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Anglo Saxon Religion – random notes

This weekend I got to actually sit down and do some research. I have been wanting to do a class on Anglo Saxon religion for a while. One, we really don’t know much about Anglo Saxon paganism. Two, their view of what it meant to be Christian would be a giant shock to modern Christians.

Here are some notes – for thoughts and reference.

  • It is a big mistake to see words like Woden and Thunor and assume the Norse myths are the way the Anglo-Saxon’s saw these deities. It is like the similarity between Roman and Greek deities. The Romans may have taken the Greek myths and drew parallels between their gods and Greek gods (and pretty much any other culture they came in contact with) but Jupiter and Zeus fundamentally behave very differently. So to, is Woden (the Anglo Saxon deity) different from Odin (the Norse deity) and Wodan (the Germanic deity)
  • Most of what we do know about Anglo Saxon paganism is from Anglo Saxon poems, place names, and surviving words.
  • All of our English day names are derived from A-S paganism.
  • I have always been fascinated to learn what other cultures called the planets. In the West, they are all named for Roman Gods, except for the Earth in English. Nerthis was an Anglo-Saxon earth goddess and therefore the name of this planet.
  • There is some evidence that Anglo-Saxon paganism was heavily tied to places. This is one of the tactics early Christian converters used. Where A-S pagans would worship at sacred trees, outdoor crosses were erected. Saints performed miracles at certain locations or were buried in certain locations to co-opt sacred nature sites into Christian lore.
  • On a popular level, a blend of pagan and Christian religion survived all the way up to the Conquest. The various healing charms often contain both pagan and Christian imagery.
  • The image of Christ as Lord worked particularly well on the Anglo Saxons. The word Lord comes from hfalord – bread giver. Pagan Anglo Saxons were used to a lord/servant relationship where ones work was due to the Lord and the Lord then gave back to you housing, food, etc. Substituting Christ as Lord was an easy sell.
  • Baptism and conversion worked well in war for the Anglo-Saxons. By converting after defeat, you were a Christian brother and therefore it could help enforce the peace (Christians shouldn’t attack each other). It was not unusual for the victor to give gifts to the newly converted loser.
  • Especially with the Viking invasions, and Cnut and Swein’s conquests, new churches were often founded by the laity, not the established Christian hierarchy. There was a lot of variation therefore in how the common people interacted with Christianity. And the local church officials were not necessarily beholden to the hierarchy.
  • Part of the struggle between Church and State had to do with who was going to appoint bishops, abbots, etc. When the State could do so, those officials were less inclined to alter doctrine to be more “official.”
  • The Anglo-Saxons had a love-hate relationship with their pagan past, especially elves. Many noteable people have names that suggests a positive view of elves. Aelfred – elf council. Aelfric (famous churchman; common name too) – Elf Ruler. Aelfwyn – Elf Friend. But then many diseases are referred to as elf shot.

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