Friday, April 22, 2011

Anglo-Saxon gods

I warn you: this is not a terribly coherent post. My frustration level is high.

Before I started writing Hild I read a little about Anglo-Saxon cosmology/mythology. It didn't do me much good. Everyone seems to disagree. No one seems to know anything. They just hem and haw and hedge. So for the first draft I took what I could from philology--from Bede, place names, Norse myth and A-S poetry--and...skated.

Now that I'm rewriting, I find that a hand-waving, don't-point-at-this-ice approach won't work. It's time to get it exactly right. Except, hey, everyone still disagrees. And they're still just guessing (and timidly at that). So I'm stumped. For example, was there an Eostre or not? If so, what was she god of, exactly? Ditto Hreðe. (The only place these two gods are mentioned is in Bede's HE. Some scholars insist he was making those names up. I want to know what those scholars have been smoking. Why would Bede make up stuff about a belief system he abhorred?) Where do Tiw and Frig fit? (An older pantheon? A parallel pantheon?) How were they worshipped? (Were they worshipped, in our sense of the word?) What did an Anglo-Saxon grove (or temple, or holy well) look like? Who looked after it? How were those priests/guardians sustained?

So far I've made some tentative decisions about two gods, Thunor and Woden.

I think of Thunor as the big Sky Daddy, the one flinging the thunderbolts. A Zeus figure (though less involved in human affairs and, well, completely different). Worshipped in oak groves, most likely. Represented by a hammer. Maybe married to Eorðe (hey, if there was an Eorðe).

Woden is the warrior's god. The carrier-off of the dead. The god later Anglo-Saxons kings claimed as their ultimate ancestor. (For a variety of reasons--foremost among them the Hey, no one knows anything! excuse--I'm moving those claims up to the seventh century.) I'm positing he would be represented by something triplicate: complicated, confusing, a variation on the valknut (top) or triskele (bottom):

both images from Wikipedia

Woden is the leader of the Wild Hunt. I think of him as being a risky kind of god, a gambler. Impulsive. Unpredictable. A do-or-die, death-or-glory kind of god.

Having said that, it's possible (if you follow some of the linguistic trails) that Hreðe was also a god of glory, which makes me think she might be some kind of war deity. But she has a month (Hreðemonath, or March) named after her--according to Bede, anyway. So what was that about? And is she connected in any way with Eorðe, an earth mother type? It's a mystery.

Eostre is celebrated at Easter. April. So if I decide to include her, she'll be represented by the hare. (Easter. Bunnies. The folk magic that clings to hares--who get v. feisty in spring. Who could resist?)

Ah, you might say, but what about all the Brittonic (Celtic) gods? I think these gods were hyperlocal. Every stream, well, wall, grove, and hill seemed to have some resident deity--though many were probably cognomens (cognomina?) of more widely recognised gods. (See, for example, Esmeralda's post about Luguwalos.)

Then there's the more general belief systems. Who believed in what kind of afterlife? Were their gods terrible and wrathful? Capricious? Bargainers or tyrants? Interested in people or not? Where and how does the concept of Wyrd fit in all this?

And what about giants and hægtessan and etins and wights and ælfe?

I'll just be over here, beating my head bloody. If you know anything about this, please take pity on me and at least point me in the right direction...

This blog has moved. My blog now lives here: