by contemplativeinquiry

This post is based on Ronald Hutton’s third lecture in the Gresham College series on early Pagan history in Britain (1). Hutton notes that the Anglo-Saxons arrived at a later date than the Romans, but with a religion that is less well-known. Why? He explains that it came as a foreign importation that did not mix well with existing traditions, whether Christian or Pagan. Moreover the Pagan Anglo-Saxons left no written records about their own practices, and their conversion to Christianity came too soon for a substantial body of archaeological evidence to accumulate.

Nonetheless the early Anglo-Saxons have had a lasting influence on English culture. They occupied a land that had experienced a major system collapse. A place which had once had towns, stone buildings, country houses, factories, substantial military installations and a money-using, trading economy, now made do with subsistence farming and wooden buildings, ruled over by rival petty kings. On the whole, the Saxons didn’t bring this about. It’s what they found, and they were troubled by the ruins of past power and prosperity as an example of what fate (wyrd) could do. They wondered, too, what had happened to the people (giants?) who had built the now ruined structures that they saw around them. Anglo-Saxon poetry (for example The Wanderer) reflects on this poignancy.

To get glimpses of Anglo-Saxon religion, Hutton says, we look to Roman accounts of their continental ancestors in Germany, narratives from later English Christians, and still later Icelandic sources describing a world view that is seen as cognate with the early English one. Their most important god was Woden, evidenced in place names and the family trees of early English kings. He is described as the King of the Gods, and patron of rulers, voyagers, and skills. He is a wisdom figure who can also be a cunning deceiver and an enchanter. In this he resembles the Norse Odin, the German Wotan – and also, in certain respects, the Roman Mercury. But this doesn’t mean a one-to-one correspondence: Woden, unlike Odin, is shown with the full use of both eyes. Other significant gods were Thunor (with similarities to Thor, Donner, Taranis and Jupiter), Tiu the war god (compared to Mars) and Frigg – goddess of love, fertility and abundance (like Freya, and Venus).

Other gods are named, though we know little about them – Seaxnet, Ing, Geat, Hreda (a goddess of the earth) and Eostre (concerned with dawn and spring). The names of more local and tribal deities are lost. There were sacred places – on hills (Hearg = modern English Harrow) and on level ground, especially near roads (Weoh). There were specific places linked to deities near burial mounds. The only known candidate for a Pagan Anglo-Saxon temple is Yeavering in Northumberland, but even that might be a royal hall. Little is known about the priesthood. There was no equivalent knowledge-bearing class like the Celtic Druids. Kingship was a semi-sacred role and kings could be blamed for disasters. Shadowy non-human figures (elves) co-existed with humans in the world and were seen as harmful. They lacked the glamour found in Irish and Welsh stories about such denizens of the wild places – forests and hollow hills.

We have a wealth of information from grave goods. There is a fairly even split between burial and cremation. Ashes from cremations tended to be kept in urns. These were decorated, primarily with serpent imagery. The swastika was also popular, as a fire image. In the case of inhumations, people were buried facing east, accompanied by grave goods that would be useful for an afterlife. These included crystal and glass beads, combs and razors, belts and knives (as eating utensils). There is relatively little gender distinction in the choice of goods, except that weapons were associated with men. (Even here Hutton notes the revision now being brought about by DNA examination of bones in Scandinavia, and confirming the presence of high status women warriors: could the same be true of the Pagan English?) From the sixth century, the Pagan Anglo-Saxons used burial mounds. Towards the end of the Pagan period, high status burial could be rich and elaborate – the most famous example being at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia, first excavated in 1939. This can be seen as a response to growing prosperity and the rise of Christian competition.

597 CE marks the first mission from Rome to the southern English. (Northumbrians were first introduced to the new religion by Celtic monks based in Iona.) In 665 CE the last English kingdom was formally converted. Penda the powerful Pagan Mercian king fought the Christian kingdoms, but for loot, power and glory, not for his religion. He did not stand in the way of his son’s conversion. There were no wars of religion or clearly identified martyrs on either side. Christianity offered many political, diplomatic and commercial advantages to the ruling class. The Christians were highly organised, determined and had a unified creed to rally around. These characteristics seem largely absent on the Pagan side. Official Paganism was over in the Anglo-Saxon world until it faced the Viking invasions that began in the 790s. Even then, the now Christian Anglo-Saxons did everything they could to resist them, partly as a matter of faith.