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.

Woden: Allfather of the English

Last week we learned about the deified Woden, often identified with the Old Norse god Oðinn. But not everyone agreed that Woden was divine.

No detailed account of Woden and his mythic adventures survives from early medieval England; nevertheless, this ancestral figure remains present in the cultural imagination of the English people even centuries later. The famous 8th-century ecclesiastical historian Bede is the first known Anglo-Saxon author to describe this mythic genealogy in Book I, Capitula 15 of his Historia claiming: Duces fuisse perhibentur eorum primi duo fratres Hengist et Horsa….Erant autem filii Uictgilsi, cuius pater Uitta, cuius pater Uecta, cuius pater Uoden, de cuius stirpe multarum prouinciarum regium genus originem duxit, “From the first their leaders (the Anglo-Saxons) were held to be two brothers, Hengest and Horsa….They were sons of Wictgils, whose father was Witta, whose father was Wecta, whose father was Woden.”

Image from the Peterborough Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 636, f. 1r. © All Rights Reserved.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, surviving in nine extant manuscripts and probably completed under King Ælfred the Great in the 9th century, reiterates Bede’s Wodinic genealogy. Almost a century later, in a Latin adaptation known as Chronicon Æthelweardi, the 10th century historian Æthelweard (descended from the 9th-century King Æthelred I, the elder brother of the King Ælfred the Great) laments Woden’s divine status within the Norse Pantheon. In his chronicle, Æthelweard complains that ignorant Scandinavian pagans have mistakenly deified Woden, whom Æthelweard identifies as king of the barbarians. He bemoans how these pagans honor Woden as a god rather than the ancestral chieftain that Æthelweard, like so many Anglo-Saxon authors, understood him to be.

Well after the Norman Conquest of 1066, Woden was still making his way into English manuscripts, especially in depictions of Anglo-Saxon royal lineages. At roughly the same time as Snorri was composing his Edda, and Geoffrey of Monmouth his Historia, Wodinic genealogy remains present in the English written record, remembering the Anglo-Saxon kings of old who trace their ancestry back to this deified chieftain.

Woden, depicted as ancestor of the Anglo-Saxon Kings. The British Library Board Cotton Caligula A.viii f. 29r © All Rights Reserved.

The Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum adventulocated in a 12th-century manuscript (London, British Library Cotton Caligula A. viii) and often attributed to Symeon of Durham—contains an illustration of Woden, crowned as ancestral king of the Anglo-Saxons. The text surrounding the illustration describes the royal lineages of the kingdoms of Kent, Mercia, Deira, Bernicia and Wessex respectively, each claiming descent and the right to rule from this legendary figure.

Woden genealogically linked to King Henry II of England. The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 66 p.69 © All Rights Reserved.

A strikingly similar image of Woden as a crowned English ancestral figure surrounded by his royal descendants accompanies the 12th-century Historia Anglorum by Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon (located in Cambridge Corpus Christi College MS 66). This text connects Woden with Henry II, the contemporary king of England.

Ernulf’s Wodinic genealogy for the Kings of East Anglia. From Rochester Cathedral Library, MS A.3.5 © All Rights Reserved.

Likewise, Ernulf, Bishop of Rochester describes the kings of East Anglia as descendants of the legendary Woden in his 12th century Textus de Ecclesia Roffensi (found in Rochester Cathedral Library, MS A.3.5).

In medieval English historiography, Woden appears to have been used to establish dynastic legitimacy for kings in early medieval England. Long after Woden may have been worshiped as a god, well past the Anglo-Saxon conversion and even through the Norman Conquest, the importance of this legendary figure continues to loom large in the cultural imagination of those living and ruling in medieval England. Although today nowhere near as popular or well known as Arthur, the so-called king of the Britons, the earliest kings ruling in England turned to Woden, not Arthur, in order to affirm and legitimize their royal lineages.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

Special thanks to David Ganz, Andrew Klein and Christopher Scheirer for their contributions to this post.

Further Reading:

Davis, Craig R. “Cultural assimilation in the Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies.”  Anglo-Saxon England 21 (1992): 23-36.

Hill, Thomas. D. “Woden and the pattern of nine: numerical symbolism in some old English royal genealogies.” Old English Newsletter 15.2 (1982): 41-42.

John, Eric. “The Point of Woden.” In Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 5. Oxford University Committee for archaeology, 1992.

Lutz, Angelika. “Æthelweard’s Chronicon and Old English Poetry.” Anglo-Saxon England 29 (2000): 177-214.

Meaney, A L. “Woden in England: a reconsideration of the evidence.” Folklore 77.2 (1966): 105-115.

—. “St. Neots, Æthelweard and the Compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Survey.” In Studies in Earlier Old English Prose: Sixteen Original Contributions. State University of New York Press, 1986: 193-243.

Meehan, Bernard. A reconsideration of the historical works associated with Symeon of Durham: manuscripts, texts and influences. University of Edinburgh, 1979. Dissertation.

Moisl, Hermann. “Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies and Germanic oral tradition.” Journal of Medieval History 7.3 (1981): 215-248.

North, Richard. Heathen gods in Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Rowsell, Thomas. Woden and his Roles in Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogy. Medievalists.net, 2012.

Whitbread, L. “Æthelweard and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.” The English Historical Review 74.293 (1959): 577-589.

Primary Sources mentioned concerning Woden/Oðinn:

Æthelweard. Chronicon Æthelweardi (The Chronicle of Æthelweard). A. Campbell (ed and trans). Oxford University Press, 1962.

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Colgrave, Bertram, Mynors, R.A.B. (eds). Oxford University Press, 1969.

Ernulf, Bishop of Rochester. Textus Roffensis: Rochester Cathedral Library manuscript, A. 3.5.

Henry of Huntingdon. Historia Anglorum (The History of the English People). D. E. Greenway (ed). Oxford Medieval Texts, 1996.

Symeon of Durham (possible author). De primo Saxonum adventu. In  Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea I. Blackwood and Sons, 1868: 202-203.

Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Anthony Faulkes (trans and ed). David Campbell Publishers, 1987.

Swanton, Michael, (trans and ed). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Phoenix Press, 2000.

Woden and Oðinn: Mythic Figures of the North

King Arthur is not the only legendary figure used to legitimize rulership in medieval England. Long before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia Regum Britannium, the most influential mythic ancestor of the English people was Woden.

Woden is presumably derived from a common god of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples and is often identified with the pagan god Oðinn, who was worshiped in early medieval Scandinavia and called the Alföðr (“Allfather”) in Old Norse. This legendary figure was later understood to be an ancestral chieftain from whom the Anglo-Saxon kings claimed descent and thus the authority to rule in England.

18th century image from Icelandic MS, Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, SÁM 66 © All Rights Reserved.

Woden remains an obscure and enigmatic figure in the extant written records from early medieval England. Like Oðinn, he is often understood in surviving narratives as a deified chieftain who becomes the godhead of the Norse pantheon. It is impossible to tell precisely how analogous the Anglo-Saxon chieftain Woden and the Norse god Oðinn might have been by the time the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded, conquering the once Roman island of Britannia. Scholars have debated the role and significance of these respective pagan deities and their potential relationship with each other.

Woden, from Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica and a medical charm with Odinic parallels from the so-called Lacnunga (found in British Library Manuscript Harley 585), seems to be a warrior-god; however, the sparse evidence undermines any clear portrait of this mythic figure. Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham, (whose homilies are preserved in four extant manuscripts) composed a 10th century sermon titled De falsis Diis “Concerning false gods” that contains a fairly involved discussion of the gods, equating them to figures in the Roman pantheon, likening Woden to Mercury. Woden weirdly makes his way back to Iceland, via Ælfric’s sermon recorded in the 14th century Hauksbók (Icelandic National Library, AM544 4to). Wulfstan II, Archbishop of York, later expands on Ælfric’s work in his 11th sermon by the same name (found in Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 113).

18th century image of Oðinn riding Sleipnir. From Icelandic MS, Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, SÁM 66, f.80v © All Rights Reserved.

More regularly attested and clearly defined is the Norse god Oðinn, who is associated with runic wisdom and reigns in Valhalla (The Hall of the Slain). One-eyed Oðinn rides on his magical, eight-legged horse called Sleipnir, and according to surviving Icelandic literature from the 12th century onward, he will battle the wolf Fenrir, child of Loki, during the final apocalyptic battle known as Ragnarǫk.

Illustration of the wolf Fenrir biting the right hand off the god Týr, from an Icelandic 18th century manuscript, SÁM 66, f.78v © All Rights Reserved.

Oðinn is featured throughout Norse literature in texts such as Snorra Edda or Prose Edda, written by the famous Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson in the early 13th century, which survives in seven extant Icelandic manuscripts some from as late as the 18th century such as SÁM 66 (housed at Stofnun Árna Magnússonar), ÍB 299 4to (housed at the Icelandic National Library) and NKS 1867 4to (housed at the Danish Royal Library). The anonymous collection of so-called eddic poems, often referred to as the Elder Edda or Poetic Edda (and located in Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, GKS 2365 4to—pet-named “Codex Regius”), is another wealth of Odinic knowledge. This collection begins with the famous Old Norse poem Vǫluspá, in which a prophetic vǫlva (“seeress”) describes the creation and end of the world to Oðinn.

Image from Snorra Edda, showing Oðinn, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology. From the late 17th century Icelandic manuscript ÍB 299 4to © All Rights Reserved.

But in post-conversion England, Woden was not usually considered to be the father of the gods. More often, he was viewed as the ancestral patriarch English royal lineages.  Check back next week for more on this enigmatic figure!

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Special thanks to Tim Machan for his contributions to this post.

Further Reading:

Abram, Christopher. Myths of the Pagan North. Continuum, 2011.

Davis, Craig R. “Cultural assimilation in the Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies.”  Anglo-Saxon England 21 (1992): 23-36.

Hill, Thomas. D. “Woden and the pattern of nine: numerical symbolism in some old English royal genealogies.” Old English Newsletter 15.2 (1982): 41-42.

John, Eric. “The Point of Woden.” In Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 5. Oxford University Committee for archaeology, 1992.

Meaney, A L. “Woden in England: a reconsideration of the evidence.” Folklore 77.2 (1966): 105-115.

Meehan, Bernard. A reconsideration of the historical works associated with Symeon of Durham: manuscripts, texts and influences. University of Edinburgh, 1979. Dissertation.

Moisl, Hermann. “Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies and Germanic oral tradition.” Journal of Medieval History 7.3 (1981): 215-248.

North, Richard. Heathen gods in Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Rowsell, Thomas. Woden and his Roles in Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogy. Medievalists.net, 2012.

Primary Sources mentioned concerning Woden/Oðinn:

Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham.  Homilies of Aelfric: Volume 2 . John C.Pope (ed). Oxford University Press, 1968.

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Colgrave, Bertram, Mynors, R.A.B. (eds). Oxford University Press, 1969.

Grattan, J. H. G (trans). Anglo-Saxon magic and medicine: illustrated specially from the semi-pagan textLacnunga.” Oxford University Press, 1952.

Orchard, Andy. The Elder Edda. Penguin Classics, 2011.

Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Anthony Faulkes (trans and ed). David Campbell Publishers, 1987.

Wulfstan. Homilies of Wulfstan. Dorothy Bethurum (ed). Oxford University Press, 1957.