Anglo-Saxon paganism

Anglo-Saxon paganism

Anglo-Saxon paganism refers to the Migration Period religion practiced by the English in 5th to 7th century England. As such it is a form of Germanic paganism.

Anglo-Saxon paganism was a polytheistic religion, revolving around a pantheon centred on the god Woden. Due to the early Christianizaton of England, it is sparsely attested, and much more difficult to reconstruct than Norse paganism. Our main sources of evidence are toponymy, archaeology (especially burials such as the one at Sutton Hoo) besides sparse literary testimonies such as Bede's, and what can be glimpsed from surviving works of Anglo-Saxon poetry such as "Beowulf".

Origins and History

The Anglo-Saxons, traditionally (according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) composed of tribes of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, arrived in Britain from southern Denmark, the Netherlands and northern Germany. It is from these people that the modern English language (Englisc) derives.


The chief literary source is Bede, a Christian monk who wrote of the old English pagan calendar in his "De Temporum Ratione". Only a little Old English poetry has survived, and all of it has had Christian redactors. The epic poem "Beowulf" is an important source of Anglo-Saxon pagan poetry and history, but it is clearly addressed to a Christian audience, containing numerous references to the Christian God, and using Christian phrasing and metaphor. The monster Grendel, for example, is described as a descendant of the biblical Cain.

The only fragment of poetry dating to the pagan era that has not undergone redaction by Christian editors is the Finnsburgh Fragment. However, references to Anglo-Saxon paganism have survived to varying extents such as in various references found in the "Nine Herbs Charm", a mention of Woden in "Maxims I" of the "Exeter Book", and a reference to Woden as the inventor of the runic alphabet in "Solomon and Saturn".


The Anglo-Saxons may have believed in Wyrd (c.f. German "werden"), usually translated as "fate," although the modern term fate does little justice to the true meaning of wyrd. They believed in supernatural creatures such as elves, dwarves and giants ("Etins") who often brought harm to men. However, Anglo-Saxon words containing the element "elf" were often translations of Greek or Latin terms (for example, a "wæterelf" for "nymph").

Being of Germanic ancestry, the Anglo-Saxons worshiped the same gods as the Norse and other Germanic people. The names vary slightly due to the differences in language among the Germanic people. For example, Þunor of the Anglo-Saxons was the same deity as Thor of the Norse and Donar of the Germans. Likewise, Woden of the Anglo-Saxons is the same as Óðinn among the Norse and Wodan of the Germans.


The polytheistic religious ideas of the Anglo-Saxons made allowance for the worship of many gods. The Anglo Saxons had temples that housed idols of their gods as well as an altar. Pope Gregory instructed Augustine to 'destroy the idols but use their houses for Christian worship'Fact|date=March 2008.

The Ése

The Ése correspond to the Norse Æsir.

Woden, the leader of the Wild Hunt and the one who carries off the dead, is one of the chief gods of the Angles and Saxons before the Christian era. He was held to be the ancestor of Hengist and Horsa, two legendary figures from early English history and most of the early Anglo-Saxon kings claimed descent from Woden. He gives us the modern Wednesday ("Woden's day").

Thunor, (Anglo-Saxon: Þunor) is the god of thunder, who rules the storms and sky. He also protects mankind from the giants. He was the god of the common people within the heathen community. His name gives rise to the modern Thursday.

Fríge is the goddess of love, and is the wife of Woden. She gives us the modern Friday.

Tiw is the god of warfare and battle, and gives us Tuesday. There is some speculation that he is a sky-god figure and formerly the chief god, displaced over the years by Woden.

Divine figures and heroes

Hengest and Horsa, who are named in historical sources as leaders of the earliest Anglo-Saxon incursions in the south, may also have been or acquired deific status. The name Hengest means "stallion" and Horsa means "horse"; the horse in the Anglo-Saxon mythos is a potent and significant symbol.

Beowulf, though not Anglo-Saxon himself, was possibly a popular hero as he is the main character of the Old English epic poem which describes his heroic deeds in old Scandinavia, such as the slaying of the creature Grendel and its mother in Denmark, and of him saving his Geatish subjects from a great dragon terrorising the land. This story may have come from the Wuffing dynasty of East Anglia, who originated in the areas mentioned.

Weyland, Wayland, or Welund — a mythic smith. Originally, he was an elfish being, a shape changer like his wife, a swan maiden and Valkyrie. His picture adorns the Franks Casket, an Anglo-Saxon royal hoard box and was meant there to refer to wealth and partnership. []

Eostre, according to Bede, was a Goddess whose feast was celebrated in Spring. Bede asserts that the current Christian festival of Easter took its name from the Goddess's feast in Eostur-monath (April/Aprilis).

Hretha is a goddess mentioned by Bede, whose name meant "glory".


*Blót:November in Old English was known as "blótmónað", as this passage points out:::"Se mónaþ is nemned on Léden Novembris, 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."::"This month is called Novembris in Latin, and in our language the month of sacrifice, because our forefathers, when they were heathens, always sacrificed in this month, that is, that they took and devoted to their idols the cattle which they wished to offer." ( [] trans. Joseph Bosworth):The English word "bless" ultimately derives from Proto-Germanic "*blothisojan" (meaning "to smear with blood"), which denotes the sacrificial aspect of the term.

*Symbel:A ritual drinking feast in which mystical revelation was achieved through drinking alcohol, usually mead. This mystical revelation is typically associated with divination, and the quest for good fortune by alignment with the forces of destiny, the wyrd. The participants at symbel other than the drinkers themselves were the "symbelgifa", the giver of the symbel or host, the "scop" or poet (the entertainment), the "alekeeper" (the server of the ale), and the " þyle" who was charged with keeping order (to a greater or lesser extent).

Christian prohibitions of magic and other practices

Early Christian prohibitions on the Anglo-Saxon practice of magic (see seid and völva) in all its shapes and forms are particularly revealing of how strong a belief in the supernatural was held, and are the primary source for knowledge of Anglo-Saxon paganism:

"We enjoin, that every priest zealously promote Christianity, and totally extinguish every heathenism; and forbid well worshipings, and necromancies, and divinations, and enchantments, and man worshipings, and the vain practices which are carried on with various spells, and with "frithsplots", and with elders, and also with various other trees, and with stones, and with many various delusions, with which men do much of what they should not. — And we enjoin, that every Christian man zealously accustom his children to Christianity, and teach them the Paternoster and the Creed. And we enjoin, that on feast days heathen songs and devil's games be abstained from.'" (ecclesiastical canons of King Edgar, AD 959) [ Thorpe, Benjamin, "Monumenta Ecclesiastica", London (1840), ii, p. 249, cited after Margaret Alice Murray, "The Witch-Cult in Western Europe" (1921) [] ]

A magic item that survived destruction by the clerics is the Franks Casket, an Anglo-Saxon royal hoard box with runic inscriptions (whalebone, early 7th century). It bears scenes of Roman and Germanic background as well as a picture of the Magi adoring Christ. These carvings along with runic inscriptions were meant to influence the fate, O.E. "wyrd", of its owner, a warrior king. The image of the “Holy three Kings” may have saved the box from purgatory.

It is possible to conclude from the foregoing that magical practice was rife, and that water, tree and stone worship in various forms were also practiced by the Anglo-Saxons. Interesting also is the mention of "frithspottum", relating as it does to the core concept of frith, ostensibly meaning "peace" but having much deeper significance and a far broader spread of implications.

Place names

Many place names such as Woodway House, Wansdyke, Thundersley and Frigedene are named after the old gods of the English people.


Transition to Christianity took place gradually, over the course of the 7th century, influenced on one side by Celtic Christianity and the Irish mission, on the other by Roman Catholicism introduced to England by Augustine of Canterbury in 579. The last pagan Anglo-Saxon king, Cædwalla of Wessex, died in 689, but paganism among the rural population, as in other Germanic lands, didn't so much die out as gradually blend into folklore.

Modern Influence

The Germanic gods have affected elements of everyday Western life in most countries that speak Germanic languages. An example is some of the names of the days of the week. The days of the week were named after Roman gods in Latin (named after "Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn"); however, the names for Tuesday through Friday were replaced with Germanic versions of the Roman gods. In English, Saturn was not replaced. Saturday is named after the Sabbath in German, and is called "washing day" in Scandinavia. Sunday and Monday are named after the Sun (or "Sunne" in Old English) and the Moon ("Mōna" in Old English).


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