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Anglo-Saxon Paganism by David Wilson, reviewed by Jordsvin

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  • Jordsvin
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 7, 2003
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      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
      0-415-01897-8.
      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 book’s 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
      author.
      One thing which really makes Anglo-Saxon Paganism stand out in my mind
      is Dr. Wilson’s 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!
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