Monday, May 7, 2012

I is for Irminsul

OK, so. I was going to skip this week because I had no idea what to write about. I still sort of don't, so I'm going with Irminsul because it is quick and easy.

What is an Irminsul?

The Irminsul is a symbol of Germanic Paganism. It's a symbol of Germanic Paganism generally, and is used by many Heathens, but it's also specifically important to the Saxons and Continental Germanic Paganism. We know only so much about the Irminsul - we know it was tremendously sacred to the Saxons and a focal point of worship. They were erected in a few places, but there was one large one in particular destroyed by Charlemagne. We know it was a pillar, and may have been a tree trunk - although some may have been made of stone also. We strongly suspect it was a representation of Yggdrassil, and that it was probably related to Oðinn, or maybe Tyr. It's not as popular in jewellery as the Hammer, but you still find it here and there, and some people erect their own pillars in their places of worship. There are large ones erected as well, such as this magnificent one in Lower Saxony in Germany.

But it has a sort of secondary meaning, and that's of the destruction of our religion by Christian forces - and its rebirth.

I don't often go into that sort of thing, because for many Pagan cultures, the switch to Christianity was more of a slow process. It wasn't like Christianity sprang into existence and then went on a millennium-long, Europe-wide killing spree until everyone was Christian. It's not a simple thing. And early Christians were themselves persecuted. On top of this, there's a tendency to blame modern Christians for the actions of historical Christians, which I think is unfair and attempt to avoid. So in general, I don't go much into the conversions. Besides, many were not bloody. In Iceland, for example, the conversion of the country was largely bloodless and a matter of arbitration (though there was certainly pressure from Norway). Frith was preferable to civil war; a goði was elected to decide matters, he went off and spoke with the gods and the deal was made that the people could practice in private how they pleased, and records were in time made of the myths. Our faith was preserved as much as it was through this arbitration. Had it come to war, perhaps more would have been lost.

Anyway. Peaceful as it was in Iceland, at least to begin with, shit went down in Scandinavia (I'm looking at you, Olaf. And you, other Olaf. Not cool.), and further south in Germany. The Irminsul is a symbol of the bloodiness of some conversions, and the destruction of the old faith, because of its treatment by Charlemagne.

Charlemagne was a dick. He was very gung-ho about forcing everyone to convert. To him, his Christian mission was tied in with his military power; you either submitted to him and to baptism, by force if necessary, or he was determined to kill you all. All or nothing. And Charlemagne, in his efforts to destroy Heathen religion, cut down a huge and very sacred Irminsul. It was a religious spit in the face that the Vikings would remember when they dug up and destroyed altars in raids of churches and monasteries.* It was desecration. The tearing down of the Irminsul echoed the tearing down of many Heathen people, their deaths, their forced conversions, their suppression.

In thinking of the Irminsul as a symbol we cannot overlook the way this one was destroyed, or what that destruction itself symbolised. The Heathens did not build in stone; the sacred places do not stand as they do in Greece and Rome - not even in ruins. The closest we get are Stave churches, which, while undoubtedly beautiful and remarkable buildings, are not the sacred buildings of our faith. The Irminsul, at least for me, is like a reminder of all sacred places that were desecrated, destroyed, or lost. It's something I and many others wish we still had.

And in a way, it's like a representation of our tenacity. It says "you tried to destroy us, but we have come back", like a sapling growing from the stump of a great tree. It says "dare you to try it again". It says "we haven't forgotten". It's a reclaiming of the old faith, and it's a way of claiming that aspect of our history, as well. It was a symbol of Oðinn and Tyr, of Yggdrasil, of Heathen faith - and it still is, but it is now also a symbol of our ancestors, of our strength and pride, of the fall and rebirth of the Old Tradition.


  1. I've also heard from one of my local Heathen friends, who is Theodish, that this tree may in fact be a palm tree.


    1. You mean the stylisation of the symbol? I agree that it's an odd symbol to use to represent the Irminsul. It's rather a modern version, in a sense. The scrolly bit are called a "palmette". The particular version of the symbol that tends to get used (with the palmette) is based on the Externsteine relief, which to be honest might not have a single thing to do with an Irminsul. The idea was put forward by an archaeologist in 1929 and he didn't really provide any evidence for it, so it's not an idea that ever got accepted. It may be just a chair. It may well be a palm tree in the Externsteine relief but in that case it probably symbolises a biblical story rather than the Irminsul. :)

      I might be more annoyed at the form the symbol takes, but honestly when the thing you're trying to represent is just a pole it looks a bit silly just on its own.

  2. I didn't know of this symbol, not being a follower of Germanic paganism, but I have learned much from your post today. I am glad you blogged this instead of skipping a week. Thank you so much!

  3. Two things: You just cleared up a question I've always had. I could never figure out why this group of fishermen, who lived in some of the most trying areas of the world, all of a sudden hated Christianity and fought some of the bloodiest battles. The brutal destruction of their Irminsul would definitely have brought rage with them. I was listening to something... they called it berserkergangr? I think that's how it's spelled. Anyway, thankyou for clearing that up for me, I'd have flown into a blind rage as well.
    I'd also like to take a minute to appreciate the way you handled this. It is a hard thing to objectively look at the past, and not begin to become subjective. I find a little bit of rage welling up in me as I read this. But, I have promised myself that I'm not going to become a Christian basher. I feel that does little to nothing for me personally: I don't have to invalidate their faith to validate mine. While we've all come across "those" Christians, the ones who have little respect for anything that isn't in their book; who will try to convert you with horror stories of hell; and who will narrow their eyes at your Pagan beliefs, and claim that their god can beat yours; they are not all that way. I wasn't, then again, a solid argument could be made that Christianity was never mine... But I digress.
    The point was thanks. I have a lot of catching up to do, and you provide not only a good basis of information but sort of a series of starter holes, so I can go digging for knowledge. This is invaluable to me!

    1. Thank you very much for your comment! That means a lot :)