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Honorable Ethics & Behavior in Pre-Christian Heathen Society

What doe the historical sources say about Germanic* ethics and morality, and the Germanic* legal system? (PS- we do live in a modern world. I am aware that many will not agree with some of the ancient behavioral views of the Germanic* Peoples.) *Scandinavians are also Germanic Peoples.


What was “honorable” behavior in Germanic Heathen society according to Tacitus?

Tacitus wrote his great work Germania in the late first century of the common era. Tacitus’ account is important, as he was not a Roman Christian, but a Roman Pagan. Tacitus’ work doesn't contain Christian bias. Tacitus admits in Germania, that most of his account of the Germanic People, their laws, culture, and religion, he received second hand from other Roman soldiers. Tacitus' account of the Germanic Peoples has largely been proven correct by archaeological findings. Tacitus' description of Germanic clothing and their buildings has been proven correct by archaeology. Tacitus' account is not always confirmed however, for example Tacitus states that the Germanic Peoples did not value gold and silver [Germania chapter 5], which have been clearly found in Germanic Tribal lands. But we can hold his account as credible.


Tacitus begins to discuss the Germanic Tribal Laws in Chapter 7 of Germania. Tacitus states: "Capital punishment, imprisonment, even flogging, are allowed to none but the priests, and are not inflicted merely as punishments or on the commanders' orders, but as it were in obedience to the God whom the Germans believe to be present on the battlefield. They take with them to fight figures from their sacred groves."

I wish to point out here, sacred groves are attested as early as Tacitus, and mentioned as late as the 11th century, by Adam of Bremen criticizing the Saxons for still venerating their Gods in them. Tacitus also says in Germania Chapter 9, that the Germanic Peoples do not confine Gods within walls and they venerate the Gods "in the woods and sacred groves." The Lex Saxonum, the law code forced upon the Saxons in the 9th century by the Christians, forbade Heathen veneration in Sacred Groves.

Tacitus claims in Chapter 11 that the attendees to the Thing come "fully armed, and they take their seats fully armed.* Silence is then commanded by the priests who on such occasions have the power to enforce obedience." Tacitus also states, "If the people are displeased, they shout, but if they agree, they bang their spears." In Chapter 12 Tacitus states "the Thing is competent also to hear criminal charges, especially those involving capital punishment. The mode of execution varies according to the offense. Traitors and deserters are hung on trees; cowards and weak are pressed down into the slimy mud of the bog. The idea is that deeds against the Tribe were to be made a public example, and acts of shame are to be hidden from sight. These same Things elect magistrates to administer justice in districts and villages." According to Tacitus, criminal cases were brought before the Thing. Minor offenses were settled with damages (skild) paid in livestock.

*There are other later sources, that imply weapons were not allowed at Thing.


Tacitus discusses Germanic ethics in Chapters 18-23 of Germania. He states the following: "No feature of German morality deserves higher praise than their marriages. Almost all Germans are content with one wife, but a very few high nobles who take more than one not due to their desires but because of their prestige they get so many offers. The dowry is brought by husband to the wife, and not wife to the husband."

"Both the husband and wife present weapons as gifts to each other. This exchange of gifts signifies for them the sanctity of the union, and approval of the presiding deities." "On these terms, the wife must live her life with the husband, and bear him children." "Adultery is very rare and a guilty wife is punished by her husband." (Adultery to the Romans is a married woman having relations with a man not her husband.) "They (the Germanic Peoples) have no empathy for a woman who prostitutes her chastity. No beauty or wealth can buy her another husband. No one in Germania finds vice amusing and to try to seduce and be seduced. Even better are the few tribes that that only allow virgins to marry so that a woman who has once been a bride is finished with all such thoughts and aspirations. She takes one husband, as she has one body and one life." "To restrict the number of children or to kill any born after the heir is considered wicked. Good morality is more effective in Germany than good laws are elsewhere." "No nation indulges in feasting and celebrating more than the Germans." "The Germans have what they call 'Honor'."


The Germanic Law Codes written by Christians from the 7th century onwards

Germanic Law is a term used to describe law codes of Germanic tribes (Leges Barbarorum, i.e. "laws of the barbarians") of the early Germanic Peoples. Starting in the 7th century, Christianity was well sunk into the hearts of the Germanic Franks, who were spreading Christianity with the sword with Papal blessing. Law codes were written down by monks such as the Lex Burgundionum, Lex Salica, Pactus Alamannorum, Lex Ripuaria, Edictum Rothari, Lex Visigothorum, Lex Alamannorum, Lex Bajuvariorum, Lex Frisionum, the Lex Saxonum, and the Lex Angliorum et Werinorum, hoc est, Thuringorum. These are the laws of the Visigoths, Burgundians, Salian Franks, Ruparian Franks, Alamanni, Lombards, Bavarians, Frisians, and Thuringians, respectively. These were written down between the 5th and 9th centuries as the Christian Franks gained more and more power and pushed Christianity by their sword. These are too numerous to quote, so I will give a short summary. From these law codes, we learn that the Germanic law system is based on compensation rather than revenge. Injury must be compensated according to the damage done, regardless of motive or intent. For capital crimes like murder, the compensation is a wergild, a fixed amount depending on the sex and social status of the victim. And there was no distinction between murder and manslaughter until the 12th century. The most extreme punishment is outlawry, where the guilty is found to be outside of the protection of the law, and was often a death sentence, as one would struggle to survive on their own, especially now that anyone is allowed to kill those outlawed. The actual death penalty was practiced rarely, in cases of rape and promiscuity, incest, and crimes against the King and the Church. However, scholars doubt that all of this is indeed pre-Roman Catholic times. Some argue that it was a Roman concept to give compensation based on the value of the harm done to the person.


The scholarly consensus is that the Germanic Peoples valued hospitality. The Old Saxon Heliand for example shows hospitality for travelers and sumble for guests. Scholars are firm that the Germanic peoples had an assembly called a "Thing", and the earliest votive (not literary) attestation to this is the Mars Thingsus ("Mars of the Thing") found on Hadrian's Wall, made in the 3rd century CE, with scholars believing that Mars referred to Tiu (or Tyr). This is a theory, that Thing was under the protection of Tyr (or Tiu) during Heathen times.


The Lex Saxonum set the value of Wergild in Old Saxony. The Lex Saxonum was written in 803 CE, by the Christian Franks to enforce christianity on the Saxons. However, some Saxon Law does make its way into this law code. Lex Saxonum Law #12. If anyone shall have raped the daughter of his lord, let him be punished by death.

Lex Saxonum #13. If anyone shall have killed his lord or lady, let him be punished in a like manner.


The first Saxon Capitulary, written in 782CE, states that the edhilingui (nobles) were worth 1,440 solidi, or about 700 head of cattle, the highest wergild on the continent of Europe. This was six times as much as that of the frilingi and eight times as much as the lassi. This was the wergild of the Saxons, or at least it was post Charlemagne, and probably before Charlemagne as well.


Norse Althing, Anglish Witan

A Thing (Old Norse “þing”) was a government assembly of early Germanic society. It was made up of the freemen and presided over by ”law-speakers.” The Scandinavians who venerated the Aesir used the word “Thing” to refer to their law-assembly. The Old Saxons who venerated the Aesir used the word “Thing” as well. The Anglish however used the word “Witan.” The Anglish had kings who called the Witans, while the Old Saxons did not have kings at all. The Anglish word “Witan” means “wise men” (or “men of “wit.”). There are also Anglish texts that have the word “Witenagemot The national legislatures of today's Iceland, Norway and Denmark all have names that incorporate Thing: Alþingi – The Icelandic "General Thing"; Folketing – The Danish "People's Thing"; and Storting – The Norwegian "Great Thing.”Like all important matters in Germanic/Norse society, the Moon decided when Thing would be held (and when the holidays would be held, i.e. full moons were when the major holidays were, See my blogs on the dating of Norse holidays): https://www.aldsidu.com/post/historical-accuracy-in-heathenry-solstices-equinoxes-were-not-observed-by-germanic-heathens The Roman historian Tacitus writes in his Germania (Chapter 11) 98CE/AD that the Germanic peoples observed the lunar months. “The community gathers, if nothing unusual or sudden happens, at certain times when the moon is new or full, because they consider this the luckiest beginning to discuss matters. Also, they do not calculate the number of days, but the number of nights. In this way they state purpose and commitment. Night does precede the day.” [Translation by Dr. Andreas E. Zautner]


The Old Saxon Thing at Marklo


Lebuini Antiqua 4, THE LIFE OF ST. LEBUIN, 9th Century AD

Vita Lebuini Antiqua, edited by A. Hofmeister, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores

(x926-34), vol. xxx, 2, pp. 789-95.”

“In olden times the Saxons had no king but appointed rulers over each village; and their custom was to hold a general meeting once a year in the center of Saxony near the river Weser at a place called Marklo. There all the leaders used to gather together, and they were joined by twelve noblemen from each village with as many freedmen and serfs. There they confirmed the laws, gave judgment on outstanding cases and by common consent drew up plans for the coming year on which they could act either in peace or war… Then, when they had gathered together, they first offered up prayers to their gods, as is their custom, asking them to protect their country and to guide them in making decrees both useful to themselves and pleasing to the gods. Then when a circle had been formed, they began the discussions.”

Bede - Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731 AD): “For these Old Saxons have no king, but several lords who are set over the nation. Whenever war is imminent, these cast lots impartially, and the one on whom the lot falls is followed and obeyed by all for the duration of the war; but as soon as the war ends, the lords revert to equality of status.”


From these passages we learn the following about Saxon Things:

1. The Saxons did not have kings.

2. The Saxons had a republic which was government by the Thing.

3. The Saxon Thing met annually at Marklo in the center of Saxony

4.Twelve Noblemen, Twelve Freemen, and Twelve Serfs (the three classes in Saxony) were equally represented at thing, as each Saxon Gau (or village) sent twelve of these three classes, totaling thirty-six people, to the Thing at Marklo.

5. At Thing, the Saxon tribes’ laws were confirmed, judgement was given in cases, and war plans were given for the coming year.

6. Saxon Thing was done in a circle (unlike the Norse half circle)

7. The Thing began with prayers to the Gods to protect their country and guide them in making decrees pleasing to the Gods.

8. The Saxon Thing decided annually which of the Saxon Drohtins would be Theoden if there was a war. A Drohtin was a noble who had a Druhting, which was an army, hence the word “Drohtin” and “Druhting” are related words. Druhting is the retinue of soldiers behind the Drohtin. Theoden was not a king, but was the “tribes’ leader” in the event of war for that summer (or year) alone. When that year was over, all the Drohtins again revert to equality of status.

9. There are some Germanic scholars (not just of the Saxons in Saxony) that believe the modern Jury of twelve comes from not just the Saxons in Saxony, but that Norse Things used twelve people to decide which side aligned most with the laws recited by the lawspeaker. Therefore, many argue that the modern “jury” of twelve people originates in Germanic Things.

10. Per the Old Saxon Heliand passage below, circa 830 AD, swearing false oaths was a VERY serious offense at a Saxon Thing.

11. Per the Old Saxon Heliand, "oath-staffs" were used at Thing, for the swearing of oaths.




Here is an interesting Old Saxon Heliand passage (circa 830 AD) about Thing.

Another Heliand passage showing the word "Thinghus" in Old Saxon.

Another Heliand Passage, showing a law-speaker.



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