Early beliefs, paganism and religion

Consciousness, imagination and myths

Consciousness, a key result of the brain activities of modern men, also allow for imagination. This is one of the most powerful tools that humans have. It allows men to make hypotheses that can be tested through experience and knowledge that than allows people to make adjustments and to built on the. This is how many inventions are made.  For 100,000 years and perhaps more, humans have also used imagination to develop a set of believes that assisted them in making sense of the world around them and the place they have in all of this and how they interact with that. This was supported by stories and myths which were passed on from one generation to the other. It has even been argued that the Neanderthals also perhaps had a more primitive form of such beliefs/consciousness, religion stems from this where communities from the bottom up started to develop religions

People like today will have been  seeking patterns and trying to understand the mechanisms responsible for those patterns. And in doing so elements of what we now call  spirituality and superstition will have been an integral part of their awareness. This situation is sometimes also referred to as an early, but not a full process of consciousness. Until the Enlightenment and in many parts of Europe until well into the 20th century people did not understand the laws of physics, nature or the functioning of the human body so until that time people’s attitude to this lack of knowledge was superstition and the believe in miracles and the Devil.

It are the mental faculties of the homo sapiens that created a common set of beliefs around these attitudes that we are finding back from Paleolithic times onwards in cultures all over the world. These believes were influenced by their circumstances, their environment and the various time frames in which changes occurred. These were hunter-gatherers and they travelled and encountered new environments, different climates and so on. While the higher levels concepts are remarkably similar around the world, the details vary greatly.

Common elements include: there was a Golden Age where humans had direct access to the ‘gods’. A tree or mountain that was the link between these two world, followed by a catastrophe; the collapse of that mountain or the cutting down of the tree. As a result there is now an eternal longing to a lost paradise and the quest to find a way back to that paradise; this experience and ways to find that way back was told and expressed in myths. Morals and ethics played a key role in all of this; often the essence of a myth was the message for those listening : ‘change your life’.

Myths are socially situated stories of groups of people who define themselves in part by the myths they associate themselves with. They also contain ‘knowledge’ on for example natural occurrences (sun set, lightning, eclipses, etc.). Total lack of science forced these people to use their imagination for the interpretation of this world and its events – knowledge often through myths was transferred from one generation to another.

Some of the following information has been sourced from: Inside the Neolithic Mind  [1. Inside The Neolithic Mind, Thames & Hudson] and from: A short history of myth  [2. A short history of myth, Karen Strong, 2005] .

Karen Strong also argues that myths simply will not survive unless they touch people’s ordinary lives. She also argues  the fact that in modern society there apparently is no need for myths anymore and as a consequence the messages embedded in these myths are now often lost, resulting in societies with less respect for nature and for each other, lower morals and often a disregard for ethics.

The myths also allowed for mystical believes, a process of creative imagination that allows people to escape the daily drudgery and cross the spirituality border were angels, gods and spirits are untouched by such misery and as such creating an ideal place to escape to.  With death being daily around the corner meditation, trance, drugs, dance and drums would allow people to venture into that realm, experiencing death/out of body encounter and still be able to return to their daily lives.  During those states of hallucination they thought they were talking to their ancestors. Shamans were the masters of these acts.  While most people would return from the ecstasy, some people didn’t and remained in that space and some of them took on the roles of false prophets, messiahs, reincarnated heroes, gods and so on.   There are some good documented cases from the Middle Ages, but also in modern times such people occur at regular intervals.

Of course also in modern times these escape functions still exists in parties, festivals, religious celebration and of course drugs.


The beliefs of the paleolithic hunter gatherers

As hunters, these early societies had great reverence for animals. They had to kill them to survive and as the weaker party in the hunt, they had to take enormous risks.

The psychological elements of the hunt, the fear and anxiety made them even more respectful for these animals; in their myths animals are often taking on the role of humans and visa versa. Everything around them was sacred; the animals, the mountains, the rocks, waterholes, forests and so on. There was no difference between the spiritual and the secular, for them and for thousands of years – until very recent – they remained totally inseparable. Through their myth, rituals and ceremonies they were able to give that anxiety a place and to develop practical solutions for many of the dilemmas they faced especially for those that seems to defy logic. This also included ceremonies, rituals and taboos surrounding the hunt to compensate for the guilt of killing and to show respect for the divine. Myths and rituals are all part of one, they can’t be separated or be looked at in isolation. The events were also therapeutic as their lives where always at danger and listening to the myths would have helped them in their struggle for survival.

The early myths  clearly shows the intertwined nature of the divine and the human. These myths were not seen as a historic account, for them they were timeless. In these myths men tried in a conscious way also tried  to rationalise a range of unexplainable and difficult to understand concepts such as death, sleep and dreams, where they felt a detachment between body and mind/soul/spirit. This is still visible in traditional cultures in Australia, Africa, Asia and North and South America altered states of consciousness are still very much part of their religion and most likely has been the foundations of all religious experiences, going back all the way to the Paleolithic and most likely even before that (Neanderthal men).

There was a relative low level of ‘self’ with these early societies. Lack of rational knowledge led to a society based on faith. For their survival they also had to instill the concept of superiority of the tribe and its  invincibility and this was provided through the myth of the tribes.

It is also in the context of the hunt that most likely the hero myths started to occur. Already impressive event will have become even taller over time and it is not to difficult to see that moving into the hero ancestor stories, (semi) divine ancestors who created the tribe or brought them to the lands where they now are. Also here the divine and the secular merged into one. The hero myth remained part of all subsequent belief systems, Abraham, Jesus, Muhammad and Buddah all have some sort of a hero status.

Sky earliest form of worship

Cosmology was another important element of early cultures and their myths. They encountered the world they were living in, the sky above and the earth below.

The sky might have given people their earliest notion of the divine, contemplating the sky sills creates an enormous effect of awe . For the early hunter gatherers the mysterious sky both attracted them and repelled them. The sky was not seen as a deity but the awe and wonder, they must have been humbled by it and that would have created a feeling respect that might have led to the earliest forms of  worship.

It is important to realise that at this stage  worship was rather different from the more religious aspects that followed later where people worshiped gods at least partly to receive certain favours. This was not how it all started.

However, what these hunter-gathers did do was to link this world of awe with their own world and thats where- as indicated above –  the myths started to come in.

However, the early worship of the sky is most certainly linked to the Sky Gods and Sky Heroes who followed in later periods.

The Mother Goddess

Apart from the sky, the earliest forms of religion were also linked with the Earth itself, the key to our existence. Some of the earliest creation myths imagined the first humans emerging from the earth

Early archaeological evidence such as the Venus from Willendorf (now Austria) dating back to 24,000 – 22,000BCE, is representative of many more ‘goddess’ figurines that have been discovered many dating back to Palaeolithic times. They have been interpreted as religious object linked to Mother Earth and because of their shape, have been closely related to fertility.

One of the longest remaining Palaeolithic people, have been the Aboriginal people of Australia. They have up until today still a very strong link with the land. Analysing some elements of their believe system might also help us to get a glimpse of the believes of the Palaeolithic people of Europe. Their believe system was closely linked to their daily lives and contained their ‘Law’. It provided them with a map for their way of  living; regulated relationships, responsibilities and respect for each other and for the environment they lived in. Australian Dreamtime stories contain an encyclopedia of knowledge. It provided them with clear information on where they belonged in the universe around them.

There is no reason to believe that the Palaeolithic people in Europe would have had a vastly different set of believes. Many of the folk tales and pagan stories will certainly have elements that date back to these times. Themes that occur in the Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories can also be found in European stories, in many cases its original religious or law-giving function has long been lost, but certain elements can be traced back.

There are no strong indications about a prominent Mother Earth culture in Aboriginal believes.

Despite the increased prominence of the male gods, the prominence of the Mother Goddess significantly increased during the Neolithic. These include the Middle East Mother Goddesses Ashera, Anat and Asthoreth in Canaan, Inanna in Sumeria, Ishtar in Babylonia, Isis in Egypt and Hera in Greece. Some of the goddesses were a result of the fusion of the old hunting and Mother Earth goddesses, examples here are  Demeter and Aphrodite. The myths of the Neolithic Mother Earth Goddesses are often full of violence, struggles between life and death. They also started to take their place next the Paleolithic hero gods.

The Mother Goddess has kept a prominent position throughout history in Greek, Roman, Hindu, Islam and Christian religions. One only has to visit the Maria chapel in the St Jan cathedral in ‘s-Hertogenbosch to see that the Mother Goddess is still alive and well.


These  intuitive, untutored processes of awe and wonder can easily lead to misconceptions and misinterpretations, this is where the shamans were coming in. The above mentioned early beliefs all involved shamans (chief religious practitioners) as well as trance, rituals, yoga and ecstatic hallucinations.

Through these practices shamans were able to reach the divine sphere, this often includes the mountains and trees as mentioned above but also  flying and levitation. A spiritual flight doesn’t take place in a physical way, it is more like an out-of-body experience. They would than come back with valuable messages for their fellow tribes people. This provided the basis for social cohesion needed for the decisions that these these early people needed to make in order to survive.

The famous cave paintings in Lascaux and Altamira show these shamans and also the  Aboriginal Kuradji man cave in Bucketty, Australia has powerful images of such an anthropomorphic being. A clear indication that shamans are integrally linked with hunter-gathers societies. See also videoclip.

These shamanic traditions were also carried on in later religions, Moses did receive his insights on the top of a mountain and Muhammad flew from Mecca to Jerusalem.

During the Neolithic it has been suggested that Shamans also applied knowledge regarding forest fruits, herbs, fertility, medicine, etc. That knowledge was transfered from generation to generation. They organised planned rather than ad hoc rituals. They were respected by their tribes and as such also held political power. They therefore became important players and initiators in the building of the emerging city states.

European Sky Deities

It has been language reconstruction that has been used to provides us with glimpses of the believes and social structures of the early European people, but these reconstructions go back to perhaps 5,000BCE, but not too  much further.

Based on such reconstruction the ‘Dyeus Paeter’ has been reconstructed with a possible translation into the direction of Sky Father, a primitive early form of monotheism. By now the myth had evolved into the story that he had created the world and the heaven and he also governed it. Rather rapidly a whole pantheon started to surround him, again this again  became a remarkable universal concept.

It has been argued that this ‘new religion’ started to replace the Palaeolithic believes-system linked to the Earth Mother. In the late Neolithic and Copper Ages, a shift started to occur away from the Mother Goddess to male qualities linked to the new warrior values.

Around this time the position of women also changed.  In hunter-gatherers societies they were often linked to knowledge and in particular in relation to herbs and medicine. In agriculture societies women ‘stayed home’ they became less involved in tribal decision making process, this was done by the men. The Greek Pericles proclaimed: ‘the greatest glory of of a woman is to be least talked about by men’. Saint Augustine linked Eve to the original sin, which was a further blow to the status of women.

Neolithic beliefs linked to ancestors and the land

With the arrival of the agriculture revolution, we also see a total change in belief systems.  This allowed for permanent settlements, surplus harvest also allowed for the development of cities and much more complex societies.  As hunting was seen as a sacred activity in previous times, now agriculture – with its own awe and wonder-  started to be treated that same way. This new situation led to a totally new understanding of the people of themselves.

Harking back to the Mother Goddess, many early societies saw the creation of the first people evolving from the earth ( for example the creation of Adam). The link between the underworld, birth, the gods in the skies and than death and burial again started to evolve in the key birth and death myths and ceremonies of the Neolithic people. This was also linked to the cycles of the crops, seed needs to be buried, seed sleeps and awakens in spring. We see that the Sumerian fertility goddess Inanna evolves into the Babylonian goddess Ishtar and she is both linked to the underworld rites and the fertility rites. The sacrificed Iron Age  bog people in north western Europe are also linked to these rites.

Not surprisingly also new gods arrived or those linked to elements important to agriculture become more prominent. Ba’al in Mesopotamia is a good example. He was the rain and storm god and grew in importance when agriculture arrived in these areas. One of most important ceremonies in ancient Greece evolved around the Eleusinian Mysteries – secret initiation rites – they were based on the new agriculture influenced myths which centered around the grain goddess Demeter.

The connection with the land where they lived and the people that went before them became the centre of attention in their new spiritual beliefs. Burials became an increasingly more important ritual and by analysing these sites and the signs involved provides us with insights  into the Neolithic mind.

In north-western neolithic Europe we have seen the elaborate traditions of significant burial sites this might indicate that these incipiently agriculture people were more driven by the cult of their ancestors and probably a divine ancestor (as not everybody was buried in the more elaborate burial sites) rather than by spirits or a pantheon of gods. With more permanent settlements the link with the land became more important and the ancestors provided that link and the legitimacy to claim the link with that land.

This was in general linked to the world where people lived with the underworld below – the place where the dead went and where demons dwell – and the upper world that belonged to their deities. Some of their burial and ceremonial sites would seem to indicate a replication of their cosmology Stone Henge (UK), Göbekli Tepe (Turkey) and’The Bend of the Boyne’ (Ireland). Also some of the burial sites as discussed below (Oss) could be seen within this context.

It is also interesting to note that communications in those days – till well into the Middle Ages – was not limited to just between living  people. There was a true believe that one could communicate with the dead for example with  ancestors and saints.  There are still tribes in remote areas that communicate with their ancestors through elaborate rituals. Of course in other societies some practitioners of the the occult would claim to be able to communicate with the dead. The same applied to communication with animals – the Australian Dreamtime Stories are living evidence of this. But also communication with pets and  cattle was seen as real. Many nowadays pet owners and farmers will still defend such forms of communication. The difference with the past is that in previous times everybody believed in those other forms of communication.

There was a strong difference between the rural areas and the newly emerging city states. The changes in north-western Europe for example were far more gradual with strong elements from the Paleolithic surviving than the changes that occurred in the Middle East. But also in this remote corner of the world significant changes occurred.

In both societies we see the same elements underworld, birth, sky gods, death and burial.

The urban revolution and City Gods

There are clear indications that the more personal belief systems around  a Sky Father and a pantheon started to change in order to reflect the more complex city states in the Middle East. A major result of the agriculture revolution here was the emergence of city states. The agriculture surplus made it possible to built far more complex societies. Urban civilisation started to change their beliefs.

These new structures made it necessary to have rules to govern these emerging cities and the believe system was used for this. In order for this to happen, social obedience was required in order to maintain peace. The rulers needed to create laws for this, which they based on their belief systems. In order to give this more authority they claimed that these laws were given to them by the Gods or in the case of Moses, the God of the Israelite. As the Old Testament clearly tells us, Moses desperately needs some laws as he had significant problems with his people who did not obey him. Each city had their own specific City-God which the emerging priest class used to rule their citizens. They could act on behalf of the God and as such could for example direct people to undertake public works (building of palaces, temples, irrigation systems, roads, etc)

Their beliefs now started to reflect of their own new tripartition societies (chiefs, military and shepherds/peasants). Slowly these religious concepts were used to reinforce social behaviour and served as divine charters for political realities. This also lead to the notion of superiority, much more so than was the case in the hunter-gathering society; men over women, leaders over subjects, noble over common people, tribes over neigbouring  tribes, etc. This continued during the Greek and Roman times and is still prevalent  today.

The early chiefs (head priest) had both moral and social responsibilities and it is obvious that a strong institutionalised religion would serve their course very well. Later on the Chief separated from this tripartition and took a god-like position standing above the three classes these now being priests, military and shepherds/peasants. Slavery and serfdom are other aspects of this same notion.

The early belief concept of cosmology was instrumental in the developments of these  institutionalised, hierarchical societies that started to emerge in Mesopotamia. While amongst nomadic people spiritual leadership most likely took place within families (shamans), powerful  priesthood- based on the development of the science of astronomy –  most likely developed in these city states. These early ‘scientist’ – Magi –  were able, based on this knowledge, to start making predictions. Magic was widespread throughout the Sumerian and Babylonian cultures apart from the Magi there were others involved in fortune-telling, divining, necromancy and oracles. Seers and seeresses could be hired to lift spells or put spells on people. Seeresses also became linked to the hierodules or sacred temple prostitutes and also played a role in the sacred marriages rites of the kings (see below). The hierodules would here represent the fertility goddess Inanna. In Erice, Sicily(see below)  the sanctuary of  Venus (and before that of Astarte and Aphrodite) was linked to the goddess of love and also here hierodules were part of the rites, which made it a popular place for sailors and even the Arabs  ( Ibn Giubayr in 1185) made a reference to the ‘women of Venus’.

So it was no wonder that later on in the Christian Church these seeresses and their practices  were used to depict this as Satan worshiping and as ‘witches’ many women in the late Middle Ages ended up on the stake simply for being accused of being involved in such practices.

Within the new pantheon of all of the more complex  Indo-European societies we now see gods assigned to the sovereign and legal functions, gods assigned to the military function and divine beings reflecting the shepherds-cultivators. In the Gilgamesh Epic we see that many gods now have tasks that are normally assigned to humans, an indication that humans are now taking more control over their own destiny. Civilisation and culture are now also featuring in the activities of the gods. The ‘city’ myths are also talking about massive struggles of the survival of  these civilisations and of course the gods are playing a key role in all of this. More ‘men’ focussed, there are now also historic element creeping into the myths.

Interestingly however, once this new pantheon concept started to kick in, the Sky Father disappeared in the background and other more dynamic and interesting gods became far more prominent. Good examples are Indra, Ba’al and Enlil. Ba’al for example replaces the previous Sky God El. There are also indications that the Jewish god Yahweh and El are one and the same. Interestingly some names ending with ‘el’ like Michael, Gabriel  and Raphael have a  relationship with ‘El’.  The ancient  ‘creator’ God in Egypt was Ptah. The Greeks told about the battle between Zeus and the Titan Cronus, all indications of a change form heavenly gods to those more involved with the people on earth. There is obvious a lot of religious interaction between all the emerging new cultures in the Middle East, with a large amount of commonalities, all eventually leading to the Abrahamic religions.

The new gods where far more intertwined with the human beings and where far more interesting to finds its ways into the  many of the myths that evolved from now on. As mentioned  most of the Mesopotamian cities had their own patron god. This became such an important cult that the worship of other gods was forbidden. It has been argued that this concept became the foundation of Jewish monotheism. When Abraham around 2000BCE left Ur, he took his City God with him and he was the only one who could be worshiped. The City God of Ur was Na’ana, the goddess of the moon.

New Neolithic rites started to evolve, reenacted the death and rebirth of grain. Marriage ceremonies of kings and rulers (representing the gods)  as a sacred union can also be linked to the fertility of the earth. The hierodules also played a role in these rites.

Fertility rites became a very strong element in many of the early agriculture societies around the world both in city settings as in rural areas. Children were essential in the agriculture society, their help on the land was needed even from a very young age onwards. This was different from the hunter-gatherers societies where (young) children were not participating in the hunt. Parents (women) without children were seen as a disastrous situation in these agriculture societies.

We  also start to see  priests as mediators between the gods and the people; they introduced the concept of pleasing the gods (worshipping). By asking them for the fertility of the soil, good harvests, regular (Nile) floods and so on they suggested that the people would give something back. For that reason some parts of the harvest remained on the fields, some fruits unpicked, offerings were made at private shrines, temples and public places. Animal sacrifice and in some situations even human sacrifice were all aimed at pleasing the gods. Rites and ceremonies, involving the priests and offerings were also used to try and overcome infertility in women.

Like its societies also it religious beliefs started to become far more complex and elaborate. In order to govern all of this they started to refer more and more to the Law.

Interestingly, the Law in itself is less important that the fact that there is law. Laws can be put aside if the sovereign wants to do so, as for example in situations of (perceived) threats and wars. As such the Law is empty, a dead letter. The Law in the hands of good rulers (secular and ecclesiastic) provide freedom in the hands of dictators or zealots it suppresses freedom.

The laws built on these early beliefs now meant power and this was increasingly used by the rulers both secular and ecclesiastic (priests, magi, etc).

As mentioned above the set of beliefs was dependent of the circumstances of the time, what now happened were two important developments:

  • The rulers liked the power they now had and they wanted to hang on to their powers and this led to intolerance and a lack of flexibility
  • Urban populations created rapid changes in knowledge which led to social and economic changes and innovations that required flexibility with the law.

However, power corrupts and this led to power grabs,  greed, rivalry, war, massacres, deportations sometimes resulting in a total annihilation of cities and cultures. This also led to questions about these new developments and there are plenty of stories describing the anger of the gods about these developments.  This also brought back some of the old myths about the Golden Age and the catastrophe that led to a separation of humans from the gods and the quest for the lost paradise.

This was picked up by the biblical writers who told about the negatives of these developments in their stories: the expulsion from the garden of Eden, the first man to built a city was also the first ‘murderer’ Cain, and the Tower of Babel. The big Flood was seen by various religions as a punishment by the gods.

Institutionalised  religion

As people started to become more and more became masters of their environment and of their own destiny.  this started to result in an erosion of traditional beliefs and rituals. Prophets between 700 and 500BCE started to talk about disastrous times ahead. Increasingly people became aware of their own power in shaping their world and that this was not just a matter of faith and predestination.

They also became aware of their limitations and this allowed new religions to emerge based on totally different mythology and philosophy  concepts such as Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Monotheism and Greek philosophy. These new religions all started in the more developed regions of the world.

Prophets and seers such as Zoroaster, Abraham, Buddha and Mohammed were  at the core of  most of the most influential religions that are still in existence today.  Their visions and insights through direct contacts with their gods  greatly impressed the general populous and in these more stratified societies. Those who took over their roles after the death of these prophets  – such as the Magi – became the powerful priests classes (their power was perhaps more on a level of what the bishops had in the Roman Catholic Church), slowly these early religions became more institutionalised and were used by the ruling class to increase their power over them and over the early societies. In most instances the ruling religion therefore became the state religion.  This happened especially at times when the ruler saw a need to reestablish his power over the people.  Obviously this also resulted in changes in state religion if new rulers arrived.  Mithraism became (during a short period) the state religion in Rome, before Christianity took over that role.  In some parts of the Persian and Roman Empires Islam replaced previous state religions. An upside of this was that religion became an important social tool to run these societies.

The new religions all talk about suffering and the need for a religious awakening based on the conscience of the individual people, rather than based on the external rituals and ceremonies . They all talk about seeking the truth and  looking after your neighbours; being more compassionate and disciplined; about justice and less violence. Clearly a reaction to the many problems that had become a byproduct of  urban civilisation.

Furthermore, they all defined their own sets of narratives/myths (Bible, Old Testament, Torah, Koran).

Some also preached to be more critical about the false truth – as they called it – of the teaching of the priests and their ‘false’ gods. Other new religions took a more conciliatory  approach towards the old religions.

Many of the old myths were recast as many people instinctively fell back to them. Gods were no longer mixing with humans, the God of the Hebrews had turned into a fearful one and the new myth started to evolve around that concept. God became distant, untouchable, even mentioning his name was forbidden.

Obedience was the word.

City societies also allowed for an exchange ideas and was a fertile place for new ideas and different approaches. The pursuit of knowledge was aimed to find the truth, but that didn’t always suit the rulers. In order to counteract these new developments they proclaimed religious dogmas. This further entrenched the concept of institutionalised religion.

The pressure, between the rulers who did rely on obedience, faith and piety to maintain the order and those pursuing knowledge in order to test the order and find the truth, increased. Pantheism religions (Greek, Roman) allowed – at least at times – for more imagination and tolerance. The Greek ‘religion’ was an interesting mix between the old pantheon of struggling gods acting like humans and interfering with their daily lives on one side and finding the truth through reasoning, the first more scientific approach towards the meaning of life and its many aspects. The invented the ‘Tragedy’ where the myth was placed in the context of a religious festival and in it the gods were put to the test – were they indeed fair and just – with the audience as the judge. In this way some of the fundamental Greek values were put to the test. However, trying to find rational ways to explain their mythology remained largely elusive. And despite their rational approaches and analyses the Greeks, including people like Plato and Aristotle, it had no effect on their religious beliefs. Greek philosophy especially from Aristotle was later on seen as a valid approach by the emerging Christian religion (but later on dismissed again).

Once religion becomes even more institutionalised we again see strong alliances between secular and religious powers. Religion became canonised and intolerant to internal changes and other religions, it also lost its spiritual flexibility for personal interpretations.

We will discuss this further in: Christianity steps into power vacuum

Germanic Mythology

The Sky Father development can also be found in the  Germanic, Slavic and Celtic tribal societies (sun and thunder gods). In general, here there is a strong indication towards a pantheon of nature and weather related deities, this is more prominent here than in other regions. The old Germanic social system is encapsulated in old Old Norse pantheon housed at Valhalla.

In Celtic and Germanic times the Neolithic belief system had certainly changed and deities were by that time the main objects of worships with far less elaborate burials of ancestors.

There obviously will have been a time of overlap between these two religious concept, the wagon burials in some of these tumuli might bridge that period, such wagons – as we will see later – were used to carry around certain deities and they have a strong relationship with the chariots which drawn celestial bodies such as the sun along the sky. There is a strong indication of an Etruscan origin of this concept and from them religious heritage goes back to the Proto-Indo-European religions which evolved in for example the Vedic and Zoroastrian religions.

The mythology that was practised by the people in the Low Countries was heavily influenced by both the Germanic and the Celtic cultures. There is evidence that from early times onwards there has been a great overlap between the two cultures. But at the same time there seems to be a strong Nordic influence throughout the whole region (Franks, Salii, Frisii, Tubanti, Canninefatii, Batavii as well as in Belgica).

What complicates the various gods and goddesses is that most of them do have different names, sometimes used in a different context or in a different region. Again there are similarities in other cultures including in that of the Aboriginal people of Australia.

The people themselves called their gods ‘Asen’ (As for singular) which perhaps can be better translated to souls, psyche, and spirits. Together the race of gods are called the Aesir and they lived in Asgard. They fought the other god race the Vanir (they lived in Vanaheim), mainly the deities of nature. They made peace and some such as Nerthus and Freya became Aesir.

Within Asgard was also the  Valhalla (from Old Norse Valhöll “hall of the slain”)  a majestic, enormous hall ruled over by the god Odin. Chosen by Odin, half of those who die in combat travel to Valhalla upon death, led by valkyries, while the other half go to the goddess Freyja’s field Fólkvangr. In Valhalla, the dead join the masses of those who have died in combat known as Einherjar, as well as various legendary Germanic heroes and kings, as they prepare to aid Odin with Ragnarök (the future events of the world). Before the hall stands the golden tree Glasir, and the hall’s ceiling is thatched with golden shields. Various creatures live around Valhalla, such as the stag Eikþyrnir and the goat Heiðrún, both described as standing atop Valhalla and consuming the foliage of the tree Læraðr.

Germanic main gods

  • Wodan/Odin, war god and the of victory – Wednesday – Woensdag
  • Donar/Thor/Thunor, thunder  – Thursday – Donderdag
  • Tyr/Tiwaz/Thiu/Irmin – ‘shining– Tuesday -Dinsdag
  • Frîja/Freya/Frea/Frigga, ‘loved one’ – wife of Wodan – Friday – Vrijdag

Other Germanic gods

  • Nerthus/Njörd/Njörd/Hertha/Berchta/Holda perhaps a proto-Germanic words “hertan” (heart) or “erþaz” (earth).
  • Fosite (Forseti, Forste) god of justice – perhaps Helgoland was his sacred place.
  • The Alaisiagae, lower dual deities assisting Freya. Perhaps originating from the Tubanti (Twente) or especially venerated by them [3. Religie in Romeins Britannia, F.G. Naerebout, Lampas, October 2009}.
  • The Alci perhaps the Germanic version of the Castor and Pollux myth
  • Arcanua, female godess.
  • Hariasa possible war goddess (Harimela or Harimella, “hari” means “battle”).
  • Hludana Earth goddess or a goddess of fishing perhaps the Proto-Germanic name of the northern Germanic goddess Hlodyn or Jörd (the mother of Thunor) and the Western Germanic Hulda/Holda.
  • Hruoda a spring goddess.
  • Vercana an unknown “Werkanaz” (worker) connection with labour.
  • Ostrara/Eostre –  godess of sun and fertility (Easter), easter eggs and the easter bunny all relate to her symbols

Regional Gods

  • Nehalennia, Germania Inferior (Zeeland), goddess of travellers
  • Vagdavercustis (Dutch)
  • Burorina
  • Viradectis
  • Exomna, Batavii godess
  • Foste, Ameland perhaps a local variant of Forseti
  • Haeva Batavii wife of Thunar(the Batavii variant of Donar)
  • Hurstrga a Batavii goddess
  • Isecaeneuga a Batavii goddess
  • Sandraudigr Goddess of the Sandland” or “Red-sand”; there is even a possibility that the Dutch cities of Zundert and Zandrode were named after her.
  • Tanfana “Tamfana” or “Tan” perhaps a moon goddess or a mother goddess (perhaps from Overijssel)
  • Vagdavercustis Batavii goddess of tree
  • Warns (Wodan?) god of the Saxons – Warnsveld, Warns Frisii, Warnsdorg Austria Czechian Varnsdorf
  • Viradecdis  mentioned on a altar at Tongeren (perhaps a war goddess)

Mythical Beings

  • Elfen, elven, alven
  • Kabouter
  • Moss people
  • Witte Wieven, herbalists & wise women

Mythical Heroes: Founding leaders

  • Mannus and his descendents:
    • Ingaevones, Ing, Istaevones, Istaev
  • Folcwald and his descendents:
    • Finn (Frisian)
  • Redbad, King of the Frisians

Mythical Objects

  • Corn dollies, harvesting doll
  • Oak trees, medicine

Wodan, Donar, Tyr and Freya

Only four of the Aesir deities were universal amongst all Germanic tribes: Wodan, Donar, Tyr and Freya.

Tyr (Tiwaz) is the first known Germanic god. His name is related in Indo European to ‘devah’ (diva). He was perhaps the key proto sky deity. He has many functions including god of war (but also of peace) before that this position was taken by Wodan. Tyr was also the god of the’ Thing’, the legislative assembly of the Germanic tribes. The Dutch name for Tuesday: Dinsdag (Dinglesdag in old Dutch) is a reference to Thing and its god Tyr. Tiwaz is also the name of one of the runes of the Germanic alphabet. Its symbol is an upright rather long arrow, this symbol also meant ‘Tyr’ as in the god. Some historians see the Irminsul (a wooden pillar symbolising it is holding the earth) also as a symbol of Tyr and as such relating to this holiest of Germanic sites. The broad arrow formerly used by the British Government to indicate its property is also linked to this symbol. In Australia it became the symbol of the convicts.

Saxnot was most probably also a name they used for Tyr.

Wodan, the son of giants, took over many of the attributes of Tiwaz and seems to have been the chief god amongst the warrior elite, the rural people favoured Donar. Some of the Germanic tribes sacrificed their victim of war in honour of Wodan. His major celebration took place at midwinter.

Woensel and Woesdrecht in Brabant are place names that are linked to Wodan.

Donar, the son of Wodan and Jörd had a strong role in weather making, in charge of storms, thunder and lighting; his symbols are an axe or hammer. He also had a strong connection with the land and the oaks in the forest; this could mean that the pillars perhaps might have been connected with him rather than with Tyr.

Midwinter horns

Wodan/Odin on his horse Sleipnir, is also linked to the Wild Hunt, these hunters might be the dead, lost souls or the gods themselves– all in  mad pursuit across the skies. Wild thunderstorms, especially during autumn and winter, would be a perfect indication of such a Wild Hunt. Seeing this happening could mean the onset of catastrophe:  war, famine, plague, etc. There are also indications that it wasn’t Wodan but Donar who was in charge of the Wild Hunt, because of his personality that does make more sense.

In Twente (eastern part of the Low Countries) legend has it that horns of aurochs were blown to indicate to the gods that a hunt was already taking place so there was no need for them to hunt in their region, thus preventing them from catastrophe.

The Wild Hunt was still very much alive during the Middle Ages despite the fact that the Church forbade the people to blow their horns. If you can’t beat them join them, and as the Wild Hunts took place during winter the horns were used to welcome the new born Christ child and still – till this day – the midwinter horns can be heard in Twenthe, starting with the Advent until Epiphany.

Part of the Dutch legend of Saint Nicholas (Sint Nicolaas/Sinterklaas) might have its origin in the Wild Hunt. The Saint with his black helpers travels by horse over the roofs of the people. Odin is also the Jolnir, the Yule figure who is invited into people home during the winter as a form of good magic, another link with Saint Nicholas. The Saint (a bishop of Myrma, Turkey) became popular in the Low Countries after Empress Theophanu, in 972, brought an icon of the saint with her to her new husband the Holy Roman Emperor  Otto II. The first mentioning of the traditional Saint Nicholas celebrations in the Netherlands was in 1427 in Utrecht. In the 20th century he also evolved into Santa Claus.

Donar also had a great hall – Valhalla – in Asgard, fallen heroes arrived here and would wait for Ragernök (Götterdämmerung), the final destruction of heaven and earth. The earth will sink in the sea and all will vanish in a fire that reach as high as the sky. The sun will darken and the stars will vanish from heaven.

Njörd was Wodan’s first wife and was the Earth Mother, she is most probably the same as Nerthus as mentioned above. Freya however is Wodan’s other, better known, wife.

Religious structure

There is little evidence of significant religious structures. The chieftain was also responsible for maintaining the sacred sites and uphold religious celebrations and rites, There is no evidence of a separate priest class.

There is also not a lot of evidence to suggest that there was a strict hierarchy between the gods. They were more or less treated equally and people could have their own favourite gods and they could also change this if that did not work for them.

While there is some evidence of altars and temples, the majority of sacred sites were most probably natural sites such as springs, significant oak and linden trees. Here offerings were made. Many of these sites were later on used by the early missionaries to build the very first wooden churches.

Legend has it that in Oss, just north of the Bronze Age burial sites,  St Willibrord baptised at a spot where later on it was established there had been a stream. There is at the site also archaeological evidence of a small church dating back to the Middle Ages. Could it be that this was the place where the sacred linden tree stood, which features in the coat of arms of Oss, could an early missionary have used this sacred site to convert the pagans?

A glimpse into Saxon religion

Saxon pagan practices were also closely related to Saxon political practices. The annual councils of the entire tribe began with invocations of the gods, and the procedure by which dukes were elected in wartime, by drawing lots, probably had pagan significance, that is, giving trust to divine providence to guide the seemingly random decision making.

There were also sacred rituals and objects, such as the above mentioned Irminsul.

The Old Saxon English calendar bear the names Hrethmonath and Eosturmonath, meaning “month of Hretha” and “month of Ēostre”, the names of two goddesses who were worshipped around that season. The Saxons offered cakes to their gods in February (Solmonath) and there was a religious festival associated with the harvest, Halegmonath (“holy month” or month of offerings”, September).

Celtic Mythology

The Celts practised a form of animism, worshipping lakes, rivers, mountains and other nature features, they had many gods and goddesses related to nature.  There is a clear correlation with the Greek gods, linking the Gallic culture back to the Etruscans and the Greek. They had a father God, Dis Patres, and their religion also has a trinity with the key gods: Tautatis, Taranis and Esus. Amongst the hundreds of gods these four key deities were worshipped by all Gallic tribes.

From mythology to theory

Like anywhere else also Greek mythology would have been based on thousands of years of oral history. Interestingly once this gets written down, it gets a life of its own; outside that oral tradition there now became better way to interpret and analyse it. Mythology could now be theorised (demythologised).

Mythology seems to be an extremely powerful part of the human psyche, many people today would be able to mention a few stories involving the Greek Gods [4. Glut, Alex Wright, 1999].

However, the Greeks went further, as far as we know they were the first in the west to provide answers that were not expressed in religious or mythological terms. Their thoughts on these matters grew out of speculations based on natural observation and from here science started to enter the western world.

The most unique feature of the Gallic religion are the Druids, they guarded the secrets of their order, determined questions in relation to war and peace. They were in charge of the religious activities as well as of education. They often lived in deep groves in uninhabited woods.

Celtic Gods

  • Arduinna, Celtic goddess of Ardennes Forest.
  • Erecura, Celtic earth goddess
  • Góntia/Ghent, Celtic moon goddess, also goddess of horses – also venerated by the Germans
  • Baduhenna, possible Frisii war goddess
  • Epona Celtic goddess of horses.
  • Nornes this were originally Celtic goddesses in southern Germany they were worshipped as “Matres” or “Matrones” (Perhaps the same as Nerthus)
  • Viradecdis may be a Celtic god
  • Artio – goddess of unspoiled nature and its animals, goddess of the hunt
  • Belenos – the shining god of fire, sun god
  • Dis Pater – god of the underworld, ancestor of the Gaul
  • Tautatis – war god but also a protector against war
  • Esus – god of plenty (worshipped in Leiden)
  • Taranis – god of thunder also of magic and knowledge
  • Luxovius – god of light (lux) and warmth
  • Rosmerta – local goddess in Lotharingia and the Rhine land
  • Sequana – the river goddess of the Seine and in particular its source

Despite some Roman reports to the contrary there is no evidence that the Celts and Germans worshipped the sun and the moon as such. Certain attributes of the celestial bodies however, are linked to some of their gods and annual festivals

In both Celtic and Germanic pagan traditions the country side was populated by deities. This was initially demonised by the Church however by the 7th century this pagan tradition was restored and the countryside had become’sacred’ again.

Religious adaptation

The Mother Earth Goddess certainly survived during the millennia and reincarnated in different forms in the many different cultures that evolved in the Neolithic and beyond.

The more complex European religions complete with the new Sky Deities and catering for a newly developing tripartition society developed during the Bronze Age and is becoming more visible to us during Celtic times. What we start to see in historic times is most probably a mix of these Celtic believes and Germanic elements, which in turn had their origin in the Nordic countries.

If we than take it further to Roman times we also see in our region strong Romanised elements added to the local pagan believe system. The Romans had a very liberal attitude towards the new local gods, as long as the natives also took the Roman gods onboard and venerated the Emperor they were largely left alone. As a matter of fact we also see the Romans including some of the pagan gods, such as Nehalennia and the Christian God was similarly adopted as one of the gods in Rome.

The strong influence of Roman culture saw Tiwaz becoming/compared to Mars, Donar to Jupiter (Jovis), Wodan as Mercurius and Freya, Venus

This tradition of adaptation simply continued into the next stage of Catholicism. Many of the pagan elements were simply Christianised or Christian symbols and meanings were given to what in origan were pagan believes.

A good example is that in the 7th century the missionaries ruled that it was strictly forbidden for “anyone to practice divination or evocation at a spring or a stone or a tree, except in the name of God…”

At the same time Judaism and Christianity (and therefore also Islam) were adaptations of Zorastrianism, which has its origin in Persia (Iran), dating back to the 2nd millennium BCE. As such this religion has had a far greater influence on mankind than it has been given credit for. Concepts such as; supremely good deity,  salvation, last judgement, resurrection and eternal life for the faithful all have their origin in this early monotheistic religion.

On the other side, perhaps as far back as the very early communities, esoteric spiritual thoughts existed as well and were nurtured, many elements of which would be very recognisable to the New Age people of the 20th century. However, once the moral and more physical elements of religion became institutionalised, these esoteric experiences were suppressed and even demonised (heretics, inquisitions, witch hunts, etc).

Some of these religious/social changes were a natural result of a more complex society; other changes were simply forcefully introduced in order to obtain and maintain power over people. This most certainly would have happened during the late Neolithic and Bronze Age periods when the society changed from an egalitarian communal society to a stratified society ruled by the new warrior elite.


Ancestor cult

As indicated above the ancestor cult really blossomed during the Neolithic amongst the agriculture societies, Ancestors were strongly linked to the land of the farming family and provided a sense of belonging as well as legitimacy.

The tribal families and communities saw their ancestors as part of their life, to them they were as real as the living, this is evidence in their burial practices; the ancestors were buried at the farm, sometimes even within the farmhouse or at least very close to their farms. Ancestor worship continued throughout Roman times both within the Roman ‘civilised’ world as well and perhaps even more so in rural areas.

When the Catholic Church started to arrive they had to fight all pagan beliefs in order to establish their authority. A range of tactics were developed the easiest one being turning pagan gods and festivities into saints and church festivities.

In order to change the loyalty towards the tribe to loyalty towards the church different tactics were applied. On the one side monastic life saw children being ‘donated’ to the church, breaking therefore the family ties.

In relation to ancestor worships also here the church thought that it was needed to break the tribal structures and tie families closer to the church. Ancestor worship was forbidden and the death had to be buried in the newly created churchyards directly around the churches. The worships of saints and Jesus were to replace the worship of the ancestors and the church was the intermediate to facilitate and regulate that.

When –  in the 8th century Charlemagne – conquered the Saxons and the first places such as Nordhorn saw their first churches built the emperor issued a capitulario prohibiting burials on the pagan cemeteries and ordered them to be buried in the churchyard. The central position that these churches started to obtain within the villages made the churchyards also ideal meeting points for other community activities sometimes under the supervision of the church disputes and other affairs could be addressed, also the yards were used as places for protest meetings and at other times these places became refuges. Old traditions don’t die out easy and there are also reports of people still gathering at the churchyards to communicate with their dead through song and dance, something that obvious was forbidden by the church.

Also interesting to note here is that the nobility reacted to this change in an innovative way by building churches on their properties where they buried their dead.

In further attempts to break tribal laws and traditions the church insisted that Roman property should be applied to any property and not tribal law the latter was more directed towards communal ownership. [5. Understanding the Middle Ages, Harald Kleinschmidt, p38-42]


 From Eostre to vlőggeln

In the birthplace of my parents and grandparents, Ootmarsum in the east of the Netherlands there still is the annual procession known as vlőggeln. The procession takes place, since times immemorial,  every Easter and the local people walk hand-in-hand around town following an age old route through certain farmhouses and local inns. They sing hymns a leader starts each couplet which is than sang in union by the vlőggelers.

Ootmarsum - Easter - Poaskearls

This procession could well have been a left over from the old Germanic processions, which took place during these important festivals; similar to the procession mentioned below of Nerthus.

Another possibility is that it is linked an old Germanic tradition known as ‘Beating the Bounds’ where the villagers in procession proceed around the boundaries of their village praying for its protection for the coming year; coinciding with one of the equinox celebrations. The Romans had their own processions and offering at the Terminalia, on the 24th of February, celebrating their God Terminus. Landowners walked along their boundary stones making offerings and celebrating. During the Middle Ages such a ‘boundary’ procession took place during the Days of the Cross ( Rogation Days, Kruisdagen) in April.

Furthermore there are other Easter celebrations in Ootmarsum. On the Saturday before Easter the citizens and in particular the children are  gathering the wood – by horse and carts – for the Easter bonfire than there is the bonfire itself and furthermore there is a strong tradition in egg eating (complete with competitions – who has the strongest egg and who can eat the most).

Ootmarsum - Easter

It looks like these celebrations are the remnants of what in origin must have been one of the key Germanic festivals, perhaps from the local Tubanti who lived in these regions, they were linked to the Saxons and later became part of their confederation.

This current Easter celebration in Ootmarsum must have its origin in the celebrations around the spring equinox, which was linked to the goddess of the East and the Dawn, Eostre. Either from its origin, or in subsequent centuries this celebration became the spring festival; celebrating the arrival of a new agriculture year, getting rid of the winter demons and celebrating fertility. The goddess animal was a hare with an extraordinary high libido; estrus and estrogen are also words derived from Eostra

At Palm Sunday there is procession of the children who carry a stick (palmpasenstok) with palm leaves (here replaced by the ever green buxus leaves) decorated with little baked dough figures, fruits, sugar eggs, and other sweets hanging from it. As a four or five year old I did win the first price with the stick that my grandfather had made for me.

Mediterranean tradition had it that palm leaves had magic proponents (e.g. reading of palm leaves) and palm leaves (buxus) were blessed by the church, it was taken home and the leaves were kept (as did my mum) and used for example to sprinkle the house with holy water during a fierce thunderstorm.

Again some pagan adaptation here; at Eostre gifts were offered, of course the eggs (see below) but also little bread buns. The cock features high on the Palm Sunday sticks. The hot-cross buns are another remnant of that. The cross is not the Christian cross but the Germanic symbol. At Eostre a sacred ox (boun) was sacrificed and the bun offerings were twice-scored with the ox’s horns. First the church tried to ban the buns but when this didn’t work they reformed the ox scores to the cross of the crucifixion.

Decorating trees is another tradition well attested in Germanic culture: Irminsul, Thor’s Oak. Adaptations here are the Palm Sunday stick, the Christmas Tree and the maypole.

See Ootmarsum video clips:

The town

Easter Saturday

Easter Sunday


Saxon legend

Eostre found a wounded bird and transformed it into a hare so that it could survive the winter. The hare noticed it could lay eggs, so it decorated these eggs each spring and left them as offering to the goddess.

According to Germanic believes the egg’s oval shape represents the eternal cycle of seasons. The egg yolk symbolises the sun and the egg-white and pale shell the maiden goddess Eostre. The Germanic sacred marriage of the young maiden Eostere was said to have been arranged at the spring equinox, and took place at Beltane (May 1). With her husband (Heros) she than continues the year cycles; first as a menstruating woman end after that as a wise women.

According to the monk the Venerable Bede (679-735) the goddess, in Britain,  also had her own month ‘Eostur Monath’ (April – the first month of the Germanic summer cycle).

Over the last 1500 years many of these elements have been Christianised and combined with other celebrations which has led to this very unique pocket of traditions, where we still can see glimpses of the old Germanic traditions.

On a social level these festivals also played a key role in asserting and maintaining the continuity of village life, this was in particular important for the more remote villages and in the old days Ootmarsum certainly would fit into that category

  • Österreich also derives its name from Eostre (it means eastern territory). However, it was wrongly translated in Latin as Austria (from Auster the name for the south wind). This is creating confusion with Australia which is properly named after Auster.

Nehalennia – Nerthus – Njord – St. Gertrud

The story of one of Brabant’s most revered saints,  St Gertrud, is another  classic example of religious adaptation. For this we need to go back in time.

The link with the Mother Earth Goddess in our region is most probably Nehalennia. Historians believe that based on language reconstruction that the name predates Celtic or Germanic origin and that ‘nehis’ can be linked to the word ‘nymph’ or ‘mother’. Worship took place at ;east since the 2nd century BC.

There was a temple dedicated to her  at Ganuenta (near modern day Colijnsplaat), which was destroyed by Christian missionaries in 694AD. Another temple dedicated to her was situated, also on the coast, to the west of the city of Domburg. I saw one of the altars in the Zeeuws museum in Middleburg in July 2007 and many more altars of her at the Rijksmuseum voor oudheden in Leiden in 2011.

In Roman times, Nehalennia was the local  goddess in Germania Inferior who protected ships and sea trade, her symbol was a ship. She also is linked to fertility as she often depicted with fruit (apples, grapes), perhaps in this case more prosperity.  She protected not just the travelling living but also the souls of those departed. The dog which is another symbol of her is linked to protection/vigilance/loyalty as well as with death.

The temples in Zeeland were for the seafarers who would from here travel to Britannia and along the coast to the north and south and this was thus an obvious place to venerate the goddess. Shippers often took a detour to visit her temple before crossing the Channel. Some 160 altars dedicated to her have been found in this area. It is believed that her local name was Neeltje Jans.

Travel across the Channel usually took less than a day, but could also take three days or more depending on the often unpredictable weather.

The veneration had its heights in the 2nd and 3rdcenturies, when the current Zeeland islands were larger and the river Scheldt did run as a river, rather than the current sea arm, all the way to the North Sea. This was a busy port as it also serviced the ships sailing over the rivers Maas and Rhine. Many merchants coming from Cologne (the capital of Germania Inferior) and also from Nijmegen and Tongeren. Based on the dedications on the altars, it can be concluded that the main products that were traded by them over the Channel were salt, fish sauce, earthenware and wine.

Several altars dedicated read along the lines of this one: “To the godess – Nehalennia Marcus Similinius Seranus has redeemed his vows – (with) pleasure and with reason/just” [6. Nehalennia Documenten in steen, P.Stuart, 2003]

The climatic changes in the 3rd century led to floods that carved away significant parts of the land and the temple toppled into the newly emerging sea arm. (See video clip: National Museum Leiden)

During the early Middle Ages there was a local custom in some parts of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany in which the people rode a ship on wheels through the countryside while dancing around it in celebration; this custom was later forbidden under pressure of the church. This procession seems to have a link to the veneration of Nehalennia. It was believed that this procession would bring happiness and prosperity to the people. ( I can’t help thinking of the paintings of Jheronimus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel in relation to Carnival – The ship of Fools – Het Narrenschip – this still plays a role in the local carnival folklore of Brabant).

Some historians have linked Nehalennia to another local god Nerthus.

Nerthus was the “Mother Earth” she was mentioned by Tacitus in the first century. According to him she was worshipped by the North Sea Germans.

“On an island of the sea stands an inviolate grove, in which, veiled with a cloth, is a chariot that none but the priest may touch. The priest can feel the presence of the goddess in this holy of holies, and attends her with deepest reverence as her chariot is drawn along by cows. Then follow days of rejoicing and merrymaking in every place that she condescends to visit and sojourn in. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every iron object is locked away. Then, and then only, are peace and quiet known and welcomed, until the goddess, when she has had enough of the society of men, is restored to her sacred precinct by the priest. After that, the chariot, the vestments, and the goddess herself, if you like to believe me, are cleansed in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake. Thus mystery begets terror and a pious reluctance to ask what that sight can be which is seen only by men doomed to die.”

The ‘island in the sea’ is possibly the island of Rügen, which we visited in 2001, on a Budde family history tour, one of the first recorded Budde’s lived here in 1349.  This island also hosts one of the last pagan sites in Europe, that of Suantovit (Svantevit/Swantewit), it was destroyed by the invading Danes in 1168. The ruins of the site are still clearly visible.

Interestingly Rügen had a few centuries earlier – during Carolingian times – already been converted to Christianity by the monks of Corvey, who built here a church in honour of St Vitus. When Waldemar of Denmark conquered the island he found that St Vitus had become a monstrous image with four heads, known by the apostates as their god Swantewit.

Coming back to the drowned slaves from the Nerthus ceremony. The Iron Age people did sacrifice either people who were punished or perhaps also enemies that were captured. The bog bodies seem consistently to have been members of the upper class: their fingernails are manicured, and tests on hair protein routinely record good nutrition.They often were sacrificed in lakes and rivers and a range of so called bog burials have been excavated. One of the most famous one is the Tollund man from Denmark. In the Bourtanger moor in Drenthe they discovered a bog  couple – known as the Weerdinge woman and  men – and together with a separate bog burial-  the Yde girl- they  represent the most well known sites in the Low Countries.

Sometimes the chieftain retainer(s) were also killed and buried with these bog people. These sacrifices are both known from Celtic, Slavic  and Germanic times and this also links the practice back to the Stone and Bronze Age with archaeological evidence that this practice also took place already in those early days in particular also in the Low Countries.

Horses, swords, tools and other goods have also been found indicating that also offers might have been made to the gods, again Stone Age offerings with reindeer antlers are also known from the Low Countries.

The name Nerthus is an earlier form of the Old Norse Njörðr (Njord), who is, however, clearly masculine. Still, it is said that Njord fathered Frey and Freya by his own sister, who is not named; it is possible that the feminine and masculine Nerthus/Njord could have been a similar pair of mixed twins. Interestingly Freya was also carried around in a wagon, but this one was pulled by cats, not by cows.

Freya, from whose name comes back in Friday, the sixth day of the week, is after, or alongside Frigga the most honoured Nordic goddess, indeed her cult seems to have been even more widespread and important

Freya’s dwelling is called Folkvangr, Folkwang, (people catcher) the fields on which souls of the (dead?) folk gather.

This possibly resembles St. Gertrud, together with her mother she founded the monastery in Nijvel (Brabant) and after her death she was canonised. Saint Gertrud looks after the travelling souls of the dead during their first night.  Her minne is drunk for the souls of the departed.

The legend here is that one day Gertrud sent some of her subjects to a distant country, promising that no misfortune would befall them on the journey. When they were on the ocean, a large sea-monster threatened to capsize their ship, but disappeared upon the invocation of St. Gertrude. In memory of this occurrence travellers during the Middle Ages drank the so-called “Sinte Geerts Minne” or “Gertrudenminte” before setting out on their journey.

We visited the abbey founded by Gertrud and in the church there is also  a holy wagon, dating back to 1450, this carries a shrine with the reliquiae of St Gertrud,  originally the cart had 24 panels which  had oil paintings depicting the life and miracles of St Gertrud, dating from the 15th century, painted by Sourdiaux, a pupil of famous Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden. This wagon was paraded annually through Nivelles on the Sunday following St Michael’s Day, pulled not by cows or cats but this time by six strong Brabantine horses. However, Gertrud is often depicted together with a cat. The wagon and its procession has been explained as a remnant of the nomadic nature of the early Celtic tribes.

The St Gertrude’s Tour is still a living tradition it takes place every year on the Sunday after the feast of St Michael (29th September).

St Gertrud’s Cart – Nijvel

This St Gertrud example is also a good indication why Catholicism was reasonable acceptable to the local people; it incorporated many of the pagan believes – pagan gods became saint, many of them were also linked to natural events, illnesses and other for these people unexplainable phenomena. It is amazing how many of the original pagan traditions still exist, not only Christmas, Easter, Carnival and summer and spring festivals, but all over Europe there are still hundreds and hundreds events and celebrations that are dating back to the original pagan believes. To a certain extend one could say that the interest in them is increasing rather than decreasing; in modern time mostly without the superstition or religious believes that originally were attached to them.


Pagus was the Latin name for the smallest administrative district of a Roman province, more or less equivalent to a modern county (canton). This word gave in French pays (country), paysan (farmer, through paganus), paysage (landscape).

Previously a pagus had been an informal designation of a rural district, with rather flexible (natural) boarders as they were seen by the local people. The people in these outlaying pagi often clanged to their traditional believe (pagans).

The Dutch word for pagan is ‘heiden’, meaning those who dwell on the heath. When the new city cultures started arrive also the myths, rituals and ceremonies  changed; ‘city Gods’ became more prominent. The rural population however, maintained their older myths and Gods and as such were seen as more backwards by their early Roman and later Catholic  observers


Hagael cross (Hagelkruis)

I haven’t been able to find a good English translation.

Hagael, Haglaz or Hagall is the rune for ‘hail’ (H). In Dutch the word hagel still stands for hail, ‘the whitest of corn”.

Just a few kilometres to the east of Oss, in what was than the farming community of Schadewijk, stood a ‘Hagelkruis’ there is no information on the actual cross itself and the name of a street is the only reminder of this. There is no clear evidence between the link of the rune hagael and the hagelkruisen. But the runes were known to have magical powers.

Hagelkruis – Aarle Rixel

There was a widespread tradition especially in the Low Countries that hagelkruisen were erected at the crossings of roads in rural areas to ward off evil spirits. This in particular was used to prevent damage from hail storms.

At these crosses at special occasions bread was shared as an offering. My mum still remembers that she went to the Ageler Es, a few kilometres from Ootmarsum where she witnessed this age old tradition in this region. There is no evidence that the road cross that is here was known as a ‘hagelkruis’.

Since times immemorial the 13 farmers of Agelo were responsible for the distribution of bread to the poor at the Ageler Cross. Each farmer brings a 24-28 pound ryebread. They were put on the grass after which they prayed for the blessing of their fields for protection against hail damage. Which they say has never happened at the Ageler Es.

The distribution of the bread always takes place on the Monday after Whitsunday.

The origin of these days of prayer might be linked to the four sets of prayer, penitence and offerings days Germanic people used to mark winter, spring , summer and autumn (the solstices and equinoxes). At these times prayers were devoted to the fertility of the earth. Christianised these 4 sets of prayer days are known as Quatertemperdays

It was also during the spring/summer period that the Romans prayed to their God Robigalia to protect their crops. This was Christianised to the Days of the Cross (Rogation Days).  Rogation in Latin means ‘to ask’. As in Germanic and Roman tradition these Christianised days are used to pray for the protection of the fields and the crops and often the village in procession walked through the field (see also above “Beating the Bounds”, during these processions they carried a cross with them hence  the name “Days of the Cross’.

Some historians (including the renown French philologist Georges Dumézil)are even tracing some of the origins to Indo-European times and have made a link with the word ‘bhaga’ in Sanskrit perhaps along the lines of a god or chief in charge of the distribution of wealth and prosperity.

  • Another interesting transition is evident in the Castle of Venus in Erice, Sicily (see video clip). This most likely started as a sanctuary for the Phoenician Goddess Astarte, under the Greek occupation it was dedicated to Aphrodite, the Romans dedicated it to Venus the transition ended with the building of the church of Santa Maria della Neve (St Mary of the Snow) during the Middle Ages.



Even today paganism is still around. Many folk stories – which were very much alive less than a century ago, especially in rural areas – had pagan elements in it. Many of these rural communities remained largely isolated until well into the 20 century.

While the forceful conversation coincided with the end of tribal life, for centuries there was not a real religious alternative to paganism for most of the people living on the land with the entire unexplained natural phenomenon around them, together with death, poverty and hardship.

The local priests were most of the time as poorly educated as the peasants they had to shepherd.  It took more than a millennium to stamp out many of the abscesses of the Church. Their power and wealth lead to significant corruption,especially under the so called Renaissance Popes, at the same time it led to a serious suppression of the peasant population throughout Europe. In general terms the clergy were hated by the local population, this however, did not stop their infallible believe in the religion.

The clergy – and in particular the hierarchy above to local priests –  were certainly not seen as objective players in society and certainly not as their protectors, instead the Church was clearly aligned with the local powers, the nobility in the Middle Ages and until recent the nouveau rich as large landowners and early industrialists. In Oss in the early 20th century it was still the saying that the local priest was there to keep the people dumb while the local industrialist would keep them poor, a perfect combination.

This therefore remained a perfect environment for ordinary people to hang on to old pagan rooted traditions and festivities which inturn were rooted in the nature of their existence and closely linked to the natural environment they lived in.

The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)