“A Monstrous Hell-bride”; the Mother Goddess of Northern Europe – Part 1

Image - Petr Novák, Wikipedia

Venus of Dolní Věstonice. ‘Venus Figurines’ such as this could be early representations of the Mother Goddess. Image – Petr Novák, Wikipedia

“[I] set myself a task, the arrogance of which I fully recognized and trembled at: being precisely to restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own.” (1) So J. R. R. Tolkien outlined his crusade; to give the English back their mythology. His lamenting cry that we, as a people, have lost much of our mythology (due to Christianisation and the Norman Conquest) is one I found myself sharing when I set out to write the story of Hengest and Horsa; the two Jutish brothers who spearheaded the Anglo-Saxon migrations to Britain.

Their arrival on the shores of Kent in 447 A.D. heralded a massive cultural shift in the south-east of the island from the Celtic-speaking culture of the Christianised Britons to the Germanic-speaking pagan culture of the people who would one day be called the English. Within two-hundred years, most of the English had been converted to Christianity. But what of the Old English paganism that was practiced in that two-hundred year interim between the arrival of Hengest and Horsa and the Synod of Whitby (that saw the fledgling Church of England brought into line with the Roman Catholic Church)? Has anything of the old ways survived?

Much of Anglo-Saxon paganism (if it is ever recognized at all,) is seen as an offshoot or an Anglicized version of the Norse mythology of our Scandinavian cousins. Novels and short stories set in the early days of the Anglo-Saxon migrations often use the Norse names of our shared Germanic gods such as Odin and Thor instead of the Old English Woden and Thunor. There is a reason for this. Isolated from the rest of the continent, Scandinavia converted to Christianity far later than England and its mythology survived to be written down in the thirteenth century by the likes of Snorri Sturluson. These days Thunor exists only in a few references in obscure Old English texts, while Thor gets his own blockbuster film franchise.

To study the mythology of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, we must dig deep and penetrate the Norse and Christian layers that gloss it. Amidst the twisted and tangled roots that lie beneath, we find something startling; a common root that connects both England and Scandinavia to Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Gaul. It dates back further than the people we now call ‘Celtic’ or ‘Germanic’ to a common stock who came to Europe from the east, bringing with them agriculture and the deities who presided over it.

Beowulf fights Grendel's mother. Artist - John Howe

Beowulf fights Grendel’s mother. Artist – John Howe

Unfortunately the sources of Anglo-Saxon mythology are scant. The main (and easily the most renowned) piece is of course, Beowulf. Written sometime in the tenth or eleventh century (when England was ravaged by attacks from the pagan Danes) it presented the Christianised English with a flashback to their own pagan past. It’s the story of a Geat (or Goth to use the Latinised term) who journeys from his home in southern Sweden to the aid of a Danish king whose hall is assailed by Grendel; a monstrous man-eating troll. Defeating Grendel, Beowulf is then presented with an even deadlier foe; the troll’s mother whom he pursues to her watery lair beneath a mere and kills her.

There has long been an argument that the exploits of Beowulf are allegorical, depicting the overthrow of an older group of fertility gods by a warrior cult that superseded it. Evidence that a fertility goddess (who had a strong connection to water) was being worshiped in the continental homelands of the Anglo-Saxons appeared in the first century work Germania. Written by the Roman Historian Tacitus, Germania is an ethnographic account of the Germanic tribes that dwelled on Rome’s northern borders.


The gilt bronze face of Sulis Minerva; a Romano-British water goddess who may have fulfilled a similar role to Nerthus.

Tacitus tells us of a goddess called Nerthus who was kept in a sacred grove on an island in the northern sea. Referred to as ‘Mother Earth’, Nerthus rode a wagon pulled by cows and travelled amongst the populace who feasted and made merry in her wake. The goddess (possibly represented by a statue) was then cleansed in a sacred lake and her slaves were then drowned. The existence of this cult is backed up by archaeological finds of buried ceremonial chariots and several preserved ‘bog men’ in Denmark who appear to have been ritually sacrificed.

Nerthus appears to be a Latinisation of Njorthr; a god of the sea attested to in later Norse literature. That Nerthus is a male name suggests that we are either dealing with an hermaphroditic deity or a set of twin deities. Perhaps Tacitus only received half of the story and attributed the god’s name to the goddess and failed to record her real name at all. Nerthus and his unnamed twin may have been both siblings and lovers. This incestuous arrangement is continued with Freyr and Freyja (who were the sons of Njorthr according to Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda). Freyr and Freyja are in fact titles meaning ‘lord’ and ‘lady’ respectively. Were they really the offspring of Njorthr and his lover as Snorri describes, or were they secondary names for a god of the sea and his partner, Mother Earth?

Freja by John Bauer (1882–1918)

Freja by John Bauer (1882–1918)

Freyr, Freyja, Njorthr and his unnamed twin/lover, were members of the Vanir (Wanes in Old English); a set of deities connected to fertility, prophesy and magic who were often in conflict with the Aesir (Ese) which included the likes of Odin and Thor. It was H. M. Chadwick who postulated that the female halves of these pairings were representations of a universal mother goddess worshiped throughout the Germanic world, in particular on the island of Zealand in Denmark (2). Icelandic literature of the 13th century credit the creation of Zealand to a goddess called Gefion, who formed it with her plough by gouging out a piece of Sweden and dumping it into the sea.

Zealand is perhaps the island Tacitus mentions as being the sanctuary of Nerthus. The symbolism of earth and water is hard to ignore and it would be the perfect home for a god of the sea and a goddess of the plough. Indeed, Gefion (which appears to mean ‘giver’) is attested to in the Beowulf manuscript with phrases like ‘Gefion’s bath’ meaning the sea. If Freyr and Freyja were just titles or secondary names for Njorthr and his wife, Gefion may be the previously unnamed partner of Njorthr; the ‘lady’ to his ‘lord’.

John Grigsby (3) suggests that the mother goddess was a result of our Neolithic ancestors learning the arts of agriculture. As time went on, an increasing population meant that tribes became more mobile and encountered each other more often in warfare. Thus, the deities of agriculture waned in favour of deities of war. It seems reasonable to suggest that Grendel and his mother are the remnants of a fertility cult belonging to our Neolithic ancestors, banished to an existence in the wilderness by the rise of ‘Odinism’.

ABrothersOath coverNext week, in part two of this post, I’ll examine how the universal mother goddess is remembered in Celtic mythology. Just as she appears in Beowulf as a “monstrous Hell-bride”, so does she appear as the ‘Lady of the Lake’ in Arthurian legend, showing just how wide-spread her cult really was.

A Brother’s Oath is out now and features a Gefion-worshipping cult that is quickly fading in the face of the Odinism that would dominate Germanic lands until their conversion to Christianity.


(1) John C. Carpenter, The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Critical Mythology and The Lord of the Rings. Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Winter, 2006), pg. 129)

(2) H. M. Chadwick, The Heroic Age. London, 1912.

(3) John Grigsby, Beowulf and Grendel.

A New Novella for Halloween

It’s October at last. Halloween may be a month away, but I always start celebrating a little early by watching horror movies, brewing up a batch of dark brown pumpkin ale (and then drinking it) and writing something creepy. This year I’ve managed to get out a novella in time for October 1st and am quite pleased with it. It’s a prequel to a particularly creepy M. R. James story called The Mezzotint. So, if you like ghost stories, spectral figures at the windows and good old fashioned hauntings, check out The Visitor at Anningley Hall available from Amazon and Smashwords.

The Visitor at Anningley Hall new font copy“The door,” Elisa mumbled. “He was trying to open the front door.”
“What on earth for? Was he sleepwalking?”
“Oh, God!” said Elisa, her arms squeezing Roland tight to her chest. “He was trying to let it in!”

In 1904, M. R. James published The Mezzotint; a macabre short story about a picture with a chilling tale of its own. This novella explores the horrifying events told within that picture.

Anningley Hall – a large country house in Essex – is home to Arthur Francis and his wife Elisa. Arthur is obsessed with his new printing press and so consumed by his desire to make a name for himself as a mezzotint artist that he is oblivious to his wife’s increasing desperation and loneliness. Elisa is convinced that something sinister is coming for their infant son and will stop at nothing to protect him. When she discovers a disturbing secret pertaining to her husband’s past, she begins to question the safety of their home as a refuge from evil. And their three-year-old son is in contact with a dark presence that seems intent on entering Anningley Hall…

Anglo Saxon Ships

1424519679714When I first started writing A Brother’s Oath, I made the erroneous assumption that the Anglo Saxons merely sailed about in Viking ships. Upon doing a little research, I discovered that, like a lot of things concerning the Anglo Saxons, they did it slightly differently to their Scandinavian cousins of later centuries.

The boats of the migration era (which Hengest and Horsa would have used to get to Britain) were markedly different to the more famous Viking longships seen in tons of pop-culture references from Asterix to Conan. The main difference is – and this is a matter of debate amongst historians – that they may or may not have had masts and sails.

This idea astounded me. Did the Anglo Saxons row to Britain? A Viking ship without its colourful striped sail simply isn’t a Viking ship. And therein lies the difference. When you think about it, the Viking age happened for a reason. Scandinavians were travelling to Britain as early as the fifth century and yet the Viking age is generally considered to have begun in the eighth century with a sudden boom in Scandinavian raiding, trading and settling. Could the onset of the Viking age have been directly influenced by a revolution in ship building around the year 700?

Let’s take a look at some of the ships that have been found throughout the ages to get a better idea of the evolution of sea travel in the Anglo Saxon and early Viking periods.


The Nydam Boat

The most famous early Germanic boat is the Nydam boat. Nydam was once a bog in southern Denmark (now it’s a meadow) which has yielded many artefacts over the years like swords, shields and boats that were ritually ‘sacrificed’ centuries ago and preserved by the bog’s high peat content. The 23 meter long oak boat known as the Nydam boat has been dated to around 310 A.D. It has 15 pairs of oars (so 30 rowers) and there is no sign of a mast block, meaning that it was probably powered by oars alone. It has a ‘keel plank’ rather than a fully developed keel as seen in Viking ships. A keel is important to offset the height of a mast and the suggestion is that the Nydam boat was not a ‘seaworthy’ vessel, but designed for going up and down rivers and perhaps hugging the coastlines.


Reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo burial

Other than the Nydam boat, no whole vessel has been found from the pre-Viking age, only bits and pieces from which we can build mental pictures. The Gredstedbro ship (also found in southern Denmark) is one of the better known of these and has been dated to about 600 A.D. Like the Nydam boat it appears to have also had a keel plank rather than a proper keel and its design is similar to the imprint of another boat found in the burial mound at Sutton Hoo in England. The wood having long since rotted away, only the impression in the earth can tell us that this East Anglian royal vessel was about 27 meters long, had 20 pairs of oars and a shallow keel plank. Neither the Gredstedbro or the Sutton Hoo ships show any signs of having had masts.


The Oseberg Ship

In fact, that seems to be the story for all pre-Viking ships. They seemed to have been rowing boats with no sails. The first true ‘Viking’ ship is generally considered to be the Oseberg ship found in Norway dating to about 800 A.D. This is the real deal. At just over 20 meters it has 15 pairs of oars, a proper ‘T-shaped’ keel and a mast which would have supported a large square sail.

So, did Anglo Saxon ships have sails or not? The jury is still out. There isn’t enough evidence. While we have yet to find a Germanic sailing ship built earlier than 800 A.D., that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any. Being made of wood makes ships unlikely to survive 1000+ years and it’s remarkable that we have any to study at all. It’s possible that vessels like the Sutton Hoo ship were fitted with masts, only to have them removed before burial. It’s also possible that these examples were just river barges and were preferred for burials and sacrifices as the ocean-going sailing vessels of the day were far too valuable to bury or submerge in a bog.

There is also the logistical element consider. If the Anglo Saxons migrated to Britain in any considerable number (and the jury is out on that one too), ships with sails require less men to crew them, therefore leaving more room for families, livestock and equipment. In short, migrants would have much more use for ships with sails. The technology existed (the Romans had used longships with sails) but a migration-era Germanic sailing ship has yet to be found.

ABrothersOath coverIn A Brother’s Oath, I capitalised on the old saying; ‘absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence’ and had Hengest and Horsa acquire the Raven, the pride of the Frisian king’s fleet; a large longship with a proper keel and a mast in the style of the Oseberg ship. I presented it as a technological marvel ahead of its time which inspires its new owners to modify their existing ships to carry false keels and masts to make them seaworthy enough to sail to Britain.

Such bending of the facts is the historical fiction writer’s prerogative.

A Brother’s Oath Released!

ABrothersOath coverI’m very pleased to announce the release of my first novel under my own name. A Brother’s Oath is the first part of a trilogy about Hengest and Horsa; the Anglo Saxon brothers who founded the kingdom of Kent and essentially laid the foundations of England itself. It’s available in ebook format from Amazon and Smashwords with a paperback release slated for late this year.

The Untold Story of England’s Beginning.

Denmark, 444 A.D. Two brothers – the cold and calculating Hengest and the intrepid but headstrong Horsa – find their separate worlds thrown into turmoil by royal treachery and an evil cult thought long dead. Reunited by an oath sworn in their youth, they set off on a journey that will define their destiny and set them upon the path to greatness.

When Hengest’s family is kidnapped by an unknown enemy, Horsa knows his oath has become more than a thing of words and he infiltrates the crew of one of the most feared raiders in the northern world to find out who took them. Meanwhile, Hengest struggles to unite his rag-tag group of followers into a united people. His heart yearns for a safe haven for his family; a land that he and his followers can call their own for generations to come.

This is the first part of the thrilling saga of the two warriors who spearheaded the Anglo-Saxon migrations to Britain and whose names became legendary as the founders of the land that would one day be called England.

I’m back!

It’s been a while, but I’m back.

I’ve had a hell of a year over at pjthorndyke.wordpress.com and made some great progress in the ebook market. I now have three novels and one short story out under my pseudonym. I’ve learned a lot and feel now that it is time for me to focus on the stuff I’m planning to put out under my own name.

It was my birthday a little while back and I spent it in England with my parents for the first time in what feels like a decade. Despite a horrendously delayed flight and a puncture on the hire car, it was a great trip, one of the highlights being this amazing birthday cake whipped up by my masterchef mum. Apologies for the blurriness – this was several glasses of wine into the evening.


While a hefty Anglo Saxon tome emblazoned with runes is very me, my mum clearly knew the subject of my next novel. It’s the first part of a trilogy dealing with Hengest and Horsa – the legendary Anglo Saxon brothers who founded the kingdom of Kent (essentially the first English kingdom). I’ve got a bunch of historical novels I’ve written over the past ten years and plan to release them over the next few months. I’ve also got something special planned for Halloween, so watch this space! A Brother’s Oath will be out in the next few days.

ABrothersOath cover

The Quest to Get Published: Part 2

I am about to embark on an adventure. I have long been intrigued by the ebook revolution. It has turned the self publishing process from a ‘vanity press’ to something that reaches a far wider audience that can really make its authors some money. I’ve been inspired by writers like Lindsay Buroker (whose blog is well worth a visit) who have been able to turn a hobby into a full-time career. With the increasing difficulties in pursuing the traditional publishing route, the self-published ebook offers an outlet for many fine authors who would otherwise have gone ignored by the big publishing houses for whatever reasons. My own frustrations at receiving one ‘good, but not for us’ rejection letter after another, I have decided to dip my feet into the world of self publishing.

I have long had an idea for a ‘dime novel’ type series about a British adventurer in the nineteenth century and even worked out a couple of drafts a few years ago. The idea has since developed into a three novel Steampunk series which I will kick off with a free short story (to be released soon) and an additional short story which I plan to give away to subscribers of my new blog at www.pjthorndyke.wordpress.com.

Yes, I’m publishing these under a pseudonym. This isn’t out of a wish to hide my identity, but Steampunk is a very different animal to my historical novels (which I’m still trying to get published) and I feel that they would work better under a different name. P. J. Thorndyke will by my pseudonym for lots of projects (not just Steampunk) in the future. I have plenty of ideas for pulpy-style adventures in different genres so this will be a good outlet for those stories. So, if Steampunk or pulp fiction is your thing, head on over to my new blog and buckle up for the ride! I don’t know how it’s going to turn out but I’m sure I’ll learn plenty along the way as well as having some fun.