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Thread: The Anglo-Saxon Symbols

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    The Anglo-Saxon Symbols

    Dragons - In a myth concerning the conquest and settlement of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, it is said that King Vortigen decided to build a stronghold as a defence against the advancing Anglo-Saxons. Every time work was carried out on the stronghold, the foundations gave way and it disappeared. Vortigen decided to call on his wise men for advice, they told the King that unless a fatherless child could be found, and his blood sprinkled on the foundations, the stronghold could not be built.

    A child fitting the desired description was found, but he surprised the wise men by telling them that beneath the ground, where the stronghold was being constructed, was an underground lake. Here slept two dragons, one red and one white. The British were represented by a red dragon, and the Anglo-Saxons by a white one. When the two dragons were woken they began to fight, the white dragon convincingly defeated the red dragon, symbolically representing the defeat of the British. This is a myth concerning the very early days of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, so it is very much one of the earliest symbols representing the Heathen Anglo-Saxons.

    The dragon as a symbolic image amongst the Anglo-Saxons rears it's head more times in both literature and archaeology. We read about a dragon in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, that sleeps by and guards a hoard of treasure and gold. Beowulf battles the dragon when it is angered by the theft of some of it's treasure. During this confrontation Beowulf is mortally wounded, but he still finds strength to defeat the dragon. Physical evidence of the dragon symbol is found within the Sutton Hoo ship burial upon the front of a shield. Alongside the image of a bird of prey is that of a dragon. A shield of course, like a sword or spear, is an instrument of war, so it seems likely that the fierce nature of the dragon may have been associated with war and battle.

    Horses - The horse as a symbol, like the dragon, goes all the way back to the earliest stages of Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain, and even before. The importance of the horse in Anglo-Saxon society, whether for war, travelling or more mundane purposes cannot be underestimated. And like other animals, it's not surprising that the horse and it's image was raised to almost religious levels of veneration. For evidence of the importance of the horse to the Anglo-Saxons we can go all the way back to the turbulent times of Hengist and Horsa, the legendary and mythical brothers who led the Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain.

    Their names mean Stallion and Horse respectively, and as mentioned elsewhere on this site, there is a strong possibility that these two brothers were more than just living flesh and blood, but were twin horse gods that in various forms and with differing names were worshipped throughout the Germanic world. The landscape of England has been blessed in both ancient and modern times with the carving and scouring of massive symbols and images, including that of huge horse images, that quite possibly date to Anglo-Saxon times and before.

    Firstly there is the White Horse of Uffington, a beautifully designed horse that lies no more than two miles south of the village of Uffington, a place name that is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Uffa. Over the years this carving has been credited to Celts, Anglo-Saxons and others. Many compare the shape and style of the horse to other similar horse images that have been found upon Celtic artefacts, such as coins and buckets in both Britain and ancient Belgium.

    And whilst there is some evidence pointing to an Anglo-Saxon origin for the horse, the Celtic theory is stronger. Another image carved into the hills of England, that could be of an Anglo-Saxon origin, is that of the Westbury Horse. This horse is a massive 55 metres long, and another 33 metres tall, and is spectacularly carved into the steeps hills of Bratton Down in Wiltshire. There are several theories from both ancient and modern times as to why the horse was created. One is a myth concerning Alfred the Great, who is said to have ordered the carving of a white horse to commemorate one of his victories over the Vikings.

    Alfred the Great was of course vehemently Christian in his beliefs, so if this myth was to be true, the creation of the Westbury Horse couldn't be put down to the conscious thoughts of a Heathen. But that isn't to say that the ultimate root of Alfred's desire for such a horse image to be carved into English soil was not of an unconscious Heathen origin. For as we have already seen and read, the veneration of horses and their images to the Heathen Anglo-Saxons was very strong, and stretched all the way back to the earliest days of England, and quite possibly back to the dawn of the Indo-Europeans.

    And just like so many other beliefs and symbology that were rooted in the pre-Christian religions of Europe, that continued unbroken into Christian times, the importance of the horse and it's veneration continued unbroken also. And these two examples of carved horse images do not exhaust the evidence of the importance of the horse as a symbol in England, for we also have the Red Horse of Tysoe.

    This is another vast carving in the English landscape, but unfortunately, unlike the Uffington and Westbury horses, has now lost all physical shape and appearence to the naked eye. But we have been left many reports detailing it's image and appearence, some as far back as Elizabethan times. The Red Horse was carved into the land near the town of Banbury and the village of Lower Tysoe.

    As the Horse is now physically lost to us, it is difficult to estimate it's exact size and dimentions, but by all reports, it's size is inferior to that of the Uffington and Westbury Horses. The Red Horse of Tysoe, according to many historians, has far stronger links to the Anglo-Saxons than any of the other carved horses. And not just to the Anglo-Saxons as a whole, but more importantly to the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons.

    Our first, and obvious, Heathen link to the Horse and it's surrounding area is the village of Tysoe itself. The name Tysoe was named in honour of the Anglo-Saxon god Tiw, and basically means hill spur of Tiw. So it is very possible that the Anglo-Saxons who carved this beast did it to honour Tiw, their patron god. If this is true, and the Heathens did carve it in his honour, then this not only shows that the horse was sacred to the Anglo-Saxons, but to the god Tiw also.

    In the most ancient of times, Tiw was called Tiwaz, and was regarded as the original Sky Father of the Germanic peoples, related to Zeus of the Greeks. So it does seem possible that the men who carved this image, did it not only to honour Tiw, but also so that their Sky Father could look down from the skies and see his own symbol, veneration and worship.

    In 1971 S.G. Wildman wrote: 'I tried to recover the lost red Horse, I failed to do so. What I did find was something which I think is even more interesting, a collection of four great hill-figures representing the legend of the Saxon god Tiw'.

    If true, it certainly seems that this whole area was very much an area dedicated and sacred to Tiw.It's plain to see from the writings of the Venerable Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, that superstitions and taboo's grew up surrounding the use of certain horses by priests of the Heathen religion. Bede had this to tell us concerning an Anglo-Saxon high priest and his conversion to Christianity.

    '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.'

    The high priest in question was Coifi, a Heathen priest in service to King Edwin of Northumbria. After much deliberation it was decided by Edwin and his wise men that they should convert to Christianity and turn their backs on the Heathen religion. When this decision was made, Coifi furiously set out to destroy the temple and idols that he had worshipped. And in doing so happily, and what would seem enthusiastically, broke taboo's surrounding weapons and horses. The reason he did this was very much to insult the religion that he was leaving behind, and in a sense spit in the faces of the gods that he had worshipped and venerated all his life.

    And the fact that one of the ways to achieve this insult was to break the taboo on horses just shows so clearly how important and how much a part of the religion and lore of the Heathens horses truly were. But to get a glimpse of what a horse meant to the Anglo-Saxons, or maybe to a single Anglo-Saxon man, we can look no further than the amazing find of an Anglo-Saxon Heathen warrior who was found buried not just with his sword, spear and shield, but also with his horse. Why this single man was cast to the earth with his horse may never be known, maybe they both died upon the battle field, and dying together meant lying together.

    Or it's possible that it was just the man who died and his horse was sacrificed so that they could remain together in death just as they had done in life. The sacrifice of the horse so as to accompany it's master is the stronger of the two theories, this is because the horse's death was caused by a massive blow to the front of the horses head, just above the eye's. Seemingly showing that this was a deliberate act so as to kill the horse purely to be buried in this grave. Also found in the grave was food, showing clearly that the man and his horse were both destined for another life, to remain companions in the afterlife, just as they had in real life.

    Boars - The boar was another animal symbol that was very much revered by the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons, and quite possibly revered above all other animals. Evidence of this reverence can be seen in the ancient and long lasting custom of bringing in the Yule Boar during the season of Yule. This custom can still be seen today at Queen's College Oxford. Here the head of a boar is paraded every 17th of December on a silver platter during a customary dinner, which originally took place on Christmas day.

    And interestingly an orange is placed within the mouth of the boar to quite possibly represent the sun. This custom of placing objects within the mouth of a sacred animal, with connections to sun worship, is recorded as far back as medieval times in England (for more information on this, visit the page on stag symbolism). Literature and archaeology gives us so many examples of the boar and it's importance. In the Old English epic poem, Beowulf, we read about warriors who wear boar crested helmets into battle. And amazingly such helmets have been found buried in English soil dating from Anglo-Saxon times.

    The image of the boar was fixed upon helmets as it was believed that the power and strength of the boar would protect the wearer in times of war. Also, the boar is closely connected to the Anglo-Saxon god Ingui, so it could be that not only did warriors feel protected under the image of the boar, but also under the influence an protection of their god Ingui. Other boar images are found up on a pair of shoulder clasps that were found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial.

    Each shoulder clasp shows an intricate pattern of two boars that cross over each other to form a beautiful design. The clasps were worn by one of the Kings of East Anglia, possibly the Heathen Redwald, which shows that not only were boars associated with war and battle, but also as elegant symbols fit for a King. We can firmly see that the boar and it's image, and the reverence of, has been with us from the times of our ancient Heathen ancestors, where it was worn as a symbol of protection and royalty, right up to our modern times, where in places customs and traditions remain that still hold the boar in high regard.

    Stags - The symbol and reverence of the stag amongst the Anglo-Saxons is a tradition that is very likely to be rooted in the most ancient of Germanic culture and religion. In England we know such reverence of stags was already a strong custom even in the days of Saint Augustine, for he is quoted as condemning the 'filthy practice of dressing up like a horse or stag' , a tradition that seems to resemble closely the English custom of hoodening.

    Like so many of the other animal symbols connected to the Anglo-Saxons, we only have to look at the Sutton Hoo ship burial for evidence. Within the burial was found a spectacular sceptre that was topped off with a beautiful stag figure. The sceptre to the King who carried it symbolised his power and high status. And it could be that amongst the Heathens the stag was regarded as the most noble and proud of animals, and would therefore be a most appropriate symbol of a King and his leadership.

    Extremely strong evidence pointing to the use of stag images, but not only their images, but the worship of stags too, is found in a quote from Saint Aldhelm who wrote to a friend the following: '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 was in reference to the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex to Christianity and the use of Heathen shrines as places of Christian worship. The conversion of Heathen shrines to Christian use was done on the orders of Pope Gregory, for in the well known letter written by Gregory he advises the missionaries in England to do the following: 'I have come to the conclusion that the temples of idols in England should not on any account be destroyed. (St) Augustine should smash the idols, but the temples themselves should be sprinkled with holy water and alters set up in them...For we ought to take advantage of well built temples by purofying them from devil worship.

    And judging from the quote of Saint Aldhelm, it seems that these very orders were carried out exactly word for word. Now, an interesting word that should be noted from the quote of Saint Aldhelm is that the 'crude pillars' are called ermula. The Saxons on the European mainland were known to worship a pillar that they called Irminsul, so it is very likely that, as the West Saxons of England and the Saxons of mainland Europe were basically the same peoples, they both worshipped ermula or Irminsul pillars that had religious connections to the veneration of stags ,and, maybe also the Anglo-Saxon god Ingui.

    But what could this connection be between stags, Ingui and the ermula/Irminsul. In the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf we are told that King Hrothgar resides in a hall called Heorot, the name Heorot is said to mean stag. King Hrothgar is also called Frea Ingwina, which translates to Lord (of the) Friends of Ing, which as pointed out in the Ingui section is said to be related to the word or name Ingaevones.

    So as the hall of King Hrothgar is basically called stag, and also that King Hrothgar is called Lord (of the) Friends of Ing, it could be that Hrothgars hall was a building sacred to Ingui, a place where Ingui was worshipped and venerated. And because of this connection in Beowulf between stags and Ingui, it could be that the stag pillars of Wessex, called ermula by Aldhelm, and the Inrminsul of the continental Saxons, also had religious connections to the god Ingui.

    And as it is very possible that Ingui is one and the same as the Norse god Freyr, Freyr being a fertility god who was subject to phallic worship by the Norse. It could be that these ermula in the image of stags, that seem to have represented Ingui, could also have been phallic symbols. This stag and Ingui connection could also be the reason why the image of a stag is found upon the Sutton Hoo sceptre.

    The Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, which is the resting place of the ship burial, was a land settled by many of the Angle/Angli tribe in their migration. We know that in the first century the Angles were part of a grouping of peoples known as Ingaevones, a word or name that has been translated as those of Ing. The name Ingui has also been found recorded in the genealogy lists of the Kings of Northumbria, these Northumbrians too were Angles.

    So if the Kings of Northumbria at one time saw themselves as being descended from their god Ingui, as the genealogy list show, then it is highly possible that the Kings of East Anglia did too, and the stag headed sceptre was a symbol of this descent from Ingui. Also, just below the stag image itself are found carved images of faces, which have been theorised by many people as being the representations of ancestors.

    So could it not be that maybe one of these carved ancestor images is that of Ingui himself. We don't only have to look to the most ancient of days to find evidence of the stag and it's symbolism. For in the year 1255 AD an event was recorded that involved a pillar very similar to the stag ermula of ancient Wessex. It is said that 13 people gathered in an isolated woodland clearing somewhere in England, here they cut off the head of a stag, placed an object in it's mouth, and then impaled it on the end of a wooden stake.

    Then with the sun in the sky, they turned it so that the open mouth of the stag faced the sun. This custom has been compared to Norse myths surrounding the wolf Fenris and his gagging. It also has many similarities with the Old Norse custom of erecting the Nidstang pole. In this custom a horses head was impaled, again on a stake, and made to face the direction of an enemy, therefore cursing and insulting that very enemy.

    And what connects the custom of the Nidstang pole and this aforementioned obscure Medieval English custom of erecting the stag-pole, is that the head of the stag facing the sun was said to be an insult aimed at the King and the foresters. No doubt Anglo-Saxon folk insulting their Norman rulers. There seems to be so much symbolism within these two mentioned customs, and many similarities also.

    The Norse Nidstang pole and it's aims at cursing the enemy, the English stag-pole with the object in it's mouth and it's connections to sun veneration, again said to be used to insult people. It's likely that the stag-pole, especially if we compare it to the ermula of ancient Wessex, could have been a tradition rooted in the Heathen religion that managed to escape, for a while, the wrath of Christianity until it eventually became an obscure custom. Another recorded obscure medieval English custom, with it seems pre-Christian roots that involved stags, was recorded in the year 1127 AD. We are told:

    'Let no one be surprised at what we are going to relate, for it was common gossip up and down the countryside that after February 6th many people both saw and heard a whole pack of huntsmen in full cry. They straddled black horses and black bucks, while their hounds were pitch black with staring hideous eyes. This was seen in the very deer park of Peterborough town, and in all the woods stretching from that same spot as far as Stamford. All through the night monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been twenty or even thirty of them in this tantivy as near as they could tell.'

    Although both customs are recorded over a century apart, we can still find similarities between this night-time tantivy, and that of the stag-pole. Both take place in woodland, both include the gathering of people, and both involve in some way the use of stags. What was happening at these gatherings, and where they come from we can only guess. But they both show the enduring legacy of the use of stags and their symbolism from pre-Christian times through many centuries of so-called Christian conversion of England and it's people.

    Birds - The symbolism and importance of the bird, and bird like designs, is very common amongst the Anglo-Saxons, and have been preserved in both literary and physical examples. The Sutton Hoo ship burial, with it's ancient treasure hoard, is full to bursting with such surviving physical examples of the symbolic nature of birds. We can start with the most famous find within the burial, that of the helmet.

    This spectacular find at first glance may not seem to reveal any form of bird design at all, but on closer inspection of the mask, a bird like design is clear to see. The bird itself is skilfully comprised of the face-like physical features of the helmets face mask. The body of the bird is that of the masks nose, it's tail is comprised of the moustache and mouth, whilst the masks eyebrows make up the birds wings.

    And just above the centre of the wings can be found the head of the bird, which seems to be 'kissing' a serpent that runs over the top of the helmet from front to back. This whole bird design, as-well as being very decorative, is extremely imaginative, a testament to the imagination and skill of our Heathen forefathers, and to the symbolism of the bird.

    The Sutton Hoo ship burial gives us several more examples too. Another of the artefacts found was the lid of a purse, a beautiful symmetrical designed piece, that would have more than likely held the money of the deceased King. The bird design from the purse lid can be seen in the top left and top right hand corners on every page of this web site. The design shows two birds, one small and one large, with the larger one and it's long pointed beak seemingly showing a bird of prey.

    Whilst the other example can be found upon the Sutton Hoo shield, again a design that seems to show a bird of prey, this time alongside the design of a fierce looking dragon. But why would bird designs be found upon objects such as a helmet and shield?, these of course being instruments of war. These are surely here to symbolise more than just the artistic skills of their creator. It could be that such birds embodied courage and strength, and the man who wore and carried these possessions into battle was deemed to inherit such virtues. A bird that does have connections to war and battle is the raven, a bird that was possibly sacred to the Anglo-Saxon god Woden.

    In Old English literature ravens are described as being waelceasig, which along with the similar Old English word Waelcyrge, mean choosers of the slain. These two words have the same meaning as the Norse Valkyrie, female spirits from Norse myth, who help in battle and take slain warriors to Valhalla. So with this connection between the raven and war, and the Old English waelceasig/Waelcyrge to the Norse Valkyrie, it could be that at one time, if ravens were seen scavenging upon the battle field, the Anglo-Saxons believed them to actually be choosing the slain, taking the souls of the dead to the afterlife, and therefore called them Waelcyrges.

    Or alternatively, it could be that the belief in female spirits called Waelcyrges amongst the Anglo-Saxons stemmed from observances of ravens, again, upon the battle field.
    Whether seen as powerful and courages creatures, or just as beautiful artistic designs, the bird and it's representation in artistic symbolism, was great amongst the Anglo-Saxons, and played a significant role in their Heathen religion.

    Fylfot - The fylfot symbol, also known as the swastika, was a most sacred of symbols to the Heathen Anglo-Saxons, and all the pre-Christian peoples of Europe. The symbol itself has connections to both the worship of the sun and the thunder god Thunor. In England the fylfot can be found in many places and carved on many objects throughout England. Amongst the Anglo-Saxons this particular symbol seems to have had very strong connections to burial, and maybe also the afterlife, for we find examples of it from graves, and carved on cremation urns from East Anglia.

    The Anglo-Saxons also carved the swastika upon their weapons as there is an example of such found on a hilt and sword belt found in Kent. It could be that the Anglo-Saxons believed that carving the swastika upon their weapons gave it the power and strength of Thunor, or maybe the warrior carrying the weapon was blessed with Thunors protection during battle. Aswell as these more war-like symbolic religious uses of the swastika, we also find it carved on simple items such as brooches. Which could show that that the wearer of the brooch claimed Thunor as his/her patron god, or that at times the swastika was used simply as a form of decoration.

    Hammer - The Heathen Norse perceived Thorburn, their thunder god, as the bearer of a mighty hammer, and the Norse peoples themselves wore or carried symbols in the form of small hammer amulets in his honour. The Heathen Anglo-Saxons seem to have percieved their own thunger god, Thunor, similarly, and like the Norse they wore or carried his hammer symbol. And like the hammer amulet to the left, some were buried with their owners within Anglo-Saxon graves.

    To the Norse, Thorburns hammer was called Mjollnir, and had the power to produce thunder and lightning. Although there is no suviving evidence that the Anglo-Saxons had such a name for Thunor's hammer, it is very likely, similarly to Thorburn, that it represented his strength and power and had the ability to produce thunder and lightning, something that the Anglo-Saxons witnessed frequently, the power of Thunor.

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    What about the oak? The oak was sacred to the Druids and is the national tree of England, with pine in Scotland.

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