Numerous cultures incorporate beliefs in a soul, and in its continued existence after physical death. For early Anglo-Saxons, the dead were a powerful and active group; they had joined the otherworld as ancestors, bonding with the land. Relationships with the dead were essential to establishing a position amongst the living, especially as part of a dynastic line that continuously needed to exercise claims to power and kingdom.
Burial mounds were visible expressions of ancestral authority. They continued in England into the c. 7th, echoing Scandinavian patterns. Such places of burial were powerful liminal zones, providing access to the otherworld. Later, post-conversion, they were regarded as unholy. Burial with grave goods obviously indicates a belief in an afterlife, although such a fate may have been the preserve of royalty and aristocracy, perhaps enjoying exclusive access to the halls of Woden – a decidedly aristocratic god.
Cremation was a feature of early Anglo-Saxon culture. Urns found at English cremation cemeteries show stylized depictions of animals, while others are marked with what may be animal heads, eyes, feathers and even fur. Some urns even contained animal parts, such as bear claws. Animal depictions on cremation urns may therefore have represented totem animals (for example, the Wuffinga‘s wolf.) Alternatively, the depictions may have ‘ensorcelled’ the soul within, enabling the dead human and animal to live on as a composite being with special access to supernatural realms.
The concept of a king’s ‘life force’ living on after his death to fertilise the land would have been familiar to Celts, Britons, Anglo-Saxons and Danes alike. The Celts understood this force as nwyvre. The Anglo-Saxons perceived the existence of haelu, a generalized life force that conferred good health, luck and prosperity, and was the source of all vitality. It was generated in the head, and flowed through the spine to the rest of the body. Haelu was suffused throughout the cosmos, as much a part of trees, plants, the earth and animals as humans. Amongst the Vikings, the vital animating power of creation was ond; it was a chaotic energy, yet took shape as manifest reality. It was also believed that life force lingered after death, and could be transferred to others via the consumption of blood and brains. One example of this life-after-death is King Cormac mac Cuilennáin. According to legend, his severed head was a sage of poetry, learning and government and continued to look after its people when the king was dead. Similarly, King Bran’s head reputedly protected his territories against plague and invasion.
For Edmund’s followers, the sacral king myth provided an ideological framework within which their dead king could continue to exert power and authority. He was a holy sacrificed king, working miracles of justice and fertility, living on in a new form in much the same way as the souls of early Anglo-Saxon cremations.
Because of the church’s resistance to the cult of kings, Edmund only achieved sainthood 250 years after his death. But the role of saints was critical in the Church’s battle to win the hearts and minds of those who remained staunchly pagan. In a sense they functioned as counter-magi, or Christian magicians. The church realized that, if it was to ultimately gain converts, it would need to stop complaining about pagan wizards and begin addressing the needs that these magicians fulfilled.
Saints also provided a useful way in which the divine could be made intelligible in the world; they were a physical, localized expression of Christian virtues. Wondrous aid could be sought by praying before the shrine, kissing or touching relics, drinking or eating from objects where relics had been in contact, making offerings or procuring objects, bones or material that were somehow connected to the saint. A certain Norman individual apparently successfully crossed a dangerous ford on account of a relic from the shrine of St Edmund that he carried with him.