Anglo-Saxon mythology

The principal Anglo-Saxon gods were many and bear close comparison with their Norse counterparts and reflects the close relationship between peoples deriving from lands adjoining the shores of the Baltic and the Norsemen, who, it must be remembered, were as much traders and travellers as they were reavers.

Information would have been orally transmitted between groups and tribes by the Anglo-Saxon travelling minstrelsy, the scops. Some of this poetry exists in manuscript form, and one of the principal sources is the epic poem Beowulf. The sources and the nature of this poem moreover demonstrate the strong bond of inter-relationship between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. The hero of the poem, Beowulf, for example, is a Geat, a kingdom in the south of Sweden. To further clutter this scenario, Beowulf, and most of the documentary evidence which exists, was consigned to manuscript in the wake of the arrival of a proselytising Christian religion. Grendel, the monster, is described as a descendant of the biblical Cain. The flood which occurs in Genesis is also referred to.

Hengest and Horsa, who are mentioned in a historical context as leaders of the earliest Anglo-Saxon incursion, may also have been or acquired deific status. The name Hengest means a stallion and Horsa means a horse; the horse in the Anglo-Saxon mythos is a potent and significant symbol. It should be borne in mind that the Anglo-Saxons are attributed with huge horse carvings on chalk hillsides, notable examples being the White Horse of Uffington and the Westbury Horse. Less well known, and now largely lost, but thought to have been similar in dimensions to the two aforementioned horse carvings, is the Red Horse of Tysoe near Banbury, Oxford. The name Tysoe, incidentally mean's Tiw's hill, the hill of the god of war.

The Anglo-Saxons believed in other supernatural creatures such as elves, giants and dwarves.

Early Christian prohibitions on the Anglo-Saxon practice of magic in all its shapes and forms are particularly revealing of how strong a belief in the supernatural was held:

"If any wicca (witch), or wiglaer (wizard), or false swearer, or morthwyrtha (worshipper of the dead), or any foul contaminated, manifest horcwenan(whore), be anywhere in the land, man shall drive them out."

"We teach that every priest shall extinguish heathendom, and forbid wilweorthunga (fountain worship), and licwiglunga (incantations of the dead), and hwata (omens), and galdra (magic), and man worship, and the abominations that men exercise in various sorts of witchcraft, and in frithspottum (peace-enclosures) with elms and other trees, and with stones, and with many phantoms." (source: 16th Canon Law enacted under King Edgar in the 10th century)

It is possible to conclude from the foregoing that magical practice was rife, and that water, tree and stone worship in various forms were also practiced by the Anglo-Saxon. Interesting also is the mention of frithspottum, relating as it does to the core concept of frith, ostensibly meaning "peace" but having much deeper significance and a far broader spread of implications.

Anglo-Saxon gods




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