By Danièle Cybulskie
In Anglo-Saxon England, Christian faith was a fundamental part of daily life and culture, although the Bible itself was inaccessible to many Christians because of barriers in both literacy and in language. In an effort to make Bible stories relatable, memorable, and (most of all) understood, some English clergymen took Old Testament stories and transformed them into beautiful, distinctly Anglo-Saxon poetry.
Like other Anglo-Saxon poems, these biblical narratives took the form of alliterative poetry, with two stresses on either side of a cæsura (pause). (I explained these features of Anglo-Saxon poetry a bit more in another post, for those who are interested.) They also gave the audiences what they wanted in terms of narrative preference, without sacrificing the all-important content.
Daniel Anlezark’s compilation Old Testament Narratives contains one of my favourite examples of this type of Bible-story-turned-Anglo-Saxon-epic in the anonymous poetic version of the book of Exodus: the account of Moses, Pharaoh, and the Red Sea. In the Latin Vulgate Bible, Pharaoh and his army are basically wiped out in only a couple of lines:
reversaeque sunt aquae et operuerunt currus et equites cuncti exercitus Pharaonis qui sequentes ingressi fuerant mare ne unus quidem superfuit ex eis
And the waters returned, and covered the chariots and the horsemen of all the army of Pharao, who had come into the sea after them, neither did there so much as one of them remain. (Exodus, 14:28)
In the Anglo-Saxon version, however, this is covered in more than fifty gorgeous lines of poetry. Here is a sample of just sixteen lines (Anlezark’s translation):
The streams stood, the storm went up high to the heavens, greatest of martial laments. The hateful ones screamed in fated voices – the sky above darkened – blood suffused the flood. The shield ramparts were riven, the greatest of sea-deaths scourged the sky, bold ones perished, kings in their splendor; the option grew weaker before the sea’s vanguard – the shields shone high over the warriors, the seawall ascended, the brave sea-current. The force was firmly fettered in slaughter, the weak flow of the advance was hindered by armor. Sand awaited the doomed army, when the river of waves, the ever-cold sea, with salt surges came back from its diverted course to seek out its accustomed eternal foundations, the naked messenger of distress, the hostile wandering spirit who overtook the enemies. (ll.460-476)
This little sample from Exodus has lost none of the sense of the original words, but has expanded to give more weight to those things that are common subjects of Anglo-Saxon epic poetry: the ruthless beauty of the sea; warriors in arms; blood and slaughter. It always reminds me of Beowulf’s battles with sea creatures, most notably Grendel’s mother, in its evocative images of sea foaming with blood.
While this much-expanded account perhaps contains more drama than the Vulgate’s drier account (no pun intended), the author never lets his version lose focus: this victory was only made possible, he stresses, by God’s intervention, not by human action. In true Anglo-Saxon form, he calls this “the handiwork of God – the foamy-bosomed one, the guardian of the flood” (ll.493-494). While the author uses the devices of epic poetry, he firmly places God as the hero, not man.
The clever authors of these Anglo-Saxon biblical poems knew their audiences, engaging readers and listeners by retelling Old Testament stories in an epic way that was both familiar and beloved. The result was a beautiful new way of looking at old stories for both Anglo-Saxons, and for the people who have come after them.
For more of this beautiful translation of Exodus, check out the rest of Anlezark’s Old Testament Narratives.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist