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“No gods enclosed within walls” July 5, 2011

Posted by Jenny in ancient Rome, classical studies, history.
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Home of the Germanics ("Black Forest Valley" by Margret Hofheinz Doering)

This post is one of a series on “The Wilds of Germania,” based on writings by the Roman historian Tacitus.

It is hard enough to reach back through the darkness of time to the 1st century A.D., when Tacitus lived and wrote. But it is especially hard when trying to visualize the worlds that lay at the murky frontiers of the Roman Empire.

When we think of Germanic mythology or folk customs or beliefs, we tend to think of periods that came later, of the folk tales that were adapted by the Grimm brothers or the deities that Wagner took up in his Ring cycle and made into characters in a 15-hour opera performance. We are generally thinking of mythology from a period when at least a few things were put into writing and when beliefs were influenced by Christianity.

There was no writing in Germania. Many of the Germans wore skins rather than fabrics. They had the weapons of the Iron Age. To residents of the Mediterranean, these mysterious folk had seemed strange and frightening  ever since the time that Pytheas of Massalia first encountered them when he sailed along the northern coast of Europe around 320 B.C. Not much more was written until several centuries later, when Caesar and Pliny the Elder both mentioned them in their accounts and described the boundless Hercynian Forest in which many of them lived.

Tacitus took a special interest in the place and the people. Fascinated by their “wonderful savageness,” he wrote about them in a way strikingly balanced. He judged them to be in some ways slothful and gluttonous, but also brave in their warfare. He wrote about their customs in Germania and about their wars with the Romans in the Annals. He enjoyed comparing such cultures with that of his empire—not only the Germans but the British. Sometimes, in his scathing commentary, the foreigners came out looking better than the corrupt and decadent individuals among his fellow citizens. (His writing about Britain, Agricola, has famous examples of that.)

Pre-Migration Age Germania (click for zoom)

The Roman writers always emphasized the wildness of the area. (All quotations in italics below are from Germania, translated 1910 by Thomas Gordon.)

Their lands, however somewhat different in aspect, yet taken all together consist of gloomy forests or nasty marshes; lower and moister towards the confines of Gaul, more mountainous and windy towards Noricum and Pannonia; very apt to bear grain, but altogether unkindly to fruit trees; abounding in flocks and herds, but generally small of growth.

The people all had the same appearance, Tacitus said.

Hence amongst such a mighty multitude of men, the same make and form is found in all, eyes stern and blue, yellow hair, huge bodies, but vigorous only in the first onset. Of pains and labor they are not equally patient, nor can they at all endure thrift and heat.

Many used barter rather than coin.

The Germans adjoining to our frontiers value gold and silver for the purposes of commerce, and are wont to distinguish and prefer certain of our coins. They who live more remote are more primitive and simple in their dealings, and exchange one commodity for another.

In speaking of the Germanic divinities, Tacitus does not mention any of the ones we might think of: Wodan, Thor, Odin. He mentions a ballad in which

they celebrate Tuisto, a God sprung from the earth, and Mannus his son, as the fathers and founders of the nation.

But it appears they have borrowed some divinities from the Romans.

Of all the Gods, Mercury is he whom they worship most. To him on certain stated days it is lawful to offer even human victims. Hercules and Mars they appease with beasts…

The Germans practice worship in the open air.

They judge it altogether unsuitable to hold the gods enclosed within walls, or to represent them under any human likeness. They consecrate whole woods and groves, and by the names of the gods they call these recesses; divinities these, which in contemplation and mental reverence they behold.

Next to come: social customs of the Germans.

"Pine Trees" by Margret Hofheinz Doering


1. Thomas Stazyk - July 6, 2011

Fascinating–thanks! I look forward to coming installments.

Jenny - July 6, 2011

Glad you’re enjoying it!

2. brian - July 7, 2011

I read a long description of the Germans by Tacitus somewhere. Must have been an excerpt from that. I remember being struck by the admirable way their leaders were chosen by merit and their power limited and conditional. Very different from their god-like counterparts in other parts of the world at that time. I think the Romans had a place in their hearts for barbarian simplicity because it reminded them of their own idealized rustic past e.g. Cincinnatus.

The Romans tended to match up the gods of other peoples with their own equivalents. So Tacitus may have been talking about German gods using Roman names. German and Italic pantheons had a common origin anyways. I find the idea of sacred groves rather than temples fascinating. Could it connect at all to the modern Western admiration for nature and wilderness? I had always thought the old European pagan nature worship was extinct. The wicca type stuff is said to be a Victorian invention. Then I read the Mari religion in Russia:


Jenny - July 8, 2011

That piece about the Maris was really interesting. I tend to associate the paganism of today with a kind of “wannabe” mentality of educated folks who have nostalgia for a time when people were spiritually in tune with nature, so it’s kind of nice to read about villagers who actually grew up with the age-old practices. As far as the Germans’ worship of Mercury, etc., is concerned, you could be right. But on the other hand, Tacitus does refer to those founding deities of the Germans by their native names, Tuisto and Mannus. Already the waters of the different cultures had been muddied by cross-influences.

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