Reader Ahmed asked about my ancestors from Heiligensee:

Why is that place where you live called holy lake ?

Heiligensee is in Berlin and I live in Berlin, but I never lived in Heiligensee – its just that some of my ancestors seemed to have lived there.
If you take grammar into account then Heiligensee means actually “lake of the saints”, but I think it could have also meant “holy lake”, in fact the lake itself is in some oral tradition called “the holy lake” (see below).

I don’t know why its called so. I can only guess.

According to the website of the church in Heiligensee 2000 b.c.- 300 a.c. the germanic tribe of the semnones was apparently living there, they found e.g. weapons at the lake. From 300 a.c. – 1200 a.c. mostly the slavic tribe of the wends lived there, as most of the germans had went south and west during the migration period. Then after the wendish crusade it seems mostly germans lived there again, but I could imagine that there was a germanic-slavic mix as in Düppel.
The grove which was mentioned when Tacitus described the semnones (from Wikipedia):

The Semnones give themselves out to be the most ancient and renowned branch of the Suevi. Their antiquity is strongly attested by their religion. At a stated period, all the tribes of the same race assemble by their representatives in a grove consecrated by the auguries of their forefathers, and by immemorial associations of terror. Here, having publicly slaughtered a human victim, they celebrate the horrible beginning of their barbarous rite. Reverence also in other ways is paid to the grove. No one enters it except bound with a chain, as an inferior acknowledging the might of the local divinity. If he chance to fall, it is not lawful for him to be lifted up, or to rise to his feet; he must crawl out along the ground.

seems to be a germanic sacred grove and related to the grove of fetters. It is mentioned on this Wikipedia page that probably the indogermanic god tivas was worshipped there. This also seen so in the text by Otto Pniower from 1897, volume 3 p.94.

But given an oral tradition from Heiligensee, which was written down in the 1940’s/50s by pastor P.J. Haack (I will translate a bit later), I tend to think that at the border of the lake and maybe in the lake there was a place of worship. Lakes are rather common places of worship in nordic traditions. We had just recently a discussion where I got the impression that the name of a swedish village called Lörstrand may have been derived from a cultic nordic ritual bath tradition.

In particular the oral tradition mentioned on the church website points in my opinion less to the god Tivas but seems to me way more related to cults of goddess Nerthus which is described by Tacitus (translation from Wikipedia by J. B. Rives):

They believe that she interests herself in human affairs and rides among their peoples. In an island of the Ocean stands a sacred grove, and in the grove a consecrated cart, draped with cloth, which none but the priest may touch. The priest perceives the presence of the goddess in this holy of holies and attends her, in deepest reverence, as her cart is drawn by heifers. Then follow days of rejoicing and merry-making in every place that she designs to visit and be entertained. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every object of iron is locked away; then, and only then, are peace and quiet known and loved, until the priest again restores the goddess to her temple, when she has had her fill of human company. After that the cart, the cloth and, if you care to believe it, the goddess herself are washed in clean in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake. Thus mystery begets terror and pious reluctance to ask what the sight can be that only those doomed to die may see.

It seems though that Heiligensee was never considered as a possible location of the lake. And well Tacitus first talks about an ocean and then about a lake.
Who knows, but here a translation of the oral tradition:

Die schwarzen Stiere

In uralten Zeiten kamen die Menschen alljährlich am Heiligen See zusammen und begingen ein großes Fest. Es weiß aber niemand mehr den Tag im Jahr, an dem das geschah. Dann schirrte man zwei schwarze Stiere vor einen Wagen und hielt einen feierlichen Umzug. Zuletzt wurden aber die Stiere so wild, dass sie keiner mehr bändigen konnte. Sie rannten zum See hinunter, stürzten sich in seine Fluten und verschwanden in seiner grundlosen Tiefe. Es hat auch niemand mehr eine Spur von ihnen gefunden.

translation without guarantee

The black bulls

In ancient times people got together every year at the holy lake and had a big feast. But nobody knows anymore on which day of the year that happened. Then two black bulls were harnessed to a wagon and a pageantry was held. However at last the bulls got so wild that nobody could tame them. They ran to the lake, hurled themselves into its floods and dissappeared in it’s fathomless depth. Nobody ever found traces of them.


Das versunkene Schloss

In alter Zeit stand am Heiligen See ein prächtiges Schloss. Darin wohnte eine wunderschöne Prinzessin. Zu manchen Zeiten ging sie mit ihren Gespielinnen aus dem Schloss hinaus und tat den Leuten, die im Dorf wohnten, viel Gutes.
Einmal kam aber ein böser Zauberer an den See. Der verwünschte die Prinzessin. Als er seinen Fluch ausgesprochen hatte, erhob sich ein gewaltiger Sturm, und der wogende See verschlang das Schloss mit allen seinen Bewohnern.


The sunk castle

In the old times there was at the holy lake a magnificient castle. In it a beautiful princess was living. Off and on she left the castle with her playmates and did a lot of good things to the people in the village. But once a bad wizard was coming to the lake. He cursed the princess. When he has spoken his curse, a big storm came and the billowy lake engulfed the castle with all its inhabitants.

A possible location:

Die weiße Frau im Schifferberg

Wenn man mit dem Schiff die Havel abwärts nach Spandau fährt, sieht man gleich hinter dem Dorf Heiligensee zur Linken einen Berg, dessen flacher Gipfel mit Kiefern bestanden ist. Sein weißer Sand leuchtet weithin zum Flusse, wenn die Sonne darauf scheint. Er bildet seit alter Zeit ein Merkzeichen für die Schiffer und darum heißt er der Schifferberg. (In der Nähe des Schützenhauses in Sandhausen.)
In seinen Innern wohnt tief verborgen die weiße Frau. Nur einmal im Jahr verlässt sie ihr geheimnisvolles Schloss. Am Johannistag hüllt sie sich in einen langen weißen Schleier und setzt sich eine strahlende Krone aufs Haupt. Wenn die Glocken im Dorf zu Mittag läuten, öffnen sich die Tore des Schlosses, und die weiße Frau schreitet feierlich aus dem Berge. Ein feines Singen und Klingen zieht durch die Luft, und ihr weißer Schleier wallt weithin im Sonnenglanze. Doch nur selten haben die Menschen die weiße Frau gesehen. Es müssen schon begnadete Sonntagskinder sein.


The white woman inside the skippers hill

If one goes by ship downward on river Havel towards Spandau, then right after the village of Heiligensee one sees on the left a hill, which flat top is covered with pine trees. If the sun is shining it’s white sands glow can be seen for a long way towards the river. Since the old times it is a mark for the skippers and that’s why it’s called skippers hill. (In the vicinity of the rifleman’s house in Sandhausen.)
Hidden away, deep inside the hill, the white woman is living. Only once in a year she is leaving her mysterious castle. On Nativity of St. John she is enshrouding herself with a white veil and puts a radiant crown on her head. When the bells in the village are ringing for noon, the doors of the castle open and the white women steps solemnly out of the hill. A fine chant and ringing is hovering in the air and her white veil is seething a long way in sun’s gloss. But only rarely humans had seen the white woman. They had to be exceptionally gifted Sunday’s children.

remark: the old riflemans house seems to be Sandhauserstr. 99 and on the hill it seems there is now the cemetery.

update Sept 28. :The Heimatmuseum Reinickendorf webpage says that the semnones were a little shorter in Berlin and surroundings:

Der Germanenstamm der Semnonen war von ca. 500 v. Chr. bis ca. 500 n. Chr. im Berliner Raum ansässig. Am Waidmannseck und auf dem Mühlenberg, unweit vom Museum, hat man Spuren germanischer Siedlungen gefunden.


The german tribe of the semnones was living around Berlin approx. 500 BC to 500 AC. At Waidmannseck and on the Mühlenberg, close to the museum, traces of germanic settlements were found.

3 Responses to “Heiligensee”

  1. Lars Møller Says:

    Do you seriously want to suggest that the place of Nerthus grove is in a Berlin suburb?!! That is not even funny.

  2. Professional Herstorian Says:

    I would like to point out that Tivas “himself” might have a female connotation in the form of goddess Zisa worshipped by suevis but may be not by the Semnones.

  3. Professional Herstorian Says:

    to be more precise what I mean with connotation- Wikipedia writes:

    Zisa is an etymological double of Tyr (Tivas)

Leave a Reply

The below box is for leaving comments. Interesting comments in german, french and russian will eventually be translated into english. If you write a comment you consent to our data protection practices as specified here. If your comment text is not too rude and if your URL is not clearly SPAM then both will be published after moderation. Your email adress will not be published. Moderation is done by hand and might take up to a couple of days.
you can use LaTeX in your math comments, by using the [latex] shortcode:
[latex] E = m c^2 [/latex]