Æled – An Anglo-Saxon Fire God

Name, Pronunciation, & Meaning:

Æled, pronounced /ˈæː.led/ (IPA), means fire. But it isn’t a familiar word for us because our modern English word for fire descends from a completely different root. You know that old adage about how the inuit people have so many terms for snow? Well, there are a whole lot of words for fire in Proto-Indo-European. However, these words essentially stem from two root words, *h₁n̥gʷnis[i] and *péh₂wr̥[ii] (*egni- and *paewr- is the approximate Latinization of these terms[iii]). These are important.

In Proto-Indo-European, *h₁n̥gʷnis is a masculine term for fire that was “animate and active”, in other words: alive.[iv] On the other hand, *péh₂wr̥ refers to fire that was “inanimate and passive”, in other words this fire was merely the substance.[v] These two terms are at opposites from each other despite being both terms for fire. Further, these terms then are at root of an entire variety of other terms for fire and terms for what one can do with it.

Æled itself tracks back to Proto-Germanic *ailidaz which carried the meaning of a fire or even a pyre.[vi] This Proto-Germanic term links back to being related to the PIE *h₁n̥gʷnis term as it falls into the family of terms related to that form of fire. The most direct link backwards toward PIE goes through the term *h₂eydʰ- which was in the family of terms related to that active, animate fire.[vii] But here you can see the relation is linking back to that fire all the same.

On the other hand, the word which won out in our modern English is “fire” which links back to that fire as a substance word, *péh₂wr̥.[viii] And to be honest, that trend was already well underway as by far the most common fire related words in Old English are those related to “Fýr”, from which we get “Fire”. But still at that time there were a few words that remained that descended from *h₁n̥gʷnis such as æled and those terms related to it (for example: æled-fýr, æled-leóma, ælan) or æld which was an alternate form of æled but for which no related terms existed. There was also “Ád” which was of the same PIE root leading back to *h₁n̥gʷnis but which meant the fire of a pyre or the pyre itself. This was seemingly less common though than the word Bæl which was also used for a pyre but which was unrelated to either PIE fire terms and instead roots back to *bʰel- which indicates it was a reference more to the brightness than much else.[ix]

So why did so many of these *péh₂wr̥ words succeed while the *h₁n̥gʷnis words fall out of our vocabulary or into obscurity over time? There is no concrete answer but a theory I would offer is that there may have originally been a reverence for these *h₁n̥gʷnis words which set *péh₂wr̥ words in a position for greater linguistic use. Couple that with conversion which removed the culture’s religion and there would have been no reason to continue with terms that may have only had meaning in certain religious contexts that no longer had any relevance for the new culture that was developing. Cremation for instance was no longer practiced regularly and inhumation became even more the norm so the specialized vocabulary involved would over time become moribund.


Anglo-Saxon Attestations:

There are no direct attestations of a deity named Æled in Old English; the word “æled” appears in Old English as a word for fire. However there is good evidence of fire-worship.

“And we earnestly forbid every heathenism: heathenism is, that men worship idols; that is, that they worship heathen gods, and the sun or the moon, fire or rivers, water-wells or stones, or forest trees of any kind; or love witchcraft, or promote ‘morth’ -work in any wise; or a by ‘blot,’ or by ‘fyrht;’ or perform any thing pertaining to such illusions.”[x]

This passage comes from the Secular laws of Cnut and indicates that for the people of that time fire-worship was seen as a part of heathenry. The word worship here is important because it indicates something is occurring that is pagan enough to warrant it being stopped by the Christians who were ruling these English people.

Some further information can be gleaned from Julius Caesar. While Julius Caesar is not a particularly great source for understanding things in regards to the Germanic peoples of his time as he was far more focused on the Gauls, he has one interesting aside in his De Bello Gallico that can give us some insight. In this aside he indicates that while he did not know the Germans to sacrifice (in a way that he would recognize), and while the Germans did not seem to have many of the same gods (in a way that he would recognize), that they did worship the gods of the “sun, fire, and the moon”.[xi] This gives indication of a Germanic fire cult and indeed a fire god present at the point of Caesar.

To put it plainly, between Caesar indicating its existence earlier in Germanic tribes prior to migration and Cnut indicating its existence later even after widespread conversion in England, we have enough evidence to think that there probably was at least some kind of fire worship for the Anglo-Saxon peoples.

So where do we go from there? We do a little reconstruction.

Vedic:

Of all the classic fire gods, and mind you in this I do not mean gods or goddesses that work with fire like blacksmiths and the like or those that are fire keepers like hearth gods or goddesses but instead those that represent fire itself as in sacred fire, the most prominent of those in my mind is Agni. Agni is a fire god, a priest among gods even, but his worship has changed significantly in the last thousand years. Agni is old, very old. We have to understand that the Vedas were compiled something like three thousand years ago and were oral traditions long before that. But once they were compiled it preserved and crystalized some things that otherwise would have fallen out completely from the religion as it morphed. To put it very plainly, there have been significant changes in the religion since the time the Rig Veda was recorded. Today’s Agni is a shadow of his former importance, but this is the case with many or even most of the gods of the Rig Veda. So we will be looking at Agni as he was portrayed at that earliest point we can reach back to, not the modern Agni.

Agni is invoked in no less than two hundred hymns in the Rig Veda, with only Indra having more hymns in that work numbering at two hundred and fifty. As such, it can be understood that Agni was incredibly important for the Vedic religion. His role is probably best realized through the very first hymn of the Rig Veda:

Hymn I

1 I Laud Agni, the chosen Priest, God, minister of sacrifice,
The hotar*, lavishest of wealth.
2 Worthy is Agni to be praised by living as by ancient seers.
He shall bring hitherward the Gods.
3 Through Agni man obtaineth wealth, yea, plenty waxing day by day,
Most rich in heroes, glorious.
4 Agni, the perfect sacrifice which thou encompassest about
Verily goeth to the Gods.
5 May Agni, sapient-minded Priest, truthful, most gloriously great,
The God, come hither with the Gods.
6 Whatever blessing, Agni, thou wilt grant unto thy worshipper,
That, Aṅgiras, is indeed thy truth.
7 To thee, dispeller of the night, O Agni, day by day with prayer
Bringing thee reverence, we come
8 Ruler of sacrifices, guard of Law eternal, radiant One,
Increasing in thine own abode.
9 Be to us easy of approach, even as a father to his son:
Agni, be with us for our weal.[xii]

* a hotar is a type of Vedic priest who invoked the gods.

We can also look at Hymn twelve to see some of these same ideas being represented:

Hymn XII

1 WE choose Agni the messenger, the herald, master of all wealth,
Well skilled in this our sacrifice.
2 With callings ever they invoke Agni, Agni, Lord of the House,
Oblation-bearer, much beloved.
3 Bring the Gods hither, Agni, born for him who strews the sacred grass:
Thou art our herald, meet for praise.
4 Wake up the willing Gods, since thou, Agni, performest embassage:
Sit on the sacred grass with Gods.
5 O Agni, radiant One, to whom the holy oil is poured, burn up
Our enemies whom fiends protect.
6 By Agni Agni is inflamed, Lord of the House, wise, young, who bears
The gift: the ladle is his mouth.
7 Praise Agni in the sacrifice, the Sage whose ways are ever true,
The God who driveth grief away.
8 God, Agni, be his strong defence who lord of sacrificial gifts,
Worshippeth thee the messenger.
9 Whoso with sacred gift would fain call Agni to the feast of Gods,
O Purifier, favour him.
10 Such, Agni, Purifier, bright, bring hither to our sacrifice,
To our oblation bring the Gods.
11 So lauded by our newest song of praise bring opulence to us,
And food, with heroes for our sons.
12 O Agni, by effulgent flame, by all invokings of the Gods,
Show pleasure in this laud of ours.[xiii]

In a lot of ways the worship of Agni is similar to that of the Roman god Janus. Janus was worshipped as a gateway to the gods and was often worshiped first before the others, as one who made the path open. Agni similarly was a priest and messenger of the gods who came first and delivered to the gods that which they were given. There is a kind of functional similarity there, but there is no etymological link and there is no link to any of this beyond that. For these two cultures, something similar developed independently from one another, like convergent evolution.

These Hymns from the Rig Veda allow us to see through their kennings how they would have seen Agni. From Hymn I we see that Agni carries these kennings: “priest”, “minister of sacrifice”, “ruler of sacrifices”, “guard of Law eternal”, “radiant one”.[xiv] From Hymn XII we see these kennings: “the messenger”, “the herald”, “master of all wealth”, “well skilled” in sacrifice, “lord of the house”, “oblation-bearer”, “much beloved”, “the sage”, “purifier”.[xv] Hymn XIII gives us “well-kindled”.[xvi] Hymn XXVI gives us “most youthful” and “our dear household Lord” which echoes the previous lord of the house but in a different wording.[xvii] There are two hundred of these hymns and they tend to echo the same kennings after this point and to continue on much more would not be fruitful. Those relating to priest, sage, and other elements about his function as a priest and indeed a messenger are the primary form. But we also have ones that describe him like youthful, and those which describe the fire as radiant or well-kindled. Then ether are those that describe him as a lord of households which could indicate a hearth based practice as well. But all of these point to a highly important god.

Now I should also mention that there was a different form of Agni, this entity is the fire which burns and devours corpses (cremation) and is known as the carnivorous Agni in the Atharvaveda.[xviii] It should be understood that for the religion death was impure and the fires that burned the dead as a part of Agni were also impure so a distinction was made between the two types of fire, the fire which was in houses and temples and on the other hand the fire which was for cremation. This should also make clear the difference between human and animal and impurities regarding death as the sacred Agni handled the one and the carnivorous Agni handled the other. I hate to have to point this out but I will be blunt; dead people or people in general are therefore not a sacrifice, they are being disposed of and only their bodies are supposed to disappear as the rest of their spirit is intended to go elsewhere.

So what happened? The role of Agni has so diminished that he is barely in the religion at this point compared to other gods, certainly compared to his previous lofty position of importance. This could partly be a function of the transition of Hinduism away from the Vedic religion on the subject of sacrifice, especially animal sacrifice. There could also be a reason found in the already present at that time mixing of the gods which added Agni’s roles to other deities and failed to benefit Agni himself. For instance the death and corpse dealing qualities of the cremation Agni were eventually offloaded to Yama, who is seen as an underworld and death god.

Illyrian:

The ancient Illyrian people had a fire god named En (or possibly Enji) whose name survives in Albanian today in their word for Thursday – “enjte”. En is etymologically linked to *h₁n̥gʷnis in much the same way that Agni was and En is considered to be a cognate of that god. Unfortunately, not much survives to know about this god to any great extent besides his existence and the relatively high importance of that cult within the religion.

Irish:

Aed (or Aodh) is a god whose name carries also this etymology rooted in *h₁n̥gʷnis. Here again there is not much to go on besides his appearance in a couple of stories such as his being in one a child of Lir. Aed was apparently both a fire god and also an underworld god. This could be extrapolated on but the main importance in this case is showing the persistence of this god within European culture until conversion.

Norse:

There are likely some people who are reading this section apprehensively but I will put you all at ease, or perhaps disappoint you, and right from the get-go make it very clear that Loki is not a fire god. The etymology of Loki is now understood to be rooted in Proto-Germanic *luką (meaning “lock”), itself from Proto-Indo-European *lewg- (which apparently meant “to turn, bend” and was related to binding).[xix] His name is not related to fire at all, it is itself a reminder of his fate in Norse stories, that he would be locked and bound (this corroborated in Icelandic Eddas and the Danish Gesta Danorum). But there is actually a Norse fire god, he’s just very often overlooked. And no, I don’t mean Logi, there is another.

The Prose Edda has this verse:

Kennings for fire
How should one periphrase fire? Thus: call it Brother of the Wind and the Sea, Ruin and Destruction of Wood and of Houses, Hálfr’s Bane, Sun of Houses.[xx]

The Old Norse for this was:

Eldskenningar.
Hvernig skal kenna eld? Svá, at kalla hann bróður vinds ok Ægis, bana ok grand viðar ok húsa, Hálfs bani, sól húsanna.[xxi]

The word fire here has been translated from the world “Eld”, which does indeed mean fire. However, the issue with this is that many of the gods have names that have functional or natural meanings – we don’t see people translating Thor’s name to thunder all that often after all. So in this case, if you have read the Prose Edda in translation you may have just completely overlooked this because it is so frequently translated as Fire rather than having been left as “Eld”.

However, this is not without potential issue. If Eld is the brother of Vind and Ægir, that puts him in a position to potentially be associated with Logi who is categorized similarly by the much later Flateyjarbók.

Fornjótr hét maðr. Hann átti þrjá sonu; var einn Hlér, annar Logi, þriði Kári. Hann réð fyrir vindum, en Logi fyrir eldi, Hlér fyrir sjó.[xxii]

Fornjotr was he called. He had three sons; one was Hler, another Logi, and third Kari. He ruled the winds, Logi the fire, Hler the sea.[xxiii]

But here I would hold extreme caution, the reason being that the Flateyjarbók is our only source for the potential association between Logi and Eld. Further, it was written in the late 1300s putting it well over a hundred years after the Prose Edda and more than three hundred years after the final and official conversion of Iceland and hundreds more years since the process of conversion began there. I would propose that had there been a relationship between Logi and Eld, there likely would have been some note made to that effect by Snorri who essentially wrote all we have on both figures. It is entirely possible that the Flateyjarbók was trying to extrapolate and connect these two since at the time we knew far more about Logi and next to nothing about Eld. It is also possible that there is a sacred and a profane side to fire in much the same way as exists for Agni and the Flateyjarbók failed at conveying it in the simple sentence that makes the mention.

But the important thing to note though is that Eld stems from an Old Norse term for fire, eldr, itself going back to the Proto-Germanic *ailidaz and linking back to the same family of terms with *h₁n̥gʷnis in the same way the æled links back for Old English.[xxiv] This places Eld in the position to represent this idea of sacred fire as he cognates back linguistically to these other fire gods like Aed, En, and Agni. And yet you’ve likely never heard of him, despite him sitting very clearly in the Prose Edda and having a pretty clear route to cognate with other Indo-European fire gods.


Reconstruction:

So there was worship of fire among the Anglo-Saxons (as we know from Cnut) and the Germanic peoples had a fire god (courtesy of Julius Caesar), it just lands on us to figure out how to go about reconstructing that.

We have a blacksmith, Weyland, we have some good candidates for a hearth goddess, however none of that is fire-worship in the classic sense. Agni to me represents the quintessential object of fire-worship. The Norse having Eld and it etymologically tracking backwards to the same general place as Agni in the way that it does just sweetens the deal.

So then we find a suitable name that represents the concept and carries that linguistic link to Agni and Eld and which existed in the pre-existing corpus of Old English vocabulary and we find æled, a word that links back linguistically to the PIE term for sacred and animate fire as well as to neighboring Indo-European names for fire gods.

I would reconstruct this god in a similar sense to Agni as a messenger and offering-bearer, a kind of priest or at least a god who can help facilitate offerings. This function is mirrored in various Indo-European religions and can be seen most prominently in the way Janus is approached in the Roman religion and how Agni is approached in the Vedic religion. But this is a function that could be valuable for some. It certainly is not necessary to have an intercessor in this way but it can be something that adds a certain bit to ritual that may have otherwise been missing to some.

I would also eventually use him as a way to more ritualize the process of cremation as we have more returned to this as an option culturally. On this note I would however drop the stigma found in the Vedic lore and instead highlight it as a way of transitioning beyond the body. And it should be noted that it is one way of many as we hold that there is no one “right” way to dispose of a body (down that road is one that leads to trouble because there are lots of times you can’t do what you might want to do in this regard).

But for the everyday practitioner, lighting a candle or a small fire for the gods, it could be a nice thing to also give worship to a fire god as well, an Æled.

Iconography:

  • Fire
  • Colors like red, orange, yellow
  • Young looking, perhaps with red hair
  • Flint and steel

Bynames:

Well-kindled, Sun of houses, Brother to the Wind and Sea, Offering-bearer, Fiery one, Radiant one, Herald, Purifier.

Prayer:

Æled, radiant one, well-kindled, purifier,
I ask that you bring life to this flame
So it may ferry my offerings and prayers
Rising up to the gods upon its smoke.


[i]Wiktionary “h₁n̥gʷnis”: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/h%E2%82%81n%CC%A5g%CA%B7n%C3%ADs

[ii] Wiktionary “péh₂wr̥”: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/p%C3%A9h%E2%82%82wr%CC%A5

[iii] Etymonline “fire”: https://www.etymonline.com/word/fire

[iv] Wiktionary “h₁n̥gʷnis”: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/h%E2%82%81n%CC%A5g%CA%B7n%C3%ADs

[v] Wiktionary “péh₂wr̥”: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/p%C3%A9h%E2%82%82wr%CC%A5

[vi] Wiktionary “ailidaz”: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/ailidaz

[vii]Wiktionary “h₂eydʰ-“: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/h%E2%82%82eyd%CA%B0-

[viii] Wiktionary “fire”: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/fire

[ix] Wiktionary “bæl”: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/b%C3%A6l#Old_English

[x] Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, printed by the command of King William IV (The Commissioners of the public Records of the Kingdom, 1840), 378-379, https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=7qAUAAAAQAAJ&pg=GBS.PA378&hl=en

[xi] Caius Julius Caesar, “De Bello Gallico” and Other Commentaries, translated by W.A. MacDevitt (1915), XXI, https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10657/pg10657.html

[xii] Rig Veda (Hymn I), translated by by Ralph T.H. Griffith (1896),  https://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv01001.htm

[xiii] Rig Veda (Hymn XII), translated by by Ralph T.H. Griffith (1896),  https://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv01012.htm

[xiv] Rig Veda (Hymn I), translated by by Ralph T.H. Griffith (1896),  https://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv01001.htm

[xv] Rig Veda (Hymn XII), translated by by Ralph T.H. Griffith (1896),  https://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv01012.htm

[xvi] Rig Veda (Hymn XIII), translated by by Ralph T.H. Griffith (1896),  https://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv01013.htm

[xvii] Rig Veda (Hymn XXVI), translated by by Ralph T.H. Griffith (1896),  https://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv01026.htm

[xviii] Hymns of the Atharva Veda (Hymn II, Book XII), translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith (1895), https://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/av/av12002.htm

[xix] Wiktionary “Loki”: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Loki#Old_Norse

[xx] Snorri Sturlson, The Prose Edda (Skaldskaparmal), translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (1916), https://www.voluspa.org/skaldskaparmal31-40.htm

[xxi] Snorri Sturlson, The Prose Edda (Skaldskaparmal), translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (1916), https://www.voluspa.org/skaldskaparmal31-40.htm

[xxii] Flateyjarbók (Hversu Noregr byggðist), https://heimskringla.no/wiki/Fornaldars%C3%B6gur_Nor%C3%B0urlanda_I-IV:_Hversu_Noregr_bygg%C3%B0ist

[xxiii] This is my very basic and crude translation of this.

[xxiv] Wiktionary “eldr”: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/eldr#Old_Norse

2 thoughts on “Æled – An Anglo-Saxon Fire God

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