The Nature and Purpose of the Germanic Hearth Cult
Recently I have had opportunity to examine the primary evidence for the Germanic Hearth Cult, loosely defined as the regular rituals heathens of old practiced in their homes. The modern pagan concept of the Hearth Cult in recent years is based on the scholarship of Claude Lecouteux, a retired French professor of Medieval studies and prolific author, whose works have recently been made available in English translation in paperback form. These include his Tradition of Household Spirits (2013) and Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, Mythology, and Magic (2016), among several others. Reading Lecouteux, it quickly became apparent that the ultimate source of his information regarding the Germanic Hearth-Cult was Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology published in the mid-19th century. In Chapter 17, which contains a comprehensive catalogue of “Wights and Elves”, Grimm provides the primary evidence for the Germanic Hearth Cult in a sub-section on “home-sprites” (hausgeites). Lecouteux uses all the same sources, but the two scholars draw very different conclusions.
After locating and studying the evidence presented by Grimm for his conclusions, it is clear that Lecouteux generalized the entire body of evidence Grimm presents and concluded that the ancient Germanic hearth cult consisted of heathen people setting up wooden figures of gnome-like creatures (specifically called “kobolds”, “tatermen” and various other sprite-names) in their homes, then laying out food as bait in hopes of luring these creatures in and trapping them within their homes. According to Lecouteux, if they could keep the impish spirit happy, it would bring them good fortune. Lecouteux summarizes his findings as follows:
“We thus find among the Germanic peoples a notion similar to that of the Roman manes, pentates and lares. These household spirits are called cofgodas in Old English, which means ‘gods of the house’. A word with a similar sense is the German Kobold, which literally means ‘he who rules over the room’— in other words ‘he who rules over the house’.”
“Starting in the twelfth century, we begin seeing kobold, which means “the one ‘he who rules over the room,’ a creature who in the Old English glosses appears in the plural form Cofgodas, ‘the gods of the room’ with ‘room’ referring to all parts of the house (cellar,mainroom, and so forth), or else designating the stove, meaning only the heated room of ancient homes, the German stube. Over time the Kobold supplanted all of the other names, or else we come across such vague terms as getwas ‘spirit, dwarf’.”
Jacob Grimm, however, presents a much more nuanced argument, based on the exact same evidence. He does not equate the German Hearth Cult with the Roman cult of the Penates and Lares, but simply draws a comparison for reference. And, not surprisingly, Grimm’s theory comes very close to explaining the actual Germanic Hearth Cult as we find it in our sources. By comparing this to mythological poems and sagas from Iceland, we can get a clear picture of what this cult practice actually looked like.
The findings can be summarized as follows:
1. In the earliest references to kobolds and tatermen, dating from the 13th century in Germany, they plainly refer to wooden figures representing heathen gods and their helpers (Aesir and Alfar).
2. Food is offered to these idols. Specifically, a ritual table is set at night, inviting the gods into the home.
3. The gods travel in wagons or on foot and enter human homes, often at specific times of the year, mainly Yule and other festivals. The gods enter the home and spend time among the family. Depending on what they find there, and the level of hospitality they receive, the god and his helpers either bless the home or curse it.
4. The arriving gods are commonly accompanied by helper spirits, sometimes a single individual, but more commonly a troop of such beings in ritual procession. The accompanying spirits often have a dual nature, they are either benevolent and helpful or frightening and harmful. Like the god, their companions can brig either blessings or curses (light and dark elves).
5. These creatures, typically described as elves with pointed hats, are sometimes left behind and occupy the home for a time. If offended, they will leave and remove any blessing, replacing it with a curse or prophecy. The “house-spirit” may then move to another location, transferring the blessing to the new location.
6. The primary method of offending these gods and house-spirits is through inhospitality or attempting to learn the identity of the spirit—indicating a lack of faith.
7. The purpose of the ritual is to imbue the wooden idols with the spirit of the gods and their helpers. The god is invited in with a meal offering, and encouraged to either stay or leave one of their helpers. The god is often associated directly with the hearthfire, which seems to be the point of entry into the home, or where the god can be visualized.
As Grimm records, in the earliest sources dating from the 12th century, the terms Kobolds and Tatermen refer to carved wooden idols kept in the home, of the type we find all over Germania in miniature—representing gods such as Thor, Freyr and Odin, as well as goddesses, which the Icelandic sagas inform us were carried for personal use or set up in homes as home-idols. In addition, larger idols were set up for public worship according to several sources such as Adam of Bremen, and Ibn Fadhlan, and others.
In temples and groves, we see full size versions of the personal idols we find in abundance in the archeological record. The gods are represented by carved, tall wooden poles, set up in groups. Several of the more detailed Icelandic references speak of these mute, lifeless idols being inhabited by spirits, speaking, walking, or otherwise coming to life. The spirit of the god himself is understood to inhabit the idols at times and invited by worshippers to do so. Food and sometimes blood offerings are given to the idol. These offerings are often boiled or burnt. These practices are widely mocked and demonized in the Christian era and reduced to invoking minor devils and demons in the home or worshipping dumb, mute useless figures instead of the one true god.
Grimm specifically refers to these wooden figures as skurð-goð, a carven image, a heathen idol. In the 13th century German sources he presents, they are called kobolts and tattermen. The term kobolt comes from the Greek coboldus, meaning “rouge” and taterman seems to refer to a figure dressed in “tatters” of cloth. The impression of these wooden figures are as heathen idols, dressed in cloth, and adorned with bells and other trinkets. Grimm compares these to modern Nutcracker dolls and String Puppets suggesting they served the function of pagan idols, like the Roman lares. He states: “The notions of kobold, dwarf, thumbkin, puppet, idol largely run into one another. It seems, they used to carve little house-spirits of boxwood and set them up in the room for fun, as even now wooden nutcrackers and other mere playthings are cut in the shape of a dwarf or idol; yet the practice may have had to do with an old heathen worship of small lares, to whom a place was assigned in the innermost part of the dwelling.” He quotes a Christian poem called “The Runner” by Hugo von Trimberg, which makes their nature and purpose clear at line 10843: ir abgot, als ich gelesen hân, daz waren kobolt und taterman; “your gods (the heathen gods” were nothing but kobolds and tatermen.” These mute wooden figures, sit staring at one another. They are described as figures carved of boxwood, which are painted, and sometimes moved by strings, like puppets. Later, they come to refer to helpful, but mischievous, house-spirits by the same names.
Grimm, then speaks of the Roman cult of Penates and Lares, and provides a number of German glosses for the Roman concept, largely taken from commentaries and translations of Roman works by Germanic authors. These are not names or descriptions of Germanic home-sprites, in context, they refer exclusively to the Roman figures. Cofgodas, “cove-gods” is one such term used as a gloss to transliterate the Roman “penates”. It does not describe a Germanic house-spirit. The term is a direct translation of Penate, from the Latin penes, referring to the pantries, provision houses and storerooms of a house, where goods and treasures are kept. Lars refer to a specific famous ancestor or ancestors of the family, thought to watch over and guide the family. In German tradition, the lar would correspond to the hamingje of the family. These spirits are worshipped together in the Roman home, along with the goddess Vesta, representing sacred fire, to bless the home. Grimm does not equate Germanic house-spirits with the Penates and Lars, and discusses the Anglo-Saxon and German glossed terms for them distinct from the study of the Germanic house-spirits. In other words, Cofgodas are not Kobolts, as Lecouteux claims at times, but rather “cofgodas” is a translation of the Roman “penates”, with reference to the Roman practice in Germanic works such as Notker Labeo’s commentary on the Latin author Martianus Capella (c 410-420 AD)’s De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Lecouteux acknowledges these sources, but then goes on to use the terms kobold and cofgodas interchangeably in support of his premise that the cult of the Roman Penates is Pan-European in nature. It wasn’t. But notably, the Roman figures were closely associated with the hearth and worshipped in conjunction with the domestic goddess of the hearth, Vesta. They are not worshipped in isolation. There are both private and public Penates and Lares. The home cult reflects the public cult on a smaller scale.
Throughout the Middle Ages, we find Christian prohibitions against worshipping heathen idols and setting tables at night, specifically in some cases for Frau Holle.
In Germanic folklore, we frequently find a reduced goddess, Frau Holle and related figures, being invited into homes at Yule, sometimes spreading a table for her and her companions in hopes of securing blessings for the new year. In wider Germanic folklore, Frau Holle and her related forms are well-attested as visiting spirits, who often arrive in a procession. After a through study of her legends, Jacob Grimm came to the conclusion that Frau Holle was none other than Odin’s wife Frigg, the Earth Goddess, like him known by many names. In 2003, after a through study of the legends of Frau Holle ad related figures, Erika Timm of the University of Trier came to the same conclusion. . In the third volume of his Deutsche Mythologie, Grimm wrote: “I am more and more convinced that Holda can be nothing but an epithet of the mild and gracious Fricka; and Berthe, the shining, is identical with her too.” The evidence supports this conclusion: A Vrouwe Vreke appears in Belgium, where there is also a Vrekeberg, located near Gelrode in Flemish Brabant, or over the border into Dutch South Limburg in the countryside near Maastricht. In a medieval Belgian legend of trouwen Eckhout (the faithful Eckhardt), Vreke represents sensual love, as opposed to the spiritual love of Our Lady. Her servants are called kabauter (kobalds). From the farthest southern regions of her range traveling north, she is called Frau Holle, Berchta, Perchta in High German lands to the south, and Frau Herke, Harke, Frekka, Frau Gode, and finally Frau Wodan in Low German regions in the north. Still further north of Frekka’s (Frigga’s) territory lays the greatest concentration of legends identifying Odin as the master of the Wild Hunt. Frau Woden, appears to derive from the Germanic custom of calling married women by their husbands’ first name from the late 1400s onward.
The names Frau Gauden (Goden, Gode, Gaue, etc) appear to fall into the same category. The name Frau Woden (and its many variants) clearly means “Mrs. Odin,” suggesting the two were seen as a married couple. In fact, the further north one travels in Germany, the more Frau Holle’s bynames identify her as Odin’s wife. This pattern is immediately evident in the color-coded map graphically illustrating the distribution of the Frau Holle legends throughout Germany first published in Frau Holle, Frau Percht und Verwandte Gestalten by Erika Timm (2003). Like Grimm, Timm also came to the conclusion that Frau Holle and her related forms represented the goddess Frigg, albeit reduced from a goddess to a fairy-tale figure.
The visiting nature of this chief goddess is clear. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church railed against such customs as “preparing a table for Perchta” and participating in processions, going about with “incense, cheese, a rope, and mallets” on “the eighth day of the Nativity of our Lord.” One record from 1760 specifies that no leguminous plants may be consumed when Frau Holle makes her rounds during the Twelve-Nights. At Christmas-time a spoonful of every dish must be placed on a gate or fence outside the house as an offering to appease this dreaded lady. On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, a bowl of cream with spoons crossed over it was left out for her. When the members of the household woke up, the position of the spoons foretold the family’s fortune for the coming year. If the spoons had been moved or dipped in the cream, it meant she and her children had eaten and so accepted the offering, ensuring blessings in the new year. Medieval folk traditions in Germany speaks widely of this old heathen goddess, whom men invite into their home with food offerings. They set a table for her and her children, or otherwise set food out for her. Aberglaubensverzeichnis, a dictionary of superstitions believed to have been written by Rudolf, a Cistercian monk, between the years 1236 and 1250, speaks of a curious custom, welcoming the high goddess and her train into one’s home, performed annually: “On the night of Christ's nativity, they set the table for the Queen of Heaven (regine celi), whom the common people call Frau Holda, so that she might help them,” In nocte nativitatis Christi ponunt regine celi, quam dominam Holdam vulgus appelat, ut eas ipsa adiuvet. In agreement with this, the Life of St. Eligius (588-660 AD), who served as the chief counsellor to the Merovingian King Dagobert I, warns the newly converted people of Flanders, “nothing is ominous about the Calends of January. [Do not] set tables at night or exchange New Years' gifts or supply superfluous drinks.”
There is no question that Frau Holle is an ancient Germanic goddess. Her name Hludana, etymologically derived from the same stem as hlöd (“pile of earth”), is found in five Latin inscriptions: three from the lower Rhine towns of Nijmegen, Birten (near Xanten), and Kalkar, in North Rhine-Westphalia (CIL XIII 8611, 8723, 8661), one from Iversheim, a part of Bad Münstereifel in the very south of North Rhine-Westphalia, west of modern Bonn (CIL XIII 7944) and one from Beetgum, Frisia (CIL XIII 8830) all dating from 197- 235 AD. Many attempts have been made to interpret this name. The most steadfast connections are with Frau Holle and Hulda on one hand, and the Old Norse Hloðyn, a name for Thor’s mother, the Earth, on the other. The earliest direct reference to Holda occurs in a eulogy by Walafrid Strabo (808-849 AD) for King Louis the Pious’ wife Judith, the daughter of Count Welf. Her mother was a Saxon and her father a Bavarian, one of the peoples allied with the Lombards. In his tribute to Judith, Walifrid sings: “Oh, if eloquent Sappho or Holda should visit us to dance,” O si Sappho loquax vel nos inviseret Holda, ludere jam pedibus. As a holdover from the old heathen religion, Holda was demonized by the new faith. The goddess typically did not travel alone, but in the company of spirits. Christian religious texts often state that she flies through the air with witches in her train. The ninth century Canon Episcopi censors women who claim to have ridden by night in just such a “crowd of demons.” Burchard, the bishop of Worms (c. 950–1025) and a native of Hesse, expands on this in a later recension of the same work included as part of his twenty volume compilation of Church law known as the Decretum. In the nineteenth book, titled de Paenitentia (Penitential or “Corrector”) under De arte magica, Burchard writes:
“Have you believed there is some female, whom the stupid vulgar call Holda [Holdam] who is able to do a certain thing, such that those deceived by the devil affirm themselves by necessity and by command to be required to do, that is, with a crowd of demons transformed into the likeness of women, on fixed nights to be required to ride upon certain beasts, and to themselves be numbered in their company? If you have performed participation in this unbelief, you are required to do penance for one year on designated fast-days.”
In this passage, the word holdam can be understood as a proper name or an epithet meaning “generous,” “propitious” or “lovely.” A minority of the manuscripts, roughly one in seven, clarify this with the addition of the word striga, reading instead strigam holdam, “the witch Holda” or the “lovely witch.” In 1858, Dr. Adolf Helffrich discovered a single manuscript in Madrid which had instead Friga holdam, “the lovely Frigga.” Holda of German legend is a kind, merciful goddess or lady, originally from hold (grace, mercy), Gothic hulþs (Luke 18:13). In the same vein, Grimm notes that Frau Holle is sometimes seen as the queen or leader of elves and hulde-folk, her name being extended to her entire troop, who appear as die guten holden, guedeholden, holderchen, holdeken, etc, terms synonymous with “good elves” in Germanic fairy tales and legends. That the various names of this figure were formed from adjectives describing her attributes— Holda, “the lovely”; Perchta, “the magnificent”; Berchta, “the bright” and Frekka or Frigga, “the beloved”— demonstrates that she appeared to her people as a benevolent deity of radiant beauty and grace. As such, her role as the White Lady was assumed by the Virgin Mary in Christian times. Because of their clear connection, Jacob Grimm considered these older folk figures to have once been a former Germanic “goddess who had come down in the world”.
While the association with the hearth is not clear in these late Medieval and early modern sources, it is clearer in our mythic sources. There the gods themselves build hearths and temples for worship, according to Voluspa 7, “The Æsir met on Ida’s plain; they built altars and high temples, established hearths, forged precious things, shaped tongs, and made tools”. In the eddic poem Hyndluljod, the human warrior Ottar worships the goddess Freyja on a fire-altar, pouring the blood of an ox onto the hot hearth-stones. In Saxo’s Danish History, Book 1, as the hero Hadding sits by the hearth, a goddess associated with “fresh herbs that grow in winter”, emerges from the fire itself. She draws the young hero under the earth and shows him where these herbs had come from:
“While Hadding was sojourning with her a marvelous portent befell him. While he was at supper, a woman bearing hemlocks was seen to raise her head beside the brazier, and, stretching out the lap of her robe, seemed to ask, "in what part of the world such fresh herbs had grown in winter?" The king desired to know; and, wrapping him in her mantle, she drew him with her underground, and vanished. I take it that the nether gods purposed that he should pay a visit in the flesh to the regions whither he must go when he died. So they first pierced through a certain dark misty cloud, and then advancing along a path that was worn away with long thorough-faring, they beheld certain men wearing rich robes, and nobles clad in purple; these passed, they at last approached sunny regions which produced the herbs the woman had brought away.”
In Rigthula, Heimdall goes on foot from home to home establishing the three classes. When he enters the homes of Thrall and Karl, fire was on the floor, eldr var á golfi, the man and the woman of the house are sitting there, (Rigthula 2, 4), and the god sits down between them; where a meal is laid out on the table. Afterwards he sleeps between them, producing a child in each home, thereby sanctifying the culture in each home and establishing the classes: thrall, karl and jarl. This seems to have established the pattern of human worship among the Germans. The couple invites the god in, perhaps through the “fire on the floor”, and serves him a meal, in hopes of securing posterity and prosperity.
In Grimnismal, Odin sits between two fires at king Geirrod’s, a man with a giant’s name whom Odin had once favored, according to the prose introduction. Frigg told Odin that Geirrod was stingy with food (i.e inhospitable). So Odin went to visit Geirrod in the guise of an old man to test his hospitality, but, forewarned by Frigg, Geirrod captures Odin thinking him to be a hostile wizard, and tortures him by placing the god in fire. Odin’s cloak begins to burn. Just then, the king’s son Agnar steps forward and gives Odin a drink as he sits between the fires. In other words, the boy pours out a drink offering to the god in the fire. Odin says the boy will never receive a better reward for one drink than that which he will now receive. Through his song, Odin imparts the wisdom the boy requires to be king. At the end of the poem, King Geirrod recognizes his patron god Odin, and immediately falls upon his own sword. Odin elevates Agnar, whom Odin’s wife Frigg [the earth] favors, to king. Thereby, the favor Odin had shown Geirrod is transferred to Agnar, the favorite of the Earth mother indicating his reign will be prosperous, unlike that of Geirrod whose crime was Frigg’s accusation that he was stingy with food. He did not share the wealth with his own people, as a ring-giver should. Therefore, the gods withdrew their favor from him. Odin performs all this from this position in the fire in Geirrod’s home.
So the purpose of the Germanic Hearth-cult should be clear. It is not to invite imps and mischievous spirits to take up residence in one’s home, using wooden representations of them and offering them food. That is the Christian demonization of the actual ritual. The actual heathen ritual involved setting up wooden idols of the gods and their helpers (Aesir and Alfar), dressed in fine clothes, and preparing a meal for them on a table. Bits of the meal were thrown into the fire, invoking the gods to appear and bless the home. If the ritual was successful, the Aesir appeared in the hearth fire to accept the offering; if pleased by the host’s hospitality and the moral condition of the home, the god may leave Alfar behind, representing the judgement on the home (either favorable or punitive) in the new year.
The communal nature of these practices is apparent by a study of sacred fire in Germanic tradition. At times of pandemics and murrains of livestock, community fires were kindled via friction and people and animals run through them in hopes of dispelling the spirits behind it. At such times, all home hearth fires had to be extinquished, and once the community fire had been lit, all home hearth fires were then relit from it, purifying he flame for use in each home. Grimm records numerous traditions regarding these practices in Teutonic Mythology, chapter 20, in the sub-section on friction-fire or “need-fire”. Need-fire is always produced by friction and frequently by the revolution of a wheel; in Mull, for example, after a heifer was sacrificed, a need-fire was made by turning an oak wheel over nine oak spindles from east to west, in the direction of the sun.
In the first historic mention of Beltain, made by Cormac, Archbishop of Cashel (d. 908), two fires were made near one another, for men and cattle to pass through unharmed. This practice survived the centuries. When a deadly cattle-plague raged at Neustadt near Marburg in 1598, a man by the name of Johan Kohler induced the authorities to adopt the following remedy: He instructed them to take a new wagon-wheel and spin it around an axle, which had never been used before, until it burst into flame, then to kindle a bonfire with it between the gates of the town and drive all the cattle through it. Moreover, every homeowner must rekindle his hearth fire with a brand lit from it. So it was done. This measure, however, had no effect on the plague, and seven years later Kohler was burnt as a witch. According to a book published nine years after Kohler’s death, many Germans, especially those in the Wassgaw mountains, confidently believed that driving sick animals through a need-fire kindled by the friction of a pole on dry oak could cure such a murrain; but only if all fires in the village had previously been extinguished with water.
In Germany, need-fires were popular down to the second half of the nineteenth century. The bonfire itself had to be kindled before sunrise, often beginning at two a.m., and made up of straw and wood contributed by every household. In some places, nine different types of word were required. Anyone who failed to put out his own hearth fire before the need-fire was kindled was punished. Searches were conducted through the houses and any flame discovered was extinguished, so that not even a spark remained alight in the whole village. If in spite of every precaution, no flame could be elicited by the friction, the failure was attributed to witchcraft. If the efforts were successful, a bonfire was lit from it at the gates of the city and when the flames had died down, the animals were driven through the glowing embers three times, amid a great commotion of people shouting and shrieking and cracking whips. Although the majority of the available accounts limit the use of needfire to an outbreak of murrain, some expressly inform us that it was resorted to at stated times of the year, especially Midsummer, and that cattle were driven through the flames to protect them against future illnesses. The fire itself was thought to avert the harmful effects of witchcraft. In Sweden, need-fire was called either vrid-eld, "turned fire" or gnid-eld, "rubbed fire" after its means of production.
This clearly demonstrates that the Heathen gods were of a personal nature, and took interest in human affairs, visiting homes regularly. It also shows that the hearth-fire was not a personal, isolated practice, but a communal event inside one’s home. In conclusion, our gods are not nameless, faceless “house-sprites” as the modern Hearth-Cultists claim. That notion is based on the popular theories of French scholar Claude Lecouteux, who has generalized the Germanic evidence and falsely identified it as identical to the Roman cult of the Penates and Lares.
- William P Reaves, 2021
Image: The Rällinge IdolA 6.9cm tall bronze figurine discovered at the farm Rällinge in Lunda parish, Södermanland, Sweden in 1904 and dated to the Viking Age, around 1000 A.D. It is assumed to be the Norse god Freyr, depicted with a conical hat, clasping his pointed beard and has a phallus. The figure agrees with the description of the god Fricco (Freyr) in the Temple at Uppsala in the 10th century by Adam of Bremen.