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Extersteine: the quest for Germany’s roots

In the 1920s and 30s, the Nazi party used the study of the Irminsul, “the Great Pillar”, as the cornerstone forging a renewed Germany identity. The enigmatic rock formation known as the Externsteine became the focus of these endeavours.

Philip Coppens

The Externsteine is Germany’s answer to Australia’s Ayers Rock. This distinctive rock formation is situated in the Teutoburger Wald, not far from Detmold. This series of tall, narrow rock columns rise from the wooded hills and appear to be the only such stone formations in the entire area, though on the hills on either side of the formation, the Knickenhagen and Bärenstein, similar rocks are hidden, only visible as perpendicular ribs along their northern flanks. But it’s what is visible that counts, and hence, the Externsteine are a unique series of sandstone columns up to forty meters tall, forming a wall several hundreds of meters long.
Arriving around ten on a sunny, late May morning, will reveal few visitors and a gigantic car park. By noon, it is clear why the car park is so large. Most tourists come here to climb the Externsteine, by means of two steep staircases, one which leads to a viewing platform, the other to a small, but enigmatic chapel that has been carved on top of the middle rock. One can only wonder whether today, the largely German tourists are aware that the site was considered to be tremendously important during the Nazi regime.
The first point of interest is at ground level, where there is a relief, known as the Descent from the Cross. It is, at first sight, a normal depiction of Jesus at the Cross, with the usual angels and crying people. Christ is held by Joseph of Arimathea, with the Virgin Mary on the left. Nicodemus stands on a tree-like chair, to the right John holds the Book of Revelation, while above all, is God, as well as the sun and the moon. In the lower section, a huge dragon entangles two kneeling figures, probably Adam and Eve. It is the “tree-like chair”, right next to the Cross, which has been suggested to represent the Irminsul. The Irminsul was a World Tree, and its cutting down – echoing the cutting down of the elm in the French town of Gisors – signaled the demise of the native pagan religion, which was substituted with Christianity.

The importance of the Irminsul was reinvigorated by Karl Maria Wiligut, Himmler’s Rasputin, who largely made the Irminsul the centre of his new religion – which some have mistakenly seen as part and parcel of Nazism. In Wiligut’s personal viewpoint, Irminism was the religion of the Germanic deity Irmin, meaning “great, strong”. Irminsul supposedly meant “Great Pillar”, and it is clear that this was indeed a pagan belief-system in a “centre of the world”, where the “World Tree” connected the Earth to Heaven. The painting at Externsteine thus symbolised the cutting down of the World Tree, which was replaced with the belief in Jesus Christ, who died at the Cross.
So far, so good, in the sense that such thinking is not at all at odds with what we know about the beliefs of pagan societies. But Wiligut went further, claiming that the Bible had been written in Germanic, and that this was an aberration of a Germanic religion, whereby the “real Saviour” had been substituted with the modern Jesus Christ. Even here, the notion that there were several Saviours is not outrageous, though, of course, making it all German was the first aberration. What was most controversial, were Wiligut’s dates: he felt that this “original Christianty” – Irminic Christianity – dated back no less 228,000 years, when there were three suns, and the Earth was inhabited by giants, dwarfs and other mythical creatures. By 12,500 BC, Irminism had been revealed and from that time became the religion of all Germanic peoples, until the schismatic adherents of Wotanism gained the upper hand. Finally, he argued, by 1200 BC, the Wotanists succeeded in destroying the “centre of the world” at Goslar, which forced the construction of a new temple at the Externsteine, which was in turn appropriated by the Wotanists in 460 AD. Hence why the Externsteine were so important.

Wiligut has since been seen as a madman, because he was indeed interned in an asylum for a number of years. Though his internment is often seen as evidence of his insanity, the facts are somewhat different. Wiligut was sitting at a Salzburg café on October 29, 1924, when an ambulance drove up, attendants emerged and took him into custody, even using a straightjacket. In a report filed over a year later, the main reasons for the internment were given: his unfamiliar cosmological and religious ideas, which included the notion that he “traces his descent back to Wodan”. Hence, it were his historical opinions that were seen as evidence of his madness; apart from that, he displayed no signs of “real” madness.
Released in 1927, he continued to write, and in September 1933 made the acquaintance of Heinrich Himmler, soon to become one of Nazi Germany’s most important leaders. Wiligut was invited to head up a Department for Pre- and Early History which was created for him within the SS Race and Settlement Main Office. In the spring of 1935, Wiligut was transferred to Berlin, to serve on Himmler's personal staff. Throughout, he continued to claim that he was a genuine mystic, one of a long line of Germanic mystic teachers, reaching back into prehistoric times. He claimed to have spiritual powers that allowed him direct access to genetic memories of his ancestors thousands of years ago, no doubt arguing that such “direct revelation” was more important than the archaeological record, which seemed unwilling to substantiate his claims.
Wiligut’s historical timeline was, for sure, imaginative, but not totally without foundation. That the Externsteine were a center of religious activity for the Teutonic people is a belief that can be traced back to Hermann Hamelmann, who wrote as much in 1564: “Charlemagne has made the Externsteine, a pagan idol, into a (Christian) altar”. However, the archaeological record on the site cannot reveal any traces earlier than the 11th century, which might mean that the site was so sacred that no-one was allowed to approach it (quite similar to Ayers Rock), or that it only became considered sacred post the 11th century. Definitely by the 12th century, when the relief was carved, it was seen as such and there is no doubt that the relief shows an Irminsul.

At the centre of the Irminsul cult is not so much Willigut’s interpretation of it, but Charlemagne. It was he who is known to have cut down one or more Irminsul when he conquered Germany. The story is best illustrated and documented in Obermarsberg, somewhat south of the Externsteine. Obermarsberg, previously Eresburg, is a prominent hill dominating Marsberg, as well as the Diemel River, a tributary of the Weser River. It is known that there was an Iron Age hill fort, used in some of the battles that occurred between the Roman troops and the Germanic tribes. It is unclear which particular tribe resided here and there is no particular reference to Eresburg prior to the Saxon Wars.
The most important event is seen as having occurred in 772, when Charlemagne conquered Eresburg, and cut down the Irminsul, building a church to St Peter on the spot. Sturmus, who was a follower of Bonifacius, was left behind to teach the locals the message of Jesus Christ, so that they would abandon their pagan ways.

The church of St Peter is a large, interesting building. On the left-hand side, near the confessional, is a solitary stone, which is labeled “Irminsul”, and which is known to have been found on the site in 1938. Speaking to the local vicar, he notes that there is doubt whether this is indeed the original Irminsul, noting that it is not made of wood, but is instead a stone structure, similar in form to the Irminsul on display in Externsteine – though this time, not cut down. The vicar then relates the story of how, indeed, Charlemagne cut down the Irminsul, and leads us down to a small chapel, located under the main altar. Though today off-limits and locked by key, it is here, at the spot where the original main altar was built, that the original Irminsul stood that Charlemagne had cut down and where a Christian altar was built.
The Irminsul in the church above is therefore thought to be a fraud, and the vicar implies it was a sign of the times. 1938, of course, was when the Nazi regime was in power and the fortunate discovery of an Irminsul might have helped promote some of Wiligut’s beliefs.

But Wiligut was not alone, nor the first, to focus on the Irminsul in the early 20th century. Wilhelm Teudt, a Protestant vicar, had carried out private research into Germanic culture in Detmold from 1920 onwards. Teudt had interpreted the Externsteine as an “ancient Germanic cult centre” and in 1933 Teudt joined the Nazi Party and proposed to turn the Externsteine into a “sacred grove” for the commemoration of the ancestors. Hence, it should be he, not Wiligut, who was responsible for making the Externsteine part of the Nazi doctrine.
Heinrich Himmler was open to the idea, and in 1933 initiated and then presided over the “Externstein Foundation”, though it was actively run by SS-Standartenführer Wolfram Sievers.

The lower chapel of the church of St Peter, where Charlemagne cut down the Irminsul

Interest in the site was also furthered by the Nazi Ahnenerbe division, developed to further research into the anthropological and cultural history of the Aryan race. There remain copies available of Dr. Prof. Wilhelm Teudt’s “Kampf um Germanenehre” (In Battle for German Honour), published by the Ahnenerbe in 1940, which has the Irminsul on the cover of the book. A look inside the book also reveals that the Ahnenerbe used the Irminsul as its logo. The book’s 215 pages make the case for Teudt’s theory, and it is therefore no wonder that he became known as the “Extersteineführer”. Teudt argued that it was at the top of the highest rock at Externsteine that the sacred Irminsul once stood.

That highest rock is not only the central rock, but also the only rock that has retained its original peak. It is also the rock that, on top, has an enigmatic chapel constructed. In the front part, a niche was hewn out, creating a small chapel, containing a narrow altar. A circular window faces almost exactly north-east, towards sunrise on the summer solstice. Interestingly, no historical source relates to the origin of this chapel and hence when it was built, is a question mark.
The problem, of course, remains with the dating, even if we were to assume that the Extersteine became the site of the Irminsul in 460 AD, as Wiligut proclaimed. Paleolithic and Mesolithic stone tools were found there dating from before 10,000 BC, but little else was found, until the site enters history in 1093 AD, when the land surrounding the stones was bought by the monks of the Abdinghof of Paderborn. The late 11th century, of course, is even long after Charlemagne’s campaign, and hence the argument that here too, an Irminsul was destroyed, remains without evidence.

But rather than an Irminsul on top of the central rock, as Teudt argued, I would suggest it was the central itself that was seen as the Irminsul. This becomes apparent when we note that there are references to Irmin in the tribal name Herminones, which some link with Hermes – himself often linked with pillars, known as hermae. But it is from the Old Norse Jörmunr, which was one of the names of Odin, just like Yggr, that there is a connection to the World Tree. Noting that the name Externsteine in origin was known as the “Stones of the Egge”, one can only wonder whether there is a linguistic connection between Yggr and Egge. Yggr's horse, or Yggdrasil, was the yew or ash tree from which Odin sacrificed himself, and which, like the Irminsul, connected Heaven and Earth.
It is therefore clear that within the reasoning of Teudt and Wiligut, there were some meaningful observations. Where Teudt et al. went wrong, was that they wanted to present Germany with a uniformed, straightforward history. In truth, it is likely that there were several Germanic tribes in the region, each of them having an Irmin pillar, meaning that Charlemagne had to cut down more than just one – and that the Germany tribes were not as united as the Nazis hoped they would be. Indeed, Jakob Grimm cites the 12th century Kaiserchronik as mentioning several Irmin pillars in existence, each being a “Great Pillar” for a tribe. Hence, Obermarsberg had one, Externsteine could have had one, Goslar – for Wiligut the most important site of all – could have had one. And Hildesheim, roughly between Externsteine and Goslar, has one – and just south of that town, there is even a village named Irminseul, leaving no doubt there was once an Irminsul connection there too.

In Hildesheim, the official story goes that the remains of an Irmin pillar – dating back to Roman times – are present inside the cathedral, “where it has been adapted as a candelabrum”. If one enters the cathedral looking for an image similar to the Irminsul of Obermarsberg or the relief of Externsteine, one will leave disappointed. Indeed, the only candidate inside the church is a candelabra up a flight of steps – normally off-limits to the public. Its interpretation as an Irminsul will only be apparent if one compares it to the depiction of the Irminsul on the commemorative plaque about the felling of the Irminsul in 772 inside the entrance of the church in Obermarsberg.
By apparent coincidence, this church holds another important “great pillar”: the “Pillar of Christ” is 4.7 meters high and made of bronze and a fantastic piece of workmanship. Reliefs on the pillar depict all the miracles of Jesus in a spiral from the bottom to the top. One can only wonder whether this “Pillar of Christ” is somehow meant to balance the Irmin pillar, each one sitting on one side of the altar.

It is therefore clear that the area was Irminsul-dense, and just to the south of Obermarsberg is Priesterberg, a hill overlooking the valley of the Diemel. Some argue that it was the location of yet another Irminsul, which was replaced by a stone structure, possibly a tower. Others argue that the tower is merely part of a system of watchtowers, and indeed, from the nearby road and car park, other towers are visible. But when you inspect the tower more closely, you find it is a most curious construction, hollow at its centre and leading to a small subterranean cavity, yet largely unable to accommodate a human being. The only conclusion one can draw is quite similar to that drawn by Ralph Ellis when confronted with round towers: could this tower have protected the trunk of a tree that grew from this “stone pillar”? As bizarre as it might sound, an inspection on the ground suggests this is the only logical scenario. And if true, then we might indeed be confronted with a “World Tree” on this site too.

So was there, or was there not, an Irminsul at Externsteine? Some have argued that if there was, that it stood on top of the central rock. But the more likely scenario is that the Irminsul was the central rock itself and the presence of a stone pulpit in front of it suggests that sermons were preached from here.
When delving into the earliest historical records of the site, it is clear that the site had some pagan connotation, hence no doubt why the large relief, measuring 3.5 by 5 metres and being the largest rock relief in Europe, was created here, to visualise the conquest of Christianity over the pagan tradition. Itself dating from the late 12th century, a dedication on the altar in the main grotto behind the relief has the date as 1115 and is considered to be the oldest evidence of occupation of the site.
Records state that in the Middle Ages, this was a hermitage, and the oldest record on the matter, dated 1366-1367, refers to it as the “reclusorium Egesterenstein”. But despite its Christian usage, some features of the site are not easily explained. Why, for example, was there an Eagle carved in the door that leads to two artificial caves? The basin in the floor of one cave is likely to be partially natural, partially artificial, but no definite explanation as to its purpose has ever been given. Near the site of the relatively modern and artificial lake is also an empty, stone-hewn tomb, whose purpose has equally escaped a straightforward explanation.
Some have – rather imaginatively – argued that the entire complex might have been seen as a replica of Jerusalem, with the empty tomb symbolising the Tomb of Christ and forming the object of a pilgrimage, for those unable to travel to Jerusalem. Though it is an argument that cannot be disproven, it can also not be proven. Indeed, researchers into heretical forms of Christianity posit that the site may have been used by one such community, and that the “hermits” might perhaps have been “heretics”, and that they chose the site because of the presence of this Great Pillar.

In the end, we do not know, and neither did the Germans in the 1930s. A series of excavations were organised in the 1930s, but provided no proof for the pet theories of Teudt and Wiligut. Hence, very much like the Quest for the Holy Grail, the Quest for the Holy Irminsul became all about the quest itself, and not about the final goal. Furthermore, seeing the site was so important for Nazism has left a certain inhibition with some to either create new theories on or involve the Irminsuls or the Externsteine; it seems that both subjects are felt to be best left alone.

I would like to thank Andy Gough for his most enjoyable company while visiting the various sites mentioned in this article.