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The Anglo Saxons and their gods (still) among us
By Jon S. Mackley
Paper presented at the University of Nottingham on March 12, 2012
Introduction: Who do you think we were? This is the fourth in a series of independent papers that considers England’s lost mythology. The central premise is that we have, as a nation, lost the core of the country’s mythology, or it is now in a completely altered form. This is largely because the stories of the deeds of gods and heroes have been superseded by more recent belief systems and new heroes, whether these are in the form of comic heroes, film, music or sports icons. In previous papers, I suggested that, amongst other things, the landscape offers some clues to link us to this forgotten past, which, in turn leads us to the mythology and traditions of much older cultures. These can help fill in some gaps in our understanding.
In this paper, I want to consider the arrival of Saxon culture in Britain, a culture which appeared before the Romans departed from Britain and continued after the arrival of Christianity which appropriated some Saxon traditions and practices. More importantly, despite a sustained attempt by the Christian missionaries to eradicate these practices, they still resonate in today’s society. This is not a comprehensive discussion of all the heathen practices and references to Saxon gods in literature and archaeology: that would be the subject of a small library. For the purposes of this paper, I am simply dealing with the gods that remain with us, in particular in relation to the days of the week.
I should like to briefly summarise the period that is sometimes called ‘the Dark Ages’. The Romans withdrew from Britain around 409AD to defend Rome from the Visigoths’ attacks. Roman governors were left to rule Britain. So, while there are contemporary commentators of Late Roman Britain at the end of the fourth century, and then there is the Britain that Bede describes at the beginning of the eighth century, there is very little evidence for the interim period, although the two most popular sources cited are Gildas the Briton, who wrote On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain in the mid-sixth century, and Nennius, who is attributed with the authorship of the pseudo-historical Historia Brittonum around 830. Despite the absence of many historical sources, John Morris has posited that it is possible to reconstruct an approximate timeline for the fifth and sixth centuries.