Blogging Our Troth, part 6: Saxnot

One of the things I want to to in the new Our Troth is give a bit more space to deities known from Germany and Anglo-Saxon England. The previous editions folded Saxnot, or Seaxneat, in with Tyr, and while this is a possibility, there are other opinions, within and outside of the Heathen community, as to who Saxnot might be. So Saxnot will get a section of his own, and here's the working draft of it. Enjoy! And feel free to post any comments you might have, or else drop me a line.

Saxnot (Sahsnôt, Seaxnēat)

Forsachistu diobolae? 
Ec forsacho diabolae.
End allum diobolgelde?
End ec forsacho allum diobolgeldae.
End allum diaboles wercum?
End ec forsacho allum dioboles wercum and wordum, Thunær ende Wôden ende Saxnôte ende allum thêm unholdum thê hira genôtas sint
.

Do you forsake the Devil?
I forsake the Devil.
And all Devil-worship?
And I forsake all Devil-worship.
And all the Devil’s works?
And I forsake all the Devil’s works and words, Thunar and Woden and Saxnot and all the fiends that are their companions.

 

This dialogue, now commonly called the Abrenuntatio Diaboli (Renuciation of the Devil) and preserved in a 9thcentury manuscript, is the baptismal vow that the Saxons were forced to take upon converting to Christianity. (Hodgkin, History of the Anglo-Saxons, vol. 1, p. 302) It contains most of what we know about Saxnot. He was a god worshipped by the Saxons, not identical with either Woden or Thunar, but apparently of equal importance with them. 

In two Old English king lists, Saxnot appears as the founder of the royal line of Essex, with his name spelled Seaxnēat—showing “breaking” of the vowels into diphthongs, as is typical of Old English. (Yorke, “The Kingdom of the East Saxons,” pp. 3-4, 13-14) Later sources, notably the genealogies preserved by the early 12th-century chronicler Florence of Worcester (Chronicon ex chronicis, p. 250), make Seaxneat a son of Woden, but this is a later addition, probably made on the assumption that all kings could trace their lineage to Woden. An interesting point that needs explanation is the fact that the continental Saxons did not have a king; they were governed by several lords equal in rank, who chose a king only in wartime. The war-king’s authority ended when the war did. (Bede, Ecclesiastical History V.x; transl. Sherley-Price, p. 281; Widukind of Corvey, Rerum Gestarum Saxonicarum I.14; transl. Bachrach and Bachrach, p. 25) The Saxons who settled in Essex may have adopted the institution of permanent kingship relatively late, and chosen Seaxneat retrospectively, as it were, as the mythic founder of their royal house. The kings of Essex were the only known Anglo-Saxon royal line that did not trace its lineage to Woden. Perhaps the choice of Seaxneat was a gesture of independence in the face of encroachment from other kingdoms. (North, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, p. 13) 

Saxnot’s name is usually interpreted as “sword-companion”, or more precisely “companion of the long knife”. Sax-means a short sword or long knife, often with a single edge (Old Saxon sahs, Old English seax; see Davidson, The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 40-41). Not is usually interpreted as “companion; partner” (Old Saxon ginôt, Old English genēat; cf. modern German Genosse). However, given that the Saxons’ tribal name basically meant “people of the knife”, Saxnot’s name could simply mean “companion of the Saxons,” as suggested by Dumézil. (Gods of the Ancient Northmen, pp. 19-20) 

Regardless of whether the tribe took their name from the weapon or not, the Saxons had a reputation for stealth attacks with daggers or long knives. Widukind of Corvey tells of a conflict between the Saxons and Thuringians, which ended when the Saxons came to a peace talk with knives (sahs) concealed under their cloaks. Finding the Thuringians unarmed, the Saxons slaughtered them, gaining their tribal name from this deed. (Rerum Gestarum Saxonicarum I.6-7; transl. Bachrach and Bachrach, pp. 8-10) In his account of the Anglo-Saxon Conquest, The Welsh chronicler Nennius claimed that the Saxon leader Hengest invited the British king Vortigern to a banquet, waited until the king and his men were drunk, and then shouted “Nimed eure saxes!”—“Take up your knives!” At this signal, the Saxons drew their knives and killed Vortigern’s men. Vortigern himself was spared but forced to surrender Essex, Middlesex, and Wessex to Hengest (History of the Britons 46; transl. Giles, pp. 26-27; see also Geoffrey of Monmouth,History of the Kings of Britain; transl. Thorpe, pp. 164-165). Historians now doubt whether either of these events really happened, but at the very least they show that the chroniclers strongly linked Saxons with sax-knives.

That is just about everything that we know about Saxnot from the primary lore: He was a founder of a royal lineage, associated with swords or long knives, and not equivalent to either Woden or Thunar. Unlike Woden and Thunar, his name does not appear in any known place names or personal names, unless the place name Netley in Southampton derives from his name (*Nēat-leah, “[Seax]-nēat’s meadow”); however, this name is more likely to mean “nettle meadow.” Attempts to link Seaxnēat with the Norse giant Fornjótr also seem quite doubtful. (Philipsson, Germanisches Heidentum bei den Angelsachsen, p. 118)

Acting on the assumption that Saxnot had an equivalent in Norse mythology, Jacob Grimm associated him with Tyr. (Teutonic Mythology, vol. 1, pp. 203-204) Tyr is not specifically said to carry a sword, but he is associated with swords in Sigrdrífumál, where one who wants victory is told to carve runes on his sword and call upon Tyr. This was the association that appeared in the first and second editions of Our Troth. On the other hand, more recent scholars have argued that, if Saxnot is an alternate name for another known god, he’s more likely to be the god known as Freyr or Yngvi-Freyr in Scandinavia and Ing in England. (Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North, p. 100; Dumézil, Gods of the Ancient Northmen, pp. 19-20; note that Grimm considers this idea but rejects it in Teutonic Mythology, vol. 1, pp. 215-216). Unlike Tyr, Freyr is known to fight with a sword, and he is the founder of another royal house: the Yngling line of Sweden. The Saxon deities Woden, Thunar, and Saxnot would thus correspond to the gods Odin, Thor, and Frikko [Freyr] worshipped in Uppsala. (Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops IV.26-27; transl. Tschan, pp. 207-208) Those who like Dumézil’s theory of the “three functions” might be pleased to see that the three gods of the Saxons correspond to the three societal functions of rulership, force, and fertility. Given that Saxon society was divided into nobles (nobiles or edhilingui), free men (ingenui or frilingi) and servants (serviles or lazzi), it is possible that each deity was honored by a corresponding social class. (Dumézil, “The Rígsþula and Indo-European Social Structure”, p. 120) A third possibility, of course, is that Saxnot has no equivalent in the myths of other Germanic peoples; he might have been a god of the Saxon people specifically, unknown or irrelevant to outsiders.

To go any further, we have to draw on the intuition and experience of modern Heathens who have chosen to honor Saxnot. Alaric Albertsson considers Seaxneat to be a god who simply fell out of humans’ favor for some reason: while it is possible that he might reveal himself again in the future, he remains obscure for us today. Albertsson implies that Seaxneat is separate from both Tyr/Tiw and Freyr/Ing, although he does not state this directly. (Travels Through Middle Earth, p. 30) Swain Wodening mentions that many have equated Seaxneat with either Tiw or Ing, but adds that “it is entirely possible Seaxnéat is a God in his own right.” (Hammer of the Gods, p. 105) Robert Sass considers Saxnot (whose name he spells Sahsnoð) to be a son of Woden and Fri (Frigg), not equivalent to any other god. (The Saxons,p. 54) Þórbeorht Línléah disagrees, arguing that Saxnot is another name for Freyr. (“The Search for Sahsnôt,” pp. 33-44) As in so many other instances, there is as yet no consensus in the Heathen community on Saxnot’s identity. Individuals and groups may decide for themselves who Saxnot might be, and whether and how to honor him.

 

Adam of Bremen (Francis J. Tschan, transl.)History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen.New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Albertsson, Alaric. Travels through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan. Woodbury, Minn.: Llewellyn, 2009.

Bede (Leo Sherley-Price, transl.), Ecclesiastical History of the English People. London: Penguin, 1990.

Davidson, Hilda Ellis. The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: Its Archaeology and Literature.Revised ed. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1994.

Dumézil, Georges. Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Dumézil, Georges (John Lindow, transl.) “The Rígsþulaand Indo-European Social Structure.” Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Berkeley: University of California Press (1973), pp. 118-125.

Florence of Worcester [Florentius Wigorniensis Monachus] (Benjamin Thorpe, ed.) Chronicon ex Chronicis, ab Adventu Hengesti et Horsi in Britanniam Usque ad Annum M.C.XVII.London: Sumptibus Societatis, 1848.

Geoffrey of Monmouth (Lewis Thorpe, transl.) History of the Kings of Britain.London: Penguin, 1966.

Grimm, Jakob (James Steven Stallybrass, transl.)Teutonic Mythology, 4 vols. London: George Bell and Sons, 1883-1888.

Hodgkin, R. H. A History of the Anglo-Saxons.3rd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1952. 

Línléah, Þórbeorht. “Searching for Sahsnôt: Comparative Mythology.” Of Ghosts and Godpoles: Théodish Essays Pertaining to the Reconstruction of Saxon Heathen Belief, Both Old and Anglo. Richmond, Va.: Hæðengyld Books, 2014. Pp. 29-44.

Nennius (J. A. Giles, transl.) History of the Britons.London: James Bohn, 1841.

North, Richard. Heathen Gods in Old English Literature.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Philipsson, Ernst Alfred. Germanisches Heidentum bei den Angelsachsen.Leipzig: Tauschnitz, 1929.

Sass, Robert. The Saxons. Morrisville, N.C.: Lulu.com, 2019.

Turville-Petre, Gabriel. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia.New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.

Widukind of Corvey (Bernard S. Bachrach and David S. Bachrach, eds.) Deeds of the Saxons.Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2014.

Wodening, Swain. Hammer of the Gods: Anglo-Saxon Paganism in Modern Times.2nded. Huntsville, Mo.: Wednesbury Shire, 2008.

Yorke, Barbara. “The Kingdom of the East Saxons.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 14. Peter Clemoes, Simon Keynes, and Michael Lapidge, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Pp. 1-36.

 

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