Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries


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From protective dragons to potent saints


One of the many gargoyles 'protecting' the church at Tilton on the Hill, Leicestershire

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.

Sproxton   Rothley

Two Anglo-Saxon cross-shafts in Leicestershire.
(Left:) Sproxton. (Right:) Rothley.
For information, the place-names are pronounced 'Sprowsun' and 'Rowthley' (as in 'row a boat').

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.)

Middleton cross    Gosforth cross

(Left:) Middleton cross. (Right:) Gosforth cross.

Breedon crosses    Breedon crosses

Fragments of two different Anglo-Saxon cross-shafts now in the church at Breedon on the Hill, Leicestershire.

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.

Tantric twinning


Serizawa's depiction of tantric ropes

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.



Eyam      Eyam

Interlace decoration on the cross at Eyam, Derbyshire.


Interlaced brooch from Sutton Hoo

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.

Italian entanglement

cats cradle

Cat's cradle

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.
'Yes. They sometimes paint a serpent on the wall to keep away the evil eye or witch evils, and to bring good luck. But the head must be down and interlaced, and the tail uppermost.'
'And do interlaced serpents mean good fortune?'
'Ah, that is a well-known thing, and not as to serpents alone, but all kinds of interweaving and braiding and interlacing cords, or whatever can attract the eyes of the witches. When a family is afraid of witchery they should undertake some kind of lavori intrecciati – braided work – for witches cannot enter a house where there is anything of the kind hung up, as for instance, patterns of two or three serpents twining together, o altri ricami, or other kinds of embroidery, but always of intertwining patterns. So in making shirts or drawers or any garments for men or women – camice, muntande o vestiti--one should always in sewing try to cross the cotton (thread) as shoemakers do when they stitch shoes, and make a cross-stitch, because shoes are most susceptible to witchcraft (perche le scarpe sono quelle pił facile a prendere le stregonerie). And when the witches see such interlacings they can do nothing, because they cannot count either the threads nor the stitches (ne il filo ne i punti). And if we have on or about us anything of the kind they cannot enter because it bewilders or dazzles their sight (le fa a bagliare la vista), and they are incapable of mischief. And to do this well (tenere il sistema) you should take cotton, or silk, or linen thread, and make a braid of six, seven, or eight columns, as many as you will--the more the better--and always carry it in your pocket, and this will protect you from witches.
You can get such braids very beautifully made of silk of all colours in some shops; and they keep them for charms against the evil eye.'
[…] In my work on Gypsy Sorcery the following passage occurs (page 98):–
'There is a very curious belief or principle attached to the use of songs in conjuring witches or in averting their own sorcery. It is that the witch is obliged, willy-nilly, to listen to the end what is in metre--an idea founded on the attraction of melody, which is much stronger among savages and children than with civilised adults. Nearly allied to this is the belief that if the witch sees interlaced, or bewildering and confused patterns, she must follow them out, and by means of this her thoughts are diverted or scattered. Hence the serpentine inscriptions of the Celts and Norsemen, and their intertwining bands which were firmly believed to bring good luck, or avert evil influence. A traveller in Persia states that the patterns of the carpets of that country are made as bewildering as possible 'to avert the evil eye.' And it is with this purpose that, in Italian as in all other witchcraft, so many spells and charms depend on interwoven braided cords (vide the Spell of the Holy Stone).
'The basis for this belief is the fascination or interest which many persons, especially children, feel to trace out patterns, to thread the mazes of labyrinths, or to analyse and distangle knots and 'cats' cradles.' Did space permit, nor inclination fail, I could point out some curious proofs that the old belief in the power of long and curling hair to fascinate, was derived not only from its beauty, but also because of the magic of its curves and entanglements.'
(Leland 1892, citing Leland 1891)

While none of Leyland's information provides any reliable information about north European beliefs or practices, the notions of entanglements and such like do have their parallels. While the details may be deceptive the underlying premises may well have been shared by the worldviews of Europeans from further north.

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


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