Biographical Insights about
(ca 320 - NA)

Copyright 2007 by Terry J. Booth. Any reproduction or reuse is prohibited,
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Mythical Ancestor of Britain's Anglo-Saxon Kings

***_Woden Of VALHALLA_AND_NORTH_GERMANY is a mythical figure. But so colorful, powerful and seemingly historically important is his story - and that of his wife Frigga, that almost all of the Anglo-Saxon Kings claim them as ancestors.

The inclusion of any mythical figure raises an important question for any genealogy, since if the object of a genealogy is to present only family links that meet the accepted genealogical standards of proof, how can one justify including any person or figure who can never expect to meet that test?

The answer to that question depends upon what one holds to be the ultimate object of the genealogy - or more broadly speaking - of the family history it is meant to communicate. If the sole object is a presentation of family relationships that rigidly adhere to accepted standards of genealogical scholarship, one must of course immediately conclude that any mythical figure - by definition - must be excluded. But if the objective is expanded to include some of the interesting related family history, then the standards for scholarship must be more broadly defined. Especially when, as here, we are dealing with a historical time period that predate the existence (or at least survival) of the relevant genealogical records.

This genealogy is intended to be a family history as well as a genealogy. As such, it is felt desirable to incorporate important historical as well as genealogical highlights of Louise (Kielley) Booth's ancestry. The object being to help later generations understand the environments in which their ancestors lived, the difficulties they had to face and overcome, and the nature of the cultures in which they lived. An important part of those environments for a great many ancestors was clearly their religion, and indeed it is because of their religious beliefs that many families emigrated to new lands in hostile environments. So if one accepts that telling some of the stories of ancestors who changed their (and our) lives in a search for religious freedom, then some understanding of the religious environments in which they lived becomes important.

We today think of European and American religious history as synonymous with the history of Christianity. But that view is mistaken, and the inclusion of Woden in this family history allows us the chance to correct that view. For not all of Louise Kielley's (or indeed anyone's) ancestors were Christians.

It was not until the early to mid-seventh century that Christianity became the state religion in Northern Europe and Great Britain. Indeed, a great many 'Saints' owe their honorific title to this period, it often being the Catholic Church's reward to the Kings and Queens of the period who introduced and promoted the Christian religion to the lands they controlled. There are therefore over a dozen 'Saints' to be found in this Kielley genealogy, almost all of them of noble birth, with roughly 3/4 of them dating to the fifth through seventh centuries. In a great many of their cases, the reason these Kielley ancestors were designated 'saints' is because they were the leaders who (often forcibly) coverted their kingdoms from Pagan religions to Christianity. The creation of saints was not a wholly altruistric act either, for the practice also had great social and economic value. For early converts, for instance, many of the early saints took on the characteristics of the Pagan gods they had abandoned, thus easing the transition to their new religion. Sainthoods also greatly benefited the travel industry of medieval times, which soon came to depend on the 'pilgrimage' trade - the money and contributions spent by the general population to visit the tombs, environs and relics of famous saints.

As the above suggests - and as history documents - religion didn't suddenly emerge with the appearance of Christianity. Before Christianity there were other powerful religions in Europe with their own set of priests and institutions. Pointing largely back to the practices of the Greeks and Romans - but modified to assign more relevant localized names and characters - that religion was usually a form of polytheism which today is often referred to as 'Pagan'. Polytheism is the practice of worshipping multiple gods, each responsible for different aspects of life. Many of the early practices and references to those early gods are still in evidence with us today, such as in the names of the days of the week (i.e. "Thors' day" and "Woden's day"), in various geographic names, and in the mythical allusions found in much great literature. They were also figures that - despite our present culturally myopic decision to ignore them - had great influence and provided much comfort and guidance in their time.

The most important of the gods amongst the early Germanic and Scandinavian peoples was Odin - akin to the Greek's 'Zeus' and the Roman's 'Jupiter' - who was an amalgam of a wise father figure, the 'hunter of souls' who carried the dead to his great hall in Valhalla, and at times even a jokester. Surrounding him were a pantheon of lesser godlike characters possessing lesser responsibilites or character traits. The worship of Odin (called 'Wotan' in Germany and 'Woden' amongst Britain's Anglo-Saxons) was most popular and powerful in Scandinavia, where the stories and worship practices lasted several centuries longer - into the eleventh century - than further south and in Britain. But the religion of Odin/Wotan/Woden - and of its many colorful characters - nevertheless retained a strong grip on people's thoughts well past the emergence and spread of Christianity.

Even today the story and associated sagas surrounding those figures hold great significance amongst Germanic peoples, since much of the story of Odin/Wotan and his fellow gods forms the basis of Richard Wagner's much honored 'Ring Cycle' still widely performed today in Germany and elsewhere.

As most student of English history will recall, prior to roughly the sixth century, Britain was home to native tribes like the Britons and Celts as well as to a host of foreign invaders like the Romans and Vikings. But the great turning point in its history began in the sixth century when a variety of groups from Northern Germany emigrated to England. It was not an organized or coordinated emigration, but rather was often done via fleets of ships numbering as few as three but often more. Since they were looking to find land and a means of comfortable survival, they were also not usually welcomed upon arrival but often had to fight to secure and/or safeguard their new homes.

A major key to their success was leadership - a knowledgeable respected leader who could establish order and provide security. But it was not a democratic leadership - rather, it was based on 'right' and 'might'. While in the end what mattered most was who could kill off the opposition first (or create and enforce political alliances), all such monarchies also wanted to elevate themselves above the general population so their policies would not be questioned and to limit the ability of new leaders (i.e. 'threats') to arise. They sought ways in which they could 'justify' their right to lead.

One of the major ways monarchies have always sought to justify their right to rule is through such concepts as the 'divine right of kings'. While that had proved successful in many earlier civilizations (such as in Egyptian culture), by the sixth century it was essential to claim a heriditary right to rule such that 'unqualified' families could be excluded from leadership positions.

But the Germanic tribes that invaded Britain in the sixth and seventh centuries had little history behind them. Their origins were from disparate local Germanic regions like 'Angle' and Saxony and Schleswig and Jutland (the Danish peninsula). In combination, this disparate collection of Germanic regions and peoples came to be described as 'Anglo-Saxon'. But once on English soil, success and survival meant building coalitions and ever larger communities of warriors to protect common interests.

In general, good genealogies reflect care and attention to documenting all important links. But they should also help communicate the history of their time in ways that people today can still grasp. Indeed, a new form of genealogical scholarship has recently arisen - prosopography - intended to extract information about groups of similar people rather than about individuals. Such prosopographic research thereby hopes to fill the void that exists when dealing with eras when few individual records remain. Or in the words of Katharine Keats-Rohan, perhaps the most outstanding author and practitioner of this recent (1971) discipline :

'Prosopography is about what the analysis of the sum of data about many individuals can tell us about the different types of connexion between them, and hence about how they operated within and upon the institutions - social, political, legal, economic, intellectual - of their time..

The 'Woden of Valhala' genealogy should be regarded as a work of prosopography. The details of each of the descents from Woden (clearly a mythical figure for whom there is little evidence of actual existence) not only cannot be documented, but are probably wrong for at least the first 3 or 4 generations of every descent. While the trail gets a bit better once the various Anglo-Saxon communities reach English soil, even then there are usually only the abbreviated entries found in the 9th century Anglo Saxon Chronicle) - and a few later 'early' histories- to tell us about the various families. It is also well recognized that such histories are written by the winners (Alfred the Great being the sponsor of the Chronicle), and that they generally only present the histories and relationships of the leadership elite. Indeed, a number of important ancestors and rulers of early kingdoms like Mercia are not mentioned in the Chronicle, allegedly because one of its objectives was to 'demonstrate the legitimacy of the West Saxon kings to rule over other Anglo-Saxon peoples'.

Despite those shortcomings, there is great prosopographic value in trying to follow the trail from the mythical Woden to each of the major Anglo-Saxon emigrations - a group that was first described as a 'Heptarchy' by historian Henry Huntingdon back in the 12th century. The heptarchy consists of what Huntingdom considered to be the seven most important of the regional kingdoms in medieval Britain (the period from about 500 AD to 850 AD, when Egbert of Wessex became the first to effectively unify most of the various smaller kingdoms) :

1.   Northumbria (w Bernicia & Deira)
 Kings claimed a descent from Woden
2.   Mercia
 Kings claimed a descent from Woden
3.   East Anglia
 Kings claimed a descent from Woden
4.   Essex (i.e. East Saxons)
 Kings claimed a descent from Seaxburg
5.   Kent
 Kings claimed a descent from Woden
6.   Sussex (i.e. South Saxons)
 Kings claimed a descent from Woden
7.   Wessex (i.e West Saxons)
 Kings claimed a descent from Woden

The first thing to note about these descents is that 6 of the 7 regional kingdoms claimed a direct descent from Woden! It would appear to be an essential leadership qualification - "must be descended from Woden". The second thing to notice is that Essex - the one royal house not claiming descent from Woden - instead claimed descent from Seaxburg, an the equally mythical figure recognized as the founder and god of the Saxons. Which also raises an interesting related question - why didn't the two other Saxon royal houses also claim a similar descent from the god of the Saxons? One suspects - since their ancestors had also come from Saxony - they probably could, but that by the time of the 9th century histories a Woden descent was considered preferable.

It is useful to consider the two main sources for the above pedigrees. The first is the aforementioned Anglo Saxon Chronicle, and the second is a ninth century history, Historia Brittonum - 'The History of the Britons'. Though written within a hundred years of each other, neither contains all of the descents, and the lines of descent differ slightly when both sources contain the same descent. One must also consider that the Wessex line of descent no doubt favors the interests of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle's sponsor - Alfred the Great (849-899). One strongly suspects that if one is going to claim a descent from some notable (albeit mythical) figure of authority, and if Woden was by then more widely reverred figure, that a Woden descent would be seen as preferable to one from a more regional figure like Seaxburg.

There are no 'Woden Descendant' organizations who can either prove or disprove the correctness of any of the Woden lines of descent shown herein, so there seems no great genealogical harm in noting one here, especially since it is clearly labeled 'mythical'. Conversely - given the aforementioned historical and prosopographical interest - it would seem a shame if Louise Kielley's descendants and relatives were not made aware of some of the history associated with their Anglo-Saxon (and therefore Pagan) past. Hopefully the reader and user will agree.


1. Various authors; Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia; as found on the Wikipedia website. Most of the above topics and persons can be found by entering them on the Wikipedia search page.

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