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Franz Farwerck on remnants of Männerbünde

I wrote this article in 2013/4 for an upcoming issue of Northern Traditions that I doubt will ever appear after all these years, so I decided to publish it here.

When the Christianisation, at least the external, of the German tribes was completed, the proceedings of the men-bonds were initially continued. They could be divided into two groups, rites of initiation, which were more or less secret and the public proceedings, which sprang from views that were grounded in the initiations. Of these initiations, […] we find only  traces in later periods, enough though to determine their existence. We mostly know the public proceedings because of ecclesiastic prohibitions, but also from many remnants that have survived in folkways. (2)

In his massive work Noord-Europese Mysteriën En Hun Sporen Tot Heden (Northern-European Mysteries And Their Traces To The Present), Franz Eduard Farwerck (1889-1969) describes how many elements of prechristian Northern Europe can be found in contemporary culture. He goes as far as stating that the ‘underlying religion’ of the mysteries is still present. In order to prove this, Farwerck investigates folklore, mythology, folktales, symbolism and the dealings of groups in the far and the recent past and in the present. I am going to give you a small peek into his work that has been out of print for decades and has never been available in any other language than Dutch, Farwerck’s native tongue (and mine).

In this short essay I will guide you through elements of the above mentioned work and end with a fairly well-known example as an example of how this comes together.

Farwerck’s book is divided in 13 chapters which are called:

  1. The religious and mythical concepts of the Germans regarding rites of initiation;
  2. The Germanic God of initiation;
  3. Sagas(3) of the Wild Host and the Wild Hunt;
  4. Wodan’s death- and fertilities-feast;
    1. Wodan as fertility God;
  5. The oldest data on Germanic rites of initiation;
  6. Men-bonds in antiquity;
  7. Survival of heathen concepts in christian times;
  8. Later folk-habits with remnants of practices of ancient men-bonds;
  9. Similarities and differences between Wild Host (Wild Hunt), the practices of the warrior bonds and later men-bonds and folk-habits;
  10. Reconstruction of the ancient rites of initiation;
  11. The guilds;
  12. Freemasonry, one of the youngest descendants of the ancient men-bonds.

For our current investigation we we not look at the last three chapters, but the table of contents might give you an idea of how to place this information into Farwerck’s larger scheme.

Wild Hunt

Let me start with saying that Farwerck, but also for example the most famous Dutch investigator of the ancient Germanic religion Jan de Vries (1890-1964) employs different terms for (slightly) different concepts. In English there only seems to be the term “Wild Hunt” for the wide variety of similar mythological and folk-stories all over Europe, in Dutch two terms are employed. The first is “Wilde Jacht” which is exactly the Dutch equivalent of the term “Wild Hunt”. The other term is “Wilde Heir”. “Heir” is a term that we do not use in daily Dutch, it is a somewhat old term for what could be translated as “army”, but not in military terms. “Gang” perhaps, “group”, but not in the general sense. The word is also part of a kindred term that Farwerck uses here and there: “dodenheir”, which would be something like “army of the dead”, again, not in the meaning of a fighting group of deceased people, but more like a wild bunch. Perhaps “host” is an English term that rings about the same connections. This would bring us to the well-known “Wild Hunt” and the “Wild Host” which can (usually) be found in different areas(4) and which are not entirely the same, but much alike.

Another term that Farwerck uses is “Wilde Jager”, or “Wild Hunter” which is usually, but not always, the leader of the “Wild Hunt”.

So here we have a start for our investigation, because, in a way, the Wild Hunt forms the red thread of Farwerck’s book. It is both a mythical and an ‘actual’ group of ‘wild people’. Perhaps it was ‘actual’ before it was mythical or the other way around? Let us start with having a look at the book under investigation.

The author is clear from the start and of course the title already says so, but inspite of the fact that many scholars denied (in Farwerck’s time, but most still do) the existence of mystery religions in Germanic societies, the subject is both the start and the end of Farwerck’s book. Naturally the book starts with strongly suggesting the author’s case, first making the division between ‘rites of passage’ (birth, marriage, puberty rites, death, etc.) and actual initiations in which “the initiand by life became a member of the community of the dead. He became one with his deceased forefathers”(5).  The next 600+ pages of the book are used to substantiate that claim, to show what we know, what we can reconstruct and how these mysteries survived until our own day and time. Like I said, I am not going to follow Farwerck all the way this time. I like to show you a bit of what it is that Franz Farwerck presents in his large work and how this can present interesting insights and information even if you are not interested in the larger subject.

Back to the Wild Hunt. I said it before, there are Wild Hunt myths and folkstories almost all across Europe and a little outside the current European territory. Scholars have sought different explanations for these stories and for the similar elements in different cultures. I do not intend to repeat that. Nor will I repeat all the stories that Farwerck collected and refers to in his work. You will find many references to these stories though, especially when it regards strange elements that we find in remote places and in folkloristic celebrations of times past and more recent history.

God of initiation

I will not dwell on this part too long, but besides the dying and reliving Balder and Thor with his sanctifying hammer, Odin/Wodan is most often the Germanic God of initiations. Many stories about the Wild Hunt more or less explicitly refer to Wodan as the leader of the Wild Hunt. In Scandinavia the Wild Hunter is called “Hottr” (‘hat’) and “Sidhottr” (‘flabby hat’), in Schwaben (nowdays Germany) we find ‘broad hat’, ‘long hat’ and (again) ‘flabby hat’. Of course one of Odin’s features is a large hat which he uses to cover his missing eye that he left in Mimir’s well(6).

An element that we often find in Wild Hunt stories are horses, sometimes explicitly dead. This element brings memories of Odin’s horse Sleipnir and this forms an element that we will return to lateron. As you may know Wild Hunt stories mostly tell of a large group of (mostly) men, sometimes accompanied by horses and/or dogs that tumultuously fly through the air, usually in the time of the year when the nights are longest.

The Wild Hunt is sometimes connected not only to death, but to fertility. This lays in the notion that the dead live below the earth and that it is therefor them (or at least they can help) who make the crops grow better. Jul (‘Yule’) is sometimes even seen as a fertility feast and Wodan as a fertility God(7).

Germanic mysteries

We will jump back to the Wild Hunt more than once in what will follow, but now let us have a look at the Germanic mysteries that Farwerck claims to have found. Like I said before, Farwerck (following Mircea Eliade (1907-1986)) makes a clear division between rites of passage and initiations. The two have similarities which is one of the reasons that many scholar think they are the same, but there is a big difference from a boy becoming a man and the boy becoming part of the community of ancestors. Ironically, especially in the case of boys, both rites are sometimes combined which makes it even harder to tell them apart for some investigators. The clearest difference that in the case of rites of passage, becomes part of another part of society, for example, adult men. In the second case the initiand becomes part of a secret society, a group within (or perhaps even outside) society with special duties, rights and priviledges that we will come to later.

Farwerck scans myths and sagas for references to initiations, but things become more in line of our current investigation when he starts writing about initiation practices. Interesting references can be found to piercing with or marking by a spear of a stalk of reed(8). Of course we immediately think of Odin’s ordeal hanging head-down the Yggdrasil in the Havamal (but also of Balder’s death). It is amazing how many other references Farwerck finds in folk customs and stories about old men having themselves pierced or marked upon death. There are even old men who hung themselves to prevent a ‘straw death’ until fairly recently!

Other elements involve “revival and aquired abilities”(9) and the obtaining of a new name(10).


Farwerck goes on with describing the ancient Männerbünde, the members of which have several duties and rights that non-members do not. Duties include secrecy(11); rights the right to reprimand(12), steal(13), collect gifts(14), have cultic feats(15) and uphold (moral) care(16).

When thinking of Männerbünde, you may think of elite warrior groups such as the famous Berserkr. According to Farwerck(17), many names of what came to us as being tribes are actually also these elite groups, the Harii, the Batavi, the Cimbri, even the Goths and the Lombards, the author describes as special groups within larger societies.

Descriptions what we sometimes see in connection with these elite warriors ring bells later with more contemporary and less warlike groups. These groups employed some sort of extacy(18) in order to be better able to fight, there was drinking (often of a sacred potion such as mead)(19), music(20), singing(21), dancing (including cultic dances such as sword dances)(22) and lots of noise when they did so(23). Also a common element are animal disguises(24). Many of these elements we also know from later men-groups because such habits were frequently and repeatedly forbidden by the Church(25).

Later groups and proceedings

Slowly but surely we come closer to our own time in chapter 8. Farwerck never delivered half a job, so in the 88 pages that he spent on this chapter, he speaks about over 50 festivities, some of them referring to Christian saints such as Saint Hubertus, Saint Martin, Saint Stephen and Saint Nicholas, but also festivities with strange names such as “Schimmelruiter” (‘grayhorserider’), “Klapperbok” (‘clappergoat’), “Lords of misrule” and “De Stopfer” (‘the pokers’). Also more famous subjects are dealt with, horndances, Morris dancers, Perchten and sword dances.

Mummer’s plays

To wrap up what came before, I will give you the relatively well-known and still current example of the Mummer’s Plays.

You might have ran into the subject some time. Wikipedia(26) states:

Mummers Plays (also known as mumming) are seasonal folk plays performed by troupes of actors known as mummers or guisers (or by local names such as rhymers, pace-eggers, soulers, tipteerers, galoshins, guysers, and so on), originally from the British Isles, but later in other parts of the world. They are sometimes performed in the street but more usually as house-to-house visits and in public houses. Although the term mummers has been used since medieval times, no play scripts or performance details survive from that era, and the term may have been used loosely to describe performers of several different kinds. Mumming may have precedents in German and French carnival customs, with rare but close parallels also in late medieval England.

As you can expect with 50 subjects in 88 pages, the Mummer’s Plays receive only three quarters of a page in Farwerck’s book, unfortunately with no photo. Farwerck starts with mentioning “the twelve nights”, which form the period in which the Mummer’s Plays are performed up to the present today. This makes a reference to the period of twelve nights that bridge two years in Germanic time-reckoning.

Farwerck refers to this “Jul periode” several times, but on page 103/4 he spends a page to explain this concept. There are different periods which are named “twelve nights”, but often the festivities actually last only eleven nights and when you look at it rationally, twelve is not (always) the best number. It is always in the period of the change of years. Usually the twelve nights start at Christmas and last until Epiphany, but in Bavaria (a part of Germany) they start at St. Thomas (21 December) and last until New Year, in Silesia (nowadays in Poland) this deals with the twelve nights before Christmas and in some parts of Mecklenburg (Germany) and Brittany (France) the first twelve nights of January.

The reason that the Yule festivities last for twelve nights lays in the fact that the sun-year and the moon-year do not exactly cover the same period. A ‘moon’ (month) lasts for 27 days and a little. In a sun-year you have 13 moons, so in the end you miss about ‘half a moon’ (somewhere between 12 to 14 days). This is the reason that for different Germanic peoples the twelve nights start at either the first full moon or the first new moon and last until the first new or full moon after: about twelve nights. This also explains one of the more enigmatic German names for the period: “zwischen den Jahren” (‘between the years’).

In this period between the years, or even outside (normal) time, many things happen, such as the Wild Hunt that travels through the skies, a legion of the dead which can be found (under different names of course) in the folklore of the North, the East, the West and even the South of Europe. Farwerck has a lot to say about this Wild Hunt, but I will only repeat the notion that in the earthly realms, organisations arose with elements of this Wild Hunt. Many of these men-bonds did (and do) their thing in the dark time of the year. No wonder the Mummer’s plays also take place then!

In the Mummer’s Plays, according to Farwerck(27), men and women get dressed up and they go around their village. These are elements of many a folk event in this time of the year and also of the Mummer’s Plays. There are a few elements always present in the Mummer’s Plays. A hobby-horse, a quack, a jester, a man with a black face and sometimes people dressed as animals. There is a sword that makes a circle which is cleaned with a broom, a fight in which someones dies, but who is later resurrected. Maybe you noticed it some time before, but… hobby-horses? They actually appear quite often in folkloristic festivities once you noticed them. Farwerck mentions them when he speaks about the German festivity of “Klausjagen” (‘Klaus hunting’)(28). Klausjagen is one of those Wild Hunt-like Twelfnights-celebrations. Farwerck finds it “remarkable” that the hunter is accompanied by a man on a hobby-horse. The hobby-horse is again mentioned when the subject are Horn-dances(29) and later when he speaks about similarities between the Wild Hunt, the usages of ancient warrior bonds and later men-bonds(30). After a while Farwerck spends two pages on the hobby-horse(31), but he does not say anything about the symbolism of the habit. Since Farwerck keeps connecting them to the Wild Hunt, I suppose we can see it as a reference to the Wild Hunter riding his horse through the sky. It might also fit in the larger context of animal disguises around the winter solstice as are mentioned frequently by Farwerck. In themselves they are of course again references to the Wild Hunt.

So let us have a look at what Farwerck can tell us about horse-symbolism. The first horse we think about is of course Odin’s horse Sleipnir(32), who is a dead-horse(33) who brings the dead to the otherworld. This is of course easy to connect to that Wild Hunt again that sometimes features horses with eight legs (also other numbers are known)(34). Interesting is a remark about a feast in Oberwölz in which a horse is shoed by a smith (a more than interesting symbolism in itself) after which is falls dead and is resurrected(35). As you can see, the horse is very fitting for these kinds of celebrations.

I have not found any references that could explain the presence of the quack during the Mummer’s Plays, but with the jester, things become interesting again. Jesters are not mentioned all that often in the Noord-Europese Mysteriën, but after shortly mentioning them on page 314, the author continues with almost two pages about the jester’s right to steal, a right that we often see with men-bonds. Also we find jesters in many of the famous sword-dances and usually it is the jester who dies by the sword at the end of the dance, sometimes coming with a resurrection(36). It is also known that in some places fool’s plays took place the night before Epiphany, the correct time of the year!(37) An interesting connection makes a name for the leader of the Wild Hunt in some parts of France: Mesnie Hellequin in which we, of course, see the modern word harlequin.

Jesters come with many costumes. The suit that we immediately think of today, is of relatively late date. Traditionally a jester was clothed in rags or (there they are again) animal skins. Another important aspect of jesters in some parts are bells or other attributes to make noise, since noise (or ‘kettle music’) are usually involved when it comes to Yule celebrations and descriptions of the Wild Hunt often involve loud sounds and it is but a small step towards the cultic dances(38) and musical extacy(39). Prohibitions for dancing and drinking have been promulgated by the Church a great many times.

As we saw, the Mummer’s Plays often have a man with a black face, another clear reference to both the Wild Hunt and to men-bonds. Ancient Northern-European (both Germanic and Celtic) tribes are often described as being painted black (or blue) when going off to fight(40). Black (painted) men accompany Yuletime characters such as Sinterklaas / Saint Nicholas(41) (Zwarte Piet (or ‘black Peter’) whose bag is originally a reference to the right to steal or the cultic stealing of children in order to initiate them into a secret society) and sometimes even Santaclaus. The helper can also be a vagabond-type man such as Knecht Ruprecht and what about the famous Perchten(42) (nowadays more elaborately looking than before), who also make an easy connection to animal disguises. People dressed as animals are also part of the Mummer’s Plays. There are a great many references in Farwerck’s book to them. You might immediately think of Berzerkr(43) (literally ‘bear skin wearers’), Ulfhednar(44) (literally ‘wolf skin wearers’) and such fearless warriors. These two ‘groups’, but many other as well, are usually known as elite warriors. Many pages have been written about them being initiation groups or Männerbünde and perhaps this also explains the (seemingly) death and resurrection elements in folk festivities such as the Mummer’s Plays. The Berserkrs and Ulfhednar probably form the best-known part in the larger subject of this short text and also about the easiest link to (relatively) present day men-groups when we compare duties, rights, habits, clothing, etc. In a way this makes the theory of Farwerck that he substantiates in the 640 pages of his book concluding on the one hand that certain folkways are the profane descendants of ancient initiation groups and Freemasonry the sacred, but that is another subject than I wanted to take you through this time.

The end

From ancient Germanic elite groups to folkplays that are still performed today in a few pages. I hope I have given you some food thought or perhaps even inspiration for your own investigations. Our Dutch ‘cult-book’ is a great source for reference, but unfortunately unknown and the information is not easily accessible for a large part of the world. Perhaps this ‘introduction’ into the book helps some people in some way.

(1) Farwerck does not employ the German word “Männerbund”, but translates it to Dutch (hence: “mannenbond”). He did know the term, but in German books about the subject. Nowadays the German term is often used, also by English-writing authors, to refer to the kind of groups which are the subject of the book presently under consideration

(2) Franz Eduard Farwerck “Noord-Europese Mysteriën En Hun Sporen Tot Heden”, Netherlands 1978 Ankh-Hermes, p. 247

(3) In Dutch we differentiate between “sage” and “saga”. The later are the Icelandic, Medieval prose texts, the first folktales. Franz Eduard Farwerck “Noord-Europese Mysteriën En Hun Sporen Tot Heden”, Netherlands 1970 Ankh-Hermes p. 112

(4) Franz Eduard Farwerck “Noord-Europese Mysteriën En Hun Sporen Tot Heden”, Netherlands 1970 Ankh-Hermes p. 112

(5) Ibid. p. 15

(6) Ibid. p. 96

(7) Ibid p. 137/8

(8) Ibid. p. 163-166

(9) Ibid. p. 166-168

(10) Ibid. p. 171/2

(11) Ibid. p. 176/7

(12) Ibid. p. 177-179

(13) Ibid. p. 179-182

(14) Ibid. p. 182/3

(15) Ibid. p. 183

(16) Ibid. p. 183

(17) Ibid. p. 185-196

(18) Ibid. p. 200

(19) Ibid. p. 202

(20) Ibid. p. 202

(21) Ibid. p. 203

(22) Ibid. p. 203-208

(23) Ibid. p. 209/10

(24) Ibid. p. 214-223

(25) Ibid. chapter 7

(26) Accessed 21/4/13

(27) Franz Eduard Farwerck “Noord-Europese Mysteriën En Hun Sporen Tot Heden”, Netherlands 1970 Ankh-Hermes p. 270

(28) Ibid,  p. 259

(29) Ibid. p. 269

(30) Ibid. p. 337

(31) Ibid. p. 311-313

(32) Ibid. p. 39

(33) Ibid. p. 42

(34) Ibid. p. 101

(35) Ibid. p. 313

(36) Ibid. p. 316

(37) Ibid. p. 286/7

(38) Ibid. p. 204

(39) Ibid. p. 202

(40) Ibid. p. 186

(41) Ibid. p. 255

(42) Ibid. p. 282-6

(43) Ibid. p. 200

(44) Ibid. p. 213


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