Friday, 5 October 2012
The Ancient Teutonic Priesthood
Of course we know from the slightly later writings of Tacitus, notably in his Germania that the Germans not only had priests but these priests offered public sacrifices. I very much doubt that in the space of less than 150 years that their customs changed so radically. The Teutons certainly did not have `druids` for this is specific to the Celtic peoples but we know from the Roman historian Tacitus that they did have priests and a pantheon of Gods. Even this is brought into doubt by Caesar: "The only things which they count as gods are things they can see and which clearly benefit them, for example, the Sun, Vulcan, and the Moon. They have not even heard rumours of any others."[Sixth Book, paragraph 21].
`Vulcan` is taken to mean the element or deity of fire. Whilst it is clear that the Teutons did honour these three things as representative of Gods it is inconceiveable that by the time of Tacitus in the following century that they suddenly had a developed pantheon of Gods and Goddesses and not one at the time of Caesar. Tacitus either did not know the correct Teutonic names of our Gods and Godesses or chose to give them Latin names as he wrote for a Roman readership. "As for gods, Mercury is the one they worship most, and on certain days they think it right to propitiate him even with human victims. Hercules and Mars they appease with lawful animals. Part of the Suebi sacrifice also to Isis; I have not ascertained the source from which this foreign rite originates, but the fact remains that the image itself, fashioned in the form of a light ship, proves that the cult is imported. In other matters, they judge it not in accord with the greatness of the gods to confine them with walls or to liken them in appearance to any human countenance. They consecrate woods and groves, and the mystery that they see only in their awe they call by the names of gods." "[Tacitus` Germania 9.1 and 9.2]
It is assumed by scholars that Mercury, Hercules and Mars are names that Tacitus gave to represent our Woden, Thunor and Tiw. Isis may very well be the Goddess Nehalennia[a Dutch deity] or Nerthus. I also speculate that this could in fact be the very mysterious and obscure Goddess, Isa. "Then come the Reudigni, the Aviones, the Anglii, the Varini, the Eudoses, the Suarines, and the Nuitones, defended by rivers or woods. There is nothing noteworthy about them individually, except that collectively they worship Nerthus, or Mother Earth, and believe that she takes part in human affairs and rides among the peoples." [Germania 40.2]
Tacitus also refers to the deities Tuisto and Mannus[Germania 2.2]. Thus it is clear that the Teutons did in fact have a developed pantheon of Gods who they ascribed proper names and personalities to. We also know this to be the case from later writings by christian priests and from the Icelandic sagas and there is every reason to believe that there was a continuous and unbroken tradition over the centuries which knew only a geographic variation with local cults of deities.
Germania 9 makes it clear that the Teutons did offer both animal and human sacrifices. Furthermore if sacrifices were offered to the Gods then it reasonable to assume that there was a recognised priesthood to carry out this function. In Germania 40.3 Tacitus refers to such a priesthood: "On an island in the Ocean is a holy grove, and in it a consecrated wagon covered with hangings; to one priest alone is it permitted so much as to touch it. He perceives when the goddess is present in her innermost recess, and with great reverence escorts her as she is drawn along by heifers."
It is clear from Tacitus description and carefully chosen words that Nerthus, the Goddess he is referring to had more than one priest-"to one priest alone...." and thus this constitutes a priestly order. Adam of Bremen referred to the great temple at Uppsala and its priesthood: "Assigned to all their gods they have priests to present the sacrifices of the people." Bede of course refers to the Anglo-Saxon priest Coifu in his History of the English Church and People.
The Teutonic priesthood unlike the Celtic druidic orders was not a national priesthood but one which was restricted to the tribe and thus there will be differences between them, especially as certain deities were only recognised by specific tribes, such as Nerthus and Nehalennia. The Teutonic priests had charge of the sacred groves[the precursors of the later temples], the administration of justice, public sacrifices, the casting of lots, interpretation of omens and the safeguarding of the law. In the far north the function of priest and chieftain or king was most likely combined into a single office. A typical example is that of the Icelandic gothi. No doubt they carried this tradition with them from their native Norway. We have no reason to suppose that there were no priestesses.The female equivalent of the gothi, the gythia is attested to in the Icelandic sagas.
The temple was more than likely a development from the sacred grove. "It has been observed that among the Indo-Europeans the most ancient temples that were dedicated to the gods were sacred groves. In his survey of European folklore, Jacob Grimm observed that among the ancient Germans the oldest temples were groves. This was the case in all the lands where the Indo-Europeans held sway as the grove was the original place where the sacred was revered."[The Druids, G. Alexander] The temple at Uppsala was surrounded by a grove. Tacitus in Germania 39 refers to the sacred grove of the Suebi and in Germania the sacred grove of Nerthus. In smaller organisational units such as the clan or or family the head of the clan or the family performed the duties associated with the priest. "In the smaller organisations of society then, priestly duties seem to have been performed by the temporal chief. It is only the great organisation, the tribe or state, which possesses a class with exclusively priestly functions."[The Ancient Teutonic Priesthood, H. Munro Chadwick] A Teutonic priesthood is in the process of being formed today. If any readers wish to explore this further see the relevant links section on this blog!