Of Deities, Days, and the Anglo-Saxon Saturn
by Thorbert Línleáh
With rare exception, the Heathen gods of the Teutonic peoples are frequently referred to by the names of Roman gods in both Classical and Medieval literature. This practice, interpretatio Romana (literally “Roman interpretation”) stems from the Greek and Roman pagan practice of equating foreign gods with their own, thus renaming them as such. Following the conversion of much of the Roman Empire to Christianity, classically educated Christian historians and other such writers continued this practice throughout the Middle Ages and even well into more modern times.
As such, it can sometimes be difficult for the reader who first stumbles upon mention of the Saxons worshiping Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, and Venus, to comprehend exactly what that might mean. After all, the myths of those Roman gods quite often bear only superficial semblance to surviving Teutonic or Norse lore. Indeed this is true. Interpretatio Romana is, for the modern reader, an awkward means of writing about the Heathen gods. Yet, for the Classical and Medieval writer, whose audience was well acquainted with the characteristics of the Roman deities and who perhaps knew little if anything of the Teutonic gods, it was a useful tool for the time.
Days of the Week
We worship our native gods, Saturn, Jove and the rest of the governors of this world, but most of all Mercury, whom we call Wóden: our forefathers dedicated the fourth day of the week to him, and we still call it Wednesday. After him we worship the most powerful of goddesses, Freia [Fríʒe], to whom the sixth day is dedicated, which we call Friday.[i] – Hengist, brother of Horsa, Ealdorman of the Saxons, to Vortigern, King of the Britons
By means of their interaction with the peoples of the Roman Empire, the Teutonic peoples came to adopt the seven day week as their own. In a similar fashion to the aforementioned interpretatio Romana, the days of the week, originally named after Roman deities, were renamed after the corresponding Teutonic gods in what could perhaps be called an interpretatio Teutonica. It was from this Teutonic renaming that the names for the days of the week have come down to us in Modern English. It is ultimately from this, and more directly from Anglo-Saxon custom, that we find the origin for the names we use today: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
The following chart compares the Roman week with that of the Anglo-Saxons , emphasizing the aspects of the Roman gods that would have provided ground for their Teutonic renaming: Teutonic and Roman Days Compared
The Saxon Saturn
Given that Saturn was an early Roman god of the harvest, one would expect the seventh day of the Teutonic week to be named after a Teutonic god of the harvest such as Fréa (ON: Freyr), or his father in Norse myth, Njörðr, a god whose worship brought bounty and harvest from both the land and the sea. This, however, is not the case. Of all the names for the days of the week, that of the seventh day was the only to remain unchanged when the Anglo-Saxon adopted the Roman seven day week.
While it is possible that Teutonic soldiers serving in Roman auxiliary units could have brought the worship of Saturn back with them from Rome, it is more likely that the Teutons merely appropriated the Roman name of Saturn for one of their own gods. Saturn’s revelrous worship at the feast of Saturnalia may not have been at all unlike the Teutons’ own celebrations of their harvest and fertility gods, the Vanir, the chief among whom being Freyr and his father Njörðr. This would not, after all, be the first occasion of Teutons appropriating Roman names for their own deities.
At Hadrian’s Wall in England there have been discovered several pre-Anglo-Saxon, yet Teutonic, altar inscriptions dated to the 3rd century. These inscriptions were carved by Frisians serving as auxiliaries in the Roman army garrisoned in Britain. These inscriptions dedicate the altars to a Teutonic god of war and to two goddesses of victory. In particular, one such altar inscription is dedicated to Deo Marti Thincso et dvabus Alaisagis, “Mars, god of the Thing/Assembly and the two All-victory-givers.” The general consensus among scholars is that “Mars, god of the Thing” is the Teutonic god known as Tiw. Such being the case, then in England, even prior to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, there is evidence of Roman names being appropriated by Teutons for their own Teutonic divinities. This example of course, speaks only of the Frisians. The Frisians were, after all, but one of several Teutonic tribes to contribute to the Anglo-Saxons. What of Angles, Jutes, or Saxons?
Unlike the Angles and the Jutes, who largely abandoned their homelands and migrated to England, the Saxons maintained their ancestral lands upon the continent as well. Because of this, they endured in their Heathen belief for centuries after their Anglo-Saxon kinsmen converted to Christianity. As such, there is more recorded about their Heathen belief than there is that of the Angles and Jutes. And so, it is to the “Old” Saxons of the continent that we must turn to further enlighten us in our effort to understand the nature and identity of the Anglo-Saxon “Saturn”.
In the Sachsenchronick (Saxon Chronicle), there survives a reference to the worship of a “Saturn” by the Old Saxons during the 8th century.[ii] According to Bothe, at one time there stood a statue of Saturn at a Saxon fortress in the Harz Mountains depicting him standing upon a fish, holding potted flowers aloft in his right hand, and wielding a wheel in his left hand. Furthermore, as late as the 10th century the Saxon monk and chronicler, Widukind Von Corvey made use of the term Saturni (Saturns) as a general appellation for “Heathen gods”.[iii]
It is worth noting that while the seventh day is named after Saturn in Anglo-Saxon (English), Dutch, Frisian, and Low Saxon dialects, other Teutonic peoples named it Lördag/Laurdag, “bath day”, Samstag (“Sabbath day”), or Sonnabend (“the eve of Sunday”) Thus it would seem that not all of the Teutonic peoples were inclined to keep the Roman god’s name for the seventh day. It was only among the Teutons of the North Sea and lowlands that the name Saturn was retained for the seventh day. Furthermore it is worth noting that, among these tribes were the Frisians, already shown to have appropriated the names of Roman gods for their own native deities in at least in one case. Bearing this in mind, the question might now be asked which of the Teutonic gods might be the Anglo-Saxon Saturn?
The answer to this, like the answers to many questions that arise in the reconstruction of Anglo-Saxon Heathen belief, must be supplied by Norse sources. Though the Norse themselves do not seem to have used the name Saturn, the Icelanders did preserve a Norse Heathen gloss for the Roman god Saturn in their translations of Medieval and Classical texts: Njörðr [iv]: Like the Roman Saturn, the Norse Njörðr is said to have married his sister, the goddess of the Earth, and, like Saturn, his worship brought about a bountiful harvest[v].
That there survives no Anglo-Saxon cognate for the Norse Njörðr is surprising, given how popular his worship was among their Norse cousins. Yet, even more surprising, is the apparent absence of a clear Anglo-Saxon cognate for Nerthus, the Earth Mother, who was so prominently worshipped by the Angles just a few centuries before their settlement of England. However, it is clear that her worship continued well into the Anglo-Saxon era as demonstrated in later Christianized charms, such as the 11th century Accer Bót, which preserves prayers to the Eorðan Modor, (“Mother of Earth”) Thus, as Nerthus was indeed known to the Anglo-Saxons but only has a surviving cognate in Norse lore, then so may have been the case with the god who is believed to have been her brother and consort, known to us through Norse lore as Njörðr.
As Tiw was worshipped by the Frisian auxiliaries in pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain by the Roman name of Mars, it may very well be that Njörðr was known, by means of their own interpretatio Teutonica, to the Anglo-Saxon settlers of that very same land by the Roman name of Saturn. If this is indeed the case, then the peculiar retention of Saturn’s name for the seventh day by the Anglo-Saxons, Frisians, Dutch, and Low Saxons, as well as the glaring absence of a Njörðr from what has thus far been reconstructed of the Anglo-Saxon “pantheon” are both explained.
Of course, this is only our guesspell, well thought out though it may be. To date, there has been no assembly of Théodish wizards, seeresses, priests, and poets to seek the rede of the gods on the selfhood of the Saxon Saturn. Till such a time, each Théodsman, even those within the Ealdríce, is free to believe as he or she sees fit.
[i] – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (12th century).
[ii] Grimm, Jacob Teutonic Mythology Volume 1 p248
[iii] Grimm, Jacob Teutonic Mythology Volume 1 p248