You are on page 1of 29

Bede and Anglo-Saxon Paganism

The Venerable Bede appears to have been born near Jarrow about
612. H e himself tells us (Historia Ecclesiastica, Il.xiv) that the first
conversion of Northumbria, by R o m a n missionaries under Paulinus, took
place during the reign of Edwin. According to the most recent investigation
of Northumbrian chronology by Kirby, it would have begun about 619;
however, it seems unlikely that the change to Christianity would have gained
much m o m e n t u m before the conversion of Edwin himself about 627. There
was a pagan reaction in 633 or 634 when Edwin was killed, which lasted until
635 or 636 when his nephew Oswald obtained the help of Aidan as a
missionary from the Scots, so establishing the Irish style of Christianity in
Northumbria for the next generation until the R o m a n triumph in 664 at the
Synod of Whitby.
In spite of the fact that Bede's parents placed him in Benedict
Biscop's monastery at the age of seven, it is likely that he would have learnt
quite a considerable amount about the paganism of the Anglo-Saxons from
his elders, and from oral tradition. It has often been regretted that he did
not pass on to his readers a great deal of what he must have known about
Anglo-Saxon heathenism; and perhaps almost as often it has been retorted
that this was not his concern, and that he would have certainly regarded it as
tending towards evil to describe heathen practices. Nevertheless, what he
does tell us, in his Historia Ecclesiastica, his De Temporum Ratione and his
Vita Cuthberti is consistent with what w e can learn from other sources. In
particular, there are a couple of other references to pagan practices in the
Saints' Lives, written in Latin in Northumbria in the early years of the eighth
century, which amplify slightly what Bede has to say.
All these sources differ from any other writings which w e can use in a
study of Anglo-Saxon heathenism in one important respect: that whereas the
laws, penitentials and ecclesiastical decrees are all directed to the current
situation, against survivals and superstitions, Bede's writing (except where he
is quoting original documents) and the Saints' Lives describe past events, as
they imagine paganism to have been. Since this is so, it seems a useful
exercise to gather these references together, meagre though they m a y be.
In assessing these references to past paganism, w e need to keep two
or three things in mind. One is that Bede and the hagiographers were writing
about beliefs held and practices current within living memory, and therefore,
though they m a y distort them somewhat, they are unlikely to be reporting
anything which is substantially untrue. As John Morris pertinently remarked
in 1967:
If our historical record was entirely oral, if w e lacked history
books and records, a writer or a lecturer might...explain the
Martello Towers of the south coast as defences erected (not
against Napoleon but) against the Spanish Armada, without
meeting protest or denial; but if he congratulated his readers on
2 A.L. Meaney

our freedom from war in our generation, or praised the long

unbroken democratic tradition of modern Germany, he would be
treated as a humorist or a lunatic.
Such distortion as Bede might give his English evidence, however,
would have come about for one or two reasons, which w e also have to keep in
mind. The first is that w e cannot suppose him to have been giving anything
like a balanced picture. He tells us nothing about heathenism unless honesty
forces him to do so. His work provides merely some highlights against a dim
and dark background; the hagiographers give us only two further minute
patches of illumination. So for a picture of Anglo-Saxon heathenism which
has its most important aspects in the foreground w e must look elsewhere.
The other distortion which w e may suspect in the Northumbrian
writers is from the Christian literature which was available to them. Where
the Great Fathers mentioned paganism, it belonged to the Mediterranean
world, not the Anglo-Saxon. To cloistered monks there must have been a
great temptation to take over some references from what they read, not
from what they had heard.
With all these caveats, w e turn to what the Northumbrians, within
living memory of the demise of paganism, had to say about it.

Bede and the Festivals of the Year

Bede's most deliberate attempt to give an account of pagan customs
is in his chapter X V on the "Months of the English" in his mature
computisticai work, De Temporum Ratione. Although a good modern edition
of this work is available, so far as I know an English translation is not;
therefore to supply one here might well serve a useful purpose. C.W. Jones
remarks in his notes to this chapter that the English names of the months
appear very rapidly and generally to have given way to R o m a n names.
The ancient people of the English, however (for it does not seem
to m e fitting to speak of the observation of the year of other
peoples and to keep silent about m y own) computed their months
according to the course of the moon. They received their name
from the moon in accordance with the custom of the Hebrews
and Greeks; since among them the moon is called mona, the
month monath. Their first month, which the Latins call
January, is called Giuli; then February, Solmonath; March,
Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June,
Litha; July, likewise Litha; August, Weodmonath; September,
Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blotmonath;
December, which is called by the same name as January, Giuli.
However, the year began on the eighth day before the Calends
of January (Dec. 25) where now w e celebrate the birth of our
Lord. And the same night now sacred to us, they then called by
the pagan name Modranect, "night of the mothers", on account,
w e suppose, of the ceremonies which they performed
overnight. And whenever the year was ordinary, they gave three
lunar months each to the year in the (four) separate seasons; but
when, indeed, an intercalary year—that is with thirteen lunar
Bede and Paganism 3

months—occurred, they placed the extra month in the summer,

so that then three months were all called by the name Litha, and
on account of this that year was called Thrilithi, having four
months of summer, but there were three always in the other
seasons. Likewise they divided the whole year principally into
two parts, winter and summer—six months allotted to the
summer in which the days are longer than the nights, the other
six to the winter. From whence they call the month with which
they begin the winter time Winterfilleth with a compound name
from winter and the full moon, because the winter takes its
beginning from the full moon of that month. It would not be
distant from the subject if w e took the trouble to interpret what
the rest of the names of their months signify. The months Giuli
take their n a m e from the change of the sun in lengthening the
day, because one of them precedes, the other follows it.
Solmonath can be called the month of cakes, which they offered
to their gods in it. Hrethmonath is named from their goddess
Hretha, to w h o m they sacrificed in it. Eosturmonath, which now
is interpreted as the paschal month, formerly had its name from
their goddess who was called Eostre, and for w h o m they
celebrated a feast in it. From whose name now they name the
paschal time, calling a festival of new solemnity with the
accustomed name of a former observance. Thrimilchi was so
named because in it the herds were milked three times a day;
for such was once the productiveness of Britain or Germany,
from where the English nation invaded Britain. Litha is said to
be pleasant, or navigable, because in each of those months the
gentleness of the winds is pleasant, and they are accustomed to
navigate the calm seas. Weodmonath is the month of weeds,
because then they flourish very greatly. Halegmonath is the
month of sacred observances. Winterfilleth can be called by a
name of new composition Winterfullmoon. Blotmonath is the
month of sacrifices, because in it they dedicated the herds
which were to be killed to their gods. Thanks to you, good
Jesus, who, turning us away from these vanities, has granted
that w e offer the sacrifice of praise to yourself.
It is obvious from this that the lunar calendar of the pagan English
was intimately bound up with heathen festivals, and therefore, though of
itself not of primary interest in this enquiry, w e must, as briefly as possible,
discuss its framework. Fortunately, Bede's chapter has been the object of
some attention, most recently by Kenneth Harrison, and its import is
reasonably clear. Harrison focuses on Bede's three main points:
The reckoning was by lunar months; the solar year began on 25
December, then perhaps and certainly later known as Midwinter;
and an ordinary year was of 12 lunar months but provision was
made for an extra, 13th, month in certain years. Here, then, is
the pattern of a luni-solar calendar where the day-to-day
reckoning can be checked by observation of the moon itself.
A lunar month is just over 29.5 days long; 12 x 29.5 = roughly 354
days, as opposed to a solar year of 365.2424 days; therefore a calendar
consisting regularly of only 12 lunar months (perhaps counting each month as
29 and 30 days alternately) would have quickly got out of step with the
4 A.L. Meaney

seasons. A year of 13 lunar months would equal a little more than 383.5
days. By inserting a thirteenth month at intervals, therefore, the lunar and
solar years can be kept in some sort of relationship to each other.
T w o possibilities have been suggested for the Anglo-Saxon pagan
calendar; the eight-year or the nineteen-year cycles. A system which has
three years of thirteen lunar months (usually the third, sixth and eighth) and
five other years of twelve lunar months has just over one and a half days
more then eight solar years. A nineteen-year cycle would be more accurate,
as Harrison explains:
The lunar months in an ordinary year are taken to toe. bi
alternately of 29 days and 30 days...; so in 19 years 114 times 29
= 3306 days and 114 times 30 = 3420 days, in all 6726; then must
be added 4.75 leap year days and 7 embolismic months of 30
days each, making a grand total of 6940.75. But in solar terms
19 Julian years of 365.25 days = 69J9.75. Thus the moon has 613^-75
gained to all appearances exactly one day over the sun. To get
rid of the discrepancy, by a convenient fiction the moon was
supposed to skip a day, the process being called saltus lunae.
This cycle became, eventually, that which formed the basis for calculating
the date of Easter. Harrison has argued that it was the nineteen-year cycle
which was used in pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon England, for some of the early
West Saxon annals appear to be repeated after nineteen years (e.g. the
annals for 495 and 514, and for 508 and 527).10 He suggested that Anglo-
Saxon reckoning may have derived from "principles laid down in Babylonia
and Greece", perhaps reaching northern Europe by overland trade routes
along the rivers between the Black Sea and the Baltic, or by a more westerly
route "identified by the trade in amber".
An intercalation in the busy season of summer would have helped to
keep the celebration of autumn in its place, after the crops had been safely
gathered in. Though w e cannot be certain that Halegmonath refers to a
harvest festival, the fact that an alternative name in Kent was Rugern, "rye
harvest", suggests as much. If w e assume, from what Bede says, that the
winter solstice was regarded as taking place on the night between the first
month of Giuli and the second it would have always have been at the same
phase of the moon but have varied according to the solar calendar by as
much as twenty-five days early, and up to about four days late. But since
observation of the actual solstices and equinoxes would have been very hard
for the pagan Anglo-Saxons, this was probably not very important. For
seasonal activities, as Harrison remarked, the farmer would act according to
the state of the weather, as he does now. Bede does not indicate at what
stage of the moon the months are supposed to begin and end, but it would be
logical to assume that the new month began with the appearance of the new
moon. But if this were so, then winter must have been supposed to begin
halfway through the month Winterfilleth, and end halfway through
Bede and Paganism 5

It is clear, however, that the names of the Anglo-Saxon months had a

great deal to do with their religious observances. Though Bede equates
Halegmonath with September, it might (in our terms) have begun any time
from early August to early September; but as long as the ceremonies were
held towards the end of the month, it would clearly have been appropriately
named for the harvest festival. It may be that there were also ceremonies
at the winter full moon, from which the next month was named; if so, Bede
does not inform us.
Blotmonath is clearly "sacrifice month" as Bede says; it seems that in
many agricultural societies it was the custom to kill off superfluous stock at
this time, in order not to have to feed over the winter anything surplus to
the next year's breeding requirements. Bonser reminds us that in Danish
November was called Slagtemaaned, and in Old Swedish Blotmanad or
Slagtmanad. It is not hard to imagine this to have been a time for feasting
— perhaps the only time in the year when many of the Anglo-Saxons would
have tasted meat — and of thank-offerings to the gods.
Bede says that the year began on the eighth day before the Calends of
January. Presumably he means by this a week before the beginning of the
second Giuli month; if so, the date according to the solar calendar would
vary by three weeks or more early in an ordinary year, by three days or more
late in an intercalary year. Nevertheless, he declares that what w e now
celebrate as the birth of our Lord was then called "the Night of the Mothers"
because — "we suppose "— of the ceremonies performed overnight.
Mother Goddesses appear to have been known at all stages of human
development. Though there is no other reference to them among the
English, there is evidence for such a cult on the continent across the whole
Germanic area. Within the R o m a n Empire inscriptions have been found on
altars, beginning in the first century A.D., to the Matres or Matronae. These
are found particularly along the Rhine, and in great numbers in Germania
Inferior. However, the cult was also widespread among the Gauls in the first
century A.D., and there are monuments to the Mothers also all over the
Celtic area. Therefore it is doubtful whether the cult originated among the
Germans or the Celts. Monuments naming them are also found over the
whole area of R o m a n occupation of Britain; these could be due either to
Romano-Celts or (as de Vries suggests) to Germanic soldiers. De Vries
concedes that the cult was widespread among both peoples in ancient times,
but m a y well have had a distinctive character among the Germans, for many
of the by-names of the Mothers appear to be Germanic. They appear nearly
always in groups of three; de Vries suspected that where they are not in
triplicate the evidence is insufficient for the true Mother Cult. In
Rhineland, and sometimes in Britain, the goddesses are all alike, seated with
braided hair and with baskets of fruit or bread on their laps. There may be
cornucopias, or babies playing about their feet.
The Mothers were often local deities, concerned primarily with the
6 A.L. Meaney

family, fruitfulness and domestic prosperity. However, perhaps because of

the devotion of Germanic soldiers, they acquired a more general meaning,
and became protectresses of a settlement, even of a clan. Their by-names
are connected with their gift-giving character; they were chthonic deities
and important not only for the well-being of individuals and the family, but
also for agricultural produce. They m a y have been goddesses of fate; on one
R o m a n stone in England they are identified with the Parcae, but although
wyrde is used to translate Parcae in the Corpus gloss, in independent use
wyrd always appears in the singular, and there is no evidence that the Anglo-
Saxons thought of three fates. Therefore the question must be left open.
Bede naturally gives no indication of the kinds of ceremonies which
took place on the Night of the Mothers. Given their connection with
fruitfulness w e may suspect something orgiastic; equally, since it was on or
about the winter solstice, there may have been a sun-worshipping element in
the ceremonies. It is noticeable that in his c o m m e n t Bede does not mention
Mary at all except by implication — his emphasis is purely on the birth of
the baby.
The name of the second month in the year, Solmonath, Bede explains
as mensis placentarum, "the month of flat cakes", which were offered to the
gods in it. Bosworth-Toller's Dictionary doubts this explanation, since there
is no word sol evidenced elsewhere in Old English with the meaning "cake",
1 Q
unless it be the gloss panibus=sol in the Epinal Glossary. They suggest a
connection with a word identical in form, meaning "dirty", and associate the
idea of February-Fill-Dyke. However, I find it hard to believe that modern
dictionary-writers could know Old English better than Bede, and it seems
possible that sol is an archaic word, which disappeared early from the
A ceremony taking place in January or February (according to the
solar calendar) might well have to do with ploughing the first furrow for the
year; and here w e may remember the description of the Field Ceremonies,
written into M S British Library Cotton Caligula A.vii in the first half of the
eleventh century. After the first furrow had been cut and three lines of
incantation spoken, the instruction was to take all kinds of meal, to knead
them with milk and holy water, and to bake a cake as broad as the inside of
the hand and to lay it under the first furrow. I suggest that some such
ceremony m a y be involved in the offering of cakes in Solmonath. It is also
tempting to postulate that these flat cakes might be the remote ancestors of
the pancakes still traditionally eaten on the last day before Lent.
The next month, Bede tells us, was named for an Anglo-Saxon goddess
Hretha, to w h o m they sacrificed in it. Presumably this is a Latinization of
the name, since the Old English feminine termination is -e. There is no
other reference to a deity with a n a m e at all similar, but G r i m m cites
cognate medieval German names for February or March: Retmonat,
Redtmonet, Redimonet. There has been much discussion by scholars
Bede and Paganism 7

concerning the etymology of hreth- the alternatives are a connection with

the adjective hraed, hraeb, hreb (short vowel), which means "swift, alert,
prompt", with the noun hreb (long vowel), "glory, fame, triumph", or with the
adjective hrebe (long vowel) "fierce, cruel, rough". The last might seem the
most appropriate for a goddess presiding over a month corresponding either
to February or March (according to the progress of the cycle). Yet a
weather goddess would be most unusual in either Celtic or Germanic
mythology, and there is a temptation to wonder if hrep has been subject to
metathesis and may be related in some way to the word for earth (OE eorpe)
with which female deities have so often been connected. Was Hrethe
perhaps a kind of Anglo-Saxon Nerthus?^" A spring festival for such a
goddess would be appropriate.
Perhaps the qreatest surprise in Bede's exposition of the pre-Christian
Anglo-Saxon calendar and festivals is his claim that the Paschal month had
been called by the name of a goddess, Eostre. Presumably the eo is early
and/or Northumbrian for ea, for the word appears normally in O E as
Easter or Eastor. G r i m m records that the name Ostarmanoth is found as
early as Charles the Great for April, which is still called Ostermonat. The
O H G n a m e for the Christian festival was Ostara, usually in the plural. The
O H G adjective Sstcrr and the O N austr expressed movement towards the
rising sun. In the Edda a male being, the spirit of light, has the name Austri;
G r i m m postulates that in High German and Saxon there may only have been
the corresponding female deity. The goddess Eastre, therefore, may have
been the "divinity of the radiant dawn". Jente compared the Latin Aurora
and the Greek Eos. Bosworth-Toller state unequivocally:
Eastre: the goddess of the rising sun, whose festivities were in
April. Hence used by Teutonic Christians for the rising of the
sun of righteousness, the feast of the Resurrection.
In England and some other European countries, particularly in the north,
Easter Day was once celebrated with great bonfires, marking the renewal of
Some scholars have disliked Bede's explanation of the name; Nilsson,
for example, believed Eostur to have been "simply some lost n a m e of a
season which, like Giuli, was transferred to a Christian festival". But at
the very beginning of the modern study of Germanic religion Jacob Grimm,
speaking of Eastre and Hreth(e) said, very reasonably:
It would be uncritical to saddle this father of the church, w h o
everywhere keeps heathenism at a distance, and tells useless of
it than he knows, with the invention of these goddesses.
However, w e have to take into account that Bede here, for once, is
setting up a deliberate contrast between the old times and the new: between
the old pagan immolation of cattle and the new sacrifice of praise to Jesus;
between the night of ceremonies for the Mother Goddesses and the
celebration of the birth of our Lord. For once he does not wish to keep quiet
about details of paganism, but to glory in its replacement. Jones has
8 A.L. Meaney

remarked that Bede preferred to quote the Spanish Orosius about the R o m a n
Walls not ten miles from his cell rather than to state what his o w n eyes
saw; and in some ways Bede's chapter on the months of the English is
reminiscent of Orosius' History Against the Pagans — no such dreadful things
happen in our enlightened times as were c o m m o n among them. In these
circumstances w e might have suspected Bede of distortion or exaggeration,
if his reputation were at all doubtful. But he is universally regarded as one
of the most honest of historians, and the very fact that what he tells us
about the festivals of the heathen English is found unequivocally nowhere
else could be, paradoxically, an indication of its veracity. If he had been
going to make up seasonal festivals for purposes of contrast, it would have
been easy enough to attribute them to the great gods that everyone must
have known about because their names are embedded in the days of the
week. These obscure goddesses Hrethe, Eastre and the Mothers are to m y
mind convincing because of, rather than in spite of, the fact that they are so
unexpected. And, to reiterate, w e must not forget that at the time Bede
was writing there must still have been many still alive who knew a great deal
about the superseded religion, either at first or at good second hand.

The Narrative Sources

Since the main theme of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, which he
completed in 731, is the triumph of the conversion of the English to
Christianity, he can hardly avoid from time to time mentioning features of
the heathenism it was replacing. Some are indeed quoted in documents
contemporary with the events he is describing. Most of his references are
brief, consistent, yet also, unfortunately, very conventional and seldom with
any distinctive features which characterize Anglo-Saxon heathenism at all.
They are scattered through the history (though more frequent in the earlier
books) and are very repetitive. In most of them the terms used are very
similar to those in the story of Alban, where the paganism involved is the
official R o m a n cult. There the judge is standing before the altars and
offering animal sacrifices to demons (aris adsistere ac daemonibus ostias
offerre); idols are called simulacra daemonum, and Alban is instructed to
sacrifice to the great gods (diis magnis sacrificare, HE, 1.7).
All in all, it seems best to group the following discussion according to
topic rather than dealing with each passage separately; fortunately there is
little effective overlap with the material in D e Temporum Ratione 15. The
two passages which give most detail are Bede's account of the first
conversion of Northumbria, and the letters sent by Pope Gregory the Great
to Mellitus and to A^thelberht (HE, 1.30,32) with instructions concerning the
former pagan temples and by Pope Boniface to Edwin (HE, 11.10) urging him
to accept Christianity. It is necessary to think very carefully about the
import of these letters, for it is of course possible that the Popes were
imagining the Anglo-Saxon heathen temples in the conventional mould of
Bede and Paganism 9

their Mediterranean understanding. However, Gregory's statement in his

letter to Mellitus that he has thought long and hard about the English, and
has decided that only their idols should be destroyed, while the temples
(fana) themselves should be preserved as churches, if well built, implies (to
m y mind) that he had continued to reflect upon something which he had
already discussed with the missionaries and that therefore he had some
knowledge of what some English temples were like.
The picture in this letter of substantial buildings agrees with that in
the story of Coifi's attack on the temple at Goodmanham, into which he
threw his spear and which, with its enclosures, he subsequently commanded
his companions to destroy and set fire to (HE, 11.13). Clearly a wooden
building in its own precinct is implied. It is unlikely to be sheer coincidence
that the only building so far excavated which has claims to be considered a
pagan English temple has features which correspond both to those mentioned
in Gregory's letter and Bede's story of Coifi. It was found at Yeavering in
Northumberland, where Bede says Paulinus baptised many in the River Glen
{HE, II. 14). The excavator, Brian Hope-Taylor, has described its remains in
great detail and discussed it thoroughly.
The building, D 2 in the archaeologists' shorthand (see plan in Figure
1), was among the most westerly on the ridge (or whaleback) along which the
Yeavering buildings were strung out. The construction was in two phases,
beginning about the middle of the sixth century. The earlier building, D2(a),
was in line, at a distance of about 7 metres, with another building, D I , of
domestic use, whose size and form it replicated, and which was separated
from it by a post-and-wattle screen. Both buildings were orientated North-
South, and were slightly under 12 metres long and 6 metres wide, and had
opposed doorways in the middle of each long wall. The shallow wall-trenches
had held heavy timbers. At the south side of D2's eastern door a Bronze Age
cist burial, with an urn and a jet necklace, had been disturbed.
D2(b) was constructed, perhaps in the time of AEthelfrith, as a shell
around D2(a), which was evidently still standing at the time. D2(b)'s
foundation trenches were much deeper than those of D2(a), and the wall
timbers were massive. On the outside of the building daub had been
plastered over the timbers to give a smooth surface. It seems that D 2 stood
as a double-walled building until its final demolition by the extraction of all
the timbers at the same time, after a fire which probably took place during
Penda and Cadwallon's ravaging of Northumbria in 632-633.
The building does not appear to have had domestic use; no pottery was
found in it at all, and there was no general scatter of animal bones; but just
to the north of the east door there was a gap in the trench filling, leaving in
effect a pit nearly two metres long and just over 30 c m s wide against the
inner original wall face of building D2(a). It was about 40 c m s deep into the
subsoil, and was entirely filled with animal bones, nearly all (97%) of oxen,
mostly between 24 and 41 months old, with an abnormally large proportion of
10 A.L. Meaney

Figure 1

! L_L


i8 Q.

S » S • c =

3 V
Bede and Paganism 11

skulls. In the less disturbed western part of this accumulation the

excavators were able to recognise nine successive deposits, separated by thin
layers of blown sand. The total volume of bones recovered was greater than
the below-ground capacity of the pit, and probably the later deposits were
stacked up against the wall. Since this accumulation was devoid of pottery
or other domestic rubbish, it is likely to represent the remains of periodic
feasts, and recalls to us Gregory's statement that the Anglo-Saxons were
accustomed to sacrifice many cattle at their festivals. Hope-Taylor has
suggested that Edwin may have timed his visit to Yeavering with Paulinus to
coincide with a "traditional native festival", when people from the outlying
places might be expected to resort to the long-established centre.
Almost in the centre of the southern end of the building were three
large post holes, in line across the building, which do not appear to have been
structural. The posts they contained were probably removed before the
fire. One possibility is that here Gregory's instructions had been followed,
removing obviously pagan features, and allowing the building to be converted
to Christian use. Outside the northwest corner of the building was a pit
more than a metre deep, in which a post about 57 c m s square had been fixed;
it seems to have rotted in place. Around the post, in and around the pit,
many holes had been made by driving in thin stakes with pointed ends.
South of the pit, beside the west wall of D 2 , was a complex of post-
and stake- holes which indicated that at least four successive huts had been
built there. They were of flimsy construction, perhaps with wattle walls, up
to about five metres long but less than two metres wide. The last of them
had evidently been standing when D 2 was burnt. It is postulated that these
were remains of the "huts of branches" which the newly converted Christians
were to be allowed to build in order to hold feasts outside the old temples,
themselves converted to Christian use. It may be significant that the
interval between Edwin's conversion and Penda's ravaging was five or six
years (627 or 628 to 632 or 633).
Outside the south end of building D 2 was a rectangular setting of
post holes which the excavators interpreted as a fenced enclosure; within it
had been five heavy, free-standing and apparently successive posts. At least
one of these appears to have been removed after D 2 was destroyed. Eleven
graves clustering outside this enclosure to the west and south were
excavated, and there were presumably others to the south, unexcavated.
There were five near the south-east corner of building D 2 itself, leaving a
clear passageway to the enclosure from the east. All the graves were
oriented east-west, with the heads to the west and the bodies extended,
except for one in which, though it presented the same superficial appearance
as the rest, a child's skeleton had been laid tightly crouched, head east,
facing south. In the western half of the grave was only a single oxtooth,
resting on the floor. None of the other graves contained any goods, and the
filling of only one of these graves showed any signs that it had taken place
12 A.L. Meaney

after the fire.

Another building, D 3 , was of a similar size and orientation to D I and
D2, but was offset to the west. Its floor was dug deep into the ground. The
excavators compared it to a kitchen. To its north (the west of D2) was a
"working-hollow" which the excavators likened to a butcher's shop, and which
may have been surrounded by screen fences. Near it, to the west of D 3 , was
a complex of successive pits, mostly filled with cut and split animal bones; it
was noticeable, however, that no skull fragments or teeth of oxen "occurred
in D 3 or any of its associated structures, although long-bones of ox made up
a high proportion of the identified specimens".
These buildings all have a c o m m o n ground-plan which appears to be
related to that used by buildings of the R o m a n Iron Age in Frisia, and has
therefore been dubbed Saxo-Frisian by Hope-Taylor. The fact that D 3 is a
dug-out also indicates Germanic prototypes. However, the construction of
these buildings, in which the wall is developed as a solid load-bearing
structure, appears to belong in this period to Yeavering, Millfield nearby,
and perhaps to Iona, alone, and is probably developed from British traditions.
A long straight drainage ditch ran east-west from D3; it contained
quantities of animal bones generally resembling those found in D 2 rather
than those in D3 and its associated structures. The excavators therefore
believe that the infilling of the ditch, if not the structure, "is referable to
the activities for which D 2 existed". The ditch had been recently cleaned
out when it was infilled, at first in a series of small tips (from wheelbarrows
or buckets?), and then completed at one blow, probably "from a long-
standing and oddly specialized dump of ashes and bones" which must have
stood very close to the ditch.
D3 and its associated structures were enclosed by a fence, which
appears not to have been put up until the building had been in existence for
some time. It was subrectangular, fairly regular to the S, about 22 metres
E W ; the W fence about 27 metres long, the eastern only 19 metres, leaving
an open space near the huts of D2. On the E, however, it crossed two of the
graves at D2's southern end. Therefore, the pre-existence of the cemetery
apparently affected the siting of D3, though its enclosure restricted the
burial area while the cemetery was still in use. All the buildings "DI, D 2 and
D3 are specially bound together in both engineering and orientation". There
is a "distinct probability that D 3 was built after D 2 and the cemetery were
first established, but c o m m o n factors in their structure and siting show that
there was a period in which the two buildings stood together, and the
complementary distributions of types of animal-bones within them strongly
suggest that D 3 was brought into existence to serve D2". The removal of
these buildings seems to have coincided with the abandonment of the
To the south of D 3 was a ring ditch, which appeared to have held at
one time a circle of squat, upright stones. In the centre of the ring ditch
Bede and Paganism 13

was a pit with a cremation burial where later a standing stone had stood
(evidently contemporaneously with the stone circle) which even later had
been removed and a heavy circular wooden post, about 31 c m s in diameter,
erected in its place. This had eventually decayed in situ. Three other posts
were at times also set in the central pit, but later removed. Thirty-one
inhumation graves lay within the area, all but three laid out radially or
tangentially, heads outward, from the centre; some (perhaps the earliest)
seem to be pointing at specific post holes. T w o of the four apparently later
graves, which are all orientated east-west, contained iron knives. Moreover,
all the burials seem to have been laid out with regard to a square wooden
post-setting (inside the removed stone circle), which must have held some
kind of mortuary enclosure, perhaps supporting a roof, perhaps not. It seems
that the burials on the site of the ring-ditch are the oldest of the
inhumations at Yeavering, and the enclosure is among its earliest
rectangular wooden structures (i.e. earlier than about 500 A.D.). They are
certainly older than D 2 and D 3 ; and some time may have elapsed between
the destruction of the mortuary enclosure and the building of D 2 , which
established a new ritual centre in this area.
To the south of the ring ditch building D4(a), orientated E W , was built
during the same overall phase as D2(b); there were other buildings also to the
south-west and to the north; all appear to have been domestic in use.
Other features of the Yeavering site which may have bearing on the
siting of a temple there are, first, the "Great Enclosure" which the
excavators concluded was probably a "communal cattle-corral" and which
c a m e into existence in the earliest phase of post-Roman development (about
the same time as the building of the rectangular wooden mortuary enclosure
mentioned above). The Great Enclosure enclosed a ditched round-barrow in
which was set a free-standing wooden post "which was a fixed point for
ritual observances". The Great Enclosure was in existence during most of
the period of Yeavering's existence as a township, and was much elaborated
just before the first fire.
To the next phase, when D2(a) was built, also belongs, technologically,
the erection of a wooden building like a slice out of a R o m a n amphitheatre,
centred on a free-standing post, in front of which was a platform (for a
throne or a speaker?). The original capacity of this "grandstand" was about
150; it was later enlarged to take about 320. It was set alight but not
destroyed when the rest of the township was burnt down, probably about 632.
After the fire rows of burials, head to toe in E W trenches, were made
on the eastern side of the site, perhaps during the pagan interregnum after
Edwin's death; and from henceforth all burials seem to have taken place in
this area. The burials were all, except one, unfurnished and of people of
small stature — therefore, presumably, native Britons. One was taller and
with poor iron belt fittings and a knife, and was probably Anglo-Saxon. The
Great Enclosure was not rebuilt, and within its area a building which was
14 A.L. Meaney

aparently a Christian church was placed, later filled with burials.

Hope-Taylor has emphasized that Yeavering was already a ritual
centre before the Anglo-Saxon element intruded with its Grubenhauser and
Saxo-Frisian ground plans, and that nearly all the people buried there during
its occupation appear to have been natives. Nevertheless, the Anglo-Saxon
element is there and, moreover, Bede, who lived all his life not so very far
away to the south, certainly considered himself English. It seems, indeed,
that it was the Anglo-Saxon overlords who may have enforced a kind of
pagan conformity on to the ritual observances at Yeavering, and for this
they probably found the "communal cattle-corral", already established, very
convenient. Here they could collect their tribute, and here carefully pick
out the two- or three-year-old beasts that they wanted for their feasting,
ritual or otherwise.
Other physical features of the worship of the pagan gods which Bede
mentions are not so easily equated with the archaeological remains at
Yeavering. He, or the correspondant w h o m he quotes, constantly refers to
idols; the temples are called fana idolorum; the practice of the religion
cultus idolorum; and that representations of the gods are intended is m a d e
clear in 111.30 where the apostasizing East Saxons were described as restoring
derelict temples and adoring images (adorare simulacra), and, in more detail
in 11.10, in Pope Boniface's letter to Edwin in which the king is exhorted to
give up worshipping idols. For how could they have any power to help
anyone, they who were made for Edwin from corruptible materials by the
hands of his inferiors and subjects, by means of which human skill they had
bestowed on them an inanimate likeness of limbs ? Edwin should set his hand
vigorously to breaking up and destroying the material gods.
Boniface's exhortations are standard for a preacher to a would-be
convert; nevertheless, as with Gregory's remarks concerning the temples,
it is difficult to believe that the Pope would have written such a careful
letter without its bearing any relation to reality. Therefore w e can probably
take it that statues of their gods did have some part to play in the heathen
English cult—in spite of Tacitus' assertion, five hundred years earlier, that
the pagan Germans had no images.
From negative archaeological evidence, however, w e can be fairly
sure that these English "statues" or "idols" were not at all like those which
the Romans had, or even those which were frequent among the Celts, for
none have so far been identified in England. That is to say, they cannot have
been of stone; but in the pagan period the Anglo-Saxons appear hardly to
have worked with stone at all, and to have used metal only for practical
objects of medium size, so that, in any case, it would seem more probable
that any "idols" would have been wooden.
In the Swedish temple at Old Uppsala (which Turville-Petre calls "the
last bastion of northern heathendom") there were, according to A d a m of
Bremen, statues of three gods. Thor, the mightiest, had his throne in the
Bede and Paganism 15

middle, Wodan and Fricco were on either side. If there was danger of
pestilence or famine, sacrifices were made to Thor; if of war, to Wodan; if
marriage was to be celebrated, to Fricco.34 In 612 A.D. the Saints
Columban and Gall are said to have c o m e upon three bronze-gilt statues
standing against a wall in a chapel at Bregenz on Lake Constance, to which
the people continued to make offerings, neglecting the Christian altars.
The triplex Mother Goddesses may also be relevant here. It has sometimes
been suggested that the three postholes set across the temple at Yeavering
may have held pillars shaped into the likeness of gods; and the fact that they
seem to have been withdrawn before the building was burnt (since there was
no charcoal in their post-holes, which were packed with large stones ) may
give some support to this theory, if, as Hope-Taylor suggests, it was used as
a Christian church after Paulinus' visit.
As already described, outside the southern end of the temple was an
enclosure, apparently not roofed, where four or five heavy posts had stood,
not all at the same time, the last having been removed after the fire.
Outside the north-west corner of the building, however, a deep pit had held a
wooden post about 57 c m s square, which had been allowed to rot in place.
Many thin, pointed stakes had been driven into the ground around the pillar.
If the archaeological evidence would permit it, I would suggest that
this last was a cross shaft — such as the Hodoeporicon of St Willibald says
were customarily erected on estates as a focus for prayer —standing within
sight of the newly converted people feasting in their little huts, for its size
is so much bigger than, and its shape differs markedly from the other
freestanding posts in and to the south of the temple, which were round. Yet
if this theory is correct, the last of those to the south, too, must have been
of Christian rather than pagan import.
Free-standing wooden posts were, however, a feature of Yeavering
from its earliest post-Roman existence (see Figure 2). That placed at the
centre of the western ring ditch has already been mentioned; but it was not
so significant as Post B X which was probably sited on the small mound of a
pre-existing barrow, in the centre of the eastern ring ditch. The first post
here was about 28 c m s diameter, and it had been replaced by a later,
pointed, post whose broken-off foot appeared to have rotted in situ after its
withdrawal.-* In a line with post B X were the axis of buildings A 2 and the
intended axis of building A 4 (the two major halls on the site, successively
belonging to its period of prosperity), and, just outside the east door of
building A 4 , a post-hole A X , which was very deep, and had held a pointed
post which had been withdrawn before the fire. The post-hole appeared to
have been partially packed with fragments of bone when the post was
When the line from B X through A X and the halls was extended it
passed very close to post E, the focal point of the "theatre", and cut through
D 2 , almost passing through its doors. Posts A X , B X and E were therefore all
A.L. Meaney

Figure 2

Bede and Paganism 17

datum-points, used in the setting out of the plan of the settlement. Hope-
Taylor comments that these free-standing posts were presumably
emblematic and possibly totemic, and evidently served some "ritual"
purposes both before and during the "Anglo-Saxon" phase of Yeavering's
development. It seems quite possible that the intrusive pagan English
adopted and continued a tradition already established on the site; for within
the Germanic tradition pillars appear to have their own significance.
Tacitus (Germania, ch. 34) records a rumour that there were "pillars of
Hercules", which he appears to assume were human artefacts, somewhere
near the Frisian coast. The most famous Germanic pillar is the Saxon
Irminsul which Charles the Great destroyed in 772, whose name is
interpreted variously but most convincingly as a "universal column, which
supports everything".40 Turville-Petre has convincingly related the Irminsul
to Thurstable, originally (it seems) Thunres stapol, "the pillar of Thunor", the
name of a Hundred in Essex. Turville-Petre goes on: "We may suppose
that, in pagan times, there was a pillar in Thurstable Hundred, dedicated to
the god Thunor, and that this was a meeting place". There are four other
Hundred N a m e s which are named from pillars: Staple in Wiltshire42 and
Sussex, Barstable in Essex 4 4 and Staploe in Cambridgeshire.45 It seems
very probable that Post E at Yeavering was also a "stapol" of this kind.
These pillars, however, seem to be associated particularly with
Thunor; and the names Hercules and Irmin (if this actually refers to a god)
may well have denoted a deity of the same type, if not Thunor himself.
However, there are two problems in equating these pillars with the idols and
images which Bede mentions: one is that Thunor appears in England to be a
specifically Saxon and Kentish god; unlike Woden, there are no place-names
containing his n a m e in any Anglian areas. The second is that these pre-
standing posts or pillars could not have been considered images, simulacra,
unless they had been carved and/or painted, or there were a statue placed on
them. G r i m m cites passages to show the Irminsul itself was described as an
idol, or as having an idol standing on it, and it is no doubt possible that at
least some of the Yeavering posts were, or supported, images in the true
sense of the word; but their wood has long since turned to dust and w e shall
never know exactly what they must have looked like in Edwin's time or
Bede also talks of pagan altars, arae, usually reserving altaria for
Christian. When Coifi advised Edwin that the temples and altars should be
destroyed, the word Bede used was altaria; but then the king asked who
would be the first to profane the altars and the temples of the idols (aras et
fana idolorum, HE, 11.13). In his description of the back-sliding of Raedwald
of East Anglia (HE, 11.15) Bede says that:
in eodem fano et altare haberet ad sacrificium Christi et
arulam ad uictimas daemoniorum. Quod uidelicet fanum
rex eiusdem prouinciae Alduulf, qui nostra aetate fuit,
18 A.L. Meaney

usque ad suum tempus perdurasse, et se in pueritia uidisse

In the same temple he had an altar for the sacrifice to Christ;
and a little altar for the victims of demons. Which temple,
indeed, King Ealdwulf of the same province, who belonged to our
own age, testified to have lasted to his time; and he saw it as a
Bede does not say the arula lasted until Ealdwulf's time; he may well have
hoped, piously, that it did not; but nevertheless these two passages establish
without much doubt that the pagan English used altars.
If there was one in the temple at Yeavering, however, the
archaeological record gives no sign of it, unless it were supported by posts
set in some of the smaller post holes which the large-scale plan shows as
occurring in the floor of the temple. However, there is no convenient
rectangular setting of them; some appear to cut off the northern section; the
four in line just behind the three large postholes and two or three others
behind them could conceivably have held supports for some sort of table; but
there is nothing to prove that they did. It is even more impossible to test in
any way Bede's statement that a sanctuary could be profaned by casting a
spear into it (HE, 11.13).
Mention has already been made of Coifi, w h o m Bede calls primus
pontificum, and who when asked to comment on the new religion, responded
that the religion they had held hitherto had no value to it:
Nullus enim tuorum studiosius quam ego culturae deorum
nostorum se subdidit; et nihilominus multi sunt qui
ampliora a te beneficia quam ego et maiores accipiunt
dignitates, magisque prosperantur in omnibus....Si autem
dii aliquid ualerent, m e potius iuuare uellent, qui illis
inpensius seruire curaui.
None has devoted himself more diligently to the honouring of
our gods than I; and nevertheless there are many who receive
more abundant favours and greater dignities from you, and are
more prosperous in everything....But if the gods were at all
efficacious, they would prefer to help m e , who has troubled
himself to serve them more zealously.
It is a pity that Bede does not describe these services at all. The one word
not translated above is tuorum: Coifi describes himself as "one of yours";
translators usually supply "followers". The Alfredian translator calls him one
of the king's thegns, but whether this is real evidence for the position of the
priest, or whether the translator has made an unjustified assumption, is
difficult to tell. Concerning Coifi's office, Bede tells us no more than that
as a priest he was only allowed to ride a mare, and was not to bear arms. He
broke both tabus when he decided to ally himself to what he believed would
be the more profitable religion.
The story of Coifi is known by almost every student of elementary
Anglo-Saxon and by many an English Sunday School pupil, too; but the fame
of the second high priest to appear in Northumbrian sources is limited. He is
Bede and Paganism 19

shown to us in the worst possible light by Eddius Stephanus, the biographer of

Bishop Wilfrid, in the description of his shipwreck on the Sussex coast. A
"huge army" c a m e against them, regarding ship, cargo and m e n all as
legitimate booty thrown up by the sea onto the land. While the attack was
going on, the chief of their priests (princeps sacerdotum idolatriae), standing
on a high mound, exerted himself to curse the people of God and with his
magic arts to bind their hands. But one of Wilfrid's companions with a sling
threw a stone which hit him in the forehead and killed him, like Goliath.
This story adds a very little to the information which Bede gives, but very
little which could not have been deduced. It implies that the services of a
priest were required even for such military operations as the robbing of ship-
wrecked travellers, which was presumably royally approved custom in
Sussex, since the king himself c a m e to aid his discomforted host when they
were repulsed three times by Wilfrid. Therefore it is possible that the high
priest of Sussex as well as of Northumbria was attached to the royal
The passage also shows that the priest was credited with magic
powers, and that a mound (convenient as a vantage point) was regarded as a
suitable place for the saying of spells. There is a distinct possibility that
this was a burial barrow, especially in view of the frequency of such mounds
in Sussex. The priest's attempts at magic spells are reminiscent of the First
Merseburg Charm, where idisi, perhaps "wise women", perhaps (according to
Eis) the Mothers, the protectors of warriors, are depicted as sitting working
spells of binding and loosing;50 the difference in gender is, however,
interesting. Considering the dangerous powers ascribed to this high priest
(whose enemies would no doubt usually believe in his powers and who would
therefore be far less resistant to his magic than Wilfrid's party), it is not
surprising that King AEthelfrith, at the Battle of Chester, took the first
opportunity of killing the monks of Bangor, when he was told that they were
present for the purpose of praying for the opposing side: "For if they are
calling to their god against us, certainly they (who attack us with curses) are
fighting against us even though they are not bearing arms" (HE, II.2). The
South Saxon priest, then, would seem to have been very similar to those
w h o m Tacitus describes in the Germania, who took the effigies et signa,
"images and symbols", from the sacred groves and carried them into battle.
It is of course impossible (given their illiteracy) that the grave of an
Anglo-Saxon pagan priest, excavated in modern times, could be recognised
without any possibility of doubt. However, I would like to suggest (as Hope-
Taylor, indeed, implies) that the burial in grave A X at Yeavering was
sacerdotal. This burial had several remarkable features. In the first case, it
was sited between post A X at its east end and the east door of building A 4 -
a major hall, probably of Edwin's time - and precisely on the building's long
axis. Since the grave contained no burnt material, it "is safe to conclude
that it had actually been in place while A 4 stood".51 The body had lain "on
20 A.L. Meaney

its back, inclined towards its left side, in a slightly flexed position, arms
drawn up and head to the west". Over the left foot was a goat's skull, facing
Above the skeleton were the remains of a wooden object with some
cylindrical bronze bindings. The end near the head was featureless, but lying
obliquely below it were very similar remains which were probably a broken-
off part of the same object; in which case it would have been terminated by
an iron spike. Near the other end (which was probably its top) three arms of
equal length were set out from it at right angles; it is reasonably safe to
assume that there had been a fourth. The shaft at this end was terminated
by an inward-pointing iron spike, and "by a broader and thicker feature
(probably also of wood) bounded by a curve of bronze wire". This the
excavator believed to have had a decorative purpose, perhaps being an
animal effigy, "with the eyes formed of inset bronze pellets, and the hooves
possibly cased in the same metal". The conspicuous hook at one end caused
the resemblance to be closest to that of a goat, a sheep, or a crested bird.
The fact that the name Gefrin apparently means, in British, the "Hill of the
Goats", may be relevant here.
The object, therefore, appears to be some sort of ceremonial
equipment— a staff or a standard. If a standard, it would seem a poor thing
compared to the sturdy metal object found among the regalia at Sutton Hoo;
but the two objects may have had some similar features. The Sutton Hoo
"standard" had a spike at the bottom which could have been driven into the
ground; also four arms or spokes set at right angles to each other and to the
upright, near its top, though as a part of an elaborate structure with a
horizontal grid and supports; and finally it, too, was adorned with stylised
heads of horned animals, one each at the ends of the arms, and a second set
of four adorning the corners of a small horizontal plate at the top of the
standard. Alternatively (and preferably, to the excavator) the Yeavering
object could have been, or betokened "an instrument akin to the groma used
by R o m a n land-surveyors". The fact that the grave in which it was found
was on the main, east-west alignment of the major buildings on the site is
"suggestive in itself of 'ritual' intention". Hope-Taylor goes on to suggest
that "among vestiges of ancient learning preserved and transmitted by the
earlier local priesthood was some m e m o r y of the geometry of the R o m a n
It may be that w e can add to this the intrusive Anglo-Saxon element.
As well as being a survey instrument, might not the decorative element at
the top of the staff represent an effigy, such as a Germanic priest from
Tacitus' time onwards would at times carry? Might not a priest at Yeavering
have combined elements in his priesthood both of the Romano-British past
and the present English dominance? I submit that w e are never likely to find
another burial which has so much claim to be considered that of a pagan
English — or Anglo-Celtic — priest as that of the m a n laid in Grave A X at
Bede and Paganism 21

G r i m m has pointed out that the priests would have been "the most
cultivated portion of the people, the most capable of comprehending the
Christian doctrine". and perhaps also of divining which way the wind was
blowing, as well as on which side their bread was buttered. This might well
be as true for those standing on the border between Briton and English as for
those facing the introduction of a new religion, which could mean that unless
they themselves took immediate steps, they would lose what power and
influence they had had. Did Edwin, one wonders, bestow more favours and
dignities upon Coifi after and because of his accommodating acceptance of
Christianity, or did he discard him once he had played his vital part? Bede
does not tell us. But if it was Edwin, as Hope-Taylor surmises, who had the
great hall, A 4 , built at Yeavering, it is difficult to imagine that he was
entirely unaware of the "watcher" by the threshold of his Heorot-like
hall.55 Yet no attempt was made to disturb this door-keeper, even after the
nominal Christianization of the site.
Perhaps the South Saxon high priest, if he had survived, might have
blamed his failure partly on the fact that he had to work in the open air. For
Bede tells us that when A^thelberht consented to meet Augustine:
Cauerat enim ne in aliquam d o m u m ad se introirent, uetere
usus augurio, ne superuentu suo, siquid maleficae artis
habuissent, e u m superando deciperent. (HE, 1.25)
H e took care, indeed, that they should not come into any
building to meet him, affected by the old superstition that if
they had anything of black magic, they might deceive him at his
arrival so as to overcome him.
There is a reference in Theodore's Penitential, XV.4, to a canon of the
Council of Ancyra, which refers to "those who bring m e n into their houses, in
seeking for some kind of sorcery";56 and in the long preface to King Alfred's
laws a prohibition from Exodus is expanded into a statement (probably not a
law) that w o m e n who were accustomed to receive enchanters, magicians and
witches should not be allowed to live.57 Perhaps black magic was believed
to be more powerful if physically confined.
There is also a reference to loosing spells (as opposed to binding
spells) in a story which Bede tells of a Northumbrian prisoner whose bonds
were undone whenever his brother, supposing him to be dead, said masses for
his soul. The Mercian who guarded him asked if he had on him any litteras
solutorias, literally, "loosing letters", about which stories were told (HE,
IV.22). Apparently some kind of amulet is envisaged, on which was inscribed
a magic formula to prevent the wearer being tied up. There has been a great
deal of discussion about whether these "loosing letters" were runes or not.
When A^Ilfric wrote his Hortatory Sermon on the Mass he translated this term
as -Surh drycraeft otte %urh runstafum, "by means of wizardry or runes". It
must not be forgotten that AElfric was writing nearly three hundred years
after Bede; nevertheless it is possible that Bede was indeed referring to
22 A.L. Meaney

runes, though most of the written charms which have been preserved use
imitations of Greek letters more often than runes.
Bede also testifies that the pagan Anglo-Saxons used some kinds of
amulets in his description of Cuthbert's attempts to keep the country people
living near his monastery from reverting to heathenism in times of plague:
N a m ... neglectis fidei sacramentis quibus erant inbuti, ad
erratica indolatriae medicamina concurrebant, quasi
missam a Deo Conditore plagem per incantationes uel
fylacteria uel alia quaelibet daemonicae artis cohibere
For, neglecting the sacraments of Christianity, they would
betake themselves to the erroneous remedies of idolatry, as if
they could fend off plague sent by God the Creator by
incantations or phylacteries or any other mysteries of the
devilish art (HE, IV.27). 60
Other newly converted Christians, however, went beyond mere incantations
and amulets in their attempts to stop the onslaught of plague. Bede tells us
that: King Sigehere and most of his East Saxons, both plebeians and
aristocrats, paid attention only to this life, not striving for any future life
and indeed not even believing in one. They began to restore the temples
which were derelict, and to adore images, as if they could by this means save
themselves from death (HE, 111.30). However, they were brought back to
Christianity by Bishop Jaruman, so that they destroyed the temples and
altars which they had erected, preferring to die believing that they would
rise again in Christ than to live on in the filth of falsehood among idols.
This is the second time that Bede claimed that the pagan English had
no concept of an after-life. In his account of Edwin's conversion, one of his
nobles compares the life of m a n on earth with that of a sparrow flying
through the king's hall: while inside, the storms of winter cannot touch it,
but what happens afterwards, and indeed what went before, w e do not know
(HE, 11.13). The pagan English custom of supplying goods — personal effects
and perhaps drink (in containers) and food — with inhumation burials may
imply that they had a belief that the corpse retained life of some kind and
was appreciative of the attentions of the living, though at the other end of
the scale it might mean no more than that the living wished to show respect
to the dead (as w e do with flowers). However, the fact that inhumation
cemeteries were usually sited in open country, well away from settlements,
and that some bodies appear to have been decapitated post mortem may
indicate that the living felt they had something to fear from the inhumed
dead. The alternative rite of cremation, however, which was used in England
particularly by the Angles, was usually believed to release the spirit of the
dead, primarily so that it should not trouble the living. Therefore Bede
was not being strictly correct when he claimed that the pagan had no
concept of an after-life; but no doubt to a Christian with a much more
developed idea of heaven and hell such limited survival as appears to be
envisaged by these burial rites would count for nothing.
Bede and Paganism 23

Perhaps because of the emphasis which paganism placed upon events

in this life, there appears to have been great interest in foretelling the
future by means of auguries. In his letter to Edwin, Pope Boniface urges him
to reject the deceitful allurements of auguries, and in his letter to Edwin's
wife AEthelburh he praises her because she held away from the inducements
of auguries. The anonymous monk of Whitby who wrote the earliest Life of
Gregory the Great tells a story which corroborates an interest in foretelling
the future (ch.15). One Sunday when Edwin and his still pagan followers,
many of w h o m were uncanonically married, were going from the palace to
the church with Paulinus to receive instruction, a crow, in an unpropitious
quarter of the sky, made a hoarse cry. The m e n all halted in amazement,
believing this to indicate that the new doctrine of the church was false and
useless. Bishop Paulinus, however, drew a moral by having one of his boys
shoot the bird with an arrow, which was taken back to the palace. On their
return, after instruction, Paulinus told them that the bird had not known how
to avoid its own death, and still less could foretell the future to men, who
boasted that they could understand it from their own acute nature, and so
they deceived the foolish, as God allowed them to do.
The story ius the air of a stock hagiographical motif, but since the
Life was written between 704 and 714 it seems unlikely that the writer
would have described a custom which was altogether at odds with what could
be remembered of Old English heathenism. Colgrave remarks in the notes to
his edition that Tacitus observed that the Germanic peoples were much given
to studying omens, including the cries and flights of birds. The term
auguria was, strictly speaking, reserved for this form of divining the future,
as a passage in Isidore's Etymologies, VHI.ix.18-19 makes explicit.
Procopius tells a story which includes an episode with many similarities to
the incident in Gregory's Life, concerning the Varni w h o m he describes as a
Germanic people living along the coast, on the opposite bank of the Rhine
from the Franks. One day while the king was riding with the most
distinguished of his people, he saw a bird sitting in a tree and croaking
And whether he really comprehended the bird's voice, or,
possessing some other knowledge, simply made a mysterious
pretence of comprehending the bird's prophecy, he at any rate
immediately told those who were with him that he would die
forty days later. For this, he said, was revealed to him by the
pronouncement of the bird.
European homilists frequently condemned augury as a heathen practice, and
in a later English context Allfric speaks of divination from birds in his De
Auguriis. One of the birds most often connected with augury in the
European tradition is the crow; this, according to Armstrong, is because "the
observed close association between carrion-feeding birds and corpses meant
that they aroused disquieting responses". Moreover, its black colour,
relatively u n c o m m o n in birds, "has long been associated with death and
24 A.L. Meaney

disaster". Colgrave also remarks that in R o m a n times the appearance of a

crow on the left was regarded as lucky (citing Virgil's Eclogues IX.15 and
Cicero De Divinatione I, 39, 85), and so perhaps the crow appeared on the
right. The R o m a n rules for interpreting auguries were, however, very
complicated; and a distinction was made between auguries deliberately
waited and watched for, which were taken very seriously, and casual omens,
such as the unexpected appearances of animals. The auguries which
Boniface inveighs against in his letters were presumably of the first kind; the
Northumbrian and Varnian incidents of the second. Whether the two kinds
were regarded by the pagan English as having greater or lesser validity it is
impossible to tell; but presumably it would have been much easier for the
missionaries to stamp out the first kind than the second.
There appears to be some slight confusion in the Whitby account,
since it seems all the people with the king immediately interpreted the
croaking of the bird as a bad omen; whereas Paulinus' speech implies that
there was an elite group who pretended to special skill in interpretation.

Bede's picture of the superseded heathenism of the Anglo-Saxons,
whether from his quoted documents, or in his own writing is therefore
consistent with what w e can learn from other contemporary sources. Their
year was punctuated with festivals which must have varied in date
(according to our way of thinking) because celebrated according to a luni-
solar calendar, but which nevertheless were closely related to the seasons—a
harvest festival, a big sacrifice of oxen before the onset of the worst of the
winter, ceremonies honouring the Mothers about the time of the winter
solstice, other ceremonies involving the offering of cakes as the winter
began to ease (perhaps coinciding with the c o m m e n c e m e n t of the ploughing
season), and two celebrations of spring goddesses in succeeding months. 6 9
With such ceremonies the gods were propitiated, and when disasters
such as plague epidemics c a m e upon the people they were the more assiduous
in their attentions, and also the more likely to wear prophylactics. Good
fortune was also attributed to the gods, as Bede indicates when he says that
Edwin gave thanks to them for the birth of his daughter (HE, H.9) — though
here w e cannot entirely dismiss the possibilty that Bede was merely making
an assumption. The heathen festivals, with sacrifices followed by sacred
feasts, took place in temples, which contained altars, and which stood in
their own enclosures. These sanctuaries were presumably places of peace
(later names for centres of superstition include fripgeard70 and fripsplot71,
"yard or patch of peace") since they could be profaned by having arms cast
into them. Similarly, pagan priests were themselves forbidden to bear arms
or to ride any horse but a mare, but they would accompany an army to battle
and help it to victory with spells; in general, however, spells would be more
powerful if worked indoors. The chief among the priests might have been
Bede and Paganism 25

attached to royal households.

It is clear that this is not a complete picture. The great gods, who
have given their names to the days of the week, and whose sanctuaries are
proclaimed in place-names over the south-eastern part of the country, are
nowhere named by Bede. It is surprising that, in fact, the only two deities he
names are two obscure goddesses, and this may make us wonder if their
worship had been in decline even before the coming of Christianity, so that
bringing them to mind was no occasion of danger. The Night of the Mothers
might have caused more nostalgia, had it not been that it was supplanted by
the most celebratory of all Christian festivals, Christmas.
Moreover, for Bede heathen temples are buildings; there is no hint
that, as w e suspect from some place-names and as seems evident from
features of the excavated site at Yeavering, that sanctuaries could also be
mounds and free-standing wooden pillars, and probably springs, cairns of
stones and groves of trees as well. There is also no hint that w o m e n ever
had any part to play in the heathen cult, though the wise w o m e n who
engaged in divination are well evidenced by Tacitus, and appear in a new
guise in AElfric's homily De Auguriis nearly three hundred years after
Bede. However, as remarked at the beginning of this study, it was no part of
Bede's plan to describe too clearly the features of the false religion now
displaced; he would not have wished to give anyone occasion to return to it.
It seems from what Bede says, however, that Anglo-Saxon heathenism
served its primary purpose of giving some feeling of security to its
adherents: he tells in his Life of St Cuthbert (ch. Ill) of an incident when
monks floating log rafts down the river Tyne were blown out to sea, and a
crowd of "common people" watching them began to jeer, saying that they
had robbed m e n of their old ways of worship "and how the new worship is to
be conducted, nobody knows". This incident (described only because
Cuthbert's prayers changed the wind and rescued the monks), and the
frequent lapses into paganism in times of plague, reflect a deep uncertainty
in English society in the Conversion Period, an uncertainty which lingered on
indefinitely, and showed itself in superstitions which were ever augmented
by Mediterranean and other Christian imports, until many strange elements
became assimilated to Christianity itself. It may even have been that the
"this worldly" emphasis of English heathenism coped better with the day to
day anxieties of a rural and technologically limited people than early
Christianity with its "other-worldly" bias, about which the monk Bede is so

Audrey L. Meaney
School of English and Linguistics
Macquarie University
A.L. Meaney

1 See the discussion by C E . Whiting, The Life of the Venerable Bede, in Bede, his
Life, Times and Writings, A. Hamilton Thompson, ed., Oxford, 1935, repr. 1969, 1-
2 Editions used are C. Plummer, ed., Venerabilis Baedae Opera Historica, 2 vols.,
Oxford, 1896 (hereafter, HE); and B. Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors, edd. and trans.,
Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Oxford, 1969.
3 D.P. Kirby, Bede and Northumbrian chronology, English Historical Review 78,
1963, 514-27 at 522-3.
4 C.W. Jones, ed., Bedae Opera de Temporibus, Cambridge, Mass., 1943, 173-291.
5 B. Colgrave, ed., Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, N e w York, repr. 1969, 141-307.
6 J. Morris, The Literary Evidence, in Christianity in Britain, 300-700, M.W. Barley
and R.P.C. Hanson, edd., Leicester, 1968, 55-74, at 63.
7 Jones, Bedae De Temp., 211-3, notes 350-51. Jones' forms of the Old English
names are taken from the earliest manuscripts; since the use of d is archaic I have
silently emended to forms (usually from later manuscripts) more representative of
pronunciation. In Hred-, Lida, the manuscript d clearly stands for the voiced
dental fricative (8) and has here been written th; in Blodmonath the d seems to
represent a t, for the first element is certainly blot, "sacrifice", rather than blod,
8 Kenneth Harrison, The Framework of Anglo-Saxon History to A.D. 900,
Cambridge, 1976, 1-13 (hereafter, Framework.
9 Kenneth Harrison, Luni-solar cycles. Their accuracy and Some Types of Usage, in
Saints, SchoUars and Heroes: Studies in Medieval Culture in Honour of Charles W.
Jones, 2 vols., Collegevilee, Minn., 1979, M.H. King and W.M. Stevens, edd., vol. 2,
65-78, at 71.
10 Harrison, Framework, 127-8.
11 Harrison, Framework, 10-11.
12 D. Whitelock, ed., English Historical Documents, vol.1, c.500-1042, 2nd edn.,
London, 1979, 396.
13 W. Bonser, The Medical Background of Anglo-Saxon England, London, 1963, 140,
citing K. Weinhold, Die deutschen Monatnamen, Halle, 1869, 33, 54. For autumn
slaughtering, see also J.D.G. Clark, Prehistoric Europe, London, 1952, 124-6; and
E.S. Higgs and J.P. White, Autumn Killing, Antiquity 37. 1963, 282-3.
14 E.O. James, The Cult of the Mother-Goddess, London, 1959. Some Indian village
goddesses have resemblances to the Germanic and Celtic Matres; see 113-21.
15 J. de Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, 2nd edn., 2 vols., Berlin, 1956-7;
vol.2, 288-302.
16 Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, London, 1967, 204-10; repr., 1974, 265-71.
17 Uuyrdae in Epinal-Erfurt; H. Sweet, The Oldest English Texts, London, 1885, Early
English Text Society 83, pp. 83, 86.
18 H. Sweet, The Epinal Glossary, Latin and Old English, London, 1883, 21, cols.A-B,
line 11. Sweet omitted this gloss from his list of English glosses in The Oldest
English Texts, and may therefore have considered it to be Latin; but there appears
to be no other Latin word it could be except sol, solis = sun, and to try to think up
a connection with this is far harder than to accept Bede's word.
19 J. Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, trans. J.S. Stallybrass from 4th edn., 4 vols., 1880-
Bede and Paganism 27

B, repr. N e w York, 1966, vol.1, 289-90 (hereafter Mythology). The usual O H G

form was Lenzinmanot, named from the season of the lengthening of days.
20 Tacitus, Germania ch. 40; J.C.C. Anderson, ed., Oxford, 1938; M. Hulton and E.M.
Warmington, edd. and trans., Cambridge, Mass., 1970.
21 A. Campbell, Old English Grammar, Oxford, 1959, paras. 276, 278, pp.116-8.
22 Grimm, Mythology, vol.1, 288-91.
23 R. Jente, Die mythologischen AusdrVcke im Altenglischen Wortschatz, Heidelberg,
1921, 105. See for example, C. Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks, trans. N.
Cameron, London, 1951, 198-201. Jente points out that in West Saxon the name is
nearly always declined as a weak feminine noun in the plural; in Northumbrian
singular and plural forms are found, partly undeclined, otherwise mostly as a
strong neuter, more seldom as a weak feminine.
24 V. Newall, Easter and Holy Week, in Man, Myth and Magic, London, 1970, 760-4.
25 M.P. Nilsson, Primitive Time-Reckoning, Lund, 1920, 293.
26 Grimm, Mythology, vol.1, 289.
27 Jones, Bedae de Temp., p.128.
28 It is remarkable that in a letter written about the same time Gregory told
^Ethelberht to suppress the worship of idols and to overthrow the buildings of their
temples (HE, 1.32). Was Gregory merely writing figuratively and rhetorically
here? It is possible that the letter in HE, I. 32 was written before Mellitus'
departure from Italy, whereas we know that the one in HE, I. 30 was sent to catch
up with Mellitus, who was already on his way to England, and may therefore
contain afterthoughts. However, Plummer (HE, 11.58) remarks that Gregory might
well urge on AEthelberht the desirability of destruction, and on the missionaries
the need for caution and compromise.
29 B. Hope-Taylor, Yeavering, London, 1977, Department of the Environment
Archaeological Reports 7; 95-116, 158-9, 244-5, 249-50, 264, 268-71, 277-8, 282-3,
310-12, 325-32; figs. 12, 41-6, 93; pis. 79-86.
30 Hope-Taylor, Yeavering, 280-1.
31 HE, 1.30, 1.32, II.5, 11.10, 11.11, 11.13.
32 Compare, for example, the speech which Gregory of Tours puts into the mouth of
Queen Clotild when she endeavoured to convert her husband Clovis (Historia
Francorum, 11.29; B. Krusch and W. Levison, edd., Monumenta Germaniae
Historica, Scriptores Rerum Merovingicarum, I, pt 1, 2nd edn., Hanover, 1951, 74-
5; a recent translation is by L. Thorpe, Harmondsworth, 1974).
33 Germania, ch. 9 and 43.
34 See G. Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North, London, 1964, 244; he
translates and summarizes from Adam Bremensis Gesta Hammaburgensis
Ecclesiae Pontificum, Bk IV, ch. xxvi ff., B. Schmeidler, ed., Scriptores Rerum
Germanicarum, 3rd edn., Leipzig, 1917, 257-60.
35 Vita Galli Triplex, ch.6; B. Krusch, ed., Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Script.
Rer. Merov. IV, Hanover, 1902, 260, 289.
36 Hope-Taylor, Yeavering, 100.
37 O. Holder-Egger, ed., M G H Scriptorum, XV, pt.l, Hannover, 1887, 88; translated
by C H . Talbot in The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, London, 1954, 154-5.
38 Hope-Taylor, Yeavering, 73, 85, 141.
28 A.L. Meaney

39 Hope-Taylor, Yeavering, 270.

40 See discussion by Grimm, Mythology, vol.1, 115-9.
41 G. Turville-Petre, Thurstable, in English and Medieval Studies presented to J.R.R.
Tolkein, N. Davis and C.L.Wrenn, edd., London, 1962, 241-9. See P.H. Reaney, The
Place-Names of Essex, Cambridge, 1935, English Place-Name Society 12, 302;
O.S. Anderson, The English Hundred-Names, 3 vols., Lund, 1939, Lunds
Universitets Arsskrift 30, 35, 37; vol.1, 98-9; vol.2, 160; vol.3, 47-8, 50-1, 107,
162, 188.
42 J.E.B. Gover, A. Mawer and F.M. Stenton, The Place-Names of Wiltshire,
Cambridge, 1939, E P N S 16, 34.
43 A. Mawer and F.M. Stenton, The Place-Names of Sussex, 2 vols., Cambridge,
192A-30, E P N S 6-7, vol.2, 519.
44 Reaney, Essex,(as in note 39) 140-1.
45 P.H. Reaney, The Place-Names of Cambridgeshire, Cambridge, 1943, E P N S 19,
46 See the distribution map in F.M.Stenton, The Historical Bearing of Place-Name
Studies: Anglo-Saxon Heathenism, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society,
4th ser., 23, 1941, 1-24.
47 Grimm, Mythology, vol 1, 116.
48 See L.M. Larson, The King's Household in England before the Norman Conquest,
Madison, Wis., 1904, 101.
49 Eddius Stephanus, Life of Bishop Wilfrid, ch.13; B. Colgrave, ed. and trans.,
Cambridge, 1927, 27-8.
50 G. Eis, Altdentsche Zauberspriiche, Berlin, 1964, 58-66.
51 Hope-Taylor, Yeavering, 69; see also 141, 200-3.
52 Hope-Taylor, Yeavering, 15.
53 R.L.S. Bruce-Mitford, The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial, 3 vols, London, 1975-8; vol.1,
183-8, 689-91, vol.2, 403-31.
54 Grimm, Mythology, vol.1, 92.
55 Hope-Taylor, Yeavering, 246.
56 A.W. Haddan and W. Stubbs, edd., Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents, 3 vols,
Oxford, 1869-78, repr. 1964; vol. 3, 173-213, at 190.
57 F. Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, 3 vols, Halle, 1903; vol.1, 38-9.
58 M. Godden, ed., AElfric's Catholic Homilies, The Second Series, Text, London,
1979, EETS, SS 5, 204.
59 See R.W.V. Elliott, Runes, An Introduction, Manchester, 1959, repr. 1963, 67,69;
R.I. Page, Anglo-Saxon Runes and Magic, Journal of the British Archaeological
Association, 3rd ser., 27, 1964, 14-31; R.I. Page, An Introduction to English Runes,
London, 1973, 112-3; A.L. Meaney, Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones,
Oxford, 1981, British Archaeological Reports 96, 21-4.
60 The passage is repeated in his Life of Cuthbert, ch. IX, ed. Colgrave, 184-5. See
Meaney, Amulets, 14.
61 See the rather summary discussion in A.L. Meaney, Gazetteer of Early Anglo-
Saxon Burial Sites, London, 1964, 15-21.
62 B. Colgrave, ed., Life of Gregory, Lawrence, Kansas, 1968, 96-9.
63 Colgrave, ibid., 47-8.
Bede and Paganism 29

64 Colgrave, ibid., 149; Germania, ch. 10.

65 W.M. Lindsay, ed., Isidori Episcopi Etymologiarum sive Originum, 2 vols, Oxford,
1911 vol.1.
66 Procopius, History of the Wars, VIII (Gothic War IV), xx.13-14; ed. and trans.
H.B.Dewing, 7 vols, Cambridge, Mass., 1914-40, repr. 1962-71, vol.5, 254-7.
67 Line 89, W.W. Skeat, ed., JElfric's Lives of the Saints, London, 1881-5, EETS 76
etc.; vol.1, 364-83 at 360.
68 E. Armstrong, Crow, in Man, Myth and Magic, (as in note 23), 556-7.
69 In spite of the evidenced readiness to allow the newly-converted to feast on their
customary sites, it was evidently hard to eliminate pagan sacrifices, for Theodore's
Penitential prescribes one to ten years of penance for someone who has made
offerings to "devils" (I.xv.l) and similarly graded penalties for those who had eaten
food offerings (I.xv.5); see Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, vol.3, 189-90. A paper
discussing the ecclesiastics' combating of heathen practises is in preparation.
70 L a w of the Northumbrian Priests; Liebermann, Gesetze, (as in note 54), vol.1, 383.
71 Wulfstan's Canons of Edgar, R. Fowler, ed., London, 1972, EETS 266, 4-5
72 See De Vries, Religionsqeschichte, vol.2, 344-54, 372-84.
73 Germania, ch. 8.
74 Lines 124-8, 148-58; Skeat, ed., Lives, vol.1, 372-5.