Personal Reflections on Interpreting Anglo-Saxon Paganism
Posted on March 17, 2014
Appropriate Subtitle: Interpretatio! Interpretatio ALL the things!
My last post was far more academic and historically minded than this one will be – I hope. The purpose of this one is to give some more personal views on a few of the points I raised in the last writing. Since it was a reaction to another article, I didn’t necessarily go into my own view of the contention as much as I would have otherwise liked to. Also, I began to feel like I should be aware of the length of my writing. So I want to bounce some ideas around on the page here.
The pagan history of Anglo-Saxon England is excessively tricky, as I alluded to in my writing. Early Anglo-Saxon/Pre-Christian Germanic history – not archeology – is either Interpretatio with other groups or an artificial creation of the time (in this instance, Bede, which parts of his writing is definitely “writing history backwards”. See Myres, 1935). Tacitus gives us the first surviving glimpse of the world of the Germans in his Germania, and it was interpreted through the lens of 1st century Rome, even if he had the knowledge itself from Pliny (Tacitus never visited Germania). But, in my experiences, the process of Interpretatio is an under-valued aspect in modern Contemporary Paganisms. Where it has been decried as a cultural interpretation that takes away from the native culture (because it conflates and sometimes overrides the authentic belief or description of the culture) and fits them all into a nice, neat, little box that lends itself very well to reductionism.
I mean, the historic purpose for Interpretatio Romana is because the Romans believed that there were only around 1,700 deities in the world. I could be wrong on that number, I don’t have John Scheid’s book handy to fact-check. Interpretatio Romana, however, goes beyond a simple “Jupiter = Zeus”, and is useful for one distinct reason:
Gods that only have the barest epigraphical mention are able to be more explored by their association with the Roman (or other) deities. An example of this is Vinotonus, who has a rectangular temple in Durham where he’s associated with Silvanus. But for the association, this little-known deity would be even lesser known. This goes for other Romano-Gallic or Romano-Celtic deities, such as Apollo-Cunomaglus with the hexagonal shrine in Nettleton. Or even (possible) Romano-Celtic or Romano-Germanic deities, like Mars Ocelus.
In the case of Apollo-Cunomaglus, the evidence is an inscription that reads, “DEO APOLLINI CVNOMAGLO COROTICA IVTI [F] VSLM”, or, “To the god Apollo Cunomaglus, Corotica son of Iutus, willingly and deservedly fulfills his vow.” (Togodumnus, 2011)
For Mars Ocelus, “DEO MARTI OCELO AEL AGVSTINVS OP VSLM”, or, “For the god Martius Ocelus, Aelius Augustinus the Optio, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.” (Togodumnus, 2011)
Of course, this is an academic paradigm that, for polytheists, devotionalists, and other religionists often falls short of what we’d like, even for those of us who are not hardcore reconstructionists. It is not enough to simply know who the deity is “most like” for us, although it is a very valid place to start. After a point, unverified personal gnosis (and, perhaps, peer-corroborated personal gnosis) take over, in our understanding of the deity.
So that brings us to the Germanic experience, of which the Anglo-Saxons are a part of, and the validity of interjecting context from later sources to the period that we’re concerned with. More than just connected by linguistic trees, the Germanic peoples shared with each other a cultural heritage that largely persisted until the separations after the Migration Age. Marilynn Dunn, in conjunction with Richard North, writes that the Anglo-Saxons are an earlier version of Germanic heathenry, possessing few (if any) of the more concrete, crystallized structures found in the Nordic mythologies (Dunn, 2009). The fact of the matter is that we cannot, flatly, say that Woden and Oðin shared in toto the same developed attributes or that Þunor and Thor were the same deity save for their association with physical prowess and thunder and etymological roots.
But in my experience and inclination, the seeds of these entities are the same, they are the same core deity, with different cultural affectations. I don’t typically believe in polytheistic reductionism. It’s actually one of the reasons why I make a particularly “bad” cultore in Cultus Deorum Romanum’s religious circles, because I don’t fall into the paradigm that similar gods are the same deity. I also don’t believe in innate benevolence, but that’s another matter entirely. And I can’t get behind the whole Proto-Indo-European theory, especially in regards to religion.
It is the similarities of the deities that were preserved in the three hundred years between Anglo-Saxon paganism and Nordic paganism (as we understand it today) that should be stressed, however. We have found troves of hammers and spear amulets, for an example:
They do not look that out of place for a Nordic practitioner to own, if perhaps a bit “simplistic” compared to the refined artwork that we’ve found in the ground from the later period.
To claim that they are wholly different gods would be a mistake, in my opinion, and would ignore the fundamental connections between the cultures. I think only a few people would bother to say that there are no such connections.
So, where does that exactly leave my interpretation?
I believe the Sagas and Eddas are useful to a point in the development of an Anglo-Saxon Paganism. They have sort of become an accepted baseline for contemporary heathen groups, due to their accessibility and their richness in literature. The corpus of Old Norse is larger than that of Old English. And, in my opinion, there is a lot of work left to be done to deconstruct them away from even their Christian indoctrination and context, prior to even remotely being applied to a different social and cultural group. Cultural values, ones that we know of between Germanic heroic warrior societies, obviously, are one such value that we can extract between the peoples.
I also believe that to a point, Woden and Oðin, Tiw and Tyr, Þunor and Thor, etc. are interchangeable. But, I would argue that this is on the practitioner themselves. No academic, no Pagan, no writer will be able to define the point in which they are or are not. My recommendation would be to learn the individual deities, learn them, and know them. There are a lot of philological semantics that come into play with this level of investigation, and I’m sure an entire life can be spent trying to argue for or against the idea.
I personally utilize the names interchangeably, but that’s also more because I’ve been far more familiar with the Nordic deities (Since 6th grade, when I got exposed through Bullfinch’s Mythologies). I am trying to rid myself of it.
Also, I choose to follow Tacitus with the conflation of Nerthus as an Earth Mother goddess, and not with later conflations of Njord or Ing/Frey.
But then again, polytheism is what it is, and makes allowances and exceptions for regional variation so easily, that I really doubt it would be too much of a trouble unless one is utterly disrespectful about it.
So yeah, I suppose I’ll stop the rambling now.
Thanks for reading.
Dunn, Marilynn, The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons c.597-c.700: Discourses of Life, Death and Afterlife, Continuum Books, 2009
Myres, J.N.L., “The Teutonic settlement of Northern England,” History, xx (1935-6), pp. 250-62.
Togodumnus, “Temples and Shrines of Roman Britain: A Gazetteer of Romano-British Pagan Temples”, retrieved from: http://www.roman-britain.org/romano-british-temples.htm, 2011