The word Heathen comes from Old English hæðen, a word whose origin has been stated by scholars as being a native word related to Greek ethnos, or a gloss for Latin pagan "rural dweller" meaning "dweller on the heath." Regardless of its origin, it is the preferred term when speaking of the ancient pagan religion of the Saxons, Jutes, Angles, Frisians, Varni, and other Germanic invaders of what is now England. Together, these tribes once in England are known as the Anglo-Saxons, although no such unity was known until well after their conversion.
Anglo-Saxon Heathenry's ancestry rests in the tribal religions of the Germanic peoples on the North and Baltic Sea shores of Europe. The Germanic peoples came from peoples who settled in extreme Northern Europe, and spoke a language that was a fusion of an Indo-European tongue, and the language of the Northern Megalithic culture (a culture related perhaps to the builders of Stonehenge). These two cultures, the Indo-European, and Northern Megalithic met and fused in Northern Europe sometime around 1200 BCE. The tribes that resulted from this fusion remained in a core area that is modern Denmark, Southern Norway, Southern Sweden, and Northern Germany until about 500 BCE when they started expanding into areas formerly held by the Celts, Balts, and Illyrians. Rock carvings in the core area dating from 4000 BCE to 500 BCE portray many symbols later connected to the Germanic tribal religions. Ships, sun wheels, wains and other pictures all show some continuality of religious belief. Archaelogical finds dating from 1700 BCE to 500 BCE such as the Sun Chariot from Trundholm also confirm this.
The first mention of a Germanic tribe is crica 230 BCE when the Basternae migrated to the Black Sea, and came to the attention of Greek chroniclers. From 230 BCE, the Germanic tribes would come in increasing conflict with the Celts, Illyrians, and Romans, eventually swallowing up most of the Celtic and Illyrian territories in Central Europe. This was the beginnings of the Migration Era which lasted from about 375 BCE to 550 CE (although the Viking expeditions should be counted as a part of this as well), an era when nearly every Germanic tribe was actively on the move. Over population and a need for new farm lands sent the Germanic tribes in search of new lands.
The invasion of Great Britain by the Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Frisians, and other Germanic tribes were amongst the last of the Great Migration. In the fifth century, an exodus of tribes took place to Great Britain. The Angles invaded Britain from the area of Schleswig-Holstein, and are mentioned by Tacitus in his writing Germania. The Jutes appear to have come from Jutland and the area near the mouth of the river Rhine. The Saxons, by this time had covered a wide area, but invaded Britain from what is now primarily Northern Germany. The Saxons were not just one tribe, but a confederation of smaller ones, and are not even mentioned by the Roman chroniclers until the second century when Ptolemy placed them in the area of the Elbe River (an area once held by the Cimbri). What tribes composed the confederation is truly not known, though the Cimbri that remained in the North may have been among them as well as the Cherusci (other tribes that have been suggested as forming the confederation are the Avioni, Nuithoni, Reudigni, Suarini, and some of the Suebi). The Frisians came from what is now the Netherlands, and the Frisian coast of Germany. Other tribes such as the Varni, neighbors of the Angles, and the Geats of Sweden invaded Britain in smaller numbers.
The religions of these tribes were related to the tribal religion of the Goths, and that of the Norse (whose myths are recorded in the two Eddas). Their Gods and Goddesses were Woden, Ing, Thunor, Frige, Eostre, Seaxnot and others whose names have been forever lost. Their common place of worship was in a grove (Old English hearg) or temple (Old English ealh). They held sacred feasts, and paid homage to their ancestors. Tacitus, writing in the first century, when the tribes were still on the continent of Europe, covered in some detail the worship of a goddess called Nerthus by the Angles and other tribes near them, and makes brief mention of other practices. Collectively we can refer to the religions of these tribes, once in what is now England, as Anglo-Saxon Heathenry, though in truth, there must have been some minor tribal variations in worship, customs, and beliefs.
The remains of Anglo-Saxon Heathenry are few. Woden is mentioned in the "Nine Worts Galdor" of the Lacnunga, an Anglo-Saxon healer's manual surviving from the 8th century. Þunor is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry of 640 CE as killing the brother of the Christian Ermenred, king of Kent and his two sons. Ing is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem, and there is the semi-heathen ritual the Æcer-Bot recorded in the Lacnunga as well. Such small mentions in the AngloSaxon literature as these, place names, and archaeological evidence are all that remains of ancient Anglo-Saxon Heathenry.
The Anglo-Saxon invasion began about 449 CE when Hengest and Horsa landed in what is now Kent. Hired as mercenaries by the Celtic leader Vortigan, they came to take land promised them in return for defending the Celts from the Picts. Thus began the invasion of Great Britain by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. The Jutes came first with Hengest and Horsa, then the Saxons followed, and finally the Angles. Other tribes such as the Frisians would also invade in smaller numbers. By 519 the Saxons had established Wessex, Kent was established not long after the arrival of Hengest and Horse by the Jutes. Other kingdoms would be established later. For almost 50 years, the Germanic tribes in what is now England went unmolested by Christianity. They kept to the religion of their ancestors, and practiced rites as they had for eons. Then in 593 CE, Pope Gregory dispatched Augustine as a missionary to the Germanic tribes in England. He arrived in 597 CE on the Isle of Thanet, and started preaching to the Heathens. By 601 CE he convinced Ethelbert to destroy the Heathen temples and idols and repress Heathen worship. Missionaries were sent to the West Saxons. Kings would convert their kingdoms to Christianity, then their successors covert the kingdoms back to Heathenry, and folks would lapse back to the old religion when the Church was not looking. But this was the beginning of the end for Anglo-Saxon Heathenry. By 633 CE, the last great stand of Anglo-Saxon Heathenry was to begin. King Penda, Heathen king of Mercia sought to conquer the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Over the next 22 years Penda, the last great Heathen king in England killed the Christian kings Edwin, Oswald, Oswin, Ecgric, and Sigebert before he himself died at the battle of Winwæd in 655 CE. In 685 CE, Cadwalla took the throne of Wessex to become the last Heathen king. In 686, the Isle of Wight, the last truly Heathen stronghold was converted to Christianity, and King Cadwalla of Wessex converted to Christianity in 688 CE, baptized by the Pope in Rome. Thus was the end of ancient Anglo-Saxon Heathenry in England amongst the kings
While the kings and ealdormen of the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity, it was not quite the same Christianity as was practiced in Rome. Christ was portrayed as a Germanic hero. Heathen charms were converted to Christian uses. Heathen rites were converted to Christianity. Symbel, ritualized drinking rounds continued to be practiced, with the toasts being Christianized. And the sacred feasts continued almost unchanged. Temples were converted to churches.
"When Almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have, after mature deliberation on the affairs of the English, determined upon, namely, that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed, but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples - let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that the be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts and, knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed.......
And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be substituted for them on this account, as, for instance, that on the day of the dedication, or of the nativities of the holy martyrs whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, no more offering beasts to the devil, but killing cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and returning thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance; to the end that, whilst some outward gratifications are permitted them, they may the more easily consent to thee inward consolations of the grace of God." (translation of The Letter to Mellitus of 601 taken from J. H. Robinson, Readings in European History, Boston, 1905)
For the common folk merely the names of the Gods changed. They continued to practice Heathenry in their homes, and throughout their lives. A long period of mixed faith continued long after the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. Perhaps until as late as the time of Cromwell, Heathen tradition, although not worship survived in many areas. Plows which had been blessed in the fields in Heathen times were brought into the Churches to be blessed in the spring. Christian festivals were celebrated with Heathen customs such as Maypole dancing, and the dead honored in funeral feasts as they had prior to the conversion. Even the Heathen gods were still being invoked in charms for healing as late as the 10th century. As late as the reign of King Canute in the 11th century, laws had to be enacted against Heathen practices.
Modern Anglo-Saxon Heathenry can trace its history back to 1976, when Garman Lord of the Winland Rice of Theodish Belief first struck upon the idea of reconstructing the ancient Anglo-Saxon pagan religion. Shortly thereafter he formed a group known as the Witan Theod. Its intention was to bring back the worship of Woden. The Witan Theod survived until 1983, when after a period of inactivity, it ceased to exist. In 1989, Garman and former members of the Witan Theod formed the Winland Rice of Theodish Belief. It is now the oldest surviving Anglo-Saxon pagan organization in existence. On June 21, 1996, the Angelseaxisce Ealdriht was formed by Swain Wodening, a member of the Winland Rice and Winifred Hodge a former member of the Rice. The Ealdriht's intention was to be a more democratic alternative to the Rice. On November 19, 2004 after operating for nearly eight and a half years, the Angelseaxisce Ealdriht was dissolved by its Witanagemót. It had become apparent that the Ealdriht's structure was unwieldy and that many of its concepts were outmoded. It was felt that regional groups centered more on specific tribal affiliations such as the Angles, Saxons, or Jutes would do more good. Néoweanglia at that point decided to go on its own, while Middelfolc and Ærest Mæþel decided to to form the Miercinga Ríce.
Modern Anglo-Saxon Heathenry is not and cannot claim to be an authentic reconstruction of the ancient religion. The myths of its Gods it owes in a large part to the Norse Eddas and the Dane Saxo. Other beliefs have been reconstructed from comparison to the Icelandic sagas, and many of its traditions are drawn from later English folklore. Modern Anglo-Saxon Heathenry is therefore a synthesis of many Germanic traditions and beliefs that have been interpreted using the best scholarship in modern Germanic Heathenry. Despite this, it never can or will be the ancient religion. Still, what survived of the Anglo-Saxon Heathen beliefs is being followed by many in the Americas and Great Britain. And while it is not exactly as the ancient religion of the Jutes, Saxons, and Angles was, it captures the spirit and soul none the less.