Anglo-Saxon Elves

Today is a special day on The Traveller’s Path – this is my first crosspost! My post today is also being featured on the Superversive Inklings Blog…many thanks to them for allowing me to share their space…

One of the intriguing questions about the Anglo-Saxons who lived in England in the Early Middle Ages revolves around their religious beliefs and mythologies. Pretty much all of what we know of these beliefs were written down by Christian monks, and so it’s tricky to tease out the truth of that second-hand information. Bede gives us some glimpses of their religion, but by the time he was writing his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed around 731 AD, the religious practices of the pagan Anglo-Saxons had pretty much disappeared from England, so he was writing about beliefs and practices that were pretty much legend in his time.

The Anglo-Saxons of the 7th century* were, of course, descended from the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who migrated to Britain after the Romans left the island defenceless in the 4th century. There is considerable discussion about whether these migrants came as conquerors or settlers, and the truth is likely a mix of the two.

These groups of people came with their own set of beliefs and worldview that were distinct from those of the Celtic and Romano-British people who populated Britain at the time. They were Germanic people, and shared the rich heritage of the Norse and Germanic religions. They certainly were not Christians, but encountered a strong thread of Christian culture in Britain, a legacy of the Roman occupiers.

So in trying to determine the religion and mythologies of the pagan Anglo-Saxons, scholars and historians look to the beliefs of their contemporary Germanic and Norse kin who lived on the Continent during the time they settled in Britain. But of course, their culture and beliefs slowly diverged from their Continental neighbours as time passed, and as they began to be integrated with the local population.

I don’t have the time or expertise to cover all of the Anglo-Saxon beliefs and mythology, but I thought I could give a brief overview of their mythologies about elves, seeing as I did some research on this in writing my first novel, Wilding: Book One of the Traveller’s Path (coming early 2019).

Much has been made of Tolkien’s elves, and many scholars with far more expertise than I have written about Tolkien’s understanding of the Saxon myths and religion and how he incorporated that into his Middle Earth (itself an Anglo-Saxon term) and his conception of elves.

I have posted before about how the concept of “elves” is a feature in many different cultures’ mythologies across the world. In that post I wrote:

Elves are fascinating creatures of legend, and their roots go deep into our history. And when I say “our”, I mean collective mankind, for although we may think that the concept of elves is a Western European one, you can actually find elf-like creatures in most of the world’s mythology. In the Norse and Germanic cultures they are alfar, supernatural beings having great beauty and long lives, sometimes helping humans, sometimes hindering them.

Our English word, “elf”, comes directly from the Anglo-Saxon word ælf. This means “white being”, which seems to relate to ideas of the supernatural, divine, or of feminine beauty. At any rate, the Anglo-Saxon elves were thought of as being human sized, and indeed, generally they were said to look human, although usually they were thought of as being exceptionally beautiful. They could make themselves invisible, or change shape. These are not “Tinkerbells”. The conception of elves (or “fairies”) as being diminutive beings with wings came much later, in the Late Medieval period.

Elves were not to be trusted in Anglo-Saxon mythology. They could be helpful, but they could just as easily be tricksters, or worse. They could lure both men and women into illicit sexual unions, or into a bargain that inevitably would end badly for the human.

They certainly were seen as the cause of some illnesses, both amongst humans and livestock. In Bald’s Leechbook, you can find charms or remedies against what is called “elf-shot” – a sudden, sharp pain, which was caused by being shot by an invisible arrow from an invisible elf.

 

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Bald’s Leechbook. Image from The British Library

Another great danger the Anglo-Saxon elves posed was their penchant for stealing children. It is said that they would take a human child and switch it with one of their own, a sickly, wizened being that would be known as a changling. Human parents who suddenly had a fractious, sickly baby would fear that they had been the recipient of this type of switch. There were also tales about human women who were tricked by elves to become wet nurses for their offspring. And of course, time moves differently in the elves’ world. The woman could emerge from the Otherworld to find that three hundred years had passed when she thought it was only three.

Speaking of the Otherworld, it is very difficult to determine exactly where the Anglo-Saxons thought their elves lived, or where they came from. That’s because the mythology of Anglo-Saxon elves has been conflated with the British Celtic views on these beings, whether they be Irish, Scottish or Welsh, and so to tease out what is specifically Anglo-Saxon about the legends in this regard is tricky. However, it does seem that the general idea was than the elves lived in hills under the earth, which would sometimes open up and reveal the elves singing, dancing, and feasting, which were favourite activities of theirs. They are also associated with certain trees, especially oaks.

The mention of elves from this time period comes from either medical treatises or from epic ballads such as Beowulf. In that poem, the elves are lumped in with other creatures such as giants and demons, who are all descendants of Cain. These are creatures exiled by God that feud endlessly with mortal men, who are the descendants of Seth (Adam’s son) and Noah. This assumes that their home is on Earth, but that they are hidden in some way from men until they make themselves known.

In general, then, when trying to categorize the elves of Anglo-Saxon lore, it is best to think more of Tolkien’s depiction than Disney’s Tinkerbell. Keep in mind, however, that Tolkein was writing fiction, and brought both his own imagination and some later Scandinavian legends and stories for his idea of elves. Not everything in Lord of the Rings corresponds with actual Anglo-Saxon beliefs about them. Especially not the pointed ears!

But because of Tolkien’s influence, there is still interest in these stories and legends that otherwise we likely would have forgotten or ignored. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors would likely be amazed to know that, this many centuries after they are gone, we still tell stories about the elves and their kin.


*As my book takes place mainly in 7th century Northumbria, that is the time period that is the focus of this blog. Although there would be some differences from the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon migration until the time of the Vikings, these broad strokes are pretty close to what most of them would have believed throughout that time.


Featured image: Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, by William Blake (1786) This painting comes from the 18th century, but I think that it is actually not a bad depiction of Anglo-Saxon elves! Image from sussexarch.org.

 

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The Celts: 7th Century Wales

At the time of the 7th century, the Celtic peoples had been pushed by the Anglo-Saxons in to three main areas of Britain. These correspond roughly to what we call Wales, Ireland, and Scotland today. In the next few posts on my series on the Celts, I will focus on each of these three places in turn.

I’m going to start with Wales, because that lovely little piece of the world holds a special place in my heart, as my mother was Welsh, born in the charming town of Mumbles, on Swansea Bay in the south of Wales.

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Sigh. The rugged beauty of Northern Wales. Image from pixabay

Wales in the 7th century was, of course, not known by that name, although the name “Wales” does originate from this time. It comes from the word, wælas, meaning foreign, strange  in Anglo-Saxon. The word wælisc therefore meant foreigner, or stranger, and it was the word they would use to refer to the Celtic Britons who lived in England at the time. Which is ironic, seeing as the Britons were there first. It gives you a sense of the hostility that simmered between these two groups of people.

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The Welsh flag. The dragon has been used on flags in Wales for centuries. Some suggest it came from the draco military standard brought over by the Roman legions, and was adapted by the prominent Romano-British families thereafter. The green and white stripes were additions of Henry Tudor in the Middle Ages. 

The Welsh called themselves the Cymry (CUM-ree), which loosely translated means, fellow-countrymen. Today the word for Wales in the modern Welsh language is Cymru (also pronounced CUM-ree). But in the 7th century, the place we now call Wales did not have one name.

That is because, like the rest of Britain, Wales was divided up into several kingdoms. These were very much based on tribal and kinship allegiances rather than territory, although of course they did generally correspond to one area or another. The borders were fluid, due to the penchant of the kings’ attempts to expand territory by raids and warfare against other tribes/kings. The history of the various kinship groups and the territories they held are rather murky, and it’s difficult to say for certain a lot about the specifics of Welsh in the Early Middle Ages because of this. Certainly the people of Gwynedd in the north were a prominent group at this time, and we also know some about the kingdoms of Dyfed and Gwent. The kingdom of Powys was not referred to by that name in this time, although it certainly existed, under a different name. The name Powys does not surface until the 9th century.

Wales at this time was very much a rural society, with no large civic centres to speak of. The kings didn’t govern in the way we think of it, they were mainly the chief warriors who expanded the territory of the tribe/kinship group and who doled out the rewards of conquest to his faithful retainers. They might also give judgements on disputes, but only in consultation with the local elders. The local head of the kinship group would be the one to whom people looked to for the day-to-day stuff of making life work.

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The Bodvoc Stone. This dates from the late 6th century-early 7th century, and was originally set on a prehistoric barrow on Margham Mountain in South Wales. The inscription reads “The stone of Bodvoc. He he lies, son of Cattegern, great-grandson of Eternalis Vedomavus.” It’s the earliest known family lineage in Wales. Image from britain express.com

Wales was a Christian society at this time.  There were several monasteries in Wales, the most famous being the one founded by St. David, in the south. The Welsh followed the practices of the Celtic Christian church, which had some differences from the Roman Christian practices, most notably in the style of tonsure and the dating of Easter. There some other, cultural differences, too.

Just as they were never completely subdued by the Romans, the Welsh were never completely subdued by the Anglo-Saxons who followed them. The mountains of the north were a formidable barrier to any invaders, and the fierce independence of the Welsh made them difficult adversaries in any battles. Various of the Welsh tribes/kingdoms did form alliances with certain Anglo-Saxon kings, most notably with Penda of Mercia, in their fights against the Northumbrian kingdoms, and there was some intermarrying that went on as well. They also had some alliances with their neighbouring Celts in Ireland, and would make war with them on the Picts or Anglo-Saxons at times.

For the most part, the Britons who lived in the place we now call Wales were a strong, independent people, well used to defending their territories and their customs against all who encroached upon them. Which is the reason why Wales survives today as a unique part of the United Kingdom.

Cymru Am Byth!* 


For more posts on this series on the Celts, see this introduction to the series.

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*”Long Live Wales!” This is the motto of Wales.

 

The Franks Casket

The Franks Casket, also known as the Auzon Casket, is a singularly fascinating object from early 8th century Anglo-Saxon England, probably Northumbrian in origin.

It is a small chest (the word “casket” is a bit deceiving, it is only 9″ by 4″). It’s unknown exactly what its original purpose was, but possibly it was made to hold a Gospel book or a book of Psalms (a psalter). It is made out of whale bone.

It is amazing that this small chest survived at all through the centuries. It first came to light in medieval France, as a reliquary in St. Julien’s Basilica in Brioude. It next appears on the record as a possession of a family in Auzon, France. Possibly it was looted from the church during the French Revolution, but it’s hard to say. At any rate, the box was used as a sewing box until the silver hinges and fittings were taken off and traded for a silver ring.

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Sir Augustus Wolloston Franks, described by Marjorie Caygill, historian of the British Museum, as “arguably the most important collector in the history of the British Museum, and one of the greatest collectors of his age”. Image from Wikicommons

Without the hinges the box fell apart, and the panels were shown to a professor who sold them to an antique dealer in Paris. Three of the panels were bought by Sir Augustus Wolloston Franks in 1857, and he donated them to the British Museum as he was the Keeper of the British and Medieval collections there,

The missing fourth panel (the right end) was found in a drawer by the family in Auzon and sold to the Bargello Museum in Florence, where it still resides.  It wasn’t until 1890 that the discovery was made that it belonged to the other pieces in the British Museum. The British Museum made a cast of the missing piece and reassembled the casket, and it is now on display there.

What is so interesting about this small chest are the exquisite carvings that adorn the sides and the top. Each panel depicts a different scene, all of them include runic inscriptions of varying lengths, with one Latin word thrown in for good measure. The dating and place of origin of the Franks casket comes mainly from the linguistic evidence of the words and the artistic style of the carvings.

The inscription on the front is a riddle, which also includes the answer. It is a riddle that describes what the box is made out of:

The flood lifted up the fish on to the cliff-bank;
the whale became sad, where he swam on the shingle.

Whale’s bone.

The casket was most certainly made in a monastery for some important figure, likely a king. There have been some attempts to tie it to the monastery at Ripon, founded by Wilfrid, but nothing definitive can be said about that.

There have been reams of scholarship on the decorative carvings, and that is because they are all so very different, and have many possible interpretations. The runes are not exactly straightforward, either, as in one spot the carver has used a simple substitution cipher to encrypt the words, and in other places has even written words backwards. This type of playing with words and letters is familiar – the use of riddles and encryption is seen in other surviving manuscripts from this time period. Anglo-Saxons obviously had a great respect for the power of the written word, don’t you think? I find it so fascinating, Don’t you wish you could sit down with the maker and find out exactly what was in his mind as he made this object?

Originally all the carved panels were thought to be random scenes, placed with no overall thought or design in mind. However, scholars are starting to reject that idea. They are now coming to see the carvings as an extremely clever and intellectually rich commentary, chosen precisely for how they all fit together.

The trouble is that the overarching theme or commentary is still unknown, and likely will never be known. Some postulate that the casket is telling the story of the history of England, from its pagan past to its Christian present (at least at the time of the 8th century, when it was created). Others see it as a commentary of the superiority of Christianity over pagan religions.

Because the obviously Christian element on the panel is only one small part of it, though, the thinking is that the casket was likely meant for a secular ruler. There are certainly  many references to secular/pagan legends and history.

There is so much informed and scholarly thought about what each of the carved panels represent that it would be a longer blog post than you likely want to read to tell you all of the possible interpretations. But, in a nutshell, here are a brief description of the panels and some of the proposed meanings of them.

Front panel – contains the riddle described above, flowing around the top, bottom, and sides of the panel, written in runes. The pictures are broken up into two distinct scenes. One the right, you have the only obviously Christian scene on the casket, that of the Adoration of the Magi after Christ was born in Bethlehem. We know this because the maker has helpfully included the word “mægi” over the three figures who are bowing to the baby held by the woman. Easy-peasy.

On the left, there is something completely different, namely, a depiction of part of the Germanic legend of Weyland the Smith. In this scene Welyand has been captured by the cruel king Niohad.. It also depicts the headless body of Niohad’s son, whom Weyland has killed in revenge for his captivity. Weyland is holding a goblet in his tongs, this could be the missing head, which he has made into a goblet. In the legend he offers a goblet of drugged beer to Niohad’s daughter, whom he then rapes. A female figure is in this scene, probably this is her.

Why on earth would the creator of this casket put these two scenes together? Possibly it is juxtaposing the benign Christ and his rule as opposed to the darkness and death of paganism from which the Saxons have escaped.

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Front panel. Image from John W. Schulze, on Flickr

Left side panel – this is a depiction of the legend of the twins Romulus and Remus, the two founders of Rome. The legend states that they were suckled by a she-wolf. The panel shows the wolf on her back, protecting and suckling the twins, with four men with spears watching. The runic inscription says, Romulus and Remus, two brothers: a she-wolf fed them in Rome city, far from their native land. 

This legend shows up in other Anglo-Saxon artifacts from the 8th century, so it’s not necessarily surprising to see it here. There are some parallels to it and the story of Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon brothers who were the legendary founders of England. Bede tells us that they were invited to Britain by King Vortigern along with a mercenary army of Saxons, Angles, and Jutes, to help him fight against the Picts of the north in the light of the departure of Rome’s legions in the 5th century.  Soon the money ran out and the erstwhile saviours turned against the British and began to claim England for their own.

Therefore, this panel could also be a reference to England’s past.

Alternatively, Rome was the centre of the Christian church at the time, so this could be symbolizing the aid and succour that Mother Church gives to her children.

I hope you are starting to see the difficulty scholars have in interpreting these scenes!

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Left panel. Image from Wikicommons

Back Panel – this depicts the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD by Titus. Again, the runic inscription explains this. Interestingly, some of the words here are carved in Latin script, not with the runic alphabet.

Again, one might wonder why this scene is included here. This conquest of the Jews  by the Gentile Roman, Titus, was seen as a divine punishment by God for the wickedness of the Jews in their rejection of Christ. Similarly, Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of England,  presents the invasion of the Saxons as punishment of the Britons for their moral laxity. This panel, then, could be a subtle, or not-so-subtle, commentary on a painful episode in England’s history that God used to chasten his wayward people. Others speculate it is more general than that, and is a commentary of the triumph of Christianity over Judaism.

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Back panel. Roman soldiers are on the left, beseiging Jerusalem. On the right are the captive prisoners being led away. Note the Latin letters on the top right. Image from Wikicommons

 

Lid – The top is missing the two panels that border the centre panel, which, assuming it was similar to the sides, contained the runic inscription. Perhaps these were made of silver as well, with the runes etched on it? Hard to say.  It also has a round spot in the middle which could have had an embellished silver boss or a knob-like handle attached.

Without the helpful runic inscriptions, it’s a little harder to suss out the meaning of the carvings. Some speculate it depicts an unknown part of the legend of Egill, a Germanic hero who is Weyland’s brother. There is one runic word incorporated in the carving, which says Ægill, hence the above interpretation. Other scholars argue that the word is actually referring to Achilles, and the carving is a depiction of the death of Achilles at Troy.

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Lid. Image from Wikipedia

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Here you can see the centre panel on the lid, with the obvious missing pieces on either side. Image from Wikicommons

Right Side Panel – this is the most enigmatic of all, and the one that generates the most scholarly debate. The inscription reads,

Here the horse stands above the mound of woe,
It suffers tribulation; just as to her Erta appointed anxiety,
A grave of grief, in sorrow and anguish of heart.

Wood. Biter. Rush.

Hmm. Not really helpful. This is the panel that contains the encrypted words, and as well the words run together without separation between them, adding to the difficulty of translation.

The picture is of a horse standing over a mound, which contains a human-like figure (possibly a burial mound, the “mound of woe”). On the left there is a strange figure with the body of a man and the head of a horse sitting on a mound, with a man wearing a helmet and carrying a spear in front of it. On the right there are three figures. This possibly echoes the three magi on the front.

The word “horse” is sometimes translated as Hos, a name. But no one knows who Hos and Erta (or Eratae)  are, or what legend they refer to. There are also possible references to the Norse god Woden, as the symbols under the legs of the horse are ones that could refer to him.

Some believe this picture refers back to Hengist and Horsa again. The word “horsa” means “horse” in Old English, so perhaps this depicts Horsa mourning over the death of his brother Hengist.

There are several other interpretations of this panel which I won’t go into here. Needless to say, it’s a mystery!

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Right side panel (this is the cast that was made from the original). Image from Wikicommons 

So, the pictures and inscriptions on the casket are a great source of scholarly discussion. To top it all off, there seems to also be some numerological significance to the number of runes on the casket. There are 72 runes on the front and left panels, and a total of 288 runes in total. The 72 could correspond to the 72 disciples mentioned in the Latin Vulgate Bible familiar to the Anglo-Saxons. The number 288 is a multiple of 24, which is the number of runes in an early continental Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, which had magical significance for the Anglo-Saxons.

Phew! No wonder many scholars have devoted so much time and effort on trying to decipher the runes and pictures on this little box. The more you look at it, the more you discover.

This beautiful box has so much to tell us about this fascinating period in England’s history. It’s an extremely important object that demonstrates for us the rich cultural milieu from which it sprang, giving us tantalizing hints into the way they saw themselves.


Featured image from Wikipedia


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