All pilgrims have a sacred destination. Muslims have Mecca. Catholics have Vatican City. Buddhists have Angkor Wat. Druids have Stonehenge. And it is said that the Germanic pagan people known as the Saxons had the Externsteine as their holy sanctuary. But how much of that can be verified, and how much is a modern interpretation? I decided to make the pilgrimage.
Germany is home to many breathtaking natural sights, and the Externsteine are among the most popular. They’re an unusual outcropping of massive stone pillars in the Teutoburg Forest of northern Germany, and they attract about half a million visitors each year. About 70 million years ago, these originally horizontal layers were folded to an almost vertical position to form the awesome limestone pillars we see today, reaching up to over 130 feet. Visitors can climb to the top and enjoy gorgeous panoramic views of the surrounding forest. There were once wooden structures attached to the rocks, but all that remains is random drill holes and platforms that seem to go nowhere.
The site is full of interesting features that hint at its spiritual significance. A stone altar faces the east in front of a cut out window, ready to greet the sunrise on the summer solstice. A human-shaped recess is cut out of stone in what looks like a coffin, and there’s a man-made grotto with 3 chambers of varying sizes.
These unusual features have inspired a lot of speculations and drawn the attention of neo-pagans, new agers, and Nazis alike.
Romantic nationalistic ideas of the Nazi era had a lot to do with the re-emergence of Externsteine in the public eye. Völkisch lay archaeologist Wilhelm Teudt promoted Externsteine as the “Germanic Stonehenge” and popularized many of the controversial theories about its ancient Saxon use. In the mid 1920s, he suggested that the area had been destroyed by Charlemagne during the Saxon Wars. He maintained that before Christianization, it was a pagan celestial observatory, an astronomical calendar, and the central shrine of the Saxon people.
The Externsteine relief shows the Descent from the Cross, and is said to tell the tale of Christianity’s triumph over paganism, with what’s been interpreted as an Irminsul, the Saxon tree of life symbol, bent and decaying below the cross.
The Völkisch movement
Teudt’s theories gained traction in the 20s and 30s. After WW1, the German people were struggling. Economic and social disorder left them humiliated and vulnerable. The Treaty of Versailles forced them to reduce their military, take responsibility for World War I, relinquish some of their territory and pay huge reparations to the Allies, a financial hardship that fell on everyday citizens and stifled national pride.
The Völkisch movement was a welcome alternative. It glorified Germanic folklore and history and was quickly picked up by National Socialists. “Blood and soil” became a romantic nationalistic campaign that promoted naturally grown communities, organic farming, traditional family values, Germanic paganism, and the idea of an ancient Germanic-Aryan race.
In 1935, Heinrich Himmler founded a think-thank division of the SS, called the Ahnenerbe. Their task was to find evidence of a long lost Germanic-Aryan high culture, so they took a keen interest in Teudt’s ideas about the Externsteine. The “Externsteine Foundation” was established in 1933, and Himmler became a member of its managing committee. They initiated excavations at the rocks to prove ritual use and substantiate Völkisch ideology. However, their excavations did not provide the cultural remains they were looking for. But that didn’t stop them from promoting the idea.
Christianity vs. Paganism
Much of the debate about the Externsteine is centered around whether it was Germanic pagan sanctuary or only a Christian pilgrimage and seclusion site. The stones are known to have been used by at least the high medieval period as a Christian chapel. Just outside of the grotto is the Externsteine relief, a medieval depiction of the Descent from the Cross. It shows Jesus being removed from the cross by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. The relief contains a unique Byzantine style cross, the only known example of Byzantine sculpture art in all of Germany. Believed to be cut in the high middle ages, it’s the oldest monumental relief worked into a natural rock found north of the Alps. The sun and moon mourning at the top have been said to be a message to pagans, using symbols they would easily recognize. The alleged Irminsul might represent the destruction of the Saxon tree of life, which was said to have existed in the area, but some say that this is only a stylized chair.
Since more theories than physical evidence remains of the Externsteine, it will continue to be the most disputed archaeological site in Germany.
As I stood at the solstice window, I took a moment to appreciate all those who stood there before. Regardless of how far back the site’s usage goes, and by whom, it has been rebirthed as a source of national pride, being appreciated for its natural beauty and cultural significance. And maybe that’s all that matters. Maybe we’re all just looking to connect to something bigger than ourselves.