Updated: Aug 25, 2020
The Irminsul was a Saxon holy site destroyed by the Franks during the Saxon Wars. The Saxon Wars were a thirty-three year war between Charlemagne and the Saxons, whose sole goal was to forcefully convert the Saxons to Christianity. The Saxon Wars were from the years 772-804 AD, and were fought in both Saxony and Frankia. The Irminsul was the major center of worship for the Saxons in Saxony. There is only one Irminsul attested in history, as this is a Saxon specific place of veneration. Please note, the Norse World Tree was called "Yggdrasil." (I will also discuss Yggdrasil below.) The Chatti, had a place called "Donar's Oak" (Thor's Oak) which was also destroyed by the Franks in 724 AD. In the Saxon Wars, the Saxons fought to remain Heathen in the late 8th century. This was repeated in the Saxon Uprising (called the Stellinga) in 841-842 AD, where the Saxons once again arose to fight Christianization. The Stellinga was also defeated. In 1073, two years before yet another Saxon Rebellion in 1075 AD, Adam of Bremen in his "Gesta Hammabirgemsos ecclesiae pontificum" (Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg), complained about how Heathen the Saxons in Saxony still were: "He ordered all pagan rites, of which superstition still flourished in this region, to be uprooted in such a manner that he had new churches built throughout the (Hamburg) diocese in place of the Sacred Groves which our lowlanders frequented with foolish reverence."
The Saxon Irminsul
The Irminsul is described in the Royal Frankish Annals as being near Eresburg (now Obermarsburg). The Royal Frankish Annals (Latin: Annales Regni Francorum) are annals written for the early Frankish kings, covering the years 741 to 829. They are among the most important sources for the political and military history of the reign of Charlemagne. They are continued by the Annales Fuldenses and Annales Bertiniani. Translated into modern English, the Royal Frankish Annals state the following regarding the year 772 AD, with the recording of the Frankish destruction of the Irminsul: “The most gracious lord king Charles (Charlemagne) then held an assembly at Worms. From Worms he marched into Saxony. Capturing the castle at Eresburg, he proceeded as far as the Irminsul, destroyed this idol and carried away the gold and silver he found. A great drought occurred so that there was no water in the place where the Irminsul stood. The glorious king wished to remain there two or three days in order to destroy the temple completely, but they had no water.” This is the first attestation of the Irminsul in historical records. From this we learn the following:
1. The Irminsul is only attested amongst the Saxons in Westphalia, near Eresburg (The Extersteine is 28 miles away, approaching 50 KM away, and is not the site of the historical Irminsul. More on that below.) 2. There was a hill-fort (Latin is Castellum, or "castle") at Eresburg. 3. He proceeded "as far as" the Irminsul, which means the Irminsul was close to Eresburg. 4.There was gold and silver at the Irminsul, i.e. votive offerings. 5. There was a templehof of some sort there at the Irminusl, so it was not just some giant Godpole, but a whole religious complex... 6 ... that took two or three days to destroy... i.e. implies it was a place of immense size considering it took Charlemagne's host 2-3 days to destroy it. 7. It was NOT near a body of water. Why, the "false" BS christian miracle recorded (to make plain that God wanted this done, and to cover up Charlemagne's real reason for attacking the Saxons, i.e. his ambition and his REICH ideals) But the false miracle implies there was no water at the site. The Old Saxon Heliand implies that all major saxon places of veneration were at rivers in sacred groves, but it appears that for the Irminsul, this most likely was not the case. Please note, the Extersteine has a modern man-made lake today, but had a small river in Heathen times.) Annales Petaviani (circa 775 AD): "He conquered the Eresburg and found the place which is called Irminsul, and set these places on fire." This passage implies that the Irminsul was in Eresburg itself.
The Gesta Hammabirgemsos ecclesiae pontificum (1073 AD; Adam of Bremen, Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg) is another source for the Saxon Irminsul. It draws on an early 9th century source (which I will include below). Please note, Adam wrote in Old Saxony.
"For the Saxons worth-shipped those who were not gods. Among them they venerated Mercury (Uuoden/Odin), who they were to venerate on holy days, even with human sacrifice. They did not think it was appropriate with Esyard (Asgard) beings to confine their Gods in Roman temples or mold them in any likeness of human form. They consecrated groves and they venerated ancestral spirits there with reverence. They valued with reverence leafy trees and springs. They worshiped also a stock of wood of no small size, set up in the open. In the native language, it was called “Irminsul” (strong pillar) which in Latin means “universal column,” as it sustains everything. The excerpts about the beginning, the customs, and the religious observances of the Saxons (the Slavs and Swedes still observe their Heathen rites) we have taken from the writings of Einhard." See the next quote, Adam of Bremen in the 11th century was using Fudolf of Fulda as a source. From this passage, we can see the following: 1. The Saxons venerated Odin on holy days. (I will add a quote at the bottom of this blog article. According to Sidonius in the 5th century, the Saxons did not sacrifice their own people to the Gods. ) 2. The Saxons did much veneration in "sacred groves", i.e. the Old Saxon word "uuih" (or Old Norse "ve"). The Old Saxon Heliand implies that there were many Saxon sacred groves. Saxon Sacred groves contained "leafy trees" and "springs." 3. "They venerated Ancestral Spirits". For those that argue there are zero references to the Saxons and/or Norse Heathens venerating the Ancestors, here is one. However, there is consternation over "Ancestral Spirits" whether or not that means "Ancestors" or "wights of the land their Ancestors once venerated." The Saxons certainly venerated uuihts (Old Saxon for wights). 4. The Irminsul was a giant Godpole of no small size set out in the open. More likely than not, it was a giant tree. Another historical passage of the Irminsul, the one whom Adam of Bremen used as a source: The Translation of Saint Alexander of Rome (c.855 AD). Rudolf of Fulda, The Translation of Saint Alexander of Rome, circa 855 AD.
"They (the Saxons) also worshiped in the open air a vertically upright trunk of no small size, [called] in their mother tongue, Irminsul, or in Latin ‘columna universalis‘… in the sense that it carries everything." Outside of these three historical passages, we do not have any other ancient sources on the Irminsul. Please see the image below of Eresburg today. I personally believe (as do many others) that the hill fort was on one side of this hill, while the Irminsul was on the other side. Charlemagne put a church and a christian graveyard there in 780 AD, as he did not wish the Irminsul to be rebuilt. When the Irminsul was destroyed in 772 AD, the Saxons retook the site in 773, and the site went back and forth in the Saxon Wars until Charlemagne built a church there in 780 AD. See the picture of Eresburg below. You can see that the flat hill-top would have been a valued space not only for protection, but an extremely logical holy site as well, as Obermarsburg is the highest spot in the area. Remember historical sources (plural) claim that the Saxons felt the Irminsul separated Middilyard from the sky/Esyard, and the Irminsul held all in place and sustained it all.
The Irminsul was NOT a Palm Tree. The most common view today is that the Irminsul was a palm tree, which palm trees do not grow in Northern Germany or Old Saxon lands. Some wrongfully believe the Irminsul was at the Externsteine relief site. William Teudt (a Nazi, not an archaeologist) was the first to come up with this theory in 1929 and he gave no evidence for his theory. No contemporary sources of the Irminsul state that it was at the Externsteine. Extensive archaeological studies of the Externsteine have failed to yield any material evidence for its use as a sacred site between Mesolithic and pre-Christian times. Thermoluminescence dating of fire sites shows that the site was occasionally used as a rock shelter in Saxon times, but that it was not a major place of worship. Today it is generally accepted by historians that the Externsteine site and relief (the christian rock carving at the Extersteine) has nothing to do with the Irminsul. Eresburg is 45 kilometers (28 miles) away from the Externsteine. [see footnote 2 below for support for this paragraph.] And really modern Asatru, the Irminsul was a Palm Tree? The Christian relief at the Extersteine was made over 200 years after the Irminsul was destroyed, and is most likely a bench or a chair in the crucifixion scene, praising Christ. Sigh... I often complain of Modern Asatru and its lack of scholasticism, this is one of its worst unsupported beliefs for sure... (Not to mention applying it to tribes outside of the Saxons in itself is asinine.) Eresburg doesn't have any body of water on it, while the Extersteine in Heathen times had a stream/river next to it (which in modern times has been damned into a lake, not there in Heathen times.) Therefore, the claim of a christian miracle of water miraculously appearing takes out of consideration the site with a river next to it. A little research (on site and off-site) goes a long way.
Where was the Irminsul?
My view, is the Irminsul was on the highest point of modern Obermarsburg (historical Eresburg) where Charlemagne built a church, and placed a Christian graveyard. Here are some pictures of the site that I took in August 2018, where I met German Archaeologist Sven Schild, who gifted me with a Widukind Black Horse flag (Widukind was a Heathen Saxon Hero), that was a highlight of my spiritual trip (for my sons and I together) to our Ancestral lands, where both my mom and dad's families live today.
Donar's Oak of the Chatti
As a Saxon Heathen, I am proud that my Saxon Ancestors fought not only to defend their Irminsul, but they fought to defend the Heathen Chatti. As stated above, the Irminsul was destroyed by Charlemagne and a Christian army in 772 AD. The following year, in 773 AD, the Saxons not only took back Eresburg, but they also attacked the Donar's Oak site, which was destroyed by the Franks 48 years before hand. It is clear that the Saxons remembered what the Franks did two generations ago (for the Heathen Saxons.) That the Saxons STILL felt that was also a desecration. While they failed to retake Fritzlar, the site of Donar's Oak (the World Tree of the Chatti), they did their best to leave their own lands to also restore that pre-christian Heathen faith. (See The Royal Frankish Annals published by Ann Arbor Paperbacks, translated by Bernhard Walter Scholz, p.50) There is a detailed account of this Saxon failure, where two angels of God strike the Saxons down, and cause them to 'accidentally' kill themselves. According to Willibald's 8th century Life of Saint Boniface, the felling Donar's Oak occurred in Fritzlar at a place called Gaesmere. "Now at that time many of the Chatti, brought under the Catholic faith and confirmed by the grace of the sevenfold spirit, received the laying on of hands; others indeed, not yet strengthened in soul, refused to accept in their entirety the lessons of the inviolate faith. Moreover some were wont secretly, some openly to sacrifice to trees and springs; some in secret, others openly practiced inspections of victims and divinations, legerdemain and incantations; some turned their attention to auguries and auspices and various sacrificial rites; while others, with sounder minds, abandoned all the profanations of heathenism, and committed none of these things. With the advice and counsel of these last, the saint attempted, in the place called Gaesmer, while the servants of God stood by his side, to fell a certain oak of extraordinary size, which is called, by an old name of the pagans, the Oak of Jupiter (Donar/Thor). And when in the strength of his steadfast heart he had cut the lower notch, there was present a great multitude of pagans, who in their souls were earnestly cursing the enemy of their gods. But when the fore side of the tree was notched only a little, suddenly the oak's vast bulk, driven by a blast from above, crashed to the ground, shivering its crown of branches as it fell; and, as if by the gracious compensation of the Most High, it was also burst into four parts, and four trunks of huge size, equal in length, were seen, unwrought by the brethren who stood by. At this sight the pagans who before had cursed now, on the contrary, believed, and blessed the Lord, and put away their former reviling. Then moreover the most holy bishop, after taking counsel with the brethren, built from the timber of the tree wooden oratory, and dedicated it in honor of Saint Peter the apostle." Now as a Heathen, I take the last few sentences with a grain of salt. Most likely, there was a detachment of Frankish soldiers with the Frankish bishops, forcing this event; as no crowd would stand by and just "watch" their sacred site be destroyed. Lets put this in a mdoern context: Would modern Catholics today for example, just stand by to watch priests of a non-Catholic faith just burn down the Vatican? And after the Vatican's destruction, would they just bow down to the priests of their enemies, and just accept their gods? Of course not. Some Heathens for sure lost their lives defeinding Thor's Oak from Christian aggression, not recorded so that the Christian history will not show them as the aggressors nor their God's word being spread with violence. Nonetheless, just as the Irminsul is a Saxon aacred aite, so Donar's Oak is a sacred site of the Chatti. Norse Yggdrasil The Saga of Hervör and Heithrek This is an interesting Saga, which documents a war between the last Heathen King of Sweden and his Christian brother, who eventually won this war and forced Christianity on Sweden. Nonetheless, this passage implies that there was a giant tree at Uppsala which was reddened with blood from blots. This would be the equivalent to the Irminsul in Sweden. (The Old Norse form of Irmin was Jörmunr and interestingly, just like Yggr, it was one of the names of Odin (Uuoden). The Saga states: "Swedes to do sacrifices on their behalf if they would give him the Kingdom. They all agreed to accept Svein's offer, and he was then recognised as King over all Sweden. A horse was then brought to the assembly and hewn in pieces and cut up for eating, and the sacred tree was smeared with blood. Then all the Swedes abandoned Christianity, and sacrifices were started again. They drove King Ingi away; and he went into Vestergötland. Svein the Sacrificer was King of Sweden for three years." Please join on on the Facebook group, "Saxon Heathenry." Also, see the author page of Robert Sass on Amazon.
Footnotes: 1. Sidonius' “Nine Books of Letters” (489 AD) Sidonius, Apoll, “Nine Books of Letters” ep, vi. Lib.8, as quoted from Page 192 of “The History of the Anglo-Saxons” Volume 1 by Sharon Turner "When the Saxons prepare to set out from their homeland (patriam), their custom (mos) dictates they sacrifice one-tenth of their prisoners. The victims are chosen by lot and killed by water or crucifixion. (per aquales et cruciarias poenas)"
note: Some translate this last phrase very differently, instead of "killed by water or crucifixion" they translate it as: "They were made to die by torturous drowning.” PLEASE NOTE: This is a reference that states that the Saxons did not sacrifice their own people, but prisoners (of war) to their Gods. 2. 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 Age use 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". Matthes, Walther & Speckner, Rolf (1997): Das Relief an den Externsteinen. Ein karolingisches Kunstwerk und sein spiritueller Hintergrund ["The Externsteine relief. A Carolingian artwork and its spiritual background"]. [In German] edition tertium, Ostfildern vor Stuttgart.