Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries
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.
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.'
'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.
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.
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…
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
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,
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.*
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?
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.
She describes 'my friends, loved while they lived, are in earth, possessed by the grave.' (translation Semple 1998: 111)
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 BeareThere 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 -
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