Externsteine: Sacred Stones of Germany

Externsteine: Sacred Stones of Germany

Externsteine is a mysterious rock formation near Ostwestfalen-Lippe in northwest Germany. In an area that is largely void of massive stone structures, the uniqueness of these soaring columnar rocks is what makes them especially interesting. Many theories abound about this very interesting site located on the northeastern slope of the Teutoburger Waldthe place that the Romans were defeated by the Germans in 9 CE.

The formation of multiple free-standing stone pillars stretches for several hundred meters. In total, there are 13 stone structures. The etymology of the name Extern- is unclear (-steine meaning “stones” or “rocks”). The Latinized spelling with x is first recorded in the 16th century, but became common only in the late 19th century.

The oldest recorded forms of the name read Agistersten and Eggesterenstein, both dated 1093. Other forms of the name include Egesterenstein (12th century), Egestersteyn(1366), Egersteyne (1369), Egestersten (1385), Egesternsteyn (15th century), Eygesternsteyn (151), Externsteine (1533), Egesterennstein (1583), Agisterstein (1592).

In a popular tradition going back to an idea proposed to Hermann Hamelmann in 1564, the Externsteine are identified as a sacred site of the pagan Saxons, and the location of the Irminsul idol reportedly destroyed by Charlemagne.

One thing is for certain, from the very earliest times this place was a very sacred spot for many tribes. Archaeological excavations have yielded some Upper Paleolithic stone tools dating to about 10,700 BC from 9,600 BC. Beneath a rock overhang on rock VIII, microliths from the Ahrensburg culture such as arrow heads or blades were found. Evidence of fire sites was also found. Further adding to its sacred connection, Externstein is associated with archaeoastronomical speculation; a circular hole above the “altar stone” in the Höhenkammerhas been identified in this context as facing in the direction of sunrise at the time of summer solstice.

Externsteine Teuteburger Wald

It is thought that perhaps the Goddess Ostara/Eostra was worshiped here and it has been suggested that the Bruchterian prophetess/oracle Veleda (from a tribe along the lower Rhine) about whom The Roman historian, Tacitus, wrote, resided, unseen by men, in the upper sanctuary – a space where men were not allowed to enter. This upper temple on the rock pinnacle – the only one of the rocks that has retained its original peak – was probably originally an enclosed cave-chamber within which the prophetess studied the heavens, the movements of the stars, moon and sun, through the circular opening in the rock wall. This space was an observatory and has an almost exact northeasterly alignment.

externstein_prayer_stool

The roof of this rock-chamber was either deliberately destroyed or it eroded naturally and it is now only semi-enclosed. But considering that (according to the Carolingian annals) the “Irminsul” was destroyed, or broken off by Charlemagne in 772 AD one can be excused for thinking that it was deliberate. This pinnacle was, according to legend, the site of the sacred “Irminsul,” the Saxon spiraling Tree Pillar. The oldest chronicle describing an Irminsul refers to it as a tree trunk erected in the open air.

After the Externsteine was purged of its pagan influence by Charlemagne, hermit monks began to settle into caves at the base of the rocks. Their task was to Christianize the site and to “drive out evil influences.” During this period, the monks, with the help of local bishops, began to render carvings into the rocks to memorialize their Christian influence in the area. There is no doubting the powerful symbolism of represented in the central bas e39028797f16e411d9001edfced6faf3relief, the largest of its kind in Europe. The famous carving depicts the Tree of Life,  a pagan representation of Earth power, bowing down beneath the body of Jesus Christ being taken from the cross. Converts would have immediately understood the various symbols represented, especially the weeping sun and moon, both important pagan fertility images of the masculine and feminine. They would have seen the ancient tree of pagan knowledge being changed to represent the Christian Tree of the Cross. This carving is unique because it is the only known German sculpture showing a distinct Byzantine influence.

The hermits eventually abandoned the site in the fifteenth century, the chapel they built left to ruin, and the site was transformed to a small fortress. When this system of fortification was outdated, the counts of the region used the site for court banquets. After the death of Count Adolf in 1666, everything fell into decay.

Over time, the legend of Externsteine inspired a great number of books, essays, paintings, and novels. In 1824, the author Goethe wrote an essay on the descent from the cross carving, even though he never visited Externsteine himself.

The Externsteine is now a recognized pagan center and mystical site. It has been inhabited by pre-Germanic people, the Saxons, Christian monks, and today it is a popular New Age destination. Today, between a half to one million people annually visit the stones, making the Externsteine one of the most frequently visited nature reserves in Westphalia.

Because of its reputation as “pagan sacred site” in popular culture, there have often been private gatherings or celebrations on the day of summer solstice and Walpurgis Night. Despite the varying views on the origins and significance of this site to prehistoric peoples, there is no doubt that the Externsteine is a magical place to behold!

externsteine-16
In 1926, the Externsteine were declared “one of the oldest and most important nature reserves in Lippe,” and were placed under protection. 

 

Legends of the tombs of Ireland.

Legends of the tombs of Ireland.

Ireland is a magical place full of megalithic tombs. Some say that these tombs were probably built before the arrival of the Celts, who called them fairy mounds and believed that the spirits of ancient people–bold heroes and brave maidens–lived there. The Celtic creator gods, the Tuatha de Danann, were known to be extraordinarily good at building things, and perhaps it was they who constructed the tombs dotting the countryside.

Eventually, the spirits inhabiting the fairy mounds transformed into the little people of later Irish legends–leprechauns and fairies and brownies, whose spirits are said to haunt the land.

Many of these tombs are called passage tombs because they contain passages leading to burial chambers underneath the mound. The walls of the passage and chamber are made of rock that is elaborately carved.

Court tombs, or cairns, have an open, roofless courtyard in front leading into two, three, or four chambers at back. Archaeologists have found human remains in them but think they might originally have been built as temples. They tend to be evenly distributed about three miles apart instead of clustered like modern graves; generally structures that are spaced

080410_Creevykeel_002.tif
Creevykeel Court Tomb in Co Sligo, Ireland

like that are places of worship, but there’s no way to tell for sure how the people of ancient Ireland used them. Court cairns are considered the oldest types of monuments in Ireland. They date from around 4000 BC and the most well-known are found at Creeveykeel and Deerpark in Co Sligo, Rathlackan in Co Mayo.

Wedge tombs also occur primarily in the northern part of Ireland. These tombs have stone walls and roofs; the roof gets lower and the passage narrower as one goes into the tomb, hence the name wedge. Most of them face west or southwest, toward the setting sun.

Wedge tombs are numerous; there are about 500 of them all over the northern part of the country, although some can be found on Ireland’s eastern coastline. Human remains have been found in the tombs that have been excavated, along with some pottery, which suggests they were made toward the end of the Neolithic period.

Labbacalle (“Hag’s Bed”), in County Cork, is an excellent wedge tomb. It got its strange name because it contained the skeleton of a headless woman when it was first opened.

Portal tombs, also called dolmens, consist of several large upright stones topped by a giant capstone. Putting these rocks in place must have been a stupendous effort–some capstones weigh as much as 100 tons. These dolmens were originally surrounded by mounds of earth, and people were buried inside them. A giant dolmen at Poulnabrone, County Clare, had more than 20 people buried in it over a 600-year period; this might mean that only royalty was buried there. There are dolmens all over Ireland, as well as in Wales and Cornwall. The Kilclooney More dolmen in County Donegal is particularly cool–its capstone is almost 14-feet long.

Some of the most spectacular archaeological sites from the Neolithic period are in the Boyne Valley in County Meath. These sites are called Brú na Bóinne which means palace of the Boyne. They consist of large stone tombs built around 3200 BCE, several centuries before the great pyramids of Egypt. The three main components of this site are Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth.

People have known about these tombs for centuries; Vikings plundered them, while Victorians hunted treasures there and carved their initials on the walls. The sites gradually deteriorated and were even quarried at one point.

The tombs at Newgrange are built inside a huge, grassy mound of earth. The stones at the entrance and some of the stones holding the tomb together are elaborately carved with spirals. The stones that were used were not local; some of them came from Wicklow, 50 miles away, and others from northern Ireland. This indicates that whoever built them was very organized.

ad0fef8e251728c0f7cdb89462693c0b_big
The Tomb at Newgrange, Ireland

The Newgrange tomb might have been surrounded by a ring of giant stones, though only 12 of these now remain. Inside the mound is a long passageway leading to a subterranean burial chamber. Inside the chamber are three recesses for holding remains. The front door of Newgrange is a solar observatory.

When Newgrange was first excavated by experts, archaeologists found the remains of at list three cremated bodies and some human bones. Offerings of jewelry were probably once there as well, but these were stolen long ago.

No one knows exactly why these mounds were built. They might have been burial places for kings; ancient legends certainly suggest that as a possibility. Or they might have served as calendars. Many megalithic sites are constructed to catch the sun at particular times of the year, and they are astonishingly accurate!

Newgrange is the best-known example of this. Every year during the winter solstice (December 19-23), the rising sun shines through a slit over the entrance and lights up the burial chamber for 17 minutes. At the time the tomb was built, the sunlight would have shone directly onto a spiral design carved into the wall.

Similar phenomena happen at other megalithic sites. The light of the setting sun at winter solstice illuminates one of the chambers inside Dowth. At Knowth, the eastern passage seems to have been designed to catch the rising sun of the spring and autumn equinoxes, while the western passage might have caught the setting sun on those same days.

The River Boyne, which flows past these mound tombs, has long been very important spiritually to the Irish people. Legend says that the first occupant of Newgrange was named Elcmar. His wife was Boann, the spirit of the river.

070105_Newgrange_018B.tif
Newgrange Passage Tomb With Carved Spirals