It is doubtful whether the lyre of the Anglo-Saxon scop could have competed with the Funk Brothers of Hitsville USA and it is doubtful whether he could have played it with his teeth like Jimi Hendrix but you never know. What is probable is that he would have related to the idea of some kind of soul journey which can be seen as a happening both in life and after death. And seeing as soul music has its religious dimension in gospel as well as the Christian beliefs of some of its greatest exponents perhaps the analogy is not as inappropriate as first appears.
Raedwald’s ancestral kin, whoever they were exactly, were a sea people, and they sailed the coasts of Northern Europe with a stoic not to say talented determination. The sea seems never to have been very far from their thoughts. It can be imagined that to them the ridges in the fallow were like those in the sand at the sea’s edge.
The seamanship of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Friesians is often overshadowed by that of the Vikings, glamorous and bloodthirsty as they were, but of course it was the same seamanship and thirst for blood and sometimes it seems forgotten that the pagan Vikings were close relatives of the Christian Anglo-Saxons they plundered.
Bronze Age intimations of ship burial are to be found in Scandinavia in the form of upright stones laid out in the form of a ship and smaller boat burials are also found from the fourth century AD on the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic sea.
Such islands put me immediately in mind of Heorot. Scyld Shefing was set adrift in a funeral ship, piled high with treasures, in a manner remarkably similar to the rite of the Mound 1 ship at Sutton Hoo with the obvious difference that Scyld was floated literally on the sea to a destination that seems mysterious even to the Christian poet of Beowulf.
It is generally assumed that this journey entailed a crossing of garsecg, the sea surrounding the known world, the implication being that whatever lay to the other side was non-mortal. A bit like the Americas to the Old World before Columbus.
It is here that we run into difficulties because of the tightlipped nature of pagan Anglo-Saxon England. All of the poetry and prose we are fortunate to possess is highly coloured by Christian thought but it does contain tantalising glimpses of the pagan mind. The famous funeral of Scyld Shefing is but one of many examples. The difficulty lies in the determined silence of Christian Anglo-Saxon poets and writers when it comes to pagan specifics. Seeing as several of the most famous were monks it is hardly surprising. It is a matter of drawing splinters from the text.
Proper ship burial where a clinker built ship bearing an illustrious body is buried under a mound seems to begin in the early seventh century at Sutton Hoo. It may have been done first at Valsgard in Sweden but the burials are contemporaneous. The cultural link with Sweden is thought by certain experts to be significant and ship burial was practised in Sweden for the next four hundred years. In East Anglia of course it was brought to an abrupt halt.
Whether ship burial at Sutton Hoo had any political significance is a matter of opinion. It might well have. It is certain that it had religious significance but what exactly this significance was nobody can say for sure.
Our modern age cannot bear unknowingness. In the dark space of ignorance we put speculation. And lots of it. Some, seizing on the passage in Bede, that tells of Raedwald’s altar to both pagan gods and Christ, see a kind of transitional burial in the cargo carried by the Mound 1 ship. There is no doubt that the ship burial is a powerful metaphor that has applicability for many beliefs. It is a monumental symbol that dovetails nicely with many ideas not all of them necessarily spiritual.
The idea of a ship sailing souls toward God goes back to the very early church. In Mark’s gospel we are told how the disciples became alarmed when a storm got up on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus, being the kind of useful person he seems to have been, calmed the winds with a gesture. The men were astonished. The fishing boat might be a symbol of the fledgling church buffeted by the gales of circumstance and Christ the figurehead leading them safely to the shore of salvation. There is evidence that the author of ‘Mark’ certainly intended it so.
Is this really the symbol informing the burial at Sutton Hoo? There is Byzantine treasure among the grave goods. I am unconvinced there is anything Christian about the ship burials at Sutton Hoo. Martin Carver’s argument that ship burial was commonplace in Sweden into the Viking age is compelling. These were not transitional burials; they were pagan burials.
This does not mean that Raedwald himself was not transitional in a religious sense although once again we have to be careful. It is impossible for us to realise, that is as a reality, the faith of the Middle Ages let alone that of the Dark Ages. I think though that the coming of Christianity brought with it a new partioning of religious ideas that had not really existed before.
‘Oh build your ship of death, your little ark
and furnish it with food, with little cakes, and wine
for the dark flight down oblivion …’
In this wonderful poem by D.H. Lawrence we have the symbol come full circle. Once more it seems in pagan hands.
‘… upon the flood’s black waste
upon the waters of the end
upon the sea of death, where still we sail
darkly, for we cannot steer, and have no port …’
Yet it is perfectly possible to shine a Christian light on this poem. That word ‘darkly’ takes me straightaway to ‘through a glass darkly’. The phrase is from the King James Version of St Paul’s letter which Lawrence knew as well as anybody.
In the end it seems that everything inherits everything and to me that is no bad thing.