Wyrd Designs – Understanding the Symbols Part 3 – Irminsul

Wyrd Designs – Understanding the Symbols Part 3 – Irminsul May 12, 2010

The Irminsul is a symbol found in antiquity, but unlike the mjollnir (Thor’s Hammer), this is not a symbol that we have any evidence of it ever being worn. Instead it appears to be a communal symbol, erected in honor of the Gods.

The Irminsul, in the Old Saxon language means mighty pillar, and it may connect to a possible god of the Saxon tribe by the name of Irmin as well. The existence of Irmin is at best a supposition and is by no means absolute. Some scholars who do accept the possibility of this god, think Irmin could potentially be Odin. Since there are theories that the Irminsul may be a symbolic representation of Yggdrasil, this theory would indeed make sense within the cosmological framework and obvious connection between Odin and Yggdrasil. Yet still other scholars propose that perhaps Irmin is an aspect of the God Tyr. Other’s look to Tacitus’ Germania and mentions of the “Pillars of Hercules”  and see associations with Thor. What does Hercules have to do with anything? Well you have to understand that the Romans were fond of alikening other cultures to their own. Romans were known to sometimes identify the Germanic Thor with their Hercules. Regardless of the fact which God this symbol may have been intimately connected with or not… the fact remains it was indeed a symbol of their religion and by extent tribal identity.

Archaeological and written accounts of these mighty pillars seem to be relegated solely to Germania. In the 8th Century document, the Royal Frankish Annals, we learn that during the Saxon War campaign Charlemagne repeatedly orders the destruction of the Irminsul.  Destroying it would strike a mighty blow because it was an iconic symbol of the might of their gods and the power of their culture. From the description provided in this record and taking into account modern geography, scholars believe that this holy site would be located in the Teutoburg Forest near Obermarsberg, Germany. By Church tradition, a stone pillar was dug up in this area in the 9th Century and moved to the Hildesheim Cathedral. This particular Cathedral, and others in Germany,  would commemorate Charlemagne’s victory and destruction of the Irminsul  during the fourth Sunday of the Catholic Lent season. Poles would be erected with a separate cone or pyramid shaped box atop them that the youths were encouraged to knock down.

In the 9th Century document, De Miraculis sancti Alexandri ,we are provided with another written account of the Irminsul where it is described as an erected wooden pillar worshipped outdoors. There are of course other accounts as well, but their relevancy and description leaves a lot to be desired.

While there’s no firm proof of such a connection, I personally believe that the tradition of the “May Pole” which is a heavily Germanic custom to begin with, is indeed connected to the Irminsul. If we look to accounts involving Thor’s Oak, the holy groves of the Gods as described in Adam of Bremen and in passing in Tacitus’ Germania it all appears to be of enough sameness to derive from the same source.  While the Irminsul appears to be confined in occurrence to Germania, we do have in Norse derived sources references to God poles and nithling poles. These may be a related cousin-like custom as well, ultimately all deriving from the same source.

So what exactly does an Irminsul look like? The simple answer is we don’t know. Some think it was simply a pole, perhaps with an idol carved upon it or placed onto it. Others envision it like a ‘T’ shaped pole where the top is depicted with decorative branches. This later symbol is more commonly used by reconstructionists today based on the controversial Externsteine relief, which most scholars feel is NOT a representation of the Irminsul.

Irminsul

Regardless of what the Irminsul may or may not look like, symbols are ultimately what we make of them. Modern day reconstructionists when they use this symbol, tend to see it as a great universal symbol. Usually it is used to represent the coming together of those of the Northern Tradition to worship our Gods. They do tend to think of this great and mighty pillar as a representation of Yggdrasil, and therefore the symbol through which we are connected to the 9 worlds of our cosmology.

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