Some Musings on Magic and Witchcraft in the Epic Poets

Then Zeus’ daughter thought of something else.
Into the mixing-bowl from which they drank their wine
she slipped a drug, heart’s-ease, dissolving anger,
magic to make us all forget our pains…
No one who drank it deeply, mulled in wine,
could let a tear roll down his cheeks that day…
So cunning the drugs that Zeus’ daughter plied,
potent gifts from Polydamna the wife of Thon,
a woman of Egypt, land where the teeming soil
bears the richest yield of herbs in all the world:
many health itself when mixed in the wine,
and many deadly poison.
Every man is a healer there, more skilled
than any other men on earth — Egyptians born
of the healing god himself.

(Odyssey, Book 4, ll. 243-260, Fagles)

At face value Homer’s “nepenthe” went unnamed; yet general consensus seems to agree that the herb was very likely what we know as “borage”. The above scene takes place in the palace of Menelaus and Helen after the Trojan war — they receive Odysseus’ son Telemachus, and Helen adds something to their drink to help induce a more relaxed and comfortable state of company.

“Borage was sometimes called Bugloss by the old herbalists, a name that properly belongs to Anchusa officinalis, the Alkanet, the Small Bugloss being Lycopsis arvensis, and Viper’s Bugloss being the popular name for Echium vulgare.

Henslow suggests that the name is derived from barrach, a Celtic word meaning ‘a man of courage.’

Gerard says:

‘Pliny calls it Euphrosinum, because it maketh a man merry and joyfull: which thing also the old verse concerning Borage doth testifie:

Ego Borago – (I, Borage)

Gaudia semper ago. – (Bring alwaies courage.)

Those of our time do use the flowers in sallads to exhilerate and make the mind glad. There be also many things made of these used everywhere for the comfort of the heart, for the driving away of sorrow and increasing the joy of the minde. The leaves and floures of Borage put into wine make men and women glad and merry and drive away all sadnesse, dulnesse and melancholy, as Dioscorides and Pliny affirme. Syrup made of the floures of Borage comforteth the heart, purgeth melancholy and quieteth the phrenticke and lunaticke person.’

According to Dioscorides and Pliny, Borage was the famous Nepenthe of Homer, which when drunk steeped in wine, brought absolute forgetfulness.
Francis Bacon says that it ‘hath an excellent spirit to repress the fuliginous vapour of dusky melancholie.'”

(culled from:

We see a very non-chalant snapshot of herbalism in the ancient world in this scene of Homer, even despite the fact that the nature of the application is admittedly in a context which may seem, at first glance, unsavoury to some in a modern audience.
Fagles’ vocabulary choice of “drug” is wholly acceptable (and maybe even required) in context, and yet said context is entirely positive in nature and there is no unwholesome or conspiring connotation implied whatsoever. While there is no mention of “consent” to its application on the part of the other characters in question, yet as mentioned there is no negative connotation; which all elements taken together leads one to presume that the practice was not unacceptable or uncommon overall. One may think also that the dosage distributed was possibly low in general, that the effect blended enough with the normal euphoria of wine-consumption and didn’t seem to raise any eyebrows.

More lines that catch attention come forth in the statements of “magic” (although the term itself is not used in the original Ancient Greek line from Homer, Fagles correctly interprets the sense) — and so cunning [were] the drugs that Zeus’ daughter plied” (τοῖα Διὸς θυγάτηρ ἔχε φάρμακα μητιόεντα) — which may imply some sort of touch of witchcraft mentioned in a roundabout way (possibly seen as simple or mundane in context).
Elements of the supernatural seem to follow Helen throughout the tradition of her story: she is praised as the most beautiful woman of her time; she is the object of Aphrodite’s attentions and favours from the beginning (hence how the tale of the Trojan war itself becomes to be), and the association of magic/witchcraft with Aphrodite in history goes without saying; goddesses visit her frequently, and a scene in the Iliad depicts Helen weaving (an activity strongly associated with magic in the old world), while the subjects she weaves are legendary events and battles going on outside the palace:

Now to Helen of the white arms came a messenger, Iris,
in the likeness of her sister-in-law, the wife of Antenor’s

son, whom strong Helikaon wed, the son of Antenor,

Laodike, loveliest looking of all the daughters of Priam.

She came on Helen in the chamber; she was weaving a great web,

a red folding robe, and working into it the numerous struggles

of Trojans, breakers of horses, and bronze-armoured Achaians,

struggles that they endured for her sake at the hands of the war-god.

(Iliad Book 3, ll. 121-128, Lattimore)

Not to mention she is the daughter of Zeus, and the “twin” sister of the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux). Her birth is wrapped up in swan-myths. The implications of the mystical abound as concerns this woman.

Her significance was not lost on the ancients — shrines, worship and reverence for Helen could be found widely: majorly in Laconia/Lakedaemonia (i.e. the land of Sparta), as well as Attica, Rhodes, etc.
The elaboration of such observations far surpasses the scope of this article, but it does spark ideas and gives something to think about.

In the train of thought concerning herbs and witchcraft in epic poetry, the mind jumps ahead many centuries to Augustan Rome — the alluring scene of Medea’s spell in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to rejuvenate the waning Aeson, father of the Argonaut-hero Jason. (Herbs, ritual, deities of witchcraft and earth and even mention of a Lycanthrope – what more could be wanted in this passage!)
Considering its length, we’ll only recount the second half of the scene here; presented below is Brookes More’s translation from the early 20th century, but I also highly recommend obtaining David Raeburn’s translation of Ovid’s epic — as it is not only splendid in its handling of meter and verse, but is a strong translation of worth itself.

… she built up from the ever-living turf
two altars, one of which upon the right
to Hecate was given, but the one
upon the left was sacred then to you,
O Hebe, goddess of eternal youth!
Festooning woodland boughs and sweet vervain
adorned these altars, near by which she dug
as many trenches. Then, when all was done,
she slaughtered a black ram, and sprinkled with blood
the thirsty trenches; after which she poured
from rich carchesian goblets generous wine
and warm milk, grateful to propitious Gods—
the Deities of earth on whom she called—
entreating, as she did so, Pluto, lord
of ghostly shades, and ravished Proserpine,
that they should not, in undue haste,
deprive her patient’s aged limbs of life.

When certain she compelled the God’s regard,

assured her incantations and long prayers

were both approved and heard, she bade her people
bring out the body of her father-in-law—
old Aeson’s worn out body—and when she
had buried him in a deep slumber by
her spells, as if he were a dead man, she
then stretched him out upon a bed of herbs.

She ordered Jason and his servants thence,
and warned them not to spy upon her rites,
with eyes profane. As soon as they retired,
Medea, with disheveled hair and wild
abandon, as a Bacchanalian, paced
times three around the blazing altars, while
she dipped her torches, splintered at the top,
into the trenches, dark: with blood, and lit
the dipt ends in the sacred altar flames.
Times three she purified the ancient man
with flames, and thrice with water, and three times
with sulphur,—as the boiling mixture seethed

and bubbled in the brazen cauldron near.

And into this, acerbic juices, roots,
and flowers and seeds—from vales Hemonian—
and mixed elixirs, into which she cast
stones of strange virtue from the Orient,
and sifted sands of ebbing ocean’s tide;
white hoar-frost, gathered when the moon was full,
the nauseating flesh and luckless wings
of the uncanny screech-owl, and the entrails
from a mysterious animal that changed
from wolf to man, from man to wolf again;
the scaly sloughing of a water-snake,
the medic liver of a long-lived stag,
and the hard beak and head of an old crow
which was alive nine centuries before;
these, and a thousand nameless things
the foreign sorceress prepared and mixed,
and blended all together with a branch
of peaceful olive, old and dry with years. —
And while she stirred the withered olive branch
in the hot mixture, it began to change
from brown to green; and presently put forth

new leaves, and soon was heavy with a wealth
of luscious olives.—As the ever-rising fire
threw bubbling froth beyond the cauldron’s rim,
the ground was covered with fresh verdure — flowers
and all luxuriant grasses, and green plants.

Medea, when she saw this wonder took
her unsheathed knife and cut the old man’s throat;
then, letting all his old blood out of him
she filled his ancient veins with rich elixir.
As he received it through his lips or wound,
his beard and hair no longer white with age,
turned quickly to their natural vigor, dark
and lustrous; and his wasted form renewed,
appeared in all the vigor of bright youth,
no longer lean and sallow, for new blood
coursed in his well-filled veins.—Astonished, when
released from his deep sleep, and strong in youth,
his memory assured him, such he was
years four times ten before that day!

(Metamorphoses Book 7, ll. 242-etc.)

I plan to do an appropriately comprehensive commentary on this particular section of the poem in a following article; for now let us simply muse on all the openly observable elements detailed in the poetry, and the nature of such goings-on in the ancient mind, in “classical” authors such as the ancient Greek Homer all the way up to the Roman Ovid.

Herbalism, witchcraft, magic — the “Other” — these things were an accepted facet (whether sceptical or not) of their world, while their interest and intellectual investment in the topics is evident even in the most cursory overview of classical material.

Again religious rites and dark magic are woven together in Book 6 of Vergil’s Aeneid, where the hero learns from the Cumaen Sibyl how to obtain passage to the underworld. Aeneas puts forth his plight, and the Sibyl tells him truly what he must do; and she includes in her speech, as an aside, the death of one of their comrades yet unbeknownst to them — which they see when they return to the ship, and all too clear is proven the truth of the Sibyl’s words.
Aeneas knows she does not lead him astray.

“A bough is hidden in a shady tree;
its leaves and pliant stem are golden, set
aside as sacred to Proserpina.
The grove serves as its screen, and shades enclose
the bough in darkened valleys. Only he
may pass beneath the earth’s sacred spaces
first plucks the golden-leaved fruit of that tree.

Lovely Proserpina ordained that this
be offered her as gift. And when the first
bough is torn off, a second grows again —
with leaves of gold, again of that same metal.
So let your eyes search overhead; and when
the bough is found, then pluck it down by hand
as due: for if the Fates (fata) have summoned you,
the bough will break off freely, easily;
but otherwise, no power can overcome it,
hard iron cannot help to tear it off.
And more, the lifeless body of your friend
low lies — but you have still to learn of this —
defiling all your fleet with death, while you
still ask your destiny and linger at
our threshold. First, you are to carry him
to his own place of rest and burial
and bring black cattle as peace offering.
And so, at last, your eyes shall see the groves
of Styx, the lands the living never pass.”

(ll. 190-216, Mandlebaum)

Aeneas and his men return to the ships to find their friend Misenus indeed dead. There was a certain sting in the Sibyl’s words, that while Aeneas inquires and pries after his self-centered goal their comrade falls to his own doom; and she says a “peace offering” is required, presumably in propitiation of some sort (whither the propition is directed is not clear; we learn that Misenus died in result of arrogantly challenging a deity to a trumpet contest: is the propitiation for that, or because of his comrades abandoning Misenus, or for the negative taint upon their property, in so near conjunction with conducting rites to the gods of the underworld?).
They prepare his funeral and the appropriate rites; in the midst of this, the hero finds his way to the coveted boon required of him — Proserpina’s fruit:

… but gazing on the giant forest, he
is sad within his heart and prays: “If only

that golden bough might show itself to us

upon some tree in this great wood; for in

all things that had to do with you, Misenus,

the priestess has foreseen only too truly.”

No sooner was this said than from the sky

twin doves descended, there before his eyes,

settling along the green grass. And the chief

of heroes recognized his mother’s birds [ie Venus]

and prayed with gladness: “Be my guides if there

is any passage, strike across the air

to that grove where the rich bough overshadows

the fertile ground. And you, my goddess mother,

be true to me in my uncertainty.”

As he said this, he stayed his steps. He watched

for omens, for the way the birds would turn.

Then, as they fled, they flew along as far

as sight could follow. But when they have reached

the jaws of foul Avernus, there they rise

and swiftly glide along the liquid air;

they settle, twins, on their desired treetop.

(ll. 253-274)

In a moving scene (unquoted here), the burial rites of their dear friend are carried out with propriety and sadness, and a “mighty tomb” is raised is in his honour. This scene is very important to studies of Roman burial customs and the nature of Roman reverence for the dead. We do not quote it here simply because it doesn’t have much to do with our current topics — we’ll tackle it at a later date.

But now, there is work to be done, rites to be unraveled, and our “pius Aeneas” carries onward: 

… he now moves swiftly to fulfill
all the commands and warnings of the Sibyl.

There was a wide-mouthed cavern, deep and vast

and rugged, sheltered by the shadowed lake

and darkened groves; such vapor poured from those

black jaws to heaven’s vault, no bird could fly

above unharmed (for which the Greeks have called

the place “Aornos,” or “The Birdless”). Here

the priestess places, first, four black-backed steers;

and she pours wine upon their brows and plucks

the topmost hairs between their horns and these

casts on the sacred fires as offering,

calling aloud on Hecate, the queen

of heaven and of hell. Then others slit

the victims’ throats and catch warm blood in bowls.

Aeneas sacrifices with his sword

a black-fleeced lamb for Night, the Furies’ mother,

and Terra [Earth], her great sister; and for you,

Proserpina, he kills a barren heifer.

And then for Pluto, king of Styx, he raises

nocturnal altars, laying on their fires

whole caracasses of bulls; he pours fat oil

across the burning entrails. But no sooner

are dawn and brightness of the early sun

upon them than the ground roars underfoot,

the wooded ridges shudder, through the shadows

dogs seem to howl as Hecate draws near.

“Away, away, you uninitiated,”

the priestess shrieks, “now leave the grove: only

Aeneas move ahead, unsheathe your sword;

you need your courage now; you need your heart.”

This said, she plunges, wild, into the open

cavern; but with unfaltering steps Aeneas

keeps pace beside his guide as she advances.

(ll. 316-349)

As can be seen, the scenes are filled with not only ritualistic and religious symbolism but even ritual itself in the latter section — yet there the lines are blurred between what we term proper religious ritual and witchcraft; for what else but “witchcraft” could even aspire to such? The answer is simple: these women (i.e., the Cumaen Sibyl, and Medea earlier) were executing witchcraft while performing what was considered established ritual form in their time; hence taking on the implication of what we would term “proper” religious rites. Gods are invoked, space is recognized, goals are acknowledged, whilst there are particular features which define what the on-looker is actually witnessing in terms of action and outcome.

The tradition of the sibyls and priestesses of Apollo goes far back into antiquity and demanded reverence for centuries; their importance and bridge to the “Other” in the ancient world bears mentioning and exhortation to further study.

Luctantius connects the historical legend of the Sibylline Books with the Cumaen priestess; this tale is well-known, and plays a great part in the identity of ancient Rome. In short, the Sybil brought a collection of volumes, their contents of prophetic nature, to the king Tarquinius — upon attempting to impart the material to him for a (large) price, which was met with scorn, the situation carries on in several confrontations resulting in the most lamentable case of destroyed books until the king relents, obtaining the remaining three of nine volumes.
These volumes were in turn cherished and protected by an appointed order — consulted in times of great need, and also bringing about a handful of very influential interpretations that would deeply affect Roman culture.

In connection with the authors of epic verse and the perceived sanctity of literature, bibliomancy assumes a long history. In staying a moment on the Roman vein here — the practice of “sortes Vergilianae” probably sprouted almost immediately after the passing of the poet Vergil himself; and here the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney (most known for his spectacular sonnet-sequence “Astrophel and Stella” which helped set the stage for Renaissance English verse) paints a picture of the powerful image of the poet, and possibly one of the earliest accounts of the sortes Vergilianae as used by Albinus:

“Among the Romans a poet was called a vates, which is as much as a diviner, foreseer, or prophet, as by his conjoined words, vaticinium and vaticinari, is manifest; so heavenly a title did that excellent people bestow upon this heart-ravishing knowledge. And so far were they carried into the admiration thereof, that they thought in the chanceable hitting upon any such verses great fore-tokens of their following fortunes were placed; whereupon grew the word of Sortes Virgilianae, when by sudden opening Virgil’s book they lighted upon some verse of his making. Whereof the Histories of the Emperors’ Lives are full: as of Albinus, the governor of our island, who in his childhood met with this verse:

Arma amens capio, nec sat rationis in armis,
(Arms taken up in a rage, with little reason to be armed) *

… and in his age performed it.”

These sortes were carried on in different form later with the overtaking of Christianity, replacing pagan texts with scripture (“sortes Sanctorum” etc.); such practices as have come down unbroken amongst many people of the religion to this day in some form or other.

To errantly jump back to the famed author of the Iliad and Odyssey — it is with Homer we see roots in this tradition of bibliomantic sortes. As far back as the Homeridae can be imagined (the inspired bards who recited Homeric verse by memory in live performance), and the larger-than-life character of Homer amongst the peoples envisioned, it is likely such sortes Homericae existed.

Such was the influence of Homer’s poetry that extended variants of such practice existed as well, as we see in the dice-divination recorded in ancient papyri: a selection of Homeric verses were presented, each with a designated combination of three single-digit numbers which were reached by three rolls of the dice (for example, if you rolled a 1-4-6, the oracle presented would be Iliad, Book 21, line 223: “These things, Zeus-nurtured Scamander, will be as you order”, interpreted as appropriate to context).
The significance of dice-traditions in Indo-European cultures, in matters both mystical and secular, is certainly worth note here.

The connections of epic verse poets and magic seem to have a solid concept amongst the ancient peoples, and it doesn’t take too long to figure out why.
From the deep-voiced, far away, gem-studded speeches of Homer, to the flawless and awe-inspiring visions of Vergil and the enchanting yet honey-flowing lines of Ovid; masters of the word and language, were masters of elements beyond the mundane — gods and the supernatural fall into metrical narratives without struggle or coersion, whilst the strange and magnificent is raised to a high seat. Heroes, heroines, witches, and gods are glorified in art: the ultimate honour and gift of immortality.


Bibliography and Resources:

Homer,  Richmond Lattimore. The Iliad of Homer. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1961. Print.

Virgil,  Allen Mandlebaum. The Aeneid of Virgil. Bantam Classic, 2004. Print

Homer, Robert Fagles, Bernard Knox. The Odyssey. Penguin, 1997. Print

Ovid, David Raeburn. Metamorphoses. Penguin, 2004. Print

Sir Philip Sidney, Gavin Alexander. Sidney’s ‘The Defence of Poesy’ and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism. Penguin, 2004. Print

Betz, Hans Dieter. The Greek magical papyri in translation including the Demotic spells. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1986. Print.

Kershaw, Priscilla K. The one-eyed god: Odin and the (Indo- )Germanic Männerbünde. Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Man, 2000. Print. *(See Ch. 2 for Indo-European dice traditions.)*

Online Resource for Book 4 of Homer’s Odyssey in the Ancient Greek:

Online Resource for Book 7 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the Latin:

Online Resource for Book 6 of Vergil’s Aeneid in the Latin:

Lactantius’ Institutiones Divinae (in the Latin):

To top off my post, here’s a great video, relevant to our topics, by the renowned Mr. Levy

Quoting from the Luthieros webpage:

“The phorminx (in Ancient Greek φόρμιγξ) was one of the oldest ancient Greek stringed musical instruments, intermediate between the lyre and the kitharis (or kithara). It consisted of two to seven strings, richly decorated arms and a crescent- shaped sound box. It almost probably originated from Mesopotamia. While it seems to have been common in Homer’s day, accompanying the rhapsodes, it was supplanted in historical times by the seven-stringed kithara. Despite being a descendant of the lyre and a forefather of kitharis, it was the first ancient instrument that ancient Greeks introduced a basic spring mechanism for a richer sound and a “sweet” vibrato effect.””

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Beowulf: the Literary, the Oral, and Heathendom – an Overview

Concerning the argument of the literary or oral quality of Beowulf — the evidence is all over Indo-European poetry, and looking only at Beowulf reveals really but a handful of clues. My own opinions as well come not only from hearing what competent scholars on these topics have to say (e.g., Russom, Robinson, Tolkien, Scragg), but rather that in combination with my wide education on poetry and its mechanics in general. Beowulf is a poem; and essentially, the best insights are quite often found by poets and/or those who best understand poetry.
On the question of whether it was an “authentic heathen tale from oral tradition” — evidence is agreed by many to be heavy against it. (Malone, etc. But cf. also: O’Keefe, Orality and Caedmon’s Hymn.) If it lends any weight, I used to be a hardcore supporter of: “Beowulf is heathen and oral, ancient of ancients! Ach! Monks!”… But I’ve long since changed my opinion, once I’d lain aside my own baggage and agenda.

The content of the verses themselves in Beowulf often shows literary-work rather than oral. There is a strange absence of direct myths recounted in the poem; rather, there are a few allusions to stories which seem to be drawn from myths at best, such as the nod to Weland’s craft (ll.452-455) or the “Brosinga mene” (L.1199b). On the other hand, there is indeed mention here and there of historical events, like the Frisian/Frankish raid which is believed to have been the same as one recorded most notably by Gregory of Tours in the 6th century, and the battle at Finn’s hall (ll.1071-1159).
Beowulf is a fictional character; not a mythological (nor properly “legendary” by term), in context, though he has somewhat become so to us. He is mentioned nowhere else, either in story or family-trees of nobility; the aforementioned raid in Gregory certainly does not recount any figure resembling Beowulf in name or in character, though our poet writes him into it in his version (one is reminded of the tale of Argonauts, and the stellar assembly of heroes that are so conveniently brought together in a single power-group; from a writer’s perspective, if within his pseudo-historical framework such a hero was theoretically alive at this period of time, how could he not have played some part?). Yet there are quite a few figures that do occur elsewhere (such as Hrothgar, Hygelac, Scyld Scefing, Hrothulf), seen in other literary works which we may suppose were known to the author. Thus he weaves a sort of “historical-fiction” as a vehicle for carrying his vision of old Germanic culture.

The poem itself only exists in one single copy (in the well-known British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv, which is only from around 1000CE, presented alongside some other literary “monster-tales”), denying belief of widespread influence, readership or folk-popularity, or general place of being passed in fluid tradition of any kind as a story itself.

The main argument I’ve made (as well as most others in academia nowdays) is that the poem was certainly not originally “heathen”, but rather composed by a Christian monk who was indulgent to his culture and heroic traditions, drawing on familiar motifs and whatnot, but more or less doing his own thing: this is not strange at all. But what “his own thing” entails, is of a most significant importance to us as heathens as well (which we will touch more upon later).

Moreover, there is of course a difference between “oral-tradition” and “literary-tradition”, and there are more than enough ways to distinguish the two at verse-level, as well as when one is pretending to be the other (“gnomic” passages, as well as kennings and circumlocutions of various kinds, “stock” phrases and expressions, features of mnemonic devices in general, etc). Our poet has complete control over both his alliterative verse-form and the manner in which he applies it to accentuate and carry the scenes of the story.

It’s a very similar argument overall as goes on with the Greek epics, the Iliad and Odyssey of “Homer” or the work/s of Hesiod. But think: the only reason people can even argue things like this about the authors in question, is because they were “outside” of historical scope; think of the irony that, if we didn’t know of Vergil’s life as well as we do, people could be arguing that the Aeneid was oral tradition — because indeed, Vergil did quite well at mimicking the same things that we find in Homer as aspects of “oral” tradition. Vergil lived in the time of Augustus the 1st Century BCE, Homer’s poems are believed to be from around 700 BCE. The argument of Homer is 4x as complex as Beowulf so we won’t get into it here. Suffice to say, it is without doubt that Vergil was entirely literary — and this “mimicking” of oral tradition was also seen full blast and blatantly in Middle English poetry.

Middle-English poets wrote legendary romances in stichic alliterative metres exactly like the Beowulf poet did — and these poets were really flourishing about 200 years or so after Beowulf (there is a slight gap in material as pertains to alliterative verse in “English” literature, but this is not the place to address that). There is no question that the Middle-English poems mentioned are 100% literary. I used to believe, years ago, that the Beowulf-poem was oral and came down to us as an authentic ancient poem that was “tampered” by a monk when recorded — it is apparent how naïve that is, knowing much more about poetry and literature. Back in their times, just as now, people place a romanticized value on the products of oral tradition and turn their nose up at the literary. It is not difficult to imagine the scenario (because we’ve all seen it) of an argument between people, where one’s main source is literary and the other’s is purportedly oral, and the latter will always use the sentiment of “well, this is more authentic” as a weapon. And it’s silly. Oral tradition has great value, but it doesn’t come close to eclipsing the boons we’ve received from the literary.

One composer. Who drew on the style of heroic drama and certain poetic formulae, as well as cultivating many elements of that old world, to give it a place in his culture’s poetic tradition.

The problem is that a lot of people are simply afraid to give into that idea, because they think it lessens its value, as noted above. For me it’s the opposite: I think it’s even more impressive as the composition of one man who had extreme talent in poetry (as well as cultural perception) to help give birth to literary tradition in a culture that before was indeed mostly oral.
It was a meeting of worlds and styles of education as was happening all over Europe… and it’s even offensive to try and deny him the honour, wouldn’t you think, simply to feed the desire of an “ancient heathen epic” fantasy? It should be further noted that the narrative in Beowulf is highly stylized and also very clean-cut, complete from beginning to end, so to speak (passing over some insignificant lacunae); it’s just as “Classical” as Germanic in many ways and features — by classical, I mean the plethora of heroic legendary material from ancient Greece and Rome, which would’ve been the main education of the composing monk. Hercules, Jason, Odysseus, Achilles and Hector and Agamemnon, and Aeneas especially as well; we can spot glimpses of these figures quite often as pertains to style of portraying the people and subjects in the Beowulf-poem by the composer. Not to mention that it also relates a tale set centuries prior to its composition, a space removed from both author and audience, which is a familiar element to any student of Classical literature and just as familiar to those who were composing it.

The only “real” evidence for oral-tradition in Beowulf is some of the poetic formulae (such as kennings as aforementioned, e.g., “beag-gifa” or “hwæl-weg”, or like the epithets of Homer and Vergil ringing in our ears such as οἶνοψ πόντος and pius Aeneas) and the way he writes certain verses. As can be seen, these features can be quite easily “faked”: a feature of “oral-tradition” really is just turned into a literary technique. For comparative study of that area in “English” tradition, the rich corpus of Middle-English verse as noted serves well (e.g., Sir Orfeo; Sir Gawayn and the Grene Knyȝt; Awntyrs of Arthur; Avowing of Arthur; many of the Robin Hood ballads/lays — very many indeed, especially the romances and “epics”, feature it at some point or another because it was a pretty popular device, and even is still to this day, in certain places).

Does such assessment make the poem of less importance to “Heathenry”?

Absolutely not. Though arguably not composed by a decidedly “heathen” author, so to speak, nor a product of oral-tradition besides — the piece being thus rooted in heathen culture and values, we still cull many priceless gems from its depths; turning to almost any page offers wisdom, insight, inspiration, laudable sentiments. An appreciation for its composition can only magnify its beauty as a piece of art, and I have no intention of sullying it by this discussion: on the contrary. For heathens, appreciation for the “liberal arts” and its constituents is most important, for such constituents often define the majority whence one draws much of their worldviews and praxis.

We see in this poem a vehicle upon which our author sets up a detailed vision of the old Germanic people, and its importance to him is more than merely relating a “monster-tale”: cultic and religious intelligence abound from beginning to end, despite the fact no proper-names of “gods” are tagged, nor are there any detailed descriptions of specific “ritual/rites” (unless we are to count the topic of “symbel” in this).

We witness illuminative scenes of funerary practices (here we include the oddly disputed “heathen-ness” of cremation, even though such a practice seems just as common as inhumation in sources, depending on region and cultic specifics; in this we can see that the author’s highlighting of cremation practices was itself used as a device to demonstrate heathen-quality where such was banned by Christianity, and associated strongly with the former) and, very importantly, concepts and scenarios of gifting are spun with much insight and value, constantly surfacing, as well as lordship and queenship and what these great duties entail.
Further, a passage which is often over-looked, is that of the description of the hilt of the “ancient etin-sword” retrieved from the lair of Grendel’s mother — the hilt is with “run-stafas rihte gemearcod” : with rune-staves rightly marked (l.1695). Sources on rune-use are arguably one of the slimmest topics we have to work with, yet hidden here we see a very intriguing and powerful statement (cf. also the frequently-quoted passages from the Havamal and Egil’s Saga which express related sentiments to this verse). And the Beowulf-poem is littered with not only valuable lines as this, but also paints descriptions of many functions of important topics in heathendom. Besides the Unferth-scene, too, can we not reckon the whole piece as a sort of literary “symbel”, a glorying throwback to the old-world, in the eyes of its composer and his people?

Whoever wrote “Beowulf”, was an extraordinary person: profound, talented, and most of all, empathetic. His verses show us strength in loyalty, trust in one’s own capability, the inspiration of reputation and desire to rise above.

Beowulf at one point in the poem (ll.2183-2189) is mentioned as a “coalbiter” figure, who in the past of his youth had shown no promise of great deeds or mentionable acts, until he rose to the occasion that called him forth — to be a man of worth. A man that his people could rely upon in times of both peaceful prosperity and spear-shaking war. A man that not only answered to what others looked to see in him, but to what he looked to see in himself.

This is not simply a “tale of monsters”: it is a story that reflects the human experience.
And whether the author was Christian or Heathen, whether the verses were oral or literary: such takes nothing away from its worth to us.
*Any translations in the article are the author’s own.

– Recommended reading and resources –

Godden, Malcolm, and Michael Lapidge. The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1991. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. London: HarperCollins, 2006. Print.

Liuzza, R. M. Old English Literature: Critical Essays. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002. Print.

Russom, Geoffrey. Old English Meter and Linguistic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.

Alexander, Michael. Beowulf: A Glossed Text. London: Penguin, 1995. Print.

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A new verse translation. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. Print.

Sullivan, Alan, Timothy Murphy, and Sarah M. Anderson. Beowulf. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2004. Print.

Olexova, Katerina. Ritual in Beowulf. Masaryk University in Brno. B.A. Major Thesis.

Hollander, Lee M. The Poetic Edda. Austin, TX: U of Texas, 2011. Print.

Smiley, Jane. The Sagas of the Icelanders: A Selection. London: Penguin, 2001. Print.

Haskell, Ann S. A Middle English Anthology. Detroit, Mich: Wayne State UP, 1985. Print.

Knight, Stephen Thomas, Thomas H. Ohlgren, and Thomas E. Kelly. Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales. Kalamazoo, MI: Published for TEAMS in Association with the U of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, 2003. Print.

Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: Faber, 2009. Print.

Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse. Web. <;.

Homer, Richmond Lattimore, and Richard P. Martin. The Iliad of Homer. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2011. Print.

Homer, Robert Fagles, and Bernard M. W. Knox. The Odyssey. Penguin, 2002. Print.

Ovid, D. A. Raeburn, and D. C. Feeney. Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation. London: Penguin Classics, 2014. Print.

Vergil, Allen Mandelbaum. The Aeneid. Toronto: Bantam, 2004. Print.

This article can be found at:

(Featured art credit: Heather O’Brien)      

Who else, but Weiß Alb Hearth,
Could claim this dedication?
Fount of learning, love, and mirth,
Dear comforts’ designation.
Such others left unmentioned here,
Too many indeed to count,
Your contributions are quite clear,
Though small or large the amount.



Medievalist-Drunkard Survival Tips: Salsa-dogs

So… today we’ll be teaching you how to prepare a particular meal and help you survive as a medievalist-drunkard.
Whilst you’re sitting in your apartment waiting for the acceptable time to have a drink, half-reading the Icelandic Sagas or Geoffrey of Monmouth or whatever, a strange sensation may come over you: hunger. It’s okay, we got this — follow me…

Get in the car (the driver-seat). Drive to the nearest store that sells both food and booze.(The 2nd part is equally important, I don’t think I needed to really tell you that, though.)

As you are questing through the cold-as-fuck section of the store, you will likely note a particular brand of frozen chicken patties, which come in a bag of 8 or so, and are worth about 50cents a piece. You will be tempted to buy these. Do not.

Trekking onwards, you’ll finally come upon the long-sought hot-dog section. Oh yes. Don’t buy the cheapest crap sitting there; for a dollar and a half more you can get decent all-beef hotdogs. Much better (kinda). Grab some. Then wheel around and head over to the bread section (which is 4 times larger than it should be), and pick out a nice package of whole-wheat buns (because, health matters).
Before we move on, spend about 5-10 minutes finding the obvious place where the jars of salsa are, and grab one of those, too. (I don’t recommend the hot. Mild or medium, dude, will be good enough here, and your innards will thank you.)

Then walk towards the registers; you’ll notice something is missing, and look around blankly for a minute until frowning at one of those ass-holes staring at you from across the room, and then sudden realization — the main reason we actually came here: fucking beer, dude. We bought the hotdogs because we had to, the beer we actually want.

So, striding impatiently over to the liquor section, seek out the coveted St Pauli Girl, an affordable German beer for your drinking habits. You’ll realize it is a dollar more expensive here than at the liquor store 5 minutes away; you’ll be tempted to buy the hotdogs only and then just go to the other place. Don’t be fucking stupid. You spend as much gas in your car with the stop-and-go games in town as the difference between the prices. Just buy the beer, and let’s get this over with. (Note: if the cashier asks for your ID, don’t be a dick. Even if they see your ass is there hauling beer everyday, and you guys both know they might as well keep a copy of your license behind the damn counter if they really want identification: be nice.)
As you get into your car, be sure to knock your head on the frame, because you’re really eager to get the fuck out of there and go home.

Ahhh… now we are home. Your first impulse will be to tear open that 12 pack and yank a bottle out — but if you haven’t eaten much today, either wait a fucking minute or only take like a single big gulp and then chill otherwise you’re gonna ruin your night and everything will be in vain.

Wash a plate (because we both know there aren’t any clean. You’re a medievalist, not a maid) — you likely don’t have a kitchen towel to dry it off with either, but honestly it’s whatever , you’ll survive dude. Put 2 hotdogs on plate. Put in the microwave (no time to screw with that oven, it shouldn’t take 15min to make a fucking hotdog) — and heat them up (it takes like 30sec) until the ends of the dogs start to kinda pop. Nice.

Bust open them whole-wheat buns and plop them on there. Next, you’re going to take the salsa (which you put into the fridge for some reason even though it wasn’t opened yet), and slather the dogs with it. At this point you will realize that the salsa is cold, and that sucks. But that’s just how life is sometimes, we deal with it.
(Note: you may not even want to fuck around with the microwave or the buns, and just eat the hotdogs cold and plain. You’ll feel it brings you closer to the ancients when cooking food wasn’t always an option — if you take your raw hotdog out onto the porch with you, and thoughtfully eat as you look over the cracked asphalt with oil-spots and some really nice mini-groves of trees here and there, you will really get a feeling of returning to nature, and how man is truly supposed to be.)

Anyways… Granting that you prepared the salsa-dogs, now you can eat and get this over with and have a drink. Eat the first one VERY quickly (because dude you’re fucking starving), then take another small drink, then eat the second one. Now, as you stand in the middle of the room, and your gut is grumbling like “wtf man”, grab that beer and chug like half of it. You’ll burp like a beast and feel wayyy better and all will be gravy.

Now grab 2 more unopened bottles to take with you to the couch, put on some medieval music (a link to my latest favourite, which was recently shared on the Heathen Underground, I include below), and grab some Chaucer or the Mabinogion. Chill. We made it!
(Drink some water before bed and sometimes between beers, don’t worry, it won’t hurt your buzz but St Pauli might give you cotton-mouth like a fool and hydration is good for you. Eating something small and basic like some celery or carrots before you crash, too, isn’t a bad idea. Take care of your shit so you can have many more nights of medieval-drunken stupor and study.)

“Medieval Virelai Music & Song – XIII th & XIV th Century – E, Dame Jolie & Douce Dame Jolie” :

~ Watching the video, after zoning out to the absolute magic of the first tune: let’s pay particular attention to the lyrics in the 2nd song (Douce Dame Jolie, by Guillaume de Machaut, early 14th c). It is written magnificently, there is a reason this song is as famous as it is; and the performance here is on-point. The handling of words, word-play, rhyme, rhythm, in its composition is top-notch, and is inspiring to any writer. Some people like to think it was written about/for Anne Boleyn, but… from what I’ve studied that looks to probably be myth.

Douce dame jolie,
Pour dieu ne pensés mie
Que nulle ait signorie
Seur moy fors vous seulement.

Qu’adès sans tricherie
Vous ay et humblement

Tous les jours de ma vie
Sans villain pensement.

Helas! et je mendie
D’esperance et d’aïe;
Dont ma joie est fenie,
Se pité ne vous en prent.

Douce dame jolie…

Mais vo douce maistrie
Mon cuer si durement

Qu’elle le contralie
Et lie
En amour tellement

Qu’il n’a de riens envie
Fors d’estre en vo baillie;
Et se ne li ottrie
Vos cuers nul aligement.

Douce dame jolie…

Et quant ma maladie
Ne sera nullement

Sans vous, douce anemie,
Qui lie
Estes de mon tourment,

A jointes mains deprie
Vo cuer, puis qu’il m’oublie,
Que temprement m’ocie,
Car trop langui longuement.

Douce dame jolie…

( Lyric text from: )


An overview bio of Machaut: