Woden: Allfather of the English

Last week we learned about the deified Woden, often identified with the Old Norse god Oðinn. But not everyone agreed that Woden was divine.

No detailed account of Woden and his mythic adventures survives from early medieval England; nevertheless, this ancestral figure remains present in the cultural imagination of the English people even centuries later. The famous 8th-century ecclesiastical historian Bede is the first known Anglo-Saxon author to describe this mythic genealogy in Book I, Capitula 15 of his Historia claiming: Duces fuisse perhibentur eorum primi duo fratres Hengist et Horsa….Erant autem filii Uictgilsi, cuius pater Uitta, cuius pater Uecta, cuius pater Uoden, de cuius stirpe multarum prouinciarum regium genus originem duxit, “From the first their leaders (the Anglo-Saxons) were held to be two brothers, Hengest and Horsa….They were sons of Wictgils, whose father was Witta, whose father was Wecta, whose father was Woden.”

Image from the Peterborough Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 636, f. 1r. © All Rights Reserved.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, surviving in nine extant manuscripts and probably completed under King Ælfred the Great in the 9th century, reiterates Bede’s Wodinic genealogy. Almost a century later, in a Latin adaptation known as Chronicon Æthelweardi, the 10th century historian Æthelweard (descended from the 9th-century King Æthelred I, the elder brother of the King Ælfred the Great) laments Woden’s divine status within the Norse Pantheon. In his chronicle, Æthelweard complains that ignorant Scandinavian pagans have mistakenly deified Woden, whom Æthelweard identifies as king of the barbarians. He bemoans how these pagans honor Woden as a god rather than the ancestral chieftain that Æthelweard, like so many Anglo-Saxon authors, understood him to be.

Well after the Norman Conquest of 1066, Woden was still making his way into English manuscripts, especially in depictions of Anglo-Saxon royal lineages. At roughly the same time as Snorri was composing his Edda, and Geoffrey of Monmouth his Historia, Wodinic genealogy remains present in the English written record, remembering the Anglo-Saxon kings of old who trace their ancestry back to this deified chieftain.

Woden, depicted as ancestor of the Anglo-Saxon Kings. The British Library Board Cotton Caligula A.viii f. 29r © All Rights Reserved.

The Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum adventulocated in a 12th-century manuscript (London, British Library Cotton Caligula A. viii) and often attributed to Symeon of Durham—contains an illustration of Woden, crowned as ancestral king of the Anglo-Saxons. The text surrounding the illustration describes the royal lineages of the kingdoms of Kent, Mercia, Deira, Bernicia and Wessex respectively, each claiming descent and the right to rule from this legendary figure.

Woden genealogically linked to King Henry II of England. The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 66 p.69 © All Rights Reserved.

A strikingly similar image of Woden as a crowned English ancestral figure surrounded by his royal descendants accompanies the 12th-century Historia Anglorum by Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon (located in Cambridge Corpus Christi College MS 66). This text connects Woden with Henry II, the contemporary king of England.

Ernulf’s Wodinic genealogy for the Kings of East Anglia. From Rochester Cathedral Library, MS A.3.5 © All Rights Reserved.

Likewise, Ernulf, Bishop of Rochester describes the kings of East Anglia as descendants of the legendary Woden in his 12th century Textus de Ecclesia Roffensi (found in Rochester Cathedral Library, MS A.3.5).

In medieval English historiography, Woden appears to have been used to establish dynastic legitimacy for kings in early medieval England. Long after Woden may have been worshiped as a god, well past the Anglo-Saxon conversion and even through the Norman Conquest, the importance of this legendary figure continues to loom large in the cultural imagination of those living and ruling in medieval England. Although today nowhere near as popular or well known as Arthur, the so-called king of the Britons, the earliest kings ruling in England turned to Woden, not Arthur, in order to affirm and legitimize their royal lineages.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

Special thanks to David Ganz, Andrew Klein and Christopher Scheirer for their contributions to this post.

Further Reading:

Davis, Craig R. “Cultural assimilation in the Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies.”  Anglo-Saxon England 21 (1992): 23-36.

Hill, Thomas. D. “Woden and the pattern of nine: numerical symbolism in some old English royal genealogies.” Old English Newsletter 15.2 (1982): 41-42.

John, Eric. “The Point of Woden.” In Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 5. Oxford University Committee for archaeology, 1992.

Lutz, Angelika. “Æthelweard’s Chronicon and Old English Poetry.” Anglo-Saxon England 29 (2000): 177-214.

Meaney, A L. “Woden in England: a reconsideration of the evidence.” Folklore 77.2 (1966): 105-115.

—. “St. Neots, Æthelweard and the Compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Survey.” In Studies in Earlier Old English Prose: Sixteen Original Contributions. State University of New York Press, 1986: 193-243.

Meehan, Bernard. A reconsideration of the historical works associated with Symeon of Durham: manuscripts, texts and influences. University of Edinburgh, 1979. Dissertation.

Moisl, Hermann. “Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies and Germanic oral tradition.” Journal of Medieval History 7.3 (1981): 215-248.

North, Richard. Heathen gods in Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Rowsell, Thomas. Woden and his Roles in Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogy. Medievalists.net, 2012.

Whitbread, L. “Æthelweard and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.” The English Historical Review 74.293 (1959): 577-589.

Primary Sources mentioned concerning Woden/Oðinn:

Æthelweard. Chronicon Æthelweardi (The Chronicle of Æthelweard). A. Campbell (ed and trans). Oxford University Press, 1962.

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Colgrave, Bertram, Mynors, R.A.B. (eds). Oxford University Press, 1969.

Ernulf, Bishop of Rochester. Textus Roffensis: Rochester Cathedral Library manuscript, A. 3.5.

Henry of Huntingdon. Historia Anglorum (The History of the English People). D. E. Greenway (ed). Oxford Medieval Texts, 1996.

Symeon of Durham (possible author). De primo Saxonum adventu. In  Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea I. Blackwood and Sons, 1868: 202-203.

Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Anthony Faulkes (trans and ed). David Campbell Publishers, 1987.

Swanton, Michael, (trans and ed). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Phoenix Press, 2000.

Woden and Oðinn: Mythic Figures of the North

King Arthur is not the only legendary figure used to legitimize rulership in medieval England. Long before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia Regum Britannium, the most influential mythic ancestor of the English people was Woden.

Woden is presumably derived from a common god of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples and is often identified with the pagan god Oðinn, who was worshiped in early medieval Scandinavia and called the Alföðr (“Allfather”) in Old Norse. This legendary figure was later understood to be an ancestral chieftain from whom the Anglo-Saxon kings claimed descent and thus the authority to rule in England.

18th century image from Icelandic MS, Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, SÁM 66 © All Rights Reserved.

Woden remains an obscure and enigmatic figure in the extant written records from early medieval England. Like Oðinn, he is often understood in surviving narratives as a deified chieftain who becomes the godhead of the Norse pantheon. It is impossible to tell precisely how analogous the Anglo-Saxon chieftain Woden and the Norse god Oðinn might have been by the time the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded, conquering the once Roman island of Britannia. Scholars have debated the role and significance of these respective pagan deities and their potential relationship with each other.

Woden, from Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica and a medical charm with Odinic parallels from the so-called Lacnunga (found in British Library Manuscript Harley 585), seems to be a warrior-god; however, the sparse evidence undermines any clear portrait of this mythic figure. Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham, (whose homilies are preserved in four extant manuscripts) composed a 10th century sermon titled De falsis Diis “Concerning false gods” that contains a fairly involved discussion of the gods, equating them to figures in the Roman pantheon, likening Woden to Mercury. Woden weirdly makes his way back to Iceland, via Ælfric’s sermon recorded in the 14th century Hauksbók (Icelandic National Library, AM544 4to). Wulfstan II, Archbishop of York, later expands on Ælfric’s work in his 11th sermon by the same name (found in Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 113).

18th century image of Oðinn riding Sleipnir. From Icelandic MS, Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, SÁM 66, f.80v © All Rights Reserved.

More regularly attested and clearly defined is the Norse god Oðinn, who is associated with runic wisdom and reigns in Valhalla (The Hall of the Slain). One-eyed Oðinn rides on his magical, eight-legged horse called Sleipnir, and according to surviving Icelandic literature from the 12th century onward, he will battle the wolf Fenrir, child of Loki, during the final apocalyptic battle known as Ragnarǫk.

Illustration of the wolf Fenrir biting the right hand off the god Týr, from an Icelandic 18th century manuscript, SÁM 66, f.78v © All Rights Reserved.

Oðinn is featured throughout Norse literature in texts such as Snorra Edda or Prose Edda, written by the famous Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson in the early 13th century, which survives in seven extant Icelandic manuscripts some from as late as the 18th century such as SÁM 66 (housed at Stofnun Árna Magnússonar), ÍB 299 4to (housed at the Icelandic National Library) and NKS 1867 4to (housed at the Danish Royal Library). The anonymous collection of so-called eddic poems, often referred to as the Elder Edda or Poetic Edda (and located in Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, GKS 2365 4to—pet-named “Codex Regius”), is another wealth of Odinic knowledge. This collection begins with the famous Old Norse poem Vǫluspá, in which a prophetic vǫlva (“seeress”) describes the creation and end of the world to Oðinn.

Image from Snorra Edda, showing Oðinn, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology. From the late 17th century Icelandic manuscript ÍB 299 4to © All Rights Reserved.

But in post-conversion England, Woden was not usually considered to be the father of the gods. More often, he was viewed as the ancestral patriarch English royal lineages.  Check back next week for more on this enigmatic figure!

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Special thanks to Tim Machan for his contributions to this post.

Further Reading:

Abram, Christopher. Myths of the Pagan North. Continuum, 2011.

Davis, Craig R. “Cultural assimilation in the Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies.”  Anglo-Saxon England 21 (1992): 23-36.

Hill, Thomas. D. “Woden and the pattern of nine: numerical symbolism in some old English royal genealogies.” Old English Newsletter 15.2 (1982): 41-42.

John, Eric. “The Point of Woden.” In Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 5. Oxford University Committee for archaeology, 1992.

Meaney, A L. “Woden in England: a reconsideration of the evidence.” Folklore 77.2 (1966): 105-115.

Meehan, Bernard. A reconsideration of the historical works associated with Symeon of Durham: manuscripts, texts and influences. University of Edinburgh, 1979. Dissertation.

Moisl, Hermann. “Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies and Germanic oral tradition.” Journal of Medieval History 7.3 (1981): 215-248.

North, Richard. Heathen gods in Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Rowsell, Thomas. Woden and his Roles in Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogy. Medievalists.net, 2012.

Primary Sources mentioned concerning Woden/Oðinn:

Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham.  Homilies of Aelfric: Volume 2 . John C.Pope (ed). Oxford University Press, 1968.

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Colgrave, Bertram, Mynors, R.A.B. (eds). Oxford University Press, 1969.

Grattan, J. H. G (trans). Anglo-Saxon magic and medicine: illustrated specially from the semi-pagan textLacnunga.” Oxford University Press, 1952.

Orchard, Andy. The Elder Edda. Penguin Classics, 2011.

Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Anthony Faulkes (trans and ed). David Campbell Publishers, 1987.

Wulfstan. Homilies of Wulfstan. Dorothy Bethurum (ed). Oxford University Press, 1957.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in Medieval Bestiaries

Dragon and a lion. British Library manuscript Royal 10 E IV f. 80v circa 1275-1325.

Basilisks and dragons and phoenixes, oh my! These fantastic beasts are not creatures you’re likely to see on your next holiday, but in the Middle Ages, they commonly appeared in bestiaries alongside real animals like eagles, lions, badgers and elephants. These magical animals have not faded from the literary imagination and appear frequently in popular culture, like in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling’s contemporary bestiary, the fictional author Newt Scamander writes:

Astounding though it may seem to many wizards, Muggles [non-magical folk] have not always been ignorant of the magical and monstrous creatures that we have worked so long and hard to hide. A glance through Muggle art and literature of the Middle Ages reveals that many of the creatures they now believe to be imaginary were then known to be real. The dragon, the griffin, the unicorn, the phoenix, the centaur—these and more are represented in Muggle works of that period, though usually with almost comical inexactitude. (xiv)

Perhaps our medieval counterparts were onto something. While Rowling’s descriptions may not be any more accurate than those of medieval artists, they share some notable similarities, with a few creative innovations.

Basilisk:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 4751 f. 59 circa 1225-1250. Harley 4751 and Bodley 764 are sister manuscripts with very similar illustrations.

Oxford, Bodley MS 764: “The basilisk’s name in Greek (regulus) means little king, because he is the king of creeping things. Those who see him flee, because his scent will kill them. And he will kill a man simply by looking at him…The basilisk is half-a-foot long, with white spots” (Barber 184).

The basilisk is one of the most fearsome mythical creatures found in medieval bestiaries. Rowling’s description incorporates many of the elements common in most medieval descriptions of the basilisk. She retains the scarlet plume (often depicted as a crown in medieval art) and has made the snake green and longer (50 feet). Most versions differ in their descriptions of the size of the snake, but death by sight is an important part of the myth. The scent of the snake appears in some versions but not others.

Phoenix:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 4751 f. 45 circa 1225-1250 depicting a phoenix burning on a pyre.

There are two versions of the phoenix myth, both of which appear in Bodley MS 764.

Bodley 764: The phoenix, “lives for 500 years, and when it feels itself growing old, it collects twigs from aromatic plants and builds itself a pyre, on which it sits and spreads its wings to the rays of sun, setting itself on fire. When it has been consumed a new bird arises the next day out of the ashes” (Barber 141).

Bodley 764: “When [the phoenix] knows that the end of its life is approaching, it builds a chrysalis of frankincense and myrrh and other spices, and when it is about to expire it goes into the chrysalis and dies. From its flesh a worm emerges, which gradually grows up” (Barber 142).

Rowling’s phoenix is fire-colored and it has a fairly similar description to those of most bestiaries and that found in the Old English poem “The Phoenix” (a translation/ adaptation of Lactantius’ Latin poem “De Ave Phoenice”). There are multiple versions of how the regeneration happens and its duration, the more common of which involves the pyre. The illustrations often do not depict the phoenix in red and gold, but the immense age and regeneration through fire are quintessential elements of the phoenix myth.

Dragon:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 3244 f. 59 circa 1237-1275 depicting an orange fire-breathing dragon with two pairs of wings.

Bodley 764: “The dragon is larger than all the rest of the serpents and than all other animals in the world…It has a crest, a small mouth and narrow nostrils, through which it breathes, and it puts out its tongue. It’s strength is not in its teeth, but its tail, and it harms more by blows than by force of impact” (Barber 183).

Rowling’s dragons vary by breed, of which she identifies ten. Most of her dragons are fire-breathing and they resemble the dragons usually depicted in contemporary art, film, and literature. Dragon illustrations vary greatly in their portrayal of size, color and characteristics. One of the most famous Old English stories about dragons appears in Beowulf, in which the dragon is slayed. J. R. R. Tolkien famously pays homage to this dragon tale in The Hobbit.

Rowling has crafted an engaging narrative incorporating elements found in medieval bestiaries into her descriptions. She has transformed some of the creatures for plot purposes, but their original origins are very much recognizable. I now leave you with a bit of advice, should you ever encounter a rogue dragon on your travels.

Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.

(Never tickle a sleeping dragon.)

Maria Fahs
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of an ongoing series on Medieval Animals and their Literary Afterlives.

Sources:

Barber, Richard W., trans. Bestiary Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M. S. Bodley 764 with All the Original Miniatures Reproduced in Facsimile. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1993. Print.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Norton, 2000. Print.

Cook, Albert Stanburrough (ed.). The Old English Elene, Phoenix, and Physiologus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919.

Detailed Record for Harley 3244.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Detailed Record for Harley 4751.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Detailed Record for Royal 10 E IV.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Newt Scamander. Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2001. Print.

Tolkein, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973. Print.