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“From Runes to Ruins”


Written by Thomas Rowsell

Produced by Thomas Rowsell, Jamie Roper, Anthony Leigh

Who has not heard of Apollo? Doesn’t every school child know something of the gods of Egypt, Greece and Rome? Some might even know a bit about the Norse gods but who knows anything about the English gods? Why are the gods of the Anglo-Saxons so neglected? It wasn’t always that way. When Queen Victoria married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840, the British public began to celebrate their medieval German heritage with renewed vigour. Teutophilia was becoming ever more popular as it became apparent that the very origins of English monarchy were taken from the pagan custom of claiming descent from Saxon gods such as Woden.

Over the course of the 20th century, this heritage has become less important to English identity, but we are still surrounded by the legacy of this era. There are landmarks, place names and aspects of our language which are remnants of Anglo-Saxon paganism. It is from Woden, the god of war, that we take the name for the third day of the week, Wednesday (Woden’s day). There are many places around England named after Woden; The ancient earthwork of Wansdyke was probably a cult-centre of the god, running between Wodnes beorg ‘Woden’s barrow’, and Wodnes dene, ‘Woden’s valley’. In The Midlands the place-names of Wednesbury and Wednesfield also attest to his worship.

There are features of the landscape that take us right back to pagan times and give us insight into how people used to think. Burial mounds such as Cwichelm’s barrow in Oxfordshire were thought to be haunted by the ghosts of the dead warriors they contained. Further up the Ridgeway is ‘Wayland’s smithy’, a Neolithic long barrow which the Anglo-Saxons believed was built by Wayland, the blacksmith of the gods. The Saxon pagans used to worship in forests and Woden was associated with the now endangered ash tree, they made human sacrifices in their sacred forest groves. A belt buckle from Kent depicts a horned naked warrior dancing with spears that is most likely a depiction of Woden himself.

The film looks at all these places. It also features interviews with people who live like our ancestors, people like David Rawlings of London Longsword Academy, who teaches medieval martial arts, having studied the techniques described in ancient manuscripts. The film also examines runes, a mystical Germanic system of writing. Woden was the god of the runes, but despite the pagan associations, they were used by Christians too. The earliest example of the English language is written in runes on a stone cross in Scotland which is also featured in this film.

Despite the significance of Anglo-Saxon paganism to the history of Britain, no one has ever made a documentary exclusively on this subject. Thomas Rowsell specialised in Germanic paganism in his MA, in this film he traces the pagan past from runes to ruins to reveal a forgotten aspect of English history that many are oblivious to.

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