Anglo-Saxon Spirituality & Culture (Pre-Christian)

I recently came across the work of Brian Bates, and I am very impressed by his research and writing about Anglo-Saxon Spirituality. He was former Chairman of Psychology at the University of Sussex, (currently a Senior Visiting Research Fellow there), and his focus is the culture of the Anglo-Saxons before the forced conversion to Christianity.

But what I am especially excited about, is that he focuses especially on the Animistic time before Christianity even started to influence Anglo-Saxon culture. The worldview he describes is based on living in harmony with the spirits of the land and plants and elements, and with nature herself, and with the cycles of sun and moon and seasons. His sources are primarily manuscripts from the Middle Ages written in Old English or Latin, such as the Lacnunga, .

The other books I have read about the Anglo-Saxons (or about the continental Saxons) have focused on either dry, archaeological analysis (the scientific extraction of facts from the corpses of our ancestors), or are focused on reconstructionist Germanic/Scandinavian-style heathenism (trying to reconstruct a very specific time in the past, rather than reconnecting with our ancestors and then pursuing a new path with deep roots in an authentic culture of the past).

I also really like his choice to de-emphasize the differences between “Celtic” and “Germanic” cultures, which is a legacy that has been with us since Roman times. Instead he focuses on the fact that the Celtic and Germanic peoples were comprised of many tribes with many cultural differences, but overall, even though their languages were different, they had much more in common than in difference.

Brian Bates 'website is , and you can sample some of his writing there.
He also has a Facebook page at .

The only book I have managed to get a hold of so far is “The Real Middle Earth”, which would not have been my first choice, as it seems to be oriented to a more contemporary audience than his other books. But I am still finding it a valuable read, and will take the time to post some quotes here for people’s perusal.

[i] "The Anglo-Saxon word ‘Haelu’ meant good fortune, material prosperity, and health, along with spiritual blessing. From it is derived our word ‘heal’. This power could be passed onto anyone with Otherworldly ‘connections’–like a king granting wealth, a wizard or, later a priest offering blessings, or it could be granted by an object of ‘power’–like a magic ring or rune-carved necklace. When a person was ill, it meant that they had lost this general life-force of haelu, and may even be affected by a malevolent force of anti-haelu.
“Haelu was like a generalized life-force. It was similar to more recently identified notions of ‘mana’ among some indigenous peoples–a kind of personal power and ‘good-luck’ which kept a person safe and granted them various abilities, including the capacity to heal others.”

“But the possession of life-force was not restricted to people. The Anglo-Saxons believed in a generalized spirit force suffusing their cosmos. This view of a vital presence in the environment is today labeled ‘animism’. It implies a belief in a level of life that in our culture we reserve for human, or animal species only. It is a label redolent of the ‘primitive’ views documented by anthropologists among the indigenous cultures of the world.”[/i]

-Brian Bates, “The Real Middle Earth”, pg 114.

An interesting view expressed by Brian Bates’ writing, is that the Anglo-Saxon’s attributed the collapse of the Roman Empire to the Romans and Romanized people living out of accord with nature, (and the resultant loss of “Haelu”, or loss of life-force, luck or the blessings of the land).

They also believed that once a civilization had collapsed, it was time for it to make way for the new age–the age of the Anglo Saxons in this case. They would have seen the remaining Christianized Britons as struggling remnants of a dead era, and perhaps they pitied them, but perhaps they did not aggressively try to conquer them? That would be in great contrast to the modern view of the Anglo-Saxons as violent blood-thirsty barbarians who slaughtered their way across Britain.

I think that the Angles and Saxons who left Continental Europe may have been the ones who wanted to get further away from Roman civilization. (The Romans had had a much looser grip on Britain than on the continent, and much less infrastructure there as well). Travelling to Britain allowed them to get away from the Romanized Gauls and Franks of the continent. And there are some theories that there were Germanic people in the south-east area of Britain long before the Romans arrived, who must have been displaced or assimilated. If that is true, then the Anglo-Saxons may also have considered the move to Britain after the retreat of the Romans as a kind of homecoming. Remember that bodies of water were not a political boundary then as they are now. The Belgae tribe in particular were said to exist on both sides of the English Channel at an earlier time.

I don’t know if it’s any good but I’ve meaning to watch this:

For reference, roughly ninety percent of the genes of rural “Brittains” in recent times is still from the founding population roughly 14,000 years ago (about when most, if not all, Native American lines arrived, or were created, in the Americas, as it relied on the same glacial movements). The intervening cultures have contributed few people, but in high-status positions within the hierarchy. High status people being the most influential in society, everyone kept changing their ethnic self identities and language groups as new people with new culture arrived. The English and other Germanic people were not the first or last to invade, but they were the last to change the actual self-identity of people on the islands. The Norman French were only partially successful in subsuming them.
As for Brian Bates, Ive never heard of him before and will likely be looking into his writings. However, I disagree with his interpretation of “hælo/haelu.” I would argue that “whelm” is the better translation of mana or chi energy. The modern words from this same root are health, heal, healthy, hello and whole, while hale/hail comes from the cognate (sister word) in Old Norse. Hælo is the state of having much whelm, ie. being “well,” which implies that you are in accordance with Wyrd. The words overwhelm, well (as in “doing well”) and well (as in an artificial spring) all have the same Old English root. Best example in OE for us rewilders is the verb form “weljan/welian” meaning to spring or gush forth. I interpret this to mean that it all comes from the source of everything: the Well of Wyrd - the spring that brought forth everything. This identification of the inner energy with the source of all is perhaps the closest Heathendom gets to a “creator.”

Also, he mentions on his website that his inspiration was, though he doesnt use the term, one of the medieval Herbaria. I have the book Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing handy, so I can look it up quick enough.

Hello ChaseMe, and thanks for joining the conversation.

I actually started researching the English Anglo Saxons in an effort to learn more about the religious and world views of my continental Saxon ancestors. That is because there doesn’t seem to be a lot (written in English at least) about pre-Christian continental Saxon culture, or even pre-Protestant continental Saxon culture. But the Saxons who traveled to England took their views and religion and language with them, where it was conveniently fossilized in a fair bit of surviving Old English/Old Saxon writing. That writing seems to be the source material for much of Brian Bates’ work, and until I learn to read OE myself, I will have to make do with the work of such authors as him.

As for the genes of the Britons, yes, I have also read about the DNA research which states how the rural populations are still largely the original indigenous population. Pretty amazing!!! But that is new knowledge, and there’s still a lot of out-of-date published material around that talks about the Britons being displaced to Wales and Cornwall and replaced in England by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.