View Full Version : Temples, Groves and Idols - On Anglo-Saxon Heathen Worship

Sunday, December 4th, 2005, 06:57 AM
Temples, Groves and Idols

The Heathen worship of gods and goddesses in pre-Christian England probably took place in sacred groves, upon hills and later maybe also walled and roofed temples. The Old English words for such places of worship are ealh/alh, heargh/hearh and lea/ley. It seems likely though that since earliest times open air groves in forests and hill sanctuaries were the main places of worship amongst the Anglo-Saxons and their ancestors, and this is backed up by the writings of Tacitus, who tell us:

'They judge that gods cannot be contained inside walls...they consecrate groves and woodland glades and call by the names of gods that mystery which they only perceive by the same sense of reverence.'

Translation from 'Looking for the Lost Gods of England' by Kathleen Herbert)

And again from the writings of Tacitus we know that our very own
Angle ancestors were associated with such groves in the first century whilst still residing within continental Germania. This particular grove was a place of worship dedicated to the earth goddess Nerthus. Tacitus tells us the following:

'After the Langobardi come the Reudigni, Auiones, Angli (Angles), Varni, Eudoses, Suarines and Nuithones all well guarded by rivers and forests. There is nothing remarkable about any of these tribes unless it be the common worship of Nerthus, that is Earth Mother. They believe she is interested in men's affairs and drives among them. On an island in the ocean sea there is a sacred grove wherein waits a holy wagon covered by a drape.'

There are many English place names that support the idea that the worship of Anglo-Saxon gods and goddesses took place in groves within England. Many of these place names are listed in Brian Branston's The Lost Gods of England, such as Ealhfleot, which contains the word ealh, and Harrowden, which contains the word heargh. Another word that points to a place of Heathen worship is weos, which means idol, or maybe place of idols, this can be found in place names like
Weyhill and Weoly. There are of course place names that still contain the name of a god or goddess. Some of these names are attached to the word lea/ley, which means clearing of-, such as Thunderley, which means clearing of Thunor, the Anglo-Saxon thunder god, and Tuesley, which similarly means clearing of Tiw, the Anglo-Saxon war god. The place names that contain the name of a god or goddess could suggest that the area was holy to just that particular deity, whereas the place names that only contain the words heargh, ealh or weos with no god or goddess name attached, could indicate an area where many gods and goddesses were worshipped. In Old English literature there are many mentions of pre-Christian temples or groves, an example is a letter from Pope Gregory to Abbot Mellitus, dated to 601 c.e, giving instructions on how to convert the Anglo-Saxons, part of it reads:

'I have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols in England should not on any account be destroyed. St Augustine must smash the idols, but the temples should be sprinkled with holy water...for we ought to take advantage of well built temples by purifying them from devil worship, and dedicating them to the service of the true god.'

(Translation from 'The Lost Gods of England' by Brian Branston)

The Venerable Bede also makes interesting references to places of Heathen worship in East Anglia and Northumbria. In East Anglia he tells us that a king called Redwald, who on trip to Kent, was partially converted to Christianity. And on his return set up a Christian altar, alongside the Heathen one in his temple. The other place of worship concerns the conversion of King Edwin and Northumbria to Christianity. He relates the story of Edwin's chief Heathen priest, called Coifi, whom when convinced to forsake the religion of his ancestors, and convert to Christianity, sets out to destroy his own Heathen temple. Bede tells us the following:

'In short the king gave permission to preach the gospel, and renouncing idolatry, declare he receive the faith of Christ: and when he enquired who should profane the alters and temples of idols with the enclosures that were about them, the high priest answered, "I, for who can more properly than myself destroy those things which I worshipped through ignorance...."
Then immediately in contempt of his former superstitions desired the king to furnish him with arms and a stallion, and mounting the latter he set out to destroy the idols, for it was not lawful for the high priest either, to carry weapons or ride on any beast but a mare. Having therefore girt on a sword and carrying a spear in hand, he mounted the kings stallion and proceeded to the idols...."for a soon as he drew near the temple he profaned it by casting into it the spear which he held....he commandeered his counterparts to destroy the temple with all it's enclosures by fire."

What's very interesting about this tale told by Bede, is that it seems to give us an insight into what a Heathen temple or grove may have looked like when he talks about the temple with it's altar and idols surrounded by enclosures. It's likely that, if the temple in question is a grove or woodland clearing, it's construction may have consisted of an altar, possibly at the centre, or at one end of the grove, surrounded by the idols of gods and goddesses, which in turn are surrounded by the enclosures. The enclosures were probably there to protect the grove and separate it from the outside world, making the enclosed area sacred and holy. The enclosed idols were more than likely carved out of wood, maybe not too dissimilar to Native American totem poles, but not as elaborate. Evidence of what the idols could have looked like is found in a letter from Pope Boniface to king Edwin in 625 c.e. Part of the letter reads:

"....All of the Heathen idols are devils, it is the lord who made
the heavens. They have ears and hear not, they have noses
and are not able to smell, they have hands and cannot feel,
they have hands and cannot feel, they have feet and do not

(Translation from 'The lost Gods of England' by Brian Branston)

The idols being described here are possibly similar to the ones that Edwin's chief Heathen priest, in his moment of madness, destroyed during the desecration of his own temple. We can also quote the Anglo-Saxon saint, Aldhelm, to give us more historical evidence about the use of idols and sacred groves for the purpose of Heathen worship. Aldhelm is quoted as saying:

'where once the crude pillars (ermula) of the same foul snake and the stag were worshipped with coarse stupidity in profane shrines'

This quote by Aldhelm is in relation to the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex and states clearly the use of idols or pillars for the purposes of worship, (for more information on the Aldhelm quote please visit the Anglo-Saxon Symbols page about stags). The temples of the Anglo-Saxons were eventually destroyed and churches built upon many of them, losing not just the temple but the sacred site forever. But we know from the writings of Tacitus that two thousand years ago, and before, our ancestors were worshipping their gods and goddesses in sacred groves, and that will always be with us.

Source (http://www.englishheathenism.homestead.com/templesgrovesandidols.html)

Tuesday, December 6th, 2005, 09:48 PM
The groves were very beautiful and stretched farther than the eye could see, enclosed within the grove was a temple with four walls - a stone megalith. The grove I know was enclosed all the way around with a golden chain.

For every person who was born or died, they planted a new tree, and used sticks with string to support the growing trees so that they would all grow tall and straight.

Groves were a meeting place for our folk, a place to be one with nature, as well as a place to hold religious celebrations to worship the gods. This comes from my past life memories. :)

If I had a chance I would rebuild a grove in modern times. Why hasn't anyone done that yet? :confused: