Barbarian Rites: The Spiritual World of the Vikings and Germanic Tribes

Barbarian Rites: The Spiritual World of the Vikings and Germanic Tribes

Hans-Peter Hasenfratz Translated by Michael Moynihan
Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2011. Paper, xi + 164 pages, $16.95

For reasons both good and bad, the religion of the pre-Christian Germanic tribes exercise a fascination on the modern mind. Unfortunately, a clear picture of what these tribes practiced and believed has been hard to come by.

One reason is a shortage of sources. During the period in question, from roughly 200 bc to ad 1000, most of these tribes were preliterate. Since literacy generally coincided with conversion to Christianity, the vast majority of written sources come from a time after Christianization, and it is sometimes hard to tell what kinds of alterations this produced in the myths and sagas. Was the famous sacrifice of the god Odin on the World-Tree Yggdrasil, for example, a genuine Germanic myth, or was it somehow an echo of the sacrifice of Christ?

Admittedly, there are a few texts from pre-Christian times. One of the most important is the Germania (“Germany”) by the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, written around ad 100, a short work that can be reckoned as one of the first anthropological treatises ever written. Other sources include the Old English poem Beowulf and archaeological artifacts, some of which bear a few scraps of writing in runes, the quasi-magical Germanic alphabet, but most of which are mute.

But there is another reason that the Germanic tribes have been hard to approach. They have been mythologized in ways both benign and sinister. As Hans-Peter Hasenfratz points out in this learned but readable study, part of Tacitus’s agenda was to portray the Germanic tribes of his day (whom the Romans were never able to subdue) as epitomes of the ancient martial virtues that he believed Rome had lost. A far more familiar, and more malign, use was that of the Nazis, who claimed to be reviving the spirit of the Germans’ ancient forebears.

Thus Hasenfratz’s book is particularly welcome. The author is a professor emeritus of the history of religion at Germany’s Ruhr University, so he comes well-equipped to sift through the evidence in a balanced and impartial way. Barbarian Rites gives a brief, general survey of the religion of the ancient Germanic tribes, including the populations of present-day Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and the Low Countries. He devotes considerable attention to the Age of the Vikings (ad 800-1100), not only because of the intrinsic interest of the period but because so many of our sources come from that time. But he is remarkably judicious in evaluating the evidence. He points out, for example, that the bloodthirsty aspects of Viking religion may have been partly a reflection of the warlike times and that our picture of Germanic religion may have looked somewhat different if we had more evidence from more peaceable periods in the tribes’ history.

Another strength of this work is that Hasenfratz does not sentimentalize his subjects. He portrays them as he sees them, and the portrait is a stark one. A “straw death”—dying peacefully in bed—was considered contemptible; it was far more glorious to die in battle. Old people were frequently abandoned or dispatched as unnecessary mouths to feed, and human sacrifice was common. The grimmest version was the “blood eagle” ritual of the Vikings, in which a living victim’s back was cut open, the ribs separated from the spine, and the lungs pulled out in such a way that they formed a pair of “wings”—presumably speeding his journey to the gods.

There are enough such details in this book to suggest that any attempt to revive the Germanic religion is misguided. Hasenfratz does not dwell at length at the largest and most ambitious of such attempts—the Nazi quasireligion of the Third Reich—but he does suggest how Nazi ideology was in some cases drawn from German antiquity. He notes, for example, that Hitler and Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg envisioned the Third Reich as an Ordenstaat—an “order-based state,” with a Führer (“leader”) chosen out of this order. (“Order” in this sense means an elite brotherhood of Nazis that was inspired by the ancient German institution of the Männerbund, a kind of male sodality with its own, often secret cultic rites and functions.) Below this elite order would be the classes of ordinary Nazi party members and, at the bottom, the sheeplike masses.

Hasenfratz avoids moralizing about these facts, but for the reader, the lesson is clear. While we may enjoy the Germanic myths as expressed in the Icelandic sagas or the operas of Richard Wagner, a real restoration of these religions is neither possible (we know too little about them) nor desirable (what we know is too appalling). While the author may not have intended to sound a warning against Neopagan revivals of the ancient German cults, this is in the end one objective the book achieves.

Richard Smoley