① Anglo - Saxon Religion

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Anglo - Saxon Religion



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Saxon Religion - 2-22 Sarah Woodbury's Medieval Britain

As you might expect, the process of bringing heathens to the light of heaven is presented to us in our earliest sources as essentially a benign and beneficial one. But this was nonsense. The Anglo-Saxons had been pagan since time immemorial, long before they had started settling in eastern Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. The fact that four of the days of the week in modern English are named after their heathen gods Tiw, Woden, Thunor and Frig indicates that their ancient ancestral beliefs were deeply embedded and therefore cannot have been lightly eradicated.

Listen: Historian Marc Morris tackles some of the most common misconceptions about the Anglo-Saxon era on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:. But the Roman mission ran into difficulties when the first generation of convert kings died. The bishops of London and Rochester were chased from their dioceses by new pagan rulers, and both the queen of Northumbria and the bishop of York were forced to flee when King Eadwine was killed in battle. In the north, however, Christianity was swiftly re-established by missionaries who hailed from a different direction. Ireland had embraced the new faith in the fifth and sixth centuries, and the new king of Northumbria, Oswald , having grown up in Irish exile, had been converted by Irish monks on the island of Iona.

Soon after his accession, Oswald established some of these monks on the island of Lindisfarne, close to his royal seat at Bamburgh. In the generation that followed, missionaries from Lindisfarne not only re-evangelised Northumbria, but they also resumed the conversion of Essex and eventually won over the rulers of the powerful midland kingdom of Mercia. The two churches, Roman and Irish, were quite different in style. While contemplative Irish monks liked to base themselves on off-shore islands, their Roman counterparts preferred their seats to be in ancient cities, abandoned since the days of the Roman empire.

Ascetic Irish missionaries walked from place to place, whereas Romans ostentatiously rode horses. There were also differences on points of doctrine. Disagreement on how to calculate the date of Easter led to a stormy debate at Whitby in , during which the Northumbrian king Oswiu the brother of Oswald switched sides, forcing the monks of Lindisfarne to align themselves with Rome. But when it came to converting people, the methods of the two churches were essentially the same.

The first and most important target for any missionary effort was the king. In an effort to induce King Eadwine of Northumbria to convert, the pope sent him a gold-embroidered robe, along with a silver mirror and a gilded ivory comb for his queen. However, Christians of either camp could offer other inducements to aspirational pagan rulers: the power of literacy, enabling them to record laws and grants of land, and the promise of military success against their rivals. We hear of more than one king taking what amounted to a spiritual test drive, agreeing to convert if God granted them victory over their enemies.

Most of all, the new religion offered the irresistible guarantee of everlasting life in paradise — an idea that must have had great appeal in a world where the death of rulers by plague, assassination or dismemberment in battle was a frequent occurrence. Christianity was equally attractive to other members of the elite. Royal and aristocratic women, for example, embraced the new faith because it offered them an opportunity for self-determination, as the heads of monastic communities. Whitby, the monastery where the famous synod of took place, had been founded a few years earlier by Hild, a great niece of King Eadwine of Northumbria, known to posterity as St Hilda.

In her capacity as abbess of Whitby, she ruled over both its male and female residents, earning the respect of a whole generation of holy men and women. But what of the non-elite folk? How were they induced to convert? The monasteries founded by kings and aristocrats were not closed-up affairs, and some of their residents took it upon themselves to tour the countryside, preaching and baptising. But many weeks, and maybe months, would elapse between these periodic visits, during which ordinary people had no spiritual guidance. They might erect a wooden cross at which to congregate to hear itinerant preachers, and in time it might be replaced with something more impressive, like the carved stone crosses that survive from the seventh and eighth centuries.

But a system of parishes, with a priest resident in every settlement, lay hundreds of years in the future. The gulf between the experience of the elite and that of the common folk is well illustrated by a story told by Bede. He describes how some Northumbrian monks were using rafts to move wood along the river Tyne, when a storm blew up and swept them out to sea. Their fellow monks wept, Bede tells us, but the peasants who were watching stood and jeered. No cultic building has survived from the early Anglo-Saxon period, and nor do we have a contemporary illustration or even a clear description of such a structure. Summarising the archaeological evidence, C. Arnold concluded that "the existence and nature of possible shrines remain intangible at present".

Earlier, in the countryside, the sanctuaries were probably open air sites, on hills or in forest groves, with some kind of central feature. Ceremonies which took place at these sites included at least one annually probably around November which involved a large sacrifice of cattle. Other possible temples or shrine buildings have been identified by archaeological investigation as existing within such Anglo-Saxon cemeteries as Lyminge in Kent and Bishopstone in Sussex.

Blair highlighted evidence for the existence of square enclosures dating from the early Anglo-Saxon period which often included standing posts and which were often superimposed on earlier prehistoric monuments, most notably Bronze Age barrows. Blair suggested that the scant archaeological evidence for built cultic structures may be because many cultic spaces in early Anglo-Saxon England did not involve buildings. Although there are virtually no references to pre-Christian sacred trees in Old English literature, [] there are condemnations of tree veneration as well as the veneration of stones and wells in several later Anglo-Saxon penitentials.

It remains difficult to determine the location of any pre-Christian holy trees. Christian sources regularly complained that the pagans of Anglo-Saxon England practised animal sacrifice. There are several cases where animal remains were buried in what appears to be ritualistic conditions, for instance at Frilford, Berkshire, a pig or boar's head was buried with six flat stones and two Roman-era tiles then placed on top, while at an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Soham, Cambridgeshire, an ox's head was buried with the muzzle facing down. Archaeologist David Wilson stated that these may be "evidence of sacrifices to a pagan god".

Unlike some other areas of Germanic Europe, there is no written evidence for human sacrifice being practised in Anglo-Saxon England. Weapons, among them spears, swords, seaxes, and shield fittings have been found from English rivers, such as the River Thames , although no large-scale weapon deposits have been discovered that are akin to those found elsewhere in Europe. Wilson stated that "virtually nothing" was known of the pre-Christian priesthood in Anglo-Saxon England, [] although there are two references to Anglo-Saxon pagan priests in the surviving textual sources.

One of the inhumation burials excavated at Yeavering, classified as Grave AX, has been interpreted as being that of a pre-Christian priest; although the body was not able to be sexed or aged by osteoarchaeologists, it was found with a goat's skull buried by its feet and a long wooden staff with metal fittings beside it. Campbell suggested that it might have been priestly authorities who organised the imposition of physical penalties in early Anglo-Saxon England, with secular authorities only taking on this role during the conversion to Christianity. Germanic pagan society was structured hierarchically, under a tribal chieftain or cyning "king" who at the same time acted as military leader, high judge and high priest.

The aristocratic society arrayed below the king included the ranks of ealdorman , thegn , heah-gerefa and gerefa. Offices at the court included that of the thyle and the scop. The title of hlaford " lord " denoted the head of any household in origin and expressed the relation to allegiance between a follower and his leader. Early Anglo-Saxon warfare had many aspects of endemic warfare typical of tribal warrior societies. It was based on retainers bound by oath to fight for their lords who in turn were obliged to show generosity to their followers. The pagan Anglo-Saxons inherited the common Germanic institution of sacral kingship.

The person elected was usually the son of the last king. Tribal kingship came to an end in the 9th century with the hegemony of Wessex culminating in a unified kingdom of England by the 10th century. The cult of kingship was central to pagan Anglo-Saxon society. The king was equivalent to the position of high priest. By his divine descent he represented or indeed was the "luck" of the people.

The title of Bretwalda appears to have conveyed the status of some sort of formal or ceremonial overlordship over Britain, but it is uncertain whether it predates the 9th century, and if it does, what, if any, prerogatives it carried. Patrick Wormald interprets it as "less an objectively realised office than a subjectively perceived status" and emphasises the partiality of its usage in favour of Southumbrian kings.

Cemeteries are the most widely excavated aspect of Anglo-Saxon archaeology and thus much information about the funerary aspects of Anglo-Saxon pagan religion has been obtained. One of the aspects of Anglo-Saxon paganism that we know most about is their burial customs, which we have discovered from archaeological excavations at various sites, including Sutton Hoo , Spong Hill , Prittlewell , Snape and Walkington Wold , and we today know of the existence of around Anglo-Saxon pagan cemeteries.

There was no set form of burial among the pagan Anglo-Saxons, with cremation being preferred among the Angles in the north and burial among the Saxons in the south, although both forms were found throughout England, sometimes in the same cemeteries. When cremation did take place, the ashes were usually placed within an urn and then buried, sometimes along with grave goods. Most common among these was body parts belonging to either goats or sheep , although parts of oxen were also relatively common, and there are also isolated cases of goose , crab apples , duck eggs and hazelnuts being buried in graves.

It is widely thought therefore that such items constituted a food source for the deceased. Certain Anglo-Saxon burials appeared to have ritualistic elements to them, implying that a religious rite was performed over them during the funeral. While there are many multiple burials, where more than one corpse was found in a single grave, that date from the Anglo-Saxon period, there is "a small group of such burials where an interpretation involving ritual practices may be possible". For instance, at Welbeck Hill in Lincolnshire , the corpse of a decapitated woman was placed in reverse on top of the body of an old man, while in a number of other similar examples, female bodies were again placed above those of men. This has led some archaeologists to suspect a form of suttee , where the female was the spouse of the male, and was killed to accompany him upon death.

Other theories hold that the females were slaves who were viewed as the property of the men, and who were again killed to accompany their master. In other cases of decapitation it seems possible that it was evidence of religious ritual presumably human sacrifice or execution. Archaeological investigation has displayed that structures or buildings were built inside a number of pagan cemeteries, and as David Wilson noted, "The evidence, then, from cemetery excavations is suggestive of small structures and features, some of which may perhaps be interpreted as shrines or sacred areas".

Eventually, in the sixth and seventh centuries, the idea of burial mounds began to appear in Anglo-Saxon England, and in certain cases earlier burial mounds from the Neolithic , Bronze Age , Iron Age and Romano-British periods were simply reused by the Anglo-Saxons. It is not known why they adopted this practice, but it may be from the practices of the native Britons. Another form of burial was that of ship burials , which were practised by many of the Germanic peoples across northern Europe. In many cases it seems that the corpse was placed in a ship that was either sent out to sea or left on land, but in both cases burned. In Suffolk however, ships were not burned, but buried, as is the case at Sutton Hoo, which it is believed, was the resting place of the king of the East Angles, Raedwald.

It has been considered largely impossible to distinguish a pagan grave from a Christian one in the Anglo-Saxon context after the latter had spread throughout England. Everything that we know about the religious festivals of the pagan Anglo-Saxons comes from a book written by Bede, titled De temporum ratione "The Reckoning of Time" , in which he described the calendar of the year.

The pagan Anglo-Saxons followed a calendar with twelve lunar months, with the occasional year having thirteen months so that the lunar and solar alignment could be corrected. Bede claimed that the greatest pagan festival was Modraniht meaning Mothers' Night , which was situated at the Winter solstice , which marked the start of the Anglo-Saxon year. The month of September was known as Halegmonath , meaning Holy Month , which may indicate that it had special religious significance. Remarking on Bede's account of the Anglo-Saxon year, the historian Brian Branston noted that they "show us a people who of necessity fitted closely into the pattern of the changing year, who were of the earth and what grows in it" and that they were "in fact, a people who were in a symbiotic relationship with mother earth and father sky".

Various recurring symbols appear on certain pagan Anglo-Saxon artefacts, in particular on grave goods. Most notable among these was the swastika , which was widely inscribed on crematory urns and also on various brooches and other forms of jewellery as well as on certain pieces of ceremonial weaponry. The archaeologist David Wilson remarked that this "undoubtedly had special importance for the Anglo-Saxons, either magical or religious, or both.

It seems very likely that it was the symbol of the thunder god Thunor , and when found on weapons or military gear its purpose would be to provide protection and success in battle". He also noted however that its widespread usage might have led to it becoming "a purely decorative device with no real symbolic importance". In the later sixth and seventh centuries, a trend emerged in Anglo-Saxon England entailing the symbolism of a horn-helmeted man. In , Pluskowski noted that the term " shamanism " was increasingly being used by scholars of Anglo-Saxon paganism.

Anglo-Saxon pagans believed in magic and witchcraft. The belief in witchcraft was suppressed in the 9th to 10th century as is evident e. The Christian authorities attempted to stamp out a belief and practice in witchcraft, with the Paenitentiale Theodori attributed to Theodore of Tarsus condemning "those that consult divinations and use them in the pagan manner, or that permit people of that kind into their houses to seek some knowledge". The word wiccan "witches" is associated with animistic healing rites in the Paenitentiale Halitgari where it is stated that:. Some men are so blind that they bring their offering to earth-fast stone and also to trees and to wellsprings, as the witches teach, and are unwilling to understand how stupidly they do or how that dead stone or that dumb tree might help them or give forth health when they themselves are never able to stir from their place.

The pagan Anglo-Saxons also appeared to wear amulets , and there are many cases where corpses were buried with them. As David Wilson noted, "To the early [Anglo-]Saxons, they were part and parcel of the supernatural that made up their world of 'belief', although occupying the shadowy dividing area between superstition and religion, if indeed such a division actually existed. Not being native to British seas, the cowrie shells had to have been brought to England by traders who had come all the way from the Red Sea in the Middle East. Four of the modern English days of the week derive their names from Anglo-Saxon deities [ clarification needed ].

The Anglo-Saxons, like other Germanic peoples, adapted the week-day names introduced by their interaction with the Roman Empire but glossed their indigenous gods over the Roman deities with the exception of Saturday in a process known as Interpretatio germanica :. Of the two, Christianity, a religion of the book, documented itself thoroughly, while in failing to do so paganism laid itself open to centuries of abuse, conjecture or mindless admiration. While historical investigation into Germanic paganism and its mythology began in the seventeenth century with Peder Resen's Edda Islandorum , this largely focused only upon Norse mythology , much of which was preserved in Old Icelandic sources. In the eighteenth century, English Romanticism developed a strong enthusiasm for Iceland and Nordic culture, expressed in original English poems extolling Viking virtues , such as Thomas Warton's "Runic Odes" of With nascent nationalism in early nineteenth-century Europe, by the s both Nordic and German philology had produced "national mythologies" in N.

British Romanticism at the same time had at its disposal both a Celtic and a Viking revival , but nothing focusing on the Anglo-Saxons because there was very little evidence of their pagan mythology still surviving. Indeed, so scant was evidence of paganism in Anglo-Saxon England that some scholars came to assume that the Anglo-Saxons had been Christianised essentially from the moment of their arrival in Britain.

The study of Anglo-Saxon paganism began only in the mid nineteenth century, when John Kemble published The Saxons in England Volume I , in which he discussed the usefulness of examining place-names to find out about the religion. Akerman defended his chosen subject in the introduction by pointing out the archaeological evidence of a "Pagan Saxon mode of sepulture" on English soil lasting from the "middle of the fifth to the middle or perhaps the end of the seventh century". The deities of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon religion have been adopted by practitioners of various forms of modern Paganism , specifically those belonging to the new religious movement of Heathenry. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Polytheistic religious beliefs and practices of the Anglo-Saxons.

See also: English mythology and English folklore. See also: List of Anglo-Saxon deities and Germanic pantheon. Further information: Germanic poetry. Main article: Early Anglo-Saxon burial. See also: Druid. Further information: Week-day names. University of Toronto. Retrieved In Michael D. Bintley; Thomas T. Williams eds. Woodbridge: Boydell. ISBN Arnold, C. London and New York: Routledge. Bintley, Michael D.

Trees in the Religions of Early Medieval England. Anglo-Saxon Studies Woodbridge: Boydell Press. Blair, John Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society. In Helena Hamerow; David A. Hinton; Sally Crawford eds. Bintley; Michael G. Shapland eds. Trees and Timber in the Anglo-Saxon World. Bosworth, Joseph; Toller, T. Northcote Oxford: Clarendon. OCLC Branston, Brian The Lost Gods of England. London: Thames and Hudson. Carver, Martin Oxford and Oakville: Oxbow Books. Oxbow Books. Campbell, James Oxford: British Archaeological Reports. Cusack, Carole M. Conversion among the Germanic Peoples.

London and New York: Cassell. Doyle White, Ethan Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural. JSTOR Dunn, Marilyn The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons c. London and New York: Continuum. Ellis Davidson, Hilda In Martin Carver ed. Fell, C. Hofstra; L. Houwen; A. MacDonald eds. Groningen: Egbert Forsten. Gelling, Margaret University of Birmingham Historical Journal. Herbert, Kathleen Looking for the Lost Gods of England.

Hockwold-cum-Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books. Hooke, Della Trees in Anglo-Saxon England. Hutton, Ronald Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell. Pagan Britain. Jesch, Judith In Paul Cavill ed. Cambridge: D. In Daniel Anlezark ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Jolly, Karen Louise Meaney, Audrey Journal of Religious History. Oxford and Malden: Blackwell. North, Richard Heathen Gods in Old English Literature.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Owen, Gale R. Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons. Page, R. Pestell, Tim

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