Germanic religion

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Germanic religion

Germanic religion, pre-Christian religious practices among the tribes of Western Europe, Germany, and Scandinavia. The main sources for our knowledge are the Germania of Tacitus and the Elder Edda and the Younger Edda. Although it is possible to perceive certain basic concepts that were important to the pre-Christian Germans, there was no Germanic religion common to all the Scandinavian and Teutonic peoples; neither can we know whether a ritual or legend peculiar to one Germanic tribe was common to all Germanic tribes.

Conversion of the Germans to Christianity began as early as the 4th cent. AD, but it took many centuries for the new religion to spread throughout the northern lands of Europe. In Nazi Germany the spirit of the old religion and the heroic attributes of the Germanic gods were revived as part of the propaganda program of the Nazi party.

The Germanic Pantheon

Germanic religion, like most ancient religions, was polytheistic. In early times there were two groups of gods—the Aesir and the Vanir. However, after a war between the rival pantheons (which perhaps reflects a war between two rival tribes), the defeated Vanir were absorbed into the Aesir, and the gods of both were worshiped in a single pantheon. This pantheon, which according to some accounts consisted of 12 principal deities, had Woden (Odin) as its chief god. Other important deities were Tiw (Tyr), Thor (Donar), Balder, Frey, Freyja, and Frigg. The gods dwelled in Asgard, where each deity had his or her own particular abode. The most beautiful of the palaces was Valhalla; there Woden, attended by the Valkyries, gave banquets to the dead heroes. The ancient Nordic gods, however, unlike the gods of most religions, were not immortal. They continually renewed their youth by eating the apples of Idun, but they were doomed, like mortals, to eventual extinction.

The gods were opposed by the giants and demons, representing the destructive and irrational forces of the universe. It was prophesied that at Ragnarok, the doom of the gods, the forces of evil and darkness led by Loki and his brood of monsters, would attack the gods of Asgard. After a ferocious battle, in which most of the gods and giants would be destroyed, the universe would end in a blaze of fire. However, it was also prophesied that from the ashes of the old world a new cosmos would emerge and a new generation of gods and humans would dwell in harmony.

The Creation Myth

In early Nordic belief, from the mixture of the glacial waters of Niflheim (the land of ice and mist) and the warm winds of Muspellsheim (the land of fire), came forth the first two creatures—the giant Ymir, who fathered a race of giants, and the cow Audhumla, who created the first god, Buri. Buri's son, Borr, fathered the gods Odin, Vili, and Ve, who together destroyed Ymir and from his body fashioned the heavens and the earth. From two trees the gods created the first man and woman—Ashr (Ask) and Embla. The universe was supported by the great ash tree Yggdrasill, whose roots and branches extended into the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. Near one of the roots of the tree flowed the fountain of Mimir, in whose sacred waters all the wisdom of the universe flowed. Near another root dwelled the Norns, who represented fate. (The concept of fate was one of the most important beliefs of Germanic religion; everything, even the gods, was subject to it.) In the tree's branches perched a sacred bird, who, with the god Heimdall, warned the gods when an attack from the giants was imminent.

Rites and Ceremonies

The temples of the gods were attended by priests who were responsible essentially for the reading of omens and other types of divination, for administering the propitiation of the gods, and for guarding the sacred groves and objects. Their duties were frequently performed by the political leader of a particular tribe. Festivals and religious ceremonies were held throughout the year, usually for celebration of the harvest or of victory in battle. At festivals, animal (or sometimes human) sacrifices and libations were offered to the gods, and the dead were commemorated. In Germanic religion the dead were believed to retain their faculties and to affect the fate of the living. Burial places were sacred, and sacrifices were made at them.

Bibliography

See P. D. Chantepie de la Saussaye, The Religion of the Teutons (1902); P. A. Munch and O. Magnus, Norse Mythology (1926, repr. 1970); H. R. E. Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology (1982) and Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe (1988).

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