The ancient Germanic peoples didn’t have a religion!

23. Mai 2016 | Von | Kategorie: Articles in english

An essay written by Martin Marheinecke, and translated by Cornelis, Thursa and Phoenix[1]

(Before the read: Please be aware some of the cited examples may be be more specific to German circumstances. Same goes for the fact, the original German version was written in the Yultide of 2007/2008. Which is some years ago. Some conditions may have shifted in between. Nevertheless I find there are the many good points within this essay, so it’s still worth a read – Cornelis)

Induced by a survey of the German „Bertelsmann Foundation“[2], which concluded, according to desire, that 70 percent of the German population were „religious“, I came to ask myself once again what religion essentially is. Precisely: Is Ásatrú/Heathenry, i.e. „Nordic Germanic Neopaganism“, the „spiritual orientation“ to which I belong (amongst others), a religion? This inevitably leads to the question of whether the ancient Germanic peoples had a religion at all.
I’m tending to the (perhaps surprising) answer that they didn’t. This also applies to „the ancient Hellenics“, „the ancient Romans“, „the ancient Egyptians“ and other pre-christian polytheists.
Firstly, we have to know what „religion“ means anyway.

According to the survey, even one of Armin’s Cheruskers would have been religious (if someone would have presented the questionary to them in an appropriate translation). As well as the majority of the Romans, who, confrontated with a Latin version, propably would have turned out to be „highly religious“ people. That’s because of the conception of the questionary. On the one hand it doesn’t distinguish between „religiosity“ and „spirituality“ (indeed two different things); on the other hand it takes even the observance of common religious customs as a sign of religiosity – regardless of the interviewed persons‘ personal motivations. An atheist who visits a church service at Christmas for their family’s sake therefore shows, according to the questionary, „religious behaviour“. Meditation practice is also interpreted as religious, similar to prayer. But atheists meditate as well. Meditation can be practised purely as a relaxation technique.

Already the [German] Wikipedia entry on religion[3], and even more the one on „definition of religion“[4], show how naive and christocentric the approach of the Bertelsmann-Stiftung is.
It’s interesting that the ancient Romans didn’t label what we usally call „Ancient Roman Religion“ with the word „religio“. According to Cicero (De Natura Deorum 2, 72; first century BCE ) „religio“ traces back to „relegere“, which means literally „to gather“, „to collect again“, to recover – and, in a figurative meaning, „to consider“, „to observe“. The reference of „religio“ to the later meaning of „piety“ and „devoutness“ developed from Cicero’s thinking of the temple cult which had to be carefully observed. But above all „religio“ to him and his contemporaries meant „scrupulousness“, „conscientious exactness“, „conscientiousness“. From an ancient Roman perspective, a conscientious person was „religious“ – even if they never visited a temple in their whole life.
Only in the 3rd century Common Era the Christian apologist Lactantius attributed the word „religio“ to „religiare“ which means „to bind fast/to attach“. Thereby he paved the way for the today common meanings of „religion“ in the sense of an attachment of the believer to a universal, godly genesis or of other conceptions of transcendence.[5]

An interesting approach is held by the German philosopher Peter Möller in his essay “Religion und Philosophie”[6].
In Möllers estimate religion has six aspects that must be separated analytically:

  • Dogmatism: The establishment of specific doctrines beyond empirical and rational perception, which are assumed as truth beyond doubt.
  • Simplicity: Generally this concerns very simple mythical, fairytale-like ontologies and predictions about what will happen to a person or their soul in the future, adapted to the intellectual grasp of the vast majority of the population.
  • Consolatory function: Faced with sometimes major life crises, many people draw comfort from a belief in divine retribution, eternal life, reincarnation, etc. .
  • Ethics: The religious doctrines are related to statements about what’s good and what’s evil and, connected to that, the request for a certain behaviour.
  • Ritual acts: In connection with these doctrines, certain ritual acts are practised, for instance religious services, prayers, rituals, etc. .
  • Church: Usually there is an organisation which embraces the believers and observes the ritual acts and the continued purity of doctrine.

According to Möllers‘ concept – with which I agree – only these six issues in summary represent religion. If for instance the establishment of unverifiable dogmas was already called religion, a political fanatic would be considered religious too, as would every somehow narrow-minded and stubborn person. Then the term religion would lose its explanatory value.

If we summarize the historical sources and the archaeological record related to the „Germanic culture“ of the pre-Christian era (which is, by the way, a bold generalisation), it becomes clear that something like a „Pagan Church“ / „Heathen Church“ did not exist, a priesthood in the Roman sense cannot be verified, not to mention a clergy in the sense of the monotheistic world religions. Concerning dogmatism, we can be equally sure: the mythology goes beyond the scope of empirical and rational perception, but it doesn’t establish any doctrines, and different myths of contradictory content can coexist. (Which by the way also applies to the Romans, Hellenes, Egyptians, Celts, etc. .)

Assessment regarding simplicity is not that easy: A mythic, „fairytale-like“ ontology prevailed (many fairytales are indeed „relegated myths“), and there were also predictions about what would happen to a human being and their soul in the future. On the other hand heathen interpretations of the world usually tend to be sophisticated – it is not least the comparative simplicity of monotheistic Christianity which facilitated and facilitates proselytization. Regarding simplicity, Islam is clearly superior to Christianity whose construction of trinity is hard to comprehend. Just like Christian dogma, at least to the common believer, is simpler than the elaborated and highly abstract Jewish nomology. Interjection: If I was a PR specialist, I would see in Islam the religion with the best potential for prevalence. Maybe it is thanks to the influence of PR professionals that so many politicians of the „western world“ are frightened at the thought of Islam’s „getting too powerful“ …
According to what we know, the consolatory function of Germanic Heathenry tends to be quite indistinctive. „Divine retribution“, in a sense that „evil“ people will go to hell while a righteous and devout poor person will go to heaven, can’t even be found in the Eddas, which are already influenced by Christian thinking, and which on the other hand already mention a sanction for perjurers. Valhalla is not a „paradise for fallen warriors“ either, as often propagated, but rather an otherworldly training camp in preparation of Ragnarök. Granted, it certainly comes with good meals and a lot of conveniences. However, Odin only has second choice among the dead; the first choice is Freyja’s – which means that the „best“ don’t go to Valhalla but to Folkwang. By the way, there are strong indications that the conception of Valhalla only evolved after the Migration Period and was limited to the aristocracy and their warrior-retainers. There is no evidence, even in the Viking era, of dying warriors gladly looking forward to entering Valhalla.

However, an ethical function was inherent in the „old customs“, with „profane“ and „divine“ laws and principles not really distinguished from each other. There is no clear dualistic distinction between „good“ and „evil“ either. However, there is no doubt about the existence of rituals, ritualistic acts, etc.°
This means that two of Möller’s six criteria don’t apply to „Germanic Heathenry/Paganism“ at all, another three apply partially at most, and just one, the practice of ritual acts, applies completely. From this perspective Heathenry wouldn’t be a religion. But it wouldn’t be something entirely different, either.
Another definition is provided by the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz. According to Geertz, religion is a system of symbols, which aims at generating strong, comprehensive and sustained moods and motivations by creating comcepts of a universal order, which are characterized by such an aura of facticity that these moods and motivations seem to perfectly correlate with reality.

One advantage of Geertz‘ approach is that it also covers „political religions“as well as similar ideologies that have solidified to universal metaphysical belief systems. The key criterium is that to the believer religion appears to be the only and universal truth.
A little bit simplified, it can be said that in religion there is something to be believed, in such a way that „belief“ and doubt“ exclude each other. Having doubt in the religion’s statements – for example a holy book, the revelations of a prophet or the words of a charismatic leader – is not tolerated.

Obviously that doesn’t apply to heathens/pagans: no holy scriptures, no divine revelations, which only come to chosen prophets (and to nobody else), no infallible religious leaders. Interjection: Among „Neo-Heathens“/“Neopagans“ it may be different; there are for instance „heathen popes“[7] who declare the eddas holy scriptures and themselves infallible prophets, but thus only end up imitating Christian churches.
At this point one could argue that at least in Hellenic paganism there was the charge of asébeia[8], of impiety, ungodliness. However, this accusation had a political and social nexus, as can be discerned from the asébeia trials of Sokrates or Protagoras. To deny the „Deities of Athens“ was synonymous with an offence against the „spirit“ of the polis (and vice versa). Asébeia is not synonymous with blasphemy in the Christian or Islamic sense – comic playwrights like Aristophanes were allowed to ridicule the Gods without being suspected of asébeia. And apart from one remark about the punishment of „ungodliness“ in Tacitus, there is no evidence for a comparable concept in the Germanic worldview.
However, there are obviously metaphysical conceptions which aren’t religions in the sense of Christianity, but which resemble them in some regards.

The egyptologist and cultural scientist Jan Assmann[9] coined the terms „primary and secondary religion“, which may be helpful on this matter.
Primary religions are of a tribal nature, they are „tribal religions“. (Or, if it came to the formation of a state, as in the case of Rome or, long before that, Egypt, „national religions“. – The term „nation“ doesn’t quite fit in this context, but „state religion“ already has another meaning attached to it.) There are tribal gods and tribal cults. Society and religion aren’t separable; both are „customs“, which are passed over from generation to generation. Primary religions are more a way of life than a religious belief. Through their morals and ethics they determine the life of society. Rites mainly serve the integration of society; they facilitate social coexistence – generally speaking, the existence which they aim to promote and to strengthen. A primary religion can only be joined by ritual initiation into the tribe or through a federation of tribes which includes inter-religious exchange. This however doesn’t lead to an actual conversion, not even in the case of political conquest, but to a commingling or hybridisation of religions.

Proselytization doesn’t occur in primary religions, religious wars are hardly possible among them, and „foreign gods“ and „foreign people“ were incorporated into the tribal society at times or – in cultures that were organized in states – even attained citizenship. Nevertheless, Assmann explicitly rejects the „old cliché of tolerant polytheism“. Polytheistic religions are only as tolerant (or intolerant) as the societies in which they are practised. Thus the Romans‘- distinct and justifiably praised – religious tolerance found its limits in the „reason of state“: Although Caesar condoned the Celtic „religion“ (more specifically, he didn’t care), he persecuted the druids, the essential bearers of this primary religion’s traditions, – because he regarded this „secret society“ a political danger. Another limit of tolerance was the Roman citizens‘ obligation during the Roman Empire to participate in the worship of the state and emperor – at least as a pro forma sacrifice to ensure the emperor’s spiritual wholesomeness. The early Christians refused to bring this sacrifice, since that would have meant the acknowledgement of another god apart from the God of the Bible. From a Roman perspective, this was a betrayal of the spiritual well-being of the „community of the state“ and thus an act of political rebellion.
Regarding the Germanic world Hans-Peter Hasenfratz, a religious scholar from Bochum, Germany, draws a dark picture:

„Everyone not included in clannish peace is an enemy, including the ‚unfree‘ who can be killed by his master without the consequence of penalty.“[10]

Hasenfratz draws this statement from the same sources that strengthen nationalist „Germanic“ fanatics‘ xenophobic ideology (xenophobia = hatred of strangers, literally „fear of guests“) – however with a contrary moral judgement. Consequently the Germanic peoples‘ „religious tolerance“ may not have been all it is said to be.
However, these sources either date back to the Migration Period – a centuries-long era of permanent war – although especially during the Migration Period one can also find examples of opposite behaviour, like the eager incorporation of foreigners and their customs into the tribe.

Or they originate from the reports of Christian missionaries, who understandably painted Heathenry/Paganism in a negative light, or from sources from the High Middle Ages which retrospectively reported of the „ancient times of paganism“ – whereas even sympathetical chroniclers projected contemporary customs onto their „ancestors“.
All in all: No Germanic pagan/heathen automatically became tolerant by being polytheist. Neither did they automatically become intolerant by being a member of a tribal religion.
Assmann uses the term „secondary religion“ – i.e. religion in the meaning of the aforementioned definitions – instead of older, more indistinct conceptions like „revealed religion“, „book religion“, „high religion“, „universal religion“ or „monotheistic religion“.

According to Assmann, specific criteria for secondary religions are:

  • There is an (exclusive) revelation, a Holy Scripture
  • The religious domain is separated from the secular domain and hierarchically superior to it in ethical and moral issues.
  • Religious revelations are directed at the whole world, not just at one people or region (religious universalism).
  • There is only one god.

According to Assmann, secondary religions originated from rebellion against established primary religions – he states the example of the one-god religion of Pharaoh Echnaton, who rebelled against the polytheistic religion, which was strongly merged with the political system and against the accumulated power of its priests, which curtailed his power.

Secondary religions, religions in a „proper sense“, originated from „resistance movements“. Everywhere, the differentiation of religion (in a closer meaning), politics and ethics arose from political and social conflicts.
One crucial difference to primary religion is characterised by Assmann as follows:

„Secondary religion is religion in a completely new and emphatic sense, and above all: secondary religion is a ‚matter of the heart‘.“[11]

It stands on its own, and the individual faces God.

Secondary religions may not always trace back to rebels, but certainly to reformers, charismatics, prophets or – neutrally said – to founders. While primary religion does come with religious specialists, e.g. priests (this is often the clan chief), fortune-tellers, healers, shamans etc., it is nevertheless primarily a collective matter.
Secondary religions, however, are largely a matter of the individual. The proclaimed new religious truth is for all humans, not only for the own people and tribe. While in primary religions immanence is foregrounded, secondary religions are focused on transcendence.

In monotheism the concept of „justice“ is foregrounded, in contrast to „pagan religions“, which never made justice and ethics main aspects. Pagan concepts of law, including Roman Law – in which for instance our („western“) civil law is grounded – are rather concerned with the reconciliation of personal interests than with the enforcement of abstract legal interests. Justice and Ethics only provide the general framework. A „victimless crime“, or at least a crime without potential victims, would have been a nonsensical legal concept for ancient Roman, Hellenic, or Germanic people. No injured, no plaintiff – and „No plaintiff, no judge“[12], as is stated in the Sachsenspiegel, the most important law book and legal code of the German Middle Ages. The idea of universal and unconditional justice can be seen as progressive (albeit, I’d like to add, of ambivalent nature).

In Assmann’s opinion, monotheism is spiritualized and ethicized. According to Assmann, monotheism usually considers itself as rooted in a revelation and requires the book to further civilisation, and thus is based on a „culture of remembrance“ – in cultures without writing no secondary religion is able to establish itself. While most primary religions make a deep distinction between their own people and other peoples, universal belief systems presuppose that all humans are somehow equal and are called upon to join the new religious truth. In the same way the tought that its belief system has universal validity is inherent in monotheism: If there is only one god, then the scope of his influence cannot be limited to one region and one people, but throughout the whole world, which is his creation, must his name be known and his dominion acknowledged and praised.

This is the reason why the development of an absolute concept of truth in secondary religions (Assmann calls it „The Mosaic Distinction“) made the pluralistic coexistence of the ancient pantheon impossible in the long run, and has entered into modern humankind’s cultural memory.

There is a high price to pay to have monotheism. Among other things, it comprises intense religious, cultural and political conflicts.
This makes clear that every form of Neopaganism must fundamentally differ from the „primary religion“ of the pre-Christian eras. Not too rarely some kind of a „non-Christian church“ emerges , including a clergy, a belief in scriptures and a claim of absolute truth (cf. the above-mentioned „pagan princes“ and „heathen popes“).
In a worst-case scenario, a belief in „national deities“ and a „national religion“ will be added to this, superficially copied from the primary tribal religion. – According to this interpretation, Ásatrú would only be for people of „Germanic or tribally related blood“. Overlaps with extremist right-wing ideology are no coincidence.
At its best „Neopaganism“/“Heathenry“ is an attempt to avoid the disadvantages of secondary religions – religions in the proper meaning of the word, to take advantage of a primary religion’s benefits for the individual as well as for society, to take a look at how primary religious tribal societies regulate things differently from the „Christian occident“, and to learn from these findings.
This without disregard for modern achievements like the universal human rights or the principle of human equality.
This is possible because these achievements do not trace back to Christianity, as claimed by the self-proclaimed „defenders of the Christian occident“, but were partly developed outside of Christianity, and partly, like the Enlightenment, even deliberately against it.

What is conveyed from that too: Modern Heathenry/Paganism is in no way first and foremost or ever „belief in the ancient god(esse)s“. As in the ancient „tribal religions“, „mundane ethics“ and „ethics based on religion“ aren’t separable. Both are „customs“. And, as I recently experienced at the Nornirs Ætt’s yule celebration, this ancient-new custom (Siðr) is really handed down from generation to generation. (Not in the manner of „religious education“ or even proselytization, but through sponaneous adoption by „the young“ from „the old“.)
To return to the initial statement: Both the ancient „primary religion“ and enlightened Heathenry/Neo-Paganism have little in common with religion in the proper sense, i.e. secondary religion in Assmann’s sense. So little that strictly speaking we can’t speak of Heathenry/Paganism as a religion.

The reason for the common talk of heathen, pagan or polytheistic „religions“ is based on a concept of religion not only propagated by the Bertelsmann-Stiftung but in fact even within the churches, which even includes philosophical systems like classic Buddhism, which doesn’t make any statements about a creator or about the existence or nonexistence of deities. With as vague a definition as „system of final-instance commitments“ almost every kind of metaphysics can be reinterpreted as „religion“.
In other words: Aside from „zealotic materialists“ everyone would be „somehow religious“ – and according to some Christian apologists, almost everybody „somehow“ believes in God (which implies the Christian God). The fact that many Jews and Muslims, not to mention Buddhists and Heathens/Pagans, are not amused by such attempts of embracement, which can also be interpreted as usurpation, may at most astonish said apologists.

Links and sources.

Please take into regard the original article was written in the Yuletide of 2007/2008, we only translated it, therefore the links might not be up to date anymore!
[1] It’s German version can be found there:
[5] To Cicero and the problem of definitions:
[7] This is a hint to Geza von Nemenyi, the leader of „Germanische Glaubensgemeinschaft“, located around
Berlin, who indeed hold such strange ideas.
[8] (English complement:
[9] ||
[10] “Alles, was außerhalb des Sippenfriedens steht, ist Feind, dazu gehört der ‘Unfreie’, der von seinem
Herrn bußlos erschlagen werden kann.”
[11] “Die sekundäre Religion ist in einem ganz neuen und emphatischen Sinne Religion und vor allem: die
Sekundärreligion ist ‘Herzenssache’.”
[12] New High German: „Wo kein Kläger, da kein Richter“

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