The Anglo-Saxons were Germanic barbarians who invaded Britain and took over large parts of the island in the centuries following the withdrawal of the Roman Empire. They were initially less gentrified than other post-Roman barbarian groups such as the Franks or Ostrogoths because they had less contact with Mediterranean civilization. The Anglo-Saxons were originally pagan in religion. The main group, from northwestern Germany and Denmark, was divided into Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. German tribal affiliations were loose and the original invaders included people from other Germanic groups as well. Although some of the early Anglo-Saxon invaders had Celtic-influenced names, such as Cedric, the founder of the house of Wessex, the Anglo-Saxons had a pronounced awareness of them-selves as different from the peoples already inhabiting Britain. Their takeover led to the integration of Britain into a Germanic world. Unlike other groups such as the Franks they did not adopt the language of the conquered Celtic and Roman peoples, but continued speaking a Germanic dialect.
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Anglo-Saxon Paganism, Festivals & Rituals
It is possible to reconstruct what little we know about Anglo-Saxon beliefs by using a wide variety of literary sources and place-names. What comes to light is an image of a people and a religion in a symbiotic relationship with nature, the powerful, uncontrollable and life-giving forces upon which their existence depended.
From the Roman historian and scholar Tacitus, we learn that Germans in the first century AD worshiped an Earth Goddess called Nerthus. Tacitus also mentions two war gods: Odin (or Woden) and Tyr. The great Viking scholar Magnus Magnusson claims that Woden was one of the chief gods of the Anglo-Saxons. Woden was so important to them, in fact, that most of the early Saxon kings claimed descent from the god as proof of their right to rule. Magnusson also identified the Saxon god Thunor, God of Thunder, who was known as Thor by the Vikings. During times of Viking settlement, Thor was revered above Odin in daily life.
But the strongest evidence for the identity of the Anglo-Saxon gods is found in place-names. Using this evidence, scholars have been able to add Tiw and the goddess Frig to the list of deities the Anglo-Saxons were known to worship. In addition, the Old English word “lea” added to many place-names in Europe is thought to be evidence of places of worship, as it refers to a clearing in the forest. These “sacred groves” were very important to the practice of Anglo-Saxon religion. There is also evidence of worship of the Sun and the Moon as deities, both in charms that have been preserved and in the names for Sunday and Monday.
The regular practice of the pagan religion in Anglo-Saxon times involved several seasonal festivals. Nearly everything we know about the religious festivals of the pagan Anglo-Saxons comes from a book called De temporum ratione (“The Reckoning of Time”), written by a Christian monk known to us as the Venerable Bede. In his book, Bede describes the yearly calendar of the Anglo-Saxon people, which usually consisted of twelve lunar months, much like our current calendar.
According to Bede, the greatest pagan festival was Modraniht, or “Mother Night,” which was held on the winter solstice – about December 25th. It is thought that this Yule festival, as it is also known, involved decorating with evergreen branches, the burning of a Yule log, and a feast centered around a boar’s head. Modraniht marked the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon year.
The next festival Bede talks about is in Solmonaþ, the Anglo-Saxon name for February. This festival involved baking special cakes that may have had symbolic significance, not so much in ingredients, but in shape. According to Bede, these cakes were offered to the pagan gods.
March was the time of year Anglo-Saxons would make sacrifices to the goddess Hreda, but the more important spring festival appears to have been Eostur-monath Aprilis, a festival dedicated to the goddess Eostre. Celebrating spring and new life, the festival of Eostre would likely have involved flowers, dancing, and feasting.
Although Bede does not mention a midsummer festival, it is a common celebration that took place throughout Europe – and continues even today. Bonfires were a key component of these festivals, and it is thought that people would dance around or even jump over the fires, while casting herbs into the flames to ward off ill health and misfortune.
The month of September was known as Halegmonath, or “Holy Month.” While little is known about the origin of the name, it is thought that a festival was celebrated at this time of year, and likely included feasting in celebration of the harvest. Owen also proposes that the mythical figures of Sheaf and his son Beow (barley) were once associated with this festival.
Finally, November was known as Blod-Monath, meaning “Blood-Month.” The festival of Blodmonath was, according to Bede, commemorated with animal sacrifices, likely oxen. This practice likely served a dual purpose – both as an offering to the pagan gods, and as a source of food for the coming winter. Bonfires were likely a feature of this festival as well, since we have illustrations in late Anglo-Saxon calendars of revelers tending to fires.
“From this brief survey of the pagan year, we can see that the people in general would have been closely involved in these festivals, raising crops and animals, baking cakes, collecting fuel for bonfires, flocking to see images or wagons carrying the gods and joining them in procession. Above all they feasted, enjoying the fruits of their own labour while propitiating the deities” (Owen 19).
Runic writing was widely known among the Anglo-Saxons. They were believed to be magic symbols that, when carved into wood or stone, possessed mystical properties. The Runic alphabet is also known as Futhark, , a name composed of the first six letters of the alphabet. Why the letters were ordered in such a way, no one really knows.
Anglo-Saxon marriage was nothing like the marriage ceremonies of today. When a man wished to marry, he would bring a dowry to her that consisted of oxen, horses, shields, spears, and swords. If she accepted him, she would then “gift” these items back to her new husband. It is also thought that swords were used in the marriage ceremony itself. According to Owen, the bride and groom would each lay their hands upon the sword “in token of their heroic duty” (61). Swords may also have been symbolic of fertility.
Ritual Drinking and Gift-Giving
Among the more important rituals associated with the mead-hall, ritual drinking had great significance to the Anglo-Saxons. Hosted by a lord or king, an organized banquet would be prepared for guests or favored retainers. Women played a ceremonial role at the banquet, carrying the ceremonial drinking vessel to the king and each of his guests in the hall. There was usually only one cup, which everyone shared. Making speeches (boasting, or “oral resumes”) and gift-giving often went hand-in-hand with this ritual. The lord or king would often bestow gifts and praise upon his valiant warriors through a very ritualistic reward system. Young men, those yet untried in battle, would receive weapons as gifts which they would then be expected to use in defense of the gift-giver. These kinds of rituals helped to maintain hierarchy and allegiance in Anglo-Saxon society.
“Thus the Anglo-Saxons lived their lives, cozy in their brightly lit halls, cheered by feasting and music. They placated their gods with sacrifice and strove to keep out the hostile creatures who lurked in the outer darkness. They enjoyed formal ceremonies – pledging of oaths and speechmaking – and superstitious rituals, like the casting of lots, decided the major issues of their lives. The ritual which was perhaps the most important of all came, however, at the end of life. The pagan funeral ceremony…honored the achievements of a lifetime and, it was hoped, equipped the dead one for the afterlife” (Owen 66).
Anglos-Saxons clearly believed in a life after death, because they provided their dead with objects that they felt might be required. A man might be buried with his spears, while a woman would be wearing her best jewelry and costume. The higher status a person had in Anglo-Saxon society, the more elaborate the burial, and the more affluent the grave-goods. It is because of this practice that researchers know as much as they do about the Anglo-Saxon people. Source