The Conflict of the Gods

As I said these things I felt a strange stirring within me. I thought of the hearty laughter of my kinsman Cedd, and his goodness to me, and of all the tales he had told me of the Gods and heroes of our past. I thought of how he had taught me the names of trees, and which Gods and Goddesses found their homes in them, and told me of the woman-spirit of the river and how she gave birth to the life along her banks. I recalled the offerings of sheep’s milk and honey we would take to the grove each Spring, and remembered also the heart of that grove in flames as it rose to receive his noble body.
This was all sin, I knew now, and error and ignorance; but my heart still stirred in my breast as I recalled these things, and I felt lost.Ceridwen reflecting on her heathen childhood, from The Circle Of Ceridwen

It is important to remember that the heathen Anglo-Saxon and the Vikings (or Danes, as the Anglo-Saxons generally referred to them) worshipped essentially the same Gods. The original Angles and Saxons who began to settle England (“Angle-land”) beginning in 450 CE were after all, from the southern part of modern Denmark and northern part of modern Germany, just as many of the later raiding Danes from the eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries were.

These folk did not lightly leave behind their traditional beliefs. Recall that Charlemagne waged a thirty year religious war against the continental Saxons in his zeal to have them convert and his lust to subjugate them. Their resistance was so great that they choose death over conversion. This led to one of the greatest atrocities of the era: the one day slaughter of 4,500 Saxon captive men, beheaded for refusing to accept Christianity. This act of near-genecide at Verden in 782, combined with the desecration and destruction of Irminsul (variously a sacred tree, or possibly a sky-pillar sacred to the Saxons), spelled the end for continental Saxon paganism.

Most of their English cousins had already converted by this time; Augustine’s mission to Kent in 597 proceeded in fits and starts over the centuries but by King Alfred’s time (born 849), most of the populace espoused Christianity, albeit with a strong admixture of heathenism apparent in agricultural rituals, pageants, and social customs.

Christianity came late to the Danes, and it must be admitted that the upstart Eastern faith might have little appeal to the warrior class, as its God seemed so ineffectual in protecting the monasteries that formed the Viking’s richest sources of pillage. (The Heliand, a Saxon gospel create to school the newly-converted continental Saxons, recasts the New Testament in terms more palatable to a warrior class: Christ is a Chieftain, a warrior of great cunning and greater magic, his apostles his thegns, and Bethlehem a hill-fort.). The northern peoples were subject to mass conversion, made more for political than spiritual ends; such was the proclamation made in Iceland in the year 1000 that henceforth all were to be Christian. The Danes settled in England in the area designated as Danelaw assimilated easily, especially with the inducement of a new linen shirt given at baptism. (One Dane boasted he had collected 47 such baptismal gifts.)

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