Book Review: Of Ghosts and Godpoles: Theodish Essays Pertaining to the Reconstruction of Saxon Heathen Belief, Both Old and Anglo
Posted on February 2, 2015
Author: Þórbeorht Línléah
Publisher: Heathengyld Books (United States)
Publication: November 16, 2014
I recently was gifted a copy of Þórbeorht Línléah’s book, Of Ghosts and Godpoles: Theodish Essays Pertaining to the Reconstruction of Saxon Heathen Belief, Both Old and Anglo. My friend knew I had wanted it, but some financial issues cropped up where I was unable to purchase it, and out of his kindness he provided it for me. The text is comprised of six essays turned into chapters, and has extensive notation, cited material, and appendices for the perusal of the reader.
Stylistically, the book is well-put together, and is well worth the money that the publisher charges for the print on demand. The paper is not flimsy, the ink is clear and the font appropriately sized, and the binding is firmly wrought so that the book does not feel cheap. It gives a measure of professionalism to the work, something that has been sorely lacking in other print-on-demand services.
This book is not an introductory material, and the author quite readily explains this in the text’s introduction. It is not a series of “how to” lectures or other works focusing on a participant’s first entrance in to Saxon Heathendom and Theodism. Línléah’s education and poetic expertise are apparent in the work, for his writings have a much-reduced obtuseness and lack the inaccessibility that often get showcased in other academic works . At the same time, his information is properly cited and satisfies academic requirements for a scholarly piece. The effort and work that he has put in to these pieces is impressive, and he threads multiple disciplines in to a narrative that reads well. He has a firm grip on the linguistic background of the peoples he writes about, and provides source material in the languages of Old Saxon, Old English, Latin, Old Norse, and Old High German.
The book’s six essays are split in to two types of focus: the first three essays content themselves focusing on Saxon history and lore, while the second three do the same for Anglo-Saxon history and lore.
“Layers in the Well” is a history of the tribes that formed the emergent Saxon confederation, and the Frankish incursions and eventual domination over those peoples.
“Searching for Sahsnôt” is Línléah’s attempt to dispel academic misunderstandings that equates Sahsnôt with the god Tiw (ON: Tyr, OE: Tiw), and instead offers an opinion with evidence that he believes it was more likely Frea (ON: Freyr, OE: Frea).
“Poles, Pillars, and Trees” is a detailed discussion over the role of the Saxon pillar Irminsûl, addressing and correcting many misconceptions of the iconography, history, and belief of the pagan Saxons that have been penned since the Romantic period.
In the Anglo-Saxon half of the book we have a distinct focus on the characterization of Hengest in lore and in popular mentality, and the role of popular motifs within Anglo-Saxon pagan religion, as envisioned by the author.
“Betwixt Blood Bespattered Benches” revisions Hengest as a sympathetic character, pulling him out of the dregs of mythology that other hands have penned upon him, and that his actions were less due to a duplicitous nature and more due to his obligations as a warleader’s retainer. It is important to understand that this chapter goes into heady concepts of ritualistic obligation as presently understood by the Heathen community.
“Dragons Among the Dead” presents the themes of the Anglo-Saxon world that have been passed to us through Beowulf, and seeks to understand a heathen world view through the analysis of concepts like death and wyrd, through iconography of dragons and serpents.
“Lore and Landscape” is an understanding less about the Anglo-Saxons and more about the general development of Germanic religious identity due to the changing climate from the years 300 B.C.E to the Migration Age.
I am being light on the descriptions of the chapters, not because I have only scantily read through them, but because other websites have done an adequate job at summarizing the content. I seek to discuss my readings and interpretations of the book, rather than give a basic summary that can be found elsewhere.
Often, while I was reading this book, I was forgetting that these writings were not intended for a notable academic journal, but contains within itself a very clearly defined perspective. Línléah is very passionate about his Heathen identity and that must be commended, even lauded for the amount of effort that he has put forward to realize his passion with words. Because the book is drawn from a very thoroughly understood academic position, I read in to it as an academic first, and a Heathen second, and this is where the majority of my personal thoughts and criticisms of this work come from.
First, I want to say that I, personally, enjoyed the book. I liked the book. But I disagreed with a lot of the conclusions that the author has written within its pages. I was frustrated with the tone the author took. There were stylistic concerns that I felt could have been done better.
In many cases, I simply do not believe the arguments that he makes are compelling enough for me to accept them without wanting to dig into the material. And, to a certain extent, I already have. The identification of Sahsnôt as a Saxon-lens of the deity Frea is one such hangup that I have found myself having within this book. Having followed Línléah’s religious organization for some time I already expected that I would dispute this conclusion. I appreciate the destruction of the very flimsy and archaic argument that Tiw is Sahsnôt, but I believe that the emphasis of the “king-maker” aspect of the Germanic position is far too exaggerated. It might be something for me to pursue, later.
A significant source of my discomfort with the actual reading the book comes from the tone of Línléah’s words. He is very clearly a Heathen, writing for a Heathen audience. This is what I meant about forgetting that this was not necessarily intended for an “academic” journal. Comparing the chapters of “Layers in the Well” and “Betwixt Blood Bespattered Benches” in tone, one can see that he takes a very critical, sometimes irrational, bias against Frankish Christendom and the actions of Church officials, while several chapters later glorifies and revises some of the reviled aspects of Hengest’s character.
As an example, Línléah quite readily uses buzzword terminology to cast a negative light on the Frankish and Christian actions. He liberally refers to Christianity as an imperialistic force and is quite content to juxtaposition modern terminology and ethics (application of the term ‘war crimes’) on the actions of Franks. Pages earlier he references the entire Frankish campaign as an “unholy war” with the Franks making it their “unholy cause” to bring the Saxons to Christendom. Further, he directly references the character of Christ as an “undead Middle Eastern god”, a clear and marked bigotry I would consider inappropriate to the more scholastic work that this book attempts to portray itself as.
Compare the use of the term “war crimes” for the Franks, the “enormity of Christian atrocity” that was described of the Frankish massacre of the Saxons at Verden with the apologist revisionism of character of Hengest in “Betwixt Blood Bespattered Benches”. This chapter does much to explore the reasoning behind Hengest’s actions, portraying them within the world of Germanic wyrd and scyld, of obligation, and I do not argue against the Christian writers and historians of later years treating the character less-than-well. But how much of a success is it that the vindication of Hengest’s character is done at the demonization of a people who can no longer defend themselves, much in the same way that the Christian writers spoke of Hengest himself in their own texts? Making excuses for the actions of Hengest because “we are not of his world” and because it “offends our modern sensibilities” seems like it is very selectively interpreted.’
We must not fall into a fallacy of nunc pro tunc, no matter our own prejudices.
Is this pedantic, to complain about the tone of this work? Probably a little bit, but it was part of my experiences in reading through this book. And, further, if one has read my blog I’m really, truly, big on shedding one’s baggage and irrational issues with Christendom. I don’t know that the tone in these chapters helps further that, at all.
Truth be told, I do not have much in the way of content critique for the first half of the book, mostly because I’m under-educated in Continental Germanic history and practice. I dispute Línléah’s conclusions with Sahsnôt being Fro/Seaxneat being Frea because the evidence he posits is not compelling enough for me to believe his conclusions.
Other than a very loose comparison of contemporaneous worship in other non-Saxon Germanic practices equating the worship of Odin, Thor, and Frey as a core three deities, Línléah relies on the etymological foundation of the name ‘Sahsnôt’ (Sahs-friend or Friend of the Saxons, depending) to link him to Fro (Freyr/Frea), as Fro is attested in Norse mythology as explicitly having (and giving up) a sword, this connecting him to the sword identity. There is a singular story within the Norse corpus that associates Tyr with a sword, which is found in the Poetic Edda, with an invocation of Tyr by Sigurd in “Lay of Sigdrifa”. Línléah ignores this isolated evidence in favor of the larger amount of works referencing Frey’s sword.
Línléah is very adept at utilizing the studies of comparative mythology, and he concludes that if it were not Woden or Tyr that the Saxons were worshiping, it must have been Fro, as Fro is the only other deity attested in Germanic mythology as a head of a dynasty of kings with the requirements of having a sword iconography. But his reasoning for this is not due to the Old Saxons, but that of the royal genealogies of the Kingdom of Essex. Of all the Anglo-Saxon royal houses, Essex was the sole exception to the trend to identify Woden as the progenitor of the royal line. Essex held descent from Seaxneat (Sahsnôt).
Línléah’s argument is buttressed by the concept of sacral kingship as identified by William A. Chaney and other authors who believe that the Germanic peoples had an identified concept of sacred kingly duty and a cult of kingship. He uses the East Saxon kingdom, Essex, as an identifier that the Saxon deity should be Fro, for the above reasons mentioned.
In this, Línléah ignores a very important piece of evidence, which I feel should have been discussed as an alternative to his theory. I understand that in trying to prove his point he does not wish to provide contradictory material. But conspicuously absent from this discussion is Bede, the Northumbrian monk who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In it, he writes about the continental Saxons, “For these Old Saxons had no proper king; but many chiefs were set over the people. And whenever it was time of strife and war, they then came with lots to the chiefs as general and leader, following and obeying him. And when the war and strife were at an end, all again were equal in power, and were chiefs.”
Bede is not some Christian monk that we can toss to the side, he is the preeminent resource on early Anglo-Saxon history. Yes, he has his hangups and his prejudices, but he is our only historian that addresses the early Anglo-Saxon period at any length. Bede writes in his history that the Saxons had no king, that their war-leaders were elected during a period of hostilities from a pool of tribal chiefs. Nothing exists in the protohistories (histories of the Saxons from non-Saxon sources) or later histories of the Saxon people to dispute this assertation. There is nothing to assume that the Saxons had a king until the advent of Christianity.
With no king, there is no requirement for sacral kingship, and no necessary lineage from a deity.
In this discussion there should be a significant distinction made between ‘chief’ and ‘king, because of Germanic concepts of leadership and kingship that survive to us through other writings. Germanic political necessity drew leadership of the tribe from a horizontal axis of power. That is, leaders drew their authority not from the divine, but from the trust placed in them from the folc(folk) to act as mediators and representatives in divine matters. Germanic leaders are marked by Latin writers as having the titles of reges and duces; the earliest account of a purely Germanic focus is by Tacitus, who writes that they were chosen for their qualities. Chaney’s argument hinges on the development of these two distinct offices. But Bede writes that there is specifically no king (rex) among the Old Saxons.
The importance of this cannot be stated enough. Bede is notorious for not including matters in his writing that did not further his triumphalist Christian ecclesiastical history. Heathen and Pagan scholars have long been frustrated because he might mention some pre-Christian custom or trend, but ignore the importance of it. That the Saxons had no king was so peculiar that Bede felt the need to include it in his writings.
My question to this situation is thus: Why is the development of sacral kingship in the Kingdom of Essex used as a representative development of Saxon belief? Why can it not be approached as its own unique development, one that was influenced by trends in the neighboring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and separate from the trends with historic Saxon belief? The continental Saxons remained kingless up until at least the 700s, when Bede was writing, so why should we assume that they had the same concepts of kingly sacrality? Does the fact that the Kingdom of Essex traced their descent from Seaxneat prove that Sahsnôt is a king-making god?
My inclination is that Sahsnôt/Seaxneat is a regional deity, much like Eostre and Baldr in the Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythos respectively. But this “effortless agnosticism” that Línléah assaults on page 33 is, apparently, too cut and dry and without satisfactory end for the author. Perhaps we should do as Marilynn Dunn suggests in The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons, c. 597-700 and follow Richard North’s warning that “comparative mythology” between Germanic peoples of wildly different eras is useful only to a point, and not read too thoroughly into later developments that are otherwise untenable as direct evidence.
I could go on about the application of a Heathen reading of Beowulf, given that I’m firmly in the academic camp viewing it (and the majority of other non-Ecclesiastic Old English poems) as transitional poems, reflecting concepts and themes in the transition from paganism to Christianity. This, however, is a personal academic preference of mine.
Something should be said for the chapter “Poles, Pillars, and Trees”, which was one of the more enlightening chapters. Though I feel it is clumsy, Línléah convinced me that Irminsul was more than likely a godpole, instead of a tree or some other kind of representation. He makes a compelling argument for the misuse of Mediterranean iconography of the date palm as “the Germanic tree”, mostly from Ottonian architecture. While we might not know who or from what culture the architects that constructed these buildings were from, I feel it is pretty safe to assume they were either classically or ecclesiastically trained individuals, imported from abroad.
The most fascinating chapter, to me, was the intersection between climate change and migration within “Lore and Landscape”, and I feel that this avenue of discussion is one of considerable importance, particularly to Heathens and Theodish practitioners who find themselves in environments that are not the same as Northern and Western Europe. Further, given our own world’s current climate crisis, we can see parallels in the development of Germanic belief and our own renewal of interest as groups of people. The intersection of climate science within religious studies offers an interesting perspective that has largely been hereto undocumented, save for a few notable examples that Línléah has given.
It was thoughtful and very astute of the author to include the appendices that he did, and the source list for his Hengest studies is an excellent resource for people who wish to delve in to the material without knowing where to find it. This is very commendable.
I will end this review here with a reiteration that I did not dislike this book, not at all. I am, perhaps, too critical when it comes to scholarly and scholarly-like things. I would recommend this book to a fellow Heathen who is vested in the subject matter, or otherwise interested in the themes and words written within. But I would do so only with a conversation similar to that above, which highlights some of the issues that I have with the evidence.
Regardless of my views on the content and writing, Þórbeorht Línléah has done something that is very infrequently done within Heathen circles. He has penned a concise scholarly treatise on various topics that intersect with his religious identity, does so in a manner which highlights his intelligence, his drive to perpetuate the world of his religion, and his dedication to his craft. This book is important for the community to understand that these kinds of thinkers, these kinds of thoughts, are important, just as important as practice and the “how to heathen 101” books out there. It will remain on my shelf because of it. And, perhaps, in the future, Línléah’s arguments will ring more true with me as I continue my own studies.
As a final statement from my viewing of the work, from one scholar to another, Mr. Línléah if you are reading this please invest in footnotes. Endnotes are cumbersome and prohibitively irritating. If one must utilize endnotes, please break them up by chapter so that they can be more accurately found and parsed through. I understand formatting is what it is and footnotes are a bit more difficult to format in print than endnotes, but the versatility of being able to interject the source and any potential ideas on the same page where the reader can glance down at the bottom and continue on is invaluable.
He says, writing a blog post that utilizes endnotes. Only because I don’t have a self-hosted WordPress site, and the freebie version of WordPress does not allow plugins. I checked, just for this post.
Thanks for reading.
 Caveat: I am academically trained, and I am very comfortable with subject matter that includes history, historiography, linguistic analysis, material and cultural investigations, and other empirical, quantitative/qualitative data. My definition of “obtuseness” is probably far different than someone who is not trained in the same methodology.
 My thesis for my own MA coincides with half of this work, and is a discussion and survey of the creation, development of, and the later Christianization of the Germanic concepts of kingship from Tacitus to Bede.
 Línléah, Þórbeorht. Of Ghosts and Godpoles: Theodish Essays Pertaining to the Reconstruction of Saxon Heathen Belief, Both Old and Anglo. (Heathengyld Books: United States, 2014) pg. 24 Línléah further goes on to compare the Saxon resettlement within the Frankish territory with other hot-button terms within recent American history, perhaps to drum up sympathy by comparison to those acts. He makes no mention of the historic uses of forced resettlement programs as penned by both the pagan and Christian Roman Empire and the subsequent Eastern iteration of that state, two polities which have a long history of such motions for political reasoning. Comparing pre-modern actions with modern ethos is not helpful.
 Línléah, Ghosts, pg. 17
 Línléah, Ghosts, pg. 18
 Línléah, Ghosts, pg. 24
 Línléah, Ghosts, pg. 21
 Línléah, Ghosts, pg. 73
 Línléah, Ghosts, pg. 73
 Línléah, Ghosts, pg. 34 I am loathe think that this is common with many Heathen scholars, the picking and choosing of which Lore is applicable in the understanding of the divine. Truly we have a number of sources to parse through.
 Bede, Trans. Miller, Thomas, The Old English Version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, (In Parentehsis Publications: Cambridge, ON 1999), pg 185
 For more on this, see William A. Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity, University of California Press, 1970 and J.M Wallace-Hadrill, Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent (The Ford Lectures), Oxford University Clarendon Press, 1971
 Tacitus, Germania 7 Kings are chosen for their blood, and dukes are chosen for their quality.
 Línléah, Ghosts, pg. 39
 Marilyn Dunn, The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons, c. 597-700: Discourses on Life, Death, and the Afterlife (Continuum: New York, 2009), pg. 59
 See M.J. Swanton, Crisis and Development in Germanic Society: 700-800: Beowulf and the Burden of Kingship (Göppingen: Kummerle Verlag), 1982