Saturday, December 3, 2011
Barbarian Rites: The Spiritual World of the Vikings and the Germanic Tribes
Book Review: Barbarian Rites: The Spiritual World of the Vikings and the Germanic Tribes by Hans-Peter Hasenfratz, PH.D. Translated and edited by Michael Moynihan (Inner Traditions 2011, originally 1992 in German)
The original title of this book is –The Religious World of the Germanic Peoples: Ritual, Magic, Cult, Myth. – It is an important well-sourced study by an academic scholar specializing in this realm of ancient history as well as comparative religion. He makes interesting observations and comparisons, and suggests interesting underlying beliefs and behavioral motives. Hasenfratz makes note of how different these peoples were in supernatural view and practice than contemporary Western sensibilities. He makes use of old German editions of texts that are no longer in favor but apparently with much useful info.
The first question asked is – What is Germanic? The best answer he can offer is – those who spoke a Germanic language – and he gives this specific language branch a start date somewhere in the 2nd century B.C. Dated to this time is the so-called Negau helmet found in Slovenia with the Germanic inscription “Harigastiteiva” – “which may mean “[dedicated] to the god Harigast” or [dedicated] to the god Teiva by Harigast.” Very few other early Germanic language inscriptions exist. There is one in Gothic from Bucharest in the 3rd century C.E. - and another runic inscription mentioned from Norway from the 4th century C.E. which reads – “linen and leek.” Linen and leek were used in magic according to later Icelandic texts in medieval Christian times. Another early source of information, though brief, is Roman historian Tacitus’s survey of the Germanic peoples from the 1st century C.E.
A long account is given of the Rus, assumed to be Germanic Varangians (Vikings) along the Volga in Southern Russia/Eastern Europe given by the Arab diplomat Ibn Fadlan from the year 921. The actual manuscript was found in 1923 in the northeast of Iran but other versions of Ibn Fadlan’s account were known to past scholars. These men he called merchants. He described them each as being clothed except for the bare right arm. Each kept an axe, sword, and knife near him at all times and every man was said to be tattooed from fingernails to neck. The women were said to wear boxes, or brooches, around the neck with metal and jewels to the level of worth of their husbands. “Their most prized ornaments are green glass beads (corals) of clay, which ... they string as necklaces for their women.”
The Arab traveler was rather appalled at their lack of modesty in elimination and lack of washing. They were plunderers engaged in predatory trade. A Persian poet as well as the Arabic traveler abhors them as ‘wild asses’ which is an insult referring to their lack of chivalry and barbarian natures. They were known to take many slave women as well. Their wares were offered to icons – wooden carved statuettes near wooden stakes pounded into the ground. They offered their plundered wares to these “non-iconic pole gods” as the authors refers to them – asking for someone to come and buy or trade with them for these goods. If further buying was sought they would sacrifice sheep and cattle, affixing their heads to the poles and dogs would come in the night to partake of the flesh. Ibn mentions boat burials, where the deceased is burnt on the boat with goods and a slave who offers himself, but usually herself, to go with the deceased. These Viking funerals are fairly well known. The customs of “following into death” have been compared to the Hindu “suttee” rite where the widow emulates herself to be with her dead husband. Massive drinking was said to accompany these rites. The slave who offers herself would sing and drink for days, have sexual intercourse with many of the men until she would be killed by an older woman who acted as executioner. Horses would be run until they sweated, and cows, roosters, a dog, and other animals would also be sacrificed and cut up and offered. The author notes that the woman and the animals would be killed during their “maximum display of strength” so that their vitality could be transferred to the next world. He also notes that the revelry and display of sexuality of the sacrificed slave girl was so that she would relinquish her ties to the living and not return as a revenant, or destructive ghost. The men raise her up three times where she claims to see her relatives in the afterlife and her master in a comfortable and happy disposition there. Then she sacrifices a hen. She, having said goodbye to her friends, is brought to the ship where six men have intercourse with her and then they all make noise as she is stabbed and strangled. The Arab traveler thought that the noise was meant to drown out the screams that would disturb the others on shore but the author thinks it was to make sure she enters the other world and does not return. The Arab also noted that the nearest relative of the deceased would approach the boat naked with a torch, walking backward and with one hand covering his anus and set fire to the ship. The merchant-warrior community was arranged with the social tie of the ‘warband’ or “mannerbund” where elite warriors served the king. These mostly unmarried men gathered slave women as booty and travel companions for this stage of life. The mannerbund was apparently the strongest of social ties.
In 105 BC two tribes, the Germanic Cimbri and the Teutoni, which may have been Celtic, got together and wiped out a couple Roman legions. They apparently left Jutland (Denmark) due to flooding and moved south towards the Mediterranean. Caesar’s campaigns against the Gauls put the Celtic tribes on the move. Beginning in the 200’s CE the Huns (Ziongnu),thought to be from Southern Russia and Western China, moved west with their warrior horsemanship. All these factors made for various tribes migrating all over the place. The Celts who formerly occupied much of Germany went west. Germanic tribes went south due to weather, east and west due to Roman pressure, and west and south due to pressure from the Huns. This was known as the ‘Migration Period.’ Many of the southern Germanic tribes ended up in France and Spain. All this migration may have fed or reactivated the mannerbunds in workable lives as raiding parties. By late in the 8th century the Varangians (oath comrades) – East Norse Vikings, were traveling down the Russian rivers (Don, Volga, Dnieper) in small boats. They gave the name Rus (oar people) to the early Russian kingdom. They also crossed the Black Sea and became mercenaries and the elite troupe and body guard the Byzantium emperors. The Varangians subjugated some Slavic tribes and founded the kingdom of Kievan Rus. Not long thereafter the Vikings and Germanic peoples began to be Christianized. They built magnificent cathedrals and perfected the Gothic style of architecture.
The author suggests that the ‘cult of the dead’ played a big role in perpetuating the lifestyle of raiding excursions. It was said that men would full their burial sites with their plundered riches in order to take them to the next life. Inheritances were few and young men would be encouraged to plunder their own fortunes. Hasenfratz notes that conversions of Germanic peoples were peaceful (time period of late 300’s to 1000 CE) but some were violent due to political and power building goals – such as Charlemagne’s brutal subjugation of the Saxons.
The origins of the social classes are explained in an Eddic poem. The system is tripartite and very similar to other Indo-European forms and even many post-Christian schemes as the author points out. The thralls, or slaves, were obtained as war booty. The lower class, Karls, were agricultural workers and craftsmen. The nobles, Jarls, were merchant-warriors. Rulers were kings and priests. The warrior ideal was the most venerated and the basis for all glory and renown. Kings were responsible for sacrifices and fertility and were occasionally sacrificed themselves in bad years. The ideal peaceful king was noted in the legend of King Frothi (a living version of the god Frey according to Snorri) who eventually became greedy and was slain.
Women, although sometimes noted as “peace weavers” were also quite often known to goad on feuds and revenge taking. According to the literature, these societies tended to be male dominated and so the stages of life of males are depicted. The male child was venerated more if he preferred warrior training over work and was allowed at age 12 to carry weapons and with them to attend the Thing. Young men were part of the mannerbund and went off on raids and later returned and got land which they worked in between further raiding. Old men were often ridiculed as weak. Death in bed, a “straw death” was considered dishonorable and some would merely be cut with a spear, ie. “spear marked” in order to make a connection with Odin before death. Some elderly were killed or leaped over cliffs to die honorable deaths.
Social ties included the Sib – one’s clan relatives. Peace was kept within the sib but all outside it were potential enemies and blood feuds were said to be common. Release form vengeance could be had by paying a fee, called wergeld. Other social ties examined include fosterage which began at age seven and was between families of slightly different rank. Oath brotherhood was important and often practiced between fostered children and an elder male. This included ‘blood brotherhood’ where blood was mingled by dripping it into a footprint and a rite where they made their way under an uplifted yet still connected clod of turf to signify being born from the same womb. As in the Aesir and Vanir gods joining in the ‘spittle treaty,’ these magical substances commingled signified the commingling of fates. Hospitality to Guests was another custom of social ties. Included among this honor code was the practice of so-called ‘guest prostitution’ were the wife or a daughter of the host was offered to the guest for sex. This was custom rather than frivolity and is/was practiced in several other cultures as well. Gift Giving was another big former of social obligations as legends recount. The Mannerbund, or warrior band, was a very important social tie and this band was typically dedicated to Odin, as the god of the ecstasy of battle. This ‘berserker rage’ was likely developed through shamanistic techniques. The author notes that guilds, masked societies, and criminal and youth gangs as well as some of the Nazi manifestations were continuation of mannerbund structures. The Retinue refers to the hierarchy within the mannerbund and helped with organization of raids and distribution of booty. The Cultic Society was another social obligation where often a code of peace was in effect as weapons were laid aside on sacred occasions and at the Things, or assemblies, which also included land distribution and matters of law. There were conflicts among these ties as stories from the sagas attest. The conflict between sib ties and sib ties by marriage is a common theme. The Saxon story of Hildebrand and his son Hudabrand who get caught in different armies confronting one another are set for single combat against one another. One recognizes the other but can’t convince the other that it is he and so the father kills the son. Nearly exactly except for certain details we see this story in the Persian Epic of Kings and also in the Irish Tain Bo Culaigne. This nearly exact parallel in these three traditions and also the general similarity of the situation recounted in the Bhagavad Gita of the Indian Mahabharata is rather remarkable.
Treatment of outlaws and criminals varied. Some were hanged as sacrificial victims to Odin were hanged but the author notes that these hangings should be differentiated. Some criminals were drowned in bogs. Type of execution may have had something to do with social rank as some Indo-European researchers have indicated. Oath-breakers could also be banished as outlaws and termed as a “wolf,” a lone scavenger without recourse to a society. Some were hung with a wolf as well as stabbed.
The next section is on Rites of Passage. Birth rites included a simple taking of the child onto the father’s knee, sprinkling with water, and giving a name (name fastening) and received a gift. A boy was often given the name of the grandfather, or a dead father and was thought to be the grandfather reborn. This motif occurs also with the Eskimo and probably other Siberian tribes and could reach far back in time as an idea of migrations of the dead. The continuation of the family name was also considered important and a kind of reincarnation.
The initiation rituals of the mannerbund were kept secret, especially from women and children. Here was entrance to Odin’s Wild Army of the Dead. Rites consisted of mock hanging, spear marking, and likely tests of courage. Odin himself was the first to be hanged as he obtained the runes and supernatural knowledge. This was thought be an ascetic shamanistic means whereby one was hung just until he lost consciousness and quickly revived so that fear of death was approached and extremes of consciousness were explored. There may have been other rites with plant entheogens as well as is suspected in the ecstatic berserker tactics. Here shamanic techniques of shapeshifting and soul travel were used to develop hyper-states. Immanence of death was used to keep awareness sharp and present.
Marriage customs are recounted in the later Eddic account of the Lay of Thrym where Thor’s hammer is stolen by the giant Thrym whereby he demands Freyja as ransom. Thor and Loki dress as maidens to retrieve it. Thor is dressed as Freyja, the bride. The groom hands over the keys and then lays the hammer on the lap of the bride readying to swear oaths before Var, the goddess of pledges. At this point Thor grabs the hammer and destroys the giants. The keys are thought to represent the bride’s rule over the affairs of the home. The hammer is the phallic symbol of fertility whereby Thor beats the moisture out of the clouds and dispatches the hostility of nature (giants).
There were also rites around resettling land and land-taking. These involved cattle as money (as in the cattle cycle of sacrifice recounted by Indo-European studies). For resettling – high seat posts and coffins of important newly-dead were taken on the boats and in a few stories floated ashore, the settlers building where they landed. This was rather oracular which is fitting for a new life in a new place.
Care of the dead included washing, covering the head of the deceased, averting contact with the eyes of the deceased, shutting the eyes, and conducting rites from behind the corpse. Much of this was done to keep the otherworld from drawing one in. Shoes were made for the deceased so that they might travel in the next world. In Iceland, these were called “Hel shoes.” Mourning and tears were discouraged as disturbing to the dead.
Certain corpses were thought to be able to animate and shape-shift. Some of these dangerous people were bound with rites and their corpses barriered, stabbed, and/or laid over with heavy stones. Certain humans, nobles and kings especially, were said to dwell after death in nearby mountains and mounds. A land of the dead at the bottom of the sea among Northern Germanic peoples and at the bottom of lakes among Eastern and Southern Germanic peoples was known. The word “soul” is thought to derive from a root that meant ‘belonging to the lake’ or ‘deriving from the lake.’ Other lands of the dead are the underworld, Hel – ‘the hidden’ ‘the veiled’ ‘the concealing’ – it was not considered to be a place of punishment. Valhalla was the home of warriors who would do battle and drink perpetual beer from the udders of the sacred goat, Heidrun. Folkvang – or ‘meadow of the folk’ is another afterlife conception – which may apply to the Vanir and Freyja’s folk and is also mentioned as the green otherworld land of the Rus. The dead could be in two or more places at once as well. Those thought to be destructive ghosts, or revenants, were sometimes killed again, both physically and ritually. This may be thought of as a sort of proper soul component disposal as per shamanistic cultures. There were then many destinations of the afterlife – with various gods as well as one place of punishment for criminals and oath-breakers known as the ‘corpse strand’- a beach made of serpents and where poison abounds and animals tear at their dead flesh. According to the author this depiction may be influenced by Christianity.
The author divides magic into: incantatory, rune, death, divinatory, cursing, and destructive magics. The suggested distinction from Icelandic is that of galdr (“screaming” “incantatory magic” “sorcery”), gandr (“magic stave” “sorcery””witchcraft”), and seidr (“cord” “fetter” “sorcery”). There was permissible magic – typically galdr, and impermissible, or black magic – typically gandr or seidr.
The author considers cursing and destructive magic to be of the impermissible type and the rest to depend on how it is used. Magic to destroy an enemy could also be considered protective magic.
Galdr incantations were considered to be verbal charms. An example given in Old English is a charm to protect against nightmare demons. It could be spoken into both ears of the potential victim or written out and worn as a charm. Written or runic charms were considered most effective and were often sealed in blood or a red liquid representing blood. For protective purposes they were also often enciphered. The Runic script is thought to have been derived from a northern Etruscan alphabet in the 2nd century BC. Germanic tribes were known to trade with the Etruscan empire. The casting of sticks with cyphers drawn on them described by Tacitus is likely a runic divination rite. Leeks, onions, and garlic were thought to have anti-demonic, antiseptic, and aphrodisiacal powers and so the rune for leek, laukaR, could be worn as an amulet rather than deal with the smell. Death magic refers to necromancy, or divining through one’s ancestors. If one summons the dead not of one’s immediate ancestors for knowledge it would be considered black magic. ‘Waking songs’ were composed to wake the dead. Rune songs placed in the mouth of a corpse were another method. While some sort of conjuration of one’s ancestors could have practical implications for the family energy it was considered sacrilege among the Christians and so stamped out as a folk practice.
There were said to be wandering seeresses, the volvas, who were said to wear a blue cloak and animal fur and carry a staff. She was said to eat a special diet with her meat being mainly the hearts of animals. She was seated on a high platform to go into a shamanic trance through singing and chanting and proceed to divine the future as she was adept as soothsaying and divinatory magic.
As an example of cursing magic the Icelandic notion of the “scorn pole” is mentioned where a horse was killed and its head placed on a pole facing the intended victim of this scorn magic. This is seen as black magic for it intends to ‘outlaw’ the victim and supersede the rules of the society. This may be the origin of the horseshoe over the door charm several times removed. Destructive magic proceeds much like any magic but may include reversal magic of sorts with the non-sunwise, widdershins direction being preferred.
The author also notes examples of magic given in Burchard’s Corrector which is a confessional book from about 1000 CE where the people are questioned about doing certain folk practices, encouraged to confess them, and vow to refrain thereafter. Two love magic methods are mentioned: one is cooking menstrual blood into the food given to husbands to engender lust in them for the wife. Another is having bread prepared on the bare hindquarters of the wife then baked and given to the husband to engender more love for the wife. These descriptions go on and into destructive magic and get rather bizarre and may have been partially thought up by the Christians as they all seem to be directed against women. There is an interesting one given about weather magic where a maiden is fastened with a henbane plant. Apparently ingesting henbane produces an auditory hallucination akin to the sound of rain. This practice of the “rain maiden” is also known from the Balkans where during a drought the maiden is bedecked in green and sprinkled with water from twigs.
There is mention of the “traveling soul” or projected shapeshifted body, or astral body. Another form is that of the doppelganger, or body double. In the north the fylgja, as body double – is often depicted as a woman, the fylgja-kona, or “woman who follows.” This humanized double is usually unseen by the host and if seen usually predicts the death of the host. I recall similar notions in Scotland.
Supernatural beings such as the jotun (giants, trolls, etc) are interpreted as hostile aspects of nature in spirit form – whether rocky and infertile – the rock giants, or icy – the ice giants. Giantess maidens woo the gods. They tend to attack Freyja – and so are generally enemies to fertility. Thor champions their demise, dispatching them in many stories.
Dwarves are slightly more friendly, but still dangerous, and are known as great smiths and makers of jewelry. Wights (landvaetti) are land spirits that can be friendly but are often hostile. Nixes are water spirits. The author likes to classify the elves (alfr and disir as male and female) as ancestral spirits. Other nature spirits include animals and trees, such as the boars of Frey and the sacred oak of Dunar. Various stories of the gods and their structure, organization, and destiny are recounted. When the gods deceived the giant who built Asgard it began the cycle of oath-breaking, according to the author. He makes connection of deities to the various social ties: Thor and Var are associated with the bonds of marriage and so to the Sib. Tyr is related to the swearing of oaths that transcend the Sib. Odin rules initiation and the mannerbund. Odin, as a war god, is seen as trans-moral especially as an inciter of violent acts. He is also a master of ecstasy, poetry, intoxication, magic, and battle strategy. The author seems to suggest that Tyr was an older war god overcome by Odin and later relegated to a god of Justice but I don’t know if that would be accepted by others. The Romans aligned him with Mars – as the god of the assembly. Thor is beloved of the people and the peasants as the strong champion. Thor was known to eat his sacred goats then reanimate them by making sure not to damage any of the bones. The author notes that this may refer to a shamanistic practice in sacrificial butchering, assuring re-assembly in the next life. Curiously a Tibetan Buddhist Mahasiddha – Drukpa Kunley, from 1400’s Bhutan was also known to re-animate slain goats after a meal. He notes that Frey may have been key in a cultic marriage rite to assure fertility.
As for the story of Balder’s death and Loki’s binding the author notes the following possible interpretation:
“We can interpret the history in two ways: in a nature-mythic sense – that is, as a seasonal myth in which the blind Hodr, representing the dark season, conquers the god of light, Balder, who represents the light half of the year – or in a cultic-mythic sense, as an initiation myth, with the test of courage by Balder (the “bold one”) and his death at the hands of Hodr (the blind “battler”) being a reflection of Mannerbund initiation ritual and the “little death” that this entails.”
The story is reminiscent of another story where a mock hanging initiation goes awry and the candidate is killed.
The binding of Loki and Ragnarok as a final battle apparently has a parallel in Persian or Zoroastrian myth where the demon Azdahag is chained to the highest peak of a mountain awaiting the time when he will be freed and able to fight in final battle between good and evil, personified as Ahura Mazda and Ahriman. The various attributes of Freyja, Frigga, and Njord are also recounted. Whether the southern Germanic Frija is Freyja or Frigg or a combined form is left as uncertain. Freyja is associated with both fertility and sexual promiscuity. The author sees the earth goddess Nerthus as a female form of Njord – father of Frey and Freyja – so in that sense, male/female twins/mates beget the same. Fol and Folla are another twin set as are the youthful male twins, the Alic, or Elk twins, which are likely akin to the Vedic Asvins, or horse twins, of ancient India but also venerated under the same name in Lithuania. The Matrones, or fertility mother goddesses of Romanized Cologne are also noted. The southern Germanic Loll has been compared to Frey so Frija-Loll has been proposed as the pair in the southern areas. This Lollus was depicted as a naked youth holding his tongue with his fingers – thus the phrase –“lolling the tongue” and the word ‘lollipop.’ The three Fates- Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld – were considered to be more powerful than the gods. The Norns may have overlapped with the Matrones. Fate as Wyrd was considered the highest power and may well be related to the Vedic rta, or right order, as well as to karma. There was a notion that Fate was final and could not be altered. The magic of appeasing the potentially hostile land wights seems quite much like a form of feng shui, or geomancy – which fits well with land spirit work.
The author also mentions human sacrifice as a form of magic thought to be most effective and certain torturous sacrificial methods employed by the Vikings such as the blood-eagle sacrifice to Odin where the victim’s ribs and lungs were torn out while still alive and spread out like wings.
There is also mention of an Anglo-Saxon field blessing as a public ritual although the one given has been Christianized.
The final section is on Cosmology and Time and includes an analysis of the Ragnarok prophecies. The author notes that they have been compared to Christian scenarios but concludes that they follow much closer the ancient Iranian models and so seem to be a not uncommon Indo-European theme
Germanic peoples as well as most other ancient peoples can be seen as barbaric and violent but it should be remembered that the world was much different then and that cultivation of violence also served a protective function. Much of these customs are appalling and certainly the plundering of the Vikings went too far much of the time with rape, murder, sacrifice, and torture being way too common. On the other hand, there is much of value in terms of magic, craftsmanship, shamanism, social custom, oath-keeping, and hospitality that is admirable. I think that it is likely, or at least possible that further back in time before the period of migrations and the rise of the powerful Roman empire that life was probably a bit simpler with less violence and travel-plundering. The mannerbund can also been seen as the same model as the Vratya brotherhoods of post-Vedic India that led to the forest-ascetic tradition of the Upanishads and whose members initially trained the Buddha in meditative methods.