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Friday, 14 October 2011

The Stag on the Sceptre

Sutton-Hoo Sceptre
Animal imagery is common amongst early Germanic artefacts, particularly from the Pagan period. Often such imagery is associated with the gods, and is believed to have often been included on items such as helmets (especially Anglo-Saxon examples) to provide the wearer with that god's protection. Boars, dragons and serpents are particularly common, but occasionally, items arise with imagery that is not so familiar.

Amongst the royal East-Anglan treasure of Sutton-Hoo, however, was a curious item unique amongst Anglo-Saxon finds; a 1/2 meter tall whetstone sceptre, with finely-carved faces at the ends and the twisted-wire ring on which stands the figure of a stag cast in bronze.This is nicely modelled, complete with a realistic set of antlers.
    Why a stag ?
‘No Heah-deor !’ (Groan!)

Roaring Heahdeor
Well, a full-grown Red-deer [Heahdeor] stag is an impressive beast and could have just been regarded as a good symbol of royal power by the Wuffingas. The Sutton-Hoo regalia shows other animal symbols, notably the Boar, Dragon, Raven, Wolf and, possibly, Horse. Wolf and Raven (and Horse) are inescapably associated with Woden. The Dragon is linked with Ðunor. The Boar is associated with the ‘Earth Mother’ Freo but also with Frea - also known as Ing. This ancestor-god seems also to be associated with the Stag and this relationship is probably very ancient. [A figure wearing a set of antlers is found on the Gundestrup bowl].
    Searching through the Eddas, one can read that Frey gives his invincible self-animated sword to his servant Skirnir when he sends him to plead for the hand of Gerda, daughter of the Rime-Ðyrse Gymir. Hence, when attacked by her brother Beli, he is forced to defend himself with a stag crown hastily snatched from the wall of his hall.
    The Stag is a particularly appropriate symbol for a fertility god - Having grown a magnificent set of antlers and rid them of their ‘velvet’ the stag begins the rut in Autumn, mates with as many hinds as possible, then exhausted or ‘run out’ he retires, sheds his antlers only to regrow another set the next year. This annual cycle mirrors the ‘life’ of  Frea Ing who symbolically dies in the late autumn and comes back to life in the spring.
    There is some scanty evidence for the worship of the stag in early Anglo-Saxon England. St.Aldhelm writes “- where once the crude pillars (ermula) of the same foul snake and the stag were worshipped with coarse stupidity in profane shrines ....” - this referring to the conversion of heathen shrines in Wessex into places of Christian worship. The word ‘ermula’ is very similar to ‘Irminsul’ - the pillar worshipped by the pagan Saxons of continental Germany destroyed by Charlemagne.
The Stag on the Sceptre

 “Stag Poles” may even have persisted in England long into the Middle Ages : Lady Stenton describes how, in 1255, a company of  thirteen folk hunted all day illegally in Rockingham Forest. They then cut off the head of a buck and placed it on a stake in the middle of a certain clearing. They put a spindle in its mouth, making it gape towards the Sun “in great contempt of the King and his foresters”.

    In the poem ‘Beowulf’ one also finds cryptic references to Stags and Frey. King Hrothgar’s Hall is called “Heorot” - meaning ‘Hart / Stag’. In line 1319, Hrothgar is called “frean Ingwina” - which can be translated as ‘Lord of the Friends of Ing’. Hrothgar was still a pagan and if his hall was called “Stag”, then it does not take much of a stretch of the imagination to conclude that it was a building in which the Stag-god was worshipped. Thus it is possible that the ‘ermula’, - the stag pillars of pagan Wessex, were also dedicated to the ancestor-god of the Ingaevones - i.e. “Lord Ing”. The Angles of East Anglia were also part of the Ingaevones racial group, so this could explain the enigmatic stag emblem on the whetstone sceptre.

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