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Sunday, 27 October 2013

Heil, Lost God of the Anglo-Saxons



Recently whilst perusing my copy of Charles Isaac Elton`s Origins of English History I noticed a reference to an obscure Anglo-Saxon deity. Whilst discussing the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to xtianity he writes:

"The history of the conversion is full of incidents which illustrate the character of the English paganism. We are told of Ethelbert`s care to meet the missionaries under the open sky, for fear of the magical influence which they might gain by crossing his threshold; of the king bowing before his idol in a road-side shrine near Canterbury, and taking part with his nobles in the offering of the sacrifices, and of Augistine in his journey to the West breaking to pieces the image of a god which was adored by the villagers. The local traditions preserve the remembrance of the Woden-Hill within sight of the missionaries` landing-place, and of a temple on the site where Westminster Abbey stands, once `a place of dread` on the march-land where several kingdoms joined, but dedicated to the wealthy `King of London`, at the request of his protector Ethelbert."

The footnote to this text states:

"Bede, Hist. Eccl. i. 25; Thorn`s Chronicle, Dec. Script. 1760. `Cerne Abbey was built by Austin, the English apostle, when he had dash`d to pieces the idol of the pagan Saxons called Heil, and had delivered them from their superstitious ignorance.` Camden, Brit. 56; Will. Malmesb. Gesta Pontificum, 142."

I cannot however find any reference to the incident of the destruction of the idol of Heil in the relevant section of Bede`s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. However according to Paul Newman`s Lost Gods of Albion:

"The French hagiographer Gotselin[1058-98] was the first to record St Augustine`s visit to Cerne not long after he settled at Canterbury in 1090. Drawing on an earlier source-quite possibly Saxon-he describes the `demoniac` worshippers of `Helia` taunting and driving out St Augistine and his band. This account filtered into ampler chronicles, notably De Gestis Anglorum, written and compliled by William of Malmesbury, a scion of mixed Norman and English stock who died c. 1143."

Newman goes on to recount how Augistine came to `Cernel`, the old name for Cerne and he was jeered at and repulsed by the local community. He also refers to the Life of St Augistine in which the author tells us that Augustine destroyed the idol Heil, or Hegle. Walter of Coventry, a 13th century chronicler also recites a version of the story in which he refers to the idol as Helith. The well of  Augustine still stands at Cerne Abbas. Could it be that Heil, Hegle or Helith is the Anglo-Saxon name for Cerne? According to the 1789 edition of William Camden`s Britannia and William Stukely the chalk hill figure was called `Helis`.

Whether this figure has its origins with the Anglo-Saxons no one can determine but it is absolutely clear that our ancestors did venerate this figure and equated it with Heil. This often happens when new peoples take over an ancient sacred site. They honour it but name it after their own god or gods. One interesting aspect of the Cerne giant is that he wields a club in his right hand and some have speculated that he represents Hercules and thus has a Roman origin. However we need to bear in mind that Thunor also wielded a club as an alternative to the axe or hammer and thus it could just as easily be related to Him. The etymology though is against this idea and it is more likely that this area was sacred to the God referred to as Heil. The name would imply possibly a deity of healing. This name, particularly in the form Helith is in fact suggestive of a Goddess rather than a male deity. It is interesting that the well I referred to is reckoned to have healing properties and thus predates Augustine`s arrival there. Some have speculated that Helith may be related to Frau Hoelle or the Norse Hel but more research is surely needed about this deity before we can speak with any authority about Him/Her.



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