Ritual Cannibalism in Europe – A female goddess of death might hide in German fairy tales

Those who spend their holidays in the Harz Mountains will usually visit one of its most striking sights, the Kyffhäuser Mountain. According to legend, the emperor Barbarossa, who died on a crusade, sleeps inside the mountain, but will wake up one day, save the empire and lead it to new glory. According to the old fairy tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm, he will then hang his shield on a barren tree, which will flower again and a better time will come.

The entrance to the ritual sacrifice cave at Kyffhäuser mountain. (c) Voigtmann

According to legend, Emperor Barbarossa, who died on a crusade, is said to be sleeping inside the mountain and will one day awaken to save the empire and lead it to new glory. In the old fairy tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm, he hangs his shield on a barren tree, which then flowers again, heralding a better time.

In the 19th century, a monument was erected on Kyffhäuser mountain, which refers to this legend and depicts Emperor Wilhelm I as the reincarnation of the legendary savior. For most visitors, this monument is the most important sight in the region.

However, far more fascinating finds were made in the vicinity in the 1950s. Perhaps they are even the starting point of the legend of someone lying asleep in the mountain.

On the snow-white steep western slope of a secondary peak of the Kyffhäusergebirge, the Kosackenberg west of Bad Frankenhausen, there is a system of interconnected caves and crevices that lead up to a 15-meter-high, empty cleft. Today, it is secured from above with a strong iron grid, preventing access. But it once held a mystery.

If you climb the 90-meter-high steep slope consisting of gypsum deposits from the Zechstein Sea, you can have a look into this deep crevasse. Scientists believe that the caves, which can only be reached after a steep ascent, were not used for residential purposes. When they were found in the 1950s, they were filled to the brim with offerings.

The material was deposited over a long period in history, but the most remarkable finds mainly date back to the Bronze and early Iron Age (Urnfield and Hallstatt Period) between 1,200 and 1,000 BC. In addition to pottery and stone tools, remains of roasted grain, birch bark boxes, and spinning whorls were found, along with numerous human bones with traces of cuts and burns. The contextualization of these bones suggests that the youthful victims fell prey to ritual cannibalism.

Around 15,000 human skeleton parts from at least 130 mostly juvenile victims were found, who had been violently killed by bronze axes or blunt tools such as stone clubs or similar weapons. The bones were shattered, burnt, and showed traces of cuts, indicating postmortem fragmentation.

Based on these finds, it can be assumed that the Kyffhäuser site was a cult site of great importance, regionally and perhaps even supra-regionally. It seems unlikely that the deaths were not due to cannibalism, and that the site might have been a ‘normal’ burial place, such as the nearby Lichtenstein Cave close to the village of Osterode. The Kyffhäuser victims were mostly young, and their skulls were violently smashed, and the bones burnt and broken, suggesting cannibalism.

According to prehistorian Prof. Günter Behm-Blancke, the predecessors of the Germanic tribes in the region, the Illyrians, are believed to have sacrificed here to a chthonic goddess of fertility. A wooden spinning whorl found at the site supports this conclusion. Such an object was once the “symbol of the wool and destiny spinning underworld deities,” and might refer to the fertility goddess, into whose underground dwelling holy caves, lakes, and swamps led.

These Illyrians later became part of the Celts and Germanic tribes. The old Illyrian mother goddess was similar to the Germanic goddess, and it can be assumed that the goddess – later probably under another name – was also worshipped later in the region, such as in the sacrificial moor near the famous Oberdorla, where a large female idol with a bronze necklace was found.

Echoes of these impressive sacrificial rituals and events can still be found in legends handed down in the region. According to the well-known fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm, Frau Holle, who is apparently sweetly welcoming a diligent girl who fell into a well, has “big teeth” and lives in the underworld. The girl in the tale reaches her by letting a spindle fall into the well.

Further legends and customs originate from the Thuringian villages of Gotha, where the legend goes that Frau Holle sits in a white well containing the souls of unborn children, Schwarza with the Wild Hunt of Frau Holle passing through the village during Christmas time, Schnett and its Hullefraans-Night, and similar places.

The fact that sagas and legends can survive over such a long period of time is shown by the Jungfernhöhle (Cave of Virgins) in Tiefenellern, Upper Franconia. The cave was a Neolithic cult site of the band ceramists, in which skeletons of mostly young girls were found. Their skulls were shattered, and some tubular bones were fragmented, giving rise to the assumption that the bone marrow had been removed. The astonishing fact is that even before the discovery of the human remains, local legends existed about headless female ghosts haunting the area of the cave. From this, it can be deduced that the knowledge of the sacrificial ritual was orally handed down for about 6,150 years!

Indeed, with regard to burials from the Lichtenstein Cave near Osterode, which date from the same time as the sacrifices in the Kyffhäuser Cave, scientists have been able to prove by DNA analysis that people who are directly related to the buried individuals still live within sight of the cave.

The events at the sacrificial cave at Kyffhäuser are much younger than those at the Jungfernhöhle. It might be deduced that Frau Holle’s saga could be an account of the cannibalistic human sacrifices, packaged in a fairytale form so that children would not be too frightened.

It is interesting to ask what the correct name for Frau Holle was and whether the offerings in the Kyffhäuser cave and in the nearby sacrificial moor of Oberdorla from later times all referred to a single deity. Was she also worshipped in the nearby Hörselberg, which is supposed to be the Venus Mountain, whose goddess Tannhäuser visits in Wagner’s famous opera? Or did the legend merely confuse the mountain over the years? Is the Kyffhäuser cave the real hiding place of Richard Wagner’s hero’s goddess?

Given that so many people seemed to have died in her worship, she now seems very little sweet and rather dark – even if important – goddess.

Responding to this proof of cannibalism in Europe scientists came up with the theory that the genes of most Central Europeans may still contain traces of the above cannibalistic activities of their ancestors. Rrs1799990(A;G) is a SNP in the prion protein PRNP gene, present in Europeans. Studies in Papua New Guinea showed that this genotype prevents transmission of kuru, a form of prion disease transmitted by cannibalism.

Whatever you might feel in hearing of these stories, in any case it is at least refreshing that Germany is not waiting for an old emperor from a cave who wants to lead it to war, but for a woman – a mighty goddess of fertility and nature, to come back in springtime – even if she has a pronounced taste for human flesh.

C. Voigtmann

To read more:

BEHM-BLANCKE, G. (1956): Bronze- und hallstattzeitliche Kulthöhlen im Gipsgebirge bei Bad Frankenhausen (Kyffh.). – Ausgrabungen und Funde 1: 276-277

BEHM-BLANCKE, G. (1958): Höhlen – Heiligtümer – Kannibalen. Archäologische Forschungen im Kyffhäuser. – VEB F. A. Brockhaus Verlag, Leipzig

BEHM-BLANCKE, G. (1976): Zur Funktion bronze- und früheisenzeitlicher Kulthöhlen im Mittelgebirgsraum. – Ausgrabungen und Funde 21: 80-88

FLINDT, S. (1998): Kulthöhlen und Menschenopfer im Harz, Ith und Kyffhäuser. – Mitzkat, Holzminden

FLINDT, S. (2001): Höhlen im Westharz und Kyffhäuser: Geologie, Speläologie, Archäologie. – Mitzkat, Holzminden

MÜHLDORFER, B. (2002): Kulthöhlen: Funde, Deutungen, Fakten. Beiträge des Symposiums vom 7. Dezember 1996. – Nürnberg

WALTER, D. (1985): Thüringer Höhlen und ihre holozänen Bodenaltertümer. – Weimar

WALTER, D. (1995): Die Höhlen am Kosackenberg bei Bad Frankenhausen in Thüringen: Ausgewählte Aspekte ihrer Nutzung im Neolithikum und in der Bronzezeit. – Pravek 5: 147-156

Wilhelm Reynitz “Story from Thuringia” in book “Über Truhten und Truhtensteine”, Gotha 1802, pp. 128-131 or Gebrüder Grimm

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