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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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A Pagan Gothic Ritual

Alby Stone

In the years 369-72, pagan Goths embarked upon a campaign against those of their compatriots who had been converted to Christianity. This occurred in the Gothic-controlled lands straddling what are now the Ukraine (the land surrounding the mouths of the rivers Dniestr and Dniepr), Moldova, eastern Romania, and north Bulgaria. A significant fraction of the Goths had by this time been converted to Christianity, largely through the efforts of Ulfilas, who was consecrated as bishop to the Goths by Eusebius of Nicomedia, and sent among them as a missionary. The brand of Christianity purveyed by Ulfilas was Arianism, subsequently regarded as a heresy, since it denies the divinity of Christ.

However, it was not the type of Christianity adopted by the Goths that resulted in their persecution. Athanaric, the iudex (a combination of judge, war-leader and over-chieftain) of the Tervingi, one of the main tribal groups, seems to have instigated the campaign. Exactly why he did so is unclear, but a previous wave of persecutions involving Athanaric (347-8) has been suggested as an attempt to rid the Goths’ ancestral religion - vital to their sense of ethnic identity - of corrupting influences, or perhaps to spite the Christian emperors of Rome. The persecution of 369-72 happened very soon after Rome officially recognised Gothic independence - the emperor Valens negotiated peace with Athanaric on a ship in the middle of the Danube in 369 - and it could be that the Gothic leader simply wished to rid the tribes of all remaining Roman influence. One distinct possibility is that Valens had been encouraging the conversion of the Goths, perhaps even offering military support to Athanaric’s internal enemies in exchange for their conversion [1].

Whatever the truth of the matter, Athanaric certainly pressed ahead with a plan seemingly designed to eliminate Christianity. But the persecution appears to have been conducted according to a prescribed ritual, with the victims being offered a choice between returning to the pagan religion or remaining Christian and being punished accordingly. The ritual is described by the Church historian Sozomenus, writing in the mid-fifth century:
‘It is said that a wooden image was placed on a wagon, and that those instructed by Athanaric to undertake this task wheeled it round to the tent of any of those who were denounced as Christians and ordered them to do homage and sacrifice to it; and the tents of those who refused to do so were burned, with the people inside.’ [2]

The Goths - who appear to have migrated to eastern Europe from Sweden and the southern shore of the Baltic from around 150 onward - seem to have been adhering to a tradition brought with them from their native lands. Tacitus, writing toward the end of the first century, describes the worship of Nerthus, whom he characterises as ‘Mother Earth’, among the Germanic tribes of northern Germany:
‘They believe that she takes a part in human affairs, riding in a chariot among her people. On an island of the sea stands an inviolate grove, in which, veiled with a cloth, is a chariot that none but the priest may touch. The priest can feel the presence of the goddess in this holy of holies, and attends her with deepest reverence as her chariot is drawn along by cows. Then follow days of rejoicing and merrymaking in every place that she condescends to visit and sojourn in. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every iron object is locked away. Then, and then only, are peace and quiet known and welcomed, until the goddess, when she has had enough of the society of men, is restored to her sacred precinct by the priest. After that, the chariot, the vestments, and (believe it if you will) the goddess herself, are cleansed in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake. Thus mystery begets terror and a pious reluctance to ask what that sight can be which is only seen by men doomed to die.’ [3]

Any discussion of the goddess Nerthus is fraught with peril. This is the only mention of the name in any ancient text, and all that can be said with certainty is that the name is related to that of the Norse god Njorðr, who is conventionally associated with the sea. Any cultic or mythological relationship between Nerthus and Njorðr has yet to be satisfactorily demonstrated - although there are theories that either Tacitus got the deity’s sex wrong, or an important Germanic goddess has been mysteriously masculinised, or there were originally two divinities, brother and sister, with different forms of the same name.

Iron age cult cart

Iron Age 'cult cart' in the National Museum, Copenhagen. Reconstruction of fragments found in Proestegaardmore, Dejbjerg, West Jutland.
Illustration by Bob Trubshaw.

There are fewer problems with another Germanic deity associated with a ritual perambulation in a wheeled vehicle. The Icelandic Flateyjarbók includes a tale, Gunnars þáttr, that tells how a Norwegian named Gunnar Helmingr flees to Sweden after a dispute with king Olafr Tryggvason of Norway. He takes up with a priestess of Freyr, a woman characterised as the god’s wife. When she sets out in a wagon containing an image of Freyr, Gunnar goes along for the ride, eventually impersonating the statue, joining in the celebratory feasts, and enjoying a sexual relationship with the priestess, who becomes pregnant - an event taken as a good omen by the populace at large [4].

This relatively late tale is presented as a comedy, the joke being at the expense of the credulous heathens. But the god’s wagon-ride seems to have been based on an authentic practice. Flateyjarbók records another wagon-borne deity, Lytir, who is consulted as an oracle by a Swedish king. The god’s carriage is led to a particular place, and the king waits; when the wagon becomes heavy, it is taken as a sign that the god has entered it, and the vehicle is led to the king’s hall, where it answers questions. Apart from this tale, Lytir is unknown except for a handful of place-names that might be derived from the name [5]. As to the name Lytir, it seems fairly certainly to be derived from Old Norse lyta, and means ‘dirty, filthy, disgraceful’. This is an odd name for such a useful god, and it seems sensible to accept the argument of those who believe Lytir to be a derogatory name given by later Christian authorities to Freyr, whose frank sexuality - his representation at Uppsala was ithyphallic - would have been enough to earn him such an epithet.

Another version of Freyr appears in the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus. Saxo, writing early in the thirteenth century, recounts the life and career of the Danish king Frothi, whose reign - after wars against the British and Irish - is famous for peace and prosperity. It must be emphasised that Frothi’s reign is wholly legendary; it is accepted, for good reason, that he is a euphemised version of Freyr, or perhaps a similarly-named Danish equivalent [6]. According to Saxo, Frothi (who has taken to travelling in a carriage because of old age and infirmity) is eventually killed by a sorceress who has taken the shape of a sea-cow. The nobility, fearing that conflict would break out if his death became known, embalm the corpse.
‘For this reason they would carry his lifeless body about, not, so it seemed, in a hearse, but a royal carriage, pretending that this was a service due from his soldiers to a feeble old monarch not in full possession of his strength. Such was the pomp accorded to their ruler by his friends even after his decease.’ [7]

The Vita Caroli of the Frankish chronicler Einhard, written c.829-36, describes another Germanic monarch borne in a wheeled vehicle, this time a living one, Childeric III, last of the Merovingian dynasty.
‘Whenever he needed to travel, he went in a cart which was drawn in country style by yoked oxen, with a cowherd to drive them. In this fashion he would go to the palace and to the general assembly of his people, which was held each year to settle the affairs of the kingdom, and in this fashion he would return home again.’ [8]

This was far from being merely rustic eccentricity. It was, as one writer puts it, ‘like the long hair and beards . . . really a sign of their royal and religious dignity’ [9]. The question is, which religion? The term Einhard uses is carpentum, which is in used classical texts to denote a type of covered vehicle used mainly by women and for religious processions, one rarely drawn by horses. By the fourth century the term could be used for a manure-cart. Stuart Piggott [10] suggests that Einhard was deliberately insinuating effeminacy on the part of the Merovingians, and links this with their fabled long hair. He notes the androgynous possibilities of Nerthus; and the fact that the Franks originated in the very region in which Nerthus was supposedly venerated as a goddess.

Einhard is certainly making some kind of jibe at the Merovingians; but is he really suggesting effeminacy? Probably not. The ritual carpentum of pagan Rome was ornate, slow-moving, and patently meant to invest the occupant with dignity. The later usage, ‘manure-cart’, seems to have been meant (especially considering the description rustico, ‘country-style’) - in the same way that today the envious might sneeringly describe a wealthy man’s Rolls-Royce as ‘an old banger’.

These examples establish a basis for there having been a widespread tradition of ritual perambulations of gods (goddesses too, if Nerthus was genuinely female) and, later, kings in wheeled vehicles in the region from whence the Goths first came. Bearing in mind the historical tradition of divine ancestry attributed to Germanic royal houses, Saxo’s euphemerisation of Frothi, and Gunnar Helmingr’s successful impersonation, there may have seemed to be little difference in the popular mind between a wagon-borne god and a similarly-esconced ruler. The Gothic rite was not an innovation.

Frothi’s association with peace, and its continuation after his death, compares with the cessation of war during the perambulations of Nerthus. Gunnar’s adventure hints obliquely at something similar: the journey is described in terms of feasting, merrymaking, and sexual activity. Childeric’s drive to the annual assembly should, perhaps, be considered in terms of the Germanic þing taking place amid general truce and laying-down of arms - although Tacitus states that men attended assemblies fully-armed, he also says they were overseen by some kind of priesthood, ‘who on such occasions have power to enforce obedience’ [11].

According to Sozomenus, the Gothic wagon contained an object - translated above as ‘wooden image’ - which he names as a xoanon, which denotes a cult-statue carved from wood. This accords perfectly with the contents of the wagons of Freyr and Nerthus - idols, images of divinity. If Gunnars þáttr is to be believed, then the statue of Freyr was life-size - otherwise Gunnar could not convincingly have worn ritual clothing or other adornments designed for it. Archaeological evidence is not much help: some cult vehicles of the Bronze Age onward are of normal size, while others - such as the Trundholm sun-chariot are tiny (though it should perhaps be noted that the solar disc it bears is obviously not an anthropomorphic representation).

cult images

Wooden cult images recovered from Danish bogs, probably similar to the Gothic wagon-deity.
Illustration by Bob Trubshaw.

The fact that the Gothic wagon was wheeled from one place to another suggests that it and its divine occupant were life-size. Unfortunately, there are no other clues as to the nature of the deity it carried. The balance of cultic evidence from (admittedly late) Scandinavian texts, and the Frankish association with kingship, tends to suggest that the deity was male. There seems little point in invoking the similar vehicular perambulations of the Phrygian goddess Kybele, whose cult is known in the same region at an earlier date - if the Goths really were so concerned to maintain the purity of their ancestral religion, then they are hardly likely to have elevated a distinctly alien goddess to such a significant purpose.

Events in the Gothic lands during the persecution period 369-72 may provide further pointers to the nature and purpose of the ritual. Sozomenus presents it as a test of faith for pagans and Christians alike. But why should it take this particular form? The easiest way would surely have been for suspected Christians to be forced to take an oath. A popular way was to swear on a sacred arm-ring - and these are certainly known from the region in the period in question. The treasure of Pietroasa in Romania includes a splendid example, engraved with Gothic runes. Yet this common means of oath-taking seems not to have been employed at all.

A clue may be found in the Passion of St Saba the Goth (which was written as a letter from ‘the church of God dwelling in Gothia, to the church of God dwelling in Cappadocia and all the other communities of the holy catholic church in any place’ [12]). Written very soon after the events it purports to recount, the Passion tells how a Christian named Saba, a member of a Gothic community somewhere in what is now Wallachia, sought to uphold his integrity during the persecution. According to this text, the people were made to eat (pagan) sacrificial meat at gatherings when the persecutors were present. Saba’s fellow-villagers hit on the idea of switching the meat for non-sacrificial fare, so that the Christians among them could preserve both their lives and their integrity. When Saba got wind of this, he refused to eat, publicly announcing that ‘If anyone eats of that meat, this man cannot be a Christian’ [13]. Not surprisingly, the man was thrown out of the village. Later on - after the villagers had allowed him to return - ‘a time of trial was moved in customary fashion by the Goths’ [14] and the villagers decided that the pagans among them would swear by their gods that there were no Christians in the village. The noble Saba, however, demanded that ‘no man swear on my account, for I am a Christian’ [15]. Doing as he said, the pagans swore there were no Christians save one; and the persecutor, having identified Saba, had him thrown out of the village.

Later, while staying with a Christian priest at Easter 372, Saba fell foul of the pagan Atharidus and his followers. The priest, curiously, was ‘held captive on a wagon’, but Saba was soundly beaten and driven through burning bushes. The next day, Saba boasted that the mistreatment had left him unblemished. The heathens then tied wagon axles to his outstretched hands and feet, and flogged him until they were so tired that they fell asleep. A woman came and set Saba free, but he refused to leave the place: so his hands were tied and he was strung up from a roof-beam. When Atharidus’ men turned up with sacrificial meat, the two prisoners refused to partake. Saba insulted Atharidus and the meat, and an angry pagan grabbed a pestle and threw it at Saba’s chest. The blow was hard, but Saba sneered at the man, denying that it had hurt. When Atharidus heard this, he finally ordered Saba to be killed. The priest was allowed to live, but Saba was led away to be drowned in a nearby river. On the way - ‘along the entire road’ - he praised God and gave thanks to the Holy Spirit. On reaching the river, Atharidus’ men decided to ‘set free this fool’; but Saba admonished them for attempting to avoid carrying out orders. Thereupon, they threw him in the river and pressed him down with a wooden beam until he drowned [16].

The letter does not mention a wagon-borne xoanon, although the test of sacrifical meat would parallel the feasting that celebrated the arrival of Freyr’s carriage in Gunnars þáttr. A wagon looms large in Saba’s encounter with Atharidus, as a prison for a holy man, and as a means of punishment; was it a ritual wagon of the type mentioned by Sozomenus? Atharidus’ rôle would suggest that it was, but it is not at all certain. More telling is the treatment meted out to the insufferable Saba. On two occasions his admission of Christianity results in nothing more than his being thrown out of the village. This conflicts with Sozomenus’ claim that discovered Christians were burned alive in their dwellings. Atharidus and his men beat Saba with rods, whip him, and subject him to a rough-and-ready form of torture with axles, but they seem reluctant to do more than that. Even the pestle-throwing incident appears to be an angry, impetuous reaction to Saba’s smug cantankerousness, with the thrower seizing whatever came to hand. Finally, personal insult and blasphemy cause Atharidus to lose patience, and he orders Saba to be drowned. Even then, the executioners try to evade the issue - they want to free the condemned man, but he insists upon being killed.

Three points arise from this story. Firstly, there is a marked reluctance on the part of the persecutors to kill anyone, and Saba is only drowned after provoking his captors. Secondly, actual weapons are not mentioned - the persecutors use whatever everyday objects are to hand. Finally, the manner of Saba’s death accords with sacrificial executions described by Tacitus, and echoes the drowning of slaves who wash the wagon and image of Nerthus [17].

There are further tentative links with the cult of Nerthus. Tacitus asserts that, when Nerthus is on her travels, ‘no one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every iron object is locked away’. Is this why Atharidus and his men are forced to use domestic implements and makeshift tortures, because warfare and weapons are forbidden to them while the deity in the wagon is abroad? Of course, there is a conflict between Sozomenus and the story of Saba - one depends on ruthless and lethal persecution, the other on Saba being allowed to live so that he can display his faith. Even so, the former tells us that Christians were burned in their homes - not that they were put to the sword. Perhaps this was intended as a sacrificial death; or maybe it never happened at all [18].

On the whole, these accounts of the Gothic persecution of Christians do not really conflict with the peace-generating perambulations of Nerthus as described by Tacitus - the burnings alleged by Sozomenus ring false when set alongside the Passion of St Saba the Goth, which is practically a contemporary record of the persecution. It may even be suggested that the real purpose of the wagon-borne deity was to procure peace among those of conflicting faiths, rather than being a straightforward test of religious alliegance. Certainly there have been those who have described the Goths’ internal religious differences in terms of civil war, Sozomenus among them [19]. Unreliable though Sozomenus may be in describing various aspects of the Goths’ religious dispute, the wagon ritual rings true; though he obviously does not understand its significance. The deity in the wagon evidently belongs to the religious traditions of the Goths’ ancestral lands, and its existence is supported by circumstantial evidence in the story of the martyr Saba.


1: H. Wolfram History of the Goths, University of California Press, 1988, pp. 68-70; T. Burns A History of the Ostrogoths, Indiana University Press, 1984, p145-7.
2: P. Heather and J. Matthews The Goths in the Fourth Century, (Liverpool University Press, 1991), p108.
3: Tacitus The Agricola and the Germania, (trans. H. Mattingly and S.A. Handford), Penguin Books, 1970, p134-5.
4: H.R. Ellis Davidson Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Pelican Books, 1964, p93-4.
5: Davidson (op. cit.), p94; R. Simek A Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D.S. Brewer, 1993, p198-9.
6: E.O.G. Turville-Petre Myth and Religion of the North, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1964, p169-70.
7: Saxo Grammaticus History of the Danes: Vol.I Text, (trans. P. Fisher, ed. H.R. Ellis Davidson), D.S. Brewer/Rowman and Littlefield, 1979, p157.
8: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer Two Lives of Charlemagne, (trans. L. Thorpe), Penguin Books, 1969, p55-6.
9: Ibid., p181.
10: S. Piggott Wagon, Chariot and Carriage, Thames and Hudson, 1992, p34-5.
11: Tacitus, op. cit., p111.
12: Heather and Matthews, op. cit., p111.
13: Ibid., p113.
14: Ibid., p113.
15: Ibid., p113.
16: Ibid., p114-7.
17: Tacitus, op. cit., p111.
18: For example, Sozomenus writes of the Goths living in tents. As Heather and Matthews note (op. cit., p108), this was not a time when the Goths lived a nomadic life. They also note that Sozomenus had problems with chronology.
19: Heather and Matthews (op. cit.): ‘the Goths fought among themselves and were split into two divisions . . . these two made war on each other’. The ‘extent, dating and historicity’ of this alleged conflict are, as Heather and Matthews acknowledge, matters for debate.

Originally published in At the Edge No.2 1996.

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