The Old Gods of England

Woden, the Wanderer

Before their conversion, the Anglo-Saxons had no written language, so we know little about Anglo-Saxon paganism. Yes, they worshipped the Germanic goods, the names of Tiu (Tuesday), Woden (Wednesday), Thunor (Thursday) and Freia (Friday) being preserved in four days of the week while Easter keeps alive the memory of a goddess, Eostre, whose cult is otherwise completely lost, but the tales they told of these gods were forgotten and we can only piece together a little of how they were worshipped.

Paganism was a religion of ritual rather than faith. No one doubted the existence of gods and other powers; religion was there to get the gods onside. Through sacrifice, generally animal although there are some intimations of occasional human sacrifice, the gods’ blessing might be gained, thus ensuring the supplicant’s hál, an Old English word meaning fortune or divine blessing from which derive the words ‘hale’ and ‘healthy’. Pagan sanctuaries were generally woodlands groves or glades – in one such, Penda displayed the severed head and arms of Oswald after the battle of Maserfield. Such places were often named hearg, which becomes Harrow (‘Harrow-on-the-Hill’) in later English. Pagan priesthood appears to have been inherited, and the priests themselves were marked out from the rest of the elite by the taboo against them using weapons or riding stallions.


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