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.

7 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)

  4. Næhrtus Groove Says:

    @Lars Møller
    This is indeed not funny.

  5. nad Says:

    I am not an expert in deities, which allows me in the turn to deviate from conventional views on the relations between the various human gods.
    I think that there is a strong cultural connection to the mediterranean and near and somewhat also the far east, because those regions are geographically more or less close. The nordic pantheon is thus related to other pantheons in that regions, where I think it is not always so easy to tell where some religious concepts emanated from. I think there are some prevailing patterns though.

    At least at some time there seems to have been an all encompassing “first” god, which “explains” existence or life itself. As weird as this sounds -in the indo-european context this “god” or entity seems to me suspiciously related to the sound “awe” (so to say a long A). As if this god was the prime “awe” – so to say.

    As a matter of fact this sound seems to appear in the sanskrit au-m ॐ and eventually may even be related to the Voiced_pharyngeal_fricative in the egyptian An-kh: ☥. It seems to appear in the sanskrit असु a-su, breath (which is by the way “A-tem” in german).

    The latter in the turn seems related to the proto-italic au-sōs and to the proto-germanic “an-sus” and thus probably also to the nordic æ-sir using the anzus rune . The greek Ae-ther may be another variant.

    In the egyptian mythology there is an “awe-god” called A-tum. The existence of the “Atum” myth seems to be go back at least to the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BC).
    Atum is also reappearing 1500 BC as A-ten. Atum was often sort of identified with the sun itself, but if this identification is taking place Atum apparently usually gets the name Ra. Wikipedia writes:

    As creator he was seen as the underlying substance of the world, the deities and all things being made of his flesh or alternatively being his ka.[5]

    , where [5] is a book by R. Wilkinson. As a matter of fact ghr घृ (see also Gha (Indic)) seems to mean to shine and burn in sanskrit. So “Ra” or “Ka” is sort of an incarnation of “Atum” or “Awe” as the (burning) sun.

    As being the omnipotent “awe” the “awe-god” Atum “forms” a pantheon. I am now mostly referring to Wikipedia. From the egyptian god Atum (see also “Adam”) two new god categories “are given birth to” namely Air/Wind/Coolness embodied aparently by the god Shu and moisture/rain embodied by the goddess Tefnut. Air and Moisture are two extremely important “substances” which encompass a human next to heat/warmth. It is also to assume that earlier humans were probably thinking that those substances are not more or less bound to earth but extend to all of cosmos. But of course it was noticed that things are not just floating in those substances but they are attached to earth so some more categories where introduced – namely the children of Shu and Tefnut, the sky(goddess) Nut and the earth(god) Geb. I can’t tell how well established those parent-child relations are, but it is clear that some of those entities very much resemble the “classical elements” earth (Geb), water(Tefnut), air (Shu), fire (Ra), and aether (Atum). It should also be remarked that Tefnut sounds less elementary than Nut since it has two syllables, which is another indication that those elementary “gods” where more or less seen to be on a par and the parent-children relationship is rather “mixed up”.

    In general it should be remarked that there is even more “mixing up” and quite a bit of identification taking place. And this seems not only due to Wikipedians but appears to have happened in the course of history. So for example Hathor (which sort turned later into Isis) was apparently sometimes (but not always) merged with cow goddess Bat but was partially also seen as a skygod, just like Nut. In the Book of the Heavenly Cow apparently the skygoddess Nut is in the turn depicted as a cow. Likewise the Eye of Ra (“sun disc”) is apparently sometimes “embodied” by Hathor.

    In a similar way Ra and Horus are mixed up sometimes and at least partially identified with each other like in the eye of Horus. The sun rays were apparently imagined to be wings, like the wings of a falcon on or with which the sun flies in the sky. Ra being a flying sun eye – so to say.
    Hence Ra really looks sometimes like a falcon, like on that solar barge. Where it should be noted that the falcon “hor” and also the cows appear as such already before the Old Kingdom and likewise a word ka that looks a bit similar to the anzus rune. Moreover the Narmer Palette depicts already a Falcon on a barge (absurdly with a raven or eagle(?) next to it).

    The solar barge or chariot seems to have been envisaged as transporting the sun from west to east during the night. I actually find it looks as it may have been a symbol of “horizon”, especially as the Nebra sky disk bears a moon sichel and a barge, but I haven’t found that interpretation anywhere else – alas I am hesitant.

    So in short Nut/Hathor/Isis is some female deity related to and a representative of cows which acts sometimes as the “eye of Ra” but sometimes rather as an lover and adversary of Ra/Atum and at the same time also as a mother of Horus/Ra.

    Furthermore Ra/Horus or just the eye of Ra/Horus (sun disc) is in the turn often using a barge or chariot, just like Surja or dawn, the sun disk itself or like Nerthus (N-awe-zus?).

    So in short Nerthus seems to me to be very related to this EyeofRa/Hathor/Isis/Surya/Aurora goddess using a chariot and the holy heifers (cows) display the old connection to Bat and similar even older (fertility) godesses (post) or eventually even more older ones.

    Also if there is just one story explicitly mentioning it – I think the stories above seem very much related to June solstice/midsommar/Saint John’s Eve where it was or is at some places the tradition to take a bath (see also these Wikipedia descriptions of midsummer: “On St John’s Day 1333 Petrarch watched women at Cologne rinsing their hands and arms in the Rhine so that the threatening calamities of the coming year might be washed away by bathing in the river.[20]” or in Poland: “Girls throw wreaths made of flowers and candles into the Baltic Sea, and into lakes or rivers”) and where heifer chariots are not uncommon and all this seems to have some quite some relation to a Nerthus/Aurora kind of celebration. The explicit reference to the hill in the stories in the post as a holy place made me actually visit the place. It think it might eventually even be a tumultus.

    If you look at the direction of the sunset on June 20 (midsummer) in Berlin-Tegel then the sunset on June 20 at this place (the image shows a map of the cemetary) is approximately:

    Unfortunately I sofar couldn’t find any height map for the area, but I think I remember that the bigger pathways on the cemetery were more or less around the hill and that the hill is more or less parallel to Sandhauser Str. That would mean that the hill is pointing in direction of the sunset on midsummer – just like it is apparently the case for the burial mounds at Devil’s Jump.

    Unrelated remark for Berliners: If you look at the Berlin sunset map on midsummer then Alt-Lübars seems to be aligned with sun rise on midsummer.

  6. rational Says:

    You wrote:

    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.

    There was recently the exhibition “The Germanic Tribes. Archaeological Perspectives” in Berlin.
    Matthias Wemhoff, director of the Museum for prehistory and early history gave a tour through the exhibition which you can watch at Facebook:

    and part 2:

    Beginning at minute 52 in part 1 he explains that starting very roughly at around 300 a.c. -maybe due to huns and/or due to big droughts- huge germanic areas were completely abandoned (“es werden riesige Areale vollständig aufgelassen”) and that there is a time stretch of several generations where nobody lives in those areas – even not in Berlin and even not in Brandenbug. The slavic tribes then came and settled in those empty areas and because of this there is definitely no tradition from the “old” germanic tribes to the younger “germanic” settlements in the 12th century (called “Deutsche Ostkolonisation” or colonization of the east). So your idea about an “oral Semnones tradition” in Heiligensee seems to be very questionable.

    Wikipedia writes about the huns:

    …by 430 the Huns had established a vast, if short-lived, dominion in Europe, conquering the Goths and many other Germanic peoples living outside of Roman borders, and causing many others to flee into Roman territory. The Huns, especially under their King Attila, made frequent and devastating raids into the Eastern Roman Empire. In 451, the Huns invaded the Western Roman province of Gaul, where they fought a combined army of Romans and Visigoths at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, and in 452 they invaded Italy. After Attila’s death in 453, the Huns ceased to be a major threat to Rome and lost much of their empire following the Battle of Nedao (454?).

  7. nad Says:


    I had seen the facebook tours but thanks anyways for the links!
    I actually wanted to visit the exhibition, but unfortunately it was closed earlier as announced and actually right before the Lockdown ended, so that the exhibition was basically unvisible to the public. Unfortunately quite a waste of ressources.

    Anyways -as I wrote- I copied the infos about the Semnones first from the website of the church in Heiligensee and then from the website of the Heimatmuseum in Reinickendorf (museum of the district of Reinickendorf), both may not be the ultimate scientific reference, but sometimes such localities know about pecularities which may eventually be missed out in the broader academic narrative. Like I don’t know what and when something was found at “Waidmannseck” and on “Mühlenberg”.

    But OK. so Mr. Wemhoff thinks that around 300 A.D.(he says 4th century/end 4th century) the place here emptied and thus in particular -if there were Semnones- that they went around 300+ A.D. and not as the museum in Reinickendorf says around 500 A.D.
    As an example on the museum website the settlement at Klein-Köris (video in german) is given.

    In the context of the “germanic-slavic” mix I would like to remark that Tacitus regarded the Veneti (which seem to be related to the slavic “Wends”) as “germanic”, I cite from Wikipedia’s Tacitus citation as I dont have access to the original:

    The Veneti have borrowed largely from Sarmatian ways; their plundering forays take them all over the wooded and mountainous country that rises between the Peucini and the Fenni. Nevertheless, they are to be classed as Germani, for they have settled houses, carry shields and are fond of travelling fast on foot; in all these respects they differ from the Sarmatians, who live in wagons or on horseback.[8]

    So quite a bit of the narrative of what happened back then in the Migration Period seems to depend also on the classification into certain tribal categories.

    I m not an archeologist, but I think that reasons like “climatic changes” or “drought” for this apparently strong wave of migration are the most decisive ones. That is there are of course cultural differences in living with small and/or dealing with dwindling ressources, but at one point, like during mega droughts, even the most frugal and hard working populations may not be able to survive – especially not if such a drought comes unexpected or if there are no means to built up some buffers.

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