Sleipnir - The Pagan Saxon Idol of the Black Country
Updated: Aug 22, 2021
Is there really a gigantic shining monument to our pagan forefathers standing rampant above a Black Country town? Well – yes and no.
The steel statue of Sleipnir, legendary mount of the Germanic allfather, was designed by artist Steve Field and erected in 1998 on a hillside above Wednesbury. It was intended to be a companion to the new tram stop and symbolic of the modern high speed travel the tramway would usher in, buy why this mythical eight legged horse, steed of Odin?
The name of the town of Wednesbury is derived from Woden's Burgh, meaning fortified settlement dedicated to the god Woden. Nearby Wednesfield has the same association. Woden is the Anglo Saxon cognate of the Norse god Odin, but in reality the two deities were not exactly the same thing. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes came to what is England today as pagans and for the first couple of centuries of their era here that's how they remained. By the middle of the 7th century King Penda of Mercia stood alone as the last pagan monarch, the kingdom at its largest extent, prosperous and strong. When he killed Oswald of Northumbria in battle he displayed his head and arms on stakes as a blood tribute to Woden so it's not surprising that various settlements around Mercia were named for the sky god, possibly being major centres for religious ritual.
Penda was killed in 655 at the Battle of the Winwaed, with his own head removed and there the age of the heathens ended – at least officially, and speaking solely for royalty. Despite this most kings in Anglo Saxon England still claimed a divine lineage from Woden, no matter how pious the monarch. These genealogies were held sacred and also included Hengest and Horsa, the fabled leaders of the first expedition from the continent. A stained glass window can be seen in the Cloisters at Worcester Cathedral depicting Penda's death.
So is Sleipnir a fitting tribute to a stronghold of this ferocious disciple of Woden and builder of Mercia? It once was! For some years it stood proudly atop the hill above the tramway, and despite being surrounded by industrial units and modern ring-roads its immediate green surroundings made the monument something of a pilgrimage place for modern pagans. When it was first constructed the statue raised some eyebrows around the area, with the local church clergy being the most vocal. One previous vicar of nearby St Bartholomew's church spat - “This hill, with its spire crowned Church, was not always the teacher of heavenly things. There was a time when Woden, the fierce and sanguinary idol of the pagans, stained this hill with the blood of human beings offered in sacrifice to him. This Woden is supposed to be the same as Odin, on whom our poet Gray has composed a wild and beautiful ode, entitled The Descent of Odin. This devil worship passed away as the light of Christianity arose and spread on our island.”
However, recent years have not been kind to the shiny steed. The local council have allowed the surrounding bushes and shrubs to grow almost level with Sleipnir's head while the approach paths are strewn with beer cans and drugs debris...graffiti has even occasionally stained the haunches of the iron horse. The area around the mound is now fully ringed by business units and busy roads so you're just getting a little head peering over the vegetation now. Will the local authority assume responsibility and restore Sleipnir to his original glory? If not, perhaps it's up to the public to club together and do something about it? Who knows, if that little hill is left untouched for good then the statue could go almost completely forgotten amid the urban sprawl. It was commissioned by Altram, the company that built the tramway, I wonder if they might chip in to tidy up this wonderful modern throwback to our heathen past?
So if you are passing through this side of the Black Country – good luck in finding Sleipnir!
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Woden rides Sleipnir
Sleipnir at the time of his original installation
A later picture of Sleipnir