"Genesis" 549-51 and 623-25: Narrative Frame and Devilish Cunning

By Vickrey, John | Philological Quarterly, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

"Genesis" 549-51 and 623-25: Narrative Frame and Devilish Cunning


Vickrey, John, Philological Quarterly


In the Old English poem Genesis B, the tempter, having failed against Adam, turns to Eve, persuades her to eat of the fruit, and exhorts her to approach Adam. At the beginning and at the end of this temptation are two passages each of which makes some reference to eafor(-) "posterity" 550 and 623. In his recent edition of the poem, A. N. Doane in my view misconstrues the syntax of the first passage and confuses tempter and narrator as the voice in the second. The consequence is that the bearing of the two passages on one another and of both on the temptation as a whole is obscured and that the deeper perception which one might have had of the tempter's cunning and rhetorical skill and therefore of the poet's inventiveness and daring is precluded.

The first passage, immediately preceding the tempter's first speech to Eve, is lines 549b-51a:

...cwaed paet sceadena maest

eallum heora eaforum aefter siddan

wurde on worulde.(1)

Whereas it might have seemed, for reasons which will become apparent, that the subject of cwaed 549 should be inferred from wradmod ... he 547 and that sceadena maest 549 should be the subject of wurde,(2) i.e., the subject of a clause of indirect discourse, Doane takes sceadena maest as the subject of cwaed:

Editors gloss sceadena as "injury, harm," though such a meaning is barely attested for OE and OS (cf. OFris, skatha, OHG scado, ON skadi, "injury"; Go skapis, "wrong"); in OE and OS the usual meaning is "enemy," "devil" (cf. [Genesis] 606 sceada of the tempter, [Heliand] 5427b-28a (C) uuamscathono mest, Satanas selbo). Nevertheless, it is held that some general expression of the ill to befall Eve is needed, thus: "(he) said that the greatest of evils to all their sons would be forever in the world." Vickrey ingeniously tries to avoid sceada in this pale and questionable sense by taking sceadena maest as a reference by the devil to God: "he said that the greatest of enemies to all her sons would be ever after"; this stretches the semantic field of the word (perhaps we might expect such if these words were actually in the devil's mouth) and seems unidiomatic. J. R. Hall (personal communication) probably solves the crux by explaining paet as either modifying maest: "Spoke that greatest of enemies to all their sons ever after to be in the world ..."; or as an appositional: "Spoke that one, the greatest of enemies .... "Another possibility, if the neuter is a problem, is to take paet (written) as a miswriting of pa, adv.: "Then the greatest of enemies to all their sons (that) would ever after be in the world spoke."(3)

Doane does not explain adequately why sceadena maest as "greatest of enemies" and "as a reference by the devil to God" might be admissible, if only barely, in direct speech but not in indirect. Considerable evidence supports the inference that sceadena maest is the subject of wurde, hence of a clause of indirect discourse. That God would come as sceadena maest to posterity must then be taken either as the narrator's extrapolation from the lies put forward in the speeches which follow or as his summary of other words not reported as direct speech.(4)

Doane's argument might have more weight if sceadena maest 549 means "(of) devils." Certainly "enemy," "devil" or equivalent terms are included in the principal dictionaries s.v. sceada.(5) In my dissertation I gave "fiend," "enemy" for sceada though I gave "greatest of enemies" for sceadena maest 549. But the basic meaning of sceada is "one who injures." Julius Pokorny, although he defines OE sceada and OS scatho as not only "Schadiger" but also, respectively, as "Teufel" and "Feind," indicates that the IE root means "beschadigen." The obvious relation between injury and enmity explains why "injurer" and "enemy" are often given. For Old Saxon skado Edward Sehrt gives "Schadiger, Uebeltater, Feind" and Peter Ilkow "Schadiger, Verderber, Verbrecher, Feind." Arthur Brodeur notes "the somewhat abstract sense of the simplex ([sceada] "harmer," hence "foe"). …

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