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.