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Thursday, April 21st, 2005, 05:58 AM
Anglo-Saxon Heathen Heritage
From the wordhoard of the awesome website http://www.englishheathenism.homestead.com

The Heathens worshipped their gods and goddesses for thousands of years before the coming of Christianity. Their gods and goddesses were part of, and ruled practically every aspect of their lives, such as birth, life, death, harvest, earth, sky, love, fertility, nature, weather and much more.

In the most primitive of times these deities were probably worshipped as natural phenomena, but over the centuries each phenomena developed it's own image and character that, is probably best illustrated in later Norse mythology.

The Germanic gods were more than just a part of the lives of the Germanic peoples, they were part of them, for they believed themselves to be directly descended from their gods, Woden, Odin, Freyr, Ingui and Seaxneat are just some of the gods the Germanic people believed themselves to be descended from. Germanic Heathenism was a religion that grew and developed as the Germanic peoples themselves grew and developed, it was shaped by them to fit their very mind, spirit and soul.

The introduction of Christianity virtually destroyed that spirit and soul, Christianity was a foreign religion from the Middle-East, and was therefore totally alien to them. And because of this introduction, and sometimes violently forced introduction of Christianity on the Heathens, they went from worshipping their native gods and goddesses, and celebrating the deeds of their own ancestors, to worshipping a foreign religion and celebrating the deeds of a man, who in truth, was nothing to do with them.

The demise of Anglo-Saxon Heathenism began in the year 597 c.e (common era) with the arrival of the Roman missionary St Augustine on the Isle of Thanet in Kent. The missionaries were sent out on the orders of Pope Gregory, legend says that Pope Gregory, before becoming Pope, noticed some fair-haired boys in a slave market in Rome, and enquired where they were from. He was told that they were Angles and also Heathen, to which (Pope) Gregory replied, "Non Angli, sed angeli", "Not Angles but angels", and on becoming Pope he despatched the missionaries to convert the Anglo-Saxons.

The first king in England to greet St Augustine was Ethelbert of Kent, whom upon hearing of their arrival gave orders for them to remain on the Isle of Thanet, as according to an ancient Heathen superstition it was dangerous to meet strangers in a house or building for it left you vulnerable to their magic. The Heathens were obviously just as, if not more, wary of the Christians than the Christians were of the them.

Although not that willing, and after a few years of convincing, Ethelbert was eventually converted to Christianity, and so was his kingdom of Kent. But Heathenism persisted long after Kent's so-called conversion, as almost sixty years later other kings of Kent were still writing laws trying to ban the worship of idols and calling for the destruction of Heathen temples.

By the year 700 c.e Christianity could be regarded as the main religion of the Anglo-Saxon royal houses and the well populated areas of the country, but the country folk in the remote countryside and isolated communities and farmsteads would have held their Heathen beliefs for far longer. Even the so-called converts to Christianity could hardly be considered 'Christians' by today's terms, and would certainly have held a mixture of Christian and Heathen belief, best illustrated in the Old English charms, and artefacts found such as a helmet bearing a Christian cross on the front and an image of a boar on the top, in Heathenism the boar was sacred to Ingui/Freyr, and offered protection during combat.

The conversion to Christianity certainly wasn't a smooth ride for the missionaries, and many times kingdoms and communities lapsed back into Heathenism when the new religion failed to suit their needs and answer the questions that the Heathen religion would always answer.

King Sæbert of Essex was converted to Christianity in 604 c.e, but the Kingdom of Essex was still regarded as Heathen in 663/4. Many times when a Christian king died, he was succeeded to the throne by a Heathen one, sometimes a son, which shows that even when a king became Christian his family wasn't necessarily converted too.

No one knows for sure if and when Heathenism stopped being practiced as a religion, be it Germanic, Celtic or whatever. The truth is it probably never did cease, almost certainly when the Christian religion became the dominant force in the land the Heathen religions would more than likely have moved to some extent 'underground' in the form of clandestine cults, which may have lasted for many many years more. But if we look at many of today's customs, superstitions and celebrations, we can see much of those Heathen religions firmly stamped on them. So in that sense we can say strongly that Heathenism is still with us today, and is still being practiced, albeit unknown to most of those who practice it.