Hlude Woeran Hy: Syncretic Christianity in the Old English Charm Wio Foerstice
Richardson, John, Mankind Quarterly
Missionary Christianity absorbed many pre-Christian religious beliefs. Evidence for this syncretic process is found in the Anglo-Saxon charm Wio Foertice, which co-opted pagan concepts, thereby creating a folk-Christianity which was peculiar to England. Similar syncretic processes took place elsewhere with the spread of Christianity, as in the case of post-Columbian Catholicism in Mexico.
Key Words: Christianity, Anglo-Saxon paganism, Aztec/Mayan mythology, religious syncretism, Holda, Valkyrie, Virgin of Guadalupe.
While there can be little doubt that the Old English Metrical Charm Wio Foerstice2 is the product of a Christian society, at the root and throughout the poem there are allusions to an old pagan culture. These allusions are not simply "pagan survivals" and the Christian nature of the charm is not simply a matter of "colouring".3 It is important to always keep before us as a caution E. G. Stanley's The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism, in which we are reminded "for a long time Old English literature was much read in the hope ot discovering in it a lost world of pre-Christian antiquity, for the reconstruction of which the Old English writings themselves do not provide sufficient fragments." At another point in his study, however, while discussing the use of "Lord" in Wio Foerstice he acknowledges the possibility of Christian interpolation, and so, pagan core, in the charm: "in the context of the Charm, however, there is perhaps greater justification for this view".5
But Wio Foerstice is thoroughly Christian because everything with a "pagan past"6 has been co-opted in the world of the charm by its Christianity. Like folk-Christianities throughout the world, Anglo-Saxon Christianity was a syncretism of the old religion and the new, producing a newer Christianity, "a Christianity peculiar to England"7 and "a syncretic Germanic Christianity."8 Some examples of similar syncretic artifacts are Saint Demetria who was once the Goddess Demeter9 and the distinctive Catholicism of Meso-America, which consists of large measures of Aztec, Maya, and other aboriginal religions along with the elements brought from Spain (these latter elements themselves influenced by the Islam of the Moorish period of Iberian history). Octavio Paz summarizes and analyzes one aspect of Mexican Catholicism as follows:
It is no secret to anyone that Mexican Catholicism is centered about the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In the first place, she is an Indian Virgin; in the second place, the scene of her appearance to the Indian Juan Diego was a hill that formerly contained a sanctuary dedicated to Tonantzin, "Our Mother," the Aztec goddess of fertility. We know that the Conquest coincided with the apogee of the cult of two masculine divinities; Quetzalcoatl, the self-sacrificing god, and Huitzilopochtli, the young warrior-god. …