The Trundholm Chariot

"Perhaps made in about 1300 BC"
From The Sun-Gods of Ancient Europe, Miranda Green, Batsford 1991, p 114.

Hweorfan means "turn", or "throw", not "journey".

                      Hugr, Hyge, Håg                      

There is scope for a huge amount of research into the many and varied meanings of Anglo-Saxon hyge. Let's start at the start, with Joseph Bosworth's heroic and correctly titled Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 1838:

Hyge;   the mind, Cd. 22, v. hige. --- Hyge-least, folly, madness, phrensy, Cd.18. --- Hyge-rof, hige-rof magnanimous, excellent in mind, Cd.75. --- Hyge-sceaft the mind, the thought, Cd.15 --- Hyge-þonc the mind, Cod.Ex. 27, a, 20.

Hygeleás;   adj. Mindless, void of mind, foolish; amens: --- Cd.4. (Cd. is a contraction for Cædmon.)

Hige, hyge, hogu;   [Old Plat. Dut. Ger. huge: Dut. heugen to remember: Al. hugi, hiugi: Ot. hugu: Swed. hâg [ie håg], hug m: Icel. hugr m. Moes. hugjan] 1. The mind, thought; mens. 2. Application of mind, study, diligence, care; mentis applicatio, cura; --- And the series of other words associated with hyge by Bosworth includes: power of mind, wise, prudent in mind, magnanimous, anxiety, mental griefs, strong in mind, mind's hate, cautious, provident, thoughtful, studious, diligent, negligent, careless, saucy, disorderly, etc, etc. There is not even the merest soupçon of "soul" as a credible translation of hyge.

Even Sweet, who spoke German, but seems to have been relatively unfamiliar with Scandinavian languages, while offering "mind, heart, mood, disposition; courage; pride", and failing to give "inclination" or "desire", its equally valid meanings, does not venture to give "soul", and still less "fetch" (a "wraith or double": Cassell Concise English Dictionary) as a meaning for hyge. Nor does modsefa imply "soul".

The first use of "soul" as a direct translation of hyge, in The Seafarer, appears to be by J.Duncan Spaeth, in 1910: "Sudden my soul starts from her prison-house, / Soareth afar o'er the sounding main". Spaeth's version of The Seafarer is without doubt one of the very worst of those visited upon an unsuspecting readership, and his talents would seem to have been better employed coaching the Princeton boat crew. Since then, and perhaps especially during the mid-20th century, say from about 1935, the idea that hyge = hugr = soul, or wandering spirit, has become deeply entrenched. Many discussions, and translations, of The Seafarer determinedly interpret hyge as the disembodied airborne soul of the living seafarer. This reading appears to be another instance, as E.G.Stanley expressed it, of the profoundly misguided "Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism", and/or shamanism. Check out the Northern Earth website on shamanism; and note the following: "whether any kind of home-grown European shamanism ever developed independently has yet to be established."

But hyge does NOT mean soul. It means "thought", "mind" or "inclination". This is very clear at line 44: ne biþ him to hearpan hyge, where hyge unmistakably means "inclination" or "desire". Benjamin Thorpe, in 1842, translates the sentence as "He has to the harp no mind". Thorpe's approximation, a form of literal interpretation, of lines 58-64b, is of interest, and it is clear he had problems establishing the sense of this passage. His translation of cymeð (singular) as "come" (sic; plural) is curious. His punctuation seems to be suggesting that "earth's regions come again to me", not that the hyge or the mod-sefa "comes again". One paraphrase might be "earth's regions come, or earth's lap, the grave, comes to mind". It is patently clear that Thorpe does not regard the hyge as a wandering soul. Hyge means "thought" or "mind" in a variety of fairly special contexts. See here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Of course, it can also be said that the mind, or thought, "wanders", or "strays", but this is not in any physical sense, merely that it is thinking in a vague or distracted manner.

The association of Anglo-Saxon hyge with Old Norse hugr seems to have taken firm root following the writings of Dag Strömbäck, 1900-1978, a Swedish scholar who was especially interested in folklore and traditional rural beliefs. Vivian Salmon wrote an article entitled 'The Wanderer' and 'The Seafarer', and the Old English conception of the soul, which was published in January 1960, in The Modern Language Review. She mentions Strömbäck's work, and refers to a piece by him published in Lund, 1935, in Sejd (witchcraft), presumably an academic journal. Strömbäck's account titled Om de nordiska själsföreställningar, published in 1978, shortly before he died, can be found in Den osynliga närvaron (The Invisible Presence), 1989. Om de nordiska själsföreställningar would translate into The Concept of the Soul in Older Nordic Tradition, and appears to have been first delivered only three years before his death. It is not impossible that Strömbäck's intense scholarly devotion to witchcraft, and pre-Christian paganism in all its manifestations, may have caused him to discount or overlook the much more significant presence of straightforward, everyday, orthodox, Anglo-Saxon Christianity in a text such as The Seafarer.

In spite of Strömbäck's Swedish background, his near-obsession with magic and the occult, and his consequently excessive enthusiasm for misleadingly paganistic solutions to questions of lexical meaning, the truth is that one of the very best approaches to discerning the meanings of Anglo-Saxon words is via comparison with their countless cognates in Modern Swedish. When this opinion was voiced on the "public forum" it met with the following objection, quote: "To translate them [ie Anglo-Saxon words] into Swedish or Slovenian requires first deciding what the separate meanings are in Anglo-Saxon." The words were not, of course, being "translated into Swedish"; Swedish was being proposed as an aid to understanding what the words meant in Anglo-Saxon. The reference to Slovenian appeared to have derived from an odd remark by Erasmus (sic) Rask in A Grammar of the Anglo-Saxon Tongue, translated into English by Benjamin Thorpe, and published in 1830. Rask comments, p. XVI, quote: "... many circumstances indicate a close relationship between the Danish, and the dialects of Upper Germany, and others, as the passsive form of the verbs, shew a striking similitude to the Slavonian and Phrygian languages ..." Grammatik på Villovägar, ie "Grammar Gone Astray", is an engagingly apt title published by Svenska språknämnden, the Swedish language board, Stockholm, in 1993, and edited by Ulf Teleman. See here for a challenging bibliography. Whether Rasmus Rask distinguished between Slovenia and Slavonia is open to question.

The objection was senseless, since Anglo-Saxon can only begin to be understood by working back from modern cognates. Similarly, quote: "Translating OE into modern Swedish is close to useless. (Unless you are Swedish). It sheds very little light on Old English." Again, the words were very obviously not being "translated into Swedish"; the blindingly simple fact is that Swedish cognates (like German, Icelandic, or other cognates --- only better) shed enormous light on "Old English". The same opponent then followed up with, quote: "this 'you have to know Swedish' position reminds me of the people who have written here in the past that claimed OE is derived from Old Irish, or from Hebrew." Since I was not remotely saying that "you have to know Swedish", this remark seemed terminally meaningless, and either innately or wilfully obtuse, but it was succeeded by, quote: "There is no need to suggest, however slyly, that there is something wrong with people who disagree with you." If the cap fits, wear it. Something was wrong. The culture gap was unbridgeable, and the debating manner matched the brainwork. Check out the Germanic Lexicon Project: conceptually much superior to the DOE.

A book was published in 1972 with the title The Interpretation of Old English Poems, by Stanley B.Greenfield. Greenfield, 1922-1987, is an archetypical example of a New World scholar whose apparently congenital insensitivity to the nuances of meaning in Anglo-Saxon words is virtually total. Here is his translation of lines 58-64a, pp 20/21: "Wherefore now my spirit moves beyond the confines of my breast, my mind with the sea-flood, over the whale's home, turns widely across the surface of the earth; the lone-flier returns to me eager and greedy, calls loudly, urges my heart irresistibly onto the whale-path over the expanse of the seas." The obtuse rendering of the words underlined makes the entire passage shudder on its shaky foundations. It nevertheless reflects mainstream received opinion.

Seafarer Greenfield Comment
forþon wherefore In this context the tricky word forþon is optimally glossed "and yet".
hyge spirit Slightly better than "soul", but still wrong. "Mind" is the best option.
hweorfeð moves The word means "turns", or "throws" itself (understood).
locan confines Acceptable.
hreþer breast The "breast" confines life: it is not life itself. Perhaps hreþer is animus.
modsefa mind Emotional, not mental. The sense of "mood" is present.
ofer over Contains a strong sense of "beyond". "Over" is acceptable.
eþel home "Realm", not "home". The whale commands its element. It rules, not dwells.
ofer across "Beyond" is the basic sense. "Across" is wrong.
sceatas surface Definitely not "surface". "Corners", or "lap", of the earth.
anfloga lone-flier Floga means "flier". Anfloga means "attacking" or "approaching" flier.
cymeð eft returns Cymeð eft means "then comes".
gielleð calls loudly Gielleð means "yells", "screeches", "screams", "shrieks", etc.
hweteð urges Hweteð means "whets", which doesn't mean "urges" or "incites".
hreþer heart Hreþer ideally means "the seat of life", "breath". "Heart" will do.
unwearnum irresistibly Unwearnum means a man der sich nicht hütet. Like Leo said.
wæl weg whale-path Wæl weg means "death-way". An ambiguity may have been intended.
gelagu expanse Possibly. Perhaps "spread" is better.
holma seas How can holma possibly mean "seas"? It probably means "skerries".


In Pagan Words and Christian Meanings, 1991, Richard North devotes 35 pages to The Physical Mind, consisting mainly of ruminative reflections on the meaning of hyge, but I can find only one mention of håg, in a footnote on page 91. North is sensitive to nuance, and perceptive, but he fails to entertain an understanding of hyge as "inclination", "desire", "tendency", "aspiration", any of which unlock the puzzle. On p 101 he translates ll 58-64a as "For this reason my mind now moves beyond the locker of my breast, my imagination with the sea's flood, over the whale's domain, moves far and wide, over earth's surfaces comes back to me voracious and greedy, the lone flier yells, (auguring) incites the breast on the whale's path relentlessly over the waters of oceans". This is much closer than most; note "mind", "moves", "imagination", "yells", "auguring", "relentlessly", but the final step is not taken, and the total picture is missed by the renderings of "comes back", "earth's surfaces", "lone flier", "incites", "whale's path". The fixation on a conception of the hyge as an independently mobile spiritual entity, not simply an exercise of the imagination, scuppers the final solution. How could the seafarer's "mind" acquire voracity or greed?

In passing, take a look at Hellquist's etymological entry for håg, left. "Of unknown origin, in spite of many attempts at interpretation."

The words and phrases that Hellquist associates with håg are: "sinne (stundom glädje), mod, tanke; tänka, komma ihåg; sinnad, hugad, hågad; få mod, hygga sig; farhåga, räddhåga, åhåga".

These words virtually all imply the thinking "mind", with some admixture of "spirit", but mainly in the sense of "courage", ie mod, occasionally "fear". In essence, it is a matter of mind influenced by emotion, or passion; which is well removed from the concept of "soul" as something independent of the body, capable of salvation.

F. Holthausen, 1860-1956, gave "Sinn, Gedanke; Absicht; Mut, Stolz", for hyge in 1933. Latin animus, "spirit, mind, courage, anger", Merriam-Webster, seems moderately close. The Latin word may suggest "soul", but essentially "the rational soul in man". Swedish "sinne" can on occasion vaguely imply "soul", but only in a phrase such as "heart and soul", ie body and mind.

Hugr and hyge may descend from a common ancestor, but as they flourish in 9th century Christian Anglo-Saxon England they should be recognized as distinctly separate concepts. When a seafaring Anglo-Saxon refers to his hyge he is not talking about his hreðer, possibly a closer rendering of animus, which may perhaps turn into a bird when he dies, as it did in Ancient Egypt, but his present inclination, which is not a bird.

See also here; or consult The Semasiological Development of Words for "Perceive," etc., in the Older Germanic Dialects, by Samuel Kroesch, Modern Philology, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Apr., 1911), pp. 461-510. Published by The University of Chicago Press. The relevant section is No. XV, Mental Emotion, paras 112, Be elated, joyful: hope; think, pay attention to, and 113, Desire, will, hope for: think of, consider, suppose.

hyge - håg, earlier hug. The Swedish word occurs in many contexts: komma ihåg, glad i hågen, hågad, farhåga, räddhåga, håga, hugstor, hugnad, älskog (älsk hug/håg); and also in the name of Odin's feathered friend, Hugin. Anglo-Saxon hyge is usually translated "thought", perhaps influenced by the presence of "-houg-". But the sense of inactive contemplation and rumination implied by Modern English "thought", as well as the contrary senses implied by the alternative, and even more misleading "spirit" (pace Swedish hugstor "great-minded", "magnanimous", "sublime"), proposed in Ida Gordon's glossary, both appear to be insufficient translations of hyge. Swedish håg often seems to connote a sense of motion, inclination, intent, longing or desire, eg as in hågad, to be "minded" (to do something); and hug introduces further complexity. The word could be related to English "hug", which John Ayto links with "Old Norse hugga 'comfort, console', ... descended from a prehistoric Germanic hugjan, which also produced Anglo-Saxon hogian 'think, consider, be solicitous'". Perhaps hugjan likewise generated Modern Swedish hugga, "grab/hack/hew", again connoting action. In any case, as evidenced by its context in The Seafarer, the Anglo-Saxon word carries a strong connotation of mental longing, motion and (spiritual) elevation, still present in håg, whereas Modern English "thought" has lost this essential implication. The unexpected fact is that "desire" is a pretty useful translation of hyge.

hyge (lines 44, 58, 96) See SSAS.

ne biþ him to hearpan hyge | ne to hringþege
ne to wife wyn | ne to worulde hyht                                 (45)
ne ymbe owiht elles | nefne ymb yða gewealc
ac a hafað longunge | se þe on lagu fundað

He will not heed the harp though
and is not gladdened by gold rings
nor woman's winning ways
and wants no worldly joys

forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð | ofer hreþerlocan
min modsefa | mid mereflode
ofer hwæles eþel | hweorfeð wide                                     (60)

Reckless of that, my thought is thrown
beyond my heart's cage now. My mind is cast
upon the sea swell, over the whale's world

ne mæg him þonne se flæschoma | þonne him þæt feorg losað
ne swete forswelgan | ne sar gefelan                               (95)
ne hond onhreran | ne mid hyge þencan

Life ebbs, the flesh feels less
and fails to savour sweet or sour
is frail of hand, feeble of mind

The verse translation, right, is constrained by the exigencies of form.

G.V.Smithers: Page One
Anfloga & Wearn
The Cambridge Old English Reader
An, Ân, & Eft: Old English Grammar. A. Campbell
The prefix un- in Anglo-Saxon
R.I.Page and the DOE
biblical echoes
collated versions
essays and papers

Journey's Jargon

"In one view ... the history of scholarship is a history of error". Professor E.G.Stanley

"Scholars belong to guilds held together by common opinions, attitudes, and methods … innovation is welcome only when it is confined to surface details and does not modify the structure as a whole." Cyrus H.Gordon

"Mediocre minds cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices, but honestly uses his intelligence." Albert Einstein

"The pain of a new idea is one of the greatest pains in human nature. People find it much easier to believe a lie they've heard a thousand times than a fact they've never heard before."
Daniel P. Reid.

"Der Horizont mancher Menschen ist ein Kreis mit Radius Null: das nennen sie dann Standpunkt." Albert Einstein

February 2010

      Eagle image from the Book of Kells      

© Charles Harrison Wallace 2010
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