Irminsul
Overview
 
An Irminsul was a kind of pillar
Column
A column or pillar in architecture and structural engineering is a vertical structural element that transmits, through compression, the weight of the structure above to other structural elements below. For the purpose of wind or earthquake engineering, columns may be designed to resist lateral forces...

 which is attested as playing an important role in the Germanic paganism
Germanic paganism
Germanic paganism refers to the theology and religious practices of the Germanic peoples of north-western Europe from the Iron Age until their Christianization during the Medieval period...

 of the Saxon people. The oldest chronicle describing an Irminsul refers to it as a tree trunk erected in the open air. The purpose of the Irminsuls and the implications thereof have been the subject of considerable scholarly discourse and speculation for hundreds of years.
A Germanic god Irmin
Irmin
Irmin may be*Old Saxon irmin "strong, whole", maybe also "strong, tall, exalted" , from Proto-Germanic *erminaz, *ermenaz or *ermunaz, in personal names *An alleged Germanic deity in some currents...

, inferred from the name Irminsul and the tribal name Irminones
Irminones
The Irminones, also referred to as Herminones or Hermiones, were a group of early Germanic tribes settling in the Elbe watershed and by the 1st century AD expanding into Bavaria, Swabia and Bohemia...

, is sometimes presumed to have been the national god or demi-god of the Saxons.
Encyclopedia
An Irminsul was a kind of pillar
Column
A column or pillar in architecture and structural engineering is a vertical structural element that transmits, through compression, the weight of the structure above to other structural elements below. For the purpose of wind or earthquake engineering, columns may be designed to resist lateral forces...

 which is attested as playing an important role in the Germanic paganism
Germanic paganism
Germanic paganism refers to the theology and religious practices of the Germanic peoples of north-western Europe from the Iron Age until their Christianization during the Medieval period...

 of the Saxon people. The oldest chronicle describing an Irminsul refers to it as a tree trunk erected in the open air. The purpose of the Irminsuls and the implications thereof have been the subject of considerable scholarly discourse and speculation for hundreds of years.

Etymology

A Germanic god Irmin
Irmin
Irmin may be*Old Saxon irmin "strong, whole", maybe also "strong, tall, exalted" , from Proto-Germanic *erminaz, *ermenaz or *ermunaz, in personal names *An alleged Germanic deity in some currents...

, inferred from the name Irminsul and the tribal name Irminones
Irminones
The Irminones, also referred to as Herminones or Hermiones, were a group of early Germanic tribes settling in the Elbe watershed and by the 1st century AD expanding into Bavaria, Swabia and Bohemia...

, is sometimes presumed to have been the national god or demi-god of the Saxons. It has been suggested that Irmin was more probably an aspect, Avatar
Avatar
In Hinduism, an avatar is a deliberate descent of a deity to earth, or a descent of the Supreme Being and is mostly translated into English as "incarnation," but more accurately as "appearance" or "manifestation"....

 or epithet
Epithet
An epithet or byname is a descriptive term accompanying or occurring in place of a name and having entered common usage. It has various shades of meaning when applied to seemingly real or fictitious people, divinities, objects, and binomial nomenclature. It is also a descriptive title...

 of some other deity – most likely Wodan (Odin
Odin
Odin is a major god in Norse mythology and the ruler of Asgard. Homologous with the Anglo-Saxon "Wōden" and the Old High German "Wotan", the name is descended from Proto-Germanic "*Wodanaz" or "*Wōđanaz"....

). Irmin might also have been an epithet of the god Ziu (Tyr) in early Germanic times, only later transferred to Odin, as certain scholars ascribe to the idea that Odin replaced Tyr as the chief Germanic deity at the onset of the Migration Period
Migration Period
The Migration Period, also called the Barbarian Invasions , was a period of intensified human migration in Europe that occurred from c. 400 to 800 CE. This period marked the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages...

. This was the favored view of early 20th century Nordicist writers, but it is not generally considered likely in modern times.

The Old Norse
Old Norse
Old Norse is a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300....

 form of Irmin is Jörmunr, which just like Yggr was one of the names of Odin. Yggdrasil
Yggdrasil
In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is an immense tree that is central in Norse cosmology. It was said to be the world tree around which the nine worlds existed...

 ("Yggr's horse") was the yew or ash tree
Ash tree
Fraxinus is a genus flowering plants in the olive and lilac family, Oleaceae. It contains 45-65 species of usually medium to large trees, mostly deciduous though a few subtropical species are evergreen. The tree's common English name, ash, goes back to the Old English æsc, while the generic name...

 from which Odin sacrificed himself, and which connected the nine worlds. Jakob Grimm connects the name Irmin with Old Norse
Old Norse
Old Norse is a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300....

 terms like iörmungrund ("great ground", i.e. the Earth) or iörmungandr ("great snake", i.e. the Midgard serpent).

Royal Frankish Annals

According to the Royal Frankish Annals
Royal Frankish Annals
The Royal Frankish Annals or Annals of the Kingdom of the Franks ,are annals covering the history of early Carolingian monarchs from 741 to 829. Their composition seems to have soon been taken up at court, providing them with markedly official character...

 (772AD), during the Saxon wars
Saxon Wars
The Saxon Wars were the campaigns and insurrections of the more than thirty years from 772, when Charlemagne first entered Saxony with the intent to conquer, to 804, when the last rebellion of disaffected tribesmen was crushed. In all, eighteen battles were fought in what is now northwestern Germany...

, Charlemagne
Charlemagne
Charlemagne was King of the Franks from 768 and Emperor of the Romans from 800 to his death in 814. He expanded the Frankish kingdom into an empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe. During his reign, he conquered Italy and was crowned by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800...

 is repeatedly described as ordering the destruction of the chief seat of their religion, an Irminsul. The Irminsul is described as not being far from Heresburg (now Obermarsberg
Obermarsberg
Obermarsberg, previously Eresburg, is one of seventeen quarters in the municipality of Marsberg, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. It is situated on a hill 130m above the Diemel River, a tributary of the Weser River.-History:...

), Germany. Jacob Grimm
Jacob Grimm
Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm was a German philologist, jurist and mythologist. He is best known as the discoverer of Grimm's Law, the author of the monumental Deutsches Wörterbuch, the author of Deutsche Mythologie and, more popularly, as one of the Brothers Grimm, as the editor of Grimm's Fairy...

 states that "strong reasons" point to the actual location of the Irminsul as being approximately 15 miles (24.1 km) away, in the Teutoburg Forest
Teutoburg Forest
The Teutoburg Forest is a range of low, forested mountains in the German states of Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia which used to be believed to be the scene of a decisive battle in AD 9...

 and states that the original name for the region "Osning" may have meant "Holy Wood."

De miraculis sancti Alexandri

The Benedictine
Benedictine
Benedictine refers to the spirituality and consecrated life in accordance with the Rule of St Benedict, written by Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century for the cenobitic communities he founded in central Italy. The most notable of these is Monte Cassino, the first monastery founded by Benedict...

 monk Rudolf of Fulda
Rudolf of Fulda
Rudolf of Fulda was a monk of the Benedictine monastery of Fulda, writer, theologian and teacher. He was a pupil of Rhabanus Maurus and befriended Louis the Pious, king of the Franks...

 (AD 865) provides a description of an Irminsul in chapter 3 of his Latin work De miraculis sancti Alexandri. Rudolf's description states that the Irminsul was a great wooden pillar erected and worshipped beneath the open sky and that its name, Irminsul, signifies universal all-sustaining pillar.

Hildesheim

Under Louis the Pious
Louis the Pious
Louis the Pious , also called the Fair, and the Debonaire, was the King of Aquitaine from 781. He was also King of the Franks and co-Emperor with his father, Charlemagne, from 813...

 in the 9th century, a stone column was dug up at Obermarsberg
Obermarsberg
Obermarsberg, previously Eresburg, is one of seventeen quarters in the municipality of Marsberg, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. It is situated on a hill 130m above the Diemel River, a tributary of the Weser River.-History:...

 in Westphalia
Westphalia
Westphalia is a region in Germany, centred on the cities of Arnsberg, Bielefeld, Dortmund, Minden and Münster.Westphalia is roughly the region between the rivers Rhine and Weser, located north and south of the Ruhr River. No exact definition of borders can be given, because the name "Westphalia"...

, Germany and relocated to the Hildesheim cathedral
St. Mary's Cathedral, Hildesheim
St. Mary's Cathedral in Hildesheim, Germany, is an important medieval Catholic cathedral, that has been on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list since 1985....

 in Hildesheim
Hildesheim
Hildesheim is a city in Lower Saxony, Germany. It is located in the district of Hildesheim, about 30 km southeast of Hanover on the banks of the Innerste river, which is a small tributary of the Leine river...

, Lower Saxony
Lower Saxony
Lower Saxony is a German state situated in north-western Germany and is second in area and fourth in population among the sixteen states of Germany...

, Germany. The column was reportedly then used as a candelabrum until at least the late 19th century.> In the 13th century, the destruction of the Irminsul by Charlemagne was recorded as having still been commemorated at Hildesheim on the Saturday after Laetare Sunday
Laetare Sunday
Laetare Sunday , so called from the incipit of the Introit at Mass, "Laetare Jerusalem" , is a name often used to denote the fourth Sunday of the season of Lent in the Christian liturgical calendar...

.

The commemoration was reportedly done by planting two poles six feet high, each surmounted by a wooden object one foot in height shaped like a pyramid or a cone on the cathedral square. The youth then used sticks and stones in an attempt to knock over the object. This custom is described as existing elsewhere in Germany, particularly in Halberstadt
Halberstadt
Halberstadt is a town in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt and the capital of the district of Harz. It is located on the German Half-Timbered House Road and the Magdeburg–Thale railway....

 where it was enacted on the day of Laetare Sunday by the Canons
Canon (priest)
A canon is a priest or minister who is a member of certain bodies of the Christian clergy subject to an ecclesiastical rule ....

 themselves.

Kaiserchronik

Awareness of the significance of the concept seems to have persisted well into Christian times. For example, in the twelfth-century Kaiserchronik
Kaiserchronik
The Kaiserchronik is a 12th century chronicle of emperors, written 17,283 lines of Middle High German verse. It runs from Julius Caesar to Conrad III, and seeks to give a complete account of the history of Roman and German emperors and kings, based on a historiographical view of the continuity of...

an Irminsul is mentioned in three instances:

Concerning the origin of the Wednesday:
ûf ainer irmensiule / stuont ain abgot ungehiure, / daz hiezen si ir choufman.
"On an Irminsul / stands an enormous idol / which they call their merchant"


Concerning Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire....

:
Rômâre in ungetrûwelîche sluogen / sîn gebaine si ûf ain irmensûl begruoben
"The Romans slew him treacherously / and buried his bones on an Irminsul"


Concerning Nero
Nero
Nero , was Roman Emperor from 54 to 68, and the last in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Nero was adopted by his great-uncle Claudius to become his heir and successor, and succeeded to the throne in 54 following Claudius' death....

:
ûf ain irmensûl er staich / daz lantfolch im allez naich.
"He climbed upon an Irminsul / the peasants all bowed before him"

Germania

In Tacitus
Tacitus
Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors...

' Germania
Germania (book)
The Germania , written by Gaius Cornelius Tacitus around 98, is an ethnographic work on the Germanic tribes outside the Roman Empire.-Contents:...

, the author mentions rumors of what he describes as "Pillars of Hercules
Pillars of Hercules
The Pillars of Hercules was the phrase that was applied in Antiquity to the promontories that flank the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. The northern Pillar is the Rock of Gibraltar in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar...

" in land inhabited by the Frisii
Frisii
The Frisii were an ancient Germanic tribe living in the low-lying region between the Zuiderzee and the River Ems. In the Germanic pre-Migration Period the Frisii and the related Chauci, Saxons, and Angles inhabited the Continental European coast from the Zuyder Zee to south Jutland...

 that had yet to be explored. Tacitus adds that these pillars exist either because Hercules
Hercules
Hercules is the Roman name for Greek demigod Heracles, son of Zeus , and the mortal Alcmene...

 actually did go there or because the Romans have agreed to ascribe all marvels anywhere to Hercules' credit. Tacitus states that while Drusus Germanicus
Nero Claudius Drusus
Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus , born Decimus Claudius Drusus also called Drusus, Drusus I, Nero Drusus, or Drusus the Elder was a Roman politician and military commander. He was a fully patrician Claudian on his father's side but his maternal grandmother was from a plebeian family...

 was daring in his campaigns against the Germanic tribes, he was unable to reach this region, and that subsequently no one had yet made the attempt. Connections have been proposed between these "Pillars of Hercules" and later accounts of the Irminsuls. Hercules
Hercules
Hercules is the Roman name for Greek demigod Heracles, son of Zeus , and the mortal Alcmene...

 was likely frequently identified with Thor
Thor
In Norse mythology, Thor is a hammer-wielding god associated with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, strength, the protection of mankind, and also hallowing, healing, and fertility...

 by the Romans due to the practice of interpretatio romana
Interpretatio graeca
Interpretatio graeca is a Latin term for the common tendency of ancient Greek writers to equate foreign divinities to members of their own pantheon. Herodotus, for example, refers to the ancient Egyptian gods Amon, Osiris and Ptah as "Zeus", "Dionysus" and "Hephaestus", respectively.-Roman...

.

Externsteine relief and site

According to one particularly well-known suggestion, an Irminsul was situated at or near the Externsteine
Externsteine
The Externsteine are a distinctive rock formation located in Ostwestfalen-Lippe of northwestern Germany, not far from the city of Detmold at Horn-Bad Meinberg. The formation is a tor consisting of several tall, narrow columns of rock which rise abruptly from the surrounding wooded hills...

, a famous rock formation near Detmold
Detmold
Detmold is a city in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, with a population of about 74,000. It was the capital of the small Principality of Lippe from 1468 until 1918 and then of the Free State of Lippe until 1947...

, Germany. A Christian relief on the Externsteine (see photo above) depicts what has been described as a bent tree-like design at the feet of Nicodemus
Nicodemus
Saint Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, who, according to the Gospel of John, showed favour to Jesus...

. This artwork, variously dated to the early ninth to early twelfth century AD, is popularly believed to represent the bent or fallen Irminsul beneath a triumphant Christianity.

While both the artwork and the Irminsul were known to scholars for centuries - Goethe for example discussed the relief in detail -, they were not connected until the 1929 interpretation of lay archaeologist Wilhelm Teudt
Wilhelm Teudt
Wilhelm Teudt was a völkisch lay archaeologist searching for an ancient Germanic civilization...

. In 1934 to 1935, the Ahnenerbe
Ahnenerbe
The Ahnenerbe was a Nazi German think tank that promoted itself as a "study society for Intellectual Ancient History." Founded on July 1, 1935, by Heinrich Himmler, Herman Wirth, and Richard Walther Darré, the Ahnenerbe's goal was to research the anthropological and cultural history of the Aryan...

 undertook extensive fieldwork in an attempt to uncover material evidence of the use of the Externsteine as a place of Germanic paganism worship, yet no such evidence was found.

Few modern scholars consider it anything but an outright invention of Teudt, who did not provide evidence to back his claims.

Today it is generally accepted by historians that there is no historic attestation connecting the design in the Externsteine relief to the Irminsul. Certainly, the Eresburg was only about 45 kilometers (c.28 miles) from the Externsteine, and insofar there indeed was an Irminsul "near the Externsteine" but extensive archaeological studies of the Externsteine have failed to yield any material evidence for their use as a sacred site between Mesolithic
Mesolithic
The Mesolithic is an archaeological concept used to refer to certain groups of archaeological cultures defined as falling between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic....

 and pre-Christian times. Thermoluminescence dating
Thermoluminescence dating
Thermoluminescence dating is the determination, by means of measuring the accumulated radiation dose, of the time elapsed since material containing crystalline minerals was either heated or exposed to sunlight...

 of firesites suggests that the site was occasionally used as a rock shelter
Rock shelter
A rock shelter is a shallow cave-like opening at the base of a bluff or cliff....

 in Saxon times, but apparently not to the extent one would expect from a major place of worship.

Jupiter Columns

Comparisons have been made between the Irminsul and the Jupiter Column
Jupiter Column
A Jupiter Column is an archaeological monument belonging to a type widespread in Roman Germania. Such pillars express the religious beliefs of their time. They were erected in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, mostly near Roman settlements or villas in the Germanic provinces...

s that were erected along the Rhine in Germania
Germania
Germania was the Greek and Roman geographical term for the geographical regions inhabited by mainly by peoples considered to be Germani. It was most often used to refer especially to the east of the Rhine and north of the Danube...

 around CE 2 and 3. Scholarly comparisons were once made between the Irminsul and the Jupiter Columns, however, Rudolf Simek states that the columns were of Gallo-Roman religious
Gallo-Roman religion
Gallo-Roman religion was a fusion of the traditional religious practices of the Gauls, who were originally Celtic speakers, and the Roman and Hellenistic religions introduced to the region under Roman Imperial rule. It was the result of selective acculturation....

 monuments, and that the reported location of the Irminsul in Eresburg does not fall within the area of the Jupiter Column archaeological finds.

Neopaganism

A depiction of an Irminsul based on the Externsteine relief (shaped back into a vertical position) is used in some currents of Germanic Neopaganism
Germanic Neopaganism
Germanic neopaganism is the contemporary revival of historical Germanic paganism. Precursor movements appeared in the early 20th century in Germany and Austria. A second wave of revival began in the early 1970s...

.

See also

  • Asherah pole
    Asherah pole
    An Asherah pole is a sacred tree or pole that stood near Canaanite religious locations to honor the Ugaritic mother-goddess Asherah, consort of El...

  • Celtic Cross
    Celtic cross
    A Celtic cross is a symbol that combines a cross with a ring surrounding the intersection. In the Celtic Christian world it was combined with the Christian cross and this design was often used for high crosses – a free-standing cross made of stone and often richly decorated...

  • Irminenschaft
    Irminenschaft
    Irminenschaft is a current of Ariosophy based on a Germanic deity Irmin which is supposedly reconstructed from literaric, linguistic and oonomastic sources...

  • Maypole
    Maypole
    A maypole is a tall wooden pole erected as a part of various European folk festivals, particularly on May Day, or Pentecost although in some countries it is instead erected at Midsummer...

  • Palmette
    Palmette
    The palmette is a motif in decorative art which, in its most characteristic expression, resembles the fan-shaped leaves of a palm tree. It has an extremely long history, originating in Ancient Egypt with a subsequent development through the art of most of Eurasia, often in forms that bear...

  • Roland
    Roland
    Roland was a Frankish military leader under Charlemagne who became one of the principal figures in the literary cycle known as the Matter of France. Historically, Roland was military governor of the Breton March, with responsibility for defending the frontier of Francia against the Bretons...

     (Rolandssäulen)
  • Sacred grove
    Sacred grove
    A sacred grove is a grove of trees of special religious importance to a particular culture. Sacred groves were most prominent in the Ancient Near East and prehistoric Europe, but feature in various cultures throughout the world...

  • Sacred tree at Uppsala
    Sacred tree at Uppsala
    The sacred tree at Uppsala was a sacred tree located at the Temple at Uppsala, Sweden, in the second half of the 11th century. It is not known what species it was, but a scholar has suggested that it was a yew tree....

  • Thor's Oak
    Thor's Oak
    The Donar Oak was a legendary oak tree sacred to the Germanic tribe of the Chatti, ancestors of the Hessians, and an important sacred site of the pagan Germanic peoples....

  • Yggdrasil
    Yggdrasil
    In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is an immense tree that is central in Norse cosmology. It was said to be the world tree around which the nine worlds existed...

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