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Anglo-Saxon paganism

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Anglo-Saxon paganism

Anglo-Saxon paganism refers to the religious beliefs and practices followed by the Anglo-Saxons between the fifth and eighth centuries AD, during the initial period of Early Medieval England. A variant of the Germanic paganism found across much of north-western Europe, it encompassed a heterogeneous variety of disparate beliefs and cultic practices.[1] Developing from the earlier Iron Age religion of continental northern Europe, it was introduced to Britain following the Anglo-Saxon migration in the mid fifth century, and remained the dominant religion in England until the Christianization of its kingdoms between the seventh and eighth centuries, with some aspects gradually blending into folklore.

The right half of the front panel of the seventh century Franks Casket, depicting the pan-Germanic legend of Weyland Smith also Weyland The Smith, which was apparently also a part of Anglo-Saxon pagan mythology.

Much of what is supposedly known about Anglo-Saxon paganism is the result of the efforts of literary antiquarians in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; in particular, the notion that Old English poetry contains vestiges of an actual, historical pre-Christian paganism has been queried by Anglo-Saxonists.[2] Anglo-Saxon paganism was a polytheistic belief system, focused around the worship of deities known as the ése (singular ós). The most prominent of these deities was probably Woden, for which reason the religion has also been called Wodenism,[3] although other prominent gods included Thunor and Tiw. There was also a belief in a variety of other supernatural entities who inhabited the landscape, including elves, nicor, and dragons.[4] Cultic practice largely revolved around demonstrations of devotion, including sacrifice of inanimate objects and animals, to these deities, particularly at certain religious festivals during the year. Pagan beliefs also influenced funerary practices, where the dead were either inhumed or cremated, typically with a selection of grave goods. There was also a magical component to the early Anglo-Saxon religion, and some scholars have also theorised that there may have been shamanic aspects as well. These religious beliefs also had a bearing on the structure of Anglo-Saxon society, which was hierarchical, with kings often claiming a direct ancestral lineage from a god, particularly Woden. As such, it also had an influence on law codes during this period.

The deities of this religion provided the basis for the names of the days of the week in the English language. Despite this, there is much that is not known about this religion, and what is currently known about it comes mainly from the available archaeological evidence. What is known about the religion and its accompanying mythology have since influenced both literature and Modern Paganism.


  • History 1
  • Mythology 2
    • Cosmology 2.1
    • Deities 2.2
    • Legend and poetry 2.3
  • Cultic practice 3
    • Places of worship 3.1
    • Sacrifice 3.2
    • Funerary rites 3.3
    • Festivals 3.4
    • Ritual drinking 3.5
    • Symbolism 3.6
    • Magic and witchcraft 3.7
  • Pagan society 4
    • Kingship 4.1
    • Law 4.2
  • Legacy 5
    • Place names 5.1
    • Days of the week 5.2
    • Folkloric survivals 5.3
  • Historiography 6
  • Contemporary paganism 7
    • Notes 7.1
    • Footnotes 7.2
    • Bibliography 7.3
  • See also 8
  • External links 9


The Anglo-Saxon tribes were not united before the 7th century, with seven main kingdoms, known collectively as the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. Certain deities and religious practices were specific to certain localities.

The literary sources on Anglo-Saxon England set in with Christianization only, leaving the pre-Christian 6th century in the "Dark" of Sub-Roman Britain. The best sources of information on the pre-Christian period are 7th to 8th-century testimonies, such as Beowulf[5] and the Franks Casket, which had already seen Christian redaction but nevertheless reflects a living memory of original traditions.

The transition of the Anglo-Saxons from the original religion to Christianity took place gradually, over the course of the 7th century, influenced on one side by Celtic Christianity and the Irish mission, and on the other by Roman Catholicism introduced to England by Augustine of Canterbury in 597. The Anglo-Saxon nobility were nearly all converted within a century, but the original religion among the rural population, as in other Germanic lands, didn't so much die out as gradually blend into folklore.

As elsewhere, Christianization involved the co-opting of original folk culture into a Christian context, including the conversion of pagan sacred sites and feast days into Christian ones. Pope Gregory the Great instructed Abbot Mellitus that:

I have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols in England should not on any account be destroyed. Augustine must smash the idols, but the temples themselves should be sprinkled with holy water, and altars set up in them in which relics are to be enclosed. For we ought to take advantage of well-built temples by purifying them from devil-worship and dedicating them to the service of the true God.[6]

The question of religious allegiance of the individual kings was not a political one, and there is no evidence of any military struggle of a native vs. a Christian faction as in that between Blot-Sweyn and Inge the Elder during the 1080s in the Christianization of Sweden, and no military "crusade" as in the 8th-century Saxon Wars of Charlemagne's. Each king was free to convert to Christianity as he pleased, due to the sacral nature of kingship in Germanic society automatically entailing the conversion of his subjects. The only exception may be found in the war of Penda of Mercia against Northumbria. Penda exceptionally allied himself with the Welsh Kingdom of Gwynedd against his Anglo-Saxon neighbours. In the Battle of Hatfield Chase, Penda fought together with Cadwallon ap Cadfan (who was a Christian but according to Bede given to barbarous cruelty[7]); the battle resulted in the death of Edwin of Northumbria (who had been baptized in 627). As a result, Northumbria fell into chaos and was divided between Eanfrith and Osric, who both reverted to paganism as they rose to power. Both Eanfrith and Osric were killed in battle against Cadwallon within the year. Cadwallon was in turn defeated by Oswald of Northumbria in the Battle of Heavenfield shortly after. Penda again defeated Oswald at the Battle of Maserfield in 641, which ended in Oswald's death and dismemberment. The outcome of the battle ended "Northumbrian imperialism south of the Humber" and established Penda as the most powerful Mercian ruler so far to have emerged in the midlands and "the most formidable king in England",[8] a position he maintained until his death in the Battle of Winwaed in 655.

Charles Plummer, writing in 1896, describes the defeat of Penda as "decisive as to the religious destiny of the English".[9] Bede makes clear, however, that the war between Mercia and Northumbria was not religiously motivated: Penda tolerated the preaching of Christianity in Mercia, even including the baptism of his own heir, and despised those reverting to paganism after receiving baptism for their faithlessness.[10] This testament of Penda's religious tolerance is particularly credible, as Bede tends to exaggerate Mercian barbarism in his account of Oswald as a saintly defender of the Christian faith.

After Penda's death, Mercia was converted, and all the kings who ruled thereafter were Christian, including Penda's son Peada, who had already been baptized with his father's permission, as the condition set by king Oswiu of Northumbria for the marriage of his daughter Alchflaed to Peada, to the husband's misfortune, according to Bede, who informs that Peada was "very wickedly killed" through his wife's treachery "during the very time of celebrating Easter" in 656.[11]

Penda's death in 655 may be taken as marking the decisive decline of paganism in England. Some smaller kingdoms continued to crown openly pagan kings, but newly Christian Mercia became instrumental in their conversion. In 660 Essex crowned the pagan king Swithhelm. Swithhelm accepted baptism in 662 but his successor Sighere of Essex encouraged a pagan rebellion in 665 that was only suppressed when Wulfhere of Mercia intervened and established himself as overlord of Essex. It is not recorded if Sighere ever accepted baptism but he was forced to marry Wulfhere's Christian niece, whom he later divorced.

Anglo-Saxon England, divided into many smaller kingdoms such as Mercia and Wessex, around the time of Christianisation

Æthelwealh of Sussex accepted baptism at the behest of Wulfhere of Mercia, although the year is unrecorded. In 681, the Bishop Wilfrid arrived in Sussex to begin preaching to the general population. Bede records that the king had converted "not long previously", but Wulfhere had died in 675. Therefore, Æthelwealh's baptism can only be assigned with certainty to Wulfhere's reign of 658–675, although it was probably at the very end of this period.

This left the Isle of Wight as the last openly pagan kingdom. Wulfhere had invaded in 661 and forced the islanders to convert, but as soon as he left they had reverted to paganism. They remained pagan until 686 when they were invaded by Cædwalla of Wessex. The last openly pagan king, Arwald, was killed in battle defending his kingdom, which was incorporated into the Kingdom of Wessex. His heirs were baptised and then executed.

Cædwalla himself was unbaptised when he invaded the Isle of Wight. But throughout his reign he acted in cooperation with the church and gave the church a quarter of the Isle of Wight. He abdicated in 688 and traveled to Rome to be baptised in 689.

Wilfrid was still converting the pagan population of Sussex in 686. In 695, Wessex issued a law code proscribing fines for failing to baptise one's children and for failing to tithe.

By the 8th century, Anglo-Saxon England was at least nominally Christian, the Anglo-Saxon mission contributing significantly to the Christianisation of the continental Frankish Empire.[12] Germanic paganism again briefly returned to England in the form of Norse paganism, which Norse Vikings from Scandinavia brought to the country in the 9th to 10th century—but it again succumbed to Christianisation. Thus, mention of the Norse "Thor, lord of ogres" is found in a runic charm discovered inserted in the margin of an Anglo-Saxon manuscript from 1073.[13] Polemics against lingering pagan customs continued into the 9th and 10th centuries, e.g. in the Laws of Ælfred (ca. 890), but England was a predominantly Christian kingdom by the High Medieval period.



"A worm came creeping, he tore a man in two, then Woden took nine Glory-Twigs, then struck the adder, that it flew apart into nine [bits] ... [Woden] established [the nine herbs] and sent [them] into the seven worlds, for the poor and the rich, a remedy for all, it stands against pain, it fights against poison, it avails against three and against thirty, against foe's hand and against noble scheming, against enchantment of vile creatures."

Currently, very little is known about the pagan cosmology or world view followed by the early Anglo-Saxons. In the Nine Herbs Charm, there is a mention of "seven worlds", which may indicate that the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons believed in seven realms. The Anglo-Saxons referred to the realm humans live on as Middangeard, (which was cognate to the Old Norse Midgard) and also to a realm called Neorxnawang, corresponding to the Christian idea of Heaven. While these are terms used in a Christian context, some scholars have theorised that they may have originally been used to apply to earlier pagan realms.[14] Similarly, in the Crist poem, there is a mention of Earendel, which may have been a name of the morning star, identified in the poem with John the Baptist (who heralds the coming of the Christ as the morning star heralds the Sun). Various scholars, such as Brian Branston[15] and Clive Tolley[16] have suggested that the pagan Anglo-Saxons held a belief in a world tree, similar to the Norse concept of Yggdrasil, though there is no solid evidence for this.

The Anglo-Saxon concept corresponding to fate was wyrd,[17] although the "pagan" nature of this conception is subject to some debate; Dorothy Whitelock suggested that it was a belief held only after Christianisation,[18] while Branston maintained that wyrd had been an important concept for the pagan Anglo-Saxons.[19]


Anglo-Saxon belt buckle uncovered in Finglesham, which is widely believed to depict the god Woden.[20]

Anglo-Saxon paganism was a polytheistic faith, worshipping many deities, who were known as ése. The most popular god appears to have been Woden, as "traces of his cult are scattered more widely over the rolling English countryside than those of any other heathen deity".[21] The importance of Woden can also be seen in the fact that he was euhemerized as an ancestor of the royal houses of Kent, Wessex, East Anglia and Mercia.[22] There are traces of Woden in English folklore and toponymy, where he appears as the leader of the Wild Hunt and he is referred to as a healer in the Nine Herbs Charm, directly paralleling the role of his continental German counterpart Wodan in the Merseburg Incantations.[22]

The second most widespread deity from Anglo-Saxon England appears to be the god Thunor, who was a god of the sky and thunder and who was "a friend of the common man",[23] in contrast to Woden who was primarily associated with royalty. It has been suggested that the hammer and the swastika were the god's symbols, representing thunderbolts, and both of these symbols have been found in Anglo-Saxon graves, the latter being common on cremation urns.[24] A third Anglo-Saxon god that is attested is Tiw, who, in the Anglo-Saxon rune poem Tir is identified with the star Polaris rather than with a deity, although it has been suggested that Tiw was probably a war deity.[25]

Perhaps the most prominent female deity in Anglo-Saxon paganism was Fríge, however there is still very little evidence for her worship, although it has been speculated that she was "a goddess of love or festivity".[25] Another Anglo-Saxon divinity was Frey, who is mentioned in both The Dream of the Rood and a poem by the monk Cædmon, in both of which he is compared to the later Christian figure Jesus Christ, indicating that Frey was perhaps a sacrificial deity.[25] The East Saxon tribe who settled in southern England and formed the kingdom of Essex claimed to be the descendents of a god known as Seaxnēat, of whom little is known,[26] while a runic poem mentions a god known as Ingui and the writer Asser mentioned a god known as Gēat.[26] The Christian monk known as the Venerable Bede also mentioned two further goddesses in his written works; Eostre, who was celebrated at a spring festival, and Hretha, whose name meant "glory".[26]

Besides the ése, Anglo-Saxons also believed in other supernatural beings or "wights", such as elves, and household deities, known as Cofgodas. These guarded a specific household, and were given offerings so they would continue. After Christianisation, the belief in Cofgodas may have survived through the form of the fairy being known as the Hob. Tutelary deities of the household are part of the traditional religions of classical antiquity, such as the Lares of ancient Roman religion and the Agathodaemon of ancient Greek religion.

In Anglo-Saxon England, elves (aelfe) were viewed as malevolent beings who could bring harm to human beings. In the 10th century Wulfeage (Sean Percival) (2008). Lyblác: Anglo Saxon Witchcraft. Capall Bann publishing.

  • Heathen cult in English place-names

External links

Discussion of a form of Anglo-Saxon Witchcraft revived 2003 by Wulfeage, the first elected steward of Seax Wica.  

See also

  • Crawford, Sally (2004). "Votive Deposition, Religion and the Anglo-Saxon Furnished Burial Ritual". World Archaeology 36 (1): 87–102.  
  • Halsall, Guy (1989). "Anthropology and the Study of Pre-Conquest Warfare and Society: The Ritual War in Anglo-Saxon England". In Hawkes. Weapons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England. 
  • Semple, Sarah (2010). "In the Open Air". In Carver, Martin; Sanmark, Alex; Semple, Sarah. Signals of Belief in Early England: Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited. Oxford and Oakville: Oxbow Books. pp. 21–48.  
Academic Articles
  • Atkinson, John C. (1891). Forty Years in a Moorland Parish. 
  • Branston,, Brian (1957). The Lost Gods of England. London: Thames and Hudson. 
  • Chaney, William A. (1970). The Cult of Kinship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity. California: University of California Press. 
  • Ewing, Thor (2008). Gods and Worshippers in the Viking and Germanic World. Tempus.  
  • Herbert, Kathy (1994). Looking for the Lost Gods of England. Anglo-Saxon Books.  
  • Jones, Prudence;  
  • Macleod, Mindy; Mees, Bernard (2006). Runic Amulets and Magic Objects. Boydell Press.  
Historical texts


  1. ^ Carver, Sanmark and Semple 2010. p. ix.
  2. ^ E. G. Stanley, The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism (Cambridge, 1975), passim.
  3. ^ Atkinson 1891.
  4. ^ Semple 2010. pp. 24–25.
  5. ^ Beowulf is dated to the 8th century by some scholars, notably  ), but as late as the 11th by others
  6. ^ Pope Gregory quoted in Branston 1957. p. 45.
  7. ^ "so barbarous in his disposition and behaviour, that he neither spared the female sex, nor the innocent age of children, but with savage cruelty put them to tormenting deaths, ravaging all their country for a long time, and resolving to cut off all the race of the English within the borders of Britain." Bede, H. E., Book II, chapter 20.
  8. ^ F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (1943), third edition (1971), Oxford University Press, p. 83
  9. ^ Venerabilis Baedae Historiam ecclesiasticam gentis Anglorum, ed. Charles Plummer (1896), Oxonii, page 184.
  10. ^ Bede c.731. III: XXI.
  11. ^ Bede c.731. III: 24.
  12. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia:"The Anglo-Saxon Church"
  13. ^ Macleod. Mees (2006:120).
  14. ^ Jeep 2001. p. 554.
  15. ^ Branston 1957. p. 64.
  16. ^ Tolley (2009) - "What is a World Tree and Why Should We Expect to Find One in Anglo-Saxon England?" at the Woodlands, Trees and Timber in the Anglo-Saxon World conference, Institute of Archaeology, University College London.
  17. ^ a b c d e Hutton 1991. p. 272.
  18. ^ Branston 1957. p. 34.
  19. ^ Branston 1957. p. 57.
  20. ^ Wilson 1992. p. 118.
  21. ^ Branston 1957. p. 29.
  22. ^ a b Hutton 1991. p. 265.
  23. ^ Branston 1957. p. 30.
  24. ^ Hutton 1991. p. 266.
  25. ^ a b c Hutton 1991. p. 267.
  26. ^ a b c Hutton 1991. p. 268.
  27. ^ Ewing (2008:115)
  28. ^ "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight". GradeSaver. Retrieved 11 December 2014. 
  29. ^ a b J Westwood & J Simpson The Lore of the Land: A guide to Englands Legends 2005
  30. ^ "Franks Casket - Appendices - Wayland saga". Retrieved 2011-12-28. 
  31. ^ Wormald 1978. p. 66.
  32. ^ Semple 2010. p. 42.
  33. ^ Wilson 1992. p. 06.
  34. ^ Wilson 1992. pp. 08–10.
  35. ^ Ewing 2008. p. 47.
  36. ^ a b Branston 1957. p. 47.
  37. ^ Semple 2010. p. 36.
  38. ^ Wilson 1992. pp. 28–29.
  39. ^ Bede c.731. II: 13.
  40. ^ Branston 1957. p. 25.
  41. ^ Wilson 1992. pp. 45–47.
  42. ^ Wilson 1992. pp. 48–49.
  43. ^ Wilson 1992. pp. 44–45.
  44. ^ Ewing 2008. pp. 24–26.
  45. ^ [2] trans. Joseph Bosworth
  46. ^ Wilson 1992. p. 100.
  47. ^ Ewing 2008. p. 17.
  48. ^ a b c d Hutton 1991. p. 274.
  49. ^ Wilson 1992. p. 87.
  50. ^ Wilson 1992. pp. 98–100.
  51. ^ Wilson 1992. pp. 71–75.
  52. ^ Wilson 1992. pp. 77–80.
  53. ^ Hutton 1991. p. 275.
  54. ^ Wilson 1992. pp. 92–95.
  55. ^ Wilson 1992. p. 63.
  56. ^ Wilson 1992. p. 53.
  57. ^ a b Hutton 1991. p. 277.
  58. ^ Hutton 1991. p. 271.
  59. ^ a b Branston 1957. p. 41.
  60. ^ Branston 1957. pp. 42–43.
  61. ^ First proposed at the Third International Conference of Nordic and General Linguistics, at the University of Texas at Austin, April 5–9, 1976 (published in 1978), elaborated in Bauschatz, "The Germanic ritual feast" and The Well and the Tree; Pollington, Mead-hall.
  62. ^ Bauschatz (74–75).
  63. ^ Wilson 1992. pp. 115 and 118–119.
  64. ^ Wilson 1992. pp. 116–117.
  65. ^ a b Ewing (2008:83)
  66. ^ Petterson, David C. Hostile Witnesses: Rescuing the History of Witchcraft from the Writings of Scholars and Churchmen. David C. Petterson. Petterson cites Halitgar's Penitential, II.22, as in Die Altenglische Version des Halitgar'schen Bussbuches, ed. Raith, p29; quoted in North, Richard,  
  67. ^ Wilson 1992. p. 103.
  68. ^ Wilson 1992. pp. 103–107.
  69. ^ Wilson 1992. pp. 108–112.
  70. ^ Wilson 1992. pp. 112–115.
  71. ^ Kemble, Saxons in England (1876) II. v. 151–181
  72. ^ Halsall (1989:155—177).
  73. ^ Chaney (1970).
  74. ^ Bowra (1952:244).
  75. ^ Wormald (118—119).
  76. ^ Chaney (1970:174). Chaney notes that:
    The written formulation of law is largely stimulated by an attempt to cope with the new religion.
  77. ^ Chaney (1970:174–176). Chaney notes that:
    In Kentish law, for example, dooms concerning the church show less alliteration and may be taken as newer.... the principal features of the first Anglo-Saxon codes are the concrete and specific nature of their dooms and the elliptical, unelaborated method of recording what the tribal practice had been.
  78. ^ P. H. Reany (1960). The Origin of English Placenames. Page 117.
  79. ^ Branston 1957. pp. 29–30.
  80. ^ Hutton 1996. pp. 39–41.
  81. ^ Jones and Pennick 1995. p. 159.
  82. ^ Tom Shippey, Tolkien and Iceland: The Philology of Envy (2002).
  83. ^ Branston 1957. p. 27.
  84. ^ Kemble 1849.
  85. ^ Ackerman 1855. p. vii.
  86. ^ "Aussie Odinists behind barbed wire". The Odinic Rite of Australia. 20 November 2009. Retrieved 11 December 2014. 
  87. ^ "History of Theodish Belief". 
  88. ^ "White Marsh Theod". 
  89. ^ "Heathenry (Norse, Northern, Odinism, Asatru, Vanatru)". The Pagan Federation. Retrieved 11 December 2014. 



There are modern proponents of Anglo-Saxon paganism actively practicing the religion, such as White Marsh Theod in the United States.[88] Within the UK the Pagan Federation contains among its members groups that practice Heathenry, a modern variant of paganism that includes Anglo Saxon beliefs.[89]

Similarly, the Wiccan who introduced the Gardnerian tradition to the United States, Raymond Buckland, later wrote a book in 1973 titled The Tree in which he outlined the creation of a tradition known as Seax-Wica, which uses the symbolism and iconography of Anglo-Saxon paganism, but in a "traditional" Wiccan framework.

A later reconstructed form of Anglo-Saxon paganism arose in the 1970s as a subset of Germanic neopaganism, in the form of Theodism. It was founded by Garman Lord, who had originally been a Wiccan in the Gardnerian tradition. In 1971, Lord formed a Wiccan coven that emphasized the iconography of Anglo-Saxon paganism, named The Coven Witan of Anglo-Saxon Wicca. However, Lord later abandoned any use of Wiccan teachings, instead focusing entirely upon the resurrection of the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon religion in 1976 after supposedly having a vision of the deities Woden and Frige.[87]

In the 1930s Alexander Rud Mills established in Australia "The Anglecyn Church of Odin", a thoroughly pagan religion but with rituals influenced by the literary style of Anglicanism. The Anglecyn Church went underground as a result of political persecution in 1942, but was revived in 1972 in Melbourne, Australia.[86]

Contemporary paganism

The study of Anglo-Saxon paganism began only in the mid nineteenth century, when John Kemble published The Saxons in England Volume I (1849), in which he discussed the usefulness of examining place-names to find out about the religion.[84] This was followed by the publication of John Yonge Akerman's Remains of Pagan Saxondom (1855). Akerman defended his chosen subject in the introduction by pointing out the archaeological evidence of a "Pagan Saxon mode of sepulture" on English soil lasting from the "middle of the fifth to the middle or perhaps the end of the seventh century".[85] From this point onward, more academic research into the Anglo-Saxons' pagan religion appeared. This led to further books on the subject, such as those primarily about the Anglo-Saxon gods, such as Brian Branston's The Lost Gods of England (1957), and Kathy Herbert's Looking for the Lost Gods of England (1994). Others emphasised archaeological evidence, such as David Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Paganism (1992) and the edited anthology Signals of Belief in Early England: Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited (2010).

While historical investigation into Germanic paganism and its mythology began in the seventeenth century with Peder Resen's Edda Islandorum (1665), this largely focused only upon Norse mythology, much of which was preserved in Old Icelandic sources. In the eighteenth century, English Romanticism developed a strong enthusiasm for Iceland and Nordic culture, expressed in original English poems extolling Viking virtues, such as Thomas Warton's "Runic Odes" of 1748. In the nineteenth century this developed into two movements within the British educated elite, one of which was composed of Scandophiles and the other of Germanophiles, who associated the English with either the Scandinavians or the Germans, respectively.[82] With nascent nationalism in early nineteenth-century Europe, by the 1830s both Nordic and German philology had produced "national mythologies" in N. F. S. Grundtvig's Nordens Mytologi and Jacob Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie, respectively. British Romanticism at the same time had at its disposal both a Celtic and a Viking revival, but nothing focusing on the Anglo-Saxons because there was very little evidence of their pagan mythology still surviving. Indeed, so scant was evidence of paganism in Anglo-Saxon England that some scholars came to assume that the Anglo-Saxons had been Christianized essentially from the moment of their arrival in Britain.[83]


Some claim that notions of the Man in the Moon are a survival of the masculine anthropomorphic figure of the moon in Germanic myths.

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, which is performed annually in the village of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire, has also been claimed, by some, to be a remnant of Anglo-Saxon paganism. The antlers used in the dance belonged to reindeer and have been carbon dated to the eleventh century, and it is therefore believed that they originated in Norway and were brought to England some time in the late Mediaeval period, as by that time reindeer were extinct in Britain.[81]

Various elements of English folklore from the Mediaeval period onwards have been interpreted as being survivals from Anglo-Saxon paganism. For instance, writing in the 1720s, Henry Bourne stated his belief that the winter custom of the Yule log was a leftover from Anglo-Saxon paganism, however this is an idea that has been disputed by some subsequent research by the likes of historian Ronald Hutton, who believe that it was only introduced into England in the seventeenth century by immigrants arriving from Flanders.[80]

Folkloric survivals

Modern English day name Old English day name English day name meaning Glossed from Latin day name Latin day name meaning
Monday Mōnandæg "Moon's day", personified in related Norse mythology as the god Máni Dies Lunae "Day of Luna (moon)"
Tuesday Tiwesdæg "Tiw's day" Dies Martis "Day of Mars"
Wednesday Wōdnesdæg "Woden's day" Dies Mercurii "Day of Mercury"
Thursday Þūnresdæg "Thunor's day" Dies Iovis "Day of Jupiter"
Friday Frigedæg "*Frejya's day" Dies Veneris "Day of Venus"
Saturday Sæturnesdæg "Saturn's day" Dies Saturni "Day of Saturn"
Sunday Sunnandæg "Sun's day" Dies Solis "Day of Sol Invictus (sun) "

The Anglo-Saxons, like other Germanic peoples, adapted the week-day names introduced by their interaction with the Roman Empire but glossed their indigenous gods over the Roman deities (with the exception of Saturday) in a process known as Interpretatio germanica:

Days of the week

Many place names in England are named after various things to do with Anglo-Saxon paganism. A number of towns and villages, such as Weedon, Wyville and Harrowden have terms like ealh, weoh and hearh incorporated into them, indicating that they were places used for worship by the pagan Anglo-Saxons, and from using this toponymy, sixty sites of pagan worship have been identified across the country.[78] Other sites are named after specific Anglo-Saxon deities, for instance, Frigedene and Freefolk are named after Frige, Thundersley after Thunor, and Woodway House, Woodnesborough and Wansdyke named after Woden.[79]

Place names


References to ordeals and capital punishment appear in 10th century codes only. Strangely, the wager of battle does not appear to figure in Anglo-Saxon law in spite of being a Germanic pagan custom in origin, but is introduced in England only under Norman rule.

These law codes contain laws particular to the Church, including the churchfrith offering protection to a wanted criminal within a church building.[76] The secular portions of the laws nevertheless clearly record tribal laws of the pagan period.[77] Characteristic are its prescriptions of compensation payments or bots, including a weregild to be paid in the case of manslaughter, as opposed to corporeal punishments. The relative amounts of the fines allow an insight into the value system in Anglo-Saxon society. The highest fines in Æthelberht's law code are for the killing of people under the direct protection of the king, and equal fines are paid for adultery with an unmarried woman of the king's household. Alfred has a special law against drawing a weapon in the king's hall. Alfred does prescribe bodily punishments, such as the cutting out of the tongue, which may however be averted by paying a weregild. Alfred also sets down rules on how to lawfully fight out feuds. Such fights are considered orwige, meaning that deaths resulting from them do not fall under manslaughter. An enemy caught within his home may be besieged for seven days but not attacked unless he tries to escape. If he surrenders, he must be kept safe for thirty days to allow him to call for help from his kinsmen and friends, or beg aid from an ealdorman or from the king. A follower may fight orwige if his lord is attacked. In the same way, a lord may fight for his follower, or any man may fight orwige with his born kinsman excepting against his lord. A man may also fight orwige against another man caught committing adultery with his wife, sister, daughter or mother.

Records of Anglo-Saxon law codes dating to the 7th century have survived, the first being the Law of Æthelberht, attributed to Æthelberht of Kent (c. 602 AD), then later codes by Hlothhære and Eadric of Kent, and by Ine of Wessex (c. 694 AD). Other codes survive from the 8th to 9th centuries, notably the Laws of Alfred the Great, dating to the 890s.


Many Anglo-Saxon pagan kings made the claim that they were the semi-divine descendants of Woden, an idea that was transformed after Christianisation into the idea of the Divine Right of Christian monarchs ruling By the Grace of God (Dei Gratia).

The title of Bretwalda appears to have conveyed the status of some sort of formal or ceremonial overlordship over Britain, but it is uncertain whether it predates the 9th century, and if it does, what, if any, prerogatives it carried. Patrick Wormald interprets it as "less an objectively realized office than a subjectively perceived status" and emphasizes the partiality of its usage in favour of Southumbrian kings.[75]

The pagan Anglo-Saxons inherited the common Germanic institution of sacral kingship. A king (cyning) was elected from among eligible members of a royal family or cynn by the witena gemōt, an assembly of an elite that replaced the earlier folkmoot, which was the equivalent of the Germanic thing, the assembly of all free men. Tribal kingship came to an end in the 9th century with the hegemony of Wessex culminating in a unified kingdom of England by the 10th century. The cult of kingship was central to pagan Anglo-Saxon society. The king was equivalent to the position of high priest. By his divine descent he represented or indeed was the "luck" of the people.[73] The central importance of the institution of kingship is illustrated by the twenty-six synonyms for "king" employed by the Beowulf poet.[74]


Offices at the court included that of the thyle and the scop. The title of hlaford ("lord") denoted the head of any household in origin and expressed the relation to allegiance between a follower and his leader. Early Anglo-Saxon warfare had many aspects of endemic warfare typical of tribal warrior societies. It was based on retainers bound by oath to fight for their lords who in turn were obliged to show generosity to their followers.[72]

Germanic pagan society was structured hierarchically, under a tribal chieftain or cyning ("king") who at the same time acted as military leader, high judge and high priest. The tribe was bound together by a code of customary proper behaviour or sidu regulating the contracts (ǽ) and conflicts between the individual families or sibbs within the tribe. The aristocratic society arrayed below the king included the ranks of ealdorman, thegn, heah-gerefa and gerefa.[71] An eorl was a man of rank, as opposed to the ordinary freeman, known as ceorl. Free men were also a part of a hierarchy, with at least three different ranks (reflected in different amounts of weregild due for individuals of different ranks), although all free men had the right to participate in things (folkmoots). Germanic pagan society practiced slavery, and such slaves or unfree serfs were known as esne, and later also as theows.

Pagan society

The pagan Anglo-Saxons also appeared to wear amulets, and there are many cases where corpses were buried with them. As David Wilson noted, "To the early [Anglo-]Saxons, they were part and parcel of the supernatural that made up their world of 'belief', although occupying the shadowy dividing area between superstition and religion, if indeed such a division actually existed."[67] One of the most notable amulets found in Anglo-Saxon graves is the cowrie shell, which has been often interpreted by modern academics as having been a fertility symbol due to its physical resemblance to the vagina and the fact that it was most commonly found in female graves. Not being native to British seas, the cowrie shells had to have been brought to England by traders who had come all the way from the Red Sea in the Middle East.[68] Animal teeth were also used as amulets by the pagan Anglo-Saxons, and many examples have been found that had formerly belonged to boar, beaver, and in some cases even humans.[69] Other amulets included items such as amethyst and amber beads, pieces of quartz or iron pyrite, worked and unworked flint, pre-Anglo-Saxon coinage and fossils, and from their distribution in graves, it has been stated that in Anglo-Saxon pagan society, "amulets [were] very much more the preserve of women than men".[70]

The phrase swa wiccan tæcaþ ("as the witches teach") seems to be an addition to Halitgar's original, added by an eleventh-century Old English translator.[66]

Some men are so blind that they bring their offering to earth-fast stone and also to trees and to wellsprings, as the witches teach, and are unwilling to understand how stupidly they do or how that dead stone or that dumb tree might help them or give forth health when they themselves are never able to stir from their place.

The word wiccan "witches" is associated with animistic healing rites in the Paenitentiale Halitgari where it is stated that:

The Christian authorities attempted to stamp out a belief and practice in witchcraft, with the Paenitentiale Theodori attributed to Theodore of Tarsus condemning "those that consult divinations and use them in the pagan manner, or that permit people of that kind into their houses to seek some knowledge".[65] Similarly, the U version of the Paenitentiale Theodori condemns those "who observe auguries, omens or dreams or any other prophecies after the manner of the pagans".[65]

Anglo-Saxon pagans believed in magic and witchcraft. There are various Old English terms for "witch", including hægtesse "witch, fury", whence Modern English hag, wicca, gealdricge, scinlæce and hellrúne. The belief in witchcraft was suppressed in the 9th to 10th century as is evident e.g. from the Laws of Ælfred (ca. 890).

Magic and witchcraft

Various recurring symbols appear on certain pagan Anglo-Saxon artefacts, in particular on grave goods. Most notable among these was the swastika, which was widely inscribed on crematory urns and also on various brooches and other forms of (often female) jewellery as well as on certain pieces of ceremonial weaponry. The archaeologist David Wilson remarked that this "undoubtedly had special importance for the Anglo-Saxons, either magical or religious, or both. It seems very likely that it was the symbol of the thunder god Thunor, and when found on weapons or military gear its purpose would be to provide protection and success in battle". He also noted however that its widespread usage might have led to it becoming "a purely decorative device with no real symbolic importance".[63] Another symbol that has appeared on several pagan artefacts from this period was the rune , which represented the letter T and is associated with the god Tiw.[64]


Regardless of its possible religious connotations, the symbel had a central function in maintaining hierarchy and allegiance in Anglo-Saxon warrior society. The symbel takes place in the chieftain's mead hall. It involved drinking ale or mead from a drinking horn, speech making (which often included formulaic boasting and oaths), and gift-giving. Eating and feasting were specifically excluded from symbel, and no alcohol was set aside for the gods or other deities in the form of a sacrifice.[62]

In Anglo-Saxon England, a feudal lord would organise a banquet known as a symbel for his retainers, whether they be Christian or pagan. Paul C. Bauschatz, in 1976, suggested that the term reflects a specifically pagan ritual that had a "great religious significance in the culture of the early Germanic people".[61] Bauschatz' lead is followed only sporadically in contemporary scholarship, but his interpretation has inspired drinking-rituals in Germanic neopaganism.

Pair of large drinking horns, found at Taplow, dated to the 6th century.

Ritual drinking

Remarking on Bede's account of the Anglo-Saxon year, the historian Brian Branston noted that they "show us a people who of necessity fitted closely into the pattern of the changing year, who were of the earth and what grows in it" and that they were "in fact, a people who were in a symbiotic relationship with mother earth and father sky".[60]

Following this festival, in the month of Solmonað (February), Bede claims that the pagans offered cakes to their deities.[59] Then, in Eostur-monath Aprilis (April), a spring festival was celebrated, dedicated to the goddess Eostre,[17] and the later Christian festival of Easter took its name from this month and its goddess. The month of September was known as Halegmonath, meaning Holy Month, which may indicate that it had special religious significance.[17] The month of November was known as Blod-Monath, meaning Blood Month, and was commemorated with animal sacrifice, both in offering to the gods, and probably also to gather a source of food to be stored over the winter.[17]

Everything that we know about the religious festivals of the pagan Anglo-Saxons comes from a book written by the Christian monk, the Venerable Bede, titled De temporum ratione, meaning The Reckoning of Time,[58] in which he described the calendar of the year. The pagan Anglo-Saxons followed a calendar with twelve lunar months, with the occasional year having thirteen months so that the lunar and solar alignment could be corrected. Bede claimed that the greatest pagan festival was Modraniht (meaning Mothers' Night), which was situated at the Winter solstice, which marked the start of the Anglo-Saxon year.[17][59]


Eventually, in the sixth and seventh centuries, the idea of burial mounds began to appear in Anglo-Saxon England, and in certain cases earlier burial mounds from the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British periods were simply reused by the Anglo-Saxons. It is not known why they adopted this practice, but it may be from the practices of the native Britons.[57] Burial mounds remained objects of veneration in early Anglo-Saxon Christianity, and numerous churches were built next to tumuli. Another form of burial was that of ship burials, which were practiced by many of the Germanic peoples across northern Europe. In many cases it seems that the corpse was placed in a ship that was either sent out to sea or left on land, but in both cases burned. In Suffolk however, ships were not burned, but buried, as is the case at Sutton Hoo, which it is believed, was the resting place of the king of the East Angles, Raedwald.[57] Both ship and tumulus burials were described in the Beowulf poem, through the funerals of Scyld Scefing and Beowulf respectively.

Archaeological investigation has displayed that structures or buildings were built inside a number of pagan cemeteries, and as David Wilson noted, "The evidence, then, from cemetery excavations is suggestive of small structures and features, some of which may perhaps be interpreted as shrines or sacred areas".[55] In some cases, there is evidence of far smaller structures being built around or alongside individual graves, implying possible small shrines to the dead individual or individuals buried there.[56]

One of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo

Certain Anglo-Saxon burials appeared to have ritualistic elements to them, implying that a religious rite was performed over them during the funeral. While there are many multiple burials, where more than one corpse was found in a single grave, that date from the Anglo-Saxon period, there is "a small group of such burials where an interpretation involving ritual practices may be possible". For instance, at Welbeck Hill in Lincolnshire, the corpse of a decapitated woman was placed in reverse on top of the body of an old man, while in a number of other similar examples, female bodies were again placed above those of men. This has led some archaeologists to suspect a form of suttee, where the female was the spouse of the male, and was killed to accompany him upon death. Other theories hold that the females were slaves who were viewed as the property of the men, and who were again killed to accompany their master.[51] Similarly, four Anglo-Saxon burials have been excavated where it appears that the individual was buried while still alive, which could imply that this was a part of either a religious rite or as a form of punishment.[52] There are also many cases where corpses have been found decapitated, for instance, at a mass grave in Thetford, Norfolk, fifty beheaded individuals were discovered, their heads possibly having been taken as trophies of war. In other cases of decapitation it seems possible that it was evidence of religious ritual (presumably human sacrifice) or execution.[53][54]

One of the aspects of Anglo-Saxon paganism that we know most about is their burial customs, which we have discovered from archaeological excavations at various sites, including Sutton Hoo, Spong Hill, Prittlewell, Snape and Walkington Wold, and we today know of the existence of around 1200 Anglo-Saxon pagan cemeteries. There was no set form of burial among the pagan Anglo-Saxons, with cremation being preferred among the Angles in the north and burial among the Saxons in the south, although both forms were found throughout England, sometimes in the same cemeteries. When cremation did take place, the ashes were usually placed within an urn and then buried, sometimes along with grave goods.[48] According to archaeologist Dave Wilson, "the usual orientation for an inhumation in a pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery was west-east, with the head to the west, although there were often deviations from this."[49] Indicating a possible religious belief, grave goods were common among inhumation burials as well as cremations; free Anglo-Saxon men were buried with at least one weapon in the pagan tradition, often a seax, but sometimes also with a spear, sword or shield, or a combination of these.[48] There are also a number of recorded cases of parts of non-human animals being buried within such graves. Most common among these was body parts belonging to either goats or sheep, although parts of oxen were also relatively common, and there are also isolated cases of goose, crab apples, duck eggs and hazelnuts being buried in graves. It is widely thought therefore that such items constituted a food source for the deceased.[50] In some cases, animal skulls, particularly oxen but also pig, were buried in human graves, a practice that was also found in earlier Roman Britain.[48]

Funerary rites

Many Germanic peoples are recorded as conducting human sacrifice, yet there is no firm evidence the Anglo-Saxons had such a practice, though there is speculation that twenty three of the bodies at the Sutton Hoo burial site were sacrificial victims clustered around a sacred tree from which they had been hanged.[47] Alongside this, some have suggested that the corpse of an Anglo-Saxon woman found at Sewerby on the Yorkshire Wolds suggested that she had been buried alive alongside a nobleman, possibly as a sacrifice, or to accompany him to the afterlife.[48]

There are several cases where animal remains were buried in what appears to be ritualistic conditions, for instance at Frilford, Berkshire, a pig or boar's head was buried with six flat stones and two Roman-era tiles then placed on top, while at an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Soham, Cambridgeshire, an ox's head was buried with the muzzle facing down. Archaeologist David Wilson stated that these may be "evidence of sacrifices to a pagan god".[46]

The original Old English:
Se mónaþ is nemned Novembris on Léden, and on úre geþeóde "blótmónaþ", forðon úre yldran, ðá hý hǽðene wǽron, on ðam mónþe hý bleóton á, ðæt is, ðæt hý betǽhton and benémdon hyra deófolgyldum ða neát ða ðe hý woldon syllan.
Modern English translation:
"The month is called Novembris in Latin, and in our language 'bloodmonth', because our elders when they had been heathens, always in this month sacrificed, that is, that they took and devoted to their idols the cattle which they wished to offer."[45]

The pagan Anglo-Saxons performed animal sacrifice in honour of the gods. It appears that they emphasised the killing of oxen over other species, as suggested by both written and archaeological evidence.[44] Sacrifice itself was not only found in Anglo-Saxon paganism, but was also common in other Germanic pagan religions, for instance the Norse practised a blood sacrifice known as Blót. The Old English Martyrology records that November (Old English Blótmónaþ "the month of sacrifice") was particularly associated with sacrificial practices:


The pagan Anglo-Saxons built temples to worship their gods, which were "wooden-framed" and contained "an altar and a likeness of one or more gods".[36] Some have suggested that sometimes these temples were built alongside pre-existing sacred sites in the landscape,[36] and indeed, "ancient remains in the landscape held a significant place in the Anglo-Saxon mind as part of a wider, numinous, spiritual and resonant landscape".[37] These temples are mentioned in various later Anglo-Saxon texts, most of which discuss them in reference to their Christianization. Pope Gregory the Great, who was head of the Roman Catholic Church during much of the Christianization of England, variously suggested both that the temples should be sprinkled with holy water and converted into churches, or that they should be destroyed.[38] According to Bede, it was this latter advice that was taken up by Coifi, an influential English pagan priest for King Edwin of Northumbria, who after being converted to Christianity, cast a spear into the temple at Goodmanham and then burned it to the ground.[39] These occasional literary references to Anglo-Saxon temples are accompanied by some limited archaeological evidence. The best known example of this is a room, known by excavators as D2, which was a part of the royal complex at Yeavering in Northumberland, and which has been widely interpreted as a temple room, for it contained buried oxen skulls, two postholes that have been interpreted as holding idols, and no evidence of domestic usage.[40][41] Other possible temples or shrine buildings have been identified by archaeological investigation as existing within such Anglo-Saxon cemeteries as Lyminge in Kent and Bishopstone in Sussex.[42] Although Pope Gregory had promoted the idea, no archaeological investigation has yet found any firm evidence of churches being built on top of earlier pagan temples in England. Nonetheless, as archaeologist David Wilson noted, this is "hardly surprising" due to "the making of crypts and the general rebuilding of churches over the centuries", which would probably destroy any earlier pagan foundations.[43]

Each of these hearg may have been devoted to a specific deity, for instance, in several cases, a grove of trees was devoted to just one god, as can be seen from the town of Thundersley (Thunor's Grove), which was devoted to the god Thunor. Popular historian Thor Ewing suggested that some of these sites were not dedicated to a well known deity, but simply to a local animistic one, who was believed to inhabit that very spot.[35]

The pagan Anglo-Saxons worshipped at a variety of different sites across their landscape, some of which were apparently specially built temples and others that were natural geographical features such as sacred trees, hilltops or wells. According to place name evidence, these sites of worship were known alternately as either hearg or as wēoh, and it was widely assumed by nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars that these two terms were synonyms that could be used interchangeably.[33] However, in the latter part of the twentieth century, some etymologists began to theorise that the two words actually had different meanings. Archaeologist David Wilson stated that hearg "may" refer to "a special type of religious site, one that occupied a prominent position on high land and was a communal place of worship for a specific group of people, a tribe or folk group, perhaps at particular times of the year" while wēoh sites, the majority of which appeared to be "situated very close to ancient route ways", were instead more likely to be "small, wayside shrine[s], accessible to the traveller".[34]

Places of worship

As archaeologist Sarah Semple noted, "the rituals [of the early Anglo-Saxons] involved the full pre-Christian repertoire: votive deposits, furnished burial, monumental mounds, sacred natural phenomenon and eventually constructed pillars, shrines and temples", thereby having many commonalities with other pre-Christian religions in Europe.[32]

Cultic practice

The only surviving Anglo-Saxon epic poem is the story of Beowulf, known only from a surviving manuscript that was written down by the Christian monk Sepa sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries AD. The story it tells is set not in England but in Scandinavia, and revolves around a Geatish warrior named Beowulf who travels to Denmark to defeat a monster known as Grendel, who is terrorising the kingdom of Hrothgar, and later, Grendel's Mother as well. Following this, he later becomes the king of Geatland before finally dying in battle with a dragon. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was commonly believed that Beowulf was not an Anglo-Saxon pagan tale, but a Scandinavian Christian one; it was not until the influential critical essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics by J. R. R. Tolkien, delivered in 1936, that Beowulf was established as a quintessentially English poem that, while Christian, looked back on a living memory of paganism. Nonetheless, some academics still hold reservations about accepting it as containing information pertaining to Anglo-Saxon paganism, with Patrick Wormald noting that "vast reserves of intellectual energy have been devoted to threshing this poem for grains of authentic pagan belief, but it must be admitted that the harvest has been meagre. The poet may have known that his heroes were pagans, but he did not know much about paganism."[31]

One of the most prominent surviving myths of the pagan Anglo-Saxons was that of the brothers Hengest and Horsa, who are named in historical sources as leaders of the earliest Anglo-Saxon incursions in the south of Britain. The name Hengest means "stallion" and Horsa means "horse", reminiscent of the horse sacrifice connected to the inauguration of pagan kings. Another important mythological figure is Weyland the smith, a figure who also appeared in other forms of Germanic mythology. An image of Weyland adorns the Franks Casket, an Anglo-Saxon royal hoard box and was meant there to refer to wealth and partnership.[30]

In pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon England, legends and other stories were transmitted orally instead of being written down - it is for this reason that very few survive to us today. After Christianisation however, certain poems were indeed written down, with surviving examples including the Nine Herbs Charm, The Dream of the Rood, Waldere and most notably Beowulf. While these contain many Christianised elements, there were certain mentions of earlier pagan deities and practices contained within them.

A 1908 depiction of Beowulf fighting the dragon, by J. R. Skelton.

Legend and poetry


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