Altgermanische Relgionsgeschichte * Jan de Vries (1970 Walter de Gruyter & co * ISBN: 3110026783)

No no, I haven’t found a new or even a secondhand copy, but I DID get a copy from the library to finally be able to read this primary source of information about the religion of the ancient Germans/Teutons. Of course (since I had the choice) I got the 1970 pressing. The work was originally published in 1934 (part I) and 1937 (part II) and then in 1956/7 De Vries made a completely new edition, heavily revised and with use of the latest archeological and scholarly findings. This second edition was reprinted after De Vries’ death (1964) in 1970. When this edition was sold out, for some reason the work was never made available again, even when for example the work with the same title by Richard Meyer was reprinted again and other late 19th century works are also still or again available.
This is truely a shame, because of all the works in this vein, this is indeed the best. Of course, because it is (as far as I know) the largest of them all. My Meyer book is 650 pages, De Vries has at least 250 pages more. Basically this work is exactly the same as all the other books with the same subject that I read so far. De Vries starts to explain what mythology is, how to investigate it, what the sources for Germanic mythology are, shallow comparisons of different mythologies and a little bit of history. Then follow chapters about folkloristic creatures such as giants, dwarves, elves and the like. All very interesting, but a bit repetative now I have read several similar books in a short time. Part one was finished rapidly, but the last chapter was getting interesting with information about temples, images of gods, priests, offerings, etc. Then in part two De Vries still follows his predecessors. He speaks about different gods separately and this at length. This fills about the whole of part two, but towards the end some other subjects are dealt with; the world we live in, its beginning and its end. The book ends with the demise of the pagan faith.
Not much different from other books, but so far one of the most recent ones (1956…) and definately the most lenghty of them. Now I only need a copy for myself!
Got it!

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>

Die Germanen * Herwig Wolfram (Beck 2005 * isbn 3406449042)

The German publisher Beck has a long series of small books under the name “Wissen” which means “knowing” or “knowledge”. Recently I bought three of these books, this one, one about Germanic Gods and Cults and one about the Celts. The last two I have yet to read. The books appealed to me when I saw a few of them in a German bookshop. They are small, apparently informative and most importantly, they have a good index so they function well as reference books.

This little book (12×20 cm or so and 125 pages) is written by a professor in medieval history. I can read German quite well, but this Wolfram writes a bit too much like a professor to me sometimes. Also he obviously knows so much that he sometimes forget that his readers do not have all backgroundknowledge (at present). This makes the book a little more difficult than I expected. Also I don’t really see the structure in the book. The writer starts with a subject which developes to something else and later picks up the original subject again.

The writer with telling what made Germans German, because actually this term refers to a wide variety of clans, ‘sibbe’s’ (families so to say), peoples, etc. and not even on a small geographically-indicatable part of the world. Language proves to be the main ground for naming a people German and telling the Germans from eachother. Then Wolfram continues with telling what the ancient Germans looked like and how they lived and the results of this kind of society. The history of ‘the Germans’ is spread all throughout the book. The first Germans (“Kimbern” and “Teutonen”) would have lived around the Mediteranean Sea. Then a very long part is about the Romans and the Germans. Of course most information we have comes from the Romans, but this period is German history is a bit too much highlighted in my opinion.

In part II Wolfram speaks about the origin of the Germans, but this is not really an historical overview that will easily tell you the history of the different tribes and how them grew towards or opposital to eachother. Part III and IV is better in this. This part speaks about how the Germans became one people and obtained a feeling of nationality over ‘own people first’ and then what happens to different German folks halfway the first millenium.

All in all a nice book, but so many names pass that I still don’t know for sure what are (pre)German folks, what enemies or allies and the (of course undocumented) early history remains dark. But, for the better-known tribes such as the East- and Westgoths, the Vandals, the “Burgunder”, the Langobards, the Franks and the Anglosaxons I roughly have what I needed.

De Godsdienst Der Germanen * R.L.M. Derolez (JJ Romen en Zonen 1959)

After reading the massive Altgermanische by Meyer I didn’t really know if a similar, but much thinner, Dutch book would bring anything new. Well, it does and it doesn’t. Derolez seems to have made a readable summery of the different Altgermanisches that had appeared in his time. He of course read the more modern books such as that of Jan de Vries. Also he is very familiar with (also from then of course) more modern investigations in comperative religion like those of Dumezil. Derolez did a fine job and however his book has by far not as many pages and the Altgermanische that I have, it seems that most information and theories are dealt with. Also Derolez proves himself critical towards the authorities that most people base themselves on in that (and this!) time and shows their flaws and insecurities, but highlights the goods points. This makes this book not only interesting from informational viewpoint, but also for those who want to study the available information critically. Of course -again- the book is 45 years old.