Saxon Religion - Sarah Woodbury

Saxon Religion

Are you saying the Saxon religion wasn’t Christianity?

Not initially. We’ve spent the last ten videos or so talking about Christianity, but as I discussed way back in the beginning of last season, Britain was conquered by waves of ethnic groups. I mentioned five at the time: Celts, Romans, Saxons, Danes, and Normans. The Romans brought Christianity to Britain, after which a significant number of Britons converted to it. By the time the Romans left, there were enough Christians in Britain to create a contrast to the Saxon invaders who were polytheistic. This contrast between pagan and Christian was highlighted by the Britons themselves at the time and after the fact.

The worst crime, according to the annals, was that, in the middle of the 5th century, the British Christian king Vortigern invited these pagan Saxons into Britain, as a defense against the constant invasions of the also pagan Picts and Scots, who’d already taken over the north. Gildas, a British monk of the 6th century, who I talked about in an earlier video, writes:

“And they convened a council to decide the best and soundest way to counter the brutal and repeated invasions and plunderings by the peoples I have mentioned. Then all the members of the council, together with the proud tyrant, were struck blind; the guard — or rather the method of destruction — they devised for our land was that the ferocious Saxons (name not to be spoken!), hated by man and God, should be let into the island like wolves into the fold, to beat back the peoples of the North. Nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land. How utter the blindness of their minds! How desperate and crass the stupidity! Of their own free will they invited under the same roof a people who they feared worse than death, even in their absence.”

At the time of their arrival, the Saxons worshipped a pantheon of Gods with names that might be familiar to us to some degree through our knowledge of Norse mythology: Frigg, Hel, Loki, Thunor, and Woden (from whom, as you may recall, my last name derives as “Woden’s fort”). Because the Saxons weren’t literate, our knowledge of their belief system comes from those they conquered, who were literate, but obviously had some prejudice against them. Otherwise, our only source is archaeology and focuses on their material culture. Ripping from Wikipedia: “Practice largely revolved around demonstrations of devotion, including sacrifice of inanimate objects and animals, to these deities, particularly at certain religious festivals during the year. There is some evidence for the existence of timber temples, although other cultic spaces might have been open-air, and would have included trees and megaliths. Little is known about pagan conceptions of an afterlife, although such beliefs likely influenced funerary practices, in which the dead were either inhumed or cremated, typically with a selection of grave goods. The belief system also likely included ideas about magic and witchcraft, and elements that could be classified as a form of shamanism.” Perhaps, it wasn’t terribly different from the pre-Roman, Celtic belief system of the Briton’s ancestors.

The conversion of the Saxons to Christianity began in 597 with the arrival of St. Augustine, who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Meanwhile the Irish, who’d already been converted to Christianity by the Welsh St. Patrick, arrived in the North and began preaching. The conversion continued, moving from one Saxon kingdom to another, until by around 800, all the Saxon kingdoms were Christian and there was a fairly organized hierarchy that included churches, monasteries, bishoprics, and archbishoprics, all answering ultimately to Rome. Culturally, as with most everything else, Christianity in England was different from in Wales, as we talked about in the weeks previously.

But as with the Welsh, the Saxons had their own churches, and it’s the one at Dover we’ll be talking about next week.

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