I’m going to return to the subject of the Norse runes this week, but we’re going to start our first major upheaval in this discussion: the runes aren’t Norse anymore, they’re Anglo-Saxon.
To elaborate somewhat: the island of Great Britain, where the modern nations of Wales, Scotland, and England are situated, had several indigenous tribes who we can date back several thousand years. In time, seafarers from Greece and Rome found their way to the British isles, and eventually the Roman Empire invaded and colonized the island of Great Britain in particular. Some structures from that time period remain. At the same time, the Roman Empire and then later the powerful influence of the Catholic Church ventured north into Germanic territories, and other pressures led some of these peoples to seek new homes. In particular, groups from what we now call Denmark found their way to southeast Britain and carved out colonies for themselves there. Exactly when this happened, where they came from, what the groups called themselves, and how they supplanted the existing Briton populations, is controversial. The fact that this happened is almost self-evident: the language changed, the culture changed, the people changed, and there is historical evidence of conflict during the period following the fall of the Roman Empire, though there are questions about its reliability.
We came to call these people Anglo-Saxons, a blending of the Angles and the Saxons. That term’s come to have a much more loaded cultural meaning in today’s world, but it all goes back to some immigrants taking advantage of an opportunity that came about for reasons much bigger than them, and they might have left the eastern coast of the North Sea because they were proto-Vikings, or because they were religious refugees, or because they were criminals or economic migrants or just really bored with marshes and bogs. Their descendants have claimed a lot of things about them. It was a long time ago.
We call the poem below the Anglo-Saxon rune poem; unlike the previous two rune poems I’ve shared, it was not written in Old Norse, but in the Anglo-Saxon language. The written version of Anglo-Saxon, or at least the version present in this poem, has twenty-nine runes, rather than the twenty-four of the Elder Futhark of the Norse, and it is instead a Futhorc. But make no mistake: someone from Norway could understand someone from Britain when Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon were spoken, the languages were still relatively similar dialects, though vocabulary was already starting to diverge, and Anglo-Saxon was merging more fully with the spoken language of the natives, becoming a truly English language. Anglo-Saxon is also called Old English, and it is the language of Beowulf, which I’ve written about previously, and studying Anglo-Saxon, and Beowulf in particular, was the day job of J.R.R. Tolkien, of whose other work you may be familiar.
The source for this text continues to be Runic and Heroic Poems of the Old Teutonic Peoples by Bruce Dickins, in 1915. Again, I have presented the poem in modern English translation with its original Anglo-Saxon. You might also want to compare some stanzas to the Icelandic version or the Norwegian version – while the poems aren’t identical, they’re similar, and it might be neat to review the similarities and differences in language, and how the poems differed in meter and word choice in the original.
The Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Wealth is a comfort to all men;
yet must every man bestow it freely,
if he wish to gain honour in the sight of the Lord.
The aurochs is proud and has great horns;
it is a very savage beast and fights with its horns;
a great ranger of the moors, it is a creature of mettle.
The thorn is exceedingly sharp,
an evil thing for any knight to touch,
uncommonly severe on all who sit among them.
The mouth is the source of all language,
a pillar of wisdom and a comfort to wise men,
a blessing and a joy to every knight.
Riding seems easy to every warrior while he is indoors
and very courageous to him who traverses the high-roads
on the back of a stout horse.
The torch is known to every living man by its pale, bright flame;
it always burns where princes sit within.
Generosity brings credit and honour, which support one’s dignity;
it furnishes help and subsistence
to all broken men who are devoid of aught else.
Bliss he enjoys who knows not suffering, sorrow nor anxiety,
and has prosperity and happiness and a good enough house.
Hail is the whitest of grain;
it is whirled from the vault of heaven
and is tossed about by gusts of wind
and then it melts into water.
Trouble is oppressive to the heart;
yet often it proves a source of help and salvation
to the children of men, to everyone who heeds it betimes.
Ice is very cold and immeasurably slippery;
it glistens as clear as glass and most like to gems;
it is a floor wrought by the frost, fair to look upon.
Summer is a joy to men, when God, the holy King of Heaven,
suffers the earth to bring forth shining fruits
for rich and poor alike.
The yew is a tree with rough bark,
hard and fast in the earth, supported by its roots,
a guardian of flame and a joy upon an estate.
Peorth is a source of recreation and amusement to the great,
where warriors sit blithely together in the banqueting-hall.
The Eolh-sedge is mostly to be found in a marsh;
it grows in the water and makes a ghastly wound,
covering with blood every warrior who touches it.
The sun is ever a joy in the hopes of seafarers
when they journey away over the fishes’ bath,
until the courser of the deep bears them to land.
Tiw is a guiding star; well does it keep faith with princes;
it is ever on its course over the mists of night and never fails.
The poplar bears no fruit; yet without seed it brings forth suckers,
for it is generated from its leaves.
Splendid are its branches and gloriously adorned
its lofty crown which reaches to the skies.
The horse is a joy to princes in the presence of warriors.
A steed in the pride of its hoofs,
when rich men on horseback bandy words about it;
and it is ever a source of comfort to the restless.
The joyous man is dear to his kinsmen;
yet every man is doomed to fail his fellow,
since the Lord by his decree will commit the vile carrion to the earth.
The ocean seems interminable to men,
if they venture on the rolling bark
and the waves of the sea terrify them
and the courser of the deep heed not its bridle.
Ing was first seen by men among the East-Danes,
till, followed by his chariot,
he departed eastwards over the waves.
So the Heardingas named the hero.
An estate is very dear to every man,
if he can enjoy there in his house
whatever is right and proper in constant prosperity.
Day, the glorious light of the Creator, is sent by the Lord;
it is beloved of men, a source of hope and happiness to rich and poor,
and of service to all.
The oak fattens the flesh of pigs for the children of men.
Often it traverses the gannet’s bath,
and the ocean proves whether the oak keeps faith
in honourable fashion.
The ash is exceedingly high and precious to men.
With its sturdy trunk it offers a stubborn resistance,
though attacked by many a man.
Yr is a source of joy and honour to every prince and knight;
it looks well on a horse and is a reliable equipment for a journey.
Iar is a river fish and yet it always feeds on land;
it has a fair abode encompassed by water, where it lives in happiness.
The grave is horrible to every knight,
when the corpse quickly begins to cool
and is laid in the bosom of the dark earth.
Prosperity declines, happiness passes away
and covenants are broken.
Anglo-Saxon Original Verse
Feoh byþ frofur fira gehwylcum;
sceal ðeah manna gehwylc miclun hyt dælan
gif he wile for drihtne domes hleotan.
Ur byþ anmod ond oferhyrned,
felafrecne deor, feohteþ mid hornum
mære morstapa; þæt is modig wuht.
Ðorn byþ ðearle scearp; ðegna gehwylcum
anfeng ys yfyl, ungemetum reþe
manna gehwelcum, ðe him mid resteð.
Os byþ ordfruma ælere spræce,
wisdomes wraþu ond witena frofur
and eorla gehwam eadnys ond tohiht.
Rad byþ on recyde rinca gehwylcum
sefte ond swiþhwæt, ðamðe sitteþ on ufan
meare mægenheardum ofer milpaþas.
Cen byþ cwicera gehwam, cuþ on fyre
blac ond beorhtlic, byrneþ oftust
ðær hi æþelingas inne restaþ.
Gyfu gumena byþ gleng and herenys,
wraþu and wyrþscype and wræcna gehwam
ar and ætwist, ðe byþ oþra leas.
Wenne bruceþ, ðe can weana lyt
sares and sorge and him sylfa hæfþ
blæd and blysse and eac byrga geniht.
Hægl byþ hwitust corna; hwyrft hit of heofones lyfte,
wealcaþ hit windes scura; weorþeþ hit to wætere syððan.
Nyd byþ nearu on breostan; weorþeþ hi þeah oft niþa bearnum
to helpe and to hæle gehwæþre, gif hi his hlystaþ æror.
Is byþ ofereald, ungemetum slidor,
glisnaþ glæshluttur gimmum gelicust,
flor forste geworuht, fæger ansyne.
Ger byÞ gumena hiht, ðonne God læteþ,
halig heofones cyning, hrusan syllan
beorhte bleda beornum ond ðearfum.
Eoh byþ utan unsmeþe treow,
heard hrusan fæst, hyrde fyres,
wyrtrumun underwreþyd, wyn on eþle.
Peorð byþ symble plega and hlehter
wlancum [on middum], ðar wigan sittaþ
on beorsele bliþe ætsomne.
Eolh-secg eard hæfþ oftust on fenne
wexeð on wature, wundaþ grimme,
blode breneð beorna gehwylcne
ðe him ænigne onfeng gedeþ.
Sigel semannum symble biþ on hihte,
ðonne hi hine feriaþ ofer fisces beþ,
oþ hi brimhengest bringeþ to lande.
Tir biþ tacna sum, healdeð trywa wel
wiþ æþelingas; a biþ on færylde
ofer nihta genipu, næfre swiceþ.
Beorc byþ bleda leas, bereþ efne swa ðeah
tanas butan tudder, biþ on telgum wlitig,
heah on helme hrysted fægere,
geloden leafum, lyfte getenge.
Eh byþ for eorlum æþelinga wyn,
hors hofum wlanc, ðær him hæleþ ymb[e]
welege on wicgum wrixlaþ spræce
and biþ unstyllum æfre frofur.
Man byþ on myrgþe his magan leof:
sceal þeah anra gehwylc oðrum swican,
forðum drihten wyle dome sine
þæt earme flæsc eorþan betæcan.
Lagu byþ leodum langsum geþuht,
gif hi sculun neþan on nacan tealtum
and hi sæyþa swyþe bregaþ
and se brimhengest bridles ne gym[eð].
Ing wæs ærest mid East-Denum
gesewen secgun, oþ he siððan est
ofer wæg gewat; wæn æfter ran;
ðus Heardingas ðone hæle nemdun.
Eþel byþ oferleof æghwylcum men,
gif he mot ðær rihtes and gerysena on
brucan on bolde bleadum oftast.
Dæg byþ drihtnes sond, deore mannum,
mære metodes leoht, myrgþ and tohiht
eadgum and earmum, eallum brice.
Ac byþ on eorþan elda bearnum
flæsces fodor, fereþ gelome
ofer ganotes bæþ; garsecg fandaþ
hwæþer ac hæbbe æþele treowe.
Æsc biþ oferheah, eldum dyre
stiþ on staþule, stede rihte hylt,
ðeah him feohtan on firas monige.
Yr byþ æþelinga and eorla gehwæs
wyn and wyrþmynd, byþ on wicge fæger,
fæstlic on færelde, fyrdgeatewa sum.
Iar byþ eafix and ðeah a bruceþ
fodres on foldan, hafaþ fægerne eard
wætre beworpen, ðær he wynnum leofaþ.
Ear byþ egle eorla gehwylcun,
ðonn[e] fæstlice flæsc onginneþ,
hraw colian, hrusan ceosan
blac to gebeddan; bleda gedreosaþ,
wynna gewitaþ, wera geswicaþ.