Myths and Religion of the “Real” Barbarians

Posted: August 15, 2012 in Barbarian Philosophy

By “real” barbarians, I refer to the mostly Celtic and Germanic peoples who lived in Europe during the height of ancient Rome’s power. As ancient Rome waned, these barbarians became the dominant political and cultural force in Europe’s Dark Ages, or Migration Period.

In this case, we are going to look at the Germanic barbarians, since they left behind a handy set of poems which we collectively call the Eddas.

They consist of two volumes: the Younger or Prose Edda, and the Elder, or Poetic Edda.
The Prose Edda was written by Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson around 1220. While interesting, it’s not as useful to us as is the Elder Edda.

The Elder Edda is a collection of old Norse poems, apparently transcribed around 1220 as well, possibly by Snorri Sturlason as well, although they came from an ancient oral tradition.

These mythical tales were repeated and learned and passed on from generation to generation, by mouth and ear. Some parts refer to Greenland, which wasn’t colonized until 985, and other parts refer to Atli, or Attila, famous barbarian, who perished in 453. Most of the truly mythical poems probably go back to the origins of the Germanic people. At any rate, the Elder Edda is as a good source as we have for beginning to understand the mentality of historical barbarians.

  1. kortoso says:

    Note that I’m not that interested in Norse mythology. In my opinion, too many neo-pagans are so intent on reconstructing some religion of the past that they assume that the theology and mythology of any one people is carved out of stone, unchangeable for all time.

    The truth is that the religion of the ancient Norse, for example, varied from place to place and changed substantially over time. This was a living tradition. When you look at a book and suppose that the list of gods that you read of, is yours, then you’re just re-enacting, and you aren’t alive in a truly heathen experience. More about that later.

    So the intent of sharing the Norge pagan stuff with you, was not to convert you to Asatru, or to suggest that Conan’s Cimmerians were Vikings!

    Far from it. But know that the persona of a northern European “Noble Savage” that we call barbarian, is very well illustrated through the strophes of the Elder Edda, the section called Havamal in particular.

    The lines that follow show a great regard for moderate and temperate behavior, probably the teachings of an older man. There’s a strong thread of honor throughout, but usually backed up with practical reasoning.

    But it’s not all sweetness and light. Here’s a little passage reminding what kind of life the Vikings led:
    Early shall he rise who has designs
    On anothers land or life:
    His prey escapes the prone wolf,
    The sleeper is seldom victorious.

    So, I guess it’s important to get up early in the morning if you want to kill someone!

    By the way, this translation is found at Ragnar’s Ragweed Forge. It is W. H. Auden & P. B. Taylor’s translation.

    Here are some samples that caught my eye recently:

    Of his knowledge a man should never boast,
    Rather be sparing of speech
    When to his house a wiser comes:
    Seldom do those who are silent Make mistakes;
    mother wit Is ever a faithful friend.

    A guest should be courteous
    When he comes to the table
    And sit in wary silence,
    His ears attentive,
    his eyes alert:
    So he protects himself.

    Better gear than good sense
    A traveller cannot carry,
    Better than riches for a wretched man,
    Far from his own home.

    Better gear than good sense
    A traveller cannot carry,
    A more tedious burden than too much drink
    A traveller cannot carry.

    Silence becomes the Son of a prince,
    To be silent but brave in battle:
    It befits a man to be merry and glad
    Until the day of his death.

    A small hut of one’s own is better,
    A man is his master at home:
    His heart bleeds in the beggar who must
    Ask at each meal for meat.

    A wayfarer should not walk unarmed,
    But have his weapons to hand:
    He knows not when he may need a spear,
    Or what menace meet on the road.

    To a false friend the footpath winds
    Though his house be on the highway.
    To a sure friend there is a short cut,
    Though he live a long way off.

    Cattle die, kindred die,
    Every man is mortal:
    But the good name never dies
    Of one who has done well.

    Cattle die, kindred die,
    Every man is mortal:
    But I know one thing that never dies,
    The glory of the great dead.

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