Saturday, November 11, 2023

The Path to Paganism: Part 11: Anglo-Saxon Style

Wikimedia Commons.

Paganism, they say, is the religion with homework. That's especially true if you choose to immerse yourself in a reconstructionist pagan path. Where eclectic and syncretistic pagans pick and choose what beliefs and traditions they want to follow, reconstructionists are more focused on digging into historical resources to try to replicate, the best they can, the practices of a single ancient way of doing things, whether that's the way of the Celts, the Norse, the Anglo-Saxons, or something else. 

There's nothing wrong with either approach -- eclectic or recon -- and I have no room to criticize the eclectic pagans in any event. My own very informal practice has been extremely eclectic over the years, borrowing mostly from Celtic and Greek myth. Deities who never would have known each other stand side by side on the little pagan table in my Dad Loft's meditation area. 

And yet my observations over the years of how different cultures used their gods to express similar ideas and values often made me think about the potential for a shared origin, which is one of the things that led me down my current path of study. 

This idea isn't a huge stretch if you consider that the historical record points us to a common origin for the Proto-Indo-European people. If this hypothetical group shared a common linguistic origin, as we suspect they did, then there's no reason to think that they didn't also have social and cultural commonalities -- which would have included myths and legends surrounding the origins of their tribes. And sure enough, we can look to the myths of the cultures that grew out of that Proto-Indo-European base and observe some shared ideas about cosmological origins, particularly with regard to how order emerged out of chaos. That transformation generally involves the actions of deities who rise out of the primordial soup. And the results of their actions often arise out of a struggle with other groups of deities or with other imposing entities altogether -- giants, for example. In these stories, the forces of chaos are ultimately subdued, and out of chaos arises the order that gives rise to the cosmos we live in. One of the ongoing roles of the gods, then, becomes maintaining this cosmic order against the forces that would threaten and potentially undo it. 

It's not easy being a god. It puts a lot of responsibility on your shoulders. 

So let's talk a little bit about those gods, and the universe they oversee, from an Anglo-Saxon perspective. As I've mentioned, taking the Anglo-Saxon path poses particular challenges because of the paucity of surviving information regarding the Anglo-Saxons' culture, practices, and beliefs. We can assume that they held some beliefs and customs in common with other Germanic tribes, especially given that the primary deities of Anglo-Saxon paganism overlap with those of the Norse tradition. But it would be a mistake to assume that their paths were identical. People change, after all, as they hive off from each other. Colonial Americans were not the same as Englishmen. Catholicism in Europe looks different from how it's practiced in Mexico. That's how these things work. And it would have been doubly true in an age where instant communication didn't exist. Isolated from each other, different groups, even those with common origins, would simply drift apart, evolve in their own ways, and in many cases cease to have much of anything in common.

I should add a disclaimer before I go any further that I'm just beginning my research -- and the research isn't always easy. There are some websites that offer good overviews and some books that can help beginners get started. But if you really want to dig in to the nuts and bolts of the Anglo-Saxon tradition, there are very few primary sources to turn to. They either never existed or have been lost or destroyed over the centuries. That leaves us with secondary academic sources, which gather together the clues, the bits and pieces, scattered throughout other historical documents that might mention, say, an Anglo-Saxon deity in passing. Unfortunately, some of these academic books are prohibitively expensive -- one of them I was looking at on Amazon was going used for just shy of $1,000, and no, I'm not joking -- so if you can't find them at a library nearby, and you don't want to resort to illegal means to obtain them, you're pretty much out of luck.

So here's a very general overview of how things worked for the Anglo-Saxons, the best we (or at least I) can figure out.

First off, we have to acknowledge that the only surviving hints we have of an Anglo-Saxon cosmology, and the conclusions that scholars and historians have been able to come to based on those hints, point us in the direction of the stories that come down to us in the Eddas of Norse mythology. Again, it would be wrong to say that the Anglo-Saxons had the exact same beliefs as their Norse cousins. There's no evidence of that. But we can see similarities in things like a possible belief in multiple worlds involving a mythical tree that tied them together. In the Eddas, Yggdrasil, the World-Tree, connected the nine worlds of the gods, elves, dwarves, and the underworld, with humans placed in the middle of it all. The name Midgard, the realm of humans in Norse myth, is in fact directly correlated to the term "Middle-earth" that J.R.R. Tolkien used in his mythological universe. 

One of the better clues we have tying Anglo-Saxon myth to some kind of shared origin with Norse myth is the centrality of a concept called Wyrd. Very roughly speaking, Wyrd correlates to the idea of fate, and one's fate is spun out by three women known as the Norns in Norse myth. The Norns appeared to have had an equivalent in Anglo-Saxon myth; I'll return to them in a bit. But one thing we can know from their seeming prominence in the Anglo-Saxon belief system is that these were very fatalistic people. 

And rightly so. I don't think it's by accident that we don't have a lot of fanciful yarns coming down to us from any branch of Germanic mythology. Most of the stories deal with struggle and survival. Think, for example, of how the Greeks had the luxury of creating a complex and fascinating story about why the seasons change. (Looking at you, Hades and Persephone.) The Northern European pagans, in contrast, would only know that a long, cold winter lay ahead, and they'd be too busy storing up their barns and praying to the gods to help them survive to be able to take the time to ponder about why the seasons changed. They were just painfully aware that they did change, and that they had to act accordingly. A softer Mediterranean climate, in general, made for softer people who could afford to indulge in some luxuries. In Northern Europe, the weather and terrain were far more rugged, and by extension, so were its inhabitants. It's sort of like when Hiccup tells you in How to Train Your Dragon that the people of his Viking village of Berk, where it snows nine months out of the year and hails the other three, are as tough and tasteless as the food they eat. These were no-nonsense, no-frills people. There was a reason they so highly regarded values like honor, courage, bravery, and hard work: That's how you survived.    

This very pragmatic outlook on the world could also explain why we also don't know a lot about the Anglo-Saxons' views on the afterlife: It's possible that they just didn't spend a lot of time philosophizing about it. What we've been able to piece together is that there probably was some kind of afterworld where everyone could go if they wanted -- it seems you might have had the option to decide not to make the journey there -- and that this place was either called Hell or was overseen by a goddess of the same name. This has nothing to do with the Christian place of eternal torment. (Guess where the Christians got the name from?) It could have more in common with the Jewish concept of Sheol, a shadowy, subterranean realm of darkness, neither good nor bad, where all spirits went. Yet there are also hints that the Anglo-Saxon Hell wasn't a joyless place of shadowy gloom. It might have been seen as a place of peaceful rest, where there was no more need of fighting, no more violence or hunger or worry, and where you'd be reunited with your loved ones. Doesn't sound so bad, right? Not quite the white shores and a far green country under a swift sunrise that Gandalf spoke of in The Return of the King, but not so bad, either. 

But how do bad people get punished? 

Meh, don't we have enough to worry about just in this world? Isn't this life quite often hell enough? And anyway, who's to say that we don't have the potential to learn lessons and grow even in the afterlife? 

And anyway, the Anglo-Saxon people, like all of their Germanic kin, would have held fast to the belief that this life, in the here and now, is where you placed your focus and your efforts. You didn't pray for some ticket to heaven and then ignore the needs of the world you lived in. You made your mark and did your work now. Here is where you made changes for the better. Here is where you put in the hard work to leave a legacy that wasn't just about you, but about leaving behind something better for those who came after you. If you could undertake some heroic exploits that would inspire others to greatness for generations to come, all the better. The afterlife would sort itself out however it was going to. That was how Wyrd worked, and that concept no doubt had a tremendous influence in how the Germanic peoples shaped their lives. You controlled what you could and left the rest to fate. 

It's worth noting that there's no evidence of an equivalent idea of the Elysian Fields in Anglo-Saxon myth. In the Norse stories, the Elysian Fields were a paradisical place where warriors, heroes, and others favored by the gods would go when they died. Maybe an equivalent concept did exist for the Anglo-Saxons, but if it did, it's been lost to history. There is evidence of belief in a place called Neorxnawang, but this appears to be simply an Anglo-Saxon description of the Christian heaven. That's a concept the Anglo-Saxons would have had to contend with, after all, once their island-nation was colonized and converted by the Christians. And in a way, you could say that the idea of Neorxnawang eventually won out, inasmuch as the old pagan ways eventually died out at the hands of Christianity.   

Now let's take a look at the Anglo-Saxon deities. These are the ones I've read about. I'm sure that it's not an exhaustive list. We probably don't even know how many Anglo-Saxon gods there were in the first place. 

I should also note that there's an interesting parallel between the Anglo-Saxon deities and their Norse cousins in that there are two classes of gods: the Ese and the Wen, roughly equivalent to the Æsir and the Vanir. In Norse myth, the Æsir are generally more concerned with strength, valor, order, and human affairs, while the Vanir focus more on things like fertility, prosperity, and the natural world. The same general division occurs in the Anglo-Saxon pantheon.  

Let's dig in, starting at the top.

The Wyrde. These are the Anglo-Saxon Fates, the sisters who spun out, allotted, and cut the threads of all our lives. Their Anglo-Saxon names are Spinel, Metten, and Deaþ, though the same concept reaches across cultures, all the way back to the Moirai -- Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos -- of Greek mythology. I list them first because of their fearsome power. They even controlled the fates of the gods themselves. They deserve a more in-depth examination, as does the Anglo-Saxon concept of Wyrd associated with them. Look for that in a future installment.

Sunne. The sun goddess, in whose honor we have the name Sunday. It was a revelation to me, someone who's long been fascinated with the Sacred Feminine, to know that Germanic pagans worshiped a feminine solar deity. In the vast majority of the world's traditions, the sun is represented by a male deity and the moon by a female one. More than simply representing "greater" and "lesser" lights according to their corresponding human sexes -- and make of that what you will in terms of what it might say about the cultures those ideas came from -- the concept of a male sun and female moon is also supported by the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang, which correlates yin qualities with femininity and yang with masculinity. Think dark, cool, and hidden versus light, hot, and exposed and penetrating. The symbolism is pretty straightforward when you get down to it. So for the male and female roles to be switched around for sun and moon always feels delightfully subversive, inasmuch as it turns expectations on their head and forces us to place the feminine in a higher and more glorified role -- which is always a good thing in my book. In fact, one of the things I always admired about Japan's animistic Shinto tradition is that its solar deity, who is also its primary deity, is the beaiutiful goddess Amaterasu. 

Mona. Sunne's brother, the moon god, for whom Monday is named. For the Germanic people, as with many ancient people, the moon was used to measure the passage of time in terms longer than a single day. That's why our word month also shares its roots with the word moon

Eorðe. That ð symbol is a representation of a voiced "th" sound, as in mother and brother. Once you realize that, just sound the word out and you'll immediately see the identity of this deity: Earth. This goddess may have had different names in different regions. The names Erce, Neorðu, and Nerþum (the þ symbol represents a soft "th," as in think and thank) are also attested in surviving documents, and they all appear to refer to the same Earth-mother concept.

Woden. Here's the big guy, the one known as Odin in Norse mythology. Woden is the wandering hermit, the seeker of knowledge and wisdom, the one who slips between worlds with ease, who frequents the liminal spaces, who guides the dead, and much more. Like his Nordic counterpart, he's a very complex figure -- one that I think has been somewhat sanitized in modern paganism. Look no further than his name, which stems from the Old English wod, which means "fury" or "madness." If you're coming from an Abrahamic tradition, you might be taken aback to realize that this deity contains elements of what we could consider both "good" and "bad" characteristics. He can be an inspirational leader, but he's also someone you probably don't want to turn your back on. I'll go into more detail on Woden in another installment. 

Woden, notably, also gives us the name for Wednesday, from the Old English Wodnesdæg ("Woden's Day").   

Þunor. That's "Thunor" in Modern English spelling, In Norse myth, he's Thor, the god of thunder. In Anglo-Saxon myth, he's the god of the common people, the one who protects both humans and the other gods. For the people, he's an uncomplicated, straightforward deity who can be relied on to see to their everyday concerns. For the gods, he preserves the cosmic order by doing battle against the giants who would throw the universe back into its primordial state of chaos. Little wonder that his legendary hammer serves as a popular symbol of Germanic paganism. 

Þunor, of course, lends his name to Thursday.  

Tiw. The god of war, whose counterpart in Norse myth is Tyr. He's the deity of law and order, meaning he's concerned not only with glory and victory in battle but also with maintaining harmony among the people. If you don't want your civilization to collapse, this is the guy to call on.

Tiw gives us the name for Tuesday.  

Frige. Woden's wife is associated with many things: wisdom, love, marriage, motherhood, home and hearth, and peacemaking. She's also said to be able to see the future, an association that has linked her with fate and, by extension, the Wyrde. 

From Frige we get the name for Friday.  

Freo. Not to be confused with Frige, Freo apparently played a small role in Anglo-Saxon myth. We only have one reference to her, an indirect one at that, in Beowulf. She's the equivalent of the Norse Freyja, who's associated with everything from beauty, sex, and war to magic and wealth. It's clear that the Anglo-Saxons knew of her, but why she wasn't a more prominent part of their pantheon is something we may never know.

Eostre. This goddess appears to be unique to the Anglo-Saxon pantheon. She's the goddess of springtime and the dawn, symbolic of new life and new beginnings. And yes, the Easter holiday takes its name from her. What we know of her comes mostly from the Venerable Bede, a Christian monk who in the eighth century recorded his observations of the Anglo-Saxon people in his book The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. From him, we know that she must have been very important to the people who worshiped her. An entire month of the Anglo-Saxon lunar calendar, Eostremonað, was named after her, and feasts in her honor corresponded with springtime activities like sowing the fields and tending to the farm animals. It stands to reason that she'd be a dearly beloved deity, for once her month rolled around, the people could be assured that the long, hard, cold winter was definitively over at last and that they'd survived the worst of the weather. Now they could breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy the warm months ahead.

In the 19th century, Jacob Grimm made a case that Eostre served as evidence of a similar goddess called Ostara who would have been worshiped on the European continent. This, however, is pure conjecture, and even though eclectic paganism has named one of the turnings of the Wheel of the Year "Ostara," there's simply no evidence that she ever existed as an object of worship anywhere. Eostre, however, that's a different story entirely. 

Sædere. An argricultural god about whom we know very little.

Hreðe. Here's a complicated figure. Bede tells us that this goddess had a month named after her, just like Eostre did -- in this case, Hreðmonað, which would roughly line up with March on our calendar. Her name could derive from the Old English hreð, meaning "triumph," "honor," or "glory," which would make her a goddess of some kind of victory -- whether victory in battle or of something else is unclear. But her name could also derive from the word hreðe, which means "cruel." Would the Anglo-Saxons have recognized a deity associated with cruelty? If so, maybe it's a reference to the time of year she represented, when the weather could be cruel -- teasing people with nice temperatures one day, only to plunge back into the cold and the last vestiges of winter the next. By the same token, if her name derives from hreð, without the final "e," then maybe her victory represented victory over winter. Again, though, we just don't know.    

Beowa. A god of grains and agriculture. His name comes from the Old English beoþ, meaning "barley." It's possible that this deity inspired the later legendary figure John Barleycorn, the personification of the grains that are cut down, crushed, ground, and "bled" to give us beer and whiskey. Those who enjoy their alcoholic libations might therefore like to honor this particular deity.

Hell. Quite simply, the goddess who oversees the realm of the dead.

Ing. It's possible that this deity was once synonymous with the Norse god Freyr, twin brother of Frejya. In Anglo-Saxon myth, he's primarily associated with male virility. Images of him tend to depict him with an erect penis. So you can call your doctor and get some Viagra, or you can just take your chances and pray to Ing and, well, see what comes up.

Seaxneat. Unique to the Anglo-Saxon pantheon, Seaxneat was considered the national god of the Saxon people. Little is known about him, save that his name means "sword-companion," which tells you a lot about the priorities of the Saxon people, and that the kings of Essex claimed a direct lineage from him -- much in the same way that the emperor of Japan was once considered a descendant of the high Shinto goddess Amaterasu. 

Weland. Forger of weapons, rings, and all things metal. He's the blacksmith of the gods. He even forged Beowulf's chain mail. Quite an honor.

Neorð. A god of commerce, particularly of sea commerce. 

Wada. He oversees the world's waterways, helping people to cross over the liminal space of the seas from life to death. A good deity for those who work on or live near the water.

Hama. The watchman of the gods. Somebody's gotta do it. 

Hengest and Horsa. These are semi-legendary figures -- their names literally translate to "stallion" and "horse" -- who were said to have led the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes on their invasion of Britain. Thomas Jefferson wanted to feature them on the Great Seal of the United States as symbols of the brave people from whom he believed the Americans descended.  

The Modru. A group of female ancestral deities who, according to Bede, were worshiped on the day before Yule, or the winter solstice. We don't know what the service dedicated to them, known as Modraniht, looked like, but we do know that the veneration of ancestral goddesses was in keeping with other pagan Germanic people's traditions that involved honoring the disir, a collection of female spirits, at a winter festival called the Disablot. Given that the Norns and the Valkyries, both associated with fate, were part of the Disablot observance, it's possible that the purpose of these festivals was to curry good fortune from the women who held the destiny of so many in their hands. 

The Anglo-Saxon Modraniht could have been celebrated when it was as a symbolic way of observing the connection between the birth of the new year and the power of women to give birth and renew life. But this is, alas, all speculation.  

Helið. Helið was one of the reasons I ended up going as far down this Anglo-Saxon rabbit hole as I have. As I often do, I was surfing the Web one day looking for information to fill my head with. In this case, I was curious as to what pagan deities were considered healers -- something I'm always on the lookout for, considering nothing has improved my terrible health in years, and if I can find a deity who's willing to help, well, count me in. I landed on some information regarding the Norse goddess Eir, whose primary role is to heal. But I wasn't really interested in going down the Norse pagan path, so I poked around to see if she might have had an equivalent in Anglo-Saxon. Turns out she doesn't. But, I did eventually stumble across Helið, who appears to have been a deity worshiped locally in the vicinity of what's now Cerne Abbey in Dorset, potentially at the site of a well, known as the Silver Well, that later came to be associated with Augustine of Coventry (not that Augustine, but close enough) but appears to have existed long before he showed up. Augustine evidently destroyed an idol dedicated to Helið and forced the conversions of the local people. 

English poet John Leland wrote of Helið as being the Saxons' equivalent of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. 

For all the information we have about Helið, what we don't know is whether the deity was male or female. I've come across opinions from two Anglo-Saxon pagan reconstructionists who intuit that Helið is a goddess, and when I first read about Helið, I felt the same way. Maybe I'm biased toward female deities. Maybe I just want Helið to be a woman. But at the same time, Eir the healer is feminine, and so is Brigid of Celtic lore. And I think of healing and nurturing as feminine qualities. So I'm also going to say Helið is a goddess, until somebody can come along to prove me wrong.    

Now, how we go about worshiping any of these deities is largely up to us, since we have very little idea of what the original pagans' rituals and rites would have looked like. Reconstructionists do offer suggestions for what your altar should look like and where you should place it -- preferably a part of your house that you frequent, with a liminal space like a hallway or a corner serving as an ideal spot -- but the most important thing is to cultivate a practice that's respectful toward the gods and to do it consistently and sincerely. But before anything else, build relationships. Just talk to the gods and get to know them first. Only then should you think about deepening your practice. 

Similar to what we see happening on other pagan paths -- eclectic and reconstructionist alike -- we're encouraged to make offerings of food and drink to the gods. We don't do this to get into their good graces, and after all it's not as if they need what we offer them. The point is more to build a sense of reciprocity and trust, and to show that you're willing to sacrifice something that you could otherwise be using to feed yourself or your family. After all, if you ask the gods for something, you ought to at least give them something for their troubles.  

Will you ever actually hear from your deities? That's anyone's guess. But even if all you ever do is dedicate a time every day to sit down and talk to them and give them an offering and a little thanks and praise -- because what deity doesn't like a little ego-stroking? -- you may feel yourself drawing closer to them without ever actually experiencing anything in return. The real point, after all, is the cultivation of the relationship, not just to get stuff. 

It's good to remember, too, that on this path we don't just honor the gods. We also remember our ancestors. That can be hard for some people to do, especially if they don't have great relationships with their families. But the point is not to thoughtlessly and mechanically praise people who weren't nice to you just because they were your parents or uncles or aunts. The point is more to remember where we came from. It's to bear in mind that if not for the choices people made decades, even centuries ago, we wouldn't be here now. And it's for that, more than anything else, that we give thanks. If you can't find it in your heart to give thanks to some rotten people you had the bad luck of being related to -- and believe me, I get that -- you can always put your imagination to work to think in a more general sense about what your ancestors hundreds of years ago might have been like. You can think about what challenges they faced, what sacrifices they made, what good they did for the people they loved. I think doing that can take us a long way.  

One of the things that really tickled me when I delved deeper into my exploration of these Germanic traditions is how filled they are not just with interesting and colorful deities, but also with mythical creatures of all shapes and sizes, from giants and pucas to elves and dwarves. The ones that really caught my imagination were the wights. We all have house wights, as it turns out. (Who knew?) If we ply them with offerings, they'll help take care of our homes and add to their joy. (It seems they like oatmeal and porridge, but they also won't turn down a nip of mead or beer.) If we don't, they might make us think we have poltergeists, because little things will start to turn up missing. Car keys not where you thought you left them? Blame an unhappy wight. If you're lazy and keep your house a mess, don't expect them to be happy, or to help you. But if you meet them halfway and leave them a little bit of food or good cheer, who knows what could happen?  

Legends like these just go to show you that these traditions came from a more enchanted time, a time when magic still flourished in the world. It's those treasured traditions that Tolkien tapped into when he created his mythical world, and I'm sure that my love for Tolkien has only increased my fondness for these old pagan ways. 

But I'm pretty sure another reason I'm drawn to the ways of the old Viking folk is not that I'm anything like warrior material. Far from it. It's because they lived hard and rugged lives, and I can respect the long winters they endured, wondering if they were going to survive to see the snow melt in the spring. I can respect that their existence was shaped by concerns over sickness, invaders, getting killed by a wild animal. These people had none of our creature comforts, and community was important to them because they relied on the goodwill of friends, neighbors, and family just to survive. 

I'm not saying my life is nearly as hard as theirs were, but I can relate to their struggles because I feel like I'm hanging on by a thread most days. I feel miserable, I can't do lots of the things I want to do because of it, and I live in almost constant anxiety about what will happen if my health suddenly gets worse. How will I provide for my family? What can I do to get better so I can face every day and push on? That's where a teeth-gritting determination comes in. It's not the same kind of bravery and resolve that the Anglo-Saxons needed to cultivate, but the same principle holds: You have to learn how to hang on even when all the odds, and the fates, seem stacked against you. 

Sometimes life makes us turn into those tough, tasteless people from Berk. And if I can do nothing else, at least maybe I can take some inspiration from those folks who found a way to push forward until they couldn't anymore. 

So bring it on, Wyrde sisters. Give me your best shot. Let's see how this goes.  

[WC: 5,160 / TWC: 39,191]

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