Anglo-Saxon Paganism Today

We don’t often recognise the moments that will affect the direction our lives until viewed in hindsight. A few weeks ago I reminisced in a post about my history with Heathenry, and this dredged up memories of an event I attended in the August of 2011 in Peterborough named Heathenfest. Anybody of serious mind who attended the event may well laugh at the idea that it could possibly have positively influenced anyone’s direction in life…

The event was held in a community centre one sunny Saturday morning and featured talks by several individuals involved in the UK Heathen ‘scene’. These talks varied from a discussion about standing stones to a woman hawking her paintings of various gods (one of which looked suspiciously like the Virgin Mary!) There was also a chap dressed head to toe in black, sporting a runic belt buckle, cowboy boots and hat, giving “rune readings” to anyone dumb enough to cross his palm with five pounds – I recall his ‘talk’ consisted of trying to get the handful of attendees to chant the mispronounced, unattested and reconstructed Proto-Germanic name forms of the runes to mostly embarrassed laughter.

Audience at Heathenfest 2011 with faces blurred to protect dignities.

Ultimately, despite attending in fantastic company, what I found at Heathenfest was a concept of Heathenry that did not resonate with me. There was very little in the way of genuine historical research or guidance on display (although I must credit one speaker, Pete Jennings, for being a cut above the rest); instead, the focus was on eclecticism and an “anything goes” attitude, not to mention the hawking of wares – a primary focus! This “follow your feelings” attitude was, at the time, common in Heathen-circles, and there are perhaps some reasons for this:

Firstly, some strands of Heathenry in the UK having developed from the wider Neo-Pagan scene, including ‘Druids’ and Wicca, where eclecticism is encouraged due to the lack of historical sources from which these religions have been constructed. Secondly, many Heathens have come to the religion by rebelling against a strict Christian upbringing, and aren’t willing to accept anything that could be perceived as a dogma or authority, but are still desirous of the sense of community that religion can provide. Finally, many Heathens are too lazy, uninterested or busy to research, and a severe lack of concise resources makes solving this problematic.

By the time of the Heathenfest event I had left the Odinic Rite behind to concentrate on reconstructing a more English-focussed form of Heathenry and was looking for direction in that area. ‘Anglo-Saxon Heathenry’ was popular in the United States (where it was called Theodish Belief, or sometimes Theodism – despite some claiming it was never an ‘-ism’!) but here in the UK, as at Heathenfest, Heathenry was dominated by more Icelandic/Scandinavian approaches which … just didn’t speak to me.

I left Heathenfest with the growing realisation that the ‘Heathen scene’ here in the UK was something of a joke. How had the Americans gotten so far ahead of us in terms of reconstructing English pre-Christian beliefs? In fact, the concept of focussing on academic material as the basis for reconstructing a religious ‘worldview’, as opposed to the “anything goes”/“trust your feelings” approach, I believe can also be attributed to the Americans who termed this ‘reconstruction’. That’s not to say that the new religious movement of Heathenry hasn’t, since its inception, utilised academic research – of course it has – but never before as a foundation.

This methodology inspired me, but it too has its drawbacks. It resulted in a pervasive one-upmanship in dedicated social media groups where some would jump at any opportunity to ‘shame’ another member in order to be perceived the ‘alpha’ of the group. This caused many of the more knowledgable members to leave thus resulting in echo chambers for the loudest voices therein, under the guise of innangeard. However, despite American Heathenry’s public, online persona devolving into a cesspool, it has had a remarkably positive effect upon UK Heathenry where Anglo-Saxon and continental Germanic perspectives are now often given equal, or in some cases more weight than those of Iceland and Scandinavia (the ‘Vikings’).

Of course, there are still those who eschew historical fact for the fictions of their own creation, but it seems very little credence is given to their UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis), and people who have studied a subject (whether academically or personally) are now listened to far more. In fact, it is not uncommon for the works of ‘pagan’ authors that were once treated as near-sacrosanct to be somewhat mocked. How long it will last, who can say? It is far from perfect, but hopefully with wider understanding and being disseminated, eventually small localised communities can develop and build upon historical approach in a modern setting to once again breathe life into Heathenry and within a few generations be able to forego any such misnomers in favour of simply being a unique culture.

Eostre and Identity in Anglo-Saxon England

As you may have heard, tomorrow is Easter Sunday – the Christian festival celebrating the resurrection of their Messiah. What you may not have heard is that the common name of the festival, Easter, is derived from the name of a pre-Christian goddess referred to as Eostre by Bede in his De Temporum Ratione. Eostre’s month (OE, Eosturmonað) occurred around the time of April and we can infer from Bede that the full moon of her month marked the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon summer (the pre-Christian English only observed two seasons; summer and winter). Eostre was celebrated with feasting.

The English months recorded by Bede are vague, but vaguer still is his explanation of the workings of this lunar calendar. There have been many attempts to ‘reconstruct’ the calendar but without any historical records of the lunar dates cross-referenced with Julian dates, any such attempt is theoretical. My own theoretical reconstruction suggests that the full moon of Easter-month occurs tonight (16th March 22). I cannot say whether the pre-Christian feasting for Eostre would have coincided with this full moon, but I feel the likelihood is great, perhaps as a welcoming of the summer season which this year we are welcoming with a mini-heatwave after many weeks of fairly miserable weather, and even snow! As I type this I have just returned from a 40-mile cycling trip and have the sunburn to prove it! Eostre has certainly brought the summer with her, and it seems only right to feast in her name (the aroma of barbecue in the warm air suggests the neighbours have the same idea!)

You might wonder, quite reasonably, why a Christian festival would take the name of a pagan goddess, but the most-likely reason is that the Christian festival (which, by the Roman reckoning used in England by the time of Bede, occurs on the first Sunday following the first full moon* that follows the spring equinox**) fell so close to the Heathen celebration that the festivals became merged. This may have been reluctantly accepted, or even welcomed by the Christian missions, seeing the value in a hegemonic process of conversion whereby the English would have felt their tribal-religious identity was not under threat, and the Christians gradually reduced the pagan elements of the festival replacing them with a story of resurrection that may have echoed the themes of the original Easter mythology. I cannot speak as to the pre-Christian nature of eggs and hares that are (at least now) synonymous with the festival, but while their relationship to the spring season seem obvious, their relation to the story of Christ’s resurrection are less so!

* the full moon is/was not based on an actual observance, but an estimated date based on a repeating pattern of alternating intervals of 29 and 30 days.

** the date of the equinox is/was always taken to be March 21st regardless of the astronomical date of the equinox.

As an aside, when creating my theoretical reconstruction of Bede’s English calendar, I specified that one of the three criteria that must be met was that during the years of the conversion, the Christian Easter must fall ‘close’ to the full moon of Eosturmonað. I eventually was able to construct a model whereby the Christian Easter always fell within Eosturmonað from the years preceding the Augustinian mission up to many centuries thereafter. I may write more about my reconstruction one day.

In this short article I have so far covered practically all we know about Eostre and her pre-Christian festival, and even within these few paragraphs I have been reluctant to forego the use of speculation. For a goddess’ festival that we might assume must have been so widespread and important to lend its name to its Christian replacement, we must wonder at the total lack of additional evidence: Toponym evidence for Anglo-Saxon pagan deities is scarce in England, and while there are possible occurrences of ‘Easter’ in place-names, the common place-name element ‘East-’ and the prevalence of the Christian festival make any instances suspect; there is some suggestion that Eostre derives from the centuries-earlier Austriahenæ, a group of matronæ with over 150 dedicated votive inscriptions found in Morken-Harff, Germany, however, once more we must view this connection with suspicion due to the common element ‘East-’ which in the case of these matrons may simply have referred to a people found to the east with no connection to the later Eostre; finally there is Charlemagne who, some time after the age of Bede, attempted to render the months in Old High German, somewhat coinciding with Bede’s English months, including an Ostar-manod in place of April.

The Old High German Ostar-manod has been used by Grimm to hypothesise a German cognate to Eostre named *Ostara, a word which is now associated with the spring equinox festival of renewal in new-age eclectic paganisms such as Wicca. Grimm’s hypothesis, however, is suspect. Charlemagne, a man well-known for his devout Christianity, the ransacking of pagan places of worship, and for ordering the murder of some 4,000 Saxons who refused to convert, is unlikely to have intentionally evoked the memory of a pagan goddess in his rendering of the German months. It is my opinion that his reason for these Old High German translations of Bede’s English months (even if accurate) was the same as the Christian English reasoning behind retaining the name of their former pagan festival, Easter – that is, the preservation (or invention) of identity.

To the Christian in the age of conversion, paganism was the worship of devils. An abhorrence. However, there was (and still is) a difference between paganism and what we might call mythology. Where paganism is a religious belief, mythology is merely a series of stories – a trapping of a culture, just like language and art. In fact, ‘classical’ mythology was well-known and celebrated in Christian England; even Bede casually refers to a personified classical goddess, Natura. There is no suggestion of an underlying paganism in opposition to Christianity in these references and reverence.

The process of converting the English to Christianity ensured the existing religious beliefs of the people were eradicated, but without the foundation of pagan beliefs, other elements of English culture were somewhat neutered and suitable for repurposing. I don’t mean to suggest this was a wholly intentional process on the part of the missions, although I concede that certainly Pope Gregory’s suggestion to Augustine to convert Heathen places of worship to Christian places of worship in order to not unnecessarily disturb the customs of the people might suggest at least an awareness of the underlying concept. It is my hypothesis, however, that as many of the missionaries during the later years of the conversion period were English themselves, their close connection to the secular culture would have been to them inseparable from their Christian beliefs. Gods were remembered as the progenitors of various royal lineages; Christian inscriptions were carved in runic script on stone crosses adorned with patterns of interlaced vines hiding dragons and other mythical creatures; and while the devout may have asked What has Ingeld to do with Christ?, our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon mythology is owed almost exclusively to the English monks that, in part, preserved it.

It is easy to see how the Augustinian mission would have represented a threat to the diverse set of tribal identities found upon the island of Britain in the 6th and 7th centuries, however, the conversion was achieved through a hegemonic process that was specific and directed. English identity survived and although the various kingdoms may have gradually disappeared in favour of a unified England, to this day we find our identities fluctuate in scale depending on context. In an instant I may turn from a postcode gang-member shanking a chav from the next street for disrespecting my council-owned turf by walking down it to get to the local vape shop, to embracing said chav as we find common ground in our Derbyshirian hatred of Staffordshire, to once again shanking him as he eschews his identity as an Englishman to place priority on being a European! Was identity in Anglo-Saxon England any less complicated? From their tribalist perspective rocked by the notion of a unifying God to suddenly embrace the concept of nationalism and the global stage – the world of Christendom that the English quickly found themselves an influential arm of in Western Europe.

As desperately unfortunate as the loss of our paganisms is, the memory of Eostre is a powerful reminder of the cultural self-preservation that has ensured a reconstruction is possible. Bede had no reason to dedicate an entire chapter of De Temporum Ratione to a calendar that bore no importance to the work, except for the purpose of confirming his identity as a man culturally English. Charlemagne’s Ostar-manod and Grimm’s *Ostara echo this same desire, only of course of cultural Germans.

Today we value what little of our Anglo-Saxon heritage has survived, whether religiously, nationally, or merely through a mild curiosity, due to its importance to our identities. While some scholars once suggested that Bede’s Eostre was a fabrication – an attempt to explain away the common English name of the Christian festival – we can be of absolute certainty any such suggestion is nonsense, and likely a late reflection of the same attitude some Heathens must have felt when being chastised for their beliefs in favour of a life serving Jesus and the One God – Bede’s record of Eostre over a millennia prior was a threat to the identity of these Christian scholars who wished to perceive a perfect dichotomy between Pagan and Christian England: a fabrication.

My History with Heathenry

I don’t remember precisely how I found Heathenry, but it was almost certainly through a mix of music and an interest in the occult aspects of the Völkisch movement ultimately culminating in Nazi Germany. My first real research into what would become my interest in the modern religion was via four books:

  • The Occult Roots of Nazism: The Ariosophists of Austria and Germany, 1890-1935 (Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, 1985)
  • Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism and the Politics of Identity (Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, 2002)
  • Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism (Mattias Gardell, 2003)
  • Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground (Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind, Rev. Ed., 2003)

Despite these books focussing on Heathenry only as it relates to racialist movements or extremist subcultures, they are still fascinating reads that I would highly recommend. As an aside, if you want a more balanced book exploring in-depth the new religious movement (NRM) of Heathenry and its roots, I would recommend Norse Revival: Transformations of Germanic Neopaganism (Stefanie von Schnurbein, 2016).

The first book I read actually written by a Heathen, about Heathenry, was Runelore: A Handbook of Esoteric Runology by Edred Thorsson (1987), an author I was already familiar with from his books The Secret King: Karl Maria Wiligut, Himmler’s Lord of the Runes (as Stephen Flowers, co-authored with the afore-mentioned Michael Moynihan, 2001) and Johannes Bureus and Adalruna (1998). Unfortunately, I found this book academically lacking – a common occurrence with research written within Heathenry. I don’t dismiss unaffiliated research by any means, but it requires far more vigilance when reading than that published by an academic institution where (one would hope) proper research procedures have been followed.

Unfortunately, as a teenager, dense academic works were far out of my price-range. Thankfully, Penguin and Oxford World Classics had English translations of many of the sources referenced in the above works, such as The Prose Edda, The Poetic Edda and various of the Icelandic Sagas, readily available. Perhaps a better place to start for those looking.

From here, I eventually felt versed enough to seek out other Heathens (or Odinists as they were calling themselves at the time) and joined The Odinic Rite – a British organisation started in the 1970s that at one time had charitable status. Unfortunately, it was quickly apparent that the OR was something of a glorified mystery school, with a shadowy figure at its head who apparently lived overseas. My only experience with the organisation was its newsletter/magazine and its online forums, although I did end up meeting with several local members during and after my membership. I also contributed two Adalruna tracks to their short-lived compilation series Folk Spirit.

The Odinic Rite, I think it’s fair to say, falls in the folkish camp of Heathenry, and perhaps something should be said about that as it is often claimed that folkish is simply a codeword for racist. I don’t personally see these terms as synonymous, although there is no doubt a racial aspect to folkish Heathenry which looks at the faith as an ancestral calling. The opposite side of the coin to folkish Heathenry is what was once called universalist Heathenry – the belief that anyone can practice Heathenry, regardless of background. In more recent times I have noticed the universalist term fall almost entirely out of use, particularly in the UK, being replaced with the more fashionable term ‘inclusive Heathenry’, with a shift away from focussing on racism towards more LGBT issues.

In my younger days I was a vocal proponent of a folkish form of Heathenry, and to some extent I still am. I cannot understand why a person with no ancestral heritage within North or Western Europe might wish to connect with the Gods who reside here rather than those who were worshipped by their own ancestors. I feel it is only honest to say this. The world was once full of rich of vibrant religions, cultures and mythologies, mostly decimated by Imperialism, Christianity and Islam. Still, I’ve come to know that a person’s character is far more important than any cultural biases I may have that by now I can do very little about. A person may choose to worship however they wish, provided they do not seek to prevent other peoples from doing the same. I feel this attitude may just as well be applied to the folkish Heathens, and I’ve come to realise what a waste of time the war of words and accusations between these ‘sides’ has been over the years.

Nobody is going to change anybody’s minds except by example. The focus should be on Heathenry – a genuine push to understand the religions we seek to reconstruct and adapt to modern life, not group politics.

When I was growing up I was not religious. Reading the experiences of American Heathens online, it seems most find their way after falling out of the Church they were raised with, and I have also seen this mentioned more than I would expect by Heathens within the United Kingdom. We have to understand that for many, losing a religion may also mean losing ones place in their community and potentially losing their family. Heathenry, which often emphasises community and fellowship, would therefore be an attractive alternative for wayward souls. A sense of identity and belonging is important. Unfortunately, wayward souls are often wayward for a reason, and few Heathen communities built this way remain for very long.

In order for Heathenry to blossom, actual communities need to be built. That is, Heathen families living together and raising their children. It is only in this situation that I feel a religion could truly refine itself from the faux-reconstructions we have that are almost entirely theoretical, and become a truly unique culture. I don’t believe that any two such communities, with the same foundations, would find themselves with the same culture after a generation or two.

Heathenry has always been a living religion.