221. Juliana, and The Ascension, 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 : The other two poems attributed to Cynewulf. Both were found in the Exeter Book, a manuscript of Old English poetry in the Library of the Exeter Cathedral in England.

Juliana is a young Christian woman promised as bride to the local heathen Prince Heliseus, who refuses to marry unless he converts to Christianity and gives up his idolatry. Heliseus and her father Africanus rage in fury and beat her, then hang her by her hair from a gallows tree but she will not recant. They lock her in prison where she is visited by one of Satan’s devils in disguise, urging her to save herself by agreeing to the marriage. She grabs hold of the devil and forces him to reveal his evil nature, plots and methods of trapping the souls of weak men.

Dragged back to the Prince, Juliana is threatened with immersion in a cauldron of molten lead which a true Angel of the Lord scatters in an explosion, burning onlookers but leaving Juliana untouched. Finally she is beheaded, her soul released to Heaven, while the evildoers attempt to flee God’s vengeance.

I enjoyed reading Juliana for its unique story and fantastical imagery, particularly the demon whining and squirming, begging for mercy and powerless in the maiden’s holy grip.

“The master of dread is no gentle lord. If we return, empty of evil, we dare not come into that devil’s sight, for he calls forth his dark ministers to find us, bind us in terror, imprison us in anguish, enslave us in that endless, savage flame”      Juliana, lines 341-346


Christ II : The Ascension is the middle poem of a triptych, but the only part with Cynewulf’s signature. It describes Christ’s ascension into Heaven with the attending host of bright angels, after coming back to speak to all the Apostles and send them off to spread the Gospel.

Of interest here is the great Leaps taken by Christ :

“The King of Creation, almighty God, shall come leaping into life in middle-earth, bounding over mountains, springing over valleys, enveloping the hills with his glory, the dales with his joy …”.  There are six leaps : from Heaven to Mary’s womb, from the womb to birth, climbing onto the Cross, leaving the Cross to lie in the tomb, the harrowing of Hell, and the final ascension to Heaven described at the beginning of the poem.

The harrowing of Hell is not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament, but tells of Jesus descending to Hell after the Crucifixion, to save and release the souls of those who had already died. Maybe the image of Christ as Warrior started here.

“The fifth leap came when he harrowed hell, humbling its inhabitants with fiery chains, leaving them locked in living torment, binding the foul fiends’ demon-king, their mad-mouthed Satanic spokesman, that soul-grim spirit-ghost, roped in rage, secured in sin, tied in torment, fixed in flame, where he suffers still”      The Ascension, lines 336-343

Like the other Cynewulf poems, this ends with a plea from the poet to be remembered in the prayers of each reader, as he fears for his own soul as a past sinner, perhaps seeking some redemption through his poetic offerings.

The translator often uses the word middle-earth (Old English middengeard) for Earth as distinct from Heaven and Hell, originally from an earlier Germanic word. Tolkien was obviously a bit of a fan of the old Old English.

Personal rating:  Juliana  6/10,  The Ascension 4/10

In the years 790-820:

  • Norsemen begin raiding Scotland 794, Ireland 795
  • Irene of Athens, widow of Byzantine Emperor Leo IV, blinds her son to ensure she retains rule, 797. Deposed by Nicephorus and exiled 802.
  • Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne as Emperor of Western Roman (later Holy Roman) Empire, 800.
  • Native American cultures farming across that continent
  • Egbert becomes King of West Saxons, southern England, 802
  • Al-Mamun founds centre for classical and Oriental studies, Baghdad

from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978.


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