Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Woden in Mediaeval English Literature

This may surprise some of my readers but even in the 12th century Woden was still being referred to in English literature. One specific example is from Geoffrey of Monmouth's (1100-1155) Historia Regum Britanniae. This work is described by Professor Laurence Austine Waddell as being part of the British Chronicles which he regards as being historic:

"The further excuse for rejecting these Early British Chronicles, that there are no contemporary inscriptions to support their ancient tradition, is one which, if accepted, would sweep away not only the early traditional history of Greece and Rome, which is accepted although resting on mere literary tradition, but also nearly all the Old Testament History, and much of the history of the Early Christian Church. There is absolutely no inscriptional evidence whatsoever, nor any ancient classic Greek or Roman reference, for the existence of Abraham or any of the Jewish patriarchs or prophets of the Old Testament, nor for Moses, Saul, David, Solomon, nor any of the Jewish kings, with the mere exception of two, or at most three, of the later kings. All of these are accepted and implicitly believed to be historical by our theologians merely on the strength of their having been believed by our Christian ancestors, because they were believed by the Jews themselves. The only difference between the accepted Jewish tradition and the rejected British tradition is that the former is actively taught as true by incessant repetition in church and Sunday schools to everyone from childhood upwards; whereas the equally well authenticated Early British traditional history is actively disparaged and stigmatized by modern writers, the one mechanically repeating the other, as mere fabricated fables or forgeries, despite the above-cited facts to the contrary." (The Phoenician Origin of Britons, Scots and Anglo-Saxons Discovered by Phoenician and Sumerian Inscriptions in Britain by Pre-Roman Briton Coins, 1924)

Now the reference to Woden in Geoffrey's work is as follows:

"The king, at the name of Mercury, looking earnestly upon them, asked them what religion they professed. 'We worship', replied Hengest, 'our country gods, Saturn and Jupiter, and the other deities that govern the world, but especially Mercury, whom in our language we call Woden, and to whom our ancestors consecrated the fourth day of the week, still called after his name Wednesday. Next to him we worship the powerful goddess, Frea, to whom they also dedicated the sixth day, which after her name we call Friday."

It is surely significant that even though the English had been xtianised for over 500 years at the time of Geoffrey's writing still the names of Woden and Frea had not been forgotten! Furthermore Geoffrey used the Anglo-Saxon and not the Scandinavian names for these two deities.


Mike Fields said...

I am always surprised by the innculcation of Norse Mythology in the naming of the days of the week in the English language. Given the domination of the Roman-Latin calendar, why the naming for the days of the week as such in English? Why would Heathen, country tradition supercede the established Roman dominated metropolitan language?

Hans said...

The name "Saturday" comes from Latin. The other six days are named after Anglo-Saxon Gods, not "Norse" Gods specifically, though pre-Christian Norse and Anglo-Saxon religions have common roots., as both are Germanic. Our words "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday", etc. come to us via Anglo-Saxon England. The Romans came to, then governed parts of Britain, but didn't require the people there to learn or speak Latin. Locals were allowed to keep their own customs and languages. Roman officials, members of the clergy, scholars, and locals who became Romanized, did speak Latin, but they didn't represent the majority of the population.

When the Romans left, the Saxons, Angles and Jutes- from Germany and Scandinavia - filled the void, and when they adopted (or had adopted) the seven day Roman calendar, they changed some of the names to those of their own Gods. The resulting "Anglo-Saxons" did more to shape the character of Great Britain in some ways, than did the Romans. "Country tradition" in the British Isles superseded Roman metropolitan language for the simple reason that most of those living there were "country folk". Latin in the British Isles always was - and remained until a century or two ago - the language of both secular and church "rulers", when acting "officially". (Interesting to note that when the Normans invaded, they changed "Sunday" to "Lords Day", in keeping with the custom of Christian Rome. Both terms are used to this day. )