Germanic Languages and Germanic Paganism

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History and Geography

The 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.”

German Hut, old engraving imagining the ancient mode of life 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 Historical references are known from classical sources, some early Germanic sources and from archaeological evidence.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.”

Languages

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 archaic practices.

Linguistics
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 chemistry.
#grimmslaw
Grimm’s Law
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.

*PIE
Proto-Indo-European
Sanskrit Greek Latin Germanic (Gothic) modern English
Unvoiced stops p, t, k, usually remain in Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, but become fricatives, (f, th, kh>h) in the Germanic languages.
*p
*patér
p
pitár
p
patér
p
pater
f
fadar
f
father
*t
*trei-
t
trí-
t
treis/tría
t
trés
th, þ
þrija
th
three
*k
*kywon-(to)-
s
sván-
k
kúon
k (spelt c)
canis
kh = h
hunds
h
hound
*kw
*kwod
k
kád
various > p, t, k, depending on the vowel that follows kw (spelt qu), quod hw
hwa
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.
*PIE Sanskrit Greek Latin Germanic (Gothic) modern English
*b, very rare
*bel(os)- ‘strong’
b
bálam ‘strength’
b
beltion ‘better’
b
debilis ‘weak’
p p
*d
*edont-
d
dánt-
d
odónt-
d
dent-
t
tunþus
t
tooth
*g, gy
*gyenos
g
jánas
g
génos
g
genus
k, (spelt c)
cuni
k
kin ‘family’
*gw
*gwou-
g
gau-, go
b/d
bous
v/gu
bos-, bovine
kw, (spelt cw) k
cow, kine
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 languages.
*PIE Sanskrit Greek Latin Germanic (Gothic) modern English
*bh
*bhrater-
bh
bhratar
ph
phrater
f
frater
b
broþar
b
brother
*dh
*dhwer-
dh
dvaras-
th
thúra
f/d
for-es
d
daúr-
d
door
*gh
*gyhan-s
gh > h
hamsá
kh
khen
(h) > 0
anser
g g
goose, swan
*ghw
*ghwermo
gh/h
gharma ‘heat, glow’
ph/th
thermos
f/u
formus
gw/w
warmjan
g/w
warm

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.

Religion

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.

Primary Sources
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.

Secondary Sources
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.

Festivals
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 very plausible.

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.

Myths
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. [fuggle26]

Rites
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. There is a page in English about the Ranheim Site here. Unfortunately the site has already been destroyed for a housing project. Apparently this is legal in Norway.

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, 1995.
• 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, 1997.
• Thorpe, Benjamin, Northern Mythology of Scandinavia, northern Germany and the Netherlands compiled by Edward Lumley, London, 1852.

Links
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. It has now been revised and updated and I'm really happy with it. I hope you like it too!

© 2009, last updated 6/11/2015, piereligion.org/germanic.html