Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons
by Gale R. Owen
Reviewed by Jordsvin
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This particular book on Anglo-Saxon Heathenism is unique to my knowledge in that it extends its subject matter to all the religions known to have been practiced by the Anglo-Saxons, and thus discusses their practice of Catholic Christianity as well. It sets the stage for the arrival in Britain of the peoples who became the Anglo-Saxons by pointing out that Celtic and Greco-Roman Paganism, as well as Christianity (both the form which due mostly to political patronage eventually became the “catholic” i.e. “universal” form and various “heresies”) predated in Britain the Germanic Heathenism brought in by the Anglo-Saxons.
In the first chapter, the use of Scandinavian sources to elucidate the fragmentary remains of Anglo-Saxon Heathenism is taken for granted. Tacitus’ Germania is also consulted. As in all books of this sort, the role of place-names in determining which Gods the early English worshipped receives due attention. More information can be extracted from the writings of the venerable Bede and other Old English authors. Quotes from these are supplied both in the original Old English and in translation. English runic inscriptions and art and artifacts hinting at Heathen rites and beliefs are also important sources of information.
The second chapter, “Everyday life in Pagan times,” looks at both literary remnants and the archaeological record. The results of the excavation of a likely Heathen temple at Yeavering in Northumberland are described. A brief exposition of the possible religious/cultural significance of the individual Runes of the Anglo-Saxon Futhork adds to the value of this book for the modern Heathen reader.
The third chapter discusses cremation and inhumation burials, mostly of the common folk. The fourth chapter describes ship burials, the probable howe of King Rædwald at Sutton Hoo being of course the best known. This custom was likely of Scandinavian, specifically Swedish derivation and was reserved for the upper tiers of society.
The remaining chapters deal with Christianity among the Anglo-Saxons but still hold much interest for the Heathen reader. Happily, the British/Welsh were quite content to leave the English in their Heathenism as an easy way, from their jaundiced perspective, to consign their hereditary enemies to “hell.” They only got in on the burgeoning missionary enterprise after the Italians under St. Augustine began the whole conversion process. This entire sad story is told in more detail than you’ll probably want to read. However, many interesting tidbits of information come to light in the process. For instance, the Catholic Christianity of that time was not all that much more homogenous than Heathenry was!
Heathenism enjoyed a brief and initially promising renaissance when Vikings settled in England, but was in steep decline by the Norman conquest of 1066, which ended the Anglo-Saxon period. One likely reason for its failure was that, unlike in the Harry Harrison alternative history trilogy beloved of many Heathens, the Vikings failed (or more likely never even tried) to interest the native English in their religion. A Benedictine-led renewal of Christian religious life, patronized enthusiastically by the last Anglo-Saxon kings, was instrumental in the extirpation of Heathenism. On that sad note, Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons draws to a close. This is just as well from a Heathen viewpoint as the centuries which follow hold little of religious interest to us.
The England which would emerge at the end of Norman rule, I should elaborate, would be a far different place both culturally and linguistically. There would be nothing “Heathen” left there besides the names of a relative handful of places, most already worn down to the point of unintelligibility, the days of the week, and some originally Heathen folklore and customs, many of which would be suppressed by the Puritans following the establishment of the Protestant Reformation in that nation.
While it is sometimes lacking in depth and detail, I nevertheless recommend this book as a good general overview and introduction to its subject. Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons was originally copyrighted in 1981, while the edition I purchased came out in 1996. Although this work is out of print, there were a couple of copies listed on amazon.com at a reasonable price if you cannot obtain it via interlibrary loan.
last modified 01/13/2004