Rügen Island - Places: A witch’s Travel Guide

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Rügen Island
Places: A witch’s Travel Guide

Very little is now known about ancient Teutonic goddess traditions; the Teutonic tribes left no writing and descriptions. What little is known derives from writings by outsiders to their culture—Pagan Romans and Christian missionaries.

Among the little that is known (mainly from Roman sources) involves the grove of the goddess Herta on Rügen Island. (See DIVINE WITCH: Herta.) Rügen Island, the largest of the German islands, is located in the Baltic Sea, off the northwest coast of Pomerania. It was once covered with beech forests.

A deep black lake on Rügen Island was surrounded by woods. Herta’s sacred grove was allegedly by the lakeside. Although she has not been actively worshipped for centuries, Herta’s association with Rügen Island, her stronghold where Odin once came courting her, remains powerful. The lake is still called Hertha Lake. Ruins of a castle (“Hertha Castle”) are located nearby, not far from the Stubbenkammer (Slavonic for “rock steps”), a sheer chalk cliff. Some believe that these remnants are what is left of the goddess’ sacred shrine. The area remains wooded.

According to reports, the statue of the goddess Herta was ritually removed from the shrine and bathed in the lake several times a year. Herta’s rites were secret and little else is known. (Whether they were always secret or whether secrecy increased under Roman threat is also unknown.) Allegedly most ritual attendants were drowned following fulfillment of their tasks, although whether as sacrifices to Herta or whether to maintain secrecy (to make sure they’ll never reveal her secrets) is also now unknown.

Although no longer actively worshipped, Herta has apparently not abandoned her old hometown. According to local lore, on Full Moon nights, a beautiful woman emerges from the woods and bathes in the lake accompanied by female attendants. Once in the water, sometimes they become invisible but still can be heard splashing about. These specters eventually reappear, emerge from the water and disappear into the woods. The bathers do not welcome company and it is considered dangerous to observe them: allegedly observers feel magnetically drawn to enter the deep lake where they then drown. (Local rumor suggests that at least one person drowns annually.)

Rügen, populated since at least 4000 BCE, was an important center of the ancient amber trade and as such was highly desirable real estate. (Among other stories related to Rügen Island is that it is Apollo’s original birthplace; Greek mythology sometimes describes him as coming from “the North.” The theory is that the Greeks encountered Apollo via amber trade routes.) It changed ownership many times over the centuries.

The Teutonic tribes were eventually displaced by Slavs, who considered the entire island to be sacred territory, and the groves in particular to be sacred to their war deity, Svantovit, revered by Balts and Slavs alike. (The name Rügen derives from the Slavic tribe, the Rugieris.) The island was also sacred to another Slavic deity, the seven-headed, sword-wielding war god Rugeviet, whose name literally means “Master of Rügen.” He had a sacred grove of rowan trees, his sacred tree.

Rügen remained among the very last bastions of European Paganism. Active Pagan worship continued openly throughout the twelfth century before it was violently suppressed.

Saterland is a region now within North West Germany close to the Dutch border. It contained an alder grove on an island deep in the Frisian moors that served as a witches’ dance ground and was allegedly a popular destination for witches and wizards from all over Europe throughout the Middle Ages.

Not all sacred groves are ancient history: some are living, vital traditions. In the 1950s, Austrian architect, painter and sculptor Suzanne Wenger arrived in Oshogbo (Osogbo), Nigeria. She married a traditional drummer and became deeply involved in the indigenous spiritual traditions of the region, eventually becoming a priestess of the orishas Obatala and Oshun.

When Wenger arrived, Oshun’s shrine and grove were in disrepair. Nigeria is now equally split between Christianity and Islam and indigenous sacred sites, for a variety of reasons, were neglected. Wenger and the local community set about re-building and revitalizing the shrine. Gates, walls, and Wenger’s sacred sculptures were installed. An annual festival honoring Oshun, attracting thousands from worldwide, is held every August in her Sacred Grove. Festivities last for nine days, the ninth day featuring a mass pilgrimage to the Oshun river. Although the grove is sacred to devotees and served by priestesses, it has also become a primary tourist attraction in the region.