How important are symbols to pagan religions

History in the flow. Rivers as European places of remembrance

Adolf Stock

Adolf Stock was born in Bad Wildungen in 1951. He was a baker and teacher and has been working as a journalist since the mid-1980s, primarily for radio, with a focus on architecture, literature and questions of cultural history.

The Elbe Protestant, the Rhine Catholic? It is not that easy. Europe's religious map is as fluid as the course of the rivers. Nevertheless, the domes, churches, cathedrals and mosques on their banks mark the symbolic meaning rivers have for Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Muslims.

St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is located in the immediate vicinity of the Tiber. (& copy Inka Schwand)

Holy rivers

Year after year, millions of believers in India make a pilgrimage to the Ganges to purify themselves and to free themselves from the eternal cycle of rebirth. A religious-spiritual act in the Holy River. But not only the Ganges, also many other rivers in the country are sacred to the Hindus. In 2003 there was a mass panic during the pilgrimage to the Godavari River, 43 people were trampled to death. There are often injuries during the religious ablutions on the river.

Christianity also knows holy rivers. The Tigris watered paradise, is in the Bible, and the Jordan plays a special role for the Jews. The people of Israel crossed it during the conquest of Canaan after they had wandered through the desert. At Jericho is probably the place where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

In Europe, sacred rivers are rather rare and not particularly famous. For example the Pühajõgi, the "sacred river" in the north of Estonia. Around 400 holy places are registered in Estonia and enjoy special protection: holy trees, stones, springs, rivers and lakes. The travel guide calls them "sacred buildings of nature". They are relics of pagan religions like those found all over Europe.

The Narva, which flows into the Gulf of Finland, flows further north. The river has separated Russia from the European Baltic region since the Middle Ages. Mighty fortresses on both banks of the river bear witness to this. The Narva is also a religious boundary that separates Estonian Lutherans from the Russian Orthodox Church.

Elbe, Reformation and Counter-Reformation

The great European rivers are not sacred, but they are significant sites of religious events. The Elbe, for example, is closely linked to the Reformation. It rises in the Czech Republic on a ridge of the Bohemian Giant Mountains, not far from the Polish border, where Silesia begins. There are eleven Elbe springs that the devil is said to have personally drilled. A walled water hole symbolically marks the beginning of the river. The area around Königgrätz was a stronghold of the Reformation Hussites, who came together in the early 15th century after the reformer Jan Hus was burned at the stake during the Council of Constance.

Fierce religious wars followed until the area became Catholic again at the beginning of the 17th century and has remained until today. In 1684 the Bishop of Königgrätz consecrated the source of the Elbe with the blessing of Rome in order to de-demonize it, since then it has been a place of pilgrimage. The bishop had come with a collapsible chapel and a camel as a pack animal, which collapsed halfway. During the Counter-Reformation, the "followers of the evening cup", the Hussites and later the Bohemian Brothers had to flee to escape the spell of the Roman Church. Some settled in Saxony. The Moravians still organize their worldwide missionary work in Lusatia.

As far as the German border in Saxony, the Elbe is called "Labe". After almost 1,100 kilometers, it flows into the open North Sea near Cuxhaven. It is impossible to see where the river ends and the sea begins. "A place where our experience fails," says the Catholic theologian and writer Arnold Stadler. "You can't say whether it's still the Elbe or whether it's the sea. Perhaps that would have to result in water samples. But we're not natural scientists when we write a book called 'Sehnsucht'."

Churches on rivers

Magnificent sacred buildings line the course of the river, the Dresden Frauenkirche and St. Michel in Hamburg show Protestant Baroque. With the cathedral in Meissen, the Naumburg masters created their most important Gothic building. You came from France, stopped in Naumburg an der Saale and probably moved on to Poland. Meissen was the seat of the Catholic bishops until 1581, then the Protestants came.

Magdeburg Cathedral has a similar fate. After the death of the Catholic Albrecht von Brandenburg it was closed for 20 years. The first Protestant service was celebrated on the First Advent in 1597. In the "Third Reich" the cathedral was one of the domains of the nationally minded German Christians. Court preacher Ernst Martin preached to the SA as early as 1932. In the GDR, the cathedral became a center of the peaceful revolution. When the Elbe has little water, you can see that the cathedral foundation stands on a rock.

With the parish church (right) and the castle church (left), Martin Luther's Wittenberg is a place of religious remembrance. (& copy Inka Schwand)
It is said that Torgau is the wet nurse and Wittenberg the mother of the Reformation. The castle church in Torgau is the first new Protestant church to be architecturally focussed on the pulpit and the community. And Luther's widow, Katharina von Bora, is buried in the neighboring town church.

Strategically, Torgau was an important place, important battles took place here. In 1760 the Seven Years' War was decided on the Elbe: The Protestant Prussians were able to defeat the Catholic Austrians, although the battle was initially considered lost. It was the bloodiest war of the 18th century with over 30,000 dead. On April 25, 1945, Russians and Americans met at the destroyed Elbe Bridge in Torgau for a historic handshake. The actual encounter had taken place earlier, 30 kilometers upstream. However, there were so many corpses lying on the Elbe near Strehla that the location was unsuitable as a backdrop for a peaceful photo shoot.

After the Second World War, large and small rivers determined the new borders of Europe. The Oder and Neisse became border rivers. Stalin actually wanted to go as far as the Rhine, and for the Catholic Konrad Adenauer the Asian steppe began right behind the Elbe.

The Rhine is not only Catholic

At first glance, the Rhine is male and Catholic. "Father Rhine" say the Germans. But the Rhine is a European river (French Rhin and Dutch Rijn) that comes from the Swiss Alps, flows through Austria and Lichtenstein and flows into the North Sea in the Netherlands. An international traffic route that leads through Central Europe. The Congress of Vienna had already obliged the states on the banks of the Rhine to jointly regulate shipping traffic.

Between Koblenz and Mainz, the Rhine is full of knight castles and ruins. The Gothic Werner Chapel in Bacharach is an unfinished church. Werner von Bacharach lived as a day laborer at the end of the 13th century. His violent death was blamed on the Jews. They should have used the victim's blood for their Passover festival. The pogroms that followed shook the entire Middle Rhine and the area to the right and left of the Moselle. Werner von Bacharach has been venerated as a martyr ever since, and it was only after the Second Vatican Council that the Diocese of Trier removed his name from the list of saints. In 1840 the converted Jew Heinrich Heine dedicated a story to the event.

With the Loreley rock, the Middle Rhine has another stumbling block that is also connected to Heine. St. Goar has been Protestant since the Reformation because it was owned by Philip I of Hesse, who was the first German prince to succeed the reformers. At this point, the Rhine has always been dangerous for shipping. Until the middle of the last century there was no fixed fairway and pilots were needed to circumnavigate the sandbanks and shallows. The "Holy Goar", a priest monk who came from France, traditionally stands by the boatmen who seek help.

"I don't know what it should mean / that I'm so sad, a song from ancient times ..." The song of the blond seductress Loreley became a popular property and could not be erased from people's minds even in the Third Reich. And so the National Socialists wrote "Author unknown" under Heinrich Heine's text. The Loreley has its counterpart in the "Donauweibchen", which appears on the shore in moonlight. Their singing beguiles the Danube fishermen and tears them to ruin.

Not only the Loreley but also Richard Wagner's Rhine daughters Floßhilde, Wellgunde and Woglinde populate the river. The poor relatives of the river god Rhenus (a colleague of Danuvius who rules the Danube) guard the Rhine gold.

Beyond the myths, there are important dioceses on the Rhine, above all the archbishoprics of Cologne, Mainz and Trier. The diocese of Constance existed until the beginning of the 19th century. In the Middle Ages it was the largest diocese of the Holy See after Prague and Salzburg. It existed until 1821 and covered large parts of Switzerland. During the Council of Constance, the Czech reformer Jan Hus was burned with his writings. Constance was part of the "Pfaffengasse", which strung together nine dioceses along the Rhine from Chur to Cologne.