Introduction to Germanic Mythology

Jakob Grimm

It seems to have been instilled by Nature into every people that it should keep itself closed-off and untouched by alien elements. It can only guard its tongue, its ethos, within a closed circle. Only as long as it flows between its own banks does a river keep its waters pure. All pristine strength and the undisturbed expression of its deepest instincts emanate from this center and we see our oldest language, poetry and legend assert this very characteristic. However, a river has not only to accept the streams which bring down fresh water to it from mountain and hill but must ultimately flow out into the wide waters of the ocean. Peoples border upon peoples, peaceful commerce, war and conquest merge their destinies. Such intermingling may bring unexpected results, the advantages of which must be weighed against the loss which suppression of the native elements brought about. Yet the language, poetry and religion of our forefathers were unable everywhere and at all times to guard themselves against the onset of what was foreign, and they have experienced the most shattering transformation through the conversion of the people to Christianity.


Deities form the essence of all mythology. Ours were buried out of sight and had to be unearthed. Their traces were able to be discerned partly in names that stubbornly refused to be rooted out and yet offered only an empty sound and partly with changed shape in the fluid but more complete form of popular legend.

Upon closer inspection, all individual deities appear to be emanations and segments of one single deity: the Gods as sky, the Goddesses as earth, the former as fathers, the latter as mothers, the Gods creating, ruling, leading, governing victory and fortune, air, fire and water—the Goddesses nourishing, spinning, cultivating the fields, beautiful, adorned and loving.

In all German tongues the Highest Being has always with one accord been called by the general name: God. In curses and exclamations our people, from fear of desecrating God s name, resort to some modification of this, saying potz wetter or kotz wunder instead of "Gottes"—however, I cannot trace this practice back to our ancient speech. 

Some remarkable uses of the word "God" in our older language and that of the common people may also have a connection with pagan ideas. In Middle High German poems one encounters the expression for a hearty welcome. gote unde mir wilekomen ("Welcome to God and me" ). Upper Germany has retained this form of greeting to the present day. 

The Highest Being is conceived as omnipresent and is expected like a host to take the newcomer under his protection. In the same way the name of the omniscient emphasizes an affirmation of knowledge or ignorance: das weiz got unde ich = God and I know that. 

Poems of the Middle Ages attribute human passions to God: especially is He often described as in a condition of placidity and joy or again in the contrary state of wrath and vengeance. The former is favorable for the endowment of distinguished and happy men. It is an equally pagan sentiment that imputes to God a wish to gaze at human beauty or at whatever men do. 

In the Middle Ages a wicked man was called gote leide, a sorrow to God. There is a parallel formula which substitutes the sun for God and so heightens the pagan complexion. A man so accursed does not deserve to have the sun shine kindly upon him. 

Such a hostile relationship results now and then in a rebellious spirit in man which breaks forth in Promethean defiance and threats or even takes a practical turn. If the God denied the assistance prayed for, his image was flung into the river by the people, immersed in water or beaten. In the Carolingian romances we repeatedly come upon the incident of Karl (Charlemagne) threatening the deity that if his aid is denied, he will cast down his altars and make the Church with all its priests leave the land of the Franks. 

The all-governing God is at the same time the all-seeing, all-knowing, all- remembering. Hence it is said of fortunate men that God saw them and of unfortunate ones, that God forgot them. 

Among appellations are several which God has in common with worldly rulers: the name Father is above all conspicuous. In the Edda the name Alfödr (All Father) is applied to Odin as the father of all Gods, humans and created things. This compound may have sounded pagan. However, the idea of God the Father became more familiar to Christians than to pagans. Most epic formulas are taken from God's dwelling place, his omnipotence, omniscience and truth. Many other expressions are indisputably connected with the pagan way of thinking. 

Since the Gods are represented as dwelling on high, in the heavens, upon mountain heights, it is natural that individuals should have certain particular mountains and abodes consigned them. 


Because the Gods show favor more often than wrath and men are happily disposed rather than oppressed by their own sins and faults, thanksgiving sacrifices were the earliest and most frequent, sacrifices out of expiation rarer, more poignant. What can be offered to the Gods from the plant realm is serene, innocent, but also less significant than animal sacrifice. The flowing blood, the life shed, seems to assert stronger binding and appeasing power. Animal sacrifices are natural to the warrior, hunter and shepherd, while the farmer will give grain and flowers. 

The great yearly festivals of the pagans allude to folk gatherings and popular courts. Human sacrifices absolve according to their nature and origin. A great misfortune, a serious crime, can only be conjured away and expunged through human blood. 

Sacrifices were made by all peoples of antiquity, there is undoubted evidence of this in Germany. As a rule, victims to be sacrificed were captive foes, purchased serfs or extreme criminals. On the other hand, the death penalty was rare or unheard of among the ancient peoples. In folk legends there are still traces of the sacrificing of children. Rare cases could even demand the death of a king's son and daughters, indeed of a king himself. 

Animal sacrifices were chiefly made as thanksgiving, but also as expiation and as such they often represent moderation in place of older human sacrifices. Only such animals were suitable whose flesh was fit for human consumption. It would have been inappropriate to offer the God a food which the sacrificers had themselves scorned. At the same time these sacrifices also appear as feasts. An allotted portion of the slaughtered animal was brought to the sacrifice, and the remainder cut in pieces, shared out and consumed by the assembly. The people entered as a result into fellowship with the holy sacrifice, just as the Gods were held to be joint feasters at their meal. It was commanded of kings that at great sacrifices they taste all foods. Superstitious people later still placed food at one side for the house spirits and dwarfs. In the oldest times chiefly horses seem to have been sacrificed, undoubtedly their flesh was universally eaten before the introduction of Christianity. Missionaries found nothing so repellent about the pagans, as the latter would not abandon the killing of horses and enjoying of their flesh. The cutting-off of the horse's head which was not eaten but dedicated to the God must not be overlooked in this connection. 

I believe that among all known sacrifices only those of the horse were celebrated at the nine year festivals. Among all animal sacrifices that of the horse was the most noble and the most solemn. Our forefathers had it in common with several Slavic and Finnish peoples, with Persians and Indians. The horse was held by them all to be a particularly sacred animal. Along with cattle, sacrifices of boars, pigs and rams were not rare; we are uncertain about other sacrificial animals. The dove was a Jewish and Christian animal sacrifice, cocks were offered by the Greeks to Aesculapius to heal an infected finger, and it was the custom in the Touraine to sacrifice a wild cock to Saint Christopher. Among game only edible beasts were sacrificial: deer, roes, wild pigs, but never wolves or foxes to whom even a ghostly nature is attributed. In paganism, wild animals seem to have been preferred for sacrifice. The animals dependent upon man, his house animals, have to suffer upon his death, with his sacrifice and punishment. 

Besides the sex, weight was certainly laid upon the color of the animal and white was favored most of all. One can imagine that the beast was decorated and embellished for sacrifice. Some details suggest that before sacrifice the animals were led around in the midst of the popular assembly. While the animal lost its life on the sacrificial stone, all the flowing blood was caught either in a specially arranged trench or in vessels. The holy tables and vessels and the participants were sprinkled with the sacrificial blood. Prophecies were probably made from the blood, and it is possible that a portion of it was mixed with beer or mead and drunk. The distribution of the pieces among the people was probably carried out by a priest. On great feast days the banquet was held directly during the popular assembly. Several reports reveal that the animal was transformed to ashes on the wood pile. Also no importance was attached to smoke offerings. The sweet incense of Christians was something new to the pagans. 

An animal blood sacrifice is more social, more universal; it was customary that the entire people of the community brought this. Fruit or flowers, milk or honey every household and even an individual could offer. These fruit offerings are therefore more isolated, more impoverished. History scarcely mentions this, but they have lasted all the longer and more firmly in folk custom. 

The farmer, when he cuts his corn, leaves a heap of ears standing to the God who blessed the corn, and decorates them with ribbons. Even now during the fruit harvest in Holstein, five or six apples are left hanging untouched on every tree, then the next crop prospers. At the solemn handing over of landed properties, branches with leaves, apples or nuts serve as signs of trade. To this also belongs the hanging of the image of the God with garlands, of a sacred tree or a sacrificial animal with leaves and flowers. In the Scandinavian sagas not the slightest trace of the latter is revealed. On Ascension day in more than one district of Germany the girls wind garlands of white and red flowers and hang them up in the kitchen or the stables over the cattle, until they are replaced the next year by fresh ones. Here pagan custom appears to have been transferred to Christian festivals: Just as it was a very ancient and widespread custom to leave back at a feast a portion of the food for the household Gods and in fact a dish with broth was placed for Berchta and Holda, the Gods were allowed to enjoy a festive drink. The drinker, before he enjoyed it himself, was accustomed to pour out something for the God or household spirits. Connected with this are Norwegian legends about Thor, who appears at weddings and accepts or empties enormous barrels of beer. It was the custom to honor an absent or dead person by mentioning them at the assembly and feast and downing a cup to their memory. 

In like manner as by observing this drinking custom which was continued into later time, research into pagan mythology will find it advantageous to study the designs used in baking which either still imitated the old idol's shape or retained the prescriptions of an offering. Thus, much which would not really be applicable in the offerings and customs of the people—the color of the animal, the leading around of the boar, the flowers, the drinking of toasts, even the shape of cakes, is still a memory of the offerings of paganism. 

Besides the prayers and offerings, an essential part of the pagan cult must still be emphasized: the solemn carrying or leading around of the images of the Gods. The deity was not to stay in only one place but show its presence through the entire circumference of the land. Thus Frau Nerthus drove around, thus Fro [Freya] moved from place to place in the Spring, thus the sacred ship, the sacred plough, were led about. Holda, Berchta, and all similar beings held their walk at appointed times of the year, to the joy of pagans, to the horror of Christians. Even Wodan's wild hunt can be so interpreted. A comparison can be made of customs of public law, the riding around of newly crowned kings through the streets of the land, the solemn recording of paths, the beating of the bounds, at which priests and images of the Gods will have been present in ancient times. 

After the conversion to Christianity, the Church also allowed such processions, except that an image of Mary or other sacred images were carried, namely when drought, crop failure, sickness or war had broken out, in order to cause rain, fertility of the fields, recovery from illness and gaining of victory. Even at the outbreak of fire sacred images were applied against this. 


A temple is simultaneously a wood. What we think of as a walled building, merges, the farther back we go, into a sacred place untouched by human hands, in a grove and enclosed by dense trees. There the God dwells, veiling his form in the rustling foliage of the boughs. There is the place at which the hunter has to present him with the game he has killed and the herdsman his horses, oxen and rams. 

I am not maintaining that this forest worship exhausts all the conceptions which our ancestors had formed of the deity and its dwelling-place. It was only the principle. Here and there a God may haunt a mountain top, a cave in the rocks, a river. But the solemn general worship by the people had its seat in the grove. And nowhere could it have found a better one: it was customary with many peoples. 

At a time when crude beginnings were all that existed of the builder's art, the human mind must have been aroused to a higher devotion by the sight of lofty trees under an open sky than it could ever feel inside the stunted structures reared by unskilled hands. When, long afterwards, the architecture peculiar to the Germans reached its perfection, did it not in its boldest creations aim at reproducing the soaring trees of the forest? Would not the childlike imaginative power of primeval times have felt itself estranged by the disproportion of poorly carved or painted images of the God which it imagined as enthroned on the leafy top of a sacred tree? In the blowing of the wind, under the shade of primeval forests the soul of man felt itself filled by the presence of the ruling deities. 

What a deep influence forest life had from of old on all circumstances of our people is shown by the preservation of the Guilds of the Marches (Markgenossenschaften). Marka, the word from which they bear their name, first signified forest and then also boundary. In the course of centuries and until the introduction of Christianity the custom was served of worshipping the deity in the sacred forests and trees. Among the Saxons and Frisians the worship in the groves lasted far longer. In various parts of Lower Saxony and Westphalia traces of sacred oaks have been preserved until recent times, to which the people showed a half-pagan, half-Christian reverence. 

I am inclined to trace back the naming of sacred forests, which appears almost everywhere in Germany, to paganism. One would hardly have called the forests sacred after Christian churches which were built in them and usually no such church is found in the forests. Even less can the naming be explained from the prohibited royal forests of the Middle Ages. Conversely these forest preserves seem themselves to have emanated from pagan groves and in place of the cult appears the law of the king who withdrew the sacred forest from the use and common ownership of the people. Such forests were also, in many places, a refuge for malefactors. In the course of centuries this ancient forest worship became displaced -- more with some peoples, less with others -- in favor of the erection of temples. 

We see all Christian missionaries eagerly lay the axe to the sacred trees of the pagans and set their temples on fire. It would almost seem as if the unfortunate people were not even asked for their agreement and only the rising smoke announced to them the broken power of their Gods. But with closer study of the circumstances it is revealed from the less boastful accounts that neither the pagans were so cowardly and simple nor Christians so thoughtless. Boniface resolved to cut down the thunder oaks only after careful consultation with the already converted Hessians and in their presence. The Thuringian king's daughter would never have halted her horse and given the command to set fire to the Frankish temple, if her followers had not been numerous enough to oppose the pagans. 

It is expressly remarked in most reports that in place of the pagan tree or temple a church was erected. In this way the customs of the people were spared and it was made credible that the ancient sacredness of the place had departed but henceforth was dependent on the presence of the true God. At the same time one discovers from this the cause of the almost total lack of remains of pagan monuments. They were either leveled to the ground in order to build a Christian church over them or their walls and halls were even used for the latter. One may restrain oneself from having a high opinion of the architecture of the pagan Germans, but they must have understood how to arrange appreciable masses of stone and to cement them firmly. 

Evidence of this is provided by the burial mounds and places of sacrifice preserved in Scandinavia and partly still in Friesland and Saxony, from which some important conclusions can be drawn about the old pagan worship of God. On many German mountains traces of Gods and heroes are found which allude to ancient places of worship: on the Taunus of Brunnhilde, on the Harz of Gibich and Dietrich. 


The German priests were active as guardians of divine and worldly law, together with religious worship and popular courts. In campaigns by the army they alone controlled discipline, not the generals, since the entire war was conducted as if in the presence of the deity. From the sacred grove they took with them the images and insignia into the field. If the future were to be predicted from the neighing of the publicly maintained white horse, priests accompanied the sacred wagon and authorized the proceedings. Only the priests might touch the wagon of the deity; the latter's approaching presence was recognized by him, he accompanied it respectfully and ultimately led it back into the sacred abode. 

The rareness of records which mention the priests were a reason why their office was long overlooked. Undoubtedly, they were also responsible for the uttering of solemn prayers, the killing of sacrificial animals, the consecration of the dead, perhaps also of marriages and the administering of oaths. The Nordic priest's office reached deeply into the practice and guardianship of the law. Gestures and postures necessary for certain legal transactions are reminiscent of many priestly rituals during offerings and prayers. In such a capacity the priests seem to have had an important influence on the people while there is little mention of their political influence on the kings' courts. Even after the introduction of Christianity the Icelandic judges retained the name and many powers of the pagan priests. 

I have not come across any references to the clothing worn by the Northern priests. Among many Aryan peoples the priest's robe was of white color. Was the office of a poet connected with the latter? Even by Christian poets, after the conversion, one or other thing is still related which has been passed on to us by pagan Skalds. History has not preserved the name of any vates, a singer and soothsayer at the same time, although soothsaying was the office of the priest, and the names of several prophetesses are known. Tacitus mentions the Veleda as prisoners in the triumphant march of Vespasian. The Nordic sources stress the priestly office of women less than their gift of prophecy.

Jakob Grimm, Germanic Mythology, trans. Vivian Bird (Washington, DC: Scott-Townsend Publishers, 1997), 3-4, 8-15. The title above is editorial. I have corrected a few minor errors in the text. Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie was first published in 1835, with many subsequent reprints and revisions. Bird's translation can be purchased from National Vanguard Books


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