Two Notes on Beowulf (with Glances at Vaf[THORN]ru[ETH]nismal, Blickling Homily 16, and Andreas, Lines 839-846)

By Cooke, William | Medium Aevum, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Two Notes on Beowulf (with Glances at Vaf[THORN]ru[ETH]nismal, Blickling Homily 16, and Andreas, Lines 839-846)


Cooke, William, Medium Aevum


'Beowulf line 1118b, 'Gu[eth]rinc astah'

Editors and translators mostly take this verse to mean 'the warrior was laid on the pyre'; and as an analogue they cite Vaf[thorn]ru[eth]nismal, stanza 54, 'Hvat maelti O[eth]inn, a[eth]r a bal stigi, sjalfr i eyra syni?' (1) That, they claim, means 'What did Odin himself say in his son's ear, before he [Balder] was laid on the pyre?' But in taking the Norse distich that way they seem to be unduly influenced by the parallel passage in Hei[eth]reks saga. There the text runs 'Hvat maelti O[eth]inn, i eyra Baldri, a[eth]r hann vaeri a bal haf[eth]r? (2) That is effectively the Old Norse for the English question given above, but it is not what Vaf[thorn]ru[eth]nismal says. ON stiga a means 'to mount': stiga a hest or a bak is 'to mount a horse'; stiga a skip is 'to board a ship'; and the Lexicon poeticum rightly gives betraede ('set foot on') as the literal sense in this passage, too. (3) Moreover, in the ON text of Vaf[thorn]ru[eth]nismal the subject of 'stigi' cannot be Balder, because when it occurs he has not yet been mentioned; the only possible subject is 'O[eth]inn'. The distich actually means 'What did Odin speak, before he mounted the pyre, himself into his son's ear?', and it evidently presupposes a slightly different version of the story of Balder's funeral from the one that Snorri and the author of Hei[eth]reks saga knew. In the variant version, Odin apparently first came up close to the pyre to whisper into Balder's ear and then stepped right onto it--perhaps to set the ring Draupnir on his son's finger, but more likely to apply the torch. Commentators have rightly cited the Rus cremation that the Arab traveller Ibn Fadlan witnessed on the Volga as evidence of ancient Germanic funeral customs, and there the honour of lighting the pyre belonged to the dead man's nearest living male kinsmen. (4) In Vaf[thorn]ru[eth]nismal it falls to Odin as Balder's father. (5)

Similarly in Beowulf, line 1118b, 'Gu[eth]rinc astah' can only mean 'the warrior mounted'. That cannot mean that Hnaef was lifted on to his funeral pyre. It might conceivably mean that his spirit rose into the air or went forth on its journey, as Grimm and Richard Hoffman thought, (6) but the poet is more likely alluding to the custom mentioned by Ibn Fadlan and the poet of Vaf[thorn]ru[eth]nismal. If so the 'gu[eth]rinc' is not Hnaef but some living warrior who lights his pyre. Alternatively, we might adopt Grundtvig's easy and plausible emendation 'Gu[eth]rec astah' ('The reek of slaughter rose [from the slain warriors' funeral pyres]'), for which compare 'wudurec astah', ('the reek of wood rose') in line 3144b and Elene, lines 792-795a, 'Forlaet nu, lifes Fruma, / of ([eth]am wangstede wynsumne up / under radores ryne rec astigan / lyftlacende' ('Now, author of life, let a pleasant smoke mount up from the spot, wafting to and fro on the air beneath the sky's expanse').

'Beowulf', lines 1415a, 'ofer harne stan'; 1423b, 'horn stundum song'; and 887b, 2553b, and 2744b, 'under harne stan'

Neither Klaeber nor Wrenn commented on the 'harne stan' of Beowulf', line 1415a. Like other editors they both glossed 'har' as 'grey, old'. Probably most readers have assumed that the poet mentions this hoary or ancient stone to add to the 'eldrich' atmosphere of the haunted mere, but it takes on another meaning when we compare the following passage from the apparently related passage in the Blickling Homily on St Michael:

   ... Sanctus Paulus was geseonde on nor[eth]anweardne [thorn]isne
   middangeard, paer ealle waetero ni[eth]er gewita[eth]. Ond he
   [thorn]aer geseah ofer [thorn]aem waetere sumne harne stan. Ond
   waeron nor[eth] of [eth]aem stane awexene swi[eth]e hrimige
   bearwas, ond [thorn]aer waeron [thorn]ystrogenipo; ond under
   [thorn]aem stane waes niccra eardung and weargra. Ond he geseah
   [thorn]aet on [eth]aem clife hangodan on [eth]aem isigean bearwum
   manigre swearte saula be heora handum gebundne; ond [thorn]a fynd
   [thorn]ara on nicra onlicnesse heora gripende waeron, swaswa
   graedig wulf; ond [thorn]aet waeter wins sweart under [thorn]aem
   clife neo[eth]an. … 

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Two Notes on Beowulf (with Glances at Vaf[THORN]ru[ETH]nismal, Blickling Homily 16, and Andreas, Lines 839-846)
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