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Between the World Wars: Articles from the Syracuse Union, available through the New York State Newspaper Project


January 15, 1920, p.11

The Hieroglyphics of the Germanic Peoples

By Guido v. List.

Few know that the ancient Germanic people had a well-developed pictographic script similar in concept to the hieroglyphics of the Pharaohlands on the Nile. These glyphs still have their own scientific and cultural significance today yet would be considered illegible or undecipherable.

As we look at the ancient sagas and histories, these mystical symbols appear more and more frequently the farther we go back into the past. Their appearance also becomes more detailed as they extend back to their original artistic forms, yet their basic structures remain unchanged. Through them we peer into the romanesque and gothic architectures of the Middle Ages. We encounter their silent significance on the doors of modern carriages, on the flags flying over our regiments, and on the rolled coins of every age. We have a name for their study, yet we don't realize it—it's our ancient heraldry. We can see them as heraldic imagery however we still cannot understand or decipher them because most of the keys to their meaning are lost in time. Fortunately we still have one key to deciphering the old, true heraldic symbols since the images of heraldry are a part of the Germanic hieroglyphs.

Other symbolic and ornamental examples of pictographs come to us on old German buildings.

Their embellishments impart additional significance but their true meaning escapes the layman because they are based on tightly-held guild secrets and specialized knowledge. Heraldry experts, painters, architects, builders, and stone masons all have their own trade secrets. The general population may construe their meaning but even one trade class would not be in a position to fully understand the symbols of another guild.

And this goes for all classes of work, be it scientific, artistic, or handiwork. Each group defended and protected its interests. This goes for jurisprudence and baking trades, poets and minstrels for even they belonged to a guild called the Meistersinger. If we go beyond the Middle Ages into the dark ages of prehistory we find that all branches and boughs lead back to a common root from which all trades evolved. This root sprung from the Old Norse poets who studied the meaning of existence and truth. Their knowledge formed the basis for those who presided over the people — the rulers, the teachers, the priests and judges of the prechristian Germanic tribes.

It's not our task here to present the original system of pictographs although interesting progress has been made in the field giving an overview of Germanic hieroglyphs. The oldest and most important signs are those dealing with the creation or development of the universe:

  • Figure 1. The Trifos or Vilfos, meaning will, as in it was God's will which created the world. The figure represents ths rotation of the whirlwind and signifies the weather which created the world.
  • Figure 2. Fyrfos (Fyr = Primordial Fire rather than Four Feet.) It's also called the cross or the swastika. It symbolized the culmination of weather's force, sometimes viewed as the lightning cross and referred to the divine act of creating or the creation itself.
  • Figure 3. The wheel spider or lug wrench is also known as the whorl or vortex. It represents the end of creation, the current circumstances or conditions, the twilight of the gods, the passing of the weather. The Thunder God rolls by in his chariot. A second interpretation is the rotating beacon of light or fire which Loki (or Prometheus) gave mankind so it could learn to use fire.

Let's take a closer look at the hieroglyphs in heraldry first.

This is the symbol for Trifos in its ancient heraldic form. The edges of the shield work as border lines in order to accentuate the internal lines. The three inner surfaces were tinted in bright colors. The hieroglyph itself is indicated by the border lines in union with the internal lines. Figure 4a represents an inverted Y, in heraldry known as a pall reversed or horse capstan. It harkens back to the old meaning of turning and could refer to woodwork turning tools. Figure 4b is called the snail whirlpool. It twists like the horse capstan but here its meaning is related to a specific purpose dependent upon which colors and various other symbols are inscribed on its surface. In later eras artistic renderings much more frequently represented the Trifos as three roots joined together at a central hub from which three armored or naked legs extended. This was afterwards reinterpreted as a tripod or as a three-legged man and became associated with a trefoil.

The metamorphosis of the Fyrfos is even more remarkable in its journey from prechristian to christian heraldry. The cross of Wotanism was refashioned to a symbol of Christianity.

Like the Trifos, the Fyrfos originally indicated border lines between regions, which modern heraldry does not recognize.

The figures are represented as quartered (Figure 6a) or angled (Figure 6c) segments instead of surfaces or fields emphasizing border lines. In a later era even Fyrfos appeared as a swastika (Figure 6d) and as countless other crosslike figures functioning as dividing lines between surfaces. Since it was originally a pagan symbol, it could have been construed to be a sign of heresy, thus making it a hazardous design to display. To give it a more harmless appearance, the Fyrfos was redesigned with snakes heads, angular lines, Jerusalem crosses, or some other heraldic cross to minimize its actual meaning.

The most noteworthy transformations of the pagan cross include the Maltese Cross (Figure 7a) and the Cross of the Pyrmont Crest (Figure 7b), the well-known spa town on the Osning Ridge in Westphalia. This symbol played a tragic role in the Inquisition trials of the Knights Templar in 1313. It was called the "talking head" or "Baphomet" and was used as proof of heresy by the Templars and contributed to their guilty verdict. The Knights of St. John in Jerusalem and Malta, who used the same symbol then and now, made great sacrifices to avoid a similar fate. The "Talking head" was their primary symbol. It was also known as the Cross of the Gnostics. It represented the views of Wotan theosophy and theology, but to keep it closer to the christian symbol it was designed to look like an opposably slanted Fyrfos to conceal its true meaning then and now.

The regional name Pyrmont itself excellently conceals a pictograph. Pyr means fire as it is borrowed from the Greek. There are many regions with Pyr in their name throughout Germany. The Lower Austrian Pyrgas is similar to many Greek regions named Pyrgos. The meaning is the same, that being "Fire's Origin" or as established by the primal fire god. All these locations had temples, including Pyrmont and Pyrawart.

Meanings for the term Radkreuz (wheel spider or lug wrench) as it relates to jurisprudence could fill an entire book. As a heraldic symbol for law it played a significant role. The crucifix replaced the Radkreuz, which eventually became a symbol for the German legal system rather than religion. And once the German legal system distanced itself from the Roman model and the crucifix was replaced, the Saxon leader Widukind reconfigured the law into the "Secret Tribunal." Its symbol became a five-fingered balled fist called the Feme. As a secret gesture the fist signified opposition to Roman rule. Thus the Radkreuz became the Fem symbol. Secret courts could be found whereever red crosses were placed in shady forests or the name Rothenkreuz was used to designate a district or region. Wheels replaced wrenches on crests. Thus we have the crest of Kurmainz since the elector of Mainz was the chief justice of the Feme. Naturally that designation no longer applies.

Nonetheless the wrench was not forgotten as it was used on the peasant flags during the German Peasant Wars. The peasants had their flag bearers and used their symbolic wrench just as the aristocracy had their wheel symbol. The wheel was used as the instrument of judgment. The criminal found his punishment through the law as symbolized by the wheel.

We find nearly countless examples of other symbols in architecture. The Tryfos, trefoil, and flamboyant trefoil (Figure 8a) are found on Romanesque and Gothic domes from small designs to artistically designed rose windows. Similarly the Fyrfos became the quatrefoil and the flamboyant quatrefoil (Figure 8b) in other large construction. Among Romanesque and Gothic architecture the so-called wheel or Catherine window (Figure 8c) dominated. It was different from other rose windows in that it referred back to the ancient symbol of the Red Cross and the Catherine Wheel.

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Confession by a young woman on the day after her wedding: So what can I do? I told my husband I had a hundred thousand Marks in assets, four houses of my own, a filthy rich aunt, and he believed every word. Oh Philipp, if I had known just how dumb you are, I never would have married you!


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Translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks