Real Germans, Real Scholarship
Barbarian Rites: The Spiritual World of the Vikings and the Germanic Tribes
HANS-PETER HASENFRATZ, PH.D., TRANS. BY MICHAEL MOYNIHAN INNER TRADITIONS, 2011
This book is neither an account of rituals ancient or modern nor a list of popular gods nor a retelling of the myths and legends of the tribes of northern Europe.
It is a scholarly work that seeks to discover who the Germani (as the Roman authors called them) were and where and how they lived. “If it is hard enough to say for sure who the Germanic peoples were,” Hasenfratz writes, “it is more difficult to know what constitutes ‘Germanic’ now. There have been those who thought that they knew what it meant, and their knowledge caused worldwide catastrophe” (p. 2). That is, from Tacitus to Hegel to Alfred Rosenberg (a theorist devoted to Hitler), terms like “genetic purity,” “love of freedom,” and “stern morality” were used as “hallmarks” of “the ‘Aryan (Indo-European) racial soul’ most typically embodied in the Germanic race, so that dominion over ‘less worthy’ peoples must in some way be an inherent entitlement of the Germanic human being” (p. 2) — well, yes, we know what the Nazis made of German history. Hasenfratz says that we can define Germanic people in terms of the language they spoke, which had made certain changes from the Indo-European root language.
To describe the Germanic religion, which “comprised religious practices of Germanic-language speakers before their Christianization (and continu[ing] after their Christianization to some degree in the form of folk beliefs, (p. 3), Hasenfratz examines evidence from late antiquity and the early medieval period, the same sources we get our familiar legends about gods, giants, dwarfs, and other beings from. An especially interesting part of the book’s introduction is a report written by an 11th-century Muslim traveler named Ibn Fadlān and discovered in 1923. Ibn Fadlān traveled through the lands around the Volga River and met the Rūs (Germanic Varangians, or Vikings). He writes about their lack of modesty, the behavior and dress of their women (mostly slaves), ship burial, and the social structure of this Viking society, the most important element of which was the Männerbund, or men’s confraternity, “a warband bound by sworn allegiances to its lord or leader” (pp. 6-20). The cult god of the Männerbund was of course Odin (Wotan), the “god of battle ecstasy.”
Chapter 1 gives a brief history of the Germanic tribes, including their migrations through western Asia, all over Europe, into northern Africa, to the islands of the north Atlantic, and possibly into the New World. Chapter 2 describes the three social classes (rulers and priests, warriors, and freemen), slavery, and the stages of life. In Iceland, he writes, a boy “came of age at twelve, and … could ride with weapons to the Thing” (p. 42). The most common “mechanism of social ties” was the Sib, meaning “that which belongs together,” a group of “freeborn people who were related to one another by blood and marriage” (p. 44). Chapter 3 tells of rituals of transition, or rites of passage — birth, initiation, marriage, resettling and land-taking, death, and life after death. Chapter 4 is concerned with magic — incantatory magic (chanting, the spoken word), rune magic (the Germanic runic script may have been derived from a North Etruscan alphabet, p. 79), death magic, divinatory magic, cursing magic, destructive magic, and magic in Burchard’s Corrector, a 9th-century collection of church decrees that resembles a proto-Malleus Maleficorum.
Opening Chapter 5, “The Powers,” Hasenfratz writes that the “religious human being finds himself or herself confronted with a multitude of powers, which are often experienced as individual entities embodied in a particular form” (p. 90). The human being is “experienced as a power and power reveals itself to the human being” (p. 90). There are living people who send psychic forces out of themselves and dead people who must be placated and/or controlled. Next are the creatures familiar from folklore and literature like giants, dwarves, wights, elves, nixes, and so forth. What we know about the deities “is not ancient and is the result of the systematizing impulses of the late heathen period … [and] of the industrious, learned compiling of [medieval] Icelandic Christian antiquarians” (p. 94). The two divine classes are the giants (who came first) and the gods. Hasenfratz focuses on the linguistic roots and cognates of the divine names. He also discusses fate, to which even the gods are subject. Chapter 6 describes the three Germanic cosmographical models, which include the world and the cosmic tree, and Chapter 7 tells of the beginnings of time and the end times, familiar to us as the Götterdämmerung from Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The book, which ends with scholarly notes, a bibliography, and an index, should be considered indispensible for all readers with an interest in the roots of Heathen culture.
Barbara Ardinger is the author of Secret Lives, a novel about crones and other magical folks, and many other books. Find her at www.barbaraardinger.com .