Tag Archives: spiritual experience

Germanic Belief and the Experience of the Divine

One can experience the divine in the small and familiar as much as in the great and majestic. I personally have even experienced it in a random “street fight” (assault, jumped) of all things! And aye, as much in joy as in sorrow as well. But all of these experiences are … an expression of the divine in human terms, an uplifting of our awareness and appreciation for what surrounds and/or comprises us, and our sense of “belonging” or relation to it. One might use the term sublime, “impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration, etc”, as the general category of spiritual experience that all of these varied experiences, in all of their differences and nuances, in all of their varying intensities and artfulness of expression, can confidently be lumped under.

I’d prefer to categorize them the “holy” of course — from the Old English hal root, which is also seen in such other Modern English words as health and, more poignantly, whole — but either way this general category of experience is at once comfortable, warm, empowering and uplifting. You could say it is the “experience of the masses”, both high and low.

But there is another experience of the divine … raw, primal, jarring, and anything but comfortable. It is what Rudolph Otto, in his book Idea of the Holy, called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans and described as an encounter with something “wholly other”. But to get the full sense of what Otto meant I’ll provide a definition of the Latin words he chose to use and based on his work,

Mysterium (Mystery): wholly other, experienced with blank wonder, stupor.

Tremendum (Tremendous): awefulness, terror, demonic dread, awe, absolute unapproachability, “wrath” of God, overpoweringness, majesty, might, sense of one’s own nothingness in contrast to its powe, creature-feeling, sense of objective presence, dependence, energy, urgency, will, vitality.

Fascinans (Fascination): potent charm, attractiveness in spite of fear, terror, etc.

This is an experience, as I’m sure one can gather, that overwhelms one, terrifies one, leaves one feeling small, insignificant, and at a complete loss of how to describe, symbolize, or otherwise express the experience; but which the fascination-aspect nevertheless incites us to at least try to come to terms with.

A likeness of this “terrible and fascinating mystery” can be found in a “holy experience” of course, and is in fact the source of the holy, as I’ll touch on later. I recall as a youngster going to church with my grandfather, and that eerie sense that would fall over me when I entered the church. I didn’t like it. And for a while in my young life I deemed it a bad thing … the harsh and unapproving glare of the god of the Christians, but honestly, the experience is by no means limited to Christianity, or the Abrahamic religions. Some would say, as seems fitting I suppose, that it is not even confined to religion or spirituality, ie. religious/spiritual people, in general and that atheists can be struck by an identical experience. It can arise, or better said impose itself irrespective of culture; which again seems quite fitting that it should.

Needless to say perhaps, our preChristian Germanic ancestors knew of this experience of the divine as well. And for all intents and purposes they had a word for it, as seen in Old English weoh (Old Norse – ve, Gothic – weihs) and it’s sibling terms; all of which reference things given over to the divine (altar, idol, etc.) or issuing from the divine (hallowing power, consecration). At it’s root the terms mean “separate, other, set apart” and carry strong connotations of “mystery” (see definition above).

We get a sense of this “otherness” in Tacitus’ 1st century work Germania where he (blunderingly) relates,

they judge it altogether unsuitable to hold the Gods enclosed within walls, or to represent them under any human likeness. They consecrate whole woods and groves, and by the names of the Gods they call these recesses; divinities these, which only in contemplation and mental reverence they behold.

The Germanic people did in fact fashion idols, and had been doing so since, ahem, at least the Nordic Bronze Age, so it is likely that Tacitus and/or his equally Latin go-between misunderstood what was actually being expressed here, but it seems to speak toward the “wih-nature” of the divine. And indeed, while the Germanic peoples did fashion idols, the early one’s, closer to Tacitus’ era, show these to be only vaguely anthropomorphic in nature, accentuating natural features but utterly unconcerned with detail; despite a culturally high degree of wood carving skills, ie. the lack of detailed expression was intentional here and speaks towards the understanding of the divine as wih.


The Broddenbjerg idol, 6th century BCE, Denmark, stands 35 inches tall.

We also get a sense of the overwhelming and humbling nature of wih, comparable to Moses and the Burning Bush, in another of Tacitus’ remarks,

At a stated time of the year, all the several people descended from the same stock, assemble by their deputies in a wood; consecrated by the idolatries of their forefathers, and by superstitious awe in times of old. There by publicly sacrificing a man, they begin the horrible solemnity of their barbarous worship. To this grove another sort of reverence is also paid. No one enters it otherwise than bound with ligatures, thence professing his subordination and meanness, and the power of the Deity there. If he fall down, he is not permitted to rise or be raised, but grovels along upon the ground. And of all their superstition, this is the drift and tendency.”

Despite the very modern Asatruar fancy of standing proudly in worship, not to mention their general contempt for kneeling and the like, evidence of such postures in Germanic worship (as touched on in my last entry) span the Nordic Bronze Age to the Viking Age and point directly toward the experience of “wih” … of the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”.

In the Old English Exeter Book we read, “Woden worhte weohs” (Woden fashioned the weohs), while in Eddaic Creation he is brothered up with a god named Ve. In fact, one of the terms the speakers of Old Norse used to refer to the gods collectively was Vear, but clearly Woden stands in special relation to wih. And among Woden’s many bynames we find YggR (the Terrible One), Fjolnir (the Concealer), Grimnir (the Hooded), while his very name is rooted in the word wod; meaning fury, possession, madness, but also inspiration (fascinans).

All of this speaks towards Otto’s description of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

At it’s root the concept of wih stands in sharp juxtaposition to holy, ie. separate vs. integrated respectively, and yet we see them compounded on the Gothic ring of Pietroassa (wíhailag) and used in complimentary manner in the Old Norse phrase “vé heilakt”, and used in a manner which might be described as bordering on interchangeable. Of course, as wih is the hallowing power it seems fairly evident that holiness is it’s (temporal) product; the gist of which is glaringly evident within the context of Germanic creation myths and legends in which the gods shape Creation, in which the gods shape Mankind, in which the gods establish the innangeard (inside the yard, the community, the dwelling/s of the race of man), in which the gods give the gifts of language and culture, and in which the life of the “World Tree” itself hinges upon the nourishment it receives from the heavenly realm (reflected in the Hindu concept of the World Tree growing down from out of the heavens).

Holiness is the product of wih … or as I’m using the term here, ie. in relationship to experience and resulting speculations/culture (as opposed to sheer quality of life), holiness is the experience/expression/evolution of the divine mystery within a culturally specific human framework, rather then on the ineffable, “wholly other” terms of the gods themselves. The distinction is important to note.

Too often in modern Germanic Heathenism do we see an over emphasis on the cultural/holy forms of the divine and a profaning of ultimate nature of the Vear, eg. “Thor doesn’t have blonde hair! It’s red, idiot!” or “Woden talks to me all of the time! We had tea and biscuits yesterday at lunch”. Certainly there are many and varied “soft” experiences of the divine, as mentioned above, but we would be wise to chose our words carefully if or when we chose to talk about them. And really, if Woden is talking to someone “all of the time”, I would expect to see something more than average, exceedingly exceptional actually, ie. the product of wih, in their endeavors and accomplishments, in the quality of their life.

This sense of mystery and magnitude, and the resulting “humbility” and reverence, is what most needs to be (re)kindled among modern day Germanic Heathens. The knowledge that while we might speak of our beliefs about the gods, the fruits of our relationship with them, and while we might be insistent regarding our beliefs, ie. what is and is not Germanic belief for instance, we cannot speak toward the fundamental being of the gods. And while some might fear that this is but a step away from monotheism, ie. God is the Mystery, the reality of “the mystery” is that it is ineffable and defies all mortal categories of thought and experience; monotheism for instance. For our own part as heathens, we simply *believe* there are many gods, as this seems the healthiest way to go for a community. Either way, there is that point in seeking the nature of the divine where words, figure, metaphor, and symbols all fail, where they prove even at their most glorious to fall short and prove inadequate, where the highest honour is silence, and where only shameless profanity dares to tread. And there, what we are left with, really, as a matter of honesty, is “our beliefs”.