Sacrificial Cock (US: Sacrificial Rooster) in Germanic Folk Religion

Written by Dyami Millarson

“The sacrifice of a cock was a custom in Germany [= Germania],” says Angelo de Gubernatis on page 290 of vol. II of the 1872 work Zoological Mythology: Or, the Legends of Animals. On the same page, Angelo de Gubernatis informs us that “the Danes were accustomed to carry two cocks to war, one to tell the hours and the other to excite the soldiers to battle.” The cock is featured prominently in the cultural iconography of the various modern Germanic-speaking tribes; the symbolisms of the sacrificial cock have apparently never been eradicated from Germanic folk culture, and have apparently retained their cultural prominence in the folk tradition-based memory, consciousness or psyche of the aforementioned tribes up to recent times.

Depictions of cocks are placed on the highest parts of the sloping roofs of traditional Shire Frisian farmhouses – potentially a relic of the sacrificial cock in Germanic folk religion. I have been informed that related depictions may be found in traditional Pennsylvanian German rural architecture. Similarly to the Germanic custom, there is an old Hungarian custom “where a dyed tin cock is placed upon high buildings to indicate the direction of the wind.” For the Hungarian connection, see page 288 of vol. II of the 1872 work Zoological Mythology: Or, the Legends of Animals by Angelo de Gubernatis. H. Clay Trumbull mentions an ostensibly related Russian custom on page 54 and the following page of his 1896 work The Threshold Covenant: Or the Beginning of Religious Rites: “The “upper corner” of a house, in Russia, is pecularly sacred, having even more honor than the doorway theshold in the ordinary home. Yet this upper corner seems to be in a sense the real theshold, or foundation corner, of the building. A cock is the ordinary victim sacrificed “on the spot  which a projected house is to cover.” The head of this cock is buried “exactly where the ‘upper corner’ of the building is to stand.” And this corner is thenceforward a sacred corner.”

The Schiermonnikoog Frisians have a custom of tying a live cock to a maypole during their traditional celebration of Kallemooi; in more than a hundred years, no cocks have ever been hurt during this ceremony. Theodor Vernaleken says on page 356 of his work titled In the Land of Marvels: Folk-tales from Austria and Bohemia which was published in 1884: “In harvest customs of North Germany, a wooden cock is fastened to a wreath made from the last sheaf and flowers; this is called Greifen, and a mirthful game is played with it in the stubble.” This curious and presumably ancient custom attests to the notion there may have been a corresponding Germanic folk religious custom of tying cocks to the tops of holy trees. See page 671 of vol. II of the 1883 work Teutonic Mythology by Jacob Grimm. Translated from the fourth edition with notes and appendix by James Steven Stallybrass. The same page mentions the following Germanic folk religious principle: screaming ravens testify that Othin accepts the offering presented. So when a cock or cockerel has been offered to the Gods, the crowing of ravens may be seen as an omen of the acceptance of the sacrifice by the Gods. After all, Othin may rightly be perceived as representing the Gods as their King, and, therefore, Othin’s acceptance of the fowl sacrifice may count as the acceptance of the sacrifice by all the Gods.

J.J.A. Worsaae says on pages 56 and 57 of his 1852 work An Account of the Danes and Norwegians in England, Scotland, and Ireland:  “[A]mong the Northmen the raven was Odin’s (or, the Father-of-All’s) sacred bird. One of Odin’s names was therefore “Ravne-gud” (raven-god). The ravens Hugin and Munin say on his shoulders, and only foew away to being him intelligence of what happened in the world. The ancient Northmen had consequently an especial confidence in the omens of Odin’s bird. When the Viking Floke Vilgerdesön set out from Norway to discover Iceland, he consecrated at a sacrifice three ravens, which he wished to take with him, to show him the way. He was therefore called Ravnefloke. The Northmen, also, made prognostications from the screams and from the flight of ravens; and the warriors, in particular, regarded it as a good meen if a raven followed them as they marched to battle.”

Chantepie de la Saussaye says on page 374 of volume 3 of issue 4 of Progress: “The favorite animal for sacrifice seems to have been the horse, though ox, boar and ram were often used; and the cock must have played a brave part. Color was of great importance, and the male sex was alone accepted. White horses, white cattle were special favorites; and a host of cases coukd be cited where folk-lore has preserved this prejudice for the white. On the other hand, black animals—without speck of other color—were also chosen for sacrifice, and in withcraft, residuary legatee of much old sacrifice lore, black cats, cocks and so on are popular. But the horse was prime favorite for sacrifice.”

It is said on page 357 of vol. I of Saga-book of the Viking Club: Or Orkney, Shetland, and Northern Society: “[A] black cock, “Sooty-red,” sings in the Scandinavian Nifelheim, or “Land of gloom,” and the sign of the dawn of Ragnarök is to be the crowing of a gold-coloured cock, “Gold-comb.”” It is likewise said in the notes on page 364 of Viking Tales of the North. The Sagas of Thorstein, Viking’s Son, and Fridthjof the Bold., of which the former saga is translated into English by Rasmus B. Andersons and Jón Bjarnason and the latter by George Stephens, and which was published in 1877: “Stanza 14—”Gold-combed cock, etc.” Such are the signs which, according to the vala in “Völuspa” of the Elder Edda, shall usher in the Twilight of the Gods (Ragnarok): the day terrible alike to [G]ods and men. Thus the Elder Edda: Among the [G]ods crowed The gold-combed cock, He who wakes in Valhal The host of heroes; Beneath the earth Crows another, The root-red cock In the halls of Hel. [Norse Mythology, p. 420.]” James Steven Stallybrass translates on pages 670 and 671 of vol. II of Teutonic Mythology by Jacob Grimm published in 1883: “Domestic fowl [= birds] available for sacrifice, notably the cock and the goose, have but few mythic aspects that I know of. Fire is described as a red cock (p. 601): H. Sachs has the phrase ‘to make the red cock ride on one’s rooftree,’ and the Danes ‘den röde hane galer over taget,’ the red cock crows on the thack (the fire crackles). Red cocks in preference had to be brought in payment of ground rent (formerly perhaps in sacrifice), RA. 376. The Völuspâ 54 sets before us ‘Fialarr, fagur-rauđr hani’ singing in the forest; a golden-crested cock awakes the heroes, a dark one crows in the netherworld. In the Danish song 1, 212 there is meanjng in the crowing of a red and black cock one after the other; and another song 1, 208 adds a white cock as well. Another cock in the Edda, Vîđofnir, perches on Mîmameiđr, Sæm. 109ª; with him Finn Magnusen (Lex. myth. 824. 1090) woukd connect the cock they stick on the Maypole. The Wends erected cross-trees, but, secretly still [H]eathen at heart, they contrived to fix at the very top of the pole a weathercock. In one fairy-tale, no. 108, Hansmeinigel’s cock sits on a tree in the wood. I do not know when the gilded cock on the church-steeple was introduced; it can hardly have been a mere weather-vame at first. Guibertus in Vita sua, lib. 1 cap. 22, mentions a gallus super turri, so that the custom prevailed in France at the beginning of the 12th century; in S. Germany we know it existed two centuries earlier. Eckehard tells of the great irruption of Hungarians: duo ex illis accendunt campanarium, cujus cacuminis gallum aureum putantes, deumque loci sic vocatum, non esse nisi carioris metalli materia fusum, lancea dum unus, ut eum revellat, se validus protendit, in atrium de alto cecidit et periit.’ (Pertz 2, 105). The Hungarians took this gilded cock (gallus) for the divinity of the place […]. True, the cock is an emblem of vigilance, and the watchman [= the cock], to command a wide view, must be highly placed; but it is quite possible that the christian teachers, to humour [or perhaps just to follow for reasons of cultural iconography] a [H]eathen custom of tying cocks to the top of holy trees, made room for them on church-towers also, and merely put a more general meaning on the symbol afterwards (see Suppl.). ”

George Stephens says with regards to cock sacrifice in a footnote on page 406 of his 1883 work Prof. S. Bugge’s Studies on Northern Mythology Shortly Examined: “As to the practical survivals of pure heathendom down to our own day [author’s emphasis], take only one record from Great Britain itself. At p. 147 and foll. of hos valuable »The Past in the Present« (8ᵛᵒ., Edinburgh 1880), Dr. Arthur Mitchell discusses Yirding of a Quik Cok (burying alive of a living cock), Fire-worship, the sacrifice of a Bull as a regular yearly custom and other such things, as practist [sic] in various parts of Scotland and elsewhere.” On page 82 of the 1867 work Lancashire Folk-Lore: Illustrative of the Superstitious Beliefs and Practices, Local Customs and Usages of the People of the County Palatine, John Harland and T. T. Wilkinson inform us: “Offering fowls [= birds] to evil spirits appear to have been an ancient and wide-spread practice. It was common to sacrifice a cock to the devil.” It is stated on page 194 of Vol. XI. November 1887 to October 1888. New Series. Vol. III. of Knowledge: An Illustrated Magazine of Science, Literature, & Art published in 1888: “[I]n the Highlands and Cornwall, a black cock is buried alive on the spot where a person is first attacked by epilepsy.”

The following tradition of portions of Ireland, for which H. Clay Trumbull cites J. G. Owens on page 21 of his 1896 work The Threshold Covenant: Or the Beginning of Religious Rites, must be akin to the British and Scottish tradition of cock sacrifice: “On the 11th of November, every family of a village kills an animal of some kind or other; those who are rich kill a cow or sheep, others a goose or turkey; while those who are poor … kill a hen or a cock, and sprinkle the threshold with the blood, and do the same in the four corners of the house; … to exclude every kind of evil spirit from the dwelling.” The division among the rich and poor in terms of choice of sacrificial victim has always been based on practical considerations, for people sacrifice what they have; based on their socioeconomic circumstances, traditional pagans sacrifice what they can afford to miss. I got the impression that it works like that as well among the Mari pagans.

Page 19 of the paper Ancient Scandinavia in volume VII of Chambers’s Papers for the People published in 1851: “As among all [H]eathens, the principal part of the Scandinavian worship consisted in sacrifices, which were offered up at stated periods of the year. Three great sacrificial feats were in particular sacred to the Scandinavians: the harvest sacrifice, at which they offered up their thanks for the benefits received; the spring sacrifice, at which they endeavoured to propitiate the [G]ods in favour of the intended Viking expeditions; and the Yule sacrifice, which was spent in merriment and feasting. The Yule festival began on the evening of the shortest day, and its object was to implore a good year, but it was particularly devoted to conviviality, and lasted many days. During this period all feuds seized [i.e., ceasefire]; friends made appointments with each other to meet at the chief temple, and interchanged presents; and those who could not come sent their offerings nevertheless. Various animals—such as bulls, horses, goats, sheep, hawks, and cocks—were sacrificed to the [G]ods; but at the Yule feast the boar was the chief sacrifice.” Similar statements, which I will not reproduce here, are found on page 26 of Paul C. Sinding’s 1875 work The Scandinavian Races: The Northmen; the Sea-Kings and Vikings. Their manners and customs, discoveries, maritime expeditions, struggles, and wars, up to the present time. as well as on the same page of the 1858 version of his work titled History of Scandinavia from the Early Times of the Norsemen and Vikings.

Yule or the mid-winter festival was essentially a combination of Christmas and New Year without non-festive days in between. It is worth noting that the spirit of the Germanic Yule festival is more like that of Chinese New Year than that of Christmas, especially when one considers the duration of the festive period, the types of traditional activities, and the deep connection with animals. The cock plays a significant role as a symbol of luck in Chinese New Year as well. The lucky animals of Chinese New Year—or of the Chinese zodiac—are historically associated with blood sacrifice just as the animals of the Germanic Yule festival. TravelChinaGuide says regarding the cock: “Back in ancient times when there was no alarm clock, [the] rooster played an important role of waking people up. Thus the first symbolic meaning of Chinese zodiac Rooster sign is punctuality. Besides, it was believed by ancient people that its crow and blood could dispel evil spirits, and that’s why [the] rooster is also the embodiment of good luck.”

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