Hermann the Cheruscan

KveldulfR Hagan Gundarsson

The earliest historical hero of the folk of whom we know, Hermann the Cheruscan lived in the early part of the first century C.E. when the Romans were threatening to overwhelm Germania. Ironically, we know of him largely through the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals I and II), who called him "Arminius," a name usually taken as the Latinized form of Hermann. He is best known as the leader of the battle of Teutoberger Wald, which is seen as the turning point at which Rome's power over Germania broke, and is honored as the embodiment of Teutonic freedom. Two great statues of him stand today--one in the Teutoberger Wald itself near the holy stead called the Externsteine, and one in the American town of New Ulm, Minnesota (surrounded by Hermann Heights Park). Modern Ásatrúar celebrate the ninth of Holymonth (September) as the Day of Remembrance for Hermann, toasting the victory which kept Germania from undergoing total cultural destruction of the sort suffered by occupied Gaul. It has even been suggested by some scholars that the tale of Siegfried the Dragon-Slayer could have been based on Hermann's victory at Teutoberger Wald, poetically transforming the dragon-standards sometimes used by the Roman army into an actual Wyrm and the great host-leader into a single combatant against it, with the hoard being the treasure gained from the Romans (and like Siegfried, too, Hermann was eventually brought down by his own kin). There is more to Hermann's history than the battle of Teutoberger Wald, however, and for Heathens, a yet greater stream flowing through Wyrd from his victories.

Although a German tribesman, Hermann held the position of Roman citizen with the title of knight, a rather exalted social rank. How he got this title is not clear; he may have inherited it from his father, or he may have been given it as part of the various delicate and complex negotiations between Rome and the tribes. It was not uncommon for Rome to offer citizenship and other forms of social bribes to "barbarians" in hopes of winning their loyalty and thereby either gaining a stronger foothold among the folk or undercutting the trust of the tribes in their chieftains.

"Arminius" served brilliantly in the Roman army for several years, fighting in Thracia, Macedonia, Armenia, and Pannonia. If success within Rome had been his goal, he had undoubtedly achieved it. However, in the year 9 C.E. (possibly upon hearing of the death of his father, though this is uncertain), he abruptly left the Roman army, went back to his own folk, and at once began to put together the great revolt of Germania. In an incredible display of political skill that, at a time when every tribe was turned against another and the Cheruscans themselves were divided within, Hermann was able to gather a number of folks together and to use his full knowledge of Roman means of warfare to organize and ready them for victory. He was not unopposed. His plans were betrayed to the Roman commander, Varus, by his father-in-law Segestes. However, Varus, having known Hermann as a worthy subordinate in his own army for some time, was not ready to accept that a successful young Roman officer of noble rank would give up his place to lead a "barbarian" tribe, or that Hermann would turn against his own commander.

The Germans fell upon the Romans as the legions passed through the Teutoberger Wald in September of the year 9 C.E., using a combination of their native crafts of fighting in their heavily wooded territory and the military skills learned by Hermann in his long apprenticeship with the foe. The three Roman legions were utterly destroyed. Varus committed suicide. Not only was this battle blessed by Wodan, it had clearly been hallowed to him as well: Tacitus describes how "in the neighboring groves stood the savage altars at which (the Germans) had slaughtered the tribunes and chief centurions" and also mentions the use of gallows in disposing of the Roman captives. It was, as Tacitus mentions elsewhere (Annals 13, ch 57.), the way of the Germanic peoples when calling on the Gods' help in battle to hallow the other host as an offering so that both the battle-dead and those taken and slain afterwards were seen as gifts to the Gods. In later Norse sources, this form of offering is specifically dedicated to Ódinn for victory.

The battle of Teutoberger Wald effectively cast the Romans out of Germania, back past the Rhine. But Hermann's work was not yet done. His chief rival was still the treacherous Segestes; concerning the two of them, Tacitus writes, ironically, "the enemy (the Cheruscan tribe) was becoming divided between Arminius and Segestes: both famous names, one for perfidy towards us, the other for good faith." We might say the same from the other side. The struggle for rule of the tribe ended when a huge company of Romans (four legions, and ten thousand auxiliaries, according to Tacitus) led by "Germanicus" raided the Chatti, slaughtering the tribe's old and their women at once and dispersing those able-bodied men who survived. At this time, Segestes' arguments for peace with the Romans suddenly lost their force, and the Cheruscans turned against him. He sent to Germanicus for help; Germanicus turned back and rescued him, capturing Hermann's pregnant wife against her will at the same time (the child was born in Rome as a captive and apparently ill-treated; he died young). More fired than ever by this, Hermann raised his folk to war, saying, according to Tacitus, that "In the groves of Germany were still to be seen the Roman standards which he had hung aloft to the Gods of their fathers...one fact the Germans could never sufficiently condone, that their eyes had seen the Rods, the Axes, and the Toga between the Elbe and the Rhine. Other nations, unacquainted with the domination of Rome, had neither felt her punishments nor known her exactions...If they loved their country, their parents, their ancient ways, better than despots and new colonies, then let them follow Arminius to glory and freedom rather Segestes to shame and slavery!" Tacitus adds that this appeal roused not only the Cheruscans, but the bordering tribes as well, and brought the chieftain Inguiomerus (who had previously been on good terms with the Romans) over to Hermann's side, as well it might. Germanicus was forced to withdraw. His secondary commander, Caecina, with a troop nearly as large, was engaged and nearly destroyed, but finally managed to win his way free and struggle back across the Rhine.

Germanicus and Hermann met again at the battle of Idisiaviso. The Romans won the victory this time, but while sailing back via the North Sea, the majority of Germanicus' troops were destroyed by a storm which Tacitus describes in significant terms: "all heaven, all ocean, passed into the power of the south wind, which, drawing its strength from the sodden lands of Germany, the deep rivers, the endless train of clouds, with its grimness enhanced by the rivers of the neighboring north, caught and scattered the vessels..." Germanicus' galley put in to the Chaucian coast alone, while a large part of the fleet were lost. Here we may see the Gods at work; when their sons had fought and fallen to the ends of their best ability, the high ones--Thonar, Wodan, and Tiw, perhaps--raised the storm to destroy their foes.

After his many battles, Hermann did not have peace; though he outlived Germanicus, he was attacked and brought down in fight by his own relatives in the year 21 C.E. His epitaph is given with grudging admiration by the Roman chronicler as the final paragraph of Annals II:

"Undoubtedly the liberator of Germany; a man who, not in its infancy as captains and kings before him, but in the high noon of its sovereignty, threw down the challenge to the Roman nation in battle with ambiguous results, in war without defeat; he completed thirty-seven years of life, twelve of power, and to this day is sung in tribal lays, though he is an unknown being to the Greek historians, who admire only the glory of Greece, and receives less than his due from us of Rome, who glorify the ancient days and show little concern for our own."

The true depth of Hermann's legacy, however, is seen most clearly when we look at what happened several hundred years later, when the tide that he turned had fully swept in the other direction and the Germanic folks crossed the waters of the Rhine and the Channel to settle in Roman lands. Occupied Gaul and occupied Britain were already thoroughly Christianized lands when the tribes moved there in the fifth century C.E. The Welsh historian Gildas, for instance, later wailed about the Heathen Anglo-Saxons being the scourge of God sent to punish the Christians of Britain for their sins; but the position of the conquering Saxons was so strong that Welsh Christianity had little effect on them. In Gaul, however, matters were different. Because of the nature of this settlement--not simple conquest as in Britain, but a process of careful integration by treaties, upheld by the desire of the Germanic leaders to claim some of the large-scale authority represented by Rome rather than to simply take land and settle--the Germanic tribes moving into Gaul quickly found it expedient to convert to Christianity. This, as much as anything else, shows us how deep and thorough the conversion of Roman Gaul had been; it was a country in which Heathen leaders, even in a position of strength as the effective rulers of the land, thought it easier to convert than to hold true to their own folk-ways. Had Hermann failed in his war against Rome, Germania would have been conquered; our Gods would have been known there for a couple of centuries as local reflections of the Roman deities and then, already weakened, been forgotten utterly during the conversion of the Empire--in short, matters would have gone exactly as they did in once-Celtic Gaul. Instead, Heathenry survived as an active, living religion in Germania until Charles the Genocide's (Charlemagne's) war of destruction against the Saxons in the late eighth century--and the roots of this war were based on the politically-motivated conversion of the Gaulish Frank Clovis Kinslayer at the beginning of the sixth century. Because of Hermann's victories, the culture shaped by our God/esses, though eventually warped by Christianity, was never so distorted as to destroy those memories of our holy kin that lived on in folk belief and festival practice; the tongue of the Northern folk was not lost in the lands of Germania; and, remembering him, the Germans have always been able to know their own holding, not as an inferior fringe to the Classical/Christian world centered around the Mediterranean, but as something free of the Empire and--at root, of the religion that crept forth under the mantle of Rome.