Heathen Polytheism

Regarding Early English Polytheism and Mindset         

It is a commonly accepted fact that the Heathenism of the Anglo-Saxon period was Polytheistic, A number of place names indicate the existence of worship or following of various Gods:- Thundersley, (Essex) = Thunors Grove; Wednesbury Hill = Wodens Burgh (Burgh = fortified town); Tyesmere, (Worcestershire) = Lake of Tiw; Tysoe, (Warwickshire) = hill spur of Tiw. These are just a few of many examples.

With the concept of Polytheism on board we must consider the culture and philosophy of contemporary polytheistic faiths, before we do this it is worth looking at the Pagan cultures of the past as this will create a back drop to the early Anglo-Saxon Heathen mindset and will help us piece together, and make sense of what evidence we may find.

We know that the early Pre-Christian Roman Empire embraced Polytheistic Pagan religions, as well as taking their gods and religions to the four corners of the empire there was a merging of the imperial religions with the indigenous religions of the lands they conquered.

Proof of this can be gleaned from various sources, with regard to England perhaps the most famous is how honouring at the Iron Age Spring Shrine at what is now Bath in the west of England was very quickly pulled into the Roman Pagan practice. The Iron Age Goddess Sul was in this instance merged with the Roman Goddess Sullis Minerva to create a centre of pilgrimage for newly settled Romans, as well as the native population.

We also see Gods taken from the provinces to Rome for honouring in the temples by the Roman populous. On certain days at the height of empire the streets of Rome would be awash and grid locked with religious processions of one sort or another. Possibly the most famous of these imported Gods was the great Mithras. 

Mithras has his origins as a Persian God, he was first encountered by the Romans during the reign of Nero, his attributes of truth, honour, and courage ensured his growth in popularity. Mithras first gained a popular following from among the slave and freedmen classes, and soon grew embracing the whole of Roman society, with a firm hardcore and widespread following among the military. Today the remains of Mithraeum or temples dedicated to Mithras have been found from across the former empire, including England.

It is interesting to note that a great proportion of the priestly hierarchical structure that is found within the Catholic Church today was adopted from the Priestly structure of this particular Pagan religion.

Epona a Celtic Gaulish Goddess is another Deity who found favour within the Empire. Due to her association with horses her worship was primarily embraced by cavalrymen and those associated with horses. Temples were erected in her honour and archaeology has proved that small shrines dedicated to her have been recovered from the remains of stables from across the former Empire.

These are just two examples of many and they help prove the point of the concept of a Polytheist mindset and it is necessary that we consider this.

Polytheists by their very name and nature are accepting of the belief in many Gods, as a polytheist of this early period you may have followed only one or a few of the many Gods pertinent to your culture, you would have no problem in accepting the existence of other Gods outside of your own religious discipline or culture. You certainly would not feel threatened by their existence or worship, and most would be happy to embrace the worship of Gods outside of their personal sphere. This would result in religions with softer boundaries, religions that would absorb from other faiths and go forward.

We know that Heathenry in Northern Europe was certainly not rigid, evidence has been found to support this. The worship of Epona, mentioned earlier is evidenced within some of the Germanic Tribes. Nehalennia was worshipped by Celtic and Germanic tribes and at some point she was also revered by the Romans.

This proves a very different mindset to culture and religion with the various families of Gods/Goddesses than is found today with the social backdrop being very much tied to the predominant monotheistic mindset.   

Today’s monotheist mindset is majoritively intolerant to anything outside of its sphere of belief or practice; this would strongly preclude any merging of faiths and doctrines. Interestingly the actions of the early church are in conflict with this statement. It is commonly accepted and acknowledged that the early Christian church adopted customs and disciplines from the religions it was trying to displace or discredit, it is acknowledged and I believe that this is because it was in the interest of early Christianity to consent to and permit the adoption of these disciplines and customs, albeit in a very controlled manner. This definitely was not haphazard, but calculated and structured in order to pursue the churches need to win over Kings and their subjects, and this Christianisation  would only be allowed if it was in the greater and long term interest of the new religion. It would then follow that the propaganda machine of the early church would kick in and stealthily cover up the roots and origins of the pagan practice being usurped. Once established the church, in strength could and did cruelly defeat any doctrine that was not initiated from within. It is only in recent years that honest acknowledgement has been given openly regarding many customs that up until modern times would have been considered to be Christian in origin.

There are still polytheist cultures to be found globally especially in the Far East, and these cultures tend to be much more relaxed and open to a multi faith concept. Taoism, Shinto, along with some sects of both the Hindu and the Buddhist faiths, to give name to a few.

This leads me to theorise that it is quite possible given the polytheist mindset, that immigrants to this land, in this instant the Anglo-Saxons, as well as bringing there own religion with them to these shores; would also absorb some of the religious practice already extant and thriving. They may have felt obliged through respect or some long lost protocol to appease the spirits of place and/or the local Gods, who were already guarding the lands and peoples.

This would result in a strong Heathen core with absorption from the indigenous Pagan faiths, culture and custom to slightly blur the boundaries. With this on board I think it unlikely that the established Heathenry as practiced during the mid Anglo-Saxon pre Christian period was not purely 100% Germanic it would have evolved from a Germanic root, being more in line with common pagan practice from across Europe. All of this is pure conjecture on my part, yet I do believe that at the very least this is worthy of consideration.