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Externsteine: Germany's Sacred Stone Formation

Updated on August 24, 2016
Externsteine reflected on the man-made lake. Photo by Daniel Schwen
Externsteine reflected on the man-made lake. Photo by Daniel Schwen

What is Externsteine?

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.

Externsteine From The Air

Earliest Uses

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.

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

Externsteine is one of Germany's most impressive natural wonders.  Photo by Rainer Lippert
Externsteine is one of Germany's most impressive natural wonders. Photo by Rainer Lippert
"The destruction of Irminsul by Charlemagne" (1882) by Heinrich Leutemann
"The destruction of Irminsul by Charlemagne" (1882) by Heinrich Leutemann

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. 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.

A grotto with altar carved into the stone at Externsteine. Photo by R. Engelhardt
A grotto with altar carved into the stone at Externsteine. Photo by R. Engelhardt
The medieval relief carving on the face of Externsteine titled "the Descent from the Cross." Below the cross stands a withered tree said represent the Irminsul.
The medieval relief carving on the face of Externsteine titled "the Descent from the Cross." Below the cross stands a withered tree said represent the Irminsul. | Source

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.

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.

Externsteine and the NSDAP

When the National Socialists rose to power, they made an effort to elevate German culture and heritage. This is a complicated subject to discuss. German culture had already been vilified after their role in World War I. After which heavy reparations were placed upon Germany by the Allies. The burden of war reparations fell directly to the people. So, the when the Nazis emphasized the positive aspects of Germanic history, it was very much needed and appreciated by a now impoverished and depressed population.

This helps to explain how and why the National Socialists were able to win over Germans so easily. It is not that they all had an ax to grind against Jews, Gypsies, and other minority groups. The NSDAP filled a need that all of us have: the need to feel valued and important.

A collage of variations on the swastika as a symbol of the sun from many different world cultures.
A collage of variations on the swastika as a symbol of the sun from many different world cultures.

By celebrating German culture, the National Socialists made Germans feel proud of their heritage, something they hadn't felt in quite some time. And now, unfortunately, many aspects of German heritage have become so twisted up with propaganda that the general public equates these elements as part of Nazi-ism.

The swastika is a great example. The swastika is an ancient symbol of the sun that dates to pre-history. Use of the swastika ranges from India all across Europe and has even been found on Native American art. It is a sacred symbol to Hindus and Buddhists, and was sacred to pre-Christian Europeans from East to West. However, today the symbol is seen almost exclusively as a symbol of the Nazis.

Unfortunately, this happened with Externsteine as well. It became a place of interest to the National Socialists, who viewed it as a bastion of ancient German history, which tainted it's reputation for many years.

Neo-Pagans Revive Externsteine

A Summer Solstice neo-pagan celebration at Externsteine
A Summer Solstice neo-pagan celebration at Externsteine

Happily, other groups have been interested in Externsteine in recent history, one of them being neo-Pagan groups. Just as contemporary pagans and Druids gather at English sites like Stonehenge and Avebury, modern German pagans gather at Externsteine to celebrate the seasons today.

Although there is much debate and little certainty on how, when, and why Externsteine has been used in the past, one thing is certain. It almost always has been and probably always will be a very special place for the German people. Externsteine is a place for Germans of all ages to gather to remember their past and look toward their future. It symbolizes both high and low points of German history. It also stands as a reminder that the German people will not only survive, but they will thrive. As history throws its curves, Externsteine remains standing tall. It will remain long into the future, when people will continue to wonder just what it was used for today.

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A Video Walk Through of Externsteine

© 2013 Carolyn Emerick

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    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Nature often creates places that naturally attract worshippers. Sometimes, because these are extraordinary, locals attribute to them special meaning. Whatever these may be, you have done a very good job of making them highly interesting.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

      What a beautiful looking stone structure and the history of how it has been used through the ages...while a bit fuzzy...makes it certain that various groups of people have been cognizant of it for many centuries. I have only visited the southern part of Germany which is beautiful. This would certainly be of interest to me should I ever visit the northern part of Germany. Pinning it to my Germany board.

    • thumbi7 profile image

      JR Krishna 3 years ago from India

      This is a very impressive hub and the photos are excellent

    • daborn7 profile image

      daborn7 3 years ago from California

      Very interesting place. Me and my husband have spoken recently of visiting Germany. If we do, this will definitely be a place of great interest while we are there. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      I enjoyed reading about Externsteine, Carolyn. I have never heard about this before and you have provided a lot of information. It is a very interesting place. Thanks for writing this hub.

    • Lindsey Nobles profile image

      Lindsey N 3 years ago from Western New York

      Love your information! I'd like to add a thought to this, from my experience stone formations that occur naturally and are like this indicate to me that this was once used as a portal. I am feeling it was a strong portal that gave acient pepole with the understanding of how portals work, the ability to travel to other points on this Earth and in other soloar systems and in this universe. To me, I feel this was an important meeting place for higher beings from all over. There is a part of me that feels this portal is still active. Obviously, mysticism and mythology will tell us that teleportation is something of science fiction. This is done to keep us from knowing who we really are. World governments are fully aware and utilize teleportation portals to communicate with other beings. Not neccesarily higher beings, as the government is holding onto every bit of control they still have their hands on. (Which they don't anymore.) The higher beings that are protecting this solar system have put an end to the darkness that has controlled this planet for a long time. I would not be surprised if you saw this change in the news over the summer.

      Media outlets will not really know what they are reporting, but it will be a great change and transition for the people of this planet. A great awakening has begun and will be fully integrated soon. Which brings me back to this subject and rock formation. The Earth, or Gaia, is slated to once again be an apex of communication, technology, and prosperity. I'm sure beings will again be attracted to this formation.

      The energies I read from the photos confirm my feeling on this. I've never heard of this place or seen it before so I trust my intuition. Thank you for the share. :)

    • profile image

      Lauren MacArthur 3 years ago

      A fantatstic, fascinating piece of German, and World, history! Thank you, Carolyn, for the work you did to bring this information to life, and for your sensitivity in writing it.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

      Such a wonderful hub. I had never heard of this before, but you really brought its history to life. How interesting to learn how the swastika had be commandeered by the Nazis for their own purposes. Great analysis. Voted up and more.

    • Carl8033 profile image

      Alexander Okelo 4 years ago

      This is such a great article, I sure have learned a great deal. :) Voted up and useful.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
      Author

      Carolyn Emerick 4 years ago

      thanks for the comments guys, I'm really glad people are enjoying this one! I had been meaning to write on it for awhile now :-)

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 4 years ago from San Diego California

      Very nice analysis. I had never heard of this place before, so you certainly have broadened my horizons. A skillful incorporation of history, religion, mythology, and paleontology.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is an interesting hub, Carolyn. Externsteine looks like a lovely place. I can see why it has spiritual significance. I would love to visit it one day.

    • profile image

      Koenraad Elst 4 years ago

      Interesting. A report on my recent journey to some sacred sites in Germany, including the Externsteine:

      http://koenraadelst.blogspot.be/2013/05/heathenism...

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
      Author

      Carolyn Emerick 4 years ago

      thanks so much, glad you enjoyed it

    • jabelufiroz profile image

      Firoz 4 years ago from India

      Great hub on Germany's Sacred Stone Formation. Voted up.