Ellen Lloyd - AncientPages.com - There is no doubt that Irminsul was a sacred symbol of the Saxons, an ancient Germanic tribe that occupied the region of modern Schleswig and along the Baltic coast.
According to the oldest accounts, Irminsul was a tree trunk erected in the open air. Could the worship of Irminsul be related to Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life? What was the connection between the Saxon God Irmin and the Norse God Odin in relation to Irminsul?
Historians are still struggling to find an answer to these questions. Unraveling the mystery of Irminsul is difficult because the site where the tree was located does no longer exist.
Charlemagne Destroyed Irminsul
Charlemagne(742 - 814), whose kingdom stretched to the territories, which today include France, Germany, Benelux, part of Italy and Switzerland was a fierce enemy of Pagan worshippers.
Charlemagne who was called by his contemporaries the ‘Father of Europe’ has gone to the history books as a talented diplomat and able administrator of the vast European kingdom he controlled. He was a true enemy of pagan worshippers and he spread Christianity into Northern part of Europe, by forcing Catholicism on the conquered people and slaughtering those who refused to convert.
Charlemagne (742–814) receiving the submission of Witikind at Paderborn in 785, by Ary Scheffer (1795–1858). Versailles. Credit: Public Domain
He conquered Saxony in the 8th century and according to the Royal Frankish Annals, Charlemagne ordered the destruction of Irminsul, the chief seat of their religion.
The location of Irminsul is still a debated topic, but it appears as if this sacred place was located in the vicinity of Heresburg (now Obermarsberg), Germany.
The ancient history of the Saxons shows that Obermarsberg was of great importance and a place where many significant battles were fought.
"The destruction of Irminsul by Charlemagne" (1882) by Heinrich Leutemann. Credit: Public Domain
Situated on an Iron Age hillfort and refuge castle, Obermarsberg was a stronghold during the Saxons Wars (1073-75). When Charlemagne and his troops clashed with the Saxons, they had difficulties defeating the pagans and convert them to Christianity. When Charlemagne finally conquered the territory, Imrminsul ceased to exist and was replaced by a stone structure, possibly a tower.
What Was Irminsul?
Based on what is known, Irminsul was a pagan sacrifice site. Looking through the eyes of ancient Germanic people, the tree or sacred pillar was the center of the world. The Saxons’understanding of the Irminsul reflects in some ways the Norse Yggdrasil that as mentioned earlier in our article, is an eternal and sacred Ash tree with branches that stretch out to harbor nine worlds. It is has three roots and each one reaches to a different mysterious world.
Left: Yggdrasil symbol Right: An 1847 depiction of the Norse Yggdrasil as described in the Icelandic Prose Edda. By Oluf Olufsen Bagge
Irminsul received its name from the Germanic god Irmin whose name means “great, strong, tall”. Many scholars doubt the existence of the Saxon God Irmin and say there is no evidence supporting the theory a god with that name ever existed.
The lack of literary, linguistic and onomastic sources mentioning Irmin makes the Saxon god very difficult to trace. On the other hand, why would Saxons name their sacred site Irmin if they had no knowledge of a god with that name?
Our understanding and knowledge of Irminsul and god Irmin is extremely limited. Could the answer to our questions be found in Norse mythology?
A replica of Irminsul standing on Bornhöhe in Harbarnsen-Irmenseul, Germany. Credit: Varus111, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
Scholars suggest that Irmin is an been an epithet of an earlier god such as for example Tyr or Odin (Wodan).
As explained earlier on Ancient Pages, at one time in distant past god Tyr might have been the leader of the Norse pantheon and his role was even more important than Odin.
It was before Odin had become the undisputed chief of the gods. Later, his great role as the chief god had been significantly diminished.
The word Irmin can be traced to Old Norse because it means Jörmunr, which just like Yggr was one of the names of Odin.
Since so little is known about God Irmin it is very possible the sacred pillar Irminsul is somehow linked to Yggdrasil and God Odin.
Some scholars have tried to find a connection between Irminsul and the towering pillars of Externsteine located in the Teutoburg Forest north of the Rhine in Germany.
However, archaeological excavations conducted in Externsteine have not provided scholars with any reason to assume there was a pagan link between these two ancient sites.
Ancient myths and legends show our ancestors held trees sacred and the Saxons were no exception.
The ancients observed their dying and rebirth and knew that symbolically a tree’s crown reached the heaven and its roots touched the underworld. In a way, a tree was a link between the earthly and supernatural world.
Our knowledge about Irminsul remains incomplete due to the lack of proper ancient sources and archaeological records that could shed more light on the sacred pillar of the Saxon people.