The Germanic people -- sometimes called Teutonic, Suebian or Gothic -- are an Indo-European ethno-linguistic group that originated Northern Europe sometime around 200 B.C. The Germanic people had a religion that predated Christianity and was passed down orally. Eventually Roman and Greek scholars wrote down some of these oral religious stories, which have helped modern-day historians understand Germanic beliefs.
Sources of Information
One of the earliest written texts on Germanic religion is "Concerning the Origin and Situation of the Germanics" by Gauis Cornelius Tacitus, written around A.D. 98. While Tactius never visited any of the Germanic lands, he was keenly interested in the laws and customs of these people. However, his work is thought by modern-day historians to be a replica of "Bella Germaniae" by the religious scholar Pliny the Elder. A further manuscript called "Gesta Danorum" appeared in the 1100s and discuses Danish and Norse prehistory, as these two groups are some of the earliest Germanic peoples.
Polytheism and Mythology
Like many pre-Christian religions, the Germanic religion was polytheistic and divided into two camps of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. In mythology, an early war between the two camps saw the defeat of the Vanir. This led to the elevation of Woden -- or Odin -- as the supreme ruler. Woden's family of gods consisted of Tiw, god of war; Balder, god of light; and Thor, god of thunder and lightning. Each god was typically assigned to a goddess as well. Freyja, for instance, was the goddess of fertility and romance, and Frigg was the goddess of motherhood and the arts. All of the gods lived in a mythical land called Asgard, where each of them had a palace. Valhalla was Woden's palace, and the Germanic people believed that he hosted elaborate feasts for dead heroes there.
Battling with Monsters
Even after the defeat of the Vanir, the Aesir gods and goddesses continued to fight battles. According to Norse mythology, giant monsters and demons would often enter into battle with the gods. The battleground was called Ragnarok, and the monsters were led by the evil god Loki. The Germanic people also believed that a final epic battle was to come. In this version of Armageddon, it was thought that many of the Aesir would die. However, it was also believed that from the ashes would arise a second generation of gods who would unite with humanity to live in harmony forever.
Religion in Practice
The Germanic religious mythology was not simply a series of stories, but also entailed a complex system of rituals and cultural customs. The idea that the world would come to an end with the epic battle between the gods and the monsters was a pervasive concept in Germanic culture. However, the people also believed that the souls of the righteous would live eternally. Various temples and places of worship were built in most Germanic villages. Priests working at these temples would recite ritualized prayers and sacrifice both animals and humans to please the gods. Those that were sacrificed were thought to be in communion with the gods, serving as advisors. As such, burial places were sacred, and new sacrifices were made to please or avenge the dead. However, social outcasts and criminals were also ritually sacrificed and thrown into bogs.
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