My special friend Heidi convinced me to go along with her spiritual group De Kleine Herderstas to the borderland of the German states of Sachsen-Anhalt and Thüringen. So we went. In my case, unprepared.
Our residence was in the village Wickerode, near the town of Stolberg and bordering the village of Questenberg. On the latter’s hilltop, we saw the giant wreath on a pole, which is replaced once a year on Pentecost Day in a big ritual. It illustrated nicely how Heathenism had survived for centuries by taking a Christian guise.
The first place where we stopped to visit, was the fortress built by Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich I, whom his rebellious Italian subjects called Barbarossa, “redbeard” (r.1151-90). It is on a hilltop in Kyffhaüser, from kaifen, “fight”, hence a “military house” or “fortress”. An excellent guide showed us around the place, which I had never thought of nor realized that it even existed. He reigned over a united empire, including my own dukedom of Brabant, and his rule was fondly remembered by the people as a time without pestilence or famines and limited warfare. He died during the third crusade, drowning while crossing the … river in Southeastern Anatolia. (His grandson and successor Friedrich II would conclude a peace treaty with the Muslim ruler of Jerusalem securing the safe passage for Christian pilgrims that had been the object of the Crusades to begin with.)
Half of his army went back home, thinking his death was a bad omen. The other half continued but failed to conquer Jerusalem. Friedrich Barbarossa’s corpse, meant to be buried in Jerusalem, was lost. But the people didn’t believe he had really died. According to a legend traceable to 1519, he is only sleeping, waiting in a cave for the occasion to rescue his people when the need is really high. Every hundred years, a dwarf comes out of the cave to see if the ravens are still circling overhead. When they finally don’t, time will be ripe for his return. Otherwise, another hundred years of slumber follows. It is believed that in 1990, exactly 800 years after his death, he had a big hand in reuniting the two Germanys.
A giant and really beautiful statue adorns the fort. It shows a sitting Barbarossa in his slumber, with one eye half-open, waiting for the sign to wake up and save us. On top of it, another, less inspiring giant statue was built: on horseback, Kaiser Wilhelm I, fresh from his victory over France and the founding of the Second Empire in 1871, overlooks the surroundings. Former army men had it built ca. 1890 because they thought this at last was the salvation the German people had longed for.
Anyway, skeptics say that the legend of a king sleeping underground and biding his time to save his people is an old one, told among others of king Arthur, and also of Barbarossa’s successor Friedrich II. It was reapplied to Barbarossa when he was remembered after his death as a good ruler, and especially during the Napoleonic wars when the Romantically animated Germans longed for national unity. Barbarossa, the once and future Emperor!
We also paid a visit to the Panorama museum in Bad Frankenhausen, built by the erstwhile German Democratic Republic. It houses a giant circular painting by Werner Tübke, commissioned in 1976 to depict the peasant revolt of the 1520s. After a long preparation, he painted it in 1983-87. The Museum was purposely constructed to house this one painting, 14 meters in height and 123 meters around. It opened its doors on 24 September 1989, less than two months before the Berlin Wall fell. The GDR thereby honoured the memory of the peasant revolt led by Thomas Müntzer.
In Marxist historiography, peasant revolts were a regular and necessary feature of premodern society, but invariably ended in failure: mostly they were defeated, or if they succeeded, the leaders simply took their place in the existing power structure, changing its personnel but not its basic oppressive features. These revolts could only be turned into a successful and enduring revolution when they disposed of a scientific theory and method, viz. Marxism itself. This way, the “early bourgeois” revolt against the power of the Church and the nobility was a meritorious attempt at creating a more just society, but the conditions were not yet ripe for its completion.
What happened was that in 1524-25, the peasant revolt which had briefly been in control of a large tract of central Germany, was defeated . Its military and ideological leaders, Heinrich Pfeiffer and Thomas Müntzer, were beheaded on 27 May 1525.
Müntzer was a young priest who had followed Martin Luther in his Reform of Christianity. He left the Catholic priesthood and married, but remained very active as a preacher. Like the contemporary Anabaptists in Western Germany and Frisia (and like the followers of the Zoroastrian rebel Mazdak in Iran a thousand years earlier), Müntzer was a bit of a millenniarist and utopianist. He expected the Second Coming of Jesus, and his utopian society was based on the selection of a specific part of the Christian message: the glorification of poverty and the need of justice to the poor.
As depicted by Tübke, the troops mobilized by the nobility for the final battle were far better equipped and trained, and the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Jesus did not descend to help his faithful, and the utopian society was postponed sine die.
Another good thing which the GDR admittedly did, was to erect a statue for Müntzer in the historical centre of his birthplace Stolberg. His birthhouse burnt down in the 19th century, but pieces that could be saved from the fire were included in this tasteful structure. The sculpture was inaugurated in 1989, 500 years after his birth, and in the nick of time before the Wende.
The mythology road
In the town of Thale, we walked down the Mythology Road. Twelve statues and an additional number of sculptures and sculpted benches adorn the city park (around the statue “to the victims of fascism”) and the surrounding streets ending in the Karl Marxstrasse. They were all taken from Germanic mythology, featuring Wotan, the world tree Yggdrasil, the goddess Freia and the god Balder (not yet finished), the god Aegir, the ring Draufnir, the dragon Nidhogg etc.
It is quite a statement that this German town, very marked by its GDR heritage, now chooses to attract tourists (in a bid to offset the region’s job losses) by building a path devoted to the Germanic gods. Apparently the nearby hilltop called Hexentanzplatz (“witches’ dancing-place”) had already given the region a Heathen association, so they exploited it further. They don’t even hide behind the “Scandinavian” origin of the book the Edda which describes these gods, where Christianization took place centuries later and the Heathen heritage was preserved better. Instead, they boldly name the supreme god Wotan, the German form, rather than Odin in the Scandinavian epic. It seems the Germans are shaking off the Leftist stranglehold which demonized the entire German history including their ancient religion.
By contrast, in the West, at the Externsteine, a natural formation of standing rocks, which we revisited on the way home, political conformity still reigns supreme. On the rocks, there is a 12th-century sculpture depicting the victory of Christianity over Heathenism, with a Jesus taken off the cross in the upper half, and the Irminsul (“great pillar”, symbol of Heathenism) being broken underfoot, with the dragon at the foot of the Heathen world-tree down below. In the museum, this significant sculpture is hardly mentioned, and the Irminsul, easily recognizable as such, is turned into just a palm-tree. This fits in with the strongly highlighted fact that the Nazis organized archeological diggings at the site, hoping to find traces of Germanic use, but found nothing. This again fits the Christian attempt to downplay the Heathen prehistory everywhere (e.g. to turn Hindu beliefs into Christian influences in disguise) and to deny the Christian destruction of Paganism.
But there is, in spite of the Nazis, no need for a specifically Germanic prehistory. The Indo-Europeans including their Germanic component may have entered the region fairly late, say 2000 BC, which is long after it was inhabited by humans. The place was, according to archeologists, used in the Stone Age, and for millennia it lay near a much-used trade road. Given the mentality of the age, it would be strange if such a remarkable feature of nature were not a cultic place. The rocks themselves have a hole where the rising sun shines through on Solstice day, a characteristic of numerous cultic places. It also has an altar stone, predictably Christianized. So the site is one of the thousands of Pagan cultic sites that were purposely turned into chapels or on which churches were built. This was in tune with Pope Gregory’s instructions to let the Pagan population continue to gather at its Pagan sites, but for a Christian service, so that they could gradually adapt to the new religion. Till today, this policy is applied by the missionaries as a matter of “inculturation”.
That the Irminsul stood at or near the Externsteine was a Romantic belief but need not be true. It was a general symbol of Heathenism, upheld by the Saxons in their resistance against the Christian emperor Charlemagne. He is reported to have ordered it broken down, but no details are available on its whereabouts. He also had thousands of recalcitrant Saxons killed, earning him the nickname “slaughterer of the Saxons”. That sealed the Christianization of the area. Still, we were surprised to see how much of the pre-Christian religion survived a millennium of Christian supremacy.
We had been in Goseck (though not in the museum) and in Nebra before, but now we really took the time to understand the sites and what was discovered there. Built nearly 5000 years BC, Goseck is one of the oldest solar observatories in the world, to my knowledge the oldest one identified as such, preceding Stonehenge by more than two thousand years. Unlike the later generation of stone circles, such as the later phases of the repeatedly redesigned construction at Stonehenge, it does not yet contain a reference to the 18-year cycle of the Lunar Nodes, the two points of intersection between the Lunar and the Solar cycle, i.e. the points where eclipses occur. But it does make the year cycle visible, with the extremes of the Solstices.
The most important festival for the builders of this woodhenge was clearly the Winter Solstice or Yuletide. Gates mark the places where the sunrays fall at sunrise and sunset on the Solstice day. The second most important one was not the Spring Equinox (or Ostara, Easter). Nor was it the Summer solstice, a paradoxical day on which the sun culminates at its northernmost point, but also starts its descent to the south. It was May Day or the Walpurgis night (30 April, 1 May), nearly at the midpoint of spring. This is when the sun is already very high and still rising, a more optimistic time than the Summer Solstice. The sunrise and sunset on this day are marked by a smaller opening in the wooden fence.
This confirms the modern Pagan use of the “eight year festivals”: both the points defining the seasons, viz. the Solstices and Equinoxes, and the seasonal midpoints. The former probably received a higher emphasis among the Germanic tribes, the latter among the Celts, which is why they are mostly known by their Celtic names: mid-spring or Beltane, mid-summer of Lughnasad, mid-autumn or Samhain, and mid-winter or Imbolc. Both types of festival were already in evidence 7000 years ago in Goseck.
The village of Nebra has built an archeo-astronomy museum around one small artifact found less than fifteen years ago: the disk of Nebra. In about 1600 BC, the transition point between the early and late bronze age, the disk was made out of copper, with golden images of celestial bodies. It shows the crescent moon and 32 stars in total, of which only the “Seven Sisters” or Pleiades form a recognizable asterism. According to Nebra researchers, it shows the lunar phase (three days after New Moon) at the time of conjunction with the Pleiades, and marks the time when an extra thirteenth lunar month had to be inserted so that the lunar year could keep pace with the solar year. I am not sure I am convinced by this explanation, but it makes sense.
Later, two sidebars were added marking the distance between the sunrise points at Winter Solstice and Summer Solstice. After a few generations, when the disk’s original usage had been forgotten, it was thrown in a grave together with a host of weapons and utensils.
Here again, the village of Nebra shows the will of the Germans in the former GDR to endow itself with a new identity. If the disk, or the woodhenge at Goseck, had been discovered in the age of German nationalism, a cult would have grown up around them extolling them as national heritage. Now this is completely absent. The approach is purely scientific.
Effectively, when the disk was made, the area may already have been Indo-Europeanized, but just as likely Celticized as Germanicized. The Germanic languages had their first known focus in northern Germany, whence they gradually expanded. The Celtic languages were at that time dominant in Central Europe, and even non-Celtic tribes adopted Celtic nomenclature because it conferred prestige. Other branches of Indo-European which have later disappeared may also have been involved. When the stellar observatory at Goseck was built, the region was probably not yet Indo-European-speaking at all, let alone Germanic-speaking.
This trip convinced us that Heathenism is doing well, thank you. With the decline of Christianity there is more openness towards the pre-Christian heritage. It is also more relaxed than in the Romantic and nationalist periods, when this tradition was distorted by contemporary ideological fashions.We cannot hope to get a fully satisfying spirituality out of our ancestral traditions. Probably our forebears had not more than the ritual traditions and the mythology we vaguely know. Or if they did have some kind of yogic practice, it has at any rate been lost irretrievably. So to an extent, we have to borrow from the Orient or develop new insights and techniques. However, a tradition which has been murdered by Christianity has a right to resume its life. In that sense, we should be glad to see the ongoing revival of Heathenism.