Pagan claims against the Church of England

Newark’s Bede House Chapel (1556), England’s first and only Odinist temple since 2014 © The Newark Advertiser

This week’s Church Times reported that the Odinist Fellowship, an organisation representing those who worship the Norse gods, has asked for a public apology from the Church of England for ‘centuries of persecution’. The Fellowship has asked the Church of England for two churches that it can ‘turn back into temples’, and accuses the church of ‘spiritual genocide’ by converting the pagan English to Christianity in the seventh century and turning their temples into churches. The Odinist Fellowship’s claims are an intriguing case of an emerging counter-narrative of English history, although it is unclear why the Fellowship targeted the Church of England rather than the Roman Catholic Church – presumably they still share an Anglican view of the Church of England as the continuator of the Anglo-Saxon church, in spite of their repudiation of Christianity.

The Odinist Fellowship advocates ‘ethnospecific paganism’, in which each nation worships the gods of its forebears, and believes that ‘Odinism’ is the original, ancestral religion of England. In 2014 the organisation established its first temple in the sixteenth-century Bede House Chapel in Newark, Nottinghamshire (an interesting example of a Marian-era almshouse chapel dating from 1556). The Fellowship seems to work on the assumption that the gods described in the Norse Eddas are identical (apart from slight differences in names) to the gods worshipped by the pagan English before the completion of England’s conversion to Christianity in around 680. Although it is often assumed that the Norse paganism of the ninth and tenth centuries was the same religion as old English paganism, this is a contentious claim for which there is simply not enough evidence in the archaeological and historical record. Indeed, the Eddas themselves were not written down until the thirteenth century, and represent a medieval Christian view of an earlier pagan Norse mythology.

Odinism is to some extent a ‘reconstructionist’ religion, seeking to use information from archaeology and interpretations of Old Norse texts to ‘revive’ an extinct faith. On the other hand, like most contemporary pagans, Odinists distance themselves from animal sacrifice, tokenising sacrifice instead. Furthermore, unlike contemporary Icelandic pagans, the Odinist Fellowship has no distinctive priests. Although I have not seen the full text of the Odinist Fellowship’s letter to the bishops of the Church of England, the content as reported by the Church Times suggests that the Fellowship is adopting a particular reading of seventh- and eighth-century English history. They seem to see the arrival of Christianity in 597 as a form of cultural imperialism, which was imposed on the people by force and which deprived them of their indigenous beliefs. ‘Cultural imperialism’, in fact, is a very apt description of Gregory I’s mission to the English, since Christianity simultaneously boosted King Ethelbert of Kent’s imperial pretensions as Bretwalda of the English and Gregory’s papal pretensions as the guardian of imperial romanitas in the absence of a Western Emperor.

However, it would be anachronistic to apply contemporary critiques of colonial Christianity as ‘spiritual genocide’ to early medieval England. The Anglo-Saxon heptarchy was not in any way a colonial subject of its neighbouring Christian nations (Francia, Ireland, and the parts of Britain still under British rule), and Christianity’s fortunes waxed and waned as it served the purposes of Anglo-Saxon rulers (or otherwise). ‘Forced’ baptisms would certainly have taken place, in the sense that kings of the period expected the people to follow their religion, but these were acts of royal rather than ecclesiastical power. Furthermore, although Christians killed pagans in early medieval England (and vice versa), all the evidence suggests that they did so only as part of warfare when Christian and pagan kingdoms were pitted against each other – geopolitical conflicts that might well have happened anyway, whatever the religious situation. The Odinists seem to be guilty of ascribing later medieval developments, such as the forced conversion of the pagan Baltic lands by German crusaders or the Spanish reconquista against Iberian Muslims, to an early medieval period where such methods were not applied.

The Odinists’ allusion to ‘centuries of persecution’ seems to imply that paganism continued to exist in early medieval England in an underground form in an outwardly Christian society, persecuted by the church. Again, there is no evidence that this was the case. Some English kingdoms remained pagan for longer than others, with the Isle of Wight being the last to convert to Christianity, but there is no evidence that pagans lived alongside Christians for centuries in converted kingdoms, nor that such pagans were persecuted by the church. Admittedly, the evidence is so meagre that such events cannot be ruled out, but once again the Odinists seem to be arguing by analogy with later Christian persecutions of non-Christians rather than from evidence. Although Viking invaders reintroduced paganism to England in the ninth century, there is no evidence that any English people reverted to paganism – rather, the evidence points to the Vikings themselves converting to Christianity a very short time after their arrival in England (something that my forthcoming book on St Edmund will address next year). As Ronald Hutton has shown, the idea that paganism endured in some way after the Anglo-Saxon conversion is a persistent myth, fostered originally by nineteenth- and twentieth-century folklorists.

The Odinists’ claim that the church turned pagan temples into churches is founded on the well-known letter from Gregory I to Mellitus urging him not to destroy pagan temples but to turn them into churches. However, Gregory wrote to Mellitus before he left for England, and given that no archaeological evidence of Anglo-Saxon pagan temples has ever been found, it is quite likely that Gregory was guilty of ‘classicising’ English paganism. Having never been to England, he assumed that its paganism was much like Roman paganism and therefore England was littered with impressive pagan edifices. Bede makes a few references to pagan shrines, but these may have been largely indistinguishable in form from domestic dwellings. Alternatively, and perhaps more likely, old English pagan temples were tiny wooden shrines for images of the gods, with sacrifices taking place outside the temple itself.

The idea of a building set apart for worship containing a congregational space is a Christian one, which derives from the fact that the earliest template for churches was the basilica or Roman law court. It is highly unlikely that any pagan temple in England was ever ‘turned into’ a church, since the building would not have been large enough, although it is possible that some churches (such as Harrow-on-the-Hill) were built close to where pagan sites once stood. Yet the idea that every ancient church in England was built on a pagan sacred site – which many people seem to believe – is self-evidently preposterous, mainly because the population of pre-Christian England was a great deal smaller than that of medieval Christian England. Furthermore, since we know virtually nothing about old English paganism we do not know where pagans chose to locate their shrines. Did they build them on hills? In sacred groves? Near to sacred wells and springs? We simply do not know.

So does the Odinist Fellowship have a morally legitimate claim against the Church of England, or the Christian church more generally? That depends on two factors: (1) is contemporary Odinism (or the Fellowship’s version of it) in any sense the same religion practised in pre-Christian England? and (2) Does the Christian church in England owe any restitution to pagans? Since Odinism is avowedly based on the Norse Eddas, and even uses the Norse versions of the names of Germanic gods, it is closest in form to Norse paganism – a religion that made a very brief appearance in England between around 865 and 900, when the area later known as the Danelaw was settled by pagan Vikings. As recent genetic studies have shown, the Vikings not only converted to Christianity soon after their arrival but eventually left entirely – probably in the eleventh century – leaving virtually no traces of their DNA in the English population. To found an ‘ancestral’ religion on Norse paganism is therefore problematic anywhere except Orkney and Shetland, since few people in the UK have Norse ancestors, and there is no evidence that the Christian English started worshipping Norse gods under Viking rule. As we have seen, the claim that old English and Norse paganism were essentially the same is unproven and unprovable. And although the Eddas provide a good deal of detail about Norse mythology and cosmology, we remain essentially ignorant about the nature of Norse pagan religious rites. The Odinist Fellowship seems to have invented these rites largely from scratch, along with a largely invented pagan calendar. Finally, there is no evidence of the survival of any form of paganism in England beyond the end of the ninth century, precluding any claims of historical continuity for Odinism; and for Odinists even to make a claim to spiritual continuity with pre-Christian English pagans they would need to know something substantive about that paganism – which no-one does.

It is unclear why we should be expected to accept that Germanic paganism, rather than Romano-British, Iron Age, Bronze Age or Neolithic paganism is the ‘ancestral religion’ of England. The Odinist Fellowship’s notion of ‘ethnospecific paganism’ raises politically troubling questions (to put it mildly) about who exactly counts as ‘English’, yet the genetic evidence suggests that the (presumably Christian) Romano-British population of fifth-century Britain was absorbed into the new England of the Anglo-Saxons, meaning that Romano-Britons are as much the ancestors of most English people as the Anglo-Saxons. The conversion of Anglo-Saxon England to Christianity differed so markedly from more recent colonial conversions as to make any comparison with them inappropriate or meaningless. If anything, the most coercive action against pagans in British history was probably the forced closure of all pagan temples throughout the Roman Empire (which presumably applied to Britain as well) in 381, but I have yet to hear about any Romano-British pagan reconstructionists demanding restitution. When they do, I suggest they submit claims against the dioceses of London and York, which we know to have existed by the early fourth century.


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