Anglo-Saxon Paganism by David Wilson, reviewed by Jordsvin
Anglo-Saxon Paganism by David Wilson is a fascinating inquiry into the
relatively little-known realm of Anglo-Saxon Paganism. Published in 1992 by
Routledge, it represents the conclusions of more recent scholarship. The
ISBN number is
The division of chapters follows a very logical progression. The first
chapter covers place-name evidence. A number of place-names preserve the
name of a Heathen God or Goddess, or else incorporate such terms as weoh
(Old Norse vé) which in Anglo-Saxon meant idol or temple, hearg,
meaning a place of worship, normally on a hill (the cognate Old Norse term
horgr meant pile of stones, hence a Heathen altar, and leah, meaning
a (sacred) grove. The new scholarship has eliminated a few names from the
traditional hoard of Heathen place-names but has cast additional light upon
some others. This books exploration of the differences between weoh and
hearg is particularly interesting.
Chapter two discusses the written evidence of Anglo-Saxon Heathenism.
This was, of course, all written down by Christians after the conversion of
England. The Runes were not used to write books and there is so little
evidence of Runic literacy in Heathen England that some have ventured
(erroneously in my opinion) that the Heathen English did not know Runes at
all, as objects with Runic inscriptions from the Heathen period were few and
could have been imported, and widespread use of the Anglo-Saxon futhorc
occurs only after Christianization, when it was allegedly imported from the
continent. I personally find it hard to believe that a newly Christianized
people would import a Heathen writing system when they already had the
Church-approved Roman Runes ready at hand.
The next chapter discusses temples and shrines. We know from the
written records that temples and shrines existed, and here we see some
examples of excavated building remains that may have been temples and in
some cases their associated sacred enclosures. However, no proven example
of a Heathen Anglo-Saxon religious structure has ever been established.
Archaeological survey and subsequent excavation of weoh and
hearg-derived place names might just change that, Dr. Wilson suggests!
Chapters four and five explore the evidence contained in inhumation
(whole body) and cremation burials, respectively. While there are
tantalizing clues as to the possible religious significance of the
simultaneous coexistence of the two means of laying the Dead to rest, as
shown in the very different sorts of grave goods associated with the two
sorts of burials, no definite conclusions can be reached.
Chapter six presents Sutton Hoo as a sort of special case due to its
well-known Scandinavian connections. Evidently the local royal family
derived from Sweden, and many of the artifacts show this connection. This
should surprise no one, as the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is actually
set in Scandinavia. Chapter seven summarizes the conclusions reached by the
One thing which really makes Anglo-Saxon Paganism stand out in my mind
is Dr. Wilsons decision to deliberately ignore as much as possible the much
more coherent and extant remains of Scandinavian Heathenism as an aide in
interpreting the surviving scraps of English lore and other traces of
Heathenism. Scholarship has long debated how closely the Heathenism of
Migration Age Anglo-Saxons was related to that of Viking Age Scandinavians a
few centuries later. My own reading and research has led me to the
conclusion that the two religions were closely related variants on a common
theme, much more closely related, for instance, than the religions of
Irish/Gaelic, British/Welsh, and Continental Celts. Nevertheless, the two
Heathenisms were no doubt far from identical, and the idea of trying to
analyze the Anglo-Saxon evidence in its own light, out of the much brighter
limelight so to speak of the Scandinavian lore, seems like a fine idea.
Bewilderingly, however, Dr. Wilson turns right around and makes extensive
use of Tacitus Germania, which is just as distant, both temporally and
spatially, from the Heathen Anglo-Saxons as is the Scandinavian lore.
In the end, Anglo-Saxon Paganism serves to underscore both how very
little we actually know about early English Heathenism, and how little we
can realistically hope to know unless by some miracle the Anglo-Saxon
equivalent of one of the Eddas should at some future date be discovered.
That contemporary Anglo-Saxon Heathens have succeeded in reconstructing a
worthy sib-religion to Ásatrú is no mean feat, and they are worthy of the
highest acclaim for their efforts!
Sadly, this fine work is out of print and amazon.com has used
copies available only sporadically. However, it would be worthwhile to
check your local university's library, and failing that, Interlibrary Loan
at your public library. The effort needed to obtain this book will prove
well worth it!