Anglo-Saxon Otherworld

Anglo-Saxon Otherworld

Hlafdige Arastorm © Virginia Fair Richards-Taylor 2016

Throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, even after Christianity was universal, the people lived within a context that included more than the immediate physical world.

During the Migration Period, Kings were descended from Gods, as well as putting up altars, groves and shrines to them. After the conversion, the gods were not necessarily gone, they were simply understood to be devils, as real as the saints. The Church taught that devils had no abilities except to deceive. Indeed, until the 11th century it was heresy to believe in magic (with the exception of magically induced impotence); all healing or wonders that were done by devils were simply illusions.

While the Anglo-Saxons took to Christianity fairly quickly, they did not surrender their beliefs in “how the world works”. For one thing, charms show that they maintained an animistic attitude- it was the spirit of the disease that made it virulent. Penitentials also show us that well into the 9th century, they couldn’t stop a variety of ancestor worship, brining offerings to graves, rocks and trees for help. This was especially evident with the Idisi or female ancestors. Ghosts, of course, continued to be seen without regard to the religious preferences of those who saw them.

Beyond the spirits in plants, or ancestral spirits that may have been associated with certain places, there were also spirits of the land, spirits of springs, or trees, rocks or the land around one’s home. These often protective spirits, land wights, developed into brownies, and household spirits associated with the families. Other spirits were heard or seen in caves, like the Cornish bucca or knockers who might be helpful, or dangerous.

This takes us to other beings that shared the earth with us, rather than being a part of it (or somewhere between). Elves or fairies often interacted with people. Like witches, they were considered the source of unexplained ailments. The position of the church was that anything other than humans, or acceptable saintly visions (of angels, saints, etc.) , was the illusions of devils and to be avoided.

The Church, especially during the conversion, became an alternative source for magical healing, loosening bonds, changing the weather and gaining the good will of the mighty- the things people had turned to Druids or other magick workers before the conversion. Priests did fair business in selling blessed soap, blessed oil, holy water, and other items that offered protection or healing; altars had spaces beneath where items would be placed during mass to be blessed. Not only did monasteries maintain and share ancient healing techniques, the people expected the Church to fill the same function that had been previously handled by magic workers.

Pollington, S., Elder Gods: Otherworld of Early England, Anglo-Saxon Books, 2011