If a West Saxon farmer in pagan times had walked out of his bury or ton above the vale of Pewsey some autumn day, and looking up to the hills had caught sight of a bearded stranger seeming in long cloak larger than life as he stalked the skyline through low cloud; and if they had met at the gallows by the cross-roads where a body still dangled; and if the farmer had noticed the old wanderer glancing up from under a shadowy hood or floppy brimmed hat … and if a pair of ravens had tumbled out of the mist at that moment, and a couple of wolves howled to each other in some near-by wood … he would have been justified in believing that he was in the presence of Woden, tramping the world of men …
This is Brian Branston’s beautifully mythic description, in his classic work of investigative history The Lost Gods of England, of the father of the gods of the pagan English. Woden &emdash; who gives his name still to the third day of the week, and to names on today’s maps from Wednesbury to Wansdyke &emdash; is a shadowy figure. No written record of the pre-Christian gods of England exists; all we have to inform us of their presence is scraps of old song, brief herb charms and references in documents written by their enemies, the Christian monks. The old gods were buried by the new religion of the ‘white Christ’ in the seventh century, and they have remained liminal ever since.
But we do know a few things about Woden. We know he was the Old English equivalent of the Norse god Odin, though his character seemed to be markedly different. Known to the common folk as Grim, he was never a bombastic god of war. Instead he was a lonely carrier-off of the dead, the leader of the Wild Hunt, a one-eyed stalker of the downs and the deserted lanes. Most significantly, he was also a god of wisdom: like Odin and like Christ, he sacrificed himself for the world.
In a quest for sacred knowledge, Woden hanged himself for nine days and nine nights on the Yggdrasil &emdash; the world-tree. Without food, without water, his side gashed with a blade (is this starting to sound familiar?) the result of his vision quest was access to the world’s deepest knowledge, handed to him in the form of the runes, the magical alphabet of the northern Europeans. The Woden sacrifice and the Christian crucifixion have uncanny echoes of each other, and arguments still rage about which came first. But the vision of the self-hanged god is common to many cultures.
The great world tree is central to Woden’s sacrifice. The Yggdrasil, in Norse cosmology, stood at the centre of everything, and knitted together the nine worlds &emdash; the world of the gods, the world of men, and the various worlds in between, inhabited by orcs, frost giants, dragons and other grim denizens of the edgelands. Without the Yggdrasil, nothing could live; when it fell, the world would end.
The Yggdrasil is most commonly associated with one species of tree: the ash. It was the ash which the Old English believed knitted the worlds together, and it was the ash on which the head of the house of the gods was self-hanged, in his agony of dreaming. The ash was the tree of life.
Fifteen hundred years on, little remains of the pagan world the early English inhabited: a few place names; scraps of old poetry; sceptres and helmets dug up from ship burials or bogs. Up until now, what did remain were the many children of the Yggdrasil: the ash tree that still defines much of the English landscape, with its helicopter seedlings and its delicate double leaves.
Not for much longer. It seems that the old tree of life is, finally, about to fall. Nothing has been heard from Woden for many centuries, but if you find yourselves on the downs or at a crossroad on a moonlit night, or you hear the howl of a now-banned hunting pack in a patch of woodland, you may want to look away, or look down. It may be old Grim, come back at the last to say farewell.