Anglo-Saxon Paganism

Anglo-Saxon paganism refers to the religious beliefs and practices followed by the Anglo-Saxons between the fifth and eighth centuries AD, during the initial period of Early Medieval England. A variant of the Germanic paganism found across much of north-western Europe, it encompassed a heterogeneous variety of disparate beliefs and cultic practices.

Developing from the earlier Iron Age religion of continental northern Europe, it was introduced to Britain following the Anglo-Saxon migration in the mid fifth century, and remained the dominant religion in England until the Christianization of its kingdoms between the seventh and eighth centuries, with some aspects gradually blending into folklore.

Much of what is supposedly known about Anglo-Saxon paganism is the result of the efforts of literary antiquarians in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; in particular, the notion that Old English poetry contains vestiges of an actual, historical pre-Christian paganism has been queried by Anglo-Saxonists.

Anglo-Saxon paganism was a polytheistic belief system, focused around the worship of deities known as the ése. The most prominent of these deities was likely Woden, for which reason the religion has also been called Wodenism, although other prominent gods included Thunor and Tiw. There was also a belief in a variety of other supernatural entities who inhabited the landscape, including elves, nicor, and dragons. Cultic practice largely revolved around demonstrations of devotion, including sacrifice of inanimate objects and animals, to these deities, particularly at certain religious festivals during the year. Pagan beliefs also influenced funerary practices, where the dead were either inhumed or cremated, typically with a selection of grave goods. There was also a magical component to the early Anglo-Saxon religion, and some scholars have also theorised that there may have been shamanic aspects as well. These religious beliefs also had a bearing on the structure of Anglo-Saxon society, which was hierarchical, with kings often claiming a direct ancestral lineage from a god, particularly Woden. As such, it also had an influence on law codes during this period.
The deities of this religion provided the basis for the names of the days of the week in the English language. Despite this, there is much that is not known about this religion, and what is currently known about it comes mainly from the available archaeological evidence. What is known about the religion and its accompanying mythology have since influenced both literature and Contemporary Paganism from the 18th century onwards. In pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon England, legends and other stories were transmitted orally instead of being written down- it is for this reason that very few survive to us today. After Christianisation however, certain poems were indeed written down, with surviving examples including the Nine Herbs Charm, The Dream of the Rood, Waldere and most notably Beowulf. Whilst these contain many Christianised elements, there were certain mentions of earlier pagan deities and practices contained within them.
One of the most prominent surviving myths of the pagan Anglo-Saxons was that of the brothers Hengest and Horsa, who are named in historical sources as leaders of the earliest Anglo-Saxon incursions in the south of Britain. The name Hengest means “stallion” and Horsa means “horse”, reminiscent of the horse sacrifice connected to the inauguration of pagan kings. Another important mythological figure is Weyland the smith, a figure who also appeared in other forms of Germanic mythology. An image of Weyland adorns the Franks Casket, an Anglo-Saxon royal hoard box and was meant there to refer to wealth and partnership.

The only surviving Anglo-Saxon epic poem is the story of Beowulf, known only from a surviving manuscript that was written down by the Christian monk, Sepa sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries AD. The story it tells is set not in England but in Scandinavia, and revolves around a Geatish warrior named Beowulf who travels to Denmark to defeat a monster known as Grendel who is terrorising the kingdom of Hrothgar, and later, Grendel’s Mother as well. Following this, he later becomes the king of Geatland before finally dying in battle with a dragon. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was commonly believed that Beowulf was not an Anglo-Saxon pagan tale, but a Scandinavian Christian one; it was not until the influential critical essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien, delivered in 1936, that Beowulf was established as a quintessentially English poem that, while Christian, looked back on a living memory of paganism. Nonetheless, some academics still hold reservations about accepting it as containing information pertaining to Anglo-Saxon paganism, with Patrick Wormald noting that “vast reserves of intellectual energy have been devoted to threshing this poem for grains of authentic pagan belief, but it must be admitted that the harvest has been meagre. The poet may have known that his heroes were pagans, but he did not know much about paganism”.

Many place names in England are named after various things to do with Anglo-Saxon paganism. A number of towns and villages, such as Weedon, Wyville and Harrowden have terms like ealh, weoh and hearh incorporated into them, indicating that they were places used for worship by the pagan Anglo-Saxons, and from using this toponymy, sixty sites of pagan worship have been identified across the country. Other sites are named after specific Anglo-Saxon deities, for instance, Frigedene and Freefolk are named after Frige, Thundersley after Thunor, and Woodway House, Woodnesborough and Wansdyke named after Woden.

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