Throughout history the British Isles have been swept by waves of new inhabitants and ideas. Some came as invaders and others as settlers from other lands. As each new ethnic group became established and eventually assimilated into British culture their unique qualities were absorbed too. One of the notable influences on the British Isles and therefore on English occultism and modern Paganism originated in the mythic North. Northern ideas swept down and like a good snowstorm they blanketed the land, eventually melting with time but having a very strong effect on the people and the Isles.
Today we often think of northern Pagans as being Norse. Historically they were not an isolated group even in the colder region of what is today known as Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and even Iceland. In the past these people lived in other lands, most notably Germany and parts of the former Soviet Union. These Germanic tribes were known as Angles or Anglos, Saxons, along with a few other names.
Just as the Celtic tribes before them swept westward across Europe and reached the shores of the British Isles, the Germanic tribes also swept westward. However, these tribes tended more towards the northern lands, eventually moving into the Norse lands where they settled and intermingled with other native tribes. It is particularly of interest to note that the Germanic tribes brought with them their strong culture, their religion, and their mythology. Many of the gods and goddesses that we think of today as being Norse such as Odin, Frey and Freya, and Frigga actually came with the Germanic tribes and did not originate in the Norse lands.
The culture of the Norse, the Angles and the Saxons, was one based on strong ideas of kinship and heritage. Tribes and their leaders traced their ancestry back to specific individuals who were often considered to be gods or directly descended from gods. The leaders of the tribes were usually the people whose bloodline was considered to have the strongest connection to the mythical ancestor – leaders were therefore divinely appointed to their roles. Along with the harsh northern climate with its shorter agricultural season and longer winters, the close proximity to the ocean and neighboring wealth only a short boat-ride away, it’s not surprising that this aggressive culture would encourage raiding and warfare.
The British Isles were blessed by geography with fertile lands and a milder climate than many of the Norse lands. From the fourth century CE onward the British Isles became the target of Angle, Saxon, and Norse raiding parties who would come and take what they wanted, and in many cases would end up staying to live. Before long the invaders from the north would become as much native to the British Isles as the Celts had before them.
The Anglo-Saxon culture, as it came to be called, dominated the British Isles like it had in the Norse lands earlier in their travels. Some historians believe that the Anglo-Saxons ruthlessly slaughtered and dominated the Celtic people who were there before them. Some recent genetic population studies in the British Isles such as the one reported by Ian Johnstone in his article “We’re Nearly All Celts Under the Skin” contradict the bloody historical claims by pointing out that at least today descendants of the Celts outnumber descendants of the Anglo-Saxons in the British Isles about two to one. It seems that while the Anglo-Saxons ruled at a political and cultural level the conquered Celts managed to survive quite well at a genetic level.
Anglo-Saxon political influence is still strong in England to this day. The British royal family, known since a royal proclamation in 1917 as the House of Windsor, was previously known by the clearly Germanic name Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Germanic bloodlines are still strong throughout many royal families across Europe.
Anglo-Saxon ideas and mythology have been firmly entrenched in the cultures of the British Isles as well. In the English names for the days of the week, for instance, we honor the god Tiu/Tyr in Tuesday, Woden/Odin in the name Wednesday, Thunor/Thor in Thursday, and Frigga in Friday. The Anglo-Saxons saw the moon deity as male and it is because of this we still often refer to the man in the moon.
On a cultural level the Anglo-Saxons brought with them many of the traditions associated with Yule, including that jolly old elf known as Santa Claus, decorating pine trees, and the links to elves and reindeer. Some historians also believe that traditions associated with other times of the year, such as Morris dancing and maypoles, originated with the Anglo-Saxons rather than with the earlier Celts.
Mythical figures such as the wizard with his unkempt hair and beard, cloak, and walking staff who lurks in wild places and is mostly a loner trace at least some of their origins to Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythology. The god Odin/Woden is sometimes depicted as precisely this sort of mysterious stranger – if you meet someone like him on a lonely rainy path you should be polite and helpful because he might just grant you a wish! In more recent times influential English authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien have based characters and plotlines on Norse myths.
Norse mythology is filled with references to runes, the sacred alphabet obtained through an ordeal of sacrifice by Odin, and handed down to be used by the leaders and wonder-workers in Norse communities. Runes were not merely written placeholders for spoken language but were considered to hold their own innate magickal power. Inscribing a rune on an object empowered that object with specific energies. This emphasis on the written word as a form of powerful magick took hold in the British Isles and quickly became a staple among magickal practitioners for use in healing, protection, and other types of magickal work.
If we fast-forward through history to the 1960s and focus on witchcraft in the British Isles we find that influential leaders such as Robert Cochrane promoted specifically Anglo-Saxon mythology rather than Celtic myth as was more common among Gerald Gardner’s descendants. Cochrane’s variety of witchcraft focused more on deities such as Frigga and the more shamanic style of magick described in Norse mythology. In the early 1970s prominent American Gardnerian Ray Buckland wrote and published his book, “The Tree,” a new denomination of Wicca devised specifically around Saxon myth. Buckland’s new system drew a lot of attention due to its provisions for solitary practitioners and self-initiation, ideas that were not encouraged in other prominent forms of religious witchcraft at that time.
The 1960s also saw an explosion in scholarly examination of another northern spiritual tradition – shamanism. Mircea Eliade’s classic text “Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy” was translated to English and published in 1964, and Carlos Castaneda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge” came out in 1968. While the term shaman quickly expanded to include similar magickal and spiritual techniques from a wide variety of cultures, it originated with the Tungusic tribe of Siberia and Central Asia. While the famous witch Robert Cochrane died in 1966 and did not live to see Castaneda’s popular work on Mexican shamanism, he might have become aware of Eliade’s book from a few years earlier and could have used what he learned in his own more primal form of witchcraft. In any case, many in the English occult community eagerly read both Eliade’s and Castaneda’s books and incorporated the ideas in their own spiritual paths. [Author’s note: Castaneda’s work has subsequently been discredited when it was revealed to have been largely fiction. See “The Fake Carlos Castaneda” by Dr. Dean Chavers for details.]
Unfortunately it was through Nazi Germany that another major strand of Norse and Germanic mythology resurfaced in the form of modern Paganism. In the 1970s less racist forms of Norse reconstructionist Paganism came together and into the 1980s and 1990s Astatru became firmly established as a religion. Asatruar can be found today all around the world particularly in places with sizeable Icelandic or Scandinavian communities. Norse Paganism has come back into its own in revived and revitalized forms as well as through the evolved blended forms in English culture.
The next time you decorate a Yule tree, or consult your calendar, or engage in something more involved such as a spiritual journey on the World Tree to the Upperworld or Lowerworld, give a moment of thanks to our Norse and Anglo-Saxon ancestors. Without them and other Northern influences modern Paganism would be quite different and certainly less enthusiastic.
Cheers to our Northern ancestors and kin!
Buckland, Raymond. “The Tree: The Complete Book of Saxon Witchcraft.” New York NY: Weiser, 1974.
Castaneda, Carlos. “The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge.” Los Angeles CA: University of California Press, 1968.
Eliade, Mircea. “Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.” London UK: Penguin Arkana, 1989 edition (first published in English by Pantheon Books, 1964.)
Greer, John Michael. “The New Encyclopedia of the Occult.” St. Paul MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2003.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. “Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience.” San Francisco CA: HarperCollins, 1991.
Jones, Prudence & Pennick, Nigel. “A History of Pagan Europe.” New York NY: Barnes & Noble Books 1999 edition, (originally published by Routledge 1995.)
Johnstone, Ian. “We’re Nearly All Celts Under the Skin,” news article from The Scotsman, 21 September 2006, archived copy available to read at http://archive.today/2012.07.16-071204/http://www.scotsman.com/news/arts/we-re-nearly-all-celts-under-the-skin-1-1141420
Matthews, John and Caitlin. “The Aquarian Guide to British and Irish Mythology.” Wellingborough UK: Aquarian Press, 1988.
Etymology of the words Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday can be found at http://www.etymonline.com
History of the British monarchy and how their family name changed is available at https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/entertainment/a26131813/queen-elizabeth-last-name/
Note: This article was previously published in Issue 98 of Circle Magazine.