“[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.
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.
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?
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’.
Next 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.