One of my challenges in writing The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar was portraying the pagan religion my heroine, Leova, practiced in the eighth century. The Church, with aid from Charlemagne, did everything it could to obliterate something it considered devil worship. The Saxons themselves did not have a written language as we know it.
As much as I enjoy Wagner’s Ring Cycle and its Teutonic gods, the composer, like any artist, was more concerned with the storylines for his opera rather than remaining true to ancestral beliefs. The Norse gods, although similar, come from a different culture.
So what is a novelist to do? Search for clues.
Oddly enough, the Saxons’ enemies give us some hints. From Frankish sources, we learn that in 772 Charlemagne ordered the destruction of the Irminsul, a pillar sacred to the pagans. We don’t know what it was made of or if there was only one, but it was important enough to include in the royal annals.
Charlemagne’s first Saxon capitulary, written around 782, has more nuggets as it reveals what the Church did not want the new converts to do. Burning a dead body was a capital offense, as was killing a priest, refusing baptism, raping the daughter of a lord, setting fire to a church, human sacrifice, and cannibalism.
Much of what the capitulary specifies was a real cause for concern. Frankish annals constantly complain about Saxons breaking their baptismal oaths, burning churches, and killing indiscriminately.
Another source I turned to was Beowulf, created sometime between the seventh and 10th centuries by an anonymous poet of a similar ethnicity as the Continental Saxons. Although the monster Grendel and his nameless mother are descendants of Cain, the poem has many pagan references such as images of boars on warriors’ helmets and pyres and barrows for the dead. Because of the poem, I understood my characters’ deep desire to avenge the wrong done to them was not only personal but cultural.
In addition, I did some research on the gods the Anglo-Saxons worshipped, read folk tales, and consulted Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology.
What emerged in my mind was a pantheon of gods, among them Wodan, the war god to whom the Saxons sacrificed war captives; Mother Holle and her hall in the afterlife; Tiwaz, the god of justice; Erda, a goddess of fertility; and Donar and his storms.
Despite all my research, the decisions I made about how to portray the Continental Saxons’ religion amount to my best guess.
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This post was originally published on Sept. 4, 2014 at A Bit of Mel Time.