Es war ein König in Thule

The Thule Society has long been a part of Nazi pop culture. Known formally as the Studiengruppe für germanisches Altertum, the group was active in Munich for a short period immediately following WWI and is best known for being the “parent” organization that spawned the NSDAP in 1919. The group required prospective members to sign a “declaration of faith” concerning their bloodline and peddled alternative, largely misguided theories of “Aryan” history and origins. Several prominent members were killed during the Bavarian Soviet of 1919, and the group gradually faded into obscurity after 1920.

The Myth and Legend of Thule

But did you know that the legends of Thule were already an important theme of German Romanticism during the 18th and 19th centuries?

Ary Scheffer de koning van thule

The King of Thule by Ary Scheffer, c. 1838

To briefly recap, Thule is a mythical land in the far north of Europe first described by the Greek sailor Pytheas of Massalia (now Marseilles, France) circa 300 B.C. None of his original works survive, but Pytheas is quoted by Strabo, Pliny and Diodorus of Sicily. Pythias explored the northern shores of Europe, sailing the coasts of Britain, the Baltic Sea and ultimately traveling as far north as the “frozen sea” where, paraphrasing, “the midsummer Sun never sets when the Sun is the sign of the Crab” (summer solstice). The location of Thule, which Pytheas described as being six days sail north of Britain, has never been positively identified — it’s possible he was describing either Iceland or the coast of Norway. [1]

By the time the Nazis got their hands on Thule, it had been transformed from an obscure geographical oddity of antiquity into the magical home of the Aryan race — a sort of Aryan Atlantis — a place where magical Aryan supermen still lived in subterranean caverns wielding superhuman psychic and technological powers beyond the reckoning of mere mortals, and patiently awaiting the day when a Nordic Aryan Atlantean Messiah would “racially cleanse” the Nordic races, thereby allowing the Thuleans to return to and rule the surface world. Sound familiar?

Tracing the history of this mythological transformation would make for interesting reading — usually this level of myth-making requires heavy involvement from state-run intelligence agencies, especially when Messianic promises are being made. The history of the Thule Gesellschaft itself is interesting in its own right, as the group’s members included very prominent European aristocracy. The Thule Gesellschaft was also involved militarily in fighting the Bavarian Soviet, and in the February 1919 assassination of Kurt Eisner, the socialist Minister President of Bavaria.

Goethe’s Thule

Yet in spite of all of this, the merging of Thule into German cultural consciousness seems to have begun innocently enough. On July 18, 1774, Goethe composed the poem Geistesgruß, inspired by the sight of Lahneck Castle while traveling along the river Lahn:

Hoch auf dem alten Thurme steht
Des Helden edler Geist,
Der, wie das Schiff vorübergeht,
Es wohl zu fahren heißt.
High up on the ancient tower stands
A hero’s noble ghost,
Who, whenever a ship drifts by,
Bids it farewell on its journey
Sieh, diese Sehne war so stark,
Dieß Herz so fest und wild,
Die Knochen voll von Rittermark,
Der Becher angefüllt.
Behold, this tendon was once strong,
This heart so firm and fierce,
These bones full of Knight’s marrow,
The cup was overflowing.
Mein halbes Leben stürmt’ ich fort,
Verdehnt’ die Hälft’ in Ruh,
Und du, du Menschen-Schifflein dort,
Fahr’ immer, immer zu!
Half my life I stormed away,
The other half I spent in peace,
And you, you little man-made boat there,
Journey ever, ever forth!

1920px-Burg_Lahneck_2010

Lahneck Castle on the Lahn River, Germany [2]

Lahneck Castle itself has a long and interesting history. Notably, when the Knights Templar were ordered to disband by Pope Clement V in 1312, the last twelve Templars took refuge in Lahneck, where they died in a fight to the death with the forces of Peter of Aspelt, Archbishop of Mainz. The castle itself was first built in 1226 by Siegfried III of Eppstein, also the Archbishop of Mainz.

Shortly thereafter, Goethe composed a second poem, Der Konig in Thule:

Es war ein König in Thule,
Gar treu bis an das Grab,
Dem sterbend seine Buhle
einen goldnen Becher gab.
There was a king in Thule,
Even faithful till the grave,
To whom his dying paramour,
A golden goblet gave.
Es ging ihm nichts darüber,
Er leert’ ihn jeden Schmaus;
Die Augen gingen ihm über,
So oft er trank daraus.
Nothing was more precious to him,
He drained it at every feast;
His eyes (with tears) ran over,
As oft as he drank thereof.
Und als er kam zu sterben,
Zählt’ er seine Städt’ im Reich,
Gönnt’ alles seinen Erben,
Den Becher nicht zugleich.
When came his time of dying,
The towns in his kingdom he told,
Nothing else to his heir denying
Except the goblet of gold.
Er saß beim Königsmahle,
Die Ritter um ihn her,
Auf hohem Vätersaale,
Dort auf dem Schloß am Meer.
He sat at the royal banquet
With his knights of high degree,
In the lofty hall of his fathers
In the castle by the sea.
Dort stand der alte Zecher,
Trank letzte Lebensglut,
Und warf den heiligen Becher
Hinunter in die Flut.
There stood the old reveler,
And drank the last glow of life,
And hurled the hallowed goblet
Into the tide beneath.
Er sah ihn stürzen, trinken
Und sinken tief ins Meer,
die Augen täten ihm sinken,
Trank nie einen Tropfen mehr.
He saw it plunging and filling,
And sinking deep in the sea:
Then fell his eyelids for ever,
And he never drank a droplet more.

Goethe would later re-use this same poem in Faust (Part I, Lines 2759–82), thereby forever cementing the legend of Thule into German literary consciousness.

What’s interesting is that Goethe never intended for this second poem to be set in Thule. Rather, he intended it instead as a sequel to Geistesgruß, and for the king in question to be the deceased ruler of Lahneck – note the allusion to the “cup that overfloweth” on line 8 of the first poem. It was Johann Gottfried Herder, Goethe’s good friend and likewise a well-known poet and literati of the day, who convinced Goethe to change the poem’s setting to the mythical Thule.

Herder was an interesting personality in his own right, and it’s probably worth doing a deep-dive blog post on him at some point in future. For now, the most interesting callout about Herder is that despite being an ardent German nationalist, he held some political views which would seem rather inconsistent from the standpoint of German nationalism:

  • Jewish Zionism — He was probably one of the first Gentile Zionists, believing that Christendom owed the Jews a debt for centuries of mistreatment, and that Christians should actively assist Jews who wish to return to Palestine and establish a Jewish homeland there. He also believed that Jews living in Germany should have full political and civil rights alongside ethnic Germans.
  • Slavic Supremacy — He prophesied that the Slavic nations of the East would one day rise up and conquer the whole of (Western) Europe. He believed that Western Europe would turn from Christianity and ultimately rot away owing to decadence and immorality, while Eastern Europe would remain true to their religion and idealism and eventually become the superpower of Europe. [3]

Goethe’s Der König in Thule has been set to music by a number of composers over the years. The most beautiful, I think, and probably the most iconic is the work produced by Franz Schubert in 1816:

A more comprehensive list of composers who have set the poem to music, taken from the Wikipedia site, is as follows: [4]

  • Karl Siegmund von Seckendorff (1782)
  • Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1809)
  • Carl Friedrich Zelter (1812) [link]
  • Franz Schubert (1816) (D. 367, Op. 5, No. 5) [link]
  • Friedrich Silcher (1823)
  • Hector Berlioz, Marguertie’s aria in the opera La damnation de Faust [link]
  • Heinrich Marschner
  • Franz Liszt (1843), Buch der Lieder, S. 531 [link]
  • Robert Schumann, Op. 67, No. 1 (1849) [link]
  • Charles Gounod, Marguerite’s aria in the 1859 opera Faust [link]
  • Anastazy Wilhelm Dreszer
  • Jules Massenet, unperformed 1866 opera La coupe du roi de Thulé
  • Hans von Bülow
  • Hans Sommer (1920 or 1921)

Related Articles

Footnotes

  1. The Scottish Gaelic name for Iceland is Innis Tìle, which means “Island of Thule”.
  2. Source: By Holger Weinandt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10418857
  3. It’s interesting that the famous Fatima Prophecies of 1917, specifically the second one, could be read as prophesying essentially the same thing — that Russia eventually conquers the whole of Western Europe and cleanses the West of its decadence and immortality.
  4. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Der_K%C3%B6nig_in_Thule

The Slavic Rhine

Slavic toponyms and hydronyms occur throughout the whole of Europe — not only in Eastern Europe as might be expected, but also in Asia Minor, Greece, Western Europe and even as far south as Morocco. In this series of posts, we’re going to look at the distribution and history of Slavic toponyms in the Upper Rhine Valley of Germany.

Germani Cisrhenani

Rivers formed natural borders in the ancient world, and the Rhine was no exception. The Rhine formed a natural northern border for the Roman Empire during much its existence, separating Germani Cisrhenani from Germani Transrhenana. [1] The Limes Germanicus, or German border-wall, first built starting in 83 A.D., ran alongside the Rhine for much of its length.

Germania_romana

Limes Germani is indicated by the red dotted line. The wall begins along the Lower Rhine, then cuts across the lowlands before running along the north side of the Danube. [2]

Even today, the Rhine still defines a natural border between Switzerland and Austria, between Switzerland and Germany, and between France and Germany. But where does the name “Rhine” come from? It rhymes with English wine, and is pronounced identically with German rein (“clean” or “pure”), but does the river really have anything to do with viticulture or cleanliness?

Wikipedia claims that “Rhine” comes from the ancient Proto-Celtic word “reinos”, meaning “to move, or flow, or run rapidly”. However, I’m skeptical — this is the identical “Proto-Celtic” etymology that Wikipedia gives for the river Jizera in northern Bohemia, and yet the word Rhine sounds nothing like the word Jizera. In fact, depending on which entry you read, Wikipedia can’t even decide if Jizera is, or is not a “Celtic” hydronym. [3]

So what about the modern Celtic (i.e., Brythonic) languages? Do any of the words for “river”, “rapid” or “fast” in these languages line up with the Rhine?

English Irish Scottish Gaelic Welsh
river abhainn abhainn afon
rapid tapa luath cyflym
fast go tapa luath yn gyflym
border teorainn chrìoch ffin

The word for “river” in all three languages is very similar, but still a far cry from either Rhine or the alleged proto-Celtic “reinos”. Neither do we get a good match for any of the other terms in modern Celtic (Byrthonic) languages, including for the Roman concept of the Rhine as a “border”.

How about German or French? After all, the Rhine famously divides both nations. But still, the word Rhine isn’t even remotely similar to say, die Begrenzung or la frontière, which are, respectively, the German and French words for “border”. It is true that we get something more similar-sounding with the German word Rand — which has a similar meaning of “edge” or “border” — but the (contemporary) Latin spelling of the river’s name is Rhenus, using the same unusual “rh” digraph that is retained in modern English, French and German spellings, and Rand lacks this digraph.

The Slavic Border

How interesting is it then, that the modern (West) Slavic word for “border” is hranice? This word is the only candidate that retains the unusual “rh” digraph, although in Slavic the letter-ordering is reversed to “hr”. Some wordplay — in Slavic, the “c” is always “hard” and pronounced the same way a German would say “tz”, while the trailing “e” is never silent. German follows this same rule, but English speakers would usually finish a word with the letters “eh” to indicate a non-silent “e” sound. So while in Slavic, hranice is pronounced h-ra-nitz-eh, an English speaker might be tempted into pronouncing the “nice” syllable with a soft “c” and a silent “e” — i.e., as “nice”, that is, rhyming it with “dice” or “lice” — arriving at a pronounciation closer to rha-niceRha-nice, as pronounced by an English speaker, is starting to sound pretty similar to the Latin Rhenus.

But that’s not all! If we go back and read Latin texts from the early medieval period, we see that the “rh” digraph in Rhenus is reversed and spelled with a Slavic-style “hr” instead — giving the river’s name as Hrenus — even more similar to the Slavic hranice!

Rhine

Paul the Deacon writing c. 790 AD spells the name of the Rhine as Hrenus. [4]

Paul the Deacon was an eight century chronicler from northern Italy best known for producing a history of the Lombards, Historia Langobardorum. In this work he consistently uses the name Hrenus to refer to the Rhine. Paul moreover refers to a tribe of Suavos as living on the banks of the Rhine. Modern historians take these Suavos to be ancestors of modern-day Swabians of southwestern Germany — not an altogether unreasonable presumption given the local geography. But as we’ll see in future blog posts, there’s a lot more to the story.

Grimm

German mythologist Jacob Grimm studied the Suevi (Suavos) in depth.

For now I’ll leave you with some teasers from Jacob Grimm, the famous German fairy-tale author, which can be found in his book Geschichte der Deutschen Sprache (1880) [5]:

“Sueven und Slaven scheinen ganz dasselbe wort.” [“Suevi and Slavic appears to be the same word.”]

“Der name Suevi scheint allerdings slavisch und bedeutet, wie wir eben sahen, freie.” [“The name Suevi appears to be Slavic and means, as we have seen above, ‘free’.”] [6]

Grimm then goes on to pose the rhetorical question of why does it appear — based on the evidence he’s so far presented — that the Germans descend from the Slavs, when in fact the Germans and Slavs are such “different” people? Grimm’s answers are both speculative and less than satisfying, and although I have my own ideas on how that question should be answered, it’s going to take more than one blog post to give the necessary and proper context.

Conclusion

The Slavic word for “border”, hranice, is at least as good an explanation for the etymology of the river name Hrenus (modern spelling, Rhine) as are the other candidates proposed by establishment historians and linguists — including teorainn, chrìoch, ffin, or even worse, Begrenzung or frontière. In future blog posts we’re going to look more at Slavic toponyms around the upper Rhine Valley, in the Swiss Alps and in the Rhône river valley in France.

Footnotes

  1. The Germani Cisrhenani are Germans living on the western, or Roman side of the river, while the Germani Transrhenana are Germans living on the eastern, or far side of the river (the far, eastern side generally being free from Roman control). The extent to which these “Germans” were in fact German, or Celtic, or Slavic is a topic that will be explored in later posts on this blog.
  2. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germani_cisrhenani
  3. The Wikipedia entry for “Jizera” claims the etymology is “Celtic” and a cognate of the Isar in Munich, Germany and the Isère in Grenoble, France. [Source] The Wikipedia entry for Isère claims that the word means “swift or impetuous one” but that the etymology is not Celtic. [Source]
  4. Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, The Cloistered Life (circa 790 A.D.). [Source]
  5. Grimm, Jacob, Geschichte der Deutschen Sprache, p. 226 (1880). Source: https://archive.org/details/geschichtederdeu01grimuoft/page/226
  6. The modern Hoch-Deutsch convention of capitalizing all nouns does not appear to be have been in use when Grimm was writing, so Grimm will write, e.g., “ganz dasselbe wort” whereas a modern German speaker would expect to see “ganz dasselbe Wort”.