Index | About | Mission | Vor Vegr | Resources | Contacts | Book Store | What's New |


The Cult of Othin

By: H.M. Chadwick



Chapter 2

Traces of the Cult of Woden on the Continent and in Britain.

Outside the limits of the Scandinavian area very few traces of the cult of Woden have been preserved. Yet there is evidence enough to show that the two chief sides of the god's character which are presented in Ynglinga s. 6, 7, namely the crafty, magical, bardic side on the one hand, and the warlike side on the other, were both known to the non- Scandinavian Germans. The first appears from the Latin interpretation (Mercurius) and from the Merseburg magical verses. So also in the Old English Leechdoms (III. 34, 23) Woden is represented as dealing in divination: "then Woden took nine 'twigs of glory' (chips for divination); then he struck the adder so that it flew in nine pieces." It is possible also that the ancient English regarded him as the inventor of the (Runic) alphabet. In the dialogue of Salomon and Saturn the following passage occurs: "Tell me who first invented letters? I tell thee, Mercurius the giant" (Mercurius se gygand). It is, of course, possible that the Graeco-Latin god is meant. There is another possible reference in the Runic poem. 1. 10:--"'Os' is the beginning of every speech" etc. The meaning of the passage is exceedingly obscure. It is not unlikely that the poem has been revised by some person who did not thoroughly understand his original. In the older poem os might have meant Woden. On the other hand Wodan (Woden) as the giver of victory is most clearly depicted in the Langobardic saga (Origo Gentis Langob.; Paulus, Historia Langob. I. 8). In this character he was known also to the English, cf. Ethelwerd II.2: "the pagans after worshiped Woden as a god with sacrilegious honour, and offered him sacrifice for the acquisition of victory or valour."

Sacrifices to Woden are mentioned by Tacitus (Germ. 9) who states that "they consider it right to sacrifice even human victims to Mercurious on certain fixed days." According to Jonas of Bobbio (Mabillon, Acta sanctorum ord. Bened. II. p. 26) Columbanus (about A.D. 620) found a party of Sueui engaged in "sacrifice" to Wodan. They were sitting round a large vessel full of beer; but the nature of the ceremony is not described. According to Ethelwerd sacrifices were offered by the English to Woden (see above). The custom of devoting a hostile army to Woden (cf. p. 7) was also known to the continental Germans. The clearest case occurs in Tacitus' description of the war between the Chatti and the Hermunduri (Ann. XIII. 57):--"The war turned out successfully for the Hermunduri, while for the Chatti it was all the more disastrous, because in the event of victory they (i.e. bot sides) had dedicated their opponents' army to Mars and Mercurius. By this vow both horses and men, in short everything on the side of the conquered is given up to destruction. And so the threats of our enemies recoiled upon themselves." Another example of the total destruction of an army, which may very well have been due to a vow of this kind, is supplied by Tacitus' account of the scene of Varus' disaster (Ann. I. 61). It seems likely also that the English invaders of Britain practiced a similar rite, if one may judge from certain entries in the Saxon Chronicle, especially the entry under the 491:--"Ălle and Cissa besieged Anderida and slaughtered all who dwelt therein; there was not a single Briton left there." It has been mentioned above (p. 7) that amongst the Scandinavians this dedication was symbolized by the casting of a javelin over the enemy's army. Some such idea may have been in the mind of Coifi, the chief priest of the Northumbrians, who according to Bede (H. E. II. 13), as soon as he had given his vote for the change of faith, hurled a spear into the heathen temple. A very early example of the total destruction of a vanquished army in obedience to a vow of this kind is given by Orosius v. 16. After narrating the defeat of Caepio and Mallius by the Cimbri (B.C. 105) he proceeds:--"The enemy captured both camps and acquired an immense quantity of booty. They proceeded to destroy everything which they had captured in accordance with a novel and unusual vow. The clothing was torn to shreds and cast away; the gold and silver was thrown into the river; the corslets of the men were cut to pieces; the trappings of the horses were broken up; the horses themselves were drowned in the waters; the men were hanged on trees, with nooses round their necks. No booty was allowed to the conqueror and no pity to the conquered." It is true that the nationality of the Cimbri and Teutons has not yet been satisfactorily ascertained. On the whole the evidence is perhaps somewhat against the supposition that these tribes were Germanic. Yet there is no doubt that they had lived in the closest proximity to Germanic tribes, and consequently they may have shared their religious beliefs and usages. The practice of destroying even the inanimate property of a vanquished enemy was known among the Germans of the North at a much later time, probably as late as the fourth century. This is shown by the immense quantities of weapons and other articles, which have been found deposited in the bogs of ThorsbjŠrg and Nydam (in Slesvig and South Jutlan).

A most singular custom is attributed by Procopius (Gothis War II. 14) to the Eruli, a tribe which it has hitherto proved impossible to identify with certainty with any of the Germanic nations known in later times. Procopius states simply that they lived formerly beyond the Danube, but his acquaintance with the geography of northern Europe was apparently not extensive. The Eruli are first mentioned in the third century, at which time they appear almost simultaneously on the Black Sea and on the frontier of Gaul. On the whole it seems most probable that their original home was on the southern shores of the Baltic. However this may be, it is quite clear that they were a Germanic tribe and still heathen when part of them were admitted into the Roman empire by Anastasius (A.D. 512). They seem to have been the only important Germanic tribe known to Procopius which had preserved their heathendom till within living memory; for the Goths, Vandals, Gepedes, and Langobardi had long been Christian, and even the Franks were nominally converted before the end of the fifth century, though according to Procopius (G. W. II. 25) they still continued to practice human sacrifices. There seems to be no adequate reason for doubting that the cult of Woden was known to the Eruli. It was certainly practiced by all the tribes whose territories lay along the Elbe, the Saxons, Langobardi and Hermunduri; probably also by the Goths whose original home lay far to the East. Procopius simply states that the Eruli worshiped a great number of gods, whom they deemed it right to appease with human sacrifices. There is however some evidence of a different kind (cf. p. 39 f.), which would seem to show that the Eruli had preserved one feature of the cult in a singularly pure form. Procopius' statement about the customs of the Eruli is as follow:--"They had many laws which differed from those of the rest of mankind; for when they became aged or sick they were not allowed to live. As soon as one of them was overtaken by old age or disease it became incumbent on him to request his relatives to put him out of the way as quickly as possible. The relatives made a great pile of logs, reaching to a considerable height, and setting the man on the top they sent up one of the Eruli against him with a dagger. This man had to be chosen from another family, for it was not lawful that the executioner should be related to the victim. And when the man who had been chosen to slay their kinsman had returned, they proceeded forthwith to set all the logs on fire, beginning at the extremities of the pile. When the fire had died out they collected the bones and buried them without delay in the ground." Reference has already been made (p. 13 f.) to a custom, which would seem to have prevailed among the ancient Scandinavians, of marking a dying man with the point of a javelin; and it has been pointed out that the passage in Ynglinga s. 10, in which this rite is described, implies that it was regarded as a substitution for death in battle. Now is it possible that this rite was a relic of a still earlier custom, according to which the dying man was actually stabbed to death? Such an explanation would obviously harmonize very well with the purpose of the rite, and it would be in full accord with the general conception of Othin and Valholl (cf. p. 26 f.). Then the custom attributed to the Eruli at the end of the fifth or beginning of the sixth century will represent simply an earlier stage in the history of the same rite. It is true that the weapon used by the Eruli is stated to have been a dagger and not a javelin; but a discrepancy in such a detail as this may be due to inaccuracy on the part of Procopius. Examples of voluntary death in the Scandinavian legends are rare. Yet there are two cases of special significance: Hadingus, a hero who frequently appears under Othin's protection, commits suicide by hanging himself (Saxo. I. P. 60), and Starcatherus, the foster-son of Othin and his typical hero, requests and receives death at the hand of Hatherus (Saxo VIII. p. 405 f.). In the latter case the killing is done with a sword. A singular custom of killing the old is mentioned in Gautreks s. 1, 2 (F.A.S. III. p. 7 ff.). The victims suffered voluntarily; man and wife were put to death together by being thrown over a precipice. Among the Germans of the Continent, there is, so far as I am aware, no evidence for such custom beyond the passage quoted above from Procopius. Tacitus only says (Germ. 6) that persons who have succeeded in making their escape after a disastrous battle, and have lost their shields in so doing, frequently strangle themselves to death, and so put an end to their dishonour. With this passage may be compared Ragnars s. Lo­brˇkar c. 9 (F.A.S. I. 261 ff.), where the defeated Eirekr son of Ragnar is offered full freedom and favour by killing Eysteinn, yet prefers to be killed (probably as a sacrifice). The survivors of the Cimbri also killed themselves after the battle of Vercellae according to Plutarch (Marius 27, see below), and their wives followed their example. The same was the case with the women of the Teutons after the battle of Aquae Sextiae (Florus III. 3; Heironymus, Ep., ad Ageruchiam).

Very little is known of the ritual practiced by the ancient Germans in their human sacrifices. The general employment of hanging however as a means of capital punishment renders it probable that this was at least one of the methods practiced. According to Tactitus (Germ. 12) "traitors and deserters were hanged on trees," while cowards and others were suffocated on marshes. The officers of Varus' army, according to Tacitus (Ann. I. 61) were "slaughtered at the altars"; some of the troops appear to have been buried alive, others possibly were hanged. The custom of hanging captured enemies was certainly known to the Goths. Thus according to Jordanes (c. 48) the Ostogothic king Vinitharius, in order to strike terror into the Anti, hanged their king Boz with his sons and seventy of their nobles. Hanging seems to have been much practiced by the Cimbri. In Orosius' account of the Roman disaster on the Rhone, the Roman captives are stated to have been hanged on the trees (cf. p. 31 f.). After their defeat at Vercellae, according to Plutarch (Marius 27), the fugitives attempted to hang themselves by any means that lay ready to hand:--"As there were no trees at hand the men tied their necks, some to the horns and some to the legs of the oxen; then they applied goads to the oxen and, as the latter rushed off, they were dragged along and crushed, and thus met their death." According to the same chapter (cf. Florus III. 3) the women also either hanged or strangled themselves. The expression aporia dendrwn "through lack of trees" deserves consideration, because it distinctly implies the existence of some suicidal rite in which tree-hanging formed an essential feature. There is not however sufficient evidence for determining whether the rite was practiced generally or only under special conditions. It is conceivable, for instance, that some vow had been made which involved death in case of defeat. On the other hand it is possible that the Cimbri, like the later Eruli, held it unlawful to die a natural death; consequently, when all hope of further successful fighting was gone, sacrificial suicide was the only course left open.

The allusions to the prevalence of hanging among the Cimbri are so frequent that there can be little doubt that they practiced either the cult of Woden or at least some cult which employed very similar rites. An account of their methods of sacrifice is given by Strabo (VII. p. 294). "Their women accompanied them on their march and were attended by holy prophetesses with gray hair and white clothing. These had linen mantles fastened by a buckle, bronze girdles and bare feet. When prisoners were brought into the camp, they met them sword in hand and , after consecrating them, they led them to a bronze bowl, capable of holding about twenty amphorae. They had a ladder on which she climbed... Standing above the bowl she cut each man's throat as he hung suspended. They practiced divination from the blood as it gushed out into the bowl. Others slit them asunder and disemboweled them, proclaiming victory to their own people." With the last sentence may be compared the Scandinavian rite of cutting the "blood-eagle" (cf. p. 20), which is represented in Orkneyinga s. 8 as a sacrifice to Othin for victory. It is noticeable that in these Cimbric sacrifices, as in the sacrifice of Vikar (cf. p. 3 f.), hanging and stabbing seem to be combined, though it is not stated that the hanging was of such a nature as in itself to cause death. For the combination of sacrifice with divination Scandinavian parallels can be found, though I am not aware that there is any evidence for the practice of divination at human sacrifices. It ought to be mentioned however that a rite still more closely resembling that of the Cimbri is attributed by Diodorus (v. 31) to the Gauls.

The Old English poem Beowulf has already been quoted (p. 18) in illustration of the Scandinavian custom of hanging captured enemies. The same poem contains apparently an allusion to another very curious custom, whether English or Scandinavian is not clear. After describing now Herebeald, son of Hre­el king of the Geatas, was accidentally killed by his brother HŠ­cyn, the poem goes on to describe the grief of Hre­el, concluding as follows (1. 2444 ff.):--"Thus it is grievous for an old man to endure, that his young son should ride on the gallows. Then shall he utter a dirge, a sorrowful song, when his son hangs, a joy to the raven, and he himself, aged and experienced as he is, can not help him or serve him in any way." There is no indication that the person hanged was a criminal, and the context does not admit of the supposition that he had been captured in war. It is not quite clear how far the passage is intended as a simile. If the poet is thinking of Herebeald in 1. 2445-6, it would seem to show that the bodies of dead persons were hung on the gallows. Otherwise it must be inferred that he was acquainted with some custom similar to that practiced by the Eruli (p. 33 f.), though in this case death was brought about by hanging.

It has been mentioned (p. 21) that the invention of the "wedge" order of battle was ascribed to Othin by the Scandinavians. There is no evidence for the existence of such a belief among the continental Germans. The "wedge" however was well known and was recognized even in the very earliest times as the Germans' favourite method of warfare (cf. Caesar, B.G. I. 52; Tacitus, Germ. 6). It has also been suggested in explanation of Ynglinga s. 6, that the typical Othin-worshiper in early times was a light-armed warrior. Now the Germans of the first century were certainly light-armed, their favourite weapon being the javelin. Tacitus' statements (Germ. 6) convey the impression that this was due to their inability to procure defensive armour. Such however can not have been the case with the Eruli in later times, for this tribe appears to have continued to practice lightarmed warfare at a time when all the neighboring tribes were well provided with defensive armour. Jordanes (c. 23) states that "at that time (i.e. in the fourth century) there was no nation which did not possess in its army a body of light-armed troops selected from among the Eruli." In his account of the battle between the Huns and GepidŠ (Gepedes) he compares the light equipment of the Eruli with the heavy armour of the Alani (c. 50). The equipment of the Eruli is described by Procopius (Persian War, II. 25) as follows: "The Eruli wear neither helmet nor coat of mail nor any other protection except a shield and a thick cloak; girded with this they proceed to battle." He adds that their slaves fought even without shields. Procopius' statement is corroborated by Paulus (Hist. Langobard. I. 20): -- "At that time (about the end of the fifth century) the Eruli were experienced in the arts of war and had acquired great glory by the slaughter of many nations. Whether for the sake of fighting with greater freedom, or to show their contempt for any wound inflicted by the enemy, they used to fight unprotected, covering only the loins." This absence of defensive armour is probably to be ascribed to the conservative instincts of the tribe, backed by the sanction of their religion.

In Ynglinga s. 10 Othin is stated to have instituted the custom of cremation, and to have declared that every man should possess in Valholl the property which had been burnt with him on his pyre (cf. p. 22). Cremation was practiced by the ancient Germans in the time of Tacitus (Germ. 27) and continued long after, though it had apparently been given up by the Franks before their conversion. It was practiced, at least partly, by the English after their conquest of Britain, and by the Eruli until the beginning of the sixth century (cf. p. 33 f.). By the Old Saxons it seems to have been practiced even towards the end of the eighth century. It was prohibited by an edict of Karl the Great in 785. Tacitus seems to have been struck by the simplicity of the German funeral rites. He states that they had no monuments except a mound covered with grass. Yet he adds that weapons and in some cases horses were thrown on to the pyre. The funeral customs of the ancient Germans therefore did not differ essentially from those practiced in the North. Procopius however (Gothic War, II. 14; cf. p. 33 f.) distinctly states that suttee was practiced by the Eruli: --"When a man of the Eruli dies, it becomes incumbent on his widow, if she makes any claim to virtue and wishes to leave behind her a good reputation, to strangle herself to death without much delay beside her husband's tomb. If she does not do this, she forfeits all respect for the rest of her life and incurs the enmity of her husband's relatives." This is, so far as I am aware, the only passage in which the practice of suttee is attributed to any Germanic tribe. Yet a careful examination of the northern legends will reveal the fact that some such custom was not altogether unknown amongst the ancient Scandinavians. According to Saxo I. p. 46 Gunnilda, the wife of Asmundus, refused to survive her husband's death and took her life, apparently with a sword. In Volsunga s. 8 (F.A.S. I. 135) Sigřn prefers to die with her husband Siggeir, though she has brought his death about and killed the children which he had by her. In Gylfaginning 49 Nanna is represented as dying of grief at Balder's pyre; possibly in an earlier version of the story she committed suicide. In Hervarar s. 5 (F.A.S. I. 429) Ingiborg, daughter of Yngvi (Ingialdr) king of the Swedes, is represented as hearing of the death Hialmar, to whom she was betrothed. What follows is differently related in different texts; according to one text "she was so much affected by Hialmar's fall that she straightaway died of grief;" according to another "the king's daughter can not bear to survive him and determines to put an end to her own life." The case of Brynhildr may also be quoted (cf. Sigur­arkvi­a in skamma; Volsunga s. 31). Brynhildr was not the wife of Sigur­r, though she had desired that position. After bringing about Sigur­r's death she kills herself with a sword (Sigur­arkv. 48), and gives directions that she is to be burnt with Sigur­r (cf. p. 23). In the poem Helrei­ Brynhildr she is represented as driving to Valholl. The poem concludes with the words "Sigur­r and I shall never part again." Another example, dating from curiously late times, is preserved by Jakut under the article Rus (quoted by J. Grimm, kl. Schriften II. p. 289 ff.). A certain Ibn Fazlan, who records the story, witnessed the funeral of a noble Russian on the lower Volga, about the year 922--3. The dead man was burnt on a ship in the river. Various animals were killed and thrown on to the pyre, a dog, a cock and hen (possible in the place of hawks, cf. p. 24), two horses and two oxen. A young woman was also killed and laid beside the dead man. It appears from Ibn Fazlan's account that she was not the wife of the dead man, but chosen from among his concubines. These were asked which of them was willing to die with their master. The offer was voluntary, but when once made, could not be retracted. The method of killing employed was a combination of strangling and stabbing, the latter being carried out by an old woman who was known as the "death's-angel." J. Grimm (l.c. p. 294) did not believe that these people were Scandinavians. His objections however do not seem to have been sufficiently well grounded. Ibn Fazlan distinguishes clearly between the Russians and the Slavs. That the "Russians" were Scandinavians is rendered probable by the fact that according to Constantinus Porphyrogenitus (On the Administration of the Empire, c. 9) the Russians and Slavs spoke different languages, the former of which was, to judge from his examples, undoubtedly Scandinavian. The ship-funeral also, as related by Ibn Fazlan seems to be a distinctively Scandinavian custom. At the same time some doubt may be expressed as to whether the practice of suttee was at all common at this late period. Lastly reference may be made to a custom attributed by Bonifacius (Ep. 72, written A.D. 745) to the Old Saxons: -- "In Old Saxony if a maiden brings disgrace upon her father's house by unchastity, they sometimes compel her to put an end to her life by hanging herself with her own hand. Her body is then laid on the pyre and cremated, and the partner of her guilt is hanged over her tomb." A close parallel to this passage is afforded by Saxo's account of Hagbarthus had made his way in woman's attire to the abode of Sygne, daughter of the Danish king Sigarus. There he was arrested and condemned to death, partly on account of seducing Sygne, but partly also because he had killed two of Sigarus' sons in battle. Sygne decides to share Harbarthus' fate and begs her handmaidens to die with her. They pile faggots against the walls of the room and make halters of their robes. When Hagbarthus is led to the gallows, he asks that his coat may first be hanged, in order that he may test Sygne's constancy. When this is notified to Sygne, whose room is some distance from the place of execution, she and her maidens, thinking that Hagbarthus is already dead, set fire to the room and push away the beams on which they were standing, thus hanging themselves. Hagbarthus, seeing the flames, meets his fate with joy. It is to be noticed that Sygne's death is entirely voluntary. Among the Old Saxons on the other hand the woman was compelled to die, but stress is certainly to be laid on the words propria manu. She was not executed but compelled to commit suicide. The practice seems therefore to have been associated in some way with the idea of suttee. It is worth noticing also that in both cases the man is put to death by hanging. Lastly the case of the Teutons and Cimbri may be quoted. It is stated by several authors (Florus, III. 3; Plutarch, Mar. 27; Hieronymus, Ep ad Ageruchiam) that after the battles of Aquae Sextiae and Vercellae the women of these tribes, after vainly attempting resistance, first destroyed their children and then put themselves to death, chiefly by hanging, some even using their hair for this purpose. Florus and Hieronymus indeed state that they first made an application to Marius for freedom and permission to exercise their sacerdotal office, and that they put themselves to death only this application had failed. It would appear however that this application had failed. It would appear however that this application was only made by a small number, three hundred according Hieronymus. These were perhaps the prophetesses mentioned by Strabo (VII. p. 294; cf. p. 37 above).

These examples are enough to show that suttee, or some very similar custom, was known to various Germanic tribes from very early times. Procopius' statement is therefore not without foundation. Whether Tacitus means to refer to any such custom in Germania 18 f. is not quite clear. One may be tempted to connect the existence of this rite with the strict views which, according to Tacitus, the ancient Germans entertained on matrimony. On the other hand it may also have had a very different origin. It might, for example, have arisen from the idea that the wife was part of the husband's property, and consequently required by him, together with his horses, dogs, and hawks, in order to complete his happiness in the next world. The latter explanation is favoured by the fact that the woman killed was apparently not always the man's lawful wife. Against this it may perhaps be objected that it is inconsistent with the Germanic conception of marriage. Yet it has still to be proved that the cult of Woden is of Germanic origin. If the cult was introduced from abroad, the same may also be true of such a rite as this; for, since the rite undoubtedly presupposes a belief in a certain kind of immortality, it may very well have been connected, even from the beginning, with the cult of Woden.

Notwithstanding the paucity of the evidence, there seems to be every reason for believing that the cult of Woden, as practiced by the continental Germans in the earliest historical times, corresponded to the Scandinavian cult in all its essential features. It is clear: (1) that human victims were sacrificed to Woden; (2) that in war that enemy were sometimes dedicated to Woden, a vow which involved the slaughter of all prisoners and the destruction of all the booty; (3) that such prisoners were often put to death by hanging. The frequent occurrence of hanging as a method of punishment suggests also that human victims were regularly sacrificed to Othin in this way, but conclusive evidence is wanting. Perhaps hanging and stabbing were combined, as appears to have been the case with the Cimbri (cf. p. 37 f.). For the sacrificial use of the javelin there is hardly sufficient evidence, though it is to be remembered that this was the favourite weapon of the ancient German. Further it is clear (4) that certain Germanic tribes (at all events the Eruli) practiced a method of warfare which showed a reckless contempt of danger and has some resemblance to the "berserksgangr" of the North; (5) that the funeral rites practiced by the ancient Germans seem to have closely resembled those which in the North were associated with the cult of Othin. Suttee, or some very similar custom, seems to have been known both on the continent and in the North. In all these points the Scandinavian and continental cults agree. In one respect the continental cult, at all events, as practiced by the Eruli, seems to have had a more primitive and barbarous form. Men were not allowed to die by disease or old age, but had to be despatched by violence on the approach of death. In the North on the other hand this act seems to be represented by a merely formal stabbing. It is possible however that in very early times the dying man was actually killed (cf. p. 34 f.).

It is clear that the Eruli worshiped a "god of the dead," and it is very probable that the Cimbri practiced a cult of the same kind. That this god was Woden is rendered probable by the fact that he was the recipient of human sacrifices, and also by the "dedication" vow, though in this case he seems to have been associated with "Mars". Some conception answering to that of the Scandinavian Valholl must therefore have prevailed among the ancient Germans. Since the poetry of heathen times is entirely lost, it is no wonder that this conception can not now be traced. Possibly we owe to it such expressions as the O.E. neorxa wang = paradisus. The word walcyrge (wŠlcyrie) is also of frequent occurrence in the Old English glossaries, but from the words which it is used to gloss (Erinys, Tisiphona, Bellona etc.), as also from its frequent appearance in the phrase wiccean and wŠlcyrian, it would seem to have had a different meaning from the Norse valkyria. Since there can be little doubt that the latter is in great measure a creation of the Scandinavian poets, it is not unlikely that the English usage may reflect an earlier conception. Possibly the work originally denoted the "promantis," who sacrificed human victims and practiced divination from their blood. The transference of the valkyrie from the earthly sphere to Valholl will in that case be a later development. It cannot, of course, be denied that the English walcyrge had supernatural features but these appear rather to have been of the werewolf class.     

back                                 index                                next