Book Review: Anglo-Saxon Paganism

 

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Anglo-Saxon Paganism by David Wilson, reviewed by Jordsvin

 

     Anglo-Saxon Paganism by David Wilson is a fascinating inquiry into the relatively little-known realm of Anglo-Saxon Paganism.  Published in 1992 by Routledge, it represents the conclusions of more recent scholarship.  The ISBN number is

0-415-01897-8.

     The division of chapters follows a very logical progression.  The first chapter covers place-name evidence.  A number of place-names preserve the name of a Heathen God or Goddess, or else incorporate such terms as weoh (Old Norse vé) which in Anglo-Saxon meant “idol” or “temple,” “hearg,” meaning a place of worship, normally on a hill (the cognate Old Norse term “horgr” meant “pile of stones,” hence a Heathen “altar,” and “leah,” meaning a (sacred) “grove”.  The new scholarship has eliminated a few names from the traditional hoard of Heathen place-names but has cast additional light upon some others.  This book’s exploration of the differences between weoh and hearg is particularly interesting.

     Chapter two discusses the written evidence of Anglo-Saxon Heathenism.  This was, of course, all written down by Christians after the conversion of England.  The Runes were not used to write books and there is so little evidence of Runic literacy in Heathen England that some have ventured (erroneously in my opinion) that the Heathen English did not know Runes at all, as objects with Runic inscriptions from the Heathen period were few and could have been imported, and widespread use of the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (whose closest counterpart is in the Futhorc used in Frisia) occurs only after Christianization, when it was allegedly imported from the continent.  I personally find it hard to believe that a newly Christianized people would import a Heathen writing system when they already had the Church-approved “Roman Runes” ready at hand.

     The next chapter discusses temples and shrines.  We know from the written records that temples and shrines existed, and here we see some examples of excavated building remains that may have been temples and in some cases their associated sacred enclosures.  However, no proven example of a Heathen Anglo-Saxon religious structure has ever been established.  Archaeological survey and subsequent excavation of sites with weoh and hearg-derived place-names might just change that, Dr. Wilson suggests!

     Chapters four and five explore the evidence contained in inhumation (whole body) and cremation burials, respectively.  While there are tantalizing clues as to the possible religious significance of the simultaneous coexistence of the two means of laying the Dead to rest, as shown in the very different sorts of grave goods associated with the two sorts of burials, no definite conclusions can be reached.

     Chapter six presents Sutton Hoo as a sort of special case due to its well-known Scandinavian connections.  Evidently the local royal family derived from Sweden, and many of the artifacts show this connection.  This should surprise no one, as the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is actually set in Scandinavia.  Chapter seven summarizes the conclusions reached by the author.

     One thing which really makes Anglo-Saxon Paganism stand out in my mind is Dr. Wilson’s decision to deliberately ignore as much as possible the much more coherent and extant remains of Scandinavian Heathenism as an aide in interpreting the surviving scraps of English lore and other traces of Anglo-Saxon Heathenism.  Scholarship has long debated how closely the Heathenism of Migration Age Anglo-Saxons was related to that of Viking Age Scandinavians a few centuries later.  My own reading and research has led me to the conclusion that the two religions were closely related variants on a common theme, much more closely related, for instance, than the religions of Irish/Gaelic, British/Welsh, and Continental Celts.  Nevertheless, the two Heathenisms were no doubt far from identical, and the idea of trying to analyze the Anglo-Saxon evidence in its own light, out of the much brighter limelight so to speak of the Scandinavian lore, seems like a fine idea.  Bewilderingly, however, Dr. Wilson turns right around and makes extensive use of Tacitus’ Germania, which is just as distant, both temporally and spatially, from the Heathen Anglo-Saxons as is the Scandinavian lore.

     In the end, Anglo-Saxon Paganism serves to underscore both how very little we actually know about early English Heathenism, and how little we can realistically hope to know unless by some miracle the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of one of the Eddas should at some future date be discovered.  That contemporary Anglo-Saxon Heathens have succeeded in reconstructing a worthy sib-religion to Ásatrú is no mean feat, and they are worthy of the highest acclaim for their efforts!
          Sadly, this fine work is out of print and amazon.com has used copies available only sporadically.  However, it would be worthwhile to check your local university's library, and failing that, Interlibrary Loan at your public library.  The effort needed to obtain this book will prove well worth it!

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last modified 11/27/2003