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Germanic Religion

GERMANIC RELIGION

The sources for the study of the religion and mythology of the old Germanic (Teutonic) peoples are few. They consist chiefly of Greek, Roman, and medieval writings, runic inscriptions, folklore, laws, and the vitae of early missionaries. The Germania of Tacitus is especially important as a source. It took more than 700 years, from the 4th century in the South (Gothi) to the end of the 10th century in the North (Scandinavia), to displace the pagan Germanic religion by Christianity, and some superstitions continued to flourish much longer. Despite the progressive differentiation in language and customs that developed among the many Germanic tribes in the course of centuries, there are many religious traits shared by all.

Gods and Forms of Worship. From the earliest times the Germani believed in a number of gods in anthropomorphic form. Although there was no uniform cult among the various tribes, many of the same deities seem to have been known to all tribes. The central figure of the cult, taking the highest place among all gods, was Wodan, the All-Father, the Scandinavian Odin. After him came Donar, the North Germanic Thor. Another important deity was Tiu or Ziu (Alemannic Zîstac), the Nordic Týr. Next to these male deities was Freya, Wodan's wife, the Scandinavian Frigga. The names Tiu, Wodan, Thor, and Freya are preserved in our days of the week: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

The forms of worship for these and many other deities were prayers, and sacrifices of fruit, animals, and even human beings. The Germani first worshipped under the open sky in forests and groves and later, under Roman influence, in houses and temples. Unlike the Celts, they had no special class of priests. Nevertheless, because of the intimate relationship of state, law, and religion, priests enjoyed great prestige and exercised much power; they directed the sacrifices and consulted the oracles in public assemblies.

Minor Divinities and Spirits. Common to all tribes was the primitive belief in the magic power of nature and of the spirits of the dead. Almost every natural element was personified, given human or animal form, and worshipped as a divinity. Among the unfriendly divinities were the giants of the mountains, the nixes and nixies, or water sprites, the kobolds or trolls of house and cave, the elves of the wind, the brownies of the field, the mermen and mermaids of the sea, the dwarfs under the earth, and many other demon-like creatures. Friendlier divinities or supernatural beings of lower degree were the Norns (the Norse Fates), the Valkyries (Choosers of the Slain), and numerous other familiar and attendant spirits.

According to Germanic cosmogony, in the beginning there was an original profound abyss, out of which first came Niflheim (frozen reaches), Muspellsheim (arid reaches), and then finally the giants, gods, and ultimately men. In Norse eschatology, the stars will fall from heaven, the earth will sink into the ocean; and in a bloody battle all gods, giants, and men will perish in flames, but a new and better world will be born out of the ashes.

Bibliography: d. e. m. clarke and n. kershaw, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics ed. j. hastings (Edinburgh 190827) 12:246259. a. closs, Christus und die Religionen der Erde: Handbuch der Religionsgeschichte, ed. f. kÖnig (Vienna 1961) 2:267366. g. dumÉzil, Mythes et dieux des Germains (Paris 1939). m. boucher, "Les Germains," in Histoire des religions, ed. m. brillant and r. aigrain (Paris 195356) 5:135199. e. tonnelat, "La Religion des Germains," "Mana": Introduction à l'histoire des religions (Paris 1944) 2.3:321385. c. clemen, ed., Fontes historiae religionis Germanicae (Bonn 1928). r. much, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa, et al. (Stuttgart 1893) 3:579585. w. baetke, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tü bingen 195765) 2:143240. j. de vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte (Berlin 195658).

[c. selmer]

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