Women of the North: The Sacredness, Power and Influence of Women of the Proto-Germanic Tribes in the Early Centuries of our Era
The life of the early Germanic tribes is often portrayed as unremittingly male: We're given tales of Viking heroes, bloody-minded warriors and ruthless gods of war. However, much evidence exists which indicates that the reality in the First Century AD was far different. Among the proto-Germanic tribes of this era was a deep and profound respect for women almost unique in the world at the time; it contrasted dramatically with the attitudes displayed by the classical cultures of the Mediterranean. Close study of the writings of the Roman and Greek historians reveal a surprising truth: Women frequently stand at the center of the religious and social life of these tribes. The powerful prophets and shamans mentioned in these ancient texts are nearly always female. Here is a society that existed within historical memory in which women were considered closer to the gods.
Pre-eminent among the women of the Germanic tribes were the seeresses, powerful and shadowy figures whose lives can be partially reconstructed from the fragments of evidence left by classical historians, and also by deduction from the evidence of the Icelandic Sagas--for, although these Sagas were composed nearly a thousand years later, such women still existed in Viking times, though the power they wielded was no longer political and had become purely spiritual in nature.
As the druids were to the Gauls, so these seeresses were to the proto-Germanic tribes. They presided over the great passages of life, and oversaw every important tribal gathering. They were present at births to read a child's fate. They read oracles to forecast the coming season at the principal religious feasts. They conducted great ceremonies for the dead. And they accompanied the barbarian army into battle, determining through runecasting or trance the most propitious time to go to war. Julius Caesar writes of them:
'It was the custom among the Germans that their matrones should decide by lots and divinations whether or not it was expedient to go into battle'.
Other writings reveal that seeresses determined the fates of prisoners of war. In the Roman historian Tacitus' work, THE HISTORIES, it's apparent that these women served as ambassadors, representing their fellow tribespeople when the frontier tribes entered into negotiations with Roman officials.
Tacitus, in his late first century AD work, THE GERMANIA, writes of the tribe known as the Naharvali:
'In the territory of the Naharvali, one is shown a grove, hallowed from ancient times. The presiding priest dresses as a woman.'
Most anthropologists agree that this, and other contemporary observations, suggest that the realm of the spirits was thought a woman's preserve; a man must be made 'like a woman' to enter it. Such practices hint at a time when only women were thought fit to hold the holy offices. As a result of this spiritual authority vested in women, the foremost among these seeresses sometimes served as law speakers at tribal assemblies, a logical state of affairs in a culture that recognized no true separation between religion and law.
Tacitus, in THE HISTORIES, describes a seeress called Veleda, a woman of a tribe of the Bructeres. She flourished from the latter days of the Emperor Nero into the middle part of the reign of the Emperor Vespasian, and during this time, she was a heroine among all the tribes of Germania. 'Veleda' is believed to be a professional title, not her name; it's connected with the Gaulish verb that means 'to see', referring to her clear vision of what was to come. She was said to deliver her oracles from a high wooden tower on the river Lippe, a tributary of the Rhine, because her holy powers were believed to be so potent that her direct contact with the ground might throw all nature out of joint. This tower would not have been unfamiliar in Viking times: A thousand years later, Viking seeresses were still delivering their oracles from a high platform. In 69 AD, during the Roman civil war that followed the suicide of Nero, Veleda took advantage of the fact that the Romans had turned upon themselves and launched a Germanic revolt against the empire. It was a ploy that nearly succeeded. Tacitus records that her loyal tribespeople sacrificed captured Roman legionary soldiers to her, which indicates they counted her a goddess on earth. At the civil war's end, Veleda was the chief arbiter when an agreement was made between the Romans and the people of Cologne. But when order was once again restored, she continued to exhort her people to rebel against Rome. In 78 AD, the Emperor Vespasian sent two legions into her lands on the Lippe, solely for the purpose of taking this one woman hostage. By doing so, he managed to halt barbarian raids on the frontier without losing Roman lives. Veleda is only one of several powerful prophetesses mentioned by Roman historians. Ganna and Aurinia are two others, and still other seeresses are referred to anonymously as tribal wise women.
This great prestige was not reserved for prophetesses; among the tribes of the north, all women were held in higher esteem than their sisters in classical societies. Unlike the Greek or Roman family, in which the the eldest male was an absolute autocrat, in the proto-Germanic family, the wife remained a proud and independent member of her own clan, and kept her own property and name. In sharp contrast to the Roman or Greek wife, who was expected to endure any mistreatment by her husband, the Germanic woman ill-used by her husband was expected to take vengeance on him, even if it took her years to find the means. Also, the weregild (a fee to be paid by anyone who caused injury or death) a family could demand for a woman was three times that which could be asked for a man. The counsel of any woman carried great weight because of her closeness to the gods; a war leader who consulted his mother or sister on matters of strategy would be considered wise for doing so. The portrait of the matron of a household that comes down to us from the Sagas is a forbidding one: She is a revealer of terrible destinies, a stern figure cloaked in potent mystery, willing to take up weapons to defend her home, a preserver of her kinfolk's honor who might nurse a need for vengeance into the next generation.
Another highly unusual aspect of this culture is that it doesn't seem to have discouraged women from expressing violence, either in the private or the public sphere. If a clan member were slain, early sources indicate the final responsibility for seeing that vengeance was won lay with the women of the family. A woman whose brother has been murdered might goad the strongest man of the family to strike down the assailant, or, failing that, might raise a son to do the deed. Or, she might set out to win vengeance herself. The saga of Hervor tells of a woman who dug her father's sword out of his gravemound, then hunted down his murderer and slew him. The Sagas attest to women who became berserkers, shield maidens, and even pirates. It seems there was no tradition or law that barred women from engaging in battle; it was more that they were ordinarily considered exempt, and took up arms only in time of great need.
There is evidence that in early Germanic society lineage was traced matrilineally, and that land was passed down through the female line, although the first century AD may have been a time of transition from this system. One indicator of matrilineality is Tacitus' assertion that you can gain a securer hold on a tribe by demanding as hostages the girls of a noble family; this is thought to be a Roman method of wreaking havoc with the tribal patterns of inheritance. The many northern folktales of a hero who sets out from the maternal home to seek his fortune in a strange land are also counted evidence of matrilineal descent. The hero's sisters have inherited the maternal land; if he desires wealth of his own, he must do bold deeds and win the hand of a foreign princess--and the land she has inherited.
Some modern archeaologists maintain that women's status was high among the proto-Germanic tribes because this was a horticultural society, characterized by the use of hoes and digging sticks. In horticultural societies, women produce the bulk of the food, as opposed to those societies engaged in heavy agriculture, in which men use and own the tools of production. Tacitus' claim that 'among the tribes of Germania, no one possesses a definite plot of land,' supports this theory, because among horticultural societies, land is deemed to be owned not by an individual but by the lineage, or by the tribe as a whole. Also, early Germanic women married late, by Roman standards: at the age of twenty, as opposed to twelve, or even ten, in Rome--another custom recognized by anthropologists as characteristic of horticultural societies. In these societies, the world over, women usually have relatively high status, because the welfare of the society depends upon their skill in producing food. In a world where women know and work the land, have intimate knowledge of planting times and when to perform the fertility rituals that promote crop growth, it's not surprising that land might be passed from mother to daughter.
Another explanation for the great reverence in which women were held in this culture is that it may well be a survival from a pre-patriarchal past. The territories of Germania, because of their relative isolation, preserved to a later date than other parts of Europe many of the cultural elements of the early Bronze Age civilization of Old Europe, which according to archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, was matrilineal, matrifocal, and far more egalitarian than the warrior cultures that were to eventually overrun it in successive waves, beginning about 4000 BC. Gimbutas believes that in Germania, the customs and beliefs of the old mother-centered way of life were alive and well, and 'marbelized' throughout this society.
This greater respect for women eroded steadily through the centuries. Contact with the Romans took its toll, as did the advent of Christianity. The Romans 'induced' a more hierarchical structure in what was originally a more egalitarian society by selecting loyal chiefs and promoting their power by supplying them with wealth--and in all hierarchical societies, women's status tends to decline. Women's status deteriorated further through the Roman practice of educating the sons, and not the daughters, of chieftains, to prepare them for rule. By historical times, the process was nearly complete, and the great goddess Freya--the once all-powerful mother of gods and men--becomes veiled in the mists of prehistory, while a new mythology was born that celebrated the gods of war.
Follow us here if you came in through one of the subpages.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe/Early Scandinavian
and Celtic Religions
by H. R. Ellis Davidson
Syracuse University Press, 1988
Women in Prehistory
by Margaret Ehrenberg
University of Oklahoma Press, 1989
The Well of Remembrance
by Ralph Metzner
Shambhala Publications, 1994
The Lost Gods of England
by Brian Branston
Thames and Hudson, 1974
Send the Author Email!