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Thread: Lesson Two: Problems in Reconstruction

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    Lesson Two: Problems in Reconstruction

    Reconstucting Anglo-Saxon Heathenism

    Not much information is left on Anglo-Saxon Heathenry. What information we have is a few God names, one or potentially two rites (if you count the Æcer Bót), a belief in Wyrd, numerous institutions, the concept of frith, the holy tides, and that is about it. In some areas such as social institutions and the values of Anglo-Saxon society we are fortunate. In others we find things extremely lacking. Modern Heathenry, or Theodism, at least is of two schools of thought when faced with such a lack of material. A. Go with what you have, and stay true to the tribal beliefs. B. Fill in the missing gaps with material from other Germanic tribal belief systems.

    With the first you can possibly be satisfied that you have a religious belief system that is as true as it can get to the ancient one. What you end up with though is a system that lacks most of the features the ancient belief system would have had. For example, we suspect that the ancient Angles in Anglo-Saxon England sacrificed Oxen from the cattle bones found at Building D2a at Yeavering (Hope-Taylor B Yeavering: an Anglo-British centre of early Northumbria. London: HMSO 1977). Building D2a is the one Brian Hope-Taylor thought to have been a Heathen temple. We know similar activity may have taken place amongst the Saxons of Sussex at Harrow Hill (Oswald, A.: Harrow Hill, West Sussex, RCHME 1994). Yet Old English literature has not preserved any information on how a blót would be preformed despite the fact the word was preserved in Old English as well as the verb form blótan. If we were to choose not to draw on other Germanic traditions for anything, we would therefore be unable to perform blót, and therefore would be left lacking in a major part of ancient Anglo-Saxon ritual activity. Even on something we seem to have much information on such as the concept of Wyrd, we may have to draw on comparsions to other Germanic traditions. The use of the word wyrd in Old English literature is of three kinds. One is the ancient pagan usage only seen in poetry, and then in only brief phrases with no explanation of how they viewed the concept. The other is a newer Christian usage in which idea on wyrd were influenced by Alfred’s translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. In the translation, Alfred sometimes uses wyrd as a translation for Boethius’ Fortuna, but more often he sees it as that which just happens (Jerold C. Frakes, The Fate of Fortune in the Early Middle Ages: The Boethian Tradition, E.J. Brill, Leiden, Netherlands: 198. The other Christian view is also expressed by Alfred’s version of Consolation of Philosophy, that wyrd is simply the Christian god’s will i.e. providence (Bruce Mitchell, An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England, Blackwell Publishing Oxford, Oxford: 1995 p. 251). The old pagan view barely survives in the poetry and sometimes in the prose, but certainly not to extant needed for a reliable reconstruction of what the ancient Anglo-Saxon pagans believed about it. Usually, the word is used in a phrase such as in Beowulf “Gað a wyrd swá hío sceol” “Goeth Wyrd as it shall.” Again one can go with what little we know from the Old English literature or draw on other Germanic tribal traditions. The advantage of only drawing from one’s own tribal tradition is that one keeps it pure (if you discount the modern attitudes that may develop to fill the gaps such as the feeling Wyrd is just ”fate”). The disadvantage is you wind up with a very simple religion full of uncertainties and “I don’t know.”
    The second method of reconstructing a tribal religion has its advantages and disadvantages too. The obvious advantage is that one can have a nearly fully reconstructed religion. For example, going back to the discussion on blót, we have accounts in the Norse Heimskringla that describe the rite. These descriptions of the rite can be used to fill the void left by the Old English literature in designing a the rite of blót. Similarly, scholars such as Paul Bauschatz (in his work The Well and the Tree) have done extensive work on the concept of Wyrd drawing on both Anglo-Saxon and Norse material. This can be used to better understand how the ancient Anglo-Saxons saw the concept. The obvious disadvantage is that while all the Germanic tribes probably once formed one common culture, we do not know how far regional variations go back, or how far apart religious practices and beliefs may have evolved apart. That is the Anglo-Saxons while they may have shared some of the major deities with the Norse, probably did not share all of the Norse pantheon. Nor may they have necessarily viewed Wyrd in the same way. We can never be certain that the material we are using to fill the gaps is consistent with the ancient tribal belief system we are reconstructing. We therefore can never be certain we are doing things as an ancient Anglo-Saxon would.

    Both methods are valid, and one needs to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each. It really falls to personal preference. Scholars have long used comparative studies to try to understand the belief systems of Germanic peoples whose material has been lost, and it is as valid a method for Heathens as well). At the same time, no one should ever be forced to compromise what they see as their tribal heritage.

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    Finding the Anglo-Saxon Pantheon

    One of the problems with the reconstruction of the ancient Anglo-Saxon pagan religion (better known as Anglo-Saxon Heathenry) has been finding out exactly what Gods were worshiped. History was not kind to the literature produced by the Anglo-Saxons. Most of the poems are contained in four volumes, and most of the prose is about the lives of saints, Christian sermons, or if it is historical in nature, it neglects to tell us anything. Time, Viking raids, and Henry VIII’s closure of the monasteries probably cost us any information recorded on the Anglo-Saxon Gods.

    We can find information on them however. The first place to look is in the Roman accounts, a time when the Germanic tribes were still on the continent. We know, for example the Angles, along with other tribes are mentioned in Tacitus’ Germania in passing as worshiping the Goddess Nerthus. There are other clues mentioned in Germania. In discussing the origin myth of the Germanic tribes, Tacitus mentions that the Germanic tribes were descended from the three sons of Mannus (son himself of Tusito). The three groupings of tribes that were descended from these sons were the Ingaevones, Herminones, and Istaevones. From this we can derive that the ancient Angles may have also worshiped deities named Ing, Hermin (or Irmin), and Istæv as well as Mannus and Tuisto. Collaborated evidence can be had for Ing and Irmin. Ing is mentioned in the Old English Rune Poem while Irmin is seen amongst the Old Saxons in the compound Irminsul, a sacred pillar first mentioned by that name by Einhard, Charlemagne’s chronicler, and in the Heiland in the compund Irmingott, a title of the Christian God. The Old Norse version of this name is a byname of Oðinn, Jormun. For Istæv and Tuisto we have no further evidence, and for Mannus we have to turn to other Indo-Europeans such as that of the Aryans of India. Their deity Manu (cognate to Mannus, both meaning simply “man”) was seen as the progenitor of humankind and the first king. Sadly though, most Roman sources are silent on specifically the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, and the Gods they worshiped. We can glean though from Tacitus’ generalization that all Germanic tribes worshiped Mercury as most high, that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes knew his worship as well. Most scholars today feel that when Roman writers spoke of a Germanic deity Mercury they were indeed referring to Woden. Jonas Bobiensis in <em>The Life of Columbanus ,</em> in the seventh century, equates Mercury with Vodan when telling a tale of Columbanus interrupting a libation to the deity.
    For more information, we must turn to the Anglo-Saxon’s own literature. While the information is scant, we can find some mention of Germanic deities. The easiest is Woden, mentioned in the “Nine Worts Galdor” (also called the “Nine Herbs Charm”), “Maxims I ” and as progenitor of Anglo-Saxon kings in the various kings lists. Seaxnéat, a deity known from an Old Saxon renunciation formula recorded in Vatican Codex pal. 577 listing a Saxnot along with Woden and Thunor as deities to be renounced appears in the kings list of the kingdom of Essex. As mentioned earlier Ing is mentioned in the “Old English Rune Poem” verse for the rune named for him. A rite is preserved in the form of the Æcer Bót (also known as “A Field Remedy” and a “Charm For Unfruitful Land “) to a Goddess presumably Eorðe, although a name Erce is also invoked which may indicate a separate Goddess who is mother of Eorðe. Bede mentions two Goddesses as having been worshiped in association with months named for them, Eostre and Hreðe. For other deities we have to make a bit of a stretch. Heimdall may be behind the Hama mentioned in Beowulf as bringing the Brosingamene to his fortress. The Old Norse poem “Husdrapa” mentions a battle between Loki and Heimdall over the necklace Brisingamen. Hel may be mentioned in Beowulf as well. In verse 852, it says of Grendel, þær him hel onfeng “Hel took him.” It is unclear whether a place or person is meant. The most obvious literary evidence comes in the form of day names. We know from the days of the week that the Anglo-Saxons worshiped Tiw, Woden, Thunor, and Frige. Beyond this, for information close to the Heathen period of England we must look to place names. According to various scholars Frige, Thunor, Tiw, and Woden all seem to have had places named for them. There may be more deities for whom places were named, but as we have no other reference for them, we will never know.

    Later evidence from the period of Middle English merely confirms what we already know. Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example, has Hengest saying that they worship Woden. There is one exception to this however. Helið is mentioned by William of Coventry, Benedict of Rochester in his tale of Augustine’s life. Supposedly, Augustine destroyed an Anglo-Saxon idol of a deity named Heilth.
    Unfortunately, we cannot draw much on archaeological evidence. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes did not leave inscriptions as many of the Germanic peoples did on altars such as those at Hadrian’s Wall.

    This is pretty much the extant of the evidence for an Anglo-Saxon pantheon. To fill it out, we must assume that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes may have worshiped the tribal deities of neighboring tribes such as the Frisians. Here we are treading on dangerous ground as we do not even know if the Angles for example even worshiped the Saxon deity Seaxnéat, or for that matter if the Saxons worshiped Eostre (Bede being a Northumbrian was writing from the perspective of an Angle). However, if we do assume they did, at least worship the major deities that their neighbors shared with the Norse we can add Fosite, whose name is cognate to that of the Norse God Forseti. Fosite is mentioned in Alcuin’s The Life of Willibrord as having one of the Frisian islands sacred to him, and some equate him with the giver of the Frisian law in the tale “Van da tweer Koningen Karl ende Radbod (Of the Two Kings Karl and Radbod).” Altars to a Goddess Nehellenia have been found in Zeeland, perhaps indicating Frisian worship of her. We can also draw on such information as Saxo’s Gesta Danorum, much of the information in it dealing with the Angles. For the most part this only gives us deities we already know about, but it also adds ancestral heros such as Offa and Scyld (who are mentioned in the Old English literature only briefly). Archaeological evidence can also be of an aide as seen already with Nehellenia. We know from altars erected along Hadrian’s Wall and elsewhere that Germanic mercenaries followed the cult of the matrones. This cult strongly resembles the Norse mentions of the Dísir. These altars or votive stones are found all the way from Hadrian’s Wall to what is now Bonn, Germany. The names of these deities generally referred to giving or protecting. Drawing once on Bede, and his treatment of the Anglo-Saxon Heathen calendar, we know the first night of the year was called modra nect. This indicates that perhaps the “cult of mothers” was known to the Anglo-Saxons as well. Going father afield we must look to the Norse. It is probably unwise to equate every Norse deity with a potential Anglo-Saxon one as I have done in the past. However, one deity in particular deserves mention. Gefion is mentioned in Snorri’s Heimskringla as having ploughed out the island of Zealand. She is said in the Prose Edda to have married Scyld, mythical first king of Denmark. It is possible then that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes knew of her.

    This is as perhaps as full a reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon pantheon one can attempt. Even then all we really have are names. The closest thing to a myth in Anglo-Saxon is the “Nine Worts Galdor” where we are told Woden gave the nine herbs to seven worlds (much like he gave the runes). We can can assume based on the kings lists that Woden was considered God of kings, and on other clues as the giver of runes. Otherwise, we are bereft of information on Anglo-Saxon mythology.

  3. #3
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    I have printed off lesson One and Two and will read and digest later. There are a few problems this end with the family but I will get back to you.
    With Love and Light
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    Question

    Quote Originally Posted by S_Wodening View Post
    Finding the Anglo-Saxon Pantheon

    In discussing the origin myth of the Germanic tribes, Tacitus mentions that the Germanic tribes were descended from the three sons of Mannus (son himself of Tusito).
    I have read that Tusito (or Tuisco, as I've seen it elsewhere) was and older form of the god Tyr. Does anyone know where I can look this information up, or if it is just all together wrong.

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    I've also heard it mentioned that Seaxnet may have been another name for Tiw.

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    The idea Tuisto or Tuisco is Tiw has been kicked around since the 19th centrury. I think H R. Davidson mentions it in one of her books. The same is true of Tiw as Seaxneat. Again Davidson mentions this.

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    I think i favour a mixture of reconstruction methods 1 and 2, since it would be very unlikely if there weren't some similarities between Anglo-saxon and more northern (and also southern) Germanic lore. Of course care needs to be taken, but from odd little snippets in AS lore there seems to have been some commonality (eg mention of middangeard/midgard in ?Beowulf and some sense of a "heaven's dome" in Caedmon's Hymn suggest a possibly similar cosmology). I do like immersing myself in the lore and archeology etc of a specific area though since i think that is a very useful exercise in getting a sense of the culture in question. Unless one casts the net wider though (eg by reading the Norse sagas) there are quite a few gaps which don't need to be left so open IMO. I'd rather have a "similar but perhops not exactly the same something" when looking to fill gaps in our lore than a totally unique nothing!

    One of my biggest questions is wether the English knew Holda/Frau Holle, or if she maybe went under another name for them? (I have others but until we find a nice little bundle of AS texts in a trunk or stuck in a wall somewhere which has survived the dissolution of the monastaries or wahtever i'll maybe never know!)

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    Quote Originally Posted by S_Wodening View Post
    The idea Tuisto or Tuisco is Tiw has been kicked around since the 19th centrury.
    I've read a couple of the theories and tbh don't really know what to think. I've seen the suggestion that Tuisto is "twin" (as suggested by the root of his name) to the Earth herself, whom he has "sprung forth from" at one stage to become the sky. This might fit with the idea of him being Tiw, since we have the rune associated with him being described as a celestial "token" or sign in the AS rune poem.
    The other theory i've read is that he's "two-natured" in the hermapohroditic sense and likely another name for Ymir as found in the Eddas. I think there's merit to both theories - will have to think more on it!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gemyndig View Post

    One of my biggest questions is wether the English knew Holda/Frau Holle, or if she maybe went under another name for them? (I have others but until we find a nice little bundle of AS texts in a trunk or stuck in a wall somewhere which has survived the dissolution of the monastaries or wahtever i'll maybe never know!)
    I have often wondered that myself. Holda was known in areas that the old Saxons had been, so there is a chance. However, there are even theories that Holda was a later folk development. I tend to think that even if this were so, she must have absorbed attributes of earlier Goddesses. Part of the problem is that we do not even know how much of the information on Holda is genuine. There are some indications 19th century scholars may have elaborated on or even made up folktales about her, thus coloring the information we have. Then there is the problem that all our information is rather late, collected long after the Conversion. We have a name Hludana which dates from first and third century texts, but then we have no way to link it to the later accounts of Holda that begin in 11th century. There is also been theories linking her to Norse Hloðyn another name for Jordr or Eorthe. Holda is very problematic in many ways for those reasons. We have no surviving cognate for her name or the mention of any Goddess similar to her in the Anglo-Saxon materials. Which is unfortunate as she seems to be a very interesting Goddess.

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    If we don't know the deities worshiped and they adopted or shared deities from neighbouring pantheons surely all we are doing is naming a deity according to their attributes and using the closet name we can?

    The list seems a long one and many of the deities I have never heard of.
    Deities I have heard of:
    Nerthus
    Woden
    Tiw
    Ing
    Erce
    Thunor
    Frigg
    Seaxneat
    Heimdall
    Eostre
    Those I have not heard of:
    Mannus
    Hermin (Irmin)
    Istaev
    Hrede
    Hel ( I thought this was part of the Underworld)
    Fosite
    Nehellenia
    Gefion
    Tustito

    Out of all these I have as my deities Woden, Freya ( Frigg) ,Erce, Ingu Frey (Ing) and Thunor
    How do we find out more about the other deities and are they adopted names that correspond to Norse deities or are they part of other pantheons?
    Last edited by WulfcwenStar; April 19th, 2008 at 04:54 PM. Reason: I was interputed and needed to finish
    With Love and Light
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