The first book I am reading in this series is “Travels Through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan” by Alaric Alberttson. Alaric is an Anglo Saxon Pagan practitioner as well as a member of ADF. In this first book he sets out what is involved in following the Anglo Saxon path. The books starts with a chapter called “Who were the Anglo-Saxons?” Alaric packs a lot into this chapter so I think this will be a long post today.
He begins with a little history about the Anglo Saxons. He points out that there was never a group of people called the Anglo-Saxons, but rather there were many tribes including the Angles and the Saxons, who emigrated from Germany in the 5th century. Evidence suggests that it was not a full on invasion but a gradual process of migration, with pottery of the time suggesting a British attraction for Germanic culture. He explains that while they were Pagan when they came over, the last of the Pagan kings, Penda of Mercia, died in battle in November 655ad and brought Anglo-Saxon Paganism to an end. He also rightly explains that the Anglo-Saxons never would have referred to their religion as “Paganism” or “Heathenry” but rather would have probably called it “Fyrn Sidu”, the elder customs. The words Pagan and Heathen, were originally used to mean a rural person, someone who tended to be traditional and conservative in keeping the old ways long after their city counterparts had converted to the Christian Faith.
The author rightly points out that being a modern Saxon Pagan is nothing to do with race or ancestry, but rather culture and language. If you speak English, then you think in Anglo Saxon. Their worldview is “coded into the way we think and speak.” Whether it’s seeing the year in four seasons, calling the days of the week after the names of Saxon gods or growing up with stories of elves and dwarves, we are culturally Anglo Saxon. He raises an interesting point about the fact that the Anglo Saxons (and many polytheist cultures) do not see the soul as one thing, but as made up of multiple parts including something called the “mod”, which roughly corresponds to what we would call our “mood.” He also points out that contrary to our views of the Anglo Saxons as barbaric warriors, they were a quite cultured people who valued poetry and story, and for whom agriculture was an extremely important part of their daily lives (as evidenced by Bede’s calendar). I like his suggestion that rather than viewing the Anglo Saxons through Roman tinted glasses as barbarians, we should rather look to Tolkien, who’s books were inspired by the Anglo Saxon worldview, to get a more accurate picture of our ancestors. Theirs was a land of runes and rings, dragons, elves and dwarves. Even the name “Middle Earth” comes from the Anglo Saxon name “Middangeard” and the wizard Gandalf, is based on Woden himself.
He then goes on to talk about the seven worlds (plus 2 elemental realms) of Anglo Saxon thought. There are many extra-dimensional worlds laying above, below and around us, which are dangerous and we are protected from by the god Thunor. First, there is the world of the gods, Osgeard (pronounced Os-yaird). Anglo Saxon Paganism is a polytheist faith, which acknowledges many different types of spirits. Alaric says that what sets some out as our gods is they have “sovereignty”, in other words, the title “god” is a “job description.” They protect and guide us, while we give them gifts and devotion. Saxon Paganism is not a faith that sees the gods as archetypes, but as real, existing, independent individuals with their own goals, plans and personalities. This Polytheism also allows the Saxon Pagan to be a tolerant person because they can acknowledge the reality of the gods of other religions, without having to worship those other gods themselves. That said, he recommends that if we do follow gods from other pantheons too, they should have separate altars and rituals in order to avoid being rude.
While Osgeard is seen as being above us, there is another world to the east where the sun rises, and another to the west where the sun sets. In the East is Ettinham – the land of the Ettins (giants), who are dangerous primal spirits, but they are not evil. Wanham is the world in the west. This is where the Wanic powers live, and they don’t really take much interest in us except for the few who have halls in Osgeard. To the North and South, lie the elemental realms (not worlds) of fire and ice. In the Anglo-Saxon worldview (based on Norse sources), the universe came about because of a collision between the ice and fire coming from these realms. They are inhabited by the “Thyrses” who are purely destructive spirits and who are never honoured. Directly above us and below us are two further worlds – Elfham and Dwarfham inhabited by the nature spirits. These spirits can be friendly or hostile to us, but if we treat them with respect they can become useful allies. The land of light, Elfham, contains the spirits who nurture the land, such as woodlands around us. While the land of the dark elves, the dwarves, is like a womb where new things are brought into existence. Interestingly, the Sun in Anglo-Saxon thought is a female deity and she is called the “glory of elves.”
Finally there is Hel. This is not the horrible fiery place of Christian invention, but rather the realm of the dead and the goddess Hel. The god Bealdor also went there when he died (yes in Saxon Paganism, the gods can die – and will – at Ragnarok). Hel is the hall of our ancestors, and what awaits us there will depend on how we have acted towards others in this life – will we have a hall of friends awaiting us, or one of enemies?
Alaric finishes by pointing out that there are many ways to be a Saxon Pagan, but he points out that what unites us all is “love and reverence for the Saxon gods.”
In this chapter, the author explains the history and worldview of the Anglo Saxons. He shows that they were a polytheist people who worshipped many gods, as well as acknowledging a range of other spirits including the dead, nature spirits, and the more dangerous Ettins and Thyrses. They saw the universe as made up of multiple dimensions and the soul as made up of multiple parts. Agriculture was important to them, but so was poetry, story and music. They brought their religion and culture to the British Isles when the Roman Empire collapsed, but unfortunately many left their ancestral ways and converted to a foreign god – Yahweh, with the last Pagan king dying in 665AD. While the practice of their religion died off, their culture and language continue to influence us today and even their gods are remembered in the days of our week and the Christianised festival of Easter. Now, thanks to modern archaeology, history and comparative religious studies, we are able to re-build an approximation of their faith once more, renew the worship of the old gods, and return to the elder customs again.