Between 600 and 700 CE, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had converted to Christianity. While it would take some time for the new religion to filter down from the royal courts to the commoners, Anglo-Saxon Heathenry as a cultural religion was doomed.
The reasons that the kings had converted, as well as the particularly crafted brand of Christianity to which they converted, have been explored in another article. This article seeks to ask the question: what was the religion of the Anglo-Saxons before conversion? This article is not meant to be a detailed examination, but to give a solid overview on the subject. This serves as a background to GVK’s modern reinterpretation of an ancestral faith.
Unlike the Greeks and Romans who were literate, pagan cultures, Germanic Heathens did not leave writings. Literary sources are the product of Christians who wrote down Heathen oral legends after Conversion, or external observers who recorded their own observations of Heathen practices. The degree to which these outsiders understood Heathen religion, and the degree to which they interpolated their own viewpoints, are always a matter of critical inquiry.
Due to the dearth of sources, Heathenry is often viewed broadly from the Migration Age on the Continent, to the Anglo-Saxon sources of the Old English, to the poetry and sagas of Iceland and Scandinavia. Literary and archaeological sources from these different times and places are cross-checked with each other to examine continuity and change. Some expand the inquiry to broader Indo-European cultures, using the religions of the Greeks, Romans, Celts, Slavs, Iranians and Vedic Indians as comparative material to fill in some blanks.
The preponderance of literary sources in Heathenry nonetheless stems from Iceland and Scandinavia. This leaves the scholar (or modern practitioner) of Anglo-Saxon Heathenry in a quandary. If you remove Norse sources, what is left for the Anglo-Saxons? To what degree can Germanic polytheism of another time and place be applied to Old England?
Specifically Anglo-Saxon sources can be reduced to the following:
- Archaeology. Material remains and graves can provide clues, though how one interprets the data is subject to debate (Pollington 26).
- Literature. There are sporadic references to Gods and other divine beings, magical practices, and Heathen belief systems in the poems, stories and charms left by the Old English (Pollington 30).
- Genealogies. Aristocratic pagans often had divine ancestors. With regard to Anglo-Saxons, this usually meant Woden (Pollington 40).
- Laws. Christian prohibitions against pagan practices tell us what pagans were doing – or, at least, what Christians thought pagans were doing (Pollington 41).
- Folklore. Various folktales and folk practices can contain echoes of a Heathen past, though one has to be very careful not to make conclusions not supported by evidence (Pollington 43).
Classification on Beings
Modern religions are usually concerned with the dichotomy between “good” and “evil.” Heathenry was concerned about a different dichotomy (Pollington 75). On one side of the cosmological coin was the Inner-Yard and the beings – gods and elves and other holy powers – that supported order and wholesomeness. On the other side was the Outer-Yard and the beings – giants, thurses and monsters – who brought chaos and ill-will. Good and evil don’t really apply here. Woden fights for the Inner-Yard, but he is not “good” according to the Christian sense of the word. Conversely, Giants bring chaos, but may not be “evil” in the diabolical sense of the word.
The Old English god is a nebulous term meaning “that which is invoked” (Pollington 74). Throughout Germanic religion there is sometimes confusion between what constitutes a god proper, what is a lesser wight, and what might be an ancestor or hero. Apparently the gods themselves needed help with this issue: one of Odin’s runic spells concerns differentiating gods from wights (Larrington 37).
What is known as Aesir in Scandinavia is termed Ese (singular: Os) in Old English. The Ese are sometimes invoked alongside the elves, ielfe (singular: aelf). Pollington conceives the Ese as the major gods linked with the heavens, while the ielfe are the lesser beings linked with the land (Pollington 77).
The Vanir in Scandinavia would be termed the Waene. There is, however, not a great deal of evidence for this term in Anglo-Saxon sources; the few times it appears, the contexts are ambiguous (Pollington 82). To what degree the later Norse designation of Vanir as a separate race of gods holds true for earlier peoples is up to debate: there are some who say Snorri was creating a literary fabrication when he spoke of a war between the Aesir and Vanir (Simek 18).
With these classifications out of the way, let us look at some of the beings who might be properly described as gods.
Equated with Mercury by the Interpretation Romana, and thus Dies Mercurialis was equated with Wodensdaeg, or Wednesday (Pollington 173).
Woden is derived from the old Germanic *wodenaz. Woden was the god of wod, wod being an ecstatic mental state that can be linked with poetic inspiration, magical efficacy, and the fury of battle (Pollington 174). There are a variety of place names in England that are connected with Woden (Owen 8), but the extent to which these can be credibly linked with a religious cult is disputed (Pollington 180).
As far as the Anglo-Saxon sources, Woden manifests in two dimensions.
First, he is the royal ancestor of seven of eight of the royal genealogies (Owen 11). He thus serves as the god of kings. As the first duty of the king was to wage war and appropriate wealth for his retainers, we can say Woden was a god of battle to the extent it was part of his duties as a sovereign deity (Pollington 187-188). Certainly, the earlier *wodanaz was the god of the roving bands of the comitatus, while the later Othinn was the leader of the Einherjer. There are helmets where the garnet of the left eye has been removed; these have been linked with Woden. It is surmised they may have been ritualistic masks worn as part of his aristocratic, warrior cult (Pollington 197).
Second, the Norse Othinn is sometimes described as a “shamanistic deity,” with command over runes and seithr. In the Anglo-Saxon sources, he is mentioned in the Lay of Nine Twigs in connection with magic, specifically healing magic (Owen 12).
Later Norse sources also cast him as the god of runes and poetry, but the Anglo-Sources are not explicit on this. In later folklore he also came to be associated with the Wild Hunt.
The Eddas portray Othinn as a god whose chief duty is preparing for Ragnarok, who will lead his army of the slain on the fateful day. There is little compelling evidence that Anglo-Saxons internalized this myth. Thus, there are those who see Woden more as a god of magic and death, wandering the barrows and fens of England in search of wisdom (Branston 104).
In Norse times Tyr’s principle myth concerns the binding of the wolf, where he sacrificed his hand. For an essay on how this relates – or not! – to the Anglo-Saxon Tiw, go here.
“Tyr” is a generic Norse word for god. It is cognate to both Zeus and Jupiter, and derives from the Proto-Indo-European Shining Sky Father (Owen 23). Much ink has been shed on comparative theories that Tyr was the original deity whose position was usurped at some point in the Migration Era by the All-Father. This need not concern us here.
Tiw was equated to Mars. Dies Martis is thus Tiwesdaeg, or Tuesday. A few place names in England are linked with Tiw. “Tir” can mean “glory” in Old English (Pollington 167).
Tiw or Tir is the name of a Futhorc rune. The surviving rune poem likens the rune to the polestar.
In Norse mythology, Thor, the son of Odin, is the champion of Asgard. He quite happily bashes in the faces of Giants with his hammer, Mjolnir. Also, a Viking Age runic inscription invokes him to “hallow these runes.” Between these two things, he is usually considered the hallowing god of Heathenry whose might defends Midgard from the forces of chaos. In his agricultural aspects, as giver of rains, he was considered a god of farmers, and thus peasants. He was by far the most popular god in Iceland.
He was associated with the Roman Jupiter (Jove) as both gods use the lightening bolt. Dies Jovis was thus equated with Thunorsdaeg, Thursday (Pollington 199).
There are some place names in England that use Thunor’s name; they often have the element of “leah,” or grove/meadow, suggesting he was honored at such venues (Owen 23). The swastika -which was associated with this god long before 20th century politics perverted it – is found on cremation urns and brooches (Owen 25).
“Frige” is linked linguistically with both “Freyja” and “Frigg,” who in later Norse traditions are separate goddesses. “Freyja” simply means “Lady” and there is speculation in the Norse tradition if another goddess such as Gullveig stands behind the name, or to what degree Freyja might be linked with Frigg. It should be noted both goddesses have strong associations with Odin (Pollington 205).
Dies Veneris, Venus Day, was linked with Frigedaeg, or Friday (Pollington 206). Venus is known mostly to moderns as a goddess of sexuality, beauty and love, but there were aspects of her cult associated with motherhood and rulership (re: the cult of Venus Genetrix of Julius and Augustus Caesar). To early Christian writers, the most memorable (infamous) aspect of the cult of the goddess Frige was the “free love” it supposedly engendered (Pollington 206-207).
In the absence of further evidence, it is difficult to assert that that the goddesses known to the Norse as Freyja and Frigg were considered separate by the Anglo-Saxons.
Ing / Frea
“Freyr” is a Norse term which means “lord.” The Anglo-Saxon equivalent would be “frea” which appears at times in Anglo-Saxon poetry – but as a title, not as a reference to a deity (Pollington 234).
The god specifically referred to in Norse tradition – Ing-Frey – was known in Anglo-Saxon times as Ing or Ingwe. He is listed in the royal genealogies as a type of divine ancestor figure (Pollington 252). He also has a rune named after him, with a corresponding rune poem. A few phallic-looking figurines which are possibly connected with Ing have been found (Pollington 254).
Freyr was liked with horses. Horse burials – and probable horse cults – are known in two cases from Anglo-Saxon archaeology (Pollington 236).
The Earth Mother
The first mention of the Anglo-Saxons, in the form of the Anglii of Roman times, concerns the worship of a terrestrial goddess known as Nerthus (Tacitus). Her name, however, does not survive by the time the Angles and Saxons take over Britain. Suggestions that Nerthus survived under another name such as Freyja, or was somehow transformed into the male Njodr (Pollington 259), are interesting, but outside the scope of this article.
Instead we look to a figure known as Erce, mentioned in a fertility charm called the Aecerbot. “Erce Erce Erce eorthan modor” – “Erce, earth’s mother,” it implores.
Hama is referenced in Beowulf in connection with the Brosingamen necklace legend; this links him with the Norse Heimdall. A Hama is also referenced in Widsith, an Old English poem.
Eostre and Hretha
Eostre is possibly cognate to the Roman Aurora, the goddess of the dawn. Bede mentions an Eostremonath – Eostre Month – which he equates to April in the Roman calendar. Feasts were held to this goddess in that month. The later Easter is presumed to be a holdover of this pagan practice; an Anglo-Saxon commentator mentions that drinking to excess was a practice during the week before Easter (Pollington 225).
Bede mentions that a Hrethamonath – Hrethe Month – existed, and was equivalent to March. Hrethe may derive from hroth, which would mean fame, glory splendor. Equally it may derive from rethe – fierce, harsh (Pollington 251).
Phillip Shaw has argued that the above interpretations are unsound based on linguistic analysis. Instead he traces Eostre and Hretha to specific locales and social groups within Anglo-Saxon England (Shaw 99). In his reckoning, these goddesses would be construed as purely local cults in the manner of the matronae (see Matronae below).
There is no evidence of Loki being known in England prior to the Viking invasions (Pollington 282).
Epilogue on the Gods
As one can see, there is not a great deal of material on the gods that survive within the Anglo-Saxon tradition.
The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were formally established by about 600 CE, but by 700 CE they had all converted to Christianity. This leaves a mere century in which the gods were worshipped at the state (royal) level. It should be noted that these were chaotic, violent times, and the barely literate (if one considers runes as an example of literacy) kingdoms had more pressing concerns than to record the minutiae of their religious practices.
Another explanation is that, outside of certain social castes and religious festivals, the gods may not have been the focal point of religion. Lesser beings connected with the land and the family may have been nearer and dearer to the average Heathen (Griffiths 27). We look now to two of the principle types of these lesser beings.
The matronae are cults of female fertility spirits. Dedications were made to them in the Roman era by Germanic and Celtic individuals serving with the Roman legions. The inscriptions are found in Germany along the Rhine, and in Britain along Hadrian’s Wall (Pollington 323).
The Mothers typically manifest in triads, are often hooded, and often are depicted displaying baskets of fruits (Pollington 324-325) . They are associated with bounty and surplus, and are linked with wells, streams and local households (Shaw 48), (Pollington 326).
These Mothers are linked with the later Norse cult of female ancestral spirits, called the disir. Bede mentions that Modranect – Mothers’ Night – happened on Christmas Eve, and was an occasion for a night long festival. Possibly Mothers’ Night honored these female spirits (Pollington 328).
Elves and Landwights
Throughout the Indo-European world, religions recognized classes of supernatural beings who inhabited the land. They were often capricious, able to harm or hurt humanity depending on their whims. Harm usually came to humans when they intruded into the natural landscape uninvited, or harmed the natural landscape in some manner. The cult of these land spirits was ubiquitous. But the major difference between them and the gods is that the land wights were thought to have no power outside their immediate territory (Pollington 322).
In the Anglo-Saxon context, the most highly developed class of these beings are called ielfe, or elves. They were invisible to the average person, but those with esoteric ability could perceive them (Griffiths 47). For most of their history, they are conceived as masculine, albeit possessed of an “effeminate” natural beauty. These provided a masculine contrast to the cult of the Mothers. But in later times, some of the elves were thought to be female, and possessed of seductive powers (Pollington 321).
Many diseases were thought to be caused by “elf-shot” (Pollington 319). Many of the popular magical charms of the day revolved around curing elf-shot (Jolly 135). Of course, this was a Christianizing influence on elves (Griffiths 50), where elves had been linked with demons (Jolly 136). In the Heathen period, elves were connected to the dead, and the esoterically inclined sat on mounds for inspiration and healing (Griffiths 51).
Finally, there is the hobthrush, a house-spirit who seems to be an extremely localized version of the land spirit (Pollington 323).
Places of Worship
Places of worship can be divided into an obvious dichotomy: inside versus outside.
When the Anglo-Saxons arrived, they had the luxury of taking over Roman and pre-Roman (“Celtic”) structures (Pollington 89, 91). Identifying these structures in the archaeological landscape is often hard: many buildings might have served secular and religious purposes simultaneously. Then, too, English Christianity maintained the practice of converting “well-made” structures to churches (Pollington 88).
The quintessential structure, however, is the lord’s hall, as expressed in Beowulf. This will be dealt with separately. It is enough now to say the hall was the center of political, social and religious life. The lord’s hall was a continuation of Migration Era practices, where the comitatus warlord united his retainers into a fictive kinship through the drinking ceremony called symbel. The elites back then presumably honored *wodanaz within its halls, and the elite Anglo-Saxons presumably honored his English incarnation, Woden (Pollington 101-102).
Anglo-Saxon families presumably honored their ancestors within their homes at the hearth, or at house-pillars (Griffiths 30-31).
In the era of Tacitus, the gods were worshipped in natural settings (Tacitus); the hall was a later development. As the hall became a central Germanic institution, it does seem like the worship of the major gods moved increasingly indoors. Nonetheless, outside worship still seems to have happened in Anglo-Saxon England; outside of areas of centralized political power, perhaps it was even the norm (Griffiths 16). Archaeology points to goods that were deposited in liminal places such as waterways and marshes, and there is speculation about worship at sacred groves, clearings and woodlands (Pollington 99, 101-105).
It was the lesser spirits, however, that would have been particularly associated with outside worship. As with the pre-Roman Celts, wells and springs were especially associated with numinous activity (Pollington 102). Barrows and cemeteries were places to honor the ancestors and the dead (Pollington 92-93), (Griffiths 31).
The following comes from Bede’s Reckoning of Time, in which he preserved some snippets of Heathen religion.
The Old English had a lunar calendar (as did many ancient peoples). The moon being called mona, a month was called monath. The year was divided into a dark half or winter (when nights were long) and a light half or summer (when nights were short).
- Giuli (I): January.
- Solmonath: February “the month of cakes” because cakes were offered to their gods.
- Hrethmonath: March, named for Hretha.
- Eostremonath: April, named for Eostre.
- Thrimilchi: May, “three-milk”, because cattle were milked thrice daily.
- Litha (I): June – Litha means “gentle” because of calm breezes that prevail.
- Litha (II): July.
- Weodmonath: August, the month of tares, a grass that looks like wheat.
- Halegmonath: September, month of “sacred rites.”
- Wintefilleth: October, “winter-full.”
- Blodmonath: November, “month of immolations”, cattle sacrificed to gods.
- Giuli (II): December: the sun turns back and begins to increase.
Because lunar months don’t match up with solar years, every so often they would have to insert a “leap month” in the form of a third Litha.
Important Spiritual Concepts
Maegan: power, strength, force, confidence, ability. This refers to having enough strength to carry out a task (Pollington 84).
Hael: good health, good fortune, wealth, wholeness (Pollington 84).
Inert substances possessed maegan: plants used in magic charms had to have the right maegan to perform the magic task. More importantly, however, people possessed maegan and hael, which could be gained or lost depending on one’s actions. These properties were considered essential to kingship (Pollington 84-85).
Craeft meaning “skill” was applied to people with esoteric powers. A person with craeft could perceive and manipulate someone’s maegan or hael (Pollington 85).
If maegan and hael were essential to kingship, and those qualities could be manipulated by magic, then Woden as the magician-god who ultimately empowered kings theoretically must have played a large role in extending those qualities to his chosen (Pollington 85).
Wih: something that is sacred, something that exists apart from the normal world and to be used for an otherworldly power. The term weoh, or sacred object, derives from wih. And thus weofod (altar) and weofodthegn (altar-priest) (Pollington 143).
Halig: whole, healthy, fortunate, holy. Divine favor for well-being (Pollington 144).
Wyrd: sometimes translated as Fate or Destiny (Branston 56). The word occurs 9 times in Beowulf (Branston 57). In the Christian era, it was interpreted as the “will of God” (Branston 59).
However, Heathens had a different concept of Wyrd (at least according to scholarly theories). Time is divided into Past and Not-Past. All actions and speech reverberate through the Nine Worlds and drip back into the source, the Well of Wyrd. The Past is the repository of all action; that which we call the present (Not-Past) is that which bubbles over from the Well (Bauschatz 99).
“Wyrd” is the march of reality that has arisen because of the flow of events that reside in the Past. The actions that an individual take is therefore constrained by his prior actions; but they are also constrained by the actions of his ancestors and various other beings in the various worlds. This is a much deeper (convoluted?) concept than Fate or Destiny.
Most modern Heathens reduce the general sentiment to a pithy phrase: “We are our deeds.”
Magic and Runes
Runes have been dealt with elsewhere. The runes were at times used for esoteric purposes, but otherwise they served for prosaic writing.
The subject of Anglo-Saxon magic could easily be its own topic; we will only allude to it briefly here. In late Anglo-Saxon times, there occurred a confluence of Christian and Heathen thought at the popular level (Jolly 11) (something similar happened in Medieval Iceland). Old Heathen charms were loosely Christianized. As with many forms of magic, many of these charms revolve around using the correct material substances in combination with formulaic phrases that invoke various spiritual powers.
The Mead Hall
The subject of the Mead Hall and symbel is its own article.
Bauschatz, Paul. The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture. Amherst: University of Massuchussets Press, 1982. Print.
Branston, Brian. The Lost Gods of England. London: Constable and Company, 1993. Print.
Griffiths, Bill. Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006. Print.
Jolly, Karen Louise. Popular Religion in late Anglo-Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Print.
Larrington, Carolyne, trans. The Poetic Edda. New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, 1996. Print.
Owen, Gale R. Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons. Dorset Press, 1985. Print.
Pollington, Stephen. The Elder Gods: The Otherword of Early England. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2011. Print.
Shaw, Phillip A,. Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Esotre, Hreda and the cult of Matrons. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011. Print.
Simek, Rudolph. “The Vanir: an Obituary.” Retrospective Methods Network Newsletter December 2010. PDF.
Tacitus. Medieval Sourcebook: Tacitus: Germania. n.d. 1 July 2017. <https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/tacitus1.html>.