Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Hel's Pond: for K.C. Hulsman

K.C. Hulsman's recent post on Patheos introduced us to an ancient holy pond in Berlin's Alboinplatz. Now an unassuming park, this was once a place where sacrifices were offered to Hel, Northern Europe's half-rotting goddess of death and the grave. (It is, in fact, the only site known to have been sacred to Her Bony Majesty).  K.C. tells the story better than I could:
According to local folk tradition, there was a sacrificial stone altar beside the great lake tended by a pagan priest, and Hel (who was believed to dwell at the bottom of the lake) would send up black bulls that emerged from the water. These bulls would help the priest clear the land, and work it. The land itself was blessed, and would provide plenty of grain that kept the priest well fed. 
But as the priest grew old, he took it as a sign when one day a Christian monk appeared at the lake that his time on Midgard was ending. He asked the holy man to continue to look after the place of sacrifice. But after the pagan priest had passed from the world of the living the monk refused to honor a pagan Goddess. Hel was greatly displeased and sent Her bulls foaming up from the water after the monk, and the monk was killed. Since then, it is said in some versions of the local folk tales that instead of waiting for others to sacrifice to Her in an age of Christianity, that the Goddess Herself lures victims to Her holy waters, and takes them as drowned sacrifices.
I am uncertain if this particular folk tale has been translated into English, but through the years, and the pagan grapevine I’ve heard of several other pagans who have in one source or another stumbled across this local folk tale. There appears to be other versions of the folk tradition out there as well, such as an alternate version that describes the Christian monk reconverting back to paganism after being chased by the Goddess’s bull, or a version where instead of this being Hel’s pond it belongs to Frau Holle.
While I don't think I will be traveling to Berlin anytime soon, I thought I'd explore the history of the region a bit in honor of Hela and the other Gods who were once served here, as well as the land which has seen so much history.  (She thought it was a good idea, and one really can't argue with Her.  Well, one can, but it generally doesn't do any good... ).

Even during the Empire's heyday the land which is today's Berlin lay well outside the borders of Roman control, part of the barbaric forest region. But the Semmones, an ancient and honored branch of the Suevianstribe who controlled the area wherein modern-day Berlin lies, attracted the attention of the Roman historian and philosopher Tacitus:
Of all the Suevians, the Semnones recount themselves to be the most ancient and most noble. The belief of their antiquity is confirmed by religious mysteries. At a stated time of the year, all the several people descended from the same stock, assemble by their deputies in a wood; consecrated by the idolatries of their forefathers, and by superstitious awe in times of old. There by publicly sacrificing a man, they begin the horrible solemnity of their barbarous worship. To this grove another sort of reverence is also paid. No one enters it otherwise than bound with ligatures, thence professing his subordination and meanness, and the power of the Deity there. If he fall down, he is not permitted to rise or be raised, but grovels along upon the ground. And of all their superstition, this is the drift and tendency; that from this place the nation drew their original, that here God, the supreme Governor of the world, resides, and that all things else whatsoever are subject to him and bound to obey him. The potent condition of the Semnones has increased their influence and authority, as they inhabit an hundred towns; and from the largeness of their community it comes, that they hold themselves for the head of the Suevians. 
The park itself is named for Alboin, king of the Lombards between 560 and 572.  The Lombards (also known as the Langobards or Long-Beards) were a Scandinavian tribe which settled around the River Elbe in the first century BCE.  Contemporary archaeological evidence suggests they were originally followers of the Vanir: some scholars believe their "Long Beards" were a sign of their later commitment to Wotan. Still later some (including the Lombard aristocratic families) would convert to Arian Christianity, all the while remaining remarkably tolerant of differing opinions. In Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon described life under Alboin's rule:
Every mode of religion was freely practised by its respective votaries. The king of the Lombards had been educated in the Arian heresy; but the Catholics, in their public worship, were allowed to pray for his conversion; while the more stubborn Barbarians sacrificed a she-goat, or perhaps a captive, to the gods of their fathers. 
Although he managed to assert control over a good chunk of modern-day Hungary, Austria, Serbia and Italy by 572,  Alboin was unable to enjoy his triumphs for long.  (Forcing your wife to drink wine from her father's skull is never a path to marital bliss, especially when she has a lover in the imperial bodyguards).  Within two years the various dukes of the Lombard Confederation were in civil war amongst themselves: two centuries later, Alboin's dynasty ended when the Lombard throne was claimed by Charles in Charge - Charlemagne, that is.

Whatever Charlemagne's virtues or vices, he was not one for religious tolerance. His grandfather Charles Martel ("Charles the Hammer") earned his name by beating back the superior forces of the Umayyad Caliphate at the 732 Battle of Tours. Charlemagne applied a similar zeal to ridding Europe of "pagan superstition." Under his reign those Germanic tribes who would not be baptized by choice would be martyrs to their faith.  Paul the Deacon, who chronicled Lombard history at the end of the 8th century, was calling their myths of Godan/Wotan "silly tales." A few years later those myths would largely be destroyed, as family altars and community temples alike were leveled and replaced with Christian churches.

It may have been at this time that the zealous monk of legend was mauled by Hel's bull.  Or it may have
been the locals. The Polobian Slavs who settled northeast Germany from the 7th century onward were notoriously hostile to Christianization.  The Wendish Crusade of 1147 finally applied military and clerical efforts toward fulfilling St. Bernard of Clairvaux's request that "by God’s help, they be either converted or deleted.”  Many were deleted: by 1185 the rest were converted.  Yet perhaps She got the last laugh after all, as She usually does.  Today those who want to get extra close to Hel's Pond can rent an apartment in the Lindenhof, a 1918 complex whose private pond was once part of the glacial lake that was Blanke Helle.