Externsteine, north-eastern face, across Wiembecke pond.

Worship? Meditation? Sacrifice? What Ancient Ritual Activities Were Held at the Externsteine Sacred Stone Formation?

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Externsteine is an unusual sandstone rock formation near Ostwestfalen-Lippe in the northwest of Germany. It is unique among other monolithic sites in Europe because it is a natural formation that has been altered by human hands. Whereas Stonehenge was built by people, Externsteine was built by Nature and then manipulated by people.

It is unclear who were the very first people to use Externsteine. There are many theories, and no clear consensus among researchers. What everyone does agree on is that the site has been used by many different groups for strikingly different purposes throughout the ages. Was Externsteine used as a pre-historic sacred site? Did Neolithic people worship there? Did it have an astronomical function like other ancient European sites? The answer to all of these questions is: maybe.

Externsteine south west face.

Externsteine south west face. ( Public Domain )

Sacred Stone Towers

Theories abound about Externsteine's use as a sacred place of worship and sacrifice, as well as an astronomical observatory. Paleolithic and Mesolithic stone tools have been found at the site giving some credence to the theory that pre-historic people were, indeed, present at the location. But, there is not enough evidence to conclusively determine their activities. Some theories of Externsteine's early use include:

• Paleolithic sanctuary for nomadic reindeer hunters

• Neolithic meditation center

• Celtic cave sanctuary

• Germanic astronomical center

• Saxon spiritual center

Some symbols carved on the stone in Externsteine. Image: ©Jens-Olaf Walter

Some symbols carved on the stone in Externsteine. Image: ©Jens-Olaf Walter

Place of Pagan Worship

Some believe that Externsteine was a center for Saxon pagan rituals. Like many other European pagans, Saxons were known to gather in nature to worship their gods. Just as the Celts, Balts, and Slavs kept sacred groves, so, too, did the Saxons. The towering monoliths would have provided a sense of awe and an allure of the supernatural. It seems a natural place for any Earth-centered religious group to worship. It is said that when Charlemagne forcibly converted the Saxons to Christianity, that he destroyed pagan temples and banned the use of sacred sites such as Externsteine for such practices. However, we are again left with little evidence to confirm this story.

The Nordic goddess Freyia and the archaeological site of Externsteine

The Nordic goddess Freyia and the archaeological site of Externsteine (Images: Public Domain /©Waseda University)

Based on what we know of pre-Christian Saxon worship, and of Charlemagne's conversion campaigns, the theory is plausible, but the evidence simply cannot substantiate the theory. We do know that there were Saxons in the region where Externsteine is located. We also know that Charlemagne reportedly destroyed many Saxon pagan religious sites such as sacred trees, groves, temples, and pillars known as Irminsuls. An Irminsul was a tall wooden post erected in areas of worship. Scholars can only speculate on their meaning, but many think that it may have a connection to Yggdrasil, the Norse World Tree, or that it may have had a connection to a lower god called Irmin. It is also speculated that Irmin was a "kenning" (or nickname) for another major deity such as Frey or Odin.

Externsteine in Teutoburg Forrest near Horn-Bad Meinberg.

Externsteine in Teutoburg Forrest near Horn-Bad Meinberg. (Image: Daniel Schwen CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Externsteine as a Christian Sacred Site

It is recorded that in the year 772 Charlemagne ordered the destruction of a very important Irminsul in a key Saxon religious and cultural center near Obermarsberg, Germany. This is relevant because the Christian relief carved into the rock at Externsteine is said to depict the triumph of Christianity over Saxon paganism. Below the cross stands a withered and wilted stump of a tree, which is said to represent the great Saxon Irminsul.

Relief of The Deposition from the Cross of the Externsteine, Horn-Bad Meinberg.

Relief of The Deposition from the Cross of the Externsteine, Horn-Bad Meinberg. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

There is some evidence to suggest that not long after the destruction of the Irminsul a monastery was founded at Externsteine. It is believed that the Hethis monastery was founded here in the ninth century. Due to the reliefs carved into sections of rock and other carvings of religious significance, we know that Externsteine was certainly occupied by Christian monks in the Middle Ages. Precise dates of the occupation are unclear.

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