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Wednesday, August 13th, 2008, 11:05 PM
Irmin and the Irminsul

For the Irminist, the central, unifying figure- that Holy emblem of the triuwa we hold with our Gods and Folk is undoubtedly the Irminsul. Throughout the years, scholars have struggled to seek the one true definitive explanation to the phenomena- to find and proffer the true identity of who or what that figure ultimately is - be it a representation of a hypostasis of some God such as Ziu (Tyr) or Wodan, or simply the figurative embodiment of the collective might and holiness of the Gods overall- the power of divinity, the power of a unified body of the Gods themselves. This latter point of theory is commonly shared among many linguists and scholars who feel that there is nothing more indicative of the term Irmin/ Irminsul than to define it as great / (the) great pillar. This seems reasonable enough, especially when we take into account its usage within word-compounds (in both proper names and as descriptive terminology). As J. Grimm suggests (1):

In these compounds…Irmin seems to have but a general intensifying power, without any distinct reference to a god or hero.

Here, we do see an indistinct usage of the term more reflective the similar applications of -got and -tyr. Still, even Grimm is quick to suggest a deeper root to the phenomena:

…but there is nothing to prevent Irmino or Irmin having had a personal reference in previous centuries…

…that, as its usage became relegated to that of a more mundane sphere, its true underlying meaning would likewise have been obscured or altogether forgotten or faded out over time. From a Heathen perspective, this latter perception seems more rather the case -its hardly conceivable that something which held such a prominent, dominating and renown presence as did the Irminsul for the elder Germanic Heathen would reflect nothing more than the merely abstract, even as concerned of a general symbolism for the sippa of the Gods! And certainly, we can surmount as much in simply considering the available lore regarding the Irminsul and its existence in our folk’s history.

The question then arises: who is Irmin and just what is the Irminsul -especially in regard to us as Irminists?

The Irminsul is perhaps one the least understood, though most significant holy image to the Germanic Heathen -serving throughout the ages as the primary, central figure in Germanic votive celebrations -this is especially well-documented amongst the ancient Saxons, though certainly not limited to that one ‘microcosmic’ Germanic entity. Representations of a forked pillar or tree survive from as early as the Northern or Germanic Bronze Age which clearly predates that of the Saxons, proper as an established socio-ethnic unit, and similarities or parallels in cultic symbols or glyphs from other, non-Germanic Indo-European cultures lend due credence to the expression beyond that of the early Saxons alone, though it certainly may be argued that the representation itself was best preserved or remembered (in its distinguished form) among them.

Within the available Historical evidence, we are provided with a consistent image of the Irminsul’s exoteric function within cultic practice to the ancient Germans. From this, we can readily decipher its deeper, esoteric meaning and so be presented with a ‘whole’ picture (a realization of the Irminsul on the multifidic-multiune level) which clearly defines just how crucial the Irminsul was and is to German Heathen and Heathen dynamic, and of the awe-some power and being which is the pillar of Irmin. Among the handful of depictions of an Irminsul-shaped column in Germanic Bronze Age carvings, one peculiar image presents itself as most remarkable, and so deserves our particular attention here- the carving illustrates a sacrificial scene taking place before a standing column, quite unmistakable in its form as an Irminsul. Centrally located between and slightly below the curling arms of the column is a circle or sphere that most probably represents (in the typically in-ornate manner of such carvings) an image or depiction of a God or God-form. What makes this prehistoric depiction so striking are the accounts of later historians which describe the erecting of a pillar or column by Germanic Heathen, upon which some image of a God was often placed or carved. This pillar was an integral part in Germanic votive celebration and sacrifice, if only from a ‘symbolic’ standpoint rather than in practical application.

But that having been said, we must then ask, what or whom did such columns symbolize or represent? This very question, and the answers it generally elicits remain a matter of contention and debate among scholars, historians and Heathen alike to this very day. While such opinions do vary across the spectrum, most folk’s view on the matter generally falls within one of two genres of thinking:

Those who see the Irminsul as either a universal or world column, free from any and all specific inference to one God or God-essence.
Those who see the Irminsul as the world column, but as associated or representative of Ziu and his function as a ‘God of order’, or as ‘supporter of the Heavens’ or ‘original’ Sky Father or ruling deity (later to be usurped from his place and stature by Wodan).

As Irminists, we readily understand the deeper significance of the Irminsul as the cosmic or universal pillar that supports the heavens/universe. We also know that this is the direct cognate (in form) to the Old Norse Yggdrasil, which of course is none other than the World Tree itself. As is to be expected, the Irminsul is that which both holds and supports the nine worlds, and is the conduit for the transmission of runic form and force, as well as those energies exerted in the workings of wurt in and throughout those same worlds. As such, we can readily comprehend that the column erected in Germanic votive celebrations or rites at least partially served this function as well -that is, in sending and receiving the magan of the working or sacrifice, along with the reception of the magan of the Gods and their blessings within the wickstead.

The connection between the Irminsul and the World Tree or column as indicative in votive celebrations is also supported within the mythology itself, and in all reality, truly follows that example- just as the German of old would hold Thing and fainings beside the holy representation of the World Tree (Irminsul), so too do the Gods themselves likewise hold their daily Thing beside the Great Tree:

Then spoke Gangleri: ‘where is the chief center or holy place of the Gods?’
High replied: ‘it is at the ash, Yggdrasil. There the Gods must hold their
Courts each day’. (2)


As the Tree/Column supports the order of the cosmos, of the All, so does those actions (of Gods and men alike) which further that order likewise strengthen that support. This is too is borne within the myths as well- it is from Urda’s fountain (-Urdabrunno), lying at the Thing-stead of the Gods) that the waters which heal the tree are drawn- those same waters which carry the influences of urlag through the energies/turnings of wurt to be absorbed by the tree and subsequently distributed throughout all of the worlds…thus, it becomes crucial that such holy steads would stand beside that very manifestation and support of that which we seek to further and evolve! This is also illustrated in the ‘roof tree’ which grows in the center of the hall- the very hall in which samal takes place, whose walls serve in function as a container, an exoteric expression of the very well of Urda itself; the tree, obviously symbolic of the World- or Universal Tree or Column. In later times, this tree would be given representation through the House Pillars or Hall Columns (which came to be associated with Donar by the time of the Viking Age). These columns or pillars retained their holy significance to the Heathen of the day, and served an integral role within the religious practices of the given household.

Further, in the myths, the World Tree, Yggdrasil is said to have three great roots that each stretch to one of three wells or levels/aspects of the one Well of Wurt. Interestingly enough, the Irminsul, while often considered to have four roots (in relation to the four ‘roads’ or ‘pathways’ which lead from it) is most often depicted with only three just as Yggdrasil is likewise described, and both Yggdrasil and the Irminsul were/are known for their roles in holding or supporting the multiverse or cosmos.

Certainly, the parallel depiction of both the World Tree, Yggdrasil and that of the Irminsul, or Irmin-pillar/column, along with their identical function is no coincidence, but demonstrative of two regional or cultural-specific (i.e., Germanic and Scandinavian) perceptions of the same Holy manifestation. That being the obvious case, would we yet assume a freedom from association to any particular God or Goddess? The answer to that question lies within linguistic, historical and mystical-mythical evidences and truths.

The symbol of the World Tree, the World or Universal Column or pillar is one that is shared throughout Indo-European cultures, and is unilaterally representative of the masculine or male essence within creation and being/becoming. Hence, we see the tree/column most often associated with the personification of a Creator-, Sky God or Sky Father (partner or spouse to the Earth Mother or Earth-feminine principle).

Such is in fact the case within both Scandinavian and Germanic understandings-

From the Nordic Eddas comes a vivid account of the fashioning and ordering of the multiverse or cosmos by Wodan, Willo, and Wih. The fruit of their labor is best illustrated within the mythic cycles as the World- or Universal/Cosmic Tree, Yggdrasil and the nine worlds which it holds and supports- the very tree upon which Wodan would later sacrifice himself in facilitating a death-initiative evolution that subsequently wins him the knowledge of and mastery over the runes. From these accounts, Wodan came to be associated with the Tree and of the mysteries and power it holds, and to this day it bears the God’s name: Yggdrasil.

The Irminsul is similarly named for a God or divine/Creator-essence. An argument to the contrary has already been given mention above -in this, scholars insist that had the term Irminsul truly been indicative of a specific God or being, the name would demonstrate or contain a genitive form within its compound, such as Irmines-sul, or perhaps Eormenes-sul. On the surface, this seems valid, but overlooks other plausible theories to the evolution of the term to its preserved form. We can only assume how it was that the Christian observers/historians initially came across the term itself- that is, how it was that they had come to hear the term spoken. Obviously, there would not have been a written, Heathen account, and so lifting it from some text or other gloss is out of the question. The term then, would have been spoken in some form (that is, spoken, sung or chanted) to/around the historian/observer who first recorded it. Given the Latin upbringing of even the Saxon chronicler Widukind (to name just one example), clearly what would more applicably be his ‘native’ tongue is then reduced to a secondary language at best. The chances that such an observer could have missed the short, genitive component is a good possibility- especially if the term was related in some syncopated form, and so that term as has been recorded and preserved would likewise reflect this misunderstanding or syncopation (3). These same scholars also overlook the very writings of the observers/historians themselves who very clearly and most often attribute the column to (a) specific deity. This brings us to the key question and central point of our discussion: Who is Irmin?

The term itself (Irmin) is an Old High German form related to or drawn from an older, Gothic aírmana, which itself derives from the Proto-Germanic ermuna or ermana, and is related to Latvian (e)rms: marvelous apparition, and Greek ormeuos: rushing furiously…interestingly, these terms are quite reminiscent of traits or characteristics typically attributed or known of Wodan: ormeuos brings our attention to Wodan as Dauþis Drauhtins = the Lord of the Dead, and leader of the wild or furious host that rushes forth on the winter winds, the infamous Wild Hunt. The Latvian (e)rms calls to mind Wodan as God of All-light, the repository of All-wisdom and All-being, the source of Armanic wisdom, the shining Armangot, the true manifestation of Artor (Ar-tor) himself. From the same Proto-Germanic root (ermana) is drawn the Germanic stem word ermen [found in both Middle Low German (Ermenrík) and Middle High German (Ermenrich)], Old English Eormen (a name of Wodan) and Old Icelandic Jørmunr (another name of Wodan).

A further linguistic exploration also produces some interesting insights as well: the fourth rune in the Anglo-Frisian fuþark is named for Ós, who ‘is the origin of all language (and) wisdom’s foundation’. In Germanic-Norse traditions, it is Woden/Oðin/Wodan who is God of language and its arts (most notably Galdor-craft and poetry), and it is apparent here that Ós is an obvious reference to that God of eloquence. The related, Gothic form of the rune name is preserved for us in the Salzburg manuscript as Aza, which itself derives from ans (also appears in the same form in Middle High German) or anza -both denoting (a) beam. These ultimately derive from PGmc Ansuz, which itself is preserved in its earliest recorded form as Ansis. Typically, this root is defined or related to the Æsir, or as in the case of the runic form, the Æs: Woden/Oðin/Wodan -which, at first glance might seem wholly disconnected from any notion or relation to (a) beam. The connection becomes more apparent when we consider historical sources that describe how Germanic Gods were often depicted: Ahmad Ibn Fadlan provides an early account in which a Varangian (Russ) merchant offers sacrifice to a God for successful trading. The image of the God is carved or placed upon a beam, which is then set firm in the ground like a pillar or column. While Fadlan does not expressly state to which God the merchant is sacrificing/ praying, we do know that Wodan was given reverence among Heathen as ‘Cargo-Tyr’, i.e., God of trade and (merchant) exchange. A similar scenario is given in the 12th century Kaiserchronik, which names the beam as yrmensul (Irminsul) and the image of the merchant-God as Mercury:

…Upon an yrmensul stood an idol huge, Him they called their merchant

In yet another account, we are told that upon a pillar dedicated to Irmin, was affixed the image of an eagle. The eagle is a symbol of the highest nobility in Germanic custom, particularly among the Grethungi (Ostrogoths), representing no other God than the founder of their kind, Gáut = Wodan -an association which would eventually become widespread throughout continental Europe through long-term Gothic influence.

Irmin’s identity is further revealed….Widukind tells us that the chief God of the Heathen Saxons was Irmin, the same God whom is equated with Mercury or even Mars in other sources. This latter association (with Mars) has often led to the assumption that it was in fact Ziu who was implied, rather than Wodan -that of course, being based upon Ziu’s patronage over war and battle. But even as Grimm points out, Wodan was often translated by Latin historians as Mars instead of Mercury, and certainly we must remember that the genealogies of tribes such as the Saxons trace their lineage to Wodan, not Ziu…that being the obvious case, the Irminsul that was erected in honor of the ‘chief God of the Saxons’ cannot be any other God but the chief God, Wodan! In one Saxon rhyme, Irmin (Hermen) and his host are facing the strength of an oppressive invasion…in the verse, he is urged to sound his war-music…what catches our attention most is his being told to ‘sound the catgut’ -an obvious reference to the strings of the harp: the instrument of not only the Minnesänger and rune-galdorers, but of their patron-the master harps-man/warrior himself: Wodan.

The Irminsul -the pillar of Irmin- is clearly the pillar of Wodan, the World Tree that stands at the center of the All, that point from which all roads both originate and hence return! It is the conduit of Runic form and force, the embodiment of the ordering of the multiverse (-the working of Wodan, Willo, and Wih), the beam upon which Wodan hung in sacrifice to himself…It is that mighty column by which the Gods hold Thing-That very stead at which their dooms are set, and judgments made…The Irminsul is the symbol of the enduring ALL, the enduring spirit and power of our folk and our blood, and of the ultimate source of that blood and progenitor of our folk: Irmin-Wodan!


1- Both quotes: Grimm, Jacob (J. Stallybrass, translator): Teutonic Mythology, p. 352.
2- Sturluson, Snorri (A. Faulkes, translator): Edda, p. 17.
3- In poetry, syncopation is the loss of one or more ‘unaccented’ syllables in a given word. Within elder Germanic poetic forms, syncopation was often used to eliminate unnecessary syllables from a ‘weak position’ in a line or half-line. Elder verse was governed by strict rules of alliteration (consonantal ‘rhyming‘, if you will) which depended on the placement of strong (or, stressed) syllables within a word or half-line. A ‘strong position’ could only contain one syllable, whereas a ‘weak position’ could contain anywhere from one to five, depending on the particular pattern used for that half-line. Syncopation allows the poet to condense these positions, which can then either ‘streamline’ the verse (so as to not make it cumbersome in its wordiness) or allow for the addition of more words/syllables within a given weak position. If syncopated, Eormenesul (Irmin’s pillar) would be rendered Eormensul -or, from Irminesul to Irminsul…

Source: http://www.irminenschaft.net/IrminandIrminsul.htm (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.irmi nenschaft.net%2FIrminandIrminsul.htm)