The Pagan Saxon Idol of the Black Country
Updated: Jan 14, 2021
A gigantic shining monument to our pagan forefathers standing rampant over a Black Country town? Well – yes and no.
The statue of Sleipnir 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 suggest the modern high speed travel the tramway would usher in, buy why the legendary eight legged horse Sleipnir, 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 and Saxons 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 it's 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 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 was! For some years it stood proudly atop the hill above the tramway, and with it's green space surrounding it the monument became somewhat of a pilgrimage place for modern pagans. When it was first constructed the statue raised some eyebrows locally, with the local church clergy being the most vocal. One previous vicar of nearby St Bartholomew's 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.”
Recent years have not been kind to the shiny steed though. 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 stained the haunches of the iron horse. The area around the mound is now ringed by industrial units and businesses so you're just getting a little head peering over the rooftops now. I don't want to publish any pictures of Sleipnir in this sorry state! Here's hoping once things are back to normality the local authorities can think about restoring Sleipnir to it's former glory and giving Mercia a part of it's heritage back.
Sleipnir rampant over Wednesbury
This picture by Tony Hisgett
Stained glass window in Worcester Cathedral depicting the death in battle of Penda of Mercia