Visigothic Heathen and Christianity

Christianity before 376 is treated as harshly as it was by contemporary Romans, who focused on the bizarre garb of the Goths’ pagan priests and priestesses, on the images of barbarian cults that adorned the clan shrines, on the coarse idols borne by carts, and on the stag-drawn holy chariot. The attempts at conversion are considered to have been isolated initiatives that may have had some temporary success only among captured Romans, the oppressed remnants of the local Roman population, {1-166.} and Goths from the lowest social strata. Archaeology is even more demanding, for it seeks in Gothic graves the kind of material evidence that before 376 is exceedingly rare even in the border provinces of the empire.

However, certain aspects of the burial sites at Marosszentanna, Tîrgşor, Spanţov, Izvorul, Mogoşani, and Bîrlad cannot be explained by the Goths’ increasingly complex social stratification. In the course of the 4th century, pagan food and drink offerings become smaller and, in many graves, are notable by their absence; concurrently, more and more graves are aligned along a west-east axis and contain only clothing articles. The hands of some of the deceased are clasped on their chest — a custom that began be adopted in the same period in late-Roman burial grounds along the Danube. These phenomena seem to bear the imprint of Eastern Christian funeral rituals; they may also reflect Arian rituals, but the nature of the latter is unknown.

Having suffering defeats at the hands of the Romans in 367 and 369, Athanaric tried divert attention from the responsibility of the ‘mighty’ for these military disasters by launching a general campaign of persecution against Christians in his domain. Between 369 and 372, his warriors, joined by those of allied commanders, hunted down, tortured, and murdered Christians, burned their churches, and confiscated their possessions. A few Christian groups consisting of prisoners of war and destitute Goths would hardly have warranted such a vast and protracted campaign, one that gave both the Catholic and the Gothic Arian church a host of martyrs bearing Gothic names. As elsewhere, the martyrs (martwre) came mostly from the ranks of priests and other Christian notables, people who accounted for only a tiny proportion of early Christian communities.

After 332, in consequence of the crushing defeat inflicted by Constantine the Great and the dictated peace that ensued, a succession of religious missions had come to Gothia. They included {1-167.} Catholics (Eytikes), Sectarians (Audius), and Arians (Vulfila). Obviously, the Arian mission, which proselytized in Gothic, exerted the greatest influence; its historic contribution was Vulfila’s translation of the Bible into Visigothic. Bishops (aipiskaupus) made their appearance: Vulfila, Silvanus, Godda (whose name, from gudja, means ‘priest’), along with others whose name has not survived. The sermons (gahanseins) of the missionary-preachers (merjands) brought fruit. Monastic communities and church fellowships (aikklesjo) were founded, and ‘houses of God’ (gudhus: guth = ‘god’, hus = ‘house’) were erected; in the latter, the burning of incense (thoimiama) was a part of the ritual. The congregation was led by the deacon (diakanus) and the presbyter (praizbwtairei). Several Gothic terms were applied to the Christian clergy (gudjinassus). Papa(n) may have designated a presbyter, or an elderly — or senior — priest; ordinary priests were called ‘holy men’ (weiha) or ‘men of God’ (gudja). All sorts of churches must have been erected. It is known that at first, religious services were held in tents, and that during Athanaric’s anti-Christian campaign, priests were immolated in one particular church, and laymen in another.

Clearly, the missions were by no means ineffectual. In the course of an earlier wave of persecution, in 347–48, many Christians, men as well as women, suffered a glorious martyrdom (‘multorum servorum et ancillarum Cristi gloriosum martirium,’[5]) and Vulfila himself was forced to flee, together with a large group of believers (‘cum grandi populi confessorum,’[6]). As late as the 6th century, their descendants constituted a Christian community in Moesia.

Athanaric’s campaign was sharpened by domestic political tensions, but it did not reach all parts of Gothia. Thus, in the summer of 378, the Arian Fritigern could dispatch a Christian presbyter (‘Christiani ritus presbyter,’[7]) as ambassador to Emperor Valens.

In light of all this, it is difficult to understand why, until recently, researchers stubbornly ruled out the possibility that by the 4th {1-168.} century there lived in Guthiuda a sizeable number of Gothic Christians belonging to various denominations. Even more extraordinary is the thesis according to which Goths became Christians (Arian Christians!) only on the territory of the Roman empire, in consequence of the foederati treaty of 382. To be sure, it was in the 390s that the Roman Church regretfully realized that the Goths were Arians. But the roots of Gothic Christianity, nourished by the blood of martyrs, reached back to the first half of the 4th century. This fact is confirmed in the most recent scholarly synthesis, according to which the overwhelming majority of the Goths who invaded the empire in 376 were Arian Christians.

The devotional articles — a bronze wash-bowl, a bronze jug, and a bronze monogram of Christ with a votive inscription — discovered in 1775 in a remote valley at Berethalom (Biertan, Birthälm), south of Medgyes, must have come from a nearby church. Judging from the shape of the donarium, they had been hidden during Athanaric’s anti-Christian campaign, and thus the latter must have extended to Transylvania as well. The epigraph on the tabula ansata, EGO ZENOVIVS VOTVM POSVI, was made in Sirmium or Aquileia, in the same place as the Chrismon (Christ’s monogram), for the original Illyrian customer. Neither this object nor the bronze vessels that were buried alongside owe anything to Dacia. The symbol of Christ and the ritual vessels were essential requisites of Christian religious service and kept in the churches — in this case, probably in the small chapel of a missionary who had brought with him these devotional objects. In any case, the Christian message was always inherently universal; in the 4th century, like today, it could not be regarded as the privilege of a particular linguistic or ethnic group.

The important role played in the ancient Gothic religion by meat dishes (mammo) or sacrificial meat (hunsl) — a practice that Gothic Christians considered ‘unholy’ (usweihs) — is evident not only from the graves but also from the Passio S. Sabae. The ritual {1-169.} consumption of the blessed meat dishes (tibr) obtained after the blood sacrifice (blotan) was a special feast (dulths); that feast evidently had its unwritten rules and a sacral significance that united the community. It follows that the absence in graves of food from the heathen (haithna) burial feast (gabaur) must signify a fundamental change in attitude. Pagan funeral chants were banned only in the 6th century, by the Council of Toledo, but it is likely that Christian psalms (psalmon) were heard more and more often at Gothic burials (usfilh, gafilh). In the pagan shrines, holy gardens (alhs), and temples (galiuge stada), the idol (Greek: xoanon) was the counterpart of the sacred symbols venerated in Christian churches. This pagan idol (galiug, galiogaguth) was from time to time paraded on a sacred chariot. The heathens (haithnano) had not only sacrificial places (hunslastaths) but also priests and high priests (ufargudja). For pagan Goths, the day of Thor-Donar (Thursday) was a day of rest; the veneration of this deity is attested by bronze, silver, and bone amulets shaped like axes and maces. The runic inscription on the gold torque found at Pietroasa indicates worship of the Gothic ‘God’ (Gutan-Wotan); the writing itself (gameleins) was the secret (runa = ‘secret’) sacred science of the Gothic pagan priests. Archaeological digs have yielded no other relics of the ancient Visigothic religion.

The belief in bodily resurrection (for which there are even two Gothic terms: urrists and usstass) spread with the eastern religions and Christianity, and from the 3rd or 4th century onwards, the interment of corpses became a ‘compulsory’ corollary of this tenet. The practice of cremating the body (purification) was inspired by the ancient beliefs in a nether world populated by shadows. Cremation graveyards, Gothic as well as Roman (such as the first burial site at Baráthely), attest to the survival of adherents of the ancient faith.