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CiceroD

Germanic Religion

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(Note: It was a toss-up in my mind as to place this topic here or in Forum Peregrini. I hope that here is acceptable)

 

I have been reading through Caesar's the Gallic Wars for the first time. (and getting to the good parts! :D) But I noticed at the beginning in Caesar's description of the Germans, especially their religious practices being far removed from later Germanic (and yes Norse) Mythology. This is what he said:

 

They have no Druids to control religious observances, and are not much given to sacrifices. The only beings they recognize as Gods are things they can see, and by which they are obviously benefitted, such as Sun, Moon, and Fire; the other Gods they have never even heard of.(S.A. Handford Translation)

 

Obviously this differs greatly from the Eddas or later Uppsala Temple worship. What is the source of this cultural inconsistancy? Three possibilities spring to mind.

 

1) Caesar was a bad Anthropologist. He didn't really care about being accurate, took rumors as true, made assumptions based on a lack of built temples, and/or wanted to disparage them.

 

2) There was a change in religion. it has been known to happen. A simple animistic people can develop a pantheon and mythology in the hundreds of years between Caesar and the Vikings.

 

3) It's apples and oranges. "Germanic" is a linguistic definition and not a cultural one. While they may have shared language traits two different religions can easily operate between the Rhine and Scandinavia.

 

What does everyone think?

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1 and 2.

 

Just a few generations later, Tacitus records the various Germanic tribes as having certain deities. So Caesar's description is a little suspect.

 

But also, there were indeed some changes in Germanic religion between the time Tacitus wrote and the ascendancy of the Viking Lore.

 

 

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They have no Druids to control religious observances, and are not much given to sacrifices. The only beings they recognize as Gods are things they can see, and by which they are obviously benefitted, such as Sun, Moon, and Fire; the other Gods they have never even heard of.(S.A. Handford Translation)

 

Obviously this differs greatly from the Eddas or later Uppsala Temple worship. What is the source of this cultural inconsistancy? Three possibilities spring to mind.

 

 

1) Caesar was a bad Anthropologist. He didn't really care about being accurate, took rumors as true, made assumptions based on a lack of built temples, and/or wanted to disparage them.

I actually believe that he had no intention of narrating the truth - he was much more interested in painting a picture, one that served his aims, for the Roman populus. The quote here is perhaps not the best example, but I'm sure that you are familiar with the Bos Cervi, Alces and Uri in De Bello Gallico VI 26-28. The description of the appearance and habits of these was, more or less fabricated, most likely to make the people in Rome amazed by the wondrous creatures living in the newly conquered lands.

 

2) There was a change in religion. it has been known to happen. A simple animistic people can develop a pantheon and mythology in the hundreds of years between Caesar and the Vikings.

I have to agree with Ursus on this one, there must have been deities, the question is again what Caesar wanted the Roman people to believe - notice how he contrasts the implacable, un-civilized, Germans to the strange but not entirely alien Gauls. The former were never conquered by him, the later were.

 

3) It's apples and oranges. "Germanic" is a linguistic definition and not a cultural one. While they may have shared language traits two different religions can easily operate between the Rhine and Scandinavia.

I don't really know enough about the cultures to comment in detail upon this, I'm afraid.

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Just a few generations later, Tacitus records the various Germanic tribes as having certain deities. So Caesar's description is a little suspect.

 

What is Tacitus' description of Germanic religion? Is there anything that sounds cognate to later myth?

 

 

I actually believe that he had no intention of narrating the truth - he was much more interested in painting a picture, one that served his aims, for the Roman populus. The quote here is perhaps not the best example, but I'm sure that you are familiar with the Bos Cervi, Alces and Uri in De Bello Gallico VI 26-28. The description of the appearance and habits of these was, more or less fabricated, most likely to make the people in Rome amazed by the wondrous creatures living in the newly conquered lands.

 

One always must remember that the book is Propaganda. I have to admit the Bos Cervi, Alces and Uri dont ring a bell except that Alces refers to Moose. Perhaps I haven't gotten there yet. But couldn't an innaccurate description be caused by ignorance? I mean how often did he hunt? People didn't believe in Gorillas until one was shot. Dugongs were mistaken for Mermaids. Similarly Caesar, and his men wouldn't have spent much time observing German religion.

 

I have to agree with Ursus on this one, there must have been deities, the question is again what Caesar wanted the Roman people to believe - notice how he contrasts the implacable, un-civilized, Germans to the strange but not entirely alien Gauls. The former were never conquered by him, the later were.

 

It really would have been counter-productive to turn Gauls into monsters since he put them in the Senate! :lol:

 

He also engaged the Britons and didn't conquer them. Still they do not come off nearly so barbaric as the Germans. That explaination alone cannot be completely the cause for Germanic bad press

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What is Tacitus' description of Germanic religion? Is there anything that sounds cognate to later myth?

 

 

He says they worship Mercury, Hercules and Mars. These are most likely Odin, Thor and Tyr, respectively.

 

He says some of the Suevi worship Isis. Isis is probably Freya, or Frigga, or both.

 

What Tacitus does say, which is interesting, is that the Germans do not build temples to their gods, but worship them in sacred groves and natural settings. To give Caesar the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he saw Germans doing rituals in in the woods, and assumed they were simply honoring natural elements rather than gods per se. Who knows.

 

 

 

 

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Just a few generations later, Tacitus records the various Germanic tribes as having certain deities. So Caesar's description is a little suspect.

 

What is Tacitus' description of Germanic religion? Is there anything that sounds cognate to later myth?

 

 

I actually believe that he had no intention of narrating the truth - he was much more interested in painting a picture, one that served his aims, for the Roman populus. The quote here is perhaps not the best example, but I'm sure that you are familiar with the Bos Cervi, Alces and Uri in De Bello Gallico VI 26-28. The description of the appearance and habits of these was, more or less fabricated, most likely to make the people in Rome amazed by the wondrous creatures living in the newly conquered lands.

 

One always must remember that the book is Propaganda. I have to admit the Bos Cervi, Alces and Uri dont ring a bell except that Alces refers to Moose. Perhaps I haven't gotten there yet. But couldn't an innaccurate description be caused by ignorance? I mean how often did he hunt? People didn't believe in Gorillas until one was shot. Dugongs were mistaken for Mermaids. Similarly Caesar, and his men wouldn't have spent much time observing German religion.

 

The Bos Cervi is sort of a cross between a reindeer and a unicorn, I'm sure that it'll give you a god laugh.

 

I have to agree with Ursus on this one, there must have been deities, the question is again what Caesar wanted the Roman people to believe - notice how he contrasts the implacable, un-civilized, Germans to the strange but not entirely alien Gauls. The former were never conquered by him, the later were.

 

It really would have been counter-productive to turn Gauls into monsters since he put them in the Senate! :lol:

 

He also engaged the Britons and didn't conquer them. Still they do not come off nearly so barbaric as the Germans. That explaination alone cannot be completely the cause for Germanic bad press

 

That is true, but a single explanation can seldom be used to describe a phenomena. Remember though that he invaded Germany as well, without finally conquering them. They are also an Ultima Thule people, they must be barbarian (Or Hyperborean :P).

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...i doubt he (the Romans) actually knew back than when someone was a Celt and when someone was a Germanic, or rather they didnt even care, I believe Caesar (Romans) simplified the division along the Rhine between both ethnic groups motivated by politics... but i go offtopic here...

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What I seem to hear is that Caesar was just bad or indifferent as an anthropologist. It seems clear that the Germans did have Gods. However it is conceivable that they were different ones from the Norse, since Tacitus didn't see fit to provide their local names. Didn't every little city in Sumer have its own local God/s? given hundreds of miles I can believe that someone can wind up in a new religion really quick!

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Part of the problem here is the Romans saw deities as representative of certain cosmic properties. It mattered not one jot how the god was reopresented, or what his name was, as any being that represented a certain quality was essentially the same being. Thus Mercury and Teutatis are the same god as far as the Romans are concerned.

 

In a way this was simply their own cultural arrogance at work, because if they recognised the property being observed, they simply assumed the silly barbarians didn't know the proper name, although commonsense dictated that the god was still revered and respected whatever name it went by. As a superstitious people, they were always keen to please the supernatural world and indeed this is one reason why the Romans were so willing to tolerate and assimilate foreign or barbarian faiths.

 

The dilemma for the Romans was the proliferation of syrian cults which were based on obscure origins, thus not so easily understood by the Romans and inviting suspicion. Christianity fell under that umbrella in its earliest form. For the Romans, with experience of popular dissent driven by religious zealousy (such as the Druids who organised resistance against Roman interests in Britain and Gaul), the issue of how the religion affected peoples behaviour was often more important. Since most faiths were essentially private rituals and intercourse with divine spirits, the ROmans had little problem with that. When religion became organised and political, they took a dim view of it.

 

In the case of the Germanic tribes, the bad reputation they had was confirmed by experience of the middle ages, which revealed that the deeper one explored the wilderness, the worse the Germans became. In essence then, the earlier experience with Germanic tribes were with peoples unaccustomed to Roman contact, and over time the influence of Roman civilisation rubbed off on them. With familiarity the Romans learned to accept Germans, and the Germans, as the saying goes, quickly bred contempt for their manipulative, greedy, and powerful neighbours.

 

I'm not sure to what extent the Germanic religious life was mysterious to the Romans. The word 'German' refers to a cultural description the Romans invented, meaning 'True Celt', and possibly a division in spiritual life was part of that observation. It is interesting that the Germans appear to have a nordic mythos which would be the n the frontier of such belief suystems, and without much understanding of what these peoples were worshipping, it would seem the Romans were unable to define Germanic beliefs in Roman tewrms as they normally would for cultures they were in contact with.

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What I seem to hear is that Caesar was just bad or indifferent as an anthropologist. It seems clear that the Germans did have Gods. However it is conceivable that they were different ones from the Norse, since Tacitus didn't see fit to provide their local names. Didn't every little city in Sumer have its own local God/s? given hundreds of miles I can believe that someone can wind up in a new religion really quick!

 

 

From what I have read, they were a bit like the Celtic tribes insofar as every tribe could have a somewhat different pantheon than the next tribe. I.E, this tribe worshipped such-and-such god as its divine ancestor, while the next tribe over never heard of said god.

 

However, very broadly they seemed to share in mythology, and had some major gods in common. If you look at place names in Germany in the 7th century, or even in Anglo-Saxon England, you'll find lots of places dedicated to Woden. Woden is linguistically related to Odin. Then you have Thunor related to Thor, and so on.

 

So there is good reason to assume the major gods of the Norse were around in some fashion to the Germanic tribes of the Roman era. But the interpretatio romana is an imperfect thing at best.

Edited by Ursus

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...i doubt he (the Romans) actually knew back than when someone was a Celt and when someone was a Germanic, or rather they didnt even care, I believe Caesar (Romans) simplified the division along the Rhine between both ethnic groups motivated by politics... but i go offtopic here...

 

Wouldn't the Torcs give the Gauls away?

 

I'm not sure to what extent the Germanic religious life was mysterious to the Romans. The word 'German' refers to a cultural description the Romans invented, meaning 'True Celt', and possibly a division in spiritual life was part of that observation. It is interesting that the Germans appear to have a nordic mythos which would be the n the frontier of such belief suystems, and without much understanding of what these peoples were worshipping, it would seem the Romans were unable to define Germanic beliefs in Roman tewrms as they normally would for cultures they were in contact with.

 

I would highly doubt that if Quinctilius Varus hadn't walked into the Teutoberger Wald the Romans would have had little problem assimilating Germanic Gods just like every other polytheistic people they conquered (The zealotry of Veleda and her followers not withstanding). After all they didn't seem to bat an eye at the self-made eunuchs that worshiped Cybele!

 

However, very broadly they seemed to share in mythology, and had some major gods in common. If you look at place names in Germany in the 7th century, or even in Anglo-Saxon England, you'll find lots of places dedicated to Woden. Woden is linguistically related to Odin. Then you have Thunor related to Thor, and so on.

 

So there is good reason to assume the major gods of the Norse were around in some fashion to the Germanic tribes of the Roman era. But the interpretatio romana is an imperfect thing at best.

 

Perhaps we can't be conclusively sure one way or another. It would really help if some local city magistrate had raised a temple in Germania Inferior or Superior to Wotan or somthing.

 

Still we can't rule out that they picked it up from the Thor comics! :lol:

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I would highly doubt that if Quinctilius Varus hadn't walked into the Teutoberger Wald the Romans would have had little problem assimilating Germanic Gods just like every other polytheistic people they conquered (The zealotry of Veleda and her followers not withstanding). After all they didn't seem to bat an eye at the self-made eunuchs that worshiped Cybele!

 

The problem was not Quintilius Varus, but that Augustus had made the decision to send him to Germania to gather taxes, and Augustus was well aware of the mans reputation for greed. What we can extrapolate from that is the idea that Augustus assumed southern Germania was already within the Roman sphere, and archeologically settlements have been found in an advanced state of construction, describing ordered colonisation and civic development north of the Rhine.

 

In that respect the German religions were already tolerated. As I mentioned, the Romans were superstitious and would be willing to tempt fate by denying them,.Despite these superstitions it would seem obvious the Romans had more worldy motives for toleration, since upsetting local worshippers would no doubt incur the wrath of this strange foreign god.

 

The thing is though in most cases these strange foreign gods were nothing of the sort. Divine status to the Romans was simply that, and as I mentioned, if a Germanic god exhibited a certain property the Romans recognised, then it was just a god they were already familiar with by another name, and no assimilation was necessary. As regards the method of worship, that was nothing unusual for the Romans, who encouraged the adoption of Roman practice - not enforced it (unless it raised suspicions of dissent).

 

In any case, as we see elsewhere, the 'assimilation' of native cults was little more than an observance of that spirit in local scope. The population would be encouraged to worship familiar Roman gods rather than the native ones. All this tends to make us see the Romans asdemanding regulatiom and regimentation of belief, which has more to do with the modern style of social worship by monotheistic state religions. In other words, the Romans were not (in Augustus's time anyway) using religion for social control in political terms, and indeed, they took a dim view of any belief system that had political power.

 

Therefore we need to understand that the Romans policy of accepting foreign gods was not 'assimilation' in the wider cultural sense, but rather that the Romans took gods on board in exactly the same way as they did the natives who worshipped them. If the foreign god was given a Roman name and accepted as such, so much the etter. That should not blind us to the essential failings of Roman religion.

 

Because the Romans worshipped on an individual level, their system was more a personal interaction, one in which you treated a god as a patron (and one reason why powerful Roman patrons sometimes became posthumous Roman gods). There was no guarantee that the God would listen to these appeals for favour and fortune. This would mean there would always be a certain dissactisfaction with divine intervention, always a sense that these gods were aloof and uninterested in your own personal difficulties or desires.

 

It should not suprise us then that the Romans adopted syrian cults as fashionable and satisfying alternatives. This was not a phenomenon restricted to the idle rich - these foreign cults made huge inroads in rural Roman life and in no way were they 'assimilated' at all. In fact, the diversity of religion was something that official patronage of christianity would eventually sweep away, and that was done for political and social cohesion in a post-civil war empire, not for spiritual welfare or cultural arrogance.

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Perhaps we can't be conclusively sure one way or another. It would really help if some local city magistrate had raised a temple in Germania Inferior or Superior to Wotan or somthing.

 

Yeah, that's my whole problem with the Celts and the Germans. From time to time I try to read books on their history and mythology. But the fact they were functionally illiterate and didn't really build enduring monuments means you never really know quite what they believed. Meh.

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(and one reason why powerful Roman patrons sometimes became posthumous Roman gods)

 

Could you possibly elaborate on this? I have never heard anything about this theory before and no such patrons come to mind immediately (as there were other, far more important, motifs for the deification of the emperors).

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It's all about Roman culture. Ingrained into their society was a feudal structure, in that a lower caste person would greet his patron and ask favours, in return for which the patron provides his patronage. The relationship between human and god in Roman eyes was no different. To attend a temple was to enter the atrium of a divine being. To sacrifice and humbly request the god grants good fortune was no different than the freedman calling at the patricians house and asking for assistance.

 

Psychologically then we have a relationship between levels of society. Since the gods were real in the minds of the Romans, they naturally ascribed them a place in their concept of relative status, a caste beyond that of the wealthiest and most influential politican. After all, even the the highest levels of society pays court to the gods. Despite the Roman caste system, is was possible for an ambitious man to rise to prominence, to accumulate virtus, or that intensity of life force and achievement. Charisma might seem a basic quality of humanity that we all share in greater or lesser degrees, but to superstitious Romans charisma was an outward sign of this spiritual power within.

 

If society orders itself in a certain way, and the upper level of society reaches an apparent level of power unattainable by ordinary human beings, what difference is there between emperor and god? Arguably it was little more than the frailties of life and the ability to wreak changes upon the world. Since the Romans had become, in their own minds, the light at the universe, the cradle of true civilisation, the great achievers, creators, and conquerors, masters over nature itself, they had in effect pushed against the glass ceiling that the gods existed beyond.

 

Having reached that point it was inevitable that the patronic relationship with the gods emerged. Since it was possible for a man to rise to patrician status, it therefore followed that a man might, should he prove blessed with the necessary attributes, ascend to divine status himself.

 

We therefore see the likes of Julius Caesar claiming divine ancestory. You might argue that was no more than self aggrandisement, and there is indeed a case for admitting a certain Roman ambivalence about the nature of divine status, but this was a man marked by the gods for success. A conqueror of Gaul and Britain. A man of the people, one was granted the position of dictator for life against all tradition. Not only was he giving himself divine authority, society was not only agreeing but also inflating that idea.

 

At this point we might consider the Julio-Claudian emperors and their apparent willingness to strut around like tin gods. Partly this is a misinterpretation of what Suetonius was telling us. People like Nero and Caligula weren't exactly stable personalities to begin with, but note that they identified themselves with gods rather than simply becoming one in their own right. It was another aspect of the 'cosmic property' idea that underpinned the Roman tolerance of foreign faiths. It was an assumption of status beyond that of mortal men, an atrtempt to push upward against the spiritual glass ceiling.

 

Now lets return to the initial question, this idea of feudal spiritualism that resulted in promotion to divine status. Obviously we don't see long lists of men given a place amongst the gods. Why would we? In a society where power is concentrated in autocratic form, why would the Romans cheapen Olympus with lesser beings? Nonetheless the Romans took upon themselves the power the grant a man divine status. To worship him as any other god, and build temples in his honour. That this prerogative was kept more or less to the highest level of society, the emperor himself, shouldn't therefore suprise us. It was only right and proper.

 

That does not however eliminate ancestor worship from Roman culture. A man might be remembered fondly, in a touching and personal way, but notice how often the Romans built extravagant mausoleums for the wealthiest departed. Certainly the question of divine status is in most of these cases an obscure and informal idea, but if an afterlife existed as the Romans believed, surely a powerful man lived on as a man of influence? Remember that human beings have always seen gods as possessing a certain level of power and influence, rather than simply beyond their own. The Romans were no different. Ambivalent, feudal, and ambitious even in spiritual terms.

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