Low religion: Nerthus and Frey

When I say “low,” I am thinking of the way the Anglicans distinguish between “high church” and “low church,” and applying this distinction analogically to early European pagan beliefs. For this purpose, low religion is everything connected to daily life and the earth, while high religion is the term I’ll use for beliefs not connected to daily life. High religion may be philosophical, and it deals with the afterlife and extreme values, not daily ones.

Describing low religion among the Germanic/Teutonic tribes is an exercise in generalizing broadly about what we barely know, but I think there’s still some useful background. Tacitus wrote that their primary deity was a goddess whose image was kept inside a wagon drawn by two cows. Other sources suggest this was an earth goddess named, approximately, Nerthus (this name has clearly been Latin-ized). The wagon with its image was allowed to wander at the will of the cattle, attended by at least one priest. Where the wagon stopped, the goddess dwelt. At the end of a seasonal cycle, says Tacitus, the priest guided the wagon to a sacred lake, where slaves (captured in war) washed it down and then were drowned as sacrifices.

There’s another reason to believe that the basic Teutonic earth religion involved human sacrifice: the Bog People. In Danish bogs, bodies have been found preserved by the acidic peat. They are often still wearing ropes around their necks that strangled them, and there is no sign of a fight. They really do look like human sacrifices offered to the earth, therefore sunk into a lake, swamp or bog.

Fertility is usually the other side of low religion; along with pleasing the mother earth, people want to have the forces of nature on their side for having many healthy children. Europe’s fertility totem may have been the boar. Wild pigs were among the plentiful early native animals, with wolves, bears, bison and mountain lions. Swine had great survival skills when the environment began to be shaped by more human settlers, since pigs are basically omnivores, so they remained plentiful until the early modern era. Boars were ferocious and strong; they had large litters of adorable striped piglets (see picture) (second picture).

Boars were popular fighting emblems in the Dark Ages, and they may have been sacred to the Celtic Gauls who lived in Europe before the Germanic migration, too. The Benty Grange helmet and Pioneer helmet, both found in England, have boar crests. The Sutton Hoo helmet appears to have carved figures of boars. Also, the poem Beowulf describes boar emblems among the war band.

Among the Norse gods whose names we know in mythology, Frey was the boar. His other name seems to have been Ing, probably the “Ing” element in Tacitus’s tribal name “Ingvaeones,” and a later name for the Danes, the Ingwines (loved by Ing). The Anglo-Saxon Runic Poem mentioned Ing, who was first seen among the East Danes and then went over the sea. When Adam of Bremen wrote about the Norse pagans around 1075, he described an image of Frey with a huge penis. Frey was also a god of peace. In Anglo-Saxon, the word “frith” means peace. Frey the boar was fierce, but he was more of a lover than a fighter.

The Celtic tribes, who were still a majority in some places (Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany), had adopted Christianity from the late Romans long before, but we have some pointers about their old beliefs. They appeared to locate the sacred in trees, water, mountains, and other natural objects. Some of their beliefs about trees such as the holly may have been shared by the Germanic Anglo-Saxons, or they may have persisted and been incorporated. Pagan animism generally feels that local places have spirits, so when you immigrate, it’s important to learn something of the local spirits.

Most daily low religion was carried out through charms and small rituals to remain on good terms with the earth. Some of these will come up when later essays talk about magic, because Christianity did not entirely displace them. Strangling slaves in a peat bog for Nerthus came to an end; but seasonal rituals and good-luck charms stayed on.

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