Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries
Weohs and stapols
Before there were churchyards there were 'frith yards', spelt in Old English frithgeards. Frith is one of those multi-headed words which spans a spectrum of meanings: peace; freedom from molestation, protection; safety and security. In the later Anglo-Saxon era some churches and cathedrals had 'frith stools' where a criminal could seek temporary sanctuary from those he had wronged.
However the pre-conversion sense of frithgeard is something much more akin to a churchyard. Imagine a churchyard without a church and only a preaching cross near the centre. And this is exactly how most churchyards would have been before the tenth century – initially the cross would have been wooden but steadily they were replaced by stone crosses.
If we want to imagine what a frithgeard looked like then take away the village around the churchyard (villages only start to be nucleated shortly before the time parish churches start to be built). And replace the wooden cross with a different sort of carved wooden post. And that's about the only difference in the way they looked – although the locations were almost always not where churchyards were created.
Just as chuchyards have well-defined and well-maintained boundary walls – we still like the dead to stay in their place – so too frithgeards were 'defined' by their enclosing boundaries – most probably hedges. So far as we know there was no counterpart to the elaborate lych gates which act as entrances to modern churchyards, although no doubt there were simple hurdle gates (indeed the modern English 'hurdle' is from the Old English hyrdel which has the same sense of wickerwork used as a light-duty gate).
However the frithgeard itself is not the main interest of this article. I want to look specifically at the post near the middle. Just as the early wooden Christian crosses would have been known as a treow, beam, rood or Christ mael – the Latin word crux, 'cross', seems initially to have only referred to stone crosses – so too the pre-conversion counterparts were known as weohs and stapols.
Weoh is also written wig and both were pronounced something like 'wee'. The word meant both 'shrine' and 'idol', as I will discuss shortly. Stapol denoted a larger carved post and is related to the modern word 'steeple', sharing the sense of something high or lofty. I will return to stapols later but first let's look more closely at weohs.
The meaning of weohs
There were once many woehs. Some of them have come down to us as settlement names such as Weeford, Wyfordby, Weoley, Willey, Weedon. There are other woeh dons too which did not give them name to settlements, such as Waden Hill at Avebury. These tell us where a weoh once stood by a ford, in a clearing (leah) or on a rounded hill-top (don).
Linguists tell us confidently that weoh denotes both a shrine and an idol. This is hardly confusing – think of any number of roadside shrines in Catholic countries with a small statue of the Virgin Mary or a locally-venerated saint. The words 'shrine' and 'statue' are almost synonymous in this context. And, as John Wycliffe and other late-medieval Lollards zealously preached, venerating such statues should be thought of as idolatry. Indeed, Catholic wayside shrines could be thought of as a direct continuation of weohs – although their appearance may well have changed greatly over the centuries.
And if you think this is taking an analogy too far, in Beowulf there is a mention of wigwearþung which means 'worshipping of idols'. And when the pagan priest Coifi destroys his own temple, Bede specifically states that both the building and the wigbed – literally 'idol-table' but presumably a wooden altar – went up in the flames. We can only presume that the wigbed was carved and perhaps covered with elaborately decorated textiles. Bede omits to mention the wig which stood on the wigbed but this too was presumably wooden.
If we look to the cognate word in Greek, (w)eikon, this too describes an icon or 'powerful devotional image'. However in Classical Greek eikon shifts meaning to denote statues of people, while the word agalma is introduced for statues of deities. There is also a third word, xonanon, which denotes a portable icon. Words of course shift meaning, and the later sense of eikon to denote a statue of a person does not diminish the shared origin with weoh . The ancient Greeks clearly felt the need to distinguish three different types of 'devotional image' depending on both what was depicted and how the image was used – whether portable or too big to be moved. So we should not be surprised that that Anglo-Saxons made a distinction between weohs and stapols – even though we cannot be sure what the distinction was!
Stephen Pollington considers that the underlying sense of weoh is of something 'holy', an object of devotion. And bear in mind that the Old English word halig (the origin of the modern English 'holy') only appears in Christian contexts – so, seemingly, nothing pre-Christian could be halig.
The appearance of weohs
While there are no surviving examples of weohs from England, we do have a good idea of what such carvings might have been like in Denmark. They could have ranged from carvings as skilled as the prows of Viking long boats to the crude anthropomorphic (and ithyphallic) tree branches found in bogs.
If – as seems reasonable – the British weohs were even half-way as elaborate as Viking prows then we the people of carved them would seem to be part of a long tradition which straddles the best of the Anglo-Saxon stone carving. The vigorous carvings on the Anglo-Saxon font at Luppitt, Devon, seem to anticipate the more vigorous depictions on twelfth century corbels, such as those at Tickencote, Rutland. I am not suggesting that such corbels were still thought of as 'pagan deities', just that stylistically they shared an unbroken tradition and, presumably, also shared an unbroken belief in their evil-averting powers.
Weohs as 'dynamic tools'
Miranda Aldhouse-Green notes that Iron Age cult statues were not passive objects for contemplation – as if they were art works in a gallery or museum – but 'dynamic tools used by the communities which produced and consumed them' (Aldhouse-Green 1997). I see no reason why Anglo-Saxon weohs and stapols were any different from their Iron Age precursors in this respect, even though the local meanings and significances of these 'dynamic tools' would have continually changed.
Crude little Herms
Can we be more specific about weohs? Were they necessarily carved wooden 'idols'? Could some have been more akin to 'corn dollies'? And bear in mind the word 'doll' is a contraction of 'idol'. Yet others may have been uncarved standing stones, as a letter written by Bishop Aldhelm in the 680s refers to an ermula cruda. This has the literal meaning of 'crude little Herm' and suggests a pillar which was phallic in nature. But, then as now, the word 'crude' had two senses. So was Aldhelm thinking of carvings resembling the Classical statues depicting the faces and genitals of deities such as Hermes or Priapus? Or was he simply have been referring to uncarved standing stones as 'crude pillars'? Aldhelm's remarks say nothing about whether the ermula were in wood or stone, so could refer to an idol akin to the Danish examples or an uncarved standing stone.
Aldhelm may have been using the term 'herm' to refer less to the appearance than to the function. In Greece and Roman Herms were set up as boundary markers, and then venerated as guardians. So Aldhelm may have been using the term ermula cruda to refer to fairly small, uncarved – though still possibly somewhat phallic – boundary stones. The implication is that they were still being venerated here in Britain. The cult of Toutatis – whose name means 'tribal protector' – in the second and third centuries is associated with tribal boundaries (see also The queen of the valley).
Back in 1993 Anthony Weir discussed how some gateposts to fields in Ireland would seem to fit rather well with the term ermula cruda (Weir 1993). Weir, following the precedent of folkorists, sees an association with the fertility of the land. However perhaps we should also see them as 'boundary protectors', icons of the potency of the landowner see also Anglo-Saxon inauguration sites and rites and The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol).
Weohs and graves
From the place-name evidence it seems that some weohs were quite prominent, or at least distinctive landmarks. But these would have been only a small number of the weohs. So far as we can tell there would have been a weoh on many, perhaps all, graves and burial mounds – in much the same way modern graves usually have gravestones. Only the Anglo-Saxon grave markers would have no words, only distinctive geometric or interlace patterns unique to each lineage which functioned in a manner akin to heraldry in the later medieval period and the notions of Scottish clan tartans invented in the nineteenth century.
So when we look at a weoh don – whether the village of Weedon or Waden Hill – we should imagine a large number of graves protected with either mounds or weohs or both. Based on the evidence of slightly later stone cross shafts, these weohs protecting burial mounds may have been carved with a guardian dragon or wyrm (see Who were the landwights?)
The weoh-protected homes and weoh-protected wold
Even the word 'mound' fits into this sense of protection. The Old English word mund did indeed mean 'mound' – at least in the later Anglo-Saxon period. But it is an example of a word which shifts its meaning. Before it meant mound it meant 'protection'. And, of course, a mound does just that – it protects the grave.
With that in mind the phrase wig mund is almost doubly protective. We know that Wigmund (pronounced 'Wymond') becomes a personal name in the eighth century and returns to fashion around the twelfth century. Presumably by this time its literal meaning of wig mund or 'weoh mound' had long since been lost.
But when we come across place-names such as Wymondham (Leicestershire and Norfolk) and Wymeswold (also Leicestershire) are we really looking at Wigmund's hamm or Wigmund's wald – his farmstead or 'home' and his large wooded area? Or are we looking at a latter corruption of an earlier form which only much later became confused with people called Wigmund? That earlier form would make these places the weoh mund hamm and the weoh mund wald – and early enough for this to be the 'weoh-protected' hamm or wald rather than the later 'weoh-mound' sense.
Wymondham in Leicestershire is on heathland which straddles the border with Rutland. Although no evidence now survives there may well have once had Bronze Age burial mounds – and the area may even have been a hearg. Wymondham in Norfolk (the latter pronounced 'Windham' by the locals) is on a modern administrative boundary which suggests the river – still overlooked by the motte of a Norman castle – was once more liminal than it is now.
But does the name of the village of Wymeswold derive from wig mund wald? If it does (and I have discussed this in considerable detail elsewhere in Trubshaw 2012a) then the name weoh mund wald referred to a massive hearg – the successor the Iron Age 'Especially Sacred Grove' which gave its name to the Roman small town of Vernemetum. As there were presumably many protective weohs – some on mounds – at such a hearg (see Places of Anglo-Saxon worship) then this place would indeed have been the 'idol protected woodland'.
If this hearg was so big that it once extended over all the parishes which make up the Leicestershire Wolds (see Trubshaw 2012a) – and it is a big 'if' – then anyone approaching from the north or west would come past Wysall (the weoh on the hoh) and the villages of Hoton and Hose (from hoh ton and hohs). I have speculated elsewhere that there may be once have been more significance to the place-name element hoh than simply denoting a 'heel-shaped' small hill (see Hohs and hlaws).
After this digression about weoh munds lets look at the bigger versions of weohs – the stapols. Several places in England are still known as Stapleford (and, until recent decades, still pronounced by the locals as 'stap-ul-fud' rather than 'stay-pull-ford'). There is also Dunstable – the stapol on the 'dune' or heath which predated the medieval priory and subsequent market town. There was once a hundredral assembly in Kent which met at a Thurstaple, the stapol dedicated to the god Thor or Thunor. In Essex there is both Thurstable (Þunor's stapol) and Barstaple (the bearded one's stapol). A stapol was also a significant part of a royal hall, as in the poem Beowulf Hroþgar stood on one to inspect Grendel's arm. This might make stapols relatives of the Öndvegissólur or pair of 'high seat pillars' known from the various sagas which recount the pioneering settlement of Iceland.
The possible parallels between such high-seat pillars and Anglo-Saxon stapols are suggested by two brief remarks in Icelandic literature. One saga says such a pillar was carved with an image of the god Thor. A different saga says the high seat pillars had 'god-nails' or 'power-nails' (Old Icelandic reginnaglar) in them. But these two remarks are the nearest we have to descriptions of these pillars.
We can reasonably assume the 'god-nails' were iron nails as this was regarded as the most magical of metals. There was probably one such 'spike' at the top of each pillar, representing the Pole Star – known as 'The Nail' to Scandinavian people at the time – and making each pillar into an axis mundi or close kin of the World Tree. In other Scandinavian sagas there is mention of Gulltopper (literally 'gold topper'), the golden spike at the top of Hallinskithi, the world tree, elsewhere named as Heimdalhr.
However as only one pillar is needed to symbolise the axis mundi, the paired pillars of the Icelandic sagas are seemingly an elaboration of a once-single pillar, such as the stapol which Hroþgar stood on in Beowulf.
Stapols were substantial wooden posts. They may have been as big as some of the permanent maypoles still surving in England, such as Barwick in Elmet, Yorkshire; Belton, Leicestershire and Linby and Wellow, both in Nottinghamshire.
However unlike such maypoles, most or all stapols were carved – although how they might have been carved is open to debate. But because they were wooden none have survived. In the churchyard at Stapleford in Nottinghamshire there is a substantial fragment of a stone cross. Was this the successor to – or the final manifestation of – the eponymous stapol? The decoration is not explicitly Christian.
If you are thinking that seeing the stone cross at Stapleford as the successor to a pre-conversion stapol is a bit too radical then think of the Wiltshire village of Christian Malford. This derives its name from the ford with a Crist mael. Mael means 'mark' or 'marker' and is the origin of the modern word 'mole' to describe a large freckle-like mark on the skin.
Indeed Christian Malford church is not in the centre of the village but instead right by the banks of the River Avon at a place which topographically is ideally suited to fording (although no doubt the river channel has been deepened and widened in recent centuries to minimise flooding). Crist mael ford seems to be a direct Christian counterpart to the various stapol fords, offering similar supernatural protection.
From stapols to Christian crosses
If there is indeed an overlap between wooden stapols and early stone crosses then what should we make of crosses which combine Christian and pagan motifs, as with the examples from Breedon on the Hill (Leicestershire), Middleton (North Yorkshire) or Gosforth (Cumbria)? Are they as much late examples of stapols as early examples of crosses?
Such questions remain rhetorical largely because we have no real idea how stapols were carved. Were they like the fairly simple cross from Middleton, probably carved in the first half of the tenth century with a warrior on one side and a dragon on the other? Or were they more like its contemporary at Gosforth, all eleven feet of elaborate decorative panels, each telling its own story – whether of Ragnorak or the Crucifixion.
The nearest we have to a wooden stapol is a pillar recovered from the River Zbrucz in southern Poland which is thought to be an idol erected by followers of the Slavic cult of Svantovit. But this is not from northern Europe, still less from the British Isles.
Were stapols in some way counterparts to the so-called 'totem poles' made by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America? And if so, could such carved stapols be the reason that places such as Shepshed, Swineshead, Gateshead and Manshead are so named? In other words, were these places were known as 'sheep's head, 'swine's head', goat's head' and 'man's head' because of a carved stapol which stood there?
For those who need to know, Shepshed is in Leicestershire, Gateshead is on Tyneside, Swineshead is in Bedfordshire – and the early forms of Swinesherd in Worcestershire show this was originally a Swinshead too. Manshead is not a settlement but the name of a hundred in Bedfordshire – and in this case the putative stapol was at the meeting place. I am well aware that Manshead could easily refer to the grisly remains of a judicial execution – and presumably there would have been at least a few at hundred moot sites – and the animal place-names may also refer to once flesh-and-blood creatures. However, as I have discussed elsewhere (Trubshaw 2012a) in the twelfth century we begin to see corbels in churches decorated with vigorous human and animal heads (see the examples from Tickencote above). It makes sense that these were the more permanent counterparts to a well-established tradition of carving such heads in wood.
Stapols and trees
Speculation about how stapols were carved is likely to remain speculative. But there is less speculation when we beginning to consider how the meaning of stapols – carved no doubt from whole tree trunks – blurs with the mythical significance of trees.
Again place-names come to our aid – a significant proportion of administrative hundreds take their name from 'gartree' which can be interpreted variously as the 'damaged or goitred tree', 'the spear-shaped tree' or 'the tree of the spears'.
The association between spears and hundreds is entirely appropriate as only freemen could attend a hundred – and only freemen could carry a spear. Indeed the Anglo-Scandinavian name for a hundred is 'wapentake', the 'take (or count) of weapons'. We can still see the same notion persist in the canton of Appenzel in Switzerland where only men wearing a sword can vote at the annual town meeting (this custom of course long predates the rights of women to vote).
My suspicion is that it was less a case of the person leading the moot demanding 'All in favour raise their spears in the air… ' than leaving spears propped up against the eponymous tree so that, should the discussions become unduly heated, any arguments led merely to fisticuffs and not fatal injuries.
Bear in mind also there are two Old English words pronounced the same, one of which meant 'tree' and other which meant 'truth' or 'oath'. This makes hundred moot sites named after compounds of treow, such as 'Gartree', doubly meaningful, as hundred moots would have been the occasions when oaths were made.
And, having said all that, to use a tree as a landmark for a meeting place requires that the tree is distinctive. A tree that had been struck by lightning or had been more intentionally damaged would serve very well as such a landmark. So the 'goitred tree' may be safest bet of all.
There is a further explanation of 'gartree' which has seemingly been ignored. That is the area of land in which the hundred moot took place is often, in modern parlance, triangular – defined on at least two sides by obliquely-crossing roads (for practical reasons moot sites are often near crossroads). But as the word 'triangular' has no parallel in Old English they could have referred to the shape of the field as 'spear-shaped' – a fitting location for the meeting of those entitled to bear spears. So Gartree refers to the tree at the spear-shaped piece of land.
update 2023: See my video Meetings at triangles.
However landmark trees – and even in more recent centuries there have been any number of 'Gospel oaks' and such like – blur into more cosmological myths of word trees and such like. Just such a tree, Yggdrasil, features in a number of Scandinavian sagas and has its counterpart in the Irminsul at Eresburg (now Obermarsberg), Germany, destroyed by Charlemagne and the older so-called Jupiter columns known from the Rhine valley.
However, while undoubtedly stapols retained some of the significances of the trees from which they were carved, we need to be careful because the Old English treow denoted something different. So far as we can tell it referred to a Christian cross, but must have been in some way distinct from a beam or a rood. Once again, the lack of evidence makes it impossible to establish what the distinctions – or even overlaps – between these different terms might have been.
Stapols and kinshipStapols and weohs seem to have been erected in a variety of places – as grave markers, in the centre of settlements, in royal halls, as territorial boundary markers and at fords and crossroads. Presumably the meaning and significance of any decoration varied almost as greatly – from proto-heraldic statements of kin or clan identity to seeking protection from the supernatural realm. Interestingly our word 'totem' is derived from the Ojibwe word odoodem, which means 'his kinship group' so my suggestion that stapols might be a counterpart to Native American totem poles extends beyond any physical similarity and also includes their putative significance.
A moment's thought reveals that kin or clan identity and supernatural protection are far from mutually exclusive, least of all in a pre-monotheistic society where protection is sought less from a universal deity and more from local and familial tutelary deities. These ideas are discussed further in The queen of the valley.
The next article, The quain tree and the weoh cwen, is a continuation of this article.
Weohs and stapols are also discussed in The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol
copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013