore did not differ essentially from those practiced in the North. Procopius however (Gothic War, II. 14; cf. p. 33 f.) distinctly states that suttee was practiced by the Eruli: --"When a man of the Eruli dies, it becomes incumbent on his widow, if she makes any claim to virtue and wishes to leave behind her a good reputation, to strangle herself to death without much delay beside her husband's tomb. If she does not do this, she forfeits all respect for the rest of her life and incurs the enmity of her husband's relatives." This is, so far as I am aware, the only passage in which the practice of suttee is attributed to any Germanic tribe. Yet a careful examination of the northern legends will reveal the fact that some such custom was not altogether unknown amongst the ancient Scandinavians. According to Saxo I. p. 46 Gunnilda, the wife of Asmundus, refused to survive her husband's death and took her life, apparently with a sword. In Volsunga s. 8 (F.A.S. I. 135) Sigýn prefers to die with her husband Siggeir, though she has brought his death about and killed the children which he had by her. In Gylfaginning 49 Nanna is represented as dying of grief at Balder's pyre; possibly in an earlier version of the story she committed suicide. In Hervarar s. 5 (F.A.S. I. 429) Ingiborg, daughter of Yngvi (Ingialdr) king of the Swedes, is represented as hearing of the death Hialmar, to whom she was betrothed. What follows is differently related in different texts; according to one text "she was so much affected by Hialmar's fall that she straightaway died of grief;" according to another "the king's daughter can not bear to survive him and determines to put an end to her own life." The case of Brynhildr may also be quoted (cf. Sigurðarkviða in skamma; Volsunga s. 31). Brynhildr was not the wife of Sigurðr, though she had desired that position. After bringing about Sigurðr's death she kills herself with a sword (Sigurðarkv. 48), and gives directions that she is to be burnt with Sigurðr (cf. p. 23). In the poem Helreið Brynhildr she is represented as driving to Valholl. The poem concludes with the words "Sigurðr and I shall never part again." Another example, dating from curiously late times, is preserved by Jakut under the article Rus (quoted by J. Grimm, kl. Schriften II. p. 289 ff.). A certain Ibn Fazlan, who records the story, witnessed the funeral of a noble Russian on the lower Volga, about the year 922--3. The dead man was burnt on a ship in the river. Various animals were killed and thrown on to the pyre, a dog, a cock and hen (possible in the place of hawks, cf. p. 24), two horses and two oxen. A young woman was also killed and laid beside the dead man. It appears from Ibn Fazlan's account that she was not the wife of the dead man, but chosen from among his concubines. These were asked which of them was willing to die with their master. The offer was voluntary, but when once made, could not be retracted. The method of killing employed was a combination of strangling and stabbing, the latter being carried out by an old woman who was known as the "death's-angel." J. Grimm (l.c. p. 294) did not believe that these people were Scandinavians. His objections however do not seem to have been sufficiently well grounded. Ibn Fazlan distinguishes clearly between the Russians and the Slavs. That the "Russians" were Scandinavians is rendered probable by the fact that according to Constantinus Porphyrogenitus (On the Administration of the Empire, c. 9) the Russians and Slavs spoke different languages (CTF4FJ\s E68"$4<4FJ\(), the former of which was, to judge from his examples, undoubtedly Scandinavian. The ship-funeral also, as related by Ibn Fazlan seems to be a distinctively Scandinavian custom. At the same time some doubt may be expressed as to whether the practice of suttee was at all common at this late period. Lastly reference may be made to a custom attributed by Bonifacius (Ep. 72, written A.D. 745) to the Old Saxons: -- "In Old Saxony if a maiden brings disgrace upon her father's house by unchastity, they sometimes compel her to put an end to her life by hanging herself with her own hand. Her body is then laid on the pyre and cremated, and the partner of her guilt is hanged over her tomb." A close parallel to this passage is afforded by Saxo's account of Hagbarthus had made his way in woman's attire to the abode of Sygne, daughter of the Danish king Sigarus. There he was arrested and condemned to death, partly on account of seducing Sygne, but partly also because he had killed two of Sigarus' sons in battle. Sygne decides to share Harbarthus' fate and begs her handmaidens to die with her. They pile faggots against the walls of the room and make halters of their robes. When Hagbarthus is led to the gallows, he asks that his coat may first be hanged, in order that he may test Sygne's constancy. When this is notified to Sygne, whose room is some distance from the place of execution, she and her maidens, thinking that Hagbarthus is already dead, set fire to the room and push away the beams on which they were standing, thus hanging themselves. Hagbarthus, seeing the flames, meets his fate with joy. It is to be noticed that Sygne's death is entirely voluntary. Among the Old Saxons on the other hand the woman was compelled to die, but stress is certainly to be laid on the words propria manu. She was not executed but compelled to commit suicide. The practice seems therefore to have been associated in some way with the idea of suttee. It is worth noticing also that in both cases the man is put to death by hanging. Lastly the case of the Teutons and Cimbri may be quoted. It is stated by several authors (Florus, III. 3; Plutarch, Mar. 27; Hieronymus, Ep ad Ageruchiam) that after the battles of Aquae Sextiae and Vercellae the women of these tribes, after vainly attempting resistance, first destroyed their children and then put themselves to death, chiefly by hanging, some even using their hair for this purpose. Florus and Hieronymus indeed state that they first made an application to Marius for freedom and permission to exercise their sacerdotal office, and that they put themselves to death only this application had failed. It would appear however that this application had failed. It would appear however that this application was only made by a small number, three hundred according Hieronymus. These were perhaps the prophetesses mentioned by Strabo (VII. p. 294; cf. p. 37 above).

These examples are enough to show that suttee, or some very similar custom, was known to various Germanic tribes from very early times. Procopius' statement is therefore not without foundation. Whether Tacitus means to refer to any such custom in Germania 18 f. is not quite clear. One may be tempted to connect the existence of this rite with the strict views which, according to Tacitus, the ancient Germans entertained on matrimony. On the other hand it may also have had a very different origin. It might, for example, have arisen from the idea that the wife was part of the husband's property, and consequently required by him, together with his horses, dogs, and hawks, in order to complete his happiness in the next world. The latter explanation is favoured by the fact that the woman killed was apparently not always the man's lawful wife. Against this it may perhaps be objected that it is inconsistent with the Germanic conception of marriage. Yet it has still to be proved that the cult of Woden is of Germanic origin. If the cult was introduced from abroad, the same may also be true of such a rite as this; for, since the rite undoubtedly presupposes a belief in a certain kind of immortality, it may very well have been connected, even from the beginning, with the cult of Woden.

Notwithstanding the paucity of the evidence, there seems to be every reason for believing that the cult of Woden, as practiced by the continental Germans in the earliest historical times, corresponded to the Scandinavian cult in all its essential features. It is clear: (1) that human victims were sacrificed to Woden; (2) that in war that enemy were sometimes dedicated to Woden, a vow which involved the slaughter of all prisoners and the destruction of all the booty; (3) that such prisoners were often put to death by hanging. The frequent occurrence of hanging as a method of punishment suggests also that human victims were regularly sacrificed to Othin in this way, but conclusive evidence is wanting. Perhaps hanging and stabbing were combined, as appears to have been the case with the Cimbri (cf. p. 37 f.). For the sacrificial use of the javelin there is hardly sufficient evidence, though it is to be remembered that this was the favourite weapon of the ancient German. Further it is clear (4) that certain Germanic tribes (at all events the Eruli) practiced a method of warfare which showed a reckless contempt of danger and has some resemblance to the "berserksgangr" of the North; (5) that the funeral rites practiced by the ancient Germans seem to have closely resembled those which in the North were associated with the cult of Othin. Suttee, or some very similar custom, seems to have been known both on the continent and in the North. In all these points the Scandinavian and continental cults agree. In one respect the continental cult, at all events, as practiced by the Eruli, seems to have had a more primitive and barbarous form. Men were not allowed to die by disease or old age, but had to be despatched by violence on the approach of death. In the North on the other hand this act seems to be represented by a merely formal stabbing. It is possible however that in very early times the dying man was actually killed (cf. p. 34 f.).

It is clear that the Eruli worshiped a "god of the dead," and it is very probable that the Cimbri practiced a cult of the same kind. That this god was Woden is rendered probable by the fact that he was the recipient of human sacrifices, and also by the "dedication" vow, though in this case he seems to have been associated with "Mars". Some conception answering to that of the Scandinavian Valholl must therefore have prevailed among the ancient Germans. Since the poetry of heathen times is entirely lost, it is no wonder that this conception can not now be traced. Possibly we owe to it such expressions as the O.E. neorxa wang = paradisus. The word walcyrge (wælcyrie) is also of frequent occurrence in the Old English glossaries, but from the words which it is used to gloss (Erinys, Tisiphona, Bellona etc.), as also from its frequent appearance in the phrase wiccean and wælcyrian, it would seem to have had a different meaning from the Norse valkyria. Since there can be little doubt that the latter is in great measure a creation of the Scandinavian poets, it is not unlikely that the English usage may reflect an earlier conception. Possibly the work originally denoted the "promantis," who sacrificed human victims and practiced divination from their blood. The transference of the valkyrie from the earthly sphere to Valholl will in that case be a later development. It cannot, of course, be denied that the English walcyrge had supernatural features but these appear rather to have been of the werewolf class.

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