Totem Animals in the Langobards’ Imagination

During the twelve nights following the winter solstice, the god Wotan rides his exceptional eight-legged grey horse. He crosses the sky, the waters and other worlds at the head of the ghostly procession of the souls of the soldiers who died in battle in a furious hunt whirlwind, complete with horses, hounds and other forest animals.

The theme of the Wild Hunt, with Odin in his special role as a companion to the Underworld, is one of the dearest themes in Norse mythology, expressing at the same time the persistent and remote warrior vocation of the Germanic peoples. And it is precisely in this vocation, combined with an existence intensely linked to nature, that the imagination of the peoples of Barbarian Europe is reflected.

In a context of daily life dominated by imposing forests and the indispensable presence of animals, the latter become fundamental points of reference, so much so that they take on a strong totemic value.

The rich baggage of pagan beliefs, myths, legends and oral traditions, assimilated in a complex cultural overlap, finds a significant expression both in material culture and in certain ritual forms made evident by archaeological findings that emphasise the strong link with the world of animals in funerary contexts, with particular reference to the burial of horses.

Battle-propitiatory ceremonies and special practices carried out at the time of burial offer an extraordinary insight into the imagination of the Langobards populated by horses, dogs, bears, wolves, deer, wild boar, snakes and eagles, constant presences in the sphere of everyday life, special and faithful companions in eternity.

The sound of hooves on the ground. In the deep darkness of the forest, the dull sound of a demonic gallop. A monster as dark as the shadows of the night, an eight-legged horse, moves through branches and glades. On his back is Wotan, the god of war, followed by a retinue of warriors who have died in battle.

The images that accompanied the Langobards in their long wanderings were dark, powerful and grim. And they never got rid of these images, not even when they arrived in the warm sun of the Mediterranean.

They are a people of hard men, of warriors. In the chaos of battle, a shadow sneaks up behind you and suddenly wounds you. You do not know if it is an enemy, a demon or a god. But it is fear that spurs courage: the true warrior is not the one who fears the unknown, but the one who faces it and tames it.

The Langobard barbarians played with terror. Their own and that of others. The animals that frightened them were also their protectors, the demons that accompanied them in the bloodiest battles: wolves, snakes, wild boars born of nature but reworked by the minds of men, or by their nightmares.

The Langobards lived in this bewitched world, they themselves wore masks of beasts, they transformed themselves into mythological creatures such as the dog-headed cynocephali, who bit their opponents and drank their blood like vampires.

Even after embracing a new creed, in the depths of their souls they remained attached to their totem animals, figures born of primordial darkness and chaos. Perhaps the Church’s mistrust of them is also linked to this inner paganism of theirs.

In the depths of their soul, even after the most sincere of conversions, there is something untamable. A space in which the warrior becomes a beast and instinct dominates over reason. A space in which man is not man, but only animal intuition. A space in which the Langobard is no longer a Christian, no longer a man, not even demon or god. He is only nature, movement, action. He is alone with himself, immersed in everything.
[M.G. Vaglio, longobardinivetrina.it].

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