Tacitus in his Germania refers to a curious religious rite practiced by the Semonones, the Sveborum caput, the head tribe of the Suebi (Swabians):
"The Semnones relate that they are the oldest and noblest of the Suebi. Confidence in their antiquity is confirmed by their cult. At a set time, the peoples who share that name and bloodline send embassies to assemble in a forest hallowed by ancestral auguries and ancient dread, and by slaying a man on behalf of the people they begin the barbaric celebration of their fearful rites." (39.1, Rives translation)
"The oldest and most famous of the Suebi; it is said, are the Semnones, and their antiquity is confirmed by a religious observance. At a set time, deputations from all the tribes of the same stock gather in a grove hallowed by the auguries of their ancestors and by immemorial awe. The sacrifice of a human victim in the name of all marks the grisly opening of their savage ritual." (Mattingley translation)
The first thing I would like to point out is that the Semnones must have occupied their land for a very long time as their sacred rites had hallowed the soil over many generations. Thus their religion was a blood and soil religion-blut und boden! Only those who shared the same racial and tribal ancestry could participate in their rituals. Theirs was not a universalist religion that was open to all and sundry but was entirely folkish.
Secondly their rites were conducted outside and in the forest. This is the natural environment for most Germanic peoples. I come from a long line of Lower Saxon mountain and forest folk and only feel at ease in such an environment. Over centuries and millennia the environment does have a hand in the shaping of the soul of a people. This is why city life from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution has had such a devastating effect on the Germanic peoples. This is a subject which I hope to return to in future as I do not wish to digress from the main theme of this article.
Thirdly we must accept that our ancestors did practice human sacrifice as did many other cultures across the world. Unlike the `neo-druids` we do not try to wriggle out of this and argue that it is just mere `Roman propaganda`. The shedding of blood adds further to the sanctity of the soil. Tacitus does not reveal however what status the victims held.
"They revere this grove in other ways too: no one enters unless bound by a shackle, as an inferior who makes manifest the might of the divine. If by chance he stumbles, it is not lawful to lift himself up and rise: they roll out over the ground. On that place their entire superstition is centred, as though from there the tribe has its origin, as though there the god is ruler of all, and the remainder subordinate and submissive." (39.2, Rives translation)
"Another observance shows their reverence for this grove. No one may enter it unless he is bound with a cord, by which he acknowledges his own inferiority and the power of the deity. Should he chance to fall, he may not raise himself or get up again, but must roll out over the ground. The grove is the centre of their whole religion. It is regarded as the cradle of the race and the dwelling-place of the supreme god to whom all things are subject and obedient." (Mattingley translation)
The Semnones and other Suebi acknowledged this sacred grove as the birthplace of their whole tribe, regardless of where individuals or clans are born. It is their Ur-Heimat which is acknowledged. By the same token aliens may be born upon our sacred Germanic soil but that does not make them part of our folk and neither does this soil belong to them. The individual clans still acknowledged their blood ties to each other and this was commemorated by this presumably yearly meeting. We are not told unfortunately at what time of the year this rite was held or the exact location. There is a close connection between trees and the origin of Germanic man as related in the Eddas. A similar theme is present also in Iranian mythology.
There is much debate as to the identity of this ibi regnator omnium deus, "in that place is the god who rules all things." Scholars usually show a preference for one of two deities being the God of the grove of the Semnones, either *Tiwaz or *Wodanaz. Gudmund Schuette posits the theory that the God is the eponymous Semno, `the united.`
"The rite of linking his worshippers` hands and feet may allude to the same idea." (Our Forefathers the Gothonic Nations Volume II)
He does not seem to support the idea that the God is Woden:
"The worship of the `regnator omnium deus` among the Semnones of the first century A.D. shows that their religion had not yet submitted to the hegemony of Woden. But who was the god whose name Tacitus does not mention? He is generally identified with the ancient god of heaven, Tyr. It is probable that the Swabians worshipped Tyr (cp. Schwabian ziestac `Tuesday`, instead of Bavarian ertag and North-west German dingstag `the day of Mars Thingsus`).
However Woden is known as the God who can bind or fetter and it is He who received human sacrifices. Tacitus however does not disclose the method of sacrifice which could have given us further clues as to the God`s identity. The later Swabians were known as Ziuwara, worshippers of Ziu or Tyr. Schuette states:
"Later, owing to south-western influence (cp. Mercurius in inscriptions of the Vangiones, Nemetes, Triboci), Woden was introduced even among the Swabians. Columbanus in the ninth century found the Alemanni near the Boden Lake feasting round a huge bowl of beer in worship of Woden. The Alamannic clasp from Nordendorf shows the runic names Wodan and Donar."
As a side note the Quada, another Swabian tribe worshipped the sword. I am reminded here of the sword God Heru/Cheru.
The idea of fettering can also be associated with Tyr via the binding of the Fenris Wolf. H.R. Ellis Davidson makes the point in her Gods and Myths of Northern Europe:
"This appears to emphasize the power of the god to bind his followers, as Tyr bound the wolf; the idea of binding is found associated with Odin as war god, and more about this will be said later (pp. 63 and 147). We cannot be certain that Tiwaz was in fact the god of the Semnones, but it seems most probable that he was the supreme deity worshipped in the wood."