Westu hal, all my spear-Danes, and welcome to Gretchen Ruins Heathenry!
For our first installment, we’re going to–apropriately–begin at the beginning and deal with one of my very favorite questions: Who were the very first Heathens?
To answer that question, we’re gonna have to go back, way back, back into time, so far back that I have to include a disclaimer: For the first bits of this talk, we’re gonna be dealing with stuff for which there aren’t any written records, where the only evidence is archaeological and linguistic, so a lot of the scholarship surrounding it can get pretty arcane and speculative. It’s logically consistent speculation with a mountain of evidence behind it, but yeah, it’s not as if anybody was writing this stuff down.
About six thousand years ago, during the early Eneolithic period–that’s the time when people were starting to make their tools, weapons, and ornaments out of hammered copper instead of stone and bone–a people emerged that we’ve come to call the Proto-Indo-Europeans. They emerged as a distinct people someplace in western Asia; there’s not a general consensus as to where, but the best evidence points to the Pontic Steppes, the area north of the Caucasus Mountains in between the Black and Caspian seas, roundabouts modern-day Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and southwestern Russia. The Proto-Indo-European people practiced some primitive agriculture, but they were a fundamentally nomadic people and their economy was mainly centered around pastoralism, with a particular emphasis on horses and cattle. By around 4000 BC, the time when we can say they emerged as a distinct cultural group, they’d developed two- and four-wheeled carts pulled by horses and oxen, and had mastered horseback riding; they also had access to a lot of deposits of natural bronze, which is copper with a high arsenic or silicon impurity, so these guys had the best tools and the best weapons. Couple that with their teamsters and cavalry and their flexible, mobile economy, and these guys were the biggest kids on the block. As they ranged their stock with each season, they established themselves farther and farther from their homeland, eventually coming to dominate and define the cultures from India to Afghanistan to Iran into Europe all the way to Spain and the British Isles.
They practiced a polytheistic religion with a heavy influence on ancestor veneration, the deification of heroes, and a sacredness applied to their horses and cattle, all headed by a great patriarchal storm god, Dyeus Pater, which means Skyfather, a name that’s linguistically cognate with the Latin Jupiter, Greek Zeus, Norse Tyr, and a slew of others I’m less familiar with. These people were not the first Heathens, though; I wouldn’t even call them proto-Heathens, really. Their beliefs were similar and ancestral to Heathenry, but just as much to Hellenic or Celtic or Slavic paganism, or to Hinduism; just as English and Icelandic and Greek and Welsh and Pashtu and Sanskrit are all clearly related languages, they are still very, very different languages. There’s even some speculation that this prehistoric Dyeus Pater could be the same character as Khagan Mongke Tengri, the chief deity of Turkic and Mongolian paganism, though that connection would lie so deep in the Stone Age that it’s probably impossible to prove.
We have to wait another two millennia before we meet people who I think the Heathens of the early Middle Ages would’ve recognized as fellow travellers. About that time, an Indo-European sub-tribe had established itself as culturally dominant in what’s now Norway and Sweden, undergoing what we call the Nordic Bronze Age, which was a big cultural reinaissance that saw less herding and more agriculture, more and bigger permanent villages, a lot of construction of megaliths and passage tombs, and huge leaps in metalworking technology, including the crafting of silver and gold jewelry. It also saw a huge population boom leading to further migration, south into modern-day Denmark and Germany and back east into the modern-day Baltic states and Ukraine (the people who went east and became the Goths and Vandals ended up being something of an ethnolinguistic dead end, so they’ll be discussed in their own talk).
At this time, the various dialects of the Proto-Indo-European parent language were very definitely developing into daughter languages in their own right–the Aryan people were laying the foundations for Farsi and Pashto and Bachtrian and Sanskrit, the Proto-Italic people were afflicted with some emergent Latin, the Proto-Greeks were jawing in the language of the Linear B tablets, and so on; you can probably guess that the group I’ll be focusing on are the Proto-Germanic people.
I feel confident in calling the people of the Nordic Bronze Age the first Heathens because, while a lot of important linguistic change was taking place across the board, at this point the Proto-Germanic speech community totally lost its brain and just went right off the rails. Let me explain.
If you were to look at large enough samples of, say, modern-day Russian, Italian, and Welsh, with normalized phonetic spelling, you’d be able to see pretty quickly that these languages, though different, are intimately related and share a great deal of words and constructions. It’s not quite that easy with the Germanic languages. They’d look similar, yes, clearly related, yes, but roughly one third of the words and grammatical constructions in the Germanic languages are totally absent from any of the other Indo-European languages at this early stage, they just come right outta goddamn nowhere. This is called the Pre-Indo-European Substrate Hypothesis, because the only explanation we can see is that there was heavy cultural mixing between the Proto-Germanic people and the indigenous Europeans, with a cultural-linguistic situation that probably looked a lot like the one between Norman French and Old English after the Battle of Hastings.
Now, back in the 1970s, when the belief in a defined paleolithic Goddess cult and the myth of the peaceful savage were still common in academia, there was a theory, commonly called the Collapse of Old Europe, that the indigenous people of Europe had a great deal of cultural continuity, and were in the nascent stages of blossoming into a civilization just as high-speed as those emergent in Mesopotamia and China, but then the Indo-Europeans rode in like a storm out of the steppes and ruined everything. Now, it’s true that Old Europe was doing pretty well for itself–they had permanent villages on fortified hilltops, they definitely had some kind of religion, and they might even have had the beginnings of a writing system–but there are a lot of problems with this. For one thing, cultural continuity between tribal societies practicing subsistence agriculture does not spread across a continent, or even very far across multiple communities; that’s just not a thing. For another, we know that, in the Middle Ages, it took a Silk Road merchant about ten months to travel from Venice to Beijing; the migration of the Indo-European people from the Pontic Steppes to Britain and Spain took place over a couple of millennia, which kinda puts the kibosh on a “speedy invasion” theory. It’s also worth noting that their invasion was facilitated by climate change that caused deforestation in large parts of central Europe, which increased the available pasturage–meaning the Indo-Europeans didn’t have to deal with so many of the problems that slowed down Subedai and Ogedai during the Mongol invasion of Europe in the AD 1200s–but played all kinds of hell with Old Europe’s farming economy; the Indo-Europeans didn’t cause the Collapse of Old Europe, they just took advantage of it. This, along with the Pre-Indo-European Substrate Hypothesis, indicates that the movement was gradual, mainly focused on political clout changing hands, with no little cultural mixing, and the Indo-European languages simply had more prestige.
As if all this wasn’t bad enough, this was only shortly before Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law started to take effect–these being the processes by which the Proto-Germanic language fragmented into the ancestors of modern-day German, English, Dutch, Swedish, and all this other polyglot bullshit we’ve got now.
There’s this idea, originating with the Roman chronicler Tacitus, that gained a lot of traction and popularity with the Pan-Germanic nationalist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and still exists and has a great deal of clout in modern Heathenry today, that the Germanic people are somehow culturally or genetically “more pure” than other peoples, but as you can see, it looks like the truth is the exact opposite.
As the Bronze Age bled into the Iron Age, and then into the so-called Roman Iron Age, the Germanic people pinged the radar of Greek and later Roman chroniclers, so we finally have direct records that we don’t have to extrapolate from archaeology and linguistics–the most famous and important being Tacitus’s Germania and Julius Caesar’s record of his wars against the Celtic peoples in Gaul, modern-day France and the Low Countries–and they even began to develop writing of their own. Though actual texts don’t appear until the Middle Ages, inscriptions in the Elder Futhark alphabet, a writing system derived from a version of the Greek alphabet used by the Etruscan people of Italy–or picked up by the god Odin on a trip to the Land of the Dead and gifted to men, depending on whose story you believe–are by now appearing on stones and metal objects in the Late Proto-Germanic and Early Proto-Norse langauges. Most of these are simple, usually not more than a proper name or a couple of words, but by around the 4th century we start to see the first of the famous runestones. We know from these and from linguistic extrapolation that the Proto-Germanic people worshipped gods like Wotanaz, who became the English Woden and Norse Odin; Tivaz, our old pal Dyeus Pater, English Tyw and Norse Tyr; and Dunoraz, English Thunor and Norse Thor; and so on and so forth, in clear continuity with the deities described in the Icelandic Eddas and Sagas, which practitioners of modern Asatru hold so dear. However, it’s also pretty clear from linguistic and textual evidence that in these early stages, Heathenry was nowhere close to the organized “state religion” of jarls and kings that we see in Medieval Scandinavia; it was far more animistic, you might even say shamanistic (though I’d hesitate to use that particular word), with much heavier influence on placating nature spirits like elves and trolls, and not nearly as much cult activity surrounding the Aesir and Vanir as one might expect; it’s also pretty apparent from the earliest recorded poetry that veneration and deification of ancestors was of much greater importance than it would be later. Even so, continuity with the late religious systems more completely outlined in the Eddas and Sagas is self-evidently present.
If you want to learn more about this period, the book Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis-Davidson has a couple of things to say about it, and Our Troth vol. 1, edited by Kveldulf Gundersson touches on it at least peripherally, though I hesitate to recommend works by modern practitioners (that’s a whole nother talk in and of itself). The Horse, the Wheel, and the Language by David W. Anthony is a good introduction to and general survey of the theories surrounding the Proto-Indo-European migration. I encourage everybody to listen to Kevin Stroud’s The History of English podcast and Travis Daud’s The History of Germany podcast, and if you’d like a couple of very interesting perspectives on all of this, the book The Road to Middle Earth by Tom Shippey and Professor Michael Drout’s lecture, “Whole Worlds out of Single Words” on the Tolkien Professor podcast feed are definitely worth your time.