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 Anglo-Saxon Cosmology

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Silver Wind
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Silver Wind

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PostSubject: Anglo-Saxon Cosmology   Anglo-Saxon Cosmology Icon_minitimeWed Jan 30, 2008 10:18 am

The Norse peoples had a very complex cosmology, which consisted of at least nine worlds. These were Midhgardhr (middle-earth), Ljossalfheimer (light elf home), Svartelfheimer (black elf home), Asgardhr (place of the Aesir), Hel (place of the dead), Vanaheimer
(home of the Vanir), Muspellheimer (world of muspell), Niflheimer (the dark world), Jotunheimer (world of giants). But just because the Norse peoples had such a cosmology, does this mean that the Anglo-Saxons shared this belief system and outlook on life? probably not. When the Anglo-Saxons were slowly converting to Christianity the Norse still had several centuries of un-interrupted time to develop and expand the complexities of their universe. This though doesn't mean that the Anglo-Saxons never had a cosmology consisting of separate worlds, concrete evidence just hasn't survived detailing and telling us such. If we examine surviving Anglo-Saxon literary evidence we can speculate and piece together a possible Anglo-Saxon cosmology, which although can not be confirmed historically as a genuine ancient Anglo-Saxon view, can be viewed as a genuine attempt to reconstruct, in modern Heathen terms, an outlook on life and the universe which is true to the Anglo-Saxons and their descendants. The first evidence that we can examine is a phrase from the Nine Herbs Charm' where it says:


'Thyme and fennel, a pair great in power, the wise lord, holy in heaven, wrought these herbs while he hung, he placed them and put them in the seven worlds to aid all, rich and poor'.


Some people claim that the seven worlds mentioned here come from classical influences, but as Brian Branston in his Lost Gods of England points out, there is just as much evidence to suggest that this seven world belief was native to the Anglo-Saxons. The Nine Herbs Charm itself has been very much Christianised, but just before the above verse we read:


'A worm came crawling, it bit a man. Then Woden took nine glory twigs, smote the adder so that it split into nine. There ended apple and poison that she would nevermore enter her home'.


As here we read about the Anglo-Saxon god Woden using his shamanistic powers, its fair to believe that the wise lord who hung and placed the herbs in the seven worlds, was Woden himself. A native Anglo-Saxon god placing his herbs in seven native Anglo-Saxon worlds. An interesting note to point out though is why would nine herbs be placed in seven worlds. Could it not be that maybe originally Woden placed the nine herbs in an equal number of worlds, and that over time two of the worlds in the Anglo-Saxon cosmology were some how lost by the time the charm was written down. But if the Anglo-Saxons did have a belief in seven worlds, what could these worlds be? Again we can look to Anglo-Saxon evidence to find possible answers.

The first two possible worlds are Heaven and Hell, these two words are found in many ancient Germanic languages.
In Old English we have Heofen and Hel, in old Norse we find Himinn and Hel, plus other variants such as Halja (Gothic) and Helle (old Frisian). And as Brian Branston points out, common tradition shows that Heaven was always up, and hell was always down. And as we already know, one of the worlds of which the Norse peoples believed in was Hel, and like our English Hell, this was a place of the dead.


Heaven




Hell


So if Heaven is at the top and Hell is found at the bottom, what is found in-between? The obvious answer to this is Middengeard, which is the Anglo-Saxon equivalent to the Norse Midhgardhr. The word Middengeard is found many times in old English, such as the poem known as Caedmons's Hymn, where it says:


'He first shaped for the sons of men heaven a roof, the holy shaper, then the middle enclosure, mankind's warden'.


The middle-enclosure is of course Middengeard. It is widely believed that Caedmon's Hymn is extremely influenced by the Heathen religion, because as Brian Branston points out about Caedmon himself:


'Caedmon was born into a pagan world and his first learning must have been pagan'.


In this hymn we also see the use of Heaven as a roof right alongside the term middle-enclosure which is described as mankind's warden. In this poem we also find strong Heathen words such as meotud (measurer), which has been believed to be one of the three possible Anglo-Saxon fates alongside Wyrd. Another term found in this hymn that is likely to be Heathen is wuldurfadur, which translates as Glory Father, which echoes the Norse term Allfather, a word used to describe Odin. So in this so called Christian Hymn we find so much that is more than likely to be of a Heathen root, Heaven and Middengeard included.


Heaven


Middengeard


Hell


Our next two Anglo-Saxon worlds, like the Norse, would be those in-habited by elves. The belief in elves was extremely strong amongst the Anglo-Saxon Heathens, for we find charms that are to be used if anyone is hurt or possessed by an elf, such as a water elf, or shot by an elf.


If it were the shot of the Ęsir, or if it were the shot of elves, or if it were the shot of hags, I will help thee now.
This is to cure thee of the shot of Ęsir, this is to cure thee of the shot of elves...


The belief in elves was so strong that elves developed different characteristics and personalities and natures. This is plain to see in the water-elf charm and that of the charm quoted above to cure against a sudden pain, where it is mentioned that the pain may have been brought on from the shot the Ęsir or of elves. The water-elf charm and the sudden pain charm show the darker side of elves, the ability to hurt and maim people at will. But in other surviving literature we are shown the more positive or lighter aspects of elves. A surviving term that shows this lighter character of elves is elfsciene, which has been translated to mean bright or pretty as an elf. This aspect of elves is supported by the fact that Snorri describes the Norse light elves as being more beautiful than the sunlight. The Norse of course had two worlds containing elves, Ljossalfheimer (light elf home), Svartelfheimer (black elf home), and considering the evidence for the light and dark aspects of the Anglo-Saxon belief in elves, can we not say that there may have existed worlds of light and dark elves amongst the Anglo-Saxons. Or at least use this evidence as part of a modern reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon cosmology.


Heaven
World of Light Elves Middengeard
World of Dark Elves Hell


A possible sixth world could be that of dwarfs, where again we can rely on the charms to show us the strong belief that the Anglo-Saxons had in dwarfs. One of the charms is known as the charm Against a Dwarf, the charm follows thus:


'Here a spider-wight came stalking in. He had his dress in his hand. He said that thou wert his steed, he laid his bonds on thy neck. They began to sail from the land. As soon as they left the land, then his limbs began to cool. Then the dwarf's sister came stalking in. Then she made an end and swore oaths that this would never hurt the sick, nor him who could obtain this charm, nor him who knew to chant this charm'.


This dwarf charm like the elf charms shows us that the Anglo-Saxon belief in such figures was very real and very strong. Snorri mentions that the Svartalfar (black elves) were similar or identical to dwarfs, and describes Svartelfheimer as the home of dwarfs, which could show us that in the Germanic world as a whole, and not just with the Anglo-Saxons, there was maybe a belief in a world of dwarfs.


Heaven
World of Dwarfs World of Light Elves
Middengeard World of Dark Elves Hell


And finally our seventh world of a constructed Anglo-Saxon cosmology would be what the Norse called Jotunheimer or the world of giants. There is much evidence showing the Anglo-Saxon belief in giants. The old Norse word for giant is jotunn, which corresponds to the old English word eoton. This word can be found in literature such as in Beowulf, where Grendel herself is described as being a eoton. Also in Beowulf there is mention of eotons, as well as other beings such as elves, perishing in a great flood, which could be similar to the flood found in Norse myth where giants are said to perish.


Heaven
World of Dwarfs World of Light Elves
Middengeard World of Dark Elves World of Giants
Hell


Of course like mentioned at the start of this page, no existing or complete Anglo-Saxon cosmology has survived, but again like previously mentioned that doesn't particularly mean that one didn't exist either. This reconstructed cosmology is simply based on the mention of the seven worlds in the Nine Herbs Charm, and the surviving historical evidence of the firm and recorded Anglo-Saxon belief in the different natures of elves, as well as the evidence showing belief in dwarfs and giants. This evidence is of course at times complimented by what has come to us in Norse mythology, where the belief in elves, dwarfs and giants and the existence of their worlds is concrete.

http://englishheathenism.homestead.com/ansaxcos.html

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