Siouxland Observer

Master of Science

Sunday, November 16, 2014

In the Forest

“In the gods' number, they alone consider whom they perceive, and by whose powers they are openly assisted, the sun and fire and the moon (Deorum numero eos solos ducunt, quos cernunt et quorum aperte opibus iuvantur, Solem et Valcanum et Luman)"—"Commentaries on the Gallic War"translated by Hans-Friedrich Mueller.

Once, vast forests covered most of Western Europe; many of the old-growth trees survived into the Middle Ages, and beyond.  But as populations grew, Communities and Forest Management in Western Europe said most forest ecosystems were degraded by the intensification of forestry practices.  The Endangered Species Handbook (now off line), also reported that many were there until the expansion of agricultural and urban areas depleted what was left.

"The deciduous and mixed pine forests lost ground to the increased populations of towns and cites only in the last few centuries.  In Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, tree farms now take the place of the old-growth forests; other forests were replaced by agriculture and grazing."

Yet, mention the “black forest” and carvings, clocks and eerie dark shadows come to mind.  Witches, lost children and cautionary tales shroud old-growth forests.  And, of course, wizened old men  carving wood.

Named after a tiny area in southwest Germany, the “silva nigra” (as the Romans called it), came to symbolize all that was ancient, dark and rustling in the high winds. Dwarfs lived there, and wicked stepmothers too.  The tales made famous by the Brothers Grimm.

The forests in the ancient world of Europe were dangerous, but most of the more important legends (historical tales anyway), weren’t mentioned to frighten the children.  They seem to be there to help others, and in some cases, cast wonder or amazement.  

In Norbert Krapf’s “Beneath the Cherry Sapling,” for example, a legend from ancient Franconia reads true.  It created a signpost to danger that certainly helped many lost and hungry travelers.

Titled, “Die Glock zu Lohr” (“The Bell at Lohr”), it records the story of a Count who became lost in the Spessart Forest (a range of low wooded mountains, in the States of Bavaria and Hesse in Germany).  According to the story, he was saved by the sound of a ringing church bell. 

After wandering for days (although how long he is not clear), he sat under a tree at nightfall.  In the quiet of the canopy he heard a bell, and was able to follow the sound to Lohr.  After much needed food and rest, he requested the bell be rung every night to help other travelers find their way.  It has been rung every night for centuries.  Only recently, according to Krapf’s translation, has the tradition ended.

“The town bell at Lohr was rung each evening at eight o’clock,”  Krapf wrote, “for a quarter of an hour.  It is one of the oldest bells in the town and was cast in 1453 by Conrad Nürnberger.”

Long before this story was recorded, the Romans had looked across the Rhine.  Sometime in or prior to the second century B.C., according to Dan C. Heinemeier, major upheavals among the Germanic tribes caused them to push south and west into Celtic lands.  In his book, “A Social History of Hesse,” Heinemeier wrote “by about the time of the birth of Christ this period culminated in the Germanization of the whole entire area of modern Germany west to the Rhine and south into modern Bavaria.  (It was here) the marauding invaders ran into the solid bulwark of Roman power.”

The Germanic people were made up of individual tribes, much the same as Native Americans in the United States.  According to Heinemeier, it was a matter of personal honor to exact revenge from neighboring clans or tribes for any slight or injury to one of their own.  This ultimately led to “courts” leveling fines in sheep and cattle for killing and wounding others, and much later payments in money.  It kept the violence and retribution from getting out of hand.

But Rome had no rights here.  They pushed across the Rhine in the late first century B.C., Heinemeier said.  But Heinemeier's historical account suggests Roman soldiers were defending Roman Gaul.  Prior to Rome’s assault, a major attack by the tribes of Sugambri, Cherusci and Quadi started a conflict with Rome.  It was after being attacked that the Romans took the tribes more seriously.  The fighting was hard though, and Rome suffered defeats.  The legions were disciplined to strengthen fighting skills. 

This map predates the Roman Empire; it helps show how far south and west the tribes traveled.  The Rhine boarders France in the southwest corner of Germany, just north of Switzerland.

The map shared below is from, in accordance with Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 legal code.

(When Caesar sent wrote “perceived gods” — 58 B.C. or 50 B.C. — the Germanic tribes were the people he wrote about.)

Latin scholars (Mueller et al.) believe the wartime dispatches were written as reports to the Roman Senate, but also to the people (like Putin does today for the people of Russian).  Although the Roman's portrayed the war as preemptive and defensive (especially regarding the Germanic fight), the march to Gallorum (France), and the ensuing conflicts were fought primarily to boost Caesar's political career.

But the tribesmen Caesar wrote about did not hide behind trees and just attack others.  Accounts by the Roman historian, Tacitus, reported that the land was “productive of grain and rich in flocks and herds.”

So how did their land become a dark canopy harboring nothing but lost children, witches, dwarfs, mysterious clocks and chocolate cake smothered in wild cherries?  Especially in a land where agriculture, domesticated animals and even the rule of law flourished?

Hienemeier said the Germanic tribes that came in contact with Rome progressed toward a more settled existence beyond what previously had been possible.  But even prior to this the tribes had fields of barely, oats and wheat, along with flax for making linen and the exploitation of wild plants such as plums, wild cherries and hazel nuts.

Historic Latin texts, and contemporary understanding of Caesar’s dispatch (quoted at the top of this story), suggest the Germanic tribes fought with their gods at their side; and they worshiped only those they could see and feel. Simply, their gods walked among them.  The god, Baldur, The Bright, for example (at least according to Jakob Grimm), was a god of light…and a pure innocent, almost feminine, Grimm said.  His heavenly home was called Breitablick (Broad Glitter), which could be a reference to the Milky Way.

Caesar said in his report that the other gods (Rome’s, no doubt) hadn’t even been heard of, "(not) even by report.”

Imagine a people too stupid to know that Rome had better gods? Today we still marvel at the mysteries of the black forest. The Germanic tribes had real power.  Rome feared this. What better way to fight a proud people than to tell tall tales?  The peasants in the forest, worshiping inferior gods and living like animals?  Certainly, they must be defeated for their own good.

“Later in the Roman period,” Heinemeier said, “the tribes had shifted their loyalties to Wodan or Oden, whose character and abilities are not fully understood."  But the sun, fire and the moon (Solem te Valcanum et Luman) were understood.

Heinemeier also reported that the tribes worshiped local spirits thought to inhabit sacred groves, springs and forests. “The oak was very sacred,” he said, “as well as some groves of beech, ash and thorn trees. The whisper of wind in the foliage might be thought to be god’s speech.”

But naturally, the Roman gods were better and more powerful. Romes soldiers would have left no doubt who held the real power

Still, the Sun and Fire and the Moon were there long before Rome. The night sky was important to many ancient societies; imagine a full moon in a forested glen in tribal Germany.  The gods of  the Germanic tribes ruled both day and night, and the tribes could see and feel them — and ask for favors.  They did not need Rome, and they most certainly laughed right back at them.

Most Western European, old-growth forests are gone now, but their traditions and history live on.  And good or bad, Rome played a part.  Rome didn’t bake the first black forest cake, but their conquests did reach Europe, and even transported stolen technology that no doubt played a roll in the development of the black forest cuckoo clock.

For many ancient societies the stars held real power and understanding (just as they helped the Germanic tribes). One mathematician in the ancient world even mechanized a working planetarium, and in a twist of fate, started a journey to Europe.

It's true, black forest magic didn’t build the mechanized clocks of Europe, but their mechanical works did come from Archimedes.  They were stolen when Rome sacked Syracuse circa 212 B.C.

Featured above is a fascinating video.  It links the black forest cuckoo clock (or at least its clockworks), to the death of Archimedes by Rome in Syracuse.  Archimedes made his machine to track the motion of the planets and the moon.  Finding it at the bottom of the sea shed light on one of the greatest mysteries of the ancient world.