Anglo-Saxon Paganism: The Gods and Other Thoughts
Posted on March 15, 2014
It is in my opinion that Sub-Roman Britain and the early period of Anglo-Saxon England represent two of the most difficult periods for the historic inquest of the study of the British Isles. For the historian, of whom it is required to understand source material in written/extant form, the resulting upheaval following the departure of Roman authorities in the fifth century and the social changes caused by the migration of the Germanic peoples provides a significant block to our understanding of contemporary accounts, as well as reducing the number of surviving writings significantly. The resulting accounts often shape, fundamentally, the perception of modern scholars. For those historians studying the transportation and settlement of Anglo-Saxon paganism, especially in regards to a contemporary revival or other Pagan movement, these issues are undoubtedly exacerbated as the migrating peoples did not record their own data until after the conversion of Christianity, and the resulting texts never have the objectivity that modern historians are expected to maintain.
As a result, historians are forced to rely on near-contemporaries to understand this period. Other writers on the subject have termed this period the “Anglo-Saxon Twilight” (Trubshaw, 2013) out of convenience. For accounts of Sub-Roman Britain, historians are most reliant on Gildas and his work De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae which remains the most comprehensive and near-contemporaneous source material of the period. For the early Anglo-Saxon era (c. 500-700), historians are at a similar disadvantage. There are a handful of sources available, drawn from the Canterbury tradition, but paramount is the writings of the Christian monk Bede, who wrote his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, as well as other near-contemporaneous churchmen who compiled tracts such as the Penitential (Dunn, 2009). Despite being classified by some (Wallace-Hadrill, 1970) post-Classical historians, these men did not write to understand or explain many facets of society, but to either decry or garner support for them.
The dearth of true, objective, histories in the period of early Anglo-Saxon England sometimes forces scholars to rely on alternative forms of historic knowledge, expanding their view beyond what is contemporarily written. Archaeological and toponymic records lend an additional, if interpretative, level of support to the understanding of the period. These records are, however, imprecise and sometimes problematic yet, never-the-less, provide a framework for the exploration of additional subjects not covered by contemporary accounts. In this way, the exploration of deity cults, community worship, and other facets which leave material records that are otherwise lost to scholars can be studied with some degree of knowledge (Dunn, 2009). Responsible interpretation of material remains and the review and application of linguistic and toponymic remnants enables scholars to more accurate assess the spread and influence of these pagan cults.
Religious information is, again, one of the many aspects of ritual or practice that scholars find themselves in short supply on. Prominent studies have attempted to find commonality between the different Germanic traditions; in this case, comparing Anglo-Saxon paganism with later Scandinavian Norse mythologies and traditions (Wilson, 1992). This method is problematic because it does not accurately determine what, how, and why the Anglo-Saxons worshiped prior to being re-introduced to Germanic heathenism in the 10th century. The world of the Eddas and the Sagas, themselves written two centuries after the conversion of Iceland to Christianity, are not without their own contextual and interpretative issues. Some of the issues in utilizing the Norse mythologies for the exploration of Anglo-Saxon work will be discussed below.
This work will be an effort to reassess and correct – as I see it – some misunderstandings and misapplications in the idea of early Anglo-Saxon paganism, as well as drawing comparisons between historic paganism and contemporary revival movements. It will address the origins and diffusion, to a somewhat lesser extent than other published works, of the Anglo-Saxon deities, their conflation with the Nordic pantheon, and whether it is meritorious to utilize Scandinavian-era manuscripts and mythologies as a looking-glass to this branch of Germanic paganism as a whole. Finally, the subject of the survival of pre-Germanic paganism, interactions with the encroaching Anglo-Saxons will be discussed.
This article was written due to some consternation which was raised, when reading Mr. Bob Trubshaw in the articles on his website, titled Anglo-Saxon Twilight (Trubshaw, 2013). Notably, Trubshaw’s writings that the major deities of the Anglo-Saxons were not as important as written as well as the idea of a persistent cult (or cults) of Romano-Brythonic paganism that might or might not have interacted and existed alongside the “new” form of paganism.
Continental Deities, Transplanted
Historically, the people who would eventually found the first unified English kingdom traces back through late antiquity. Studying even the earliest records can shed some light on the genesis of the Anglo-Saxons themselves. Some of the earliest accounts of Germanic religion, as well as culture, come from P. Cornelius Tacitus in his ethnographic work of De Origine et situ Germanorum which itself is a descendant of Pliny the Elder’s lost book Bella Germaniae. Of these German people, Tacitus is writing through the lens of Roman understanding, interpreting them along the lines familiar with a Roman reader. It is accepted that Tacitus is investing the Germans with an unnatural amount of Roman virtues, approving of them what he considered to be lost virtues of Rome. This lost virtue was, predominately, family virtue (Wallace-Hadrill, pg. 2).
This does not necessarily discount all of what he sees, though. It simply means that, like dealing with Bede of later generations, one must be critical of what he claims.
Of the gods and worship of the Germans, Tacitus says the following:
Deorum maxime Mercurium colunt, cui certis, diebus humanis quoque hostiis litare fas habent. Herculem ac Martem et Isidi sacrificat: unde causa et origio peregrino sacro, parum comperi, nisi quod signum ipsum in modum liburnae figuratum docet advectam religionem. Ceterum nec cohibere parietibus deos neque in ullam humani oris speciem adsimulare ex magnitudine caelestium arbitrantur: lucos ac nemora consecrant deorumque nominibus apellant secretum illud, quod sola reverentia vident.
Of the gods, they give a special worship to Mercury, to whom on certain days they count even the sacrifice of human life lawful. Hercules and Mars they appease with such animal life as is permissible. A section of the Suebi sacrifices also to Isis: the cause and origin of this foreign worship I have not succeeded in discovering, except that the emblem itself, which takes the shape of a Liburnian galley, shows that the ritual is imported. (Tacitus, Hutton, & Warmington, 1970)
Tacitus is obviously writing within the heritage of Rome – that is, the interpretatio Romana. This process was such that Rome associated the identities of different deities as one and the same. John Scheid’s book, An Introduction to Roman Religion, goes into greater detail about this process. It also highlights the methodology and mindset of the Romans for believing in a set limit to the number of deities in the world. Any other investigation of this matter is beyond the scope of this paper.
Similarly in chapter 40 Tacitus has the following remarks about the Suebian tribes, along with the Langobardi:
Redudigni deinde et Aviones et Anglii et Varini et Eudoses et Saurines et Nuitones fluminibus aut silvis muniuntur. Nec quicquam notabile in singulis, nisi quod in commune Nerthum, id est Terram matrem, colunt eamque intervenire rebus hominum, invehi populis arbitrantur.
Then come the Reudigni and the Aviones, and the Anglii, and the Varini, and the Eudoses, and the Saurines, and Nuitones. These tribes are protected by forests and rivers, nor is there anything noteworthy about them individually, except that they worship in common Nerthus, or Mother Earth, and conceive her as intervening in human affairs, and riding in procession through the cities of men. (Tacitus et al., 1970)
The geographic considerations of these tribes is as follows: the first five mentioned made their homes in Schleswig-Holstein and Jutland, while the Saurines and Nuitones are thought to have once lived in the region of Mecklenburg (Tacitus et al., 1970). It is thought by Green and Siegmund that the term “Avione” was transformed into either “Axeones” or “Saxeones” sometime later around the period of Ptolemy’s Geographike Hyphegesis, and that this word became the term for the Saxons (Green & Siegmund, 2003).
Thus the four core deities that are attested to being worshiped in the 1st century by the Romans are Nerthus (whom Tacitus identified as a form of Terra Mater), and deities interpreted by the Romans to be associated with Mercury, Hercules, and Mars. The discussion of Nerthus is outside the scope of this article and several authors (Hilda Ellis Davidson, John Lindow, Richard North, H.M. Chadwick, etc.) have attempted to place her relative position within the Germanic cosmology in their studies. Later conflations with Njord or Ing/Freyr occupy a significant amount of that scholarship.
The deities that the Romans associated with their gods are commonly attested to be Woden, Þunor, and Tiw due to shared qualities: information and trickery, physical strength and thunder, and martial prowess and law (Tacitus et al., 1970). These ancient religious commonalities persisted from the 1st century CE until the Migration Period, when the Germanic linguistic groups were removed from close contact with each other. This fundamental basis for a shared, common, Germanic linguistic culture is the root cause of the spread of Woden/Oðinn, Þunor/Þorr, and Tiw/Tyr as deities among the Western and Northern Germanic linguistic groups. The conflations between these deities is not a result of “the complex cultural interchange during the ninth to eleventh centuries” or as some kind of modernist academic Interpretatio Germania as Bob Trubshaw asserts (Trubshaw, 2013).
Both Bede and the Old English Poem Solomon and Saturn allude to the consistencies between Woden and Oðinn. In the first manner, Bede provides an indirect allusion to the act of losing an eye. In the second, the poem clearly shows Anglo-Saxon familiarity to the concept of Woden as creator of the runes, and also with conflation with Mercury (Dunn, 2009).
The case of Ingui/Ing is a distinct development that should be mentioned. This deity is thought to have spread to the Anglii from a tribe known as the Ingvaeones who occupied Jutland and the North Sea region. This deity shares enough similarities with the Norse Freyr to classify them as the same figure (Ingvi-Frey), and was thought to have been most ascribed as the progenitor of the later Anglian kings of Northumbria (Dunn, 2009). The royal genealogy of Northumbria is touched up on later in the next section, although the importance of Ing/Ingui to the early Germans cannot be stressed enough.
That these deities traveled with the migrating peoples on their journeys to the new lands is well known. This is attested to in an extensive corpus of surviving material from the Anglo-Saxon period, notably in place-names and royal genealogical record (Chaney, 1970). These lineages are not to say that there are not marked differences between Anglo-Saxon and Nordic religious figures and it would be both foolish and incorrect to claim such. But to claim that Woden and Þunor, especially, were developments due to the later interactions with Nordic heathenism is incorrect, as will be seen.
On the Importance of Toponymic Evidence and the Royal Genealologies
Sir Frank Stenton once wrote, “as memorials of popular heathenism these names give a useful indication of the general English attitude towards the god who was claimed as an ancestor by most English kings. They bring him out of the aristocratic mythology in which dynastic traditions wrapped him, down to his holy places in the country-side. They show that he was worshipped by common men belonging to each of the three principal races of which the English nation was composed.” (Stenton, 1943)
To be sure a number of the toponymic names have been disputed since Sir Stenton’s venerable writing on the Anglo-Saxon peoples was published. However, the remaining names and locations containing and derived from words linked with many of the deities provide continued evidence supporting the importance of these figures in early Anglo-Saxon era. This is especially true with Woden, who appears in a number of sites across England. While Þunor might have more place-name evidence than Woden, these sites are located in a far more restricted geographic area (Meaney, 1966).
The importance of the gods are reflected in these old English place names. For Woden: Woodensborough, Wednesbury, Wodnesbeorh, Wansdyke, Wodnesdene, Wedynsfeld, and Wodnesfeld. Thunoreshlaew is the primary place name of Þunor, along with Thunresfield, and other sites have reminiscences to the god. Tiw is speculated to be attested to in Tyesmerei, Tysoe, and possibly Tuesnoad (Dunn, 2009).
Most interestingly, it should be noted that there are differences in place names between earlier Woden, as was just explored, and place names that are attested to derive from Oðinn/Othin, utilizing the first element of the name. This can be seen in Roseberry Topping as Othenesberg shows (Meaney, 1966). So there is established linguistic difference between earlier influences and the later Norse culture.
A handful of names in Staffordshire (Wednesbury and Wednesfield, among others) bear special mention as places of possible importance. They do not bear heathen burial grounds around them, as other sites do, but they exist along the western border of the powerful kingdom of Mercia. One such center, Wednesbury, started originally as an Iron Age fortification which could have been enhanced by the king Penda himself and erected with the implication of standing in opposition to Christianity as a possible reflection of late-heathen cult activities (Meaney, 1966).
Woden’s importance as a central figure is also mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon rune charms, and that bears some special comment here. The fact of the matter is he is the only pagan deity named in these charms, and we can clearly see that Woden was not seen simply as a distant, yet important deity but as a magician and individual figure in his own right (Chaney, 1970). The Nine Herbs Charm, where this is recounted, can be seen as clearly retaining the basic character ascribed by Tacitus in his Interpretatio Romana (Meaney, 1966). Though this characteristic trait of magical aptitude and trickery is shared with the northern Oðin (and interpreted by the Romans as Mercury), the charm has been called an “old heathen thing which has been subject to Christian censorship.” (Gordon, 1962)
William A. Chaney’s work on the cult of kingship in Anglo-Saxon England provides an in-depth study and analysis of the pagan and heathen foundations of English kingship throughout the period until the Norman era and cannot be reproduced in toto here. The genealogies of the different royal families are well known to the scholars of Anglo-Saxon England and these lists, while heavily redacted in the Christian era, should be viewed as a tradition of the importance placed upon the kinship with the gods themselves.
Eight distinct genealogies survive. Seven of them – Kent, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, Bernicia, Deira, and Lindsey – trace their lineage to Woden (Chaney, 1970). Sussex’s lineage is little known, and the kings of Essex traced their lineage back from the god Seaxnet, who is later identified with the deity Saxnot and argued to be the founding deity of all Saxons (Dunn, 2009). Bede’s own writings end with Woden on the matter, as the official adoption of these deities occurred in the early stages of Christanization. The fact that the Historica Brittonum begins with the figure is an enduring testimony to the pervasive importance of the god (Chaney, 1970).
Its should be noted that the Anglii of Northumbria arrived bearing the descent of Ingui/Ingvi, until a redaction by Eadwine in 616 occurred within the royal genealogies. Eadwine’s personal allegiance to Woden was such that the god-as-ancestor was added to the genealogical lists as a parallel to the other emergent Anglo-Saxon dynasties upon his ascension to rule (Dunn, 2009). Again, Woden’s importance in the formation of the early Anglo-Saxon royal families is apparent. Of course Eadwine later converted to Christianity in order to have success in his military endeavors, so it should not be viewed that this change was out of piety, but out of the legitimizing factor that the royal genealogies were perceived to have given.
Unfortunately, the lack of pre-Christian writings hampers inquest into the development of the god cults that were accepted by the Anglo-Saxons. Before Bede’s writings, there is little to inform us of which deity was, in fact, more paramount to the others. Prior to the migration of the Germans to Britain, it is entirely possible that other deities were as important as Woden would later become. But, with the shifting of political processes from the Germanic tribal system towards a more formalized royal administration , the importance of Woden grew to the people that became the Anglo-Saxon elite. The effect this had on the common population is, however, unlikely to ever be discovered beyond mere supposition, and even archaeological material culture only goes so far.
And further, Christianity is to be sure to have fundamentally altered these genealogical paradigms. A survey of post-Christianized lists can see that Woden is no longer emphasized as a deity, but as an important ancestor. Biblical authority extends through the genealogical line from that of Noah, of whom Woden is cleanly inserted as a descendant of (Chaney, 1970).
Later Evidence as Source for Anglo-Saxon Paganism
There are significant issues with relying on later Old Norse and Icelandic mythology exclusively to investigate earlier Anglo-Saxon beliefs. To be sure, there are definitive reflections in the deities of the Anglo-Saxons with the Nordic gods, but the problems of using such a process are many. The biggest challenge in using the myths wholesale is the dating of their writing. Simply, they date from the period after paganism, some centuries after the last gasps of Nordic heathenry (Dunn, 2009). While many religious scholars feel free to utilize Snorri Sturluson’s accounts of the Prose Eddas to shape their view of Nordic paganism, the fact is that it is not known how much the post-Christianized world of Snorri’s day influenced his writings of Iceland’s stories. Even the compiled accounts of the Poetic Edda, which are widely believed to have been compiled from the 10th to the 13th century is problematic because historians are unsure which verse was compiled at what time and by whom (Dunn, 2009).
There is argument on both sides for the use of Scandinavian literature to bolster the understanding of Anglo-Saxon paganism. David Wilson is one such scholar who believes that it is better to reject Scandinavian writings, that it is of no use to scholars (Wilson, 1992). Those who are more oriented towards philology believe that common threads of pre-Christian belief can be pulled through the material to help with understanding the scant evidence that exists. Regardless, Richard North shows that the Anglo-Saxon experience is decidedly different from the Norse experience handed down to the modern world through the work of Icelandic scribes (North, 1998). For instance, scholars are unsure whether the Anglo-Saxons had an emphasis on the deity of Frige, despite being the root origin of “Friday” (Dunn, 2009). It is obvious that there was a very real gulf between the two religions and it should be remembered that both were fluid and under constant development.
It is also clear that Anglo-Saxon paganism, while related to later 9th and 10th century heathenry, was nowhere near as developed on the eve of conversion as was its northern Nordic cousin. It should be remembered that there is a span of some three hundred years at the maximum extent before the two cultures interacted again. In a mythological sense there is little evidence to support a fully-crafted cosmological system, an idea of a warrior afterlife like Valhalla, or other such prominent institutions as can be found in Nordic traditions (Dunn, 2009).
Emphasizing Scandinavian literature in its totality also has the unfortunate result of washing away the unique attributes of Anglo-Saxon religious culture. Deities that did not take root in the Nordic pantheon are known to Anglo-Saxonists as a wispy memory of belief: personifications of local English landscapes and experiences, belief groups that never crystallized into identifiable Nordic identities, and other such local flavors all represent the unique culture of the Anglo-Saxons. Denying them for the sake of ease of scholarship would be a disservice.
A.L. Meaney lamentably sums up the differences between the two groups of gods: It is intrinsically unlikely that the English high gods would have retained any of their power after three hundred years or so of Christianity (Meaney, 1966). Differences must be expected to occur. Any conflation between the two would be an “inexact fit” between the pantheons, religiously speaking (Dunn, 2009).
As we have seen some common cultural qualities between Anglo-Saxons and the Old Norse, it would be relatively safe to assume that both a total reliance on and rejection of Old Norse resources would be ill-advised. However, it is excessively unlikely that scholars will ever be able to pinpoint a useful formula for the extraction of common Germanic themes that could apply to both cultures.
Pre-Christian Romano-Brythonic Deities?
Studying religiosity in the Romano-British period is an interesting endeavor and is, I would argue, nearly impossible to continue through the Sub-Roman period when so much of the countryside was in flux. The actual Roman experience in the British Isles was an interesting confluence of Roman, Celtic, and imported cultus from around the Empire, and several authors (E. Birley, M. Henig, R.G. Collingwood, etc.) have attempted to chart it. Unfortunately, the extent that the British populations were Christianized following the Edict of Milan and, later, the ascension of Theodosius. More than the Anglo-Saxon period scholars are reliant on the material record, and that is spotty, at best.
One of the cardinal sins of being a historian of any kind is argumentum ad ignoratium, arguing from the ignorance of fact. The lack of knowledge, such as it is, is not indicative of either argument. It simply means that historians do not know, which is why scholars cling to scraps of information as tightly as have already been seen.
In Britain the prevalence of continued pagan worship post-Theodosius and the relative extent of the application of the laws that he promulgated is unknown. There are sites of pagan shrines that have material evidence of continued use until the late fourth or fifth century (Wilson & Wilson, 2014). Likewise, we have records of shrines existing into the fifth and sixth centuries, but whether or not they are in a Christian context or in a larger pagan context are likewise unknown.
What is known is that with the gradual reduction and eventual removal of Rome’s authority of the British Isles, the Christian world there entered a period of break, in which Christianity reverted to a more localized, less organized structure than what came with the Augustine mission to Kent (Wallace-Hadrill, 1971). It is commonly accepted that the Anglo-Saxons pushed the Brythonic peoples westward into modern-day Wales, their advances only and supposedly being arrested at the battle of Badon. Whether those peoples remained Christian or had some unknown reversion to a syncretic form of Christo-paganism is unknown.
Bob Trubshaw, in his article on the gods of the Anglo-Saxons, mentions the cult of Epona, a Brythonic deity, arguing from the position that a horse-cult was of preeminence at the time of Hengist and Horsa (Stallion and Horse) due to, in part, their names (Trubshaw, 2013). I cannot confirm, nor deny, this thought, save for the fact that historically, Hengist and Horsa were arrivals to the British Isles and not native-born. It would be difficult to see a horse-cult of a Gallo-Roman goddess being found in Germanic territories at the time of the Migration, although not entirely out of the question, as her cultus was widespread in Rome’s era.
There are no clear answers to the questions of pre-Anglo-Saxon pagan deities that Trubshaw raises, nor do I expect there ever to be. I leave it open as a possibility, no matter how slim.
This article has sought to explore the origins of the Germanic deities which were transplanted within England, following the pathways of migrations of their peoples, the importance of Woden, Þunor, and Tiw to the Anglo-Saxons before the 9th century, and issues with dealing with Anglo-Saxon religious paradigms through a Scandinavian lens. As a cursory overview, this writing has numerous parts that can be the subject of lengthy monographs and scholarly articles, parts which have been subject to constant revision and debate in the last half-century or more. The development of an Anglo-Saxon religiosity and contemporary paganism is a task that is mired in obscure and shadowed scholarship, and this article has been an attempt to rectify some points of contention as to interpretations of that material. Some of the questions raised will, undoubtedly, be forever in the realm of conjecture, less some unknown source material is discovered in an academic windfall.
 M J Swanton’s work about Anglo-Saxon Kingship utilizing Beowulf brings forward an idea of “horizontal” versus “vertical” royal power and administrative authority. The theory is that German tribal power is “horizontally” gifted – that is it is by the will of the people that the king rules, represents the tribe to the gods, and maintains himself in accordance to custom. The “vertical” diffusion of power is an importation of the Mediterranean world and reflects the delineation of power of the king over the people, as represented by the deity.
Chaney, William A. The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, University of California Press, 1970.
Dunn, Marilyn. The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons, c. 597-700: Discourses of Life, Death and Afterlife, Continuum Books, 2009.
Gordon, R.K. Anglo-Saxon Poetry, Everyman Library, 1962.
Green, D. H. & Siegmund, F.: “The Continental Saxons from the Migration Period to the Tenth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective”, Boydell Press, 2003 pages 14-15
Meaney, A.L., “Woden in England: A Reconsideration of Evidence”, Folklore, Vol. 77, No. 2 (Summer, 1966), pp. 105-115
North, Richard, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, Cambridge University Press, 1997
Stenton, Frank, Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford: At The Clarendon Press, 1971
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Trubshaw, Bob, 2013, Anglo-Saxon Twilight: Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries. Retrieved from: http://www.indigogroup.co.uk/twilight/ast0130.htm
Trubshaw, Bob, 2013, Anglo-Saxon Twilight: Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries. Retrieved from: http://www.indigogroup.co.uk/twilight/ast0140.htm
Wallace-Hadrill, J.M., “Gregory of Tours and Bede: Their Views on the Qualities of Kingship”, Frühmittelalterliche Studien, Vol 2 (1968).
Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. Early Germanic Kingship in England and the Continent, Oxford, 1971.
Wilson, David, Anglo-Saxon Paganism, Routledge, 1992.
Wilson, Kate & Wilson, Pete, “Introduction to Heritage Assets: Shrines (Roman and Post-Roman)”, retrieved from: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/iha-shrines-roman-post-roman/shrinesromanpostroman.pdf , 2014