The pre-Christian Germans believed in a pantheon of gods.
The pre-Christian Germans believed in a pantheon of gods.

It can be difficult to understand pre-Christian Germanic beliefs because early Germans passed along their history and stories orally. Writings pertaining to their beliefs came through the work of Roman and Christian scholars who may not have understood Germanic religion or -- during the transcribing of the stories -- placed Christian lessons on the pagan narratives. The narratives that survived are filtered through a Christian perspective but still show traces of native pre-Germanic beliefs.

Sources

The primary sources for pre-Christian Germanic beliefs can be found in certain manuscripts. "Concerning the Origin and Situation of the Germanics" by historian Gaius Cornelius Tacitus narrates the geographic area, laws and customs of the German people. Tacitus never journeyed to those lands and was believed to have copied from an earlier and lost work, "Bella Germaniae" by Pliny the Elder. "Poetic Edda" is a collection of poetic sagas by an unknown writer or writers, and "Prose Edda" is a compilation of laws and customs written by Snorri Sturluson. "Gesta Danorum" by Saxo Grammaticus covers Danish prehistory to the late 12th century.

The Gods

Germanic religion was polytheistic. There were two groups of gods: the Aesir and the Vanir. A war between the two led to the defeat of the Vanir pantheon. Woden, which also has been spelled as Odin, was the head god. Other important deities were Tiw (Tyr) the god of war, Thor (Donar) god of lightening and thunder, and Balder, god of light. Freyja, goddess of love and fertility, and Frigg, goddess of motherhood and domestic arts, were the main goddesses. The gods lived in Asgard, where each deity had his or her own home. The greatest of the palaces was Valhalla where Woden gave banquets to dead heroes. The Norse deities renewed their youth by eating the apples of Idun. But they were mortal, and there would be an end to the gods at Ragnarok, which meant doom of the gods.

Ragnarok

Giants, monsters and demons led by the evil trickster god Loki would fight against the gods at Ragnarok. During this battle, most of the gods of Asgard would die. However, from the ashes of Ragnarok, a new world and cosmos would arise where a second generation of gods and humans would live in harmony. This hope of the new world informed the ritual practices of the early Germans.

Rituals

The ritual beliefs of the Germans who existed before Christianity revolved around a belief in the gods, the end of the world, and the continuity of the spirit after death. Priests attended the temples of the gods, and they were responsible for the reading of omens and other divination. They were also responsible for sacrifices to the gods that included human and animal sacrifices. The Germans remembered the gods and the dead at these sacrifices because those who had died continued to give advice to the living. Burial places were sacred, and priests made sacrifices at graves to contact or please the dead.