Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Irminsul

Remains of an irminsul in Friedrichsgrund
The Royal Frankish Annals have an entry for 772:
The most gracious Lord King Charles then held an assembly at Worms. From Worms he marched first into Saxony. Capturing the castle of Eresburg, he proceeded as far as the Irminsul, destroyed this idol and carried away the gold and silver which he found. 
What was the Irminsul? Rudolf of Fulda, who wrote histories that include the biography of Saint Leoba, defines irminsul in his De miraculis sancti Alexandri ["On the miracles of Saint Alexander"] as "universal column, upholding all things." The irminsul was a pillar made either from a tree trunk or stone and used as a focal point of worship in non-Christian Europe. Records do not exist that would let us zero in on its meaning and purpose; it is simply clear that it was a symbol of paganism and a site of worship.

Attempts to determine the meaning of the name are inconclusive—none are met with universal agreement. The name irminsul, as well as the presence of a Germanic tribe Irminones (mentioned in Tacitus' Germania), suggest that there was a Saxon god named Irmin. Some scholars suggest that Irmin was an epithet of Odin, some say Tyr.

The 12th century Middle High German Kaiserchronik ["Chronicle of Emperors"] uses the term irminsul a few times, such as when discussing Nero:
"He climbed upon an Irminsul
the peasants all bowed before him"
There were likely irminsuls in many locations, constructed of different materials; see the picture above for the remains of one. The best known one was probably that mentioned in the Royal Frankish Annals above, destroyed by Charlemagne. The consequences of that act are worth a look; but that's for tomorrow.

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