It’s no secret that many modern practitioners of Polytheism find difficulty in integrating religiosity into the already established, so-called “secular” aspects of their day-to-day lives. This secularization and commodification of our daily activities has had a compartmentalizing effect, creating artificial divides where none previously existed.
In order to construct a holistic and seamless religious expression, it’s important for us to bridge these gaps whenever possible and reconstruct appropriate cults and practices when and where they are needed.
One such place where we can enact cult and inject a level of religiousness is in the pursuit of physical wellness and athleticism. Exercise adjacent to one’s toils (rather than as a result of them) has become commonplace with the advent of a more sedentary lifestyle and, as such, it provides fertile soil from which to establish and integrate an adjoining cultus into our daily lives.
To create said cultus, it might first be sagacious to establish to which deity/deities this cult will be dedicated. In Old English sources, we’re provided with quite a few figures who exhibit physical prowess and strength, though, for this piece, we will be focusing on Ercol, a character who appears in Old English texts as a native gloss for Hercules.
In order to better flesh out this “Saxon Hercules,” we will look at the cult of Hercules-Magusanus, a God who saw worship among the Germanic tribes settled near the southernmost regions of the Rhine and, subsequently, in Britannia.
When it comes to Herculean deities worshipped by Germanic-speaking peoples, none stand out more than Hercules-Magusanus. Hercules-Magusanus played a pivotal role in the ethnogenesis of the Batavi, as well as seeing worship among the Ubii, Cugerni, Baetasii, Marsaci and, possibly, the Tungri.
There are several competing theories as to the meaning of the name, Magusanus, with both Germanic and Celtic derivations being proposed. In his work, Language and History in Early Britain, Kenneth Jackson proposed the meaning, “Old Lad,” and his assertion is echoed by other scholars, such as Lauran Toorians. In his paper, Magusanus and the “Old Lad”, Toorians argues the name Magusanus is the result of Celtic influence – likely by way of the Eburones – on Germanic speakers living along the Lower-Rhine. He proposes the Celtic etymology * magos, ‘boy, servant, valet,’ and * senos, meaning ‘old, ancient,’ by way of Proto-Indo-European * sen-. The aforementioned Gaulish components are nearly identical in reconstructed Proto-Germanic, where they appear as * maguz and * senaz respectively. The idea that Batavian foederati may have borrowed this theonym from Celtic speakers, or were of mixed heritage themselves, is further buttressed by inscriptions bearing names in Celtic and Germanic.
“If, however, we consider the idea that Magusenos was a native deity of the Eburones, ‘borrowed’ by Batavians before it was Romanised to Hercules Magusanus, we might think of an extra step in this process of acculturation. Both the tribal name Eburones and the names of tribal chiefs Ambiorix and Catuvolcus suggest strongly that this group was linguistically Celtic. Amongst the Batavians we find both Celtic and Germanic (personal) names side by side and it is tempting to think that at least the Batavian elite was linguistically Germanic.”
Patrizia de Bernardo Stempel provides an alternative etymology in her work, Théonymie celtique, cultes, interpretatio, where she breaks down Magusanus as meaning, “Mighty Old,” suggesting the Celtic adjective * magyo-, ‘mighty’, or ‘great’ was intended. According to Stempel, analysis of Continental Celtic compounds and word formations have, until recently, tended toward taking constituent parts at face value, without considering phonetic changes which may have occurred along the way. It is entirely possible, given sound shifts that were occurring in Gallia Belgica and Germania Inferior, that Magusanus constitutes the superlative form of * magyo/* mago, suggesting the name may be better represented as ‘the greatest’, or ‘mightiest’, akin to Latin, maximus.
According to Roymans and Derks, Hercules’ popularity among Germans – particularly those fighting as mercenaries under Rome – likely came by way of his masculine, martial, and sporting associations – associations which were likely shared by Magusanus prior to their syncretism. This idea is supported by Magusanus’ popularity among young warrior bands and by the ritual deposition of weapons at his temple at Empel. Magusanus’ connexion to youthfulness and vitality is also suggested by his being paired with the Goddess, Haeva, who was likely associated with youth and family. This also ties into a probable fertility function as evidenced by Magusanus’ phallic cudgel and his role as progenitor of non-Roman, “barbarian” peoples.
“They say that Hercules, too, once visited them; and when going into battle, they sang of him first of all heroes. They have also those songs of theirs, by the recital of this barditus as they call it, they rouse their courage, while from the note they augur the result of the approaching conflict. For, as their line shouts, they inspire or feel alarm.”
It is also possible Hercules’ pastoral, cattle herding associations, as well as his ties to wealth, merchants and trade, may have played a contributing role in the popularity of his cult among Germanic peoples. These potential associations are further corroborated by Magusanus’ appearance alongside Nehalennia and Neptune – deities possessing maritime travel connections – at Domburg.
In terms of iconography, Magusanus differs little from his Roman counterpart. Like Hercules, Magusanus is often depicted wearing a lion skin, while holding a cudgel in one hand and drinking vessel in the other. Magusanus is also depicted with Cerberus at his feet, as evidenced by a dedicatory altar stone found at Bonn, located in the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia.
Ercol and His Cultus
Now that we’ve given a brief overview of Magusanus’ functions, we can better extrapolate an Anglo-Saxon iteration in the guise of Ercol.
Ercol, like his earlier, continental counterpart, might be viewed as a God attached to virility, athleticism, youth, and strength – an ideal candidate to invoke during pursuits related to physical wellness and betterment. Ercol might also be a decent patron for those involved with the military, as evidenced by Hercules’ widespread popularity among young, Germanic warriors and by the deposition of weapons at his temple at Empel.
Ercol may be seen as a pastoral deity attached to the raising of livestock – particularly cattle – as well as a protector of merchants and travellers. He might, then, be called upon prior to a journey, or at the establishment of a new business venture.
Given his cudgel and Heracles’ rather promiscuous nature in myth, it would not be a leap to attach a fertility aspect to Ercol’s character. He might, then, be invoked when one is attempting to start a family, or when a couple is experiencing fertility issues. He may also be called upon to aid in the proliferation of livestock and during times of food shortage, or poor crop yield.
In everyday pursuits, one might call to Ercol to ensure a fortuitous (victorious) outcome, and offerings of votive cattle, weapons, and things associated with one’s exercise and wellness regimen would likely be appropriate. One might also offer to Ercol during coming-of-age rituals – especially those involving males.
In terms of potential festivals or holy days attached to Ercol, we are met with a variety of options at our disposal. The Heracleia were Greek festivals dedicated to the celebration of Heracles’ death and subsequent rebirth as an Olympian. These festivities involved youths and often took place at gymnasiums during the month of Metageitnion (sometime at the end of July – early August). In Rome, Hercules was honoured during several annual festivals, such as on the anniversary of the restoration of the temple of Hercules Custos (June 4th), the anniversary of the temple of Hercules Musarum (June 29th), the heifer sacrifice dedicated to Hercules Invictus (August 12th), at Nemoralia (August 13th) and alongside Ceres at Angerona’s Divalia (December 21).
Plegmann (Player, Athlete, Wrestler)
Wearg-Slaga (Warg Slayer)
Cȳcgel Berend (Cudgel Bearer)
Earmstrang (Armstrong, muscular)
Fara (Traveller, Farer)
Stedefæst (Steadfast, Unyielding)
Swīþmihtig (Exceedingly Mighty)
A Bēd to Ercol
Lion-Mantled and Far-traveled
Strength unbridled and renowned
Plegmann and Progenitor
Grant that I should know success and well-being
That I might hone my body and my mind
May my health and spēd increase
As I draw inspiration from your deeds and your prowess,
O breaker of obstacles
Champion of Men
Mover of mountains
O Mighty Ercol, friend to mankind
Strike down obstacles with your mighty cudgel
Clear my path to victory
And my path to betterment
Share a portion of your mægen and your spēd
If you think me worthy
Jackson, Kenneth. Language and history in early Britain; a chronological survey of the Brittonic languages, first to twelfth century A.D
Toorians, Lauran. Magusanus and the ‘Old Lad’: A case of Germanicised Celtic
Stempel, Patrizia de Bernardo . Théonymie celtique, cultes, interpretatio.
Matasović, Ranko. Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic
Roymans, Nico. Ethnic Identity and Imperial Power. The Batavians in the Early Roman Empire.
Derks, Ton. The perception of the Roman pantheon by a native elite : The example of the votive inscriptions from Lower Germany.
“Farwater”, Discord message to author, [August 5, 2020]