Image of Woden
Image of Woden: British Library Cotton MS Caligula A VIII

The heathen culture of the earliest Anglo-Saxons is extremely hard to understand as so little survives and is largely filtered through the lens of Christian writers. However, place name evidence and archaeology can contribute to our understanding.

One of the key gods in the pantheon was Woden. He gives his name to Wednesday, which to the Romans was Mercurialis (the Day of Mercury) and in modern romance languages is still called after that god eg “mercredi” in French. The correspondence between Roman and pagan gods is of interest because the Romans often tried to match up pantheons as they subsumed various tribal groups under their banner.

Mercury was the god of knowledge and death. He was also the messenger, connecting him with writing, and also healing, and leading the dead to the Underworld. Interestingly these themes also appear in what is known of the Norse equivalent, Othinn, and what little evidence we have points to them holding true for Woden as well.

The derivation of the name is from the earlier Germanic language, meaning “lord of wod”. This referred to an excited mental state, such as rage, rapture or drunkenness. Related words include the Old English for possession by demons or madness (woddream) or frenzy (wodnes). According to Adam of Bremen (11th century) “Woden id est furor” (Woden, that is, frenzy).

Old English glosses equate Mercury and Woden eg the Corpus Glossary at Cambridge.

The earliest written record of the Woden is the runic inscription on the Alemannic Nordendorf fibula, a 7th century brooch from southern Germany. He next turns up in Bede (where else?) in his early 8th century Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Germanic sources include Paul the Deacon’s History of the Langobards (late 8th century), where Paul claims Woden is worshipped by all the nations of Germania.

Woden was probably associated with language. However we have no tradition of Woden creating the runes in the way we have for the Norse Othinn – at least, none that survives.

Place name evidence is widespread across England. These include Wednesbury and Wednesfield (Staffordshire), Woodnesborough and Wormhill (Kent), Wenslow and Wensley (Bedfordshire) and Wensley (Derbyshire). Older place names no longer in use also occur in records. However, not every place name means it was a temple or equivalent.

Woden also features in the genealogical lists of the almost all the Anglo-Saxon royal families as an ancestor. This includes Offa, Penda and Alfred. The original source does seem to have been Mercian, during the Mercian Supremacy in the 8th century, and may have been adopted in Wessex and Kent at that time.

The link between Woden and kings and warlords was one of violence and supremacy. This was both on the battlefield and in the mead hall, when persuasion and fluency was critical to policy and decision making. Early leaders were often also priests, mediating with the gods on behalf of their people and this resulted in special (secret) knowledge through runes and writing. As healing was another of the god’s powers, the king was also seen as being able to cure disease and enact shamanic rites. Ultimately this resulted in a view of kings as sacred or having a special relationship with the sacred.

The cult animals of Othinn were the raven and the wolf, and this may also apply to Woden. The animals feature strongly in Anglo-Saxon art, such as the work from Sutton Hoo (early 7th century).

We can also see some evidence of an eye defect on objects from various graves. Othinn is well known as the one-eyed god, having left one of his eyes in the Well of Mimir. There is no surviving equivalent story for Woden but there is some evidence in Anglo-Saxon art for a parallel tradition. Many of the heads of Woden are shown in profile, for example, so that only one eye is visible but this is not conclusive. More importantly the Sutton Hoo helmet has a variation in the decoration on the eyebrows. The garnets on the right eyebrow are back by gold foil, brightening their appearance, while those on the left are deliberately left without foil, darkening their appearance. This pattern of variation is repeated elsewhere. A number of button brooches (5th-6th century) show male faces with one vertical and one horizontal eye, thought to represent a one-eyed individual. It is possible these represent Woden.