Anglo-Saxon Paganism lasted to at least 1016 AD
100 AD: Roman writer Tacitus is quite clear that the Germanic tribes in Continental Europe used human sacrifice in the 1st century AD to Woden or Odin or Mercury, the deity whom they chiefly worship. There is also clear evidence of human sacrifice among the Norse (‘Vikings’) of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, neighbors of the English. The Rus, who were Norse traders living on the River Volga in what is now Russia describe the funeral of one of the Rus leaders as, “When the man of whom I have spoken died, his girl slaves were asked, “Who will die with him?” One answered, ‘I.’ Then they laid her at the side of her master; the old woman known as the Angel of Death re-entered and looped a cord around her neck and gave the crossed ends to the two men for them to pull. Then she approached her with a broad-bladed dagger, which she plunged between her ribs repeatedly, and the men strangled her with the cord until she was dead.” —Risala. The Rus also reported that “When one of their notables dies, they make a grave like a large house and put him inside it…They also put his favorite wife in with him, still alive. Then the grave door is sealed and she dies there.” A grave excavated in Birka, eastern Sweden, is consistent with this practice. The grave contained two women, one richly attired and the other lying in a strange twisted position, and was interpreted by the excavator as the grave of a wealthy woman and a serf who had suffocated in the burial chamber.
400 AD-700 AD: English were Pagans — In 600s AD Franks Casket depicted the pan-Germanic legend of Wayland the Smith, which was apparently also a part of Anglo-Saxon pagan mythology that refers to the religious beliefs and practices. This was a variant of the Germanic paganism found across much of north-western Europe encompassing a wide mix of beliefs and cultic practices, dating from the Iron Age, with wide regional variations. The nature of Anglo-Saxon paganism or pre-Christian belief systems was best defined by neighboring peoples such as the Norse. Anglo-Saxons worshiped many deities like god Woden and other prominent gods included Thunor and Tiw. They also believed in supernatural entities like elves, nicor, and dragons. Cultic practices required demonstrations of devotion, including sacrifice of inanimate objects and animals, to these deities, particularly at certain religious festivals during the year. Some used timber temples but many were open-air using cultic trees and megaliths. Pagan concept of an afterlife shows in their funeral practices that included cremation with a selection of goods and included ideas about magic, witchcraft, and shamanism. The animistic character of belief prior to Christianization, with its emphasis on nature, holistic cures, and worship at wells, trees, and stones, meant that it was very difficult to counteracted on an institutional level by organized religion. Various recurring symbols appear on certain pagan Anglo-Saxon artifacts, in particular on grave goods and most notable is the swastika widely inscribed on crematory urns and also on various brooches, other forms of jewelry, and ceremonial weaponry and “undoubtedly had special importance for the Anglo-Saxons, either magical or religious, or both. It seems very likely that it was the symbol of the thunder-god Thunor, and when found on weapons or military gear its purpose would be to provide protection and success in battle”. The pagan Anglo-Saxons followed a calendar with twelve lunar months, with the occasional year having thirteen months so that the lunar and solar alignment could be corrected. Bede claimed that the greatest pagan festival was Modraniht (meaning Mothers’ Night), which was situated at the Winter solstice, which marked the start of the Anglo-Saxon year, around December 25th. Modern English day names derive from pre-Christian Gods
Monday = “Moon’s day”
Tuesday = “Tiw’s day” Norse god Tyr = “Day of Mars”
Wednesday = “Woden’s day” = Norse god Odin = “Day of Mercury”
Thursday = “Thunor’s day” = Norse god Thor or Tor = “Day of Jupiter”
Friday = “Frigg’s day” = Norse goddess Frigg = “Day of Venus”
Saturday = “Saturn’s day” = “Day of Saturn”
Sunday = “Sun’s day” = Norse goddess Sól = “Day of Sol Invictus (sun)”
500s AD-900s AD: Anglo-Saxon England symbolism of a horn-helmeted man representing “one of the clearest examples of objects with primarily cultic or religious connotations”, and is not an icon unique to England as it was found in Scandinavia and continental Germanic Europe. Anglo-Saxons believed in magic and witchcraft. The belief in witchcraft was suppressed in the 9th to 10th century by the Laws of Ælfred (ca. 890) as the Christian authorities attempted to stamp out a belief and practice in witchcraft.
596 AD-800 AD: Very gradual conversion to Christianity in England — In 596, Pope Gregory I ordered a Gregorian mission to be launched in the Kingdom of Kent and then from 625 AD-642 AD the Kentish king Eadbald sponsored a mission to Northumbrian king Oswald who invited a Christian mission of Irish monks to the courts of the East Anglians and the Gewisse. Others were converted by continental missionaries.
642 AD-1070 AD: Adam of Bremen, writing in 1070, described extensive human sacrifice at the temple of Old Uppsala in Sweden. Evidence from Anglo-Saxon England, Bede says that when King Oswald of Northumbria was killed in battle in 642, the king that slew him commanded his head, hands, and arms to be cut off from the body, and set upon stakes. –Bede. “Among other difficulties which you face in those parts, you say that some of the faithful sell their slaves to be sacrificed by the heathen. This, above all, we urge you to forbid, for it is a crime against nature. Therefore, on those who have perpetrated such a crime you must impose a penance similar to that for culpable homicide.” —Letters of Boniface. At Finglesham in Kent a man had been buried with grave goods and with a second body laid across him. — Similar to the rites described for the Rus. The second most widespread deity from Anglo-Saxon England appears to be the god Thunor. It has been suggested that the hammer and the swastika were the god’s symbols, representing thunderbolts, and both of these symbols have been found in Anglo-Saxon graves, the latter being common on cremation urns.
653 AD-664 AD: Northumbrian sponsored conversion of the rulers of the East Saxons, Middle Anglians, and Mercians.
670s AD-1024s AD: The final phase of conversion took place in the final two Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Sussex and the Isle of Wight. As with other areas of Europe, the conversion to Christianity was facilitated by the aristocracy who feared being left in the Christian term “pagan backwater.” It took another 300+ years for the official conversion to succeed. Most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms returned to paganism for a time after the death of their first converted king. Theodore’s Penitential and the Laws of Wihtred of Kent issued in 695 imposed penalties on those who provided offerings to “demons”. But pre-Christian defined “cultural paganism” survived for a long time afterwards referencing the cultural heritage of the Scandinavian population following Norse mythological themes and motifs in their poetry. Pre-Christians had a very weak hierarchical structure and the intense organized structure of Christianity dominated with its written rules and its formal extravagant church buildings.
700s AD: England remained dominant Pagan believers until the Christianization of its kingdoms with some Christian aspects gradually blending into folklore. The pejorative terms paganism and heathenism were first applied by English Christians as Anglo-Saxons did not call themselves pagans or heathens. Neither paganism nor Christianity represented “homogenous intellectual positions or canons and practice”, but were mixed together without any apparent rules or consistency. These folk religions were “concerned with the here and now” and in particular with issues surrounding the safety of the family, prosperity, and the avoidance of drought or famine and its adherents concentrated on survival and prosperity in this world. Britain in 400s AD-700s AD was full of new religious ideas and belief systems. English of that time were illiterate with no contemporary written evidence. Later authors, such as Bede and the anonymous author of the Life of St Wilfrid, who wrote in Latin did not provide a full portrait of the Anglo-Saxons’ pre-Christian belief systems. So only fragments are available to give “a dim impression” of their religion(s). Some say Roman Christianity would not have experienced more than a “ghost-life” in Anglo-Saxon areas as those who continued to practice of Roman Christianity were probably perceived as second-class citizens as Anglo-Saxon culture was British culture at the time.
1000 AD: Both secular and church authorities issued condemnations of alleged non-Christian practices, such as the veneration of wells, trees, and stones. These prohibitions against non-Christian cultic behavior may be a response to Norse pagan beliefs brought in by Scandinavian settlers rather than a reference to older Anglo-Saxon practices. But many English continued the practice of veneration at wells and trees at a popular level long after the official Christianization of Anglo-Saxon society.
1009 AD-1016 AD: King Æþelræd published laws Renouncing all Pagan Customs demonstrating this was still a problem within Anglo-Saxon culture that had supposedly been converted to Christianity nearly four centuries earlier. These laws addressed sacrificing to devils, foretelling the future and burning grain in a house after the death of a man.
1720 AD: Elements of English folklore survived to 1720s with the winter custom of the Yule log. Antlers were used in a dance for reindeer and have been carbon dated to the 1000s and were likely brought in from Norway.
Today: The Anglo-Saxon gods have also been adopted in forms of the modern Pagan religion of Wicca, often attribute to Norse beliefs.