LAY OF THE LAND

Return to Hood Hill – another Hill of Odin?

Hood Hill
Hood Hill

  A previous post described the Altar Stone which used to stand on the top of Hood Hill near Sutton Bank, 5 miles to the east of Thirsk.

  Local folklore records that the large block of stone was originally a Druid altar, which was dropped on the hill by the Devil, but unfortunately the rock was totally destroyed in the 1950’s when a jet aircraft crashed into it.

  In the early 1900’s, Edmund Bogg noted another piece of folklore connected with the rock …
“when the dinner-bell rang at Osgodby Hall the stone rolled down for its repast, and regularly returned to the crest after the meal.” (Bogg, 1906).

  At first glance this sounds like a piece of nonsense, however, these ‘wandering stones’ are quite a common theme in folklore, and it also points to a local belief that there was some connection between Osgodby Hall and the Altar rock. Osgodby Hall is located at the foot of Hood Hill, on the lower ground 3/4 mile to the west. The Osgodby place name apparently means the farmstead or estate of Osgaut. Osgaut is derived from Os-Gaut meaning ‘god (or divine) – Gaut’, and it just so happens that Gaut is one of the by-names for the Norse god Odin. So Osgodby would seem to be a reference to ‘the god Odin’s land’. Gaut was the mythological founder of the Geats tribal group from southern Sweden (the Geatas of the Beowulf saga). Gaut also appeared in a royal genealogy where the line was traced back to Odin and Gaut. The belief seems to have been that Gaut was actually Odin, and that the Geats tribe had divine origins.

Roseberry Topping
Roseberry Topping – Odin’s Hill

  The Anglo-Scandinavian settlers in the north of England brought with them their own pre-Christian beliefs, which involved offerings, ceremonies, and feasting in honour of their gods. These religious practices took place within the home, or in a Hof (a timbered hall temple), or outdoors at a Horg – a prominent rock, mound or cairn, used as an altar. Twenty miles to the north of Hood Hill, these settlers seem to have dedicated the mountain like hill of Roseberry Topping to their chief god Odin, where its name appeared in old documents as Othenesburg – meaning Odin’s Hill. On the east side of Othenesberg there is a location called Airy Holme, which appears in the Domesday Record as Ergun (or Ergum). The local antiquarian, the Rev J.C. Atkinson, linked this name to the Norse word Horgum – meaning ‘sacred altars’. He noted that “the Horg was an altar of stone erected on high places, or a sacrificial cairn built in open air“. (Atkinson, 1882). Old Norse texts mention that the Scandinavians honoured their gods at their “Hofum ok Horgum” – temples and altars, while the Anglo Saxon word ‘Hearg’ had the same meaning. This suggests that Roseberry Topping may well have been regarded as a holy hill, and a cult site where religious practices took place. These activities could have taken place on the rocky summit of the hill, with perhaps a more accessible horg (altar stone or cairn) on the lower slopes at the Ergum location.

  The Roseberry name is thought to have borrowed the initial R from Newton-undeR-Oseberry, with the earlier Oseberry linking back to the even older Othenes-Berg. It is no coincidence that both the Oseberry and Osgodby names contain the element Os or Óss, which was a character in the runic alphabet with the meaning ‘god’ or divine. In a non Christian context Os / Óss referred to the chief god Odin.

An old Icelandic Rune Poem confirms the link between óss, Odin, and Gaut ……

 Óss er algingautr
ok ásgarðs jöfurr,
ok valhallar vísi.
Óss is aged Gautr
and prince of Asgard
and lord of Valhalla.

  Returning south to Hood Hill and Osgodby, we have another prominent hill, which had a large rock known as the ‘Altar Stone’ on its summit. At the foot of the hill there is a place name referring to Os-Gaut’s-land, an apparent reference to the god Odin’s land. This begins to suggest that Hood Hill may have also been a holy hill (like Roseberry Topping) with its horg (Altar rock) serving the people of this district.

  It is known that the Hofs (hall temples) had a Hofgodi – a respected head man and religious leader who looked after the cult sites. In the Hofs, oaths were sworn, and offerings made before carved images of their gods, such as Odin, Thor, Frey, and Freya, etc, while ritual feasting and banqueting also took place there. It is possible to speculate that such a Hof stood where Osgodby Hall is today, and was associated with a horg altar on Hood Hill. From the area around the hall, the Altar rock would have stood out on the ridge of the hill forming the skyline to the east.

Hood Hill
Photo edit showing site of the Altar stone seen from the lane alongside Osgodby Hall

  Such a connection between a horg (altar) and a hof (hall temple) might begin to shed light on the odd piece of folklore about the Altar rock rolling down the hill to share in the food at Osgodby Hall. Was this perhaps a very old and distorted piece of local history recalling a time when offerings and food from the ritual feasting in the Hof were taken up the hill to the horg Altar rock? In this way it could be said that the Altar Stone rock shared in the food served at the hall / Hof.

  Once again this can only be speculation, but in some ways this can be seen as a continuation of the suggestion made in the Roulston post – that the foot marked Altar stone may have been an inauguration stone connected with the Iron Age hill fort on Roulston Scar. The folklore attached to the east side of the hill has the Iron Age Druids using the Altar rock, while the Osgodby folklore on the west side might just hint at the Hofgodi priests attending the same Horg altar rock several hundred years later. Such continuity of use of a site is not unknown, and archaeology has shown that the Anglo-Saxons used Bronze Age burial mounds for their own burials. So an important Iron Age ritual site could just as easily be adopted by later settlers in an area. Unfortunately, any evidence either way was totally destroyed when an RAF jet aircraft crashed into the altar rock in 1954.


After thoughts
That hood hill may have had some lingering pre-Christian significance may have led to the hermitage being built on the north side of the hill at Hood Grange. Just as a hermitage was built on the summit of Odin’s Hill – Roseberry Topping. The monks of Byland Abbey first settled at the Hood hermitage before moving to Byland, so they may have helped preserve some of the history and legends in this area.

  The root of the word Gaut means ‘to pour’ or the pourer. In a tribal context it is thought to mean the pourer of men, dispersing them from the flowing source of the tribe. It is worth noting that in the Norse creation myth, Odin killed the Giant Ymir (the first living being) by stabbing him and letting his blood pour out, thereby creating the life giving waters of the world. So in this sense Odin could be seen as the original pourer of life. Gaut can also be traced back to a root word for god, or a priest of god – a sacrificer and pourer of libations. At the Upsalla temple in Sweden, libations were poured out to the images of Odin, Thor and Frey etc, As an important ancestral figure, Gaut – ‘the pourer’, suggests the act of pouring may have held some deeper significance in pre-Christian Germanic cultures, perhaps connected with the drinking vessels and cauldrons of prehistory.

  If Roseberry Topping, Hood Hill and Hollin Hill, were regarded as holy hills by the Anglo Scandinavians in this region, it might suggest a chain of such sites located on hills, ridges, and outcrops around the edge of the North York Moors upland area. Other sites might include Freebrough Hill, the Wainstones, Bousdale Hill (Tinghowdale?), and Airy Hill at Skelton.

References
Atkinson, J.C. (1882) A Handbook for Ancient Whitby and its Abbey.
Bogg, Edmund (1906). The Golden Vale of Mowbray

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