• Proto-Indo-European Religion
• Indo-European Languages
• Proto-Indo-European Goddesses
• Proto-Indo-European Myths
• Proto-Indo-European Rituals
• Festivals, Food and Farming
• Early English Text Society
GeographyThe Germanic people have generally been thought to have
inhabited northern Europe and Scandinavia since the Iron Age, but the exact
identification with various archaeological cultures is uncertain, and it is not
known when they arrived there or where they came from. A great deal has been
written on this subject but most of it had a political agenda, in particular the
sort of squatters’ rights arguments that are used by people who want to use
pseudoscientific arguments to make territorial claims. These types of arguments
typically take the form “Our linguistic ancestors used to live there and
therefore we have the right to that land.”
Although the Germanic languages are thought to have separated from the Slavic
and Baltic languages as early as 2300 BCE based on linguistic estimates, the
earliest archaeological culture that is identified tentatively with
Germanic-speaking people is the Hallristningar. The early history of
Germanic-speaking people is really only known from the period of time called the
Volkerwanderung (The Period of the Migrations), which began roughly 400 CE.
Historical references are known from classical sources, some early Germanic
sources and from archaeological evidence. The Germanic people lived in areas
around the Black Sea, and in northwestern Europe and in Scandinavia. During the
Volkerwanderung they traveled to Italy, Spain, north Africa, the western Balkans, England and Ireland, and in most of these areas they were eventually exterminated or
absorbed. The Visigoths of Spain and the Ostrogoths of Italy were eventually
murdered by other Christians for being the wrong kind of Christian, i.e.
followers of the “Arian heresy.”
The Germanic languages are certainly well
attested from the fourth century CE and English is one of the most widely spoken
languages in the world. The earliest Germanic texts known are runic inscriptions
in the Old Futhark, dating from about 200 to 700 CE. These mostly give names of
people or tribes, but they confirm the early forms of the Germanic languages. Within the Germanic language family, there are three groups, East Germanic, North Germanic and West Germanic.
East Germanic Languages
The earliest substantial
attestation of the Germanic languages is the translation of the Bible into
Gothic, made in 400 CE, but this language is now extinct. Other east Germanic
languages included Visigothic and the Gothic spoken in the Crimea in the 15th
century but these are not well known.
West Germanic Languages
These languages comprise
English, Dutch and German and their ancestral forms. Early runic inscriptions
and later rune songs are known in the Anglo-Saxon futhark, the earliest dating
to about 600 CE. The first major body of writing in the Germanic languages consists of
Anglo-Saxon texts, the earliest dating to about 700 CE, and some of these early
texts were composed in the Germanic languages, not merely translations of
foreign texts. Early texts in Old English include charms, prayers and
invocations which name Pagan Gods and Goddesses. There are enough references to
the early Goddesses, rituals and myths to confirm the identity of the
Anglo-Saxon religion with the Pagan traditions recorded later and in more detail
in Old Norse.
Other early west Germanic languages include Old Saxon, spoken by the Saxons
who remained in Europe, and known only from the text of the Heliand, a retelling
of the Christian part of the Bible in the style of epic poetry. Old High German
is a time dialect that preceded later modern German and is known mainly from a
few early charms which mention Pagan Gods and Goddesses and incidentally correspond word for
word with some charms in the Sanskrit Atharva Veda as well as Celtic charms.
By the Middle Ages, these languages had become the vehicle for a mass of
vernacular literature, much of it Christian and much of it romantic, but still
continuing many ancient traditions often in altered form which allowed Pagan forms to
pass by the filter of Christian hostility. Middle High German, as with Middle
English, has a romantic literature including the Nibelungenlied, which is a
retelling of a Proto-Indo-European myth.
Modern High German, Dutch, and modern English are the source of a great deal
of traditional folklore, songs and literature, known from the folklore
collections made in the 1800’s which still conserve Pagan customs and myths,
sometimes recorded from actual people who remember the old ways.
North Germanic Languages
The north Germanic languages
are known from Scandinavian literature, usually referred to as being in the Old
Norse language, though there are medieval texts from Sweden, Norway, Denmark and
Iceland. Scandinavian mythology is very well-known from a number of texts
written down in 1100 - 1300 CE, many containing older poems on mythological
topics. Scandinavian runic texts are also known, mostly memorial stones, and
while they don’t contain much linguistic information, we love them because they
are written in runes. Modern Scandinavian folklore collections include
folktales, many beautiful and archaic Danish ballads, and customs. It is rumored
that some ancient Pagan practices are continued in some very out of the way
Scandinavian communities. If they exist, the xenophobic and conservative
attitudes of such communities might protect them and at the same time restrict
information to outsiders but in any case I have not seen any evidence of such
The relationship of the Germanic languages
to the classical languages Greek, Latin and Sanskrit was first recognized by
Jacob Grimm who was able to perceive the pattern of sound change that is known
today as Grimm’s Law. This set of sound changes is actually an historical event,
albeit a very slow one that people did not recognize at the time it was
happening. However, the pattern is so consistent it can be defined
mathematically and therefore it can fairly be called a “law” like the law of
gravity, a use of the word that was typical at the period of the Enlightenment.
Linguistic “laws” are the equivalent of the laws of physics and chemistry which
were beginning to be recognized at this time also although linguistic laws only happen once historically whereas laws of chemistry and physics apply over and over again. The discovery of historic
sound laws turned linguistics into a science just as the discovery of the theory
of evolution turned the study of nature into the science of biology while
equivalent theories have turned astrology into astronomy and alchemy into
The chart that follows illustrates the regularity of these sound changes. Only one example of each sound change is given here, but there are thousands of examples of words with each of these sound changes, and they are consistent across all of
the Indo-European language groups, including the Celtic, Slavic, Baltic and
other languages, which have been left out here for simplicity’s sake. Included with Grimm’s Law are a number of sound changes that he didn’t know about, but they make up a larger part of the basic pattern of sound changes which he recognized.
Chart of Grimm’s Law
The English word in the last column
is also the meaning of the words in the other columns.
|Unvoiced stops p, t, k, usually remain in Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, but
become fricatives, (f, th, kh>h) in the Germanic languages.|
|k (spelt c)
|kh = h
|various > p, t, k, depending on the vowel that follows
||kw (spelt qu), quod
|hw, (now spelt wh)|
what, an interrogative
|The voiced stops b, d, g, remain in Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin but
become unvoiced (p, t, k) in the Germanic languages.|
|*b, very rare
|k, (spelt c)
|kw, (spelt cw)
|The aspirated voiced stops bh, dh, gh, remain in Sanskrit, but become unvoiced
fricatives, ph, th, kh, in Greek and Latin (usually), and voiced stops, b, d, g, in the Germanic
|gh > h
|(h) > 0
gharma ‘heat, glow’
The recognition that the Germanic languages, and by extension, the languages
of other northern “barbarians” (Celts, Slavs, Balts, etc.) were just as old as,
and descended from, an ancestral language which they shared with the southern
“civilized” languages Greek and Latin, revolutionized the study of linguistics and also
permanently altered the social and political views of Europeans about their
history and their relation to other cultures and religions. The shift was both
allowed by and it allowed for a reassessment of the religious assumptions that
had persisted for many centuries, in which it was believed that all cultures
descended from the “biblical” culture of the ancient Hebrew-speaking Jews of the
Middle-east. It was once thought that, in so far as other cultures, religions and languages
differed from those described in the Bible, they had strayed from the common and
perfect ancestral form. For example Latin was once believed to be a
bastardized form of Hebrew. One of the most far-reaching effects of this
reassessment was the acceptance of the literary and archaeological evidence,
widely noticed even then, that the older cultures in every country had once been
Pagan (specifically polytheistic, that is, with many Gods and Goddesses). It had
become clear that monotheism was a late development only in a few cultures and
not the original belief system of all humans, as had been believed, based on the
Old Testament myths in Genesis, the creation myth of the Hebrew-speaking people.
Charts like the one given above are also used to identify the names of
Proto-Indo-European deities. Words like the various words for ‘father’ given in
the first line of the chart above are called cognates because they are “cousins” that is, they all
have the same “grandmother” or ancestral form marked with an * (asterisk) to show that they
are hypothetical reconstructions. For Indo-European Goddesses to be considered
cognate, they must have cognate names which appear in several of the
Indo-European languages in forms that show these and other sound changes
according to the regular pattern. In addition, deities must also have other
characteristics in common such as the same sphere of power, the same festivals
on the same dates (adjusted for climate or geography), and they must appear in
myths which also have cognate elements in common. To meet this very high
standard, the Gods and Goddesses must also be shown to be objects of worship.
Much is known about the religion of the
Germanic-speaking people, especially the deities and the mythology. Less is
known about the specific rituals perhaps because writing was only introduced at
the same time that Christianity was, so with the means of recording the ancient
religion came the brutal and violent suppression of Paganism. For example, it is
very sad that many people in the Middle Ages were attacked by church authorities
for singing songs of mourning at the graves of their loved ones. Nevertheless
some invocations, prayers and rituals are known even in the Germanic languages.
Outstanding among the Germanic
mythological texts are the Elder Edda, a compendium of ancient Norse
mythological texts, and the Younger Edda which was written by Snorri Sturluson,
an Icelander whose stated purpose was to explain the mythological allusions in
the ancient skaldic poetry to his contemporaries so that they would not lose the
ability to understand them. Sources like these give descriptions of the deities
and the myths. Also some early legendary king lists such as the Yngling Saga of
the Danish royal house and the genealogies of the Anglo-Saxon kings include Germanic Gods and Goddesses. Additional sources include extensive folklore
collections in all of the Germanic-speaking countries, including descriptions of
folk customs, folk songs with music, and folk tales which often recapitulate
ancient myths. Much of this material has been misinterpreted by various
comparative religionists, and it remains to be understood correctly, though many
perceptive literary critiques are known especially by translators who see both
languages and know their material well.
The works of the brothers Grimm, Jacob
and Wilhelm, were the earliest scholarly attempts at a linguistic reconstruction
of the ancient religion that was general to
Indo-European-speaking people, but their works are old, out of date, the
scholarship is somewhat careless, and they are certainly subject to the
assumptions ( = bigotry) that were typical of the time. Notably, Jacob Grimm
dismisses Germanic Goddesses in the second half of a single chapter as
unimportant, and clearly he has no interest in them. Nevertheless, the three
volume Teutonic Mythology serves as one of the few introductions to the
subject. One of the few good modern books about Germanic Paganism in England is
Lost Gods of England by Brian Branston, which includes information on
place names in England which clearly indicate patterns of Pagan worship. Heathen Place Names (in England) by Edward Sproston, is another list of possible theophoric place names in a list of poetic expressions (including religious terms). This is not very useful for English place names, but is much better for Scandinavia. Most of
the other publications on this subject are limited to arguments to support some
social agenda of the authors, either a sort of romantic Celtic Neo-Paganism, or a
variation on the Catholic fascism of Dumézil, or the Nazi race theories of
authors like Stig Wikander. Good luck.
Goddesses and Gods
The Germanic Pantheon is well-known
as far as the male Gods go, but the female half is very poorly understood. One
of the difficulties is that many authors have had trouble understanding that
gender is not a fixed characteristic of the Proto-Indo-European Goddesses, even though an early
(and sexist) author like Jacob Grimm was able to equate Njord, a male God in
Scandinavian mythology with Nerthus, a female deity known from early Roman
descriptions of Germanic religious practice. Also, as has been noted elsewhere,
the effect of the Pandemonium had a major influence on the appearance of
the Germanic pantheon, although there is evidence that this was not universal
and that some deities who are demonized among some groups of Germanic speakers
were still worshiped among other groups.
There should be a Germanic festival calendar
that could be reconstructed for the Pagans, but in fact very little is known
about this, and the reasons are not clear. There is an early Anglo-Saxon
calendar described by Bede, which gives the names of the months and which
Goddess they were devoted to but it isn’t well understood. Certainly many
Europeans were Christianized early and Pagan practices were suppressed but that
is true of the Slavic people and their Pagan calendar is easy to reconstruct and
fits closely with the calendars of other Indo-Europeans. The English folk
festivals are very well-known but they include a whole-sale absorption of Welsh
(Celtic) traditions, whereas a German (mainland) calendar is unknown. Most of
the medieval information about community gatherings in Scandinavia is more
concerned with the schedules of law courts and financial affairs and much of it
seems impossible--a major community gathering in Scandinavia in February is not
Festivals and Rituals that are well attested in English sources and which are known
to be continuations of Pagan rituals are:
Charming the Plow and Wassailing the Apple Trees both of which fall in January.
Easter at the Spring Equinox is for the Goddess Eostra or Ostara.
May Day on May 1st is for Freya among the Germanic people.
Harvest Festival begins on August 1st.
Halloween falls at the beginning of winter, October 31.
Yule is celebrated at the Winter Solstice.
The Germanic mythology is very extensively known,
but it is often slightly warped. The same Indo-European (IE) Gods are involved
with each other and participate in activities that are known from other versions
of widespread Indo-European Myths, but in a way that doesn’t quite
make sense, and there is a great deal of gender changing, more than in the other
IE mythologies. The reason for these differences is not known. An example is the
widespread IE myth about the birth of the horse twins. This is usually
attributed to a brief liaison between a grain Goddess (*Devi) and a God of water (Neptune), and then she has twins, either horses or young men associated
with horses. In the Norse version the God Loki (who is usually male) seduces a
stallion, becomes pregnant and produces the eight-legged horse Sleipnir. This
story, more fully told, has a number of points in common with the usual IE myth,
but obviously it has a few differences too. Interestingly, the names in Germanic
myths often appear in cognate forms, but the Germanic myths seem to have been
mangled by the speakers.
The Germanic people seem not to have had a formal
priesthood of the parasitic kind that typically develops at courts, either royal
courts or sometimes at the courts of religious figures, such as the Roman
papacy. A major element may simply be the lack of large population centers and
the accumulation of wealth that allows for the development of hierarchies, which
would support such a development. The generally sparse population in northern
lands and the independent agrarian lifestyle simply didn’t support such an
entrenched priesthood. In any case, we do not have evidence of formal, set
prayers. Many of the invocations and common expressions as are known are given
by Jacob Grimm in the early chapters of Teutonic Mythology, though there
is more information beyond that.
There has recently been a find of a Pagan Temple in Norway. Here is a link to the article on the Heathen Temple which is in Norwegian, however it has a very nice picture (a reconstruction) of how the temple site may have looked. Unfortunately the site has already been destroyed for a housing project. Apparently this is legal in Norway. Update: Here is a link to an English translation of the article with more details.
References • Branston, Brian, Lost Gods of
England, Thames and Hudson, London, 1974.
• Campbell, Lyle,
Historical Linguistics, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2004.
Gamkrelidze, Thomas V., and Ivanov, Vjaceslav V., Indo-European and the
Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical Analysis of a Proto-Language and
a Proto-Culture (Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 80, 2 Vol.
Set), with Werner Winter, ed., and Johanna Nichols, translator (original title
Indoevropeiskii iazyk i indoevropeistsy), M. De Gruyter, Berlin & NY,
• Grimm, Jacob, Deutsche Mythologie, (English
title Teutonic Mythology, translated by J. S. Stallybrass), George Bell and
Sons, London, 1883.
• Mallory, J. P. and Adams, Douglas Q., Oxford
Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World,
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
• Mallory, J. P. and Adams, Douglas
Q., Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, Fitzroy Dearborn, London,
• Thorpe, Benjamin, Northern Mythology of Scandinavia, northern
Germany and the Netherlands compiled by Edward Lumley, London, 1852.
• Sacred Texts has a whole section on Northern European
myths and legends with German, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian texts (includes
Armenian and Slavic as well).
• Online Medieval and Classical Library, “Omacl”
browse by language; most are translated into English in the old-fashioned
stately versions that are fun to read out loud.
• Northvegr site has Eddas, Histories and Chronicles, and miscellaneous primary
sources, especially law texts not available elsewhere.
This page used to be at pierce.yolasite.com/germanic but Yola went out of business, so it has been migrated here. Before that it was on Associated Content, but they went out of business too. It has now been revised and updated and I'm really happy with it. I hope you like it too!
© 2009, last updated 4/3/2012, piereligion.org/germanic.html