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


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The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol

This article looks in detail at six words. Two are Latin: numina and potentia. These seemingly refer to something similar in that potentia appears to be the Christian counterpart to pre-conversion concepts of numina, although there is a doctrinal distinction which I will discuss later.

In addition there is Old Norse word óðr, which shares much of the same sense. Then there are three Old English words. Ond may have something of the same sense as óðr but the evidence is simply too scant to be certain. Whereas the word læc (also written læce and lac) is much more common and, although the meaning shifts over time, seems to have started out as a close kin to numina. And finally there is also the Old English word wod, which is perhaps closest in meaning to numina.

Very broadly, óðr, ond, læc and wod seem to be semantic near-equivalents for numina. The shared sense of these words takes on an explicitly Christian context with potentia.

Having started with what are more-or-less the conclusions of this article I will now present the evidence as to why such assertions might have some substance. I will also attempt to identify, as much as is possible, the subtle differences in usage of these words. But bear in mind that the meaning of words is always slippery, always dependent on context, and always evolving. Nowadays the people who study words can build up vast databases of how words 'work' in different situations. But for the early medieval period we only have a relatively small number of surviving texts – and many of those may have been changed (or simply misunderstood) by later generations of copyists. From these survivals we can get 'snapshots' of the meaning as the words are captured in specific pieces of literature. But we never get the 'video footage', so to speak, which would reveal how the words were used outside that specific instance.

These caveats are just the tip of the iceberg of scholarly concerns with linguistics. But, despite all the challenges and uncertainties, such scholars are able to make informed interpretations of words.


The modern English word 'numinous' – denoting something divine or spiritual – derives from the Latin words numen (singular) and numina (plural). Depending on when, and in what context, these words are used they can have several overlapping meanings:

  • an influence perceptible by mind but not by senses
  • a potential guiding the course of events in a particular place or in the whole world
  • a guardian spirit
  • 'godhead'
  • the divine power of a living emperor.
They are not mutually contradictory, of course; rather the second definition is more 'active' and the first more 'passive'.

The second sense is the meaning encountered in Roman philosophical and religious thought. The sense of a numinous presence was considered to be present in all the seemingly mundane actions of the natural world, although more noticeable in places dedicated to the deities.

Cicero uses numen to signify the 'active power' of a Roman god. In Fasti Ovid writes numen inest which seems to mean 'there is a spirit here' and also claimed Innocue vivito, numen adest (Live blameless, God is here') was the motto of Linneaus. In the Aeneid Virgil wrote magna numina precari, 'prayed to the great gods' and non haec sine numine devum eveniunt, 'these things do not come to pass without the will of Heaven'. Tacitus tells of the simulacra numinum, 'statues of the active powers'. Pliny the Younger uses numen historiae as a metaphor for the divine power of history. Lucretius likewise uses the word in a non-literal way as numen mentis infers 'bidding of the mind'.

Modern historians, such as Ronald Hutton, refer to Iron Age groves (nemetona) as places with numina or simply as 'numinous places'. So far as I am aware such historians do not concern themselves with the source of such numina. It is just 'there' in certain places, more so than in other places. A bit like churches being more numinous than, say, cinemas even in modern secular thinking.

Numina in non-Western societies

Of course historians would be crossing deep disciplinary divides to think about the origins of numina. Such questions belong in the departments of religious studies. However the answers come mostly from yet another discipline, anthropology and ethnography.

In cultures from all around the world there are specific words which have all the five overlapping meanings of numina (although the last definition needs to be amended to 'king' or 'chief' rather than 'emperor'). Such words include:

  • ashe (Yoruba)
  • kami (Japan)
  • mana (Polynesian)
  • maban (Australian Aboriginals)
  • manetuwak (Lenape)
  • shekhah (Semitic)
  • sila, inua (Inuit)
  • teotl (Aztec)
  • väki (Baltic-Finnic)
  • tietäjä's luonto (Finnish)
  • nathur-ur (Old Norse)
To this list of close matches we could also add a number of near-matches, such as the Native American manitou (the collective name for the place-specific spirits of the Great Lakes tribes) or Wakan Tanka (the Great Spirit of the Sioux nation). In India the words shakti and prakriti are also used to refer to the 'numinous' energy of the deities (specifically the energy which the male deities acquire from their female consorts).

What these words refer to is much better known than for numina simply because they are living traditions. One of the most interesting aspects of the ideas of kami, mana and shakti is that all of them are thought to manifest through powerful places or people, rather than be created by those places or people. But there is no sense of a transcendent 'power from the gods' (indeed the gods may seek out this 'power') – instead kami, mana and shakti are best thought of as immanent, that is, part of this world rather than otherworldy or supernatural. And to translate them as 'power' is also a poor match for the sense of these words in their own culture.

'Potency' or 'potential' is a better fit, although these words have secondary meanings in English which simply do not apply in traditional societies. Terms such as 'life spirit' or 'life force' have been proposed, but – as Graham Harvey points out – 'life force' and similar synonyms imply an electricity-like force which simply is not part of the traditional sense (even though it has become a widely-accepted way of thinking among a great many modern pagans and New Agers). Harvey's own preference is for thinking of mana as somewhere between charisma and the word 'gift' in the sense of a 'gifted child' (Harvey 2009: 106–7). There need be nothing exceptional about this 'gift', so the 'gift' (or mana) of, say, a sheep is wool and meat (and, even more of a 'gift' for traditional farmers, the fertilising effect of its dung!).

The Scandinavian numina

Such ethnographical parallels to the way Classical authors used numina help to shed light on the Old Norse word óðr (pronounced 'oo-ther'; (see pronunciation guide). It is perhaps what is 'in' the god Óðinn – he is 'óðr inn', literally 'full of óðr'. Indeed there is a minor deity – seemingly distinct from Óðinn – who is known simply as óðr (Tolley 2009: 453–4). However most of the references to óðr in the sagas – and there are plenty of them – are to a something rather than a someone. The frequency of óðr in the original texts is hidden because translators use a variety of modern words, such as 'spirit', 'breath', 'prophecy' and 'inspired utterance'.

All the ways in which óðr is used in the sagas are consistent with the notion of a sense of power manifesting through someone or, more rarely, something. Clive Tolley, after an exhaustive discussion, considers that the primary sense of óðr is 'spirit affording intellectual inspiration' (Tolley 2009: 180). I will return to this sense later in this article.

The Old English numina

There is an Old English word, ond which seems to be derived from the Old Norse ond and andi which are both variants of a word meaning 'breath'. In Old English ond is used to translate Christian notions of 'spirit', but in pre-Christian contexts the word denotes 'life-force' (Tolley 2009: 179–80; Pollington et al 2010: 425–6). If there is a counterpart to óðr in Old English then it is perhaps ond, but the pre-Christian examples are too few to offer any nuanced understanding of the word. What is even more confusing is that ond appears very frequently in Old English – this is the homonym which gives the Modern English word 'and'!

Just as the name for Óðinn incorporates the word óðr so too his English 'cousin', Woden, includes the Old English word wod. This raises the possibility that Woden is 'wod in' – 'full of wod' – in the same way as Óðinn is 'óðr inn'. However, despite what appear to be curiously close parallels, both these readings of Woden and Óðinn are disputed by scholars. Not least because the meaning of wod is slippery. The way wod is used in the surviving literature could, in different places, be translated as 'intoxication', 'inspiration', 'frenzy' or 'madness'. The origins of wod are shared with such words as Latin vates and Old Irish faith, which are all words for seers, prophets and clairvoyants. Steve Pollington considers that wod best describes the divine power of a living person, 'except wod is about reaching out towards the Otherworld rather than exercising power in the here-and-now.' (pers. comm.)

Woden seemingly becomes one of the major and more universal gods of the Anglo-Saxons. But some rather contested scholarship is beginning to show that he starts out as a a guardian spirit associated with specific kin groups. In other words, he is a tutelary deity in as much as he favours certain kindreds and individuals, but – at least in the Norse stories – he is also rather fickle and untrustworthy.

There is something of the sense of óðr in the Old English word læc. The word is used in a number of ways but has the underlying sense of 'potency'. However in the Old English literature læc is seemingly not used to suggest the 'spirit' or 'breath' so læc seems to be something different to ond and óðr.

The potency of læc is why 'leech' was once a common reference to a doctor, although in recent centuries usually in an ironic or overtly derogatory way. The assumption is that this usage relates to the once-prevalent use of leeches by the medical profession. But this assumption is wrong. The Old English words 'leechcraft' (læcecræft) and 'leechdom' (læcedom) are based on the word læc. In Old English læcedom meant 'medicament, medicine, healing'. Læcecræft is, fairly obviously, the skills associated with læcedom. So we should think of læc as 'the power of medicine', the 'potency of medications' or more broadly 'healing powers'.



More specifically læc was the 'spirit' of the medication. In later traditions throughout Europe a snake represents the active spirit of both medicines and poisons. Even today two intertwined snakes are a universal symbol of the medical profession, a symbolism which can be traced back to the Greek cults of Asclepius. The same underlying beliefs can be found in Christian legends too, although in this instance it was the poison offered to St John the Evangelist in a laced chalice of wine which slithered away in the form of a black snake moments before the apostle was about to drink it. In Estonia snakes were believed to have inhaled the poison of the earth and folk customs intended to appease snakes are associated with most cultures (Lecouteux 2013: 113).

We still drink such 'active spirits', and we still think of such 'spirits' both as medicinal and as toxins. We get intoxicated (sic), even if for such 'medicinal purposes' as alleviating the symptoms of a cold, more easily when we drink spirits rather than beer or wine. And that modern sense of the word 'spirits' derives from the invisible vapours given off during the process of distillation – the distiller must literally capture the spirit of the alcohol (and then put that 'genie' in a bottle… ).

Next time you read in the Scandinavian sagas about Óðinn seeking the 'mead of inspiration' or 'mead of poetry' then think about the 'spirit' in the mead which empowers the poet or bard. As I have previously stated, Clive Tolley considers that the primary sense of óðr is 'spirit affording intellectual inspiration' (Tolley 2009: 180).


If the link between læc and leech is spurious, the same is not true between læc and leek. This is because leeks are 'potent' – something a king needed to be, in every sense (see Anglo-Saxon royal inauguration sites and rites). Wild leeks, with a more bulbous root than modern cultivars, are among the most phallic of north European plants. And their strong or 'potent' smell adds to this allusion. If you ever wondered why the Welsh regard the daffodil as their national emblem it is because the name in Welsh is Cenhinen Bedr or '(St) Peter's leek'. And, as any of those who – like me – studied Shakespeare's Henry V at school will recall, Shakespeare has the king tell the Welsh warrior Fluellen that he is wearing a leek because 'I am Welsh, good countryman.'

So the links – albeit rather tenuous – between good kingship and leeks are maintained right at the end of the sixteenth century. Indeed, a vestige is still common currency today. Literally. Those who take the trouble to turn over their coins will see the leek as one of the emblems used on the pound coin as a way of recognising that Wales is one part of the United Kingdom.

The Lia Fáil at Tara

The Lia Fáil at Tara.

As I have discussed in the article on (see Anglo-Saxon royal inauguration sites and rites), kings were inaugurated at a leæcstan. The best example of a surviving leæcstan is the Stone of Scone, or Stone of Destiny, used for the inauguration of Scottish kings until it was hijacked by Edward I and taken to Westminster Abbey to be used for the investiture of English monarchs ever since. Flat stones evolved into rock-cut stone chairs, and thence into free-standing thrones.

The full sense of læcestan is revealed quite explicitly by the other well-known Stone of Destiny – though one known by an Irish not Old English name, Lia Fáil. It is phallic. It is the Stone of Potency. And this is the full sense of læc in læcestan. In pre-Christian times Anglo-Saxon kings would deploy this power. It was known as the king's hæl – a word which seems to have the same sense as the Scandinavian word hamingja, 'the luck of the gods' which came from the king's special relationship with the gods.

In the article on woehs and stapols (see Weohs and stapols) I have discussed how boundary stones may have been thought of as 'potent'. Some gateposts to fields in Ireland would seem to fit rather well with the term læc. Perhaps they have their origins as 'boundary protectors', icons of the potency of the landowner.

From numina to potentia

When used by Christian authors writing in Latin the sense of numina shifts to the 'power of God'. Another word also gains currency – potentia. This eventually becomes the modern English words 'potency' and 'potential'. But back around the eighth century it had a specific sense. It referred to the power of Christ manifesting through the bones and other relics of saints.

Indeed it was this same potentia that was 'channelled' by the clergy during the Mass and to bless or heal people or even animals. Indeed a brief moment's thought about early medieval Christianity, not only in England, will lead to the recognition that the only difference between a high-ranking priest and an early saint is that the latter is dead. Local canonisation was so commonplace that almost any bishop or abbot could expect to be an honorific 'saint' within a few years of his demise.

A longer thought about the ontology of that time would lead the recognition that the saint was not dead. Instead he was now living in Heaven rubbing shoulders with the real 'powers that be' – so ideally placed to respond to prayers for benefactory changes. And it was this ability to act as an intercessionary which made these local saints revered. This was the worldview which provided the foundations for the potentia or 'potency' of their shrines and relics.

There is also another sense of the numinous as spirit which carried over into Christian doctrine – the Spiritus sancti or, in English, the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost. In a separate article (The deities of the Anglo-Saxons) I have suggested that the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost is a continuation of pre-conversion predilections for three-fold deities. And, when seen from this perspective – rather than the customary ones of doctrine and piety – then what better to include in the 'top trio' than the sense of læc or wod?

From weoh to shrine

Just how much difference in worldview is there between a priest or saint transmitting the 'potency' of Christ and the óðr associated with Óðinn or the numina of Classical deities?

Could it be that the shrines of local saints – little different to shrines to pre-conversion tutelary spirits if the Irish word érlam is any guide (see The Mothers and the Mother of God) – were thought to have potentia in the same way as the pre-conversion 'shrines' and 'idols' – the woehs (see Weohs and stapols) – once had ond or wod or óðr?

Furthermore, as suggested in the article on dragons and protective saints, just possibly the dracas and wyrmas which decorate early Christian crosses are successors to Caduceus-like manifestations of ond or wod or óðr.

If woehs were regarded as having ond or wod or óðr then presumably 'earth fast stones' and certain trees and wells prohibited in tenth and eleventh century edits also possessed the same ability.

The difference between óðr and potentia

At the deepest levels there was a profound difference between the Christian worldview and that of most traditional religions. Christianity regards God and all those who live in Heaven as being somewhere else to this world – even though the 'somewhere' is never specified. The technical term is 'transcendent'. The antonym is 'immanent', which has the sense of 'indwelling or inherent in this realm'.

Rabbinical Judaism has a transcendent worldview. Moses may have gone to the top of Mount Sinia to be nearer to Yahweh, but he still did not meet him. In contrast, contemporary Greeks thought of their deities as living on the top of Mount Olympus – the precursor to a penthouse suite. And some of those gods had a bad rap for making mortal girls pregnant, which is much easier for immanent deities but a tad trickier for transcendent ones – when God wanted to bear a child by Mary he did so with the help of an archangel.

However, we must however be careful not to refer to Christianity as a purely transcendent belief system. One of the most radical aspects of Christianity, from the perspective of contemporary Jews, was that Jesus was believed to be 'the Word made flesh' – in other words, an immanent deity. There is even part of the Gospels where Joseph is told that Mary's yet-to-be-born child will be called 'Immanuel'. Furthermore there will, at some time, be a 'second coming'. And saints too – from the top-level ones, such as the Virgin Mary, to the most obscure local ones – have all made the transition from immanent mortal life to a transcendent afterlife. Christian doctrine holds that everyone will spend their afterlife in either Heaven or Hell – both of which are transcendent.

We simply cannot project present-day notions of the 'supernatural' onto pre-modern cultures. Modern secular thinking still reflects this Christian transcendentalism in terms such as 'supernatural' and 'otherwordly'. In contrast, most traditional worldviews – including that of the Anglo-Saxons – do not think in terms of an otherworld or a supernatural realm. Everything is an aspect of this world, although not all entities are as visible or tangible as, say, humans. And, if you were having a little difficulty getting your head around the first of my definitions for numina towards the start of this article – the one which says 'an influence perceptible by mind but not by senses' then perhaps you were not thinking of numina as an immanent 'influence'.

Whatever exactly is denoted, the concept of the 'supernatural' is clearly suomething other than 'natural'. While the words 'natural' and 'nature' seem on the face of things to be entirely neutral terms, in practice the idea of the 'natural world' has evolved significantly several times in the West during the last thousand years (see Trubshaw 2005: 9–11 for a summary), and none of these senses necessarily have close parallels in non-Western societies. So deeming something 'supernatural' only makes sense within a worldview which shares modern notions of the natural. In other words, the 'supernatural' is an illusion derived from a culturally-specific notion of 'nature' (see also Harvey 2013: 132 for a more nuanced discussion).

Strictly there is a term in modern English which conveys the sense of the Anglo-Saxon worldview. This is 'preternatural' (sometimes spelt 'praeternatural'). The preternatural appears 'beside' (Latin præter) the natural. In contrast to the supernatural, preternatural phenomena are presumed to have natural explanations that are unknown. We should think of preternatural phenomena falling in the liminal zone between the mundane and the miraculous. In the early modern period the word described strange phenomena of various kinds that seemed to depart from the norms of nature. In recent decades the word 'Fortean' has been more often used to describe such strange phenomena, in part because theologians reinvented the word 'preternatural' to refer to marvels or deceptive trickery (often attributed to witchcraft or demons) rather than situations where the laws of nature are believed to have been violated by the miraculous intervention of Christ (Dukes 1996: 52; 173).

So, while a transcendent worldview can conceive of something coming from the realm of the gods, this is not conceivable in a worldview where everything is preternatural or immanent. The Japanese kami and its counterparts in Chinese culture, such as qi (also written ch'i, as in Tai Ch'i Chuan) exist within an entirely immanent worldview.

As I have already said, the use of the word óðr in the sagas is consistent with the notion of a sense of power manifesting through someone or, more rarely, something.

I have discussed elsewhere that óðr exists within a syncretic worldview, although probably reflects a once exclusively immanent ontology. In contrast potentia originates in a transcendent ontology, even if it is a successor to the more immanent Classical concepts of numina.

The distinction between immanent and transcendent worldviews is relevant to a number of other Twilight articles.

Two articles explore this in more detail. The Gods who walk the Earth. And the ones who travel to Otherworlds looks at the influence of transcendent Viking culture on later Anglo-Saxon society, while Seeing past 'secular' assumptions looks at how this distinction is largely overlooked by modern, supposedly secular, scholarship.

Anglo-Saxon counterparts to numina

The available Old English literature offers little to compare to the frequent references to óðr in the Scandinavian sagas. Certainly the word læc appears often enough for us to be fairly certain that this denoted the 'potency' of anything from a king to a poison or medicine – or even the smell of a leek. Frustratingly the more limited use of wod means that the nuances of the sense of this word are seemingly lost. More certainly the meaning of ond (as a noun rather than the conjunction 'and') seems all-but lost.

Based on both Germanic and the older strata of Scandinavian worldviews there is no reason to doubt that early Anglo-Saxons shared with Roman culture the notion of immanent deities and 'spirit energy'. We can, I think, safely use the word numina – in all the overlapping senses I have listed – to refer to the pre-conversion Anglo-Saxon concept.


An 'earth-fast stone' in the churchyard at Rudstone, Yorkshire.

And, although the direct evidence is lacking, it was this presumably numinous potency which was still recognised at the 'earth-fast stones' and such like of the tenth and eleventh century edicts against paganism.

The sense of an immanent numina eventually changed as first Christian and then, from the late ninth century, Viking worldviews began to offer an alternative, more transcendent, ontology. Any such Viking worldview leaves little or no discernible traces, but the Christian concept of the potentia of saints' relics most certainly does. And it is such a transcendent worldview which leads to modern day notions of 'Otherworlds' and a 'supernatural' (to the exclusion of the 'preternatural') – which in turns makes it difficult for us to readily appreciate the worldviews of the pre-conversion Anglo-Saxons who would have no parallels to either as everything was part of this world. But once we do shift our perspective then the ideas which make up the various senses of numina become much easier to appreciate.


This article is based on sections of two earlier works, Souls, Spirits and Deities and Continuity of Worldviews in Anglo-Saxon England (Trubshaw2013a; 2013b). The current editions of these works reflect the ideas in this article, although earlier editions contained much less carefully considered opinions!

My information about wod and læc comes from Steve Pollington who has been exceptionally helpful in helping me avoid errors. However I know he would not fully agree with everything written here.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013–14


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