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.