Beyond Scandza: Rediscovering the Saxon World

When I started the “Roter Geysir” project a little over two years ago, my main focus was to bring archaeological finds and topics to the foreground that were previously hardly publicly known. There are innumerable, very exciting topics that practically never leave the academic world, although there are many people who would be potentially interested in them. This is, of course, due to the difficulty of accessing academic publications (what can be found where?), but it is also due to the scarcity of popular scientific publications!

And then there are these Vikings… Like no other topic, Scandinavia of the 9th to 11th centuries dominates and shapes the perception of historical paganism and thus ultimately also the modern efforts to revitalise it. How many thousands of books, novels, films, series and comics have already been published over this short period of just 250 years? It’s impossible to keep track. It is unprecedented, but at the same time also very comprehensible: the whole subject is simply incredibly exciting and multi-faceted! For a long time, the Scandinavians (as well as the Slavs and Balts) remained protected from the invasion of Christianity, not least because of their peripheral geographical location, and were thus able to preserve their old traditions until the turn of the millennium. Thanks to the exceptional circumstances of Icelandic literature, many poems and myths from pagan times have survived, where in other times and spaces Christian fanaticism or simply the fog of oblivion has erased every memory. Because of the growing literary culture in the course of the Middle Ages and the large geographical extent of Viking activities, we have today, besides the myths, also many (but mostly one-sided) historical accounts from that epoch.

North Sea coast

It is these factors that make this space and time so special and the subject so popular and tangible. But the Viking Age was only a very short and regionally limited episode of Germanic cultural history. Many other periods and regions, however, have largely disappeared from public view and are hardly known today, although they too have plenty of exciting history to offer.

One of these time-spaces is the Old Saxony1 of the Early Middle Ages in today’s Northwest Germany and the East of the Netherlands. For three centuries, this region resisted the invasion of Christianity from the southwest (see Roter Geysir article). The loosely allied tribes of the Old Saxons were not only able to defend themselves against the Frankish Empire, they were also able to take away whole swathes of land in today’s Westphalia from this most powerful empire in Europe since the fall of Rome; areas in which Lower Saxon dialects are spoken to this day. The Old Saxons were able to do all this without being united in a centrally organized, powerful kingdom. On the contrary, they were many individual tribes, probably ruled partly by smaller local rulers and partly by proto-democratic Thing assemblies. This decentralized and rather less strictly hierarchical form of society and government was, tragically enough, also the decisive weak point of the Old Saxon society in a (proto-)feudalistic Europe dominated by kings (i.e. despots).

Historic Old Saxony

It was only after more than 30 years of constant war that the Old Saxon Thingdom (in contrast to a kingdom) could finally be defeated by the Christian-Frankish invaders. Up until then this region was de facto a pagan stronghold, which blocked every further advance of Christianity into the north for about three hundred years! Not least for this reason the Germanic-Pagan culture of the North could reach a last magnificent climax. The collapse of Old Saxony falls exactly at the beginning of the Viking Age – and this is no coincidence! In fact, many researchers today even believe that the first Viking raids on English monasteries and Frankish settlements were a direct reaction to the wars and missionary waves (mostly carried by Anglo-Saxon clerics) against the Old Saxons. Widukind, one of the leaders of the pagan resistance, evidently used Denmark as a retreat and had close connections with the Danish king Sigfred.2

Besides this historical dimension, there are also some highly exciting literary sources to be found from Old Saxony. In direct comparison with the enormous volume of Old Norse literature, the few surviving writings on Old Saxon history and religion seem quite manageable, but a closer look reveals their special value: unlike the literary record of the Edda, for example, which was written 200 years after the beginning of Christianisation, the Old Saxon sources originated directly from the period of conversion in the 8th and 9th centuries. At a time when Old Saxon paganism was still omnipresent, visible in plain sight for every learned scribe or cleric. Although nearly all of these sources come from Christian scholars and enemies of the Old Saxons, they are nevertheless of immense value.

Historical sources on Old Saxon paganism

One of these little known writings is the Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum (Small Directory of Superstition and Paganism), a directory of ancient Saxon pagan practices written at the end of the 8th century. Unfortunately only the table of contents has survived from this pretty unusual scripture. Nevertheless, thanks to this source we know that the Old Saxons had explicit sanctuaries for Wodan and Thunaer (called Mercury and Jupiter in the original Latin version) as well as spring and forest sanctuaries. There is also talk of sacred shrines, i.e. smaller cult buildings that have not yet been found archaeologically. With regard to ritual acts, certain feasts in February, sacrificial acts at graves and the sacrifice of grain and cloths are specifically mentioned. Probably written with the aim of giving missionaries an overview of the spiritual world of the heathen Saxons, this directory is an authentic and highly fascinating source of pagan cult practices.

Merseburg charms

The best-known surviving record of ancient Saxon paganism is undoubtedly the two Merseburg charms (MC), which are extraordinary in many respects (see picture above): Not only do they mention numerous names of gods centuries before they appear in the sources of the North, such as Wodan, Balder, Frija, Fulla and the Idisi ( Dísir), but they are also among the oldest completely preserved magical spells known to date. The 18 spells of the Ljóðatal, the last section of the Hávamál, are unfortunately not complete. They contain only the first part describing the mythological framework and the effect of the spell (e.g. from 2nd MC: “Phol and Wodan rode into the woods where Balder’s foal dislocated his foot…”), but never the actual spell (e.g. from 2nd MC: “bone to bone, blood to blood, limb to limb…”).

The most extensive and at the same time most underestimated Old Saxon source, however, is the Heliand, which was written in the 9th century. In almost 6000 alliterative verses, this great epic tells the story of Jesus Christ in Germanic narrative tradition for an Old Saxon pagan audience. For the purpose of conversion, the unknown Christian author of the Heliand has made numerous changes to the content in order to make the biblical story more appealing (or bearable) for the heathen Saxons. Thus Jesus is reinterpreted as a lord with the apostles as his retinue riding into Jerusalem on a war horse (instead of a donkey). As a precaution, scenes in which Jesus’ behavior could be perceived by an Old Saxon listener as weak or even dishonorable have been left out completely by the author.

Then they praised the heaven’s king, the people,
saying that never would have come to this light
a wiser warsago (= Soothsayer), or that anybody had power from god
greater in this middilgard, and a more powerful hugi (~ mind).
– Heliand – 2874–2878

However, the real treasure of the Heliand lies in the choice of words: In order to make the story and the Christian concepts comprehensible to a heathen audience, the author had to use numerous terms of the heathen spiritual sphere and embed them in his story. For example, the words wurd (fem., altnord. urðr) and hugi (mask.) known from Old Norse sources appear numerous times in various contexts. Their meaning thus becomes much clearer in comparison to the few references in the poetic sources of the North. The Heliand clearly testifies that the wurd must be one of the most central concepts of Old Saxon paganism. It was apparently so ingrained in the consciousness of the people that the author of the Heliand did not even try to deny or refute it. Instead, he simply claims that Jesus and God are above this almighty fate. So far, the significance of the Heliand for the understanding and reconstruction of such spiritual concepts is hardly recognized by modern followers of the old path. Presumably because a Christian gospel harmony about the life of Jesus Christ does not exactly seem like an important source of heathen spiritual ideas, but the potential of the Heliand is enormous!

Thus came wurd’s decision, for the odag-having (= rich) man,
the orlag-while (= fateful hour), that he shall leave this light.
Wicked whiti (= wights) sink his siole (= soul) into the black hel,
into the fern (~ fire), to the joy of the enemies
they buried him in gramono hem (~ grieving peoples home).
– Heliand 3354–3359

These examples illustrate how worthwhile a closer examination of this underestimated time and region, the early medieval Old Saxony, can be. In tune with Roter Geysir’s focus on lesser-known topics, some of the last articles dealt with this region. This will continue in the future!

In many ways, Scandinavia and Old Saxony are two closely related cultural regions, with the Old Saxon region for centuries being the medium through which the exchange between Scandinavia and the rest of the continental Germanic sphere took place. Also in terms of population size, the regions are quite similar nowadays (see graph). These proportions were probably similar in the early Middle Ages as well.

Population size in Scandinavia and Saxony
Comparison of population size between Scandinavia and the Lower Saxon sphere (Saxonia)

An interactive map of the Old Saxon cultural landscape

Based on the idea of making the rich heathen cultural heritage of Old Saxony better known (not least to its own inhabitants), a new long-term map project is to be launched. The aim is to create an interactive map that records historical, cultural and natural places and traditions in order to make them publicly visible to everyone.

It starts with a small dataset of historical sites known from the Saxon Wars as well as the prehistoric castles and fortresses that have left their traces all over the landscape of Northwestern Germany. The map is designed to make it easier for everyone to get in touch with this local cultural heritage and thus save it from falling into oblivion. The advantage of such a map project is that it does not have to be complete right from the start, but can be gradually expanded and improved over time. The ultimate goal is to create a comprehensive, geographical directory of the heathen cultural landscape of Old Saxony. The time frame, at least as far as the historical places are concerned, covers all ages from the Neolithic up to the period of Christianisation in the 8th and 9th century. The geographical boundaries of the area to be mapped are roughly identical with today’s distribution of the Low Saxon language (the modern form of Old Saxon) and thus cover a somewhat larger area than the historical settlement area of the Old Saxons.

The following link leads to the first prototype of this map:

Map example

So far the prototype is only in German language, since I haven’t yet figured out how to make a multilingual geodatabase. However, I will do my best to find a solution for the English speakers as well!

For now I can provide a translation help for some of the displayed information:

Gemeinde = municipality
Alter = Dating

  • Neolithikum = Neolithic
  • Bronzezeit = Bronze Age
  • Eisenzeit = Iron Age
  • Kaiserzeit = Roman Iron Age
  • Völkerwanderungszeit = Migration Period
  • Frühmittelalter = Early Middle Ages

  1. The term Old Saxons is used for the historical people of Saxony in order to avoid confusion with the inhabitants of today’s federal state of Saxony in Germany, whose population has no cultural connection with the genuine (Lower) Saxons of Northwest Germany. More info on this issue see: ^
  2. Cf. A. Winroth, The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe (New Haven 2012) 12 ff. ^