Engraving from 1662 depicting Redbad
Friesland was one of the last nations to convert from their pagan religion, and this by force after under Charlemagne in the 8th century. Remnants of paganism continued for a few hundred years, and, like the rest of the Germanic peoples, elements of the old paganism were drafted into Catholicism to make it more palatable to the people. Elements like the excessive reliance on relics and saint-worship.
Pagan Frisia, by Catherine Buma
It is difficult to define ‘Frisian paganism’ as the religious practices of Western Europe usually varied from one area to another. In Frisia, each terp, (a raised settlement to avoid flooding), could have its own established rites, favourite gods, or shrines. In addition, there are few surviving sources that can define the heathendom of Frisia as it existed in ancient and early medieval times. However, from the artifacts and inscriptions found in Friesland today and elsewhere, it is apparent that while the religion of the Frisians was similar to their Germanic neighbours, it did contain elements that separated it from them.
In pre-Roman times, the Germanic tribes tended to imbue their immediate environment with divine powers. While the tree or stream itself was not divine, it could be inhabited by a spiritual presence. It wasn’t until the Germanic tribes were influenced by the Romans that power began to be invested in divinities with human characteristics and forms.
From the time of Constantine onwards, a concerted effort was made to Christianize the various ‘heathen’ peoples that inhabited much of Western Europe. Redbad, the leader of Frisia from 679 – 719 AD, is the greatest folk hero of the Frisians and was a devoted heathen. Previous to his rule, Christian missionaries had been let into Frisia. He soon saw to their expulsion and burned their churches behind them. After Redbad’s death, Charles Martel, ‘The Hammer,’ managed to defeat the Frisians at the Battle of the River Boorne in 734 AD. In the following years missionaries once again ‘converted’ the Frisians. This was only a superficial arrangement and almost certainly was mainly a lip service paid by the Frisian leaders. However, the church influenced the ruling class to stamp out the oral tradition of the Frisians by silencing the heathen priests and skalds or bards who had sung the epic poems of Frisia. It is reported that in 793 AD there was only one bard left alive, Bernlef. Most consider the actual defeat of heathenism in Frisia as the date when Charlemagne, Martel’s grandson, defeated the alliance of East Frisia and Saxony in 785 AD. However, it is interesting to note that when Charlemagne codified the laws of all the conquered people sometime after 800 AD, the Frisians produced not only the Lex Frisonium but also a pagan legend accompanying its creation. The tale revolves around the 12 Asegas, or ‘law-speakers,’ of Frisia. When asked for their laws, they inform Charlemagne that they cannot agree upon them and so he sets them adrift in a ship without a helm. After a time spent in prayer, a thirteenth person appears with them; a god with a golden axe, presumably Fosite, the god of justice, who proclaims Frisian law to the Asegas. It is obvious, then, that Frisian paganism existed well past the time of their ‘conversion.’
The Lex Frisionium, completed in approximately 802 AD, detailed the laws of the Frisians, many of which were based or ratified according to pagan tradition. Over the years, fixed actions, designed to evoke a certain outcome, had evolved. Rites involving transitions such as birth, maturity, death or fertility, including those designed to increase crop yield, are probably the most common. A child’s birth, for example, involved a certain ritual to grant it status as a member of the tribe. First, a child had to be raised from the ground and set upon the father’s knee where it was sprinkled with water. Up until this point, it was acceptable to kill a child without legal repercussions. Liudger, a Frisian and also Catholic missionary to his homeland, urged the bard Bernlef to baptize as many infants as he could as he traveled about Frisia. By this baptism, they were no longer at risk of being killed. In the Lex Frisionium, infanticide was still acknowledged under some circumstances, obviously a remnant of this tradition.
The religious beliefs of the Frisians were a form of Odinism or Asatru. Many of us are familiar with Odin and his pleasure palace at Valhalla for those honoured warriors, or Thor swinging his mighty hammer. The northern Germanic peoples, too, had their variations of these legends and gods and almost certainly told epic tales concerning them before their oral tradition was wiped out under the church and the Frankish empire. In Frisia, for example, it is known that Odin went by the name of Wêda. The Frisians named the central day of the week after him, Wensdei or Wernsdei. Even today we can see traces of Odinism in the days of the week. The god Tiu or Tiwaz to the Frisians became Tiisdei or Tiwesdei, our Tuesday. Donar was the ‘thunderer’ and was named Thuner by the Frisians and Saxons and so we have Thunresdei or ThunersdePagan frisian god Freyri. Frîjaor Frigg became Friday (Frigendei) and Sunday and Monday were named after the cult of the sun god and the moon goddess respectively, (Snein en Moandei).
Heathenism did not imbue moral principles to an individual. Instead, an individual functioned according to a system of obligations based on his given word.
Marriage, for example, was an oath that bound two people together and so led to certain obligations that would then help establish a working society. This is why the swearing of an oath was so important to the Frisians. To break an oath almost certainly meant death
Despite the reorganization of their social structure from the 8th century onwards, the Frisians adapted and retained their place as a unique group amongst the peoples of Western Europe. And if the ancestor worshipping pagans were correct, Redbad is still with them in spirit.