Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Adam, Eve, and the 'Tacen' in 'Genesis B.' (Old English 'Sign')

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Adam, Eve, and the 'Tacen' in 'Genesis B.' (Old English 'Sign')

Article excerpt

A well-known feature of the Old Saxon-Old English Genesis poem is that Adam is tempted first. Pretending to have come from God, the devil's messenger, his boda, tells Adam that God wills now to heighten his powers of mind and body as a reward for good conduct. All Adam need do to bring about this happier condition is to eat of the fruit which the boda urges upon him: nim pe pis ofaet on hand, / bit his and byrige (518-19).

In a long speech, Adam refuses. His reasons are several: that God cautioned him against disobedience (526, 537-38) and said that the impure of heart should hold black hell (529-30); that God could bestow further gifts on him without sending a messenger (545-46); that an earlier command not to eat of the fruit had come directly from God (527-29 and 535-38, where nehst 536 is probably "in proximo," in effect "in person," rather than "last" and so helps the intensive self 535 to emphasize that the command assertedly from God contradicts utterly the command directly from God).(1)

Another of Adam's reasons is that he does not know whether the boda is legitimate or false (531-33). He can understand nothing of the boda's manner or words or journey (533-35); moreover, the boda is unlike any of God's angels he has seen before (538-39) and has not shown him a sign:

ne pu me odiewdest aenig tacen pe he me purh treowe to onsende, min hearra purh hyldo.(2) (540-42)

This lapse is not the least of Adam's concerns. For the messenger tacen (-)iewan "(to) show (a) sign" is of vital importance to him. It is clear that Adam must, and knows that he must, urgently and with certainty distinguish friend from foe, bona fides from possibly very mala indeed. The showing of a tacen would permit him to do so, and doing so might allay his other doubts and fears.

It is clear that in the ensuing temptations the predicate tacen (-)iewan becomes a motif. Rejected by Adam, the boda uses Adam's argument against Eve: he iewde hire tacen "showed her (a) sign" 653, a vision of God's throne which Eve describes to Adam (666-71). The predicate also occurs in tacen iewde 774, which recapitulates line 653, and in tacen odiewde 714, a reference to Eve's description of the vision:

ac wende pae heo hyldo heofoncyninges worhte mid pam wordum pe heo pam were swelce tacen odiewde and treowe gehet... (712-14)

In number and proximity within a single text these four instances of tacen (-)iewan are not equaled in Old Saxon or in Old English.

What is not clear is whether Eve's disclosing the tacen is to be understood as legitimately meeting Adam's earlier demand and therefore as justifying, at least in part, his disobedience. No such question arises in regard to Eve's disobedience. The adverb pa "then" 600 indicates that Eve does not see what the boda had promised her until she has already eaten of the fruit. But for Adam the matter is doubtful. The "until" clauses od pam pegne ongan / his hige hweorfan 705-06 and odpaet Adame ... / his hyge hwyrfde 715-16 look also like result clauses--for "clauses of time with op (paet) often shade into result"(3)--and both describe the same result, that Adam submitted to Eve's will. But before each "until" clause is a different reason: that Eve spoke to Adam copiously and that she disclosed the tacen to him. Though these reasons are not in themselves incongruent, their perceived implications are incongruent. The one is Adam's guilt, the other his near-innocence.

One reading attends principally to the first reason and so infers that Adam "gradually succumbed to Eve's persistence."(4) The text says that hio spraec him picce to 684 and heo spraec da to Adame ... ful piclice 704-05, and that the tacen was reported to Adam mid pam wordum 713. The implication of this reading is that Adam as well as Eve sinned, for his disobedience, i.e., his conformity to Eve's words rather than to God's, is seen to be unjustified.

Another, apparently no less defensible, reading attends principally to the second reason and so infers that when Eve swelce / tacen odiewde "showed such signs" 713-14 Adam ate of the fruit "because he had been given the proof he had demanded" when he said ne pu me odiewdest aenig tacen 540. …

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