Paganism, Anglo-Saxon

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PAGANISM, ANGLO-SAXON . The "Anglo-Saxon" history of England stretches from the fifth to the eleventh centuries. Even before then, however, in 98 ce, Tacitus cites the "Angli" as one of seven tribes on the northeastern German seaboard who worshiped "Nerthus, i.e., Earth the Mother" (Robinson, 1935, p. 317), a Bronze Age goddess borne about in a wagon. A formal comparison here with Njörðr, the name of a Norse god, may indicate that Tacitus mistakenly identified Nerthus with the earth when his informant treated them as divine husband and wife (North, 1997, pp. 1925). When the Angles, Saxons, and other Germanic invaders settled in Britain they stayed heathen until various moments in the seventh century. It is hard to know what their beliefs were before this time (Owen, 1981). There is a dearth of evidence, and our literary sources consist of scraps found here and there in place-names, royal genealogies, and passages derived from a number of mostly Latin works concerned with Christian history and doctrine (Page, 1995).

Our chief sources are Northumbrian. Bede (c. 675735), in his History of the English Church and People (c. 732), records the Anglo-Saxon conversion and its aftermath from 597 to the 640s (Colgrave and Mynors, 1969). He relates three crucial moments of conversion: when King Æthelberht of Kent gave Augustine permission to preach in 597; when King Rædwald of East Anglia put a Christian altar at the center of his temple in the 610s; and when King Edwin of Deira, though he held off for eight years, had himself and his people baptized by Paulinus in 627. In this episode Bede refers to a man named Coifi, "first among the high priests" of Deira, who burned down the enclosure at Goodmanham after riding there unlawfully on a stallion and casting a spear at the idols inside. The same period is covered without this tale, but with some interesting additions, in the anonymous Life of Pope Gregory the Great, which was written in Whitby probably around 713 (Colgrave, 1968). Bede, in two works on computus, the calculation of the liturgical year, also claims that his heathen ancestors held a festival in honor of a "goddess" named Eostre at about the time of the Passion (Wallis, 1999, p. 54). Although the Modern English word Easter, a term for a time of year, comes from eostre, there is no other reason to personify the name in this way, and it looks as if Bede deified eostre on analogy with Februus, an invented Roman god whom he knew to be associated with the month of February (Wallis, 1999, p. 48). An older contemporary of Bede was Bishop Aldhelm of Sherborne (640s?709), one of whose letters hints at the existence of priapic cults in Wessex in the early seventh century (Lapidge and Herren, 1979, p. 479). Still further south, according to Life of Saint Wilfrid, which was written between 710 and 720, there is an account of a heathen sorcerer defeated perhaps in the 680s by Bishop Wilfrid on a beach in Sussex (Mayr-Harting, 1991, p. 24).

Other sources derive from place-names, epigraphy, and archaeology. The gods' names Woden, Tiw, Thunor, and perhaps once the feminine Freo survive in place-names only in the south and midlands (Meaney, 1995). There Woden's name is the most common, and it was also used in Anglian royal genealogies of the eighth century (Dumville, 1976). Pre-Christian inscriptions of the Anglo-Saxons were written in runes. Aside from coin-legends, about ninety runic inscriptions survive from England and the associated Frisian region in the fifth to seventh centuries (Page, 1999). Now and then new texts are found, but no runes have turned up that might throw light on Anglo-Saxon paganism, unless the gibberish of three inscriptions can be taken to represent magic rituals. The names for a couple of runes, however, Tiw and Ing, do appear to refer to heathen gods, although anything about them more than their names is a matter for interpretation (Page, 1999, pp. 7677). Within the wider archaeology, it is often assumed that some of the first English churches were built over heathen sites of worship, which had themselves been converted from Romano-British shrines (Blair, 1995). In 601 Pope Gregory commanded that heathen shrines should be reconsecrated rather than torn down, so that converts might hasten more readily to their accustomed places (Colgrave and Mynors, 1969, p. 106). To start with, at least, Anglo-Saxon heathens probably had no priesthood, but Old English place-name elements such as weoh and hearh show that they had, respectively, wayside and public shrines (Meaney, 1995), even if it is hard to recognize these in excavated ground plans (Wilson, 1992, pp. 4446). Grave finds, on the other hand, are easily identified, the most significant being Sutton Hoo, a ship burial, or cenotaph, discovered in 1939 and dated to about 625, and probably meant for Rædwald. This find includes a whetstone mounted with a stag emblem, both of which might be pagan (Wilson, 1992, pp. 168169). Made known in 2004, the grave find of another newly Christian king in Prittlewell, Essex, possibly the East Saxon Sæberht (d. 619?), will become a further rich source of research. The evidence from fifth- and sixth-century cemeteries also gives a picture of an imagined heathen afterlife in which earthly goods such as treasures and garments, horses, weapons, and even foodstuffs could accompany the dead as if into another version of the living world (Wilson, 1992, pp. 97123).

It is not easy to make sense of all this. Most attempts involve comparisons with the rich mythological poetry and prose of tenth- to thirteenth-century Iceland (e.g., Dronke, 1992; Harris, 1975). In one such case, it is argued that heathen kingship was "sacral" and based on a presumed hieros gamos between Woden and the earth (Chaney, 1970); in another, that the husband was rather Ingui or Ing, not only a counterpart of the Norse gods Baldr and (Ingunar- or Yngvi-) Freyr, but also a progenitor god with a wagon, of whom mention is made in The Old English Rune Poem (North, 1997). Some scholars try to examine Anglo-Saxon paganism without recourse to the cognate mythology of Óðinn, Þórr, Frigg, Baldr, Freyr, and Freyja (Wilson, 1992). Yet Norse paganism remains relevant in another way in that its first purveyors, the Vikings, settled the east of England in the late ninth century, the northwest in the tenth, and the southwest in the early eleventh. Their paganism was kin to the Anglo-Saxon variety, and it seems likely that until their own conversion moments they helped to turn English superstitions back into cults. Most of the later evidence must be seen in this light. It is unclear, for example, whether or not an invocation to "Erce, mother earth" in the eleventh-century Charm for Unfruitful Land, which presents her as a bride in the embrace of God, is an Anglo-Saxon relic entirely free of Norse influence. On the other hand, it can be argued that Balder, who replaces the unrelated Baldæg in a genealogy in Æthelweard's Latin version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (c. 975), is witness to a Norse myth imported into England (North, 1997, pp. 124131). Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 950c. 1010), in his De falsis diis (On the false gods), draws attention to Óðon, Þór, and Fricg (Johnson, 1995), where one might expect the native English names. Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023) rewrote this homily and also drafted laws for the Danish king Cnut in which he rendered some anti-pagan prohibitions of the sixth-century Bishop Martin of Braga into his own powerful West Saxon prose. This usage, above all, shows that heathen abuses were still rife in England as late as the eleventh century.

See Also

Archaeology and Religion.


Blair, John. "Anglo-Saxon Pagan Shrines and Their Prototypes." Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 8 (1995): 128.

Chaney, William A. The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity. Manchester, U.K., 1970.

Colgrave, Bertram, ed. Vita Sancti Gregorii Magni: the Earliest Life of Gregory the Great. Lawrence, Kans., 1968.

Colgrave, Bertram, and Roger Mynors, eds. and trans. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Oxford, 1969; reprint with corrections, 1991.

Dronke, Ursula. "Eddic Poetry as a Source for the History of Germanic Religion." In Germanische Religionsgeschichte: Quellen und Quellenprobleme, edited by Heinrich Beck, Detlev Ellmers, and Kurt Schier, pp. 656684. Berlin and New York, 1992.

Dumville, David N. "The Anglian Collection of Royal Genealogies and Regnal Lists." Anglo-Saxon England 5 (1976): 2350.

Harris, Joseph. "Cursing with the Thistle: Skírnismál 31 and Old English Metrical Charms 9, 1617." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 76 (1975): 2653.

Hofstra, Tette, Luuk A. J. R. Houwen, and Alasdair A. MacDonald, eds. Pagans and Christians: The Interplay Between Christian Latin and Traditional Germanic Cultures in Early Medieval Europe. Groningen, Netherlands, 1995.

Lapidge, Michael, and Michael Herren, trans. Aldhelm: The Prose Works. Cambridge, U.K. and Totowa, N.J., 1979.

Mayr-Harting, Henry. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. London, 1991.

Meaney, Audrey L. "Pagan English Sanctuaries, Place-Names, and Hundred Meeting-Places." Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 8 (1995): 2942.

North, Richard. Heathen Gods in Old English Literature. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 22. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Owen, Gale R. Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons. Newton Abbot, U.K., 1981.

Page, R. I. An Introduction to English Runes, 2d ed. Woodbridge, U.K., 1999.

Robinson, Rodney P., ed. The Germania of Tacitus. Middletown, Conn., 1935.

Wallis, Faith, trans., with introduction, notes, and commentary. Bede: the Reckoning of Time. Translated Texts for Historians 29. Liverpool, 1999.

Wilson, David N. Anglo-Saxon Paganism. London, 1992.

Richard North (2005)