We began to research religion among the Anglo-Saxons and were soon drowning in information. Why were we surprised? If we had set out to research Christianity and its effect on the English people between the years 1000 and 2000, we would have expected oceans of information. Somehow, in our minds, we had collapsed the thousand years of history from the birth of Christ to 1000 AD into a smaller, less significant unit of time. But there are just as many stories, just as many heroes and villains and just as much significant, meaningful history in that millennium as in the one that followed.

Knowing that the vastness of this millennium cannot be covered in depth, we still must begin somewhere and even a brief overview can help us gain an appreciation for our ancestors and what they cherished. To begin, we look at Anglo Saxon paganism, then we’ll consider some of the missionary efforts at converting Anglo Saxons to Christianity, and finally we’ll look briefly at the complex mixture of paganism and Christianity that filled the Anglo-Saxon story to the year 1000 AD.

One objective of our research was to describe the difference between an Anglo-Saxon pagan and an Anglo-Saxon Christian. After reading The Real Middle Earth by Brian Bates, a more interesting question became, what is the difference between the pagans and us?

Differences are striking at first because we have historically regarded these people as primitive barbarians. Our culture’s emphasis on technology and conquering the natural world tends to look with disdain upon native cultures that value and even worship that natural world. As Stanley explains, we have tended to assume that what is pagan is primitive but whatever is Christian has been equated with being learned and civilized (1). As Bates puts it,

Until recently, historians tended to regard these peoples as primitive, violent and obscure barbarians, living in the shadows of the more widely documented Romans who formed an empire over all of Europe in those early times. But research in a wide range of disciplines is revolutionizing our view of the past. We now realize that at their best these ancient civilizations were characterized by some remarkable perspectives on the nature of reality (4).

There is another reason for our prejudice against the pagans. Our main written source of information about them comes from the Christain monks, primarily the Venerable Bede. He is certainly revered as historian of the time but, as R.I. Page points out, “He was bound to be biased against the old religion and eager to expose its weaknesses. He wrote as a committed Christian.” (qtd. in Hofstra, Houwen and MacDonald).

Most of what we know about pagan practices in England prior to Christianity is done by inference and conjecture. In part this problem stems from the fact that most of the written records we have today were written by Christian priests such as Gildas and Bede. Thus, we often are stuck reading between the lines and conjecturing about pagan practices. Since archeological findings have to be pieced together, the evidence artifacts can provide are subject to conjecture. Laws against pagan practices by later Christian kings are another way we piece together the pagan past in England. As we learned through a variety of sources this semester, Christianity was exported to Britain from Rome. However, soon after their withdrawal many of the pagan practices were picked back up. Gildas and other Christian monks of Briton often accused these pagan practices as being the cause of God allowing invaders from the other lands to attack their country.

Most of what we know about pagan practices in England prior to Christianity is done by inference and conjecture. In part this problem stems from the fact that most of the written records we have today were written by Christian priests such as Gildas and Bede. Thus, we often are stuck reading between the lines and conjecturing about pagan practices. Since archeological findings have to be pieced together, the evidence artifacts can provide are subject to conjecture. Laws against pagan practices by later Christian kings are another way we piece together the pagan past in England. As we learned through a variety of sources this semester, Christianity was exported to Britain from Rome. However, soon after their withdrawal many of the pagan practices were picked back up. Gildas and other Christian monks of Briton often accused these pagan practices as being the cause of God allowing invaders from the other lands to attack their country.

Christian lens
Gildas published De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae around 540 AD. His writings traced many of the early invasions of Britain and was used heavily by Bede in 700 AD. His history, argues Nicolas Howe was heavily influenced by his belief in the sins of his Christian Britain contemporaries having caused God to punish them.

Bede published the Historia Ecclesiastica in 731 AD. The information provided in his history provides vital information about the Ango-Saxon pagans that would otherwise be lost. Eventually, this text was translated during the reign of King Alfred in the vernacular. Bede gives us several important facts about paganism that are not located anywhere else. One of the most important inferences on which modern scholars have based their study of the British pagan past is Bedes account in De Temporum Ratione of the Anglo-Saxon. the only account of the Anglo-Saxon calendar.

Suggestions Some of the most valuable sites on the subject of the Anglo-Saxon calendar, festivals, and religious symbolism include:
Anglo-Saxon Beliefs and Religion

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is dated around 892. It is an assemblage of documents, according to James Campbell in his book The Anglo-Saxons, that “provide accounts of the origins of the three early kingdoms which were incorporated into Wessex by 882” (26). Campbell points out that the Anglo-Saxons were an illiterate culture and could not have kept detailed records. Thus the information given is often questioned. (882).

Our ancestors who named their land Middle-earth and inspired Tolkien’s tale of fantasy and magic believed in life beyond the material world- a world with elves, giants, dwarfs, and dragons. They believed in mystical powers and a life-force that enchanted everything. Such mysticism seems to deny our modern values of scientific proof. But what makes the Anglo-Saxons so intriguing is that they endowed their lives with rich imagination and a deep connection with the natural world. Does our modern worship of what we make with our own hands, guided by science and engineering, cause us to thirst for such a connection? We may have an illusion of objectivity that separates us from the mystical beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons. “And yet the huge interest today in such fictional versions of their culture as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings confirms our hunger to reconnect with the imagination of our ancestors” (Bates 5). Besides the imagination, we also share with our ancestors the sa! me need to find meaning in life. By studying their explanation of the purpose of life, perhaps we will find more meaning in our own.

Anglo-Saxons lived close to nature and found magic in it. The Anglo-Saxons worshipped the goddess Mother Earth and would present her spirit annually in a festival when a sacred cart would be pulled through the community (Bates 51). Wood was a gift from Mother Earth and was their source of heat, shelter and used in weapons for spears, bows and arrows. Trees were revered. Contrary to our culture of youth, age conferred knowledge among the Anglo-Saxons. Information was not written down but preserved only in the memory of people as they matured. The wisdom of age was truly venerated, so what could be more knowledgeable than trees, the oldest living things in the landscape? (Bates 51) The Anglo-Saxons traditionally worshipped their gods in groves of trees, rather then building statues. The power of the gods was felt rather than seen (Owen 40).

This closeness to nature and belief in another realm is also evidenced by other pagan practices. Richard North, in his book Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, reports that “In Germanic England, joints of meat and other foodstuffs buried alongside men, women and children in a large number of heathen graves seem to show that the Anglo Saxons believed in an afterlife where this food could be eaten” (104-105). William Chaney in his book The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, points out several key symbols of pagan times these include animals and objects. The animals he details include the boar, raven, stag, dragon, stag, and dragon. Important symbolic objects include: the throne, crown helmet, the standard and banner, the scepter and staff, shield, and harp. (If you are intereste! d in detailed information on each of these symbols see his chapter entitled: “The survival of royal cult-objects”)

We can see the Anglo-Saxon perspective as we try to explain why they would not inhabit the Roman villas that were left abandoned in England in the 5th century. After the Romans left and the Anglo-Saxons invaded, they did not occupy the villas. Archeologists have found evidence that the Germanic tribes built their own style of wooden structures near the villas but there is no evidence that the villas were occupied during that time. Bates feels the Roman structures represented towers of doom to the Anglo-Saxons. The Romans built with stone, not wood, and engineered a separation from nature. “. . . we find that the Saxons’ avoidance of the Roman villas and towns was to do with their intimate interconnection with their natural environment - especially the forests” (Bates 70).

Tacitus described some of their customs, “None of the German tribes live in walled cities.” He writes that their houses were not even contiguous with each other, let alone joined in streets and terraces in the ordered and compact Roman style of early urban housing. “They live separated and scattered according as spring-water, meadow or grove appeals to each man . . . Everyone keeps a clear space around his house” (Bates 71). To divorce oneself from nature would have been to divorce oneself from the spirits. Roman villas seemed to the Anglo-Saxons to have a ghostly curse.

The term “Wyrd” in Anglo Saxon is the origin of the modern “weird.” To us it means strange or unexplainable. It also meant that to them but with a far greater significance. “In ancient English the unexplainable was the flowing of life’s complexities beyond the ability of words to comprehend. It was not a belief in simple fate, in which whatever happened was destined to happen, and humans simply had to accept it. It was not a fixed future either. Rather it was a natural outcome of the forces of life as they are presently flowing” (Bates 76). Wyrd was the relentless change of the world which controlled human matters.

For the people of Middle-earth, bearing in mind their views about nature, the Romans’ bringing of the judgment of Wyrd on themselves in this way meant that they had violated the honour of Mother Earth, ravaging her landscape with stone buildings and straight roads and setting up false gods in the form of statues. No matter how superb the stonemasonry, the icons were barbaric compared with real nature. The Romans had failed to live well with the spirits (Bates 77).

Above all, spiritual elements must be respected. Part of the unseen spiritual realm included beings that were not human, such as elves, dwarfs, and giants. Anglo-Saxons believed in elves but these were not the present day Santa’s helper type of elf. “Aelf” is cognate with “albus” which means white and shining. It was the source of the name of the mountain range the Alps. Also the Anglo-Saxon word for swan is “ylfetu” which is a compound word that means literally “elf white.” J.R. Tolkien described the elves in The Lord of the Rings as “tall, white, beautiful and shining” (Bates 102).

Those were the creatures Anglo-Saxons believed in. They were usually benevolent but it was possible to offend them and be “elf shot” with one of their invisible yet very painful arrows. The Anglo-Saxon healers knew how to combine certain herbs and other ingredients to make a salve to counteract the pain (Bates 107-108). A sketch found in the Utrecht Psalter shows a man pierced with multiple arrows. It is interesting that the Christian book does not deny the existence of the elves’ arrows, but portrays elves as malevolent. Bates suggests this could have been Christian propaganda (107).

Why would these people believe in something they had never seen? Does anyone in our culture believe in the existence of unseen phenomenon? In addition, the Anglo-Saxons had shamen who would have visions of elves and report what they looked like. These shamen would often use hallucinatory substances to bring on their visions. Bates draws an interesting comparison to our culture. When we experience pain we believe it may be caused by bacteria or viruses, that we have never personally seen. We do believe the reports of physicians and researchers who have used devices to view these organisms. We also go to a pharmacist who will give a combination of ingredients to counteract the symptoms (109-110) What is the difference between the Anglo-Saxon pagans and us?

Pagan Kings
The code of comitatis included an unwritten law that no warrior should survive a battle if his superior, or lord, died. This code of loyalty and commitment to war helped make the Anglo-Saxons a terror to their enemies. Virtually every part of the Anglo-Saxon culture, economy, social structure and religion revolved around and reflected their commitment to warfare. It is important to understand the political system of kings and power in order to understand the part religion played and how it even changed.

Virtus, or success in war, was essential to qualify a man to be even a minor king, but it had to be combined with nobilitas, the mystique of being descended from Woden, a great god, and a man needed his genealogy to prove that connection. Of course in a society where most records were kept orally, this was often easily available (Mayr-Harting 18).

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and the Venerable Bede both recorded the names of seven major kings or bretwaldas who sucessfully combined lesser kingdoms to be considered rulers of Britain. These seven seem to share certain characteristics, such as a powerful personality and supremacy in war. That supremacy was not just achieved individually but by being able to attract the best warriors, having access to luxury goods to reward them and offering the prospect of plunder (Mayr-Harting 18).

Pope Gregory I (590-604) and St. Augustine
Pope Gregory I sent the first Roman missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons. Many historians consider Gregory to be among the greatest popes in history (Mayr-Harting 51). He wrote Pastoral Care, which describes not only the moral and pastoral obligations of a bishop’s office but also what sort of man a bishop ought to be and how he should preserve within himself humility and a love of contemplation” (Mayr-Harting 54). During his time as pope, Rome was threatened by attack from outside its borders plus flood, famine and plague within. Gregory’s conclusion was that the end of the world must be near at hand. He worked to ease the suffering around him and it is also amazing that amid all his troubles he still sent missionaries to the far land of the Anglo-Saxons.

Augustine and a group of some 40 other monks were sent to the Anglo-Saxons by Pope Gregory in 596. They stopped along the way in Gaul (what is now France) and began to express doubts about their mission and concerns that they did not know the Anglo-Saxon language. They also continued to hear more about the Anglo-Saxon reputation as fierce warriors. Pope Gregory wrote letters and enlisted help from religious and political authorities in Gaul and encouraged Augustine and his group to continue (Stenton 105). They finally arrived in Kent in 597. The first ruler contacted was Ethelbert of Kent. Ethelbert would only meet the Roman missionaries outdoors for fear of their magical powers but he allowed them to stay and preach by giving them a place in Canterbury. During the first year it was said that over 10,000 people had been baptized. Ethelbert himself was baptized before he died in 616. Click here to listen to a Gregorian Chant.

At first Gregory had ordered that the pagan temples should be destroyed but he changed his mind. He wrote a letter in 601 saying that, he had been thinking for a long time about the English and he did not after all think their temples should be destroyed; they should be sprinkled with holy water and used for Christian worship. Moreover, on the great feasts of the church they should be allowed to slaughter cattle and have feasts as they had formerly done. People with such obdurate minds had to be allowed to reach the highest peaks by gradual steps rather than by sudden leaps (Mayr-Harting 64).

This attitude was exemplified by the bretwalda Redwald who in one and the same temple had an altar for Christ and one for other gods (Mayr-Harting 65). This one decision could have been the foundation for numerous remnants of paganism found in our own culture, such as words, customs and celebrations.

The murder of Sigbert, King of East Saxon, by his own men gives us an appreciation of the Anglo-Saxon code. When asked why they had killed their own lord, the warriors answered in anger, “because he was too apt to spare his enemies and forgive the wrongs they had done him” (Mayr-Harting 20). This gives us an idea of the difficulty involved in converting Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. However, does any worldly political ruler really live by the teachings of Christ? It is not possible nor even appropriate to judge the spiritual commitment of pagan kings who converted. There were plenty of other reasons to become Christian, as it offered a stronger connection to the wealth of Rome and possibility of trade and military alliances. As Christianity spread across the Anglo-Saxon land, there were also political plots and calculations since religious affiliation figured into the brokering of power. Perhaps this is another factor we hold in common with our ancestors - that the individua! l spiritual commitment and motives for religious affilitation remains a private and individual matter.

One intriguing characteristic of Anglo-Saxon Christianity is the significance of the devil as a recurring figure in Old English literature. As Dendle comments, “The devil is the most frequently appearing character in Old English poetry and possibly in all Old English literature” (3). Perhaps this gives us a glimpse into the power that the conversion had upon the history and culture of the entire land.

The early Christian missionaries recognized that to access and convert the people, it was important to first convert the king. There may be a misconception that the Anglo-Saxon conversion happened quickly - it did not. It took ninety years to convert the rulers - even though it was politically and culturally expedient for those kings to become Christian. During those ninety years virtually every court reverted back to paganism for a time. For the population as a whole, the conversion took centuries longer (Mayr-Harting 29).

Irish Missionaries
St. Patrick had brought Christianity to Ireland in about 420. This Irish church “had a direct and profound influence on the Anglo-Saxon community” (Mayr-Harting 78). Oswald, the son of Ethelfrith, was in exile in Ireland during the reign of Edwin and while there, had converted to Christianity. Exile was a common factor in the conversion for royalty. In 635 he became king in his homeland and he requested that a missionary bishop be sent from Ireland to convert his people. From that beginning, more missionaries came from Ireland and made a significant impact in the Anglo-Saxon conversion (Mayr-Harting).

Synod of Whitby (664)
A major doctrinal difference between the Roman Christians and the Irish was the calculation of Easter. The Jewish Passover is on the 14th day of Nisan, the first lunar month in the Jewish calendar. Many Christians began to think that Easter needed to be celebrated on a Sunday and some also thought the Jewish festival should be avoided. The Council of Nicea in 325 condemned as heretics all who celebrated Easter on Nisan 14 and called them Quartrodecimans. But what if Nisan 14 fell on a Sunday? Should the Jewish festival be avoided even in that case? If so Easter had to be celebrated on the Sunday within Nisan 15-21 which meant that if Nisan 14 was a Sunday, Easter would be Nisan 21.

This was the Roman solution. However, the Irish monks celebrated within Nisan 14-20. They were not quartrodecimans because they did use a Sunday, but whenever Nisan 14 fell on a Sunday they were a week before the Romans.

If that wasn’t complicated enough, there were also differences in converting the Jewish calendar to a solar, Roman version. Calculating the vernal equinox had to be done in a cycle of years and there were three groups that had different calculations, the Alexandrians, the Romans and the Irish (Mayr-Harting 103-104).

The Synod of Whitby was an official religious meeting with the most powerful religious and political leaders in Northumbria, including King Alfrith of Deira who followed Roman customs and, his father, King Oswy of Bernicia, who followed the Irish. The synod seems to have been part of a plot by Alfrith to weaken his father’s power in an attempt to take over his kingdom. Apparently, Oswy had the advantage of age and wisdom because he smiled and said he would follow the Romans from then on. The religious debate was defused by political expertise (Mayr-Harting 107-108).

Mixture of Paganism and Christianity
Pagan and Christian burials found in recent years by archeologists suggest a mixture of key pagan and Christian symbols during the conversion of paganism to Christianity. This is especially prevalent in the seventh century. Often pagan symbols (such as the boar) would be combined with the cross.

One of the most fascinating ways to discover references to Paganism is the laws that were eventually enacted to persecute them. For example, Christian law eventually outlawed being buried as “The men as the warrior and protector buried with his weapons, and the woman skilled in herbs and healing buried with the tools of her trade. Such women may have been the wicce that later Christians would condemn in their laws forbidding any form of heathen practice, women that possibly performed charms such as the Nine Herbs Charm. Other laws included the outlawing of moon worship and stiff penalties for infants not being baptized within 30 days of their birth.

The Heliand is comprised of what modern readers would call “the Four Gospels.” In the translation of Latin into Old English modern scholars see many key pagan symbols that were used to help the early Christian Anglo-Saxons make the transition from their pagan heritage into their Christian future. One of the most significant pagan symbols is at the feast in Caina when Christ changes water into wine by using magic words. In paganism words had great power.

Annotated Bibliography

Bates, Brian.The Real Middle Earth: Magic and Mystery in the Dark Ages. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 2002. Bates writes in a refreshingly engaging style yet is still an academic study. He maintains a respectful treatment of pagan customs.

Chaney, William A. The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition From Paganism To Christianity. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970 William Chaney, in his book The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition From Paganism to Christianity, explores his belief in the important role the cult of kingship played “in the transition from paganism to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England” (6). This exploration of Kingship is detail oriented and useful for any student interested in Anglo-Saxon England.

Dendle, Peter. Satan Unbound: The Devil in Old English Narrative Literature. Toronto: U. of Toronto Press, 2001. An in depth study of the most common character in Old English poetry - the devil. Satan does more than just tempt; he also challenges all of nature and strives to eliminate man’s freedom.

Hofstra, T., L.A.J.R. Howen and A.A. McDonald. Pagans and Christians: The Interplay between Christian Latin and Traditional Germanic Cultures in Early Medieval Europe. Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1995. Serious academic papers on the elements of Christianity and paganism in Anglo-Saxon literature, such as Beowulf, The Wanderer, Caedmon’s Hymn and others.

Mayr-Harting, Henry. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. 3rd ed. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State U. P., 1991. Traces the conversion from the pagan kingdoms through the Roman and Irish missionaries. A thorough record of individuals and events.

North, Richard,. Heathen gods in English Literature. Cambridge: University Press, 1997. Richard North, in his book Heathen gods in English Literature, postulates that several of the Gods and Goddesses in Anglo-Saxon mythology have possibly been misinterpreted.

Owen, Gale R. Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons. London: David and Charles, 1981. Details of pagan everyday life in addition to funeral rites and the archeological evidence found therein. Also discusses the arrival of Christianity and the Viking Age.

Stanley, Eric Gerald. Imagining the Anglo-Saxon Past: The search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism and Anglo-Saxon Trial by Jury. Cambridge: 2nd ed. D.S. Brewer, 2000. Eric Gerald Stanley, in his book Imagining the Anglo-Saxon Past: The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism and Anglo-Saxon Trial by Jury, attempts to create a synthesized historiography of key critics of Anglo-Saxon literature. His purpose in looking at these early critics is to open the reader to the fallacy of these critical endeavors who have veered off from real academic scholarship into creating new mythographies of Anglo-Saxon Paganism. - - - .

The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism. Totowa, New Jersey: David S. Brewer Ltd., 1975. Stanley reviews numerous earlier examinations of Germanic poetry from the “Dark Ages” and the tendency to equate primitive with paganism and civilized with Christianity.

Stanton, Robert. The Culture of Translation: in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000. Robert Stanton, in his book The Culture of Translation: in Anglo-Saxon England, explores how Latin texts were translated into the vernacular Anglo-Saxon Old English. Criticizes those who see these artifact as being only supplementary documents that were written to make up for the inadequacy of proficient Latin readers. Furthermore, he analysis several key texts to highlight the anxiety felt by many translators as they interpreted Latin into Anglo-Saxon.

Stenton, Frank. Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1971. A comprehensive history of Anglo-Saxon England and includes a chapter on the conversion of the people to Christianity.

Yorke, Barbara. Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England. 2nd ed. London: Seaby 1992. Barbara Yorke, in Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, explores the role of kingship in Britain during the Anglo-Saxon era.