Thursday, October 19, 2017

Some Animal Imagery in Anglian Heathenry

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Some Animal Imagery In Anglian Heathenry- John Wills
Some Animal Imagery In Anglian Heathenry- John Wills
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Date:August 8, 2014
The purpose of this article is to take a brief look at the idea of animal imagery as a representation of and a connection to the Otherworld.  During the 5th to 7th centuries the Germanic settlers of England produced a large amount of artwork depicting animals and mythic beasts, these pieces give us an insight to our ancestors’ understanding of  the world around them and their religious or superstitious beliefs.  Looking at Old English literature for this information is also useful but has its pitfalls due to translation and the agenda of the author (especially with literature dealing with the Migration period as all records were written during the Christian period), however artwork cannot be changed over the years as it is physically the same now as it was when it was created, with the exception of the damage that it naturally accrues over time.

Understanding Anglo-Saxon artwork is not a simple task; what you see at first sight is almost certainly not what you see on closer inspection, this is not only a continuation of the Old English love of riddles but also a reflection of how the Unseen hide around every corner and share our space.  The artwork of the period can be seen in three broad groups; anthromorphic/zoomorphic (designs featuring humans/humanoids and animals/creatures), geometric (abstract shapes, knots, ring-dots, fylfots etc) and pictorial (realistic representations); these terms should not be confused with style or chronological groupings such as Salin’s style groups.  For the purposes of this introduction to Anglian animal art and its symbolic meaning I will focus mainly on representations of animals and birds, specifically those depictions carried into battle by the Anglian warriors.

The use of animals as totemic protection is clear from an examination of the four complete helmets found in England.  All four helmets are Anglian which is useful as there is no confusion from Saxon or Jutish cultures, they are; Sutton Hoo from Suffolk (East Anglia), Wollaston Pioneer from Northamptonshire (Middle Anglia/Mercia), Benty Grange from Derbyshire (Mercia) and Coppergate from York (Northumbria)[1]. Only the Coppergate helmet falls outside of the Heathen period but it should not be removed from this study as it shares characteristics with the earlier types.  The animals connected to helmets are boars and dragons, these will be dealt with separately.

Eofor-lic scionon ofer hleor-bergan
(Boar shapes shone over cheek guards)

[Beowulf 303-304]

The boar in Norse lore an animal with close connections to Freyr (and thus by inference the Anglian Ingwe or Ing) a god regarded by many modern Heathens as solely a fertility god yet here in the Anglian Ing(we) we find his full warrior nature, he is the “warrior defender” who not only gives life but actively protects life.  Ing according to the Old English Rune Poem is a hero who travels by wagon.  The last line of the verse “ðus heardingas ðone hæle nemdum” translates as “thus heroes (or hard men) named the hero” suggesting that Ing is the hero of heroes.

The two most obvious boars in the corpus are on the Benty Grange and the Wollaston helmets; both these have boar crests or figurines which are fitted directly to the front to back band at the apex of the dome.  Another boar figurine exists from Guilden Morden, Cambridgeshire (East Anglia)[2], it was found in 1864 but there is no associated helmet even though the figurine itself does have fixing rivets on its feet matching both Wollaston and Benty Grange.  Less obvious boars are found on the Sutton Hoo helmet which for this reason requires special attention, see below.  The Coppergate helmet reflects this protective motif in a less direct way through a script written along the “wala” or crest band, this time from a Christian perspective yet with echoes of the Lord Ing.  The script reads “IN. NOMINE. DNI. NOSTRI IHV. SCS. SPS. D. ET. OMNIBUS DECEMUS. AMEN. OSHERE. XPI. “in the name of our Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit, God and all, we pray. Amen. Oshere. Christ” (trans. Pollington 2001).  It can be argued that the defender “Ingwe-Frea”, Lord Ing, (Yngvi-Freyr of the Norse) has been replaced with the saviour Lord Christ to achieve the same protective powers for the wearer of the helmet.

[1] – Pollington 2001, p155
[2] – Underwood 1999, p102