220. The Fates of the Apostles, and Elene, two poems by Cynewulf (9th century)

Source : The Complete Old English Poems, translated by Craig Williamson and published by University of Pennsylvania Press (ISBN 9780812248470)

Thoughts : Most surviving Old English poems (and there are more than you’d think) were gathered up in four anthologies, single copies of which were uncovered in random locations which give them their names: The Junius Manuscript, The Vercelli Book, The Exeter Book, and The Paris Psalter.

These two poems today, along with The Dream of the Rood (see the post 218) were part of the Vercelli Book, the manuscript found in a library in a cathedral in Vercelli, Italy. They are attributed to a poet names Cynewulf (along with two others, Juliana and The Ascension, both found in the Exeter Book) because that name is coded in runes towards the end of the text of all four poems, combining the sacred nature of the subject matter with the riddle form of more secular Old English poetry.

Torch/fire (Cyn) = C

Bow (Yr) = Y

Need (Nyd) = N

Horse (Eof) = E

Joy (Wynn) = W

Strength (Ur) = U

Water (Lagu) = L

Wealth (Feoh) = F

The Fates of the Apostles records the deaths of each of the twelve Apostles and where they were sent to spread the Gospel. They are described using imagery of warriors and champions who were eager to trade their earthly lives for everlasting glory in Heaven, while the poet recognises and laments his own weakness, beseeching the reader to remember him in prayer.

Elene is a much longer poem (over 1300 lines), telling how St Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD) is sent to discover the whereabouts of the True Cross of the Crucifixion after the Emperor sees a vision of Christ which helps him to defeat the invading army of Huns and Goths. She travels to Jerusalem with a band of warriors and demands the Jews reveal the burial place of the Cross. A Jew named Judas (no relation to Iscariot) is put forward by his fellows and chained in a pit without food for seven days until he agrees to help. He is converted to Christianity, prompting a visit from Satan gnashing his teeth and bemoaning the loss of a tasty follower. Judas leads them to Calvary where his prayers are answered, with steam rising from the ground at the site. Subsequently the nails used in the Crucifixion are also sought and found, and made into a charmed horse bit for Constantine to use in battle guaranteeing victory.

The Jews are abused heavily in the poem, and described as pawns of Satan for their role in plotting and putting Jesus to death. Judas’s reward for his conversion (albeit under torture) is to be made Bishop of Jerusalem.

The Old English love of alliteration is present in almost every line by the translator.

“Swords slashed, shields clashed, arrows shrieked from bowstring to breastbone, fierce battle-adders with a dangerous bite”   lines 122-124

“That glorious day on which God’s holy rood was richly revealed, the greatest of trees ever rooted in earth …”   lines 1214-1216

Personal rating:  Each poem rates a 4/10, I would have liked to assign extra points for the name riddle, but would have then to minus points for the rabid anti-Semitism.

Also in the years 760 to 790 AD:

  • Book of Kells produced
  • Charlemagne and his brother Carloman become Kings of the Franks 768, Carloman dies 771, Charlemagne invades the Lombard Kingdom and brings it within his empire 773-774, subdues Saxony 785
  • Charlemagne builds splendid palace at Aachin, 777-786, into which Alcuin helps establish a school 781
  • Danes begin raiding England 787

from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978



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