Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries
From protective dragons to potent saints
Supernatural dangers threaten in many situations. But peripheries and boundaries are especially hazardous. Such boundaries always need defending against malevolent otherworldly beings. In England there is a widely-known tradition that gargoyles they were put up on the outside of churches to frighten away the Devil. Which seems plausible until a closer inspection of the inside of churches reveals that the same sort of 'scare-devil' motifs are prevalent. And, and with so many examples of 'timeless' folklore, the whole lore seems to be little more than a hundred-or-so years old.
In Explore Folklore I wrote about seemingly 'timeless' folklore which rarely dates to before the nineteenth century.
And yet, and yet… We must be careful not to discard viable ideas when disposing of discredited assumptions. Carved 'spirit deities' whose role was apopotraic – evil averting – were found on the peripheries of early Buddhist monasteries. So too demons known as oni-gawara with similar propensities are still found on the eaves of some traditional Japanese buildings, with close relations in both China and Korea. And, just as such carvings would have been deemed 'pagan idols' by Colonial-era Christian missionaries, so too the early medieval missions in northern Europe repeatedly preached against pagan weohs – even as late as the eleventh century in England.
The weohs which gave their names to weoh fords were almost certainly protective. Many more weohs would have once stood in the centre of Anglo-Saxon burial mounds. These weohs on the mounds were likewise protective. Quite probably at least some were decorated with dragons, as Beowulf and other Old English legends tell how the 'treasure' in such barrows was protected by a ferocious dragon. The available evidence suggests that hills with such barrows and carvings would have been known as weoh dons – such as Waden Hill, Avebury. All these ideas are discussed in more detail in Weohs and stapols.
From weoh to rood
In the article about weohs I discuss that some have looked somewhat like the dragons on the prows of Viking long boats, while others may have looked like corn dollies. In this article I want to consider how this tradition continued, with some changes, into the Christian era.
I need to make two assumptions. Firstly, that at least some of the weohs on burial mounds were plausibly decorated with apopotraic dragons. Secondly, that weohs which stood on the periphery of property as protective boundary markers might too have had similar embellishment. If these assumptions are in some way correct, then what should we make of Anglo-Saxon churchyard crosses carved in the eighth to tenth centuries which also depict dragons?
These assumptions seem to fit one example rather well. The best example of such a dragon-decorated cross-shaft in Leicestershire is the one now in the churchyard at Sproxton. However, this was discovered being used as a footbridge over a ditch and, quite plausibly, was a boundary marker for the minster in the adjoining parish of Buckminster. Could this be, in effect, a boundary-protecting weoh with a Christian cross emphatically added?
So what should we make of the contemporary cross-shaft at Rothley – albeit without any dragons – which has now lost its surmounting cross? Are we still looking at the stone counterpart to a weoh? Or is it big enough to be a stone stapol? (See Weohs and stapols.)
Indeed, the various non-biblical motifs on crosses seem to have only one plausible precursor – pagan weohs and stapols. Sadly no academic study seems to have considered this, yet talking to relevant Anglo-Saxonists reveals a shared assumption to the effect of 'Where else could the motifs have come from?'
Dracas or wyrms?
If the dragons and serpents on cross shafts the descendants of similar animals on weohs then they are creatures known their makers, the weoh smiða, as dracas and wyrmas. Wyrm is the origin of the modern word 'worm' but has a much broader sense of snakes, serpents, maggots and similar creatures.
Confusingly, wyrm has often been translated into modern English as 'dragon', which gives the impression that the original authors envisaged creatures with legs, wings and the ability to spew fire and fly through the air. Indeed by the end of the twelfth century a substantial number of depictions of dragons had appeared in sculpture – usually at the receiving end of some serious maltreatment by saints such as Michael. But not all wyrmas were originally thought of as manifesting in this manner. Indeed so far as we can tell wyrmas were more typically cold, leg-less, scaly creatures who preferred to live underground or in the Underworld, often protecting the dead.
In Old English literature draca are usually distinct from wyrmas. They have much greater magical abilities, and their flying abilities and fiery breath make them formidable foes capable of fiercely-fought combat. And there was more than one species. In Beowulf alone there are references to an earth dragon, a fire dragon, a flame dragon, a sea dragon, a flying ('air-lifter') dragon, and the rather enigmatic 'low dragon'. And of course it was a dragon which killed Beowulf during his final combat.
Some of the wyrmas may be the English cousins of the Scandinavian sea-snake known in Norse sagas as Miðgarðsormr, who protectively encircled the Earth – and which Thor famously tried to fish out the sea. Woden was more successful in defeating a wyrm as a charm describes how he chopped up its body with 'twigs of glory'.
The short answer is, of course, we don't know. The longer, and more speculative answer, is more intriguing. Based on ideas discussed elsewhere (see The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol) perhaps the interlaced wyrmas on Christian cross shafts – and the occasional dragon which appears there too– were intended to be a manifestation of leac or wod. This would be a close counterpart to the way in which Catholic wayside shrines impart the potentia of the saint depicted, and the abundant wayside shrines in India still manifest the shakti of the deity. From this perspective it would almost be 'odd man out' if north European weohs did not emanate – although 'immanate' may be more applicable – pretermatural energy, such as leac or wod.
At the risk of making a cross-cultural comparison which may simply be circumstantial, look at the textile designs by the Japanese artist Serizawa, where some of the depictions of knots are referred to in the captions as 'tantric' (Earle 2009: 17, 18, 38)). Although the book about Serizawa offers no further information, the reasonable assumption is that the interweaving of two ropes symbolises the ideas associated with tantric sects.
Now think of the two snakes of an Asclepilian caduceus. And the interlace decoration which so commonly decorates Anglo-Saxon stone crosses and jewellery, where two or more wyrmas are intimately interwoven. Should we be looking at Anglo-Saxon crosses in a similarly 'tantric' manner?
Philip Sidebottom established that the interlace on Derbyshire crosses could be interpreted as 'proto-heraldry', suggesting that crosses were intended to be linked to a specific lineage. The interlace-like patterns used in recent times for knitted Arran jumpers are, traditionally, unique to a specific family (whatever the origins of this custom, it was maintained for pragmatic reasons as it enabled to remains of those drowned at sea to be identified, something shared with the different manner of decorating Fair Isle jumpers). And lineage and 'potency' are intimately linked – indeed any man who is seriously impotent will not continue his lineage… Not quite tantra as it has been misunderstood in the West but much closer to the broader and less sensationalist worldview which is associated with this term in the East.
While I fully realise that considerable care is needed in before making links between rural Italian folklore of the nineteenth century and Anglo-Saxon carvings a millennium older, the following sections from Charles Leland's Etruscan Roman Remains are, to say the least, thought-provoking:
This speaking of old Etruscan art made me think of serpents, and I asked if the peasants in le Romagne [in north-eastern Italy] had any beliefs regarding them.
From dracas to saints
Ignoring for a moment any comparisons with examples from outside the British Isles, we can say with reasonable confidence that Christian cross shafts with wyrmas and dracas are a continuation of pre-Christian beliefs and practices.
If any of this is reliable then the Catholic wayside shrines which I referred to as analogous to weohs (see Weohs and stapols) are perhaps not simply analogous but, instead, the more recent manifestations of an unbroken tradition. The leac or wod of the draca or wyrma steadily transforms into the potentia of saints and their relics – see the next article, The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol.
However, not all the weohs had wyrmas on them. Perhaps a great many – were images of the dísir, the local tutelary goddess or 'spirit of place', which seemingly morphs into the Marian cult of the later middle ages (see The Mothers and the Mother of God).
copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013–14