The People of the Real Middle-Earth by MM Pollard
For most English-speaking people, the term “middle-earth” conjures images from J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings. For Tolkien, “Middle-earth” was an old Anglo-Saxon term for the magical world inhabited by Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and Norsemen in the first millennium A.D.
Four cultures who had influence in the British Isles during the first thousand years, A.D
Celts – a group of tribes that shared the same language and many of the same customs. Evidence of Celtic culture, as early as 800 B.C, stretches from modern-day Turkey, throughout Europe to Great Britain. Celtic tribes settled in Albion, their name for the main island in the British Isles, around 600 B.C.
Don’t think the word “settled” means passive, as in “settled down.” Tribes fought one another over territory. Members within the same tribe fought over insults, real and imagined. Let’s just say they had a quick temper. They were always ready to fight.
One more bit of info: the Celts had nothing to do with Stonehenge, which dates from 3000 B.C. to 2000 B.C., depending on the source.
Romans – Julius Caesar visited Albion in 55 B.C. and formed treaties with some of the tribes in the southeast of the island. Claudius invaded the island with the intent to conquer and subdue the inhabitants in 43 A.D. Through treaties and client states, and where neither of those methods worked, through treachery and genocide, the Romans conquered most of the main island, except for the extreme northern and western lands, and named it “Britannia.” During the four hundred years the Romans ruled the island, they put down the occasional rebellion, built roads and cities, fostered education among the locals and collected exorbitant taxes from them, defended the borders from invaders, keep the peace among tribes, and murdered the Druids. Yes, they were a busy bunch!
The Romans didn’t try to invade Ireland. Invading Britannia had stretched the Roman supply lines and the Roman coffers to the breaking point. An invasion of Ireland would have been foolhardy.
In 406 A.D., the Roman Empire was being attacked on many sides by barbarian tribes when Emperor Honorius told the people of Britannia, in a letter, to take care of their own defenses and ordered most of the Roman legions to pull out of Britannia to re-enforce Roman soldiers in Gaul fighting against various barbarian tribes. Any remaining legions were finally pulled out in 410. A.D. (another date given for the pull out of Romans from Britannia). In August of that year, Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. The Roman Empire was under all-out attack.
Anglo-Saxons – Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were Germanic tribes from modern-day Denmark and northern Germany who invaded Britain during the latter half of the fifth century and the next two centuries. Saxons first came at the invitation of a Celtic leader to defend the southern coast from reinvasion from the Romans and to contain the Picts in the north in exchange for land on an island off the coast of Kent. These protectors became invaders.
These peoples eventually invaded most of the island and subjugated the Celts once again. Many of the Celts moved to Wales and to what would become Brittany in northern France. For some time, English kingdoms co-existed with Celtic kingdoms.
Norse – raids by the Norsemen (Vikings) from Scandinavia were intermittent from around 780 A.D. until the Normans invaded the island in 1066. From the end of the eighth century until the middle of the eleventh, the English witnessed a large influx of Norse invaders. Over time, the invaders became settlers. For many years, they controlled most of the central and northeastern parts of what is modern-day England today. This area was referred to as the Danelaw.
There you have a short overview of the four cultures that influenced Middle-earth. Now for one more invader…
Irish – peoples from the island of Hibernia, which was named by the Roman historian Tacitus, in his book Agricola (c. 98 AD). The Romans also sometimes used Scotia, “land of the Scoti,” as a geographical term for Ireland in general, as well as just the part inhabited by those people. They attacked the western coast of Albion/Britannia when they realized the Romans were no longer defending the island. The Irish settled in Wales and Cornwall in the southeast. The Scoti, another tribe from Ireland, settled the northern-most part of the island, what is now Scotland.
The reason the Irish tribes aren’t listed as a cultural influence is that they shared the same Celtic culture as did the Celts in Albion. These tribes were invaders, nonetheless.
NOW, we have finished our overview of the peoples who lived in Middle-earth. I’d like to explain where Middle-earth is in Anglo-Saxon worldview.
According to the beliefs of the Germanic peoples, there existed a World Tree, usually a giant ash tree, so tall that its branches reached over the whole world and up over the heavens. Around this tree were three gigantic discs set one above the other, with space between each one. Each disc represented one of the three realms of the world.
The uppermost disc was home to the gods, the Upperworld of the warrior gods, the Aesir; and the fertility gods, the Vanir. Also living in the Upperworld were light elves, magical creatures who expressed the spirit of nature.
The middle disc was called Middle-earth. Here lived humans. This world included the material and spiritual worlds of humans. A vast ocean surrounded the land of the humans. A giant serpent, Jormungand, lay in the ocean and encircled Middle-earth and bit his own tail. He contained the energy of this realm. Otherwise, Middle-earth would have exploded into chaos.
At the outer edge of Middle-earth and across the ocean was the world of the giants, Jotunheim. In the north lived dwarfs underground in the world called Nidavellir and the dark elves in their world of Svartlfheim.
Connecting the Upperworld and the Middle World was a flaming rainbow bridge, Bifrost, which transported a wizard from the world of reality to the Otherworld, the transcended states of consciousness. You probably have seen this bridge and simply thought it was a rainbow.
The bottom disc, deep in the roots of the tree, was the Underworld or Lowerworld comprising the land of the dead. Its citadel was Hel, not to be confused with the Christian Hell. The Underworld was a place of danger for a wizard who dared venture there, but it was also a realm that held rewards of great wisdom for anyone who made the journey.
Each world had its own root and was nourished by its own spring with its own attendants. The first root reached into Asgard, the home of the Aesir, and was nourished by the Well of Wyrd, which was attended to by the three Wyrd Sisters, makers of destiny.
The second root spread to Jotunheim and was nourished by the Spring of Mimir, the wise giant, a teacher of wizards.
The third root spread into the Lowerworld and was nourished by the Spring of Hvergelmir, the source of eleven rivers and the lair of the dragon Nidhogg.Want to learn more? Be sure to join MM Pollard for her workshop, The People of the Real Middle Earth. This workshop is a general overview of the history of Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings in England during the second half of the first millennium. In six lessons, MM will discuss how they lived, how they governed themselves, what the place of women in society was, and what they believed to be real.
Workshop runs from 8/03/2015 to 8/23/2015
Cost: FFP Members: $20.00/Non-Members: $25.00