The Roman departure from British shores in the early 5th century AD provided a window of opportunity for others. Crossing the North Sea in search of new lands was a mixture of tribes from Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. These people became known as the Anglo-Saxons and they ruled over Britain until the Normans defeated their last king at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Before they were converted to Christianity in the 7th century AD, the Anglo-Saxons were pagans who worshipped a variety of gods and goddesses. There are several notable similarities between their gods and those of the Norse.
Then why are they not so well-known? This is because of the very limited source material regarding Anglo-Saxon mythology, preventing us from gathering a complete understanding of the universe in which their gods resided. On the other hand, epic sagas written in the medieval period have provided us with a detailed understanding of Norse mythology.
Although our knowledge is somewhat limited there’s enough evidence to define who the major players were in the Anglo-Saxon pantheon. Let’s find out more about them:
Just like Odin, his Norse equivalent, Woden was the king of the Anglo-Saxon gods. We have him to thank for one of our days of the week. Wednesday derives from the Old English 'Wōdnesdæg', meaning ‘day of Woden’.
Anglo-Saxons believed their gods represented and were responsible for different things; war, harvests, health etc. Therefore, people prayed to them individually and in unique ways to encourage the gods to grant them their wishes.
Woden was the god of war, so warriors paid tribute to him before marching into battle, hoping the chief of the gods would grant them favour in the field of combat. He was also the god of wisdom, supposedly gifting the Anglo-Saxons with the ancient runes from which they created their alphabet.
Woden was often depicted with a beard and carrying a spear. He had two pet wolves who sat beside his throne. He was also a shapeshifting deity who had the power to walk amongst humans and observe them in disguise.
Frige was the wife of Woden and the reason our final working day of the week is called Friday – ‘Frige’s Day’. In Norse mythology, she's called Frigg and was also married to the king of the gods.
Frige was the goddess of many different things including love, marriage, the home, childbirth and the harvest. This meant that Frige was worshipped a great deal by the Anglo-Saxons, who offered her plenty of gifts in the hope of securing her blessings.
For example, people would offer tributes to her for the coming harvest and do the same after a bountiful crop. Before and after childbirth, women paid homage to Frige hoping she'd watch over them and protect them and their children. She was often associated with both the stork and the spinning wheel.
Thanks to a multitude of modern comics, books and movies, Thunor’s Norse counterpart needs no introduction – Thor, the hammer-wielding god of thunder and lightning.
Just like Thor, Thunor was the god of thunder and the son of Woden and Frigg, who carried a mighty hammer and rode a chariot pulled by two giant goats. Similarly, Thunor was the most popular of the Anglo-Saxon gods given that archaeologists have uncovered more pendants dedicated to him than any other deity. Hammer-shaped pendants have been discovered in many Anglo-Saxon graves.
Famously, Thor was tasked with safeguarding Asgard (the stronghold of the Norse Æsir pantheon of gods) and Thunor shares a similar responsibility in Anglo-Saxon mythology. He was the protector of humans against all threats.
Being the god of weather and the elements, the Anglo-Saxons revered Thunor as one of the most powerful deities. Since he was also the god of the forge and blacksmiths, people believed that when they heard the sound of thunder, it was Thunor striking his mighty hammer against his anvil. The spark it created was the reason behind lightning.
Thunor’s day of the week was the fourth one, hence why we have Thursday.
Although the Anglo-Saxons turned to both Woden and Thunor during times of war, Tiw was the official god of war (and the sky) and the most skilled in combat of all the gods. This was quite the achievement considering he only had one hand. Just like the story of Týr (Tiw’s Norse counterpart), Tiw’s hand was bitten off by a monstrous wolf called Fenris.
The legend goes that a prophecy had foretold that Fenris would kill Woden and so to prevent this happening the gods decided to tie the beast up. The dwarves crafted a mighty invisible chain to hold the creature but the wolf was wary when the gods approached him. He only allowed them to get close when Tiw offered to put his hand in Fenris’ mouth. When the gods seized on the opportunity to chain the beast up, Fenris bit down on Tiw’s right hand.
Not surprisingly, the wolf was Tiw’s sacred animal. We have him to thank for Tuesday - ‘Tiw’s Day’.
Eostre was the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and rebirth who was celebrated with a festival during the spring equinox. It’s believed that we have her to thank for the word ‘Easter’. In most European countries, the name ‘Easter’ came from the Hebrew word 'Pesach', otherwise known as Passover - the Jewish springtime holiday. However, in English-speaking languages, some historians have argued the word derives from Eostre.
This is all due to the writings of an 8th century English monk called Bede, who is widely recognised as the greatest Anglo-Saxon scholar of his day. He is the only source to mention Eostre and without his writings, she’d be lost to history.
As you might guess, Eostre’s special month was April and the Anglo-Saxons worshipped her during this time in the hope she would bring a prosperous summer to all. Her close association with hares is believed by some to be the origin of the Easter Bunny story.
Hot cross buns might also have originated from the Anglo-Saxon worshipping of Eostre since they were offered to her as gifts. The four quarters of the bun represented the four seasons as well as the four primary phases of the moon.