I was just looking at one of my favorite articles on St Oswald this morning. Tolley’s “Oswald’s Tree” is a unique article that sets Oswald’s actions and the development of his veneration within the semi-pagan times that he lived. So few people consider the pre-Christian context and what that means for conversion. Today, the word conversion is often used for switching from one Christian denomination, from one Abrahamic religion to another, or from no religion at all to a faith. While all of these conversions are major life changes, they don’t really compare well to the conversion from Germanic or Celtic belief systems to Christianity. Perhaps the best comparison in today’s would be Hindu to Christian. Of the major world religions today, only Hindu has the multiplicity of gods and the well developed belief system tied to the land and customs that can compare with Germanic and Celtic pre-Christian belief systems. Although Christian missionaries have been in India since the time of the apostles (reputedly St Thomas), Christianity is practiced by less than 5% of the people of India.
I wish I could remember where I read a great quote about conversion being the ability to translate symbols from one system to another. Although every belief system certainly has unique attributes and beliefs, all religious belief systems must be able to answer some of the same questions to the satisfaction of the conversion generation, particularly on questions on creation and an afterlife. Various cultures imagined creation and the afterlife differently -Hebrew, Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Norse and German all imagined differently. Some saw creation as a well-watered garden, others as the products of fire and ice.
As the secondary title title of this blog shows: “Caelestis campus, a name which it certainly received in the days of old…signified that a heavenly sign was to be erected there” shows, Oswald’s first association with a tree was at a place that was already known as a holy site. It was at Heavenfield (hefenfelth) that Oswald chose a tree and had a cross made from it on the site and used it to lead his retinue in prayer before the battle of Denisesburna the next day. Trees held a central role in Germanic belief systems. The World Tree stood at the center of a beautiful meadow with its roots reaching into the underworld and its branches reaching the heavens. The well of wisdom was located at its base and supernatural birds rested in its branches. This is a landscape that will be associated with Oswald’s death at Maserfelth/CrosOswald/Oswestry/Oswald’s Tree in the western midlands as well. The beginning of his career and evangelistic efforts is at Heavenfield, so the cross at Heavenfield, perhaps envisioned as standing in an open plain, evokes some of the same imagery — the cross linking heaven and earth. Over the 1400 years since King Oswald erected the cross at Heavenfield, its exact location has been lost; the church and meadow there now do not go back to the seventh century. Yet, placenames reflecting the holy place spread wider to include the what was once possibly one continuous highlands meadow or estate. It surely helps that this part of Northumbria is fairly mountainous so there are wide vistas.
C. Tolley (1995) “Oswald’s Tree”, p. 149-173 in Pagans and Christians: The Interplay between Christian Latin and Traditional Germanic Cultures in Early Medieval Europe. Edited by T. Hofstra, LAJR Houwen, & AA MacDonald. Groningen: Egbert Frosten.
Christianity in India, Wikipedia.