Some of you may have heard about the destruction of the Saxon Irminsul by Charlemagne (Karl der Große, Carolus Magnus) in 772. During his efforts to destroy the German tribe, Charlemagne destroyed the Saxon fort called (H)eresburg and the stone sanctity of the Irminsul that stood near. The fort stood near to what is now the town of Obermarsberg in Westfalen.
Only about 40 kilometres from this place, a more famous Irminsul could be found. It is not certain what the Irminsul at the “Extersteine” (near Paderborn) looked like or where is was located exactly (some writers say that the Irminsul destroyed by Charlemagne was the one at or near the Extersteine), but that the Extersteine were a Germanic sacred place is one thing that can be no doubt about. The stones themselves are strange ‘mountains’ upto 30 metres high that seem to have come straight up from the ground. A room is cut out of them, there is a stone ‘grave’ (used for initiations?), a gigantic god hanging against one of the mountains, the biggest stone-cutting of Europe and a temple all the way up one of the stones. The room was Christianised into a chapel and is now closed to the public. It is said that there are ancient drawings or texts on the walls inside. I only know about a rune-like figure for sure. Also there is something which may have been a ritual bath.
When I was at the Extersteine in the summer of 2004 I didn’t know about the “hangagod”. It is a figure that hangs as if he is nailed to a cross. The figure is partly formed by natural cracks, partly cut out manually. The figure is taken for being Odin, hanging from the Yggdrasil in order to learn the secret of the runes. Very well-known is the very detailed stone cutting with a scene of Christ being taken off the cross. A sun and a moon are present, some strange figures, the bottom part is said to be made by the Germans, while the Christians cut their own relief over it. Striking is the bend Irminsul on which one of the figures (Nicodemus according to some) is standing. This last may be a reference to the fact that the Germans indeed worshipped an Irminsul at the Extersteine and that the Christians wanted to show that their faith is better than the pagan superstition.
More Irminsuls of the time of Christianisation are known about. It is said that most were made of wood and either or not got lost naturally. Some where made of stone, like the one destroyed by Charlemagne. Another stone Irminsul was not destroyed by the Christians, but taken away and used in the building of a church! In Hildesheim the Irminsul was made into a candelabrum (candlestick) and it can still be seen in the local church. (Note: I can also read d’Alviella(1) in a way that this was actually the Irminsul destroyed by Charlemagne and dug up later).
What what then is an Irminsul? According to Adam of Bremen it is a “pillar of the universe which carries all things”. “Sul” is “pillar”, “zuil” in my own language, “Saul” in German. Then an Irminsul should be a pillar dedicated to Irmin. Irmin is quite a vague Germanic deity which according to Richard Meyer (2) “is certainly Tiu” and on the same page Meyer says that we now know this god as Tyr. Other writers such as the Dutchmen Farwerck (3) and Aat van Gilst (4) are less confident of this. The Dutch writer J.P. Michels even goes as far as saying that it is “doubtfull if Irmin is Tyr and if there is a connection with the Irminsul”. So, Irmin’s pillar, maybe Tyr’s.
As mentioned, Irminsuls were often made of wood. Wooden poles were sometimes taken as a ‘personification’ of gods by the ancient Germans. When the Romans came to conquer northern Europe, writers such as Tacitus, but also Ceasar himself, described what they found in the submissive countries. According to Tacitus, the Frisians worshipped “pillars of Hercules”, but d’Alviella thinks that Tacitus too easily brings up Hercules (p. 104). The Romans had the habbit of naming native gods after their own comperable deities. In this case Tacitus may have thought about Thor/Donar who was indeed sometimes worshipped in the form of a wooden pole. The tone is set.
In the lands that the Romans conquered in present-day Germany Jupiter-pillars were very popular. Jupiter is another Roman deity that may be linked to Thor/Donar, but possibly also with Tyr, and pillars erected in his grace could be found all over Germania. Possibly the German tribes found this an acceptable (temporary) replacement for their Irminsuls? On the other side, we should remember that many writers say that Tyr has in an early stage been surpassed by Odin in popularity and on some areas, Odin by Thor.
d’Alviella has an interesting chapter about sacred pillars in his book. He shortly mentions “Rolandsäulen” (Roland-pillars) and “Tiodute” (Tio/Ziu-pillars), but I haven’t been able to find anything more about these two kinds of pillars. The chapter by d’Alviella is actually about the so-called “perron of Luik” (also “peron” and the Belgian city Luik is called Liège in French). The perron of Luik was erected in 1316 by the Luikish bisshop because of the “peace of Fexhe” (after a revolt by the people of Luik against the nobility). The perron supposedly looks a lot like the Irminsul that found its way into the church of Hildesheim in Germany.
On top of the perron are a pineapple and a cross, but the part that comes after this in d’Alviella’s book is more interesting for this article. The writer makes note of the fact that sacred pillars can be found in many of the ancient cultures of the world. It often takes the form of a tree and also in the Germanic faith this is not strange, because the Irminsul is often said to be a representation of the Yggdrasil, the world tree. Similar world-trees can be found, such as the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Sasanidic, Indian, Javanese and Maya cultures. Interesting similarities can be found between them too! The writer even poses the possibility that in the end, the Indo-European and Semitic cultures may have the same source.Ulebordcast iron Tree of Life
One of the similarities that is most striking is all over the world, the world-trees are often depicted with animals, humans or ‘monsters’ on either side, facing eachother. This reminds me of “Uleborden”, a traditional Dutch decoration of the roofs of houses (but here the swans are looking away from eachother).
The many images d’Alviella gives go toward striking similarities with the images that we know of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge. As the images got more abstract in the course of time, the animals may have become the ‘horns’ of the Irminsul for example, or the bows on the famous Trees of Life that decorate (even more than the Ulebord) the houses and buildings in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Nowadays most people don’t even know what the trees of life above the front-doors of old farms are anymore, let alone remember the Irminsul or see beyond the tree of Genesis. Still it seems that the pictures of the pillar and the tree have always been very popular all over the world and a long tradition ends in our own time with the forgetting of the meaning of the trees of life.
(1) “De Wereldreis Der Symbolen” (‘the world-tour of symbols’) by Graaf/Count Goblet d’Alviella, page 111 (there is no year in my book, but the Belgian writer mostly quotes French texts from the late 19th century, so I expect the book to be from the first half of the 20th century);
(2) “Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte” by Richard Moritz Meyer, 1910, page 192;
(3) “Noord-Europese Mysteriën” by F.E. Farwerck (1970), page 33;
(4) “De Eeuwige Ordening” by A. van Gilst (2004) page 292 quoting Jan de Vries’ “Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte” (1956);
(5) “De Godsdienst Der Germanen” by Derolez (1949) page 118 and 242;