Anglo-Saxon Elves

Today is a special day on The Traveller’s Path – this is my first crosspost! My post today is also being featured on the Superversive Inklings Blog…many thanks to them for allowing me to share their space…

One of the intriguing questions about the Anglo-Saxons who lived in England in the Early Middle Ages revolves around their religious beliefs and mythologies. Pretty much all of what we know of these beliefs were written down by Christian monks, and so it’s tricky to tease out the truth of that second-hand information. Bede gives us some glimpses of their religion, but by the time he was writing his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed around 731 AD, the religious practices of the pagan Anglo-Saxons had pretty much disappeared from England, so he was writing about beliefs and practices that were pretty much legend in his time.

The Anglo-Saxons of the 7th century* were, of course, descended from the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who migrated to Britain after the Romans left the island defenceless in the 4th century. There is considerable discussion about whether these migrants came as conquerors or settlers, and the truth is likely a mix of the two.

These groups of people came with their own set of beliefs and worldview that were distinct from those of the Celtic and Romano-British people who populated Britain at the time. They were Germanic people, and shared the rich heritage of the Norse and Germanic religions. They certainly were not Christians, but encountered a strong thread of Christian culture in Britain, a legacy of the Roman occupiers.

So in trying to determine the religion and mythologies of the pagan Anglo-Saxons, scholars and historians look to the beliefs of their contemporary Germanic and Norse kin who lived on the Continent during the time they settled in Britain. But of course, their culture and beliefs slowly diverged from their Continental neighbours as time passed, and as they began to be integrated with the local population.

I don’t have the time or expertise to cover all of the Anglo-Saxon beliefs and mythology, but I thought I could give a brief overview of their mythologies about elves, seeing as I did some research on this in writing my first novel, Wilding: Book One of the Traveller’s Path (coming early 2019).

Much has been made of Tolkien’s elves, and many scholars with far more expertise than I have written about Tolkien’s understanding of the Saxon myths and religion and how he incorporated that into his Middle Earth (itself an Anglo-Saxon term) and his conception of elves.

I have posted before about how the concept of “elves” is a feature in many different cultures’ mythologies across the world. In that post I wrote:

Elves are fascinating creatures of legend, and their roots go deep into our history. And when I say “our”, I mean collective mankind, for although we may think that the concept of elves is a Western European one, you can actually find elf-like creatures in most of the world’s mythology. In the Norse and Germanic cultures they are alfar, supernatural beings having great beauty and long lives, sometimes helping humans, sometimes hindering them.

Our English word, “elf”, comes directly from the Anglo-Saxon word ælf. This means “white being”, which seems to relate to ideas of the supernatural, divine, or of feminine beauty. At any rate, the Anglo-Saxon elves were thought of as being human sized, and indeed, generally they were said to look human, although usually they were thought of as being exceptionally beautiful. They could make themselves invisible, or change shape. These are not “Tinkerbells”. The conception of elves (or “fairies”) as being diminutive beings with wings came much later, in the Late Medieval period.

Elves were not to be trusted in Anglo-Saxon mythology. They could be helpful, but they could just as easily be tricksters, or worse. They could lure both men and women into illicit sexual unions, or into a bargain that inevitably would end badly for the human.

They certainly were seen as the cause of some illnesses, both amongst humans and livestock. In Bald’s Leechbook, you can find charms or remedies against what is called “elf-shot” – a sudden, sharp pain, which was caused by being shot by an invisible arrow from an invisible elf.

 

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Bald’s Leechbook. Image from The British Library

Another great danger the Anglo-Saxon elves posed was their penchant for stealing children. It is said that they would take a human child and switch it with one of their own, a sickly, wizened being that would be known as a changling. Human parents who suddenly had a fractious, sickly baby would fear that they had been the recipient of this type of switch. There were also tales about human women who were tricked by elves to become wet nurses for their offspring. And of course, time moves differently in the elves’ world. The woman could emerge from the Otherworld to find that three hundred years had passed when she thought it was only three.

Speaking of the Otherworld, it is very difficult to determine exactly where the Anglo-Saxons thought their elves lived, or where they came from. That’s because the mythology of Anglo-Saxon elves has been conflated with the British Celtic views on these beings, whether they be Irish, Scottish or Welsh, and so to tease out what is specifically Anglo-Saxon about the legends in this regard is tricky. However, it does seem that the general idea was than the elves lived in hills under the earth, which would sometimes open up and reveal the elves singing, dancing, and feasting, which were favourite activities of theirs. They are also associated with certain trees, especially oaks.

The mention of elves from this time period comes from either medical treatises or from epic ballads such as Beowulf. In that poem, the elves are lumped in with other creatures such as giants and demons, who are all descendants of Cain. These are creatures exiled by God that feud endlessly with mortal men, who are the descendants of Seth (Adam’s son) and Noah. This assumes that their home is on Earth, but that they are hidden in some way from men until they make themselves known.

In general, then, when trying to categorize the elves of Anglo-Saxon lore, it is best to think more of Tolkien’s depiction than Disney’s Tinkerbell. Keep in mind, however, that Tolkein was writing fiction, and brought both his own imagination and some later Scandinavian legends and stories for his idea of elves. Not everything in Lord of the Rings corresponds with actual Anglo-Saxon beliefs about them. Especially not the pointed ears!

But because of Tolkien’s influence, there is still interest in these stories and legends that otherwise we likely would have forgotten or ignored. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors would likely be amazed to know that, this many centuries after they are gone, we still tell stories about the elves and their kin.


*As my book takes place mainly in 7th century Northumbria, that is the time period that is the focus of this blog. Although there would be some differences from the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon migration until the time of the Vikings, these broad strokes are pretty close to what most of them would have believed throughout that time.


Featured image: Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, by William Blake (1786) This painting comes from the 18th century, but I think that it is actually not a bad depiction of Anglo-Saxon elves! Image from sussexarch.org.

 

Want to know more about my book, an historical fantasy set in 7th century Northumbria? Sign up for my newsletter, and you will get the first chapter as a thank-you! You’ll also get interesting articles and other bonus material relating to my writing. Newsletters come once a month, unless I have a special announcement. I’d love to connect with you there! 

 

 

Year Of Reading Buechner: Eyes of the Heart

Throughout this Year of Reading Buechner series, I’ve made a point of reading his memoirs. This month I come to the fourth, and last, memoir, Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found, published in 1999. 

At the time of publication, Buechner was seventy-three years old, and we discover that his only sibling, his younger brother Jimmy, has just died. So I’m sure he was feeling the weight of years upon him, and the sharpness of loss, as he wrote this book. Little did he know he would still be alive, here in 2018, at ninety-two! However, this shadow of death is very much present in this memoir, giving it a darker feel than the others. 

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The book is also in a slightly different format than the other three memoirs. They told the story of his life in more or less chronological order, each one picking up from where the other one ended. 

The Eyes of the Heart goes back into older history, the story of his mother and father’s early lives and marriage, and revisits in greater detail some of the other periods he has already written about in the other books. It delves deeper into the personalities of the people he knew, giving us a fuller understanding of who they were. 

The book begins with a description of his office/study, which he calls the Magic Kingdom, the place where he keeps all his books and where he does his writing. In this space he stores his book collection and his important family papers, and as he gives us a tour through the room and its objects he also gives us a tour through the times and people in his life that are represented by the objects, papers, and books.

He also continues an element that he has included in other books, that of his discussions with his beloved grandmother, whom he calls Naya, who of course is long dead. As in previous books he brings her to life again, sitting  her down in his study/office and allowing us to listen in on their conversations.

It’s an effective thread that helps to hold the book together as he skips from one person to another, and from one time to another. 

This memoir helps to fill out some of the previous stages of Buechner’s life, but honestly I will have to say that it is my least favourite of the memoirs. I got bogged down by some of the details and personalities. If I had never read any of the others, I’m sure I would have liked this one more. But because I know what he is capable of when writing this style of book, I came away somewhat disappointed. 

The charm and genius of the other memoirs was that, although he wrote of his own life in those books, he also managed to make them about all of us, about how we see the world, and about how the small and sometimes insignificant things that happen to us can have profound and lasting effects. 

There is only a hint of that in this book, and I missed it. I got bogged down in the stories about people I don’t know, ancestors of his and friends long gone. I didn’t find much of the sparkle in this book that had captivated me in his other memoirs. 

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There is some of that sparkle in the last chapter, however, and it was my favourite. In it Buechner wraps up the thoughts that he has sprinkled throughout this book on death and what happens after, by having a conversation with Naya about it. 

I have to admit that there were also things that bothered me about this chapter. One of the things that I have appreciated very much about Buechner as I have read his books this year is his ambiguity when it comes to faith. I like that he leaves some room for questions, and some room for doubt. That is realistic, after all, and he allows readers some space to wrestle with their own doubts and questions because of it. That is all well and good. 

But at times I wished he would not be quite so ambiguous about it all. He presents an almost Universalist view of the afterlife – in other words, it doesn’t matter what god you worship, all of us will get there in the end. I think this is both intellectually dishonest as well as being absolutely anathema to the orthodox teachings of Christianity. On even a surace level it doesn’t make sense. As soon as you examine any religion, you will find that their views about who God is and how to live your life in light of that are pretty much incompatible with each other. They can’t all be true. Buechner writes about the Buddhist philosophy, for example; about how, in the end, a person will dissolve into the great emptiness. That is an entirely different thing from the Christian view of a personal God who calls each of us individually to a life where we will become more and more the people that he always meant for us to be. 

Buechner does admit in this chapter to his reluctance of stating things too plainly: 

I have never risked much in disclosing the little I have of the worst that I see in my mirror, and I have not been much more daring in disclosing the best. I have seen with the eyes of my heart the great hope to which he has called us, but out of some shyness or diffidence I rarely speak of it, and in my books I have tended to write about it for the most part only obliquely, hesitantly, ambiguously, for the fear of losing the ear and straining the credulity of the readers to whom such hope seems just wishful thinking. For fear of overstating, I have tended especially in my nonfiction books to understate, because that seemed a more strategic way of reaching the people I would most like to reach who are the ones who more of less don’t give religion the time of day. But maybe beneath that lies the fear that if I say too much about how again and again over the years I have experienced holiness–even here I find myself drawing back from saying God or Jesus–as a living, healing, saving presence in my life, then I risk being written off as some sort of embarrassment by most of the people I know and like. 

I understand his reluctance, and in many ways, share it. But there’s reluctance to speak of it and then there’s speaking of it in such an oblique way that the truth of it is distorted. 

In the end, however, I don’t want to be too harsh with my comments. Buechner has a gentle, self-deprecating way of helping us wrestle with our own thoughts and feelings. He gives us other lenses with which to view our lives. And in sharing his stories of the insights he gleaned from the things that happened to him in his life, he encourages us to find insights of our own in ours. Especially the insight that, as he says, it was all of it, all of it, and forever and always, good.


If you want to read more of my reflections on Buechner’s work, you can find the posts at the links below.

2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

Year of Reading Buechner: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

Year of Reading Buechner: Godric

Year of Reading Buechner: Telling Secrets: A Memoir

Year of Reading Buechner: A Room Called Remember

Year of Reading Buechner: Lion Country

The Celts: 7th Century Wales

At the time of the 7th century, the Celtic peoples had been pushed by the Anglo-Saxons in to three main areas of Britain. These correspond roughly to what we call Wales, Ireland, and Scotland today. In the next few posts on my series on the Celts, I will focus on each of these three places in turn.

I’m going to start with Wales, because that lovely little piece of the world holds a special place in my heart, as my mother was Welsh, born in the charming town of Mumbles, on Swansea Bay in the south of Wales.

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Sigh. The rugged beauty of Northern Wales. Image from pixabay

Wales in the 7th century was, of course, not known by that name, although the name “Wales” does originate from this time. It comes from the word, wælas, meaning foreign, strange  in Anglo-Saxon. The word wælisc therefore meant foreigner, or stranger, and it was the word they would use to refer to the Celtic Britons who lived in England at the time. Which is ironic, seeing as the Britons were there first. It gives you a sense of the hostility that simmered between these two groups of people.

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The Welsh flag. The dragon has been used on flags in Wales for centuries. Some suggest it came from the draco military standard brought over by the Roman legions, and was adapted by the prominent Romano-British families thereafter. The green and white stripes were additions of Henry Tudor in the Middle Ages. 

The Welsh called themselves the Cymry (CUM-ree), which loosely translated means, fellow-countrymen. Today the word for Wales in the modern Welsh language is Cymru (also pronounced CUM-ree). But in the 7th century, the place we now call Wales did not have one name.

That is because, like the rest of Britain, Wales was divided up into several kingdoms. These were very much based on tribal and kinship allegiances rather than territory, although of course they did generally correspond to one area or another. The borders were fluid, due to the penchant of the kings’ attempts to expand territory by raids and warfare against other tribes/kings. The history of the various kinship groups and the territories they held are rather murky, and it’s difficult to say for certain a lot about the specifics of Welsh in the Early Middle Ages because of this. Certainly the people of Gwynedd in the north were a prominent group at this time, and we also know some about the kingdoms of Dyfed and Gwent. The kingdom of Powys was not referred to by that name in this time, although it certainly existed, under a different name. The name Powys does not surface until the 9th century.

Wales at this time was very much a rural society, with no large civic centres to speak of. The kings didn’t govern in the way we think of it, they were mainly the chief warriors who expanded the territory of the tribe/kinship group and who doled out the rewards of conquest to his faithful retainers. They might also give judgements on disputes, but only in consultation with the local elders. The local head of the kinship group would be the one to whom people looked to for the day-to-day stuff of making life work.

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The Bodvoc Stone. This dates from the late 6th century-early 7th century, and was originally set on a prehistoric barrow on Margham Mountain in South Wales. The inscription reads “The stone of Bodvoc. He he lies, son of Cattegern, great-grandson of Eternalis Vedomavus.” It’s the earliest known family lineage in Wales. Image from britain express.com

Wales was a Christian society at this time.  There were several monasteries in Wales, the most famous being the one founded by St. David, in the south. The Welsh followed the practices of the Celtic Christian church, which had some differences from the Roman Christian practices, most notably in the style of tonsure and the dating of Easter. There some other, cultural differences, too.

Just as they were never completely subdued by the Romans, the Welsh were never completely subdued by the Anglo-Saxons who followed them. The mountains of the north were a formidable barrier to any invaders, and the fierce independence of the Welsh made them difficult adversaries in any battles. Various of the Welsh tribes/kingdoms did form alliances with certain Anglo-Saxon kings, most notably with Penda of Mercia, in their fights against the Northumbrian kingdoms, and there was some intermarrying that went on as well. They also had some alliances with their neighbouring Celts in Ireland, and would make war with them on the Picts or Anglo-Saxons at times.

For the most part, the Britons who lived in the place we now call Wales were a strong, independent people, well used to defending their territories and their customs against all who encroached upon them. Which is the reason why Wales survives today as a unique part of the United Kingdom.

Cymru Am Byth!* 


For more posts on this series on the Celts, see this introduction to the series.

Are you interested in 7th century England? Do you want to know more about my historical fantasy novel, set in 7th century Northumbria? Do you like getting exclusive bonus material and articles? If you answered YES to any of the above, sign up for my newsletter, and you will get all that and more! 


*”Long Live Wales!” This is the motto of Wales.

 

Society News: Women

In this series on Anglo-Saxon society, I have covered various parts of Anglo-Saxon society during the Early Middle Ages in England, including Kings (and Queens), The Upper Crust, The Church, Weregild, and Coerls.

In this post I’m tackling another group of people: the women. What were the roles and status of women in Anglo-Saxon England?

As it turns out, our female Anglo-Saxon counterparts had much more power and status than you might think. We tend to think of medieval women in general as being dominated by men, with little rights and power. That is certainly true of the women after the Norman Conquest in 1066, but before that, women had more rights and status than they would until the modern age.

However, Anglo-Saxon England from the 5th to 10th centuries was definitely a patriarchal society. It was a culture of warriors and kings, strong men who had a huge influence on their society on both the local and larger levels. But that doesn’t mean that the women of the day were stripped of all rights and responsibilities.

Once again, a small caveat is needed before we go any further. As with all things Anglo-Saxon, there is some debate about all this. It’s tricky to determine exactly what the roles of women are from the existing literature, as it mainly is about aristocratic men (kings and warriors, or priests and bishops) and the women are more often than not shadowy figures, mentioned here and there without much substance. One exception, of course, is the poem, The Wife’s Lament, covered here on the blog earlier this month. If you missed that post I would urge you to read it, as you will get the opportunity to hear one woman’s voice speaking to you from long ago.

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Amazing! This is a facial reconstruction from the skull of a 6th high-status Anglo-Saxon woman, aged 25-30 years old,  whose grave was found in Gloucestershire, England. Her grave is one of the richest Anglo-Saxon era graves found in Britain. She was buried with over 500 objects, including a lot of jewellery. A reconstruction of her grave with her grave goods is found in the Corinium Museum, in Cirencester. Image from messagetoeagle.com

Women’s roles in 7th century Anglo-Saxon England included the making and repairing of clothing, along with related tasks such as spinning wool, weaving, and embroidery. Baking or cooking did not seem to be a particularly female task, as there are records of both women and men involved in the preparing of food. It is possible that there were some women who were involved in entertainment such as singing or otherwise participating in travelling groups of entertainers.

One role of women that is quite clear from the ballads and heroic poetry from the time is that of cup-bearer. In these you see women, including queens and other female relatives of kings or other high-status men, serving mead at the mead-hall to the victorious men at their victory feasts. In other words, it wasn’t just the female slaves or lower-class women who served the mead, although they would have done this, too.

Women were also known as “peace weavers”, perhaps a reference to marriages that often brought peace to warring tribes or kingdoms. Perhaps it is also a nod to the diplomatic skills women brought to her marriage and family, a balance to her warrior husband.

Another place where the roles and rights of women are specifically mentioned are in the law charters and the surviving wills from the time. Here we can see that the weregild for a woman was the same as that for a man in the same social class, whether coerl or aetheling. Gender did not determine your worth in a legal sense, class did. The Old English word mann referred to “adult human being”, with no reference to sex. Men were called weras and women, wif, Both had equal legal status in the community.*

We can see from these wills and charters that women could inherit land from their

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This magnificent embroidered stole, found in Cuthbert’s grave, is the work of talented women. Interestingly, this was ordered made by Æthelfæd, Queen of the Mercians 

fathers or their husbands, if he died. Women could also run the estates that they owned. Property was distributed equally among sons and daughters, according to age rather than sex. This is an important distinction from the medieval women who lived after the Norman invasion, where they lost all property rights and in a sense became the property of her husband herself.

There are hints that a woman’s wishes were taken into consideration in choosing a husband. In other words, she did not necessarily have to marry someone of whom she disapproved. When she married, the groom was obliged to pay her the morgengifu, or “morning-gift”. This was given directly to the woman, and was could consist of a considerable amount of money, and/or land. The woman had complete control over this and could use it or bequeath it as she saw fit. A famous example of this was the fortress (and land around it) of Bebbanburg. In 600 AD, Æthelfrith, King of Bernicia, gave the fortress to his wife, Bebba, and it subsequently was known as Bebbanburg.  This replaced the original Celtic Britonic name of Din Guarie. 

Divorce was allowed in Anglo-Saxon society, particularly in the case of adultery or abuse. And in a divorce the household goods were divided equally among the partners, with the children being put in the care of their mother. Any goods the woman brought to the marriage she was allowed to keep.

Certainly the Anglo-Saxon Christian church, under the influence of its Celtic Christian roots, held women in high esteem and gave them much more power and authority than later church women were to enjoy. I have previously mentioned the double monasteries, which housed both women and men in separate living quarters but who came together for worship. These were run by strong and capable women such as Hild of Whitby, the famous saint of early Medieval Britain. Nuns were educated in these monasteries just as the men were, and also participated in the creation of manuscripts.

There is even an intriguing hint that women, like their Viking counterparts to come, could also take part in battles. King Alfred’s daughter, Æthelflæd, became Queen of the

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A 13th century depiction of Æthelflæd. 

Mercians in 911 AD, and it is reported that she led her army in battle against the Vikings and was a great military strategist. She is quite an unusual woman of the times, however, in that she is the only female ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom that we know of, and she also passed the throne down to her daughter. But that’s not to say she was the only woman of the times who participated in battles. She’s just the only one we know about!

Anglo-Saxon women had a considerable amount of status and rights in their society. It’s just one more way in which the so-called “Dark Ages” are not as dark as one might think.

 


*The word wif  is of course where our word wife comes from, denoting a married woman. The Old English word wif is related to words that connote weaving, referring perhaps to the women’s role of making cloth.

***

My first novel, Wilding, a historic fantasy set in 7th century Northumbria, is due to be published in January of 2019. To keep up with publication news, get exclusive bonus material, and find out more tidbits about the Early Middle Ages or whatever else strikes my fancy, sign up for my newsletter! I send one out about once a month, and I won’t spam you, I promise! If you sign up now, you will get the first chapter of Wilding as a thank-you! 

Year of Reading Buechner: Lion Country

Frederick Buechner published Lion Country as a stand-alone novel in 1971, to great acclaim. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction in 1972. Buechner would go on to write three other novels featuring Leo Bebb, one of the main characters in Lion Country: Open Heart (1972), Love Feast (1974) and Treasure Hunt (1977). These were all compiled together and published as a one-volume tetralogy called The Book of Bebb, in 1979.

Lion Country wasn’t the first novel Buechner had written (it is his sixth), but it does come before the other novels I have read in this series. I was greatly anticipating reading it, based on some reviews and comments I have read about it.

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The original 1971 cover

Unfortunately, I have to say that I struggled with this book.

Buechner’s fiction is often populated by slightly grotesque figures, and this book is no different. He delights in writing about odd, deeply flawed people who nonetheless, have a hint of the holy about them. It’s a stock character that he first encountered as a boy in King Rinkitink, in the Oz books, but continued to be haunted by throughout his life. He explains his attraction to these characters in his memoir, The Sacred Journey, writing about the whiskey priest in Graham Greene’s  novel, The Power and the Glory:

…what Greene fathomlessly conveys is that the power and glory of God are so overwhelming that they can shine forth into the world through even such as one as this seedy, alcoholic little failure of a man who thus, less by any virtue of his own than by the sheer power of grace within him, becomes a kind of saint at the end…

Buechner’s characters, from Godric to Brendan to the biblical patriarch Jacob (in Son of Laughter) all have this hint of the “holy fool” about them.

Leo Bebb, the holy roller diploma-mill charlatan, is definitely cut from this mold. He is a slippery character to pin down, sometimes heroic, sometimes foolish and vain, and with a shadowy past of jail time for exposing himself to children, hovering over him. And to be honest,  this last part of the book is where the novel fell down for me. Perhaps the times have changed too much from 1971 until now. This possible scandal of Bebb’s past, which surfaces again in the novel’s present time action, is too fraught with pain and sorrow and agony, in our modern-day reality of pedophile priests. Especially since Buechner uses it as a sort of strange comic relief at the end.

The main character, Antonio Parr, is pretty much a regular guy, although slightly neurotic, and drifting through his life. He has a girlfriend that he hasn’t been able to commit to for seven years; he has tried teaching, writer, and artist as a career, never getting too far with any of those. He is a man very much waiting for something to happen to kick him out of his rut, and Bebb comes along just in the nick of time.

Antonio answers an ad in the paper which states “Put yourself on God’s payroll–go to work for Jesus NOW”, and after enclosing a love offering and a self-addressed envelope, receives an ordination certificate in his name, from the Church of Holy Love in Armadillo, Florida. Antonio writes back, offering to meet with Bebb the next time he was in New York to discuss various ministries he might do, but secretly planning on exposing Bebb as a charlatan.

The novel opens with their meeting in New York, and Antonio is immediately captivated by Bebb, with his odd appearance and mannerisms, and his strange way of speaking. I am here to save your soul, Antonio Parr, Bebb tells him. How could Antonio not be intrigued?

Antonio ends up making a trip down to Florida to do more in-depth research for himself, leaving gloomy New York with his dying twin sister and his stalled relationship, and finds himself in sunny, hot Florida, where he meets Bebb again, along with his assistant Brownie, wife Lucille, and their adopted daughter Sharon. All of these characters are odd in their own ways, and it adds to the circus-like atmosphere of the world surrounding Bebb.

The action of the book moves between these two worlds, Florida and New York, and takes us along with Antonio on a journey of doubt and faith, but not in the way you might think. This is not a story of an unbeliever who has a dramatic faith conversion. Far from it. This is a glimpse at the beginning of someone’s faith journey, of those first few musings, the beginning back and forth between belief and doubt, when doubt very much has the upper hand.

There are a lot of ambiguities in this book. Is Bebb a charlatan, or no? What happened to Bebb and Lucille’s infant daughter, exactly? Are the “silvers and golds”, as Bebb calls them, really aliens from outer space? Did Bebb really resurrect Brownie from the dead? And when Bebb exposes himself during Herman Redpath’s ordination, was it done on purpose, or not? And if he did, why would he?

I suppose there are layers in this book that I am missing. Perhaps I need to read the rest of the books and get Bebb’s whole story.  I probably will, but not just now.

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Just to give you another view….This fellow obviously got more out of the book than I did. 

So, I can’t say I loved it, which I’m sad about. It’s the first thing of Buechner’s that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend.

But that’s ok. There’s more Buechner to read, and I’ll be diving into more of his non-fiction this month. Look for my next Year of Reading Buechner post at end of November, where I will be discussing Eyes of the Heart, his fourth (and last) memoir.


For more posts in my Year of Reading Buechner series, see the links below

2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

Year of Reading Buechner: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

Year of Reading Buechner: Godric

Year of Reading Buechner: Telling Secrets: A Memoir

Year of Reading Buechner: A Room Called Remember

 

 

Anglo-Saxon Literature: The Wife’s Lament

On of the poems contained within the Exeter book is one called “The Wife’s Lament”. It’s an elegy, a poem that is a melancholy lament on death or other such sorrow, In this particular poem, a wife laments her separation and exile from her husband. It is written in Old English. As the Exeter book dates back to the late 10th century, we know that this poem is at least that old.

I have given you some simple facts about this poem in that first paragraph, but actually some of them are not facts, they are conjecture. Which makes this poem very tricky to write about! Like the Franks Casket, this little poem (53 lines) is subject to many interpretations and much scholarly debate.

Before we get into the general murkiness of the poem’s meaning, I will start with the bare bones of what it is about, in the minds of most scholars. The poem begins with a woman’s general lament over the state of her life. Keeping in mind that Old English is very difficult to translate, and so there are many variations of translations available, here is one fairly easy to understand version of the first stanza:

I make this song of myself, deeply sorrowing,
my own life’s journey. I am able to tell
all the hardships I’ve suffered since I grew up,
but new or old, never worse than now –
ever I suffer the torment of my exile.

The poem then gets into the details of her “life’s journey”. She is in exile because she has married into a different tribe/kingdom, and is without friends or family. And a secondary exile seems to take place in the poem, as he husband leaves her, the reason for which is unclear. Perhaps because of a feud, or a crime, we don’t know enough to say. The upshot of this is that the woman leaves as well, to look for her husband.  She is thwarted in this by her husband’s kinsmen, and is then commanded to live in a hole in the ground. Which leads her to pen this sorrowful poem. Can’t say I blame her.

There is also a section in the poem that could be about a tryst with another lover (perhaps that’s why she is put in the hole), or could also refer to a betrayal of her love by the husband. Some say that the “hole” is actually a grave, in other words, that the woman has been killed, and this is her ghost speaking. Either way, it’s all gloomy.

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Photo by Kat J on Unsplash

So, getting back to the first paragraph of this post, here’s a little more enlightenment on the controversies surrounding this poem:

The title – It is true that the poem is found within the Exeter Book, and is written in Old English. But, like the other elegies and poems in that book, it doesn’t actually have a title in the original manuscript.  The poem simply starts with the first line.  The first person to name it, Anglo-Saxon scholar Benjamin Thorpe, actually named it “The Exile’s Lament” in 1842. It wasn’t until eight years later that the title was changed to “The Wife’s Lament”. What’s going on, here?

Well, first of all, the Old English equivalent for the word “wife” does not appear in the poem. The poem is clearly meant to be in a woman’s voice, however, because the pronouns and adjectives in the poem are written in the Old English feminine form, rather than masculine. And by the way, this is one of the first pieces of English literature written from a woman’s point of view, which makes it pretty special aside from anything else, don’t you think? This is likely why Benjamin Thorpe did not ascribe it to a woman, because there isn’t much literature from a woman’s point of view that comes from this male-dominated era. Perhaps he was just not expecting to see that, and so he didn’t. And as I said, Old English, especially poetic Old English, is very tricky to translate.

The subject of the poem is of a more domestic nature, as compared to the heroic poems such as “Beowulf”,  with its monsters, fighting, and mead-halls. This also makes “The Wife’s Lament” stand out amongst the other poems we have from this era.

Of course, just because it’s in a woman’s “voice” doesn’t mean the creator of the poem was a woman. Don’t forget, very few people could read or write at the time. These poems were meant to be spoken, performed for an audience. It is possible that there were women who created poems, but it is likely that it would only be men who performed them. We only have a few poems from this era that were captured by a scribe at some point and written down. This scribe, however, could have been male or female, as this work was done pretty much exclusively in monasteries or nunneries.

Because of the female voice of the poem’s narrator, she is assumed to be a wife of the “lord” that she is mourning over in the poem. Hence, “The Wife’s Lament”.

The style of poem – although the interpretation of the poem being an elegy is the most common one, some scholars think that this is not an elegy, but is actually a riddle. They believe this because of a lot of complicated textual analysis that I can’t claim understand well enough to write about, so I will take their word for it. The poem ends, Woe to the one who must suffer longing for a loved one. This type of epitaph is typical of Anglo-Saxon riddles, which always end with these bits of what is called “gnomic” wisdom.  It is interesting that this poem, along with “The Wanderer “and “The Seafarer”, are found in the Exeter Book, which also contains 92 other riddle poems. So, I suppose it’s possible….

Unknown

Yeah. Basically. 

We have comparatively little extant written material from the Early Middle Ages, and so each piece we have is so very important to help us understand the culture and the times in which it was written. “The Wife’s Lament”, in particular, even with it’s difficulties, puts a small spotlight on a woman’s perspective (albeit a very sad one!), and that makes it very special, indeed.


Want more? Here are the posts in my Anglo-Saxon Literature series:

The Dream of the Rood

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Wanderer

What’s In a Word?

Bald’s Leechbook: The Doctor is In

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Cotton Library

Cynewulf the Poet

Beowulf Basics

Cynewulf the Poet

The Exeter Book

 

Feature image of the Exeter Book from exeter-cathedral.org

The Franks Casket

The Franks Casket, also known as the Auzon Casket, is a singularly fascinating object from early 8th century Anglo-Saxon England, probably Northumbrian in origin.

It is a small chest (the word “casket” is a bit deceiving, it is only 9″ by 4″). It’s unknown exactly what its original purpose was, but possibly it was made to hold a Gospel book or a book of Psalms (a psalter). It is made out of whale bone.

It is amazing that this small chest survived at all through the centuries. It first came to light in medieval France, as a reliquary in St. Julien’s Basilica in Brioude. It next appears on the record as a possession of a family in Auzon, France. Possibly it was looted from the church during the French Revolution, but it’s hard to say. At any rate, the box was used as a sewing box until the silver hinges and fittings were taken off and traded for a silver ring.

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Sir Augustus Wolloston Franks, described by Marjorie Caygill, historian of the British Museum, as “arguably the most important collector in the history of the British Museum, and one of the greatest collectors of his age”. Image from Wikicommons

Without the hinges the box fell apart, and the panels were shown to a professor who sold them to an antique dealer in Paris. Three of the panels were bought by Sir Augustus Wolloston Franks in 1857, and he donated them to the British Museum as he was the Keeper of the British and Medieval collections there,

The missing fourth panel (the right end) was found in a drawer by the family in Auzon and sold to the Bargello Museum in Florence, where it still resides.  It wasn’t until 1890 that the discovery was made that it belonged to the other pieces in the British Museum. The British Museum made a cast of the missing piece and reassembled the casket, and it is now on display there.

What is so interesting about this small chest are the exquisite carvings that adorn the sides and the top. Each panel depicts a different scene, all of them include runic inscriptions of varying lengths, with one Latin word thrown in for good measure. The dating and place of origin of the Franks casket comes mainly from the linguistic evidence of the words and the artistic style of the carvings.

The inscription on the front is a riddle, which also includes the answer. It is a riddle that describes what the box is made out of:

The flood lifted up the fish on to the cliff-bank;
the whale became sad, where he swam on the shingle.

Whale’s bone.

The casket was most certainly made in a monastery for some important figure, likely a king. There have been some attempts to tie it to the monastery at Ripon, founded by Wilfrid, but nothing definitive can be said about that.

There have been reams of scholarship on the decorative carvings, and that is because they are all so very different, and have many possible interpretations. The runes are not exactly straightforward, either, as in one spot the carver has used a simple substitution cipher to encrypt the words, and in other places has even written words backwards. This type of playing with words and letters is familiar – the use of riddles and encryption is seen in other surviving manuscripts from this time period. Anglo-Saxons obviously had a great respect for the power of the written word, don’t you think? I find it so fascinating, Don’t you wish you could sit down with the maker and find out exactly what was in his mind as he made this object?

Originally all the carved panels were thought to be random scenes, placed with no overall thought or design in mind. However, scholars are starting to reject that idea. They are now coming to see the carvings as an extremely clever and intellectually rich commentary, chosen precisely for how they all fit together.

The trouble is that the overarching theme or commentary is still unknown, and likely will never be known. Some postulate that the casket is telling the story of the history of England, from its pagan past to its Christian present (at least at the time of the 8th century, when it was created). Others see it as a commentary of the superiority of Christianity over pagan religions.

Because the obviously Christian element on the panel is only one small part of it, though, the thinking is that the casket was likely meant for a secular ruler. There are certainly  many references to secular/pagan legends and history.

There is so much informed and scholarly thought about what each of the carved panels represent that it would be a longer blog post than you likely want to read to tell you all of the possible interpretations. But, in a nutshell, here are a brief description of the panels and some of the proposed meanings of them.

Front panel – contains the riddle described above, flowing around the top, bottom, and sides of the panel, written in runes. The pictures are broken up into two distinct scenes. One the right, you have the only obviously Christian scene on the casket, that of the Adoration of the Magi after Christ was born in Bethlehem. We know this because the maker has helpfully included the word “mægi” over the three figures who are bowing to the baby held by the woman. Easy-peasy.

On the left, there is something completely different, namely, a depiction of part of the Germanic legend of Weyland the Smith. In this scene Welyand has been captured by the cruel king Niohad.. It also depicts the headless body of Niohad’s son, whom Weyland has killed in revenge for his captivity. Weyland is holding a goblet in his tongs, this could be the missing head, which he has made into a goblet. In the legend he offers a goblet of drugged beer to Niohad’s daughter, whom he then rapes. A female figure is in this scene, probably this is her.

Why on earth would the creator of this casket put these two scenes together? Possibly it is juxtaposing the benign Christ and his rule as opposed to the darkness and death of paganism from which the Saxons have escaped.

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Front panel. Image from John W. Schulze, on Flickr

Left side panel – this is a depiction of the legend of the twins Romulus and Remus, the two founders of Rome. The legend states that they were suckled by a she-wolf. The panel shows the wolf on her back, protecting and suckling the twins, with four men with spears watching. The runic inscription says, Romulus and Remus, two brothers: a she-wolf fed them in Rome city, far from their native land. 

This legend shows up in other Anglo-Saxon artifacts from the 8th century, so it’s not necessarily surprising to see it here. There are some parallels to it and the story of Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon brothers who were the legendary founders of England. Bede tells us that they were invited to Britain by King Vortigern along with a mercenary army of Saxons, Angles, and Jutes, to help him fight against the Picts of the north in the light of the departure of Rome’s legions in the 5th century.  Soon the money ran out and the erstwhile saviours turned against the British and began to claim England for their own.

Therefore, this panel could also be a reference to England’s past.

Alternatively, Rome was the centre of the Christian church at the time, so this could be symbolizing the aid and succour that Mother Church gives to her children.

I hope you are starting to see the difficulty scholars have in interpreting these scenes!

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Left panel. Image from Wikicommons

Back Panel – this depicts the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD by Titus. Again, the runic inscription explains this. Interestingly, some of the words here are carved in Latin script, not with the runic alphabet.

Again, one might wonder why this scene is included here. This conquest of the Jews  by the Gentile Roman, Titus, was seen as a divine punishment by God for the wickedness of the Jews in their rejection of Christ. Similarly, Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of England,  presents the invasion of the Saxons as punishment of the Britons for their moral laxity. This panel, then, could be a subtle, or not-so-subtle, commentary on a painful episode in England’s history that God used to chasten his wayward people. Others speculate it is more general than that, and is a commentary of the triumph of Christianity over Judaism.

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Back panel. Roman soldiers are on the left, beseiging Jerusalem. On the right are the captive prisoners being led away. Note the Latin letters on the top right. Image from Wikicommons

 

Lid – The top is missing the two panels that border the centre panel, which, assuming it was similar to the sides, contained the runic inscription. Perhaps these were made of silver as well, with the runes etched on it? Hard to say.  It also has a round spot in the middle which could have had an embellished silver boss or a knob-like handle attached.

Without the helpful runic inscriptions, it’s a little harder to suss out the meaning of the carvings. Some speculate it depicts an unknown part of the legend of Egill, a Germanic hero who is Weyland’s brother. There is one runic word incorporated in the carving, which says Ægill, hence the above interpretation. Other scholars argue that the word is actually referring to Achilles, and the carving is a depiction of the death of Achilles at Troy.

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Lid. Image from Wikipedia

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Here you can see the centre panel on the lid, with the obvious missing pieces on either side. Image from Wikicommons

Right Side Panel – this is the most enigmatic of all, and the one that generates the most scholarly debate. The inscription reads,

Here the horse stands above the mound of woe,
It suffers tribulation; just as to her Erta appointed anxiety,
A grave of grief, in sorrow and anguish of heart.

Wood. Biter. Rush.

Hmm. Not really helpful. This is the panel that contains the encrypted words, and as well the words run together without separation between them, adding to the difficulty of translation.

The picture is of a horse standing over a mound, which contains a human-like figure (possibly a burial mound, the “mound of woe”). On the left there is a strange figure with the body of a man and the head of a horse sitting on a mound, with a man wearing a helmet and carrying a spear in front of it. On the right there are three figures. This possibly echoes the three magi on the front.

The word “horse” is sometimes translated as Hos, a name. But no one knows who Hos and Erta (or Eratae)  are, or what legend they refer to. There are also possible references to the Norse god Woden, as the symbols under the legs of the horse are ones that could refer to him.

Some believe this picture refers back to Hengist and Horsa again. The word “horsa” means “horse” in Old English, so perhaps this depicts Horsa mourning over the death of his brother Hengist.

There are several other interpretations of this panel which I won’t go into here. Needless to say, it’s a mystery!

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Right side panel (this is the cast that was made from the original). Image from Wikicommons 

So, the pictures and inscriptions on the casket are a great source of scholarly discussion. To top it all off, there seems to also be some numerological significance to the number of runes on the casket. There are 72 runes on the front and left panels, and a total of 288 runes in total. The 72 could correspond to the 72 disciples mentioned in the Latin Vulgate Bible familiar to the Anglo-Saxons. The number 288 is a multiple of 24, which is the number of runes in an early continental Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, which had magical significance for the Anglo-Saxons.

Phew! No wonder many scholars have devoted so much time and effort on trying to decipher the runes and pictures on this little box. The more you look at it, the more you discover.

This beautiful box has so much to tell us about this fascinating period in England’s history. It’s an extremely important object that demonstrates for us the rich cultural milieu from which it sprang, giving us tantalizing hints into the way they saw themselves.


Featured image from Wikipedia


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