A few kilometers from the north-western German city of Dermold in the Lippe region of the country, there is a highly unusual rock formation. In an area otherwise devoid of large rocks, the soaring, slender columns of Externsteine stand out as they rise sharply and with no little majesty from the surrounding landscape. Little wonder that the site has been attracting curious visitors for thousands of years.
The five standing sandstone pillars have been ornamented over the millennia by human hand. Although the name usually translates as stones of the ridge, many see these huge columns more romantically as star stones, a place resonant with ancient mysticism and ritual. Yet the true origins of the star stones can be discovered through geology.
About 120 million years ago, the sandstone that makes up the pillars was laid down flat, next to the edge of a massive but only superficially deep sea. The particular type of sandstone is highly resistant to erosion and so fifty million years later the layer still existed. Yet at this point in time they were folded – almost vertically – in to the shapes we see today (in a process known as saxonian frame folding). Over the years since weathering has given them their highly unusual appearance.
Although almost nothing definitive is known about the prehistoric use of Externsteine, it is thought that the site was possibly used for astronomical observation, worship and sacrifice. However, thorough investigation of the firepits at the site has indicated no continuous occupation around the site until around the 5th Century AD - but this by no means precludes Externsteine as a site of pagan ritual.
Yet it is thought that the site may have been connected, in some way, with the Irminsul aspect of Teutonic paganism. Irmnisul involved the worship of a pillar (often a tree trunk) which was erected in open spaces. Although there is no direct evidence of this having taken place at Externsteine it would, albeit, make sense – and it certainly would fit in to local legend.
Legends have the habit of being just that – but it did not stop the Nazi party in the 1930s labeling the site as a sacred grove at which the ancestors could be honored. Heinrich Himmler presided over the foundation created to mythologize the site. It gets even more Indiana Jones – the Ahnenerbe division of the SS (a think tank which described itself as study society for Intellectual Ancient History) looked in to the Externsteine to evaluate its worth in terms of their rewriting of Germanic mythology.
Despite this attempt at hijacking history, the site is one of huge archaeological importance and curiosity. Atop the tallest stone stands an ancient altar, perhaps later Christianized, – it could once have been used for pagan sacrifices.
Certainly there are 12th century carvings (the only Byzantine carvings in Germany) which depict a bent tree – and many see this as the displacement of the Irminsul form of paganism by Christianity. After all, belief and interest in the old religions persisted throughout Europe many centuries after Christianity had become the dominant religion. After all, Charlemagne did not abolish Saxon paganism until 782 AD.
It was after this new legislation that eremite monks arrived and made home at the base of the rocks. Their purpose at Externsteine was most likely to Christianize the place and remove what they saw as the stain paganism through prayer. They whittled away staircases and striking reliefs in to the sandstone walls.
Over the centuries Externsteine underwent many more alterations. It passed from the hands of the church in to those of the local nobility. Under their ownership it became a sometime fortress and prison.
In the 16th Century it was a hunting lodge (woodgraving from the period above). There was even one time in the 18th Century when it became a pleasure palace. Yet it was restored as close to its medieval Christian incarnation as possible in the 1800s.