Irminsul

30. bloimånd 2022. En nye swarte dag in de sassiske skydnis. Wat dundermegers (ik glööv my, dat wy de nåmen altyd nog neet weyten), gån når dee olde dikke boum by Kardinge, dår wy us al en mål eyrer um skreaven hebben, en luntjen hum up. Vlam geit der gauw in, en de heyle boum skeit in de hens. Vuurvechters weyten de boum halv to redden, mor dee groute boum is now al minner. Uut de heyle umråd höyrt eyn lüde der skande um spreaken. My düt et ouk sklim seyr. Disse boum güng ik my nachtens altyd by langs, dow ik van Grönn Stad torüch når myn kamer güng. Et was en monument in et landskap, en håplik, med alles wat lüde vorsöked hebben, um disse boum to redden, blivt dat ouk sou.

Dit is neet de eyrste boum, dee de sassen in höär skydnis vorlöyren hebben. Vöär dee andre vornöymde boum, moten wy torüch når et jår 772, in de höymånd. In dat heyle jår haren de sassen en franken al mot med mekår. De franken, swår kristlik, kwammen altyd de sassen höär land binnenvallen, hauwden de hillige boumen um, en bouwden med dat holt karken up desülvde steade. Dee sassen råken sik der hågels um, en, in lowmånd 772, trekken up når Deamter, um dår de holten karke in de hens to setten.

Hyr givt et ouk wat sünderliks an. De sassen haren sülv geyn könink. De sassen waren alderhande lösse stammen, dee süms by enkander kwammen, um sik teagen en groutere veend to skütsken. Dat wy hyr now süks en stolte group by enkander hebben, is düs al wat sünderliks.

Eyn hågels, dan de ander ouk. Grouten Karl, grelsk as geyn ander, geit med syn haerskap når Eresburg. Disse burg, nowdestyds in Obermarsberg in bundesland Nourdrein-Westfalen, is normål allennig bewound en bewåpend by swåre krig of en andre ramp. Sünt Grouten Karl et neet düt, syn veenden to warnen van syn ankumst, gav et der now wårlik geyneyne. Sunder eynige teagenstand kümt Karl de Grouten Kaerl Eresburg in, en reselveyrt glyk wyder to gån når en ander steade: de Irminsul.

Wat disse Irminsul (up et latynsk ouk wel Ermensul) now precys was, is swår to seggen. Meynstens stelt eyn sik en boum vöär. Dår givt et ouk wat readenen vöär. Takitus, to’n byspil, skrivt um de olde germaanske volkeren in syn wark Germania. Hee skrivt um de algemeyne kenmarkens van disse germanen in et 9. kapittel, en eyn van disse kenmarkens is dat alle germanen völen dat höär goden sik in boumen en strevellen bevinded. Süksen vorbindtnis tüsken de goden en de boumen is ouk to vinden in et angelsassiske dichtwark Kruusdröym, wårin Kristus hanget an en sprekkende boum in stea van en holten kruus. Rudolf van Fulda skrivt er in syn Öäverdracht van sint Alexander meyr specifik um de sassen. Hee skrivt dat de sassen höär goden voreyren in boumen en bronnen, en dat eyn süksen holtgod Irminsul heyt, dee neet al to grout is en in de butenlucht voreyrd wurdeden. Van disse Irminsulen givt et ouk meyrere, lykas wy vinden kinnen in alderhalde olde bronnen (Carole Cusack, The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (2011), s. 108).

Et element ‘irmin’ is swår interessant. Meynstens givt et ‘grout’ as en öäversetting vöär ‘irmin’ (Ferdinand Holthausen, Altsächsisches Wörterbuch (1967), s. 39). Dan meynt Irminsul gewoun ‘groute pål’. Et kin ouk van et proto-germaansk *ermenaz of *ermunaz kummen, wat ‘menskdum’ konnotieerd. Is dårmed Irmin villicht en god dee de sassen as mensken repräsenteerd? Etymologisk vorwant binnen et oldnorkse Jǫrmunr (en nåm vöär Óðinn of Woden) en sanskrit aryaman-, en vediske god vorbunden med vreendskap en gastvryheyd (Vladimir Orel, A Handbook of Germanic Etymology (2003), s. 85). Villicht was Irmin en ard totumgod vöär de sassen, en in et heyle sassenland givt et Irminsulen, villicht boumen, wårin disse god wount. Carole Cusack meynt immers, dat boumen in vöärkristlike europeiske religionen homology waren vöär et menskdum en de wearld (The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (2011), s. 1). Mor good, seaker weyten düt wy et neet, ik alderminst.

Good, Karl hen to de Irminsul. Elkeneyn kin hyrum in de Köninklike Frankiske Annalen leasen:

“Tunc domnus Carolus mitissimus rex sinodum tenuit ad Warmatiam. Et inde perrexit partibus Saxoniae prima vice, Eresburgum castrum coepit, ad Ermensul usque pervenit et ipsum fanum destruxit et aurum vel argentum, quod ibi repperit, abstulit. Et fuit siccitas magna, ita ut aqua deficeret in supradicto loco, ubi Ermensul stabat; et dum voluit ibi duos aut tres praedictus gloriosus rex stare dies fanum ipsum ad perdestruendum et aquam non haberent, tunc subito divina largiente gratia media die cuncto exercitu quiescente in quodam torrente omnibus hominibus ignorantibus aquae effusae sunt largissimae, ita ut cunctus exercitus sufficienter haberet.”

The Latin Library, ‘Annales Regni Francorum (Annales Laurissenses Maiores)’, jår 772.

Now dat alle soldåten weader genug water hebben, kan Karl döärgån med et platleggen van de fanum by de Irminsul. Mor wat disse fanum is, is neet al to düdlik. Et givt der twey in de tekst. Karl trekt når de Irminsul, en vorinneweerd disse fanum (ipsum fanum destruxit). Dernå wil Grouten Karl nog enkle dågen blyven, um de heyle fanum to vordisterweyeren. Fanum is gewounlik en tempel of kapel, mor al düdlik is et neet, wårum der twey vorknoid wurden moten. Villicht is eyn en tempel, wårin ouk al dat gold en silver ligget. De andre fanum is villicht de boum of pål sülv, of villicht de heyle plek. Fanum kin ouk ‘hillige plek’ meynen, vorwant and et proto-indo-europeisk *dhh1s-no-, dat ouk ‘godlik’ of ‘hillig’ meynen kin. Alderhande optionen vöär de wåre beteykenis, düs.

Mor wårum hev Grouten Karl disse boum vorstukkend? Now, wat wy töt now to seen hebben, is dat boumen by de olde germanen en groute kracht haren. Ouk en bült denkers glöyven höär in de kracht van boumen. Vöär Mircea Eliade is de boum en wearld-as (axis mundi): de pål dee de kosmos by enkander holdet, en wårdöär de wearld van de lüde med de under- en bouvenwearld vorbunden wurdet (The Sacred and the Profane (1959), s. 36-37). Gerardus van der Leeuw skrivt, dat boumen höär en vorsåmelsteade vöär ‘macht’, en ard hillige kracht wår as religion up reageerd (Phänomenologie Der Religion (1933), s. 36). Joseph Campbell, dan, seet de boum as eyn van dee steaden, wåras de held upröpen wurdet, um up syn psychologiske heldenaventuur to gån (The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1968), s. 47). Alderhande olde ideaen, mor villicht sagen see wat elkeneyn an boumen trekket: et givt en ard macht in höär. Vöär disse religionfenomenolougen hyrbouven is et düdlik: en boum is nimmer allennig en boum.

Et vorknoien van de Irminsul was en harde klap vöär de sassen. Süsken klap is ouk de vorinnewering van dee olde dikke boum by Kardinge. Lykas vöär de olde sassen de Irminsul höär god en totum was, sou is ouk dee olde dikke boum neet soumor en boum. Man et givt wat good nys:

The 30th of May, 2022. A new black day of Saxon history. Some vandals (I think we still don’t know their names) go to that big old tree at Kardinge, about which we wrote before, and set it ablaze. The fire catches on quickly, and the whole tree is engulfed by flames. Firefighters manage to save half the tree, meaning that the whole tree has been diminished in size. From the whole area dispirited voices are heard. It also hurt me. I always passed this tree at night, when I went back to my room from Groningen city. It was a monument in the landscape, and, hopefully, with everything that people have tried to save this tree, it will remain that way.

This is not the first tree lost to the Saxons in their history. For that other famous tree, we have to go back to 772, to July. That whole year was marked by fierce battles between the Saxons and the Franks. The Franks, piously Christian, invaded the Saxon lands, hewed down the sacred trees, and built churches from that wood in their stead. This aggravates the Saxons, and, in January 772, pull up at Deventer, to set ablaze the wooden church over there.

This is actually quite remarkable. The Saxons lacked a king. The Saxons is a conglomerate of self-regulating tribes, who united sometimes to protect themselves against an overarching enemy. That such a big group of them came together is quite exceptional.

When one is angry, then the other will be so too. Charlemagne, pissed as no-one else, marches with his army to Eresburg. This citadel, nowadays found in Obermarsberg in the province of Nordrhein-Westfalen, is normally only occupied and armed during times of hardship like heavy war or famine. Since Charlemagne did not care to inform his enemies of his arrival, there really was nobody there. Without any resistance, Charles the Magnificent Man enters Eresburg, and immediately decides to continue on to the next spot: the Irminsul.

What this Irminsul (in Latin also known as Ermensul) exactly was is hard to tell. Most often, people imagine a tree. That is not without reason. Tacitus, for example, wrote about the Germanic people in his work Germania. He wrote about the general characteristics of these Germanic tribes in the ninth chapter of this work, and one of these characteristics was that Germans perceive their gods to reside in trees and shrubbery. Such a connection between the gods and the trees is also found in the Anglo-Saxon poem Dream of the Rood, in which Christ hangs on a speaking tree instead of a wooden cross. Rudolf of Fulda writes in his Transference of saint Alexander about the Saxons more specifically. He writes that the Saxons worship their gods in trees and pools, and that one of those gods of the woods is called Irminsul, who isn’t all too big and is being worshipped outdoors. There is more than one of this Irminsulen, as can be found mentioned in all kinds of ancient sources (Carole Cusack, The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (2011), s. 108).

The element ‘irmin’ is quite interesting. Most often, ‘irmin’ is translated as ‘big’ (Ferdinand Holthausen, Altsächsisches Wörterbuch (1967), s. 39). In that case, Irminsul means not much more than ‘big pole’. But it can also be derived from Proto-Germanic *ermenaz or *ermunaz, which connotes ‘humanity’. Does that mean that Irmin is a deity that represents the Saxons as a people? Etymologically related are Jǫrmunr (a name for Óðinn or Woden) and Sanskrit aryaman-, a Vedic deity connected to friendship and hospitality (Vladimir Orel, A Handbook of Germanic Etymology (2003), s. 85). Perhaps Irmin is some kind of totem deity for the Saxons, and the whole land is riddled with Irminsulen, perhaps trees, in which this deity resides. Carole Cusack argues that trees in pre-Christian European religion were a homology for humanity and the universe (The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (2011), s. 1). Again, we don’t know all of this for sure, least of all me.

Alright, Charles goes to that Irminsul. Everyone can read about this in the Royal Frankish Annals:

“The most gracious Lord King Charles then held an assembly at Worms. From Worms he marched first into Saxony. Capturing the castle of Eresburg, he proceeded as far as the Irminsul, destroyed this fanum and carried away the gold and silver which 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 fanum completely, but they had no water. Suddenly at noon, through the grace of God, while the army rested and nobody knew what was happening, so much water poured forth in a stream that the whole army had enough.”

Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (1972), trans. Bernhard Walter Scholz and Barbara Rogers, p. 48-49.

Now that the soldiers are clenched by enough water, Charles can continue demolishing the fanum located at the Irminsul. But it remains unclear what this fanum is, exactly. There are two of those in the text. Charles marches to the Irminsul, and destroys this fanum (ipsum fanum destruxit). After that, Charlemagne wants to remain there for a couple of days in order to destroy the complete fanum. Fanum normally means a temple or chapel, but it is unclear, why there are two of them that need to be destroyed. Perhaps one of them is a temple, which contains all that gold and silver. The other fanum is perhaps the tree or pole itself, or perhaps the whole area. Fanum can also mean ‘sacred place’, related to Proto-Indo-European *dhh1s-no-, which also means ‘divine’ or ‘sacred’. All kinds of possibilities towards its true meaning, therefore.

But why did Charlemage destroy this tree? Well, what we have seen up to this point is that trees, for the ancient Germans, were imbued with awesome powers. This was also considered to be true by many thinkers. Mircea Eliade considered trees to be world-axles (axis mundi): the pole which kept the cosmos together, and through which the human world was connected to the under- and overworld (The Sacred and the Profane (1959), p. 36-37). Gerardus van der Leeuw wrote that trees were a gathering place for ‘power’, a kind of sacred force to which religion responds (Phänomenologie Der Religion (1933), s. 36). Joseph Campbell, finally, considers the tree as one of those spots at which the hero would be called to go upon his psychological hero’s adventure (The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1968), p. 47). All kinds of dated ideas, but perhaps they saw what attracted everyone to trees: there is some kind of power in them. For those historians of religion mentioned above it is clear: a tree is never just a tree.

The destruction of the Irminsul was a hard blow to the Saxons. Similarly, the destruction of that big old tree at Kardinge is also such a blow. Like the ancient Saxons considered the Irminsul to be their god and totem, likewise is that big old tree not just a tree. But there is some good news:

De boum is neet doud, mor leavet! / The tree isn’t dead, but lives!

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