The Devil's Dyke is a seven-mile long, Anglo-Saxon earthwork. In the legend, it was built almost in one night, but the bank is nearly 50 feet high in places, so it is likely that the work took an army of men many years to finish. People think Penda, the Saxon King of the East Angles during the late 6th or early 7th centuries, built it. However, there is evidence that makes us think that the dyke may have been built over the top of an earlier prehistoric dyke.
The dyke ran from the edge of the woodlands, in the area of what is now Woodditton (Mount Dithon in the story), in a north-westerly direction to the village of Reach in, what was then, swampy fenland.
How did the story arise?
At night in the forest - a magical time of dreams
The dyke was most likely built for defence. However, at this time, the story of an event was mostly passed on by word of mouth (orally) rather than written down. So supernatural ideas were often mixed in with facts.
These ideas were based on the folk tales of the people who came to live in the area. As time passed, these tales were used to explain things that people did not understand or had forgotten the origins of.
In many old tales, people are given warnings or information in dreams. In many cultures, sleep was seen as a mysterious time and dreams were to prepare you for the day ahead.
The name of the chief in the story, Hrothgar, also appears in the Anglo-Saxon saga or poem - Beowulf. In the poem, Beowulf goes to the land of the Danes and is welcomed warmly by Hrothgar their king. Beowulf then fights three evil monsters, the last of which is a fire-breathing dragon, so parts of Norse or Saxon folklore and names may well have become mixed into the local tale.
The Saxons and Vikings believed in the work of demons and evil spirits. They also worshipped the gods of fire and ice (water). In Nordic mythology, the two forces that created the universe were fire and ice or water. In the tales, these natural elements are seen as gods but with very human like characteristics. In the poem, Beowulf, fire is described as the "greediest of spirits", swallowing everything. The poem also has passages about giants and demons.
Is there any truth in the story?
Fire in the forest
In some versions of the story, Hrothgar's daughter, Hayenna, is chased by the fire demon that changes into burning bushes, comets and thunderbolts; these natural events may have become mixed into the tale. So, at one time, there may have been a very bad storm, which caused a fire in the forest that was finally put out by water. This event was then remembered in the story.
The idea of giving gifts to the water god, in thanks, would have been common to the Saxons, Vikings and Celts, who often put valuable items in the water for the gods. This may have caused the legend of buried treasure within the dyke.