Tag Archives: Christian

Germanic Belief and Religious Tolerance

The preChristian Germanic peoples have often been characterized by historians, particularly by early Catholic historians,  “hateful of a higher religion, and so, like spoilt and envious children lashed out to destroy it”. We hear the same thing, though mostly from modern historians, about their character and regard for Imperial Roman civilization, but, while fundamentally similar, that is a matter best dealt with separately and on its own.

As for this supposed intolerance of the Germanic people for Christianity; it is best exemplified in the martyring of Sabbas and other Gothic Christians in the latter half of the 4th century AD.  According to the 5th century AD historian, Sozomenus,

“Athanaric’s men placed an idol on a cart and conducted it to the tents of those who were thought to be Christians. Suspects were ordered to worship the idol and to offer sacrifice. Those who refused were burned in their dwellings.”

That however is just a snap shot of a moment in history.

In fact, the Goths first came into contact with (Arian) Christianity in the mid-3rd century AD via their raids into the eastern Mediterranean region, from which they carried home many Christian slaves. And within the space of 100 years, the Bible had been translated into Gothic and Christianity had grown enough among the ethnic Goths to invite the serious attention of their kings and nobles.

Strange is it not? That a people supposedly so “envious” and “hateful” of a foreign faith would not only allow its presence but also its proliferation within their community. Indeed, when Athanaric’s men began their persecution of Gothic Christians a number of their non-Christian kith and kin, for better or worse, attempted to shield or otherwise hide the Christianity of their loved ones from the King’s men. Good ol’ St.Sabbas however denounced got wind of this and utterly denounced such Christians. And so went and got himself (among others) martyred.

It is worth noting that Athanaric’s distaste for Christianity was not a general phenomenon, directed against all Christians, but was directly mostly against Gothic converts. It is also worth noting Sabbas’ own willful contempt for the customs and community of the Goths. It is nothing at all unfamiliar to us from the earlier interactions of Christianity with the Roman Empire, when zealous converted went out of their way to blaspheme the state divinities in hopes of being fed to the lions and becoming a martyr for the cause. And it is also all too familiar from later interactions between the Continental Germanic tribes and Christianity; as perhaps best characterized in Willibrord’s baptism of a number of converts in the sacred spring on Fosites Island, followed by his slaughter of a number of sacred cattle for a subsequent feast. For this, Willibrord was brought before the Frisi-King, Radbod, to face capital charges for sacrilege.

Yes. Our ancestors most certainly had blasphemy and sacrilege laws. More properly, they had pious thew, they were what the Anglo-Saxons called aefast, while the law was an offender’s best hope of not being executed on the spot by an outraged mob.

Just ask Willibrord.

As for Sabbas and his ilk, they refused to partake of the sacrificial meat served up at the holy tides, which is of course tantamount to publicly rejecting the community,  refusing to take part in its spirit. He refused even just a token sign that, “despite your different beliefs, you are one of us”. The kingly hostility that he and his invoked was less a matter of a rejection of the Gothic divinities, though it was that too, and much more a rejection of the (holistic) community itself, gods and all. Basically, they proclaimed themselves to be subversives; more than happy to profit from their position among the Goths, but utterly reluctant to embrace that community and take part in it’s sacral identity.

Centuries later in the Viking Age, King Hakon the Good of Norway would find himself in a similar predicament when presented with the sacral mead at one of the holy tides; which caused a lot of concern among the gathered. He found a way around this Christian inspired reluctance by making the sign of the cross over the draught before taking it, while his confidants explained that he made the sign of the hammer over it.

This saved the king from an ordeal not entirely unlike that of wretched Sabbas, and born of much the same reasons.

Nevertheless, from Clovis of Frankland to AEthelbeorht of Kent to Penda of Mercia to Angantyr (Ongendus) of Denmark to Radbod of Frisia, we see time and time and time again Heathen kings receiving Christian missionaries with a right good will; extending protection to them, provisioning them, giving them the freedom to preach and win converts, sending them off with noble youths to be educated in the foreign beliefs, and treating them about as well as anyone could honestly ever hope or expect to be treated.

Not all of these kings ended up converting. And forsooth, not all of them remained at all friendly to Christianity; as one might expect when you extend every hospitality to a guest who then goes on to repay you by “destroying your house”, but, while Germanic ethics are not at all above “putting one’s best foot forward”, they ultimately hinge on reciprocity.

In fact, it was never the Germanic peoples who had any baleful preconceived notions about Christians or had any kind of special, or even common, hatred for them, or any other religion or culture. History itself utterly refutes such an absurd suggestion. And one need not look very far to discover where the inherent contempt for foreign beliefs comes from. It is clear and evident in historical Christianity. Not so much in our regard for outsiders, their culture and belief, save in reactionary retaliation for assaults on the heart and soul of our people, and the integrity of our community.

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“(King) Raedwald (of East Anglia) was long ago made acquainted, in Kent, with the sacraments of the Christian faith, but in vain; for on his return home, he was perverted by his wife, and certain perverse teachers, and having been turned aside from the sincerity of the faith, his last state became worse than his first, so that, after the manner of the Samaritans of old, he seemed both to serve Christ and the gods which he before served: and in the same temple had both an altar for the sacrifice of Christ, and a small altar for the victims offered to demons.”

— Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation

“King Penda himself did not forbid the preaching of the Faith to any even of his own Mercians who wished to listen; but he hated and despised any whom he knew to be insincere in their practice of Christianity once they had accepted it, and said that any who despised the commandments of the God in whom they professed to believe were themselves despicable wretches.”

— Bede, the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation

“Early in spring King Olaf went eastwards to Konungahella to the meeting with Queen Sigrid (of Sweden); and when they met the business was considered about which the winter before they had held communication, namely, their marriage; and the business seemed likely to be concluded. But when Olaf insisted that Sigrid should let herself be baptized, she answered thus: — “I must not part from the faith which I have held, and my forefathers before me; and, on the other hand, I shall make no objection to your believing in the god that pleases you best.” Then King Olaf was enraged, and answered in a passion, “Why should I care to have thee, an old faded woman, and a heathen bitch?” and therewith struck her in the face with his glove which he held in his hands, rose up, and they parted. Sigrid said,”This may some day be thy death.””

— Snorri Sturlusson, Heimskringla

 

Our Story

Indigenous Germanic belief was never so sharply compartmentalized a thing as we think of today when we think of religion. Certainly, our ancestors had their notions of what might properly be thought of as religious … those things “set apart” in dedication to the gods and their worship, and which were mostly the preoccupation of the tribal priests and/or head of household … but those beliefs impacted all other aspects of their culture. Language, poetry, mead, farming practices, battle formations, social institutions, tribal land masses, etc. were all ascribed sacral origins by our ancestors. There was no sacred-profane dichotomy, but rather a “trichotomy” of the sacred (wih), the blessed community (holy), and everything else outside of that (unholy, ie. not whole, not integral to the community).

While, in the past, Christianity came to replace the theological aspects of our indigenous beliefs, it did not mark the end of our beliefs from a properly heathen point of view. Ideology does not define our folk in the same way as it does universalists. The conversion was not the end of our story. Our languages continued, our folk cultures continued, our cultural perceptions and biases continued … not only to BE impressed, but to IMPRESS itself upon Christianity … and our blood continued.

Our story has continued, as ever, to grow and evolve in accordance with our historical experience … in accordance with our native notion of law, of precedent. Our Christianized ancestors of yore, for better and for worse (but mostly for worse), laid down a new precedent … and we have laid down other precedents since … the Eddic “laying of layers” … that have enabled us “heathens” to arise again and lay down a new precedent of our own, which is itself an old one … that recognizes our sacral origins as a people and the value of who we are. But it is all our story as the offspring of NW Europe. There is no Christian history or Heathen history. There is only European history, Germanic history. Our story.

Personal Reflections: My First Years as a Heathen and the Lessons Learned

My return to the native gods of my Germanic ancestors came back in 1983/84 when I was 12 years old, appropriately enough. I had fallen deathly ill for a 3 month stretch … in and out of the hospital on a weekly basis … test after test after test … the doctors at a loss as to what was wrong with me. The “geniuses” ultimately figured out, thanks in no small measure to my mother, that the medication that they had originally given me for whatever was initially wrong with me was in fact what was continuing to make me ill. But during that time, well, it was a lot of time to sit and ponder … a lot of different things, but most poignantly, my own mortality.

You know, a straight up and no-nonsense, “Am I dying?”.

Now, I was baptized a Catholic, went to Church with my father a few times before he carried on his merry way never to be seen again, was placed in Sunday school for, I dunno, a couple of weekends by my recently single mother, and went to Church on the very odd occasion with my maternal grandfather as a family thing. You could say I was “pop Christian” or “folk Christian”. I believed in a “higher power”, in God, and that being a good, believing human being pertained to one’s relationship with that higher power and one’s fate in the hereafter, but I was by no means “hung up” on religion … like some of the more hypocritical twigs of my maternal kindred — my grandfather not among them — who were the first to run to Church on Sunday and the last to do a good deed any other day of the week.

My religious worldview of the time consisted of various forms of Christianity, atheism, or “heavy metal Satanism”, incidentally. I had not even heard of Wicca, to say nothing of Asatru … a knowledge of which would not reach me until something like 1991, give or take a year.

So anyway, there I was, moderately Christian, 12 years old going on 13, wondering if I was going to outlive this illness or simply die a slow, completely miserable death. So, naturally one might think, I prayed to Christ … to be healed, to be saved, for mercy. I mean, I was a kid. I hadn’t ever done anyone or anything any kind of grievous harm. I was good-natured. And I was a believer to the extent that I understood it. So, why wouldn’t Christ heal me??? But he didn’t. And during this time I was also evolving a growing awareness of “the viking gods” as I called them at the time … enough to know that at one point in time these were considered real gods actually worshiped by men and not just … comic book characters or something. So I prayed to Christ “to find out”, ie. internal self-dialogue, if it was okay with him for me to pray to them. And in this internal dialogue the “pop opinion” came out as response; NO! And so as “prayers” of this nature continued over the days and weeks, moving through all that “it’s God’s will” nonsense, ie. that you suffer in your illness and maybe die from it, the threat of eternal damnation was ultimately introduced … and that was pretty well the straw that broke the camel’s back for this suffering little wretch. I’d had enough. It was wrong … this intimidation, this egotism, this sheer pettiness. And so, While I had by no means magically transcended the sheer terror of the threat of eternal damnation, which my long illness had given me something of a taste of, I was nevertheless resolved; and so I decided to pray to Thunor, whom I called by his Anglicized Old Norse variant, Thor, at the time. It was the same deal, this prayer, ie. internal self-dialogue, and I asked the Thunderer if I’d go to a good place when I died if I worshiped him. He told me, no … that one’s place in the hereafter has nothing to do with who one believes or does not believe in. And that only one’s deeds shall earn one Heaven or Hell. And on that note, still no more certain that eternal damnation didn’t still await me, I forsook Christ and swore myself to the native deities of my Germanic ancestors. And soon after, the cause of my illness was discovered and I began to get my health back in short order … though I milked the entire affair for the next five years so as to avoid going to school as much as possible … running with the tough crowd for the first few years, but going it more-or-less alone, as relative to my former “privileged” position, for the next few. Truth be known, I had very little structure and authority, ahem, “weighing me down” through it all and I ran as wild and as beset as a lone wolf; guided only by the warrior ethos of our ancestors as embodied in the myths (Eddic) and legends of our folk (eg. Walter of Aquitaine, Deitrich of Bern, Hrolf Kraki); which indeed, in hindsight could hardly have been more ideal in these modern times and those earlier years of the Reawakening. And needless to say perhaps, there were a lot of very important, very hard lessons learned during that stretch … about who was and who wasn’t “tough” for starters, starting with myself, and moving on to the nature of violence, hardship and adversity, and the true value of violence, hardship and adversity; not to mention getting real about the entire “quest for Valhalla” romanticism, which certainly has it’s place, I suppose, as relative to age-set and then profession, but for most of us the process flows from boy to wolf to man.

The Creation myth, and the nature of the divine as it pertains to the world of men, that I grew up with from 12/13 years old onward corresponded with my experience of life; each coming to inform the other as “resonant reflections” of the other. The belief that the Tivar are NOT all-powerful or all-knowing, any more than they are all loving or accepting. There are many, many other “spirits” in the Germanic cosmos afterall, spirits of nature, some of them quite powerful and all but heedless of humanity, breeding in me the understanding that a Germanic person would never ask in the wake of a natural disaster for example, “How could God allow this???” Rather we would thank the gods that, for all those that might have perished, so many yet remain. Indeed, the Norse-Icelandic Creation myth has it that the gods were not the Alpha. Nature just began to evolve, as the inevitable result of one of the infinite possibilities contained in the “pregnant void” called Ginnungagap … ultimately giving raise to it’s own polar opposite, as per the general pattern of Eddic evolution, in the birth of divine consciousness … as the end result of this aconscious process, to get all “Thorssonian” with you. But before that there was the birth of Ymir (Noisemaker) — Father Nature, as contrasted with Mother Nature/Nurture as embodied in the Eddic cow Audhumbla (Nourisher) — who’s multitude of offspring are said to be the very embodiment of hardship and adversity as found in nature. And it is from the synthesis of adversity and nurture that glory is born … glory being all but synonymous in the Indo-European tongues, and certainly the Germanic tongues, with divinity, with divine consciousness; from which Creation, as a thing distinct from “objective existence”, evolved.

In Germanic philosophy, the woes of life, the forces of adversity and transience, are a given. They might conceivably have to do with a god, sometimes, but this is not at all necessary or even common. They are simply the orlaeg of human existence within nature. For the most part, gods do not care about individual humans, save as they prove themselves to be exceptional and of benefit to the tribe, the evolution of the tribe being their only real concern … for the same reasons, I’d guess, that a farmer cares more about the well-being of the herd than any one animal within it (with the exception of what the pagan Roman’s called the “victim” of course, ie. the one set part by the gods). And really, from the native Germanic standpoint, the gods gave us the breath of life, creative consciousness, goodly form, the gifts of language and art and culture … the fundamentals and basic framework to handle our own affairs in this middle realm.

It often seems to me that people ask and expect too much of God/s, while at the same time dismissing or simply ignorant of the sheer abundance they have long since heaped upon us and which has served us well down through the ages and unto this very day. Prayer and sacrifice, as with magic and charms, are supplements to action, not substitutes for it. And bad things happen … because the universe is an inherently hostile place. From the smallest micro-organisms to the most humbling of inter-stellar phenomenon and at all points in between. You either rise to the challenges of existence … or you get crushed under them. There is no wishing them away.

The Thunder Beckons (written c.1989)

I was lost within a dark yawning void,
the taste of life bitter in my mouth
dreams shattered at an age far too young.
I cried out, but no answered.
For centuries I sat and withered,
waiting for a reply.
Then, just as hope began to fade
a low rumble of thunder echoed in the distance
Lightning flashed revealing a realm of gods, heroes and hope.
Soon, the lightning ceased, the gleaming spires faded from view,
but ever did the thunder beckon me onward!
Always offering the strength, to fight one last battle.
The will, to take one last step.
‘Til I stood at the gates of the Golden Realm.
Armed and gird, in gleaming mail,
And shining with the light of ancestral troth.

The Germanic Hell

Much as with the word Heaven, there is really no need qualify the word Hell with “Germanic” as Hell is a Germanic word … no matter how many L’s you throw in it. As with Heaven, it would be more technically correct to speak of the “Christian Hell”; which itself is properly known as Sheol or Gehenna. Biblically speaking, Sheol is simply the grave, where the dead await the Resurrection and Final Judgement of the Biblical God, while Gehenna (named after an old Jewish garbage dump) is the more familiar “lake of fire” that those who don’t make the cut will be incinerated in and which we commonly association with the “eternal torment of Hell”. There really is no “otherwordly” afterlife within Biblical Christianity, only the “promise” of the Resurrection and Judgement Day, and then the recreation of an earthly Eden which shall follow in its wake.

7. If any one, in accordance with pagan rites, shall have caused the body of a dead man to be burned and shall have reduced his bones to ashes, let him be punished capitally.” (Charlemagne, Capitulary for Saxony)

Hence the Christian contempt for the practice of cremation; which was seen to deprive the Biblical God of his/those in Sheol of their rightful judgement.

As we have it, the word Hell stems from the Old English word Hell (Hel, Helle) and has cognates in all of the Germanic languages from Gothic to Old Norse, all of which stem from a common Proto-Germanic root *haljo, which itself stems from the Proto-Indo-European root *kel(2), meaning “to cover, conceal”. On its most concrete level it refers, like Sheol, to the grave, and on a more abstract to the “underworld of the dead” as portrayed quite explicitly (ie. as Hell) in the Norse-Icelandic Eddas and implicitly in the sagas of the same folk (eg. Helgafell) . To those of our ancestors who gave us the word Hell it was simply “the place where the dead go”, both literally and figuratively, ie. under the earth, and more akin to the Greek concept of Hades then any of our received Christo-Germanic notions.

Of course, when an outsider asks about the “Germanic Hell” they’re not really asking about the Germanic Hell at all. What they’re really asking about is the, ahem, “Christian Hell” and if there is a place like it in native Germanic belief? And the answer of course — given the degree that native Germanic culturo-religious sensibilities have shaped popular Christianity in the West — is yes. Naturally. And our most glaring evidence of this comes from the Eddas themselves, which speak of Niflhel and the grim hall that sits upon Nastrond (the Shore of Corpses),

38. A hall I saw, | far from the sun,
On Nastrond it stands, | and the doors face north,
Venom drops | through the smoke-vent down,
For around the walls | do serpents wind.

39. I saw there wading | through rivers wild
Treacherous men | and murderers too,
And workers of ill | with the wives of men;
There Nithhogg sucked | the blood of the slain,
And the wolf tore men; | would you know yet more? (trans. Henry A. Bellows)

While some like to pass bits like this off as “Christian influence”, similar beliefs can be found throughout the Indo-European world such as in Naraka of Hindu belief and Tartarus of Greek belief; in both cases standing “far from the sun” and places were the wicked are punished. Furthermore, it is a curious fact that in both Old English and Old High German Catholic poetry we find Gehenna being glossed as Wyrmsele (Hall of Serpents) and Wyrmgarten (Yard of Serpents), respectively. As there is nothing in Biblical Christianity that might fuel such a conception of an otherworldly realm of punishment, the “hall of serpents” motif can only reflect one that is inherently Germanic in nature.

Looking at early Germanic culture itself we see an earthly paradigm in Germanic legal customs and the practices of the Thing; where most crimes could be paid for, literally, via fine, but under which some crimes were, naturally, deemed so wicked that they were handled by “the priest-king”. According to Tacitus,

..they may not execute, they may not imprison, they may not even flog a criminal; those are the obligations of the priests alone, who do so not as a form of military punishment nor at the general’s bidding, but in accordance with the will of the god that accompanies them to the field of battle.

The same can be seen in the judgement of the missionary Willibrord by the Frisi-King, Radbod, for said missionaries acts of sacrilege on Fositesland. As per Tacitus’ statement regarding capital offense, the judgement was not rendered based on the will of the king, but rather on the casting of lots, ie. the will of the gods. So, as to the notion of “divine judgement” in and of itself in Germanic belief, it is evident enough within the context and actual practices of the Thing. As for punishment, while I personally dislike the notion of active and prolonged punishment — in-keeping with the general legal customs of the Thing, ie. fines — what follows must be acknowledged as what follows. The North Germanic Loki for example didn’t just happen to slip and fall into his bindings in the underworld. He was put there. By the gods. For all that one might argue that, in terms of the concrete practices of actual mortals, we are obliged to ask permission of the gods, legally speaking, in executing our fellow tribes men. But here we carry out the actual punishment, be it execution, imprisonment or flogging.

As for an abode of punishment, I once again refer to Tacitus’ comments on the fate of capital offenders,

Penalties are distinguished according to the offence. Traitors and deserters are hanged on trees; the coward, the unwarlike, the man stained with abominable vices, is plunged into the mire of the morass with a hurdle put over him. This distinction in punishment means that crime, they think, ought, in being punished, to be exposed, while infamy ought to be buried out of sight.

The distinction is pertinent and immediately calls to mind the distinction the ancestors drew between a man-killing and a murder; the latter of which was a far more serious offense and defined as a secret killing, ie. that went unclaimed by the offender. It is also reminiscent of  Jacob Grimm’s assertion in his Teutonic Mythology  that, “it is said of fortunate men, that God saw them, and of unfortunate, that God forgot them“, and the duality of glory/obscurity as expressed in Germanic heroic poetry. And of course this aligns with what the Eddas tell of the realm of the shameful dead as standing “far from the sight of the sun” and existing within the aforementioned Niflhel; itself meaning dark, misty, obscure (nifl-) Hell.

So, we might well say that the bog — or even more poignantly the snake pit, ie. Ragnar Lodbrok — is the concrete reality that the mythical abstraction of “Wyrmsele” is based upon. And that the fate of the shameful capital offender in this world was a reflection of their fate in the after death; even as the “name undying” was a reflection of one’s fate in the after death.

All of this brings me around to my personal beliefs regarding the shameful dead; which, as noted above, do not hinge on any kind of active punishment at all and is more inline with the practices of shunning and moreso, full outlawry. It has often been noted that, among the Indo-European peoples in general, and the Germanic peoples in specific, wretchedness, to be left alone and without a tribe or people, was commonly  regarded as being the worst fate that could befall a man. The pains of wretchedness are laid bare in such painfully eloquent Old English poems as the Wanderer. To be forbidden entrance to the halls of the gods, denied a place even in the halls of one’s own ancestors, and to be left alone at the mercy of the “otherworldly wilds”, to wander wretched and assailed, without respite, until the last vestiges of your humanity is shed and the stuff of one’s soul biodegrades back into the nothingness of Ginnungagap that it, ultimately, issued from … such to my thinking is the fate of shameful dead. No one punishes them per say. They simply lose faith in them and so turn their backs on them. And what follows follows.

I’ll tie this up with a pertinent poem I wrote back in the 90’s,

Oft flies the eagle / beyond the udal of men
seeking those sights / unseen by sons of Ing.
Tired he takes rest / atop a steadfast tree,
Then sails on, skyward, / continues his search.

Hwaet! There is a frozen plain / no joy to be found.
The wind is lonesome, / it wails in wrath,
Stirring up wights, / armed well, and wicked
Who fling into flesh / their fiery spears.

Above, soot-grey clouds / grim the skies greatness
And yonder loom dark peaks / dreadful to behold.
No tirfast sun, here, / shall ever be seen.
No home nor hearth / shall warm your heart.

Here wander the souls / worthless and withering,
Forgotten by men / forgotten by gods.
The wulf in this wasteland / nothing weens
Save evil will / save stagnant wyrd.