Herman and Thusnelda - George Upton

The Offering

The sun was still high in the heavens when a band of knights emerged from a dense forest. They halted and looked around in every direction, for they had lost their way. While consulting which road they should take, they heard a dog barking in the distance and immediately proceeded in the direction from which the sound came.

There were twelve in the band, and among them rode two handsome youths, whose mien easily proclaimed them the most distinguished of them all. They wore close-fitting cloaks of brown woollen cloth, leather leggings, and shoes of brown leather. Light helmets, adorned with herons' feathers, covered their yellow locks and completed an attire which was simple but admirably suited to the wearers. Their companions, all of whom, except two gray-bearded men, were young, were similarly dressed. All were armed with bows and arrows, hunting-spears, and swords. The last four of the youths were leading pack-horses of the good old German stock; stoutly built, with long tails and manes—not large, but full of endurance. Saddles were never used by our ancestors. They regarded their enemies who rode upon them as weaklings who could be easily overcome. The horses were loaded with spoils of the chase,—two stags, two boars, three wolves, a bear, a lynx, and several mountain cocks.

The little band soon reached an open spot, where they found freshly cut horses' heads with the jaws pried wide open, impaled upon two stakes. Stakes like these were familiar to the hunting party, for they were often set up by our pagan ancestors, who called them "Neidstangen." The heads of the horses faced the hostile country, for it was believed this would secure them against sudden attack, and at the same time bring harm to their foes. Even in our time the gables of many village farmhouses are decorated with horses' heads carved of wood; what used to be a symbol of belief, however, is now a mere ornament with no significance of any kind.

The open spot reached by the knights was arable land protected in some places by dense thorn-bushes, in others by high hedges, against the encroachment of red and black deer. Men and women were busy harvesting. As they had no scythes at that time they cut the corn with sickles.

Scarcely had the master given a signal to the laborers to rest a while,—for the work among the tall stalks with their heavy ears was tiresome,—when the knights made their appearance. The master immediately ordered his men to drop their peaceful implements and seize their spears, which were stuck in the earth in the centre of the field. With weapons in hand they awaited the knights, with their master at their head. The band, however, had hardly reached the gate in the hedge, which had no hinges but was kept shut with ropes of fibre, when the master ordered his men to lay down their weapons and retire. The knights in the meantime had entered the field.

"You have mistaken us, man, have you not?" said one of the youths. The master nodded assent.

"Well," continued the youth, "as we are not what you at first supposed, will you allow us an hour's rest here?"

"Gladly," answered the master. "You will always be welcome under my roof, gentlemen, but it must be my first duty to make offering to our Hertha. In our barns you will see the abundant gifts which the gracious mother has bestowed upon us. She gave the soil power to bear the stalks. She nourished the stalks with the dews of the sacred ash, thereby strengthening them and enabling them to bear the corn which gives us food."

"What you propose is right and proper. Let us assist in the offering," said one of the youths.

Thereupon all the knights dismounted, let their horses graze, and went with the master. Everything was soon in readiness. The offering of flesh was made in the sacred grove by the hand of the priest, but any one was allowed to make the first offering to the goddess.

In these offerings no fire from the hearth, and particularly no fire which had been used for domestic purposes, was allowed. A fresh fire was produced by friction, for even fire from flint and steel was considered profane. The fire thus secured was called the alarm fire. It had a deep significance among our forefathers. If, for instance, an animal had a contagious disease, the fire was kindled at the same time on every hearth. After this, the men repaired to the centre of the village, drove a strong stake into the earth with a hole bored through the top of it, through which a bar was placed with a wet rope attached. Stout men worked this bar back and forth until sparks flew and set fire to tow. Wood was then kindled, and the road was blocked by burning barriers. When the wood was nearly burned out the village herds were driven up, and each of the animals was forced to jump over the fiery mass. This was done not only when contagious diseases had already broken out, but also as a means of warding them off, especially on St. John's Day and May-Day.

In this manner the fire was kindled in the field, after which the master set fire to rows of corn which had been left standing, as an offering to Hertha. He raised his hands and devoutly watched the smoke rising to the sky. An altar, which had been erected in the midst of the corn, was lit. Upon this altar, which was skilfully constructed of choice pieces of wood and decorated with flowers and sweet-scented herbs, stood two vessels, one filled with milk, the other with honey.

The setting apart of offerings to the gods, the givers of so many gifts, was one of the distinctive features of the heathen religion. The firstlings of the flocks and the earliest ripe fruits were the favorite selections. The sacrifice was an evidence of their beautiful faith. It was believed that its fragrant smoke rose to the gods and that they were well pleased with it.

The golden flames ascended, and the little band stood devoutly around them in a semicircle, watching the column of smoke as it rose higher and higher and finally disappeared. Some raised their arms; others gently moved their lips in prayer.