Posted by: nicanthiel | May 6, 2009

Book Review: The Lost Gods of England

As some of you may know, I am a member of the Geferræden Fyrnsidu. I have recently been admitted to the Weofodþegn (clergy) program, a part of which entails two book reviews. The first review will be Branston’s The Lost Gods of England¹, a look into the gods and mythology of the Anglo-Saxon peoples.

Branston starts the book off with a meditation on the AS tribes, and what they mean for his own contemporaries, referencing the story of Völund (Wayland) as introduction to how one may come to know what the Old English may have believed. Of course, that needs defining, and he goes on to give archeo-historical background, including linguistic characteristics, of the Indo-Europeans, narrowing his focus to first the Germanics, and then the specific invading cultures. For the time period, his facts are decent, and well accompanied with many illustrations and photographs (reminiscent of Piggot’s work, The Druids, from the same publisher [1985]). However, in the main text of the book, he falls short in many ways, at least from the perspective of a Heathen.

The major part of the book is broken up in sections focusing on the major themes that Branston follows in AS archeo-mythology: namely, the major deities of Tiw, Woden, Thunor, and Frige. His largest problem is the modernist tendency to first, identify a pantheon while ignoring the minor deities, and then, to conflate all other mythological personages and events as a part of not only the identified pantheon, but as imports from the Near East.

Branston’s version of this goes as follows:

There is Wyrd, the sovereign governing force in the universe. He draws comparisons to the Nornir, the Morai, and the Parcae, as well as the Weird Sisters from Macbeth.

There is the Sky Father, supreme above all, except Wyrd. He is the *Deiwos from which come Zeus, Dyaus, and Jove, as well as Tiwaz/Tiw.

There is then the Wizard, the god of storm, of death and of wisdom. He mentions the Wælcyrges (Valkyries), and does discuss their original seeming, before the traditional view from the Norse sources (that of civilized battle-maidens serving in Odin’s halls) took hold – wailing and vicious death-dealers; he also draws a comparison between them and the Erinyes (Furies), but interestingly, does not mention the Mórrígan at all, though all of his descriptions (including the paradox of three and one) fit them as well.

The Thunderer is next, which he insists is a borrowing from the Gallic Taranis, as he is beginning to set up his main theory at this point.

Frige, the Mother/Lover is his next topic, and it is here that the fatal flaws in his argument come to light. He spends most of the time discussing the Mediterranean/Near Eastern Great Mother cults, and propounds that the majority of the Heathen mythological corpus is a mutation of those cults, squeezing everyone from Frig to Frey to Balder and Nanna into that mold, and reducing them all to archetypical representations of the Great Mother and Her Son/Lover.

The next few chapters are devoted to the same topic, with different characters, i.e., Frey and Freya and Balder and Frig/Nanna. He even goes so far as to equate Balder with the Dying and Resurrected God model of Tammuz, Osiris, and Jesus, using the obscure, and highly vague, Dream of the Rood text as proof.

Overall, Branston starts off with many interesting and intruiging facts and opinions; however, his failure to avoid the endemic faults of modern mythologists detracts from the majority of his work. For a Heathen audience, the book seems hollow, and like every other work of its kind, condescending to our beliefs. Take it with a large salt-shaker.

2.5 lost gods out of five.

——–

¹ Branston, Brian. The Lost Gods of England. Thames & Hudson, Ltd. London; 1957

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Responses

  1. I had the exact same complaints about the book.

    O. did say that some of these books he doesn’t agree with everything and we can see why.

    I will say, however, that the minor Deities you see in the Eddas were, pretty much, not worshipped in England. That doesn’t mean we -can’t- worship Them, per se, because the oath does say “Gods of the Angles, Saxons, Frisians, and Danes” which IMHO includes the Scandinavian Gods as well. (Example: I am inclined to believe Njord was not necessarily known to the Old English but was indeed known to the Danes. The name Neorð is technically a neologism.) So, in that regard Branston is not wrong. It’s not that he’s deliberately ignoring Them, it’s that there really is no historical evidence for worship of every last minor Deity from the Eddas, in AS times. That said, we have a few that aren’t found in Scandinavia, like Heliþ and Seaxnot, and Nerthus Herself was technically revered by the Angles and some of the Germanic tribes but not the Scandinavians.

    I realize this is so much hairsplitting but that is part of Fyrnsidu.

    Other than that, yeah the whole Baldur-Jesus comparisons drove me up the wall. If you think that’s special, though, read Brian Bates’ “The Real Middle-Earth” has its good moments but he turns Frey into Freya-with-a-penis.

    It’s important to read different books even when they hit their funky moments, but I get annoyed by historians who aren’t Heathen who start to dismiss subtle nuances of our way.

    -Siggy

    • My biggest issue with the minor deities is exactly that, ones like Helith and Seaxnot (Who is actually mentioned in a quote), as well as the horrendous treatment of Wuldor (Is not Odin-with-a-bow, kthnxbai.)

      And the whole assumption that any possible comparable mythic cycle among European myths automatically means that they must have come from the Classical civilizations makes me want to burn things. Especially since he specifically mentioned the tribal myths of descending from the Saami/Finns. Because, you know, they can’t at all have had their own myths that just so happened to follow similar lines.

      IMO, common mythic themes relate more to theories of Jung than theories of cultural expansion from the Middle East.

      • the horrendous treatment of Wuldor (Is not Odin-with-a-bow, kthnxbai.)

        I KNOW ZOMG. I want to smack him with a yew bow for that. ;P

        And the whole assumption that any possible comparable mythic cycle among European myths automatically means that they must have come from the Classical civilizations makes me want to burn things.

        Oh I agree. It’s bad enough Snorri goes on this “Aesir are from Asia and that’s why They’re called AESIR, lulz” thing, because clearly those barbaric Northmen couldn’t have had their own KULTCHAH. While I do in fact believe the religion in the North progressed from worship of etins (as in, elements and land-masses) to Vanir to Aesir, the Aesir are not as easily interchangeable with the classical civilizations nor even necessarily the I-E Gods. Odin and Zeus are not the same being. The I-E migration was a lot more complex and in my humble opinion, the Gods have always existed but chose different points in time to reveal Themselves to people. It wasn’t all this watered-down Middle Eastern stuff.

        Anyway, the book isn’t completely horrible but like you said, anytime an outsider reviews Heathen stuff it gets a little funky. I’ve even had moments reading HRED, who I normally enjoy, where I just facepalm and am like ZOMG STOP MESSING WITH MY GODS.

        This, of course, is why religion needs to be experienced and not just confined to a textbook, but they’re still useful for something sometimes. ;P

        -Siggy

  2. I think your critiques are good; but do look at the date on the thing…Anything earlier than about 1970 in a great deal of “respectable” scholarship is going to have flaws like this.

    What is Branston’s background–is he a Germanicist of some sort? If so, then it’s doubly inexcusable…

    • I do realise that (another issue I also have is the utter lack of a bibliography, despite his profligate quoting of other material).

      The only information I can find on him is that he was a anthropological documentarian for the BBC, and took up writing on Germanic mythology in retirement. Not high academic praise by any means.


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