Anthropomorphic wooden cult figurines of Central and Northern Europe

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Anthropomorphic wooden cult figurines, sometimes called pole gods, have been found at many archaeological sites in Central and Northern Europe. They are generally interpreted as cult images, in some cases presumably depicting deities, sometimes with either a votive or an apotropaic (protective) function. Many have been preserved in peat bogs. The majority are more or less crudely worked poles or forked sticks; some take the form of carved planks. They have been dated to periods from the Mesolithic to the Early Middle Ages, including the Roman Era and the Migration Age. The majority have been found in areas of Germanic settlement, but some are from areas of Celtic settlement and from the later part of the date range, Slavic settlement. A typology has been developed based on the large number found at Oberdorla, Thuringia, at a sacrificial bog which is now the Opfermoor Vogtei open-air museum.

The oldest of the figures is the Mesolithic find from Willemstad in the Netherlands and the latest is 13th-century, but most date from between c. 500 BCE and 500 CE. They are found as far west as Ireland (although at least one found in the British Isles, the Strata Florida figure from Wales, was imported) and as far east as Gorbunovo Moor in Russia. By far the majority were preserved in wetlands of some sort; however, only one figure—from the late Bronze Age settlement at Wasserburg Buchau, near Bad Buchau in Baden-Württemberg, Germany—has been found in the lake village culture of the Alps.[1]

Germanic-speaking areas[edit]

Background and development[edit]

Broddenbjerg idol, a figure made from a forked stick (Type 2) and dated to approximately 535–520 BCE

The earliest evidence of anthropomorphic wooden cult figures in areas that would later have Germanic-speaking inhabitants is from the Bronze Age. The Broddenbjerg idol, an ithyphallic forked-stick figure found in a peat bog near Viborg, Denmark, is carbon-dated to approximately 535–520 BCE.[2] The Braak Bog Figures, a male and female forked-stick pair found in a peat bog at Braak, Schleswig-Holstein, have been dated to the 2nd to 3rd centuries BCE but also as early as the 4th century.[3][4] In areas with Germanic-speakers, figures have been found in an area extending from Schleswig-Holstein in Germany to Norrland in Sweden,[5] but the vast majority have been preserved in bogs or other moist environments, so it is impossible to know how widespread the practice actually was. One figure has been found on dry land, in a ditch complex on a hillside at Bad Doberan, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.[6] The great majority of the figurines are markedly more abstract than other artistic artefacts of their time. The 5th-6th century seated figure from the Rude-Eskilstrup bog in Munke Bjergby parish, Zealand, Denmark, is unusually detailed: it has a triple neck-ring or collar, a kirtle and a pronounced chin or beard, and resembles a bronze figure found at Bregneburg on Funen.[7][8][9] It has been suggested that this figure may have stood in a heathen temple and been placed in the bog at the conversion.[10]

Tacitus states in Germania that the Teutons did not have idols depicting their gods, yet describes the annual parading of an image of the goddess Nerthus.[11] Presumably Tacitus did not recognise the simpler cult images made by the Teutons as equivalent to the more fully developed images used by Romans, or was unaware of them.

The Old Norse term for a god áss (the singular of Æsir; derived from the Common Germanic root *ans, *ansuz and also recorded for Gothic as the Latin plural Anses by Jordanes) has a homonym meaning "pole" or "beam". Jacob Grimm proposed that as the origin of the "god word" and the etymology was accepted by some scholars;[12][13] it would suggest that the word is derived from god-images in pole form, but relating it to the Indian asuras as a term of Indo-European origins is equally plausible.[14] Some of the wooden figures take the form of a simple pole or post, sometimes set up in a heap of stones.[15]

The more complex figures made of carved forked sticks recall the "wooden people" or "tree-men" of the Eddic poem "Hávamál":

Váðir mínar
gaf ek velli at
tveim trémǫnnom;
rekkar þat þóttusk,
er þeir rift hǫfðo,
neiss er nökkviðr halr.
My clothes
I gave in the countryside
to two twig-men.
Great fellows they thought themselves
when they had garments—
a man is mortified naked.[16]

Other more or less contemporary texts also attest to wooden cult figurines in Scandinavian paganism. Christian missionary writings refer disparagingly to wooden 'idols', such as the figure of the god Freyr in Gunnars þáttr helmings.[15] In Ibn Fadlan's early 10th-century account of the Volga Vikings, he writes that as soon as they come into harbour, they leave their ships with food and alcoholic drink and offer them at a tall piece of wood with the face of a man carved in it, which is surrounded by smaller similar figures.[17] Such an arrangement has been found at sites such as the Oberdorla sacrificial bog.

The mentions in Icelandic sagas of Öndvegissúlur carved with the images of gods, in particular Thor and Freyr, and of other idols, may be related but have been influenced by Christian concepts since the sagas were written down in the 12th to 14th centuries, centuries after the heathen period. More clearly related is the extremely large post hole which forms the focal point of the "grandstand" at the 6th to 7th-century Anglo-Saxon royal hall site of Yeavering: with a side length of 56 centimetres (22 in) and a depth of approximately 1.2 metres (3 ft 11 in), it indicates a pillar of considerable size, presumably a cult pillar of some sort.[18][19][20]

Forms and material[edit]

Günter Behm-Blancke classified the anthropomorphic figurines into four groups based on the finds at Oberdorla:

  • Type 1. Poles or posts, sometimes equipped with a phallus, as at Oberdorla; a variant form from Possendorf, Weimar, (now lost)[21] has a carved head and attached raised arms.[22]
  • Type 2. Formed from a forked stick, with a head carved out at the top. Those found at Oberdorla are all female; in North Germany and Scandinavia, ithyphallic male figures are also found, such as the Broddenbjerg idol from near Viborg, Denmark and the more artistically developed male and female Braak Bog Figures from Schleswig-Holstein.[9] Sizes range from approximately 1 to 3 metres (3 ft 3 in to 9 ft 10 in).[23]
  • Type 3. Carved from a broad plank cut in silhouette with blank faces, males with rectangular bodies, females with breasts or shoulders indicated by a slanted cut, broad hips and vulva. Found at Oberdorla and at the Wittemoor timber trackway (corduroy road) in Berne, Lower Saxony, these are thought to have had an apotropaic (protective) purpose.[24][25]
  • Type 4. Carved from a squared piece of timber with an inclined head and a base, similar to a herm. One of this type was found at Oberdorla, in a late La Tène context.[24]

Most of the figures which have been preserved are of oak, which was probably preferred for its endurance in the mostly wet locations where they were deposited.


Female (left) and male (right) plank figures (Type 3) from the Wittemoor timber trackway

It is impossible to determine the exact purpose of the figurines, or their relationship to the named Germanic gods and goddesses, with whose worship they overlap; examples are found dating to as late as the Viking Age. We cannot determine how typical those which have happened to survive and be found, or their locations, are; and our surviving written sources of information on Germanic paganism are likewise incomplete.[26] They have been interpreted, in particular by Behm-Blancke, as the site of fertility sacrifices, based on the indications of male and female sexual characteristics and the frequent association with potsherds and the bones of animals and, at Oberdorla, of humans. They may originate in a phallus cult, although there are few indications of such a cult in Germanic paganism. Alternatively, since the veneration of pillars extends beyond the Germanic cultural area, they may originate in the belief in the world pillar (as seen in the Saxon Irminsul and the Old Norse Yggdrasill) and thus derive from an archaic tree cult.[15]

Heiko Steuer has suggested that in the case of the male and female Wittemoor figures, which stood on either side of a plank causeway through a marsh, there may have been a secular decorative motive in addition to the spiritual luck-bringing and warding (apotropaic) functions.[27]

Celtic-speaking areas[edit]

Relatively few figurines have been found in areas of Celtic-speaking settlement, and because of overlap with Germanic-speaking settlement, particularly in the North Sea region,[28] it is sometimes difficult to assign a figure to one or the other group of people.

A fragment of an anthropomorphic figurine made of oak dating to the 2nd century BCE was found in a possibly sacrificial shaft inside a Viereckschanze enclosure in the Schmiden section of Fellbach in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. It originally depicted a person, apparently seated, between two rams, with hands around their rumps; only the hands survive from the human figure.[29][30][31]

Lucan's Pharsalia refers to a sacred grove near Massilia (Marseille) which was a location of human sacrifice and had stone altars and rough-hewn wooden idols.[32]

In a stone replica of a xoanon found at Euffigneix in Haute-Marne, France, the sculptor has reproduced the knot-holes as eye-like openings on the sides. Two maple-wood columns with torcs found in the cultic enclosure of Libenice near Kolín, in Central Bohemia, date to the Roman period. A 3-metre (9.8 ft) oak sculpture of a "guardian deity" wearing a cowl was found in the old harbour basin of Geneva, Switzerland.[33][34] And primitively carved wooden stelae have been found at sites of worship of goddesses of water-sources, such as the so-called Pforzheim Sirona.[35][36] An oak statue belonging to the La Tène culture was found at the mouth of the River Rhone in Lake Geneva, near Villeneuve, Vaud, Switzerland. It is 1.25 metres (4 ft 1 in) tall and clothed in a tunic. It was dated by means of three Celtic silver coins of the 2nd century BCE which were in a fissure in the statue, and is thought to depict a late 2nd to mid-1st century Celtic deity, apparently associated with the river or the lake.[33][34][37]

A late Bronze Age wooden figure found at Ralaghan, County Cavan, Ireland, referred to as Ralaghan Man, has a genital opening containing a piece of white quartz, which may represent a vulva or have been the attachment point for a penis.[38] In 1880, an almost lifesize female figure carved out of an oak log was found near Ballachulish in Scotland. The genitalia are emphasised and pieces of quartz have been inserted as eyes. The figure had been deposited in a ritual context with other objects, within an enclosure marked off with woven branches, similar to cultic finds on the continent. It has been carbon-dated to between 700 and 500 BCE.[39][40] Finally, a wooden figure 58 centimetres (23 in) was found in Montbouy, west of Orléans in central France. It is presumed to be male and the location of the find, in the well of a Roman temple, suggests it served a devotional purpose; the style of the figure resembles that of pre-Roman figures from North Germany.[41]

Slavic-speaking areas[edit]

Slavic figure of a god, c. 5th century CE, from Altfriesack, Fehrbellin, Brandenburg, Germany

The several wooden anthropomorphic figures found in the West Slavic settlement areas around the Elbe, for example the temple finds from Groß Raden (now part of Sternberg) and Ralswiek and those from Neubrandenburg, all in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Altfriesack (now part of Fehrbellin, Brandenburg)[42] possibly depict deities. Saxo Grammaticus describes the Temple at Arkona as containing a great four-headed idol, far taller than a man.[43] However, Slavic anthropomorphic figures do not occur until the 10th century, presumably under the influence of neighbouring cultures.[44]

Sebastian Brather distinguishes between idols in plank and pole form. He regards the former as primarily votive in purpose,[citation needed] like those described by Saxo and by others including Thietmar of Merseburg, but their identification with specific deities can only be speculation. Also, as with Celtic and Germanic, Slavic paganism was not universally standardised but included decentralisaed, local cult centres and practices, of which the wooden images would have formed a part.[45]

Leszek Słupecki considers the figure from Fischerinsel near Neubrandenburg one of the most significant Slavic idols. Dated to the 11th–12th century, it takes the form of a two-headed male bust mounted on a column of hewn oak, and is 178 centimetres (5 ft 10 in) high. The beard, eyes, and nose are emphasised.[46] It is the only multi-headed sculpture extant from a Slavic region, but the location of the find does not indicate any sort of temple or shrine.[47]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Francesco Menotti, Wetland Archaeology and Beyond: Theory and Practice, Oxford: Oxford University, 2012, ISBN 9780199571017, pp. 193–94.
  2. ^ "Guden fra Broddenbjerg" Archived 2013-10-04 at the Wayback Machine, Nyt fra fortiden (in Danish)
  3. ^ Miranda J. Aldhouse Green, An Archaeology of Images: Iconology and Cosmology in Iron Age and Roman Europe, London: Routledge, 2004, ISBN 9780415252539, p, 60.
  4. ^ Svend Hansen, "Archaeological Finds from Germany: Booklet to the Photographic Exhibition" Archived 2013-10-08 at the Wayback Machine, [Berlin]: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Eurasien-Abteilung, 2010, p. 34 (pdf)
  5. ^ Andreas Oldeberg, "Några träidoler från förhistorisk och senare tid", Fornvännen 52 (1957) 247–58. (in Swedish) (German summary)
  6. ^ Michael Müller-Wille, Opferkulte der Germanen und Slawen, Archäologie in Deutschland, Sonderheft, Stuttgart: Theiss, 1999, ISBN 9783806214437, p. 28 (in German)
  7. ^ Bente Magnus, Men, Gods and Masks—in Nordic Iron Age Art, Ten thousand years of folk art in the North; Nordic iron age art 1, Cologne: König, 2006, ISBN 9783883759852, Plate 55.
  8. ^ H. R. Ellis Davidson, Pagan Scandinavia, Ancient Peoples and Places 58, London: Thames and Hudson, 1967, OCLC 247529956, Plate 31, p. 78 (described on p. 197 as Plate 32).
  9. ^ a b Johannes Maringer, "Das Wasser in Kult und Glauben der vorgeschichtlichen Menschen", Anthropos 68.5/6, 1973, pp. 705–76, p. 745 (in German)
  10. ^ Charlotte Fabech, "Centrality in Old Norse mental landscapes: A dialogue between arranged and natural places?", in Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes, and Interactions, ed. Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert and Catharina Raudvere, Vägar till Midgård 8, Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2006, ISBN 9789189116818, pp. 26–32, p. 30.
  11. ^ Tacitus, Germania 9.6: Ceterum nec cohibere parietibus deos neque in ullam humani oris speciem adsimulare ex magnitudine caelestium arbitrantur - "The Germans, however, do not consider it consistent with the grandeur of celestial beings to confine the gods within walls, or to liken them to the form of any human countenance." Germania 40: mox vehiculum et vestis et, si credere velis, numen ipsum secreto lacu abluitur - "Afterwards the car, the vestments, and, if you like to believe it, the divinity herself, are purified in a secret lake." Trans. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, The Agricola and Germany of Tacitus, London: Macmillan, 1868, OCLC 776555615
  12. ^ Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, tr. James Steven Stallybrass, 4 vols., Volume 3, London: Bell, 1882, repr. New York: Dover, [1966], OCLC 378881, p. 25.
  13. ^ Jan de Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, 2 vols., Volume 2 Die Götter – Vorstellungen über den Kosmos – Der Untergang des Heidentums, Grundriß der germanischen Philologie 12.2, 2nd ed. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1957, repr. as 3rd ed. 1970, OCLC 769214225 p. 9, note 1 (in German) has a bibliography of that and rival etymologies.
  14. ^ "Æsir", Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, tr. Angela Hall, Woodbridge, Suffolk: Brewer, 1993, ISBN 9780859915137, repr. 2000 p. 3.
  15. ^ a b c "Pole gods", Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, p. 258.
  16. ^ "Hávamál" verse 49, Ursula Dronke, The Poetic Edda, Volume III Mythological Poems II, Oxford: Oxford University, 2011, ISBN 978-0-19-811182-5, p. 12.
  17. ^ James E. Montgomery, "Ibn Faḍlān and the Rūsiyyah" Archived 2013-10-01 at the Wayback Machine, Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 3, 2000: "This piece of wood has a face like the face of a man and is surrounded by small figurines behind which are long pieces of wood set up in the ground."
  18. ^ RACAR 23–25 (1998) 4.
  19. ^ Lisbeth Margaret Thoms, Settlements in Scotland 1000 BC–AD 1000, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 1980, ISBN 9780852243633, p. 48.
  20. ^ Max Adams, The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria, New York: Head of Zeus, 2013, ISBN 9781781854174, n.p. suggests a Frankish staffolus.
  21. ^ The Possendorf figure was about 90 centimetres (35 in) tall and probably from the 2nd century BCE. Wijnand van der Sanden, tr. Susan J. Mellor, Through Nature to Eternity: The Bog Bodies of Northwest Europe, Amsterdam: Batavian Lion, 1996, ISBN 9789067074186, p. 104.
  22. ^ Günter Behm-Blancke, "Materielle und geistige Kultur. Stammesgebiete im 1. und 2. Jahrhundert: Kult und Ideologie", in Bruno Krüger, et al., ed., Die Germanen: Geschichte und Kultur der germanischen Stämme in Mitteleuropa. Ein Handbuch in zwei Bänden, Volume 1 Von den Anfängen bis zum 2. Jahrhundert unserer Zeitrechnung, Veröffentlichungen des Zentralinstituts für Alte Geschichte und Archäologie der Akademie der Wissenschaften der DDR 4, Berlin: Akademie, 1976, OCLC 256529450, pp. 351–71, p. 369 (in German)
  23. ^ Behm-Blancke, pp. 369–71.
  24. ^ a b Behm-Blancke, p. 371.
  25. ^ Menotti, p. 193.
  26. ^ Torsten Capelle and Bernhard Maier, "Idole, Idolatrie", in Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde, 2nd ed., Volume 15, Berlin / New York: de Gruyter, 2000, ISBN 3-11-016649-6, pp. 325–30, p. 330.
  27. ^ Heiko Steuer, "Über anthropomorphe Moorpfähle der vorrömischen Eisenzeit", in Studien zur Lebenswelt der Eisenzeit: Festschrift für Rosemarie Müller, ed. Wolf-Rüdiger Teegen, Rosemarie Müller, Rosemarie Cordie, Olaf Dörrer and Heiko Steuer, Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde, Ergänzungsband 53, Berlin / New York: de Gruyter, 2006, ISBN 978-3-11-019010-6 (in German)
  28. ^ Helmut Birkhan, Kelten. Versuch einer Gesamtdarstellung ihrer Kultur, 2nd ed. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences, 1997, ISBN 9783700126096, pp. 682, 937 (in German)
  29. ^ Bernhard Maier, Die Religion der Kelten: Götter, Mythen, Weltbild, Munich: Beck, 2001, ISBN 9783406482342, p. 151 (in German)
  30. ^ Günther Wieland et al., Die keltischen Viereckschanzen von Fellbach-Schmiden (Rems-Murr-Kreis) und Ehningen (Kreis Böblingen), Forschungen und Berichte zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte in Baden-Württemberg 80, Stuttgart: Theiss, 1999, ISBN 9783806214819, p. 38 (in German)
  31. ^ Nico Roymans, Tribal Societies in Northern Gaul: An Anthropological Perspective, Cingula 12, Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam, Albert Egges van Giffen Instituut voor Prae- en Protohistorie, 1990, ISBN 9789070319137, p. 62.
  32. ^ Lucan, Pharsalia (aka "The Civil War") Book III "Massilia", ll. 458–61, 468–71, trans. Edward Ridley, 1896, at Medieval and Classical Literature Library, Pharsalia Book 3, 4 May 2018:
    ... No sylvan nymphs
    Here found a home, nor Pan, but savage rites
    And barbarous worship, altars horrible
    On massive stones upreared; sacred with blood
    Of men was every tree. ...
    ... effigies of gods
    Rude, scarcely fashioned from some fallen trunk
    Held the mid space: and, pallid with decay,
    Their rotting shapes struck terror.
  33. ^ a b Andres Furger and Felix Müller, with Maria Angelica Borrello et al., tr. Joseph Raftery, Helvetian Gold: Celtic Treasures from Switzerland, Exhibition catalogue, Swiss National Museum, Zurich: Eidolon, 1991, OCLC 26452989, p. 78.
  34. ^ a b O.-H. Frey, "Keltische Großplastik", in Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde, 2nd ed., Volume 16, Berlin / New York: de Gruyter, 2000, ISBN 9783110167825, pp. 395–407, p. 404 (in German)
  35. ^ Birkhan, p. 937.
  36. ^ Klaus Kortüm, Portus—Pforzheim: Untersuchungen zur Archäologie und Geschichte in römischer Zeit, Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte der Stadt Pforzheim 3, Sigmaringen: Thorbecke, 1995, OCLC 35252688, p. 202 (in German)
  37. ^ Maier, p. 151; see R. Wyss, "La statue celte de Villeneuve", Helvetia Archeologica 10 (1979) 58–67 (in French)
  38. ^ Aldhouse Green, p. 78.
  39. ^ Stuart Piggott and Glyn E. Daniel, A Picture Book of Ancient British Art, 1951, repr. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2010, ISBN 9780521176408, p. 7, Fig. 33, p. 36.
  40. ^ Ian Armit, Celtic Scotland, Historic Scotland, London: Batsford, 1997, ISBN 9780713475388, pp. 87–88.
  41. ^ Torsten Capelle, "Anthropomorphe Holzidole in Mittel- und Nordeuropa". In: Scripta minora. Kungl. Humanistiska Vetenskapssamfundet i Lund, 1 (1995–96), Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell, 1995, ISBN 91-22-01705-4, pp. 1–68, pp. 25, 27 (in German)
  42. ^ Sebastian Brather, Archäologie der westlichen Slawen: Siedlung, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft im früh- und hochmittelalterlichen Ostmitteleuropa, 2nd ed., Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde, Ergänzungsband 61, Berlin / New York: de Gruyter, 2008, ISBN 9783110206098, p. 325 (in German)
  43. ^ Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum 14.39: Norbert Reiter, Das Glaubensgut der Slawen im europäischen Verbund, Slavistische Studienbücher NF 21, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2009, ISBN 9783447060943, p. 100 (in German)
  44. ^ Brather, p. 320.
  45. ^ Leszek Słupecki, "The temple in Rhetra-Riedegost: West Slavic pagan ritual as described at the beginning of eleventh century", in Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives, pp. 224–28, p. 224.
  46. ^ Photograph, Herbert Schutz, Tools, Weapons and Ornaments: Germanic Material Culture in Pre-Carolingian Central Europe, 400–750, Northern World 1, Leiden / Boston: Brill, 2001, ISBN 9789004122987, Plate 50, p. 53.
  47. ^ Leszek Paweł Słupecki, tr. Izabela Szymańska, Slavonic Pagan Sanctuaries, Warsaw: Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, Polish Academy of Sciences, 1994, ISBN 9788385463276, p. 205.

Further reading[edit]

  • Hajo Hayen: "Hölzerne Kultfiguren am Bohlenweg XLII (IP) im Wittenmoor (Gemeinde Berne, Landkreis Wesermarsch)". Die Kunde NF 22 (1971), ISSN 0342-0736, 88–123. (in German)
  • Rudolf Simek. Religion und Mythologie der Germanen. Stuttgart: Theiss, 2003, ISBN 9783806218213. (in German)

External links[edit]

  • Photo gallery, Wer waren die Germanen?, Arte, 19 July 2007. Images 4 and 5. (in German)