Interlace – the Web of Wyrd?

Yorkshire and the North-East of England boast an impressive collection of Anglo-Scandinavian stone sculpture, skillfully carved with interlace.



Gravestones, standing stones, crosses: pieces of stone built into the walls of churches that were rebuilt after the Conquest. And almost all of them include the decoration known as ‘interlace’.

They also show recognisable motifs: people, animals, plants, mythical beasts such as dragons and birds. They are more than just decoration, they are all significant figures from Norse or Christian mythologies. Often, both mythologies feature on one piece of stone. It’s an artwork born of the fusion of two cultures, the meeting of pagan Scandinavians with Christian Anglo Saxons in the Danelaw. The Norse God Odin stands at the base of Christian crosses. Another stone might show Ragnarok, the Norse end of the world story, one side, with Christ on the other side of the stone.

Some are beautifully decorated with sophisticated patterns of plants and animals trailing into a tangle of interlace. Others show groups of warriors, or the tragic dragon-slaying hero Sigurd.

But whatever other motifs are show, interlace is everywhere. And not only on sculpture, but on jewellery, on what little leather work that survives. Even in books, such as the fabulously decorated Lindisfarne Gospels.

If the other motifs of this pre-Conquest sculpture depict figures from important myths, surely the most-used motif of all must have significance. So, what does interlace mean?

Interlace is a complex decoration of lines that twist and turn, weave over and under each other, sometimes forming knots, sometimes just weaving a web. It was popular all over northern Europe, in Viking era Scandinavia, in North European migration period – Anglo-Saxon – art, and also in Celtic art – famously in the Book of Kells.

In pre-Conquest north-eastern England, all these peoples came together in what was then known as ‘Northumbria’, a kingdom with centres at York and Durham, and created Anglo-Scandinavian stone sculptures.

I have read many reports from experts about Anglo Scandinavian sculpture. They explain the iconography: boars for good fortune, Odin with his two ravens. But none tell me what interlace means.

In her blog,  Sandra Effinger, through a study of the Anglo Saxon poem ‘Beowulf’, concludes that interlace is a motif signifying that “nothing was independent: everything depended on everything..” And, importantly, “Everything was stronger when ‘braided’ together.”

I agree with her – and, after immersing myself in the history of the times, I would take it a step further. Yes, all lives are interlinked. And so too are all fates.

Interlace design on a Viking-era leather sheath, seen at York Minster.

Interlace design on a Viking-era leather sheath, seen at York Minster.

I suggest that interlace depicts the complex weavings and tanglings of fate.

I came to this conclusion when I began writing historical fiction and imagining myself into the mindset of pre-Conquest Yorkshire. A life of uncertainty, with, despite your best efforts, so many things out of your control. You could tend your crops assiduously: and a storm could wipe out a year’s work. You could love your children, to see them carried off by mysterious disease – or raiding pirates. Your could feed your precious milk cow until she was sleek and fat, only to see her drop dead the day after calving. What is this, if not Fate?

In Norse mythology, the three Norns sit beneath the World Tree and spin out the fates of all. Their spinning creates a huge web. A web which some Gods may have knowledge of, but none can change.

In Pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon culture, there was wyrd, a massive web in which the fates of all living things were interwoven. Change one thread, and the whole web is changed. Changed perhaps in a big way, if a man’s fate is interwoven with many others. Or perhaps there is only a small, subtle change, from a small life. But, a change nevertheless.

The concept of fate, or destiny, and whether or not it can be changed, is something that has occupied philosophers, theologians, and story tellers, forever.

So, maybe, the Anglo-Norse-Celtic stone sculptors of pre-Conquest Yorkshire were great philosophers, contemplating the mysteries of fate as they carved interlace into their stone monuments.

Where to see Anglo-Scandinavian stone sculptures:

Pre-Norman stone sculptures can be seen throughout the ancient kingdom of Northumbria – which, at its height, stretched from the Humber to the Forth. Durham University has an online catalogue of the sculptures.

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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