Owls: Always a Hoot?

Owl, Book of Hours, London, c. 1460; British Library, Harley MS 2887, f. 29r; © The British Library

Today, owls are usually associated with wisdom. Their depictions in modern iconography range from majestic hunters to cute messengers à la Harry Potter. The convention of associating these nocturnal birds with wisdom goes all the way back to ancient Greeks and Romans depicting owls with the goddess of wisdom, Athena/Minerva. However, owl symbolism has not continuously had such positive connotations; in fact, in Medieval England, they were drastically different.

Owls have a strong presence in medieval fables and poems, many of them associating owls with the darkness and uncleanliness. Medieval poets took biblical references to owls as inspiration. For example, Job in his sorrow is referred to as the companion of owls, linking owls with mourning. In Leviticus, owls are mentioned as unclean birds. Building on these negative associations, medieval beast poems include violence towards owls. In Cuono of St. Nabor’s fable “The Peacock and the Owl,” a white peacock, symbolizing light and goodness, is violently murdered by an “envious owl” (Ziolkowski 245), and then a violent curse is wished upon the owl to avenge the death of the beautiful peacock. In the same vein, in the often-repeated story of the owlet in the hawk’s nest, the owl’s true identity is discovered when it fouls the nest—and then it is thrown out of the nest and dismembered by magpies and crows (Mann 178).

Anthropomorphic owl meant to resemble a Jew; bestiary, 2nd quarter of the 13th century, England; British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 47 r; © The British Library

A more disturbing element of owl’s negative symbolism is their association with anti-Semitism. Owls, who are day-blind and live in darkness, were used to represent Jews in medieval England, who were said to have rejected the light of Christ and live in the uncleanliness of religious blasphemy. This accounts for the anthropomorphic appearance of some manuscript drawings of owls: they were sometimes given hooked noses to resemble Jews, and their horns represent the horned hats Jews were forced to wear.

Not all mentions of owls are completely negative, however. The Aberdeen bestiary presents a positive moralization of owls, saying that they represent Christ, who lived in the darkness (or away from view, like the owl) because he wanted to save sinners who also lived in darkness away from the light of God.

One of the most well-know medieval literary owls is in the poem The Owl and the Nightingale. The Owl and the Nightingale offer retellings of some of Marie de France’s fables, illustrating the popularity of animal fables. Significantly, the Nightingale recites the fable of the owl in the hawk’s nest to emphasize the inescapability of nature over nurture: the owl is recognized because it can’t escape its unclean nature despite being raised by a different bird. However, the poem gives the well-known story a twist, turning the usual moral condemnation of the owl on its head. The owl counters that it cannot be at fault for a nature that is common to all infants—even humans.

Owl symbolism continued to have negative associations even after the medieval period. During the Reformation, they came to be associated with Catholics, and later with Puritans (Hirsch 151)—generally with the vilified religious group du jour. Negative symbolism continued into the early modern period: in several of Shakespeare’s plays, the owl is an evil omen. Though the owl has much more positive connotations today, its history is plagued by darkness and negativity.

Owl and other birds decorating the bottom of a page; psalter and hours, France (Arras), c. 1300; British Library, Yates Thompson MS 15, f. 96r; © The British Library

Anne Marie Blieszner
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Hirsch, Brett D. “From Jew to Puritan: The Emblematic Owl in Early English Culture.” “This Earthly Stage”: World and Stage in Late Medieval and Early Modern England. Brett Hirsch and Christopher Wortham, Eds. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2010.

Mann, Jill. From Aesop to Reynard: Beast Literature in Medieval Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750-1150. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

 

 

Resurrecting the Phoenix

Fahey_Harley4751_f45r
Phoenix; bestiary, England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century; BL Harley MS 4751, f. 45r

Few mythological creatures have remained as present in Western cultural imagination as the fabulous and fiery phoenix. Phoenix mythology quickly became a poetic muse for classical authors from Ovid (Metamorphoses 15) to Lactantius (De ave phoenice). This mythographic and poetic tradition is later adapted in the Old English Phoenix, a poem found in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501). For my contribution to The Chequered Board’s ongoing series on Anglo-Saxon poetry in translation, I selected to translate a section from the Exeter Book Phoenix poem (lines 1-49), which I have titled “Æþelast Lond,” and which describes the heavenly home of the mythological phoenix.

My translation of the Exeter Book Phoenix is—first and foremost—a “creative” adaption of the Old English original. As a translation, “Æþelast Lond” is an interpretive rendition of the Exeter Book poem and should not be taken as a literal translation of the Old English, but rather as an experiment with artistic translation as a means of interpreting Anglo-Saxon verse. Throughout the piece I try to remember the certain poetics specific to the Exeter Phoenix, in addition to the literary traditions of phoenix mythology and the mysterious paradise in which the phoenix bird lives.

Hæbbe ic gefrugnen  þætte is feor heonan
eastdælum on  æþelast londa,
firum gefræge.  Nis se foldan sceat
ofer middangeard  mongum gefere
folcagendra,  ac he afyrred is
þurh meotudes meaht  manfremmendum.
Wlitig is se wong eall,  wynnum geblissad
mid þam fægrestum  foldan stencum.

I have heard that hence in faroff dales
Are Eastern fabled fields,
A fay realm known yet impossible and impassible
To human folk of earthen mold,
Guarded and disguised and determined,
Purged of evil and impurity.
A place of winsome wonder, blessed with edenic bliss
And the fairest fragrance of paradise.
(“Æþelast Lond,” ll. 1-8)


The Exeter Book Phoenix is itself a translation of Lactantius’ De ave phoenice—from Latin hexameter into Old English alliterative verse—which I have here translated into modern English free verse. Anglo-Saxon poetic and homiletic styles work in tandem throughout the Exeter Book poem, as Janie Steen and others have long noticed. It can be noted that the first line of my translation “I have heard that hence in faroff dales” (1), metrically echoes, even mimics, the Old English alliterative verse structure. While there is a somewhat contrived, mechanical quality to this line, I wanted to begin by paying metrical homage to the original poetics, before swiftly departing from any strict metrical parameters. However, despite that only this line attempts to slavishly resurrect Old English metrics, alliterative adornment remains a consistent stylistic feature throughout “Æþelast Lond”.

I attempt to resurrect the homiletic style of the Exeter Book Phoenix in my rather literal rendition of the ne…ne formulaic sections of this Old English “translation” (such as lines 15-19 and 22-25), which is in part an expansion on the nec…nec formula from Lactantius’ De ave phoenice. These formulae, Latin and Old English, are also popular in contemporaneous Old English and Anglo-Latin homilies. The cadence of this section in the original produces a masterful blend of Old English homiletic style and alliterative verse. For this reason, I felt this section deserved a more literal translation, with as much attention and adherence to metrics, style and diction as possible, in order to reproduce the rhythm and rhetorical effect produced by this simple, formulaic repetition.

Moreover, diction—for any poet or translator—is a point that merits some brief discussion. Again, I begin with a higher frequency of words etymologically derived from Old English, such as “hence” (1), “folk” (4), “mold” (4), “winsome” (7), etc. However, by the ninth line of the poem, my diction shifts toward the Latinate and ecclesiastical, and terms such as “celestial” (9), “creation” (11), revelation” 12), “angelic” (13), etc., in order to reflect the spiritual concerns and homiletic tone of the Exeter Book original poem.

The eastern wong or “plain” where the phoenix lives is heofon “heaven” in the Old English original, and thus in my translation, I focus my attention on the mystical space and mysterious home of the phoenix, central to this section of the poem. In the Exeter poem, two traditions of phoenix lore come together regarding where this mythical bird originates. The classical description of the phoenix as coming from the East (usually Egypt—at times India or Arabia) derives from Herodotus’ famous Greek account in his Histories, which lays the foundation for much of classical phoenix mythography. The Old English echoes this origin for the bird’s home: Hæbbe ic gefrugnen þætte is feor heonan/ eastdælum on  æþelast londa (1-2) “I have heard that there is the best of lands far hence in the eastern parts.” The other tradition, which becomes syncretized with the classical accounts, comes from the Abrahamic tradition, and describes the phoenix as a bird of paradise.

M. R. Niehoff has noted commentaries on the Midrash and Talmud, which describe the phoenix (chol) as refusing to eat the forbidden fruit and thereafter gaining everlasting life along with the chance to remain in paradise. The paradisal quality is present also in the Old English, as the phoenix’s home is a place not of this world: wlitig is se wong eall,  wynnum geblissad/ mid þam fægrestum  foldan stencum. “The plain is all shimmering, blessed with joys and with the fairest smells of the earth” (7-8). As Christianity developed during the late classical and early medieval periods, phoenix mythology became assimilated into Christianity, often recast in allegorical association with Christ and his resurrection. These allegories are often coupled with the Abrahamic interpretation of the phoenix as a bird of paradise, featured prominently in the Old English Phoenix.

“Æþelast Lond” highlights Old English homiletic and poetic styles, combines Abrahamic and classical traditions of phoenix mythography, and raises questions about semantical versus literal translation. It is my hope that, rather than simply offering another slavish translation of the Old English, “Æþelast Lond” encourages others to engage their creativity when reading and translating Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Stay tuned for additional forthcoming translations from the Exeter Book Phoenix, reborn as modern English poems!

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

 

Works Cited

Hill, John Spencer. “The Phoenix.” Religion and Literature 16.2 (1994): 61-66.

Niehoff, M. R. “The Phoenix in Rabbinic Literature” The Harvard Theological  Review 89.3 (1996).]: 245-265.

Petersen, Helle Falcher. “The Phoenix: The Art of Literary Recycling” NM 101 (2000): 375–386.

Steen, Janie. Verse and Virtuosity: the adaptation of Latin rhetoric in Old English         poetry. University of Toronto Press Inc.: Toronto, ON, 2008.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! (Watch Out for Snakes)

St. Patrick, with his bishop’s cross and miter, is surrounded by demons, gleefully torturing departed sinners; Saint Patrick’s Purgatory: The Vision of William Staunton, England, 1451; British Library, Royal MS 17 B. xliii, f. 132v

St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner, and at Notre Dame, proud home of the Fighting Irish, it seems a fitting time to examine more closely this saint now synonymous with Ireland.  It may come as a surprise to learn, then, that the saint is not, by birth, Irish at all.  Instead, Patrick was born in Roman-occupied Britain, in the late fourth or early fifth century.  His first encounter with Ireland was not a friendly one, as he was captured by Irish raiders at sixteen, and sold into slavery.  Six years later, the young slave was able to escape, and made his way back to Britain.  Years later, he returned to Ireland, becoming the “Apostle of the Irish” for his efforts to convert the Irish to Christianity.  He was not the first missionary to come to the island – he was preceded by enigmatic figure St. Palladius, who was sent to Ireland by the pope in 431.  But for whatever reason, it is Patrick’s reputation that has proven the more enduring.

St. Patrick (with halo) reclines on a hillock, while, below him, visionary beasts frolic; Wauchier de Denain, Lives of the Saints, Paris, 2nd quarter of the 13th century; British Library, Royal MS 20 D. vi, f. 213

Popular myth credits him with “driving the snakes out of Ireland,” although this is not the Herculean task it might sound, since there do not seem to ever have been snakes in Ireland to begin with!  Scientists attribute this circumstance to Ireland’s lack of a landlink to mainland Europe following the last ice age.  The usual explanation for the snake tale (besides a desire to credit an observed anomaly to a well-known national hero) is that the story is in its roots an allegorical one.  In Genesis and elsewhere, the association between snakes and the demonic is strong.

Snakes, twined around the roots of a basil plant, which was thought to be effective as a deterrent against them; Pseudo-Apuleius Platonicus, De medicaminibus herbarum, Germany, 2nd half of the 12th century; British Library, Harley MS 4986, f. 43v

The medieval allegorical connotations of the venemous asp give a window on some of the associations that discussion of snakes might have brought up, and are not inapropos to Patrick’s story.  The asp, medieval bestiaries tell us, has a defense mechanism against that natural predator of asps, the snake-charmer, who draws it from its hole in these stories not with pipe music but with mystic incantations.  An unwary snake could find itself in trouble this way, bewitched from its protective home.  But the clever asp does the no-hands equivalent of putting its fingers in its ears, pressing one ear to the ground and sticking its tail in the other to block out the sound of the charmer’s chanting (a particularly tricky technique to execute, given snakes’ lack of external ear structures).  In this way, the asp can be read allegorically as a recalcitrant convert, with one ear to worldly pleasures, and stopping up the ear that might hear words from heaven advocating spiritual reform: an appropriate genius loci for an aspiring missionary to cast out. While you’re wearing your green this St. Patrick’s Day, then, don’t forget to watch out for snakes!

An asp, refusing to listen to the incantations of the snake charmer; Bestiary, England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century; British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 61r

Nicole Eddy
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Want to know more about Patrick?  The story continues with St. Patrick’s Excellent Adventure in Purgatory.