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

In the 19th century, a monument was erected on the Kyffhäuser, referring to this legend, and depicting Emperor Wilhelm I. as the reincarnation of the legendary savior. Almost all visitors perceive in this monument, connected to the legend, the most important sight of the region.

However, far older and far more fascinating finds were made close-by 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 exists a system of interconnected caves and crevices that runs upwards into a 15-metre-high, empty cleft. Today it is secured from above with a strong iron grid, preventing anyone to access it. But it once hid a mystery.

If you climb the 90 m high steep slope consisting of gypsum deposits of 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, did not serve residential purposes. When they were found in the 1950s, the caves were indeed filled to the rim with offerings.

The material was deposited over a long time in history. The most remarkable finds date however mainly from 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, numerous human bones with traces of cuts and burns were found, the contextualization of which suggests that the youthful victims fell prey to ritual cannibalism.

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

On the basis of these finds it can be assumed that the Kyffhäuser site was a regionally – perhaps even supra-regionally – cult site of great importance. It seems unlikely that the deaths were not due to cannibalism, and that we might look at a ‘normal’ burial place, such as in the nearby Lichtenstein Cave close to the village of Osterode. Indications for cannibalism are that the Kyffhäuser victims were mostly young, their skulls were violently smashed and the bones burnt and broken.

According to the prehistorian Prof. Günter Behm-Blancke, the predecessors of the Germanic tribes in the region, the Illyrians, are supposed to have sacrificed here to a chthonic goddess of fertility. This can be concluded, among other things, from a wooden spinning whorl, that was found at the site. Such an object was once the “symbol of the wool and destiny spinning underworld deities”, and might here 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 so it can be assumed that the goddess – later probably under another name – was also worshipped later on in the region, for instance in the sacrificial moor near the famous Oberdorla, where a large female idol with a bronze necklace was found.

An echo of these certainly impressive sacrificial rituals and events can still be found in legends handed down until this day in the region. According to the world-wide known fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm, the figure of Frau Holle, that is so apparently sweetly welcoming a diligent girl that fell into a well, has “big teeth” and lives in the underworld. The girl in the tale gets to her by letting a spindle fall into a well.

Further legends and customs originate from the Thuringian villages of Gotha, in which the legend goes of Frau Holle sitting 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 in 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, there existed local legends about headless female ghosts haunting the area of the cave. From this, it can be deduced that the knowledge of the sacrificial ritual was handed down orally for about 6.150 years!

And indeed – In what concerns burials from the Lichtenstein Cave near Osterode, which dates from the same time as the sacrifices in the Kyffhäuser Cave, scientists could prove by DNA analysis that people who are directly related to the buried people still live within sight of the cave.

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

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

Given that so many persons seemed to have died in her worship, she seems now however very little sweet and rather to the contrary, a quite 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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