A question was asked on the MySpace Anglo-Saxon Heathen group whether the Saxons were “culturally and perhaps even linguistically different to the Angles.” The asker was basing this on the fact that almost all rune fines in England are in Anglian and Jutish areas. The answer to this question is, “yes, the Angles were linguistically and culturally different from the Saxons.”
The differences may seem subtle enough but they are there. Beginning with language, while the dialects were mutually intelligible, the Angle dialects of Mercian and Northumbrian were different from West Saxon in some significant ways. Some of the consonants were pronounced differently, and the vowels as well. This difference is due to different sound shifts in West Saxon both before coming to the island and after. Mercian retains archaic endings that West Saxon did not. Both Mercian and Northumbrian’s endings were different in general from West Saxon’s in regards conjugation of verbs and case endings for nouns. Overall, Mercian was a more conservative language than West Saxon. It seems to retain words that West Saxon did not that it shared with the other major Anglian dialect, Northumbrian such as Mercian earon “are.” While the two dialects of Mercian and West Saxon were mutually intelligible it must be remembered that it is thought by scholars that Old Norse was mutually intelligible as well with Old English, and it is classed as a totally different language.
The material culture was different as well. It is possible to identify whether a grave site is Saxon or Angle by the type of grave goods. Sleeve clasps are commonly thought to be a feature of Anglian fashion not seen in Saxon grave goods. The Angles as well as the Jutes preferred cruciform brooches to the round and equal arm brooches of the Saxons. Pottery differed as well with the Angles using rectangular decoration while the Saxons preferred decoration that was more curvilinear. Stamped pottery was used amongst the Saxons and does not appear at all amongst the Angles.
Place name evidence would seem to indicate a preference for different deities. Þunor place names occur only in southern England while Wóden place names are more common in the North although they do also appear in southern areas. Place names for Tiw are more common in Saxon areas.
Finally, different methods of disposal of the dead also appear to have been used. The Angles commonly seemed to have employed cremation of the dead often, while the Saxons seem to have buried the dead almost exclusively. The largest cremation cemeteries are found in areas settled by the Angles such as the Midlands and East Anglia. Indeed with the exception of Kent, cremation seems rare south of the Thames. The only Saxon area with a substantial cremation cemetery is Essex, it contains over 450 burials, but otherwise cremation is rare there as well. Cremation burials as a rule have fewer grave goods than inhumation.
Taken all together, all this would seem to indicate the Saxons and Angles were very distinct peoples. It could be argued that the differences in fashion and pottery styles could be trumped up to fashion trends, but the difference in burial rites, and place name evidence seems to indicate an adherence to different cults. While inhumation and cremation appear together in nearly all of England the dominance of cremation in East Anglia and its frequent occurrence in the Midlands could mean religious or tribal differences with the rest of England. Snorri says in the Ynglingasaga that Odin introduced cremation, and elsewhere in the lore it appears linked to his cult. This taken with the rarity of runic finds in Saxon areas may indicate radically different religious views in the areas of Anglian domination. We know from Norse sources that Odin was linked to the runes, and therefore the same may be true of England. In the Old Norse literature Odin’s cult is sometimes contrasted with that of Thor’s. Odin’s cult seeming to be that of a warrior elite while Thor’s is that of the more common man. This view may have also been true in England.
There are other differences that have not been touched on. The Angles esp. in Mercia seem to have brought the concept of kingship with them. The kings of Mercia traced their ancestry back to Angle kings on the Continent such as Offa. It is the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom able to do so. Further, the elaborate burials at Sutton Hoo by the East Anglians would also seem to indicate a strong tradition of kingship. We are told by Bede that the Saxons on the Continent had only satraps or chieftains who during war elected a leader but at all other times were equal. We known from the earliest entries in the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” that the leaders of the West Saxons were only called Ealdormen. They are not called kings until later in the text. It could be that the Saxons in England only adopted kingship after incessant warfare and through the influence of the Angles. This contrast of forms of government between the Saxons and Angles, as well as the popularity of Þunor in Saxon areas, the lack of runic finds, and the difference in burial customs may indicate a far greater cultural difference than can first be perceived.
What this may all mean for the modern Anglo-Saxon Heathen is that we may be mistaken in lumping Angles, Saxons, and Jutes together as one big religious cult. It is apparent there were sometimes significant differences especially in the area of religion and social order. The practice of cremation, the practice of kingship, and runic finds in the Anglian areas could be perceived as meaning the Angles had a different religious outlook to that of the Saxons. This would have seemed to been true on the Continent as well where we find the Angles listed amongst the six tribes in Germania worshiping Nerthus, while the tribes later associated with the Saxons are not. The God Seaxneat too is only found in Saxon contexts.
I think it possible that one can still call themselves “Anglo-Saxon Heathen,” but at the same time, one will want to decide whether their emphasis is on the Angles, the Saxons, or the Jutes. It makes no sense to lump the religions of the Saxons and Angles together when the differences between the two may be as great as say that between the Angles and the Norse (if not greater). Certainly, we will have to wait until scholars do further studies on such things as the frequency of pagan place name elements in Saxon and Anglian areas. Even such a small thing asÂ leah “grove” appearing more often in one area than say ealh “temple” could indicate a preference for worship in groves as opposed to temples. For the average Anglo-Saxon Heathen these differences may not seem great and may not make a difference in how they practice their religion. For the Theodsman however, it could be vitally important as they strive to be true to their tribal identification. Englatheod, for example has chosen to concentrate on the religion of the ancient Angles.