There are probably not too many people in the world who pull back their curtains each morning and gaze into stone receptacles, even older than Stonehenge, that contained the bones of those who lived in the locality 5700 years before them.
Since the barrow stones lie next to the Church there is the fascinating contrast between the new monotheism of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and the polytheism of the older faiths. I started to wonder about the old beliefs which set me on an interesting journey into the world of the Pagan for Paganism would have been their religion.
A good start would be to define ‘Pagan’. The word comes from the Latin Paganus and was originally used by urban Romans to refer to country dwellers, people who preferred their local faith. It was later applied to people who worshipped local deities, or people who practiced polytheism.
There are many forms of Paganism, ranging from native shamanism to the sophistication of the Roman and Greek pantheons, but our local Pagans would have been profoundly influenced by the seasons of the year and the waxing and waning of the moon. Rather than going on bended knee to their all powerful deities, they worked with their Goddesses and their Gods to protect and treasure the land and the animals upon which they depended. The earliest representations of deities are female with models of goddesses having been found which date from 35,000 BC and in the West it was not until some 1000 BCE that male gods started to become prevalent as societies became more structured and warlike and felt the need for warrior support rather than the nurturing of the Goddesses.
Since there is no pagan ‘bible’ and no written record, much of what is known about their beliefs relies upon the oral traditions of the Norse/Germanic peoples who spread out across most of Europe. The fascinating thing for me has been to realise that despite some 1600 years of Christianity, so many of the old traditions still exist and here a few of those that I have been able to gather to date.
The days of the week:
Sunday – named after: the sun
Monday – named after: the moon
Tuesday – name after Tiw (Tyr): God of battle and victory.
Wednesday – named after Woden/Wotan (Odin): Father and ruler of the Gods and mortals
Thursday – named after Thor: God of thunder and sky, and good crops.
Friday – named after Frigg (Friia): wife of Odin; great mother of the Gods.
Saturday – named after Saturn: god of fertility, agriculture, time.
It is interesting that despite the days of the week having been Roman during the occupation, the old Goddesses and Gods Tiw, Woden, Thor and Frigg moved back in pretty fast when the Romans left!
The Roman Gods did manage to hang to months of the year:
Named after the Roman god of beginnings and endings Janus (the month Januarius).
The name comes either from the old-Italian god Februus or else from februa, signifying the festivals of purification celebrated in Rome during this month.
This is the first month of the Roman year. It is named after the Roman god of war, Mars.
Called Aprilis, from aperire, “to open”. Possible because it is the month in which the buds begin to open.
The third month of the Roman calendar. The name probably comes from Maiesta, the Roman goddess of honor and reverence.
The fourth month was named in honor of Juno. However, the name might also come from iuniores (young men; juniors) as opposed to maiores (grown men; majors) for May, the two months being dedicated to young and old men.
It was the month in which Julius Caesar was born, and named Julius in his honor in 44 BCE, the year of his assassination. Also called Quintilis (fifth month).
Originally this month was called Sextilis (from sextus, “six”), but the name was later changed in honor of the first of the Roman emperors, Augustus (because several fortunate events of his life occurred during this month).
The name comes from septem, “seven”.
The name comes from octo, “eight”
The name comes from novem, “nine”.
The name comes from decem, “ten”.
It is equally remarkable how the celebration of the old festivals and the traditions associated with them have also survived.
Yule is an ancient festival celebrated at the winter solstice around 21st December. This is the shortest day and many religions celebrate the rebirth of life at this point as the days start to lengthen again and the hard days of winter start to pass. It is a time of birth and hope and many pagans celebrate the rebirth of their God at this time. Fir trees (the home of the woodland spirits in the wintertime) were brought into the house and decorated to join the celebrations. The fairy on the top of the tree is said to represent the Goddess, whilst the shiny balls that we use today reflect back to the witch balls that were hung in windows to protect the home. Mistletoe has long been a sacred and mysterious plant. The Celts in particular revered it as the golden circles of mistletoe in the trees represented the rebirth of the sun. The original giver of gifts was the God Woden who would ride through the sky in his wooden chariot bringing gifts to children. The yule-log was dragged in with much ceremony and had to burn for the length of the festival to help the strenghtening sun to grow.
Easter is another very significant celebration, named after the Saxon Goddess Eostre. There is a legend that she came across a wounded bird and healed it. Every year thereafter in gratitude the bird presented her with a gloriously decorated egg. Eggs have always been associated with birth and they also reflect the power of the new moon. Eostre’s earthly form was that of a rabbit from which we get the Easter Bunny. Even hot cross buns are said the represent a sacred circle marked with the four ponts of the compass and their associated elements of earth, air, fire and water. All the changing seasons would have been celebrated as would the phases of the moon which play a vital part in Pagan ceremonies. Full and new moons hold great significance and the date of Easter Sunday, the most important Christian festival, is still calculated as being the first Sunday after the first Full Moon on or after the Spring Equinox.
I have also discovered that so many words that we take for granted have their roots deep in ancient times. Just one example comes from Sweden, where Halogaland County was named after Hel (Mother Earth), whom the Scandinavians worshiped as the one all-powerful source of life’s abundance and there is evidence from sculptures that she has been known to humanity for at least 25,000 years. They didn’t see any separation between this Goddess and themselves and because of this they all took names containing hers as a root-word (Helga, Olga, Ole), for self-identity was not of the greatest importance. There was no complicated mythology to believe in, unlike under later Viking-rule. Spiritual practice was simply the art of serving and living in harmony with the whole of the Goddess’ creation. A sacred place of communion with Hel was often near water, that embraces and flows through all, formless free and alive. It seems likely that the present site of Holy Trinity was a sacred place by the river where those who were here before us came to meet their deities.
When the Vikings invaded Scandinavia they imposed their own deities and in particular created Valhalla, the home after death of warriors. Hel, was then forced underground, to be considered a lesser goddess who took in women and men, who were not brave in battle, after their deaths and tended and cared for them until they were ready for reincarnation. Helvete (Hell) later became the name of the Christian inferno of endless pain when the bible was translated into the Germanic Languages.
So far reaching was Hel that her name is reflected in Holland, Helvetica (Switzerland), Helas (Greece) and even England and Scotland – Albion and Alba respectively meaning both “offspring (bearn) of Hel”. She is also the root of the now-English words, heal, holy, help, hail, hold, whole, all, elf, etc.
How remarkable that so much of the what we hear and see and do have their roots so very, very deep in the past.