Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Wife's Lament in the Context of Scandinavian Myth and Ritual

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Wife's Lament in the Context of Scandinavian Myth and Ritual

Article excerpt

Amidst the plethora of interpretations of The Wife's Lament,(1) some of which will be reviewed in the conclusion of this essay, one approach is worthy of special note and will form the foundation of the current inquiry.(2) In his "Heathen Form and Christian Function in `The Wife's Lament,'" A. N. Doane regarded the speaker as a minor Germanic deity, expressing her anguish at the conversion to Christianity of a related priest-chief. His argument is structural and linguistic in approach and seeks to "establish a more satisfactory basis for speculation than that which has served for several generations."(3) While achieving that goal, Doane, perhaps surprisingly, does not further attempt to analyze the poem's interconnected web of images and specific external references, nor to locate these within the general ground of pagan religiosity at the time. When these are taken in account, however, then the speculations which ensue lead to a more radical conclusion than that offered by Doane. That more radical conclusion is in certain respects defined by P. R. Orton in an essay of 1989, in which he writes:

I suggest that the story told in The Wife's Lament may be derived from a myth about an abandoned fertility goddess or Terra Mater who weeps (like Freyja) for a departed husband or lover, wanders in search of him, and is finally condemned by his withdrawal (like Gerdr) to a lonely, sterile, death-like existence in a primitive, elemental world. The mythological basis for the couple was probably a divine pair, parties to a hierogamy.(4)

I will seek here to supply even more cogent and ample reasons for accepting Orton's correlation between the two narratives. Additionally, while perceiving its ground in the general context of Scandinavian pagan religion and mythology, both writers mysteriously shy away from employing that material as a source to elucidate vexed elements in The Lament itself, a defect which will here be addressed. Finally, Orton particularly hesitates to accept the corollary of his position by identifying the Wife as either the Germanic Great Goddess herself, Freyja, or some personification or equivalent thereof, an identification for which I shall argue. I shall, additionally, have more specific candidates for Orton's "divine pair" and the content of his "hierogamy."

I stress, however, that as we know it The Lament and its protagonists may well amount to no more than the later literary residue of an earlier Scandinavian religious tradition, and I am by no means arguing that Scandinavian myth and ritual, gods and goddesses, were per se alive and intact in Anglo-Saxon England or that they should be regarded as there functioning in The Lament itself in any unmediated manner.(5) What I am proposing instead is rather that, in the most general sense, the pattern of motifs and sequence of events to be found in the poem, together with its original significance, which may or may not have been any longer well understood by its Anglo-Saxon audience, can be best understood as having been generated at a much earlier time by Germanic, especially Scandinavian, religious and mythic models, to then become the subject of an extended period of increasingly nonpagan oral and at last written transmission.(6) Additionally, it is of course the case that our knowledge of Scandinavian mythology is principally, though by no means exclusively, dependent upon late, Icelandic sources, and thus in itself partly conjectural. Nevertheless, the same problem besets exact knowledge of most mythologies and should not exclude at the outset all consideration of their possible interaction with other cultural phenomena, particularly, as in this case, when considerable historical evidence of a variety of types (religious ritual and symbol, archeology, etymology, folk custom, etc.) corroborates what appear to be patterns in the mythologic outline.

In The Lament "More than in any other poem except Beowulf itself, reminiscences of the old religion stand clearly forward,"(7) states Doane, who makes a strong case for concluding that in the poem "references to pagan things are numerous and obvious. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.