Friday, 19 December 2014

An Interview with Dr. Philip A. Shaw

Today here at Albion Calling I am interviewing the philologist Dr. Philip A. Shaw, a Lecturer in Old English at the University of Leicester, who has a particular research interest in our evidence for Anglo-Saxon paganism and the conversion to Christianity. Having written a fascinating PhD thesis that completely alters the way in which we will look at the alleged Anglo-Saxon god Woden, he has since published a fantastic book exploring two alleged Anglo-Saxon goddesses, Eostre and Hretha. Here he gives us a unique insight into his career and publications which should be of interest to all those with a fascination for the cognitive world of Early Medieval England. 

EDW: You are currently Lecturer in English Language and Old English at the University of Leicester, having gained your BA from the University of Oxford and then your PhD from the University of Leeds in 2002. Can you tell us a little bit more about your academic trajectory, and the reasons why you decided to study Old English – and in particular Early Medieval religion – in the first place ?

PS: I can remember being taken to see a stage production of Beowulf as a child, and being given a copy of Julian Glover’s adaptation of the poem, which is still on my office shelves along with all the other translations and adaptations of the poem I have collected over the years. Glover intersperses snippets of the Old English text within his Present Day English rendering, and those snippets fascinated me. Hours spent poring over them yielded the barest glimmer of understanding. My research skills have, I hope, improved somewhat since then, but I suspect that my understanding remains glimmering at best. In my teens, I returned to the text armed with George Jack’s edition – a gift from David Norris, the English teacher who, of all my teachers at school (several of them excellent), had the most profound impact on me. Over a summer, I translated the whole poem. 

In retrospect, it therefore seems peculiar that I didn’t know when I arrived at Oxford that I was going to study the medieval curriculum known as Course II. But my memory is that I didn’t know. I enjoyed Old English classes in the first year and I read more widely in the literature and found that I felt somehow in tune with it. I remember feeling rather nervous when the time came to choose Course II and I had to declare that I was abandoning all modern literature in favour of a diet of Old English, Old Saxon and Gothic. My interest in the study of early medieval religious life developed in my second and third years. I had the pleasure of tutorials with Malcolm Godden at some point during that time, and I recall an essay on Ælfric’s ‘De falsis deis’ that went rather off track – more comparative religion than Old English literature was the verdict, and I have been stubbornly off track ever since. At Leeds I was also very lucky to have supervisors in Joyce Hill, Ian Wood and Mary Swan who helped and encouraged me to develop the approaches to the study of early medieval life and thought that continue to provide me with gainful employment and a great deal of pleasure.

EDW: Your doctoral thesis was titled “Uses of Wodan: The Development of his Cult and of Medieval Literary Responses to It”. Scrutinizing the surviving evidence that we have for Woden, an entity who has traditionally been seen by Early Medievalists as the primary god in the Anglo-Saxon pantheon, you put forward the fascinating argument that he might never have been an Anglo-Saxon deity at all, but a creation of later Christian literary tradition. In particular, you ingeniously challenge the preconception that Woden was cognate to the Scandinavian deity Óðinn, and in doing so you have really shaken the foundations of much previous scholarship on the subject, which has relied on transposing the mythological systems present in twelfth-century Iceland onto fifth to eighth-century England. What got you thinking along these lines to start with ? It is available online for anyone to access here, but I'd be interested to hear if you have got any plans to see it revised and published in book form ?

PS: My doctoral work began with a lot of scraping yielding meagre results. I embarked on a hunt for all the evidence for Woden/Wodan/Óðinn in the fond belief that there would be quite a lot of it, and that some more or less coherent picture would emerge. But the more I looked for him, the more elusive he seemed. Each time that I thought I had found a source that presented an unproblematic scrap of evidence for this pan-Germanic deity, I found that the source turned out to be problematic in all sorts of ways. I can’t remember when it dawned on me, but at some point I realised that if we look for a pan-Germanic deity, we tend to see one – but in fact the pieces of evidence I had assembled were various, messy and not necessarily from the same jigsaw. What many of the pieces did have in common was that they stemmed from literate, Christian traditions, and I think that the picture they provide may well be in large part a picture of how Christians imagined the non-Christian past and the non-Christian other. This is not, of course, to claim that these sources are simply fantasies; they reflect, I am sure, some knowledge of some aspects of non-Christian religious life, but they are a glass that has been substantially darkened by Christian (and, by extension, Classical) thought. In many ways, my doctoral work, and some of my subsequent work, has been the study of this glass itself. I have no plans at the moment to revise my thesis for publication, but if any academic publishers are reading this, I might be persuaded to do so!

EDW: In 2007, you published an important paper in the Early Medieval Europe journal titled “The Origins of the Theophoric Week in the Germanic Languages.” Based in part on one of the arguments presented in your doctorate, you critically examine how the linguistically Germanic societies of the Early Middle Ages adopted the seven day system that was already present in Southern Europe, and the manner in which they chose to name those days after pre-Christian deities. It's a pioneering piece of work, and that being the case I'd be interested in learning how exactly you first thought of and then developed this argument?

PS: In sifting through the evidence for Wodan, I developed a paranoid sense that the only certain evidence for this (or any other) Germanic deity was the name itself. The name, if nothing else, I reasoned, must have been coined by pre-Christian Germani. Of course, I was wrong; I wasn’t sufficiently paranoid. D. H. Green’s Language and History in the Early Germanic World (which is a brilliant book and one of my desert island reads) assured me that the Latin names for the days of the week were loan-translated into Germanic sometime in the late Roman period, probably in the context of trade. Here, then, was clear evidence for Wodan from as early as the fourth century AD, if not earlier. But something about this picture troubled me. I had been examining the late Roman votive inscriptions to deities with Germanic names or epithets that cluster around the Rhine frontier, and I noticed that they draw a number of parallels between Germanic deities and the Roman deities Mercury and Mars. The names of these two deities are related to the names of the days of the week in Latin; Mars gives Martis dies ‘day of Mars’ (corresponding to Tuesday; this develops into Mardi in French) and Mercury gives Mercurii dies ‘day of Mercury’ (corresponding to Wednesday; this develops into Mercredi in French). Although there are several different parallels drawn between a figure with a Germanic name and one or other of these Roman deities, not one of these parallels involves the name of any of the Germanic deities whose names feature in the names of the days of the week. In other words, we have direct evidence for the equivalences drawn between Germanic and Roman deities during the period and in the area in which Latin-Germanic contact was supposed to have led to the creation of the Germanic day-names containing names of deities. Yet this evidence points directly away from the equivalences that appear in the Germanic day-names. These equivalences are first attested in actual manuscripts from the early Middle Ages, where they reflect Anglo-Saxon engagement with classical texts. Based on these observations, I began to re-think the plausibility of the supposed fourth-century translation of the day-names into the Germanic languages. While we are unlikely ever to arrive at absolute certainty on how, when and why this act of translation took place, I think that there are good reasons to doubt the fourth century theory, and good reasons to suspect the hand of the Christian schoolroom in the development of the names for the days of the week that we still employ today.

EDW: One of your most recent publications, Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons (Bristol Classical Press, 2011), deals with many of the same themes as your doctoral work in that it undertakes a critical reassessment of our evidence for deities. Specifically, it looks at the eighth century written accounts of the monk Bede, who mentioned two pagan goddesses; Eostre and Hreda. The evidence for these preternatural entities have been studied by other scholars, most famously by Jacob Grimm, and led many to conclude that they probably didn't exist. However, by utilising the evidence from votive inscriptions you have actually put together a good case that this attitude is wrong, and that these goddesses really were the object of cultic devotion in Germanic Europe. Again, I'd like to ask how you came upon this pioneering argument, and whether you think that the further study of votive inscriptions can shine light on other purported gods from Early Medieval Europe ?

PS: As I mentioned earlier, I’d been interested in the late Roman votive inscriptions to deities with Germanic names and epithets for some time. I first came across them when working on my PhD, and I felt that they offered us an unusual insight into the potentially vast range of deities – especially goddesses – worshipped among Germanic-speaking groups. I had never thought of them in relation to Eostre and Hreda, however; my interest in these particular goddesses was prompted by research I was undertaking into time reckoning in Anglo-Saxon England, following on from my work on the days of the week. Making the connection between the votive inscriptions and Bede’s treatise on time reckoning De Temporum Ratione (‘On the Reckoning of Time’) was the key shift in thinking that allowed me to begin developing the arguments in the book. I think that these votive inscriptions still have a good deal more to offer us. For one thing, I think it would be worthwhile exploring the overlap between elements used in the divine names of these inscriptions and elements used in personal names and group names in the Germanic languages. This might help us to gain a better understanding of the ways in which gods and goddesses were integrated into the fabric of everyday life through people’s names.

EDW: You're currently working on a project examining linguistic variation in early Anglo-Saxon England, which sounds exciting to Anglo-Saxonists such as myself. But considering this blog is primarily devoted to the study of religion, I feel that I must ask if you if you have any projects on the horizon that explore paganism and the process of Christianisation ?

PS: I don’t have any major projects in this area in prospect at the moment. I am working on personal naming practices, and may therefore have more to say on personal names that contain divine names in the future. This has the potential to shed more light on paganism and Christianisation, but, as always, the material is difficult to work with and firm conclusions may be difficult to achieve. I am also planning to publish a little something on Old English month-names that explores local variation and the ways in which the year was divided according to religious and agricultural concerns.

EDW: In recent years, research into the belief systems of the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon peoples has been largely archaeological in focus, with only a handful of scholars, like yourself, Ian Wood, and Richard North, approaching it primarily from a text-based analysis. That being the case, I wondered where you saw the study of Anglo-Saxon paganism headed in the coming decades, with particular pertinence to the use of philology ?

PS: I find that the pleasure of research lies in the fact that it is a continual encounter with the unexpected. I hope that the study of Anglo-Saxon paganism in the coming decades will continue to take seriously the importance of philology for understanding the mental world of the Anglo-Saxons, but I don’t think I can predict how the research agenda will develop. One of the most rewarding things I do is teaching Old English to students on our degree programmes at the University of Leicester, and they also confront me with the unexpected, looking at things in new ways and prompting me to re-think things. In due course, I expect that some of them will go on to do PhDs and do research in this area. I don’t know what they will discover, or how my own work may develop in response to theirs, but I can only look forward to finding out where the field goes.

EDW: Thanks Philip for giving us a greater insight into your research - I wish you all the best in future.


  1. I need to read more on this; it fits with the idea that I picked up somewhere of the Norse pantheon actually being something of a literary creation by writers with some Classical education.

    1. When it comes to the Anglo-Saxon religious traditions, the main studies that cast a critical eye on these deities are indeed Shaw's PhD thesis and his "Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World", although my own paper on the goddess Frig, published in a recent volume of Preternature, also follows this broad approach. In the Scandinavian and Norse contexts, much more has been written and published (in large part because there's just so much more source material to work with) although a fair bit of this isn't in English. Then of course, there's the work that has been done on the Early Medieval tales of Wales and Ireland, which in part have cast great scepticism on the idea that the mythological entities being described were pre-Christian deities. Truth be told, I'm not familiar with a lot of the latter material, although hopefully I'll be able to delve into it in more depth in future.