The most ancient literary documents relating to superstitious uses and preconceptions are collections of superstitions that appear already at the time of Charlemagne (Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarumof the year 743) and which then found their continuation up to the century. XI, in the manuals for confessors and penitential books. Even later, sermons and satirical writings, as well as the witch trials, show that the people continue to think in the traditional way. Forest and field cults have their origin, as W. Mannhardt has shown, in remote Germanic and Indo-Germanic antiquity. Superstition and folk medicine were also largely influenced by the mythical and magical concepts of classical culture, which, after the spread of Christianity north of the Alps, fueled the culture of the monastic schools.
The souls of the deceased are hidden in the forest and even the plant life is conceived anthropomorphically. In part, this may be the reception of myths from classical antiquity, but the idea that forest spirits reside in trees is also found in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Since the Middle Ages the fable of the existence of hairy residents of the woods developed, which also appear in figurative art, and, until the 19th century, in sacred representations. To a similar tradition belong the representations of the elves (v.), Of the aquatic men and of the undines, and of the kobolds, similar to them, familiar spirits who benevolently take on a part of the daily hard work of men during the night.
Fountains, springs and ponds, like old trees, are also considered throughout Germany as the places of origin of the souls of children. According to widespread children’s stories, the one who brings the children is the stork. The custom of planting a birthday tree or tree of life is also very widespread in southern Germany; at the birth of a boy it is an apple tree, to that of a girl a pear tree.
Of the agrarian rites, those concerning the cultivation of flax are particularly noteworthy for their great antiquity: thus the imitative magic of jumping, so that the flax grows long, the rolling of women in the flax field, the ritual stripping, etc. For the customs related to plowing EH Meyer has highlighted analogies with Indian antiquity: burying flour or bread and eggs by plowing, spilling water when the plow starts and similar customs. Expressions such as “mother of wheat” or “mother sheaf”, and also the denomination of the last sheaf after a demonic animal, imprisoned in it (goat, pig, wolf) lead back to the sacrifice of animals for the field. Pentecost is combined especially in the countryside with the feast of the shepherds, in which the beasts appear dressed up for a feast. Restorers often have large customers. In folk medicine there is, in addition to an ancient treasure of experimental notions relating to the usual medicinal plants, also numerous maxims based on sympathetic magic. According to the ancient axiom,similia similibus medicantur, and the signatura rerum, the color and appearance of a thing determine its curative virtue and the popular surgeon increases its effectiveness by means of conjurations, prayers or blessing formulas.
Even the ancient belief in witches and sorcerers and their evil magic operations has not entirely disappeared. If jinxing is much less known than in Mediterranean countries, on the other hand there is a fear of “derision” for children and “envy” for livestock. Bewitched cattle give no milk, or little, or blood. To ward off the disease, we return to primitive cooking systems, although we do not recommend throwing hot stones into the milk tub. With the superstitious act, but attesting to a more advanced culture, of dipping an ax or a scythe, etc. of iron, pointed and red-hot, in the milk, when it is not possible to prepare the butter with it, the aim is to strike the very person of the witch. Nervous diseases and insomnia, wasting, etc. are attributed to the ridicule of children. Baths with medicinal herbs, spells, prayers and amulets are used; the existence of the mother is protected by surrounding her with a number of similar apotropaic means.
Red coral, agate, or heliotropy (chalcedony), the hand that makes the chips, etc. belong to the amulets, which date back to ancient times. Many amulets have taken the form of attributes of saints, such as the arrow of St. Sebastian, against the plague and other infections, the hoe of St. Volfango, the tongue of St. John of Nepomuk, always with an apotropaic purpose. The conjurations against evils such as the patereccio or to stop a bleeding or against arthritic pains have entirely preserved the form of the ancient pre-Christian magic formulas. Similar formulas of averting, against fire, lightning, thieves, etc., have also penetrated into Catholic prayer books, etc. (Book of S. Romano or S. Colomanno, etc.). There are added the formulas of exorcism against demons.
In southern Catholic Germany, Bavaria is especially the territory in which popular vows and pilgrimages predominate, and where iron votive animals date back to ancient cultic uses. The ancient representations of the interior of the human body, carved in wood, offered as ex-voto for healing from internal diseases, those of toads, as symbols of the uterus, for the diseases of women (these representations that hardly derive from ancient votive wombs, but can rather depend on the representation of the uterus as a toad and of this as an animal that represents the soul), finally the offering of urns in the form of an ancient type head, with cereals, and the use of “heads of St. John”, plastic representations and placed on a plate, to chase away headaches. The drinking of wine blessed with skulls venerated as relics dates back to the concepts of skull worship, as R. Andree has shown.
Motifs of the cult of the saints also hint at Germanic antiquity, such as the journey of many saints to the place of their sanctuary or their burial with a pair of unmarked oxen without a driver (S. Notburga, S. Enrico) which corresponds to the journey of Nerthus ; or in the Bavarian pilgrimages of St. Leonard the use of heavy iron hammers being lifted as penance by young men, which corresponds to an ancient Germanic test of virility; or the ritual drinking in honor of St. John at Christmas time, corresponding to the “libation of love” (Minnetrunk) of the northern Germans, during the holidays of Jul.
Spirits and demons likewise survive in popular traditions. To this circle of beliefs belongs the saga of the savage host advancing in stormy tumult under the guidance of a ghostly man on a white horse, and that of the spinner, now represented as serene and benign, now as demonically evil, who at night it leads to the spinning mills, rewards the good spinners and punishes the indolent ones, ruffling and soiling the cones. She also appears as the leader of a nocturnal group of infants not born or dead before baptism and in fairy tales as a lady of wind and storm (Frau Holle, the Hellish Woman) who scatters the snowflakes with her hand. Nightmares and distressing dreams are attributed to monstrous nocturnal spirits (Alp, cf.Alp or Alpdruck, “nightmare”, Trud or Drud or Drut, or Mahr “nightmare”).
Tales and sagas of the German people have been studied since the beginning of the century. XIX, with the romantic movement. The Grimm collection, through the great comparative commentary by J. Bolte and Germany Polivka, forms the basis of modern research (see fable). The even more repeated fairy tales are those of Princess Rosaspina (Dornröschen), Snow White (Schneewittchen), Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf and the seven goats.
The rich treasure of popular songs was introduced into German literature through a collection that highlighted above all its poetic qualities: Des Knaben Wunderhorn(“The magic horn of the child”) by A. von Arnim and C. Brentano (1805). From then on, due attention was also paid to melodies and popular songs were systematically collected and stored in archives for the purpose of comparison and study. The agitated complexity of German cultural life in the cities and countryside from the century onwards is manifested in them. XVI onwards, as in turn the love songs and spiritual songs go back even further, to the poetry of the Minnesänger and wandering troubadours and to the spiritual lyric of the Middle Ages. The popular tradition of festive dramatic performances survives only to a very limited extent. A group of their own constitute the true and proper popular dramas, mainly of a religious content. The pastoral dramas, the representation of Heaven, as well as the representation of the Passion, which takes place in Holy Week, they rejoin the sacred representations or mysteries of the Middle Ages. To these they join in the sec. XVI also moralizing representations of the divine judgment on the states of man, and those for Shrove Tuesday; later a representation of Doctor Faust is also added. Especially the Jesuits, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries contributed to the spread among the people of similar dramatic representations, which also took the legends of the saints as their subject. The representation of the Passion in Oberammergau is well known. The Christmas representations, which have been maintained up to the modern era also in Saxony and Silesia, have more and more preserved the character of an exclusively popular festival.