Interpretatio Germanica: Embracing the Blurred Boundaries of Polytheistic Traditions

Written by Dyami Millarson

Interpretatio Germanica, which I previously discussed here and here, is a concept that highlights the interconnectedness and inherent fluidity of polytheistic religions, particularly among the Germanic peoples and their neighbors. By viewing the Gods of other cultures through the lens of their own polytheism, the Germanic peoples demonstrate a deep-seated understanding of the shared nature of their religious beliefs and practices. This article will explore how this mind-set aligns with the blurring of boundaries between different polytheistic traditions, but first we will talk about the implications of this perspective for our understanding of ancient religious practices, because embracing interpretatio Germanica has profound implications for our knowledge of ancient religious practices. By acknowledging the fluidity of boundaries between different polytheistic traditions, we can gain new insights into the shared aspects of these religions, as well as their influence on one another. This perspective also serves as a reminder of the importance of viewing polytheistic religious practices and beliefs within their broader historical and cultural context, rather than as isolated or distinct phenomena; Germanic polytheism, both in earlier and later times, is traditionally part of a whole polytheistic ecology. Germanic folk religion exists not in a vacuum. At the same time, Germanic folk religion as a whole is undoubtedly unique, otherwise it could not be deemed to be Germanic; since Germanic folk religion is unique, it is specifically Germanic, and the reverse is equally true.

The Germanic peoples have a long history of interaction with neighboring cultures, leading to the constant flow of religious ideas and practices between the Germanic peoples and these various groups. As Terry Gunnar points out on page 58 of his 2015 article Pantheon? What Pantheon? Concepts of a Family of Gods in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions which is published in Scripta Islandica: Isländska sällskapets årsbok, “influences concerning religious ideas and practices were continually flowing back and forth between these cultures, new ideas coming north, west, and east with mercenaries, traders and other travellers […]. Some scholars have sensibly noted that the blurring of boundaries should not only be applied to cultures but also to periods of time, and most particularly to the suggestion that there were hard and fast differences between Bronze Age and Iron Age beliefs and practices.” At the heart of interpretatio Germanica lies the notion that the Germanic peoples traditionally recognise the polytheistic religions of the people around them or that they come into contact with as fundamentally the same as their own — please be aware that I include nominally monotheistic religions under the category of polytheistic religions for various reasons (see here and here). By interpreting the Gods of other cultures as their own, they acknowledge the shared nature of their religious beliefs and practices, and additionally, it is perfectly human to make sense of foreign things with familiar things, which also extends to making sense of foreign Gods with familiar Gods. This perspective supports the idea that the boundaries between the polytheistic religions of historically neighbouring peoples or foreign peoples that the Germanic peoples traditionally come into contact with are blurred, with a mutual recognition of their interconnectedness and commonality as well as a human inclination to make sense of what is foreign through what is familiar.

The key facts of this article are as follows:

  • Germanic peoples interacted with neighboring cultures, leading to the exchange of religious ideas and practices.
  • Interpretatio Germanica involves recognising polytheistic religions of traditionally polytheistic neighbours and other foreigners as fundamentally the same as their own.
  • Blurred boundaries between polytheistic traditions provide insights into shared aspects and mutual influence.
  • Interpretatio Germanica is a valid perspective for understanding interconnectedness and fluidity of polytheistic religious traditions, highlighting shared aspects and broader historical context.

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