Götter und Kulte der Germanen * Rudolf Simek (Beck 2004 * ISBN: 3406508359)

The second book in the “Wissen” series of Beck publishers from Germany that I review. The title (“Gods and Cults of the Germans”) promises a bit more than the book makes true. Just like Die Germanen this is not a simple chronological overview of the subject. Still, this little book lives up to my expectations more than the other mentioned book. Simek wrote a nice little work that gives a very good overview of the world and thought of the ancient Germans. Of course there are many books with many pictures who try the same, but instead of mixing the Germans with Northern tribes and getting the information from the Medieval Eddas and Medieval churchfathers, Simek mostly uses archeology as basis and fundatings of his information.
The book opens with offerings of German cults that may or may not have been religious acts. Offerings like that of the conquered enemies weapons (which the Germans could have used in their metal-poor areas) that are dumped in swamps. Also Simek writes about ritual animal sacrifice, human sacrifice and a bit about burials, because it is hard to tell such things apart sometimes. Many recent excavations are refered to which brings the book truely into our own time and age, because many things have been discovered in the last years.
The second chapter is about “cult buildings”, but also here it is hard to say what was the exact use. It is often said that the Germans have no temples, but still they are refered to often in the writings that we have. Large buildings for collective feasting sure have excisted which are described here.
Chapter three is about the gods of the ancient Germans and the depictions of them in wooden human-formed figures and some kind of totem-poles like form. The names do not sound familiar anymore!
The subject of gods is continued, but this time the Merowinger and Viking time is the subject. Simek shows himself to be very critical against current ideas about these gods, mythology and everything we think to know about them and the origins. The writer does not blindly follow the writer of the prose-Edda (the most important source for German and Viking mythology) who he often accuses of having made things up and of putting a thick Christian sauce over it all. Also assumptions made by modern ‘Germanists’ on information of Snorri and Medieval Christian describers of the German and Viking tribes are frequently put in doubt. Simek primery used the old Skald songs on which for example Sturluson based himself and for example found no clear reference to the race of the Vaenir. Also the oldest known inscription about the origin of the runes says that not Odin, but Odin in collaboration with other gods has invented them. Also Simek shows doubts about the German trinity of Odin, Villi, Vé, which he thinks to be a heavily Christian invention/interpretation of Sturluson.
This line continues with the chapter about giants, dwarves and “Alben” (a kind of elves).
Then follows a nice chapter about magic. Here Simek disagrees with scholars who think that the runes have been of only practical use and that the magical attributions to them have been added much later. Simek gives the runes first a magical and then a practical use. Also he speaks about Seidr, witches, some folklore and the like.
The last chapter is very interesting. The largest part is about death and ‘death habbits’. There were different kinds of burials and rituals that belonged to them. Also Simek shortly speaks about ‘undead’ and the ’empire of hell’. There have been different views on life after death and our idea of Valhalla is very coloured. Thus Simek ends with his critical and interesting book. <5/7/04>

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