The Religiosity of the Indo-Europeans

Freedom is where you can live, as pleases a brave heart; where you can live according to the customs and laws of your fathers; where you are made happy by that which made your most distant ancestors happy.

E. M. Arndt, Catechism for the Teutonic Soldier and Warrior, 1813.

In this work I want to advance some reflections on the religiosity of the Indo-Europeans — that is to say, the Indo-European speaking peoples originating from a common Bronze Age nucleus — who have always exerted a significant influence on the government and spirit of predominantly Nordic races (1). Just as by comparing the structure of the Indian, Persian, Sacaean, Armenian, Slavic and Baltic languages, and of the Greek, Italian, Celtic and Teutonic dialects, we can reach a conclusion as to a common or primal Indo-European language, approximating to the latter part of the early Stone Age, in the same way, an examination of the laws and legal customs of the different peoples of Indo-European language reveals a primal Indo-European feeling for law (2). Similarly, from a comparison of the religious forms of these peoples we can identify a particular religious attitude emanating from the Indo-European nature — a distinctive behaviour of Indo-European men and people towards the divine powers.

So it is that certain common religious attitudes, which originally were peculiar to all peoples of Indo-European language, reveal the identity of an Indo-European religiosity. But since in fact all Indo-European nations represented different types moulded on the spiritual pattern of the Nordic race, the origin of these common religious attitudes may be identified in a religiosity which is characteristically Nordic, emanating from the spiritual nature of the Nordic race (3).

It is fortunate that for our knowledge of this Nordic religiosity, we do not have to rely solely upon Teutonic religious forms (4), for the information we possess about the Teutonic forms of belief is regrettably inadequate. It is all the more incomplete as it is derived from a late period in the development of these forms, which had already been influenced by religious ideas from Hither-Asia, from the Mediterranean basin and from the Celtic west of Europe, where the Druids had begun to distort the ancient Indo-European religiosity of the Celts so that they no longer bore a purely Nordic stamp. The Teutonic Gods, the Aesir (cf. Oslo, Osnabruck, in High German: Ansen, cf. Anshelm, Ansbach), had already absorbed the Vanir who had spread from south-east Europe (F. R. Schröder: Germanentum und Alteuropa, Germanisch-Romanische Monatsschrift, XXII, 1934, p. 187), without thoroughly re-interpreting them in a purely Teutonic spirit. Likewise, from south-east Europe and Hither-Asia, the God Dionysos had been accepted among the Olympian Gods without being fully re-interpreted, even being found in Homer, and only later becoming a native blond God instead of an alien, dark-haired one. The pre-Christian Teutons have with justice been compared with the Achaeans, who were their nearest relatives, and it can be shown that much that the Hellenes incorporated into their belief and religiosity in post-Homeric times was more or less alien to the Indo-European spirit, as for example the Orphic mysteries. Thus late on in their period of pagan development the Teutons had accepted much that was contradictory to the Indo-European nature. What non-Indo-European or non-Teutonic characteristics have been imparted to the Teutonic God Odin (Wodan, Wuotan)? Odin, with his strange blend of “loftiness and deception” (5), is undoubtedly no longer the ideal example of an Indo-European or Teutonic God, and his worship is no longer characteristic of the Indo-European or the original Teutonic religion. Already one perceives in him the voice of an alien, non-Nordic race.

One must ask how much of Odin’s character can be explained from Teutonic folk belief, how much is later poetical embellishment, and how much reaches back, as with Zeus or Jupiter, into antiquity and the Indo-European conception of the “Father of the Heavens”. We must not overlook the fact, stressed by Andreas Heusler in Germanentum (1934, pp. 95-106 and cf. also Erik Therman: Eddan och dess Ödestragik, 1938, pp. 65, 105, 106) that “the Edda mythology is largely a Norwegian-Icelandic poetical creation of the Viking era”, elaborated by the poets who dwelt at the courts of local Norwegian princes during the late pagan and early Christian era, at a time when many Teutons were uprooted from their native soil and exposed to alien ideas. According to Heusler, Odin is a “new creation of Teutonic religious phantasy”, and above all, a God of war and of the Viking princes, warriors and skalds. However, as a war God, Odin is an incalculable force to reckon with, “capable of deceit”, as R. L. M. Derolez informs us (De Godsdienst der Germanen, 1959, p. 79).

The worship of Odin (Wotan or Wuotan in the High German form) spread from west Scandinavia during the warlike Folk Wandering and Viking era to the Vandals and Langobards, and to the Saxons in Lower Saxony and in England, but it always predominantly appealed to the local princes and their retinue and to the skalds of the princes’ courts, to whom the war God was also the God of poetry. Perhaps it is the name which is the unique feature of Odin that reaches back into Indo-European antiquity, for its root is derived from the Indo-European word vat meaning “to be spiritually excited”, and as such it is still preserved in Sanskrit, in old Iranian and in Latin, where it corresponds to the word vates, meaning a seer or a poet.

The concept of Odin-Wodan appears at its highest form in the grandiose Edda mythology of the twilight of the Gods, the end of the world, Ragnarök, but it is an expression more of poetry than belief. The yeoman freeholders on their hereditary farms, who formed the majority of the Teutonic peoples, were never at ease with the cult of Odin or Wodan (Karl Helm: Wodan; Ausbreitung und Wanderung seines Kults, Giessener Beiträge zur deutschen Philologie, Vol. LXXXV, 1946; R. L. M. Derolez: De Godsdienst der Germanen, 1959, pp. 79 et seq.). According to Erik Therman (op. cit., pp. 23, 77, 106), many sagas of the Gods of the Edda and also of Odin do not belong to the folk belief of the Teutons, but instead are an expression of the ideals and concepts of the Viking nobility and of the local North Teutonic princes.

One must above all bear in mind, when dealing with the figure of Odin, what Jan de Vries has written in The Present Position of Teutonic Religious Research (Germanische Monatsschrift, Vol. XXIII, 1951, pp. 1 et seq.):

“Proceeding solely from the sources of Teutonic religious history, research will never arrive at conclusive results concerning the nature of Teutonic religion: for illumination of Teutonic belief and religious attitudes, it will be necessary to return again and again to Indo-European religion and mythology”.

Georges Dumézil has also expressed the same warning.

The figure of Odin-Wodan does not belong to Indo-European religious history. He is the special God of the loosely-rooted expanding Viking Folk, and his composite personality stems from the late period of Teutonic paganism, and as such does not help to throw light on Indo-European religious attitudes.

Again, in one’s search for material to clarify this religiosity, there is little of value to be found in the descriptions of the religions of the Celts and the Slavs. Throughout the broad areas under their rule — and the Galatians penetrated as far as Asia Minor — the Celts formed only a thin upper layer holding sway over pre-Indo-European peoples governed by matriarchal family systems, whose linguistic forms deeply influenced the Celtic dialects, and whose spiritual beliefs transformed the original religious attitudes of the Celts.

The religious customs and moral attitudes of matriarchal origin emanating from the lower, non-Celtic strata, which penetrated the religion of the Celts (Wolfgang Krause: Die Kelten, Religionsgeschichtliches Lesebuch, Vol. XXIII, 1929), have been compared by both Marie Sjöstedt, in Dieux et Héros des Celtes (1940, p. 126) and by Jan de Vries, in Keltische Religion (1961, p. 224), with those of primitive non-European tribes, and from the Indo-European point of view, the latter must be described as repellent.

Finally, the hierarchy of the Celtic Druids, a power-seeking priestly order, was non-Indo-European in character, and resembled in structure the recent Brahmin system of caste-rule in India.

The records of the pre-Christian religions of Slavic tribes (A. Brückner: The Slavs, in Religionsgeschichtliches Lesebuch, Vol. III, 1926, and Karl H. Meyer: Die Slavische Religion, in Carl Clemen’s Die Religionen der Erde, 1927 pp. 237 et seq.) handed down to us by the Christian historians of the sixth century, Procopius and Jordanes, have been distorted by mistaken interpretation, or by writers who were hostile to the pagan Slavs, and they have little material of any value to offer. Arabic and Teutonic records are equally deficient, but something may be deduced from the morals and customs, and the sagas and songs which have been preserved and re-interpreted by Christianity. From
them we receive an impression that the early Indo-Europeans worshipped their ancestors and believed that the houses they inhabited and the lands and animals that belonged to them were possessed of guardian spirits, features that were characteristic of early Latin beliefs.

Fortunately, however, the religious forms of the other Indo-European speaking peoples bear many details which guide us back to a more profound study of primary Indo-European religiosity, and in the beliefs of the early Indians, the early Persians (6) and the early Hellenes, one can, in my opinion, trace essentially Indo-European elements and the basic factors vital to grasping and understanding them. Only by comparing all these forms of belief — and those of the Italici must not be omitted — with the Teutons’ can we obtain a clearer picture of Nordic-Teutonic religiosity.

If I thus attempt to express here in words individual features of this picture, I do so in an endeavour to ascertain, subject to the limitations of my own knowledge (for I am not a scholar of religious science), not only what is primary in all the religious forms of Indo-European speaking peoples known to us, but also what is their purest and richest unfolding. My concern is not with any search for the so-called primitive in these religious forms, nor whether this or that higher idea is deduced from some lower stage of old Stone Age magical belief or middle Stone Age spirit belief (animism). I am solely interested in determining the pinnacles of Indo-European religion. My concern is to identify Indo-European religion at its most perfect and characteristic form, and in its richest and purest assertion — that completely spontaneous expression of the spirit in which primary Indo-European nature expresses itself with the greatest degree of purity.

But when I speak of the richest unfolding of religious forms, I do not mean those eras characterised by a confusing multitude of ideas, which sometimes intrude upon the Indo-European peoples, for at these periods the primal Nordic has become permeated with ideas alien to his nature. On the contrary, I believe that Indo-European religious life had already attained heights of great richness amongst the individual Indo-European tribes in the Bronze Age, so that the Bronze Age Nordic experienced much of the flowering of the religiosity of his race. Each time this religiosity unfolded it flourished for a succession of centuries, indeed often up to a millenia, until a spirit alien in nature — and usually corresponding to a general weakening of the Nordic racial strain — permeated the original religious ideas of the Indo-Europeans, and then expressed in their language religious ideas which were no longer purely or even predominantly European.

My aim, therefore, is to comprehend Indo-European religion in its richest and purest unfolding. It can be traced, for example, in Hellenic poetry from Homer to Pindar and Aeschylus — though strictly speaking, perhaps only up to Pindar, or, in more general terms, up to the fifth century before our time of reckoning (7) — and later, with Sophocles and Plato, who looked back in many aspects, Indo-European religiosity again predominates, but now as the religiosity of individual men and not of an entire circle of their aristocracy.

I shall confine myself to describing primary or essential attitudes of the Indo-Europeans, omitting all that they have expressed in their various languages, in their arts, and in the customs of their daily life in the early and middle periods of their development; for were one to include in a description of Indo-European religious attitudes every form to which they have given expression throughout their history, one would find features amongst them of nearly every religion. It would be easy, therefore, to quote examples of those forms of religion which I describe below as non-Indo-European, from the religious life of Indo-European peoples, especially in later times, or, in ethnological terms, in the de-Nordicised period. Indeed, people have even spoken in an erroneous way of a “Christian Antiquity” (8). What I described as Indo-European religiosity thus pertains to those periods in the history of the Indo-European peoples when the soul of the Nordic race could still express itself with sufficient vigour.

However, I do not overlook the fact that in many instances the rich and pure unfolding of Indo-European religiosity was preserved and carried forward into later periods. Examples of this, which I will consider later, are the noble art of the Panathenaea festival procession on the frieze in the Parthenon of the Acropolis of Athens (Maxime Collignon: Le Parthénon, Vol. III, 1912, Table 78 et seq.; Ernst Langlotz: Phidias Probleme, 1947, pp. 27 et seq.; and his Schönheit und Hoheit, 1948; Reinhard Lullies: Griechische Plastik, 1956, p. 22, Table 147 et seq.), or the noble art of the ara pacis Augustae — the altar of peace dedicated in the year 9 B.C. under Octavianus Augustus in Rome (Giuseppe Moretti: L’Ara Pacis Augustae, 1948; Robert Heidenreich: Die Bilder der ara pacis Augustae, Neue Jahrbücher für Antike und Deutsche Bildung, Year 1, 1938, pp. 31 et seq.) — and likewise the carmen saeculare of the Roman poet Horace (Horatius, Carmina, III, 25).

I would not regard as Indo-European every religious idea which has been found amongst individual Indo-European speaking peoples, but many of them were divided into racial strata in such a way that the rulers were predominantly men of Nordic race. Therefore, probably much of the preoccupation with magic and the haunting of the spirit which is described to us as Indo-European religious thought is in reality an expression of the religiosity of the lower racial stratas, the non-Nordic linguistically Indo-Europeanised subject people. Different peoples are often said to have a lower mythology in contrast to the higher mythology of the same people, and it is often the case that the lower mythology had no relation whatever with the higher, and that the lower stratum of the people found expression in one mythology and the leading stratum in another. Where Indo-European society consists in such racial layers of predominantly Nordic farmers, aristocracy and patriarchs, super-imposed on  non-Nordic peoples, Indo-European religiosity can only be sought in the religious ideas of the upper strata. This is also proved by the fact that Indo-European religiosity is always directly linked with the conviction of the value of birth and pride in heredity, and that man has an unalterable hereditary nature and an inborn nobility which it is his duty to society to maintain — as is particularly apparent, for example, in the truly Hellenic religiosity of Pindar (9).

It is thus important to realise, when studying the religious history of all Indo-European speaking peoples, that the upper stratum represented more closely the traditional ideas of belief. Therefore, for example, Carl Clemen’s chapter on the ancient Indo-European Religion in his Religionsgeschichte Europas (Vol. I, 1926, pp. 162 et seq.) makes almost no contribution to our knowledge of Indo-European religiosity. One cannot assume uncritically that all the prehistoric and historic information collected from all the regions where the Indo-European tongue was spoken constitutes evidence of roughly equivalent value. More than half of what Clemen cites as Indo-European religious thought, I regard as the ideas of the underlayer of Indo-Europeanised peoples of non-Nordic race. Similarly, the descriptions of the Hellenic world of belief by the outstanding Swedish scholar, P. Nilsson, in his Griechischer Glaube (1950), contains much which originates from the non-Nordic substrata, and does not correspond to the form of belief and religiosity of the ancient Hellenes of early Stone Age and Bronze Age central Europe. The same observation holds true for the majority of descriptions of the religious world of Rome.

On the other hand, much which has asserted itself in Islamic Persia and in Christian Europe in religious life can be valued as a resurgence of Nordic Indo-European religiosity, as would be expected, for inherited nature will always stir against alien forms of belief. Thus the mysticism of the Islamised Persians, Sufism, is to be understood as a breakthrough by Indo-European religiosity into an alien and compulsive faith, as an expression of the disposition of the race-soul or “racial endowment” as described by R. A. Nicholson (10). A large part of the mysticism of the Christianised West may also be regarded as a similar breakthrough. Among great church leaders of both Christian faiths, religiosity of Indo-European kind is expressed whenever they allow the innermost essence of their religiosity to assert itself within them completely undogmatically. I would also be able to describe many a feature of Indo-European religiosity in the words of recent German poets. Examples of Indo-European religiosity can be found in Shakespeare, Winckelmann, Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, in Shelley and Keats, in Hebbel, Gottfried Keller and Storm, and there are many others in the literature, philosophy and plastic arts of the Western peoples (11).

In his work Der Glaube der Nordmark (1936), which has passed through many editions, and which has also been translated into Danish and Swedish, Gustav Frenssen described the religiosity of the country people he knew in North Germany, having gained a deep insight into their minds and hearts as their pastor. Without it being the intention of the author, the work became a description of Indo-European religion in the rural environment of a North German people. H. A. Korff, in his Faustischer Glaube (1938), has attempted to describe the belief to which Goethe confessed in his poem Faust:

“It is belief in life in spite of all: in spite of the knowledge of the fundamentally tragic character of life” (op. cit., 1938, p. 155).

Such a belief in life is characteristic of Indo-European religion.

In his work Weltfrömmigkeit (1941), Eduard Spranger has described the sublime religiosity of the great men in German spiritual life at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century — a fundamentally Indo-European religiosity which Spranger, however, sought to link with a Christianity wrested from the dogmas of the Church. He noticed that religious motives resounded through great German poetry and German idealistic philosophy, but deceived himself, overlooking the increasing desolation of spiritual life in Europe and North America, into assuming that these motives still mean a great deal to present day Germans, Europeans and North Americans. In North America, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was one of the last writers to reveal a strong Indo-European religiosity.

A scientific analysis of the Indo-European nature in religious life, similar to Walter F. Otto’s analysis of Hellenic religiosity (12) has still — as far as I am aware — to be accomplished. There are good and there are mediocre descriptions of the forms of belief of individual Indo-European speaking peoples. But there is no satisfactory exposition of Indo-European religiosity as such, and where such a description has been attempted, it is often either deliberately or unconsciously measured with yard-sticks derived from the Jewish-Christian world. We owe it to ourselves, however, as Teutons and as Indo-Europeans to seek out the true nature of Indo-European religiosity.

It would be presumptuous on my part to imagine that my observations constitute a decisive foundation for research into this subject. More than suggestions I cannot promise. But I shall indicate in what fields I hope it might be possible to find assertions of Indo-European religiosity in both its rich and pure form, and also where this is not possible. I will merely explain what I have observed in relation to questions which have occupied me from my youth onwards, and how I have done so. This work is therefore in the nature of an outline of the impressions influencing me, arising from my interest over many years in the Indo-European world.


1. HANS F. K. GÜNTHER, Rassenkunde Europas, 1929; Die Nordische Rasse bei den Indogermanen Asiens, 1934; Herkunft und Rassengeschichte der Germanen, 1935; Lebensgeschichte des hellenischen Volkes, 1956; Lebensgeschichte des römischen Volkes, 1957. FRANZ ROLF SCHRÖDER, Germanentum und Alteuropa, Germanisch-Romanische Monatsschrift, XXII, 1934, pp. 157 ff. KARL J. NARR, Vorderasien, Nordafrika, Europa, Abriss der Vorgeschichte, 1957, pp. 60 ff.; Deutschland in vor- und frühgeschichtlicher Zeit, Handbuch der Geschichte, Vol. I, 1957, Section I, pp. 41 ff.; GIACOMO DEVOTO, Origini Indeuropee, 1961.

2. BURKHARD WILHELM LEIST, Alt-arisches Jus gentium, 1889; Alt-arisches Jus civile, 1892-6; cf. Graeco-italische Rechtsgeschichte, 1884.

3. HANS F. K. GÜNTHER, Kleine Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes, 1933; Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes, 1934. WILHELM HAUER, Die vergleichende Religionsgeschichte und das Indogermanen-problem, Germanen und Indogermanen: Festschrift für Herman Hirt, edited by Helmut Arntz, Vol. I, 1936, pp. 177 ff.; Glaubensgeschichte der Indogermanen, Part I, 1937. F. HERTER, Die Götter der Griechen, Kriegsvorträge der Universität Bonn, No. 57, 1941. V. BASANOFF, Les Dieux des Romains, 1942. WALTHER WÜST, Indogermanisches Bekenntnis, 1942. GEORGES DUMÉZIL, Jupiter-Mars-Quirinus, 1948; Les Dieux des Indo-Européens à Rome, 1954; Déesses latines et mythes védiques, 1956; L’Ideologie tripartie des Indo-Européens, 1958; Les Dieux des Germains, 1959. FRANZ ALTHEIM, Römische Religionsgeschichte, 1951-53. HELMUTH VON GLASENAPP, Die Religionen Indiens, 1956.

4. ANDREAS HEUSLER, Germanische Religion, Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Vol. II, 1928, Sp. 1041 ff. FRANZ ROLF SCHRÖDER, Die Germanen, Religionsgeschichtliches Lesebuch, Vol. XII, 1929. BERNHARD KUMMER, Midgards Untergang, 1938. ANDREAS HEUSLER, Deutsche Literaturzeitung, Vol. XLIX, 1, 1928, Sp. 33 ff. FELIX GENZMER, Hessische Blätter für Volkskunde, Vol. XXVII, 1928, pp. 217 ff. VILHELM GRÖNBECH, Kultur und Religion der Germanen, 1937. HERMANN SCHNEIDER, Die Götter der Germanen, 1938. ERIK THERMAN, Eddan och dess Ödestragik, 1938. MÜLLER-TRATHNIGG, Religionen der Griechen, Römer und Germanen, 1954. JAN DE VRIES, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, 1956-7. R. L. M. DEROLEZ, De Godsdienst der Germanen, 1959. TURVILLE-PETRE, Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia, 1964.

5. ANDREAS HEUSLER, as 4 supra.

6. K. F. GELDNER, Die Zoroastrische Religion, Religionsgeschichtliches Lesebuch, Vol. I, 1926. HERMANN LOMMEL, Zarathustra und seine Lehre, Universitas, XII, 1957, pp. 267 ff. Die Religion Zarathustras nach den Quellen dargestellt, 1930. Von arischer Religion, Geistige Arbeit, I, 1934, No. 23, pp. 5-6. Die Alten Arier: Von Art und Adel ihrer Götter, 1935. H. S. NYBERG, Die Religionen des Alten Irans, Mitteilungen der Vorderasiatisch-ägyptischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 34, 1938. GEO. WIDENGREN, Iranische Geisteswelt, 1961. OTTO VON WESENDONK, Das Weltbild der Iraner, 1933.

7. WILHELM NESTLE, Griechische Religiosität von Homer bis Pindar und Aschylos, 1930, p. 113.

8. SIEGFRIED LAUFFER, Die Antike in der Geschichtsphilosophie, Die Welt als Geschichte, XVI, Vols. III-IV, 1958, pp. 175 ff. HANS F. K. GÜNTHER, Lebensgeschichte des römischen Volkes, 1957, p. 307.

9. HANS F. K. GÜNTHER, Lebensgeschichte des hellenischen Volkes, 1956, pp. 157, 195-96.

10. R. A. NICHOLSON, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, 1921, pp. 162, 180-181, 184; A Literary History of the Arabs, 1930, pp. 383 ff., 393-394. EDUARD MEYER, Geschichte des Altertums, Vol. I, 2, 1909, pp. 385-386.

11. WILHELM HAUER, Urkunden und Gestalten der Germanisch-Deutschen Glaubensgeschichte, 1940. FRITZ BURI, Gottfried Kellers Glaube, 1944.

12. WALTER F. OTTO, Die Götter Griechenlands, 1947; Theophania: Der Geist der altgriechischen Religion, 1956. ELLISWORTH BARNARD, Shelley’s Religion, 1936.

Segui Hans Friedrich Karl Günther:
Hans Friedrich Karl Günther (Friburgo in Brisgovia, 16 febbraio 1891 – Friburgo in Brisgovia, 25 settembre 1968) è stato un antropologo tedesco. Fu un esponente di spicco della teoria della razza e grande sostenitore dell'eugenetica. Tra le sue opere maggiori si ricordano Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes (1922), Rassenkunde Europas (1924), Adel und Rasse (1926), Rassengeschichte des hellenischen und des römischen Volkes (1929), Die nordische Rasse bei den Indogermanen Asiens (1934), Frömmigkeit nordischer Artung (1934), Herkunft und Rassengeschichte der Germanen (1935), Formen und Urgeschichte der Ehe (1940), Das Bauerntum als Lebens- und Gemeinschaftsform (1941), Platon als Hüter des Lebens (1966).

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