Publius Cornelius Tacitus in his De Origine et situ Germanorum tells us that 1st century Germanic tribes worshipped Hercules:

They say that Hercules, too, once visited them; and when going into battle, they sing of him first of all heroes. They have also those songs of theirs, by the recital of which (“baritus,” 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 not so much an articulate sound, as a general cry of valour. They aim chiefly at a harsh note and a confused roar, putting their shields to their mouth, so that, by reverberation, it may swell into a fuller and deeper sound. Ulysses, too, is believed by some, in his long legendary wanderings, to have found his way into this ocean, and, having visited German soil, to have founded and named the town of Asciburgium, which stands on the bank of the Rhine, and is to this day inhabited. They even say that an altar dedicated to Ulysses, with the addition of the name of his father, Laertes, was formerly discovered on this same spot, and that certain monuments and tombs, with Greek inscriptions, still exist on the borders of Germany and Rhætia. These statements I have no intention of sustaining by proofs, or of refuting; every one may believe or disbelieve them as he feels inclined.

Tac. Ger. 3

Are there other sources that discuss a Hercules cult in the general area? Or is this an instance of interpretatio graeca? And if so, which Germanic deity or hero is Tacitus substituting with Hercules?

1 Answer 1


He Meant Thor

The report by Tacitus was indeed a case of interpretatio graeca at work. As the Austrian historian Herwig Wolfram writes:

Thor must have been swinging his hammer as the god Donar ("the Thunderer") of the West Germanic peoples already during the imperial period, since Tacitus equated him with Hercules.

- Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. University of California Press, 1997.

This seems to be the opinion shared by most scholars, such as:

Tacitus speaks of a Germanic silva Herculi sacra, i.e. a "forest sacred to Hercules" by which is meant the Germanic god Þórr.

- Snyder, William H. Time, Being, and Soul in the Oldest Sanskrit Sources. Global Academic Publishing, 2001.

(Þórr being of course Thor) and:

Tacitus, who claims that the highest god among the Germanic tribes was Mercury, followed by Hercules ... in the case of Hercules, however, the Roman interpretation must have meant Thor.

- Murdoch, Brian, and Malcolm Kevin Read, eds. Early Germanic Literature and Culture. Vol. 1. Boydell & Brewer, 2004.

But There Was Hercules Magusanus

While Tacitus meant Thor, there was a following for the syncretic deity Hercules Magusanus in Germania (Inferior). This kind of qualifies as a cult of Hercules perhaps.

Significant here is the epigraphic evidence for the cult of Hercules Magusanus. Hercules Magusanus is a god with a double name, a Roman and an indigenous one respectively, and we should regard him as a syncretism of the Roman Hercules with Magusanus, a local deity or hero. The cult was based in Germania Inferior, particularly the Batavian region, as attested to by the distribution of votive inscriptions and the presence of some monumental sanctuaries that can be ascribed to this deity.

- Roymans, Nico. Ethnic Identity and Imperial Power: The Batavians in the Early Roman Empire. Vol. 10. Amsterdam University Press, 2004.

Religious sites dedicated to him has been found at Empel, Kessel, and Elst, with significant attestations all around the Rhineland. In fact there are enough attestations for the worship of this god that he is thought to be the chief deity of the Batavians, who lived around modern Netherlands.

Hercules Magusanus, who was probably the chief deity of the Batavians.

- Nicolay, Johan. Armed Batavians. Amsterdam University Press, 2007.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.