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The clay figurine suspected to be a water deity discovered in Unkenbach, Germany. Source: Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Monuments

Weird Hooded Prehistoric Water Deity Unearthed in Germany

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For as long as humans have prayed, water has been a focus of divine adoration. Even the sight of water can spark wonder, terror and joy depending on whether it's a bubbling spring, the destructive ocean or a cleansing waterfall. Thus, it is of little wonder that ancient people personified water and created a range of water deities by which to focus their spiritual attentions.

During the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, between the 12th to 6th centuries BC, the predominant Western and Central European culture was that of the Hallstatt people . Now, archaeologists in Germany have discovered a rare clay figure. Dating to between the 12th and 6th centuries BC the character is believed to be a prehistoric water deity. The clay water goddess figurine was discovered in Unkenbach, within the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, and dates back to the Iron Age , between the 8th to 5th century BC.

The clay water deity was discovered in Unkenbach, Germany. (Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Monuments)

The clay water deity was discovered in Unkenbach, Germany. ( Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Monuments )

German Water Deity Featured a Metal-Ringed Hood

Mönchstockheim is located within the municipality of Sulzheim in the Lower Franconian district of Schweinfurt. The rare clay water deity was found in a small forested gully while workmen were building the new Mönchstockheim bypass. According to BLFD, this is a “religious artifact” and it was discovered alongside a collection of tools made of bone and clay, and pieces of glass and pottery.

With its legs and upper front body missing, the clay figurine measures 19 centimeters (6.29 in) high. Five perforated holes decorate each side of the head from the eyeline to the chin. An article in Heritage Daily speculates that these holes might represent a hood decorated with metal rings.

Dr. Stefanie Berg, from the Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation, explained that even though the Hallstatt period clay figure was studied in detail, the researchers failed to find any evidence of wear and tear caused by hydraulic action. This led the team of scientists to suggest the collection of artifacts was “intentionally deposited in the gully as offerings.”

The clay fragments were discovered ahead of the construction of the new Mönchstockheim bypass in Germany. (Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Monuments)

The clay fragments were discovered ahead of the construction of the new Mönchstockheim bypass in Germany. ( Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Monuments )

Weighing Up the Water Deity

Dating back to the 5th millennium BC, the team of Bavarian archeologists said that similar clay figurines have been found around the western Black Sea region. However, it is suspected this figure was made much earlier than most of the Black Sea artifacts. It is concluded that the gully was a sacred place where ritual offerings were made to water and that local Hallstatt people most probably worshipped the figurine “as a water goddess.”

From the early worship of clay figures such as this water deity, thought to represent natural forces and resources, the later pantheon of Germanic and Norse deities emerged. The Ægir was the personification of the sea, Freyr was the god of rain, Nehalennia was the goddess of the North Sea and Nerthus was associated with lakes, springs, and holy waters.

While the later Norse pantheon threaded together male and female deities and demons, it is unclear why the archaeologists in Germany have categorized the clay artifact as a female “ goddess.” There are no signs whatsoever indicating the figure’s sex and this is pure speculation.

Näcken och Ägirs döttrar, by Nils Blommér, depicting the water deity Ægir and his nine wave daughters. (Public domain)

Näcken och Ägirs döttrar, by Nils Blommér, depicting the water deity Ægir and his nine wave daughters. ( Public domain )

Praying for Luck in a Watery World

Water deities were most often worshipped at springs or holy wells . In one example the early Celtic water deity Celtic Sulis who was venerated at the thermal springs in Bath, in England. In Hinduism, Ganges was personified as a river goddess and in modern Christian theology the baptism of Jesus is an important ritual moment celebrated in western Christianity as Epiphany and in the East as the Theophany feast on January 6.

What this clay figure represents is an ancient local Germanic water deity that was worshipped a long time before the emergence of Brahma or Jesus. And while we might never know its name, it represents a primary stage in our efforts to seek divine help in the avoidance of floods and droughts, and to help keep fjords, rivers and ponds full of fish.

Top image: The clay figurine suspected to be a water deity discovered in Unkenbach, Germany. Source: Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Monuments

By Ashley Cowie

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