Although the Old English corpus is rich with history, homilies, and saints’ lives, I suspect that most students of the language are most enthusiastic about the poetry: the elegies, the riddles, the rune-poem, the hymns, and Beowulf of course. I certainly am. So it was with great joy that I was able to decipher Caedmon’s Hymn:
Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard,
Meotodes meahte on his modgeðanc,
weorc Wuldorfæder, swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece Drihten, or onstealde.
He ærest sceop eorþan bearnum
heofon to hrofe, halig Scyppend;
þa middangeard moncynnes Weard,
ece Drihten, æfter teode
firum foldan, Frea ælmihtig.
Now (we) should praise of the kingdom of heaven the Warden,
Of the Creator the might, and his mind-thought (purpose),
the work of the Gloryfather, just as he of wonders,
eternal Lord, created the beginning (of each).
He first created for the children of earth
heaven as a roof, holy Shaper;
then Middle Earth mankind’s Warden,
eternal Lord, after created
for men the earth, Ruler almighty.
(Translation taken from Dennis Baron)
To get a taste of the sound:
Although we have this hymn preserved in several manuscripts, we learn its background only from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. He writes that Caedmon was a monk of little musical talent, who would walk away from singing contests in shame. One day, however, God revealed this hymn to him in a dream, thus beginning Caedmon’s career as a hymn-shaper whose skills came directly from God. Pope and Fulk date his career between 657-680, but the earliest manuscripts we have of the poem come from the eighth century.
Scholars have written reams about the way this poem uses Anglo-Saxon pagan terminology for gods and kings, applying them to the God of Bede’s Christianity:
- Wuldorfæder, “father of wonders,” echoes the Norse epithet for Woden, “Father of Armies”
- heofonrices Weard, “ward of the heavenly kingdom,” echoes the Anglo-Saxon phrase for kings as “guardians of the realm” (Mitchell, A Guide to Old English, 228). (Note that the rices, “kingdom/realm,” is cognate with the modern German word Reich.)
- Drihten, “Lord,” also referred to lords such as King Hrothgar in Beowulf (Barney, Word-Hoard, 9)
- Frea, “lord, king,” is perhaps cognate with the name of the Norse goddess Freya (Barney, Word-Hoard, 53)
My take away from this poem, apart from its mixing of literary-religious cultures, is its technique of appositive variation. It proliferates titles for God. It’s very associative. Take the last two lives, with their contrast of ece Drihten and Frea ælmihtig: “Eternal Lord” and “Ruler Almighty.” Each epithet for God conjures up another set of associations, mapping the attributes for God onto the attributes of a king or ruler. Pope and Fulk are right to remark that this hymn is very psalm-like.
The epithets in this poem relate to the power, the transcendence of God the Father. It’s very cosmic. God created the universe, He holds it together, He fashioned it like a lord’s hall, like the Heorot hall in Beowulf, with heofon to hrofe (“heaven as a roof”). In Sunny California, thinking of the universe as a hall does not mean much: what’s wrong with the great outdoors? But surviving a snowy winter was a big deal. Anglo-Saxons measured someone’s life by how many winters they had lived. Being in a hall with a fire meant survival. The vast universe, mostly inhospitable to human life, is like the killing cold of an English winter.
If anything, this poem reminds me of what we Episcopalians affectionately call the “Star Wars Prayer” in the Book of Common Prayer:
God of all power, Ruler of the Universe, you are worthy of
glory and praise.
Glory to you for ever and ever.
At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of
interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses,
and this fragile earth, our island home.
By your will they were created and have their being.
From the primal elements you brought forth the human race,
and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us
the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed
your trust; and we turned against one another.
Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.