Monday, March 7, 2011

The Anglo-Saxon Victory Tree: The Holy Rood

The Ruthwell Cross, Ruthwell church
The Germanic conception of the world tree, along with the practice of venerating sacred groves and mighty trees, found a new mode of expression in Anglo-Saxon Christianity. The development of the Cult of the Cross was widespread throughout Christendom, to be sure, but it found particularly fertile soil in Britain, where its expression also was peculiarly Germanic and often martial in some aspects. As was mentioned in connection with The Dream of the Rood, the Germanic understanding of Christ as a young hero echoed Anglo-Saxon sensibilities concerning the nature of the Savior, both as God and as man; likewise, Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Cross often recast it into a battle-standard of Christ Triumphant and of the hope of salvation. In this way the Anglo-Saxons of Britain put a uniquely Germanic spin on a Mediterranean and Near eastern cult of veneration.

Before the fourth century ce, the cross was not widely embraced as a sign of Christianity, symbolizing as it did the gallows of a criminal. This changed after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine; as the story goes, in a dream before a great battle against overwhelming odds, Constantine saw a shining cross in the night sky and heard a voice pronounce, “by this sign ye shall conquer.” He hastened to heed these words, and the Roman troops the following day were preceded by banners of the cross; they won a great victory over the host of Huns at the Battle of Milvian Bridge on the Danube, and Constantine ended the persecution of Christians, and converted before he died. It is worth noting that Constantine’s mother, Helen, is reputed to have found the True Cross on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and that one of the great Anglo- Saxon narrative poems, Elene, has to do with this discovery. Whether or not the story of Constantine’s vision is apocryphal, it is certain that after his conversion a great deal of prestige accrued to the cross, and it was eventually adopted as the primary Christian symbol.

The Cross became an object of great devotion in the East, and soon various ceremonies, cults, traditions, and relics sprang up as a result of this veneration. This popularity had migrated to Western Europe by the end of the seventh century, and before the middle of that century a number of cross legends are known to have been circulating in Britain. It is during this period that the Cult of the Cross took on a peculiarly British flavor, a flavor that combined subtle hints of Celtic and Germanic pagan traditions along with the predominant eastern Christian taste. In 633 ce Oswald of Northumbria erected a giant wooden cross before the Battle of Heavenfield in a none-toosubtle attempt to co-opt Constantine’s strategy for success; he prevailed, and for ages after this date miracles were attributed to fragments of that battle standard. The success of the Cult of the Cross in Anglo-Saxon England was likewise assured.

The most notable and idiosyncratic Anglo-Saxon outgrowth of the Cult of the Cross was the widespread popularity of large, standing stone crosses, which became objects and locations of worship. By the mid-eighth century these icons had become so popular that Boniface complained that they were taking the place of regular churches; perhaps, indeed, the worshipers were hearkening back to the days of sacred groves and trees, and it is certain that the Rood of Christ was often likened to a tree. The poet who wrote The Dream of the Rood emphasized the cross’s identity as a tree, and also as a battle standard: he even called it “The Victory Tree.” Over 1,500 standing stone crosses survive in Britain to this day, and it is reasonable to assume that many more made of wood are lost to us. The most significant of these remaining roods is the Ruthwell Cross.

Standing nearly twenty feet high, the Ruthwell Cross is a striking combination of Celtic artistic traditions (intricate vine patterns known as interlace, interwoven with human and animal figures), biblical scenes, and Germanic runes and warrior conception of Christ, all bound together in an overtly Christian symbol. A number of other British crosses likewise blend cultural and mythic elements, perhaps most notably that at Gosforth. Particularly, the runic inscription running along the east and west faces of the Ruthwell Cross includes a passage from The Dream of the Rood describing Christ’s mounting of the Rood, and his death thereon; it has been noted that this passage is one that most emphasizes the Christ Militant of Anglo- Saxon belief. It also has been argued that this particular selection resonates with the scene of the death of Baldr. The lone manuscript known to contain The Dream of the Rood dates from the ninth century or so, but the Ruthwell Cross itself dates from the height of the Cult of the Cross in Britain— perhaps around the year 700—and therefore some early form of the poem must have, as well. This conception of the Tree of Christ—with all its pagan echoes and warrior ethos—thus predates the beginning of the Viking raids by almost a century, and therefore the Germanic aspects both of the poem and of the Ruthwell Cross are likely to be of mostly pure Anglo- Saxon derivation.

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