History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Death for Anglo-Saxon Kings

The unexpected death of a friend this week brought into sharp relief the differences between traditions around death and grief, not only between different communities but also between different generations. How we handle the dead and our sorrow shows a lot about our culture.

For the Anglo-Saxons, much of what we know of their material culture -- apart descriptions in poems and histories -- come from discovered burials. But burial wasn't always the norm. We have a magnificent pagan shipboard funeral of a king in the opening lines of Beowulf. For a long time people dismissed it as a rather fanciful thing.

Then came the discovery of the burial mound at Sutton Hoo, with a king or nobleman with the same grandeur, and the dissemination of the historical account by Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan of funeral of a Rus (Swedish Viking) king. This account was incorporated with some success into the film The 13th Warrior.

While a wholly Christian poem, Beowulf also betrays a pride in many aspects of the pagan past. The narrative voice expresses sorrow for his ancestors who didn't know where they were sending their dead or who prayed uselessly because they did not know the 'true god', but also admires the glory of kings and the prowess of the warrior. The modern distinctions of Christian and pagan don't match with those of the past. After all, the Anglo-Saxons imagined a Christ who climbed up on the cross, a heroic champion.

The funeral of Scyld Scefing that opens Beowulf shows a beloved king whom his people honour with all the signs of their admiration. They lay him in "a hero's vessel" (I'm using Benjamin Slade's translation) because as king he was " the giver of rings and treasure" so they fill this glorious boat with "ornate armour and baubles" because they represent not only his wealth (and their own) but also his strength in battle. They set him off on the waves, relinquishing what cannot be kept even though it is "the wealth of a nation" and he their beloved king.

The Christian narrator portrays the ancient people as troubled in their hearts because they could not say "who received that cargo"; however, he also shares their admiration for this founder of a dynasty, a man who came to them as a foundling and rose to become king through his own merits. What that meant was protecting his people and terrifying their enemies until everyone "beyond the whale-road had to submit / and yield tribute" which the narrator has no trouble admiring: "that was a good king!"

Death meant showing your respect and admiration in tangible terms, with the finest clothes, the best weapons and an abundance of wealth. This way the honored king could face the afterlife with all the goods he had acquired in this life.

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.


  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard Friday, 27 July 2012

    Of course, you touch my old heart with the very mention of Scyld Scefing and Beowulf but I also want to offer my condolences on the loss of your friend. Love to you, my sister, as you walk the tumbled wastes of grief.

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Friday, 27 July 2012

    Thank you, my dear. It's never easy, but the weight becomes more familiar as we age, alas. It's the first time I have felt 'away' :-(

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Friday, 27 July 2012

    My condolences on your loss, Kate; I thank you for sharing your wisdom and reflections with our community.

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Friday, 27 July 2012

    Thanks so much, Anne. The power of community in bad times reflects the strength of its joy in good times. And the fluctuation between the two extremes never ends.

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