A First Outline of Germanic Religion With Frisian Characteristics

Written by Dyami Millarson

In this article, which may be regarded as a tentative religious treatise, I will treat Germanic religion as an uncountable concept just like one may treat Germanic polytheism as uncountable. Therefore, I will view the Frisian strain of Germanic religion as Germanic religion with Frisian characteristics.

What is Germanic religion or polytheism with Frisian characteristics? What are those Frisian characteristics? What we should look at first are the Frisian Gods and then we should take a quick glance at the lesser spirits, for all these bigger and smaller Wights (supernatural beings) define Germanic religion.

The following Gods of the Frisians, who were also Vikings (cp. the Estonians who had adopted Viking culture), come to mind:

  • The Frisian Viking God Fosite, which was adopted among the Norse Vikings as Forseti and to whom the island Fositesland was dedicated, which had sacred cattle grazing on the island, and a sacred spring, from which one had to draw water in silence (this is perhaps equivalent to the water-cleansing rites performed before entering a Japanese Shinto shrine), and is nowadays often equated with Heligoland (see here), and whose name has been theorised by Grimm and others to be connected with Poseidon, making him the aquatic God of the sea-faring Frisians which dwelled along the North Sea coast, and with whom the sacrifice of those found guilty of robbery may be connected, for it was deemed fit according to the Frisian law that thieves be given to the sea;
  • Baduhenna, whose sacred grove has been mentioned by Roman historian Tacitus in his ethnographic treatise of Germania;
  • Hludana, who was apparently worshipped in Frisia as an inscription dedicated to her was uncovered in 1888 during an excavation in the village Beetgum, which is located in Fryslân, the Frisian-speaking region of the Netherlands;
  • The Frisian equivalent of Othin, whose name has been preserved in the weekday woansdei, which is the Frisian name for Wednesday, and who was assigned a prominent place in the Germanic religious belief system by the Frisians, Saxons and Franks in the region that would become the Netherlands;
  • Stavo, which is a deity in Frisian folklore and may be seen as an epithet of Othin, although one may also consider Stavo a folkloristic fiction of later date while it could be argued with equally convincing vigour that there might be some truth to the Frisian folklore and that Stavo was a distant memory of Othin or some covert reference to him that was meant not to upset the Church;
  • Thingsus, who may also be called Mars Thingsus or simply Mars and whom the Frisians of Twente worshipped as probably their equivalent of the sky deity Tyr, whose name has been preserved in the Frisian weekday tiisdei (Tuesday), although Thingsus may also have been a latinised early epithet of Fosite;
  • The Frisian equivalent of Ingvi or Frey, who was worshipped among the Ingaevones, from which the Anglo-Saxons, Frisians and Saxons have sprung;
  • The Frisian equivalents of Thor and Frigg/Freyja, who are remembered in the weekdays tongersdei (Thursday) and freed (Friday) coming after Othin’s day (woansdei) and thus making the ancient Germanic family trinity complete;
  • The sun and the moon, which are also said by the ancient historians and chroniclers to have been worshipped by the Frisians, which is made plausible by the fact that the sun and moon were personified and seen as deities among the ancient Norse and are also preserved in the Frisian weekdays moandei (Monday) and sneon (Sunday), inherited from Common Germanic, and Eligius, who had preached among the Frisians, said in his anti-pagan sermon that pagans swore their oaths by sun and moon and called them their lords, waited for a particular phase of the moon to begin something and shouted at the lunar eclipse.

The family of the Gods in the Frisian strand of Germanic folk religion may be assumed to be generally the same as that of other strands, and thus although the Frisians may have had their own religious characteristics, they would generally have worshipped the same divine entities as the other Germanic folk religionists of that time, for all tribal strands of Germanic religion had a common descent, which was definitely noticeable in the choice of deities. The various strands were thus interchangeable; hence Fosite, who was worshipped among the Frisians as one of the principal or chief deities, could be easily adopted by the Norse.

While I have elaborated on the chief deities or spirits, I should also give an overview of the lesser spirits. All of the water-based and land-based Frisian wights (i.e., spirits) that I am going to discuss reflect the common beliefs of the Germanic polytheists. It should therefore be borne in mind that all of the following ancient numinous beings that the Frisians have believed in since time immemorial have equivalents or clear matches in other Germanic belief systems:

  • The Frisians have believed in spirits (geasten in Clay Frisian) and souls (sielen in Clay Frisian) since ancient times; both aforementioned spiritual concepts are universal among all Germanic-speaking peoples.
    • Frisians – whilst judging from their folk stories called mearkes – believe in various ghostly appearances; ghosts (spoeken in Frisian) may take animal forms or more anthropomorphic (human-like or man-like) forms. An interesting mix of the two is the Frisian belief in werewolves (wjerwolven or wearwolven in Clay Frisian); it ought to be noted that the belief in the werewolf is universal among the speakers of Germanic languages. Equally universal is the belief in helhounds among the Germanic peoples and as far as I can recall, there are Frisian tales of canine ghostly apparitions (i.e., ghostly dogs); as the concept of helhûn (hellhound) exists in Frisian, the belief in the hellhound traditionally exists among the Frisians (see here, here, here, here, here, here and here) and it is as prevalent as among the neighbouring indigenous people of Groningen where the ghostly dog is known as Borries or Barries (see here, here and here), which, along with the Frisian folk religious conceptions of the hellhound, may be regarded as an equivalent of the Nordic hellhound Garmr (cp. the Greek hound Cerberus guarding Hades). Another instance of a ghostly apparition in Frisian folktales is the ghostly horse featured in the German novel Der Schimmelreiter which is set in 19th-century North Frisia, a traditionally Frisian-speaking region situated in Northwest Germany. Somewhat similar to the lindworm we will discuss later in a commentary that is placed between brackets, the Frisians traditionally believe in a ghostly ‘worm’ (see here), being the Anguis fragilis, which I have caught on a few occasions. It is said in Frisian folklore that this animal can heal itself and this self-healing is believed to be proof of its virulency (somewhat like the Hydra dragon that Hercules had to fight).
    • There is linguistic evidence that the ancient Frisians believed in elves (alven or elven in Clay Frisian, the latter form being the result of Dutch/English influence and the former being the original heritage word from Old Frisian) and dwarfs (dwergen in Clay Frisian). These have generally survived in modern Frisian folklore as ierdmantsjes (gnomes, kobolds) and tsjoensters (witches). There are also many Frisian folk tales about folk healers called wûnderdokters (which are also featured in folk stories relating to lintwjirmen, tapeworms, see commentary below) and this may be regarded as a genuine remnant of folk medicine among the Frisians, reminding one of the Mersenburg charms where uuodan (Othin) says miraculous words to magically heal the foal of balder (Baldur).
    • The Frisians of yore also believed in the Germanic incubus or mare (nachtmerje in Clay Frisian) as well as the nixie (bûzehappert in Clay Frisian) which is common to all Germanic peoples. The mermaid (seewiif in Clay Frisian) is a being that is akin to the nixie. Additionally, in ancient times, the Frisians believed in giants (reuzen in Clay Frisian) which are the Germanic anti-Gods and they also believed in dragons as Germanic anti-heroes (the Germanic heritage word for dragon is wjirm in Clay Frisian and by the way, wurm in Middle Dutch also meant dragon, but the Latin-derived term draak has completely replaced the equivalent Germanic heritage word wjirm; the word lintwjirm, which is a cognate of the English lindworm, is nowadays used chiefly to mean tapeworm, a kind of worm, and does generally not refer to a Germanic type of dragon anymore, as lintwjirm is used to mean tapeworm even in folk tales, see here and here, yet the cognate word lindeworm/lendeworm is used in a Groningen Low Saxon folk story of the early 19th century to mean a Germanic dragon).

Oaths (i.e., the Germanic equivalent of contracts) may be seen as the natural basis of the legal system, for the law is built on verbal agreements (or written agreements as in modern society). The Frisian polytheists can be presumed to have sworn oaths at sanctuaries, sacred stones, trees, wells, enclosures and cross-roads. The sanctuaries may have been man-built structures or they may have been natural structures in nature that were seen as dwelling-places of the spiritual or divine. The aforementioned locations are also the ancient Frisian locations of worship.

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