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


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From fate to God

Given the inherent continuity in underlying worldviews, it makes sense for numina and potentia to be thought of in terms of a different type of óðr – or even a Christian 'adaptation' of the underlying sense of læc or wod (see The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol).

However these are not the only words which indicate a continuity of worldviews. So too the Old English word metod, with the literal meaning of 'measurer' but denoting 'fate', becomes a by-name for the Christian God. This is not because the pagan sense of fate had a close link to a specific deity. Pre-Christian notions of fate were essentially humanistic, although linked with the female nornir, who were in some ways more ancient and more powerful than the deities (Stone 1989: 21–2; see also The Mothers). It was the nornir's role in determining an individual's destiny which was 'taken over' by God. Only subsequently did the concept of God develop in ways which made a word synonymous with 'fate' less suited as a by-name for the deity.

As Stephen Pollington has discussed, the tale of Creation which forms part of Caedmon's Hymn – the first poem in Old English which can be reliably attributed to a poet – seems to be composed from formulaic half-lines which have been selected to convey a Christian message. Yet the half-lines are seemingly archaic. So did such expressions as eci dryhten ('everlasting lord') and frea almectig ('lord all-mighty') – used by Caedmon to refer to the Christian God – previously refer to pagan deities? One the face of things frea and dryhten are literal translations of the Latin dominus (itself a fairly literal translation of either Greek Kurios and Hebrew Adonai). The situation is unclear for dryhten as this word is commonly used to refer to a warlord but seemingly not in religious contexts (Pollington 2011: 242–3). Frea is the name of a male pagan deity in Scandinavia. However in Old English poetry the sense seems to of 'lord' or 'dear one' rather than a recycled name of god. But the prior meanings of frea must have been 'contaminating' because in later Old English texts dryhten becomes the common way of referring to Christ as 'our Lord' while the word frea drops out of use.

At the time of conversion Anglo-Saxon society was held together by a complex notion of kith and kin, and of personal service to a dryht or lord. Kin are blood relatives while kith are the people you live among. And, in a patrilocal society where women left their own kin when they married then all communities would be a mix of kin (mostly adult men but including all the children and some widows) and kith – the spouses of these men. By using the word dryhten early clergy wove their religion deeply into this social cosmology in ways that we can now barely comprehend.

Old English poems reveal that the Old Testament god was thought of as the 'maker' or 'shaper' – more so than the 'creator'. This would be consistent with north European cosmogonic myths which think of the primordial cow shaping ice and fire, in contrast to Middle Eastern cosmogonies where the world is created from nothing. The distinction is subtle and seemingly missed by Anglo-Saxon poets – evidence that underlying assumptions and worldviews influence the way we understand new ideas.

The Modern English word 'god' is one of three Old English words which might have been used to translate Biblical references. The Old English words os, rægen and god were all candidates. Intriguingly god does not originally mean 'god' but simply 'that which is invoked'. But, in contrast to os and rægen which are used as collective names for male deities, god could be used in the singular so was the word adopted for the monotheistic Christian God (Pollington 2011: 82).

Monotheism was alien to Germanic worldviews. Pagan gods were thought of as collections of entities and an individual entity was rarely addressed or discussed (Pollington 2011: 84). The history of European conversion frequently gives brief insights into the persistence of such polytheism, even among kings who claim to have been converted. The apostate polygamy of Livingstone's convert Sechele seems an apposite analogy… (see Rethinking conversion)

Similarly, the Christian ideologies about redemption and salvation are slow to penetrate into popular Christianity – despite surviving Old English homilies and sermons suggesting that the clergy were fully aware of the importance of this doctrine. Here my argument about slowly-changing deeper worldviews could be used in reverse – in that any form of soteriology was entirely alien to pre-Christian worldviews, so there was no precedent which provided a foundation on which to develop the rather abstract – and, at that time, entirely novel – ideas of salvation.

Doom Painting

The Doom Painting in Holy Trinity Church, Coventry.

Only as 'Doom paintings' and their like take up dominant positions over chancel arches later in medieval times does this ideology become part of the underlying worldview (and one which continues to underlie Western thinking, to the extent most modern people find it hard to understand religions, such as Daoism, which do not offer salvation or enlightenment).

Inevitably, attempting to establish why something doesn't happen (or happens slowly) is more difficult than interpreting what does happen so I'll simply leave this as a passing comment rather than a possible explanation for the slow uptake of such core Christian concepts as salvation.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013


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