Pagan Religion

esby Ben Levick/Lancelot Robson

The Religion of the Pagan Anglo-Saxons

The nature of the religion of the Germanic settlers is a very difficult subject, since it has to be pieced together from odd references from classical times and later Christian writings which obviously did not want to promote Pagan beliefs. Many modern historians look at the fact that four days of the week are named after Old Germanic deities, corresponding to four of the deities from later Scandinavian religion and shrug it off as being the same as the religion of the Pagan Vikings. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Whilst it is true that they share many similarities, this attitude is about as valid as saying the Jewish faith and Christianity are the same thing just because they share the Old Testament. Although both the Early English and Viking religions have the same Germanic root, they were very different, and the Viking version had three more centuries of development than the English one. The early English religion had much in common with pre-Roman Celtic beliefs as well as later Scandinavian ones.

Unlike the later Scandinavian religion, the supreme deities in English faith were probably goddesses, not gods. The most important of these was Nerthus, the earth mother (the Harvest Queen of folk tradition). She looked after the fertility and well-being of man and beast. It is unclear whether Frija or Frea is a separate goddess, or just another aspect of Nerthus, but she is usually associated with love, lust, yearning and friendship. Other important Goddesses were Eostre, goddess of the dawn, spring and new life (and whose name is given to the spring festival of the Christian faith - Easter), and Rheda or Hreð, a wælcyrie (valkyrie) and goddess of the winter.

Of the gods of the early English we only know of three: Tir, Woden and Thunor (the Tyr, Oðin and Thor of Viking mythology). Woden seems to have been the most important of these three since most royal lines traced their descent from him, and he survived the Conversion as the lord of magic, the shaman and as the leader of the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt was originally made up of the souls of dead warriors riding to Valhalla to join Woden's host of champions, waiting for the last battle against the forces of destruction. In modern German the Wild Hunt is also known as the Wild Army; in the middle ages, Germans called it Wuotaanes her, Woden's army. In later English folklore, it is usually taken to be the souls of the restless dead being hunted by the hounds of hell. Rationalist explanations include the terrifying violence of spring and autumn gales and the cries of flocks of migrating geese. (It is also interesting to note that the wild hunt is also sometimes associated with Cernunnos, the antlered god of the Pagan Celtic faith). Tir was the god of glory and honour, and a favourite with warriors, but little is known of his early English personification, although the rune for Tiw is frequently used as a charm of protection. Thunor was also popular amongst warriors, and of all the English gods was the closest to his Scandinavian counterpart. Although his symbol of the hammer was used in England, his commonest symbol was the fylfot cross (the swastika of modern times), which seems to have also symbolised both the sun and a shield.

Another god who was probably worshipped by the early English was Frey. Although there is little direct evidence, his usual symbol - the boar - is commonly associated with warriors (another similarity to Pagan Celtic times). Frey was a fertility god, 'ruler of rain and sunshine and thus of the produce of the earth'. The reason for the lack of evidence for Frey may be because his English personification was Ing, the son of Mannus (the father of mankind) and Nerthus (the divine mother).

However, the boar may also have been associated with the goddess Frija. If this were the case then its popularity with warriors would be explained by Tacitus's observation of one of the Suebic tribes:

'They worship the Mother of the Gods. As an emblem of the rite, they bear the shapes of wild boars. This boar avails more than weapons or human protection; it guarantees that the worshipper of the goddess is without fear even when surrounded by enemies.'

At Yule-tide warriors made their vows for the coming year on a sacrificial boar (we still make New Year's resolutions), and before the turkey arrived, the boar's head had the place of honour at Yule-tide feasts (and we still sing a carol that accompanied its processional entry into the feasting-hall).

To the early English, the world was full of lesser spirits as well as the great gods and goddesses. There were elves, ettins (Trolls), wælcyrian and a whole host of other supernatural beings (who all joined the earlier Celtic deities amongst the faerie folk).

The early English year was full of religious significance, and was divided into only two seasons: summer and winter. These were divided by moon-lives (months), six to each season; but the year was governed by the sun. The two greatest festivals were at the two Solstices, Midsummer (Liða) and Midwinter (Geola or Yule). These times were so important that each was 'guarded' by two moons: Ærra Liða (the month before Midsummer) and Æftera Liða (the month after Midsummer) - June and July, and Ærra Geola and Æftera Geola flanking Midwinter - December and January.

Winter began with the first full moon in October and was called Winterfylleþ. November was Blot-monaþ (Blood-month or the month of sacrifice) when the winter slaughtering of livestock took place and feasts were held in honour of the gods, to whom many of the livestock were sacrificed. We know from Bede that the Midwinter festival, the most sacred night, when the new year began, was called Modranect - Mothers' night. He says that it was so called from the ceremonies which took place then but he does not describe them, but it may well have been associated with the birth of Ing. It is easy to understand why Bede did not go into details about what happened on Modranect. If the English were already celebrating a young Lord, Ing son of Mannus, and his Divine Mother at the same time as the feast of the Nativity, the parallels would seem too close, even blasphemous, to a theologian like Bede. February was called Sol-monaþ - mud-month, probably just a comment on the English weather at this time of year. Bede tells us that it was also popularly called the 'month of cakes' - mensis placentarum - 'which in that month the English offered to their gods'. Ploughing had begun, and the cakes (Latin placentae) were probably the loaves placed in the first furrow as an offering to Nerthus for a good harvest. March was Hreð-monaþ (Hreð's month), the last month of winter and its goddess Hreð. Sacrifices were made to Hreð in this month. April was Eostre-monaþ (Eostre's month). Eostre's symbols were the hare and the egg, both seen as symbols of rebirth and the spring (many early English actually believed that hares laid eggs, since a hare's 'scratch' and a lapwing nest look the same and are both first seen in the spring!) - and still remembered today in the form of Easter eggs and the Easter bunny. May was Þri-milce (three milkings) because, as Bede tells us 'in olden days in Britain, and also in Germany, from where the English came to Britain, there was such abundance that cattle were milked three times a day.' Was this a far memory of the easy days before the deterioration of the climate at the end of the Northern Bronze Age (c. 500 - 400 BC), or just the perpetual belief that things were always better in the old days? The power unleashed at the Midsummer Solstice must have been too strong and dangerous for Bede and his successors even to mention the rituals, although later sources tell us 'Midsummer Eve is counted or called the Witches Night and still in many places on St John's Night they make fires on the hills', so the rituals probably involved the lighting of bonfires (perhaps similar to the Beltain festivals of Celtic times). The Christian Church certainly felt it was a day needing special guardianship and put it under the protection of St John the Baptist, whose message was repentance of sins. August was Weod-monaþ (weed month), 'because they grow most in that month.' September was Halig-monaþ (holy month), the month of festivals in honour of Nerthus in her aspect as giver. This is the festival for which we have the best idea of the ritual, as Tacitus devotes a chapter of Germania to this festival, common to all the Germanic tribes:

'They worship in common Nerthus, that is the Earth Mother, and believe she intervenes in human affairs and goes on progress through the tribes. There is a sacred grove on an island of the ocean, and in the grove is a consecrated wagon covered with a cloth. Only one priest is allowed to touch it; he understands when the goddess is present in her shrine and follows with profound reverence when she is drawn away by cows. Then there are days of rejoicing: the places she considers worthy to entertain her [i.e. the places where the cows pulling the driverless wagon choose to stop] keep holiday. They do not go to war, do not use weapons, all iron is shut away - peace and quiet is much esteemed and loved at that time - until the same priest returns the goddess to her sanctuary when she has had enough of human company. Directly the wagon, the covering cloth and, if you like to believe this, the goddess herself, are washed in a secluded lake. Slaves are the ministers; immediately the same lake swallows them. [They are drowned as soon as they have finished their tasks as lay folk may not see or touch the goddess and live] From this arises a mysterious terror and a pious ignorance about what that may be, which is only seen by those about to die.'

We also know that the sheaf was also a symbol of the goddess (the origin of the corn-dolly), and it seems that even after the conversion this ritual had not been forgotten. In September 1598 a German visitor travelling to Eton describes a country ritual he witnessed:

'We were returning to our lodging house; by lucky chance we fell in with the country-folk, celebrating their harvest home. The last sheaf had been crowned with flowers and they had attached it to a magnificently robed image, which perhaps they meant to represent Ceres [Ceres was the Roman name for a goddess of the fruitful earth and the harvest, and a much more widely known deity than Nerthus in the 16th century] They carried her hither and thither with much noise; men and women were sitting together on the wagon, men-servants and maid-servants shouting through the streets until they come to the barn.'

So, about 1,000 years after the conversion, the English still had a goddess of the fruitful earth, still riding a wagon, making random progress amidst public rejoicing. Servant-ministers were in attendance, although in the September of 1598 they were on their way to a more cheerful and less final end to the ceremonies.

Even as late as the end of the 18th century, the antiquarian William Hutchinson reported meeting the Harvest Queen in Northumberland:

'I have seen in some places an image apparelled in great finery, crowned with flowers, a sheaf of corn placed under her arm and a scythe in her hand, carried out of the village in the morning of the concluding reaping day, with music and much clamour of the reapers, into the field where it stands fixed to a pole all day, and when the reaping is done it is brought home in like manner. This they call the Harvest Queen and it represents the Roman Ceres. [To classically educated scholars from one end of Europe to the other, all the old gods appeared in their Roman forms.]'

There is no physical evidence for temples or shrines in England, but this may well be because the early English shrines were not buildings, but sacred places. We know that King Rædwald put up a Christian altar in his family shrine, and that King Edwin's temple at Goodmanham was desecrated and burned at the orders of its own high priest, but nowhere do we have any direct evidence of these holy places being buildings. Yet the shrines and holy places of the old tradition can be seen everywhere in England. Tacitus says of the early Germans:

'They judge that gods cannot be contained inside walls nor can the greatness of the heavenly ones be represented in the likeness of any human face: they consecrate groves and woodland glades and call by the names of 'gods' that mystery which they only perceive by their sense of reverence.'

So the shrines were probably sacred groves and pools rather than buildings, and this would certainly seem to be borne out by the number of natural features bearing the names of gods, and the number of sacrificial bogs known from the continent.

Priests and Wise Women

The priests of the early English are an even more shadowy group than the deities, and really all we know about them is that they existed, were not allowed to ride any horse but a mare and could not bear arms (although the spear, the sacred weapon of Wodan, may have been used in some rituals). After this our knowledge of them is non-existent.

Some modern writers strongly associate shamans with these priests. One re-enactment group even offers a visit to the shaman. While there are likely to be some overlaps, particularly through the Northern European connection, evidence is slim, which brings us neatly back to the comparison of Judaism with Christianity.

However it does seem reasonably clear that "wise women" were believed to have magical powers, and were an important part of early society. Early Danish and Celtic graves exist of women who appeared to have some connection with deities. In the Anglo Saxon context we have Bede's reference to Modranect (see above). Perhaps we should be looking for something more obvious in other contexts. Ritual, medicine and magic were merged together in the 1st millennium. Who better to accurately repeat a healing charm than a priest or priestess?