Sunday, 23 June 2013

Tacitus on Indigenous Germanic Religion

Statue of the prophetess Veleda by Bucker (20th century) 

Tactius’ Germania is perhaps one of the most important texts we have concerning the religious practices (inter alia) of the Germanic tribes in the 1st century CE. While we should read Tacitus with caution, because he was not Germanic himself and because we cannot be certain that he ever travelled to the Germanic lands (in which case he would have assembled the work based on the descriptions of others including, perhaps, traders, Roman soldiers who had fought in those lands, or manned German border outposts, and possibly Germanic mercenaries and those serving in the auxilia who had moved to Roman territory), what is exciting about his account is that he was not a Christian, unlike many later writers who were to record aspects of indigenous Germanic religion. His bias was more along the lines of occasionally seeming to idealise the Germanic peoples in such a way as to suggest the comparative decadence of contemporary (Pagan) Romans. He emphasised that these Germanic tribes were almost universally composed of people who were warlike, brave, loyal and hardened by their climate – in short they were formidable enemies for whom Tacitus seems to feel admiration on the one hand and a kind of disgust or horror (at their “barbarism”, eg, because they practiced human sacrifice and had a supposed tendency towards drunkenness and violence) on the other.

The following conclusions as to the indigenous religion of the Germanic peoples can be tentatively drawn, based on the informative record of Tacitus:
  • They particularly honoured Odin/Woden (equated with Mercury), and were known to offer human sacrifices to him, as well as other “sacrificial victims” (ie, animals).
  • They also particularly honoured Thor/Donar (equated with Hercules), Tyr/Tiu (equated with Mars) and mighty Twin Gods referred to as the Alci (equated with Castor and Pollux), inter alia, as Gods of war.
  • Of Goddesses they especially honoured Nerthus, the Earth Mother, who may have been symbolised by a ship and/or by wild boars.* 
  • They tended not to make images of the Gods, instead regarding certain places of natural beauty, such as groves and woods, as sanctuaries of particular deities. Within these sanctuaries they (at least sometimes) housed sacred animals, such as specially chosen horses and cattle, and effigies of animals they associated with their Gods (eg, wolves, ravens, boars, bulls, stags, horses, etc).
  • They had an oral tradition, whereby sacred knowledge was passed down in the form of songs.
  • Priests were of both genders – their roles tended to focus on divination of divine will and prophecy. No doubt they were also instrumental in making sacrifices and offerings to Gods.**
  • Divination was widely practiced – with a rune-like system using cut wood, the motions of horses and attention to the presence of particular birds being among the common methods used.
  • They followed a lunar calendar – just before the new moon and just after the full moon were considered particularly auspicious.
  • They were almost universally monogamous (meaning, they had one spouse) and the chastity of Germanic women was highly regarded; no dress code was adopted in furtherance of this, in fact their clothes could be revealing (eg, it could be tight and expose part of the breasts).
  • Funerals were generally without ostentation. Cremation was practiced and items that might be needed in the afterlife could be burnt in the funeral pyre. Monuments to the dead were rare; instead turf mounds were sometimes built.

Here follows some highlights of what Tacitus tells us of the indigenous religion of the Germanic peoples in the first centuries of the Common Era (these extracts are drawn from Tacitus, Agricola and Germany: A new translation by A. R. Birley, Oxford World’s Classics – most of the information in square brackets is paraphrased from Birley’s notes on the text):
“In the ancient songs, which are their only form of record and are a kind of chronicle, they celebrate Tuisto [literally, “hermaphrodite”], an earth-born God. To him they attribute a son, Mannus [man, ie, the first man], the forefather and founder of their people, and to Mannus three sons, after whom were named the Ingaveones [a north-western tribe – possibly Scandinavians], nearest to the ocean, the Herminones [another tribe – which may mean “of the almighty”] in the interior and the remainder Istaveones [a tribe from the region around the Rhine river]. Remote antiquity gives free range to conjecture: some assert that the God had further offspring and that there are further peoples, called Marsi [who lived near the Ruhr and Lippe river – in this area there was a well known sanctuary to a deity called Tanfana], Gambrivii, Suebi [who lived near the Rhine], Vandili [Vandals]… 
It is said that Hercules [probably this refers to Thor/Donar who the Romans, using the interpretatio Romana, identified with Hercules] visited them as well. In fact they sing of him as the foremost of heroes when about to go into battle. Further, they too have those songs, which they call baritus, the recital of which stirs up their courage, and they forecast the outcome of the coming battle from the chanting alone. For they either terrify the enemy or become frightened themselves according to how it sounds in the ranks. What they listen to is not so much the words, but rather the sound of unison as an expression of fighting spirit. By putting their shields in front of their mouths so that their voices swell fuller and deeper as they echo back, they aim principally to achieve a harsh tone and a muffled roaring noise … 
[Regarding Germanic soldiers] Executions, imprisonment, even floggings, are allowed to no one other than the priests, and are not carried out as a punishment or on the orders of the commander, but as it were at the behest of the deity whom they believe to be present as they wage war [but note that Caesar, writing 150 years earlier, recorded that the elected army commander had powers of life and death]. They actually bring with them into battle certain images and symbols [eg, effigies of animals sacred to particular deities] taken from the sacred groves. 
It is a particular incitement to valour that their squadrons and wedges are … composed of families and kinship groups [ie, clans]. They have their nearest and dearest close by, as well, so that they can hear the shrieks of their women [to give encouragement as they fought or to heap shame upon them if they were driven back] and the crying of their children. For each man these are most sacred witnesses, their praise is the most highly valued … It is recorded that some armies that were already wavering and on the point of collapse have been rallied by women pleading steadfastly, blocking their paths with bared breasts, and reminding their men how near they themselves are to being taken captive. This they fear by a long way more desperately for their women than for themselves. Indeed, peoples who are ordered to include girls of noble family among their hostages are thereby placed under a more effective restraint [Roman emperors often took Germanic children of noble birth hostage, and then raised them as if they were high born Romans, to guarantee ongoing peace with that tribe].  They even believe that there is something holy and an element of the prophetic in women, hence they neither scorn their advice nor ignore their predictions. Under the deified [emperor] Vespasian we witnessed how Veleda [a prophetess whom the Romans described as a “tall virgin whom the Rhine-drinkers worship” – she played a prominent role in the Batavian revolt in 69-70 CE; a Roman commander was captured and sent as a slave to her, along with booty. She herself was eventually captured by the Romans whereupon she became a servant in a Roman temple] was long regarded by many of them as a divine being; and in former times, too, they revered Albruna [perhaps named after the Elbe river] and a number of other women [these women may have been seer-priestesses, as described by Strabo 100 years earlier, who were said to sacrifice prisoners of war by cutting their throats and collecting the blood in a vast cauldron] …  
Among the Gods Mercury [here Tacitus has used the interpretatio Romana – in fact he almost certainly refers to the God we know as Odin/Woden] is the one they principally worship. They regard it as a religious duty to offer to him, on fixed days [possibly the spring equinox, summer solstice and/or winter solstice], human as well as other sacrificial victims. Hercules [actually Thor/Donar] and Mars [actually Tyr/Tiu] they appease by animal offerings of the permitted kind. Part of the Suebi sacrifice to Isis as well. I have little idea what the origin or explanation of this foreign cult is, except the Goddess’ emblem, which resembles a light warship, indicates that the cult came in from abroad [the cult of Isis was hugely popular throughout the Roman empire when Tacitus wrote, thus perhaps Isis herself is meant, or perhaps some other unidentified Germanic Goddess is meant; the northern Suebi were said to especially honour the Germanic Goddess Nerthus whom Tactius refers to as “Terra Mater” – literally “Mother Earth”]. In general, they judge it not to be in keeping with the majesty of heavenly beings to confine them within walls or to portray them in any human likeness. They consecrate woods and groves and they apply the names of the Gods to that mysterious presence which they see only with the eye of devotion. 
They attach the highest importance to the taking of auspices and the casting of lots. Their usual procedure with the lot is simple. They cut off a branch from a nut-bearing tree [fruit-bearing trees were probably also considered lucky] and slice it into strips. These they mark with different signs and throw them at random onto a white cloth. Then the state’s priest, if it is an official consultation, or the father of the family, in a private one, offers prayers to the Gods and looking up towards heaven picks up three strips, one at a time, and, according to which sign they have previously been marked with, makes his interpretation. If the lots forbid an undertaking, there is no deliberation that day about the matter in question. If they allow it, further confirmation is required by taking the auspices. The widespread practice [in the Roman world] of seeking an answer from the call or flight of birds, is, to be sure, known here too [however Romans tended to focus on the direction of the birds’ flight, whereas to Germanic people the mere appearance of certain birds predicted auspiciousness or inauspiciousness, depending on the species], but it is a specialty of this people to test horses as well for omens and warnings [this was also the case amongst their Indo-European cousins in Persia]. The horses are maintained at public expense in the above-mentioned sacred woods and groves; they are pure white and undefiled by any kind of work for humans. They are yoked to a sacred chariot and the priest or king or chief of the state walks beside them, taking note of their whinnies and neighing. No kind of omen inspires greater confidence, not only among the common people but even among the nobles and priests, who regard themselves as but the servants of the Gods, the horses as the Gods’ messengers. There is yet another kind of auspice taking, used to forecast the outcome of serious wars. They somehow take prisoner a man from the state with which they are at war and set him to fight a champion from the their own side, each armed with his national weapons. The victory of one or the other is taken as determining the result in advance. 
… they assemble on fixed days, either just before the new moon or just after the full moon. This they reckon to be the most auspicious starting-point for transacting business. Indeed, they do not reckon time by days, as we [Romans] do, but by nights [ie, their calendar was lunar – as it was amongst the Gauls, and amongst the Romans in more ancient times]. All their decisions, all their agreements, are made in this way: night is seen as ushering in the day … 
When the assembled crowd is ready [to make important decisions on matters relating to their community], they take their seats, carrying arms. Silence is commanded by the priests … Then the king or the chiefs are heard, in accordance with each one’s age, nobility, military distinction, or eloquence. The power of persuasion counts for more than the right to give orders. If a proposal displeases them, they shout their dissent. If they approve, they clash their spears [on their shields] … 
It is well known that none of the German peoples live in cities and that they cannot even bear to live in adjoining houses. They dwell apart from one another, scattered about, wherever a spring, a plain, or a wood attracts them. They do not lay out their villages in our style, with buildings joined and connected together. Each of them leaves an open space around his house [archeology has established the truth of this statement; 200 years after Tacitus Ammianus wrote that the Alamanni – Germanic tribes from the Rhine region – “avoid towns as if they were tombs encircled by nets”] … 
As clothing they all wear a cloak fastened with a brooch or failing that with a thorn. They spend whole days by the fireside wearing nothing but this. The wealthiest are distinguished by a garment, which does not flow loosely, as with the Sarmations and Parthians [Sarmations and Parthians were known for their baggy trousers], but fits tightly and shows the shape of each limb [ie, they wore tight fitting trousers] … The women’s clothing is no different from the men’s [ie, high born women wore trousers too, however most Roman depictions of Germanic women show them in long, sleeveless gowns] except that they quite often wear linen garments, decorated with purple. They do not add sleeves to the upper part of the dress, so their arms are bare from shoulder to wrist – indeed, the adjoining parts of their breasts are also exposed. 
Nevertheless, the marriage code is strict and there is no aspect of their morality that deserves higher praise. They are almost the only barbarians who are content with a single wife, except for a very few, who are not motivated by sexual appetite – it is, rather, that they are courted with numerous offers of marriage on account of their noble rank …… adultery is very rare [Tacitus means adultery as understood in ancient Rome – that is, when a married woman is unfaithful. Men were only guilty of adultery if involved with another man’s wife]. The penalty for it is instant and left to the husband. He cuts off her hair, strips her naked in the presence of kinsmen, and flogs her all through the village. They have no mercy on a woman who prostitutes her chastity. Neither beauty, nor youth, nor wealth can find her another husband … 
For drink they have a liquid made out of barley or other grain, fermented into a certain resemblance to wine [ie, beer] … Their food is plain: wild fruit, fresh game, or curdled milk. They satisfy their hunger without elaborate preparation or seasonings. But as far as thirst is concerned they are less restrained: if you indulge their intemperance by supplying as much as they crave, they will be as easily defeated by their vices as by force of arms  
There is no ostentation about their funerals. The only special observance is that the bodies of famous men are cremated with particular kinds of wood [possibly oak, beech, pine and juniper]. They did not load up the pyre with garments or spices. Only the dead man’s weapons in each case, in some cases his horse too, are cast into the flames [ie, great warriors will only need their weapons, and perhaps their warhorse, in Valhalla]. The tomb is a turf mound. They disdain a lofty and elaborately constructed monument as being an honour that would weigh down the dead. They soon leave off weeping and lamenting but are slow to put aside their grief and sorrow. It is the honourable thing for women to mourn, for men to remember the dead  
The Semnones claim that they are the oldest and noblest of the Suebi. Their antiquity is confirmed by a religious rite. At a fixed time deputations from all the peoples who share the same origin meet in a wood sacntifed by their forefathers’ augeries and by ancient dread. A human victim is slaughtered on behalf of all present to celebrate the gruesome opening of the barbarous ritual. Another form of reverence marks the grove as well: no one enters it unless bound with a chain, as an inferior being, outwardly acknowledging the power of the divinity. If they happen to fall down, they are not permitted to get up on their feet again: they roll along the ground. This whole superstition is based on the belief that from this wood the people derives its origin and that the God who reigns over all [probably Odin/Woden, who Tacitus says was the primary God of the Germanic pantheon, and who was known to receive human sacrifices; alternately, an unknown ancestor deity of this tribe, or Tyr/Tiu] dwells there, the rest of the world being his obedient subjects. The good fortune of the Semnones gives them prestige as well … 
[Among the Suebi there are seven tribes] the Reudigni [possibly Saxons by another name], Aviones, Anglli [Angles], Varini, Eudoses, Suarines, and Huitones, protected by rivers and forests … they are distinguished by a common worship of Nerthus, that is, Mother Earth, and believe that she intervenes in human affairs and rides through their peoples [in what is modern day Denmark and NW Germany]. There is a sacred grove on an island in the Ocean, in which there is a consecrated chariot [or wagon], draped with a cloth, which the priest alone may touch. He perceives the presence of the Goddess in the innermost shrine and with great reverence escorts her in her chariot, which is drawn by female cattle. There are days of rejoicing then and the countryside celebrates the festival, wherever she deigns to visit and to accept hospitality. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms, all objects of iron are locked away, then and only then do they experience peace and quiet … until the Goddess has had her fill of human society and the priest brings her back to her temple. Afterwards the chariot, the cloth, and, if one may believe it, the deity herself are washed in a hidden lake. The slaves who perform this office are immediately afterwards swallowed up in the same lake. Hence arises dread of the mysterious, and piety, which keeps them ignorant of the what only those who are about to perish may see 
Among the Naharvali a grove of ancient sanctity is pointed out [said to be near modern day Wroclaw]. The presiding priest is dressed in women’s clothes [ie, long robe and a head veil], but they say that their deities, according to the Roman interpretation, are Castor and Pollux [twin brethren who helped warriors, especially horsemen, in battle]: that is the character of their Godhead, of which the name is the “the Alci” [possibly related to the Ašvieniai of the Lithuanian pantheon]. There are no images and no trace of the rite being imported, although they are worshipped as brothers and as young men  
Passing then to the right-hand shore of the Suebian Sea, here it washes the peoples of the Aestii [possibly ancestors of modern day Lithuanians and Latvians], whose customs and appearance are those of the Suebi … They worship the Mother of the Gods [presumably Nerthus] and as a symbol of that cult they wear the figure of a wild boar [note that boars were associated with Freyja, which suggests that Nerthus was an early name for Freyja] …”
To read Tactitus' Germania in full see (however note that the translation is not as good as Birley's translation as extracted above).

* Subsequently, it is possible that Nerthus is the Goddess who came to be known as Freyja and/or Frigg – the two names may be alternate names for the same great fertility/Mother Goddess: Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology at 90; alternately, Nerthus may be the mother of Freyja/Frigg. Note that in western Germany “Frija” became the consort of Woden and was equated with Venus, hence “Freitag” (Frija’s day or Friday) was used in place of the Latin name for the day the Romans called “dies Veneris” (literally, the day of Venus): from the notes made by the translator in Tacitus, Agricola and Germany: A new translation by A. R. Birley, Oxford World’s Classics at 127.

** Blood sacrifices appear to have been common, however it is known that bloodless offerings were also made, such as smashed pottery, plaits of hair, neck-rings, etc (Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology at 25 - note that in the religio Romana broken pottery, along with plain food and drink, is traditionally offered to lemures, restless spirits of the dead/hungry ghosts, in order to honour/appease them but to ensure that they don't get so comfortable that they want to hang around; this may go towards explaining the offerings of smashed pottery by ancient Germanic peoples). It is also possible that perishable offerings such as beer, honey, milk, etc were made.

Written by M. Sentia Figula; find me at and Roman Pagan on Facebook


  1. Thank you for this.

    One of the biggest things I want to spread around the Pagan blogosphere is the idea that translated sources aren't infallible. It sort of boggles my mind when I hear Germanic Heathens or Pagans unerringly treat Christian and Christianized accounts of pre-Conversion peoples as unfettered truth over the "reviled Romans".

    One of the biggest points I want to make (and probably will write my own blog post about) is the act of translation. A post-Christian friend and I were speaking of this last night after work, about the myriad of translations of the Christian Bible and the Pentateuch. I think individuals just do not realize the amount of baggage that can be unintentionally placed into a work in translation.

    1. Thanks for your comments - I share your concern about some of the sources we have regarding not just Germanic religion but also Roman. For example St Augustine wrote quite a bit about the religio Romana (because he was attempting to discredit it) but he himself was never a follower of this path, he lived in a time when Pagans were persecuted (the persecutions began in 381 when St Augustine was 27), and frankly some of the stuff he has to say about the religio Romana is cynical and skewed. Hence, when I look at Christian sources discussing the religio Romana I assume a *very* cautious approach - one should always consider what the biases and the agendas of the author/s might be and weigh that up against other sources (which will have their own biases and agendas) before reaching conclusions.