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

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Seeing past 'secular' assumptions

I have tried to keep the articles on Twilight as accessible as possible. Mostly I have tried to follow the maxim of 'show, don't tell' when dealing with the deeper theoretical issues. But underlying all these examples are some quite deep philosophical issues.

As with all disciplines, philosophy has a number of 'technical terms' which make it easy for fellow specialists to discuss issues with the minimum amount of explanation. However such terminology is generally opaque to outsiders. So I will endeavour to offer some explanations along the way – but feel free to look up relevant pages of Wikipedia if you're still puzzled by my attempts at offering 'enlightenment'.

The purpose of this specific article in Twilight is to look at two sets of assumptions. One of these is the assumptions which pre-conversion Anglo-Saxon people made about the nature of the world, their relationships with deities and spirits, and so forth. We have limited numbers of clues simply because most of what comes down to us is either very minimal or from after the conversion process is underway, when different assumptions from Christian doctrines are having an increasing influence. There is also, as I will discuss, the extent to which Viking society had also adapted during the settlement in Scandinavia, resulting in more complex worldviews than those of the pre-conversion northern European mainland.

The second set of assumptions is those which Western scholars make about the nature of the world, their relationships with deities and spirits, and so forth. There are long-standing claims that Western scholarship is independent of any underlying theoretical biases, and thereby able to access 'the truth' underlying the beliefs and worldviews of other cultures. Since the 1970s the notion of such a 'higher perspective' has been shown to be pure bunkum, although different academic disciplines woke up this realisation at different times. Anthropologists were on board in the 1980s, archaeologists reinvented themselves in the 1990s and British historians largely followed by the end of the millennium (their Continental counterparts, in contrast, were some of the pioneers). Nevertheless, a good part of this article will be devoted to revealing that supposedly secular modern day worldviews are just the continuation of Christian doctrines established some time in the previous 1,500 years. And if that remark seems contentious, I hope by the end of this article you will re-evaluate your own assumptions!

The 'unpacking' of the assumptions of modern scholarship means unpacking how those assumptions originated over the last 1,500 years. Which of course, rather neatly, takes us back to the pre-conversion period which is core to Twilight. So by unpacking modern day assumptions we end up shedding a surprising amount of light on pre-conversion wordviews.

Looking at the lenses

Bear with me while we go in deep. First let me expand on the way I am using the word 'worldviews'. The term includes an individual's religious choices and inclinations but also includes ideas which subliminally underpin more consciously-held beliefs. Mostly 'worldviews' are the assumptions about 'the way things are' that people living in that society are not consciously aware could be anything different – although to someone outside the society the 'weirdness' of those assumptions may be highly conspicuous.

We are not consciously aware of our worldviews so the ways in which they change are usually incremental. Even when contact with other cultures introduces novel ideas which are profoundly different, there are recognisable processes of absorption.

Yes, we are simply not fully aware of what we think and believe! If you find that somewhat difficult to comprehend then let me explain. These deep-seated beliefs and assumptions structure how we think about everything in the world. They could be referred to as the 'deep structures' of a culture. More commonly they are referred to as 'myths' because, at least in traditional societies, it is by retelling mythic stories that these fundamental ideas are remembered, reinforced and renewed. Myths can usefully be thought of as 'ideology plus narrative.' Changes are possible but almost certainly they are incremental and evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

There are plenty of examples of ideas in modern society which are transmitted mythically, except that we don't think of them as myths. A complex, but recognisable, worldview is transmitted by Hollywood films. So recognisable, that parodies of the life styles of 'squeaky clean' families where white Protestants are more privileged than other ethnicities or faiths are commonplace. Most aspects of politics can be approached as examples of 'myths in action'. Perhaps more surprisingly, the same can be said for much of modern science, despite raucous refutations to the contrary from the denizens of a worldview which deems itself to have access to 'the truth' – even though that truth may change its appearance greatly from one generation of scientists to the next.

Nearly ten years ago I wrote an overview of myths in the modern world, The Myths of Reality , under the pseudonym Simon Danser. In the introductory remarks I explain this 'hidden' sense of myth using a metaphor I encountered in the writing of Christopher Flood:

Myths may be thought of as akin to the lenses of spectacles. When we are wearing spectacles we do not see the lenses. We see with them. In the same way myths impart a worldview that is taken for granted. Only when we take off a pair of spectacles do we see the lenses. Only when we step back and think about myths can we begin to see how they shape what we think of as reality. The underlying 'assumptions' and structures presented (and, more typically, challenged and redefined) in myths provide the 'deep structures' underpinning the thinking of a society, or culture, or subculture.
 
(Danser 2003: 9)

In The Myths of Reality I discuss in some detail how myths are transmitted in contemporary society – almost always in a somewhat fragmentary form which merely alludes to a 'bigger picture' – and provide numerous examples.

What is a worldview?

However in this article, rather than refer to this underpinning as 'deep structures' or 'myths' I will use the somewhat vaguer term 'worldview', an English word which is the literal translation of the German Weltanschauung, (welt 'world', anschauung 'perception'). Intriguingly the Old English word weorold – the precursor to the Modern English word 'world' – has something of the same sense of 'worldview' in that it refers not only to the physical world but also to 'way of life' and 'human life over a long period of time'. Weorold has the same sense as when 'world' is used to encompass both perceived reality and our culturally constructed social reality.

Inevitably there is some ambiguity about what might make up a 'worldview' so here is my version. Academics would simply refer to the whole of this list as a 'cosmology' – the structure of the 'cosmos', which denotes something greater than 'world' and certainly much more than 'the world of mankind'. Confusingly astrophysicists adopted the word 'cosmology' when they meant 'cosmogony' – the origins of the cosmos. I will use these words as little as possible but always in the sense used by academic mythographers and ethnonographers

Ask mythographers and ethnonographers what they mean by 'cosmology' and you may get somewhat different answers. But they will broadly agree that a culture's cosmology spans such ideas as how we imagine space and time, how we think the human realm is distinct – if at all – from the realms of the gods and other Otherworldy entities; how men, women and children should interact; what sort of foods are suitable to eat, how they should be cooked, and who they should be eaten with; how the culture interacts with other cultures; and so forth – even the ideas about how everything came into existence and how it all will end.

At first glance many of these seem to be ideas expressed through religious beliefs. But religion is, from this perspective, only one way in which such cosmologies are expressed and acted out. Almost the same cosmology can support a range of seemingly diverse religions. Hinduism and Buddhism, along with Sikhism and a number of other faiths, all share broadly the same cosmology. Likewise Jews, Christians and Moslems all share an underlying cosmology. Of course, to a follower of any of these faiths there are profound differences between, say Hinduism and Buddhism or Christianity and Islam. But no matter how radical the specific differences seem, far more is shared at the deeper levels which we rarely recognise.

There is much more which could be said about worldviews. Indeed I have already written considerably more in a free-to-download PDF called Continuity of Worldviews in Anglo-Saxon England. So, rather than repeat the finer detail here, let's move on to the some specific instances of such worldviews.

Animism versus materialism

In a world where everything was alive with spiritual presences, where the doors between heaven and earth were open all around, then saints, demons, and elves were all equally possible. Such was the world of late Saxon England.
 
(Jolly 1996: 2)

One of the frequent criticisms of modern Western worldviews is that they are too materialistic and too reductionist. But while this is undoubtedly a useful generalisation, few people expressing this criticism offer an alternative. The main one is a woolly New Age 'holistic' sense of everything being connected. Which, as a generalisation, has some validity. But, despite all sorts of wishful thinking that 'ancient people' were custodians of a now-lost wisdom, the reality is that previous cultures – Western and otherwise – did not share the modern sense of a holistic whole. They needed to be better at managing their environment in order to survive – but there are also examples of societies which failed to maintain such ecological balance and either starved or migrated.

The prevailing worldview before modern materialism was often – although not always – animistic. We must be careful how we think of animism however, as several generations of scholars nurtured an invented sense of the word which – while it may have made sense to them, seated in the comfort of their armchairs – fails to match up with the beliefs and worldviews of the traditional societies they were deeming to be animistic. All is not lost, however, as Graham Harvey's book, called Animism (Harvey 2005) provides a much more nuanced perspective.

In his subsequent book, Food, Sex and Strangers: Understanding religion as everyday life Harvey summarises animism as not simply 'things have a life of their own' but more as the 'continual re-establishment of the world' (Harvey 2013: 138; see also 139–40; 148). In my opinion, such notions of animism blur indistinguishably into Taoist ideas of 'everything is flow' and pre-Socratic Greek beliefs – especially as expressed by Heraclitus – that 'all is change'.

Animistic religions are not 'belief in spirits', nor projecting human ways of thinking onto non-human creatures, nor attributing sentience to inanimate objects. Well, they are sometimes a little bit of some of these. But as non-Western religions are principally about doing rather then believing, then animism is mostly about honouring 'other-than-human-persons'. Rather than labour a lengthy summary of how Harvey considers animism should be regarded, I will leave this to examples later in this article and move on to another broad topic.

Who am I?

If animism is best thought as recognising a diversity of other-than-human-persons, we need too to think carefully about what it is to be a person – human or otherwise – in pre-modern societies.

Only in the modern Western world is there a strong sense of a person being a clearly-defined, seemingly autonomous individual. In non-Western cultures the sense of self has much less well defined boundaries. A such cultures person exists within all sorts of duties to the family or lineage, often including honouring the opinions of older relatives which are now alien to the large majority of modern Western people. Individual achievement – so much as it is recognised – is entirely subservient to recognition of the collective effort behind the seemingly individual accomplishment. Above all, personal decisions are made within worldviews where honour and duty are far more restrictive than in modern Western society.

I will come back to this somewhat diffuse sense of 'self' when I discuss souls. But first I want to look more specifically at something which is seemingly all-but-indistinguishable from the modern sense of self – our consciousness.

The illusion of consciousness

Western society accepts as 'natural' a distinction between mind and body. We are comfortable talking about our 'consciousness' as if it has a largely independent existence from our bodies. This is pure bunkum. That consciousness is thought to exist in our brains, and is thus somehow separate from the rest of our flesh and bone.

But our brains only exist as independent entities after the anatomist's knife has cut through a substantial swathe of nerves at the top of the spinal column. Prior to that post-mortem dissection our brains are simply the 'terminus' of nerves which extend into every organ and every extremity of our bodies. Some of those organs, notably the stomach and heart, have extensive 'thinking' and memory capabilities. For example there are more neurons in a human heart than in the brain of a domestic cat.

The linguists and philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published a dense tome back in 1999 called The Embodied Mind (Lakoff and Johnson 1999)which draws together previous research by various neuroscientists with their own specialist understanding (which includes how the metaphors underpinning the meaning of words are largely derived from bodily interaction with the world).

Lakoff and Johnson's work is only a small part of major research into human consciousness over the last three or more decades. What these 'consciousness studies' reveal is quite profound. The sense that we 'have' a consciousness or that 'we are conscious' is an illusion (arguably a very necessary illusion) caused by how we think we think. It is a secular continuation of medieval – and much earlier – notions of souls.

For me, consciousness is like God in that neither exist– but imagining that they do is very convenient (see Danser 2005: Ch.11.) I have also discussed some aspects of consciousness, principally those to do with perception and memory in Creating the Paranormal (Trubshaw 2012c).

No supernatual. No Otherworld.

We don't have to become profoundly involved in neuroscience or philosophy to encounter worldviews which are considerably removed from the Western mind:body dualism. All the major Eastern cultures generally perceive mind, body and spirit as aspects of a single unified reality. If you know a little about the principals of Chinese medicine (so long as that understanding hasn't been too 'diluted' by Western interpretations) then you will be aware of this 'holistic' approach to how our bodies maintain a healthy balance.

Chinese medicine is, of course, only one aspect of Chinese culture. The underlying worldviews and religious practices are also devoid of Western dualisms. Indeed the vast canonical literature associated with Daoism, spanning more than two millennia, offers a worldview which has been described by one of the experts in the field, Harold Roth, as the most monist worldview of any major religion.

So, monism means that our bodies and brains are all part of a single 'reality'. It also means that, if we believe in souls, then these too are part of the same unified reality. And it means that any 'otherworldly' or 'supernatural' entities are also part of this realm, albeit perhaps not so tangible. Put simply, there is no 'supernatural', there is no 'otherworld'.

This same monist way of thinking also means that deities – whether major ones or more local 'spirit deities' – are also part of our world, not residents in some 'upperworld', or even 'lower world'.

Clive Tolley has also looked at the linguistic evidence for monist and dualist ontologies in Old English and Old Norse. He concluded that the modern Western separation of the physical from the metaphysical 'was not so clear-cut in earlier times'. One of Tolley's examples is that when we use the word 'heart' to denote either the seat of emotions or physical organ this is thought of as two different usages of one word and we find it 'difficult to express such a union of what seem wholly different things' (Tolley 2009: 167 8).

Monist worldviews also lack the dualisms between body and mind which have become deeply entrenched in Western thinking. Supposedly secular thinking about body and mind as somehow separate entities is an uncritical continuation of dualistic Christian doctrines of body and soul. In the Old English literature we can see that there are no pre-existing terms which reflect this body:soul dualism. Indeed there is inconsistency in words used to translate 'spirit' and 'breath' when these are used in Biblical passages to make a dualistic distinction to 'body'. The absence of words for such dualism in Old English strongly suggests that the Anglo-Saxon worldview was much more monist than Christianity.

In contrast Modern English has become so deeply dualistic that there is an absence of words which can be used to describe a monist ontology! For example, with the exception of the rarely-used word 'preternatural', modern English lacks words to clearly express what a 'supernatural' entity – such as a ghost – or denizen of the 'Otherworld' – such as spirit or fairy – is if it is not supernatural or otherwordly. Ethnographers sometimes use 'supernatural' in a similar sense to 'spirit world' or 'land of the ancestors' (Hufford 1995: 15; 42). But, in contrast to some (though not all) traditional socities, Modern English is simply too dualist to convey the sense of an immanent 'spirit world'.

The reason is fairly obvious – the Christian worldview is essentially dualist. Whether or not we believe in Heaven and Hell, the idea of such 'Otherworlds' – and, more specifically, that they are 'other' to the manifest world – is so deeply ingrained in our thinking that we simply do not have the words for an alternative way of thinking. Even the supposedly secular worldview of modern Western materialism has failed to sever the implicit worldview of Christianity – and I will be offering further examples later.

In complete contrast Old English has no words which equate to 'supernatural' or 'otherworld'. Yes there is aelf hame – 'the home of the elves', if you like – but there is no implication that this is an otherworldly home. Indeed the suggestion is that it is somewhere in this physical realm – underneath a hollow hill perhaps, as the sidhe of Ireland still favour. (See Who were the landwights?) Indeed traditional Irish 'fairy lore' is set within an essentially monist worldview – although clearly attempting to write a philosophical thesis on the ontology of orally-transmitted folk tales is more than a tad tendentious! As discussed in The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol, the Anglo-Saxon worldview is 'preternatural' rather than 'supernatural', i.e. the phenomena are 'beside' (Latin pręter) the natural and presumed to have natural, though unknown, explanations. The realm of the preternatural lies between the mundane and the miraculous.

If we assume a monist worldview then it is much easier to appreciate the nuanced sense of animism described by Graham Harvey. I am not suggesting that monism is 'necessary' for an animistic worldview, just that animism seems to fit more comfortably into a non-dualist perspective. Graham Harvey has discussed 'non-Otherwordly' which include Maori religion, and 'non-supernaturalist' religions, in some detail (Harvey 2013: 69; 71; 117; 120–2), drawing in part on his own fieldwork and also the research of Ken Morrison.

The lack of a well-known word for a monist view of reality in Modern English is indeed real evidence that, by and large, English people do not think in terms of such a worldview. Likewise the absence of names for an ontologically-distinct 'otherworld' in Old English is equally valid evidence that the pre-conversion north European and Anglo-Saxon worldview was essentially monist. I have discussed this further in a separate article Who were the landwights?.

Immanence versus trandscendence

Within a monist worldview the deities must reside in this world, in some sense, living alongside us. This is how the gods of Classical Greece were supposed to spend their time – up in 'penthouse suites' in the multiple peaks of Mount Olympus. This is quite different to Christian concepts of God, Christ and assorted saints all living in Heaven and spending little or no time here on Earth.

To avoid using an undue number of words I will use the technical terms 'immanent' to describe the sort of deities who walk this Earth, and 'transcendent' to describe those who mostly don't. While pre-conversion north European worldviews seem to be essentially immanent, and Judaeo-Christian worldviews are essentially transcendent, as with all generalisations there are nuanced exceptions. The Judaeo-Christian worldview is essentially transcendent, although the key exception is indeed important. Around the time of Christ there were a number of ways of being Jewish and beliefs had yet to be formalised. Nevertheless when Yahweh summons Moses to take down some dictation – the Ten Commandments – he does not manifest on this Earth. Moses walks to the summit of Mount Sinai to be nearer to Yahweh, but does not expect to meet him. Yahweh may make himself 'present' in the form of a burning bush, but that is about as immanent as he gets.

In contrast to Greek deities, such as Zeus, who found it rather easy to get mortal girls pregnant, when God wishes to have a child by Mary he has to enlist the help of the angel Gabriel. And the birth of Christ is indeed the point at which essentially transcendent Judaeo-Christian deities become immanent. Indeed, when Gabriel appears to Joseph while Mary is expecting, he is specifically told that the child's name will be Immanuel. (Yes, the English word 'immanent' is a rare example of a loan word from Hebrew.)

Christ is 'the Word made flesh', and the fact of his worldly existence is the key distinction between Jews and Christians. He became transcendent at his Accession, although a Second Coming – another immanent appearance – was promised. He was joined by his mother, Mary, at her Assumption, and a great many saints also share this transcendent existence. The whole focus of Christian doctrine and thinking is of God, Christ, the saints and the angels as being transcendent. All concepts of an afterlife – whether in Heaven, Hell or Purgatory – are equally transcendent.

The slow transition in worldviews

So perhaps we should not be surprised that modern day secular worldviews implicitly accept such a transcendent way of thinking about deities and all other 'supernatural' entities.

By the same token we should be surprised – indeed we should reasonably expect – the essentially immanent pre-conversion north European worldview would only slowly adjust to the transcendent Christian worldview. My basic assumption, based on some provisional scholarly investigations, is that lay people in Anglo-Saxon England – even though they had begun to think of themselves as Christians – still retained a largely immanent worldview until at least the tenth century. Not until the twelfth century had their underlying assumptions – the 'lenses in their spectacle through which they viewed the world', to resurrect the metaphor used at the start of this article – shifted towards the assumptions which also provide the perspective for our modern day thinking.

The assumption of such a long transition spanning the entire Anglo-Saxon era is the 'worldview' of Twilight. Most of the articles are drafted around this assumption.

'Souls and spirits' or 'spirits and deities'

There are a number of other modern day assumptions which do not necessarily reflect pre-conversion worldviews. I have written elsewhere about Souls, Spirits and Deities (Trubshaw 2013a). Secular Western thinking would think about souls and spirits as being more-or-less related while deities are generally something else. In contrast most traditional societies would think of souls a something very distinct from spirits (in that souls are human whereas spirits are non-human) while not having a clear divide between spirits and many of the deities.

Ethnographers take of 'spirit-deities' when they are usually referring to 'spirits of place' and tutelary deities – exactly the sort of deities we encounter most often in pre-conversion northern Europe. Only the more 'universal' deities appear, perhaps, to be more distinct from 'mere spirits' – but not all societies recognise such 'universal' deities.

The near-absence of souls

So, while Old English has numerous words for 'spirit-deities' (see Who were the landwights? and (Trubshaw 2013a), none of these words are readily confused with the idea of human souls. Indeed, it seems safest to say that before conversion to Christianity, north European and Anglo-Saxon worldviews had little concern with the notion of a soul. I suspect those more knowledgeable about Old English literature and its lexicon will dispute that point with me. But at this stage I am unaware of any pre-conversion reference to souls.

More recent Germanic lore associates souls with swans and other large birds, such as storks and geese. We still have a whimsical sentiment of babies being brought by storks. Storks have never been native to Britain and I suspect this whimsy came into British culture from translations of German folklore during the nineteenth century (and I would be very pleased to hear from any folklorist who can confirm or deny this assumption). Scottish lore tells of the souls of the dead being taken by migrating swans to the land of the dead, north beyond the north wind. Again there seem to be literary sources for this oral lore.

Swan maidens and such like feature in Wagner's versions of Germanic myths, although less so in the earlier versions of these tales. But there do seem to once have been real associations between swans and the sort of 'witches' and seereesses known as valkyries or Norns. I have written a whole chapter about swans and their links to mythology in Singing Up the Country (Trubshaw 2011 Ch.11)

However the surviving Old English literature is remarkably silent about swans, 'swan women' as well as souls. It seems that in pre-conversion Anglo-Saxon England these were not ideas which featured prominently in worldviews. Perhaps there were local exceptions. Perhaps the evidence has simply not survived. But we should be careful not to assume that later preoccupations with souls predated the conversion.

Reincarnation or 'recycling'?

On the face of it this is odd because the one thing we know about Iron Age worldviews is that the Druids believed in reincarnation. Indeed, we know very little about Druids from contemporary Roman authors and the remark about reincarnation is almost the only information we can take at face value.

Or can we? Well yes, and no. Modern day concepts of reincarnation are a bit like moving house – our sense of self, our soul, merely pops off to a new abode and then carries on almost unchanged to be rewarded or punished. But that assumes that modern notions of self-identity – which only emerge in the West in the last two hundred years and are still much more 'emergent' in Eastern societies – can be back-projected into the past. If the traditional sense of self is much less individualistic – in other words, the person exists within a network of family and other social obligations rather than as an individual – then any concepts of a soul will be more diffuse also.

But what if – as the modern Druid, Kris Hughes, has suggested – the ancient Druids' notion of reincarnation was something much more different? What if it more of a transmutation, where the atoms which make up our bodies are 'recycled' into new forms? If this all sounds like dull 'dust to dust' then think of the Book of Taliesin, where – in this translation from medieval Welsh by Lloyd Graham – the eponymous bard tells us:

I have been a blue salmon.
I have been a dog; I have been a stag;
I have been a roebuck on the mountain.
I have been a stock, I have been a spade.
I have been an axe in the hand;
I have been a pin in a forceps,
A year and a half;
I have been a speckled white cock
Upon hens in Eiddyn.
I have been a stallion over a stud.
I have been a violent bull,
I have been a buck of yellow hue,
As it is feeding.

From roughly the same time The Battle of the Trees and the Song of Amhairghin share similar lists of transformations. In some of those lists the 'I have been… ' examples includeL

I am a wind on the sea,
I am a wave of the ocean,
I am the roar of the sea.

I am a teardrop of sunlight

I am a spear on the attack.

If such poems are echoes of earlier notions of reincarnation then they are indeed very different notions to those created by Christian doctrines of an afterlife in Heaven or Hell.

The carrying stream

In contrast to the inherently stable view of the world proposed by Plato and sustained by Christianity and its secular successors, this is a worldview shared by Daoism where everything is forever changing and flowing, where reality is regarded as resembling an ever-renewing whirlpool or a flame, rather than a bucket of water or a candle.

Indeed we see the same 'Daoist' worldview in such pre-Socratic Greek philosophers as Heraclitus. This is a surprising overlap between a Greek-speaking colony on the Mediterranean coast of that is now Turkey and ideas which are first known in western China. And, while separated geographically, they are not separate temporally – Heraclitus is a close contemporary of early Daoists living around 500 BCE. I have looked at early Daoism and Heraclitus in more detail in a free-to-download PDF called The Process of Reality.

The idea that everything is change or 'flow' can be recognised in the phrase Scottish Travellers use to refer to the wealth of stories and songs in their culture – 'the carrying stream of memory'. This suggests an underlying worldview of ever-flowing tradition which academic expressions such as 'orally-transmitted lore' fail to recognise.

If everything is change, then everything is in a state of 'emergent creativity'. I have discussed this further in an article called The carrying stream of memory .

Rational versus irrational

The ancient Greeks also burdened us with the assumption that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the world is inherently rational. It took nearly 2,500 years for this fallacy to be recognised by E.R. Dodds (Dodds 1951).

In contrast, most traditional societies – including Germanic ones – think that the world behaves rationally only if the gods can be bribed into helping. The Greek influences on early Christianity made God into an inherently rational being. We now think of Isaac Newton (1642–1727) as a pioneering scientist. But he regarded his endeavours in mathematics, physics and optics as attempts to better understand the mind of God.

So one of the myths we need to set aside when thinking about pre-conversion worldviews is that people thought of the world, still less the deities, as inherently rational.

What does all this mean?

On the basis of the meaning of words themselves – and the absence of specific words – as well as from what the words mean when brought together into sentences and stories I think it is reasonable to assume that pre-conversion north European worldviews were essentially monist and immanent. While they were not necessarily animist there was some degree of animism – but that animism needs to be understood within a monist and immanent worldview, not the dualist and transcendent assumptions of modern scholarship which unwittingly perpetrate secularised Christian assumptions.

Similarly we should think in terms of a reality which was a 'process' of continual emergence and creativity. Notions of Platonic Ideals need to be banished to the cave from which they came – even though they are still the foundations of much of modern science! Assumptions of a rational world should be replaced with a worldview in which only the deities could impose some order on an inherently chaotic reality.

Individual identity would have been subservient to duties and obligations to the lineage and wider society, in ways which mimic modern Chinese or Indian societies, for example, but which have largely disappeared in modern Western countries. The Christian obsession with the afterlife and the soul have deeply influenced more secular thoughts about reincarnation; but pre-conversion outlooks may have been radically different. And 'radically different' includes not only notions of being reborn as the wind or an animal, but of having no sense of the soul as an 'individual' at all.

I suspect there are a number of other ways in which modern, seemingly secular assumptions distort the way we think about pre-conversion societies. I am open to suggestions. But for the moment I hope I have offered enough suggestions to help you to see Anglo-Saxon England from a somewhat different perspective.

Situating myself in my own assumptions

To situate this article within my own worldviews and assumptions, may I briefly state that my attempts to understand of Daoism go back about thirty-five years and predate any active interest in Anglo-Saxon England. My interest in the various strands of thinking which can be collectively termed 'the social construction of reality' – notably the role of myths and 'mythic fragments' in the process of such construction – led to writing The Myths of Reality just over ten years ago. And as I have become increasingly interested in recent scholarship about Anglo-Saxon England, my underlying perspective owes more to Daoism and 'social construction' as a process than it does to usual paradigms of linguists, place-name scholars, historians, archaeologists, and those who normally approach such topics.

I am, if you like, looking at this era from the perspective of a 'comparative ontologist'. Quite what that perspective reveals is indicated in the other articles which make up Twilight.

 

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013–2014

 


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