England is home to some of the richest history in Western Europe; from Nelson’s column in Trafalgar to Queen Mary I, from William the Conqueror to William of Orange, there’s over a thousand years of historical bonanza that could occupy an entire library and more. A valid criticism of this history or, perhaps a by-product of the technological timeline, is that it’s always streaked with an ecclesiastical flavour. The backdrop to every scene of the last 1,000 years is invariably Christianity, whilst a large bulk of English history – especially in a monarchical context – displays the Christian religion in the foreground. We often think of the struggle between Rome and King Henry VIII, or the familicide of Elizabeth I on account of religious feuding between cousins and siblings. Then there’s the Civil War era, in which the Puritans under Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, fuelled by religious zeal, outlawed practically everything of amusement – because of their Christian faith. Even the last great upheaval in English history, the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, had the struggle between Papists and Protestants at its heart.
There are two primary reasons for this; firstly, the means for actually recording history were not as adeptly developed prior to the Christianisation of the English aristocracy; secondly, the Christian ruling elite – as we shall see in more detail later on – went to great lengths to destroy or otherwise usurp any material, site or building that alluded to a time before themselves. Woden’s Den in Ordsall, Greater Manchester, is a brilliant example of this, a site of rich historical and religious significance that was usurped by the Christian elite and subsequently destroyed when said elite recognised that it had much less appeal to the masses in its reconditioned format.
Woden’s Den is useful to us for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it’s an example of the pre-Christian heritage of the English nation, evidencing the Germanic Paganism that was practised here. Woden, the anglicised version of Odin, is a deity who was held in high esteem by all the Germanic peoples of Europe, representing the “chief” God for all Germanic peoples. In Scandinavia, he’s known as Odin, whilst in Germany we find the name Wotan, derived from the proto-Germanic wōđanaz. One particular portal through which we can learn more about the Germanic deities is the days of the week; Wednesday is derived from the Old English wōdnesdæg, which later became Wodnesday. In his writings, Roman historian Tacitus attested that the Germanic deity Woden was the equivalent of Mercury. For the Pagan Anglo-Saxons, Woden (could have) represented a number of things. What we know is that he was a deity of the greatest significance, and various monarchs of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy claimed descendance from Woden as a means to justifying their positions. This was, most notably, the case in the powerful kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. In terms of what he represents, researcher Thomas Roswell has stipulated that Woden was a priestly figure who represented wisdom and a means for connecting the Pagan Saxons with that which transcends the metaphysical, as well a poet and potentially a shamanic figure. Furthermore, we know that the Pagan Saxons often made sacrifices to Woden before battle, believing that this would bring them victory. Woden also presides over Valhalla, a hall for those felled in battle, a group from which he leads through the skies during the annual Wild Hunt.
Woden’s Den was depicted and written about by Thomas Barret in 1780 as a small cave, down the lane from an ancient paved ford known as Woden’s Ford. The Den is described as a naturally occurring enclave, six feet high and twenty-two yards in length, surrounded by draping foliage and decorated with ‘Gothic tracery’. Barret also describes a part of the rock on which there is an inscription, which he suggests could be from the Old English runic alphabet (Elder Futhark). However, he assumes it to be the initials of Jesus the Saviour of Men (J.H.S) – unfortunately, we’ll never know which assumption is correct, but both are equally plausible. This is because, as Barret and later writers have attested, Woden’s Den was converted to a site of Christian site of worship at some point, although the date of this transformation is unclear. When it was an entirely Pagan site, however, it was thought to have been a site at which offerings were made to Woden. The theory goes that travellers would visit the site prior to crossing the River Irwell and request an assurance of safe passage from the chief God. One can assume, as was the case with other Pagan rites and rituals, that the site was used for the same purpose after its Christianisation – just as the alleged resurrection of Christ was conveniently placed around Easter time to coincide and absorb the Pagan festival of Ostara. The only difference in the case of Woden’s Den is that “heretical” practises would be replaced by solemn prayers.
Another reason for attaching significance to Woden’s Den as an historical artefact is that it offers clues towards the death or otherwise of Heathen practises in England. It’s common knowledge that the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms converted to Christianity, beginning in the early 7th century culminating in the last openly Pagan king being slain in 686 AD. However, the suggestion that the English population converted en masse – or willingly, for that matter – has been debunked by practically every historian researching the matter. That Woden’s Den survived in the memories of local people for so long suggests that the Old Ways did not die out with the advent of Christianity. This is further supported by the heresy laws and the accompanying witch trials of the Middle-Ages. After all, if something requires a law against it then it stands to reason the outlawed practise is still a “problem”.
In the early 19th century, Woden’s Den was by all accounts of great interest to antiquarians, and ordinary people still visited the site. This prompted landowner James Hall, who purchased the land in 1808, to destroy it completely so as to discourage further visitors from “trespassing” on in the area. This is typical of the British elite, especially the Christian elite, who care little for the historical significance of a place in comparison to their own comforts and preferences.
Ordsall itself, the town in which Woden’s Den is located, offers other hints to England’s Pagan past. For instance, there are two theories regarding the etymology of the town’s name itself. The second of these theories is that the town derives its very name from Woden’s Den; “ord” is an Old Saxon word which literally means ‘primeval’ or simply ‘very old’, whilst “hal” translates as ‘den’, giving the town’s name as ‘very old den’ – a reference to the holy Pagan site, perhaps? However, the town’s first literary mention comes in 1177 when ‘Ordeshala’ paid two marks in feudal taxation, which suggests either the etymological theory is shaky or that the town’s name was deliberately altered by the Christian recordkeepers as a means to eradicating the town’s historic Pagan connection. Either way, this is an area of interesting speculation. There are also more contemporary references to the town’s significance to the Pagan Saxons; an entire estate’s street names are references to Germanic Paganism. There’s Woden St, Woden’s Avenue, Thor (Þunor) Grove, Freya Grove and Asgard Drive, which corresponds to the importance those three particular deities held in the Anglo-Saxon religion alongside Asgard, one of the nine worlds in Norse cosmology. It’s likely that these were named by a bureaucrat with little knowledge of Pagan practises, a theory evidenced by the fact that the Norse name for Þunor was used. Nonetheless, it’s a somewhat comforting reference to the Old Ways.
Woden’s Den in Greater Manchester is a fantastic example of how, despite the Christianisation and subsequent secularisation of England, overt and covert references to pre-Christian times are all around us. This is just one example of England’s beautifully Pagan past, a past all too often forgotten or otherwise expunged from the history books. Yet England does have a Pagan past, one that arguably built the very foundations of her as a nation – the Angles, Saxons, Frisians and Jutes all brought the Old Ways to this land along with them. I invite you, the reader, to delve further into the world of Anglo-Saxon England and explore the rich Pagan history it has to offer. From place names to weekdays, festivals to local customs, hints and references are there in abundance. It’s a truly interesting segment of history, and Woden’s Den is just a pebble on a beach.
Discovering Manchester: A Walking Guide to Manchester and Salford https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=08zaizKj1Y0C&pg=PA242&lpg=PA242&dq=wodens+den&source=bl&ots=z1xc9AzjmO&sig=qSvxxihx9s5-e4MPs6EvWJCEg5A&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwib5Z2Yy_vaAhVNWsAKHWdkCwsQ6AEIUTAE#v=onepage&q=wodens%20den&f=false
From Runes to Ruins (Documentary): http://fromrunestoruins.vhx.tv/