Wuffacynn

Heathen Polytheism

English Heathenry - Background & History                    

A good starting place, maybe, would be to look at the writings of the early Church. Papal letters, early cannon law, and generally speaking any early commentary can provide us with an insight, even though this evidence can be remarkably sketchy. I believe that with caution we can consider some of these writings as accurate, obviously some of the terminology and Christian bias will not be to our liking and I will deal with this at the time of quote.

Generally speaking it was in the interest of the early church to report accurately in order for its own propaganda and resultant cannon law to counter and destroy any non Christian religious practice that threatened the new religions growth and monopoly over Kings and peoples.

I have to point out that I personally do have a problem with the sermons and writings of some of the early Bishops. Sermons were written and preached to maintain the Churches hold over the populace and are very much a part of the churches propaganda machinery; they were used to create a righteous church and an unrighteous older religion, due to Christianity’s monotheistic stance false evidence was provided to discredit the divinity of any other Gods/Goddesses, as no monotheist religion was or is still able to acknowledge the existence of any other God except their own respective divinity. These sermons were delivered frequently and venomously from Bishops and Priests across the country to enhance and retain the churches new found power base. Unfortunately in this day and age there are still those who misguidedly see these texts as inviolate commentary, I do not.

All of this said, the writings of the early Church in these lands serve us well today in piecing together a glimpse of pre-Christian religious practice, this can not be disputed. It is interpretation that creates diversity as these writings can only provide a minimal grasp of Anglo-Saxon pre Christian religion. We must remember however that although it is safe to assume that historically there would have been differences of opinion and even conflict and power struggles within factions of the early church; and this may affect and colour some of this commentary. Given the basics of humanity this is surely inevitable.

There are other sources both earlier and later and these can vary in style from commentary through to prose and poetry. They all provide a vista of the period and they all contribute toward filling in the gaps, yet the confusion is never truly dispersed as some complement each other and some contradict, this can prove to be both the joy and the quandary of the journey.

We must look to all of these other sources to create a more in depth picture and put meat on the bone. Yet still our picture is not complete, and again the diversity of interpretation and how we fill in the gaps leads to a tremendous richness of practice and style within Heathenry today, which quite possibly could reflect the richness and diversity of former times. With all of this on board let us push on and look at some of the evidence.

 The Evidence

Before Christian commentary we can go all the way back to Julius Caesar for a written glimpse of the early Germanic religion. In his Commentarii de Bello Gallico he gives a third person account of his nine years of war in Gaul. Within its pages we find a brief reference to the religion of the German peoples. There is great debate in the world of scholars as to the accuracy of this statement, I feel this quote is worthy of note due to its antiquity. Quite possibly this is the earliest known comment or observation of early Germanic religion:-

“The Germans differ much from these usages, for they have neither Druids to preside over sacred offices, nor do they pay great regard to sacrifices. They rank in the number of the gods those alone whom they behold, and by whose instrumentality they are obviously benefited, namely, the sun, fire, and the moon, they have not heard of other deities even by report.”

This quote at face value is, in parts very much at odds with Tacitus writing approximately 160 years later. Like the works of Tacitus it is likely to contain a grain of truth and a lot of chaff. If we then look at this quote deeper, we see a fragment of a pagan faith that is not very different from some neo pagan traditions of the current age with its mention of a deified Sun and Moon, and even the deification of fire would not be at odds with many of today’s Pagans. It is safe to assume that “Druids” equates to priests; therefore if we trust this quote Caesar is advising that the religion of the Germanic tribes, at this time, was without a priesthood, or it could have been that the priesthood did not equate with his understanding, given that the Roman Paganisms of the day where given over to very structured priesthoods and hierarchies. The term druid could have been used to distinguish them from the common perception of Roman Priesthoods.

This statement may appear to provide comfort with its familiarity to some modern Pagan practice, yet, no one statement can stand alone, we also have to examine the background of the comment, in this case the greater work; and also try and draw comparisons to corroborate what has been said.

Caesar was involved in a very long war against the Gauls (modern day France), he records the progress of his successive military campaigns during this period; part of the work details his incursions into our own country, and into the area considered to be the lands of some of the Germanic tribes.

As well as military detail we are provided with background about the flora, fauna, peoples and customs encountered, bias toward Rome is to the for throughout this tome; and as history is written by the victors, this is hardly surprising. Much of this information does not stand up to scrutiny by today’s scholars and academics. Likewise, the total accuracy of our examined statement can not be vouched for; then again, neither can its complete fraudulence, quite possibly the reality is woven somewhere in the middle.

Tacitus, writing in the 1st Century CE, attempts to gives us an early glimpse of the lives and culture of the Germanic tribes who were the forefathers of the peoples that later settled in these lands. Although Tacitus is worthy of note we must remember that there is a political motivation and edge to his writings, it is wise to be mindful of this when studying his works.

“De Origine et situ Germanorum” more popularly known as The Germania was written by Tacitus in approximately 98CE to enlighten the Roman peoples about the Germanic tribes that lay outside of the Empire to the north. We don’t know how this work was sourced, from what we know of his life we do not believe Tacitus ever travelled out of the empire into these territories. It is possible his primary sources were those who traded with these peoples and also those sent as ambassadors to the tribes. Visiting dignitaries to Rome, whether as freemen or hostages could also have provided source information. All of the aforementioned would have some knowledge of the tribes and their customs; Tacitus was in a position to gather information about these peoples and their neighbours, both close by and more distant, although the preciseness of any information reported third hand has to be treated very cautiously. In the light of this I believe it safe to assume that here we have Tacitus as collator and assimilator rather than a reporting witness. So once again we are looking for the grain that is truth in order to distinguish it from the chaff of presented material.

As Tacitus held considerable status it would have been easy for him to glean the information and put together this work, he was a great orator and politician, and was also an accomplished writer and commentator.

He knew how to use his writing to political advantage or to shame what he disliked and despised about Roman society. It is certainly not beyond the bounds of probability that “The Germania” had infused into it, veiled digs and pokes against the mainstream of Roman society of the day.

All this said, Tacitus is still one of the few sources we have of this period. So what does he tell us about the very early Common Era Germanic religion, not a great deal, is the succinct answer yet it does provide a possible glimpse of the religion of this period; the religion that would have evolved into the later Heathen religion of our Anglo-Saxon Forefathers.

In what appears to be the tradition of Roman commentators, Tacitus calls the Germanic Gods by what he considers to be their Roman equivalent or counter part:-

“Above all other Gods they worship Mercury, and count it no sin, on certain feast days to include human victims in the sacrifice offered to him. Hercules and Mars they appease by offerings of animals, in accordance with ordinary civilised custom”

This is an early reference relating to religious custom/practice in The Germania, it is possible that Mercury could equate with Woden or a Woden like figure. Likewise Hercules and Mars could equate to Thor and Tiw, or their forerunners. They could have been named thus to strike a chord with a roman readership. The fact that Tacitus, names several Gods suggests evidence that a Polytheist religious culture existed at this time among the early Germanic tribes.

We are advised sacrifices were made and included human sacrifice, it is right that we look at this and try to gain a deeper perspective of this statement. All of the religions of the ancient world practiced sacrifice to their Gods (Including Judaism), this is fact, and many practiced human sacrifice as well, some time during their early history.

Let us then consider the mention of human sacrifice. It is my opinion that if human sacrifice was practiced at the feast there would be a greater archaeological bank of evidence to source and back this statement up. We know there have been finds of bodies in bogs, dating from the Bronze Age period; there is evidence of this from across Northern Europe. Most of these bodies display evidence of unnatural and ritual death. Whether these deaths formed part of some sacrificial ritual offering or were the result of criminal justice execution, we do not know.

We know that in Ireland where a different religious discipline was extant bog bodies have also been found. Here the commonly held assumption is that the religious practice of the time considered places associated with water to be sacred; the primary reason for this is that large number of votive offerings found in such places. In fact offerings have been found not just in bogs, but lakes, springs, and rivers. Again we can not be sure whether these Irish bodies were holy ritual offering or criminal ritual execution.

It would be wrong to be too definitive as, to date, the greater database of evidence does not exist, therefore caution should be exercised when examining text and drawing too definitive a conclusion.

There is another reference and detail of human sacrifice in chapter 39 of The Germania.

Tacitus then goes on to say:-

“Some of the Suebi sacrifice also to Isis. I do not know the origin or explanation of this foreign cult; but the goddess’s emblem, being made in the form of a light warship, itself proves that her worship came from abroad.  

Tacitus talks here of the worship of a Goddess, this could equate to any of the Matronalia of the later period. Although it is possible he misinterpreted her emblem.

The Northern Europeans depended on sea for both travel and food, and we know that in the later period offerings were definitely made to goddess’s of the seas in the hope of safe travel.

Nehalennia is a Goddess associated with the North Sea she is of Celtic/Germanic origin and appears, at one point in her history, to have been honoured by the Romans. A number of votive altars have been found dedicated to her, especially in the estuary of the river Scheldt near the village of Domburg in the Netherlands. Today these altars can be found in the museums at Middelburg and Leiden in the same country. Two more altars have been found in Cologne, Germany. All of these altars were dedicated to Nehalennia for safe passage on the seas, on one of the Domburg finds Nehalennia is pictured accompanied by a small dog, standing with one foot on a boat.

It could possibly be considered that the Goddess mentioned by Tacitus may be a forerunner of this great goddess. The boat as an emblem could be a sign of patronage of sea travel, rather than of a goddess coming from abroad. We will never know although I think this is worthy of thought and consideration.

The next portion of text worthy of scrutiny relates to places of worship:-

“The Germans do not think it in keeping with the divine majesty to confine gods within walls or to portray them in the likeness of any human countenance. Their holy places are woods and groves and they apply the names of deities to that hidden presence which is seen only by the eye of reverence.”

From this statement we see the first shade of Anglo-Saxon Heathenry as it could have been practiced in this country, we are led to believe that early Anglo-Saxon Heathens practiced their religion in groves and woods. Place names like Thundersley could possibly support this.

With respect to what is said regarding the Gods, not to “portray them in the likeness of any human countenance” sees echoes of Celtic Iron Age religious practice from around the same period, so this could be either observation or assumption based on knowledge of other peoples from the edge of empire.

We know that the likenesses of the Gods in the form of statues, was an important feature of the later period Heathenry, there is ample mention of the same by Christian commentators in both England and Northern Europe, and we shall consider this point later on.

Our next statement to consider like the previous one gives us a glimpse of later Heathenry:-

“There is nothing noteworthy about these tribes individually, but they share a common worship of Nerthus, or Mother Earth. They believe that she takes part in human affairs, riding in a chariot among her people. On an island of the sea stands an inviolate grove, in which, veiled with a cloth, is a chariot that none but the priest may touch. The priest can feel the presence of the goddess in this holy of holies, and attends her with deepest reverence as her chariot is drawn along by cows. Then follow days of rejoicing and merrymaking in every place that she condescends to visit and sojourn in. no one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every iron object is locked away. Then, and then only, are peace and quiet known and welcomed, until the goddess, when she has had enough of the society of men, is restored to her sacred precinct by the priest. After that, the chariot, vestments, and (believe it if you will) the goddess herself, are cleaned in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately drowned in the lake.

What first hits us with this quote is that Tacitus does not use the name of a Roman equivalent for this Goddess, the name of Nerthus is considered to be of Germanic origin. Although there is proof both archaeological and documented that supports the use of Wagons in religious practice, there are other factors to be considered. We are advised by Richard North in his book Heathen Gods in Old English Literature that Tacitus was a priest of the “Quindecemviri” one of whose duties was to wash the image of the Magna Mater in the river Almo annually on 27th March. The same Author also advises us that the wagon procession of Nerthus bears similarities to that of the Cybele in Rome. In no way should this be seen as an accusation of fiction against what Tacitus says here, this is purely background information about Tacitus that may influence him in his writing. Remember an open mind is always healthy, there again, so is an informed mind. We have other evidence to consider as there is plenty more material to be taken into account.

The famous miniature sun chariot found in the Trundholm moor Zealand, Denmark in 1902 is said to date from the Nordic Bronze Age, and could be considered as evidence of the use of wagons in ritual. There are also other finds of miniature wagons.

From Denmark, dating from the Viking period, we are aware of some high status female burials where the woman has been buried in a wagon, most obviously it could be assumed that the wagon held some importance as part of funerary custom, there again it could just have been a symbol of the deceased’s standing or status within their community.  

Also worth reading is an article by Borje Sanden that appeared in a Viking heritage magazine in 2002 published by Gotland University. In his article the author talks about a probable ritual track way found in the Rosaring area of Sweden that could equate with this particular observation by Tacitus. Sanden spends time comparing the topography of this landscape with this quote; he also takes into account the comparative sea levels to try and identify the “secluded lake.” Perhaps it is possible to assume, that if such a lake was found evidence of the aftermath of the ritual sacrifice of slaves into the water would, through archaeological research be evident. The one problem I have with Sandens work is that Tacitus advises us that the wagon of Nerthus progressed through the countryside stopping on her travels bringing a sense of holiday to all, she would then return to her sacred grove. Sanden has uncovered a trackway that runs between two fixed points, at one end there once stood a structure and the other end terminated at an area of cairns and mounds. Perhaps it is a case of watch this space.

From 14th century literature there is a story of a wagon progress in the Flateyjarbok, where we hear of the God Frey making an annual progress to farms in Sweden accompanied by a priestess. This story is very evidently written in the Christian era and biased accordingly. It could have been shadows of the former Heathen practice that influenced the writing of this story.

So we see that the evidence supports the use of ritual wagons in Germanic heathenry right up to the time of Christian conversion. Interestingly this custom, like so many, survived into the Christian era; although it was the relics of Saint Eric of Sweden that replaced the God Frey in the wagon, on the Saints day,18th May his relics would be placed in a wagon and taken to the fields to bless the growing corn. Saint Blaise is another Christian Saint associated with wagon processions.

There is evidence from across Pagan Europe that proffers information regarding the progresses of various divinities among their respective peoples in wagons or chariots.

Tacitus is one of the early commentators whose works are easily accessible and there are other relevant quotes to be found in The Germania, if what you’ve read here has whetted your appetite try and find a good translation and read it entire for your self.    

Now let us travel home to England. 

Before we move on we should be aware of the backdrop, the land was a very different place and was considered mystical, magical and even a dangerous place. The landscape during this period of our history was viewed as inhabited not only by humans but a whole host of entities, we hear of Dragons - both Drakes (winged) and Wyrms (wingless). Elves, who could either inflict illness and disease or cure. Nicor - Water Spirits- who could shape shift and would often take on human form. Ents, Giants who seemed to have a positive relationship with mankind whom, old folk lore and tales advise us were driven from the land by the coming of Christianity. and of course we have the Landwights. All of the aforementioned are but a few of entities seen and unseen that are to be found in the land we call home.

We are now ready to see what has been said about early English Heathenry. Christianity came to these lands firstly during the Roman period and then later on during the Anglo-Saxon period, and now our focus turns toward these Christian sources. Canon law dating to the 7th Century CE states:-

“If anyone makes an offering on trees or wells or stones or railings or anywhere except in the Church of God… This is sacrilege, that is, sacrifice to demons.”

This statement in its own right leads us to believe that veneration/religious observance was not confined to temples alone; we also see faint echoes of one of our earlier quotes from Tacitus.

The naming in this act of prohibition of specific places of veneration was deemed necessary by the early church, for if such practices did not have a strong and resistant following we would not see the church bothering to pursue recourse in such a focussed way. This one statement although valid can not stand alone. What other evidence presents?

Wells

We know that veneration at Springs and Wells pre dates the Anglo-Saxon period in England, quite possibly dating back to the early Iron Age, though it could even be earlier.

We are not sure how or why the Anglo-Saxons venerated at wells and springs, there is not a great deal of evidence to suggest they did. Yet its mention in Canon law strongly indicates that it was an entrenched part of Heathen religious practice with a strong enough following to cause discomfort to the early church. Maybe it could have something to do with the purity of the water, which is something we take for granted today. Well water would be naturally filtered and could possibly be the most reliable source of safely drinkable or usable water, making such wells or springs a valuable commodity. It could follow that the Landwights of such a place would be worthy of veneration.

As with the wagon processions in Sweden being taken over from the God Frey by the Christian Saint Eric, we see the veneration at wells in this country taken over by the early Church. By the 11th century Marian well shrines like those at Walsingham in Norfolk and Woolpit in Suffolk are popping up all over the country. The Christian Saints generally pop up both blessing and giving their names to Wells, perhaps this was as a result of the older religious customs refusal to go away leaving the church no option other than to take over the veneration, in the name of its own saints; all this in order to stamp out pagan practice.

As a point of interest, Tissington in Derbyshire was stopped from venerating its well at a date unknown to us today, it could possibly have been as a result of canon law. Yet in 1349 when the village escaped the Black Death, consensus and pressure of the villagers saw a reintroduction of well veneration, the church could not stop the practice so it adopted it in the name of the Christ and the Saints.

During the 16th and 17th century with a rise in popularity in this country of protestant based Christian faith, followed by the austerity of the Cromwellian years this practice went into a forced decline. There is no known date when the revival started that bought this, now church controlled custom, down to the modern day. There are still protestant sects of Christianity that oppose this practice due to its pagan routes.

Today Tissington is considered to be the first village to bring back this ancient veneration. Obviously wherever the practice has been reintroduced it is very much controlled by the Church. During 2007 at least 27 wells were blessed in and around Derbyshire, currently this practice is not only confined to this area, it has seen a creeping reintroduction into other parts of the country as a Christian custom.

Today we see pagans from different backgrounds honour wells, springs, and water courses, as part of their own religious discipline, one of the more well known centres of this pagan practice is the Chalice Well at Glastonbury, although there are many others whose reverence is more quietly celebrated, and providing the proper respects are observed this can never be a bad thing.

Trees

With regard to the honouring of trees, again our sources are limited. Before we consider these we must mention the magnificent world tree Yggdrasil from Heathen mythology. To some it is a mighty ash tree, to others it is a mighty yew tree. This magnificent tree of trees is said to support the whole heathen cosmos (dealt with later). The World tree concept seems to be a central tenet of Heathenry throughout the ages, so much so that it is totally ingrained into Heathen cosmology and as a result its historic authenticity is assured.

There are a number of recorded instances of great trees from Heathen northern Europe worth noting. We are advised by Adam of Bremen in his work Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclessiae Pontificum that in the Heathen temple enclosure at Gamla Uppsala Sweden there stood a great tree:-

Near that Temple is a very large tree with widespread branches which are always green both in winter and summer.

We do not know what type of tree this was, possibly a yew given the description. We also do not know what became of this tree. It is possible it was cut down by early Christian missionaries, there again it could have just died or have been bought down by a storm, in truth we don’t know, we are also advised by the same source that there was a grove of trees in the temple enclosure.

We do know that Christian missionaries and prominent Christians desecrated a number of sacred sites including the felling of many sacred trees across northern Europe, these included Donars (Thors) Oak near Fritzlar in Hesse, cut down by Bonniface in 723; and the great Irminsul cut down by Charlemagne in 772, though whether the later was a tree or some form of great pillar is the centre of much debate.

The Irminsul or sacred pillar is a concept familiar with northern European Heathenry, there is evidence of sacred pillars in Wessex from Saint Aldhelm, and we will look at this quote as it is quite descriptive and gives us a good idea as to what these pillars looked like. Interestingly we have evidence of the use of “sacred pillars” from the religion of the Celtic Iron Age. Archaeological finds come from Celtic Gaul to substantiate this, and from Ireland we have carved standing stones that could have served a similar purpose. As I have already stated we are not quite sure what the great Irminsul was that was cut down by Charlemagne, some believe it was a great tree some believe it was a great carved pillar, like so much about the pre-Christian pagan religions we will never truly know, unless, of course, the archaeology of the future comes up with something. There is evidence of Irminsul pillars from across Germany some made of wood and some of stone, one former Irminsul is said to have been incorporated into the building of a church at Hildesheim.

Irminsul=  sul----pillar… irmin----obscure german God, very possibly a forerunner of the God Tiw

Within these lands today we are captivated by ancient trees whether they are oak, yew or any other tree for that matter. Ancient trees draw us to them, we can stand in their shade in awe of their great age, silent wisdom and timeless witness, we revere and honour as if by instinct. Why the Germanic peoples honoured trees we are not accurately sure, it could be that all trees were seen as aspects of the world tree or it could perhaps more simply be that life in this period of our history was much more closely entwined with the natural world, it was important to have a good supply of healthy woodland for the building of houses, stockades, and boats. Great old trees are like the grandfathers and grandmothers of the forest, and like all grandparents they are worthy of respect.

So we know from European evidence the reverence that was accorded to certain trees, and this custom appears to have been found right across the continent, resultantly it would seem logical to assume that tree veneration would cross the sea and form part of the early English Heathenry. It is highly probable the indigenous population in these lands embraced tree veneration long before the Anglo-Saxons arrived.

As with well veneration we are starting to see the veneration of great trees returning to our pagan culture.

 

Stones and Railings

With regard to stones and railings, these are perhaps a little more thought provoking to interpret. Looking to customs that have been adopted by the church maybe we should consider the practice of “beating the bounds”.

As a Christian custom this is where boundaries of given areas usually a parish are reiterated by perambulating along the boundary route and at given landmarks, either trees, wells, or could even be stones or railings or any prominent landmark, the boundary is publicly proclaimed and acknowledged, prayers are said and the boundary marker is beaten symbolically with a stick. This premise could be considered a satisfactory explanation for our stones and railings. We know that both our Celtic Iron Age and European Germanic forebears marked boundaries with scripted stones, Ogham and Runic respectively.

To further explore this we can look into the route of the of the word railings. Today railings conjure an image of fencing that encloses either a park or cemetery. Collins on line dictionary advises: Railings=a fence made of rails supported by posts. If we take this definition to be similar or identical to the word railings used in the quote then it is highly probable the canon law would be outlawing some form of pre Christian boundary rite or observance, and it is very likely that this custom was generically common to pagan practice; and could have been pertinent to both land and home boundaries. With this in mind it is highly probable that like well veneration it was adopted by the early church and became the beating the bounds of later times. Today as a Christian custom this practice is found right across the country. I have also known some Heathens friends who carried out a similar ceremony upon the acquisition of property/ land. A Nerthus Blot was held to honour the great Earth Mother, also to publicly acknowledge to the assembled guests, their personal responsibility now that they were holders of land. Part of this Blot entailed the processing to and the beating of the bounds.

Temples

Now to consider what was a Heathen temple?  Firstly let us look at a quote from a letter to Abbott Mellitus from Pope Gregory, this was written in 601 when the former was on his way to join Augustine to aid him with his missionary work in England:-

“that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in said temples, let altars be erected and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God.”

Let us first try and seek an explanation for the use of a terminology that today would not be acceptable to a Pagan, Heathen, or Polytheist. The language used here is truly that of a monotheist, and is reflected in other statements and letters from within the early church. It is impossible for a diehard monotheist to acknowledge the existence of other Gods. As a result references found in letters etc, throughout the churches history are prone to err toward the disrespectful when mentioning Polytheistic faiths, they will invariably refer to other Divinities as devils.

From this quote we learn that Heathen temples as buildings existed. These structures were considered to be substantial enough to be thought of as useful and to continue in use. The acquisition of existing buildings would certainly be cheaper than raising new churches.

We also learn that the use of statuary of Gods in temples was very much an accepted part of the Heathen religion of the day.

This quote talks about the criminal destruction at Heathen Temples in this country and their proposed appropriation for worship by the incoming religion. Very little else can be gleaned from this quote although I would like to consider another passage from this letter before moving on:-

“and because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting and no more offer beasts to the  devil, but kill cattle to the praise of god in their eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance;”

With regard to several points this is an interesting quote in that, it not only gives us a possible insight into the temple area as taken over by the incoming religion, but we also gain an insight into some of the tactics employed during the conversion process.

Although this quote deals with Christian practice we learn that people would come to the church at the time of feast days as they had quite probably come to the Heathen temple in times before, they were obviously used to camping in temporary booths constructed in the area of the temple for the duration of the feast. This leads us to believe that such temples could quite possible have been housed in some form of enclosure that would have accommodated those journeying. These areas could have been fenced enclosures or not. We are then advised that whilst here they offer sacrifices to their Gods. As a comment to this I would have thought that if this was the case there would be archaeological evidence to support this so I will view this as perhaps propaganda on the part of the church. Though if the case for sacrifice as given is correct then we see the church taking over the practice in the name of their God. We also can not say that sacrifices from the earlier religion could  have seen such wholesale offerings to the Gods as stated, we must remember that cattle at this time in history were not necessarily an abundant resource and although they may have been dedicated to the Gods and ritually killed it is possible that apart from an offering to the Gods the primary focus of this could have been to feed the attendees at the feast, and if you gave your only cow for this service you in truth had sacrificed a great deal in the service of your Gods. It is interesting to note that in parts of Africa where ritual sacrifice is still practiced it is always to feed the attendees with an offering of food to their Gods.

In order to try and tie this down further we need to attempt to clarify in greater detail what constituted an Anglo-Saxon Heathen temple. Bede in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum advises us that the Anglian King Raedwald following his conversion to Christianity in Kent; returned to his home in Suffolk and set up his Christian altar next to his Heathen altar.

“Thus he (Raedwald) lived by the custom that once the old Samaritans did, that he was seen to serve Christ and also devil-worship; and he in the same temple an altar had to Christ’s sacrifice and another to devils sacrifice.”

Again we must deal with the issue of terminology, the early church considered any religious expression that was not related to the Christ to be associated with Devil worship; and any former pagan/heathen religious act would be referred to universally as thus, especially from this early period.

The use of such terminology provided great propaganda for the church during the period of conversion. In the later period it proved a great leverage factor when trying to halt any return to previous pagan religious practice.

This quote tells how King Raedwald of East Anglia, following his conversion and baptism in Kent, returned to his hall in Suffolk and set up his Christian altar adjacent to the altar to his Heathen Gods. Note the use of the word sacrifice with regard to both altars this does not mean sacrifice in the way that we are often drawn to interpret it, if this latter was the case we would have to ask what was sacrificed to the Christ !..

We also see that within the temple it was not unusual to have more than one altar. This is further borne out in a later commentary by Adam of Bremen when talking about the Heathen temple at Gamla Uppsala, we are told that within the temple there are the statues of three Gods, Thor centrally placed, with Woden and Frey on either side. So the concept of many altars is not so alien. Even today within polytheist religions this is still a common feature within their temples or places of worship.

Further observations from this quote lead us to another from Bede. We have to ask why he kept his Heathen altar in place of honour, placing his Christian altar alongside. To consider this we look to our second quote:-

“For when he came home he was turned by his wife and by some unrighteous lore-masters, so that he forsook the purity of Christs faith.”

Here Bede blames Raedwald’s wife and counsellors for Raedwald’s lack of “purity”. We are not told that he turned his back on his newly chosen faith just that he refused to embrace it exclusively. Again we have to look at the use of terminology; we are not sure what is meant by “lore-masters”; are they Heathen priests or just counsellors? In truth we do not know, we can assume that he would have taken counsel from his Heathen priests. We are not advised whether Raedwald returned to his kingdom with Christian missionaries; as this appears to be the norm with most Kings who converted.

It could be safe to assume that missionaries would have accompanied the newly converted King upon his return to his Kingdom. Bede’s failure to mention them may be due to his own personal sense of shame at their inability to oversee this kingdoms safe delivery into wholeheartedly embracing the new religion. Please note this is pure supposition and speculation and is not historically provable.

Bede also writes regarding the conversion of Edwin of Northumbria. In considering what Bede writes we must be aware that he writes well after the period in question he reports entire and intact, long conversions, the content of which he could never have known we must assume that these conversations are pure conjecture on his part; although the bones of the history he reports is quite probably correct, again we will never know. To break with the tradition this quote is not verbatim as it is remarkably wordy and lengthy, so here is the gist, if you wish to read the quote in full it is easy to find on the internet look it up and read it. 

Bede advises us that Edwin, King of Northumbria urged by his wife and the Bishop Paulinus to embrace the Christian faith; he holds a council with his friends and counsellors. Coifi the Kings Chief Heathen Priest, who is present gives an impassioned and lengthy speech about how he sees no virtue in the Heathen faith and then totally spellbound by the preaching of the Bishop he asks the Kings permission to desecrate his own temples, which he ends up doing in a most spectacular fashion. The one quote I will give from this little episode is to create a point for discussion:-

“he (Coifi) commanded his companions to destroy the temple, with all its enclosures, by fire.”

This act of desecration helps us to build our picture, although a short quote, we learn that temples did have enclosures, how large these enclosures were we don’t know. Adam of Bremen’s commentary about the site at Gamla Uppsala advises us that the enclosure housed a grove of trees, a well, a large ancient tree, and of course the temple building. From other parts of Bedes commentary we learn that there were Statues of some Heathen Gods that were desecrated.

As a footnote to this, Paulinus not happy with just desecrating the Heathen sacred sites and bullying the Heathen populous, then he turns on Celtic Christianity, driving all those who follow this form of Christianity from the Kingdom.

With regard to archaeology, extensive work was carried out by the eminent archaeologist the late Brian Hope-Taylor at the famous site at Yeavering in Northumberland, his finds are worth considering.

Firstly, to provide some background, this site is said to have first been utilized by the Celtic peoples, it then fell into disuse during the Roman period. During the Anglo-Saxon period it became the site of royal halls. Excavations have discovered two halls, one of which may have been either a Heathen temple or certainly a place of great feasting. It is very likely that this was a site of sacrificial feasting. A large pile of both ox bones and skulls was found by one of hall entrances. The dimensions of our probable temple are approximately 11 metres by 5.5 metres it had an inner wall of wattle and daub, and would have housed a considerable number of people. Adjacent to this hall was a much smaller building that is believed to have housed a kitchen area, and In the vicinity of the large hall/temple was a remarkably large post; could it be possible that this is one of our Irminsul? This great pillar sat in an area of cemetery so could have formed part of funeral custom.

Within the same area was a type of amphitheatre structure which could have been a place of public meetings, where the King could address his advisers,  maybe the centre for a Thing (Court). We certainly know from the later Icelandic Sagas that in Iceland the Thing was held out of doors with attendees setting up and living in booths for the duration, and indeed the remains of flimsy structures have been found outside of this hall at Yeavering, which would support both the temple theory and the thing/court theory. Pope Gregory’s letter to Mellitus, also adds weight to this theory. Given all of this evidence this hall must surely rate very highly to be considered as a temple, as it would logically follow that such centres as this would include some focus for their religion. This is the only evidence of such a hall to be found in this country to date.

The building was eventually abandoned and not destroyed by fire as stated by Bede. A Church was built on the site of the great pillar with a Christian cemetery added.

This is most probably as far as we can go in trying to gain an insight into the Heathen temples. There is still a great deal that we don’t know, it might be

that although the temple was an important feature at the courts of the royal houses, the home and the community moot hall may have been the focus for the Heathen religion of the common man.

We know absolutely nothing about Anglo-Saxon Heathen priesthood, there is a great deal of debate as to whether one existed in a concept similar to how we recognise it today, this is based on the Christian style which follows the model of the Roman pagan discipline that was adopted by the early church, this model is still around us today within a majority of the sects of this faith. It is highly probable that the Pagan/Heathen priest of yesteryear would bear no likeness or resemblance to what we would recognise today as a priest. We know from the Icelandic sagas that the priest function of a Gothi was more in line with the function of a government official who would preside over large gatherings and at large publicly celebrated religious festivals.  

It is possible that a King could have appointed his own priests or religious advisors and counsellors, and it is also possible that within the homes of the common man and the small communities of extended families it could fall to the elders to ensure that feasts are observed and followed. In truth we just don’t know the reality or discipline of the Heathen priestly structure.

Copyright © 2007 Terry Stannard-Smith. All Rights Reserved.