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Regional religious history

Many times I have thought about the subject and recently there has been discussions about it: does the focus of many European “pagans” not lie too much on the North? Does the term “Asatru” not refer to much to the god of the ancient Scandinavians? Why do we refer to “Odin” and “Thor” and not to the same gods in our own tongue? What actually do we really know about these local versions of the old faith? I have tried to to make some sort of inventarisation and initial investigation into a subject that proves to be quite difficult.


Even though the primary investigations of the old religion in Europe are called Deutsche Mythologie (Grimm) or Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte (Meyer, De Vries) the Deutsche/Germanische part is not as big as the titles suggest. The reason for this is, of course, that the first sources are mostly Scandinavian. Both Eddas are from Iceland, most sagas are from Iceland, books such as the Landnámabók and the Flateyjarbók are from Iceland, the famous Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus (ca. 1150-1208) is from Denmark. So what do we really have outside Scandinavia? Well, Adam of Bremen’s (ca. 1050-1081) Gesta Hammaburgensis is not unlike Saxo’s book, but since Adam was a German, his book also speaks a bit about the German part of his diocese. And of course we have the often-quoted Roman sources such as Julius Caesar’s (ca. 100-44) Commentarii de Bello Gallico or Tacitus’s (ca. 55-120) De Origine et Situ Germanorum (better known as Germania) and Historiae (in which we find the story of the Batavian revolt). Since the Romans did not really come more Northern than the river Rhine that splits what is nowadays the Netherlands, you can imagine that what they describe completely excludes Scandinavia and speak only about the Celts and Germans (which are hard to tell apart).

Outside these, I have not yet been able to find much information, but your heavy commenting will definitely give me some clues.

What do we know?

Tacitus writes that the most popular gods in our parts were “Mercurius”, “Mars” and “Herculus” and at another point he says that “Mercurius” is the most popular of the gods. Calling local gods by their ‘Roman names’ is called interpretatio Romana. Romans thought that the gods were the same everywhere, just under different names. Of course there have been many theories as to which these three names refer to. Most often the conclusion is respectively Wodan/Odin, Tiwaz/Tyr and Donar/Thor, but especially in the last two cases, things are not that simple as we will see.

This double naming (“Wodan/Odin”) already implies that we take it for granted that the religions of Northern Europe was (virtually) the same everywhere and that the different names are simply caused by difference in language. All names for Wodan/Odin would stem from the same source *Wōdanaz (the * means that this word is reconstructed). Are things that simple? Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) seems to think so. Capital VII (“Wuotan”) of his Deutsche Mythologie starts by saying that Wuotan was the highest and leading god, that he was worshipped by all German tribes and that he was known under the names Vôdans (Goths), Wôdan or Guôdan (Longobards), Wuotan or Wôdan (ancient Saxons), Guôdan and Gudan (Westphallia), Vôden (Anglo-Saxons), Wêda (Frisians) and further North Oðinn, Othinus (Saxo) and Ouvin (Faerao Islands). Similar lists Grimm compiled for other gods.

So if Wodan was such a universal god, Grimm failed to find written sources of the many other continental tribes to see what their names were. Too bad. Also I would love to know the sources of the names that he did find.


I do not have a big interest in history in the normal sense of the word. Therefor I have never really tried to find out what tribe lived where in what period. I have not even tried to find out to what tribe I can possibly trace back my ancestry. The easy way is to see if somebody else took the effort of answering the first question. Things are not really simple, which is one of the reasons why I never put too much effort in it. The earliest period that we have to look at is about the period called as the “migration period”. In those years (300-700) tribes and families wandered across the area of what is nowadays called Europe, splitting up tribes, forming new ones, aligning with other families, but mostly: moving around. It is impossible to say what tribe inhabited what area. It is even impossible to tell the history and give the composition of a tribe. As a matter of fact, it is even often impossible to say which tribes were “Celtic” and which “German” (words used by the Romans). Both cultures are a lot alike and different tribes have inhabited the same areas, perhaps tribes even mixed and formed another tribe. It is only much later in time that two relatively distinct cultures came into existence. What I mean to say is this: to what tribe you should look if you want to know about the religion of your ancestors is (virtually) impossible to answer. When you come from a region like myself (southern Netherlands) it is even hard to say if you should look at Celtic or German sources. What tribe inhabited the region where I live now? I cannot really give a definate answer.


Some maps of what are now the Netherlands with the tribes of old in it, place the Batavians (“Batavii”) in my area. It is certain that the Batavians have lived in this area, since in Sint-Michielsgestel (nowadays 20 minutes by car) a votive stone was found that can only be interpretated as Batavian (about which more later). In the same area the famous “temple of Empel” was found. A roman-style, but pagan temple of about 10×10 meters.

The Batavians are actually a very famous tribe, since Tacitus has spent a substantial part of his Historien on them. The Batavians supposedly came floating down the Rhine from somewhere in nowadays Germany, but settled in the ‘big river area’ in the middle of the current Netherlands, but also went more to the south. The Batavians have first helped the Roman invaders, but later turned against them. The latter has resulted in all kinds of Romantic and heroic images that live in the Dutch minds to this day. “The Batavian Republic” was even the name of the larger part of what nowadays are the Netherlands from 1795 to 1801. What do we really know about this tribe?

Contrary to the often-thought idea that *Wōdanaz was the first and highest god of the German tribes, the Batavians seem to have had a liking for another god that they themselves called Herculus-Magusanus (or Magusanus-Herculus on the stone found in Sint-Michielsgestel). “Magusanus” supposedly is a composition of the Latin words for “young” and “old”. “Herculus”, that is an easy one: Donar/Thor, right? Adam of Bremen says that in the temple of Uppsala there were three statues of gods with Thor in the middle, so a similar idea might have lived under the Batavians.
As I said the Batavians have worked both with and against the Roman invaders. Some of them were kidnapped by the Romans as children and raised in Italy. They spoke Latin, were very well informed in the Roman world of gods. Some where Roman elite troop soldiers. When these Batavians decided that they had been suppressed enough, escaped and went back to their tribes, they know almost anything about Roman culture and warfare (one of the reasons that they have made things difficult for the Romans). I cannot imagine that they picked the name of “Herculus” for their prime god by accident. The name can impossibly have referred to a Wodan-like god. According to Joris van Eijnatten and Fred van Lieburg (see sources below) Herculus was chosen not only because of his connection with warfare and heroism, but also because of his pastoral/sacred role in Roman thinking. Furthermore Herculus was connected to cattle and heroism, since he killed a sea-monster that stole his cows. Herculus is a more complex god than just a heroic figure and his name was used to refer most likely to a similar gods of the Batavians. This can still be a Thor-like god, by the way, since Thor consecrates marriages with his hammer and has initiatory aspects.


So the Batavians were an exception to the rule that Wodan-like gods were regarded the highest? I do not know. The day wednesday is in Dutch still called “woensdag” and everybody agrees that the name of the day in most languages refers to Wodan. It is said that the constellation of Great Bear (Ursa Major) was called “woenswagen” (woen’s wagon) in the southern Netherlands. Further we have toponymes such as Woensel (a village that is now part of the city of Eindhoven) and Woensdrecht (in the far southwest of the provice of Noord-Brabant) which are both connected with Wodan (also in ancient times, Grimm has some nice quotes). Did this god have the name “Woen” in my parts perhaps? Did his name develop towards this word? Little details like this (especially the toponymes, even though there are not that many of them) suggest that besides Herculus-Magusanus also a Wodan-like god was known. How did he compare to Herculus Magusanus and what about the Mars/Tiwaz god that Tacitus suggests was here too?

Forsachistu Diobolæ

The famous “Utrechtse Doopgelofte” (baptism vow from Utrecht) has in an old tongue pagans who become Christian promise to “forsake the devil” by saying: “end ec forsacho allum dioboles uuercum and uuordum, Thunaer ende Uoden ende Saxnote ende allum them unholdum, the hira genotas sint.” which means: “and I abondon all words and works of the devil, “Thunaer” (Donar) and “Uoden” (“Wodan”) and “Saxnote” and all idols that are their companions.

“Saxnote”? That is an interesting name in this Dutch text. This name is connected to Ziu/Tiwaz/Tyr and could very well be the “Mars” of Tacitus. The man seems to not have been so badly informed!

So where are we now?

So where does all this leave us? We have a few names, we have some archeological evidence, but it cannot all be tied to one tribe; to an area perhaps. Does all this learn us much of the religion of these parts? Not really, there are hardly written sources with what this religion was like. The “Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum” (“list of superstitious and pagan practices”) compiled by missionary Bonifatius (saint Boniface) gives us a few hints, but what we lack are proper texts, myths, that sort of material. Things can be found in folklore, but those sources are much more watered-down than the Scandinavian sources. We have material from later periods, for example Beowulf, but by then the Saxons have spent some time on the British isles. Fortunately the little information that we have seems to indicate that things were not all that different from Scandinavia, so I guess until we find something continental to work with, those Scandinavian sources are not that bad. Should we replace the popular Scandinavian names with our own? “Woen” for “Odin”, “Saxnote” for “Tyr”? Perhaps, but I do not really see it as a necessity. So what about subjects such as Ragnarok that have never been found in any continental source? I find it hard to say something about that. Personally I can find myself in the ideas of the four cycles, destruction and reconstruction and Ragnarok fits it that scheme perfectly. Besides, this idea is Indo-European and widely spread, so perhaps it just happened to not reach us through continental sources (or the tribes were more Celtic than we think in some regards, since this idea does not seem to have survived in Celtic texts either).

The subject remains difficult and also a little frustrating, but until some ancient text with all answers is found, nothing much will change about that. Besides, I am not one of those who want to reconstruct or revive the tribes of the past. I live today in another time. Still it would have been nice to have a firmer foundation for the ancient beliefs of my own area. Fortunately there are those who do their utmost to find as much information about a certain tribe they try to revive as possible. Perhaps these “Þheods” will one day publish their findings, so we have a nice overview of the available material of different tribes of old.

Until then, feel free to enlighten me with your comments. Should the commenting-function be down again, click “website news and contact” above and just send me an email.

Joris van Eijnatten and Fred van Lieburg;
Jacob Grimm (not yet reviewed);
Jan de Vries;
Julius Caesar;
Tacitus Germania and Batavian revolt;
Adam of Bremen;

6 thoughts on “Regional religious history”

  1. I have always referred to Odin, Thor, Tyr etc by their English names of Woden, Thunor and Tiw because that is more culturally accurate as I am English.

  2. if these are really the same gods with different names, then they must have liked the icelandic names best, since that is what has been preserved. i call the gods by the names they reveal to me, and the eddas are one of the first ways that most of us learn of them.

    english or dutch names might reveal deeper mysteries of the gods, but i will always think of ‘woden’ as ‘the english name for odin’, rather than vice versa. (i have english and swedish background, but i only speak english.) this is a reflection of a living religious tradition, rather than authentic reconstructionism.

    is there any way to know how people in pagan times treated this issue? i assume that viking war parties raided each others settlements. if norse warriors raided a german town, would they spare shrines and temples out of respect for the odin/wotan cognizance? or would they see the gods of their enemies as demons, and smite wotan with the might of odin?

    1. I do not think these are the same Gods with different names, but I do think that the continental and Scandinavian prechristian religions are branches from the same tree. The fact that we do not have as much information about continental Gods as of the Icelandic ones, does not make the first a derivative of the latter. Besides, we do have sources with the other names in them, such as the Baptism sermon of Utrecht that I quoted. One could hardly say that it is talking about Odin, but replaced the name. No, we will probably never know how exactly our ancestors treated their deities, so we have to manage with the information that we have and I intend to find out what more there is than the Eddas and the sagas. Your question about Viking raiders either or not smashing local temples might seem valid, but I think that each tribe had their own Gods, so also different Danish or Norwegian tribes. They all might have been similar in some way and people might have seen these similarities or not, but I do not think the gap between two Danish tribes or between a Danish and a Frisian tribe would have been much bigger. Would they have crushed eachothers temples should they find them? I do not know, but I do not know of sources that say they did. On the other hand, Viking raiders had no scruples to rob and burn churches or to kill innocent people in the villages they ravaged, so I think they also might have robbed and wrecked the temples they thought contained valuable goods.

      1. its an impossible to know what the relationship is between odin and woden, unless we ask them directly. and even then, can they be trusted to tell the truth about such things?

        i think odin must be the most powerful or the most canny of this group, because he was wise enough to hide out in iceland when jesus was massacring his contemporaries. odin is the one who managed to live on into the postmodern era. but there are many magic charms and legends of woden, such as the wild hunt, that are not in the icelandic lore. i think it is pretty safe to assume that odin also knows something about the wild hunt, even if his name is never attached to it. (but maybe i am wrong about this anyway, because wikipedia mentions ‘Åsgårdsreia’.)

        it is interesting that our two major sources, tacitus and snorri, both believe many names for the same god (with tacitus calling them all mercury, and snorri discussing how odins many names result from regional variations). if we carry this theory to the extreme, we end up wondering if santa claus/sinterklaas can be lumped into this personality as well.

        1. I would not give Odin all the credit just because some Icelandic sources have been saved and not too much about his namesakes. Also, that people say that the same Gods go under different names in different areas might not be entirely untrue, but in my opinion a simplyfication. No Wild Hunt in Scandinavia? What about the Oskorei? The Wild Hunt was and is a popular theme in my part, but the same goes for the entire Germanic (and Celtic) region. And Wodan and Sinterklaas? The Romantics already said he was and many pagans of today still think the same. Also this is a bit too simple in my view, but also not untrue. Oh well, so many things to think about and never get a definate answer. Fortunately not, otherwise we would not have to think about them anymore 🙂

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