Remarks Concerning Early European Religions
The additional pages of the "Ways of Christ" Internet project address various different religions and serve to contribute toward a better understanding of these religions - rather than rashly categorizing everything as foreign and negative, simply because it "sounds" different than what Christians are accustomed to. This page, dealing with early European religions that were more or less supplanted by Christianity, will address their relationship to other religions and to a Christianity that is becoming aware (again) of its own spiritual roots. It will bring the similarities to light, as well as the differences.
Assessment of the
Remarks Concerning the Early Roman Religion
Old Germanic Religion
Early Slavic Religion
Early Baltic Religion
Early Basque Religion
Early Finnish Religion
Thanks to ancient historians and the preservation of mythology, the Greek religion of historic times is relatively well known. Many writings of the Greek philosophers were already known to early Islamic scholars, were translated by them and found their way into the thinking of early Christian theologians. (Today, the realm of Greek gods is perceived more as a complete work of art rather than a religion, as it is hardly practiced as such any more.) Still, there are some points that are not generally known.
The variety of Greek "gods" is accounted for by contributions of the pre-Grecian Mediterranean population and the immigrant Indo-European Greeks, as well as by the various successive epochs of differing consciousness. This resulted in different schools of thought at later times, too.
The god Apollo stood for a life marked by temperance and the observance of godly precepts. He can be compared - among others - with the Germanic Baldur (see below), a particularly revered, sun-like central deity in antiquity. Zeus, regarded as the most powerful god of the heavens in classical Greece, was not the first central deity; rather, by Hesiod’s account, the veneration of Uranos (Heaven) goes back even further, superseded by Cronus and later by Zeus. Cronus, for example, corresponds with the planet Saturn and the characteristics ascribed to it in early analogic thinking; likewise, Zeus is reminiscent of Jupiter and its characteristics (cf. Ares/Mars, Aphrodite/Venus, Hermes/Mercury). Traditional accounts of certain events or periods of change that were considered connected in some way with a particular planet also can play a role here, in contrast to the widespread scientific view that the myths are pure poetic fantasy. If anything, these "gods" - that take different forms in the various Indo-European religions - correspond more with an earlier framework of characterstics as today’s astrologists, for instance, seek to adapt. This raises the question, "Characteristics of what, or from whom?" In several earlier religions, there are indications - in the absence of scientific prejudice - that the knowledge of a central creator god could go back further than the veneration of multiple "gods", even if there were not automatically the same possibility as today for entering into a direct relationship with him. Even early Greek philosophers recognized and criticized how, over the course of time, the "gods" became increasingly human in their "deeds."
In other ways, figures like Heracles (Hercules) were not originally "gods" in the traditional sense, but rather "heroes" or humans whose heroic "deeds" were illustrated and often symbolically recast as steps along their spiritual path. This angle has been studied more by certain depth psychologists than by religious scholars.
The early Greek mysteries of Demeter and Dionysus, in particular, represented another course of a spiritual path with different origins - as well as the subsequent Hellenistic mystery cults, which practiced secret ceremonies rich in symbolism.
Doctrines of morality did not directly appear until later (Hesiod, Socrates), but a certain morale toward life can be detected in earlier mythology.
Like other cultures, the Greek had differently developed perceptions of human life after death, whether in the surroundings of the burial place, or in an Underworld, or - for the chosen few - in a paradaisical Elysium or an Island of the Blessed.
The records available for researching the pre-Christian, Roman religion give us reason to assume that the oldest form of the religion of the Indo-European Italic people who immigrated to Italy was no longer fully preserved. Traces of the creation myth - as is still discernable in related religions - is not so easily found in the Roman tradition. The Romans later adopted many of the influences from the then-known world.
The earliest known Roman belief was based on distinctly mundane "higher powers" that manifested their presence ("numen") in objects - independent of mythical stories, images or temples. In Jupiter, we find something comparable to Zeus, the Greek god of the heavens (see above); a similar case is with Mars, the god of war, who was later synthesized with Quirinus, the Sabine god of war. Further gods fitting this type were Vulcan, Saturn, Neptune and the goddess of Earth, Tellus. These gods were sought after for their influence over ordinary matters ("I give, so that you will give"), while other, negative forces had to be warded off. A distinctive feature of the Roman religion was taking abstract concepts like faithfulness, harmony, hope and victory, and turning these into divine beings.
The Romans adopted further gods, such as Minerva, as well as the construction of temples, from the Etruscans who likely originated in Asia Minor. At this point, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva were the foremost deities.
Greek gods and heroes continued to be adopted
- as they appear in the Sibylline Books - and were identified with their
Roman counterparts to the extent that this was feasible. The Phrygian, Egyptian
and Middle Eastern traditions also were adopted - and, later, even Hellenistic
mystery cults. In this way, a certain emotional ornamentation developed out of
what was previously a very modest faith.
Along with Caesar and Augustus came the imperial cult, in which the emperor demanded deification of himself, both during his lifetime and after his death.
There is also a record of a temple to the "Unknown God." Some assume that - amidst the dizzying array of deified beings - there was indeed some knowledge of the true God; still, that does not mean that there would have been an appropriate way to connect oneself to him.
In view of this variety of deified beings, it should also be noted that both Christians and Muslims recognize that there are certain beings between God and man - namely, the angels; and some Christian churches also recognize the "saints."
Romans did not so much learn ethical principles by way of teaching, but rather though practical experience - for example, learning a sense of honesty and reliability through religious rites or through sophisticated laws. However, an element of faith in the government was also connected with these laws, and in many cases the results can be seen in countries that adopted the Roman law.
At any rate, in the oldest known Roman religion, the fate of the dead - in an Underworld - was not considered a particularly appealing prospect.
In the fourth century, on the initiative of Emperor Constantine, the cult of Roman gods was replaced by Christianity.
This article is not an attempt to recount the Germanic religion and its development in its entirety - which, given the limited scholarly findings, would not be possible, anyway. Nor will it explore the role - or abuses - of Germanic traditions as seen in more recent German history. Instead, it will examine only the original, spiritual core of this pre-Christian religion - whose potential for abuse should not prove to be more or less than that of other religious traditions. The better one understands the religion’s original intent, the less chance it stands of being abused.
The records and traditions from the pre-Christian era that could be traced in Germany were sparse, and the Roman accounts were subjective. Researchers have thus tended to use the written Scandinavian version. The Icelandic Edda, or both of the Eddur which are known of today, were written down based on the oral account in the 11th, 12th or 13th century, a time when Christianity had already made a considerable advance in the rest of Europe. Since the people of Iceland voted to accept Christianity, a Germanic priest could automatically become a Christian minister. It was considered possible that some features were filtering in from Christianity; however, there is no evidence to prove this. Today, at least the older Poetic Edda is considered authentic. We do not know how old the tradition itself is that underlies the book. It must also be considered that the realm of spirituality and religion can consist of spiritual realities that are, by necessity, experienced in different ways in different parts of the world. People can even experience levels of culture or developments of consciousness in human history (cf. e.g. Jean Gebser, "Ursprung und Gegenwart", The Ever-Present Origin) independently from each other, yet similarly. Even if insights from Christian sources were to enter into these developments, it would show the possibility for learning from one another - even beyond the borders of culture - without any one tradition having to relinquish its autonomy. This can be seen in direct contrast to the unfortunately rather violent Christian missionary work done in Charlemagne’s empire - no doubt one of the biggest transgressions of Christianity, which was fused with the government at that time and clearly forgot its non-violent roots.*
In the Edda, various levels of development are brought together through an openness to know the deeper meaning of myths. For example, on the level of mankind’s oldest creation myth - at a time in which Ginnungagap was the vast primordial void - we find the creation of the world or of levels of existence. Then the fervor of Surtr’s (spiritual) fire - "the light from Muspelheim" - struck the cold ice / water in Niflheim ("land of mist"), and the "primeval giant" Ymir was brought forth - a foreshadowing of creation. In battles at the end of the world, the world is supposed to melt again in Surtr’s flames. Such characteristics gave some authors good reason to draw parallels to the Creator God; however, it does not automatically mean that the people of that time were able to experience God’s nearness in the way Jesus taught. Sparks from Muspelheim also created the stars in the heavens. Ymir’s sweat and blood became the sea and rivers, his flesh became the earth, his bones became the mountains, his hair became the trees, and his skull became the heavenly sphere. The giants were created in cooperation with the "primeval cow" Audumla - Earth in its motherly nature (and others?).
This introduces another level - the level of the "gods." They first appear in the vortex of "fire" and "water" (see above), at a time when the heavens, the earth and the giants already existed. The "gods" - like Odin and his brothers, Wili and We - gained authority over the existing world. If "giants" represent raw, formless, natural powers, then the "triumph of the gods" could be seen as the mastery of natural powers through the spirit. The "gods" were active in creation, but they had to let the ongoing progress of the world - and the end of the world - take its course.
The creation of the first people can be interpreted from the traditions in different ways. One account has one man and one woman - if these were not actually giants - created from the flesh under the primeval giant’s arm. Another account ascribes the creation of the first people, "Ask and Embla," to the gods mentioned in the previous paragraph.
The different areas of creation between Heaven and Earth and the Underworld - each with their different entities - are connected together through the "Yggdrasil", the World Tree that can be found in different cultures and which seems to be found illustrated on Irminsuls (columns). This realm of the gods itself contains another development. The veneration of Baldur, for example, is relatively old; so, the veneration of the sun-like deity - who stood in the center of their other "gods" and godly characteristics and was without impurities - was placed into this familiar context in a way that was feasible during the mythical time emerging then. Baldur, however, was traditionally the son of Odin - as presented at the time of the Edda. He was "shot with an arrow," at the prompting of Loki , adversary of the gods. It is prophesied that - at the end of time, when a new world emerges - Baldur will reappear and reign eternally as the prince of peace. Here we see that it is not the physical sun that is meant - since it was already shining. Instead, this is dealing more with a largely lost "mythical" way of assessing divine and natural powers with the help of the right side of the brain. It was suspected that the mythology of Baldur echoes the account of Christ and his prophetic reappearance.
Parallel to the Greco-Roman period, when Enlightenment was further developed than during the mythical period, the veneration of gods like Wōden / Odin - "leader of the hunt" and god of the clouds and wind - stood in the foreground in the Germanic world. With the interesting term "world spanning", which the earlier Edda uses on one occasion, it does not seem to be apparent whether Odin is meant; this would have to be researched further. Odin was compared by the Romans to their god Mercury (the Greek Hermes), the messenger of the gods and the god of language and interaction among humans. He has also been compared with the Egyptian deity, Thoth - though we consider it more likely that he was actually a prehistoric human wise man. Still, we could raise the question whether Wōden was originally a human, spiritual wise man. He is recorded to have a grandfather. A song relates that he hung on a tree for nine days, occupying himself with runes (written characters with symbolic traits). This looks more like something that would be done to master a step along his spiritual path. He subsequently created one teaching after the other out of his mind. It must still be considered, though, that in the farthest corners of Europe, the thinking was cultivated by way of analogies and symbols - up to the newer scientific-technical period. This can still be seen subtly today; and, with its help, it has been attempted to maintain findings from the older periods for use in a reason-oriented period. For example, the cultures saw related qualities of 4, 7 or 12, whether these were planets, colors, tones, letters, human characters or organs, or even the "gods" - some of whose names can be found today in our days of the week. In this practice of thinking in analogies, it was natural to detect a glimmer of divinity or a characteristic that surpasses man - or the other way around. These analogies did not necessarily have a blasphemous character, as if someone today were wrongly considered a deity - never mind the fact that, with time, people no longer knew exactly what beings like Wōden (or heroes such as Heracles / Hercules in Greece) actually stood for.
The "race of gods" known as the Wanes and the Ases may be connected with the different peoples who came into contact with another - the Wanes in connection with the primordial Megalith culture ("giants?"), and the Ases with the newer Indo-European (Indo-Germanic) horse cultures from the East.
The jötunn (also "giants?" "frost giants?"), who were driven into the High North - perhaps Finns - have certainly made their contribution, too, and are mentioned in the Edda. They worshipped a supreme god of the heavens and otherwise had a rather shamanistic religion. Shamans concerned themselves with natural powers - among other things - and viewed these powers as entities (like "dwarves," for example), while also examining their relationship to humans. Even in Islam, such examples do not contradict their strict "One God" religion, because it is something entirely different than a god (the "jinn").
The Germanic ethic was oriented toward responsibility for one’s own actions and loyalty to the tribal community, in which free adults (men) first had to enter. There was hardly any other option - which is evident in the harsh behavior toward those who were excluded and no longer welcome. (But there was no "nation" that automatically would have governed the community using the help of legal articles - as had been the case with the Romans, for example; instead, decisions were reached together by the group. There is historic record of princes being elected, but it is uncertain whether this was also practiced in earlier days.) According to the Roman account, moral principles concerning the sexes were also closely observed. As in other places during the same epochs, there were also archaic elements, such as vendettas - which could be avoided, however, by reaching a settlement. Thus, reparations also played a significant role.
The teaching concerning life after death and rebirth - which is found in almost all ancient cultures - was prevalent.
* In the Christian era following the Saxon Conquest, the book Heliand came out - a rewritten gospel that attempts to make the gospel more easily understandable from the viewpoint of Saxon attitude. The heroic aspects of Jesus’ life are brought to the fore, more so than the aspect of suffering. On a related note, portions of a rewritten Genesis are also available. Something else occured during the Christianization of the Goths, who received Christianity through prisoners of war. A testament from this period is Wulfila’s Bible Translation.
The early Celtic religious-spiritual tradition cannot yet be portrayed in full. This article will first take a closer look at its relationship to other religions.
The collection of legends and similar accounts that still exist were mostly written in the period from the third through the fifteenth centuries in Ireland (e.g. The Book of Leinster), where there are remnants of a living oral tradition even to this day. It is quite possible that the teachings and practices of the early Celtic druids (not originating from the word "oak," but from dru = solid and uid = seeing / knowing - that is, "the wise ones") were not consistent in the entire Celtic world, but that there were different trends. The Irish tradition alone gives account of five consecutive culture epochs and peoples in Ireland. This tradition was likely influenced by earlier knowledge concerning man’s relationship to natural powers and the cosmos, particularly originating in the early European Megalithic culture. This pre-Celtic era can be detected in the language used for naming certain rivers and regions in Europe, which could have originated in an earlier language similar to present-day Basque.
Celtic "gods" were still explicitly refered to in old Roman documents (like those of Caesar). The earlier gods generally appear to have been Indo-European - even if they are not always as easy to equate with Roman gods in the way that was common to the Romans (Lat.: Mercury, Apollo, Minerva, Jupiter, Mars). What is meant, for instance, by the Celtic "Dagda = the good god"? Or "Esus = the respected one?" Ogmios corresponds to the Roman Mercury, Taranis to the Germanic god of thunder, and mother goddesses are also found in various places. Depending on the legend, the creation of parts of the Earth is attributed to giants, saints or elven creatures - each of whom, according to scholars, probably held the position of a deity in earlier mythology (cf. the Germanic "primeval giant", Ymir, above). The Celts considered themselves descendents of "Dispater," a god of the Underworld. (Or does it refer to a god who withdrew himself into the Underworld or into man’s unconscious as a result of a change in consciousness?) For the most part, such questions are not being asked or satisfactorily answered in the context of religious studies.
The religion of the Celts in the Bronze Age and even later draws parallels with the older shift of the Germanic tradition mentioned above. "Baldur" (see "Old Germanic Religion", above) corresponds with the Celtic "Belenus." It cannot be proven - at least not using an impartial approach - that the pre-Christian Celts never had knowledge of a central deity; if there had been such a central deity, that would not automatically equate it with the way that has been made possible today to draw near to God.
The Celtic ethic of antiquity could perhaps be summarized as follows: venerating god, abstaining from evil, cultivating masculine virtues as a man (and feminine virtues as a woman). Accordingly, some people sought to more accurately identify their duties. Human sacrifices also played a role. However, this attempt to "reconcile the gods" could be the result - as in other cultures in the world - of a period of degeneration in the original religion.
Furthermore, the Celts believed in an immortal soul and an immortal cosmos; but this was overshadowed by suspicions of possible events such as "the sky falling."
It appears that Saint Columbcille, the Celtic wise man who adopted Christianity, was not so much concerned about the demonization of his early Celtic beliefs; rather, it appears that his background made him more understanding of what Christianity could bring, in comparison to certain other Christian orientations. For example, the earlier Celtic Christianity was more nature-oriented and, therefore, more "sustainable" and open to the future than the Christianity of the Late Middle Ages - which also supplanted this Celtic Christianity. Currently, there are a few small projects - for instance, in France - where an attempt is being made to reconcile the Celtic tradition with Christianity. (Some other "modern traditions" from the Anglo-Saxon world - like Halloween, for example, which originate from the Celts - do not have much to do with the real, earlier Celts anymore.)
In this context, we can also reference the early Christian grail movement, based on the legend of Robert de Boron concerning Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene, who supposedly brought the grail containing the blood Jesus shed on the cross to France or England. Further references are Wolfram von Eschenbach’s tale of the legendary King Arthur’s round table, as well as Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Even here, elements from Celtic legends play a role. (There are certain modern groups today that associate themselves with the grail movement but are not the historic movement. This article will not endeavor to explore the "right" or "wrong" connections to the early tradition.)
Apart from some later regional forms, very little is certain about any pre-Christian Slavic religions – especially their early periods.
Perun, the god of lightning, was likely identical to the god of thunder in other Indo-European religions, and hence a form of god of the heavens. The fact that Dashbog, the god of the sun, was considered the son of Svarog, the god of fire, could suggest a relationship to the Germanic Baldur myth (see there).
The underworld of the dead, with its god or guardian Veles, was regarded as a kind of paradise during the later period.
What stands out in comparison is that Jesus Christ is seen as the lord or protector of the living and the dead, since he bridged the two realms – which can be considered as advancement.
There is also little known about the pre-Christian religion of the Baltic people.
Under his Lithuanian name, Perkunas, the god
of lightning is likely also identical to the god of thunder in other
This religion is probably also closely related to other Indo-European religions. Over the course of time, these religions have taken on aspectsfrom other cultures in their particular areas, yet they remain similar in their basic features.
While Dievs was sometimes worshiped as the deity, the sun is associated with a goddess, Saule, and the earth was sometimes associated with a god and sometimes with a goddess. Laima is a Baltic goddess of fate; this was probably influenced by parts of an older religious tradition in which the mother deities played a major role.
It was believed that the dead continued to live, near the grave.
Worship of the different forces of nature played a major role, although earlier shamanistic practices were probably also incorporated. The involvement with forces of nature* that is more typically associated with shamanism* cannot in the strictest sense be compared with the cults of the gods.
*In regard to natural religions, see the comments on the page on Shintoism.
In the pre-Christian religion of the Basques and in their language, we find possible remnants of ancient European (pre-Indo-European) megalithic culture ("great stone" culture). Some aspects were retained by oral tradition, even after Christianization. Christian aspects could also have been incorporated in the Basque tradition.
The goddess Mari of the
"underworld" was considered the crucial deity, while her masculine
counterpart Majuwas a sky god. A peculiar account involves the meeting of these
two deities on Friday afternoon,resulting in hail, etc. This could be a
reference to a convergence of two spiritual paths.
The sun goddess Ekhi was considered the daughter of Lur, the goddess of the earth.
Basque tradition also included the belief in a life after death and in various spirits, some that were helpful and some that were evil.
Apparently lying, stealing and breaking one’s word were considered moral offences.
The pre-Christian religious beliefs and customs of the Finns have remained distinguishable through legends, ballads and practices that survived Christianization. Many such ballads were compiled in the "Kalevala," a national work of epic poetry in the 19th century.
Ilmarinen, the blacksmith or "forger" in this epic, was the creator of the celestial canopy. The originally related Ostyaks, Voguls who likewise spoke non-Indo-European languages, acknowledged a supreme god of the heavens, and a hierarchy of spirits. Spirits are not gods in the strictest sense. The Finnish tradition included a mythical image of duck eggs that roll into the water and turn into the visible cosmos.
It was only later that the worship of the
storm-god Ukko became prevalent. A large number of gods of nature, natural
beings and protective spirits were also acknowledged in this tradition.
The soul, which lived on after death, was regarded as a breath or the shadow of a soul in a realm of the dead.
Väinämoinen, the singer in the epic, follows old shamanistic practices that ultimately trace back to prehistoric times.
The position of school books concerning such early religions - that early cultures invented a random number of gods, and that they had no concept of the Creator God - is open to debate, at least in the case of several religions. The search for God as the source of all things is really quite old. In the case of Enoch and Noah - the latter being the root of all of today’s people groups, from the biblical perspective - even the Bible’s account of creation recognizes that the true God was able to reveal himself to them and inspire them. Today, there are new possibilities - through Christ - to come closer to God and his characteristics.
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