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The left half of the front panel of the 7th century Franks Casket, depicting the Germanic legend of Weyland Smith.

Anglo-Saxon paganism is the form of Germanic paganism practiced by the Anglo-Saxons in England, from the Anglo-Saxon invasion in the mid 5th century until the early 8th century[citation needed] when it was eradicated as a result of Christianization, with some aspects gradually blending into folklore. As with most religions designated as paganism (also heathendom, heathenism), it was a polytheistic tradition, focused around the worship of deities known as the ése (singular ós, the equivalent to the Norse æsir). The most prominent of these deities appear to have been Woden and Thunor, leading the religion to having been called Wodenism during the 19th century.[1]

The religion largely revolved around animal sacrifice to these deities,[2] particularly at certain religious festivals during the year. The religious beliefs also had a bearing on the structure of Anglo-Saxon society, which was hierarchical, with kings often claiming a direct ancestral lineage from a god, particularly Woden.

Most of what is known about Anglo-Saxon paganism comes from the study of the few first hand written accounts that survive from this period, such as those found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, through the study of literature from the later Christian period such as the Beowulf poem,[3] and also from the available archaeological evidence.



Anglo-Saxon England, divided into many smaller kingdoms such as Mercia and Wessex, around the time of Christianisation.

The Anglo-Saxon tribes were not united before the 7th century, with seven main kingdoms, known collectively as the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. Certain deities and religious practices were specific to certain localities.

Our literary sources on Anglo-Saxon England set in with Christianization only, leaving the pagan 6th century in the prehistoric "Dark" of Sub-Roman Britain. Our best sources of information on the pagan period are 7th to 8th century testimonies, such as Beowulf[4] and the Franks Casket, which had already seen Christian redaction but which nevertheless reflect a living memory of pagan traditions.

The transition of the Anglo-Saxons from paganism to Christianity took place gradually, over the course of the 7th century, influenced on one side by Celtic Christianity and the Irish mission, on the other by Roman Catholicism introduced to England by Augustine of Canterbury in 597. The Anglo-Saxon nobility were nearly all converted within a century, but paganism among the rural population, as in other Germanic lands, didn't so much die out as gradually blend into folklore.

As elsewhere, Christianization involved the adoption of pagan folk culture into a Christian context, including the conversion of sacrificial sites and pagan feast days. Pope Gregory the Great instructed Abbot Mellitus that:

I have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols in England should not on any account be destroyed. Augustine must smash the idols, but the temples themselves should be sprinkled with holy water, and altars set up in them in which relics are to be enclosed. For we ought to take advantage of well-built temples by purifying them from devil-worship and dedicating them to the service of the true God.[5]

The question of religious allegiance of the individual kings was not a political one, and there is no evidence of any military struggle of a pagan vs. a Christian faction as in that between Blot-Sweyn and Inge the Elder during the 1080s in the Christianization of Sweden, and no military "crusade" as in the 8th century Saxon Wars of Charlemagne's. Each king was free to convert to Christianty as he pleased, due to the sacral nature of kingship in Germanic society automatically entailing the conversion of his subjects. The only exception may be found in the war of Penda of Mercia against Northumbria. Penda exceptionally allied himself with the Welsh Kingdom of Gwynedd against his Anglo-Saxon neighbours. In the Battle of Hatfield Chase, Penda together with Cadwallon ap Cadfan (who was nominally a Christian but according to Bede given to barbarous cruelty[6]) resulted in the death of Edwin of Northumbria (who had been baptized in 627). As a result, Northumbria fell into chaos and was divided between Eanfrith and Osric, who both reverted to paganism as they rose to power. Both Eanfrith and Osric were killed in battle against Cadwallon within the year. Cadwallon was in turn defeated by Oswald of Northumbria in the Battle of Heavenfield shortly after. Penda again defeated Oswald at the Battle of Maserfield in 641, ending in Oswald's death and dismemberment. The outcome of the battle ended "Northumbrian imperialism south of the Humber" and established Penda as the most powerful Mercian ruler so far to have emerged in the midlands and "the most formidable king in England,"[7] a position he maintained until his death in the Battle of Winwaed in 655.

Charles Plummer, writing in 1896, describes the defeat of Penda as "decisive as to the religious destiny of the English".[8] Bede makes clear, however, that the war between Mercia and Northumbria was not religiously motivated: Penda tolerated the preaching of Christianity in Mercia, even including the baptism of his own heir, and held those reverting to paganism after receiving baptism in despise for their faithlessness.[9] This testament of Penda's religious tolerance is particularly credible, as Bede tends to exaggerate Mercian barbarism in his account of Oswald as a saintly defender of the Christian faith.

After Penda's death, Mercia was converted, and all the kings who ruled thereafter were Christian, including Penda's sons Peada, who had already been baptized with his father's permission, as the condition set by king Oswiu of Northumbria for the marriage of his daughter Alchflaed to Peada, to the husband's misfortune, according Bede, who informs us that Peada was "very wickedly killed" through his wife's treachery "during the very time of celebrating Easter" in 656.[10]

Penda's death in 655 may be taken as marking the decisive decline of paganism in England. Some smaller kingdoms continued to crown openly pagan Kings, but newly-Christian Mercia became instrumental in their conversion. In 660 Essex crowned the pagan king Swithhelm. Swithhelm accepted baptism in 662 but his successor Sighere of Essex encouraged a pagan rebellion in 665 which was only suppressed when Wulfhere of Mercia intervened and established himself as overlord of Essex. It is not recorded if Sighere ever accepted baptism but he was forced to marry Wulfhere's Christian niece, who he later divorced.

Æthelwealh of Sussex accepted baptism at the behest of Wulfhere of Mercia, although the year in unrecorded. In 681 the Bishop Wilfrid arrived in Sussex to begin preaching to the general population. Bede records that the king had converted "not long previously", but Wulfhere had died in 675. Therefore Æthelwealh's baptism can only be assigned with certainty to Wulfhere's reign of 658-675, although it was probably at the very end of this period.

This left the Isle of Wight as the last openly pagan kingdom. Wulfhere of Mercia had invaded in 661 and forced the islanders to convert, but as soon as he left they had reverted to paganism. They remained pagan until 686 when they were invaded by Cædwalla of Wessex. The last openly pagan king Arwald was killed in battle defending his kingdom, which was ethnically cleansed and incorporated into the Kingdom of Wessex. His heirs were baptised and then executed.

Cædwalla himself was unbaptised when he invaded the Isle of Wight. But throughout his reign he acted in cooperation with the church and gave the church a quarter of the Isle of the Wight. He abdicated in 688 and traveled to Rome to be baptised in 689.

Wilfrid was still converting the Pagan population of Sussex in 686. In 695 Wessex issued a law code proscribing fines for failing to baptise one's children and for failing to tithe.

By the 8th century, Anglo-Saxon England was at least nominally Christian, the Anglo-Saxon mission contributing significantly to the Christianization of the continental Frankish Empire. Germanic paganism again briefly returned to England in the form of Norse paganism, which was brought to the country by Norse Vikings from Scandinavia in the 9th to 10th century, but which again succumbed to Christianisation. Thus, mention of the Norse "Thor, lord of ogres" is found in a runic charm discovered inserted in the margin of an Anglo-Saxon manuscript from the year 1073.[11] Polemics against lingering pagan customs continue into the 9th and 10th centuries, e.g. in the Laws of Ælfred (ca. 890), but England was an unambiguously Christian kingdom by the High Medieval period.



"A worm came creeping, he tore a man in two, then Woden took nine Glory-Twigs, then struck the adder, that it flew apart into nine [bits]... [Woden] established [the nine herbs] and sent [them] into the seven worlds, for the poor and the rich, a remedy for all, it stands against pain, it fights against poison, it avails against three and against thirty, against foe's hand and against noble scheming, against enchantment of vile creatures."

Currently, very little is known about the cosmology featured in Anglo-Saxon paganism. In the Nine Herbs Charm, there is a mention of "seven worlds", which may indicate that the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons believed in seven realms. The Anglo-Saxons referred to the realm humans live on as Middangeard, (which was cognate to the Old Norse Midgard) and also to a realm called Neorxnawang, corresponding to the Christian idea of Heaven. Whilst these are terms used in a Christian context, some scholars have theorised that they may have originally been used to apply to earlier pagan realms.[12] Similarly, in the Crist poem, there is a mention of Earendel, which may have been a name of the morning star, identified in the poem with John the Baptist (who heralds the coming of the Christ as the morning star heralds the Sun). Various scholars, such as Brian Branston[13] and Clive Tolley[14] have suggested that the pagan Anglo-Saxons held a belief in a world tree, similar to the Norse concept of Yggdrasil, though there is no solid evidence for this.

The Anglo-Saxon concept corresponding to fate was wyrd,[15] although the "pagan" nature of this conception is subject to some debate; Dorothy Whitelock suggested that it was a belief held only after Christianisation,[16] while Branston maintained that wyrd had been an important concept for the pagan Anglo-Saxons.[17] A description of how the pagan Anglo-Saxons viewed fate, or wyrd and the afterlife was given by the Christian monk, the Venerable Bede, who stated that the heathens viewed "life and death as being like the experience of a sparrow who flies out of a freezing night into a warm hall full of feasting and merriment, and then out into the night again".[15]


Anglo-Saxon paganism was a polytheistic faith, worshipping many deities, who were known as ése. The most popular god appears to have been Woden, as "traces of his cult are scattered more widely over the rolling English countryside than those of any other heathen deity".[18] The importance of Woden can also be seen in the fact that he was euhemerized as an ancestor of the royal houses of Kent, Wessex, East Anglia and Mercia.[19] There are traces of Woden in English folklore and toponymy, where he appears as the leader of the Wild Hunt and he is referred to as a healer in the Nine Herbs Charm, directly paralleling the role of his continental German parallel Wodan in the Merseburg Incantations.[19] The second most widespread deity from Anglo-Saxon England appears to be the god Thunor, who was a god of the sky and thunder and who was "a friend of the common man",[20] in contrast to Woden who was primarily associated with royalty. It has been suggested that the hammer and the swastika were the god's symbols, representing thunderbolts, and both of these symbols have been found in Anglo-Saxon graves, the latter being common on cremation urns.[21] A third Anglo-Saxon god that we know about was Tiw, who, in the Anglo-Saxon rune poem Tir is identified with the star Polaris rather than with a deity, although it has been suggested that Tiw was likely a war deity.[22]

Perhaps the most prominent female deity in Anglo-Saxon paganism was Fríge, however there is still very little evidence for her worship, although it has been speculated that she was "a goddess of love or festivity".[22] Another Anglo-Saxon divinity was Frey, who is mentioned in both The Dream of the Rood and a poem by the monk Caedmon, in both of which he is compared to the later Christian god Jesus Christ, indicating that Frey was perhaps a sacrificial deity.[22] The East Saxon tribe who settled in southern England and formed the kingdom of Essex claimed to be the descendents of a god known as Seaxnēat, of whom little is known,[23] whilst a runic poem mentions a god known as Ingui and the writer Asser mentioned a god known as Gēat.[23] The Christian monk known as the Venerable Bede also mentioned two further goddesses in his written works; Eostre, who was celebrated at a spring festival, and Hretha, whose name meant "glory".[23]


Besides the ése, Anglo-Saxons also believed in other supernatural beings or "wights", such as elves, and household deities, known as Cofgodas.[citation needed] These would guard a specific household, and would be given offerings so that they would continue. After Christianisation, it is believed that the belief in Cofgodas survived through the form of the fairy being known as the Hob. Similar beliefs are found in other pagan belief systems, such as the Lares of Roman paganism and the Agathodaemon of Ancient Greek religion.[citation needed]

In Anglo-Saxon England, elves (aelfe) were viewed as malevolant beings who could bring harm to humans. In the 10th century Metrical Charm "Against A Sudden Stitch" (Wið færstice), it states that various forms of sickness, such as rheumatism, could be induced by "elfshot" - arrows fired by elves. They were believed to possess a type of magic known as siden.[24] Alongside the elves, other supernatural beings included dwarves (or dweorgas), ettins (or eoten) and dragons.[citation needed]

Legend and poetry

A 1908 depiction of Beowulf fighting the dragon, by J. R. Skelton.

In pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon England, legends and other stories were transmitted orally instead of being written down - it is for this reason that very few survive to us today. After Christianisation however, certain poems were indeed written down, with surviving examples including the Nine Herbs Charm, The Dream of the Rood, Waldere and most notably Beowulf. Whilst these contain many Christianised elements, there were certain mentions of earlier pagan deities and practices contained within them.

One of the most prominent surviving myths of the pagan Anglo-Saxons was that of the brothers Hengest and Horsa, who are named in historical sources as leaders of the earliest Anglo-Saxon incursions in the south of Britain. The name Hengest means "stallion" and Horsa means "horse", reminiscent of the horse sacrifice connected to the inauguration of pagan kings. Another important mythological figure is Weyland the smith, a figure who also appeared in other forms of Germanic mythology. An image of Weyland adorns the Franks Casket, an Anglo-Saxon royal hoard box and was meant there to refer to wealth and partnership.[25]

The only surviving Anglo-Saxon epic poem is the story of Beowulf, known only from a surviving manuscript that was written down by a Christian monk sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries CE. The story it tells is set not in England but in Scandinavia, and revolves around a Geatish warrior named Beowulf who travels to Denmark to defeat a monster known as Grendel who is terrorising the kingdom of Hrothgar, and later, Grendel's Mother as well. Following this, he later becomes the king of Geatland before finally dying in battle with a dragon. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was commonly believed that Beowulf was not an Anglo-Saxon pagan tale, but a Scandinavian Christian one; it wasn't until the influential critical essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien, delivered in 1936, that Beowulf was established as a quintessentially English poem which, while Christian, looked back on a living memory of paganism.[26]

Cultic practice

Worship and sacrifice

The pagan Anglo-Saxons worshipped at a variety of different sites, known as hearg or hearh; these included both specially built temples as well as certain geographical features of the landscape such as sacred trees, hilltops or wells. It has been suggested however that sometimes these temples would have actually been built alongside these pre-existing sacred sites in the landscape.[27] Each of these hearh may have been devoted to a specific deity, for instance, in several cases, a grove of trees would be devoted to just one god, as can be seen from the town of Thundersley (from Thunor's Grove), which was devoted to the god Thunor. In 2008, the historian Thor Ewing suggested that some of these sites were not dedicated to a well known deity, but simply to a local animistic one, who was believed to inhabit that very spot.[28] The term for an altar or sacrificial site was weoh, the one for temple was ealh. Two such sites have been excavated by archaeologists, one being a part of a complex at Yeavering, Northumberland.[29][30] These temples were, like virtually all Anglo-Saxon buildings, "wooden-framed" and contained "an altar and a likeness of one or more gods".[27] During the later process of Christianisation, Pope Gregory the Great declared that such temples should not be destroyed, but converted into churches,[31] although no such examples of these converted buildings survive today.

The pagan Anglo-Saxons performed animal sacrifice in honour of the gods. It appears that they emphasised the killing of oxen over other animals, as suggested by both written[2] and archaeological evidence.[29] Sacrifice itself was not only found in Anglo-Saxon paganism, but was also common in other Germanic pagan religions, for instance the Norse practised a blood sacrifice known as Blót. The Christian monk Bede records that November (Old English Blótmónaþ "the month of sacrifice") was particularly associated with sacrificial practices:

Bede's original Old English:
Se mónaþ is nemned on Léden Novembris, and on úre geþeóde blótmónaþ, forðon úre yldran, ðá hý hǽðene wǽron, on ðam mónþe hý bleóton á, ðæt is, ðæt hý betǽhton and benémdon hyra deófolgyldum ða neát ða ðe hý woldon syllan.
Modern English translation:
"This month is called Novembris in Latin, and in our language the month of sacrifice, because our forefathers, when they were heathens, always sacrificed in this month, that is, that they took and devoted to their idols the cattle which they wished to offer."[32]

Many Germanic peoples are recorded as conducting human sacrifice, yet there is no firm evidence that such a practice was performed by the Anglo-Saxons, although there is speculation that twenty three of the bodies buried at the Sutton Hoo burial site were sacrificial victims clustered around a sacred tree from which they had been hung.[33] Alongside this, some have suggested that the corpse of an Anglo-Saxon woman found at Sewerby on the Yorkshire Wolds suggested that she had been buried alive alongside a nobleman, possibly as a sacrifice, or to accompany him to the afterlife.[34]


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 1200 Anglo-Saxon pagan cemeteries. There was no set form of burial amongst the pagan Anglo-Saxons, with cremation being preferred amongst the Angles in the north and inhumation amongst 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,[35] sometimes along with grave goods.[36] Free Anglo-Saxon men were buried with at least one weapon in the pagan tradition, often a seax, but sometimes also with a spear, sword or shield, or a combination of these. Wealthy individuals were buried with rich grave goods. There are also various recorded cases of animal skulls, particularly oxen but also pig, being buried in human graves, a practice that was also found in earlier Roman Britain.[34]

One of the tumulus burial mounds at Sutton Hoo.

Eventually, in the 6th and 7th 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.[37] Burial mounds remained objects of veneration in early Anglo-Saxon Christianity, and numerous churches were built next to tumuli. Another form of burial was that of ship burials, which were practiced by many of the Germanic peoples across northern Europe. In many cases it seems that the corpse was placed within a ship which was then either sent out to sea or left on land, but in both cases then set alight. 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.[37] Both ship and tumulus burials were described in the Beowulf poem, through the funerals of Scyld Scefing and Beowulf respectively.

There are also many cases where corpses have been found decapitated, for instance, at a mass grave in Thetford, Norfolk, fifty beheaded individuals were discovered, their heads possibly having been taken as trophies of war. In other cases of decapitation it seems possible that it was evidence of human sacrifice or execution.[36]


Everything that we know about the religious festivals of the pagan Anglo-Saxons comes from a book written by the Christian monk, the Venerable Bede, entitled De temporum ratione, meaning The Reckoning of Time,[38] in which he described the calendar of the year. The pagan Anglo-Saxons followed a calendar comprised of 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 Mother Night), which was situated at the Winter solstice and which marked the start of the Anglo-Saxon year.[15][39]

Following this festival, in the month of Solmonað (February), Bede claims that the pagans offered cakes to their deities.[39] Then, in Eostur-monath Aprilis (April), a spring festival was celebrated, dedicated to the goddess Eostre,[15] and the later Christian festival of Easter took its name from this month and its goddess. The month of September was known as Halegmonath, meaning Holy Month, which may indicate that it had special religious significance.[15] The month of November was known as Blod-Monath, meaning Blood Month, and was commemorated with animal sacrifice, both in offering to the gods, and also likely to gather a source of food to be stored over the winter.[15]

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".[40]

Ritual drinking

In Anglo-Saxon England, a feudal lord would organise a banquet known as a symbel for his retainers, whether they be Christian or pagan. Paul C. Bauschatz in 1976 suggested that the term reflects a specifically pagan ritual in origin which had a "great religious significance in the culture of the early Germanic people".[41] Bauschatz' lead is followed only sporadically in contemporary scholarship, but his interpretation has inspired drinking-rituals in Germanic neopaganism.

Regardless of its possible religious connotations, the symbel had a central function in maintaining hierarchy and allegiance in Anglo-Saxon warrior society. The symbel takes place in the chieftain's mead hall. It involved drinking ale or mead from a drinking horn, speech making (which often included formulaic boasting and oaths), and gift-giving. Eating and feasting were specifically excluded from symbel, and no alcohol was set aside for the gods or other deities in the form of a sacrifice.[42]

Magic and witchcraft

Anglo-Saxon pagans believed in magic and witchcraft. There are various Old English terms for "witch", including hægtesse "witch, fury", whence Modern English hag, wicca, gealdricge, scinlæce and hellrúne. The belief in witchcraft was suppressed in the 9th to 10th century as is evident e.g. from the Laws of Ælfred (ca. 890).

The Christian authorities attempted to stamp out a belief and practice in witchcraft, with Theodore's Penitential 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".[43] Similarly, in the Disciplus Umbrensium, it condemns those "who observe auguries, omens or dreams or any other prophecies after the manner of the pagans".[43]

The word wiccan "witches" is associated with animistic healing rites in Halitgar's Latin Penitential 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 phrase swa wiccan tæcaþ ("as the witches teach") seems to be an addition to Halitgar's original, added by an eleventh century Old English translator.[44]

Pagan society

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 tribe was bound together by a code of customary proper behaviour or sidu regulating the contracts (ǽ) and conflicts between the individual families or sibbs within the tribe. The aristocratic society arrayed below the king included the ranks of ealdorman, thegn, heah-gerefa and gerefa.[45] An eorl was a man of rank, as opposed to the ordinary freeman, known as ceorl. Free men were also a part of a hierarchy, with at least three different ranks (reflected in different amounts of weregild due for individuals of different ranks), although all free men had the right to participate in things (folkmoots). Germanic pagan society practiced slavery, and such slaves or unfree serfs were known as esne, and later also as theows.

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 would in turn be obliged to show generosity to their followers.[46]


The pagan Anglo-Saxons inherited the common Germanic institution of sacral kingship. A king (cyning) was elected from among elegible members of a royal family or cynn by the witena gemōt, an assembly of an elite which replaced the earlier folkmoot which was the equivalent of the Germanic thing, the assembly of all free men. 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.[47] The central importance of the institution of kingship is illustrated by the twenty-six synonyms for "king" employed by the Beowulf poet.[48]

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 realized office than a subjectively perceived status" and emphasizes the partiality of its usage in favour of Southumbrian kings.[49]

Many Anglo-Saxon pagan kings made the claim that they were the semi-divine descendants of Woden, an idea that was transformed after Christianisation into the idea of the Divine Right of Christian monarchs ruling By the Grace of God (Dei Gratia).


Records of Anglo-Saxon law codes dating to the 7th century have survived, compiled by Æthelberht of Kent (c. 602 AD), by Hlothhære and Eadric of Kent, and by Ine of Wessex (c. 694 AD) soon after their conversion to Christianity. Other codes survive from the 8th to 9th centuries, notably the Laws of Alfred the Great, dating to the 890s.

These law codes contain laws particular to the Church, including the churchfrith offering protection to a wanted criminal within a church building.[50] The secular portions of the laws nevertheless clearly record tribal laws of the pagan period.[51] Characteristic are its prescriptions of compensation payments or bots, including a weregild to be paid in the case of manslaughter, as opposed to corporeal punishments. The relative amounts of the fines allow an insight into the value system in Anglo-Saxon society. The highest fines in Æthelberht's law code are for the killing of people under the direct protection of the king, and equal fines are paid for adultery with an unmarried woman of the king's household. Alfred has a special law against drawing a weapon in the king's hall. Alfred does prescribe corporeal punishments, such as the cutting out of the tongue, which may however be averted by paying a weregild. Alfred also sets down rules on how to lawfully fight out feuds. Such fights are considered orwige, meaning that deaths resulting from them do not fall under manslaughter. An enemy caught within his home may be besieged for seven days but not attacked unless he tries to escape. If he surrenders, he must be kept safe for thirty days to allow him to call for help from his kinsmen and friends, or beg aid from an ealdorman or from the king. A follower may fight orwige if his lord is attacked. In the same way, a lord may fight for his follower, or any man may fight orwige with his born kinsman excepting against his lord. A man may also fight orwige against another man caught committing adultery with his wife, sister, daughter or mother.

References to ordeals and capital punishment appear in 10th century codes only. Strangely, the wager of battle does not appear to figure in Anglo-Saxon law in spite of being a Germanic pagan custom in origin, but is introduced in England only under Norman rule.


Place names

Many place names in England are named after various things to do with Anglo-Saxon paganism. A number of towns and villages, such as Weedon, Wyville and Harrowden have terms like ealh, weoh and hearh incorporated into them, indicating that they were places used for worship by the pagan Anglo-Saxons, and from using this toponymy, sixty sites of pagan worship have been identified across the country.[52] Other sites are named after specific Anglo-Saxon deities, for instance, Frigedene and Freefolk are named after Frige, Thundersley after Thunor, and Woodway House, Woodnesborough and Wansdyke named after Woden.[53]

Days of the Week

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:

Modern English day name Old English day name English day name meaning Glossed from Latin day name Latin day name meaning
Monday Mōnandæg "Moon's day", personified in related Norse mythology as the god Máni Dies Lunae "Day of the Luna", the personified moon in Roman mythology
Tuesday Tiwesdæg "Tiw's day" Dies Martis "Day of Mars"
Wednesday Wōdnesdæg "Woden's day" Dies Mercurii "Day of Mercury"
Thursday Þūnresdæg "Thunor's day" Dies Iovis "Day of Jupiter"
Friday Frigedæg "*Frija's day" Dies Veneris "Day of Venus"
Saturday Sæturnesdæg "Saturn's day" Dies Saturni "Day of Saturn"
Sunday Sunnandæg "Sun's day", personified as the goddess Sól/Sunna among other Germanic peoples Dies Solis "Day of the Sun", the sun is personified as Sol in Roman mythology

Folkloric Survivals

Various aspects of English folklore from the Mediaeval onwards have been interpreted as being survivals from Anglo-Saxon paganism. For instance, the winter custom of the Yule log was believed to be a leftover from Anglo-Saxon paganism by Henry Bourne in the 1720s, however this has been disputed by some subsequent researchers like Ronald Hutton, who believe that it was only introduced into England in the 17th century from Flanders.[54] The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, which is performed annually at Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire has also been claimed, by some, to be a remnant of paganism. The antlers used in the dance are reindeer and have been carbon dated to the 11th century, and it is believed that they therefore originated in Norway as by this time reindeer were extinct in Britain.[55]

Historical study

Whilst historical investigation into Germanic paganism and its mythology began in the 17th century with Peder Resen's Edda Islandorum (1665), this largely focused only upon Norse mythology, much of which was preserved in Old Icelandic sources. In the 18th 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 1748. In the 19th century this developed into two movements within the British educated elite, one of which was composed of Scandophiles and the other of Germanophiles, who associated the English with either the Scandinavians or the Germans, respectively.[56] With nascent nationalism in early 19th-century Europe, by the 1830s both Nordic and German philology had produced "national mythologies" in Nikolai Grundtvig's Nordens Mytologi and Jacob Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie, respectively. 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 Christianized essentially from the moment of their arrival in Britain.[57]

The study of Anglo-Saxon paganism began only in the mid 19th century, with the publication of John Yonge Akerman's Remains of Pagan Saxondom (1855). 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" (p. vii). From this point onward, more scholarly research into the Anglo-Saxons' pagan religion was produced, resulting in the publication of further books devoted to the subject such as Brian Branston's The Lost Gods of England (1957), David Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Paganism (1992) and Kathy Herbert's Looking for the Lost Gods of England (1994).


Raymond Buckland's The Tree (1974), which called for a return to the worship of Anglo-Saxon deities.

In the 20th century, with the rise of the Neopagan movement, a reconstructed form of Anglo-Saxon paganism arose in the 1970s as a subset of Germanic neopaganism, in the form of Theodism. It was founded by Garman Lord, who had originally been a Wiccan in the Gardnerian tradition. In 1971, Lord formed a Wiccan coven which placed an emphasise on using the iconography from Anglo-Saxon paganism, named The Coven Witan of Anglo-Saxon Wicca. However, Lord later abandoned any use of Wiccan teachings, instead focusing entirely upon the resurrection of the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon religion in 1976 after supposedly having a vision of the deities Woden and Frige.[58]

Similarly, the Wiccan who introduced the Gardnerian tradition to the United States, Raymond Buckland, later wrote a book in 1973 entitled The Tree in which he outlined the creation of a tradition known as Seax-Wica, which uses the symbolism and iconography of Anglo-Saxon paganism, but in a traditional Wiccan framework.


  1. ^ Atkinson, John C (1891). Forty Years in a Moorland Parish. "Wodenism was so completely vanquished [by 7th to 8th century Christianization] that even the coming of the Danes [in the 9th to 10th century Viking Age] failed to revive it."
  2. ^ a b Ewing (2008:24).
  3. ^ Branston (1957:36).
  4. ^ Beowulf is dated to the 8th century by some scholars, notably J. R. R. Tolkien (Tolkien, J.R.R. (1958). Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics. London: Oxford University Press. p. 127. ), but as late as the 11th by others
  5. ^ Branston, page 45
  6. ^ "so barbarous in his disposition and behaviour, that he neither spared the female sex, nor the innocent age of children, but with savage cruelty put them to tormenting deaths, ravaging all their country for a long time, and resolving to cut off all the race of the English within the borders of Britain."Bede, H. E., Book II, chapter 20.
  7. ^ F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (1943), third edition (1971), Oxford University Press, p. 83
  8. ^ Venerabilis Baedae Historiam ecclesiasticam gentis Anglorum, ed. Charles Plummer (1896), Oxonii, page 184.
  9. ^ "Nor did King Penda obstruct the preaching of the word among his people, the Mercians, if any were willing to hear it; but, on the contrary, he hated and despised those whom he perceived not to perform the works of faith, when they had once received the faith, saying, 'They were contemptible and wretched who did not obey their God, in whom they believed.'" Bede, B. III, Ch. XXI.
  10. ^ Bede, H. E., Book III, chapter 24.
  11. ^ Macleod. Mees (2006:120).
  12. ^ Jeep (2001:554)
  13. ^ Branston (1957:64).
  14. ^ Tolley (2009) - "What is a World Tree and Why Should We Expect to Find One in Anglo-Saxon England?" at the Woodlands, Trees and Timber in the Anglo-Saxon World conference, Institute of Archaeology, University College London.
  15. ^ a b c d e f Hutton (1991:272).
  16. ^ Branston (1957:34).
  17. ^ Branston (1957:57).
  18. ^ Branston (1957:29).
  19. ^ a b Hutton (1991:265).
  20. ^ Branston (1957:30).
  21. ^ Hutton (1991:266).
  22. ^ a b c Hutton (1991:267).
  23. ^ a b c Hutton (1991:268),
  24. ^ Ewing (2008:115)
  25. ^ [1]
  26. ^ "Beowulf is not an actual picture of historic Denmark or Gautland or Sweden circa A.D. 500. But it [...] must have succeeded admirably in creating in the minds of the poet's contemporaries the illusion of surveying a past, pagan but not ignoble and fraught still with a deep significance, [...] an effect and a justification of the use of episodes and allusions to old tales—which are all notably darker, more pagan, and despairing than the foreground."
  27. ^ a b Branston (1957:47).
  28. ^ Ewing (2008:47).
  29. ^ a b Ewing (2008:25—26).
  30. ^ Branston (1957:25).
  31. ^ Branston (1957:44—45).
  32. ^ [2] trans. Joseph Bosworth
  33. ^ Ewing (2008:17).
  34. ^ a b Hutton (1991:274).
  35. ^ See, for example, the Wold Newton urns -
  36. ^ a b Hutton (1991:275)
  37. ^ a b Hutton (1991:277)
  38. ^ Hutton (1991:271).
  39. ^ a b Branston (1957:41).
  40. ^ Branston (1957:42—43).
  41. ^ First proposed at the Third International Conference of Nordic and General Linguistics, at the University of Texas at Austin, April 5–9, 1976 (published in 1978), elaborated in Bauschatz, "The Germanic ritual feast" and The Well and the Tree; Pollington, Mead-hall.
  42. ^ Bauschatz (74-75).
  43. ^ a b Ewing (2008:83)
  44. ^ Petterson, David C. Hostile Witnesses: Rescuing the History of Witchcraft from the Writings of Scholars and Churchmen. PO Box 62266, St. Louis Pk, Minnesota 55426: David C. Petterson. 
  45. ^ Kemble, Saxons in England (1876) II. v. 151-181
  46. ^ Halsall (1989:155—177).
  47. ^ Chaney (1970).
  48. ^ Bowra (1952:244).
  49. ^ Wormald (118—119).
  50. ^ Chaney (1970:174). Chaney notes that:

    "The written formulation of law is largely stimulated by an attempt to cope with the new religion."

  51. ^ Chaney (1970:174-176). Chaney notes that:

    "In Kentish law, for example, dooms concerning the church show less alliteration and may be taken as newer. ... the principal features of the first Anglo-Saxon codes arfe the concrete and specific nature of their dooms and the elliptical, unelaborated method of recording what the tribal practice had been."

  52. ^ P. H. Reany (1960). The Origin of English Placenames. Page 117.
  53. ^ Branston (1957:29—30).
  54. ^ Hutton (1996:39-41)
  55. ^ Jones and Pennick (1995:159)
  56. ^ Tom Shippey, Tolkien and Iceland: The Philology of Envy (2002).
  57. ^ Branston (1957:27).
  58. ^ History of Theodish Belief.


  • Akerman, John Yonge (1855). Remains of Pagan Saxondom. London: John Russel Smith.
  • Branston, Brian (1957). The Lost Gods of England. Thames & Hudson.
  • Bowra, C. M. (1952). Heroic Poetry.
  • Chaney, William A. (1970). The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity. University of California Press.
  • Ewing, Thor (2008). Gods and Worshippers in the Viking and Germanic World. Tempus Publishing. ISBN 0752435906.
  • Griffiths, Bill (1996). Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic. Anglo-Saxon Books. ISBN 1898281335.
  • Halsall, Guy (1989). 'Anthropology and the Study of Pre-Conquest Warfare and Society: The Ritual War in Anglo-Saxon England' in Hawkes (editor) (1989). Weapons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England.
  • Herbert, Kathy (1994). Looking for the Lost Gods of England. Anglo-Saxon Books. ISBN 1898281041.
  • Jones, Prudence and Pennick, Nigel (1995). A History of Pagan Europe. Routledge. ISBN 0415091365.
  • Macleod, Mindy. Mees, Bernard (2006). Runic Amulets and Magic Objects. Boydell Press. ISBN 1843832054.
  • Hutton, Ronald (1991). The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Blackwell. ISBN 0631189467.
  • Hutton, Ronald (1996). The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain.
  • Wilson, David (1992). Anglo-Saxon Paganism. Routledge. ISBN 0415018978.
  • Wormald, Patrick. "Bede, Bretwaldas and the Origins of the Gens Anglorum.

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