THE RELIGION OF THE PAGAN ANGLO-SAXONS AND VIKINGS

Introduction Sources of Evidence Late Roman Britain The British Kingdom of Elmet Anglo-Saxon West Yorkshire Religion in the Anglo Saxon and Viking period
Viking Rule in West Yorkshire The impact of the Norman conquest Timeline Photo Gallery
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Introduction
It is difficult to say with any precision what the pagan Anglo-Saxons and Vikings believed during this period. This is due to the lack of contemporary written material. Many people are now familiar with the gods and goddesses of Scandinavian mythology. These stories were only written down in the 12th century in Iceland when the worship of gods such as Odin and Thor had virtually died out. The stories have probably been altered by the Christian writers to suit their viewpoint, and it would be unwise to assume that they reflect fully the views of people living in Britain 500 years earlier.

Days of the week
The most obvious sign of the power of the belief in the pagan gods is the names of the days of the week. Anglo-Saxon/Norse gods have replaced several Latin ones in our daily lives.

Tuesday - Tyr's day.       Tyr was the Anglo-Saxon/Norse god of war. When the myths were finally written down, it was said that he played the vital part in chaining the monster wolf called Fenris who was ravaging the world. The gods made a magic chain for the beast but could not persuade him to try it on until Tyr offered to put his hand in the beast's mouth as a security for the chain's instant removal. This was done and when Fenris realised that the gods had no intention of removing the chain, he bit Tyr's hand off. If Fenris should ever escape from the chain then it will signal the end of the world.
Wednesday - Woden's day.       Woden or Odin was the leader of the Anglo-Saxon/Norse gods. He is supposed to have hung himself on the Tree of Life to gain knowledge of everything that happened in the universe. The price of his knowledge was high. He was blinded in one eye.
Thursday - Thor's day.       Thor was the god of thunder and is usually shown carrying a hammer. Later Christian writers usually portray him as having 'all brawn and no brains' and an easy prey to the schemes of Loki, the trickster god.
Friday - Freya's day.       Freya was the Anglo-Saxon/Norse goddess of love

A magical landscape
To the Anglo-Saxons who came to these shores the gods were living things, and elves and demons walked abroad in the world. This is reflected in some of the place names which they gave to the locations where they had their new homes. For them West Yorkshire was truly a magical landscape. The writer Tolkien in his books on Middle Earth took many of the myths and legends of Germanic northern Europe (which includes England) and wove his own narrative to create his classic of world literature.

The linear earthwork to the east of Leeds is known today as Grim's Ditch, recalling one of the nicknames of Woden. Wendal Hill at Barwick also seems to represent the name of some long forgotten Anglo-Saxon deity. Smaller terrors of the supernatural are remembered in names like that of the modern boating lake at Pugneys near Wakefield. The first part of this word is pucca the Old English word for fairy or goblin. It is easy to understand why the Anglo-Saxons regarded this as a place haunted by fairies when one considers that to the modern archaeologist, the gravel terraces of the Calder valley are an excellent place for picking up flint tools made in prehistoric times. To the ancient Anglo-Saxons who did not have our concept of prehistory, they must have seemed like the tools of the fairy folk.

Heroes in Stone
More tangible evidence for the beliefs of the Vikings can be found in what seems at first sight to be an unusual place; on the shafts of several of the crosses which once stood in Christian cemeteries. It is difficult to see what the reason for this might be. Were the people who commissioned the sculpture trying to hedge their bets? Or had the heroes of Norse myth been adopted by Christianity as role models for the newly converted Vikings?

This could easily be the case with Sigurd who appears on several carved stones in Yorkshire. These include fragments at York, Ripon, Kirby Hill and Nunburnholme. He was a dragon slayer and could be made to represent the triumph of good over evil. It is a familiar metaphor which the church was to use again in the story of St George. It is more difficult to see how Wayland (also spelt Weland or Volund), who appears on the Leeds cross, can be adapted in this way. Wayland was a smith and master craftsman who has given his name to Wayland's Smithy in Oxfordshire. At one part of his story he is captured by his enemy, King Nithuth, hamstrung, and imprisoned on an island in the middle of a fast flowing river so that he cannot escape. He is made to work making luxury items of gold and silver for King Nithuth's delight. One day Nithuth's two sons come to visit Wayland. He kills them both and sets their skulls in gold as drinking vessels for their father. Later Nithuth's daughter comes to see him. Wayland assaults her and then makes his getaway in a flying machine which he has built. Wayland and the flying machine are both depicted at the base of the Leeds cross. This is not the only instance where Wayland is shown in a Christian context. He is also shown with his flying machine on crosses in Leeds Museum, Sherburn and Bedale. On the Franks' Casket, an 8th-century ivory box now in the British Museum, there is a panel showing Wayland at work in his smithy. This is next to a panel showing the three wise men worshipping the infant Jesus.

An instant conversion
We have very little idea of the rituals performed by the Anglo-Saxon pagan priests, but there may be one or two clues in a story told by Bede regarding a conference held by King Edwin to discuss whether he should turn to Christianity or remain with the old gods. At one point one of his noblemen stood up and tells what has now become a well-known parable. He said that the life of man was like the flight of a sparrow which had just flown through the building. It comes from the darkness, flutters in the light for a moment and then returns to the darkness from whence it came. He argued that if the new religion could give them hope of an afterlife then it should be taken up. This argument apparently so impressed Coifi the pagan high priest that he grabbed a spear, mounted a horse and rode to the nearby sanctuary where he threw down the pagan gods and their altars.

For Bede this is a tale illustrating the power of Christian doctrine but for the modern reader there are questions to be asked . Why did Coifi pick up a spear? A hammer would have been a more practical tool for the task he had in mind. Was it because under the rules of the pagan religion he was forbidden to carry weapons? Did a similar taboo apply to riding a horse? Or was the animal chosen because its presence would defile the sacred area? The type of location given by Bede is also significant. Clearly the pagan temple is outside. Probably the figures which Coifi overturned were located in some sort of sacred grove, rather than in a building.

Related topics
Early Christianity

Anglo-Saxon and Viking stone sculpture

Photo Gallery
Grime's Dyke

Further reading
Bailey, R. N., 1980, Viking Age Sculpture
Collingwood, W. G., 1927 (reprinted 1989) Northumbrian Crosses of the pre-Norman Age
McGuire, A. and Clark A., 1987, The Leeds Crosses

Places to visit
The Leeds cross shaft can be found in Leeds Parish church and other fragments of cross shaft are housed in Leeds City Museum, which at the time of writing is awaiting the completion of its new premises.

For a full list of places in West Yorkshire with Anglo-Scandinavian and Viking stone sculpture in West Yorkshire. Click here