More and more Latin texts are made available online now and by chance I came across Adam of Bremen’s Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum (Deeds of Bishops of the Hamburg Church), at this site: http://www.forumromanum.org/literature/authors_a.html
Once all planned authors have been put online, this will be an invaluable source!
Adam of Bremen (before 1050 – 1081/1085) was of Saxon origin and worked for the diocese of Hamburg. The bishops of Hamburg were active in bringing Christianity to Scandinavia and Adam of Bremen was involved in that too. He travelled to Scandinavia and in his Gesta he left us some valuable descriptions about his journey. As Hamburg is situated in the area of the Saxons, Adam of Bremen included a history of the Saxons for which he makes use of previous authors of which the most remarkable is Tacitus’ Germania. Remarkable because Tacitus was hardly read during the Middle Ages and the only surviving manuscript of that work was discovered by the Italian Humanist Enoch of Ascoli at Hersfeld Abbey and brought to Italy around 1455.
In the following chapter Adam of Bremen combines some information from Germania c.10 and 11 with information about the Irminsul from a lost work by Einhard (ca 770-841). Adam of Bremen tells about the customs of the Saxons before they were converted to Christianity. The Saxons resisted for a long time the attempts of Charlemagne to incorporate their area into the Frankish empire, but in 804 they suffered a crushing defeat and were violently forced to accept Christianity. Earlier attempts failed: at the massacre of Verden (782) 4500 captive Saxons were slaughtered because they refused to be baptized. In an earlier attempt Charlemagne destroyed the Irminsul in 772 or 774. The Irminsul was a sacred pillar or world tree. The idea of a world tree, sustaining the world or the vault of heaven is widespread and found e.g. in Siberia and the Near East. The mythological reflection of this tree is found in Old Norse sources as the tree Yggdrasill, the sacred ash around which the underworld, the world of men and the world of the gods are located. The word irmin means `strong, great’ and it could be an appellative of a god, but this is not certain. It is unknown what rituals were connected with this pillar.
Living myself in a Saxon area, I take a special interest in the customs of my ancient forefathers, especially regarding religion. My fellow Saxons, isn’t it time to re-erect the Irminsul after some 1250 years and go back to the faith of our ancestors, undoing the wrong Charlemagne did to us? Saxons, unite!
Adamus Bremensis, Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, 1.8
'Avium voces et volatus interrogare proprium erat illius gentis. Equorum quoque presagia ac motus experiri, hinnitusque ac fremitus observare. Nec ulli auspicio maior fides, non solum apud plebem, sed etiam apud proceres habebatur. Erat et alia observatio auspiciorum, qua gravium bellorum eventus explorare solebant. Eius quippe gentis cum qua bellandum fuit, captivum quoquo modo interceptum, cum electo popularium suorum, patriis quemque armis committere et victoriam huius vel illius pro iudicio habere. Quomodo autem certis diebus, cum aut inchoatur luna aut impletur, agendis rebus auspicatissimum initium crediderint, aliaque innumerabilia vanarum supersticionum genera, quibus implicati sunt, observaverint, praetereo. Haec vero ideo commemoravi, quo prudens lector agnoscat, a quantis errorum tenebris per Dei gratiam et misericordiam sint liberati, quando eos ad cognitionem sui nominis lumine verae fidei perducere dignatus est. Erant enim, sicut omnes fere Germaniam incolentes, et natura feroces et cultui demonum dediti, veraeque religioni contrarii, neque divina neque humana iura vel polluere vel transgredi inhonestum arbitrabantur. Nam et frondosis arboribus fontibusque venerationem exhibebant. Truncum quoque ligni non parvae magnitudinis in altum erectum sub divo colebant, patria eum lingua Irminsul appellantes, quod Latine dicitur universalis columpna, quasi sustinens omnia'. Haec tulimus excerpta ex scriptis Einhardi de adventu, moribus et superstitione Saxonum, quam adhuc Sclavi et Sueones ritu paganico servare videntur.
volatus –us (m): flight
Equorum quoque presagia ac motus: The belief that horses had a kind of foreknowledge (praesagia) was widespread. The horse of Saint Columba knew his master was about to pass away and in the Illiad one of the horses of Achilles, Xanthus, also had foreknowledge of the death of his master. Herodotus reports the same belief amongst the Persians. Given the fact that horses were important among the Indo-European tribes, it might well be that this belief has ancient roots.
motus -us (m): movement (the Germania has monitus `admonition’ and this is undoubtedly the right reading as presagia ac monitus balances hinnitusque ac fremitus.)
experior experitus sum: to test, make trial of
hinnitus -us (m): a neighing
fremitus -us (m): loud noise
proceres: the nobles
quippe: since, for
patriis armis: with tribal arms
committere (proelium): to fight
et victoriam huius vel illius pro iudicio habere: this habit continued well into the middle ages and is known as trial by combat: it was believed that God would grant victory to the one who was fighting for the right cause. (This theme was used by Richard Wager in his Lohengrin: Lohengrin fights against Telramund for the innocence of Elsa and wins.)
Cum aut inchoatur luna aut impletur: when the moon starts (= new moon) or is full,
vanus: empty, void, vane
quibus implicati sunt: with which they are involved.
tenebrea –arum: darkness
quando….dignatus est: when he deemed it worthy
natura feroces: wild by nature
polluo pollui: to pollute
frondosus: full of leaves
sub divo: in the open air
universalis columpna: world pillar