View Full Version : The Prehistory of Germanic Europe [Herbert Schutz]: Cultic Figurines

Thursday, January 12th, 2006, 06:06 PM
Many sacred sites have been discovered between Scandinavia and the Central German Highlands. In a bog in Jutland, for instance, a heap of stones had covered a 3 m tall 'goddess', a forked oak-branch of generally anthropomorphic form, slender, with identifiable 'hips' and an unambiguous incision where the fork begins. No other identifiable parts were added.

Among items of obscure purpose, the presence of a number of Iron Age pots identifies the spot as a sacrificial site, probably dedicated to fertility and/or harvest rituals. The bog was her abode to which she retired between festivities, unless the goddess was herself a sacrifice in the end.

Other such deities have been uncovered throughout the area. Using pieces of wood whose natural shapes often suggested anthropomorphic forms with sexual connotations to their beholders, the northern populations set up divinities, probably conceived in pairs. Ceramic deposits are invariably associated with these sites. It is apparent that their cults centered around a nature religion which paid specific attention to fertility, growth and reproductive cycles, characterized by an emphasis of generative and especially vegetative and organic processes.

The notion of sacred trees is of course not restricted to northern Europe; however, this apparent link between the organic elements and abstract principles will continue to be a productive northern characteristic, The choice of wood recommended itself since few workable raw materials were available to them, As in earlier times the northerners were still not carving their own amber. In spite of their sophisticated tools and skill as craftsmen, the awkward crudeness of all these figures is striking and must have been deliberate.

Most explicit is a pair of 'tree gods' found in a moor at Braak near Eutin in eastern Holstein, some 35 km north of Lubeck. Associated pottery fragments have been dated to the bronze to iron transition phase, 500-400 B.C. Carbon-I4 analysis of the figures has corroborated this date. Made of two forks of knotty oak, both male (2.8 m) and female (2.3 m) figures had specially attached tenon-arms set in mortises. Up to the shoulders the wood of the 'tree gods' had been subjected only to minor modifications; the necks however, had been worked roughly without regard to realism. Yet the female received much more attention in the finishing.

The facial features of both were worked out with the same technique, but while the male head bears no other distinguishing marks, the female goddess wears a bun on the top of her head. The two figures are distinguished by additional 'naturalistic' detail, in that the male figure once had a distinct remnant of a branch protruding in the area of the groin, just below the fork, The torso of the goddess had two small simulated breasts inserted in mortises. The emphasis on sexual and reproductive organs is generally seen to point to the deities' function in terms of fertility. They had been found near a pad of peat moss about 12m in diameter which had been 'paved' with a layer of stone 60-70 cm thick, which was mixed with layers of ashes and pottery shards, a possible altar on which pottery had been placed, or perhaps smashed in offertory fashion as a wish for fertility and abundance.

To this day a German village custom is to celebrate the 'Polterabend' on the eve of a wedding, when well-wishers come and break crockery as an expression of hope that the union will be fruitful. Viking tradition designates some gods with such terms as tregud (literally treegod) or hulgud (German Holzgott, wooden god), pointing to the
tenacity of such notions over more than a thousand years, especially when reinforced by later mythology.

It is conceivable that the ready notion of fertility obscures much weightier ideas about principles of cosmic power. Thus the god from Braak had its genitals hacked off some time before the pair was deposited in the moor nearby. The mutilation must have been a precaution, not only to neutralize the god's great powers over life and death while 'active' on earth, but to remove the threat he constituted even after his deposition. His capacity to be benevolent must have been balanced by his capacity for malevolence.

This deliberate act, however, is not consistent with notions about the animal death and rebirth of vegetation gods, for then one would have expected the goddess to have been abused as well, unless there is some unknown significance behind the missing arms. In any case, throughout the area the emphasis put on the presence, absence or treatment of the phallic principle is not at all uniform.

from: The Prehistory of Germanic Europe by Herbert Schutz; ISBN 0300028636