Monday, April 9, 2018

Germanic Social Structure

The study of Germanic religiosity has always suffered from a paucity of reliable extant sources.

What were the Germanic social and religious traditions prior to and during the early centuries of contact with Christian missionaries?  In order to deal with this “paucity” of sources, studies of similar Indo-European societies are utilized:

…India, Persia, Greece, Rome and pre-Christian northern Europe…

Russell offers some boundaries: 

…the term “Germanic” refers not only to the Gothic, Frankish, Saxon, Burgundian, Alamannic, Suevic and Vandal peoples, but also to the Viking peoples of Scandinavia and the Anglo-Saxon peoples of Britain.  In addition, the term “religiosity” is often used when referring to the religious elements of Indo-European and particularly Germanic societies.

There are no available sources written by members of pre-Christian Germanic societies.  Archeological sources are used, as are written accounts by visitors to the Germanic regions – primarily Roman visitors.

One source dates from 53 B.C., and notes that “They have no Druids to control religious observances and are not much given to sacrifice.”  The beings recognized are things that they see – the sun, the moon, fire.

A second source is offered, from 98 A.D., noting that Mercury, Hercules and Mars are worshipped; human sacrifices are occasionally offered, animal sacrifices more so.  Their gods are not confined inside walls, and carry no human likeness.  Other sources point to devotion to “sacred trees, groves, springs, and stones, and an interest in prophecy and magic.”

There are two primary groups of German deities:

…the Aesir, comprising the gods of sovereignty and battle, Odin and Thor; and the Vanir, comprising the gods of sustenance and reproduction, Njord, Frey, and Freya.

Similar structures are found in other Indo-European societies – societies whose roots trace to either the steppes of the Urals or Anatolia (depending on whose theory you believe).

Russell relies on the work of Georges Dumézil:

…a French comparative philologist best known for his analysis of sovereignty and power in Proto-Indo-European religion and society. He is considered one of the major contributors to mythography, in particular for his formulation of the trifunctional hypothesis of social class in ancient societies.

Dumézil found a pattern in this structure that is common to other, non-Germanic, Indo-European societies and not found in non-Indo-European societies; this is described as “tripartition”:

…(1) chieftains and priests, constituting the “first function,” that of sovereign and supernatural authority, with a considerable degree of bipolar tension between these elements; (2) warriors, constituting the second function of physical force; and (3) farmers and herders, constituting the third and last function of fecundity.

It is not only this tripartition that is unique to Indo-European societies; the bipolar tension within the first group – between the chieftains and priests – was also unique.  Pairs of divinities, representing the two parts of this tension, are found in Vedic, German, and Roman tradition.

Further, the culture was patriarchal, with kindred as the foundation of its concentric structure: families, into clans, clans into tribes.  Inside the group was safe; outside was danger.  Inside, one enjoyed all of the freedoms of the group.

Most relevant to the subject at hand was the unique phenomenon of “a class of military specialists….”  Such as these organized themselves into a comitatus or Männerbund. There were specific themes regarding this class – transgressions against each of the three divisions within the society: regicide against the first, cowardice against the second, and adultery against the third.

Each of the warrior heroes, the Indic Indra, the Greek Heracles, and the Germanic Starkaŏr, is punished after each transgression by losing some degree of his power, until he finally dies.

The noble served his lord.  If he served him well, this brought material rewards and the opportunity to win glory; failure to live up to his oath brought shame.

The main “distinguishing characteristic of the comitatus,” which Clawsey finds lacking in classical and non-Western analogues, is “its reciprocity – more precisely, its being at once vertical and reciprocal,” that is, “only the comitatus combined both qualities and made the assumption that the leader in a vertical relationship had obligations as much as did the follower and that therefore a voluntary element existed on both sides.

It was this reciprocity that contributed to a high degree of group solidarity.

Honor was at the heart of the comitatus relationship.  To understand honor, one must consider the term êre in Old High German:

“…splendor, glory, the higher standing, partly that which arises from power and wealth (high position, superior feudal rank), partly that which arises from courage and bravery.”

The focus was on external approval, a desire to avoid being publicly shamed.  According to the author, this is contrasted with the Christian notion of honor – a moral quality stemming from a desire to avoid the feelings of guilt.

A Germanic parody of the Beatitudes is offered; I will cite only a few of the lines:

·        Blessed are they with strong kinsmen, for they shall find help.
·        Blessed are the warlike, for they shall win wealth and renown.
·        Blessed are they who wreak vengeance, for they shall be offended no more, and they shall have honor and glory all the days of their life and eternal fame in ages to come.

As I have previously noted, there is much in Germanic Christianity that differs from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.  With foundations such as these, there was not much common ground to which the Christian missionaries could appeal.  Redefining the Germanic virtues of strength, courage, and loyalty was necessary.

One conflict was inevitable: the Christian notion of individual salvation would butt up against the Germanic bond of kinship.  Personal salvation versus loyalty to one’s clan and one’s lord.  An example of this conflict is offered in Njal’s Saga.  Njal and his sons are surrounded in their home by Flossi, who is seeking to avenge the murder of his son-in-law by Njal’s sons.

Aware of the superior warrior skills of Njal’s sons over his own men, Flossi concludes: “There are only two courses open to us, neither of them good: we must either abandon the attack, which would cost us our own lives, or we must set fire to the house and burn them to death, which is a grave responsibility before God, since we are Christian men ourselves.  But that is what we must do.”

Kind of the opposite of turning the other cheek.  This code of honor “eventually became normative throughout Christendom.”

Societal structure in the Roman Empire was quite different, and resulted in a different Christian ethic.  Some of the differences include: less emphasis on kinship due to industrialization, mobility, intermingling of various cultures and traditions, less dependence on the head of household.  All of these contributing to less connection to the nation.  Citing Robert M. Adams:

This indeed is the simplest definition of decadence: it is not failure, misfortune, or weakness, but deliberate neglect of the essentials of self-preservation – incapacity or unwillingness to face a clear and present danger.

As a nation expands into an empire and as the vast majority finds no benefit to empire, the citizen no longer identifies with the state. 

Further, citing Walter Ullmann: “the history of jurisprudence is the history of civilization…there is no better guide and no more reliable mirror than the law enacted and practiced.”

One can see in this Roman history the characteristics of the current empire.


The pacifying elements of Christianity had to contend with this ethos of the warrior band; as we know from medieval history, the warrior band survived and was integrated into the faith.

The resulting Germanic Christianity eventually became normative throughout most of medieval Europe.

I am gaining an understanding of how Germanic tradition influenced the resultant Christianity; I am still looking for what it was about the combination of this specific tradition with this specific religion that resulted in the reasonably libertarian law of medieval Europe.

As noted, there were other non-Germanic Indo-European tribes that shared many cultural traditions with the Germanic tribes.  Why didn’t contact with Christianity affect these societies as it did the Germanic?  Alternatively, why didn’t the non-Christian religions of these non-Germanic Indo-European tribes affect these societies as Christianity affected the Germanic?

Maybe this will become clear in the next few chapters.

1 comment:

  1. The univeralist pacifism of Christianity meets the tribalist militarism of the Germanic peoples. Maybe the gold of Western civilization was forged in the balance of these two extremes?

    I am more and more convinced that temperance is the master of all virtues.