There is no denying that Christianity was a unifying force in the medieval world. Although hordes of Germanic invaders conquered much of Northern Europe in the early Middle Ages, it was ultimately Christianity that conquered them. Nearly everywhere they went, Germanic tribes encountered -- and ultimately accepted -- this new religion. They had various reasons for doing so, including trade and politics. Yet as Christian tradition took hold, it obscured a rich body of customs and practices that had once reflected a distinctive view of life.
Very little is known about Germanic religious rites. Some evidence suggests that the Norsemen practiced animal sacrifice and that chieftains also served as priests. However, numerous written sources detail their mythical beliefs. By all accounts, Germanic peoples were polytheistic, worshiping a pantheon of warrior gods . The most powerful of these were Odin and his son Thor, whom the Anglo-Saxons called Woden and Thunor Together, they waged war against a race of giants, with Thor wielding his hammer against them. Odin was the deity most involved in human affairs, though. It was through him that poets and priests communicated with spirit world.
Festivals and Holidays
For the Germanic peoples, holidays were closely aligned with seasonal changes. In Anglo-Saxon culture, a series of festivals early in the year celebrated human fertility. Imbolc, held on February 2, commemorated pregnancy and motherhood. A more significant festival, Eostara, took place on the spring equinox. This celebration of new life later took the name of Easter. Other major festivals coincided with the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. The harvest festival of Samhain gradually became Halloween. In December was Yule, a winter renewal festival that would later be absorbed into Christmas.
Early Germanic marital customs were considerably different from Christian ones. For example, both polygamy and concubinage played a role in tribal family life. It was also an acceptable practice to capture a bride in battle. A husband might even purchase his bride directly from her family, conducting marriage in much the same manner as a property transfer. Eventually, parents began transferring wealth directly to women themselves, endowing them with greater autonomy and equality as the Middle Ages progressed.
Although both Christians and Pagans believed in an afterlife, archaeological evidence shows that only Pagans felt the need to equip a person for it. It was very common to bury a warrior with his weapons and shield, for instance. Their wives were sent to the afterlife wearing jewelry and other finery. The most significant burial site was discovered in 1939 in Suffolk, England. Archaeologists at Sutton Hoo uncovered a tribal chieftain buried inside an oaken ship. Alongside him were a treasure trove of coins, jewelry, linens, woolen garments and other riches.
Conversion to Christianity
The conversion to Christianity took place gradually. In fact, it was not fully complete until the 1100s. Conversion was a complex process involving more than simply substituting one religion for another. The Germanic peoples were polytheists, which allowed them to adopt the Christian god alongside the pagan ones. Sometimes they converted for political or economic reasons, such as when Christian groups refused to trade with non-Christians. But this did not necessarily make them true believers. As Germanic tribes began settling down alongside Christians, the new customs and practices began replacing their own.Eventually, their myths and traditions were relegated to memory.
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