Gods and Heroes in Stone by H.R. Ellis Davidson (1950)

The Early Cultures of North-West EuropeTo seek for illustrations of the legends and myths of the pagan past carved on the memorial stones and crosses of Anglo-Saxon is to embark on a subject which has provided wilder flights of interpretative fancy than perhaps any branch of Anglo-Saxon studies. On such a topic thought is indeed free, and the vague, often primitive, figures of men and animals and grotesque shapes, rendered even more obscure by the ill-treatment of time, weather and man, give the imagination ample scope. On the one hand, we have such pronouncements as that of J. Romilly Allen, who says, ‘…the representations of a purely secular or historical event, having no connection with the Church, is probably not to be found in any Christian monument’,1 and on the other, the endeavours of more romantically-minded antiquarians to turn every man on horseback into Othin or every figure with a hawk on his wrist into Sigurd taking counsel of the birds. In view of this wide divergence of interpretation, it may be worthwhile to make a brief survey of the definite evidence for carvings of the heroes and gods of the pre-Christian past in the British Isles in Anglo-Saxon and Viking times. One aspect of the subject to which little attention has been paid is that of the relationship of the carvings to literary sources; since the stones are likely in many cases to be earlier than our existing manuscripts, any definite information they can give us may be of great value in determining early forms of myths and legends and saga material; for not only shall we be able to draw conclusions as to the area in which the stories were known, but also as to the particular form in which they reached the sculptor and his circle.

There are clearly many obstacles to be faced in an investigation of this kind. First there is the difficulty of identifying an incident depicted on the stones, particularly if it is an isolated example. Fortunately we are helped by the fact that for the most part the sculptors follow certain fixed traditions, and imitate the favourite scenes from the Bible again and again, so that it may be possible to trace examples of the same subject in Europe from the time of the Catacombs onwards. When this is the case, the early sculptures are often clear enough to elucidate the more grotesque and puzzling versions and make identification sure. As we shall see, it was not only the Christian subjects which tended to keep within certain accepted patterns in this way.

The Loki Stone is an 8th century carved representation of the Norse God Loki, bound and chained.
The Loki stone at Kirkby Stephen

An additional cause for uncertainty are the undoubted parallels which exist between some incidents from Christian tradition and others from the heathen myths. For instance, H.C. March, in an article on ‘The Pagan-Christian Overlap in the North’, to which reference will be made later on, interprets a carving from St. Andrews as representing the pagan god Viðarr, Othin’s avenger, rending the wolf jaws at Ragnarök. It seems much more likely, in view of the series of parallels given by Romilly Allen (op. Cit. p. 203) and in particular from the presence of the sheep at St. Andrew’s stone, that this is definitely a Christian subject, and shows David slaying the lion which threatened his flock. Again, how are we to decide between the claims of the bound Satan and the bound Loki in identifying such an ambiguous figure as the horned creature in fetters on the stone from Kirby Stephen? In such cases, only extreme caution and study of the parallels found on stones or MS. illustrations, if any exist, can be our safeguard.2 And we must not lose sight of the possibility that the sculptors themselves may have rejoiced in such parallels, and may have used them deliberately, turning a pre-Christian story to new use. At all events, the idea that any use of heathen material in juxtaposition with Christian was repugnant to them is contradicted outright by the existence of such a work as the Franks Casket.

In turning first to the evidence for pagan heroes depicted on carvings of the British Isles, there is one whose popularity outshines all the rest, and about whose identity there can be little mistake. This is Sigurd the Volsung, the slayer of the dragon, who appears on a number of stones in the Isle of Man and northern England, dating back to the period of Norse occupation. I have dealt elsewhere with the Sigurd stones in detail,3 and it is only necessary here to recapitulate the most important points. The favourite incidents from the Sigurd story, repeated again and again by the sculptor, are those of the slaying of the dragon and the roasting of its heart. These can be seen on three Manx cross-slabs from Jurby, Malew and Andreas,4 where, though details vary considerably, the scenes are depicted according to certain definite rules. Sigurd, wearing a helmet, is shown thrusting a spear into the dragon, and he stands inside a semicircular enclosure, which seems intended to represent the pit in the earth from which, according to the story as we have it in the written sources, he stabbed the monster from beneath as it crawled down to the water. In the roasting scene, Sigurd wears a pointed cap; he stands holding the heart on a pointed stick over the fire (on the Malew and Andreas stones it is cut in slices and threaded on the stick), and on all the stones Sigurd is portrayed with his thumb in his mouth. Sigurd’s horse can be seen on the Malew and Jurby stones, and its head can be made out on the Andreas stone, together with a bird, presumably one of those who gave counsel to Sigurd after the magic power of the dragon’s heart had reached his tongue. On the cross from Halton and Lancanshire5 the roasting scene can be made out again, although this part of the stone is badly worn, and in the panel above two birds can be seen on the branches of a tree, while there is a horse on the reverse side. There is no stabbing scene here, although a knot of twisted coils may be intended to represent the dragon, but there is a very interesting scene below, where a man is shown seated at an anvil, with smiths’ tools and bellows, and a headless figure lying among them. Something which might be the severed head appears in the top panel.

Sigurd killing Fafnir the dragon, Hyllestad Stave Church
Sigurd killing Fafnir the dragon, Hyllestad Stave Church, Norway.

It would seem from these stones that the sculptors followed certain rules, when they carved scenes from the legends, as faithfully as they kept to set traditions in repeating Biblical scenes, and this is corroborated by two stones from Gök and Ramsund in Sweden,6 which contain every point discernible on the Manx and Halton stones: the stabbing from beneath, the roasting of the heart on a stick, the thumb in the hero’s mouth, the tree with two birds, the horse, the smiths’ tools and the headless man; although the style is completely different, and here the dragon’s body forms a border enclosing the other figures. Moreover, later still we have the same scenes depicted in carved wood on the portals of two of the Norwegian stave-churches, at Hyllestad and Veigusdal, and the old house at Gavlstad, and in these carvings the details are so clear that any possibility of error in the interpretation of the earlier stones is practically eliminated. Here once more we have the stabbing and the roasting, the horse, the birds on their tree; and Sigurd is seen actually working in the smithy, forging and testing his sword, and later killing Reginn the smith. No other scenes from the long story of the Volsung hero as we have it in the literature are shown, with two exceptions. There are indications that the incident of the killing of the otter and the ransoming of the Æsir by Andvari’s ill-fated gold was known as well. On another Manx stone, from Ramsey,7 an otter is shown eating a fish, while a squatting male figure holds what might be a stone in his hand, and the carving is sufficiently clear to make it very probable that this is Loki, making his unlucky shot which opened the train of events leading to Sigurd’s death. The only other scene linking up with this is one on the church at Hyllestad, showing the otter skin covered with gold, along with other scenes from the Sigurd story.

Sigurd roasting the dragon's heart, Hyllestad Stave Church, Norway.
Sigurd roasting the dragon’s heart, Hyllestad Stave Church, Norway.

The fact that all the incidents shown come from one section of Sigurd’s story is very significant in considering the complex problem of the early development of the Sigurd saga. In particular, it strengthens the argument for an early ‘Hoard Lay’, in which the chief episodes are the slaying of two brothers, a dragon and a smith, and the gaining of special knowledge by the young hero through the roasting of the dragon’s heart.8 As usual, the question of the exact dating of these Sigurd carvings is difficult, but a reasonable estimate seems to be that the group in Man and the cross at Halton belong to some time round about the year 1000, while the Swedish stones are somewhat later, and the Norwegian wood-carvings date from the 12th or 13th century.9 An important literary reference helping to corroborate these dates is a verse attributed to a poet attached to the court of King Olaf the Holy, king of Norway in the 11th century, describing scenes of dragon slaying and roasting which suggest the two most frequent carvings; it is said to have been composed as a description of the tapestry in King Olaf’s hall.10

Only one other recognizable hero can be picked out on the Manx stones. On a carving from Andreas11 a man is seen bound and surrounded by snakes, and it is possible that this may represent Gunnarr, who when bound and placed in a snake-pit by King Atli played on a harp with his toes so skillfully that for a long while the snakes would not touch him. The fact that this scene is clearly depicted with the other Sigurd carvings on the Hyllestad church door helps to confirm this identification, although the harp cannot be made out on the stone from Man; other isolated carvings of Gunnarr among the snakes can be found in Norway, on a carving from the Oseberg ship, from Norum church and on a carved bench from Hitterdal church.12 Gunnar’s story is found in the later part of the saga of the Volsungs: he is the brother of Sigurd’s wife Gudrun, and helps to bring about Sigurd’s death; then much later in the great battle in the hall of King Atli, Gudrun’s second husband, he and his brothers are overcome and put to death. Why this particular incident from the Burgundian section of the saga should be selected to be placed alongside the dragon scenes remains a mystery. It suggests there may originally have been a closer link between the tale of the young man who won a treasure and the harper dying among the snakes than in the later literary versions we possess, and the constant emphasis on snakes in Sigurd’s family is perhaps significant: Ragnar Loðbrók, for instance, who, in despite of chronology, appears as the husband of Sigurd’s daughter, is also said to have been put to death in a snake-pit by the King of Northumbria.

Gunnar in the Snake Pit
The back of the Andreas Cross shows interlaced snakes and a figure with his hands bound.

Another hero who is recognizable on cravings of the British Isles is Weland the Smith, the Volundr of Scandinavian tradition. Here we go back to a period earlier than that of the Sigurd stones, for the Franks Casket, the carved ivory box usually attributed, on the evidence of the runic inscriptions on it, to the early 8th century and believed to have been made in Northumbria in the Golden Age when so many impressive works of art were produced there, has a picture on its front panel which is generally taken to be from the Weland story.13 This little box is by no means the least impressive of the Northumbrian contributions to art, and the style of its carvings, while very different in workmanship from the classic elegance and restraint of the early crosses, is vigorous and effective, suggesting a considerable tradition of figure representation on very different lines from the eastern vine-scrolls and classical figures of Christ. The choice of subject, as shown in the scenes portrayed on the Casket, bears witness to a catholic taste: Romulus and Remus suckled by a wolf, the capture of Jerusalem by Titus, the adoration of the Infant Jesus by the Wise Men–these all bear runic inscriptions which serve to identify them. But the other pictures are more puzzling. The one generally taken as an episode from the Weland story is, startling enough, the companion panel to the Adoration of the Magi on the front of the casket. It shows a man standing beside a smith’s anvil, with bellows and smiths’ tools, and a headless body lying under the anvil. Two women stand opposite, one handing the smith some object. With his back to the group, and possibly intended to be separate from it, a man is seen wringing the neck of some birds resembling geese. There is an obvious similarity here to the smithy scene on the Halton Cross, but the presence of the women is a new factor, and has led to the suggestion that the smith is Weland, visited by princess Beadohild, the daughter of his captor. The best-known version of the story is the Norse one, given in the Edda poem Völundarkviða, but the vivid passage in Deor, describing the anguish of Beadohild after she has been overcome by Weland in the smithy and is bearing his child, shows that substantially the same revenge story was known to the Anglo-Saxons. There is a more detailed account of the smith’s revenge, however, from a later source, the Þiðreks Saga,14 which contains German as well as Norse material, and is traditionally said to have been compiled by Germans in Norway in the 13th century, though the manuscripts we possess are much later than this.  This version is of interest, because it is the only one which seems to correspond to the whole scene on the Franks Casket. Here Velent’s (Weland’s) brother Egill (only mentioned briefly in the Edda poem) comes into the story. He is a famous archer, and he comes to join his brother when Velent is a prisoner. Velent sends him to take all the birds he can find in the woods, and to make a coat of their feathers, in which he afterwards makes his escape after he has taken vengeance on the king by killing his sons and violating his daughter. It is true that there is a wide gap in time between the runic casket and the Þiðriks Saga, and O.L. Jiriczek and others have mistrusted or neglected the identification of the figure on the right of Egill;15 but on the other hand, Deor and Völundarkviða leave plenty of gaps in the narrative, and there seems no valid reason why the tradition of the making of the feather coat in which to fly should not be an early one, and the presence of the bird-killer on the casket be more than mere coincidence. Oddly enough, the scene on the top of the casket, which has never been satisfactorily explained, actually bears the runic inscription Ægili, and shows an archer who defends a house, with a woman inside, against men attacking with swords and spears. The parallel to the medieval ballad of William of Cloudesly has been commented on, and he like Egill of Þiðriks Saga, was a famous archer, while the tale of the cleaving of the apple popularly associated with William Tell is told of them both. The defence of a house by arrows against armed men, however is not likely to be a very rare incident, and Gunnarr’s defence of his home in Njáls Saga springs instantly to mind. But the name given in runes, taken together with the picture of Egill the incomparable archer in Þiðriks Saga, and with that of Weland apparently depicted on the same casket, is certainly worth some consideration, and it is possible that the tradition surviving in Þiðriks Saga may be an early one, known to the Anglo-Saxons in the 8th century.

The left panel, depicting Romulus and Remus (Franks Casket)
The left panel, depicting Romulus and Remus (Franks Casket).

Two other carved stones from Leeds have been claimed as representations of the Weland story.16 They show what is practically the same picture (an interesting fact in itself), a figure in fetters grasping what seems to be a woman by her long hair and the skirt of her dress. The bound central figure seems to have wings, and there is some suggestion of smiths’ tools beneath his feet. However, both panels are much mutilated, and neither the tools nor the wings are altogether clear. If the bound figure is really Weland, then we have a representation differing from the Franks Casket and from the written sources, in all of which the smith is lamed and not bound, 17 while he only obtains his wings in the final act of the drama. On the other hand, it is hard to find another explanation of the group; the bound Satan is sometimes shown, as in the Cædmon manuscript, with a messenger hovering above him, but the smiths’ tools remain a problem, apart from the fact that the bound figure seems to be holding a smaller figure tightly. While the Leeds stones remain a possible addition to our knowledge of the Weland story, the detail is not sufficiently clear for them to be of much value as a help to elucidation of the literary sources.

No other hero can be identified with certainty from the carved stones. There are some carvings which have never been satisfactorily explained, and which may show scenes from non-Christian legend: for instance, a stone from Iona showing a ship, with little figures on board, and a smith forging a sword,18 and another from Nunburnholme,19 where two little figures share a meal reminiscent of the dragon’s roasted heart. In these cases there is nothing sufficiently definite to establish identity. It remains to turn from the heroes to the northern gods.

The Gosforth Cross is one of the most cryptic of the northern monuments. It has been claimed that it shows in a series of scenes the main incidents from the Edda poem Völuspá.20 The mistake here has been, surely, to over-emphasize the poem rather than the general conception of Ragnarök, the downfall of gods and men, which the sculptor certainly seems to have had in mind. Because Völuspá is the most important account of Ragnarök which we possess (most of the information in Snorri’s Prose Edda is taken from it) we have no right to assume that such was the case in northern England in the tenth or eleventh century. Moreover, one of the most striking scenes, Loki’s punishment, is not dealt with in the poem at all. In this scene the rather animal-like figure of the tortured victim, with a long plait of hair falling from his head, is seen fettered in the lowest panel on the western face, and a kneeling figure who seems to be a woman holds up what seems to be a bowl. This fits in very closely with the account of Loki’s punishment given in Snorri: ‘then the Æsir…bound Loki…, those bonds turned to iron. Then Skaði took a poisonous snake and fastened it above him, so that the poison must drop from the snake onto his face. But his wife Sigyn sits (v.l. stands) beside him and holds a bowl under the drops of the poison’.21 The detailed resemblance here seems strong enough to be convincing. There is also close similarity between Snorri’s account of the slaying of Fenrir by Othin’s strange son Víðarr,22 whose mission in life is the avenging of his father, and the little figure at the top of the cross’s eastern face, who sets a hand on the upper jaw of the monster and a foot on its lower jaw, while he supports himself by a spear in his free hand.  This peculiar method of slaying his enemy is again not found in Völuspá, where Othin’s avenger is said to plunge a sword into the wolf’s heart. The other figure on the cross who stands out is the man with a horn on the western face, who seems to be using his spear to hold back two stylized monsters in the upper part of the panel; he certainly suggests Heimdallr, the watchman of the gods. Other figures on the cross–men on horseback, coiled and twisted monsters (one with a kind of muzzle on its jaws), a bound figure, half-man, half-serpent, a dog or wolf beside what might be discarded bonds–all these support the general conception of Ragnarök, while forming no very striking evidence for it if taken singly.

Heimdallr stands against the beasts of Loki’s army’s while preparing to call out on his great horn called Gjallarhorn.

Moreover, the Gosforth Cross does not stand alone in its choice of subject. The ‘hogback’ tombstone from Heysham in North Lancashire has also been claimed as a representation of Ragnarök,23 and it is certainly a strange and impressive piece of work, to which it is very difficult to attach any conventional Christian significance: those who wish to do so, in fact, have been driven to gather together some extremely wild and fantastic episodes relating to the death of Adam from scattered passages in Apocalyptic literature and Moslem legend.24 If the stone really depicts the doom of the gods, then the representation is bold, symbolic and almost impressionistic in its abruptness, and there seems no direct connection with the Gosforth Cross. We have first four figures whose broad hands push up the curved arch above them; then a medley of strange monsters: one (dog or wolf?) leaps up at one of the figures. Two have long tails, and one is represented upside down, as if he were meant to be creeping across the sky, while all seem to be advancing menacingly; a stag is clearly recognizable (also found on the Gosforth Cross), and there is a smaller animal with a pointed snout. The arch of the stone, where the hogback usually shows a regular pattern or a representation of tile, is broken up here by more creatures: a wolf, a little animal like a seahorse (frequent on the Pictish stones) and a man with arms akimbo, shown on his side. Then come two irregular pieces of pattern, one of straight lines and squares, and another of irregular curves. On the reverse side of the stone, a figure with hands upraised occupies the centre. On one side is a tree, and what seem to be two birds to the left of it, and to the right a stallion with a burden on its back (rather reminiscent of the Sigurd stones); there is a creature which resembles a seal, and a dog-like animal, apparently in flight. The point made by March in his article on ‘The Pagan-Christian Overlap’, that the first, more crowded side gives the impressions of chaos and panic and the second of peace and calm, seems justifiable. His further suggestion, that the four upright beings represent the four gods who perished at Ragnarök: Othin, Thor, Freyr and Týr, and that their adversaries, the wolf Fenrir, the World Serpent, Surtr the Fire-giant and the Helhound Garmr, can all be picked out among the creatures shown, while the broken patterns above might symbolize the breaking up of the heavens and the sea flooding the earth, are certainly worthy of consideration, tough one wonders why the sculptor has made no attempt to make the figures more recognizable. The hart, March suggests, might symbolize Christ or Víðarr the avenger who stands for Him. The idea that the reverse side shows the Great Ruler and the World Tree restored in the new world risen out of the ashes of the old, as at the end of the Völuspá, seems on the whole less convincing, and leaves many of the creatures unexplained. As we lack any conclusive evidence to help to interpret this strange carving, we can only say that it is possible that here is an attempt to illustrate the pagan conception of the end of the world, probably, as March believed, given deliberate Christian significance. Certainly no other interpretation has been found to fit the evidence as well.

Heysham Hogback, Face B
Heysham Hogback, Face B (Yggdrasil, Sigurd, Grani).

Among the stones from the Isle of Man which contain figure representation, Kermode believed several to illustrate scenes from Norse mythology. His identifications are not, however, particularly convincing. One from Bride,25 which he calls the Thor Cross, might be taken, not so much as a collection of scenes from that god’s adventures, as he suggests, but as a companion to the Gosforth and Heysham stones as a possible representation of Ragnarök. In one panel a bearded and belted man is fighting with a serpent, and on a lower panel a wolf is trampling down another figure; these suggest the last battles of Thor and Othin, and the little figure erect under the wolf might conceivably be Víðarr, Othin’s avenger. There are other figures on the stone, but it is hard to draw any clear conclusions about them. A hunting scene on the other side reminds us that the stag is shown on both the other stones, and may have possessed special significance, in view of the hart Eikþyrnir in the Edda poems.

Apart from the possible representations of the fall of the gods, we have also one episode from Thor’s adventures to take into consideration, the ‘fishing stone’ from Gosforth,26 probably a fragment of a large cross, built into the wall of the church there. It shows two figures in a boat, one holding what may well be a hammer, while below four large fish surround something suspended like an anchor from the boat. The ingenious suggestion that this represents Thor’s dangerous expedition with the giant Hymir, when the World Serpent took his bait of an ox-head, seems at least a possible one, and Schuck refers to another representation of the same incident on a stone in Norway. The only other god recognizable on Viking Age carvings is Loki, who is seens casting a stone at the otter on the Ramsey carving, and lying bound on the Gosforth Cross. Other figures in fetters have been suggested as representations of Loki, particularly the barbaric horned figure on the stone from Kirby Stephen,27 but these, like the fettered figure from Andreas, who may be Gunnarr, remain enigmatical. We know the Anglo-Saxons were fond of the conception of the bound Satan, chained down by heavy fetters, for he appears again and again in the Cædmon manuscript, though there is little Biblical authority for so picturing him; it is possible that this conception may owe something to the heathen traditions of bound gods, striving to break loose and overwhelm the world.

Thor's Stone
Thor’s Stone. Source: A Manx Notebook.

A great deal more might be said of the many stones which show puzzling groups of figures, never satisfactorily interpreted, but to continue on these lines would hardly serve the purpose of this article, that of bringing a little more clarity into a confused and contradictory mass of material. It remains to be seen what conclusions may be drawn from such evidence as has been collected here of illustrations from heathen legend.

First, the material is severely limited. We have Sigurd, Weland, the snake-pit hero, the battle between gods and monsters at Ragnarök, the punishment of Loki, the fishing of Thor; and some of the examples of these are doubtful and puzzling. It is of course not very surprising that this should be so; the stones and crosses were primarily Christian memorials, one of the tangible results of the Conversion in the British Isles, and inspired to a large extent by eastern and southern European traditions of art. The stories of the Bible and the legends of the saints would naturally provide the greater part of the material. Indeed, the question which needs to be asked is why the heathen figures are there at all, and to this there are several possible answers. It seems beyond dispute that the Anglo-Saxon and Viking craftsmen were aware of obvious parallels between heathen legends and Christian teaching; and it would be surprising indeed if the teachers of the new faith were so slow or so narrow-minded as to neglect the opportunity to make use of them. Not only have we often quoted words of Pope Gregory to Mellitus, where he counsels him to adapt heathen practices to Christian use, rather than prohibit them utterly,28 but at a later date we have such literary parallels as the genealogies in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where Woden is found side by side with Enoch and Adam among the ancestors of a king of Wessex, and the gulf is naively bridged by the introduction of ‘Itermon son of Hraþra, who was born in the Ark’ (Annal 855), or by the description of the fenland monster Grendel in Beowulf as the descendant of Cain. deliberate attempts to harmonize heathen and Christian elements can indeed be seen all through Beowulf, and whether we view them as later additions to a pre-Christian work, or the spontaneous creation of a mixed background in the early years of the Conversion, there is no doubt that here a great poet and the audience for which his poem was composed have seen nothing incongruous in a blend of traditions from the pagan and Christian worlds. All this, and the existence of the Franks Casket, with what might be called its ‘anthology’ tendency to select from widely different sources, contradict outright the extreme view of scholars like Romilly Allen. The Ragnarök illustrations, with their vigorous and poetic conceptions of the powers of good battling against those of evil, are a natural subject for a sculptor to choose. For Christ also did battle with the serpent, and will do battle at the end of all things (there is the same ambiguity of time as in the Norse mythology), while Satan, like Loki, must languish in bonds till Armageddon; and also in a community like the Isle of Man, where the Christian church was in its infancy, such representations would serve a double purpose by appealing both to the Church and to old memories and traditions. Thor’s fishing is less easy to fit into a Christian background, but here, as so often, we are hampered by not knowing in what company the odd, spirited little carving was found, and by having, apart from Snorri’s lively account in Gylfaginning, c. 48, only such difficult versions of the story as those in Hymiskviða and Bragi Boddason’s skaldic poem  Ragnarsdrápa.

A composite image of three different angles of the Ledberg stone.

A second factor which might influence the choice of a heroic legend as the subject of a carving is the desire to commemorate an ancestor. It has been pointed out29 that the castle at Halton was probably the seat of Tosti, Harold Godwinesson’s brother, who was lord of the manor there, and Tosti’s descent can be traced back to Sigurd the Volsung through King Harald Bluetooth and Ragnar Loðbrók, and this seems a valid reason for the choice of the Sigurd scenes carved on the Halton Cross. It is possible that Viking families in Man could claim a similar descent (for instance, through Olaf the White of Dublin)30 and that this may account for the popularity of the subject there. But there seems no evidence for any important families ever claiming descent from Weland, nor does the story of implacable revenge seem to accord easily with Christian teaching. One point which is suggested by a study of the stones, however, is that some connection exists between the two stories: the picture of the smith surrounded by tools and bellows and the headless body in the smithy is common to both, so that some scholars attributed the scene on the Halton Cross to the Weland legend. Þiðriks Saga strengthens this impression; there we are told that Velent as a boy was educated first by Mimir along with the young Sigurd, but found him too rough a companion, so that Velent’s father removed him to another teacher; and again he comes into contact with a certain Reginn who steals his smith’s tools31 There seems to have been some special significance about the tools of a smith for the early sculptors, and there are instances of them being carved on tombstones many centuries after the Franks Casket was planned;32 the problem is complicated by the fact that they are found too alongside some of the representations of the Crucifixion. Presumably to symbolize the tortures of Christ. It would seem that here we have an old tradition distinct from the Christian one, and perhaps Weland, the mythical craftsman whose name stood in heroic poetry for excellent workmanship in weapons or ornaments has been chosen as the fit patron for the artist and sculptor.


It is possible that in other fields beside that of the crosses and memorial stones the traditional representations from pre-Christian legends may have continued into Christian times. H. Schuck, in an interesting article on ‘Sigurdristningar’ (Nord. Tidskrift f. Vetenskap, Konst og Industri, 1903) stresses the importance of tapestries in this connection. Aldhelm refers to tapestries hung up in halls, while there is an allusion in Beowulf (II. 994-96) to the ‘gold-adorned’ hangings on the walls of Heorot: ‘many wondrous sights for anyone who looks upon such things’, though unfortunately no clue is given as to the nature of the pictures on the hangings. We know also that they were popular in Scandinavia in Viking times, and in the skaldic verse already referred to, which describes what seems to be the two favourite scenes from the Sigurd story, Þorfinnr is said to have composed an impromptu verse on the tapestries in Olaf the Holy’s hall. It is at least possible that illustrations of the old legends were familiar in tapestries in the British Isles, and that certain traditions may have developed in this way and influenced isolated scenes carved upon the stones. Whether there was any tradition of narrative illustration in heathen Anglo-Saxon England is an interesting question: what, in fact, was the background of the artist who planned the scenes on the Franks Casket? Unfortunately the small grave goods which are practically all we have to depend on from the early days of the settlement are likely to give little help. An important exception is the little bronze cylindrical workbox from the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Burwell, which Lethbridge dates mid-seventh century.33 On the circular lid and base two scenes have been depicted in relief, each recurring four times in all. One scene unfortunately cannot be made out, but the other clearly shows a human figure plunging a weapon into the underside of a dragon, and, though there is nothing to prove that he is Sigurd, the scene viewed from the centre of the circle suggests that he is lying flat and stabbing upwards into the dragon’s heart, while the clearly marked rectangle beside him might be a simple representation of the pit mouth. In any case so early an example of pictorial representation, almost certainly non-Christian in inspiration, is of very great importance. Another tantalizingly fragmentary example is found on a bowl discovered near Sandwich, presumably from an Anglo-Saxon grave.34 This was unfortunately destroyed in the raids on Liverpool, and no good record of it exists, but the drawings in Archaeologia, XXX, 133, show the bowl and two of the three metal plates riveted on to it as repairs. Two small plates bore identical stamps, showing a man with long hair and pointed beard carrying a string instrument in one hand and on object which Roach Smith suggested was an animal’s head in the other. The third larger plate shows a group of creatures, one a fish, arranged on either side of a cord twisted into irregular knots at either end. While these devices may have no connection with myth or legend, they at least confirm the existence of a native graphic style of Anglo-Saxon art. Besides these examples we may now set the figure panels from the Sutton Hoo helmet.35 These raise complex questions of the Scandinavian affinities of the Sutton Hoo treasure outside the scope of this study, but they must at least be mentioned whatever their origin as another piece of evidence for early traditions of figure representation in Anglo-Saxon England.

There is one other factor which may have inspired some of the more puzzling carvings which ought perhaps to be mentioned here, and that is non-Christian ritual. Here we are on extremely uncertain ground, but the question has recently been raised in a most interesting article by Helen M. Roe, and is too significant to be omitted.36 The author has shown that while there is a clearly recognizable group representing Daniel in the Lions’ Den, traceable from early Christian time, the human figure which is flanked on either side by two beasts or birds or animal-headed men comes into a different category. Such a group is found chiefly on carvings in Ireland, Scotland or Wales, but in addition animal- and bird-headed men are sometimes found in other positions on crosses in England and Man; for instance, on the cross from Kirklevington, and on one from Lancaster,37 they replace the soldiers who stand at the foot of the Cross. Evidently there are two distinct problems here: first the familiar group consisting of a central figure, grasped firmly by two other figures, who may be wholly human, wholly animal, or human figures with animal heads. They are frequently shown in long cloaks or robes and hoods. The little group on the right-hand side of the right panel of the Franks Casket seems to me to come into this category.38 Here the figures are human, and the impression given is that the central one is a woman, though the long skirts worn by all three make it hard to be certain. No satisfactory interpretation of this group of figures has been found. Christ seized by the Jews has been suggested,39 from analogy with an illustration from the Book of Kells, but this does not seem to explain satisfactorily such early examples as the man between two beasts on the Sutton Hoo purse-mount,40 or indeed the group on the Franks Casket. Then we have the additional problem of the human figures with bird or animal heads. These, as Miss Roe points out, are found on some early Scandinavian objects from pagan times, for instance, on bronze plaques from Torslunda and the Gallehus horns. She suggests that since we have a good deal of evidence for various cults, condemned by the Church, in which those taking part donned the skins and heads of animals, the figures on the stones may represent devils or heathen magicians, perhaps bearing away souls or attacking the righteous. Such an explanation may cover the figures in the Crucifixion scenes and some of the Irish examples, but such a picture as that on the right side of the Franks Casket remains an enigma. I have given reasons elsewhere for rejecting the suggestion that it is an illustration from the Sigurd story.41 The runic inscription offers great difficulty; tentatively interpreted by Napier,42 it refers to someone (hos? Or Hors?) sitting on the sorrow-hill, and to the enduring of grief and anguish, and seems likely to be part of some lost poem; it runs round the whole panel, including the group of three figures already mentioned. ‘Rush-biter’ inscribed above the horse does not help; as far as the picture goes, it might refer either to the horse or to the horse-headed creature sitting on the ‘hill’. The only other carving which seems to bear at least a surface resemblance to this panel is a cross slab from Inchbrayock.43 One side of this shows a tall figure with a human body and a horse’s head attacking a smaller figure with a sickle-shaped object. The tall figure is very like the creature sitting on the mound in the Franks Casket, and on the other side the men in their long caps and cloaks, and the realistic horse also remind us of the casket figures. This side seems to represent a hunting scene above, and the group below has been interpreted as Samson slaying the Philistines with the jaw-bone, one feels that even a crude sculptor might have depicted the slaughter with more spirit if he wished to show it, and the figure on the right suggests nothing so much as a woman nursing a baby. While it would be rash to claim that such carvings as these are examples of heathen mythology or legend, they do seem to suggest at least that some use has been made of non-Christian material, and that the background and traditions behind them are not those of conventional Christian teaching.

Sutton Hoo purse-lid.

This brief survey of the evidence for non-Christian subject-matter in the art of the British Isles during the Anglo-Saxon period shows that, while there is less definite evidence than one might wish, there is much that is rich in suggestion and in tantalizing problems. The main impression with which we are left, as so often in study of literature and lore of early times, is that one dare not be dogmatic; the more interesting the material, the more it is surrounded by doubts and queries, and odd cross-currents of echoes and connecting links. Certainly, though the main inspiration behind the amazing wealth of carved stones was, naturally, a Christian one, there is plenty of clear evidence that the stories of heroes and gods from the rich store of the pagan past were not wholly forgotten. They have their place among the saints and the angels, and the vigorous abrupt idiom which seems to have belonged to the heathen stories can be discerned, now in the Northumbrian Golden Age, now in the Viking colonies of the north, in momentary contradiction to the restraint and symmetry of the Christian and Classical style of Mediterranean art, while on many a stone there are baffling suggestions, reminders and echoes of something which seems foreign to the whole Christian tradition, but which is hard to capture and define. It is a subject which has by no means been exhausted, and a greater knowledge of the development of Scandinavian art, and of the art of some of the strange sculptured stones of Ireland and north-eastern Scotland may serve to throw much light upon it.

H.R. Ellis Davidson (Newnham, 1936)

Birkbeck College, University of London

Source: C. Fox and B. Dickens (eds.), The Early Cultures of North-West Europe (H.M. Chadwick Memorial Studies), 123-9, London, 1950.


    1. Early Christian Symbolism in Gt. Britain and Ireland (London, 1887), p.7.
    2. Possible influence from Roman art must also be considered. This has been studied in relation to early Scandinavian figure representations by B. Almgren: ‘Romerska drag i nordisk figurkonst’, Tor (1948), p. 81. I am indebted to Mr R.L.S. Bruce Mitford for this reference, and also for kind and helpful criticism of this article as a whole.
    3. H.R. Ellis, ‘Sigurd in the Art of the Viking Age’, Antiquity, XVI, 216-36; ‘The Story of Sigurd in Viking Art’, J. Manx Museum, v, 87f.
    4. P.M.C. Kermode, Manx Crosses (1907), pp. 174f. For photographs of parts of these stones, showing more accurate detail, see J. Manx Museum, v, Pl. 205.
    5. Ibid. p. 88
    6. Kermode, op. Cit., p. 172.
    7. H.C. March, ‘Pagan-Christian Overlap in the North’, Trans. Lancs. And Ches. Antiq. Soc. (1891), IX, Pls. 1-3; cf. J. Manx Museum, V, Pl. 204.
    8. I have followed up this question in a detailed study of the Norse and German versions of the dragon slaying: ‘The Hoard of the Nibelungs’, M.L.R. XXXVII, 466f.
    9. Full arguments for dating the Manx carvings are given in the article from Antiquity cited above, and in H.R. Ellis Davidson and B.R.S. Megaw, ‘Gaut the Sculptor’, J. Manx Museum, V, 136f.
    10. H.R. Ellis, Antiquity, XVI, 226. The verse by Þorfinnr munnr is found in the Viðbœtir to the Flateyjarbók Óláfs saga hins helga (III, 9).
    11. J. Manx Museum, V, Pl. 205.
    12. Osebergfundent, III, 27f.; E.I. Seaver, Med. Studies in memory of A. Kingsley Porter (Harvard Univ. Press, 1939), II, 603, 606.
    13. G. Baldwin Brown, Arts in Early England, VI, I, Pl. VII.
    14. Saga Þiðriks konungs, ed. H. Bertelsen (Samfund til udgivelse af gammel nordisk litteratur, XXXIV), pp 117 ff.
    15. Prof. Bruce Dickens has pointed out to me that various interpretations of this scene have been reviewed by P.W. Souers in Harvard Studies and Notes in Language and Literature, XVII, 163f.
    16. W.G. Collingwood, ‘Early Crosses of Leeds’, Thoresby Soc. XXII, 267f.
    17. Although the swoncre seonobende of Deor remain ambiguous.
    18. W.G. Collingwood, ‘Viking Age Cross at Iona’, Viking Club Saga Book (1904), III, 3.
    19. W.G. Collingwood, Northumbrian Crosses, p. 135.
    20. C.A. Parker and W.G. Collingwood, ‘A Reconsideration of the Gosforth Cross’, Trans. Cumb. and West. Antiq. And Archaeol. Soc. (N.S.), XV11 (1917), 99f.
    21. Gylfaginning, c. 50.
    22. Ibid. c 51.
    23. March, op. Cit.
    24. T. Lee, ‘An Attempt to Interpret the Meaning of the Carvings on Certain Stones’, Trans. Lancs. And Ches. Antiq. Soc. IX (1891), 38f.
    25. Kermode, op. Cit. pp. 180f.
    26. W.S. Calverley, ‘Notes on Early Sculptured Crosses’, Trans. Cumb. and West. Antiq. And Arcaheol. Soc. (Extra Series), XI (1899), 168f.
    27. Collingwood, Northumbrian Crosses, p. 158.
    28. Bede, Hist. Eccles. I, 30.
    29. Calverley, op. Cit. pp. 192f.
    30. As suggested by Kermode, op. Cit. p. 179.
    31. Þiðriks Saga, 57, 66.
    32. March (op. cit.) gives an example from a tombstone of 1815 in Dalmally churchyard, Argyllshire.
    33. T.C. Lethbridge, Cambridge Antiq. Soc. Publications, quarto, no. III (grave no. 121), Pl. III.
    34. Victoria County History of Kent, I, 355.
    35. The most complete of these are illustrated in The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial (British Museum, 1947), p. 25, and the Archaeological News Letter, II, 5.
    36. ‘Interpretation of Certain Symbolic Scriptures of Early Christian Ireland’, J. Roy. Soc. Antiq. Of Ireland, LXXV (1945), If.
    37. Collingwood, Northumbrian Crosses, pp. 102, 103.
    38. H.R. Ellis, Antiquity, XVI, 233.
    39. Romilly Allen, Christian Symbolism, pp. 200f.
    40. Antiquity, XIV, Pl. II. Interesting parallels are found on Burgundian buckles, side by side with the conventional Daniel group. They are discussed by Sir Martin Conway, ‘Burgundian buckles and Coptic Influences’, Proc. Soc. Antiq. Lond. XXX, 63 f.; and more fully by H. Kuhn, ‘Die Danielschnallen der Völkerwanderungszeit’, Ipek, XVI, 140, his suggestion being that they originate in Babylonian mythology.
    41. H.R. Ellis, Antiquity, XVI, 232f.
    42. A.S. Napier, in An English presented to Dr Furnivall (Oxford, 1901), pp. 371f.
    43. Romilly Allen, Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, III, figs. 235 a and b.










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