Friday, September 11, 2015

The Ancient Cult of the Wagon-Goddess

by Elaine Moxon

In my Dark Ages novel ‘Wulfsuna’ the legendary ‘Wolf Spear Saga’ decides the fates of a Seer and one named ‘Wolf Spear’. Travelling across Britain in wagons built from the wood of their ship the Hildwaeg, the Saxon tribe of the Wulfsuna discover a female Seer. Named Morwyneth, she lives mostly aboard one of the wagons, biding her time conversing with Mother Earth, her dead mother’s spirit and her Britonic deities. Until the book’s publication, little did I realise I had tapped into an ancient cult, thousands of years old.

Known as wagon-gods or goddesses, the ‘Vanir’ were mainly female, wagon-borne deities who traversed the countryside foretelling the success (or not) of harvests. At their journey’s end, these goddesses or priestesses were ritualistically cleansed by slaves. This already ancient Norse theme resonates with several other legendary figures of Celtic origin. Known by many names (Nicneven, Glaistig, Bride, Morrigan, Valkyrje, Hel, Frau Holda, Cailleach) the ‘Woman of the Mist’ or ‘Hag of the Mist’ would never carry the dirt of one place beyond that of another, without washing her feet. Perhaps this is the root of the ritualistic cleansing, which exists in many cultures and religions even today? These goddesses are earth-shapers, benevolent giantesses, battle goddesses, well guardians, winter goddesses and foretellers of doom, often possessing magical powers. In fact ‘Sulis’, a Celtic water goddess revered at the spring we now know as the city of Bath, was deemed to be so powerful even the Roman Empire feared eradicating her from the location. Instead they named their famous baths ‘Aquae Sulis’ in honour of her.

In the writings of Tacitus, he speaks of the Anglii and other tribes worshipping ‘Nerthus’ or ‘Mother Earth’. This goddess lived in a wagon on an island sat amid a lake, accompanied by a single priest who alone knew when she resided within. When she toured the countryside each local town would declare a time of peace and rejoicing. Having foretold the fate of the region for future seasons, the goddess would return to her island where slaves would cleanse her body. These slaves were then drowned in the lake to preserve the virtue of the goddess. In his works, Tacitus also hints at the death of these slaves, so as to preserve the deity’s virtue:-
“...there is as a result a mysterious fear and a sacred ignorance about something seen only by those doomed to die.”

So were ritual killings the bodies of wagon-goddess slaves, killed once they had cleansed the deity, so they could never reveal her naked beauty? It is interesting to find several references to ritual sacrifices connected to these fertility deities. In the Ynglinga Saga, Snorri mentions ‘Domaldi of the Swedes’ was sacrificed due to other ritual sacrifices being unsuccessful in restoring crops. In The Heimskringla, Snorri tells how the fertility goddess ‘Freyja’ was the first to teach the magical ritual language of ‘Seiðr’ to the Æsir. This magic, commonly used by female Vanir, had the ability to regenerate life and foretell the future. Seiðr was practised on a platform or naturally high area. The Seer conducting the ritual would become entranced by the spells cast in the form of songs. Following these moments of magical ecstasy she would be able to foresee the future. Travelling the countryside (probably by wagon from where they could sing their Seiðr) they would impart information to the locals about what the future seasons held in store for them. They were notorious for sexual deviance and bringing bad luck.

‘Vanr goddess Freyja flanked by her boar Hildisvini’ Lorenz Frølich (1895), public domain

Indeed, lust forms a large part of the Vanir culture. For instance, in Egil’s Saga ‘Queen Gunnhildr’ cast a spell so Egill would never enjoy a moment’s rest until she had seen him. What anguish! And then there is the tale of ‘Gunnar’ mentioned in the Icelandic manuscript ‘Flateyjarbōk’. Gunnar is on the run from King Olafr Tryggvason of Norway after having rejected Christianity. Hiding in a remote Swedish sanctuary, where the god ‘Frejr’ is idolised, Gunnar has the fortune of being invited on an annual tour of the countryside by Frejr’s priestess/wife. While stuck in a snowstorm it says the idol Frejr came to life and fought with Gunnar, who pledged to the Christian god he would return to Christianity if he could vanquish the idol. Well, Gunnar had his wish, overcame Frejr and spent the rest of the tour posing as the idol and impregnating the accompanying priestess.

Another discovery I made that alludes to the wagon-god as consort to the mother goddess (Earth) was within the ‘Ing’ verse of the Old English rune poem. ‘Inguz’ is the divine hero, a vegetation spirit or ‘Green Man’, such as ‘Cernunnos’ of Celtic belief:-

“Ing was first among the East Danes
Seen by men until he later eastwards
Went across the waves, the wagon sped behind
Thus the hard man named the hero.”

Stephen Pollington suggests such references may recall cult processions of Nerthus where a female representing the Earth Mother would be wooed by the Green Man, as she spent her time visiting men’s homes in a ritual wagon accompanied by a priest. Evidence of this ritual procession may perhaps be found in archaeological sites gathered mostly around Denmark and Jutland: the Trundholm Sun Chariot, a pair of ritual wagons in Dejbjerg, a wagon in the 9th Century Oseberg boat, wagon parts in a lake at Rappendam and a copper alloy model wagon in Strettweg, Austria.

courtesy of Malene Thyssen, solvogn.jpg via Wikimedia

Dating from the Nordic Bronze Age, The Trundholm Sun Chariot’s spoked wheels support a bronze horse and gold leaf disc. It is thought it was used in religious rituals to demonstrate the motion of the sun in the heavens. Each side of the disc is decorated with curved lines showing the east-to-west and west-to-east arcs of the sun through the day and night skies. In Norse mythology ‘Sól’ is a personified sun goddess who each day rides through the sky on her chariot, though this is not the only culture who worshipped a chariot sun-god. The Celtic sky god ‘Taranis’ is depicted by a spoked wheel and it was believed the sound of thunder was his chariot riding across the sky, and the ancient Indian texts of the ‘Rigveda’ allude to a sun chariot in which the sun’s bride was pulled by two steeds.

courtesy of www.tollundman.dk

As for evidence of ritual slave sacrifices to protect these wagon-goddesses, there could be a connection to the many bog bodies that have been found in both Ireland and Denmark. Some have suggested, through the nature of these people’s deaths, that they were sacrificed kings or priests. If harvests were poor and other sacrifices had not brought about improvement, many would look to their kings. These royal leaders, often hailed as gods themselves, were imagined to have power over such things and so crop failure was seen as a king’s failure and his death would be sure to bring recovery to the region. ‘Cashel Man’ found in Cúl na Móna bog, County Laois, Ireland is one such king.

However, ‘Grauballe Man’ and ‘Tollund Man’, both from the Jutland peninsula, are considered ritual sacrifices of another sort. Found naked and having received a final meal, these men had smooth hands showing no signs of hard labour through their lives. Grauballe Man had his throat slit and Tollund Man was hanged by a plaited leather rope. Are these priests or slaves who washed the bodies of wagon-goddesses? We may never know, although their stories will forever intrigue us. Seamus Heaney puts it best in his poem about Tollund Man, published in ‘Wintering Out’ of which the following is a segment:-

“In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time,
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,”


With special thanks to Stephen Pollington (The Rudiments of Runelore), Paul Mortimer (Woden's Warriors), Sonita d'Este & David Rankine (Visions of the Cailleach) and the Tollund Man exhibition, Denmark.

Elaine has always loved writing and history. When she decided to combine the two, she wrote ‘Wulfsuna’, which was published in January 2015 through SilverWood Books. She enjoys baking, knitting and gardening and lives in the Midlands with her family and their mad Labrador. She is currently writing the second book in her ‘Wolf Spear Saga’ series. Her dark ages debut 'Wulfsuna' can be obtained here.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for this Elaine - so informative (if gruesome in parts!). I really enjoyed reading it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Fantastic post. It hit me right in the middle of my co-protagonist the Goddess Nemesis watching labors loading stones from a burial mound. I'm almost tempted to write of the slave goddesses into the story---not quite, but certainly enchanted by them and appalled by their fate.

    ReplyDelete
  3. A fascinating post Elaine. You bring together a number of strands of legend and history in a very readable way.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Let's not forget the Greek tale of Artemis and Actaeon--he saw her bathing and was turned into a stag and killed for it, speaking of viewing the naked goddess. Some interpretations say to avenge the "profanation" of her virginity, other simply leave it as there are some things mortals are not meant to see.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Fascinating post! And one can see links with several pre-classical Greek legends and practices. The killing of the king seems to have been a widespread belief, not necessarily because the king had failed, but because shedding the most precious blood in the community would bring fertility to the land. In some places the king was ritually killed after a set number of years, whatever the circumstances. I suppose the idea was that a fresh young king was more beneficial than an aged one. He would often be married to the queen, who was probably older and wiser - and perhaps a priestess/goddess.

    ReplyDelete