Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Is Devon Celtic? What's the difference between Devon and Cornwall?

There are some people who erroneously insist that Devon, like Cornwall, was founded on a Celtic rather than English identity. One such individual is attempting to rewrite local history on Wikipedia to claim that Devon is not English. That is simply not the case. Devon has more Anglo-Saxon DNA than Cornwall does, and has not preserved any Celtic language at all. In fact the Devon dialect uniquely preserves some archaic Old English elements which have been lost elsewhere, about which you can learn in the video below.

Evidence for the Anglo-Saxon genetic influence on Devon has been found in UK wide genetic studies by the Wellcome Trust, University of Oxford & University College London. They discovered that Devon is markedly distinct from Cornwall. Oxford University researcher, Sir Walter Bodmer, told the Daily Mail that this could be explained by the Anglo-Saxons contributing less DNA to the gene pool in Cornwall than in Devon. The Anglo-Saxons penetrated and settled Devon in the seventh century, however it is true the Cornish still lived in Devon until the 9th century. William of Malmesbury claimed that "the Britons and Saxons inhabited Exeter aequo jure" - "as equals". However Æthelstan notably expelled all Cornishmen from Exeter in 927. There may have been some residual Cornish communities in Dartmoor for a while after this but Devon was already by then very much a part of Anglo-Saxon England which is why the vast majority of places in Devon have Anglo-Saxon names.

This photo shows the millenary celebration of Barnstaple in Devon in 1930, when locals dressed up like their Anglo-Saxon ancestors who founded the town on the banks of the river Taw. When Athelstan was at Exeter in 928 he laid it down that there should be "one money over all the king's dominion'. Among the places granted a mint was Exeter; two moneyers were to work there, but at the other burhs only one. Until the mid-20th century, the earliest known coin minted at Barnstaple was from the reign of Ethelred II, whose dates are 979 to 1016. Quantities of Barnstaple coins, like those of other English mints, went abroad as Danegeld; discovered in hoards in Denmark and Scandinavia, they lie today in the museums of Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen.

But it was a hoard discovered at Chester in 1950 that yielded what has been identified as a silver penny of Eadwig, whose short reign lasted from 955 to 959. If this identification is not questioned, it pushes back the date at which Barnstaple may be regarded as an urban centre of some importance, since a mint would only be set up in such a place, by at least twenty years.

Just one statement linking Athelstan with Barnstaple has usually been accepted: Dugdale's, in his Monasticon, that the king appropriated the tithes of Barnstaple to the Abbey of Malmesbury, to which abbey he had given the church. (In the middle ages, nearby Pilton Priory claimed Athelstan as its founder, but the 'proof' - a seal of which one side shows a representation of the king and the legend 'Hoc Athelstanus ago psens signat imago', which might be very loosely translated as 'through this image of myself I Athelstan confirm what is sealed by it' - was probably made some time in the early 15th century.) But as early as 1926, Barnstaple's official guide book bore on its cover the bold heading "The Oldest Borough in the Kingdom'. This particular guide book was unusually full of information about the history of the town, written probably by Sydney Harper, a local bookseller who was among those anxious to see the town's millenary celebrated as soon as possible.

While it is true the English were largely Christian by the time they reached Devon, it is not true to say that the last form of paganism practiced in Devon was Celtic. There have been Anglo-Saxon and Viking pagans in Devon more recently.

Viking Devon

The picturesque fishing village of Appledore erected this runestone style monument in memory of a Viking invasion. In 878 a host of Norsemen led by Ubbi (hubba d. 878) landed in North Devon near the Torridge estuary. One of King Alfred’s retainers, Odda, ealdorman of Devon tried to repel the Vikings but his force was trapped in a fort called Cynuit, probably near Torrington. However they fought back with a dawn defensive against the sleepy Vikings and killed Hubba and 840 of his men. 

Viking mosaic mural in Barnstaple

The Norse had used a local island as a base from which to stage their raids and it still bears a Norse name today; Lundy. The name "Lundy" is believed to come from the old Norse word for "puffin island". This era of history is testament not only to the English (Anglo-Saxon) heritage of Devon, but also of our Norse Viking heritage. There is some debate as to whether Ubba himself was a Dane or a Frisian Viking, but the majority of the Great Heathen Army was comprised of warbands sourced from Norse Ireland and Norway. 

When did Devon stop being pagan?

Devon is allegedly unique in England due to a claim to have an unbroken Christian tradition since Roman times. Elsewhere the pagan Anglo-Saxons, or even Vikings of the Danelaw, established kingdoms led by pagan rulers. Exeter for example claims to have been a consistently Christian city since the Romano-Britons converted to Christianity. Devon was covered in Roman military fortifications and was well settled in that period; with land dedicated to the production and export of iron to other parts of the Empire. The Roman army withdrew from Britain in 410 AD but Roman life and Christianity continued. 

However we cannot assume, as is often claimed, that Devon was all Christian even by then, because northern Devon became the focus of missionary activity, predominantly from south Wales, in the fifth and sixth centuries. The persistence of Celtic paganism in North Devon as late as the sixth century contrasts with the claims of Exeter's ancient Christian tradition. The English (Anglo-Saxons) were largely Christian by the time they reached Devon, but not entirely so. The Saxons of Wessex gradually took over Devon over the late seventh and eighth centuries but other English had been there much earlier. King Penda the Anglo-Saxon pagan king of Mercia invaded Devon around 579 AD and at the Siege of Exeter encountered the Welsh King Cadwallon of Gwynedd, who was a Christian. Cadwallon had returned from a brief exile in Brittany, after being expelled by his enemy, King Edwin of Northumbria, who was at that time a pagan. He raised the siege and the two parties then entered into peace negotiations which led to an alliance between pagan Mercia and Christian Gwynedd. The allied forces marched on Northumbria and campaigned there for three years. Edwin became a Christian in 627 but that didn't stop the partly Christian allied forces from killing him at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633. Clearly the Brythonic Christians had no qualms allying with pagan English against Christian English. We also see that it is Wales and not Dumnonia that preserved the Christianity of the Roman Empire. Certainly, Celtic paganism persisted in Devon at least until the 6th century which is the same time that Germanic paganism is first introduced into Devon! In light of these facts, the claim that Devon has been consistently Christian since the fall of Rome is simply untenable.

Monday, 22 June 2020

When is a beggar a god?

    In traditions around the world we see the same mythic trope of a god disguised as a beggar so that he can test mortals. Very often this is based on a moral that one should uphold the ancient tradition of honouring the guest in one's home. The myths usually show the god, who can be Zeus, Shiva, or Odin, punishing the mortals who fail to show them proper hospitality when they visit. What lessons can pagans learn from these myths
Baucis and Philemon by Ryan Murray

The Chandala by Christopher Steininger

Homer, The Odyssey
Ovid, Metamorphoses
Orchard, A., (trans) The Elder Edda (2011)
The Rigveda
Sturluson, S., The Prose Edda
Togail Bruidne Dá Derga
Vidyaranya Swami, Shankara Digvijaya

von Glinski, M. L., Simile and Identity in Ovid's Metamorphoses
Murnaghan, S., Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

From Runes to Ruins (2014) / Watch Online

Watch From Runes to Ruins (2014) online for free.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

What is Survive the Jive?

Channel trailer for Survive the Jive

Monday, 4 May 2020

Death & Burial in Vedic India

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Odin and the Horned Spear-Dancer

Viking and Anglo-Saxon artwork often includes a man with bird shaped horns. This mysterious figure is known as the horned man or the weapon dancer. The motif shows up in various different contexts and over a huge geographic range and timeframe - from early Anglo-Saxon England to Viking age Russia. It is commonly associated with the cult of the Nordic god Odin or the Anglo-Saxon god Woden and with extraordinary shamanic rituals as I shall explain in this video.


  • Mortimer, Paul, 'What Colour a God's Eyes' (2018)
  • Oehrl, Sigmund, 'Horned ship-guide – an unnoticed picture stone fragment from Stora Valle, Gotland' (2016)


The following paintings of the horned spear dancer are by Hungerstein.