Reading Old English manuscripts probably strikes most people as quaint and boring at best. Since the bulk of these writings are Christian texts dealing with Christian issues, it must seem an even more peculiar activity for a Wiccan. So why do it? It is not an activity for everyone, but in some cases, precisely because these writings are Christian, we can learn much. We can open windows on Northern European Pagan ideas by examining the vocabulary used and the concepts it attempts to contain. This is particularly true when Christian writers are contrasting their theology with the native Pagan beliefs.
When Christian scholars began to preach and write in vernacular English, they faced an enormous task; how to convey Christian concepts using a language that had evolved to encapsulate Pagan theology? How to translate sometimes alien concepts? Translation is at best imperfect, but here they faced translation of non-Indo-European languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, as well as translation of Greek and Latin. Many of the words chosen by these monks and priests would not be recognized by Modern English speaking Christians. One of the dozens of words chosen to translate their conception of God, for example, is Dryghten. Another, more suspiciously, is Frey or Frea. These, and many other Pagan words were impressed to do Christian duty.
One point of interest lies in the text of a sermon delivered in 1014 c.e. by Wulfstan, the Archbishop of York. In this text, he refers to *thenan and *theowas, translated respectively as Pagan and Christian priests. Since Old English contains the word *preost, which becomes our modern priest, why did he choose *thenan and *theowas?
*Preost is not native English. It is a loan word from the Greek that comes to us through Latin, and it simply means elder. This meaning remains with us today as presbyter, especially in the Presbyterian Church, a church based on the rule of elders. The meaning priest now holds -- ordained religious practitioner -- may not have been as settled at that time. Wulfstan chose instead, two words of solid English ancestry. He wishes to distinguish Pagan from Christian. He recognizes, or knows his audience recognizes, a real distinction between the people or the offices they describe; Christians have *theowas while Pagans have *thenan.
Merely knowing these words does little to advance our understanding of the old religion. It may lead us to suspect that Paganism had not ben eradicated in England by the 9th or 10th Centuries as some authors have recently suggested. Wulfstan certainly understands that a Pagan priesthood exists when he writes this sermon. It may be argued, though, that he is referring to Danish Pagan priests rather than English. For our purposes, however, it is sufficient to know that Old English contained a living term for Pagan priest that was generally understood by English speaking people. Our interest lies in that words have families and that by examining the rest of the family, we can more fully comprehend the meaning a word held for a native speaker.
Both *thenan and *theowas contain the meaning of servant, showing a similar understanding of the nature and office of priest, Pagan or Christian. But they derive from different roots which reveal a distinct difference as well.
From the same root as *thenan, Pagan priests, we find:
Of these words , only the word for priest is exclusively Pagan.
From the same root as *theowas, we have:
Looking at these constellations of meanings, it becomes clear that the term for Pagan priest shares the root that forms the terms for ministering and for divine service. *Then or *theyn is, then the original or earlier word for priest. The word for Christian priest is a later development accepted, if not invented, by Christians to distinguish themselves from the native priesthood. But why did they choose the word for slave, and how does that relate to the Pagan concept of the priesthood?
The difference here is rather stark. It calls to mind the criticism of Christianity as "the religion of slaves." We are not interested in bashing Christianity, however, only to understand our own history more clearly. It remains that this distinction between priests is a Christian distinction in this text. One suggestion for the choice of the word slave is that Semitic religions, of which Christianity is one, hold a concept of adherents as the slaves of God. This concept certainly exists in Islam. We also find it in the Old Testament in the story of Job, a man treated as a possession of a god who toys with him, not to test, but to demonstrate his loyalty and obedience. We are told that this is the proper way to conduct our relationship with God. In the New Testament, St. Paul describes himself as the "bond-servant" of God. One modern understanding of the redemption purchased by the crucifixion of Jesus is that we have been bought with a price, and are thus the possessions of God.
This recurring concept is an old one in the tradition that includes Christianity. It seems probable that the Christians meant to espouse a greater degree of servitude as the mark of their priesthood. It seems that the notion of submitting ones will utterly to the will of Deity, of regarding oneself as the slave of God , is to be considered desirable. Perhaps the phrase, "the religion of slaves," is more descriptive than perjoritive.
How does this distinction help Pagans? We are the other side. Perhaps it is as simple as recognizing that it is impossible to submit ones will simultaneously to an entire pantheon of Goddesses and Gods. We must necessarily exercise our own wills. We know that Pagan priest/esses often attached themselves to particular Goddesses and Gods rather than the religion or pantheon as a whole. Elements of this kind of relationship are seen today, as when Janet Farrar describes herself as a Wiccan Priestess, but also as a Priestess of Freya.
It seems to me that the crux of the matter lies in the secular meanings of *theow and *then. *Then , or *theyn comes into Modern English as thane, which is most familiar to us in Shakespeare's Macbeth, Thane of Caudor. It is best to consider this courtier / attendant as attached to a chief rather than a king because the word king has today many connotations alien to its usage in Old English. Without thinking about Arthur, we can say that a king's authority was exerted over a relatively small area. In Middle English, the word "duc" (modern "duke") is used, so that in Canturbury Tales, Theseus the king becomes "duc Theseus."
The relationship between a thane and his chief is one of alliance. While the chief is more than the equal of his thanes, the relationship is one of reciprocity. This same reciprocity marks the relationship between the thane and the people who serve him as well; service is rendered above and below. We should remark, too, that the chief here is not distant, not a high king or pharoh; he is familiar and close. He may be related by blood. He is likely to have interacted directly with some of the thane's retinue, and has probably been seen by many. This secular interaction is the formula used to understand the relation between Deity and man.
This is the way of the tribe and the extended family which might explain why household, service of food, mission and retinue are bound with divine service in a single word, *thening. The Pagan priest serves what constitutes his family in a system of reciprocal actions. This , I feel is the Pagan world view as reflected in the language of Old English. In contrast, the god of the Old Testament has adopted the title "Lord of Lords, King of Kings," the ancient title of the kings of Persia. Although there are biblical references to God walking among the dwellings of His followers, the over-all impression is one of distance. He reveals himself only to the patriarchs and prophets. He issues laws which must be obeyed. An entire book of the Bible, Leviticus, is dedicated to such laws. Some laws, like the dietary laws, are minutely restrictive. Others restrict very personal actions like masturbation or the position to be used in sexual intercourse. The god of the old testament gives only the choice of obedience or punishment. The image of this god seems to be drawn from the distant, seldom seen, absolute rulers of the Middle East, rulers no longer operating under the bonds of familial alliances. The proper relationship to such a ruler is one of submission and obedience, both to him and his emmissaries.
While this analysis reflects the extreme end of Semitic theology, the two views of our relationship to Deity appear to explain Wulfstan's choice of words. There is much gentleness, beauty,and wisdom in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and many areas of agreement. But under it all, Wulfstan reminds us that a Christian priest works for Deity, but a Pagan priest works with Deity, in a relationship based of freedom of will and reciprocity.