We’ve received two very good questions via the contact form over the past week, and I’m working on a response to both of them. One of them is regarding Odinism, the pre-Christian religion of Northern Europe. While we’ve discussed this topic previously here and here, I will be addressing his specific questions and comments in an article. However, in addition to this forthcoming post, Silas pointed me towards something he had posted on his own (now defunct) blog which merits posting as a good preliminary viewpoint of this topic. The following should not be seen as an endorsement of Germanic paganism, but merely an honest assessment of how the character of the Germanic people influenced their pre-Christian religion and laid the foundation for their approach to Christianity. Despite the good things mentioned, the holes and failings of Odinism can be seen by the perceptive even in these paragraphs. I will discuss these more plainly and in greater detail in my own post on this subject. – Thorin
THE NEW FAITH
The English man who came from the Lowlands of West Europe to the shores of Britain in the fifth century was not yet Christian. He still held stoutly to the gods of his fathers. And for gods of man’s making they were no mean gods. The abominations of the Semitic theogony had never touched them. The lewdness of the Graeco-Latin Olympos was to them unknown. He could make no gods higher than himself, but they were the best of the self that was in him. Gods of the woodland, the winter skies, and the sea, they were like himself, only great, strong, simple-hearted men, true to the faith that was in them, true to their wives, true to a rude yet healthy and healthful code of high manly honor; not overly peaceable; rather given to brawl and battle, yet in an open, manly way; and, like the men who had made them, not pretending to have pierced the mystery of the far future, but looking forward to fate, and Ragnarok, and the end of all things when they, too, should go down in final and hopeless battle.
It is well to pause a moment and consider that oldtime faith of our forefathers somewhat carefully, for it furnishes the key to much of the after religious life of the race. And especially does it furnish a key to the differences between the Teutonic and the Graeco-Latin types of the Christianity which grew up upon the wreckage of the older faiths. Indeed, it may be questioned whether any religion ever wholly escapes, or succeeds in emancipating itself from, the modifying influence for good or for ill of the religions which preceded it. The rule is that it does not. Assuredly Christianity in its many variant forms is no exceptionn to the rule. In this sense all religions are to a certain extent composite. And in this more careful examination of the faith of our fathers we have to depend not so much upon any written records of our forebears, for we have not much that is direct and to the point. They were too busy fighting to do much else; and then their fingers were not yet skilled to the stylus or to the pen. It is from the Norse, more especially from the Icelandic man, that we gain largely what light we have; for he, in the isolation of his ice home, carried the old heathenism of the Teuton with its myths and legends down to the time when pen and ink-horn became comrades to the sword. The great underlying difference of that old Teutonic religion of our forefathers as contrasted with the Graeco-Latin religions of Southern Europe is its manliness. It has left a mythology marked by strength, earnestness, honesty. Its gods might be rude, but they were true. Valhalla might lack the polish, the courtliness of Olympos, but it had the merit of sincerity. It was only a larger and somewhat idealized Teuton-land, home of the gods and of stout-hearted Teutons. Woden (or Odin) himself, the All-father, is a great, strong, homely, simple-hearted man of the woods, rough but leal and true. Jove upon Olympos was more as the courtly man of the world, somewhat cynical, insincere, ready for his own gratification to betray innocence and purity. And when we speak of Woden and Jove it is to be borne in mind that we are virtually speaking of the men back of them; for Woden and Jove as gods of man’s own making were only to him his embodiment of the ideal man, each for his own race, possessing in typical degree the traits which to him were race characteristics. All through the old Graeco-Latin religions run the same elements, only growing more base as you descend in the scale—intriguers, jealous, untruthful, impure, betrayers of women, temples that were only houses of debauchery. Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” in English would be banished from the shelves of any family library. Men, to their credit be it said, at last even grew ashamed of their gods, and the whole fabric was falling to pieces through its own rottenness when Christianity came to give it the final blow. Yet it left its baneful seed in the type of Christianity which grew up in the Graeco-Latin lands as its successor.
But in the Teutonic religions, with all their battling and bloodshed, their exaltation of brute force, we yet find truth and purity, and reverence for woman, and loyalty to the home and the fireside, with sacred regard for the marriage tie. When we look back beyond Christianity to that older religion of our forefathers, we find nothing to be ashamed of. It brings the blush to no cheek. Its myths may be read by simple-hearted children at the fireside. It was a religion that grew up in the pure air of the open sky; under the solemn shadows of the great forests where the lone winds sang anthems amid the swaying pines; out upon the stormy Northern seas where the wild waves dashed and leaped to the lashing of the wilder tempest above. What wonder that it was a religion with a certain sternness of purity about it?
With such a birth-land it could not be otherwise. And this stern Northland religion also left its impress, and it was no light impress, upon the type of Christianity which followed it; for the law of heredity holds good in spiritual as well as in mental and material things. It is deeply interesting to note that older English man in the simplicity of his primitive faith groping, after his earnest, homely fashion, his way heavenward. True, neither he nor his gods saw very far into the depths of spiritual mysteries. Neither professed to. The gods themselves were too busy, battling with the giants and the dwarfs for possession of the land in which men were to make home and fireside, to trouble much about the unknowable which might lie beyond. And then with Ragnarok, and the end of all ever before them, why should it matter much? And so they battled, and toiled, and subdued the evil forces that the land might be less forbidding and men might bide in peace. It sounds all very simple, at times almost childlike, this story of Odin, the All-father, and Thor with his mighty hammer, and the battling with giants and dwarfs; and it is childlike; but it is to be remembered that this man of forest and field was as yet only a child; and this was still the infancy of the race.
Such were the gods of our fathers—only great, bighearted men, co-dwellers with themselves in the land; journeying across the craggy mountains to visit each other; trudging through the snow-drifts to Jotunheim; trying their might in games of strength with the giants; eating, drinking, making merry in the ruddy firelight, as the darkness of the Northern night-winter settled down upon the earth when the sun had fled southward from the presence of the ice-wind and the hoar-frost.
And then came that sudden burst of a softened tenderness in the soul of that stern old Teuton such as we sometimes, to our surprise, find in the rugged, weather beaten man of the woods, or in him who is tanned and seamed by the salt spray of the sea. Baldur, the Beautiful, the Northland Apollo! How the hearts of those grim Northern races clung to him! His worship came to them as the caressing touch of a babe’s hand to the wrinkled cheek of some unloved and sorrowful man. Baldur, the Beautiful! He stood among the strong, battling deities of the Teutonic mythology like the one fair, tender child that is sometimes born to a house filled only with rough unsmiling folk. Baldur, the god of sunlight, of springtime, of green grass and running waters, and the singing of birds, and whose coming brought a smile of gladness to the frozen earth; the god into whose dwelling place nothing impure could enter, and at whose death “There was long silence in heaven; and then with one accord there broke out a loud voice of weeping.” But the heart of that stern, rugged folk could not give him up; for to them he represented all that was brightest and gladdest in life. To the new earth that was to be after Ragnarok Baldur would return again, risen from the dead. For in one thing the men of that older Teutonic blood were greater, more prescient than the gods they had made; after the gods, after Valhalla, after the Norns and Ragnarok, these old men of the beech-woods felt somehow in their inmost souls that there was more. They, too, had a dim Northland vision from afar of what John saw upon the island of Patmos—A new heaven, a new earth, and the coming of one who was above the gods, unnamable yet sure, and he should right all wrongs, sever ill from good; and Ragnarok should return again no more forever. And in this simple old-time woodland faith men lived, served God in their homely fashion, and died without fear. “Fifty winters have I this folk ruled,” says Beowulf as the death damp gathers upon his brow, slain battling for his people. “I kept mine own well; sought not treacherous war; swore not falsely; waited the appointed time. For all this, tho sick with deadly wounds, I gladness now may have. The Ruler of men may not me charge with murder of kinsmen when my life shall depart from this body.” It was of such Paul wrote, “For when the Gentiles, which have not the Law, do by nature the things contained in the Law, these, having not the Law, are a Law unto themselves; which show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness “Beowulf’s conscience bare him witness; and in death it was peace.’
There is an especial interest attaching to the topic of the religion of our far-off forefathers in this, that as the older heathenism of the Graeco-Latin lent its molding influence to the making of the type of Christianity which Southern Europe developed, so that older heathenism of our forebears had no small share in settling the type of all our after-religion. It is an open question, How far the rude yet pure heathenism of the Teutonic races was father to the sturdy Protestantism of the Reformation? Maybe after all it was pagan England which was largely instrumental in making Protestant England. We may after all owe a greater spiritual debt to Woden and Thor and Baldur than we have been wont to acknowledge; for these were only the embodiment of the nature-faith of these “Gentiles which had not the Law.”
Not without a struggle was the older faith given up. And it only was given up when the soul life of our forefathers had outgrown it; and with hungry hearts they began to grope in the twilight for something more.
One day a wandering monk came to the court of Edwin of Northumbria, that Edwin, or Eadwine, who built a city upon the hills by the banks of the Forth and called it Edwin’s-Burg. The monk had a rede, or tale, to tell. It was of a faith which claimed to give to men this something more for which the hearts of those old forefathers of ours were thus beginning to hunger, and for which in the dimness they were reaching out. When the tale was told one of the ealdermen arose and said, “It may be, O King, thou dost remember that which sometimes happeneth in the chill winter when thou art at table with thine earls and thegns. The fire is lighted, and the hall warmed, and without is the rain and the snow and storm. Then cometh a swallow flitting across the hall; by the one door it cometh in; by the other it goeth out. Pleasant to it is the brief moment the while it is within; it feeleth not rain nor the cheerless winter; but it is only for a moment, as the twinkling of an eye; and the bird is gone again out into the darkness and chill whence it came. So, it seemeth unto me, is the life of man upon earth by the side of the unknown beyond. It dureth for a little space—but what is that which cometh after?—that which was before? We know not. If then this new teaching mayhap shall be able to tell us somewhat of greater surety, it were well that we should heed.”
And so Woden, and Thor, and Baldur, who could give no sure rede of the hereafter, were put aside; and Christ, the Christ who at the mouth of the tomb had said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth on me shall never die,” the Christ from the land oversea came in in their stead; not at the point of the sword, as to Charlemagne’s Franks; not because they must, as with King Olaf’s bonders; but because the hungry heart of a free folk opened out to him. In that free-willed, self-respecting choice of Christianity possibly lies the key to the steadfastness with which the English folk have always clung to their faith.
An excerpt from the chapter “The New Faith” in the 1907 book Race Life of the Aryan Peoples, by Joseph Pomeroy Widney. Available at Google Books.