Large Wild Animals in the Germanic World

Written by Dyami Millarson

Large wild animals were an intrinsic part of the nature scenes that influenced Germanic religion. So what were/are the large animals in the Germanic world? Based on the Old Norse vocabulary inherited from Germanic, the large wild animals that belonged to the scenery of the Germanic natural world were: björn (bear), svanr or álpt (swan), ulfr (wolf), ylgr (she-wolf), refr (fox), fúa/fóa (she-fox), storkr (stork), ormr (snake), hjörtr or (deer), elgr (elk), ari or örn (eagle), svín (boar). Since we can now form an image of the Germanic natural world in our minds, we can better visualise and comprehend the symbolism of Germanic nature religion.

Funerary Feast

Written by Dyami Millarson

The Old Norse word for funerary feast is erfi and to hold a funerary feast is erfa. A feast is a substantive banquet in the sense that the food is bountiful and that the food is for multiple guests. Nordic polytheism was all about food because food, the basis of life, was hard to come by; there were no supermarkets in the past where you could get your food.

Two-Season System

Written by Dyami Millarson

The Germanic peoples primarily had a two-season system where they divided the year into summer and winter. These are the seasons that contrast the most. All Germanic languages have cognate words for winter and summer. These are truly the most notable words for seasons in all Germanic lamguages as they show a unified system across all languages.

Reckoning Age in Winters

Written by Dyami Millarson

The Germanic peoples reckoned the age of beings in winters because winters were the hardest to survive, while summer the easiest. A cow could be said, for example, to be three winters old; a dog 6 winters; a horse 4 winters; a human child 5 winters.

The fact Germanic peoples reckoned age in winters speaks volumes about how they perceive the winter; they dreaded/respected the winter and looked up to the beings that came out of it alive.

The Creation of the World

Written by Dyami Millarson

The animation Odin’s Eye, originally titled Odins Øje in Danish, deals with the earliest history of the world from Creation God Othin’s perspective. It is one of the most beautiful and inspiring videos one can watch on the topic of Nordic folk religion.

Waarom at men vroeger vaak gevogelte?

Geschreven door Dyami Millarson

Gemak dient de mens. Men at vroeger vaak gevogelte omdat het makkelijk is. Vogels zijn overal en het vlees is zacht waardoor het makkelijk te verteren is. Men moet aan de kust leven of in de buurt van wateren om te kunnen vissen. Groot wild is niet bepaald makkelijk te vangen, het is juist een hele uitdaging. Vogels vangen en braden is een relatief makkelijke bron van vlees/voedsel.

Vandaar zullen de Germanen ook dikwijls gevogelte gegeten hebben. Zij zullen waarschijnlijk ganzen gehouden hebben om te slachten en zij zullen zeker ook wilde vogels gevangen en opgegeten hebben. Dit geeft ons een beeld van het eetpatroon van de Germanen en dit is zeker belangrijk voor ons begrip van hun geloofsopvattingen:

Voor de Germaan was het moeilijk om aan groot wild te komen, waardoor hij dit een waardig offer achtte voor de Goden. Het vereiste moed van hem om zulk een dier te vangen en slachten. Heldhaftigheid werd dus beschouwd als een wijze om de Goden eer te doen oftewel de Goden te (ver)eren.

Het slachten van een vogels was meer alledaags, waardoor het algauw beschouwd zou zijn als een klein offer voor de minder grote Goden. Ik zou mij goed kunnen voorstellen dat men een vogel juist aan de Álfar geofferd zou hebben.

De bronmaterialen lijken er namelijk op te duiden dat de grootheid van de godheid in verband stond met de grootheid van het offer. Er was waarschijnlijk sprake vand it grondbeginsel in de Germaanse religie: hoe groter de God, hoe groter het offer.

Islands Were Sacred in Germanic Folk Religion

Written by Dyami Millarson

The names Helgoland, Halligen and Fositeland are linguistic reminders that islands were considered sacred by the polytheistic Germanic-speaking ancestors. It is not hard to imagine why islands were considered sacred. Islands feel separated from the rest of the world. One can find the spiritual peace of nature on islands. The isolation is what makes islands attractive for religious purposes. The phenomenon of isolation in nature is what the Germanic peoples considered sacred; for they considered such areas chosen, favoured or preferred by the Gods for religion. Blood sacrifices were usually made in enclosed spaces in nature, which are natural sanctuaries or in Old Norse. Special rules applied to those enclosed spaces called , akin to how the spaces around Shinto shrines are treated by Japanese today. Those spaces had to be kept pure. Any defilement of the space was considered desecration; the purity of nature had to be maintained, thus man’s impurity had to be kept away, otherwise the designated place would lose its sanctity.

The places that were designated by the Gods were made apparent to man by their unusual separation from the world around them; those places were realities of their own, they allowed man to enter into an ideal yet parallel reality. They were essentially gateways into another world. They bring man closer to the Gods; for man is allowed to experience the pristine, peaceful mood of nature. I have experienced such when I was in Hong Kong in 2017 and visited the various Chinese temples there; they allowed me to retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. The temples allowed me to recharge; they gave me much needed rest. The Chinese temples were usually surrounded by elements of nature and they were separated from the rest of the city as nature around them had been left alone. Seeing nature in a pristine state is what gave me peace of mind; I know from experience that the purity of nature in such places in Hong Kong has a positive psychological effect on humanity, and the Germanic , which had a religious atmosphere about it thanks to being situated in nature and naturally demarcated, would have had a similarly positive effect on man.

While I was quite sick and was looking for a way to heal, I was on a spiritual quest in Hong Kong and I found many answers as I listened to my instinct; I did whatever felt right or good for my body and mind, this is what kept me healthy and well in Hong Kong. Not only was it my hobby to visit Chinese temples in Hong Kong in order to recharge, but it was one of my hobbies in Hong Kong to visit islands. I was quite sick at the time and did not have much energy, so I needed to recharge frequently. Islands had a similar function for me as Chinese temples. They gave me my much needed rest; they helped me to recover from my physical and mental exhaustion. Islands have a healing effect on the mind and body; they are spiritual healers. One may perceive islands as living beings, they are their own Gods. In addition, giving credence to the notion that islands are enclosed areas designated or created by the Gods is the tale of Gefjon ploughing the land and creating the island of Zealand. Islands may not only be regarded as spiritual entities, but they are also divine creations; whatever is God-created is, on principle, God-favoured while its essence or spirit reflects an aspect of the Gods and is therefore godlike (i.e., like the Gods). Being endowed with features of the Gods could mean being inhabited by the Gods, or at least being very attractive to being inhabited by a divine being. It is, thus, not so strange that the Germanic peoples deemed islands to be God-inhabited. In conclusion, islands may be regarded as temples of Germanic nature religion.

My fascination with islands has only increased over the years as I have become acutely aware of the fact they are ideal places for unique languages and cultures. They attract such languages and cultures, house them and nurture them; islands may be regarded as parental guardian figures for this reason. Unique languages and cultures can be preserved on islands as they are protected by the enclosed nature of islands; precisely the characteristics that made islands attractive to the Germanic-speaking polytheists of yore are what makes them perfect for small languages and cultures. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the existence of the communities of such languages and cultures that emerge on the islands has a guardian function for the islands as well; they feel naturally responsible for the protection of the island through their language and culture which bestows them with unique knowledge of the natural environment of the island. Namely, the island’s nature becomes interwoven with people’s language and culture and philosophy.

It feels like the divine islands have called or attracted human guardians to the themselves in order to aid them and protect them from harm, and the locals who live on such islands seem to take that role seriously as their continued existence is deeply tied to the well-being of the islands; the islanders have merged with the island through their identity, language and culture. This symbiosis is mutually beneficial; the islands benefit and the islanders benefit from this close relationship. When I studied the Frisian island peoples, I noticed that the island is their life, it is their nurturing parent, it is their divinity; the feel one or merged with the island. The ancient Germanic polytheists who would have been naturally charged with protecting the sacred Germanic islands as they were living on them would have felt the same way as these modern-day Frisian linguistic and cultural communities do; the guardian role of the ancestors has been passed on to the Frisian descendants. I find this a very inspiring idea, as the present-day situation among the communities of small languages and cultures is not that different from that of the ancients, and this credence to the idea that these indigenous communities are the heirs of the land on which they live, as they act and have always acted as its protectors; they feel naturally drawn to fulfil that role since it is their raison d’être, the land is what made them unique and of course they will feel indebted to the land, which they usually approach in an animistic way as being spiritually inhabited.

The Metamorphosis of Germanic Folk Religion

Written by Dyami Millarson

When the indigenous faith of the Germanic peoples was displaced by an alien faith, the old faith did not suddenly disappear; people neither stopped believing in a diversity of spirits, nor suddenly forgot their old beliefs. Especially considering the fact that almost everyone was illiterate in the Middle Ages and oral tradition was still very strong at the time, it is preposterous to suppose that medieval people would suddenly have forgotten their ancient ways. Germanic polytheism took the new form of a more “hidden” animism that became embedded in the new faith; the old beliefs became indistinguishable from the new faith. Germanic polytheism thus underwent a metamorphosis that made it adopt a form that was acceptable to pious Christian authorities and thus managed to survive; Germanic polytheism survived in the subtle forms that slipped under the radar of Christian authorities, it became what would later be known as folklore, the knowledge or wisdom of the common folk.

The Middle Ages were not as Christian as we suppose; implicit polytheism syncretised with explicit monotheism. Even though Christianity was the official ideology of Medieval Europe, medieval people in Europe were polytheist; they had strong beliefs in a multiplicity of spirits, they did not doubt that there were multiple spirits. They may not have explicitly called them Gods, but they were implicitly Gods. There can be no doubt that medieval people were very animistic; only a very thin layer of monotheism was covering a thick and hard core of polytheism. To summarise, people were monotheist in theory only, they were expressing explicit allegiance to monotheist ideals, but they were polytheist in practice. This situation was perpetuated by a combination of widespread illiteracy and oral tradition. As people became more literate and started forgetting the old tales that had been passed on orally for generations, they became less folk religious; they began to stop believing in what they had come to regard as “old superstitions.” Literacy started increasing with the advent of the printing press. The Middle Ages may be characterised as highly folk religious, yet the ages that followed may be characterised as decreasingly so.

Why is the metamorphosis of polytheism such a relevant topic for our analysis? The shape-shifting nature of polytheism is what makes it adaptable. We should analyse polytheism as a system that changes and responds to threats that endanger its survival. When Christianity became the dominant and official ideology of Europe, polytheism did not magically disappear with disavowals of the old gods, but what happened is that Christianity moved to the foreground and polytheism moved to the background; Europe had acquired a Christian mask, yet it still had a polytheist body. As a result, we may say Christianity was a foreground religion in Medieval Europe, yet polytheism was an ever present background religion. What had truly changed is that polytheism was no longer in any position of power, the elite was no longer openly polytheist and thus it was no longer longer in the foreground where it once had been. Christianity had became the central figure on the theatre stage, whereas polytheism had became a character hiding behind the stage. As the elite no longer thought in a polytheist manner, explicit polytheist philosophy and theology had ceased to develop in elite circles; but the elite was still deeply inspired by the great polytheist thinkers of yore.

What was the effect of the elite being no longer polytheist? This created a huge rift between the elite and common folk; the elite had to be constantly focused on rooting out “superstition” in order to stay in power, they constantly felt their power being under threat, and they always dreaded the possibility that polytheism might return. This concern was very real, in my view, because it was impossible for them, with the low literacy rate and strong oral tradition, to ever extinguish polytheism. While the Christian elite was completely paranoid about any “relapse into polytheism,” it was definitely the elite’s mission to extinguish polytheism, but they had to make peace with the reality that was never going to be possible. The Christian elite had to accept the status quo, yet they had to resort to oppression of the people in order to maintain their power. While the gap between the elite and common folk ever only widened, this type of government was under the constant threat of peasant uprisings. The disconnect was very real and dangerous to the ruling elite.

The polytheist leaders of Europe had been representatives of the people’s popular beliefs, but the Christian leaders had constantly been trying to change the people’s beliefs and stop them from “reverting to polytheism.” This was impossible, however, because the people were inevitably animistic, yet due to their Christian ideology they were not able to allow humans to revert to their natural state of openly worshipping a multitude of spirits/deities. The inflexibility of Christian ideology was the biggest threat to the ruling elite’s power; it was a war on inborn human nature that weakened the Christian governments of the Middle Ages. Polytheism is able to adapt to any situation because it answers to an inborn desire of humanity; for religious humans, believing in a host of spirits is inescapable, and so there is no way to stop being polytheist. However, one can be in denial of this fact and wreak havoc on humanity with a war on human nature, which will result in severe forms of oppression and other violations of human dignity. The other option is to accept human nature and to let humans explore their spirituality; this will naturally lead them to develop polytheist belief systems that are in harmony with their needs. Humans have lost this harmony due to the denial of human spirituality.

Basic human nature cannot be changed; trying to change what it means to be human will result in disaster. Social engineering is absolutely not in tune with polytheism; for polytheism is about the acceptance of human nature, and by extension, it is the acceptance of nature, the world as it is. Similarly to the failed centuries-long Christian project of extinguishing polytheism, the now century-old communist project of imposing atheism was no less unsuccessful; contrary to the intolerant atheist’s beliefs, humans are theistic, and contrary to the intolerant monotheist’s beliefs, humans are polytheistic. Unlike those who wish to change human nature, a polytheist is content with being human, and with the world being natural; we cannot stop being human and the world can’t stop being natural, we can achieve greatness by accepting what is and only through acceptance of what is inevitable, we can achieve our full potential. In essence, the point of polytheism is achieving our full potential. We cannot rise to our potential if we deny ourselves the possibility to be who we truly are; medieval people could not explicitly acknowledge human nature, and so they had to live under the yoke of oppression. The Germanic polytheists were free and they loved freedom; they were free to be human, and that is what it means to experience true freedom. Nothing human was forbidden to them, they could achieve their potential. Had Europe remained polytheist, rapid progress would have continued; the denial of human nature leads to philosophical stagnation, and the creativity of philosophy is what man needs for great innovation.

The Semiotics of Sacrifice in Germanic Folk Religion

Written by Dyami Millarson

My theological research aim on this blog is studying the interpretation of blood sacrifice in the philosophical or psychological context of Germanic folk religion.

Semiotics is generally defined as the study of signs and symbols (*1). I do, however, not see the point of distinguishing signs and symbols in the context of Germanic folk religion, but rather I define the semiotic object of study as the Dutch word tekens, which could mean three things: 1) signs, 2) symbols, 3) omens. The reason I prefer to use this Dutch concept to explain what I am studying with semiotics is that I do not wish to distinguish signs, symbols and omens, whilst I see the advantage of lumping them together in one single concept as is done in the Dutch language.

The do ut des principle certainly applies to the semiotics of blood sacrifice in Germanic folk religion: Germanic peoples generally made blood sacrifices in order to receive favours from the Gods. Namely, when Germanic peoples made blood sacrifices, they asked for peace, victory, longevity, good harvest and fair wind. The formula of making a sacrifice for a specific purpose was encoded into the language: blóta til friðar sacrifice for peace, blóta til sigrs sacrifice for victory, blóta til langlífis to sacrifice for longevity, blóta til árs to sacrifice for good harvest, blóta til byrjar to sacrifice for fair wind. This is how I memorised the expressions listed under the entry blóta in Zoëga’s Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic. The formula, underlying structure, of those sacrificial expressions is: sacrificial verb + preposition til + genitive case. The semantic function of til + gen. is to denote the purpose.

Interestingly, the verb for sacrifice in Old Norse uses the accusative to denote the recipient of the sacrificial gift and the dative to denote the sacrificial gift itself. We may deduce from this that sacrificing in Germanic times worked more like “honouring someone with something” than “giving something to someone.” The Roman formula is as follows: “sacrifice gift Y to deity X.” However, the Germanic formula is: “sanctify deity X with gift Y.”

So, the Germanic concept of sacrificing would rather have been the equivalent of “sanctify a God with a sacrificial gift” than “sacrificing a sacrificial gift to a God.” In other words, “making a God sacred with a gift” (sanctify = make sacred with) rather than “making a gift sacred to the God” (sacrifice = make sacred to). The Germanic sacrificial concept falls into the same category as the following verbs: praise, please, honour, feed, heal, bless. Consequently, one may interpret the Germanic sacrificial verb as “praising, pleasing, honouring, feeding, healing, blessing a God with a gift.”

What does this have to do with semiotics? For our semiotic study of blood sacrifice, we are interested in blood sacrifice as a teken and the use and interpretation of this teken. The interpretation of the sacrificial act itself is important for improving our understanding of blood sacrifice, and the sacrificial act is reflected in the verb that is used for sacrificing. The Germanic verb that is used for sacrificing gives us a linguistic clue about what to expect with regards to the Germanic conception of the sacrificial act. Of course, it is also important to consult the written source materials for getting a picture of the semiotics of blood sacrifice in Germanic folk religion, but that is beyond the scope of this article, which is merely to introduce the aim of the semiotic study of Germanic folk religious blood sacrifice to the readers.

The Winti: the Gods of Surinamian Folk Religion

Written by Dyami Millarson

Surinamian folk religion or nature religion, simply called Winti religion or Winti sometimes, may be characterised as animistic, polytheistic, totemistic or shamanistic, because the core belief of Surinamian folk religion, which influences Surinamian society, is that the world is inhabited by a multitude of Winti, which are kami-styled nature deities/spirits, and humans may be brought into contact with this magical world that is invisible to common folk or liberated from evil spirits through a bonuman or obiaman who may be understood to be a Surinamian medicine man or shaman (*1, *2, *3, *4, *5, *6, *7, *8, *9, *10, *11, *12, *13, *14, *15, *16 *17, *18, *19, *20, *21, *22). There are four types of Winti: those pertaining to the earth, sky, forest and water, which are the four basic elements according to the Surinamian nature religious system (*6, *7, *15). So there are Gron Winti, Tapu Kromanti, Busi Wenu and Watra Wenu respectively. Surinamian people may have a negative view of the Winti and it is taboo in Surinamian communities to talk about the Winti (*1, *3, *8, *14, *15). However, the belief in Winti, which is a defining feature of Surinamian nature religion, is helping with nature conservation in Suriname (*9). Surinamian folk religionists believe there is both black and white magic; there are evil sorcerers who seek to make others sick and there are medicine men who seek to heal others. The antithesis of the obiaman or bonuman is the wisiman, an evil sorcerer or worker of black magic (*4, *7). The wisiman uses a yorka (deceased person’s spirit) or apuku (forest spirit) to make someone sick (*4, *7, *10, *22). A yorka may be a kabra (a deceased person who received baptism, i.e., a Christian) or profen (a deceased person who did not receive baptism, i.e., a pagan or heathen) (*21). The bonuman, who functions as gatekeeper of the spiritual world and guardian of his local community’s spiritual well-being, opens the gateway to the spiritual world for the local community and increases his local community’s spiritual knowledge as he opens their eyes to a magical world whose nuanced realities they could otherwise not perceive. In conclusion, the bonuman or obiaman in Surinamian shamanism may assume the role of lukuman (seer) or dresiman (healer) (*13, *21, *23, *24, *25, *26, *27, *28).