Since prehistoric times, the outcropping of five massive limestone pillars in north-central Germany was known as a pagan worship center and location of mystic power. This rock sanctuary was used by the Saxons as a solar observatory to predict the summer solstice and auspicious risings of the moon. Atop one of the rock pillars, accessible only by a narrow footbridge, is a tiny room cut from the living rock. Here in this rock-hewn chapel a strategic window was carved, facing the northeast, to receive the midsummer sunrise on June 22nd. The window also captures a sighting of the most northerly rising of the moon. Other researchers suggest the chapel had additional functions, such as being part of a larger zodiac orientation. They suggest that the rays of the sun created a sundial at the Externsteine and once indicated a path through the zodiac. Unfortunately, much of the surrounding area and the site itself was destroyed when Charlemagne forbade the Saxons to use the site for pagan ceremonies any longer. Because the site was so close to Aachen, and because Charlemagne was on a crusade to extinguish paganism in his homeland, the site was completely denuded of all original buildings and non-Christian references. All that remains from the earliest era are carefully drilled holes, stairs that lead to dead ends, and platforms that seem to serve no purpose. Only recently have some of the pieces come together to suggest an elaborate solar observatory and ritual center. The apparently mysterious holes may have supported hanging structures or may have been carved into the stone to release earth energies. It is readily apparent that many wooden constructions were once attached to the rocks. What’s more, geomancers have mapped out a network of Germanic chapels, hermitages, Celtic stones, and other sacred sites bound together by a series of straight lines, or “holy lines” called Heilige Linien. It appears that the original worshippers at the Externsteine detected a series of ley lines intersecting the site and designed their greater ritual center accordingly.
The site has also been associated with pre-Germanic people from the Celtic and Bronze Age periods. The main grotto was apparently carved for Roman soldiers who adhered to the Persian cult of Mithras. The Germanic deity of Teut, the Saxon Ostara, and the Nordic Wodan were all believed to have been worshipped at the Externsteine at different times. Some researchers suggest that the Bructerian prophetess Veleda, who came from a tribe along the lower Rhine, resided here, unseen by men. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote about Veleda living in the upper sanctuary. This same chamber, with the altar and solstice window, has been attributed to the Saxon Irminsul, a religious symbol destroyed by Charlemagne in 772 CE, according to the Carolingian annals. Since more theories than physical evidence remain, the Externsteine is the most disputed archaeological site in Germany. The Externsteine is a recognized pagan cultic center and mystical site. It was inhabited by pre-Germanic people, the Saxons, Christian monks, and today it is a popular New Age destination.
After the Externsteine was purged of its pagan influence, hermit monks settled into caves at the base of the rocks. Their task was to Christianize the site and to drive out the evil influences. During this period, the monks, with the help of a local bishop, rendered beautiful carvings to show the triumph of Christianity over paganism. There is no doubting the powerful symbolism represented in the central bas relief, the largest of its kind in Europe. The famous carving depicts the Tree of Life, a pagan representation of earth power, bowing down beneath the body of Christ being taken from the cross. Illiterate converts would have readily understood the various symbols represented, especially the weeping sun and moon—both important pagan fertility images of masculine and feminine. They would have seen the ancient tree of pagan knowledge submitting to the Tree of the Cross. Furthermore, the snake symbol of earth energies is seen being pushed underground beneath the feet of the disciples, entangling Adam and Eve. The snake in Christian and Jewish mythology represented the devil or the “evil one.” This remarkable relief carving is unique because it is the only known German sculpture showing a distinct Byzantine influence. The hermits eventually abandoned the site in the 15th century, the chapel they built left to ruin, and the site was transformed into a small fortress. When this system of fortification was outdated, the counts of the region used the site for court banquets. After the death of Count Adolf in 1666, everything fell into decay. Over time, the legend of the Externsteine inspired a great number of books, paintings, essays, novels, and even several plays. In 1824, the famous author Goethe wrote an essay on the descent from the cross carving, even though he had never visited the Externsteine himself.
Getting to Externsteine
The park containing the Externsteine rock formations and twin ponds is located in northern Germany, near the city of Detmold. The nearest railway stop and local bus terminal is the small town of Horn-Bad Meinberg, only 1.3 miles (2 km) west of the Externsteine. Small inns and hotel rooms are within walking distance from hamlet Holzhausen Externsteine. Out of Detmold, there is a tourist bus that leaves every few hours, or take the local #782 bus from the Detmold Train Station which leaves on the hour.
(c) 2014, Brad Olsen. Excerpted from “Sacred Places Europe: 108 Destinations” released by CCC Publishing