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Anglo-Saxon Pagan Gods

by Emily Payton

As promised, my exploration through Anglo-Saxon paganism has led me down a rabbit hole indeed! Last time we looked at the proof that before Christianity there was Anglo-Saxon paganism. Here we will cover a few of the deities – which I suspect will have to be split into two parts! The Anglo-Saxon deities are in general poorly attested, and much is inferred about the religion of the Anglo-Saxons from other Germanic peoples (something I will cover in a later edition). The written record evidence we find tends to generally come from the mouth of Bede, whose descriptions can be compared to other Germanic mythologies as well as the archaeological evidence we explored prior.

Woden is the Old English name for the Norse god, Odin. He is the King of all the English gods, but, even so, we still have to rely heavily on Norse sources. Woden’s name derives from a root akin to Old English ‘wõð’ meaning ‘crazy’ or ‘fury’. The German mediaeval chronicler Adam of Bremen wrote ‘Wotan, id est furor’ (furious Wotan) - showing that the original meaning of his name was still understood in 10th century Germany. However, we can’t be sure how different the cults of Odin and Woden became since they are separated by so many centuries of divergence. Both gods were associated with hanging and with the number nine - in Havamal, Odin sacrifices himself to himself by hanging on a tree for nine nights. Woden consistently places at nine removed from the founder of a dynasty. In Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, he says that many English kings were descended from Woden, including Alfred the Great, and the genealogy of Æthelberht of Kent going back to the progenitor of the English race, Hengest - one of two divine horse twins who were, in turn, descended from Woden. Even when Christianity entered the mix, it seems the Anglo-Saxons continued to hold this ancestry belief as is said in the old poem Maxims I from the Exeter book Woden Worhte Weos (‘Woden made idols’). One of the names for Odin in Norse sources is Grimnir, and place-name evidence indicates the Anglo-Saxons also referred to Woden as Grimm - it is a name associated with eminent natural features in the English landscape. These examples include Wansdyke, Grimsdyke or Grim’s Ditch, Grimspound, and Woodnesborough to name a few. He was also a god of wisdom and invented the Germanic writing system called runes. His sacred animal was the wolf, of which he owned two, and he is shown with them on the purse from the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial. His blessed bird was the raven, his revered plant was the ash tree, and his chosen weapon was the spear. With these chosen weapons, he led the 'wild hunt'. These hunters rode across the night's sky on their black horses and with wild black dogs, searching for non-believers to punish.

Ēostre is attested solely by Bede in his 8th-century work De temporum ratione, where Bede states that during Ēosturmōnaþ (April), pagan Anglo-Saxons had held feasts in Ēostre's honour, but that this tradition had died out by his time, replaced by the Christian Paschal month (Resurrection). The first scholar to make a connection between the goddess Eostre and the hare was Adolf Holtzmann in his book Deutsche Mythologie. We also have more evidence she was a real goddess in the form of over 150 Latin inscriptions found in Morken-Harff near Bergheim in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, dating to the 2nd century and referring to the matronae Austriahenae. There are also place names that may attest to her worship in England such as Austerfield in South Yorkshire and Eastry in Kent. Ēostre was a dawn goddess associated with sexual promiscuity like Freyja, and also with the spring - it seems inevitable that the very pagan Mayday celebrations found across Germany and England were originally related to her cult. Even today there is strong sexual imagery in the form of a young virgin called the May Queen who is paraded like a goddess - as well as the phallic symbol of the May pole. There are no known stories of her adventures – yet.

Bældæg is attested in Anglo-Saxon genealogies as the son of Woden. He is often argued to be the English cognate of the Norse god Baldr who is Oðinn's most beloved son and is killed by a mistletoe dart through a wicked scheme of the trickster god Loki. But this is disputed by scholars such as Richard North, who says Baldr is cognate with Old English Bealdor, which means ‘prince/hero’, and is very distinct from Bældæg as it appears in the regnal lists of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle where it means ‘pyre day.’ The earliest surviving cognate of Bældæg and Norse Baldr appears in a third- or fourth-century inscription from Roman Utrecht. Bealdor was the Anglo-Saxon god of light. He was the son of Woden and Frigge. He does not appear in Anglo-Saxon literature. However, one poem about the death of Jesus uses such similar wording to a Viking poem about the death of Bældæg that historians think it can’t have been a coincidence. Bældæg dreamt of his death. His mother told everything in the world that it must swear never to harm him, but she didn't ask the mistletoe because she thought it was not important enough. The gods' favourite game was throwing things at Bældæg. They would just bounce off due to his ‘light.’ Now, we know the Anglo-Saxons had an equivalent to Loki – but his name is lost to time until evidence is discovered. For the sake of the story, we shall refer to him as Loki. Loki made a spear out of mistletoe wood and gave it to Bældæg’s blind brother to throw at him. Bældæg was killed and had to go and live in the Otherworld, ruled over by Hell. Hell promised to return Bældæg if everyone in the world wept for him. Everyone did except for a giantess who turned out to be Loki in disguise. So Bældæg was unable to return to his family. I’m sure we know which story this rings similar to.

Image - Ostara (1884) by Johannes Gehrts.

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