Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries
The deities of the Anglo-Saxons
Back in 1997 Richard North published his study of Heathen Gods in Old English Literature. The preface begins:
When I started working on this book some ten years ago, I had no idea what the conclusion would be or how the project would end. That it now ends with Bede and a fertility god has surprised me and may be the last straw to some of Bede's modern readers, but is a conclusion to which some entirely unforeseen implications of the evidence led me.
Clearly, those who have read North's book can have none of the sense of the 'unforeseen implications' which surprised him. However those who have not read his book, or the subsequent scholarship which it influenced, will be in for some surprises.
Bear in mind the scope of Twilight is principally the fifth to ninth centuries. So f you are expecting lengthy discussions about Woden and Thor then you will be very disappointed. While Woden and Thunnor undoubtedly have their origins in the Anglo-Saxon period, they start out as very different deities from those they evolve into during the Anglo-Scandinavian era, with its heyday in the tenth and first half of the eleventh centuries. If you want reasonably up to date information on Scandinavian deities then Thor Ewing's book Gods and Worshippers in the Viking and Germanic World (Ewing 2008)offers an accessible overview, although he – understandably – avoids the more contentious areas of scholarship.
The Scandinavian deity Odin – or, more accurately, Óðinn (see pronunciation guide.) influenced his British 'counterpart' Woden. But it worked both ways: there is a complex relationship between the English deities Woden and Thor and their Scandinavian counterparts Óðinn and Þórr. Simplest to say that one pair is not the 'ancestor' of the other pair but rather that all four are the result of complex cultural interchange during the ninth to eleventh centuries. And that complexity becomes even more tangled if one starts to look at Thor's shared origins with the Germanic deities Donner and Taranis. Suffice to say that, like all aspects of culture, deities keep adapting and evolving…
For a moment we need to separate Angles from Saxons. The people who settled from Saxony – and gave their name to Wessex, Sussex, Middlesex and Essex – brought with them deities called Woden and Thor. However evidence for Woden and Thor among the people who settled from Anglia – the East Anglians and so forth – only begins to appear after the conversion to Christianity. Their principal deity was Ing or Ingui.
In any event, Óðinn was never as important or as 'coherent' a deity as we now think. How we think of Óðinn is largely a result of the way Snorri Sturlason compiled the sagas at the start of the thirteenth century. And he simply had more information about Óðinn than, say, Tyr – even though Tyr was probably the more 'senior' deity to most pre-conversion Scandinavians.
Snorri's smoke screenWhat is hidden behind the seeming coherence of Snorri's sagas is the extent to which the beliefs and religious practices associated with any of the Scandinavian deities varied both from place to place and over time. Simply because Christian clergy attempted to impose formal doctrines and creeds does not mean that pre-conversion religious leaders had the same compunctions. Indeed, there was little in the way of doctrines and creeds to be imposed. Christianity is one of the few religions where what people believe is considered more important than what they customarily do. And, even if the pre-conversion religious leaders had made any attempt to seek unity – and as there was no hierarchical structure this seems highly improbable – they could not have been any more successful at imposing unity than the medieval clergy. And all the available evidence is that the clergy largely failed to achieve more than a modicum of unity on even major doctrinal issues let alone more specific issues of liturgy. I discuss the extent of this 'local distinctiveness' before and after the conversion in two other articles, micro-Christendoms and micro-pagandoms.
Those who know anything about Scandinavian paganism will know that a group of gods known as the Aesir took over from an earlier group of deities called the Vanir. Exactly which deities originated with which group is sometimes a matter of intense scholarly debate, not helped by sometimes conflicting evidence in the surviving sagas. This because by the time the sagas are being written down this transition has started to become lost in the proverbial mists of time. But, when it took place, it was a major social change. At least one historian has referred to it as having much more significance than the much later shift to Christianity. We must assume that there was a 'melting pot' of two very contrasting cultures – quite probably when Germanic-speaking tribes left the original settlements in and around modern-day Denmark and began to settle among the Finno-Ugric speaking tribes then farming and fishing in southern Sweden and the coastal zone of Norway.
The Germanic-speaking tribes were to become known as Vikings and the Finno-Ugric tribes were gradually pushed northwards until they ended up as the reindeer herders we used to call Lapps but now call Saami. Nevertheless there seems to have been significant 'cultural exchange' so that Viking culture acquired ideas which are not found in north European Germanic culture. Some of these we might want to term 'shamanic' – and, no matter how much one might debate the exact meaning of 'shamanic', the Saami are undoubtedly a shamanic culture. And shamanic cultures are, necessarily, transcendent – there has to be a belief in an Otherworld to be able to travel shamanically to get there! I've written elsewhere about transcendent versus immanent worldviews (see The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol).
The pagans of eleventh century England
Does this matter? Strictly no, in that Twilight is concerned with Anglo-Saxon beliefs and worldviews before the Vikings begin to have any significant cultural influence on Britain. But that sentence also reveals why, in a slightly broader manner, it does matter. The Vikings had a very substantial influence on British culture, whether in the Danelaw of north-eastern England, the trading ports such as Yorvik, or during the reign of king Cnut (1016–35), whose centre of power was Winchester.
Although Anglo-Saxon Twilight is mostly concerned with religion in England before the late ninth century we do have more evidence for religion – both Christian and otherwise – after this time than before.
The Viking settlers of the late ninth century and after brought with them beliefs and practices similar to the paganism as depicted in the Scandinavian sagas recorded in the twelfth century. We know that such beliefs were being practised in England in the early eleventh century because the personal bodyguards of King Cnut were all pagan Vikings, although Cnut himself was Christian. Well, he identified himself as a Christian and commissioned the building of the New Minster in Winchester to operate alongside the Old Minster – yet also commissioned a carving of Sigurd – rather than, say, St Michael – slaying a dragon for one of these minsters.
We even know what Canute thought pagans got up to – or at what least his law-makers, who would have been trained clerics, thought:
Paganism is when one worships devil-idols, that is, one worships heathen gods, and sun or moon, fire or running water, springs, or stones or any kind of wood, or loves witchcraft or accomplishes ant murderous deed in any wise, either in sacrifice or divination, or performs any thing out of such mistaken ideas.
Cnut's power-base in Winchester must have been fascinatingly multicultural, with connections to the furthest parts of the far-flung Viking trading empire. His own empire made him an exemplary Viking – he was king of Denmark before taking the English throne, and later in his life he became king of Norway too. At the time neither Denmark nor Norway were fully converted to Christianity.
We are not accustomed to thinking of eleventh century England having a thriving pagan 'sub-culture'. But so much about that period of what is deemed to be 'early medieval England' is deeply influenced by 'late Iron Age Scandinavia'. Yes, the very same Cnut who is – in the words of English historians – an early medieval king, was – in the nomenclature of Scandinavian historians – brought up in a late Iron Age royal household. We should not of course get too distracted by the names which are given to different eras but in this case the names do reveal deep differences between different parts of Migration Era northern Europe (to throw in a third way academics refer to the same times and places).
What is really missing from these assorted monikers is any recognition of just how multicultural the Vikings were. They appear in the annals of Britain as plunderers and seekers of protection money, although often go unmentioned in their predominate roles as peaceful traders. Their sphere of influence extended directly up the Rhine, the Danube, the Elbe and their tributaries – where they were known there as the Rus and in due course gave their name to Russia – and traded goods brought through Byzantium from the both the Mediterranean region and from much further east along Silk Roads.
In the early eleventh century Winchester was the most important hub of Viking activities in Britain, and one of their larger power centres anywhere in Europe. It is largely written out of history because within a couple of generations the Norman Conquest had brought England within the sphere of influence of another posse of 'Northmen' or Vikings, albeit ones who had adopted Christianity and the French language.
As a result of these profound Scandinavian influences on Britain we should think of the tenth and eleventh centuries as much more Anglo-Scandinavian than Anglo-Saxon (although there were regional differences – Wessex, for example, being much less influenced by Vikings than Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria). Historians and archaeologists have considerably more evidence from this culturally complex Anglo-Scandinavian era than from the earlier Anglo-Saxon period (which in turn was probably as complex, but in ways we can mostly only speculate). The tendency has been to back-project the better-known Anglo-Scandinavian period onto the much less well-understood previous era. This is easy to do, simply because the lack of evidence means it is difficult to refute such sloppy thinking.
Sadly it is just such sloppy thinking from several decades ago which has led to the widespread misunderstanding of Anglo-Saxon religion. While it is wrong to single out just one author, to keep this discussion concise I will do just that! In the 1958 Brian Branston brought together everything that could reasonably be said about Anglo-Saxon paganism in a book called The Lost Gods of England (Branston 1958).. In the absence of any real alternative it shaped popular opinion – mine included – for the next three or more decades. However what could be reasonably said in the 1950s turns out to be almost entirely flawed. Simple and straightforward as Branston's account is, the reality was much less simple and straightforward. If you explore the articles which make up Twilight you will have a good many ideas why.
One of the biggest problems with Branston's approach is that he envisages we can understand English paganism by extrapolation of the Scandinavian sagas. To see how much scholarship has changed, read Stephen Pollington's book The Elder Gods (Pollington 2011).
It might be said of Branston's work that 'This is one of those seminal books whose arguments, perhaps, have not proved particularly enduring, but whose efffects most certainly have.' (Townend 2013: 107) Actually this judgement was passed, not on The Lost Gods of England, but on Peter Sawyer's book The Age of the Vikings (Sawyer 1962). Despite the profound weaknesses of both these books, their spectres still influence many more recent popular writers.
The Aelfe and the Dísir
Previously I have noted that Woden and Thor were not as important before the Viking settlement as they seem to have been after. Indeed, there seem to be few 'universal' deities in earlier Anglo-Saxon England. The most frequently mentioned is Ing, along with Wod – the 'precursor' to Woden. After that there are the briefest of references to Eostre and a deity who may have been called something like 'Nerthus' and may have been male – but might not have been…
But what we do pick up on is collective names for what seem to be essentially local spirits of place. In some ways these collective names seem to be counterparts to the Scandinavian words Vanir and Aesir. Yes, they are collective names. But the Scandinavian words refer to deities who can be either male or female. In contrast, the Old English word aelfe refers initially to male deities (albeit ones which may in some manner not stated be somewhat effeminate). Only after the conversion does the word aelf shift to meaning 'elves' and also change to denoting female entities.
Which means Old English must have had a collective name for female deities too. It was Modra – The Mothers. In a separate article, called The Mothers, I have written more extensively about them.
Aelfe were not elvesAlthough the Old English word aelf is indeed the origin of the modern word 'elf', we must be careful not to allow modern conceptions of elves to influence pre-conversions concepts of aelfe. As Alaric Hall writes:
The long-standing assumption that aelfe were incorporeal, small and arrow- shooting proves to be both unfounded and implausible. Traditionally, aelfe were conceptually similar both to gods and to human ethnic others, all of whom were opposed to monsters in Anglo-Saxon world-views. They were probably only male. In textual evidence, aelfe are paradigmatic examples of dangerously seductive beauty and they are possible causes of prophetic speech and certain kinds of ailments. They inflicted ailments at least at times by a variety of magic called siden, cognate with the much-discussed medieval Scandinavian magic seiğr. Both of these points associate aelfe with feminine- gendered traits, and I show that by the eleventh century, aelf could also denote otherworldly, nymph-like females. These otherworldly females seem to have been new arrivals in Anglo-Saxon belief-systems. Demonisation is clearly attested from around 800, but aelfe were not conflated with demons in all or even most discourses, even after the Old English period.
Alaric Hall's PhD is on line: 'The Meanings of Elf, and Elves, in Medieval England'
Hall and fellow academics such as Clive Tolley ( Tolley p217ff ) consider that the aelfe start out in Germany as the male counterparts to the female dísir (or asynja). Together the Aelfe and the dísir make up the local guardian spirits. This is consistent with references to blot ('sacrifices') for both Aelfe and dísir but not for other types of landwight (see Who were the landwights?). An early eleventh century source from Sweden sheds a little light on the alfablot ('sacrifices to the alfa') there, confirming that these rites took place in each family's home during late autumn.
More universal deities would have been thought of as the Vanir. Confusingly the sagas occasionally refer to the Vanir as types of aelfe or dísir . But we see similar confusion in the way 'Our Lady of X' is both distinct from and identical with the Blessed Virgin Mary; our sources for early Germanic worldviews simply do not provide the clarity which is needed to unravel such overlaps.
Similarly, when Old English sources refer to the os ('gods') as a type of aelf then they too are seemingly conflating two distinct categories. However considerably scholarly ink – and even blood – would need to be split to consider the extent to which the Old English word os shares the same meanings as the Old Norse word aesir. Simply because aesir. is used over a wide geographical area over many centuries means that the meaning and significance will vary.
Something of the sensibilities of aelf are revealed in the expression found in the Scandinavian sagas. The Old Norse expression ganga alfrek has the literal meaning 'go to drive the alfa away'. However the context in which the phrase was used is that the person was going off to defecate.
A dislike of dirt or even untidiness are the traits of tutelary deities around the world. The same is also true of less anthropomorphic numinous powers, such as Japanese kami (see The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol).
Literary sources from northern Europe indicate that in early October then most communities celebrated the Dísirblót – the sacrifice to the Dísir. This took place in each home, confirming that the Dísirwere principally household tutelary guardians, corresponding to the Lares of southern Europe.
Is there still a country which celebrates the Dísirblót? Strictly, no. But there is a country – one the size of a sub-continent – where a ten day festival to nine goddesses is a major part of the annual cycle of religious celebrations. And, like the Dísirblót, the festival of Navarathri is held in early October. The goddesses are all manifestations of Amba, whose name translates as 'power', and that power is also known as shakti. Nine forms of Shakti are worshipped during the Navaratris, across nine nights, with a further feast on the tenth night. The principal deities are Durga, appearing successively as Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswati.
While I risk offending both Hindus and Anglo-Saxon scholars by suggesting that the festival of Navarathri is a close relative of the Germanic Dísirblót, they are after all both rooted in shared Indo-European culture. Apart from the 'coincidence' of these culturally distinct rituals taking place at the same time of year, there is also the 'coincidence' of the focus on one goddess 'manifesting' as a series of three: Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Triple deities While we know very little about the Modra – The Mothers – we can be fairly sure there were thought to be three of them. Roman statues of Deae Matronae depict three women, as indeed do depictions of their male counterparts – the genii culcullati.
In Ireland, the royal centre of Ulster, Emain Macha, is named after the tutelary deity Macha, who appears as three different figures (see The queen of the valley).
Anglo-Saxons seemingly expected their deities to come in threes. Oaths were sworn on oath rings in the names of three gods. A late eighth-century catechism translates as 'and I renounce all the Devil's deeds and words, Thunaer and Wôden and Saxnôt and all those evil beings which are their companions.' However we must be careful not to assume that Thunaer and Wôden and Saxnôt were necessarily venerated by Anglo-Saxons – the wording of this catechism seems to have been badly adapted from a text used in Germany, so the names of the deities may be part of that flawed 'importing' rather than reflecting actual practices here in England.
And it would be something close to this catechism which converts needed to recite before they were baptised into their new faith 'in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit' – the liturgical expression of the complex (and originally competing) ideologies of trinitarianism which, despite appearances, regard God as one.
The earliest sources for Germanic and Scandinavian deities generally refer to them collectively as Vanir, Aesir, alfa, Norns and such like. Yet popular and scholarly books about these deities tend to focus on specific deities, such as Óðinn, Woden, Thor and such like. This is in part because the main source is the versions of the sagas compiled by way Snorri Sturlason at the start of the thirteenth century. But we must be careful. Snorri was bringing together all sorts of fragments – some since lost – to tell a reasonably coherent story. And he was writing from within the worldview of Christianity and strong assumptions of monotheism. Snorri was clearly able to get his head around the polytheism of pre-conversion theologies. But there is no evidence that he comprehended that there was much less sense of one of more 'universal gods' who were regarded in more or less the same way across space and time.
The distorting lens of Snorri's assumptions of a fairly 'neat and tidy' concept of Óðinn or Þórr mean that the richness and complexities of his sources are now largely lost to us. So, while we need to be cautious of taking Snorri at 'face value', we have no real idea about what is now hidden behind the smoke screen he inadvertently created.
That same smoke screen is still part of modern day scholarship. Every time you come across a book about north German or Scandinavian paganism and see chapters devoted to this deity, then that one, and so forth, then you are seeing through those gods and goddesses through the distorting lenses of Christian doctrines.
To reiterate: of course a large number of individual deities were recognised. Some, although seemingly only a small proportion, had something like the role of 'universal' deities who would be known by almost the same name across a wide geographical area and considered by their devotees to have something like the same attributes. Key words here are 'almost' and 'something like'. These were not deities who popped up in identical shape and meaning at each place and time – they were not neat and precise as if they had been shaped by a 'cookie cutter'.
While they may have been considered more prominent – and presumably more efficacious – than the local tutelary deities, there would of course have been a great many more of the local ones. My suspicion is, and the sagas broadly confirm this, that the major deities were indeed powerful but at the same time considered to be rather fickle or untrustworthy. Most of the time it would safer to seek help from the 'lesser' and more benign local deities than to 'take on' the big guys and gals. We see this same mentality in the readiness for pre-Reformation Christians to seek intercession from local saints rather than directly from God or Christ (although there are also doctrinal reasons).
So, with all these caveats in mind, here is a list of deities who seem to have been more prominent in England between the fifth and ninth centuries.
Richard North provided a detailed discussion of Ing, also known as Ingui, in early Anglo-Saxon belief-systems, arguing that he was an especially prominent deity (North 1997). However Alaric Hall has contested some of North's claims (Hall 2005: 5–6)
Ing is a close cousin to the Scandinavian Freyr – whose name means 'Lord' – as there are references to Yngvi-Freyr. While this might be simply thought of as an honorific title – 'Lord Ing' – there is no doubt that Freyr is an individual deity as well as a somewhat generic name. A parallel would be the Christian usage of Our Lord as a byname for Jesus Christ. We know that Our Lord and Jesus Christ are two names for one deity; however all the local diversity of pre-conversion beliefs means Ing and Freyr may and may not have been regarded as identical – my guess that they were in some places and were not in others places or at a different time.
When we read early sources about the conversion of the English, such as Bede, we get only a minimal sense of what the missionaries were converting the people from. The best guess is that, in addition to all the local deities, the most prominent 'universal' deity at the time was Ing.
We don't 'see' Ing anymore, for a number of reasons. One is that he is the deity most associated with stags. And, as every modern pagan will assert, stags should make us think of Cernunnos. But why must we think only of this Celtic god? Why cannot we also think of his Germanic counterparts? Depictions of stag-headed humans are just as likely – indeed more likely in Germanic contexts – to be Ing, or Enguz as he would more likely have been known on the Continent.
If Ing wasn't the most prominent of the pre-conversion English deities then it would have been Wod. The word means 'intoxication, inspiration, frenzy, madness'. It has a shared origin with the Latin word vates and the Irish word faith, both of which mean' seer, prophet, clairvoyant'. In due course Wod becomes Woden.
The phrase 'due course' alludes to several PhDs worth of scholarly controversy! A number of intensely academic books have been written about Óðinn, Odin and Woden. Much of the finer detail remains the subject of contradictory interpretations. What can be said with reasonable confidence is that over a period of several centuries two (or just maybe more… ) deities became conflated and then both developed within the pre-conversion cultures and, perhaps to a greater extent, in response to the influences of early Christianity. Simply put, this means there is no such thing as 'one Odin' or 'one Woden' but, instead, a whole series of ever-shifting senses of who these deities were and what their names signified. Each era and each kingdom had its own sense of who these gods were. There would have been overlaps with earlier and later concepts, and with those in other places. But anyone who attempts to offer a neat and tidy definition of these gods is simply offering a 'cookie cutter' caricature.
Even referring to Óðinn and Woden as deities or gods is a tad contentious. While they were undoubtedly thought of as gods, in almost all other respects they were more like kings of the time. While also deeply distrusted as fickle sorcerers. Our post-Christian secular worldview offers little precedent for deities who were tricksters, still less for ones who were respected – although never trusted – for being exceptional at enchantments and augury.
The nearest we have is the Classical deity Mercury. His name links to the 'quicksilver' and its shape-shifting abilities. However any writer who asserts that Woden should be seen as a close counterpart to Mercury simply hasn't looked closely enough at the sources. There are some overlaps and indeed early writers who make this association. But there are also some profound differences, with plenty of scope for confusion. There is no way of concisely summarising these scholarly debates, so suffice to say 'step warily'. Thinking of Odin and Woden as closer to Apollo rather than Mercury would be a safer path to take.
Associations between different systems of deities are endemic. Just as Woden has been tentatively linked to Mercury, so too (for reasons that no longer seem at all clear) in the early medieval era Church leaders regarded Mercury as some sort of counterpart to St Michael. Or at least they saw St Michael as the best adversary to 'mercurial' sorcerers. While direct evidence is lacking, there is a reasonable chance that many hilltop churches which have been dedicated to St Michael since time-out-of-mind reflect a recognition or response to a place where Woden might once have been worshipped.
The Earth Mother
Just as Ing and Wod or Woden seem to be the nearest to universal male deities in England, so too we have faint evidence for perhaps two universal female deities.
The Germanic and Scandinavian sources make tantalisingly brief mention of an 'earth mother' known variously as Hertha, Nerthus, Hreðe, Jörð or Fjorgyn. However Nerthus seems to start out as male, and may have been thought of as the husband of Mother Earth – a role also given to Ing.
One of the Old English charms for blessing the land begins with the words Erce, erce, erce, Eorþan modor. The last two words are unambiguously 'Earth Mother', while the first three may be the corrupted three-fold invocation of an otherwise-forgotten deity, Eorce. Plausibly the name is cognate with the word 'acre', which makes the Earth Goddess aspect becomes even more apparent. However the triple-erce may have been intended to correspond to the liturgical Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus and is derived from eorcnan, meaning 'true, genuine, holy'. And the simplest answer maybe that it was a scribal error for the Latin ecce, 'to behold'
A different charm, seemingly in badly garbled Old Irish, starts 'Tigath, tigath, tigath.' Whether this too is the garbed name of a deity is even more debatable.
I have surmised elsewhere (The Mothers) about the near-absence of names for female deities. Perhaps The Mothers were never referred to by their 'real' names, only by a euphemism. Similarly, while ethnographers and specialists in comparative religion are happy to talk about the worship of Devi or Mata – the mother Goddess – throughout rural India, each village has its own name for her, and venerates her in subtly different ways to villages elsewhere. In the same way Catholics offer prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mary yet also regard specific icons – 'Our Lady of X' or Our Lady of Y' – as in some respects distinct.
Bede, the devote Christian cleric – his name literally means 'he who prays – wrote the first history of the conversion of the English people. And he has been accused of inventing a pagan goddess along the way.
In his attempt to explain the names of the seasons and months he states that Easter takes its name from a pagan goddess, Eostre.
In some ways this makes sense. The words Easter and Eostre both refer to the east, the direction of the rising sun, and a probable focus of pre-Christian veneration. After all, nearly every church ever built is orientated with the altar to the east, with the rising sun visible through the window behind. And literally: 'orientated' is from the Orient, the east, and the rising sun symbolises the Risen (or reborn) Son in Christian beliefs.
Or did Bede simply misunderstand? We know he scambled some of the names of places he referredf to. Did 'Eostremonath' simply mean 'the opening month', that is the month when trees and plants open their leaves? Linguistically it's on safer ground than 'Eostre's month' – and the supposed link to 'the east' is merely added speculation.
Many scholars have dismissed Bede's suggestion of a goddess Eostre as simply a folklorish attempt to retrospectively ascribe a meaning or origin to an obscure word. However more recently some academics have been more even-handed. After all, why would Bede want to invent a goddess? And for that goddess to give her name to the most important Christian festival? While the jury is still out, I'm happy to think that the pre-conversion people were rather fond of their goddess of the dawn and, by extension, the dawn of a new season's leaves and vegetation. Only by superimposing the most important Christian festival over her traditional feast was she going to be suppressed…
In his account of the inauguration of an Irish king Gerald of Wales refers specifically to a white horse (see The queen of the valley). Country folk to within living memory would always refer to such animals as 'greys', no matter how washing powder white they looked. Where these horses in some way associated with other sacred white animals – such as the fabled red-eared snow-white hounds of Annwn?
So maybe in the age of when kings were coming into their own – the Iron Age – an even earlier association with whiteness assimilated with the then new-fangled horse cult. This would neatly explain the Uffington White Horse, which has been tentatively dated to the Iron Age. And, in the minds of Iron Age people, horses were the pinnacle of their wordly status. Not only were real-live horses part of their everyday world, but they also frequently appeared on the coins of the period.
Should we think of the much more recent white horses of Wiltshire, and the now-lost Red Horse of Tysoe as being the successors to a once more widespread custom for depicting tutelary deities on hillsides? If so then these would have had much in common with the Gaulish goddess Epona, her Welsh counterpart Rhiannon, and even the Irish tutelary goddess Macha (see The queen of the valley).
The one thing we have no clue about is what the English counterpart of such a goddess was called – although we do know that two men known as Hengst and Horsa ('Stallion' and 'Horse') were given semi-divine status as part of the myth of early Anglo-Saxon settlement in eastern England. There are two Romano-British inscriptions to Epona and four more doubtful depictions – hardly evidence for a major indigenous cult to Epona. And yet the evidence for an equine divinity in Iron Age and later Britain suggests that there was a widespread 'horse cult'. We simply should be reticent about assuming this divinity was known in Britain as Epona. Probably such a deity was known by a 'tribal name' – indeed perhaps some of the Iron Age tribal names are also the names of their most important deity, although this is purely a supposition.
Whatever the other ambiguities, the names Hengst and Horsa are evidence for a horse cult in the sixth century. And the large number of copper alloy brooches featuring stylised horse's heads from later in the Anglo-Saxon era are evidence that, then as now, horses feature prominently in the English psyche.
The next article, 'One for every day of the week', continues this discussion of Anglo-Saxon deities.
copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013