Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Paganism

By Pete Jennings (Adapted from Peter’s talk delivered at the Leornungdæg 26 October2008)

There was an interesting article in Wiþowinde 147 from Eadmund (Malcolm) Dunstall bewailing the fact that incorrect information is often repeated and that on the periphery of Anglo Saxon studies there is one particular area where this ersatz information is particularly rife, and that is the area of Englisc Paganism. 

 As a modern day Heathen/Pagan I could not agree more!  Whilst Saxons living alongside Heathen Norsemen in the Danelaw area may have been influenced to return to their religious roots, I deplore the way in which it is presumed by so many that Anglo Saxon Paganism was the same as Scandinavian, except for some slight name changes: Odinn to Woden, Forr to Funor, Tyr to Tiw etc.

(In fact, as someone with an interest in Norse Paganism as well,  I will observe that it was not very  consistent from one village to the next, let alone across several different countries!)  Let’s not fall into the archaeologist trap: lf we can’t explain if, it must have ritual purpose…” So much is unknown, uncertain, and down to individual interpretation.

A lot of emphasis has been placed upon the writings of the Venerable Bede, possibly England’s first historian, writing in Jarrow after the Christianisation of England. While he does provide excellent evidence regarding some Anglo Saxon Heathen practices such as mentioning the obscure Heathen deities Eostre, Hreþa (month names) & Sætere, one must remember that he was a Christian monk with a political viewpoint, especially as regarding the lineage and legitimacy of his current royal dynasty and culture.  That makes it all the more surprising that he should remind us that the

Heathen feast of Modra necht is arguably on 26 December and that Solmonaþ(February) is a feast of cakes, while September is named as Halegmonaþ (Holy Month) and November as Blotmonaþ (from its animal sacrifices). Why would a Christian cleric want to make these up?

We have a far wider range of powerful literature, in the form of texts that can be analysed for clues to our Heathen past: Heroic poetry such as Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon, material from leech books and verse charms (such as the Nine Herbs Charm), laws, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, letters, and the Anglo Saxon Rune Poem.  I would argue that you cannot get into the early Anglo Saxon mind set without understanding something of the Paganism of that period, even when it had officially ceased to exist.

According to the 6th century writer Gildas, the first of the heathen Saxon newcomers in the 5th century were allegedly Hengest and Horsa, two warrior leaders brought in by the Celt Vortigern to evict the Picts between about 449-456. After completing this mercenary task, they decided to stay on, against his wishes.  At a battle near Aylesford in Kent, Horsa was killed, and the still visible White Horse Stone (or possibly its replacement) is said to be where he is buried, and is thus an important place to modern heathens as a memorial to one of the two human sources of English Heathenism.  It lies off the A229 Maidstone-Chatham road, near to where the Pilgrims Way and the more modern Channel Tunnel link cross it.  lt can be found via a footpath near to a garage.

Consider briefly the names though:  Vortigen is less a name than a title, which has been interpreted as “King of Kings.” Horsa means “horse” and Hengest either “stallion” – or alternatively the almost-exact opposite, “gelding.” (How etymologists justify their art as a science sometimes eludes me!) How likely is it, for two sons to be both named in equine fashion?  I wonder whether these were titles, rather than names, in the same way that Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was known as the “Lion of Judah”?

LAWS

While I will accept that some laws are copied from one king to another, the successive laws against Paganism  seem to subtly change focus in each new generation: presumably to combat whatever was the “latest fad”.  The Saxon kings and the Church give us evidence of what was going on in England by what they forbade. For example, The Laws of King Alfred include:

30. The women (faamnan) who are accustomed to harbour enchanters (onfon gealdor-crasftiganJ and wizards (scin-læcan) and witches (wiccan) * do not allow them to live.

32. And he that sacrifices to idols (god-geldum onsaeoge), rather than to God alone, let him suffer

death. (Griffiths, 2006: 50)

Hence we know that people in the 880s were acting as enchanters, wizards and witches, as well as sacrificing to idols. It is unlikely that a law would be passed against something that did not exist. Prior to that in AD666, the biographer of St. Wilfriþ tells how a priest of the South Saxons cursed Wilfriþ and his companions as they were cast ashore in a storm.

The Council of Clofeshoh (747) condemned those who practiced divinations, auguries, incantations and the like.  The Dialogue of Archbishop Egbert named those who worshipped idols or gave themselves to the devil through others who took auspices or practiced astrology or enchantment as men who should never be appointed to the priesthood. (Blair, PH L997:LL7) – Though one might think they were already part of a rival priesthood, and would not therefore be interested in the one being denied them!

Between 1009 and 1016, King Æþelræd published his laws which included Renounce all Pagan Customs (Griffiths, 2006:84) demonstrating this was still a problem within an Anglo Saxon culture that had supposedly been converted to Christianity nearly four centuries previously (Pagan practices were specifically banned under Archbishop Theodore’s 7th century Penitential, which included penances for sacrificing to devils, foretelling the future and burning grain in a house after the death of a man – the last being the only reference I know of that particular Pagan practice).

The popular image of Christian conversion across Europe is not supported by the evidence, with some countries vacillating between various religions depending on their current rulers, invaders and even who they wanted as their allies or trading partners. Why, for instance, was the supposedly  Christian King Aþelhere of the East Angles named by Bede as being within the ill-fated 30 legions of the fervently Heathen King Penda’s AD654 expedition against Oswiu? (Stenton, 1971:83) Was it purely politics? Or had East Anglia reverted to Paganism once more? Prudence Jones & Nigel Pennick provide a detailed analysis of this type of process in A History of Pagan Europe (1995).

Earlier, East Anglian King Redwald had been baptised in Kent, but merely erected a crucifix in his Heathen temple and had a massive treasure burial – hardly the actions expected of a Christian. Maybe, like Prince Charles, he wanted to be “Defender of the Faiths” to his multi-faith society.  The Prittlewell treasure grave has proved this type of ostentatious funeral wasn’t unique in this period.  Wulfstan, ,Ælric and King Cnut (AD995) collectively ban animal guising, saluting the moon, making offerings at waterfalls and trees, making oaths to Heathen gods etc., in edicts years apart – which

suggest these things were still continuing. King Edgar had already forbidden well worship, divination, and practices around trees and wells in about AD970 – only 25 years before Cnut.   It would seem unlikely that laws would be repeatedly passed against some action that no longer happened.  Of course these accounts do all give us a very clear idea of what we should do as modern Heathens if we wish to worship in the way our ancestors did.

RITUALS & MAGIC

If one examines Anglo Saxon charms such as the one to make a field fruitful (Erce, Erce, Erce) it is hard to deny that there are some very magical acts going on alongside the instruction to say the Lords Prayer (cutting turf, and putting herbs and grain into the soil, etc.).   The period may officially be Christian, but it seems a lot of the old ways lingered, in a form semi- acceptable to the new religion.

When King Æþelberht met with Augustine and some 40 Christian missionaries, around 597 at Thanet in Kent, he insisted that it was in the open air, because he was suspicious of their magic. Does that mean then, at that place and time, people believed magic could only take place indoors?

CULT CENTRES

While there will always be linguistic and etymological arguments around place names, some of them

Wansdyke, Wednesbury (- Woden’s Barrow) Wednesfield, Thundersley (þunor’s grove), Tysoe (Tiw’s

Hill Spur) etc.- do seem to give evidence of centres of religious cults, Thurstable (Funor’s Pillar)    suggests a link with the sacred lrminsul pillars on the continent destroyed by Charlemagne, but St Anselm commenting on Heathen temples in Wessex mentions also crude pillars (ermula) of the same foul snake and the stag were worshipped with coarse stupidity in profane shrines… (Thompson, 2004:19). It was, of course, a stag that surmounted the whetstone sceptre of Sutton

Hoo, despite the wolf element to the Wuffing dynasty’s clan name,

Place names with an original element of hearg (hill sanctuary) in them such as Harrow Hill, likely indicate an outdoor altar site. Weoh = idol, allegedly, and this forms a Pagan element in place names such as Wayland Wood. What is much more controversial is the use of the Grimr nickname for Woden as part of place names. Whilst Grimsby might have been a centre for his worship, some places such as Grimsdyke, Grimspound, Grimes Graves etc, may have been named by later generations after a being that had by then gained ‘bogeyman’ status. What has not had much attention given it in recent years is the idea of areas named after their original tribes, who in turn were ruled by people who could only do so by claiming direct lineage back to a Pagan deity such as Woden or Seaxnot. A study of Frank Stenton (1971) will still repay the effort.

TEMPLES

According to Bede, the Heathen priest Coifi was asked by King Edwin of Northumbria to persuade the people to convert to Christianity in 627, by setting an example. He carried a spear on a stallion and threw it into the temple (ealh) at Goodmanham in the East Riding of Yorkshire – all taboo acts for an Anglo Saxon Heathen priest. (Blair, P. L977:121).  In contrast, at least one Icelandic priest owned a stallion and none seemed barred from carrying arms. Though they did share the custom of not taking weapons into the temple.

Certainly there must have been some well-constructed Heathen temples in England. Why else would Pope Gregory write to Abbot Mellitus a letter dated 17 June 601 (quoted by Bede) instructing him:  

I have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols in England should not on any account be destroyed. Augustine must smash the idols, but the temples themselves should be sprinkled with holy water and altars set up in them in which relics are to be enclosed. For we ought to take   advantage of well built temples by purifying them from devil worship… (Branston, 8., L974:53-54)

Those English Heathen temples must have flourished well into the era of Christian conversion, since

elsewhere Bede mentions an unbroken tradition of at least one heathen temple seen by King Aldwulf of East Anglia ‘who lived into our own times’ and who testified ‘that this temple was still standing in his day, and that he had seen if when a boy.’(Branston, B. 1974:54) The temple in question had belonged to Aldwulf’s predecessor King Rædwald, who died in about 625, and is believed to be the main burial at Sutton Hoo, His temple was probably where Rendlesham church now stands in Suffolk.   If the life of Aldwulf (Eadwulf) is taken as 664-7L3 (Pollington, 2005:120) and if he saw it when he was six years old (the earliest he is likely to have been able to recollect) then the temple was there in 670 – fofty-five years after the death of Rædwald and the supposed end of Heathen practice. Bede also writes about King Sighere of the East Saxons rebuilding ruined temples and restoring Heathen worship after a serious plague in 665.

DANCE

A plate on the side of the Sutton Hoo helmet shows what appear to be two figures, each dancing with two spears and a sword, across two crossed spears on the ground. They have elaborate helmets on that appear to be crested with large bird-headed horns. There is a similar figure shown on the Finglesham belt buckle from Kent, and they have close parallels with panels from Torslunda, Sweden. It appears that ritual dancing is going on, and Ormsgard Dark Ages Theatre was

trying to do some experimental archaeology around that at Sutton Hoo during 2008. While one may argue about what sort of ritual dance it is, it would be hard to put it into a Christian context.

Two of the figures from the Torslunda plates have helmets with boars on them, and at least two similar helmets have been found in England: at Benty Grange, Derbyshire and fragments at Woolaston, Northants and Guilden Morden, Cambs.   Whilst they could simply be decoration, are they evidence of a boar cult an animal sacred to the god Frey? As I indicated at the start of this article it is all down to interpretation.

September 15th, 2010