An Irminsul (
Old Saxon, probably "great/mighty pillar" or "arising pillar") was a kind of pillarwhich is attested as playing an important role in the Germanic paganismof the Saxon people. The oldest chronicle describing an Irminsul refers to it as a tree trunk erected in the open air.d'Alviella (1891:112).] 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, inferred from the name Irminsul and the tribal name Irminones, is sometimes presumed to have been the national god or demi-godof the Saxons. [Robinson (1917): p.389] It has been suggested that "Irmin" was more probably an aspect, avataror epithetof some other deity - most likely Wodan ( Odin) - or even is a Neopagan invention; it is not attested as an independent deity in pre-Modern sources on Germanic paganism. Irmin might also have been an epithet of the god Ziu ( Tyr) in early Germanic times, only later transferred to Odin, as Odin replaced Tyr as the chief Germanic deity only at the onset of the Migration Period. This was the favored view of early 20th century Nordicist writers [E.g. Meyer (1910): p.192] , but it is not generally considered likely in modern times [E.g. Farwerck (1970): p.33] .
Old Norseform of "Irmin" is "Jörmunr", which just like "Yggr" was one of the names of Odin. Yggdrasil("Yggr's horse") was the yew or ash treefrom which Odin sacrificed himself, and which connected heaven and earth. Jakob Grimmconnects the name "Irmin" with Old Norseterms like "iörmungrund" ("great ground", i.e. the Earth) or "iörmungandr" ("great snake", i.e. the Midgard serpent) [Grimm (1835)] .
It is thus often conjectured that the Irminsul was a
World tree, the equivalent of Yggdrasil among the Saxon tribes of Germany. But the few primary sources that attest to it are not clear about whether it was a "world-pillar" or simply the pedestal for a cult image. In the " Annales Pettaviani", it is even mentioned as "... locum, qui dicitur Ermensul ..." ("... [a] place which they called Irminsul ...")Fact|date=June 2008. Likewise, it is unknown whether the "Irminsul" was made of wood or stone and whether there was one or several. Meanwhile, the "T"-shaped Irminsul representation most often seen today is entirely conjectural; contemporary sources always refer to it as a straightforward pillar or column.
The linguistic connection between "Irmin"- and "iörmun"/"jörmun"- is generally accepted, but the terms simply mean "great/mighty" or "rising high". It is easy to see how "The great one" or "The exalted one" could become a by-name of Odin, but unfortunately this is of little use to determine whether the Saxon term refers to a deity or simply means - as is usually preferred today - "great pillar" instead of "Irmin's pillar" or "Odin's pillar".
Royal Frankish Annals
According to the
Royal Frankish Annals(CE 772), during the Saxon wars, Charlemagneis repeatedly described as ordering the destruction of the chief seat of their religion, an Irminsul.Stallybrass (1882): 116-118).] The Irminsul is described as not being far from Heresburg (now Stadtbergen), Germany. Jacob Grimmstates that "strong reasons" point to the actual location of the Irminsul as being approximately convert|15|mi|km away, in the Teutoburg Forestand states that the original name for the region "Osning" may have meant "Holy Wood."
"De miraculis sancti Alexandri"
Benedictinemonk Rudolf of Fulda(CE 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.
Louis the Piousin the 9th century, a stone column was dug up at ObermarsbergAccording to the Royal Frankish Annals(Anonymus (  ): chapter 772):
Et inde perrexit partibus Saxoniae prima vice, Eresburgum castrum coepit, ad Ermensul usque pervenit et ipsum fanum destruxit et aurum vel argentum, quod ibi repperit, abstulit. Et fuit siccitas magna, ita ut aqua deficeret in supradicto loco, ubi Ermensul stabat; et dum voluit ibi duos aut tres praedictus gloriosus rex stare dies fanum ipsum ad perdestruendum et aquam non haberent, tunc subito divina largiente gratia media die cuncto exercitu quiescente in quodam torrente omnibus hominibus ignorantibus aquae effusae sunt largissimae, ita ut cunctus exercitus sufficienter haberet.] or
Stadtbergenin Westphalia, Germany and relocated to the Hildesheim cathedral in Hildesheim, Lower Saxony, Germany.d'Alviella (1891:106-107).] The column was reportedly then used as a candelabrumuntil 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.
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
Halberstadtwhere it was enacted on the day of Laetare Sunday by the Canons themselves.
The nearby village of
Irminseul(coord|51|59|N|9|56|E|) points to an older connection of the area with the concept.Fact|date=June 2008
Awareness of the significance of the concept seems to have persisted well into Christian times. For example, in the twelfth-century "
Kaiserchronik" 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." [Schröder (1892): p.81, lines 129-131] :"On an Irminsul / stands an enormous idol / which they call their merchant"
Julius Caesar::"Rômâre in ungetrûwelîche sluogen / sîn gebaine si ûf ain irmensûl begruoben" [Schröder (1892): p.92, lines 601-602] :"The Romans slew him treacherously / and buried his bones on an Irminsul"
Nero::"ûf ain irmensûl er staich / daz lantfolch im allez naich." [Schröder (1892): p.158, lines 4213-4214] :"He climbed upon an Irminsul / the peasants all bowed before him"
It is notable that the overwhelming majority of
Middle Agessources understand the Irminsul as a pillar, not as a tree-like structure. In that they agree with older authors. In contrast to these, however, the object of worship or significance is understood to be placed on top of the Irminsul rather than being the pillar itself.
A number of theories surround the subject of the Irminsul.
Tacitus' "Germania", the author mentions rumors of what he describes as " Pillars of Hercules" in land inhabited by the Frisii that had yet to be explored. [Tacitus (  ): chapter 34] Tacitus adds that these pillars exist either because Herculesactually did go there or because the Romans have agreed to ascribe all marvels anywhere to Hercules' credit. Tacitus states that while Drusus Germanicus was daring in his campaigns against the Germanic tribes, he was unable reach this region, and that subsequently no one had yet made the attempt.Birley (1999:55).] Connections have been proposed between these "Pillars of Hercules" and later accounts of the Irminsuls.d'Alviella (1891:112).] Herculeswas likely frequently identified with Thorby the Romans due to the practice of "interpretatio romana".Rives (1999:160).]
Externsteine relief and site
According to one particularly well-known suggestion, an Irminsul was situated at or near the
Externsteine, a famous rock formation near Detmold, 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.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 -
Goethefor example discussed the relief in detail [von Goethe (1824)] -, they were not connected until the 1929 interpretation [Teudt (1929): p.27-28] of lay archaeologistand Nazi Partymember Wilhelm Teudt, who has been criticized as a pseudohistorian. [Halle (2002)] In 1934 to 1935, the Ahnenerbeundertook 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 [See e.g. Matthes & Speckner (1997) for some who accept Teudt's proposal, but note that their work has several serious flaws. For example, they ignore the lack of archaeological evidence for
Iron Ageuse of the Externsteine as a sacred site. Also, their claim that the figure of Nicodemus standing on the design represents the subjugation of the pagan faith (p.191) has been claimed as being based on a mistranslation of "Nikodemos" (Νικόδημος, "Victory of the people") as "Victory "over" the [Saxon] people".] 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
archaeologicalstudies of the Externsteine have failed to yield any material evidence for their use as a sacred site between Mesolithicand pre-Christian times. Thermoluminescence datingof firesites suggests that the site was occasionally used as a rock shelterin Saxon times, but apparently not to the extent one would expect from a major place of worship. [Schmidt & Halle (1999)]
Comparisons have been made between the Irminsul and the
Jupiter Columns that were erected along the Rhinein Germaniaaround 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 monuments, and that the reported location of the Irminsul in Eresburg does not fall within the area of the Jupiter Column archaeological finds.Simek (2007:175-176).]
A depiction of an Irminsul based on the Externsteine relief (shaped back into a vertical position) is used in some currents of
Sacred tree at Uppsala
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