Solving the mysteries of our pagan past

29 Nov 2012 15:54:00.923

PA354 /12

The myths and legends of paganism in pre-Christian Britain are set to be rewritten in a unique event featuring some of the UK’s top experts in pagan societies at The University of Nottingham’s Institute for Medieval Research next week.  

On the eve of the Christmas season which was known as the ‘winter solstice’ or ‘Yuletide’ in pagan times, ‘Paganism in Early Medieval Britain’  will be an entertaining and seasonal public event designed to showcase some of the new discoveries and theories about this ancient and mysterious manifestation of human nature – the urge to worship a deity or deities.

Experts in the fields of history, archaeology and literature will be speaking about their latest research into the evidence of pre-Christian religion in early medieval Britain and Europe. They will be dispelling some of the common myths surrounding paganism and how it changed and developed over the early medieval period.

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Heroes ancient and modern

Director of the University’s Institute for Medieval Research, Dr Christina Lee, said: “Our pre-Christian past is increasingly fascinating people inside and outside of academia. The Norse god Thor, for example, continues to live on as a comic book and film superhero. This half day event will discuss what we know and what we do not know, and offer a unique forum for debate.”

The free ‘Paganism in Early Medieval Britain’   event takes place on Wednesday 5th December 2012 from 2 – 5pm in the Clive Granger Building on University Park. It will feature presentations by three leading researchers who will shed new light on paganism in the early medieval era – a phenomenon which has traditionally been very hard to analyse because of the lack of evidence in historical and archaeological artefacts and literature.

Buried clues to pagan life

Christopher King from the University’s Archaeology Department said: “Recent archaeological studies of paganism highlight the huge variety of religious and ritual places which existed in pre-Christian culture – from man-made shrines to natural places, burial mounds, and deposition of votive offerings in watery landscapes or within settlements and houses. But it is impossible to separate ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ in this period. Paganism was not a formal religion with fixed doctrines and rules, but a very varied set of beliefs and practices through which local communities interpreted their world, and this is also true of early Christianity.”

Guest speaker, archaeologist Professor Martin Carver, from York University added: “In England, we like to remember that Christmas and Easter were pagan festivals before they were Christian, and that our weekdays were named after long forgotten gods. But the legacy of pre-Christian thinking runs a good deal deeper than that, and reflects a quite different past in the Anglo-Saxon and in the Celtic zones of the British islands. Reviewing the evidence for what was believed by Europeans 1300 years ago, we see little of the world beloved by neo-pagans. Instead we discover a lively forum of European debate in which many different ideas about this world and the next were on the table: Islam, Christianity and a hundred other intellectual variants prepared to listen, borrow from and merge with each other. Archaeology shows that this brief period, the 5-8th century, is one of vigorous social and ideological experiment and exemplary free-thinking.”

Dr Philip Shaw, an expert in Old English and other Germanic languages, from Leicester University who is also guest speaker at the event, said: “We have traditionally believed that paganism in Germanic speaking early medieval Europe took a very similar form to the later Viking worship of gods like Odin and Thor but we are now reassessing this as much of the Old Norse literature we have relied on was composed long after paganism had died out.

“The evidence for the pagan practices of the Germanic-speaking tribes is sparse so it is important that we make the best use of it, and one way is to look carefully at how the names of gods and goddesses were created. If humans make gods in their own image, then their choices of names clearly tell us a lot about the societies who gave those names, and about how they imagined the deities they worshipped.”

Dr Alex Woolf from the University of St Andrews’ School of History will also be a keynote speaker at the event which will culminate in a roundtable discussion and questions and answer session.

Places at the event can be reserved online at:

Story credits

 More information is available from Dr Christina Lee, Institute of Medieval Research, on + 44 (0)115 846 7194

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