Anglo-Saxon Religion in the Arthurian Age

Hi Folks, and welcome back. This is Part 3 of our exploration of the Germanic tribes that began settling in Britain in the Fifth Century. Today we’re looking at Anglo-Saxon pagan religion. As noted in the prior articles, the people referred to as Saxons by the Fifth Century Britons were made up of a number of different Germanic tribes. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to them all as Saxons, as well.

By the fifth century, nearly all the native Britons were Christians. British and Irish missionaries were trying to make inroads among the Picts of northern Scotland. However, according to Bede, an eighth century Anglo-Saxon monk, the Britons refused to minister to the Saxons. This may have been exaggerated on his part, but the first Anglo-Saxon king wouldn’t be baptized until about 601. It would be another three centuries before the last pagan king in Britain passed.

So what did the pagan Saxons believe? There was a great deal of regional variation in beliefs and practices. But there were some common threads. The ultimate authority of Fate was a major factor in their belief. Grave goods indicate a belief in an afterlife where things from the living world would be needed. Cultivating the goodwill of the gods was necessary to prevent droughts and disease, or to win battles.

Most people familiar with members of the Norse pantheon, like Odin, Thor, and Tyr, would spot the similarity with the names of the Anglo-Saxon gods, Woden, Thunor and Tiw. As you know from the earlier post, the Saxons and the Norse came from the same proto-Germanic cultural branch, but there are a few centuries more development in the Norse religion. In fact, the Saxon religion had similarities to Celtic paganism, which shouldn’t be a surprise as both cultures are believed to have sprung from the same Proto-Indo-European roots. A number of similarities between the Celtic and Germanic cultures endured well beyond the fifth century.

In the earlier days of the Saxons, it seems that goddesses were venerated above male deities. In particular, Nerthus, a fertility goddess, Eostre, goddess of the dawn and spring (from which comes the name of the Christian holiday, Easter), and Hretha, goddess of the winter.

Of the male gods, Woden was the most important, as all royal lines claimed descent from him. Seaxnēat may have been a tribal god of the Saxons. The Saxons, like the Celts, believed that the world was filled with a plethora of lesser deities and spirits with whom most everyday interactions occurred. They also joined the realm of the fairy-folk as Christianity took hold.

Their priests are shadowy figures, even more so than the Druids. We know they conducted auguries and sacrifices, could only ride mares and could not use weapons. This last may be related to a superstition about the power of iron over the supernatural world. They may have worn female clothing.

Sacrifice seems to have been an important part of Saxon religious worship. Most commonly it is of animals, particularly oxen, but human sacrifice was also used, typically slaves, prisoners of war or criminals. Hanging or drowning appears to have been the preferred method of dispatching human victims. The fifth century Roman politician, Sidonius Apollinaris, describes this:

Moreover, when the Saxons are setting sail from the continent, and are about to drag their firm-holding anchors from an enemy’s shore, it is their usage, thus homeward bound, to abandon every tenth captive to the slow agony of a watery end, casting lots with perfect equity among the doomed crowd in execution of this iniquitous sentence of death. This custom is all the more deplorable in that it is prompted by honest superstition. These men are bound by vows which have to be paid in victims, they conceive it a religious act to perpetrate this horrible slaughter, and to take anguish from the prisoner in place of ransom; this polluting sacrilege is in their eyes an absolving sacrifice.’

Like the Celts, the earliest places of worship seems to have been in groves and near pools. According to the Roman historian, Tacitus:

They judge that gods cannot be contained inside walls nor can the greatness of the heavenly ones be represented in the likeness of any human face: they consecrate groves and woodland glades and call by the names of ‘gods’ that mystery which they only perceive by their sense of reverence.

Over time, they seem to have adopted the use of buildings to some extent, probably from Greco-Roman influence.

Today, we recall the pagan Saxon tradition in many ways, most familiarly through the names of the days of the week. Sunday and Monday were named for the sun and moon, of course. Tuesday was “Tiw’s day”, after a shadowy god of war and oaths. Wednesday was Woden’s day, Thursday belonged to Thunor (Thor) and Friday was the day of Frigg, the goddess of wisdom and premonition. Saturday is an exception, being named for the Roman god Saturn.

Ok, that should do it for today. More to come! Thanks for stopping by, and please comment if you’d like to discuss!

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