Lives Journal 1

Jaka Jarc







When Wulfstan adapted Aelfric’s De Falsis Diis he both omitted text and added to it. This type of adaptation was typical of Anglo-Saxon England even before Wulfstan. Most works said to be reworked by Alfred were in fact adapted in a similar manner [1]. Theologists were dealing with matter that was not to be expanded upon. As early as Bede’s time the way to render authority to a text was through citing a witness of appropriate rank. Even the legal system was based on the same principle; if a number of witnesses attested to something, especially if they were of higher rank, the fact was considered proven [2]. De Falsis Diis was drawing information from many texts and not adding anything to the subject matter. Nevertheless it was tailored to fit a society in a specific time-frame. It was intended for a lay audience while targeting issues such as the lack of morality and a political agenda. According to the take they had on Christianity or politics of their time the ‘editors’ used information that helped their cause, and omitted the knowledge which could confuse their public. It is these omissions that this essay is most concerned with. In dealing with De Falsis Diis we have an opportunity to observe two stages of adaptation; the first one done by Aelfric on the basis of Martin of Braga’s De Correctione Rusticorum and the second by Wulfstan. Accordingly, the essay will try to deal with the matter of the sermon in two stages as well. Closely examining both texts it will try to prove that pagan beliefs were not as imminent a danger to Christianity as it can seem at first glance. In order to view the subject matter in the context of its time it will deal with some other Anglo-Saxon texts along the way.



One True God and the Wicked Ways of Man


Euhemerisation and demonisation are intended to put pagan deities into a context of a Christian history. In fact when Aelfric wrote ‘þa wurdon hi bepæhte/ þurh þone ealdan deofol þe Adam ær beswac,/ swa þæt hi worhton wolice him godas,/ and þone Scyppend forsawon þe hy gescop to mannum’ [3] and[F]engon to wurðianne/ mislice entas and men him to godum [4] he covered both. In trying to fit the pagan gods into a Christian history Ælfric reasoned that in fact the pagans, after already accepting the elements as their focus of worship, were not content to have so few gods and made more. It seems as though in view of there only being one God the more gods one worships the more wicked one is. Ælfric argued that it was the lack of the power of reason that caused their error. Wulfstan leaves this motivation and the devil’s role untouched in his version. He sets the tone for the sermon by adding a sentence at the very start, stating that that idolatry started through the devil’s teaching. It seems that Wulfstan is clarifying that which Ælfric left un-clarified. This occurs again prior to the explanation of Sun and Moon worship. Again Wulfstan feels the need to re-state the devil’s importance. In reworking the rest of the text he seems more concerned with embellishing and ornamenting the sermon’s style than adding to its meaning until he gets to the part explaining those worshiping gods of old are in fact merely mistakenly worshiping great men of antiquity. Ælfric did not put a moral judgement on the men in question straight away; instead he used adjectives like mihtige, egefulle [5] (which have a very positive connotation) and adds that even though they lived foully, they were respected by their contemporaries. Wulfstan, on the other hand, immediately reaches for the proverbial sword, hacking with negative and inflammatory rhetoric, such as: ‘[S]trece woruldmen heora agenum lustum fullice fulleodan [6]. The tip of the sword seems to be aimed more at their foul life-style than the actual existence of pagans. In fact the comment in Wulfstan’s initial sentence dealing with paganism (‘[H]eaþenscipe ealles to wide swyþe gederede and gyt dereþ wide’ [7].) is not nearly as dire as the description of the foul life style cited above. It is worth noting that he keeps adding the adjective soþa to the noun God which Ælfric didn’t bother doing. Ælfric in fact did not mind using colourful adjectives once he started describing actual persons. It could stand to reason that he deemed the issue of foul living important. But the text does not make a strong point of it; Ælfric rather offered it as part of explanation as to why worshiping them was wrong. Ælfric was in fact motivated to explain the wrongfulness of pagan beliefs. He took the time to deal with the names of the week and their pagan origin as well as with idolatry in its literal sense. Wulfstan in turn is content to stick with idolatry especially as far as the life-style of the deified men goes. At the end two main points have been made: There is only one true God. And: Foul living is the devil’s playground.



The Elements


When talking about worshipping the elements, Ælfric omitted an explanation as to why the people of old saw fit to worship water. Fire, explained Ælfric, was worshipped because of its sudden heat; earth because it nourishes all. But why water? It may be possible that Ælfric omitted the explanation for reasons of a better prose style, perhaps to deliver a single point without sacrificing clarity or to build suspense, perhaps it may have seemed unimportant to him, unlikely as this is. This would not however explain how Wulfstan could have overlooked such a void in the text. After all he takes the time to deal with much simpler things, such as explaining that the pagans’ swa feawum Godum [8] were the ones that swa hy ær hæfdan [9] to note only one example of his meticulous explanations of points he deemed not clear enough in Ælfric’s text. In the poem II of The Poetical Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn water is deemed a purifier. It is a highly Christian mystical element which cleanses and baptises. It: ‘cristnað and clænsað cwicra manigo, wuldre gewlitigað’ [10]. It has highly positive Christian connotations so neither Ælfric nor Wulfstan would wish to find a description diminishing water’s worth. Interestingly they did not have a problem with fire. In Solomon and Saturn fire is good while contained. It represents light until it gets loose; then it becomes the devourer until it is inevitably contained again [11].

In the same poem hell is also full of water as well as fire. But The Poetical Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn is an earlier work of a theosophical nature most probably known to both Ælfric as well as Wulfstan [12]. Ælfric and Wulfstan are dealing with the lay public. If we follow Wulfstan’s Sermo Lupi we see that the hell portrayed there is the same hot and dry hell we find in Genesis B [13]. It is full of fire and heat and there is no sign of water. It seems that fire had collected enough negative publicity to become, at least to a layman, connected with hell. With water it was the other way around. It had been a barrier between worlds and home of strange creatures in the mind of the poet of Beowulf but even though it was the instrument of God’s will in the great flood, it carried with it connotations of Christian rebirth and cleanness. This issue is of course complex, as is usually the case with interpreting symbols in foreign societies mind-frames from centuries past, but it is a venue of thought that, if nothing else, deserves deeper study.



The Tower, Nimrod and the Philistines


While on the topic of Solomon and Saturn there is another detail to be pointed out: The connection between Nimrod and the tower of Babel and the Giants. They all star in the same respective roles both in De Falsis Deis [14] and Solomon and Saturn [15]. It is true that the giants in Solomon and Saturn go by the name “Philistines” and it must be taken into account that the notion that Nimrod had built the tower of Babel was very popular in the Middle Ages. These ideas were very complex and may have needed to be further explained to the laymen who were not educated in patristic literature. This is what Ælfric did to an extent and this is what Wulfstan took one step further. Every one of Ælfric’s notions that could escape the general public’s grasp was explained additionally by Wulfstan. Every symbolism that went too deep was omitted. Both skipped over the connotations of the symbol of water. And Wulfstan saw fit to omit the names of the week which Ælfric explained and they both in turn said nothing of the names of the months. Bede attempted to explain those a long time before in his De Temporum Ratione [16]. It is quite possible that month-naming was no longer a direct issue in the time of Ælfric but by the same line of reasoning it is possible that names of days are no longer an issue in the time of Wulfstan. As we have seen, for him the issue is the foul life-style of his contemporaries.



Danish and Roman Names


The Gods are first presented with their Latin names and only later paralleled by Danish names. Saturn, Jove, Minerva, Venus, Mars, Mercury are gods of the Græco-Roman pantheon. The practice of translating gods’ names went on as early as the times of the Roman Empire. When Cæsar first wrote of Celtic and Germanic deities in his De Bello Gallico [17] he already tried to parallel them with Roman deities. What Ælfric does is deemed to be the same kind of superimposition. He is apparently adding Danish names onto gods of which he has read in books. Wulfstan does the same, however, he has seen the rise of the Danes; he had the front row seat. He was faced with the problem of a large body of Danes who did not recognize the authority of the Church. It was this problem that made him turn again to politics and law [18]. He must have seen paganism or at least heard of it but again it seems that he did not have first hand experience with the Germanic variety at least and in the sermon De Falsis Diis it is their lack of morals and the devil’s teaching that is stressed.

On the other hand, Cnut in the time of Wulfstan became suddenly a pious Danish Christian king, no matter what his reasons, he no longer presented a threat to Wulfstan’s faith. It is quite possible that Wulfstan saw the Roman names as less threatening. The patristic fathers made reference to Roman gods, and Rome in the medieval mind – was the beginning of Christianity, writing and civilization as they understood it. In the words of J. Gardner: “The tradition of Fulgentius’s ideas on the true meaning of the Æneid and the myths he examined in his Mitologiarum, together with the high opinion men like Lactantius held of pagan insight, opened the way to a more sophisticated adoption of pagan insight” [19]. If he were to somehow excuse royal genealogies, which more often than not included Woden as a forefather [20], the sensible way was to first parallel them with the more acceptable, not to mention less present and dangerous Roman gods, and then introduce the Danish pantheon as secondary – a mere consequence and mirror to the Roman, rather than a self-standing occurrence. This way he could diminish its value.



The Level of ‘Wrongness’


Another important author writing on Latin false gods was Martin of Braga. David Johnson [21] compares Martin of Braga and Ælfric in pertaining to the false gods as well as animism. Two of his conclusions are that there is little doubt that the latter was reworking the former and the separate conclusion that Woden was omitted and thus spared scrutiny because he was an important part of the genealogies of some of Wulfstan’s kings. In pertaining to changes made: Ælfric placed Saturn on top of the hierarchy. Dorothy Bethrum [22] believes that this was the case because he was more popular with the Germanic pagans and because both Ælfric and Wulfstan used Rabanus’ Encyclopaedia. Be that as it may this is the first real sign, testifying to the fact that they were at all acquainted with Germanic paganism. The whole of the preserved Anglo-Saxon body of written materials in fact largely ignores its existence. The mere translation of names is however not proof enough of actual contact. Now comes the interesting part: both versions (Ælfric’s and Wulfstan’s) of De Falsis Diis find that the Danes were wrong in believing that Jove / Þor was the son of Mercury / Oðin [23]. Now this introduces another interesting aspect of ‘wrongness’. Pagans were wrong in the first place, but the Danes were even more wrong. How is this possible, why would a Christian distinguish between two types of pagans. The first answer to this question that springs to mind is that the old gods of Rome were not an immediate threat but the new ones were – as well as th afore mentioned respect for classical works (even pagan). However as we have already seen at least in Wulfstan’s version, it was not the worship itself that was stressed in De Falsis Diis, but the lack of morals and humanity of the gods in question. The other possible answer is more practical in nature. Euhemerism implies a certain history. It is not a history of gods but one of mortal men. In a political sense it was not unimportant who had their history right; the Christians or the Danes. In fact the Church is and always has been a political entity. In determining that out of the two sorts of pagans: Latin pagans of the Christian history books and Danish pagans of the ‘new variety’ the pre-Christian ones were less wrong, Ælfric and Wulfstan asserted the supremacy of their English predecessors and of the Christianity which grew out of their history or to put it another way: out of the history according to them.

As I said before, the superimposition of Latin gods’ names onto Scandinavian ones was done by means of assigning names to attributes and positions in the hierarchy. Gods of pagan belief systems often changed positions in the hierarchy not only through time but also space. To a Christian this would seem like chaos and anarchy [24]. Nevertheless Ælfric and Wulfstan managed to keep a clear head and accentuate the ‘wrongness’ of the Danes over that of their Christian books. The Danes were a fact and they were there to stay as far as Wulfstan knew and he saw it as his mission to bring them under the jurisdiction of the Church and law. As the wide dissemination [25] of his work accompanied by the fact that Danes soon became Christians testifies he may well have been an important part of the process.





De Falsis Diis was based on Martin of Braga’s De Correctione Rusticorum. In reworking it Ælfric took into account the political situation of the times. He saw the pagan belief system as an imminent danger to the Church and sought to preach against it. He explained as best he could to his fellow Christians how and where pagans were wrong, making full use of euhemerisation, demonisation and diminishing of animism. He took the time to explain how the days of the week in Old English were a remnant of an old hierarchy of gods and this was his prerogative, to stop paganism from spreading. Wulfstan reworked the first part of his sermon and tailored it to his own prerogative. He preached against a foul life-style and of one true God. He did not emphasise heathenism, but rather the folly of the Danes whose history must be rewritten. In keeping with his partiality to law and morality he saw that the time has come to do away with foul lustfulness and this was only possible in a time where paganism was no longer an imminent threat.






Anlezark, D., ‘The Fall of the Angels in Solomon and Saturn II’, in Kathryn Powell and Donald Scragg (eds.), Apocryphal Texts and Traditions in Anglo-Saxon England, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge 2003, pp. 121-133.

Attenborough, L. (ed.), The Laws of the Earliest English Kings, (London, 1922).

Bethurum, D., ‘Wulfstan’, E. G. Stanley (ed.), Continuations and Beginnings, (London, 1966), pp. 210-246.

Bethurum, D., The Homilies of Wulfstan, (Oxford, 1957).

Branston, B., The Lost Gods of England, (London, 1957).

Caesar, C. I., Galska vojna, (Maribor 1970).

Foot, S., ‘The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity Before the Norman Conquest’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, [vol.] VI (1996), 25-49.

Johnson, D. F., ‘Euhemeristaion Versus Demonisation the Pagan Gods in Ælfric’s De Falsis Diis’, T. Hofstra et al. (ed.), Pagans and Christians (1992), pp. 35-69.

Gardner, J., The Construction of Christian Poetry in Old English, Southern Illinois University Press, (London and Amsterdam 1975).

Marsden, R. (ed.), Cambridge Old English Reader (Cambridge, 2005).

Menner, R. J. (ed.), The Poetical Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn (New York, 1941).

North, R., Heathen Gods in Old English Litterature (Cambridge, 1997).

Page, R. I., ‘Anglo-Saxon Paganism - The Evidence of Bede’, T. Hofstra et al. (ed.), Pagans and Christians (1992), pp. 99-129.

Swanton, M., (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Phoenix Press (London, 2000).

Wilcox, J., ‘The Dissemination of Wulfstan’s Homilies: the Wulfstan Tradition in Eleventh Century Vernacular Preaching’, C. Hicks (ed.), England in the Eleventh Century (Stamford, 1992).

Wilson, D., Anglo-Saxon Paganism (London, 1992).






[1] S. Foot, ‘The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity Before the Norman Conquest’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol. VI, (1996), 25-49.

[2] L. Attenborough (ed.), The Laws of the Earliest English Kings, (London, 1922).

[3] Ælfric, De Falsis Diis, in D. F. Johnson, ‘Euhemeristaion Versus Demonisation the Pagan Gods in Ælfric’s De Falsis Diis’, T. Hofstra et al. (ed.), Pagans and Christians, (1992), p. 63, lines 78b-81. (appendix)

[4] Ibid., p. 64, lines 100b-101

[5] R. Marsden(ed.), Cambridge Old English Reader, (Cambridge, 2005), p. 206.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 205.

[8] Ælfric, De Falsis Diis, line 100

[9] R. Marsden (ed.), Cambridge Old English Reader, p. 206, lines 27b, 28.

[10] R. J. Menner (ed.), The Poetical Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn, (New York, 1941), p. 99, lines 387, 388.

[11] Ibid., lines 402-408.

[12] Since three manuscripts containing the Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn survived until the present it stands to reason there were more in existence in the 10th and 11th century, especially since the “dialogue” genre flourished in the middle English period.

[13] as opposed to Christ and Satan – Exeter Book – 10th century work, which in fact mentions waters of Hell – this lead to a specific view of the monsters in Beowulf belonging to a specific Anglo-Saxon watery hell, see D., Anlezark, ‘The Fall of the Angels in Solomon and Saturn II’, in Kathryn Powell and Donald Scragg (eds.), Apocryphal Texts and Traditions in Anglo-Saxon England, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge 2003, pp. 121-133.

[14] R. Marsden, Cambridge Old English Reader, p. 205, line 5 (Aelfric: Latin diis – days, Wulfstan: Latin deis – gods)

[15] R. J. Menner, Solomon and Saturn, p. 91, lines 205-210.

[16] B. Branston, The Lost Gods of England, (London, 1957), pp. 41-43. and

R. I. Page, ‘Anglo-Saxon Paganism - The Evidence of Bede’, T. Hofstra et al. (ed.), Pagans and Christians, (1992), pp. 124-125.

[17] C. I. Caesar, Galska vojna, (Maribor 1970), VI-18, 21.

[18] D. Bethurum, ‘Wulfstan’, E. G. Stanley (ed.), Continuations and Beginnings, (London, 1966), pp. 210-246.

[19] J. Gardner, The Construction of Christian Poetry in Old English, Southern Illinois University Press, (London and Amsterdam 1975), p.5.

[20] M. Swanton (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Phoenix Press (London, 2000), pp. 449, 547, 552, 560, 597, 626, 755, 855.

[21] D. F. Johnson, ‘Euhemerisation Versus Demonisation’.

[22] D. Bethurum, The Homilies of Wulfstan, (Oxford, 1957), p. 336-337.

[23] R. North and D. F. Johnson both believe that the fact Scandinavian name-forms were used due to Ælfric’s political connections and their genealogies.

[24] R. North, Heathen Gods in Old English Litterature, (Cambridge, 1997), p. 206.

[25] J. Wilcox, ‘The Dissemination of Wulfstan’s Homilies: the Wulfstan Tradition in Eleventh Century Vernacular Preaching’, C. Hicks (ed.), England in the Eleventh Century, (Stamford, 1992). 




Slovenian (gajica)

Slovenian (bohorichica)