Gods and supernatural beings

By Stephen Pollington

Stephen Pollington is a freelance researcher, tutor, presenter and author specialising in the Old English language and the history of Anglo-Saxon England.

From the earliest Germanic presence in Britain of which we have any evidence – inscriptions from the area of Hadrian’s Wall from the late 1st c. AD – to the completion of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kings in the later 600s, Britain had a heathen Germanic culture in some areas for around six centuries. Add in the new wave of heathen impetus from the later Scandinavian invasions (8th-11th centuries), and the span approaches a thousand years. During this time, beliefs and ideas about the supernatural and the gods were constantly evolving along with the societies that worshipped them.

The evidence for the ancient gods is not as sparse as some modern writers maintain, but it is difficult to evaluate. Some pre-Christian tradition comes down through Old English literature – which is transmitted through Christian literacy – or otherwise through archaeological finds which don’t have any labels to assist with identification.

As a starting point, we could do worse than take the days of the week, the names of which go back to pre-Christian times. Sunday and Monday (the days of sun and moon) are the obvious starting points for heavenly bodies but these were probably not regarded as supernatural beings in the period.

Tuesday is the day named for the god Tiw. Almost nothing is recorded about him in Old English outside a few place-names, but Scandinavian tradition knows him as Tyr – one of the major gods who is associated with justice and honest relations among men. He must once have been the foremost of the gods (his name is cognate with Greek Zeus and Roman Jove or Ju(piter)) but he had faded into the background by the time the Anglo-Saxon came to Britain. The Norse god is involved in a story of the binding of the cosmic wolf Fenrir, and it may be that some representations of a man between wolves show the same tale – such images appear in the purse-lid from Sutton Hoo Mound 1. In this story, Tyr lost one of his hands.

Wednesday is named for Woden, the foremost of the gods and the one about whom we know most because a handful of narrative sources survive. He is associated with kings and wisdom, with writing, medicine and commerce, with warfare and with the soul’s passage to the afterlife. His name is found at the head of many lists of kings – East Anglia, Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria all believed that their royal line(s) started with the god. Occasional references to him in the poetry and the medical literature indicate that he was considered wise, courageous, cunning, powerful, tricky and determined – all qualities associated with Anglo-Saxon kings. His weapon was the spear – the badge of a freeman and a lord alike. The Norse tales have Odin (Woden) trading one of his eyes for a drink of mead which conferred wisdom; while this story is not written down in England, there are many echoes of the story’s details in the royal regalia of the East Anglian kings.

Thursday takes its name from Thor, or Thunor (thunder) as the Anglo-Saxon called him. His realm was the world of hard work, farming, fishing, hunting, smithing. His weapon was a hammer (the thunderbolt) which protected men’s dwellings from the hostile forces of nature. Hammer amulets were worn in Viking times, but the Anglo-Saxons were wearing them centuries before that and they are sometimes found in graves.

Frige, the ‘beloved lady’, gave her name to Friday. Again, little is written about her in English but her Scandinavian counterparts (Freyja and Frigg) are both powerful female leaders who command respect. Frigg is a matronly, regal lady of the meadhall who uses guile to dupe her husband Odin into doing her will. Freyja on the other hand is associated with sexuality, magic and violent death.

Saturday is named for the Roman god Saturn: he was never worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons but when they adopted the seven-day week from the Romans they used the equivalent names of deities (dies Iovis = Tiwesdæg) but had no corresponding god for Saturn.

There are a handful of other gods in the literary sources – Bældæg appears in a king-list and is probably equivalent to the Norse Baldur, the beautiful but tragic son of Odin. The kings of the East Saxons in Essex did not look to Woden for the ancestry, but to their own god Seaxneat (sword-companion) who was also worshipped in the Saxon lands in Germany. Bede, writing in the 8th century, says that ‘Eastermonth’ is named after an old goddess of the Angles called Eostre whom they worshipped at the coming of spring.

Just as important as the gods and goddesses were the supernatural beings that inhabited hills and meadows, trees and stones; they could be good friends if they were respected but would take vengeance if they were not. These beings include elves, shucks, hags, ents and many others.

To find out more

Stephen Pollington has written a book called The Elder Gods: The Otherworld of Early England (available from Anglo Saxon Books and other booksellers) which brings together a range of evidence for pre-Christian beliefs and attitudes to the Otherworld drawn from archaeology, linguistics, literary studies and comparative mythology.