Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries


what's new?

introductory articles

in-depth articles


join the email update list

Anglo-Saxon Twilight only

Anglo-Saxon Twilight
is currently sponsored by
Heart of Albion Press
publishers of Bill Griffiths'
User Friendly Dictionary of Old English

First-person viewpoints

This article is from the opening pages Through the Eye of the Skull: The metaphysical relocation of self in ritual narratives (Trubshaw 2013c. The use of first-person narration in Old English poetry seems to straddle pre- and post-conversion worldviews, so is relevant to scope of Twilight.

The information about Stanley Robertson expands on ideas also discussed in The three-fold living landscape.

Stanley Robertson    Maggie Stewart

(Left:) Stanley Robertson at the Old Road at Lumphanan about 2005.
(Right:) His great-aunt, Maggie Stewart, photographed in the 1920s.

In the mid-1940s, when about five or six years old, the Scottish Traveller, Stanley Robertson (1940–2009) was walking one of the old roads to the west of Aberdeen with his great-aunt Maggie Stewart when they came across the skull of a dead animal. The old woman asked him what it was and he replied 'It is the skull o a deid animal like a sheep or goat.'

sheep skull

'Describe it tae me, bairn', the old woman said. 'Weel, it has big empty yak sockets, and teeth, and it his horns upon it, and it is covered wi little green, orange and ambier lichens, and it is sinking into the spagnum moss and being reclaimed by Nesmore [Mother] Nature.'

'Weel, that wis an awfie guid description, bairn. Noo, gang inside the riche ee [right eye] socket and tell me whit ys feel.'

I immediately wint inside the yak o the deid animal and I came tae a place where there was canyons, caverns, waterfalls, mountains and animals o as kinds and colours, smells and the rick mi tick o the inside unfolded tae me and awa in the distance I heard the aud woman cae me tae come back tae her again.
(Robertson 2009: 106–7)

In all of Robertson's stories the otherworlds are distinct from the mundane world by the thinnest of veils. The mundane landscape is the same landscape in which 'stories grow' – almost literally as Robertson retained the time-hallowed tradition of using places as mnemonics for memorising the tales. If his memory started to falter then he took himself back to the place where he learnt the story, and that brought it back to him clearly again

First of all I try to remember the actual place where I heard the story, maybe Lumphanan or someplace camping. I try to remember the setting, everything, even the smells, everything to do with the senses.
(Robertson, cited Reith 2008: 91)

And it was while walking along the old roads used seasonally by his family for many generations that he most enjoyed recounting his traditional lore. Robertson has evocatively described how just one of these sites – a green lane to the west of Aberdeen known as the Old Road of Lumphanan – is resonates with multiple personal and cultural associations (Reith 2008: 81–92).

Ma mither used to say that this particular land [here] between the river Dee and the river Don – and they used to say lang ago that the Don wis the warlock and the river Dee wis the witch. And this land between it wis for her bairns. This land wis oors aa richt because there's only twa hooses. But this road has been known for many, many supernatural happenings... there's a lot o happiness on this auld road. And every time I ging up it I could aye sort o feel the spirits o the past…
(Robertson 2009: 128–9)

The view through the eye of the skull which Roberston experienced as a child – what Sara Reith has called 'a methodology for the metaphysical relocation of self, one that uses a material access point to elicit a departure into "narrative time"' (Reith 2008: 83) – was extended as an adult to seeing the world from the point of view of landmark trees and other aspects of the landscape. Clues to the possible age of this world view – whether we think of it as metaphysical, rhetorical or 'shamanic' – comes from the original sense of the Greek word ekstasis – 'to stand outside oneself' (although the modern English word ecstatic has a different usage). We may also want to think of the original sense of 'enthusiasm' from the Greek enthousiazein, which derives from entheos, meaning 'god within'.

The first-person rood

The Dream of the Rood MS

The opening of The Dream of the Rood in the Vercelli Book.

Such a sense of ekstasis can be recognised among the small amount of Old English poetry that has come down to us – presumably a vast amount more was transmitted orally and was either never written down, or the written versions did not survive the destruction of the medieval monastic libraries by Henry VIII and lesser depredations. One work which has come down to us is known as The Dream of the Rood, in which the crucifixion of Christ is seen from the point of view of the cross – and this poem may, in part, be a Christianised version of a much older myth which sees the world from the perspective of the World Tree (North 1997: 275).

Quotations from The Dream of the Rood are inscribed on the eighth century Ruthwell Cross although the oldest extant complete version is in the tenth century Vercelli Book, kept in the cathedral library of Vercelli in northern Italy. It was taken there by an Anglo-Saxon traveller, possibly a woman named Edith.

The opening verses of The Dream of the Rood read like a riddle as the identity of the 'I' is not revealed until line 44. Mary Rambaran-Olm has provided a fairly 'functional' translation that makes no effort to preserve stress or alliteration in the original:

Lo! I will tell of the best of dreams,
what I dreamed in the middle of the night,
after the speech-bearers were in bed.
Seemed to me that I saw a very wondrous tree
lifted into the air, enveloped by light,
the brightest of trees. That beacon was all
covered with gold. Gems stood
beautiful at the surface of the earth, there were five also
up on the central joint of the cross.
All those fair through eternal decree gazed
[on] the angel of the Lord.
[It] was certainly not a wicked person's gallows there,
but holy spirits, men over the earth,
and all this famous creation gazed on him.
Wondrous was that tree of victory, and I stained with sins
wounded sorely with defects, I saw the tree of glory,
honoured with garments, shining joyously,
adorned with gold. Gems had
splendidly covered the Lord's tree.
I was able, however, to perceive through the gold,
the ancient hostility of wretched ones, [that] it first began
t bleed on the right side. I was all troubled with grief,
I was afraid in the presence of that beautiful sight. I saw that noble beacon
change its coverings and colour; sometimes it was drenched with moisture,
soaked with the flow of blood, sometimes adorned with treasure.
Nevertheless, I, lying a long time there,
gazed troubled at the Saviour's tree,
until I heard it speak.
The most excellent tree then began to speak the words:
It was years ago (that, I still remember),
that I was cut down from the edge of the forest,
removed from my foundation. Strong enemies seized me there,
they made me into a spectacle for themselves, commanded me to lift up their criminals.
Men carried me there on their shoulders, until they set me on a hill,
many enemies secured me there. Then I saw mankind's Lord
hasten with great zeal, that he wished to climb upon me.
There, I did not dare break to pieces or bow down
against the Lord's words, when I saw the surface
of the earth tremble. I was able to destroy
all the enemies, nevertheless, I stood firmly.
The young hero stripped himself then (that was God Almighty),
strong and resolute. He ascended onto the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, there, [since] he wished to release mankind.
I trembled when the man embraced me. However, I dared not bow down to the earth,
fall to the surface of the earth, but I had to stand fast.
I was raised [as a] cross. I lifted up the mighty king,
the lord of the heavens; I dared not bend down.
They pierced me with dark nails. On me, the scars are visible,
open malicious wounds. I did not dare injure any of them.
They mocked both of us, together. I was all drenched with blood,
covered from the man's side, after he had sent forth his spirit.

(www.dreamofrood.co.uk )

Numerous other translations are available online (notably Elaine Treharne's more recent translation) which bring out meanings in the original Old English that contrast with Rambaran-Olm's version.

First-person rude riddles

Such ambiguous first-person viewpoints are also used in several surviving Old English riddles, for example:

I am a wondrous creature: to women a thing of joyful expectation, to close-lying companions serviceable. I harm no city-dweller excepting my slayer alone. My stem is erect and tall – I stand up in bed – and whiskery somewhere down below. Sometimes a countryman's quite comely daughter will venture, bumptious girl, to get a grip on me. She assaults my red self and seizes my head and clenches me in a cramped place. She will soon feel the effect of her encounter with me, this curl-locked woman who squeezes me. Her eye will be wet.

See answer.

If this sounds a little risqué then bear in mind that the scholar Sarah Higley has suggested that another riddle – which is seeming about a woman holding a washleather to clean a cauldron – can also be parsed to give the possible double meaning of a leather dildo entering the vulva. If this is indeed the way an Anglo-Saxon listener may have construed it then it is all the more remarkable because the more risqué scenario is described in the first person – with the vulva speaking! (Higley 2003: 42–3). By way of supporting evidence Higley notes that in the Middle English of Chaucer the word swiven means 'fuck'. Swiven seemingly derives from the Old English swifeð, which has the sense of 'sweep' (Higley 2003: 50–1). So, after a pause for the penny to drop and you imagine how sweeping becomes shagging, could this be the reason why sweeps were, until quite recent times, significant in wedding processions and various folk customs?

First-person laments

Keeping with the notion of double meanings, although leaving bawdy interpretations behind us, the fragmentary Old English poem known to scholars as The Wife's Lament is also open to more than one interpretation. This work is conventionally thought to be the autobiographical perspective of an exiled noblewoman. However, as Sarah Semple has suggested, the text reads more convincingly as the first-person viewpoint of a dead woman in a burial mound. But the identity and even the status of that 'woman' is seemingly ambiguous.

The general mood of The Wife's Lament is gloomy, evoking a strong sense of emptiness and loneliness. There is a reference to a ruined defensive site – both physically decayed and evocative of a now-lost era. The woman described as living in an 'earth cave' or an 'earth structure' – terms also used in Beowulf to describe the abode of the dragon – and, elsewhere in Old English literature, dragons are specifically stated to be the guardians of burial mounds. The passage in Beowulf reads:

I was bidden to dwell among a thicket of trees under an oak tree in this earthen dug-out. Ancient is this earthen abode – I am quite consumed by longing – the dales are dark, the hills high, the bastioned town grievously overgrown with briars, their habitations void of pleasures.
(translation Bradley 1995: 382–5)

She describes 'my friends, loved while they lived, are in earth, possessed by the grave.' (translation Semple 1998: 111)

Franks casket

(Top:) Part of the seventh century Franks Casket with Hos on her mound to the left. The runes start herh os sitęþ, 'Here sits Os'. Most of the casket is in the British Museum but this panel is in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.
(Bottom:) 'Here sits Os'.

This first-person account is seemingly that of a dead woman. This in itself is an interesting first-person viewpoint for an author to take and rather akin to Stanley Robertson's view from the eye of the sheep's skull. Semple goes on to argue that this poem may be the Christian euhemerising of legends regarding the goddess Hos sitting on the 'sorrow mound'. Her main evidence is the curious depiction on the Franks Casket of human-like figure with a horse's head and hooves sitting on a small mound – perhaps intended to be seen as a barrow. The runes around that panel of the casket start herh os sitęþ, 'Here sits Os' (Semple 1998: 110–11; 121–2).

If this interpretation is correct, then the apparently human posthumous viewpoint of The Wife's Lament is not what it seems. It is a metaphor – an euhemerisation if you like – for a pagan deity 'exiled' by the christianisation of late Anglo-Saxon culture.

If so, the poet is expressing the first-person viewpoint of a deity. And, bearing in mind how little Old English poetry has come down to us, we must assume that the so-called Wife's Lament is the sole survivor of a much more established literary tradition, one which has its roots deeply in the oral bardic traditions which preceded the literacy of the Church.

'I have heard… '

The phrase ic gefraegn 'I have heard… ' is a common opening line to Old English poems (Raw 1978: 6; 30). One is tempted to call it a cliché but, like the word hwaet (which is often translated as 'Lo!' but has the implicit sense of 'Listen!') which also starts many such poems, such standard phrases are a practical way to get the attention of the audience. Equally standardised are nursery tales which start 'Once upon a time… '. However ic gefraegn is a quasi-autobiographical statement, without any sense of 'metaphysical relocation' that is present in The Dream of the Rood or The Wife's Lament. But it does confirm that the audiences for Old English poetry expected the poem to be from more-or-less fictionalised first person viewpoints.

The Old Woman of Beare

There are certainly parallels in Irish literature. The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare is one of saddest and most evocative of the medieval Irish tales. The oldest surviving versions may go back to the ninth century. The Old Woman of Beare is also known as 'the Hag of Beare' a more literal translation of the Irish An Cailleach Bhéara. She seemngly mourns for the life, and youth, now in her past. There is nothing remarkable about the use of the first person in this lament – no 'metaphysical relocation of self' – but the evocative language of An Cailleach Bhéara has much in common with The Wife's Lament. Whether or not we should consider the later versions of An Cailleach Bhéara to be successors of a ninth century euhemerisation of a pre-Christian goddess must remain an open question. As the whole poem is a remarkably moving image of old age I will reproduce it here in its entirety. There have been a number of translations into English; this one is by Anthony Weir.

My life is ebbing: let it drain -
unlike the sea which flows again,
The boiling, unbegotten sea.
I whose gown was always new
am now so pitifully thin
that this old shift will outlive me.
They want only money now.
When I was young, love was what
I wanted – and so richly got.
People then were generous,
and in return they asked a lot.
They ask and give so little now.
I had chariots and horses then,
given by admiring kings.
I drank mead and wine with them.
Now among old onion-skins
of withered women I drink whey,
myself a withered onion-skin.
My hands are bony now, and thin;
once they plied their loving trade
upon the bodies of great kings.
My hands are bony, wasted things,
unfit to stroke an old man's head,
much less a young man's glowing skin
Young girls are happy in the Spring,
but I am sad and worse than sad,
for I'm an old and useless thing.
Nobody round me is glad;
My hair is grey and going thin.
My veil conceals what is well hid.
I once had bright cloth on my head
and went with kings - now I dread
the going to the king of kings.
The winter winds ravish the sea.
No nobleman will visit me -
no, not even a slave will come.
It's long ago I sailed the sea
of youth and beauty wantonly.
Now my Passion too has gone.
Even in Summer I wear a shawl
It's many a day since I was warm.
The Spring of youth has turned to Fall.
Wintry age's smothering pall
is wrapping slowly round my limbs.
My hair's like lichen, my paps like galls.
I don't regret my lust and rage,
for even had I been demure
I still would wear the cloak of age.
The cloak that wooded hillsides wear
is beautiful; their foliage
is woven with eternal care.
I am old: the eyes that once
burned bright for men are now decayed:
the torch has burned out its sconce.
My life is ebbing; let it drain
unlike the sea which flows again,
the man-torn and tormented sea.
Flow and ebb: what the flow brings
the ebb soon takes away again
- the flow and the ebb following.
The flow and the ebb following:
the flow's joy and the ebb's pain,
the flow's honey, the ebb's sting.
The flow has not quite flooded me.
There is a recess still quite dry
though many were my company.
Well might Jesus come to me
in my recess - could I deny
a man my only hospitality?
A hand is laid upon them all
whose ebb always succeeds their flow,
whose rising sinks into their fall.
If my veiled and sunken eyes
could see more than their own ebb
there's nothing they would recognise.
Happy the island of the sea
where flow always comes after ebb:
What flow will follow ebb in me?
I am wretched. What was flow
is now all ebb. Ebbing I go.
After the Tide, the Undertow.

(From www.beyond-the-pale.co.uk/lament.htm )


This discussion of first-person viewpoints forms the opening pages of the free-to-download PDF Through the Eye of the Skull: The metaphysical relocation of self in ritual narratives. Please download the PDF to continue reading.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013


previous article     index of articles     next article
index of introductory articles
email comments and suggestions
join the email update list
what's new?

Anglo-Saxon Twilight only