Tag Archives: Anglo-Saxon

The Conversion of Kent

As a person of Germanic belief, one can easily be left with the impression that the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was, in comparison to that of our Continental or more Northernly brethren, an overnight success; as though Augustine arrived on Thanet one fine day, and by the next day everyone in the entire heptarchy fell down on their knees and proclaimed Jesus as their lord and savior.

In truth, from Willibrord’s first arrival in Frisia to the conversion of the Saxon resistance leader Widukind — which marked the official conversion of the Old Saxons and the end of the Saxon Wars — a total of 87 years had passed. Meanwhile from Augustine’s arrival on Thanet to the official conversion of Sussex by Wulfhere of Mercia a total of 83 years had passed. Even if one pushed that back to the death of King Penda of Mercia and the ascension (and quick murder) of his son and successor Peada that would still total 58 years, which is not a substantial difference. On a larger scale, the official conversion of the West Germanic peoples as a whole took 289 years (from Clovis to Widukind), while that of the North Germanic peoples or Scandinavians took somewhere in the ballpark of 200 years. Yes, things may have proceeded somewhat faster or somewhat slower here or there, but this is the gist of it all. Indeed, the conversion of the Germanic peoples, from Ulfias to Iceland took some 650 years give or take a decade.

The official conversion (which means “political” or “state” conversion) of the Germanic peoples was not a swift process among any denomination of the folk and always hinged on and/or was hedged in by  other (political and economic) factors that led to the decision. It was never purely a matter of theology, and the theology they received could hardly have been called pure. Indeed, early Protestant surveys reported entire regions of rural Germany that were given over to superstitions, as a testament to the political nature of the conversion, ie. the further from the halls of power, out on the heath for example, the less the influence. Not to give the impression of full blown, Crown-sponsored, ahem, “heathenism” surviving until such a later period (and among a folk who’s native beliefs were so violently opposed by the Church), but think rather of some kind of “Germanic Santeria” … which is Catholic, but which no self-respecting orthodox Catholic would admit as being so. Indeed, one could say this also of the more, ahem, orthodox Catholicism that has existed since the conversion of the Germanic peoples forward into the 20th century.

Here the words of Adam of Bremen in regards to the conversion of Iceland come to mind, “Although even before receiving the faith, living after a certain law of nature, they had not differed much from our own religion.

But back to the Anglo-Saxons. Let us take Kent as a case study in their conversion; as it was the first Anglo-Saxon kingdom to be Christianized, it’s conversion is the best documented, and it is often touted as having been a miraculous success.

Now, as the archaeological evidence testifies, West Kent had entered into an exclusive trade alliance with Catholic France in the early 6th century (ie. within decades of the conversion of Clovis) and this undoubtedly aided the local aetheling (royal) house, which AEthelbeorht would spring from, in fulfilling their kingly prerogative of providing prosperity to their people; which in turn enabled them to better fulfill their other kingly prerogative of defending their folk, and thus bolstered their prestige in the eyes of the men of Kent. It was against this backdrop that AEthelbeorht rose to power, wed the Franco-Catholic princess Berthe, united East and West Kent into a single kingdom, and went on to establish himself as the first in the line of “Bretwaldas”; a courtesy really that acknowledged whoever might be the most prestigious king in the heptarchy.

One cannot underrate the importance that Berthe herself played in the conversion of AEthelbeorht. Just witness the zeal which Clovis’ own wife, Clothilde, advanced Christianity to her husband. And indeed, the great value that the Germanic peoples placed on the counsels of women has been noted since as early as Caesar and Tacitus. This was quite the voice for the Church to have. And not simply within Germanic society, but within the very bed chamber of a king!

By 597 AD, Augustine had arrived in Kent, where AEthelbeorht received him with typical heathen hospitality. He was even granted freedom to preach and win converts. By 600, AEthelbeorht himself had converted. Now, the general Catholic approach to the conversion of the Germanic peoples was the policy of temporary accommodation, as expressed in a letter written by Pope Gregory to one of Augustine’s missionaries, Mellitus, where he writes,

tell him what I have long been considering in my own mind concerning the matter of the English people; to wit, that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let water be consecrated and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed there. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more freely resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they are used to slaughter many oxen in sacrifice to devils, some solemnity must be given them in exchange for this, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they should build themselves huts of the boughs of trees about those churches which have been turned to that use from being temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer animals to the Devil, but kill cattle and glorify God in their feast, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their abundance; to the end that, whilst some outward gratifications are retained, they may the more easily consent to the inward joys. For there is no doubt that it is impossible to cut off every thing at once from their rude natures; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps.

It is a curious fact that here in this letter the Pope explicitly tells Mellitus to not destroy the temples of the people, but in a letter from the same year, but addressed to AEthelbeorht himself, he instructs the king to,

press on with the task of extending the Christian faith among the people committed to your charge. Make their conversion your first concern; suppress the worship of idols and destroy their shrines

Now, yes, technically a temple and a shrine are not necessarily the same thing, but they’re really close. And perhaps even closer still across languages, ie. Latin to Old English. I’ll leave this one at that, save to say that a century later, during the Saxon Wars, churches were made the only place of refuge from violations of the “Capitulary for Saxony”, under which such things as heathen worship, resistance to the missionaries, free assembly, etc. were deemed a capital offense.

Now, all of the men of Kent were not quite so eager to accept Christianity as their lord had been. And so Bede relates that AEthelbeorht,

showed greater favour to believers, because they were fellow citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

You can imagine the kind of rat-race this set in motion, with every yes-man in the tribe looking to better his position, at so cheap a currency, and every wiseman, who might well have refused conversion, being forced to act anyway before the ass-kissers came into control of the tribe. It’s essentially the same dynamic within the tribe as we see play itself out on the inter-tribal level between vying kings, and as we see repeat itself in the conversion of peoples the world over.

And yet for all of the “droves upon droves” that allegedly followed Aethelbeorht into conversion, his own son, Eadbald, who succeeded his father in 616 AD, refused baptism. And so the mantle of Bretwalda fell to the convert King Raedwald of East Anglia. One might imagine this refusal also threatened Kent’s trade alliance with the Franco-Catholics, and so perhaps it is not surprising to learn that he eventually conceded to baptism … under the influence of yet another Franco-Catholic princess who became his (second) wife.

It is not until 640 AD that we find King Eorcenbeorht calling for the “destruction of idols” in Kent. And indeed, two members of the aetheling house of Kent were slain in retaliation for this act, showing that the native beliefs still had a pretty strong pulse. In fact, for all of the rights the Church was granted under AEthelbeorht’s Law Code, it is not until the Laws of Wihtraed in 695 that “the worship of devils” was put on the books as a legally punishable offense.

And so here we are, some 98 years after the landing of Augustine on Thanet, and while we can clearly see that Christianity had by this time gained a position of socio-political dominance, it is equally evident that heathenism was still at work and a force to be dealt with. Afterall, you don’t draft laws prohibiting people from doing things they’re not doing. So we can plainly see that this was hardly a swift and sure conversion. And we can only wonder how the conversion might have progressed in Mercia with the death of Penda and the murder of Peada.

One of the biggest differences between the history of the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England, as opposed to the conversion of our Continental and Scandinavian brethren is detail; particularly in contrast to the Heimskringla, which furnishes with some pretty grim  and graphic scenes in which the heathen folk, at times named folk, of those lands met their death for refusing to convert. In contrast, Bede glosses over the entire affair.

And hey, we might actually have a little bit more detail today if it wasn’t for all them damned vikings raiding monasteries and destroying books. But believe you me, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was neither swift nor easy … not that there is any glory in determining who was the bigger “victim” of course. Just that our folk, any denomination of them, have never been known (outside of modern times, maybe) to simply curl up and die. The Anglo-Saxons were no one’s push-over.

Be whole!

 

 

Germanic Belief: The Value of Women

“… it was customary among the Germans for the household matrons to determine by lots and auguries whether or not they would go to war.” — Caesar, the Gallic Wars

Such is how Germanic women step onto the stage of recorded history; with the power to pronounce divine will in regards to the declaration of war itself. This status is reflected over a century later in Tacitus’ work Germania in which he expands on it,

“… they believe that there resides in women an element of holiness and prophecy, and so they do not scorn to ask their advice or lightly disregard their replies. In the reign of the deified Vespasian we saw Veleda long honoured by many Germans as a divinity, whilst even earlier they showed a similar reverence for Aurinia and others, a reverence untouched by flattery or any pretense of turning women into goddesses.” — Tacitus, Germania

We get glimpses of such women as these in Procopious’ tale of a 6th century Anglian princess who forced the Varni-King, Radiger, to honour his marriage contract with her; in Bede’s tale of the 7th century Queen of East Anglia who forced King Raedwald of East Anglia to continue honouring the deities of his folk despite his conversion to Catholicism, and who would later stir him to a victorious war against Northumbria; and of course the famous Anglo-Catholic Lady AEthelflaed of Mercia who came to rule Mercia in her own right during the turbulent 10th century. Indeed, the Anglo-Saxons boasted the first female Catholic saints, and the majority of these came hot on the heels of the conversion when indigenous Germanic attitudes and sentiments were still strong.  

Such powerful female figures as these can further be found even among the North Germanic folk of the Viking Age in the likes of Queen Sigrid of Sweden, and in the various and variety of powerful women found in the Icelandic sagas. Take Hallgerd Hoskuldsdotter of Njal’s saga for example, who arranged the deaths of two husbands she was forced into marriage with, and then contributed to the death of her third husband — of choice this time out! — because he had once slapped her face. While Hallgerd is hardly an example of womanly virtue, she personifies the power and willfullness of the female in elder Germanic society … the degrees they could go and get away with it.

Even in the direct wake of Christianization of all NW Europe, the Germanic people went on producing such powerful female figures as Eleanor of Aquitaine; whose legendary “court of love” allegedly brought about the fusion of the divine feminine and chivalry — and that “courtly love” nonsense — in the poetry of the troubadours. I would of course argue that the “divine feminine” always sat at the heart of native Germanic warrior ethics (see above).

While some might argue that this deals only with exceptional examples of the elder aetheling houses, and does not speak toward the common woman, Tacitus presents us with a more “boots on the ground” view of the value Germanic culture bestowed on women (albeit from the battlefield point of view of an outsider),  

“Close by them, too, are those dearest to them, so that they hear the shrieks of women, the cries of infants. They are to every man the most sacred witnesses of his bravery-they are his most generous applauders. The soldier brings his wounds to mother and wife, who shrink not from counting or even demanding them and who administer food and encouragement to the combatants.

Tradition says that armies already wavering and giving way have been rallied by women who, with earnest entreaties and bosoms laid bare, have vividly represented the horrors of captivity, which the Germans fear with such extreme dread on behalf of their women, that the strongest tie by which a state can be bound is the being required to give, among the number of hostages, maidens of noble birth.”

Such sentiments regarding the value of women are further reflected, most reliably, in the laws and customs of old. By Anglo-Saxon law for example, a woman was recognized as oath-worthy and capable of filing suit. Legal fines owed her for wrong-doing were paid directly to her, she could own land and both receive and assign inheritance, she could divorce (though rarely did so), marriage dowries were paid to her and remained in her possession and control, and yes, divorce entitled her to half of everything; though she was recognized as much as a producer and contributor to the general weal of the household as the husband. Indeed, the Anglo-Saxon words lord and lady (as an informal recognition of the heads of a household) meant “loaf protector” and “loaf-maker” respectively. while prior to the 13th century, the word man was indicative of species and not gender; the latter of which was indicated by such prefixes as wera (male) and wifa (female).

While the status of women was indeed diminished under the Middle Eastern born Abrahamic values imposed by the Church — to the point that ultimately they were no longer legally recognized as “persons” — the native temperament of Celto-Germanic women could not over-time be erased, thus leading in more recent historical times to a reassertion of their legal rights and cultural value. Indeed, NW Euro-descended women have acted as the authors and heralds of women’s rights for the modern world.

Not to unduly extol the virtues of modern feminism. While “butches”, ie. girls who wanted to do guy things, were not unknown among the ancestors, and relatively accepted, they were certainly not the norm, and modern “fundie feminism” has likely done more to devalue traditional female roles in society than the “oppressive white patriarchy” ever did. One would think that an insistence on the recognition of the value of these roles would have been more in order, as opposed to an adoption of male roles as the only roles worthy of anyone’s time. And speaking of the “male role”; too often the contribution that powerful males made to the cause of women’s rights goes completely over-looked, as though women rose up and forced the oppressive men of yore to relinquish their “monopoly on power” in some bloody “slave revolt” … which betrays itself of course in the very fact that those who have a monopoly on power, and don’t want to give it up, are pretty much in the exact position they need to be in to NOT give it up. In some places in the world if the oppressed speak out, the powerful simply shoot them in the head or stone them to death or whatever. It’s that simple where there is a great disparity of power and the powerful lack of sympathy for the powerless.

It should also be explicitly noted here that the modern fundie feminist has not been the eternal victim she makes her and her fellow flat-earth “sisters” out to be, but is in fact merely re-claiming something that was once, more-or-less, firmly in her possession. And which she only lost because of that famous value indigenous Germanic culture places on the counsels of women; which the Church used to facilitate the conversion of more than one king via arranged marriages between Heathen kings and Catholic princesses.

But all broadstroke finger pointing aside, we men and women of Germanic descent are all in this together. We know this in our hearts … that the “battle of the sexes” is, inevitably, a fraud that can have no winner. And you don’t let the “enemy” define you, your relationships, or your values. By indigenous Germanic values, our women … our mothers and grandmothers, our sisters and cousins, our daughters and nieces, our spouses and girlfriends, and those of our friends and neighbours … these things are sacred.

One profanes the sacred at their own risk.

“… to have had knowledge of a woman before the twentieth year they (the Germans) reckon among the most disgraceful acts; of which matter there is no concealment, because they bathe promiscuously in the rivers and [only] use skins or small cloaks of deer’s hides, a large portion of the body being in consequence naked.” — Caesar, the Gallic Wars

 

 

Symbols of the Nordic Bronze Age

axeofheaven

I’ve been researching and chewing on this symbol from the Nordic Bronze Age for a few months now. Prevailing popular opinion has it that the symbol is either a (magic) mushroom or is evidence of the Old Saxon “Irminsul-as-depicted-on-the-Externsteine”, and indeed my initial research was in part spurred by the latter notion.

As we have it, the symbol is present on less than a dozen Nordic Bronze Age rock-carvings and razor handles, but is nevertheless present enough and shows enough variance in depiction to see that it was known to many artists along the coasts of the old Ingvaeonic tribes.

bronzeagerazors

It appears in different sizes and shapes, sometimes in the hand of an anthropomorphic figure, sometimes free standing, but always in association with the “solar ship”; where it can be found in various parts of the ship including in place of the prow and/or the rudder.

irminsul3.2

The Mushroom?

Regarding the notion that the symbol depicts a mushroom, I’ll simply quote Richard Rudgely on the matter of the mushroom in Germanic culture and belief,

“The vast amount of European folklore compiled by Wasson and his wife on the fly-agaric and other mushrooms indicates that in many areas of the Continent there were taboos in place against the use of certain fungi, suggesting an ancient ritual role for them. Despite the great efforts of the Wassons, neither archaeological sites nor archival materials have yielded up sufficient proof of such a cult”.

(The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances)

The Irminsul?

irminsulex

The supposed “bent Irminsul” of the Externsteine relief

Regarding the notion that the symbol is a Nordic Bronze Age depiction of the Irminsul, and so validates the notion that it is the Old Saxon Irminsul that is depicted on the Externsteine; well, to start, at least 2,000 years separate the Nordic Bronze Age symbol from the Extersteine relief with little to no intervening evidence to suggest a continuous tradition of the symbols use.

I personally, in my 30 years as a Germanic Heathen, have never bought into the notion that this image depicted the Irminsul; which IMO would more likely have resembled a Slavic god-pole or a Roman Jupiter column. The image on the Extersteine is simply “out of place” in the broad spectrum of Germanic symbolism; though admittedly the Nordic Bronze Age symbol might give one pause to wonder.

At this point, it would suffice to say that my opinion of the Extersteine image is that, whatever the “bent palm-tree” was meant to depict, ie. the Saxon Irminsul for example, that the actual Saxon Irminsul that was cut down by Charlemagne did not look like this image. People can of course fill a symbol with whatever content they want, regardless of it’s “original content”, and that is fine and dandy, but in terms of education there is always the matter of integrity.

So what then?

As alluded to above, symbols have little to no inherent meaning, and rely on culture and context to give them content. It is not enough to ask what does this symbol mean to me, or us here today? Nor even what might it have meant to a 10th century Saxon monk. A Bronze Age symbol must be understood within the context of the Bronze Age, which of course leaves us at a severe disadvantage as we are limited solely to the physical/archaeological record for anything even vaguely resembling a first hand reckoning of Nordic Bronze Age culture; though we do have the broader context of Proto-Indo-European ancestry and better represented Bronze Age relations to make up for this lack.

We might also care to remember that symbols can “layer” meaning in culturally idiosyncratic ways that allow for (and even encourage) a range of interpretations. They are not the product of analytical reductionist thought, but of a more expansive and poetic form of thinking.

Before looking at the evidence of the Nordic Bronze Age itself, we might take a gander at their Neolithic ancestors and Bronze Age relations, for any light these cultures might hope to shed on the matter.

The following images (below) were found etched into the rocks that make up the solar megalith of Stonehenge. They are believed to have been put there in the Bronze Age, long after Stonehenge’s construction, and are commonly regarded as upward turned axe-heads of the variety common to Bronze Age Britain; who’s people were of both Proto-Indo-European stock and engaged in trade with southern Scandinavia over the course of the Nordic Bronze Age.

stonehengeaxes

The axe, particularly the double-headed ax or labrys, was also a prominent symbol among the Mycenaeans and Minoans; the former of whom, like the Celts of Bronze Age Britain, shared both a common Proto-Indo-European and carried on trade with the folk of the Nordic Bronze Age. Here we find the labrys depicted between the “horns of the Minoan bull” … otherwise known as the “horns of consecration”,

minoan-labrys-vase

If I understand it correctly, it would only be later in hidyotu that the labrys would also take on an association with the lily, ie. layered meaning, depictions of which bare an even stronger resemblance to our Nordic Bronze Age symbol. Also, both axe and lily are often accompanied by solar imagery, not unlike the presence of the axe-head on the “solar symbol” that is Stonehenge itself.

axelilies

What relation our Nordic Bronze Age symbol might have to the Minoan lily is a line of research that will have to wait for another time and/or person. From here on I will focus on it’s relation to the axe.

It is a curious fact that the evolution of Nordic Bronze Age culture began with the arrival of, not simply that culture dubbed the “Battle Axe People” in southern Scandinavia, but rather of a sub-category of that culture known as the “Boat-Axe People” in the late Neolithic era. These people were called so as a result of the boat-like shape of the axe-heads they produced. The relationship of the axe to the boat is of course inherent; as trees were felled and boats shaped via the use of axes and axe-head-like tools.

Curiously, examples of our Nordic Bronze Age symbol always occur in direct relation to the boat, and often in relation to solar imagery (other than the boat itself).

boat-axe

boat-axe head

In the late Neolithic era the tribes of southern Scandinavia also wore axe-heads made amber as ornamentation; or perhaps (more likely?) as charms similar to the much later “Donar’s Cudgel” and “ThorR’s Hammer”.

Note the double-headed axe head in the image below. Despite the prominence of the labrys among the Mycenae, we don’t find these during the Nordic Bronze Age. We do however find plenty of dual imagery, axes being no exception, in both the art and deposits of the Nordic Bronze Age, much of which is associated with the cult of the Sun and her brothers, the Divine Twins.

amberaxes

Following this trail on into the Nordic Bronze Age itself, one cannot help but be immediately struck by the similarity of our subject symbol to this ceremonial axe-head. I’ve rotated the image for ease of comparison.

irminsulaxehead

Excessively large axe-heads, far bigger than would be at all practical for combat, and so which are believed to have had a ceremonial purpose, not unlike the Minoan labrys, have in fact been unearthed in Scandinavia; thus confirming such rock carvings as the following,

SouthSwedenCultAxeSimrislund1400Bc

We again see a reflection of our subject symbol (below) in one of the very peculiar, ie. stylistically, Kivik stones ( c.1,000 B.C.), where we find what appears to be twin axe-heads depicted in association with the sun-wheel.

bronze-age-drawings-on-slabs-in-the-kivik-grave-scania-sweden-3227294

These two youths (below), the Divine Twins, are found on the Fogtdarp yoke. A direct comparison can be drawn between them, the twin Grevensvaenge figurines and the Vikso helmets. They are all from the Nordic Bronze Age.

fogtdarpyoke

In Kristian Kristiansen and Thomas B. Larsson’s excellent work, “The Rise of the Bronze Age Society”, a bird’s eye view is provided of the top of their helmets (below), where we find our subject symbol set between the horns of their helmet and mention is made of it’s Mycenaean parallel in the labrys set betwixt the horns of the bull.

fogsdarpbirdseye

Our next image is a drawing of the Nordic Bronze Age’s Grevensvaenge twins; yet another Nordic Bronze Age depiction of the “Divine Twins” as seen in the rock art and testified to in the dual or twinned offerings — of axes, swords, lur horns — of the era. The basic idea of these brothers is expressed in the Latvian word jumis meaning “two grown together as one” … each holding a half of the elder double-headed axe?

alcis1

When thought of in terms of the concept of jumis, one might also note the ceremonial swords of the Nordic Bronze Age, deposited as pairs, with curling tips quite reminiscent of our subject symbol when taken together as a whole.

ceremonialswords

While best represented in Migration and post-Migration Age lore as the sons of Woden, the Divine Twins are more roundly remembered in the broader Indo-European context as the offspring of the Skyfather (Zeus, Dyaus, Dievas, etc), who’s name and attributes are reflected in the Germanic Tiwaz (Tiw, Zio, TyR, etc.). It is at least curious to note the shape of his rune-stave (below) in the elder futhark in relation to our subject symbol.

tyrrune

While the etymology of the Germanic word heaven is open to debate, it is interesting in this context to note that Watkins “derives it elaborately from PIE *ak- “sharp” via *akman- “stone, sharp stone,” then “stony vault of heaven.” (Online Etymology Dictionary). We are reminded at once of the characteristic Proto-Indo-European stone battle axe, and of course of the stony skull of Ymir from Viking Age Nordic myth, where it was said to be used to form the roof of the heavens. In Greek legend the stony skull of Atlas comes to form of the mountain summit; while Indo-Iranian myth also (more loosely) associates the skull with the heavens and the divine.

Anyway, this same P.I.E. root (also) yields the Proto-Germanic *hamaraz (hammer) and various other Indo-European words with a range of meanings that include “anvil, pestle, battering ram” (Greek), “stone, hammer, thunderbolt” (Sanskrit), “sky, heaven” (Persian).

This of course calls to mind the famous hammer of the Viking Age North Germanic peoples. Rotated (below) for ease of reference, of course. It is worth noting that the Balto-Slavic Thunderer, Perun to use the Slavic, plays a strong role in their solar mythology. Their names are suspected to be etymologically related to the Old Norse Fjorgyn (fem.) and Fjorgynn (masc.), the former of whom is said to be the mother of Thunor (Donar, ThorR) in the Eddic myths. I interpret this as the seemingly obvious; that Thunor is the uniquely Germanic heir to the older “Fjorgynn”.

Whatever the case, Thunor is one of the very few deities who are portrayed as driving the patently anachronistic (sun) chariot. The other chariot-drivers of Eddic myth are Freo (Freyja) — who shares solar associations, indirectly, via her (twin) brother Ingui-Frea (FreyR) and the pig — and of course the “time-keeping deities” so central to the “sun-cult” (Sun, Moon, Day, Night). It is also Thunor who was believed to force the Wulf to disgorge the Sun during a solar eclipse, while his wife, Sif, is said to have had hair as brilliant as gold.

thorshammer

All-in-all, it would seem that our subject symbol was related to such notions as heavenly authority, hollowing power, and protection.

Certainly, there is no way of knowing, positively, what the symbol might have meant, let alone the extent of it’s meaning. And to some this might strike one as due leave to consider all opinions to be equally valid. Of course, with due respect to the theory of it all, I will say this … it was educated guessing, and not idle speculation (or absolute certainty), that put mankind on the moon.

Reckon wisely, my friends!

King Penda of Mercia: Glory of the Anglisc

Foreword: November 15th has been taken by some modern Germanic Heathens to commemorate the life of the tirfast Mercian king, Penda; as it was on this day that this warrior-king fought in his last battle at the now lost Winwaed river in Northern England. I originally wrote this piece for Theod Magazine back in the 90’s and it represented the first detailed treatment of the life of Penda in modern Germanic Heathen literature.

Of all the kings of Anglo-Saxon England it is Penda of Mercia who stands out as foremost in my mind…

Penda came to power during the turbulent age of the heptarchy, when the Anglo-Saxon political landscape was dominated by seven rival kingdoms – Sussex, Wessex, Kent, East Anglia, Northumbria, Mercia, and Essex – each vying for supremacy over the others. Savage wars against the Brits remained common place, especially for Northumbria, and if only to complicate matters further, the cult of Christ had begun to work it’s way into Anglo-Saxon society, sped on by the Pope in Rome. By the beginning of Penda’s reign it was already well entrenched in the aetheling (royal) house of Kent, had a secure foothold amongst the East Anglian aethelings, and was being championed by the (in-)famous King Edwin of Northumbria. For the common folk this was a time of great confusion and unprecedented blasphemy, during which kings of sacral stock turned their backs on the elder ways and took an active role in their suppression. King AEthelbeorht of Kent, the first Anglo-Saxon king to accept baptism, was renowned for the favour that he showed to his Christian subjects, while the year 627 C.E. found Edwin of Northumbria consenting to a petition to destroy all the temples and holy steads within Northumbria. In 640 C.E. King Eorcenbeorht of Kent ordered the “destruction of all idols” within his own kingdom. Such acts as these would in time — up to 100 years after Augustine’s arrival in Kent! — be followed by the drafting of legislation aimed at driving those who would not take up the new faith into debt, and eventually, thralldom; with the implication being made in later “laws” that nonChristian men should be sold out of the country, ie. the law forebade selling Christian thralls outside of the country. While our Catholic-written history preserves little of the folk’s reaction to such wolfish behavior, in the case of Eorcenbeorht the reaction was so strong – two of his kinsmen were slain in retaliation! – that it earned a place in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. And of course, even amongst a folk whom otherwise love their kings, it takes only one white crow. In any event it is against this social, political, and religious background that King Penda shines forth with tirfast brilliance. Not only did he succeed in uniting Northern and Southern Mercia, along with virtually all of Northen England, but he was also a magnet for all men, regardless of race or religion, who yearned for righteousness, equity, and honour in a world gone mad.

It is unfortunate that the lays of this glorious king’s line have not survived the centuries, but according to the genealogical records it was fathered by the god Woden sometime during the 3rd century C.E.; though Saxo Grammaticus (History of the Danes) relates that it traces back to Angul, who gave his name to the Anglii (and which probably extends back earlier to the prolific priest-king god Ingui and their assignment as Ingvaeones by Tacitus, 1st century CE). No doubt the opening lay would have been similar to the Rigsthula, and told of how the god of kingship both fathered and educated young Wihtlaeg, the first of the line. And of how this first generation Wodenic aetheling established himself as the foremost of the Angles, thereby instituting the cult of Wodenic kingship I would gather. Thanks to the Danish monk Saxo Grammaticus we can safely say that Wihtlaeg’s son, Waermund, rose to power during the early 4th century C.E., when the coast of the Roman province of Britain was being harried by the Anglian, Saxon, Frisian, and Jutish forerunners of the “dreaded” vikings. Sometime around 360 C.E., by which time Waermund had grown blind with old age, it is told that a powerful Myrging (Saxon?) chieftain sent an envoy to Old Anglia demanding that the kingdom be handed over lest the kings frailty breed lawlessness and provoke foreign aggression. In lieu of this, the King was to produce an heir to decide the fate of Old Anglia in single combat, under Tiw, with the chieftain’s own son. As it was, poor Waermund did have a son, a lad of Beowulfian stature and brawn named Offa, but this son had always been so quiet, somber and dull that few folk deemed him to be worthy of much. As a result of this, Waermund rose to meet the challenge himself, but as old and blind as he was, the envoys merely mocked at him, saying that their chieftain would never engage in so disgraceful a combat. Thus, poor Waermund’s heart sunk, but it was at this point that Offa “unlocked his word horde” so to speak, chiding the Myrgings, saying,

“It is idle for your lord to covet a kingdom which can rely not only on the service of its ruler, but also on the arms and wisdom of most valiant nobles. Moreover, the King does not lack a son, nor the kingdom an heir. And you are to know that I have decided to face not only the son of your lord in single combat, but also, at the same time, whomsoever he should chose as his shoulder companion out of the boldest of your own folk.”

After Waermund had recovered from his initial shock and disbelief, that this had truly been his son who had spoken, he asked the lad why he had held his silence for long? Offa replied that until this point he had simply been confident in his fathers might and wisdom. And when Waermund asked why he had challenged two instead of the stipulated one, Offa spoke of the death of the Swede-King Athisl; of how he had been slain unfairly by two Anglisc aethelings in days now gone, and of how this duel would come to counter that old shame. So, while there was some difficulty in finding Offa a coat of mail that would cover his massive frame, and a sword that would not shatter beneath his might, in the end he met the Myrging challenge and was victorious. The tirfast son of Waermund went on to become the King of Old Anglia, and, if not all of Saxony, then at least of the lands of these Myrgings. He also went on to become the most celebrated king of his age. He is mentioned in both the Anglo-Saxon poems as Beowulf and Widsith, the latter of which extols Offa’s unsurpassed courage and the breadth of his kingdom.

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At this point in history, Penda’s ancestry becomes little more than a collection of names. It is believed that Offa’s great-grandson Icel was the first of his line with a mind for British soil. Near the end of the 5th century C.E., with the invasion of Britain already well underway, he led his warriors up the river Trent, killing, enslaving, and driving back the Brits as he went, eventually settling in the Trent valley area. His tribe of Angles came to be known as the Mercians, or Boundary Folk, and his dynasty as the Iclings.

For the next three generations it is believed that the Iclings fought as drihtens (warleaders) under the mighty kings of Wessex. Following the battle of Fethanlaeg in 584 C.E. however — a battle in which the Brits were dealt a crushing defeat — there was a falling out that gave birth to future Mercian-West Saxon hostilities. It was around this time that Penda was born. In what is believed to have been the fourth year of the reign of King Cearl of Mercia, the West Saxon King, Ceowulf, began to harry the Mercians. In 600 C.E. however, young Penda met this Ceowulf in battle and put him to flight. As a result, he won for both himself and all of Mercia the Avon valley. However, it is not until 628 C.E. that Penda emerges onto the stage of recorded history. His defeat of King Cyngils of Wessex was the deed that won him the kingship of the Mercians, not to mention Cirencester and all the lands along the lower Severn. This was the price of peace, and it may also reflect the recompense of some loss suffered by the Mercians as a result of Fethanlaeg! In any event, with this acquisition the descendant of Offa laid the foundation for those mixed Anglian and Saxon tribes that would become known as the Hwicce and the Maegonsaeton. And this would also seem as likely a time as any to place Penda’s attempt to seal the rift between the Iclings and the Gewisse by taking the West Saxon princess Cynwise as his queen, and betrothing one of his sisters to Cenwalh, son of Cynegils.

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Now, as mentioned earlier, Edwin the Oathbreaker had become the champion of Christ by this time, but before I go on, it is worth noting that since the invasion of Britain those Anglii that had settled north of the river Humbre had stood apart from their sibs to the south. They themselves were “originally” of two separate kingdoms, Deira and Bernicia, each with its own aetheling house. The first to unite these kingdoms under a single kindred was the terrible AEthelfrith of Bernicia, who took the Deiran princess Aacha as his queen and drove the rest of her kindred into exile. Amongst those exiles was young Edwin, son of Ida. Of Edwin’s exile it is known that, for a time, he found asylum in Northern Wales, but eventually it came to pass that a dispute arose between himself and the Welsh aetheling Cadwallon, who vowed to cut off the Anglians head if ever the crown of cruel Northumbria came to rest upon it! From Wales the son of Ida moved on in his exile, coming to rest in Mercia around 610 C.E. It was during this time that he won the Mercian princess Cwenburh as his betrothed, suggesting, if nothing else, that Edwin was a very impressive young man indeed! Evidently, King Cearl was quite impressed with the Deiran aetheling. And we might even say the same of Cadwallon, though in a round about way. But I wonder, where did the mind of the rising star of the Iclings rest?

In due time Edwin bid farewell to his kind host in Mercia, and moved on in his exile, eventually coming to rest in East Anglia. There he was received with open arms by King Raedwald, who was also the reigning Bretwalda; a “floating” title originally used by the Anglo- Saxons to mark out the most powerful and influential king _south_ of the Humbre. In any event, while Edwin did enjoy the hospitality of this great king for a time, it eventually came to pass that AEthelfrith received good word of his whereabouts. Thus, the King of all Northumbria quickly sent envoys to the Bretwalda, at first kindly requesting, but ultimately demanding under threat of war, that Edwin be handed over. And so it came to pass the Raedwald summoned the East Anglian Witan to decide the doom of their honoured guest. It is said that while the Witan was in session Edwin sat outside in the night where he had a wondrous vision. In this vision he was approached by a tall, uncanny stranger who promised the aetheling relief from his current troubles, victory over his enemies, and fame far exceeding that of any of his line before him. In exchange, Edwin swore that he would hold as foremost the one whose counsels brought all of the above to pass. And so in the mean time the talk had gone against Edwin, and his doom had been all but decided when the historically nameless Queen of East Anglia spoke out; as she was wont to do. In years past she had seen to it that her king kept up the w worship of the native gods/goddesses despite his conversion, and now she chided him for this lack of kingliness! So moved was the Witan by their Queen’s eloquence, that they quickly reconsidered and decided, instead, that it would be best to meet AEthelfrith in battle. And so it came to pass that AEthelfrith, who had been unable to muster his full might, was crushed by Raedwald. And soon after, Edwin was hailed as the King of Northumbria.

In the same year as Edwin’s return to Northumbria, which was 616 C.E., there was a great collapse in the Catholic Church in England. In Essex for instance, the three brother-kings who ruled over those folk drove the missionary Mellitus from their kingdom for failing to show them the same simple courtesy he had shown their father; to break bread with them. Meanwhile, in Kent, the new king initially refused to accept baptism. These events, taking place as they did within the two original Anglo-Catholic kingdoms, nearly brought an end to the mission to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons.

Now, not only did the son of Ida manage to hold Northumbria together after his coronation, but he also went on to become the first king north of the Humbre to bear the title Bretwalda! Unfortunately, his vanity to have all of the kings of the heptarchy acknowledge his supremacy led to his betrothal to the Kentish princess AEthelburga, and ultimately, to Edwin’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. This in turn led to the suppression of the native beliefs within Northumbria, and one must certainly wonder what the Queen of East Anglia, Edwin’s true saviour, would have said about that? Then again, consdiering her dealings with Raedwald on this very issue, we likely already know what she would have said.

Moving right along, while the renowned historian Bede, a Northumbrian himself, makes no mention of the events that led up to the famous battle of Heathfeld in 633 C.E., other sources reveal that Edwin had himself launched a massive invasion into Northern Wales in 632 C.E. As a result of this act of Christian brotherly love, King Cadwallon, who was a Christian himself, vowed to exterminate, not every Anglian in Britain as Geoffrey of Monmouth would have us believe, which would have been far to idle a boast for so eminent a king as Cadwallon, but rather, every Northumbrian in Britain.

Speaking of Geoffrey of Monmouth, he would also have us believe that Penda fell under Cadwallon’s power when the Welsh King beat him at the battle of Caer Exon. However, I for one find it quite difficult to believe that Cadwallon, who was still licking his wounds from the beating Edwin had laid on him, was in any shape to force a drihten the calibre of Penda, whose own strength rivalled that of Wessex, into submission. It must not be overlooked that this Icling’s prowess as drihten inspired awe amongst his contemporaries, so much so that the Christians attributed his success to the practice of “diabolical arts”. Furthermore, overlooking the fact that Geoffrey was writing centuries after the events he was describing, and given the strong relations that we know existed between the Mercians and the Brits by the end of Penda’s reign at the latest, I would suggest an alternative explanation. The King of Mercia, both secure in his own might and wise to Cadwallon’s, MET with his Welsh peer at Caer Exon. There, after much heated discussion, it was agreed that Cadwallon should lead the raid on Northumbria, due to the woe Edwin had brought upon the Welsh. Furthermore, it should be noted that “Penda” is not exactly the most Anglo- Saxon of names, leading one to suspect that one of his immediate ancestresses was of Welsh stock! This suggests that alliances, and avenues to alliances, already existed, and thus, would seem the safer way to bet. As for Penda’s justification for taking part in the raid, no doubt this was quite simple; Edwin’s power was ever on the rise, and when he forsook Cwenburh in favour of AEthelburgha that waxing might became a severe threat to the well-being of the Mercians. In any event, this much is for certain, Cadwallon did put an end to Edwin, with the support of Penda, in the year 633 C.E. at Heathfeld. And incidentally, Cadwallon did make good on that promise he had made in his youth!

Soon following the victory at Heathfeld, and after the obligatory pillaging, the Mercian King returned home. He was accompanied by Eadfrith, son of Edwin by Cwenburh, who had thrown himself upon Penda’s mercy. Of this aetheling Bede writes that he was “…compelled to submit to Penda, who subsequently, in breach of a solemn oath, put him to death during the reign of Oswald.” While something tells me that there was a little more to the matter than what Bede had to say, it is nevertheless true that the aetheling house of Deira was making a rapid advance toward extinction!

As for Cadwallon, he continued on ravaging Northumbria, apparently intent on fulfilling his other legendary vow! He held the field for an entire year, during which time Northumbria fractured back into it’s original kingdoms and the worship of the native gods/goddesses was taken up once more. In the summer of 634 C.E. King Osric of Deira, Edwin’s kinsman, is said to have had Cadwallon under heavy siege “…in a strong city…”, but it nevertheless came to pass that, when Cadwallon had grown tired of his state, he ordered the doors thrown open and fell upon the Deirans with a great fury. Osric and all of his men were utterly destroyed. Later on in the same year King Eanfrith of Bernicia, who was acting upon some very, very poor counsel, rode out with twelve hand picked warriors to seek an audience with Cadwallon and discuss terms of peace! Needless to say perhaps, they were all slain. Near years end however, Oswald of Bernicia, who had bided his time in Kent, hatching devious plots according to Bede with King Eadbeald of Kent, returned to Northumbria. He met Cadwallon at Heofenfeld, and there, the Welsh king’s fyrd was scattered, and his reign of terror brought to an end. The son of AEthelfrith went on to reunite Northumbria, under Irish Catholicism, and then to establish himself as sixth in the line of Bretwaldas.

In the year 635 C.E., Penda, apparently not all that impressed by Oswald’s might and authority, once again took to the field; this time against King Ecgric of East Anglia. Unfortunately, Bede tells us nothing of the circumstances that led up to the war. While Offa’s offspring most certainly had designs on the Swedish and continental trading routes that lay open to East Anglia, these do not seem to have been an immediate concern. I would suggest that this conflict involved the Middle Angles, who could boast no aetheling house of their own, who were situated between East Anglia and Mercia, and who were clearly under Penda’s banner by 652 C.E. at the very latest. It would seem to me that this Ecgric, who had only a weak claim to the East Anglian kingship, made a play for Middle Anglia in an attempt to get out from under the shadow of his predecessor, the devout Sigebeorht, son of Raedwald, and wrack up some “Christian glory” for himself. At this point, the Middle Angles responded by placing themselves under Mercia’s protection, leaving little choice but for Penda to go in and teach the East Anglians a lesson in good manners. Thus, Penda launched his first raid into East Anglia. While Ecgric stood in all ways ready to him, the East Anglian fyrd itself refused to fight unless Sigebeorht was brought forth from his monastery to lead them. At length, Sigebeorht had to be physically removed from said monastery and dragged by the East Anglians to the field of battle! At this point the battle was fought, both Ecgric and Sigebeorht were slain, and Penda stood victorious. Curiously enough however, at least to some trains of thought, Penda did not annex East Anglia. Rather, he promptly returned to Mercia, leaving the East Anglians to sort out their own affairs.

In this same year, and no doubt encouraged by Penda’s acquisition of Middle Anglia, Oswald made a timely visit to Wessex where King Cynegils was about to accept baptism. The Bretwalda received the West Saxon King from the font, gave him his daughter in marriage, and in doing so struck an alliance with mighty Wessex. In effect, this rendered the Saxon kingdom neutral in regards to both Mercia and Northumbria, and no doubt created a certain aura of suspicion in the mind of old King Penda. Clearly enough, Oswald was not as secure in his station of Bretwalda as Bede would have us believe, and Mercia, so humble in its infancy, had at last come into its own!

And so things remained relatively quiet from this point until 641 C.E., the year in which Oswald launched a massive raid into Mercia. This was the first breach of the Mercian peace since the days of Ceolwulf! The great fyrd of Mercia was mustered and Penda rose to meet Oswald, but Northumbria was strong and its king hell-bent on victory. Nearly overwhelmed, Penda was forced to signal the retreat, with he and his men falling back into Wales. Oswald pursued of course, but when he at last caught up with old Penda, he found himself confronted by a combined Mercian-Welsh force at Maserfeld! And so it was there that Penda put an end to the son of AEthelfrith, cutting off the Northumbrians head and his hands and propping them on stakes for all to see.

Predictably enough, Bede contrasts this image of “heathen” brutality with a pious image of Oswald falling to his knees and praying for the salvation of his warriors just prior to the coup de grace. But in considering the brutality of this act we might also consider that, not only had the Mercian frith been violated for the first time in 41 years once again, and the King forced into retreat, but Penda’s younger brother Eowa had also been slain in this fight! As for the severed hands and head, it would seem that Penda considered Oswald a thief, while their display upon stakes would seem to go back to the elder Germanic belief (Tacitus, Germania) that the punishment for criminal activity should be displayed for all to see.

Following in Oswald’s footsteps was his inept brother, Oswui. While Bede credits Oswui with being the next in the line of Bretwaldas, it is at least somewhat curious that Penda dictated the terms of peace between Mercia and Northumbria following the war; taking Ecgfrith, Oswui’s youngest son, as a hostage, and betrothing his own daughter Cynburh to Alhfrith, Oswui’s eldest. In light of the “warlike heathen” stereotype we might consider the implication here; that Penda desired to bring an end to the rivalry that had began between Mercia and Northumbria during the reign of Edwin. And it goes without saying that he would have extracted oaths to this end as well.

Now, let us take a moment to consider that Mercian expansion into Northumbria, or Wessex for that matter, would have brought with it problems that far exceeded the rewards. The acquisition of East Anglia on the other hand, would not only bring few problems that the Mercians were not already familiar at dealing with, but that open port would also offer a considerable boost to the otherwise modest Mercian economy. So, it is with this in mind that I say, from the get go Oswui was bound and determined to make trouble.

And so it was in the summer of 642 C.E. that Oswui mustered a fyrd, rode out to Maserfeld, and reclaimed his brothers remains; something that good sense would suggest should not have been done, all things considered. As a consequence, Penda launched the first of three raids into Northumbria, ravaging the land and besieging the brother of Oswald in Bamburgh. And lest any wonder about Penda’s justification for this raid, it should be noted that both Alhfrith, and AEthelwald, son of Oswald and ealdorman of Deira, accompanied the wise old king on this raid! And consider also that, following the raid the Deirans forsook both Oswui and AEthelwald, and hailed Oswin, last male offspring of the aetheling house of Deira, as their king.

In the year 645 C.E. it came to pass that King Cenwalh of Wessex forsook his Mercian queen, perhaps acting upon the counsel of Oswui himself! In prompt response to this diplomatic act of aggression, King Penda launched a raid into Wessex, defeating the West Saxon fyrd and driving his fellow heathen into exile. Within a year, Cenwalh had found his way into the company of King Anna, who had ruled in East Anglia since the death of Ecgric. There, under Anna’s encouragement, Cenwalh accepted baptism. I am reminded of Edwin’s high weofodthane Coifi…

For the next five years all of Anglo-Saxon England enjoyed a time of peace, and one that not even Cenwalh’s return to the West Saxons could breach. In due time however it came to pass that Oswui raised the fyrd in an attempt to oust Oswin and reunite Northumbria under his rule. Lacking confidence in his own might, luckless Oswin is said to have gone into hiding, only to be betrayed by a close friend. From there, Oswui ordered the death of Edwin’s kinsman, and the aetheling line of Deira met its end. In spite of this misfortune, the Deirans wanted nothing at all to do with Oswui, and so they proclaimed that their former ealdorman, AEthelwald, would serve as their new king. It might be telling, once again, that the son of Oswald lost no time whatsoever in placing both himself and his folk under the protection of Penda! This meant of course, that Deira was now effectively a part of Mercia, and whatever Oswui might have threatened upon his nephew, it now stood as cause for Penda to lay yet another beating on him. According to Bede, all of Bernicia was ravaged and entire villages laid to waste.

It was either soon after, or perhaps during this raid that Penda was approached by envoys from a number of Brit-Kings, who petitioned his aid in reclaiming a number of precious heirlooms Oswui had extracted as tribute from them. This led to a siege at what is believed to have been Sterling, and while Oswui initially refused to yield up the ransom, he quickly reconsidered when the King of Kings began tearing down a neighbouring village and stacking the debris around the burgh. And so, with Sterling on the verge of being reduced to cinders, the British treasures were handed over and returned to their rightful heirs. It is said that Oswui offered Penda many more treasures beyond those given to the Brits, but that the Icling wanted nothing of them.

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Staffordshire Hoard

In the year 652 C.E. it came to pass that the Middle Saxons, who, like the Middle Angles, had no aetheling house of their own, fell under Mercian influence. This is a rather odd event, and only a vague reference is made to it in one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; of which there are something like 5. This could have been a push towards Essex, which was constantly exherting internal pressures for a return for to the native gods/goddesses, which could also boast the important trading centre of London, and which would eventually fall under Mercian influence during the reign of Wulfhere. More on him later. While the chronicler may have simply confused Middlesex and Middle Anglia, the latter of which we know was awarded to Penda’s eldest son Peada in this same year, he may also have simply been more attentive than his fellows. It is possible that Peada somehow made this acquisition. And in a manner that so impressed his father that he awarded his son with the kingship of the Middle Angles. In this regard it is also worth noting that in this same year Oswui persuaded King Sigebeorht the Small of Essex to accept baptism, suggesting that Essex, for some reason, felt itself threatened enough to aline itself with a king who was a proven failure.

Be that as it may, the following year Peada became smitten with the Bernician princess Alhflaed, and asked her father for his consent in the betrothal. Now, not unlike many another Christian, Oswui saw this as at once strictly out of the question, as a useful evangelical tool, and as a useful political tool. So, after his atypical Christian posturing, Oswui conceded to allow the betrothal if Peada would in turn submit to baptism and aid in the spread of Christianity amongst his folk. As we might expect, Peada took the matter up with his father before committing to anything, thus setting the stage for Penda’s historic doom;

“I will not forbid the preaching of the Christian faith even amongst the Mercians, if any are willing to hear it, but I shall nevertheless hate and despise those whom I perceive to be without works of faith once they have received the faith of Christ. For they are utterly worthless, those whom scorn to obey the god in whom they trust.”

Thus, with Penda’s blessing, Christianity was introduced amongst the Middlefolk. Much to Bede’s credit, he did not fail to mention the old king’s broadmindedness and wisdom in regards to religious matters. While Penda was himself firmly “in the camp” of the native gods/goddesses, it would be foolish to believe that he was ignorant of British Isle Catholicism; a knowledge that he would have picked up from any one of the number of his allies. More than this however, it would seem (via implication) that he had actually built up his own ideas regarding how that faith was to be practiced. And here we get a glimpse of the Icling fulfilling one of his more sacral duties as king; acting as the voice of Heaven and stewarding over the spiritual well being of his folk. In fact, in honour of King Penda one might very well say, “the closer to Mercia, the better the Christian”.

In 654 C.E., having earned the respect and gratitude of the exiled East Anglian aetheling, AEthelhere, Penda once again launched a raid into East Anglia. With the death of King Anna, AEthelhere was hailed as king by the East Angles, and he in turn swore his troth to the King of Kings. At long last, Mercia had acquired her “gateway to the world”.

In the following year it came to pass that something so stirred the old kings ire that, as Bede relates, he assembled a terrible host and resolved to put an end to Oswui once and for all. As to what, specifically, caused the war we will never know. Bede states only that AEthelhere was responsible and nothing more. Certainly, Oswui was in no position to challenge Penda, although who knows what devious plots he might have been hatching with Wessex, Essex, and/or Kent. On the other hand, given that Offa of Old Anglia had ruled over all the Anglian folk in their Scandinavian days, and with only Bernicia standing between Penda and the elder glory of the Icling line, the idea of a new Anglia may have held some appeal. Whatever the case, AEthelhere was foremost amongst the thirty odd drihtens, of Anglo-Saxon and British, Germanic and Christian, extraction that assembled under the tirfast king’s banner. Ealdorman AEthelwald of Deira was also numbered amongst their ranks, but curiously enough, or perhaps not, Penda released the son of Oswald from his military obligations, and he acted strictly as a guide. The battle was fought in the month of November in a field hard by the now lost Winwaed River. In defiance of the odds, Oswui snatched the victory. Now, it may have been that Bede implicitly exaggerated the overall strength over Penda’s force, but in any event, I believe that Woden himself had come to fetch his kinsmen at Winwaed, which may have been the aged kings final battle whatever the outcome. With Penda’s death the kingship returned to eaven, the waters of the Winwaed spilled over the land, and the Mercian host was thrown into confusion. AEthelhere and his entire war band followed the King of Kings into death, as did the lion share of the other drihtens. The one notable exception to this was Cadfael of Northern Wales, who may have saved his skin, for as long as it would last, but whose name became synonymous with cowardice…amongst his own countrymen. In contrast, a great ship burial was dedicated to AEthelhere, whose body had been lost in the flood, by his folk in East Anglia. This ship burial has since gone on to be the single greatest archaeological discovery in English history! I am speaking of course of the find at Sutton Hoo.

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Following the tragic battle of Winwaed, Oswui annexed Mercia and evangelised it by fire and sword. Although Peada was eventually appointed ealdorman of Southern Mercia by Oswui, it “just kinda happened” that he was murdered by his wife, Oswui’s daughter, over the following Easter-tide; at which point Oswui took control of all of Mercia. The Northumbrian held Mercia until 658 C.E., when he was forced out by three Mercian lords who had kept Wulfhere, the younger brother of Peada, in hiding. This Wulfhere grew into a mighty king in his own right, but he lacked his father’s high-mindedness and integrity. During his reign, he reconverted the East Saxons, whom had reasserted their native belief for the third and final time, and brought about the conversion of the South Saxons as well. By 658 C.E. the political conversion of Anglo- Saxon England was all but complete.

As for Mercia itself, while but a shadow of what it had been under Penda, it remained a dominant kingdom in the heptarchy up until the death of Offa II in 796 C.E. At this point, Wessex reassumed centre stage, eventually giving birth to that legendary king, Alfred the Great; Penda’s true successor. Northumbria on the other hand, went on to become a breeding ground for the ill-mannered and fanatical missionaries whom, in conjunction with the military might of the Carolingians, would bring a bloody end to the worship of the native gods/goddesses upon the continent; unwittingly setting off the Viking Age to boot!

In closing, by the time of Penda’s death in 655 C.E. he was not only king of his own Mercia, but also ruled over Hwicce, the Maegonsaeton, the Middle Angles, the Deirans, the Middle Saxons, and the East Angles. Included within his rice were two kings who had willingly entered his service, folk of three different tribes, and two extremely different belief systems, all of whom Penda brought together in harmonious accord. And without resorting to the “throw’em all together and let God sort’em out” mentality of a more “enlightened” era. Add to this Penda’s strong alliances with the many Brit- Kings and it must be acknowledge that Penda, more than any other king before him, was truly the Bretwalda. In regards to this magnificent king it could easily be said that what fabled Camelot came to represent in fiction, Penda’s Mercia represented in fact.

The “Germanic Heaven”

It is often said by those not “in the know” — and indeed even among some who should know better — that Valhalla is the “Germanic Heaven”.  And this is usually accompanied by a belief that all one has to do is die in a fight, in “battle”, to get there.

In fact, the term Heaven is a word firmly rooted in the Germanic languages, stemming from the Anglo-Saxon heofen and cognate to the Old Norse himin, with various other cognates in the various Germanic languages all stemming from a proto-Germanic root, ie. it’s NOT a borrowing from Latin or Greek or Aramaic or Hebrew, or any other language. Some scholars have said that the word “merely” indicated the sky, but indeed in the Anglo-Saxon poetry we find such deific titles as “Heaven’s Warder”, while in the later Norse-Icelandic Eddas we find, not only Himinbjorg (Heavens Mountain) as the name of the hall of the deity Heimdall, but the term is also used by Snorri Sturluson (writer of the Prose Edda) to describe levels of what is more commonly known as Esegeard (Asgard, yard of the Ese= Gods) or Godheim (Home of the Gods), ie. the deific realms.

So, there really is no need to qualify the term Heaven with the term Germanic, as though they are things foreign to one another. The Germanic folk coined the term. It would thus be more appropriate, technically speaking, to speak of “Christian Heaven”, as the Germanic is implicit in the word.

In the Eddas, Esegeard (ON. AsgardhR) is the “kingdom” in which Valhalla stands. But there is also a Valaskjalf, which carries essentially the same meaning as Valhalla, and also the hall of the goddess Freo (ON. Freyja), who is said to share half of the battle-slain with Woden (ON. Odhinn). Moreover, there are also the many other halls of the many other Tivar (deities), to be found in Esegeard. And in fact, in one of the Eddaic poems, Woden (in disguise as Harbard) mocks Thunor (ON. ThorR) from across a great river, stating that he receives thralls in his hall, whereas Woden receives warrior-princes. A dubious comment to be sure, but here we are told outright by the Lord of Valhalla Himself that other deities receive the so-called “straw-dead”, ie. not slain in battle/ritual sacrifice, into their halls. And indeed, we also know from the Eddas that one of Frige’s (ON. Frigg) handmaidens receives the souls of young children that have died.

So, it is a moot point that Heaven, by preChristian Germanic belief, wasn’t merely reserved for warriors that had died in battle. It wasn’t SO exclusive on the one hand, or so indiscriminate on the other.

In fact, as we read elsewhere in the Eddas, troops of dead warriors can also be found engaged in “eternal struggle” on the fields of Hell, among the “straw-dead”.

So, not all warriors that died in battle go to Heaven. And chances are that not all thralls go to Heaven either. Children are of course children and are not governed by the same rules as adults.

So what was the diff between this or that warrior, or this or that thrall?

Here we go back to the term Heaven and it’s direct association with the sky, and particularly with the radiance of the heavens; namely, the stars. Much like our distant Indo-European brethren, the Greeks, our ancestors had an “astrological mythology” — or so the surviving lore and general I-E cultural reflex hints — in which the various stars and heavenly bodies had deep associations with figures from our myths and history, eg. Fjolnir’s Pledge, Andvarii’s Toe, Iring’s Way. Going to Heaven quite literally means to ascend into “the sky” to become a “star” alongside the deities and heroes of one’s people; one becomes a legend. Hence the term Tivar, which stems from the same root that gave us the god-name Tiw/Tyr and the generic name for deity in Old Norse, and which means “gods, heroes”. The same root also gave us the word for glory/splendour in Old High German (ziori), and extends back to an Indo-European root that references the heavens and their radiance adn which is bound up with the “halo” motif as found in Indo-European cultures (and adopted belief systems such as Christianity, ie. saints). The basic thought pattern and language is still with us today, frivolously though it may be, in our reference to various well known personalities as “stars”.

So, moving along, it is the BEST warriors that Woden receives in Valhalla. Those that have become stars within the context of war. Given Thunor’s love of hard-work and feats of strength and constitution, it is the BEST thralls that Thunor receives in his hall on the “Field of Strength”. And so on with the other Tivar, each according to their own interests and inclinations. This is what the Heavens are ALL about, the home of the best, and those who best embodied our ideals about various things, be they warriors-kings or thralls … even livestock or tools, eg. swords.

Only the best.

Of course, contrary to popular pretensions, not everyone gets to be a star, who, like the Rune Poem states, will continue to shine on through even the darkest and most obscure of “nights” to inspire us to be the best we can be.

It should be borne in mind of course that even as “life on the farm” might seem like a fate worse than death to some high-energy warrior-aristocrat — which is muchly the perspective we’re getting in the surviving lore — the wise know that rulers and their servants are among the least free of all the folk. Work, work, work, and always for the interests of others, never one’s own interests. Heaven is a busy place (or so I would assume), and chances are that while most of us would love to visit there, few would like to spend eternity there. And indeed, while painted as dreary here and there in the lore, the abode/s of the “straw-dead” is much like “life on the farm”. It’s described as being quite “ordinary” or “homely”, and certainly Hell — which is as firmly rooted in the Germanic tongues as Heaven, no matter how many L’s you use — is not what Christianity has since made it over into.  It’s simply where the ancestors go, the halls of the ancestors, the grave mound. No more, no less. And undoubtedly more than just slightly appealing to most of us, as that is where our friends and kin shall be.

There is of course a place of “punishment” in Germanic belief … called Wyrmsele among the Anglo-Saxons and Wyrmgarten among the Germans. In the Eddas it is called Nastrond, but described in terms consistent with the English and German terms … as a hall standing far from the sun, and made up of poisonous wyrms all writhing and twisted together, who spray their burning venom over all of the oath-breakers and cowards within.

The topic of Germanic afterlife beliefs is actually quite complex, and encompasses shades of “reincarnation”, but the jist of the notions we retain today of an immortal soul and an otherworldly afterlife were always present in Germanic belief and other forms of Indo-European belief. Biblically, there is no Heaven or Hell, save as these words were used to gloss other more Semitic terms … which is where the Bible, et al. comes from. Biblically, there is the Day of Resurrection and Judgement, and then either destruction in a lake of fire, dubbed Gehenna, or eternal life in a recreated Eden, ie. earthly paradise.

In the end, afterlife beliefs, particularly the belief in Heaven, are more for the living than the dead. Unlike Christianity our indigenous beliefs were less concerned about where one ends up and more concerned about what one leaves behind. As the Havamal puts it, “Cattle die, kinsmen die, and so shall you yourself. But I know one thing that never dies … the good repute of each man dead.”

Introduction

Hi,

Welcome to my blog, and thanks for dropping by! My name is Jamey, I’m 42 years old, of mixed Slavo-Germanic descent (with an accent on English), and I have been a, ahem, “practicing Germanic Heathen” for some 30 years now. I like to think that I started this blog as a general sounding board for whatever might happen to cross my mind at any given point on any given day, but the reality is that when it comes to writing, I am usually inspired by things Germanic. As a result, one is assured to find that most of my musings shall concern things Germanic.

What is this “Germanic” I speak of? Indeed, what is this “Germanic Heathen” stuff all about? Well, to start, the word Germanic does not refer exclusively to the people of Germany, but rather to a broad cultural-linguistic group that includes, yes, the Germans, but also the English, the Dutch, Austrians, and the various peoples of the Scandinavias. In their early migrations they have also left their mark, to various degrees both culturally and ethnically, on the people France (who take their name from the Germanic tribes once known collectively as the Franks), Spain and Italy (the Goths), and of course on folk of Ireland and Scotland (Scandinavians). All of those tribes once spoke a common language, that has since diversified into the “Germanic” language group, and share a common history extending back to the shores of southern Scandinavia and into the homogeneous depths of “Nordic Bronze Age”. From their own even more ancient “Proto-Indo-European” origins the Germanic peoples evolved, not simply their own worldview, but their own religious beliefs and practices; as reflected most evidently in our rich “spiritual vocabulary”.

And this of course is where the “Heathen” comes in; denoting the worship of the indigenous deities of the Germanic peoples … something that today is best known as Asatru. I personally do not call myself Asatru, and tend to dislike even the term Heathen; seeming to focus too much on the deities and too little on the actual culture and worldview that these beliefs evolved within. Hence, for me, simply Germanic will (often) do, and I’ll explain from there … explanation being unavoidable in any case.

Well, as I can … and shall most certainly … ramble on about all of this and more in posts to come, I’ll tie this intro off and leave things at that for the time being.