The Migration and Vendel Ages
The turning point of Germanic culture was the Migration Age (ca. 350-550 C.E.). In this time, the Germanic peoples settled throughout all of Europe and part of North Africa, conquering the Roman Empire by a combination of military force and political treaties. In the process, however, they lost most of their own heritage, so that the descendants of the Franks and Burgundians today speak French; the descendants of the Visigoths speak Spanish; the descendants of the Lombards and Ostrogoths speak Italian; and only the Anglo-Saxons and those tribes who stayed in the area of Germania kept their cultural inheritance. The great events of the fifth century C.E. began with the great surge of the tribes across the Rhine in the winter of 406-07 - the surge which broke the Roman borders forever. They ended roughly a hundred years later with the baptism of the Frankish king Clovis - the act which was, in time, to seal the doom of Heathenism in Continental Europe. Yet it was from this time that many of the legends which inspired the greatest songs and sagas of the North sprang: the Migration Age was also the Germanic Heroic Age. This was the time of wyrm-patterned swords and boar-crested helms, ring-giving rulers and huge hoards of gold; this was the time of the great heroes and great betrayals.
The Migration Age got its start in earnest in 375, when the Huns devastated the kingdom of the Ostrogoths. The Ostrogothic king, Ermanaric, committed suicide. This is generally thought to have been a religious death connected with his sacral kingship, though opinions differ as to whether his orientation was Wodanic (Caroline Brady, The Legends of Ermanaric) or Wanic (Karl Helm, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte). The Goths, however, were forced to move westward in search of food and land. At this time, they had been aware of christianity for several decades: Ulfila had translated the New Testament into Gothic (giving us our only significant surviving example of an East Germanic tongue), and christians had suffered some persecution in 348 (when Ulfila was driven into exile) and 369. It was not until their period of settlement within the Empire, between 382 and 395, that the bulk of the Visigoths converted (Thompson,The Visigoths in the time of Ulfilas, pp. 106-07). The new religion had not been accepted universally by the beginning of the fifth century: Claudius Claudianus (d. 404 C.E.) recounts Alaric as having said, "The Gods also drove me to these actions. Birds and dreams are not for me; but a plain voice was emitted from the sacred grove: 'Cast away all delays, Alaric! Cross the Alps of Italy bravely and you shall penetrate to the city!'" (Gothic War, in Grove and Gallows, tr. James Chisholm) Alaric was successful in this: he led the Visigoths to sack Rome in 410. However, though occasional Heathen elements survived in Visigothic christianity, such as the wearing of torcs and arm-rings by Arian priests, the Gothic religion itself had been lost. This process of migration, semi-integration into Roman society through a mixture of fighting and negotiation, and conversion, seems to have been a general model for all those Germanic tribes who settled in Roman lands (Thompson, The Visigoths in the Time of Ulfilas, pp. 128-29). The only exception to this rule was the invasion of Britain under Hengest and Horsa in 449. There, not only were the vestiges of the Roman military and society much weaker, but the invading Saxons, stemming from a homeland far removed from the borders of the Empire, had no reason to associate the acceptance of Roman ways with the acquisition of a part of that large-scale power which Rome still symbolized. Thus, Anglo-Saxon Heathenism stayed strong for another few generations, and much of their culture still lived on even after their conversion.
In 436/37, the battle took place which, more than any other, is the key to Germanic thought and the way in which our folk wove myth and history together to build an understanding of themselves and the god/esses. This was the destruction of the Burgundian kingdom on the Rhine, when (at the encouragement of Rome's general Aetius, who was himself of Teutonic origins) the Huns swept down, killing King Gundahari and the rest of the royal family and devastating the Burgundian folk. From the Roman historical record of the time, this was a political maneuver to deal with a barbarian kingdom which was rapidly becoming too powerful for Rome's comfort; it differs little from the other conflicts of the time. The Germanic legends, however, swiftly made the story a different one. Thus we have the tale of the Rhinegold - brought from the river through the workings of Wodan, Hoenir, and Loki, guarded by the dragon Fafnir, won by Siegfried the Dragon-Slayer, and inherited by Gunther (Gundahari) and his kin after they slew Siegfried by treachery. According to the legend, Attila, greedy for the Rhinegold, lured Gunther and the rest of his family to his own hall. After a great battle, Gunther and his kinsman Hagen were captured and put to the torture, but died without telling Attila where the gold lay; they were then avenged by their sister Gudrun. There are various, and widely divergent, versions of this tale; the three best-known are the Old Norse Völsunga saga, the German Nibelungenlied, and Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Despite the fact that Siegfried probably did not exist historically, he became the favoured hero of the Continental Germans; his death in Nibelungenlied (where the magically protected hero is speared through the one vulnerable spot on his body by Hagen, who is described in Waltharius and Þiðreks saga as being one-eyed) bears both a striking resemblance to the death of Balder and to a Wodanic sacrifice. One of the most mystical poems in the Poetic Edda is that which describes Siegfried's awakening of the walkurja (valkryie) Sigrdrífa, who then teaches him all manner of runic and spiritual lore, but also makes it clear that her love for him will be his death. The whole Völsung/Nibelungen cycle sets the personal spiritual initiation of the characters against the doom of the Burgundian folk, with Wodan clearly guiding the process in the Old Norse sources and perhaps showing himself in a more hidden way, through the one-eyed Hagen, in the German version. Historically, the tale is at best inaccurate: Attila was still very young when the Huns destroyed the Burgundians; Theoderic, who was supposed to have been the greatest hero in his band, had not been born yet in 437; and the Norse version of the story then brings Gudrun's sons to the court of that Ermanaric who died in 375. All of this has little weight: though the roots of the story are grounded in the Rhenish kingdom of the Burgundian tribe and its defeat in 436-7, the stem and the fruit became the very soul of the Northern folk.
A similar process took place with Theoderic the Great, the Ostrogoth who took power in Rome at the end of the fifth century and effectively ruled the Western half of the Roman Empire. Theoderic himself was an Arian christian, whose main political agenda was to create a realm in which Romans and Germanic folk could function effectively together. In Germanic legend, however, he became a very different figure: not only the heroic exile of Attila's warband, but born of a supernatural father (the devil, according to christians...) and able to shoot fire out of his mouth. German folklore has him leading the Wild Hunt down the Rhine; the Rök stone (a Swedish runestone, ca. 800), calls on a Theodoric who "sits ready on his steed, his shield strapped on". The identity of this Theodoric has been questioned, but given the prominence of Theodoric the Great in Germanic legend, it was probably he who was meant; like many of the mythic heroes of the Northern folk, he may well have been seen as a half-godly figure whose name and image carried much might.
At the end of the fifth century, the Franks had conquered most of modern France (with the Burgundians in Burgundy); Theoderic and his Ostrogoths held Italy; the Anglo-Saxons had England; the Visigoths were still migrating from France to Spain; and the Vandals were settled in Northern Africa. The Franks were the last of the tribes in former Roman provinces to forsake the troth of their folk. This was brought about by their king Clovis, who was otherwise best known for the way in which he had made his regal power sure by the brutal liquidation of his kinsmen (the chronicler Gregory of Tours mentions that towards the end of his life Clovis made great laments about his lack of kin - not because he grieved for them, but because he hoped to find another living relative whom he could kill). Clovis, who was already married to a Catholic woman, decided that he would convert if he were given victory in a certain battle against the Alamanns. His conversion encouraged his people to follow his example, and the Franks became christians - though the magical powers of the Merovingian kings were still believed in until the end of the dynasty.
At this time, the tribes who dwelt in "Germania" still kept to their Heathen troth. It was through the Frankish influence that much of the conversion across the Rhine took place. The sixth-century Frankish dominance over Frisia, Thuringia, and Alamannia did not directly involve conversion at first; however, the Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionaries of the seventh century were strongly encouraged by the Frankish rulers, as the spread of christianity into "Germania" represented the social and administrative unification of Northern Europe under the Franks. At the end of the seventh century, the conversion/subjugation process began to expand towards the North Sea, where the Frankish reconquest of the Northern lands they had previously held and the christianization of the Frisians "went hand in hand" (Geary, Before France and Germany, p.215). Despite the heroic attempts of Radbod of Frisia (best known for his refusal to convert on the grounds that "he could not do without the fellowship of all those who had ruled over the Frisians before him, and...did not want to have to sit around in heaven with a little pack of beggars" - Vita s. Wulframi, quoted by James Chisholm in "A Toast to Radbod") to resist, the Frisians were eventually subdued. Thus the ground was laid for Charlemagne's genocidal wars of conversion against the Heathen Saxons in the latter part of the eighth century. Charlemagne destroyed the Saxon religious centre, the Irminsul, in 772, and carried out mass forced baptisms, stunning with clubs those prisoners who were reluctant. The Saxons still continued to resist; and after his victory at Verden in 782, Charlemagne "massacred 4500 prisoners, quite possibly as an act of personal vengeance. The result, of course, was even more widespread rebellion" (Wallace-Hadrill, The Barbarian West, p. 98).
England holds a special place in the religious history of our folk, for in this country we see (at least for a time) a successful Heathen settlement in a new land, which might well be taken as a model for Heathen folk who live in places such as North America and Australia today. Seventeen of the place-names which are given to the Anglo-Saxon gods describe natural features, showing that the early English could feel the might and being of their deities in places that were not already hallowed by tradition and the bones of their forebears. Eight such names are formed with -leah (grove or clearing in a grove), of which six are called after Thunor and one each after Woden and Tiw; four or perhaps five are formed with -feld (field or open area), of which two or three are called after Woden and two after Thunor. The other four are Tysoe ("Tiw's spur of land"), Tyesmere ("Tiw's pool"), Wodnesdene ("Woden's valley") and Woddesgeat ("Woden's gap") (Anglo-Saxon Paganism, p. 15). There are also three "natural" place-names which may be compounded with Frig - Frethern (Frig's Thorn?), Froyle (Frig's Hill?), and Friden (Frig's Valley?), but it is uncertain whether the goddess' name is actually the first element of these words (Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Paganism, p. 21). It was not uncommon to name burial mounds after gods; there are three called "Woden's mound" and two called "Thunor's mound". The Anglo-Saxons clearly lost no time in blessing their new lands and getting on with the worship of their gods and goddesses in the old ways. We know that they built temples: these are described by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. A building has been excavated at Yeavering which is thought to have been a Heathen hof: among other features, it lacked occupational debris, was a focal point for an inhumation cemetery, contained a pit which had been filled with regular deposits of ox-bones, including skulls, and had a number of "non-structural, free-standing posts" which may have been carved god-figures of the sort which were apparently usual from the Iron Age through the Viking Age (Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Paganism, p. 45). During their Heathen period, the Anglo-Saxons kept up their close ties to the other North Sea peoples. There seems to have been considerable movement back and forth between Jutland, Frisia, and England; and, as discussed below, very close ties between the East Anglian royal dynasty and the kings of Sweden. Relatively little was written about English Heathenism; however, because of the close cultural contact, it is not too unsafe to guess that it was at least very similar to Scandinavian religion in the late Migration and Vendel Ages, if not necessarily identical to that described in the Norse Eddas.
The conversion of England is written up in detail by Bede (Ecclesiastical History of the English People). This process began at the beginning of the seventh century; as with the Franks, it started with the kings and was forced on the common people from above. Æthelberht, king of Kent, was the first target for the Roman missionaries, perhaps because he was already married to a Frankish christian. Of the christianization of the Northumbrians, Bede tells us that, "The occasion of the conversion of this race was that Edwin became related to the kings of Kent, having married King Æthelberht's daughter Æthelburh" (Ecclesiastical History, ed. Colgrave & Mynors, p. 163); he relates a much fuller story, which is chiefly interesting for the traces of information it gives us about pagan practise and what may have been an English frith-garth of the Wanic type (see "Fro Ing"). Thereafter the conversion happened swiftly. The last of the English kingdoms to hold out against christianity was Mercia, ruled by the staunch old Heathen Penda. Penda was particularly notable for his brand of tolerance: he "did not forbid the preaching of the Word...if any wished to hear it. But he hated and despised those who, after they had accepted the christian faith, were clearly lacking in the works of faith. He said that they were despicable and wretched creatures who scorned to obey the God in whom they believed" (Ecclesiastical History, p. 281). Penda died heroically in 659, fighting against Oswiu, a king who had converted not only his own folk, but also King Sigeberht of the West Saxons. After Penda's death, Oswiu promised his year-old daughter to be vowed to the christian god as a perpetual virgin in thanks for the victory, a sacrifice of another's life and free will which some folk might consider far worse than the Wodanic killing of battle-captives.
Although this period was a dark one for Continental Heathenism, religion in Scandinavia seems to have reached new heights of beauty and understanding during the Migration and Vendel Ages. The carving of runestones was becoming common in Scandinavia about this time; most of our surviving runic inscriptions in the Elder Futhark date from this period. Some of the greatest holy treasures of the North were made at this time as well. Among these treasures were counted the Gallehus horns - two horns made from several pounds of solid gold, decorated with scenes that probably represented myth or ritual drama. Unfortunately, they were stolen and melted for the metal in the last century. Still surviving, however, is the great gold collar from Färjestad (Öland, Sweden). Made of five rings of gold ornamented with incredibly detailed wirework and tiny animal and human figures, the whole piece weighs 700 grams (about a pound and a half), and the precision of the workmanship cannot be reproduced with the best modern tools (Erikson, Löfman, A Scandinavian Saga, p. 149). An even more impressive and detailed seven-ringed collar of the same ornamented type and from the same period (ca. 500 C.E.) was found in Möne (Västergotland, Sweden). These collars are too large and inflexible to have easily been worn by a human; it is probable that they were made to outfit the wooden image of a god or goddess, "carved from tree-trunks and with sloping shoulders suitable for the collars" (Andersson, Jansson,Treasures of Early Sweden, p. 56). The goddess Freyja's necklace Brisingamen may have been seen as just such a piece of work; these collars might well have been counted worth four nights of her love.
About 450 C.E., inspired by the visual art and technical skill of Roman coins, the Scandinavians began to make the stamped gold pendants which are known today as bracteates. A huge number of these exist, many marked with runes and holy signs; many of the bracteate-images can also be easily identified in terms of Northern religion. One of the most common is a rider accompanied by a bird or birds of prey, who may represent Wodan; several seem to show the death of Balder; others have a spinning or weaving goddess, who is probably Frija. A man with a boar also appears, as does a man with his hand in a beast's mouth. There are a number of bracteates which seem to show various forms of shamanic practise, such as shape-shifting and howe-sitting. The style of art is remarkable as well: the lines swirl in a way that suggests an attempt to show swift motion and the currents of might. The later bracteates are almost totally abstract in the sense that it is difficult to identify specific animals or human figures, but their patterns are still very controlled and powerful.
The artistic style which we can see developing in the bracteates - the dissolution of the classical model leading to the weaving of complex patterns in which the shape and symbolism are most important and natural representation virtually irrelevant - is the native style of the Northern folk, one which carries both great beauty and great soul-might. The interlacing, swirling patterns which Northern art began to perfect at this time have an hypnotic magical effect, like watching a weaver at work. Images may also have been brought together for spiritual reasons: brooches such as the Besjebakken raven, which shows a mustached man's face on the raven's back, or the Skørping eagle, which has a bearded face staring out from the crook of the bird's leg, may have shown the Northern understanding of the god/esses working through the beasts that embody their might.
At this time, also, the Scandinavian countries were beginning to form their first large-scale states. Rulership on this scale had a very strong religious basis: the cultic centre was one and the same with the centre of earthly might. As the great mounds at Old Uppsala (Sweden) and Lejre (Denmark), together with the kingly practise of sitting on a mound to make laws and decisions, suggest, the might of the kingly dynasty was, in large part, founded on the ruler's relationship with his forebears and ultimately with the gods who fathered his line (Freyr and Óðinn were the two most often named as kingly clan-fathers).
The deeds from which legends are born were taking place at this time in the North as well as on the Continent: the foundation of the kingdom of Denmark brought forth the tale of the Danish king Hrólfr kraki and the heroes of his warband, while the kingdom of the Swedes rested on the deeds and holy deaths of the Freyr-born Yngling line. But probably the best-known of the Migration Age heroes of Scandinavia is Beowulf. Though this warrior was a Gautish (East Swedish) atheling, he is famous because of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf - the greatest word-work of the early English. As a young man, Beowulf is said to have rescued the Danish royal hall Heorot from the troll-wight Grendel who had been attacking it at night by wrestling with the monster and ripping his arm off, then diving into a haunted mere to do battle with Grendel's dam. The later attack of Beowulf's king Hygelac on the Frankish territories of Frisia, and his death there in 521, is documented in Continental record just as it is told in Beowulf. As an old man, Beowulf is said to have killed a dragon that was laying waste the land of his people, receiving a mortal wound in the process. The poem was written down by a christian, and so there is little overt Heathenism in it, but the whole structure of the legend is soaked with Heathen belief, as well as being a clear guide to the basic ideals of Germanic heroism.
In particular, Beowulf seems to keep alive the memory of Heathen burial customs. The poem begins with the ship-burial of the legendary Scyld Scefing (see "Fro Ing"), whose body is sent out onto the waves with all his treasures. It ends with Beowulf being cremated amid his weapons and the dragon's gold before his body is laid in a great barrow on a ness as a landmark for seafarers to look for "when the ships drive far over dark-misted flood". For a long time, it was thought that these descriptions were influenced by Viking Age burial customs and signs of the late date of the poem. This was changed by the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial (dated to the early 630s). Like Scyld Scefing, one of the last Heathen kings of England had been laid in his death-ship, with all his wealth and weapons around him and a golden standard above; instead of sending him out on the earthly ocean, his folk raised the mound over him as he fared over the dark waters to God-Home. This burial is very like the ship-burials in the great mounds at Vendel (Sweden). The helmets adorned with gold, beast-figures, and religious images such as the dancing twin warriors; the shields with opposed figures of eagle and fish; the quality and style of the workmanship; all suggest a common culture. The similarity between the Anglo-Saxon and Swedish burials in this period when the conversion of England was starting to gain momentum may also show that the kin who buried this English king so richly were deliberately making a point about their community with the Heathenism of the Swedes, and perhaps even setting up a religious/dynastic centre similar to those of Sweden.