an Anglo-Saxon Pagan Deity
Swain Wodening and GardenStone
in a pretty and harmonious web collaboration
Chapter 1: Preface
The names Helia, Heile, Helið and Helith are recorded in several medieval and later publications as names for a pagan deity who was venerated in the south-west of early Anglo-Saxon England. Strange enough, actual scholarly related literature does not mention those records, not even in footnotes. Therefore, this contribution, in which the two authors showed both their craving for this kind of clarification and could indulge their passion for historical research in the fields of their interests, closes a ‘historical gap’.
Already at the beginning it has to be stated clearly, that the sources for ‘Helith’ aren’t as old as the ones for other pagan deities ascribed to the Anglo-Saxons, such as Hrêðe (Hrêða, Hretha, Hreda) and Ēostre (Ostara), whose first written records date to the 7th/8th Century, mentioned by BEDA VENERABILIS (Bede the Venerable, 672-735). The earliest sources for ‘Helith’ date to 400 to 500 years later. Whereas Bede’s works were written within one hundred years after the conversion when there may still have been pagan Anglo-Saxons, the first mention of ‘Helith’ is well afterward when nearly all Englishmen were Christian. However, the assumption is agreeable that before older written documents existed for this on which those first authors will have relied. Unfortunately, such older records aren’t detectable anymore; they may have been lost as happened with so many medieval documents we only know of through other sources.
We hope, this paper may find his way to all interested people and may cause new fascinating discussions.
February 15th, 2013
GardenStone & Swain Wodening
Chapter 2: Etymology
Before going through the ‘Helith-sources’ the possible meanings of the name may give some clearness about the kind of deity it could concern. In fact, several names are used in the source material. Note that these are given without any consideration as to sound shifts from Old English to Middle English or modern English. This is due to the consideration that any names given in these late sources are probably corruptions of the original name to begin with.
There are several possible origins for this variation of the deity’s name;
The biography of the carmelite monk Robert Bale, native from Norfolk, England, who died in 1503, carries the title: “HISTORIA HELIAE PROPHETAE”. Heliae is also the Roman form for Elijah, which originally is derived from Greek Helios. It is unlikely though this meaning is meant here, because a heathen Anglo-Saxon deity hardly would be named after a Greek word for sun.
Helio is supposedly a correct modern translation if the Latin HELIAE. Connecting that to Old English, it might point to
hÚ-l u, hÚ-l-o, which means health, fortune, wealth, safety, deliverance; or to héa lic, excellent, strong, lofty. But it is also possible that it points to ‘Helia‘ as nouns ending with an ‘a’ are in Old English masculin.
It is possible that ‘HELIAE’ is an ecclesiastical Latin form for an Old English name. Perhaps the most likely is that it is a corruption of Old English hæle: ‘man, brave man, hero.
It could derive from the Middle English word heil which is defined as below:
heil (a) Health, welfare, good fortune; in quert and ~, whole and sound;
heil (b) a person’s health or good fortune drunk to with wine; drinken..~, to drink (a person’s) health.
Retrieved from the Middle English Dictionary
This variation would seem to have a couple of possibilities as to what it is derived from.
It may derive from or related to Old English hæleþ which is defined as follows.
hæleþ, heleþ, es; m. A man, warrior, hero [a word occurring only in poetry, but there frequently] : Gleáwferhþ hæleþ the man wise of mind, Cd. 57; Th. 70, 12; Gen. 1152 : 59; Th. 72, 6; Gen. 1182, 94; Th. 122, 13; Gen. 2026 : Beo. Th. 383; B. 190 : 668; B. 331. Hæleþas heardmóde warriors sternminded, Cd. 15; Th. 19, 2; Gen. 285. Hæleþ hátene wǽron Sem and Cham Iafeþ þridde the heroes were named Shem and Ham, the third Japhet, Cd. 75; Th. 93, 22; Gen. 1550. Hæleþa scyppend creator of men, Exon. 11 b; Th. 17, 7; Cri. 266 : Cd. 98; Th. 129, 6; Gen. 2139 : Andr. Kmbl. 41; An. 21. Hæleþa bearn the children of men, Cd. 35; Th. 46, 30; Gen. 752. Heleþa sceppend creator of men, Hy. Grn. 8, 34. [Laym. hæleþ, heleþ : O. Sax. helið : O. H. Ger. helid (appears first in 12th cent. v. Graft. iv. 544) : Ger. Held.]
From Jonathan Slocum, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Univiersity of Texas at Austin, Linguistics Research Center in The College of Liberal Arts, Austin, 2009.
Additionally, the Old-Saxon helið derives from proto-Germanic *haluð- which means Hero, warrior, free man. An example of the use of this Old Saxon word is passed down in the Heliand, an Old Saxon poem from the first half of the 9th Century, which reads at line 3137:
helið hardmôdig | endi te is hêrron sprac,
The bold hero spoke to his Lord,
This poem contains when complete about 6000 lines, and parts of it are preserved in two almost complete manuscripts and four smaller fragments. The Cotton MS. in the British Library, was likely written in the second half of the 10th century, and is one of the almost complete Heliand manuscripts.
In the Icelandic version of the well known Christmas carol “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”, the second line in strophe 2 reads:
sem lífg ar helið kalt
But in this case the word ‘helið‘ stands for the name of the biblical prophet Isaiah and can be excluded from the possible explanations here.
It could be related to Middle English hél which is defined as followed:
hél (a) Healthy, cured (b) in good condition, prosperous (c) whole, complete.
Retrieved from the Middle English Dictionary
Helith is simply a variation of Helið being the modern version of the Middle English name.
Helid-, Cald-OHG. helith, helidh, helid = hero in the meaning of strong, powerful, outstanding, lofty, sublime, tall. Compare Middle-Dutch: helle = tall, ernormous, sublime.
Related Germanic names: Haledpreth; Caldobert; Halitgar; Halidmund; Halidrich; Halidwin; Halidulf
Hel(e), Heile is most likely related to Old English hál which is defined below.
hál ; adj. Whole, hale, well, in good health, sound, safe, without fraud, honest; often used in salutation
Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller: An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary
It evolved into Middle English as hél (see definition above). Hál is related to the following Old Saxon words hê-l and hêl which could have been drawn on by the Middle and early modern English authors for the name.
a. hê-l* OS., sign, omen, OHG. heil Germ. *haila-, *hailam, hail, luck, omen, MND. hêil
b. hêl OS., Adj.: hail, healthy, uninjured, whole (Adj.); anfrk. *heil; Germ. *haila-, *hailaz, Adj., healthy, unhurt; idg. *kailo-, *kailu-, whole.
Köbler, Gerhard, Altsächsisches Wörterbuch, 3. Ed., 2000ff.
Almost all of the words that these names possibly come from PIE *kailo- “whole, uninjured, of good omen” which gave us our words ‘holy,’ ‘heal,’ ‘health,’ and ‘hail.’ As to what form the original name of the deity took and which word the original name derived from is anyone’s guess. The earliest form given is Heliae, but Helith would seem to be the most common form, and as the text is in Latin Heliae may be changed a great deal from an Old English original.
Chapter 3: The sources
Goscelin (also called Gotselin or Jocelyn), was a Benedictine monk and writer of many biographies of English saints. Born in the north of France, he was brought to England likely in 1053 by Hermann, Bishop of Salisbury. To collect material for his biographies, he traveled a lot through England, visiting many cathedrals and monasteries. He died about 1099.
In one account, he writes:
IBI QUOQUE ORATORIUM IN PERENNEM MEMORIAM DOMINICAE VISIONIS MOLITUS EST IN NOMINE DOMINI SALVATORIS. INDE ETIAM NONASTERIUM IN HONOREM PRINCIPUM APOSTOLORUM PETRI DEDICATUM CERNELIUM EST APPELLATUM, QUOD CONSTAT MONACHORUM CHORO DECORATUM. ILIUM AUTEM FONTEM AUGUSTINI NOMINE CONSECRATUM CREDENTIBUS ESSE SALUBERRIMUM, HIE UNUM DOCEBAT MIRACULUM, TESTE PROVINCIA PALAM DECLARATUM.
The whole Latin story retold in English:
St. Augustine, coming into the county of Dorset always announcing Christ’s holy Gospel, he arrived at a village where the wicked people not only refused to obey his doctrine, but very impiously and opprobriously beat him and his fellows out of their village and in mockery fastened Fish-tails at their backs: which became a new purchase of eternal glory to the Saints, but a perpetual ignominy to the doers. For it is reported that all that generation had that given them by nature which so contemptibly they fastened on the backs of these holy men. And Saint Augustine having left these wicked people to carry the marks of their own shame, and traveled with his holy company about five miles further through desert and uninhibited places, being cruelly oppressed with the three familiar discommodities of travelers, hunger, thirst, and wearings, he that sate upon the fountain wearied with his journey, Christ Jesus, vouchsafed to appear visibly unto him with words of heavenly comfort and encouragement. Then the holy man, being refreshed with the sweet fountain of eternal life, fell presently upon his knees and adored the place of Christ’s footsteps, and striking his staff into the ground there straight sprung forth a clear fountain of crystal streams, in which all his fellows quenched the extremity of their thirst and gave infinite thanks to Allmighty God who had vouchsafed to help them in that necessity. And the same place was afterward called Cernel, a name composed of Latin and Hebrew, for Cerno in Latin signifies to see, and El in Hebrew signifies God; because there our holy apostle Augustine was honored with the clear vision of him that is true God and man. Moreover upon the same fountain in memory hereof a chapel was built dedicated to our Savior, which, together with the fountain, my Author had seen; and the water cured many diseases.
Source 1: Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, Proceedings for 1877-1927/28 issued by the society under its earlier name: Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, vol. 22, Dorchester, 1901, p. 109,110
Source 2: Goscelini, (Gotselin, Jocelyn, †1099) „Historia Minor, 1091 CE., in: ANGLIA SACRA, sive COLLECTIO HISRIARUM, Antiquicus scriptarum DE ARCHIEPISCOPIS & EPISCOPIS ANGLIAE. A prima Fidei Christianae suceptione ad Annum MDXL, PARS SECUNDA.London, M.DC.XC.I
.And in another account Gotselin writes:
IBI PLEBS IMPIA TENEBRIS SUIS EXCAECATA, ET DIVINAM LUCEM EXOSA, NON SOLUM AUDIRE NEQUIBAT VIVIFICA DOCUMENTA, VERUM TOTA LUDIBRIORUM ET OPPROBRIORUM TEMPESTATE IN SANCTOS DEI DEBACCHATA, LONGE PROTURBAT EOS AB OMNI POSSESSIONS SUA, NEE MANU PEPERCISSE CREDITUR ERFRENIS AUDACIA. AT DEI NUNTIUS JUXTA DOMINICUM PRAECEPTUM ET APOSTOLORUM EXEMPLUM, EXCUSSO ETIAM PULVERE PEDUM IN EOS, DIGNAM SUIS MENTIS SENTENTIAM, NON MALEDICENTIS VOTO, QUI OMNIUM SALUTEM OPTABAT, SED DIVINO JUDICIO, ET HELIAE TYPO ATROCIBUS INJECIT : QUATENUS SANCTORUM CONTEMPTORES TARN IN IPSIS QUAM IN OMNIBUS POSTERIS SUIS DEBETA PAENA REDARGUERET, QUI VITAE MANDATA REPULISSENT. FAMA EST ILLOS EFFULMINANDOS PROMINENTES MARINORUM PISCIUM CAUDAS SANCTIS APPENDISSE ; ET ILLIS QUIDEM GLORIAM SEMPITERNAM PEPERISSE, IN SE VERO IGNOMINIAM PERENNEM RETORSISSE, UT HOC DEDECUS DEGENERANTI GENERI, NON INNOCENTI ET GENEROSAE IMPUTATUR PATRIAE.
Gotselin, Liba Major de Vita S. Augustini, Saeculum, I., fol., Paris, 1668.
Here the sinful people dazzled themselves by darkness, and hate the divine light, not only in what is spoken, but also in what is written. Truth was totally ridiculed and God’s Saints were scorned and were booed. They took away all their property and inheritance, no hand or idea was saved. But the news of god’s commandment and the example of the apostles, who shook off the dust of their feet against them, because they were worth their punishment, yet they were not injured, because they wished them all salvation and they were consigned to the divine judgment, so that Helio (Helia) and his followers irrespective of their holiness would know the scope of their penalty, both for themselves as for their posterity, because of their rejection of the precepts of life. And it is said that they who came out of water by the fish, were desirous for sanctity and they have received now eternal holiness, because they were able to dispose themselves from the permanent stigma, in spite of the fight which they were imposed of by the country who rejected frankness and generosity.
This same story is also in a similar way told by William of Malmesbury and Walter of Coventry, only some details differ.
Clearing a possible confusion, the Augustine mentioned here is not the more famous St. Augustine, also known as Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430), who through his writings had a strong influence on the development of Christianity in Western Europe. The Augustine meant here is Augustine of Canterbury who died in 605 and also became a Saint, and was largely responsible for the conversion of the people of Kent. He was the first Christian missionary to come to the lands of the Anglo-Saxons. It is probable that the ‘Heliae’ story had passed down to Gotselin as part of a series of ‘miracles’ this English Augustine had worked. Whether Gotselin drew on local stories, an unknown older text telling the tale, or drew it up out of whole cloth is not known. It is probable he drew on an older text telling of the tale that has been lost to us. However, with the variations of the name and the story, it is entirely possible he was drawing on local stories.
William of Malmesbury
This 12th Century English historian is seen as an excellent writer, often put on a same level with Bede. As a monk his home was the Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire, England. His work was mainly focused on the deeds of the kings and the bishops in England and accordingly two of his works are titled:
Gesta pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Bishops)
Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings).
From this historian it is known, that he was a careful and for the most part a truthful historian (as truthful as he could be given the sources he was working with) who emphasized, that he searched and presented ancient records; his aim wasn’t to present the world his own knowledge, but to offer historical information.
His account of the Cerne story, similar to that of Gotselin, written at about 1140, tells, restricted to Helith:
SED LOCO ILLO VIRTUS HESIT DEMONIS CONFLATA INVIDIA QUI TANTIS ANIMARUM LUCRIS DOLERET. AGGREDIUNTUR ERGO VIRUM ET SOTIOS FURIATIS MENTIBUS INCOLAE, ET MAGNIS DEHONESTATUM INJURIIS, ITA UT ETIAM CAUDAS RACHARUM VESTIBUS EJUS AFFIGERENT, IMPELLUNT, PROPELLUNT, EXPELLUNT.
So Augustine took on the county I have named, and increased the number of Christians by taking frequent plunder at the Devil’s expense. But here his virtue met a check. For the Devil’s envy was aroused at such a wholesale winning of souls. The locals accordingly assaulted the man and his companions in a transport of rage, insulted him with sore injuries, even attaching ray fish tails to his clothes and pushed him on and away.
Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum, Volume I: Text and Translation,
edited and translated by M. Winterbottom, New York, 2007.
This is clearly the same story Gotselin wrote about. But instead of using the name of the pagan god, a demonized word for him is used: Devil. This was at the time a common behavior and meant to emphasize that all opponents of god are of devilish nature and all names of pagan deities should disappear from memory.
Some time has past since Gotselin wrote his version but is very likely that Gotselin and William of Malmesbury used for their versions of the Cerne narrative the same source and they show a good example of how a myth changes and grows in time:
-1- Three miles become five;
-2- a spiritual retreat from turbulence and violence to quietness and seclusion is transformed into a toilsome journey through desert and unhabited places, oppressed with hunger, thirst, and fatigue;
-3- a mental perception of the Divine Being grows into an actual visible apparition;
-4- a reactionary change and contrition of the hearts of the villagers is developed into a material, penal, hereditary growth of fish-tails from their criminal backs.
Source: Proceedings of the Dorset natural history and antiquarian field club, volume XXII Dorset, 1901.
Walter of Coventry
Walter of Coventry, whose zenith as an author is situated in the last ten years of the 13th Century, was an English monk. He wasn’t a professional chronicler or historian, but his name has been passed down mainly, because of his compilation of records of several others, called „MEMORIALE FRATRIS WALTERI DE COVENTRIA“.
Concerning Helith, he wrote :
IN DORSETENSI PAGO SUNT ABBATIAE KERNELIENSIS, MIDDILTUNENSIS VIRORUM, SCEAFTONIENSIS FEMINARUM; IN QUO PAGO OLIM COLEBATUR DEUS HELITH. SED PRAEDICANS IBIDEM VERBUM DEI, SANCTUS AUGUSTINUS VIDIT MENTIS OCULI DIVINAM ADESSE PRAESENTIAM HILARISQUE FACTUS, AIT ‘CERNO DEUM QUI NOBIS SUAM RETRIBUET GRATIAM.’ EVENTUS VEL POTIUS VERBUM KERNELLIIENSI LOCO INDIDIT VOCABULUM UT VOCATUR KERNEL, EX DUOBUS VERBIS HEBRAICO ET LATINO, QUOD HEL DEUS DICATUR HEBRAICE.
In the county of Dorset are the abbeys of Cernel [Cerne] and Middleton [Milton]; and the nunnery of Shaston [Shaftesbury]; and in this county the god Gelith was once worshipped; but preaching the word of God in that same place, St. Augustine saw in his mind’s eye a divine presence, and having become overjoyed he said, ‘I discern God, Who will restore His grace to us:’ this event or rather word gave its name to the location of Cernel, such that it is called Cernel from two words .such that it is called Cernel from two words, one Hebrew and one Latin; because El is what God is called in Hebrew.
Source 1: COMPUT MINISTRORUM DOMINI REGIS TEMP. HEN. VIII. (Abstract of Roll, 32 Hen. VIII. Augmentation Office.) p. 625. 16th Century.
Source 2: “Memoriale fratris Walteri de Coventria”, Vol. 1, Publication 58 of Rerum Britannicarum medii aevi scriptores Memoriale fratris Walteri de Coventria, Memoriale fratris Walteri de Coventria Author: Walter (of Coventry), published by William Stubbs, publishing company: Longman, 1872
Why the translator changed the ‘H’ of Helith in a ‘G’, Gelith, is not clear; According to the Old English expression “lífwynne geliden” (the joy of life flowed away), Gelid (Gelith) could mean ‘flowing away’,which could point to the nearby river Cerne, but that seems quite a far-fetched assumption. More likely is to ascribe it to the inconsistency of grammar and spelling rules of ecclesiastical grammar through the ages and over the different geographical areas.
The poet and antiquary John Leland, also Leyland (1502/3 – 1552), was remarkably involved in local English history. A collection of his work was published in 6 volumes in 1770 (1774) under the title “JOANNIS LELANDI ANTIQUARII DE REBUS BRITANNICIS COLLECTANEA”, edited by Thomas Hearne.
Helith is mentioned in volume I at page 285:
DEUS HELITH COLEBATUR IN PAGO DE CERNEL, TEMPORE AUGUSTINI, ANGLORUM APOSTOLI,
The god Helith was worshiped in the village of Cernel in the time of Augustine, apostle of the English.
It is quite likely, that Leland used the previous mentioned sources for his work.
The historian, topographer and officer of arms William Camden (1551 – 1623) published after almost a decade of research the first edition of his written work “Britannia” in Latin which is a topographical and historical survey of Great Britain and Ireland.
Camden also mentions the same ‘Cerne’ deity, but he uses the name „Heil” for it:
5. IN HUIUS SINUS OCCIDENTALEM ANGULUM FROME NOBILE HUIUS TRACTUS FLUMEN EVOLVITUR, SIC VULGUS DICIT, ANGLO-SAXONES VERO, TESTE ASSEIRO, FRAU DIXERUNT, UNDE FORTASSE CUM SINUS ISE FRAUMOUTH OLIM DICERETUR, CREDIDERUNT POSTERI FROME ESSE FLUMINI NOMEN. FONTES HOC HABET AD EVARSHOTT PROPE OCCIDUUM HUIUS COMITATUS LIMITEM, UNDE IN ORTUM AQUAS AGIT PER FROMPTON, CUI NOMEN IMPERTIIT, ET RIVULUM A SEPTENTRIONE ADMITTIT PER CERNE MONASTERIUM DEFLUENTEM, QUOD AEDIFICAVIT AUGUSTINUS ILLE ANGLORUM APOSTOLUS CUM HEIL GENTILIUM ANGLO-SAXONUM IDOLUM IBI COMMINUISSET, SUPERSTITIONUMQUE TENEBRAS FUGASSET.
5. Into the West Angle of this Bay falleth the greatest and most famous river of all this tract, commonly called Frome, but the English-Saxons, as witnesseth Asseruis, named it Frau, whereupon, perhaps for that this Bay was in old time called Fraumouth, the posterity ensuing tooke the rivers name to be Frome. The head thereof is at Evarshot neere unto the West limit of this shire, from whence he taketh his course Eastward by Frompton, whereto it gave the name, and from the North receiveth a little river running downe by Cerne Abbay which Augustine the Apostle of the English nation built when he had broken their in peeces Heil, the Idol of the heathen English-Saxons, and chased away the fog of paganish superstition.
Source 1: Britannia, Chapter: DUROTRIGES – Dorsetshire
Source 2 and translation: http://www.philological.bham.ac.uk/camden/
Here again, it is not clear why Camden used this name, deviating from the earlier used names. Maybe he interpreted the name as ‘omen’ or ‘health’ which could point to Old English hǽl, but that is just an airy guess. A surmise of maybe even less quality is, that the world was taken from Old High German where it means “luck, health or omen.”
Sir Flinders Petrie
The English William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853 – 1942), later Sir Flinders Petrie, was professionally an Egyptologist and also a pioneer of systematic methodology in archeology. He is also known as a protagonist of the preservation of archaeological and historical artifacts. Except for his many Egyptological publications he also did research in his own country. About Helith he wrote:
It thus appears that this enclosure was of a religious character, by the primitive pole worship being maintained there, and this throws light on the purpose of the figure of the Giant, with which the enclosure is obviously connected. Possibly a further light may be gained from Walter of Coventry, who wrote, in the thirteenth century, that Cerne was “in Dorsetensi pago”, “in quo pago olim colebantur deus Helith.” This may preserve the early mediaeval name of the Giant.
From: “The Hill Figures of England”, by W. M. Flinders Petrie, F.R.S., F.B.A. London: published by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. London, W.C. 1926.
The author cites here William of Coventry. The conceivable connection with the ‘giant’ is discussed below.
So far these main sources. There are many more sources, most of them from the 17th – 20th Century, but they all cite the information presented here in the older ones or retell them in their own words. Because there are in fact but few details known, there is much room for speculation and interpretation and that room of speculation and interpretation is heavily used. There is no need to cite more sources, it is time to focus on some other parts, mentioned in the sources.
Chapter 4: Related details
The name also appears in several other forms, e.g. Cornel, Cerno, Cerneli, and some latinized forms. The Anglo-Saxon name may have been ‘Cernel’, according to the Anglo-Saxon sentence:
Ic Ælfríc, munuc and mæssepreóst… wearþ asend, on Æðelrédes dæge cyninges, fram Ælfeáge biscope, Aðelwoldes æftergengan, to sumum mynstre, ðe is Cernel gehaten, þurh Æðelmæres bene ðæs þegenes …
I Ælfric, monk and mass-priest… was sent, in king Æthelred’s day, from bishop Ælfeah, Æthelwold’s successor, to a minster, which is called Cerne, at the prayer of Æthelmær the thane …
That only indicates, that the word appears in Old-English, it does not explain its meaning. Maybe it is related to the Old-English / Anglo-Saxon term ‘Cernan‘ which could point to churning water, meaning the nearby river there, which is a ten mile long river in Dorset, England.
Although it is often presumed, that the name ‘Cerne’ is derived from the Celtic god Cernunnos, this is not really likely, because historically we know that name only from the Pillar of the Boatmen; a Gallo-Roman monument from the first Century CE, found in France. This pillar provides the only undisputed record for that god name. Whether this god ever was known and worshiped in ancient England cannot be determined clearly, although this is almost desperately tried to prove over the last few decades.
Cerne Abbas ….
… is the name of a village located in the valley of the River Cerne in central Dorset. That was built around the Benedictine abbey, called ‘Cerne Abbey’, which was founded there by the Benedictine abbot, writer and homilist Ælfric of Eynsham in 987 CE.
The River Cerne
flows from the Chalk hills of the Dorset Downs at Minterne Magna over a ten mile distance, streams through the Valley where Cerne Abbas lies and in flows in Dorchester in the river Frome.
One of the most famous phenomena at Cerne Abbas is the giant, a naked shape of 180 feet (55 metres), carved in a chalk hillside. There is long and wide speculated about its age; some think it would represent a fertility symbol from the Iron Age (for England that is the period 800 BCE – 500 CE). However, among related sciences today this is widely rejected. It simply seems too unlikely that the monks of the nearby abbey would have tolerated such a heathen symbol. The region had provable settlement during the Iron Age, but because this giant is nowhere recorded before the 17th Century, there is no confirmation for the giant being that old. The earliest reference is a church document from 1694 in which is written about the costs of repairing the Giant, which needs to be done every 30 years. This also points to the fact, that such a chalk shape, if not actively provided well, almost would disappear within a hundred years. Archaeological research confirmed the plausibility of a much more recent origin.
The story goes, that a Denzil Holles, who had owned the land in the period 1654 – 1662, would have carved the Giant as a joke on Oliver Cromwell’s image as being England’s Hercules. There seem to exist circumstantial evidence for this. This recent age is also supported by the fact, that quite some other chalk shapes have been carved between the 15th and 17th Century in that region of England.
Another written reference to the Giant is from 1751, when the Reverend John Hutchings mentioned it in his Guide to Dorset. He wrote to Dr Lyttleton, the Bishop of Exeter, that there was a figure on the hillside of vast dimensions which, he had been told by locals, had been carved in 1539. In that year, the monastery had been dissolved, and the figure was supposed to be the wicked abbot, Thomas Corton, with the phallus representing his lustful ways, the club showing his reputation for taking vicious revenge, and his feet pointing away from the village to show that he had been driven out.
This same source writes that another contender is the Roman god Hercules. In 1764 William Stukely wrote that people in the area called the Giant “Helis”. Another writer stated that up until the 6th century, the god Helis was worshipped. Helith and Helis may be bastardisation of the ancient version of the name for HERCULES – HETETHKIN, a not verifiable name for a ‘local Hercules’.
There’s many more written about this giant, but in a last one here, it was suggested in the 1930s that Helith could have been identical to Walter Maps 12th Century report of King Herla, who became a leader of the Wild Hunt, which on its turn should be connected to the French legend about Herlechin – the story of the army of the dammed dead and their warning giant.
Picture description: An aerial photograph of the Cerne Abbas Giant taken from a Cessna 150 aircraft using an Olympus C1400L digital camera at October 7th, 2001. Author PeteHarlow, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. source: Wikimedia commons.
The famous well, known as St Augustine’s Well or St Austin’s Well was previously called the Silver Well. Apparently, the well existed there before the abbey and the village came into being. A story tells about a St. Edwold, a member of the royal family of the Mercians who died in 671 and …
„was told in a vision to travel to Silver Well; when he came to Cerne, he gave silver pennies to a shepherd in return for bread and water, and the man showed him the well, which he recognized as fulfilling the vision.“
J.M. Harte at http://people.bath.ac.uk/liskmj/living-spring/sourcearchive/fs1/fs1jh1.htm
Because of the reputation of the well, which water should have curing effects, sometimes a connection is made with Helith, where the name of the god is related with health and healing.
The same just mentioned source records some folk customs concerning this well:
„A newspaper columnist in 1850 alludes coyly to the local belief that women drinking at the well would become pregnant. Presumably the use of the spring as a wishing-well to gain husbands is part of the same belief. Girls were to drink from the water, put their hand on part of the fabric known as the wishing stone, and pray to St Catherine for a husband. In another version, the spring is a wishing-well pure and simple; you are to make a cup from laurel leaves, fill it with the water and face south to the church, then drink it while you wish (both traditions 1957). These beliefs are tangled up with the custom of praying to St Catherine for a husband, which was practiced at the site of her lost chapel south of the village on a hill, and with the practice of invoking the Cerne Giant to cure sterility: Giant Hill lies just over a field from the well.“
Chapter 5: Concluding thoughts
1. Concerning the god
Whatever exactly the name of the above discussed pagan god was, the names used likely show an Anglo-Saxon origin. Because this god likely is passed down only because Augustine obviously destroyed a statue or other material symbol dedicated to ‘Helith’ and by that showed the people that the Christian god was mightier that a heathen idol, which caused the people to convert to Christianity; spreading the ‘news’ that it may have been important to subscribe the ‘fact’ that Augustine could work miracles.
If one is skeptical towards such miracles, the thought could arise that it is all just fiction, invented by a storyteller to support Augustine. However, even if that would be true, such stories too need some proof. The geographical information and the name of the pagan god would be a minimum of such proof; if the name of the god would be unknown at Augustine’s time, the miracle narrative would have been less believable for his contemporaries.
Hence it sounds agreeable to accept Helith (Helið, .etc.) as a pagan god from early Anglo-Saxon England. The meaning of that name could point to words meaning ‘hero, warrior’; a war-god therefore would not be a devious interpretation. The name could also derive from words related to words for health and healing, and therefore could denote a god of healing. A late source (1820) “A Walk Around Dorchester” by James Criswick refers to the deity as the “Saxon Esculapius, or preserver of health.” Criswick draws with that on “The Worthies of England”, a three volume work by Thomas Fuller (1608 – 1661). In volume II at page 98 Fuller writes:
“There is an abscure villiage in this county, near St. Neot’s, calles Haile-weston, whose very name soundeth something of sanativeness therein; so much may the adding of what is no letter, alter the meaning of a word; for, 1. Aile signifieth a sore or hurt, with complaining, the effect thereof. 2. Haile (having an affinity with Heile, the Saxon idol for Esculapius) § importeth a cure, or medicine to a malady.”
The mentioned village is today called ‘Hail Weston’ and is situated a bit to the south west of Huntingdon in the county of Cambridgeshire. When leaving the reliability of this late source aside, it could mean, that Heile / Helith wasn’t venerated along the Cerne river only but would have been worshiped in a clear wider area.
As the Old English words meaning “hero”, hæle and hæleþ derive ultimately from the same source as our words holy, to heal and health, it may still indicate a god of healing. Finally, one cannot rule out the possibility that the name has some relation to the idea of luck or good fortune. Middle English héle had a secondary meaning of “fortune, good luck, profit, advantage.” It is possible that the god was a deity of all these things. A god of heroes and healing giving good fortune and luck. The words that make up the possible origins of the name run the full gambit of heroes, healing, health, and luck so it is difficult to say which meaning was being drawn on for the name. “Hero” would seem most likely, but the names relation to words referring to health and healing cannot be ruled out. Nor can Fuller’s reference to the deity as the “Saxon Esculapius,” (Aesculapius / Asclepius is the Greek god of medicine).
2. Relation between Helith and the giant
There is neither acceptable circumstantial evidence, nor are there agreeable indications which could support the guess that the god Helith in fact is depicted by the in chalk carved giant at Cerne Abbas. Without even that it is idle presenting such a possible relation.
3. Relation between Helith and the Well
There don’t exist records which could point to some relation between the god and the well. Any try to create such a relation does not go beyond speculation for which neither circumstantial evidence nor any indication would support that. Never the less wells were often sites of pilgrimage, and seen as having healing powers. It would seem unlikely that a well would be present near an idol of a deity and there not be a connection. But we have no evidence to support such a connection, only speculation.
Since all of the accounts basically give the same story with only slight variation there is not much to be learned about the deity. Even the many variations of the name only confuses the matter. It is probably safe to say that the deity was either a god of healing or one of heroes perhaps with aspects of good luck and good fortune. Beyond that one would be going into a land of speculation.
The picture below:
Cerne Abbas: the river Cerne The Cerne meanders south through the village. 1999. From geograph.org.uk Author: Chris Downer
This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. The copyright on this image is owned by Chris Downer and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.
Picture description: Cerne Abbas: the river Cerne The Cerne meanders south through the village. 1999. From geograph.org.uk Author: Chris Downer. This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. The copyright on this image is owned by Chris Downer and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.
Chapter 6: Bibliography
Except for some already in the text above mentioned sources, the following books were used:
Castleden, Rodney, The Cerne Giant, Dorset, 1996.
GardenStone, Wild Hunt and Furious Host, Norderstedt, 2013.
Hutton, Ronald, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (reprint), Oxford, USA, 1998.
John T. Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, Santa Barbara, USA, 2006.
Lees, Clare A., Tradition and Belief, religious writing in late Anglo-Saxon England, Minneapolis – London, 1999.
Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum, Volume I: Text and Translation, edited and translated by M. Winterbottom, New York, 2007.
Olsen, Brad, Sacred Places Europe: 108 Destinations, San Francisco, 2007.
Orel, Vladimir, A Handbook of Germanic Etymology, Brill, Leiden – Boston, 2003.
Prees, David (Transl.), William of Malmesbury, The Deeds of the Bishops of England, (GESTA PONTIFICUM ANGLORUM) Woodbridge, 2002.
Siebs, Benno Eide, Die Personennamen der Germanen, Wiesbaden 1970.
Stotz, Peter, Handbuch zur lateinischen Sprache des Mittelalters, Band 3, Lautlehre, C.H. Beck, Munich, 1996.
Anglia sacra sive collectio historiarumpars prima, Londini, MDCXCI.
Anglia sacra sive collectio historiarum, pars secunda, Londini, MDCXCI.
Contains e.g. Goscelini, Historia Minor de Vita S. Augustini.
William Camden’s Britannia, MDCXVL
Antiquarii de rebus Britannicus, by John Leland, London, MDCCLXXIV edited by Thomas Hearn
Gesta Pontificum anglorum.pdf
William of Malmesbury, Gesta pontificum Anglorum, in: Rerum Britannicum medii AEVI scriptores, or chronicles and memorials of Great Britain and Ireland, during the Middle Ages, 1857.
William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum, in an edition of MDCCCXL
Dugdale-Monasticon (Vol. 2 Part 034 Cerne).pdf
Cerne, or Cernell Abbey in Dorsetshire, a chapter of:Monasticon Anglicanum, A history of the abbies and other monasteries, hospitals, frieries, etc., in England and Wales, 2nd volume, 1819.
The historical collections of Walter of coventry, edited by William Stubbs, in: Rerum Britannicum medii AEVI scriptores, or chronicles and memorials of Great Britain and Ireland, during the Middle Ages, 1857.
William of Malmesbury on Kingship, Björn Weiler, Oxford, 2005.
Proceedings of the Dorset natural history and antiquarian field club, volume XXII Dorset, 1901.
Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum, 1246-1253 in: Rerum Britannicum medii AEVI scriptores, or chronicles and memorials of Great Britain and Ireland, during the Middle Ages, 1857.
English translation of Gesta_regum_Anglorum
In the first half of februari 2013 the following webpages were visited and used for the research for this small Helit-project: