The Lost Deities of the Neolithic
The Norse had two sets of deities, the Aesir and the Vanir. Mythology tells of a clash between them, resulting in the defeat of the Vanir, who were forced into an inferior role. But the Aesir took Vanir wives and the two dwelt side by side and were both worshiped. What was happening is a classic case of the suppression of old gods by a new cultus. We see this in the way that the Olympic deities were thought to have defeated the Titans in Greek mythology and in the way that the Asuras were relegated to a lower level by the incoming Indian Devas in Hindu tradition. Grigsby considers that the Vanir were the deities of the Neolithic Age. We know them best through Norse myth, but they were worshiped under various names across Europe. He considers that the Aesir were the gods of the aristocratic, warrior class, while the Vanir were more relevant to the common folk, as they dealt with more mundane things, like harvest and childbirth
While the Vanir are Norse, there are similar deities across Europe, pointing to a common religious stratum across European lands. Two Vanir who were worshiped were Freyr [Lord] and his wife, Freya [the lady.] This is not a far cry from the Bodach and the Cailleach. A similar pair were found in Ireland, where the Dagda mated with Morrigan. It is significant that the Vanir were thought to be in male-female pairs. Interestingly the Vanir are still culturally with us, because they were also known as the Alfar, the shining ones, now popularised as elves. In Irish myth the Neolithic deities were the source of the myth of the Tuatha de Danaan, the people of the goddess Dana. They were forced to retreat to the burial mounds, where they became known as the Sidhe [Shee.] This may relate to the fact that they were often associated with burial rites and the cult of ancestors. Interestingly, the elves and the fairies [the fair folk, a name similar to shining ones] are linked in popular imagery with hallucinogenic toadstools, around which they dance. This may be a folk memory of a time when hallucinogenic fungi were used in the rites of the Vanir.
This is the forgotten festival of Britain. It means the night of the mothers and was celebrated by the Anglo-Saxon pagans in honour of certain maternal deities. It is a Saxon word, but it is far older than the Saxon presence in the Island. We know this because there are some Roman inscriptions dedicated to the mothers, and they show a set of three goddesses. It is clear that the ancient Britons and the Romans worshiped the mothers. As these deities do not form part of the Olympian pantheon or the cult of the Aesir, it is likely that the mothers belonged to the Vanir or its British equivalent.
When the Anglo-Saxons arrived they did not come as a slaughtering, genocidal horde, but as warriors invited in to support the kingdoms of Britain against attacks by invading Picts and, let’s face it by each other, for the when the Romans left the Britons took the opportunity to wind up old feuds. The arriving Anglo-Saxons did not come to a people strange to them, for their common folk soon found out that Celtic paganism had much in common with their own pagan worship. As the Britons and Saxons intermarried, so their cultuses fused together, as generally happens in paganism.
Tacitus observes that the Angles were one of the seven tribes who lived by the Baltic who worshiped the great goddess, and he recounts a ritual that was important in their religious faith. In Winter the goddess left her abode in a sacred grove and went among humans, being driven on a wagon. Her name was Nerthus, but "us" is a masculine word ending, so it is possible that Nerthus, typically of the Vanir, was really Nertha and had a male counterpart. During this time there was no fighting; iron was put away; and women danced in their shifts [underclothes] to celebrate the goddess. After three days she was thought to tire of her sojourn in the realm of men and would return to her sacred grove on an island in the sea.
The dark side of Vanir worship sets in here, for the wagon was cleaned in a sacred lake by slaves, who were then drowned in the lake as a sacrifice. This indicates that up to two hundred years before they arrived in England the ancestors of the English were practising human sacrifice, but this seems to have ceased before they arrived in Britain.
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