Saturday, 4 January 2014

Barrows of England and Sweden

Scutchamer Knob

Near to the village where I grew up is a dusty chalk path called The Ridgeway. At over 5000 years old it is the oldest road in Britain. In the centre of a small wood on the Ridgeway there is an Anglo-Saxon barrow that is known locally as Scutchamer's Knob.
It used to be known as Cuckhamsley hill and also as Cwichelm's barrow and is thought to have been the burial mound of the ancient Saxon ruler Cwichelm of Wessex. It is on this site that he was killed by the then pagan King Edwin of Northumbria in 636 AD, the same year Cwichelm was baptised.

Many centuries later, during the Viking era in the year 1006, the Danish army was pushing against the boundaries of the kingdom of the West Saxons. The Danes had been informed by an orcale that if they could march as far South as Cuckhamsley Hill, they would never leave English soil. They were all killed by Saxons when they arrived, and thus, the prophecy was fulfilled.

Scutchamer Knob looks a lot like many pagan burial mounds known as barrows that can be found around England and Scandinavia but in actual fact it predates the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in England. When the Anglo-Saxons saw the ancient neolithic barrows of the Britons, they assumed they were just like the barrows of their own Germanic culture which held the bodies and spirits of kings and great warriors. The Anglo-Saxons came to England from Germany and Scandinavia during the Migration era and brought with them Germanic cultural traditions. The Germanic pagans used to burn most of their dead, but really important people like kings were placed in burial mounds (barrows) like those at Gamla Uppsala in Sweden. I was lucky enough to visit those barrows last summer (see pic below)

Thomas Rowsell at Gamla Uppsala, Sweden.
These barrows are some of the most important ones of Germanic paganism that survive to this day. The Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus thought that the god Odin himself once lived at Gamla Uppsala, although, being a Christian, he didn't believe Odin was really a god. 
At this time there was one Odin, who was credited over all Europe with the honour, which was false, of godhead, but used more continually to sojourn at Uppsala; and in this spot, either from the sloth of the inhabitants or from its own pleasantness, he vouchsafed to dwell with somewhat especial constancy.
The 13th century Icelandic scholar, Snorri Sturlusson, wrote that the god of fertility, Frey, built a pagan temple at Uppsala. 
Frey took the kingdom after Njord, and was called drot by the Swedes, and they paid taxes to him. He was, like his father, fortunate in friends and in good seasons. Frey built a great temple at Uppsala, made it his chief seat, and gave it all his taxes, his land, and goods. Then began the Upsal domains, which have remained ever since.
Saxo Grammaticus also believed that Frey used to sacrifice animals at Uppsala. 
Also Frey, the regent of the gods, took his abode not far from Uppsala, where he exchanged for a ghastly and infamous sin-offering the old custom of prayer by sacrifice, which had been used by so many ages and generations. For he paid to the gods abominable offerings, by beginning to slaughter human victims.
When they came to Oxfordshire and saw barrows like Scutchamer Knob and Wayland's Smithy, the Germanic pagans knew that these were important monuments. Wayland's Smithy was named after Wayland the blacksmith of the gods, known in Norse mytholgy as Völundr. Both of these English barrows are featured in From Runes to Ruins.