Anglo-Saxon Religion: Paganism

Before their conversion to Christianity in the 7th and 8th centuries, the Anglo-Saxon’s worshipped a range of different gods and carried out a variety of religious practices.

The Anglo-Saxon tribes weren’t united until the 7th century, and each tribe had it’s own identity and traditions. As a result, it’s important to note that there were differences between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in terms of their religious beliefs. That said, it is possible to make some generalisations.

Here are some facts about Anglo-Saxon paganism.

  • It is thought that the Anglo-Saxons might have believed in seven realms. The realm inhabited by humans was called Middangeard (like Midgard from Norse mythology). Another of the realms might have been Neorxnawang (a bit like Heaven from Christianity).
  • The Anglo-Saxon’s believed in many deities (gods).
  • Woden was the most widely worshipped Anglo-Saxon god. Woden was the ‘carrier of the dead’ and similarities have been identified between Woden, Odin (the Norse god) and Mercury (the Roman god).
  • When the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, Woden was re-invented as a legendary Anglo-Saxon king, and many Anglo-Saxon rulers claimed they were descended from Woden.
  • Thunor, the god of thunder and the sky, was another important Anglo-Saxon deity. Worshipped by the common man, Thunor’s symbols were the hammer and swastika. There are many similarities between Thunor and the Norse god Thor.
  • Tiw may have been an Anglo-Saxon god of war, and Frige may have been the goddess of love or feasting (or both).
  • Other Anglo-Saxon gods included: Frey (possibly a sacrificial deity), Seaxneat (worshipped by the East Saxon tribes), Eostre and Hretha (both mentioned in the works of the Venerable Bede).
  • The Anglo-Saxons also believed in elves (evil creatures), dwarves, ettins and dragons.
  • They worshipped at a variety of different religious sites, ranging from purpose built wooden-framed temples to sacred trees and hilltops.
  • Animal sacrifices were part of the Anglo-Saxon religion. Oxen and boars were ceremonially killed to honour the gods.
  • Anglo-Saxon burials took a number of different forms, some tribes favoured cremation, whereas others buried their dead. Burial mounds started to be used in 6th century. Ship burials also took place (for example at the Sutton Hoo site).
  • Many Anglo-Saxons (mostly women) wore amulets (made from cowrie shells, animal teeth, amber, amethyst, quartz and iron pyrite).

 

The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons

The shift from Anglo-Saxon paganism to Christianity was a gradual process. During the 7th century most of the Anglo-Saxon nobility was converted to Christianity and, over time, the general population followed suit.

Many of the pagan Anglo-Saxon religious festivals were reinterpreted by believers of Christianity, and converted to Christian feast days. Similarly, sacred pagan sites were turned into Christian places of worship. By the 8th century, Christianity was the main religion of Anglo-Saxon England (although paganism briefly returned with the coming of the Vikings).

What next? Learn more about the Anglo-Saxons by visiting our resources page.

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