The Twilight of the Old Gods

The Twilight of the Old Gods

(Wayland Smith`s Cave in Berkshire; Chollerford in Northumberland; Epworth and Bardney in Lincolnshire; etc.).

In the last chapter it was related of the story of the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria to Christianity, and of his death in the battle in 633 A.D., when his army was defeated by the combined forces of Penda , the Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia, and Cadwallon, the British King of North Wales. Penda was a stout old pagan, of whom, in spite of his religious beliefs, the early writers have some good to tell; but Cadwallon, though professing to be a Christian, is described as a most unpleasant personage.

As soon as the Anglo-Saxons began to settle down in Britain, the collapse of their old religion was inevitable; for now that they had left in isolation of their original homes, and were closely in touch with the remains of the Christian Roman civilization, both here and across the Channel, they soon began to associate intellectuality with Christianity; and they seem to have shown a keen desire to be regarded as one of the enlightened nations of the west, and not to be termed northern barbarians and heathens. In this new world into which they had entered it was evidently the correct thing to be Christian, and most of them adopted the faith in much the same spirit as that in which eastern nations have over recent years have adopted European clothes and manners, as a token of their modernization.

Moreover, Christianity presented to their superstitious minds a new and potent magic, much more virile than anything offered by their worn-out old gods. Edwin of Northumbria, it will be remembered, agreed to become a Christian if the new faith would give him power to kill his old enemy, the King of Wessex; and Coifi, his high Priest, abandoned the old gods because, as he declared, they had not contributed anything towards his personal advancement.

The pagan princes of the East Saxons demanded of the Christian missionary who was working amongst their people that he should let them eat “some of that white bread” which he was giving to the converts in celebration of the Last Supper, and which they regarded as a new magic. “we will not join your faith,” they said, “because we do not need to know that we stand in need of it, but we will eat of that bread”; and when it was refused to them they drove him from their country. Raedwald, King of East Anglia, set up a Christian alter next to the pagan altars in the old national temple and worshipped at both.

Penda of Mercia followed a somewhat similar course, for while he had no objection to Christians or to his people adopting that faith, he himself preferred to remain true to old gods. The names of some of these ancient English deities are preserved to us in our words denoting the days of the week.

“Sunday” is the Anglo-Saxon Sunnandaeg, the day dedicated to the Sun-god.

“Monday” is Monandaeg, the Moon-gods day.

“Tuesday” is Tiwesdaeg, the day dedicated to Tiw, the dark god of war.

“Wednesday”, is Wodensdaeg, Woden being the great god of gods.

“Thursday” is Thunresdaeg, or Thunder`s Day, thunder being a designation of Thor, god of storm and tempest.

“Friday” is Frigedaeg, the day belonging to Frig, or Freya, the divine wife of Woden;

“Saturday” is Saeterndaeg, dedicated to Saeter, a form of Saturn.

The name of Eostre, goddess of spring, as mentioned before, is preserved in our word Easter. Nicor, a malignant water-god, is remembered in our term “Old Nick,” and in the fairylike Nixies; and Hjuki and Bil, the two children of the moon, personifications of the flow and ebb of the tide, have come down to us as Jack and Jill in the nursery rhyme. Weland or Weyland, the black-smith of the gods, still figures in English folkore; and close to the ancient Ridge Way which runs along the Berkshire Downs, south-west of the famous “White Horse,” there is a prehistoric tomb, now marked only be a group of tumbles stones, which is locally called Wayland Smith`s Cave, where, so tradition says, if your horse has lost a shoe you may have him shod by Weland`s unseen hands, provided that you place a piece of money on a certain stone named “Wayland Smith`s counter.”

It is significant to notice by the way, that this group of stones originally formed the sepulchral chamber inside a burial-mound, the earth of which has now been removed; and in Anglo-Saxon times it may well have had the appearance of a subterranean cave, and may have been supposed to be Weland`s forge owing to the finding there of bronze weapons and other metal objects belonging to the original burial. The place is worth visiting, it stands within a circle of beech trees fifty yards/45m north of the Ridge Way, about 1 1/2 miles/2.3km south-west of the prehistoric fort which is on the hilltop above the White Horse.

Also there is the name of the months of the year, which are described below.

“AEfterra Geol” / January – The later Yule month.

“Solmonath” / February – Soil month / Sun month.

“Hrepmonath” / March – From The goddess Hrethe.

“Eastermonath” / April – From the goddess Eostre.

“Drimilcemonath” / May – From three milkings per day.

“AErra Litha” / June – The earlier Lithe month.

“AEfterra Litha / July – The later Lithe month.

“Weodmonath” / August – Weed month.

“Haligmonath” / September – Holy month (Harvest thanks).

“Winterfylleth” / October – 1st full moon of Winter month.

“Blotmonath” / November – Blood (Winter-Sacrifice) month.

“AErra Geol” / December – The Earlier Yule month.

There were, of course, many early Anglo-Saxons who adopted Christianity for no utilitarian purpose, but by conviction, and who were intelligent enough to embrace its principles, and to attempt to live up to its ideals. Amongst these comes the name of Oswald, King of Northumbria, who came to the throne in 634 A.D., the year after his uncle, King Edwin, had been killed by Penda and Cadwallon.

Shortly after his succession he gave battle to Cadwallon and the British at a spot called Hefenfeld, or “Heaven`s Field,” generally identified with the site of the little chapel of St. Oswald which stands alone amongst the wide and rolling fields to the north of the Great Wall, about a mile and a half/2.4km east of Chollerford, Northumberland. Here Oswald set up a cross, and holding it with both hands, commanded his men to kneel and pray before the attacking the enemy. This they all did, and in the subsequent fight they defeated the British, and Cadwallon was slain.

In after years the monks of the neighbouring monastery of Hexham erected a chapel upon the spot, wherein the cross was preserved; and it became at length a regular place of pilgrimage. The existing chapel, however, is of later date.

King Oswald was a man whom Bede describes as “always modest, affable, and generous to the poor”; and so eager was he that his people should become Christians that he invited the Irish monks of the monastery of Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland, not far from Oban, to send him a missionary to carry out the work. The saintly Bishop Aidan, who arrived in answer to the call, became Oswald`s close friend; and there are some interesting stories of this personage which will be mentioned in the next chapter.

In the end Oswald was killed in battle against Penda, on 5th August, 642 A.D., his last words being “Lord have mercy on the souls of my men!” His body was afterwards temporary buried on the spot, the head and hand being severed from the trunk, and exhibited upon a post.

This battle is named Maserfield by Bede, Cocboy by Nennius, and burne by Geoffrey of Monmouth; but until quite recently the site remained unidentified, some thinking that it was Oswestry (Oswald`s Tree) in Shropshire, some favouring Mirfield in Yorkshire, and some preferring Winlock, near Warrington, where the church is dedicated to St. Oswald, and where there is a well called after him, which has retained a tradition of sanctity into modern times – which was filled in by the owner, but was troubled by misfortune which befell soon after this event that he had the well quickly opened up again.

The researches by a Rev Hunt, however, have now satisfactorily identified the battlefield as being at Epworth in the north-west corner of Lincolnshire, west of the Trent and south of the Humber, this being close to the ancient frontier between Penda`s kingdom of Mercia and Oswald`s realm of Northumbria. The name “Battle Green” is in common use to this day in Epworth; Burnham the ancient burne, is within a mile/1.5km; the name Maserfield, (the “field of the Maser, or Mass-priest”) is retained in the modern Masser Close and Masserpool; and cocboy finds its explanation in the red marl rocks of the district, being derived from coccus, “red eye”; while the spot where Oswald`s body was fastened to the post is still called Studcross, stud meaning “a post,” and the place where the trunk was buried is perhaps marked by a cairn called Craise Lound.

Later the head was taken to Holy Island and finally was placed in the coffin of St. Cuthbert, whose miracle-working bones were that monastery`s chief attraction to pilgrims. This coffin was afterwards removed to Durham, as shall be related in another chapter, being buried behind the high altar of the Cathedral; and there Oswald`s skull still rests, after having being disinterred and examined in 1827 and again in 1899 A.D.

The right hand was sent to the chapel in the royal residence at Bamburgh Castle, as recorded in the next chapter; and as late as the Middle Ages it was still preserved there in a silver casket, but afterwards it was transferred to Peterborough. The arm and the shoulder found their way, as holy relics, to Glastonbury Abbey; and one of the hands – no doubt the left hand – is preserved to this day at Soleure in Switzerland.

Meanwhile the trunk of the body was disinterred and taken to Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire, by a niece of Oswald who had married King Aethelred of Mercia, a successor of Penda. When the body arrived at the abbey night had fallen, and the monks refused to open the door; but next morning, when they realized that they had thus kept such holy relics waiting, they were filled with dismay, and declared that never again would they bolt or bar the door in the abbey, and so well was the promise kept that to this day in Lincolnshire the expression “You come from Bardney” means that the person so addressed has left the door open.

Early in the tenth century when Bardney Abbey fell into ruins, the bones of St. Oswald were carried to Gloucester; and when the abbey there was abandoned at the Reformation the remains were either scattered or removed and afterwards lost.

Oswald was not the only Christian king to meet his death at the hands of the old heathen, Penda. Sigebert, King of the East Saxons (Essex), had retired to a monastery, but when Penda attacked his people he agreed to lead them into battle, though, being now a monk, he refused to carry arms. The fight went against the Essex men, and the defenceless Sigebert, holding nothing but a wand, was cut down and killed.

Oswy, thoroughly scared, fled to an unidentified castle on the Firth of Forth, possibly Edinburgh itself, and thence sent an embassy to Penda, offering him a huge sum as the price of peace. But the Mercia king refused to be bought off, whereupon Oswy, made courageous by despair cried out: “Well, if the heathen will not accept our gifts, let us offer them to Him who will!” and he superstitiously vowed that if he were granted victory he would hand over twelve farms to be turned into monasteries, and would see to it that his little daughter, Elfleda, should be sent to the nunnery at Hartlepool near Durham, and dedicated to perpetual incarnation therein.

He then marched southwards against the enemy, and the two armies met in the neighbourhood of Leeds. The battle was an overwhelming victory for Oswy, and the octogenarian King of Mercia, as befitted the last of the pagans, found a warrior`s death in the thick of the fight. This was the twilight of the old gods, and soon their worship had wholly ceased.

In conclusion the sad! Little Elfleda was duly made a nun and lived her silent life at Hartlepool, and afterwards at Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast, until she was 60 years of age, when, to use Bede`s curious phrase, “she departed to the marriage-embrace of her heavenly Bridegroom.” In 1833 the burial-ground of the Hartlepool house was discovered, just to the south-east of the church of St. Hilda there; and some of the pillow-stones from under the heads of the dead monks and nuns are to be seen in the British Museum and in the black gate Museum at Newcastle.