Last Samhain having marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, here in Minnesota—the Holy Land of American Lutheranism—it was All “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” All the Time.

It might have been irritating, but instead I found myself reflecting on the ways of the ancient ancestors.

Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott: so begins Luther's marching-song of Protestantism Militant. The tune is a good, rousing, beer-swilling one, the lyrics a paraphrase of the Biblical psalm 46. The Hebrew begins: Elohim lanu mahase va-'oz, “Elohim [is] to us a protection and strength.” By the rules of Hebrew poetry, one could also translate, “Elohim [is] to us a strong protection.”

So Luther doesn't just translate, he Germanizes: “Our god is a solid burg.” Burg can mean “protection, refuge,” but primarily it means “castle, fort.”

It's an ancient word, from the depths of the Indo-European past. Originally, it meant a “hill-fort.” The Bronze Age having been a time of demographic upheaval, you can trace the spread of the Indo-European-speaking ancestors by the hill-forts that they left behind them.

In any given tribal territory, the largest hill-fort (in Irish, it would have been called a dún) marked the seat of the chieftain, or king (or, sometimes, queen). Here on a hill was found the Royal Hall, safe behind its solid concentric earthen walls. Most people lived dispersed throughout the territory, but in times of war they could gather together safely behind the walls of the burg.

So hill-fort = burg = protection. Our god is a strong hill-fort: i.e. he protects his people. It's a phrase that could come directly from the hero-epic of any Indo-European people.

The Indo-European ancestors didn't build or live in cities, but in time the royal burgs became nuclei of population and eventually turned into cities. That's why the Greek cognate of burg, polis, came in time to mean “city,” as does—it's the same word—the Indic pur. All those Indian place-names that end in -pore bear the same meaning. “Singapore” means “Lion City.”

The same development occurred in the Germanic languages as well. I myself was born in one such “hill-fort” in Western Pennsylvania: the burg named for its founder, William Pitt.

A mighty hill-fort is our god.”

Our pagan ancestors would have understood the sentiment exactly.


Above: Old Oswestry (Shropshire)