A Retrospective in Anglo-Saxon Heathendom

If you asked me six or seven years ago how Anglo-Saxon and Norse Heathendom differed, I would have struggled to answer. I think there was an innate understanding that we were in some way different, but we seemed to lack the vocabulary necessary to truly articulate it. Marc (of Axe and Plough fame) and I spent many an hour deliberating over this very question and, like an ouroboros, we always ended up back at square one.

Historically, on paper, there wasn’t a lot separating the two religious expressions and one could easily write off the gallantry and “high cultural” aspects of the Eddas as nothing more than post-pagan flourishes brought about by authors, such as Snorri, trying to add a touch of prestige to Icelandic identity. 

Likewise, the more folksy aspects, such as leechcraft and metrical charms, typically associated with Anglo-Saxon religion, may well be the result of the English taking to writing at an earlier period and thus, recording more of their folk practices for posterity. This is made more apparent when one reads the Norse sagas, wherein characters such as Egil engage in what might be termed “folk magic”. 

So, how can one truly delineate ancient, Anglo-Saxon Heathendom as something distinct and separate from its more well-known, Norse cousin? The answer Marc and I came to after having run in circles for what seemed an eternity was that, unfortunately, you cannot. Looking at both religions with the historical sources we have available to us, the differences are superficial at best and come down to differences in language, locale, time period and, at least in my humble opinion [*], a difference in “pantheon.” 

For most, this is not going to be some special revelation. Anglo-Saxon Heathens have long looked to Scandinavia to fill gaps and Norse Heathens have done much the same with Anglo-Saxon source material, whether they’re keen to admit it or not (Wyrd, anyone?). I mean, for the longest while, we would joke that Anglo-Saxon Heathendom was just reworded and repackaged Norse religion – Norse religion with an Anglo-Saxon DLC pack. While authors such as Swain Wodening were able to breach the Norse-centred market and entice newcomers to an Anglicized paganism, they were ultimately just repackaging Eddic Heathendom with an often clumsy and ill-fitting Old English overlay. 

Those who know me may well be saying, “but Wodgar, you’ve long been one of the loudest voices in trying to distinguish Anglo-Saxon religion from other iterations of so-called Germanic paganism” and you’d be entirely correct. And while I may not be able to substantiate many of my romantic notions about how Anglo-Saxon religion differed from other, like-religions, I can articulate how it is diverging now

You see, I’ve made peace with the fact that this is a new religion made from ancient parts – something I had difficulty with when I first discovered Heathenry. It’s something I think a lot of folks who rely heavily on reconstructionist methodology have difficulty with. 

We all want to claim we’re practicing some ancient thing that our pagan predecessors would immediately recognize,  but the unfortunate reality is, we’re dealing with a substantial break in practice and information and for all our reconstructions and comparative analysis, there’s absolutely no way to claim with even a modicum of certainty that this thing we do is 100% authentic and accurate. Sorry (not really), but regardless of what a bunch of English Nationalists will tell you, the culture of the Ur-Saxons no longer exists and the distinction between Norse paganism and Anglo-Saxon paganism as it was during that period is of less importance to me than taking this new thing and trying to make it distinct and viable in the 21st century. 

Whether we can say with certainty that they were intrinsic to Anglo-Saxon religion, modern practitioners of Fyrnsidu seem to have gravitated toward certain things that our Norse counterparts are usually less enthusiastic about. The aforementioned interest in herbalism, leechcraft and plantlore has certainly found a prominent place among 21st century Anglo-Saxon Heathens and it’s something that I think should be included in any curriculum designed for the budding Fyrnsidere. If we’re going to continue to distinguish ourselves as a standalone entity, then we need to celebrate and expand on those small things that modern practitioners have gravitated towards. 

Offerings at bodies of water, well and spring worship, celebrating Blostmfreols, offerings of recels (incense) and the making of corn dollies may or may not have played an integral part in the so-called Anglo-Saxon religious experience, but they have taken on an important role today

Modern practitioners also demonstrate a greater acceptance of non-Germanic source material and comparative study, due to post-Roman Britain being something of a cultural melting pot of Germanic, Romano-British and Roman ideas. Perhaps our lack of written mythology has been something of a boon, rather than detrimental to our development and diversification in that regard. 

So, where do we go from here? 

I think we should and likely will continue to develop away from other forms of Germanic paganism, utilizing a combination of historically attested practices, comparative analysis and informed innovation. As more people join our small community, more ideas will ultimately come to the fore, meeting the needs of an ever diversifying, 21st century body of practitioners.


[*] I am a big believer in the plurality of the divine and as such, I do not think that, say, Woden is the same deity as Odinn. I may make a habit of using comparative study to flesh out my reconstructions and better understand the divinities I’m communing with, but that doesn’t mean I assume the deities being compared are one and the same.

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4 thoughts on “A Retrospective in Anglo-Saxon Heathendom

  1. I truly value the honesty of this piece, but also the stark validity of the opinion which paints a picture of realisation that I have also come to feel – celebration of difference need not be due to ancient differences, but modern ones too. Thank you once again, Wodgar.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for your fresh insights to anglosaxon paganism and especially your non dogmatic presentation.It certainly gives me much to think upon. I have an interest in local folklore that could be clues to our ancestors’ beliefs/practices.

    Liked by 1 person

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