Hretha, the Victorious Spring Goddess
Posted by Byron Pendason on , in Heathen worship, Heathenry, Reconstruction
On my reconstructed Anglo-Saxon Calendar, today is the beginning of Hreþmonaþ (the þ letter is called thorn, and pronounced as ‘th’ in thin). Bede tells us that it roughly corresponds to March, and the month is named after the goddess Hretha (Hrēðe in Old English, where the ð letter is called eth and is pronounced as the ‘th’ in that), because the Anglo-Saxons made offerings to her in this month. (Hretha is Latinised as Rheda, and you’ll sometimes seen her referred to as such.)
Hretha is one of two goddesses mentioned by Bede that we have no record of anywhere else, the other being Ēastre. So all we actually know about her for sure is her name and that she was worshipped in March. Anyone who tells you different is trying to pass their UPG off as fact. I think we can draw a couple reasonable theories about her from this scant evidence though, so read on for my UPG on Hretha!
In many cases, the name of a god or goddess can give us a clue about them. For example, Thunor literally means thunder. Woden means raging, frenzy and refers to his role in the Wild Hunt. In Hretha’s case, her name means Victory. To me, that seems to point to a war goddess. The first goddess that came to mind was Athena, the Greek goddess of War, and her Roman counterpart Mirnerva. Due to the constant Germanic contact with the Romans, I decided to research Mirnerva and in the course of my research I came across Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory who was said to determine victory in battle. Like Hretha, her name literally means victory. Something in my head shouted at me, There! That is your Hretha.
Victoria was very prominent in Roman society, and they built statues of her in military camps. She was the goddess of both military victory and victory in non-combatant competitions. She was seen as the goddess of victory over death (remember this point, we’ll come back to it later!) and was said to determine the victors, both in battle and in competition. It was also her duty to reward the victors. Many modern pagans see her as a goddess of success in general.
In the Greek pantheon, Nike is the goddess of victory. It seems like she is essentially the same as Victoria, though not as prominent in Greek society as Victoria was in Roman society, with the exception of in Sparta. The warrior-centered Spartans had many statues of Nike put up.
The Iceni had a goddess named Andastre. They were a Celtic tribe that lived in Iron Age Eastern Britain. She was mentioned by Roman historian Dio Cassius and is described by him as their name for Victoria. During the Roman invasion of Britain, an Iceni woman prayed, “I thank you, Andraste, and call upon you as woman speaking to woman … I beg you for victory and preservation of liberty.” Unfortunately, we don’t have any more information on Andastre than this, but it does seem like in the Iceni’s eyes, victory was Andraste’s to give just as it was Victoria’s to give in the Roman’s eyes, and Nike’s to give in the Greeks eyes. I also believe it was seen to be Hretha’s to give in the Anglo-Saxons eyes. The Germanic tribes, including the Anglo-Saxon tribes before they migrated to the British Isles, had extensive contact with both Celtic peoples and the Romans, so it makes sense that influences from each of the groups to the others would make these goddesses similar enough to one another. And according to the Proto-Indo-European Hypothesis (which there is much linguistic and some cultural evidence for), all of these groups are related anyways, which could explain the fact that many of their gods share many similarities.
So why was she worshipped in March? This month can sometimes seem like a war between winter and summer (don’t forget- like many ancient pre-Christian European cultures, including both the Celtic and Germanic [aka, Heathen] nations, the year was divided into only winter and summer). Sure, by the end of the month, summer can be declared the undisputed winner, but the first couple weeks can sometimes feel a bit iffy. Snow isn’t unheard of towards the beginning of March here in the Midwestern USA, and the same is true of many locations. So I can see petitioning Hretha at the begining of the month for summer’s victory, and thanking her later in the month after it has become clear that summer will win. Even though the Anglo-Saxons did not have a season of Spring, Hretha is a Spring goddess in the sense that she is worshipped during the transition from winter to summer, and represents the summer’s coming victory over winter. By the equinox at the end of the month, summer’s victory over winter would be assured. (Summer did not officially begin, however, until the full moon of the following month, Eosturmonaþ. This month roughly corresponds to our April.)
In conclusion, it is my UPG that Hretha was the Anglo-Saxon goddess of victory. She not only determines the victors, she represents victory over death and summer’s victory over winter. She is a good deity to petition when you need other kinds of victory in competitions other than combat, to petition for the end of winter, and to offer to in thanksgiving when winter gives way to warmer weather.
Hail Hretha, the victorious spring goddess of the Anglo-Saxons!