On my intellectual journey into the dark, murky realms of the demonic, evil spirits and fallen angels have not been the only supernatural beings that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. The cosmology of the Anglo-Saxons was rife with creatures and beings lurking in the shadows at the fringes of human habitation – as you would expect of a society whose magic and lore inspired Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Sarah Semple’s ‘A Fear of the Past’ provides an excellent introduction into the supernatural world of the Anglo-Saxons by exploring the role of the burial mound, or barrow, in the Anglo-Saxon imagination. Her analysis draws on a wide range of material across different disciplines, ranging from Beowulf and The Wife’s Lament, to the archaeological evidence of Anglo-Saxon burials, to Old English philology. Semple uses her evidence to demonstrate how the burial mound became associated with the evil beings. She suggests that ‘[t]he depiction of heathenism as evil presumably led to sites which were commonly associated with pagan practice becoming associated with evil’ (p.123). A number of Old English place-names reinforce her argument that the burial mound was a place inhabitant by malignant beings: Shuckburgh, or OE scucca beorg (‘goblin hill’, or ‘haunted hill’); Shucklow, or OE scuccan hlaew (‘goblin barrow’); and, Ailey Hill, or OE Elueshou, -howe (‘elf barrow’). Semple argues that burial mounds might have been deliberately cast as haunted places by the institutional Church in an attempt to demonise the former, pagan belief system. This article was among the few that ignited by initial interest in the supernatural world of the Anglo-Saxons, and I strongly recommend it.
For a more recent contribution to the historiography, we can turn to John Blair’s ‘The Dangerous Dead’. Here, Blair posits that the Anglo-Saxons may have believed in vampires – yes, you have certainly read that right. His argument may seem far-fetched at first, but Blair brings out three strong pieces of evidence in support of his case. Two of them are legal trials from the the eleventh century; however, the people on trial in both cases are already dead! These dead individuals are accused of rising from the dead and spreading disease and death; their cadavers are subsequently executed posthumously. His third piece of evidence is a unique deviant burial where the body was found with the iron tip of a stake driven through where the heart would have been. This corresponds with the description of the legal case at Burton-on-Trent, where the hearts of the cadavers were pierced as part of their execution. Around this central triad of sources, Blair proceeds to construct a reasonable case using evidence from contemporaneous literary sources, the archaeological evidence of deviant burials, and some anthropological comparisons. His arguments are compelling but do require further substantiation if we are to believe that there was a wider belief in vampires among the Anglo-Saxons beyond these case studies. Nevertheless, Blair’s lucid and engaging style makes this short chapter worth a read at least.
Finally, if you are interested in a more comprehensive survey of a specific Anglo-Saxon creature, consider Alaric Hall’s Elves in Anglo-Saxon England. Although its subject matter is thoroughly engaging, this is likely to start off as the most challenging of the three readings suggested here – not because of Hall’s writing style, but because he takes great pains to define his parameters and technical terms of reference at the beginning. However, after laying the necessary foundations for his argument, Hall embarks on a fascinating study of the elf (he uses OE aelf) in Anglo-Saxon literature. Unlike Semple and Blair, Alaric Hall’s study rests almost entirely upon written historical evidence, particularly the Old English literature as well as Anglo-Saxon magico-medical documents such as the Lacnunga and Bald’s Leechbook. His survey of the Anglo-Saxon aelfe is nothing short of comprehensive. I am still taking the time to process the full weight of his arguments, so I will only be able to offer a cohesive review at a later date. But if you have a serious interest in elves, or Anglo-Saxon supernatural creatures at large, Hall’s Elves will definitely be of interest.
As this triumvirate of readings goes to show, it can be quite difficult to focus on my chosen subject of demons when there is such a plethora of supernatural beings waiting in the wings! There is no doubt that these distractions are merely futile weapons of the Devil in his attempts to divert my attention from my most noble cause. Just like the saints of old, I will triumph over them (the supervisor will certainly guarantee that); but I cannot be held responsible if these readings tempt you into studying the incredible supernatural beings of the Anglo-Saxon cosmology.