The Anglo-Saxons

"There were no reasons of state to lead the German conquerors in Britain to follow Roman traditions, as in the other provinces of the Empire. There was no native population permeated with Roman culture and ready to communicate this culture to the immigrants." [B. ten Brink, Geschichte der englischen Litteratur, I, p. 12] The Teutons that had crossed the North Sea and settled in England were of far purer stock than the tribes of the West and South and the East Teutons of the period of migrations. The Romans, after an occupation of three hundred and fifty years, had evacuated England, leaving behind buildings, walls, inscriptions, and other material evidences of their occupation, but no permanent institutions that outlived their departure. Roman rule in Britain had always borne the character of a military occupation, maintained by the aid of a few legions. England had not, like Gaul, become permeated with Roman culture that outlasted the fall of the Empire. Accordlingly, when the Romans left Britain, the British (Keltic) population was thrown practically into a state of anarchy and was left defenseless against the Teutonic incursions. Even as late as the time of the emperor Honorius they in vain besought protection from Rome against these invaders.

Invasions of seafaring Teutons began as early as the fourth century. The Viking expeditions run parallel with the migrations, though they cover a far longer period. No permanent settlement, however, was effected in England until the British king, Vortigern, in one of his feuds with his neighbors, was ill-advised enough to call in the aid of the Saxon chief, Hengist. Hengist and Horsa remained in the land where their arms proved victorious (449). They were followed for about a century by constantly fresh streams of Teutonic immigrants from the peninsula of Jutland and from the mouth of the Elbe. From Jutland the Jutes came, who settled in Kent, from Sleswick the Angles, from Holstein the Saxons. These tribes established small kingdoms along the entire eastern coast of England, pushed back the Keltic population ever further to the west and north, and constantly extended their dominion.

With good reason Freeman has pointed out the great difference existing between the Anglo-Saxon settlement in England and the Frankish in Gaul. While the Franks became wholly Romanized, taking on the language and civilization of the antique world, no such heritage fell to the lot of the Anglo-Saxons. Nor did the conquerors intermingle with the native Keltic population. They pushed them back, and the downfall of the British has been depicted in vivid colors by Gildas (560). The struggle with the Britons and Scots covered a long period and broke out ever anew. As late as the year 603 the Northumbrian Saxons were compelled to drive back the Scots at Degsastan. The Keltic element has, of course, not exterminated everywhere in England. In the western districts, such as Devonshire and Somerset, it is more widely represented than in the eastern. In the main, however, the Anglo-Saxon conquest involved the supplanting of one people by the other.

Christianity too, which the Britons had adopted about A.D. 200, was rejected by the Anglo-Saxons. For more than one hundred and fifty years they remained true to their heathen traditions. Then the new religion penetrated from two sides. First of all the Keltic (Irish) missionaries, Columbia in Iona as early as 563, worked among them. In addition to this, since the year 600, missionaries were sent direct from Rome, of whom Augustine, who settled in Canterbury, was the first. Some fifty years later Christianity was general among the Anglo-Saxons, in the form which accepted the primacy of Rome. These are the same two currents, the more independent one of the Irish mission, and the papal one, triumphing under the leadership of Boniface, which we have already met in the history of missions among the Germans.

If we possessed a native literature from this period of Anglo-Saxon paganism, it would be of inestimable value as a source for Teutonic Mythology. But here again we must be content with what we learn from writings of the period subsequent to the conversion, and with what has continued to live in the traditions of the people. The value of these latter sources has, however, at times been underestimated or, at any rate, they have not been exploited for the study of Teutonic mythology to the extent that would seem desirable, for the fairly rich Anglo-Saxon literature is after all the oldest literature that a Teutonic tribe has produced in a Teutonic language.

Unfortunately, the writer who was most extensively read, and who, relatively speaking, still stood so near to the pagan period of his people, forms an exception to this use of the native language. Bede (672-735) not only wrote in Latin, but was so much preoccupied with the affairs of the church that he viewed the past of his people, whose ecclesiastical history he wrote, entirely through the eyes of a monk. Yet there are a few chapters in Bede that furnish us with some insight into the history of the conversion to Christianity. In Northumbria it was effected in a very peaceful manner, through the preaching of Paulinus during the reign of king Edwin. Bede (II,3) unrolls for us the picture of a conference, in which the king consults his nobles and also his chief priest, Coïfi, in regard to the proposition. The latter at once shows his readiness to give up the old gods. He has never found their service very advantageous, is not convinced of the truth of the old religion, and, being entirely free from superstitious fear, stands ready to be the first to desecrate and raze the sanctuary with sword and spear. Another of the nobles impresses us more favorably. In a finely conceived simile he tells of the bird that flies into the warm festive hall from the rain and snow without, only to pass out again on the other side: "de hieme in hiemem." ["From winter into winter."] Such is man’s brief span of life between the unknown past and an unknown future. Why then should we not take heed of the new teaching that gives assurance concerning these things?

It is not, however, to be supposed that the introduction of Christianity among the Anglo-Saxons met with no outward opposition. The Mercian king Penda (626-655) fought against it with might and main, till the bitter end. The Northumbrian king Oswald, who fell in battle against him, is regarded as a martyr in the Christian cause, and Bede recounts a number of miracles wrought at his grave or through his relics. The heathen king had hung Oswald’s head and dismembered limbs on trees, perhaps as a sacrifice to his gods. But Bede’s narrative, diffuse as it is in its account of the miracles, gives us no true insight into the real motives and the significance of king Penda, who, as we learn from Bede himself, did not exterminate the Christians in his realm, although he held them in great contempt. At any rate, when Penda fell in battle against Oswin, the last powerful opponent of Christianity perished. Before the end of the seventh century the organization of the Anglo-Saxon church under the primacy of the pope was completed, and while politically the kingdoms were still separate and distinct, ecclesiastical unity had been effected.

As in Germany, so in England the old paganism lived on after conversion in numerous magic formulas and observances. While Anglo-Saxon literature has not transmitted any such, like the Merseburg Charms, from the heathen period itself, there are still several in which pagan ideas are clearly discernible; so in the incantation against rheumatic pains, conceived of as brought into the blood or limbs by the arrows or shafts of gods, elves, or hags (hægtessan). In the main the charms were joined to a belief in, and in vocation of, powerful elemental spirits. Thus running water possessed magic power for the healing of sickness, a conception which there is no need of deriving from the Christian baptism. Mother Earth, too, called Erce in a field charm, was tilled with all manner of symbolic rites and formulas, which served to promote fertility. The introduction of large numbers of ecclesiastical formulas into these incantations does not conceal their originally pagan character. Though secular and ecclesiastical laws united in inveighing against various forms of divination and witchcraft, such as casting spells on man or beast, magic draughts, the evil eye, and the like, they were not eradicated.

The Anglo-Saxon genealogical tables have already been mentioned in connection with the other tribal sagas. [See chapter iv, p. 81.] These dreary lists represent in reality the skeleton of numerous legends, and while we are not told that the latter received poetic treatment and development, they must at all events have survived in the imaginations of the people. The genealogies of the royal families have combined names of varied origin. Sceldwa (Scyld), who was identified with the progenitor of the Danish kings, Beaw, and king offa have all three been imported from the original home of the Anglo-Saxons between the North Sea and the Baltic. Opinions still differ as to what of these characters and tales is originally the property of the tribes themselves, and what is of Danish origin. While the genealogies, therefore, in their nucleus point to the pre-English period of the Anglo-Saxons, they have been localized in England, and have been transferred to the royal families of the individual kingdoms.

Our knowledge of the deities of Anglo-Saxon paganism is based solely on these genealogies and on proper names. It is, accordingly, impossible to get beyond mere names. Attempts to define the character of these gods must depend upon material drawn from other Teutonic tribes. From the sources at our command, we thus obtain Wodan, Thunor, Tiw, Seaxneat, Bældæg (Baldr), the nicors or water sprites, and possibly some others. In the first component part of such names as Oswald and Oswin we recognize the word signifying god, in Alfred and similar names, the elves. While these gleanings seem meagre, they suffice to prove that the Anglo-Saxons carried the old Teutonic gods with them from their original home. In the heroic sagas of other tribes they also took a lively interest. These Anglo-Saxons celebrated in song the foreign sagas of Ermanric, Walther, and Wieland,—a fact which indicates a lively intercourse with the various Teutonic tribes of the continent, through whom they became acquainted with these legends.

The greater part of Anglo-Saxon literature bears a Biblical and ecclesiastical character, and yet it was written not in Latin, but in the vernacular. In the vernacular the herdsman Kædmon (680), who in a nightly vision had received the gift of poetry, sang of the fall of the angels and other Biblical subjects, in poems that may be compared with the recently discovered Genesis fragments of the Saxon Heliand poet. Kynewulf also, the great Anglo-Saxon poet of the runic verses, of riddles and the like, sang of legends of saints in Andreas and Elene. King Alfred was a generous patron of native letters, and himself translated into Anglo-Saxon the writings of Orosius, Bede, Boëthius, and Gregory the Great. It is necessary to emphasize the fact that all these works were written in the vernacular, inasmuch as this tended to favor unconsciously, and even contrary to the intention of the author, the retention of many a pagan conception. As we have seen, the same observation applied to the Old Saxon Heliand: the language was involuntarily the vehicle of old ideas. Thus in Kynewulf’s Elene we frequently find Wyrd used of fate, Wig of the god of war. The god of the universe is represented as helmsman, the cross is regarded as a hidden treasure, and the nails of the cross as instruments of magic, while hell is depicted with the characteristics of Nastrand, and very vivid scenes are drawn from the seafarers’ life.

The chief monument of Anglo-Saxon literature, the epic Beowulf, completed in its present form, presumably not later than the eighth century, has preserved for us a great wealth of sagas. Its contents, however, carry us back to a time antecedent to, or contemporaneous with, the immigration of the Anglo-Saxons in England. The poem relates how the Danish king Hrothgar, of the race of the Scyldings, built a splendid hall, Heorot. A monster, Grendel, carries off from this hall every night thirty of the king’s thanes, and no one is able to hinder it, until the great Geat, Beowulf, slays first Grendel and then, in the depts of the sea, Grendel’s mother. Laden with gifts Beowulf returns to his native land, where he succeeds Hygelac as king of the Geatas. After a long and glorious reign he undertakes, as an old man, to fight a dragon that guards immense treasures. In his combat with the monster he is joined by the young Wiglaf, the Scylfing, who is not, however, able to save his lord. In the fight Beowulf falls a victim to the venom of the dragon, but he has slain the monster, and has the satisfaction of having with his death purchased the treasure of gold for his people. The poem ends with his solemn obsequies.

It will be apparent from even this brief outline that the epic Beowulf consists of two main parts. The first relates the struggle with Grendel and his mother, the second and shorter part the combat with the dragon and the hero’s death. The connection between these two parts is rather loose. Numerous other legends have, moreover, been introduced by way of episodes: Beowulf’s swimming contest with Breca; the combat with a dragon of Sigemund and his nephew Fitela; tales of the Frisian king Finn; of Offa and Thrydo, in which an Anglo-Saxon hero from the original home has been more or less fused with an historical Mercian king; the story of the Swedish king Ongentheow, and various other personages.

The first question that presents itself is, to what region do these sagas originally belong? It is noticeable at the very outset that the Anglo-Saxons are not even mentioned in the poem, the scene being laid throughout in Scandinavian countries, among Danes and Geatas, the latter of whom we regard not as Jutes, but as the Götas of Southern Sweden. Accordingly, some scholars are of the opinion that the Anglo-Saxon poem is essentially a translation of a Danish original, or, if not in its present form a translation, that at any rate the legends it contains had been fully developed among the Scandinavians and had already been the subject of song.

Not only do these assertions not admit of proof, but they are in a high degree improbable. The evidence points decidedly in the opposite direction. With Müllenhoff, ten Brink, and Symons, we must regard the Beowulf epic as the development given by the Anglo-Saxons themselves to various sagas that they had either brought with them from their original home, or had subsequently appropriated in their unbroken intercourse with their native land. There is no occasion for surprise at the striking resemblances with Danish sagas in regard to subject-matter, if we reflect that these peoples came constantly in contact with one another and that this contact before the Viking age was apparently never hostile for any length of time. That these legends should reach their full development on other than their native soil is also not an isolated phenomenon. In a similar manner the East-Gothic sagas lived on principally among the alemanni; the saga of Hugdietrich and Wolfdietrich was transmitted to posterity through the franks, and the memory of the downfall of the Burgundians was perpetuated through other peoples. It is in no strange, therefore, that the Anglo-Saxons, who themselves treated in song the sagas of other peoples (Ermanric, Walther), brought with them from their native home those of their neighbors. It is indeed noteworthy that the period of the national conflict in England itself lives only in the Keltic saga of king Arthur, and not among the Anglo-Saxons themselves, or at least only in what may be gathered concerning it from disjointed names in the genealogies. But this may in part be attributed to the fact that other characters and other narratives had already seized hold of their imagination.

Müllenhoff’s masterly monograph has shown how, by means of keen historical criticism, the epic of Beowulf may be made to do service as an important source for the history of the seafaring Teutons. There are reflected in Beowulf historical events as well as historical conditions and relations. While the two main episodes that constitute the poem are undoubtedly mythological in origin, and Beowulf is therefore to be classed as a mythical hero, he has been fused with and historical personage, with a warrior from among the following of king Hygelac, or Chochilaicus, as he is called in our Latin sources. This Chochilaicus harried, about the year 515, the Frisian coast up to the mouths of the Rhine, and inland along the banks of this river, but was defeated and slain by Theodobert, the son of the Franconian king Theodoric. This event is subsequent, therefore, to the first settlement of the Anglo-Saxons on English soil and is contemporaneous with the period of occupation by the swarms of colonists from Sleswick and Holstein that followed the vanguard of their kinsmen. It is evident, accordingly, that the period of saga formation had not come to a close when the Anglo-Saxons arrived in England, and hence in the historic events reflected in Beowulf we find both such as are anterior to, and such as are contemporaneous with, the century of the immigration. While the lists of Danish kings contain a number of older names that invite a comparison with the tradition chronicled by Saxo, Hygelac and the historical Beowulf lived in the sixth century. The latter has, however, become fused with an older myth hero.

It does not lie within our province to point out all the details which a critical examination of the narratives and a comparison with other accounts warrant us in regarding, or at least in surmising, as historical in origin. The old Danish sagas are especially rich in this regard, even though the Danes do not play the chief rôle in this poem. But Beowulf preserves also the memory of more than one important struggle: of the one between the Geatas and the Swedes, resulting in the downfall of the kingdom of the Geatas; of the conflict between the Scandinavian —not improperly so styled, although antedating by several centuries the so called Viking period —and the Frisians; of the one between the Danes and the Heathobeards. The last-named tribe, by some identified with the Longobards, by others with the Heruli, inhabited one or more of the islands which are at present Danish, and was annihilated in a feud with the Danes. The memory of this event faded to such an extant that in the later forms of the sagas, found in Saxo, the heroes of the Heathobeards, Froda and Ingeld, have been classed among the Danish kings. Thanks to Beowulf and Widsith, the memory of these valiant bards (such seems to be the signification of the name) has not been lost. They have there been associated with the reign of the Danish Hrothgar, whom our poem pictures as the ideal king, bold and brave in his youth, in later years wise and good, generous and peace-loving. It was he who built the hall Heorot (Hleidr, near Roeskilde), which is a center of the heroic life of the North in Beowulf, and the scene of the devastation wrought by Grendel, as well as of Beowulf’s subsequent struggle with the monster.

While all these sagas of kindred peoples have been developed in the Anglo-Saxon epic, it is perhaps impossible to define accurately what belongs to the past of their own tribes, in the narrower sense of the word. Such is doubtless the case, however, with the characters Garmund, Offa, and Eomær, and most likely also with the main features of the myths. The links that serve to connect it with the English period may be detected as readily as the superinduction of Christian conditions. It is evident that these do not form a part of the myths proper. They are probably to be ascribed to the Christian author of the poem.

That nature-myths lie concealed behind the main episodes of Beowulf may be regarded as certain, and a plausible interpretation has been found for at least one, and that the most important, of his heroic deeds. We do not refer to the swimming contest with Breca, the forced and divergent explanations of which may be passed by. While it is not improbable that here too a nature-myth lies at the foundation of the story, it is at least possible that it is merely a great embellished account of an actual occurrence, or, what is even more likely, the creation of a poet’s imagination. Grendel and his mother, on the other hand, are unmistakable water demons. Grendel’s regular appearance in the hall Heorot may be compared with the numerous stories concerning water-sprites that visit mills. The high floods and depts of the sea have accordingly been personified in the savage water monsters of Grendel and his mother. The original home of the myth is along the coast of the North Sea, known of old as fraught with danger to the inhabitants of its shores. That the localization at Heorot-Hleidr on Seeland is not original is evident from the fact that this place is situated inland. The interpretation of the myth as sug-gested above seems the most obvious one. It may, however, be noted in passing that Laistner has, in a very ingenious way, offered another explanation, which would seem to be supported by some descriptive passages of the poem (e.g. Beowulf, XXI ). According to this view, Grendel and his mother are the mists that cause so many deadly diseases along the coasts of Jever and Dithmarschen, and Beowulf "Fegewolf" is the wind hero who chases the mists away. Still other interpretations have been proposed, but it does not appear that the character of Grendel and his mother as water giants can be gainsaid.

As to the last great adventure of Beowulf, his fight with the dragon, an interpretation on the basis of a nature-myth is neither more or less in place than in the case of the dragon fights of Siegfried, Dietrich, Orynit, and many other heroes. The allegory of the Viking life, which bestows the golden booty on him who braves the sea monster, ingenious as the explanation may seem, is certainly not part of the original conception. These combats with dragons are mythical beyond doubt, but what phenomenon of nature they represent is wholly a matter of conjecture.

An important aspect of the subject that has been neglected by many has with good reason been dwelt upon by Müllenhoff. In the Beowulf we are dealing not only with nature-myths, but also with a "culture-myth." The ancient heroes are genealogically the ancestors of peoples or kings, and at the same time the beginnings of civilization are ascribed to them. In the Sceaf, Scyld (the ancestor of the Danish kings), Beaw, we find distributed over three heroes what really belongs to only one. Of Sceaf only the arrival is told, of Scyld the funeral, while of Beaw we have the entire eventful life of the hero. Originally, all this was probably narrated of that one of the three ancestral heroes who belongs to the Anglo-Saxon race. The connection of his ancestry with the Danes has come about through a transference or a commingling of sagas. This progenitor, Scyld-Scefing, who as a child landed on the coast in a rudderless ship, with weapons and treasures, and sleeping on a sheaf of grain, symbolizes the possessions that are to secure for his people their rank and position: navigation, war, kingly rule, agriculture. Beaw is the personification of the "culture-hero," who slays the sea monsters in order that his people may dwell in safety. It will be seen that a "culture-myth" of this character can be analyzed into its constituent parts more readily than nature-myths.

In this instance the gleanings from the heroic saga for the study of god-myths are extremely meagre. While the identification of Scyld-Sceaf-Beowulf with Ingv-Freyr, as urged by Müllenhoff, is perhaps more plausible than that with any other deity, we must here also resist the temptation of seeking some god or other behind the figure of a hero.

All the more vivid is the picture that the epic Beowulf gives us of the life of the ancient seafaring Teutons. While the Heliand and the poems of Kynewulf involuntarily preserve various characteristic details of the old Teutonic life, Beowulf gives us these in a direct way. This life of brute strength in constant struggle with the forces of the sea, this love of gold so all-powerful that even the dying Beowulf still revels at the sight of the treasure he has won, the construction and arrangement of the hall Heorot, and the feasts celebrated there, the obsequies of the hero so circumstantially told,—these and similar features make this, the oldest Teutonic epic poem we possess, of especial importance for the study of Teutonic antiquity, and compensate us for the commonplace character of the episodes and personages themselves. Beowulf pictures only the most ordinary heroic deeds, fights with monsters and dragons. There is no trace of any delicate delineation of character. The personages introduced are little more than abstract types: the brave hero, the wise king, the envious courtier, the faithful vassal. Women do not play any considerable rôle,—the queen’s character is no way individualized,—while the majority of the men are extremely voluble, giving to boasting, and childish curious. The wisdom shown by Hrothgar is also of a rather commonplace nature. And yet we read Beowulf with unfailing interest. It is the epic of the ancient heroes of the sea, and it furnishes a vivid of the crude manners and conditions of life of the Teutons of the sixth century.



"The Religion of the Teutons," by P. D. Chantepie De La Saussaye, trans. by Bert J. Vos, page 149-162.

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