Externsteine, a site consisting of five enormous rock pillars in northern Germany, has probably been regarded as sacred since prehistoric times.
An undeniably mysterious and magical place, Externsteine is thought to have been a pagan cultic center until Charlemagne abolished Saxon paganism in 782 AD. It was then used by Christian hermits throughout the Middle Ages.
Externsteine contains a number of astronomical alighnments and other fascinating features, and attracts many devotees of Neopaganism and New Age religion.
History of Externsteine
Little is known about the early history of Externsteine, and its precise origin and significance has baffled generations of scholars. It is relatively clear, at least, that it was an important shrine for Germanic paganism. One large room is believed to have been used to initiate priests in the cult. Some maintain, however, that the site was used for sacred purposes beginning in the 12th century, and was intended as a re-creation fo the Holy Land inspired by Crusader's tales.
In 782 AD, Emperor Charlemagne prohibited the practice of paganism in his lands. Shortly thereafter, hermit monks settled into caves in the base of the rocks at Externsteine, probably to Christianize the site and drive out its evil powers. The monks carved staircases and beautiful reliefs in the walls, and used a spectacular roofless chapel atop a high pillar for prayer.
After the Middle Ages, Externsteine passed to the local counts and served successively as a fortress, a pleasure palace and a prison, undergoing many alterations in the process. It was restored to its original form early in the 19th century.
In recent history, Externsteine has received the attention of German nationalists, including Heinrich Himmler, who in 1933 presided over the "Externsteine Foundation." Some visitors to Externsteine today are still motivated by extreme nationalism, even neo-Nazism. Just a few miles from Externsteine is Hermanns Denkmal, a monument to German nationalism.
Today, Externsteine is a popular tourist attraction but it also draws many spiritual devotees. Most modern pilgrims to Externsteine are New Age followers, who are attracted to the site by its astrological aspects and perceived cosmic energy. Neopagans, who identify with the beliefs and rituals of Germanic paganism, are also drawn to Externsteine. Both groups celebrate winter and summer solstices at the site.
What to See at Externsteine
Externsteine is a natural outcropping of five limestone pillars, the tallest of which is 37.5m high. The pillars have been modified and decorated by humans over the centuries in a variety of fascinating and mysterious ways: holes were drilled for no apparent reason; stairs lead to dead ends; platforms serve no clear purpose; and a large space faces the midsummer sunrise. The holes may have symbolized entry-points into the earth to release its energies, as at other rock sanctuaries.
Atop one of the pillars, accessible by a sturdy metal footbridge, is a roofless chapel with a tiny pillar altar carved out of the rock. A 20-inch round window provides a view of the midsummer sunrise and the most northerly rising of the moon.
The first rays of the summer solstice cut an arc of light in the center of the wall behind the altar; the beam of light may have originally rested on a sacred object that was placed on the altar. Christian monks prayed in this chapel in the Middle Ages, and it was likely used as a pagan observatory—perhaps for tracking the sun's path through the zodiac—before that.
A number of beautifully carved reliefs were left by the medieval hermits at Externsteine, the most notable of which is a spectacular 12th-century wall relief of the Descent from the Cross (also called the Tree of Life). The sculpture is Romanesque in style, but heavily influenced by Byzantine art—it is the only known example of Byzantine sculpture art in Germany.
The relief depicts the Irminsul, a pagan tree or pillar representing earth power, bowing down in adoration as the body of Jesus is taken from the cross. As Nicodemus lowers Jesus from the cross (John 19:39-40), he steps on the Irminsul, which curves under his weight.
The sun and moon—important pagan fertility images—are weeping. A snake, the symbol of earth energies in paganism and of evil power in Christianity, is pushed down into the earth beneath the disciples' feet.
To the side of the relief is a series of caves inhabited by the monks, which are no closed off. One of them bears an incription saying it was consecrated as a chapel in 1115.
Quick Facts on Externsteine
|Categories:||sacred rocks; ruins|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.869211° N, 8.916928° E|
|Address:||Golfweg 7, Haus des Kurgastes|
Horn-Bad Meinberg, Germany
|Phone:||05234 / 4292|
|Email:||e.kespohl[email protected] (Frau Elisabeth Kespohl)|
|Hours:||Open daily 9am-6pm (sometimes open until 7pm)|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Externsteine|
- Norbert C. Brockman, Encyclopedia of Sacred Places (Oxford University Press, 1998), 77-79.
- Gordon McLachlan, The Rough Guide to Germany 6 (2004), 572.
- Externsteine - Stadt Horn-Bad Meinberg
Map of Externsteine, Horn-Bad Meinberg
Below is a location map and aerial view of Externsteine. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.