Patriarchal Rituals: Anglo-Saxon Readings of Genesis and the Shift from Pagan to Christian Religious Practice

© 2019 by Angela Fulk. All intellectual property rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2019 by The Heroic Age.

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Abstract: The Biblical book of Genesis provides a touchstone for Anglo-Saxons, a world not so much different than their own. Anglo-Saxon understanding and treatment of Genesis as a text that offered cultural elements familiar from their pre-Christian past now resignified in a Christian context aiding conversion to the Christian world-view.

§1. As the new doctrines of Christianity spread throughout the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the culture's beliefs and expectations concerning religion began to shift. Through the public conversions of King Edwin and other royals and nobles, Christianity gradually became a socially acceptable belief system, and eventually, the social norm. Despite the drama of conversion narratives as presented by Bede, however, a complete cultural shift from one set of religious beliefs to another is always a gradual transition. At first, the devotions of many of the professed adherents of the new religion probably resembled those of Rædwald, King of the East Angles, who as Bede complains, attempted to integrate Christianity into his existing belief system by simply adding an altar for the Christian God to his pagan shrine (Bede HE 2.15). Open worship of pagan gods eventually ceased, though in the first few generations after the arrival of Christian missionaries, Bede reports several instances of kingdoms returning to pagan practice when pagan rulers came to the throne (HE 2.5, 3.30). Most common folk seem to have willingly followed their leaders in matters of religion, and in fact, during the early years of missionary activity must have had only a vague conception of the nature and doctrines of Christianity. Even at the end of the tenth century, four hundred years after the arrival of the first missionaries from Rome, Ælfric repeatedly laments the ignorance of the laity about theological matters.

§2. In the early years of transition from paganism to Christianity, many Anglo-Saxons, like Rædwald, experienced confusion and uncertainty over the basic questions of how to conduct the worship of this new God. Ritual worship is an important part of the practice of Christianity, and the practices of the Roman Church (and even the Celtic one) were new and strange to the Anglo-Saxon culture. A story attesting to the Anglo-Saxons' early anxiety about the crucial function of correct ritual appears in Bede's Life of St. Cuthbert. In this episode, dated approximately 650, a crowd of Northumbrian peasants jeers at a group of monks who are in danger on the sea. When Cuthbert rebukes them, they reply that the monks do not deserve pity because ueteres culturas hominibus tulere, et nouas qualiter obseruare debeant nemo nouit (Bede Life of Cuthbert 3).1 At first, the—often forced—abandonment of pagan practice and belief created a frightening void in the lives of many Anglo-Saxons. Of course, paganism did not die out immediately and completely. Even after the conversion period, many pagan beliefs survived as folklore, and in her book Popular Religion in Late Saxon England, Karen Louise Jolly explains how some of these enduring beliefs interacted with the doctrines of the established Church to form a hybrid system of "popular religion" (1996, 33) among much of the Anglo-Saxon laity.

§3. The form of Christianity that eventually came to dominate the religious life of the Anglo-Saxons, while it left no room for worship at pagan shrines, did represent a cultural synthesis between late classical Christianity and the previously existing Anglo-Saxon culture and religion. Bede, in fact, informs us that Pope Gregory purposely instructed his original missionary, Augustine, to convert pagan temples into Christian churches, and pagan feast days and rituals of sacrifice into Christian celebrations (Bede HE 1.30). Likewise, Bede celebrates the efforts of the illiterate lay monk Cædmon to render the content and doctrines of Christian Scripture into the culturally viable form of Anglo-Saxon heroic verse (Bede HE 4.24).

§4. It is no accident that, according to Bede, the subject matter of Cædmon's initial composition was God's Creation of the world as related in Genesis. Anglo-Saxon Genesis narratives are a particularly noteworthy focus of the cultural intersection between Christianity and Anglo-Saxon paganism, because in them the religious and social structures of the Biblical Genesis narrative are integrated with familiar Anglo-Saxon religious and social structures. In addition to Cædmon's Hymn and a prose translation of Genesis written partially by Ælfric, vernacular readings of Genesis available to an Anglo-Saxon audience included the Genesis poem, recorded in the Junius Manuscript. This work, which renders the first 22 chapters of the scriptural account into Old English epic verse, almost certainly predates Ælfric. It represents a compilation of a 621-line section often called Genesis B, drawn from an Old Saxon original probably composed around 850 (Doane 1991, 53), and the longer Genesis A that surrounds it, which editor A. N. Doane asserts cannot be dated with any certainty beyond the broad sweep of 650–900, though he considers an eighth-century date the most probable (Doane 2013, 36–37). These Genesis narratives produced by the Anglo-Saxons provide a bridge between pagan and Christian religious thought in many arenas, including the practical one of how worship is to be conducted. Though the rites of the Christian Church were alien to the first Anglo-Saxon converts, Judeo-Christian worship as practiced in Genesis was similar to the existing customs: sacrifice at outdoor shrines, usually performed by rulers or male heads of family groups, but with the occasional appearance of professional clergy. All of these elements are stressed in the epic verse retelling of Genesis found in Genesis A, perhaps the earliest surviving Old English version of Genesis other than Cædmon's Hymn.

§5. Though we possess hardly any direct and detailed evidence of how pagan worship was carried out by the Anglo-Saxons, it seems clear that at least part of the traditional propitiation methods for pagan gods involved some sort of sacrifice. Bede's De Temporum Ratione specifies a specific month, named Blotmonath, as the time when livestock sacrifice was carried out among the Angles (Bede De Temporum Ratione 15). Among the Northern Germanic tribes in Scandinavia, feasts accompanied times of sacrifice at specified festivals during the year (Davidson 1999, 89–93), and archeological excavations at Yeavering in Northumbria of several great halls and a wooden amphitheatre, the latter thought to have been constructed by Edwin himself, have uncovered animal remains that are believed to constitute evidence of such sacrificial feasting (Davidson 1999, 22–23), just as Pope Gregory's letter describes.

§6. Sacrifice as an act of worship is first practiced in the Genesis narrative by Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve's sons, in Genesis 4. In this instance, it is God's acceptance of Abel's sacrifice and rejection of Cain's that leads to Cain's jealousy and his murder of his brother. No reason is given in the Biblical account for why God prefers Abel's offering; Bede offers the explanation in his commentary on Genesis that God perceived a deficiency in Cain's attitude of worship, not in his offering itself (Bede Commentary on Genesis 2). The Genesis poem, like the Biblical text itself, simply states God's reaction without explanation (Genesis 976–79).

§7. If the poem's audience were concerned, like the Northumbrian peasants in the Life of St. Cuthbert, with learning how to please the Christian God through correct sacrifice, the seeming arbitrariness of God's favor here would surely have been unsettling. The Church, however, regarded this sort of sacrifice as an element of the Old Law, now obsolete, so teaching the correct ritual practice of it was not necessary. Pagan practices of sacrifice were to be discontinued, but the Anglo-Saxons who encountered Genesis passages that described sacrifice could feel a kinship with the Hebrews, who originally had worshipped their God in the same way the Anglo-Saxons had worshipped theirs.

§8. The Genesis narrative repeatedly describes faithful followers of God making sacrifice to him. Noah offers a sacrifice in thanks when the flood waters recede and he and his family are finally able to leave the ark. The great patriarch Abraham practices sacrifice at significant points in his life. All of these instances of sacrifice are described by the Genesis poem,2 which emphasizes God's response of blessings to the one who worships faithfully in this manner.3

§9. The culminating instance of sacrifice in the Genesis poem is God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, drawn from the account in Genesis 22. Though the book of Genesis itself continues for 28 more chapters after this incident, the Anglo-Saxon Genesis poem closes here. This story recounts Abraham's greatest test of obedience to his Lord, as God orders him to sacrifice the long-awaited son who is to continue the Hebrew dynasty.

§10. The primary focus of medieval commentary on this passage is the reading of the sacrifice of Isaac as a type of the crucifixion of Christ. Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son in the same way that God will one day sacrifice His for the good of Abraham and his (physical and spiritual) descendants. Certainly any reader or hearer of the poem who was well acquainted with Christian theology would have been aware of this interpretation, and it is possible to read some echoes of it in this section of the Genesis poem. Doane's commentary on this section (2013, 322–24) of his edition of Genesis A, points out these instances, but they are all ambiguous, such as the fact that line 2887, which reads in part wudu bær sunu, can be interpreted as either "the son bore the wood," or, in allusion to the Crucifixion, "the wood bore the son." Only a reader who is already aware of the typological link between Isaac and Christ would pick up on such subtlety. The poet never makes a direct reference to Christ at any point, instead choosing to present the narrative on a literal level, with the focus on Abraham's obedience to his Lord's command.

§11. Tacitus is clear that the ancient Germanic tribes practiced both human and animal sacrifice (Germania 9). There is no definite evidence that human sacrifice continued among the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, although, as Hilda Ellis Davidson concludes in her analysis of the question, the possibility cannot be ruled out (1992, 340). It is most likely, however, that though the pagan Anglo-Saxons had conducted human sacrifice in the ancient past, it was no longer practiced by the time of their contact with missionaries from Rome. This sanctioning of human sacrifice by the Christian God is unique in the Genesis accounts. The Anglo-Saxons of the conversion period, aware of the practice of human sacrifice but no longer considering it an appropriate means of propitiation of the gods, were able to empathize with the position of Abraham at this point. Hitherto, he has sacrificed only animals, but now undertakes the offering of his son in response to God's specific command. Isaac clearly has no suspicion at all of his father's real intent. When his son asks him where the sacrifice he intends to offer may be, the Abraham of the poem responds, Him þæt soðcyning sylfa findeð, / moncynnes weard, swa him gemet þinceð (Genesis 2295–96).4 This answer proves Abraham's complete willingness to offer to the soðcyning (True-King) any sacrifice that the Lord deems fit.

§12. Abraham has passed the test, and since in fact human sacrifice is not condoned by Judeo-Christian theology, God promptly calls to Abraham to desist before his son is harmed. Proving his right to the title of moncynnes weard (mankind's guardian) God saves Isaac's life by providing a ram as a substitute offering. Most commentators of the early medieval period would here draw a comparison to the substitutionary nature of the sacrifice of Christ, but the Genesis poet is content to emphasize only the rewards given to Abraham in return for his total obedience.

§13. Animal sacrifice continues to be carried out throughout both the Old and New Testaments, but will eventually be performed only at the temple in Jerusalem by those specially designated as priests. Genesis takes place long before the temple is built, and those who perform sacrifice in Genesis first build their own altars. These are simple stone structures located in the open air at a spot convenient for the worshipper, much the way that pagan Anglo-Saxon shrines seem to have been. In his account of Edwin's conversion, Bede describes the dramatic renunciation of paganism enacted by a man named Coifi, who had previously been Edwin's chief priest. Demonstrating his new-found Christian zeal, Coifi violently destroys the pagan idols he had formerly worshipped, which are described as being located in some sort of temple structure. Bede uses the terms templa, altaria, and fanum (temples, high altars, and shrine) in his descriptions of the physical location of Anglo-Saxon worship in this episode (Bede HE 2.13). The Old English translation of Bede's Historia renders these descriptions as þæt templ and þa wigbedo, þa hergas þara deofolgilda mid heora heowum, and þone herig and þa getimbro. Templ, of course, is a borrowing from the Latin; wigbedo corresponds to the Latin altaria. Hergas, according to David Wilson, were particularly prominent religious sites, likely the locations of tribal worship (1992, 8), an interpretation that fits the description given. The Anglo-Saxon translator adds to the original text the details that this temple consisted of multiple buildings (getimbro) and was surrounded by some sort of protective hedge or enclosure (heowum).

§14. Though Bede mentions the existence of pagan temples at several points in his history, the above-mentioned passage is the most complete written description of one that we possess. One hall at the excavation at Yeavering, which Bede cites as Edwin's villam regiam (royal residence) (Bede HE 2.14), has been identified as a possible temple site; otherwise, no archaeological evidence has yet been found of these structures. It seems almost certain that they were made of wood, not stone, as subsequent Christian structures would be. Coifi, for instance, is able to destroy the buildings he attacks by fire.

§15. According to Tacitus, the Germanic tribes of his day had no religious structures of any kind, preferring to worship outdoors. He explains, Nec cohibere parietibus deos … ex magnitudine caelestum arbitrantur: lucos ac nemora consecrant (Germania 9).5 Their Anglo-Saxon descendants apparently had altered that custom,6 but from all accounts it seems that even their great tribal religious structures (hergas) were small, temporary affairs in contrast to the stone structures that the Christian church would erect. David Wilson also posits from place-name evidence the existence of small local shrines called weohs, but of these there remains no archaeological trace (1992, 10).

§16. In Genesis 22, God gives Abraham specific instructions about where to go to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice, specifically a mountain in the region of Moriah, a name translated by Jerome in the Vulgate as terram Visionis (the land of Vision). The Genesis poet renders God's instructions as directions to an unnamed steape dune, / hrincg þæs hean landes þe ic þe … getæce (Genesis 2854–55).7 High places seem to have had a spiritual significance for Anglo-Saxon paganism, as evidenced by the choice of a hliðe se wæs heah ond brad (3157)8 as the site for Beowulf's tomb. Marvin Carver points out that, much like the fictional burial site in Beowulf, the Sutton Hoo cemetery was located on the high ground of a terrace overlooking the Deben River (1998, x and 24). The setting for worship as described in Genesis is thus very familiar for an Anglo-Saxon audience, much more so than the practice introduced by missionaries of building permanent church buildings of stone.

§17. Likewise, the depictions of priestly or clerical functions in the book of Genesis bear a fairly close resemblance to what we know of pagan Anglo-Saxon culture. Actually, the existence of Coifi himself is a greater point of scholarly controversy than the existence of some sort of pagan temple for him to burn down. Richard North believes, in fact, that there was no organized Anglo-Saxon priesthood (1997, 333). Linguistic evidence supports this theory, for the Old English version of Bede's Historia calls Coifi a biscope (the anglicized form of the Greek episcopus), rather than using an existing Anglo-Saxon term (Old English HE 2.13). Other than the character of Coifi and a reference to the idolatris … pontifibus (the idolatrous priests) of London in Bede (HE 2.6), the only other recorded mention of a pagan priest in Anglo-Saxon culture is a reference in the Vita S. Wilfredi to a princeps sacerdotum idolatriae (prince of the priests of idolatry) or magus (magician) (Life of Wilfrid 28). Based on the description given, North concludes that this person was more likely to fit our concept of "male witch" than "priest" (1997, 333).

§18. Tacitus is quite clear that there were designated priests among the Germanic tribes of his day. In addition to the duty of presiding at religious ceremonies (Germania 43), his account assigns Germanic priests the functions of divination (Germania 10), ordering corporal or capital punishment (Germania 7), directing public meetings (Germania 11), and caring for ceremonial animals and objects (Germania 10, 40). The Scandinavian culture of the later Viking period also included priests (Dubois 1999, 65).

§19. William A. Chaney, in his book The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity, argues that Anglo-Saxon kings were expected to mediate directly between their people and the gods in order to insure victories and plentiful harvests (1970, 2–3). This sort of function might naturally be expected of one who claimed descent from the gods, as these kings did. The willingness of Edwin's people to follow him in accepting the new Christian religion also indicates the authority of the king in religious matters.9 North believes that Anglo-Saxon kings thus took the place of the priesthood that he insists did not exist (1997, 15). Tacitus describes Germanic customs of divination in which the king and priest act in tandem to observe and interpret the movements and vocalizations of sacred horses (Germania 10).

§20. Certainly kings in this culture did exercise functions that we would consider religious as well as political. It is likely, as well, that heads of individual households acted as religious leaders within their own families. Tacitus writes that divination in regard to public matters was carried out by sacerdos civitatis (the priest of the state), but private divination by the pater familiae (father of the household) (Germania 10). The religious roles of rulers and household heads in this culture clearly diminished the scope of influence of the priesthood, but it is unlikely that the institution had died out completely by Edwin's day, as North claims.

§21. Coifi's role, as described by Bede, seems to have been to act as advisor to the king in matters of religion (although he did not wield authority over the king in these matters) and as caretaker of the royal temple. Such a structure would have required a caretaker. Bede's description of Coifi as pontifice sacrorum suorum (HE 2.13) could be translated as "high priest of his [Edwin's] sacrifices," so he may have had the duty of carrying out or overseeing these as well. His own self-description, as quoted in Bede, indicates that he was a man uniquely dedicated to the service of the pagan gods, more than any other of Edwin's subjects. And, since Coifi is also called primus pontificum ipsius (the first of his [Edwin's] high priests) (HE 2.13), Bede is clearly picturing a Northumbrian priesthood with multiple members. The concept of a priestly class thus was familiar to the pagan Anglo-Saxons, though the scanty written records of them may indicate that they were not numerous. The use of borrowed Latin terms to describe priests in the written record, instead of whatever native words may have been in use prior to Christianization, is not in itself conclusive proof that there were no such native words; the Old English translation of Bede's Historia uses the Latin borrowing templ to describe the site of idol-worship alongside native terms such as hergas (2.13). These priests shared the responsibility for religious functions with other authority figures within the culture, such as kings and even leaders of families.

§22. In the Bible, establishment of the hereditary Hebrew priesthood stemming from Moses's brother Aaron does not take place until the second Scriptural book, Exodus. Only one priest appears in Genesis, in fact, and his origin and position are at least as mysterious as those of the priest Coifi as described by Bede. After his victory in the war of the kings, as he is returning home, Abraham encounters Melchizedek, who is described both as rex Salem (king of Salem) and sacerdos Dei altissimi (priest of the most high God) in Genesis 14.18. The Genesis poem introduces him as solomia sinces hyrde. / […] se mæra melchisedec, / leoda bisceop (2101–03).10 Like Coifi in the Old English translation of Bede, Melchizedek is identified as a bisceop—clearly a high-ranking cleric. He is also a king. The interaction between him and Abraham in the poem contains nuances of both priest/layperson and king/warrior relationships in the Anglo-Saxon tradition.

§23. In his role as priest, Melchizedek blesses Abraham. In the Biblical text, this blessing is brief, acknowledging Abraham's unique relationship with God and God's responsibility for the victory that Abraham has just won. The Genesis poem does not alter the blessing's contents, but expands the two original verses into fifteen lines of poetry, emphasizing the gift of victory by repetition of battle-terminology (2105–2121).

§24. After receiving Melchizedek's blessing, Abraham, just as he does in the Biblical account, offers a tenth part of the spoils he has acquired to this priest, an action that in a religious sense, could be interpreted as the tithe expected of all Christian parishioners.

§25. But Melchizedek is also a king—the solomia synces hyrde (treasure's guardian), according to the poem—and the other elements of his encounter with Abraham fit more closely with that role as understood in Anglo-Saxon culture than with the role of a priest. An Anglo-Saxon king was both a recipient and distributor of treasure in his relations with his warriors; the title synces hyrde is indicative of this aspect of his position. Melchizedek both presents gifts to Abraham and receives a share of the booty from him, actions that in a traditional Anglo-Saxon context indicate Abraham's acknowledgment of Melchizedek as his political lord. An Anglo-Saxon audience would have interpreted Abraham's behavior here as stemming from the same motivations as that of Beowulf when the great Geat warrior returns victorious from his exploits among the Danes and presents his overlord, Hygelac, with the lion's share of all the treasures they have given him (Beowulf 2144–99).

§26. The poet underscores this exchange by stating that Melchizedek greets Abraham mid lacum (with gifts) (2103) without stating specifically, as the Biblical text does, that these gifts consisted of panem et vinem (bread and wine) (Genesis 14:19). Literally, the provision of bread and wine would indicate hospitality, and commentators such as Bede did not fail to note the foreshadowing here of the elements of the Eucharist as well. The term lacum used by the poem can mean "sacrifices" as well as gifts, and if taken in this sense, could be seen as a Eucharistic reference, and certainly would emphasize Melchizedek's role as priest. The ambiguity of the term lacum is thus uniquely appropriate in reference to Melchizedek, as its alternate interpretations of "gifts" and "sacrifices" would emphasize for an Anglo-Saxon audience his dual status as both king and religious leader.

§27. This dual role as priest and king makes Melchizedek a unique figure among Biblical characters. Orthodox Christian commentary on Melchizedek traditionally identifies him as a type of Christ, who is also given both these titles. For the pagan Anglo-Saxons, however, this combining of political and religious function was not unusual. From the perspective of Anglo-Saxon culture, the Melchizedek of the poem acts toward Abraham as a godly king ought to act, and Abraham responds with the appropriate respectful tribute.

§28. Abraham himself acts as a priest in the episode of the sacrifice of Isaac, as well as at other times of sacrifice. Likewise, Noah takes the role of priest at the sacrifice offered upon leaving the ark. Later religious protocol among the Hebrews will dictate that anyone who wishes to offer sacrifice must go to the temple and use the services of the professional priestly class there. At this time in Genesis, however, Abraham and Noah act as priests by virtue of their status as heads of families. Here, too, the customs of worship demonstrated in Genesis would seem more familiar to an Anglo-Saxon audience than those used later by either the Hebrews or the Christian Church.

§29. By presenting to the Anglo-Saxon culture familiar structures and familiar rituals, yet re-signified within a Christian framework, Genesis served as an important bridge between paganism and Christianity for the Anglo-Saxons. Vernacular retellings of the narratives of Genesis often reveal the loci at which these two traditions merge and diverge. Careful reading of these adaptations of Genesis myth will aid us in achieving a deeper understanding of the nature and process of religious change during the time of the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxon world.


1. "They have taken the old methods of worship away from men, and no one has learned how the new ones ought to be observed." [Back]

2. For Noah's sacrifice in Genesis 8:20, see lines 1497–1503. For Abram/Abraham's sacrifices, see lines 1790–93 (Genesis 12:7); 1805–8 (Genesis 12:8); and 1885–89 (Genesis 13:4). Only the instance in Genesis 13:18 is omitted in the poetic retelling. [Back]

3. Huppé notes this emphasis on Abraham's reward for faithful sacrifice in his discussion of lines 1808–13 (1959, 188). [Back]

4. "The True-King will find that for Himself, / Mankind's Guardian, as it seems fitting to Him." [Back]

5. "Not to confine the gods with walls … they have judged fitting to the greatness of their deities: they consecrate woods and sacred groves." [Back]

6. At least to the extent of building some religious structures; Wilson's extensive analysis of existing place-names points out the occasional combination of a god's name with the element "leah", meaning "grove". These names might indicate the sites of sacred groves of the kind that Tacitus describes, though Wilson himself believes this meaning is unlikely (1992, 15–16). [Back]

7. "a steep hill, / the ring of the high land that I will show you." [Back]

8. "hill-side that was high and spacious." [Back]

9. Gale R. Owen-Crocker points to Bede's account of Edwin's council as evidence that Edwin was considered "the spiritual leader of his people" (1981, 51). [Back]

10. "the guardian of the treasure of the people of Salem. / […] the illustrious Melchizedek, / the bishop of the peoples." [Back]

Works Cited

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———. 1930. Baedae Opera Historica. Eds. and trans. Thomas Stapleton and J. E. King. London: W. Heinemann.  [Back]

———. 1967. Opera. Eds. David Hurst and Charles W. Jones. Turnholt: Brepols.  [Back]

———. 1969. Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert: A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede's Prose Life. Ed. Bertram Colgrave. New York: Greenwood Press.  [Back]

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———. 1999. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. New York: Barnes & Noble.  [Back]

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———. 2013. Genesis A: A New Edition, Revised. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.  [Back]

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Huppé, Bernard F. 1959. Doctrine and Poetry: Augustine's Influence on Old English Poetry. Albany: State University of New York.  [Back]

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Owen-Crocker, Gale R. 1981. Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons. Devon: David & Charles.  [Back]

Stephanus, Eddius. 1985. The Life of Bishop Wilfrid. Ed. Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  [Back]

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Wilson, David. 1992. Anglo-Saxon Paganism. London: Routledge.  [Back]