Hreda

Philip Shaw

In 725, the Northumbrian monk Bede (also known as the Venerable Bede) wrote De Temporum Ratione, “On the Reckoning of Time.” In Chapter 15, “De Mensibus Anglorum,” he discussed the Anglo-Saxon calendar.

In his 2011 book Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of the Matrons, Philip A. Shaw comments on Bede’s reliability:

Some of Bede’s etymologies are evidently correct, such as his interpretation of vveodmonath as “mensis zizamiorum” (“month of weeds”). Others are very problematic, such as solmonath: there is no clear evidence for an Old English word *sol meaning “cake,” and there has therefore been considerable debate as to Bede’s exact meaning and the state of his knowledge of pre-Christian offerings.¹

According to Bede, the month of March was called Hredmonath by the Anglo-Saxons.

The version edited by Charles W. Shaw in 1943 gives the Latin as: “a dea illorum Hreda, cui in illo sacrficabant, nominatur.” In English, Faith Wallis gives the translation: Hredmonath “is named for their goddess Hre[d]a, to whom they sacrificed at this time.”²

In his chapter on Hreda, Shaw analyzes possible etymological connections between the name of the goddess and the Old English words hrēod (reed), hrēða (goatskin), hrēðe (fierce), hrēðan (to rejoice)/hrēð (victory, glory), and hræd/hræð/hrēð (quick). Shaw rejects all of these possibilities on linguistic grounds except for hræd/hræð/hrēð (quick), commenting that “since hræd is more plausible than the other potential relatives identified above, we should keep it in mind, despite the difficulties that remain with such an interpretation.”³

Shaw then proceeds to examine “hreð as a personal name element,” observing that “the sequence <hreð> occurs as a prototheme in a number of Old English personal names.”4

In this section, he concludes:

The personal names and the month-name evidence seem, then, to suggest two possible relatives for Hreda. One is the adjective hræð ‘quick,’ which also appears as a name element.” The other option is “the possibility of a name element *hræð, related to the Old Norse personal element hreið-. The etymological origins of this name are uncertain. It is difficult, however, to decide which of these elements is involved, since they are liable to be spelt in the same way in Old English. Nonetheless, like Eostre, Hreda appears to have a name that derives from a word that is also used as a personal name element.5

Shaw then looks at the group-name Hreðgotan, applied to the Goths in the Old English poems Widsith and Elene, and compares the name to “the Reiðgotar who appear in stanza 12 of the Eddaic poem Vafþrúðnismál” and “the territorial designation Reiðgotaland, which occurs in a number of Old Norse sagas,” as well as to the “earliest Scandinavian attestation of this group name” — the name “hraiþkutum” or “Hreið-Goths” is part of an inscription on the Rök stone from Östergötland, Sweden.6

Shaw ultimately concludes with thoughts on the implications of Hreda potentially being linked to some sort of ethnonym:

There are at least two plausible etymologies for her name. It is noteworthy, however, that these etymologies both relate to terms used in forming personal names, and in one case to a term employed in group naming as well as personal naming. If Hreda’s name is indeed related to a term employed as an ethnic designation, she, along with Eostre, can be seen as part of a broader pattern of deities and ancestor figures whose names connect with social groupings. Such figures are, not surprisingly, most obvious when they relate to well-known, often large-scale groupings [such as the god Saxnot whose name means “companion of the Saxons,” or Gapt, ancestor of the Goths] […]

Eostre, like the goddesses and matrons of the Romano-Germanic inscriptions, suggests the possibility if many more such deities, operating at smaller social scales—and perhaps success stories like Saxnot and Gapt simply represent the snowballing of such figures attached to small social groups which themselves became larger and more successful.7

Bibliography

Shaw, Philip A. Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of the Matrons. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011.

1. Shaw 50.
2. Ibid. 49.
3. Ibid. 82.
4. Ibid. 84.
5. Ibid. 86.
6. Ibid. 90.
7. Ibid. 96.

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