Recently, I’ve been doing quite a bit of research into the ancestral gods of the British Isles. I’ve often thought it odd that as one of the key nations in the revival movement, we should show such a limited interest in our own gods. The reverence of Irish, Welsh, Greek and Norse gods is somewhat commonplace, but English gods (of which there are many) get a surprisingly small amount of attention. I personally suspect this is due to a lack of accessible information about them, directed at a popular audience. I think this is a real shame, and I hope it will change.
So far, I’ve been concentrating on R.G. Collingwood’s Roman Inscriptions of Britain, and have found a huge number of local gods, about which we know a little and can guess quite a bit more via the interpretio romana. As I’m dealing with a-lot of the source material the founding members of Druidry, Wicca and other modern paths may have directly or indirectly drawn upon, I can also see where a lot of their ideas came from.
Take the Lord of Wicca, for example. His dual role as the sacred king, doomed to die to make the crops fertile, and the wild hunter-shaman of the wintery woods, is a straight-up combination of Freyr and another, less known god; Nodens. Nodens, also known as Nodons, Nodonts, Nudens, is a god associated with hunting, dogs, healing and fishing. He had a major cult centre at Lydney in Gloucestershire, but (as I have been discovering) was worshipped across Britain, although frequently in the form of his alternate in the interpretio – Mars. Mars-Nodens seems to be one of the most popular gods in Roman Britain, up there with Jupiter Optimus Maximus and the Dea Matronae – the Mother Goddesses. I’ve found inscriptions devoted to him across the length and breadth of the country. His explicit association with Mars is one connection, but another suggestive link to other gods is the linguistic similarity of his name to the figures of Nuada (in Ireland) and Llud (Wales). In these persons, the theme of losing a hand (but it being restored at some later date) appears, which also indicates a further connection – to the Germanic God Tiw or Tyr, who was also associated with Mars.
Now, does this mean that a single divinity – with many different names – was worshipped across Europe? That seems to be the conclusion drawn by previous writers. The God’s powers of regeneration, his association with wildness, fertility, just violence and sacrifice all spring from this densely woven fabric of associations. But to me, I think lumping all these very different beings together is a bit dodgy. In Rome, Mars was more associated with warfare than healing – that association is a decidedly Celtic viewpoint. Similarly, Tyr is a god of justice rather than a healer. Unlike Nuada, he never regains the hand he sacrifices to the forces of chaos. Explaining away these differences does a disservice to their plurality of these different beings, and I think neglects their clear differences as characters.
I think the root of the “lumping” school lies with a desire to create analogues to the Christian divinity. This tendency can be most clearly seen in Goddess Spirituality, which denies the existence of a nasty, patriarchal God (boo), and affirms the existence of a loving, matristic Goddess (yay!) In my view, though legitimate engagements with the sacred, these views simply aren’t supported by the source material, which if anything suggests a huge number of local gods, similar to that seen in many polytheistic countries. Each tribe would have its own collection of divinities, embedded in their own history, culture and landscape.
That isn’t to say there are no lines of continuity though. Clearly, there is something shared cross-culturally under all this Nodens-Mars-Tyr business. Ultimately, I think the key theme is “necessity”. Across pre-Christian Europe, there seems to have been a spiritual concern with the issue of what to do in a tight spot, and that concern manifested in different ways in different contexts. In Norse culture, that manifested with a warrior sacrificing his sword-hand for the good of All, and therefore gaining a sense of justice and authority over the thing and the laws it gave. In Roman Britain, that same need presented as a hunter king, who rewarded those who propitiated him with a good catch and a healing hand. Just like the trickster figures of Native American spiritualities, European gods are variations on a theme. To me, it seems what is shared is not a single god with many masks, but rather a common archetype – a divine equivalent of a star-sign. Nodens, Mars and Tyr are like cousins; sharing a basic energy, but manifesting it in different, locally specific ways.