more notes on
briefly on
hyge and gielle­
gifre and grŠdig

December 2009


G.V.Smithers: The Meaning of The Seafarer and The Wanderer
Medium Ăvum XXVIII, Nos 1 & 2, 1959

page one: here         page two


The meaning of anfloga is a major key to the meaning of The Seafarer. J.B.Bessinger Jnr, in A Short Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon Poetry, 1960, gives the following two definitions: 1. anfloga; "attacking flier", p 3; 2. ánfloga; "solitary flier", p 4. It is possible that Bessinger was impressed by the articles written by Professor Smithers a year earlier, since they are by far the most interesting and perceptive analyses of The Seafarer. Smithers, born May 5th, 1909, died May 7th, 2000, was Reader in Medieval English and University Lecturer in English Language 1954-60; and Professor of English Language, University of Durham, according to the Oxford University Calendar, 1965. He is described as "one of the last Germanic-style philologists, who instilled in (a student) the need for meticulous analysis of sources, careful study of complete linguistic profiles, and scrupulous attention to detail." See David Burnley obituary, here.

For those who value such matters, his scholarly credentials appear much superior to those of Ida Gordon, editor of The Seafarer in 1960. She comments scornfully on "Mr Smithers' attempt to prove that the Seafarer's journey is an allegory of death", and goes on to say that "Mr Smithers attempts to substantiate his view, that the Seafarer's journey signifies death, by a new interpretation of lines 58-64, which he takes to be a description of 'the launching of the soul (hyge) on the wælweg' ('the road taken by the dead' or 'the road to the abode of the dead')'.

The opinion expressed in the Cambridge Old English Reader, that the poem's message is: "Let us (good Christians, that is) remind ourselves where our true home lies and concentrate on getting there", appears to agree more with Mr Smithers than with Mrs Gordon. Mrs Gordon's introduction, dated May 1959, outlines the circumstances of her 1960 edition of the poem, which incorporates comment on the articles by Smithers, published 1959. One of the contributors to a discussion conducted via the internet remarked, quote: "I also suspect that there's a back-story on Ida Gordon's dismissal of G. V. Smithers's ideas in this instance or generally, and would be interested to know that, if anyone knows it." One might read between the lines of Mrs Gordon's introduction. Part of a concealed "back-story" might possibly also have to do with Smithers being "one of the last of the Germanic-style philologists", a group that patriotic Anglo-Saxonists would have been anxious to distance themselves from. It has reasonably been suggested that "Old English" was chosen (at about the turn of the 19th century) because it "was preferred to 'Anglo-Saxon' partly in order to emphasise the continuity with modern English." This choice seems to have been made for reasons more political than academic.

fer­ to feran

Quote: "Maybe you can provide enough commentary from a wide enough variety of scholars to justify a change in, or addition to, the definition of ANFLOGA, but lexicographers are notoriously skeptical when the elements seem so clear as AN+FLOGA do. With ANFLOGA, there is another problem, too. The word is a hapax legomenon, is it not? It appears only in "The Seafarer" according to the DOE. Can you be certain that, in recommending another definition, you are not in fact working toward providing evidence of your particular interpretation of "The Seafarer"? Roberta Frank and Angus Cameron's Plan for the Dictionary of Old English (1973) might have offered a principal (ie principle is meant), such as, in the case of reduced comparative data, the policy of writing a definition is restricted to denotation, not connotation nor metaphorical extensions." What is: "a bird (perh. used figuratively for the human soul)", in the definition provided by the DOE, but a connotation or a metaphorical extension? Quote: "you cannot ask a lexicographer to agree to your interpretation of a single word beyond what the data available to her or him offers, sans interpretation which always already suffers from a tendentious quality."

Does the solitary interpretation offered by the DOE not suffer from a tendentious quality? The meaning of AN+FLOGA is not all clear. Many scholars have puzzled over it for many decades.

Below is a partly edited scan of the article by Smithers, excerpted from issue No 1, Medium Ăvum XXVIII, 1959.


N1. I dissent here from Smithers' primary identification of hyge with hugr. Hyge, in my view, means, first, in this context especially, "desire" or "inclination" . See below.

Lindisfarne Gospel
late 7th or early 8th century

N2. Smithers dwells a little overmuch, perhaps, on Woden and paganism in his article. The poem's message is overwhelmingly Christian.

St John the Evangelist
Book of Armagh, c 807 AD

N3. Above is an "attacking flier". Some might call it an anfloga. The fish is a symbol of Christianity. In this particular image a Christian is being carried away by St John.

Book of Kells; Folio 27v.

N4. In the Book of Kells, St John, or his anfloga, takes on a surprisingly Germanic appearance.

Anweald, I'd say.
A more benign aspect, below.

Bible of St BÚnigne,
BibliothŔque Publique, Dijon;
datÚe du deuxiŔme quart du XIIe

N5. Gifre and grædig. "The phrase seems unattached; it may modify the anfloga, the hyge, the modsefa, the erne, or all or none of these." See annotation, 2005, here, and/or here. Smithers is quite definite about attaching it to the anfloga. The translation of the line may well need serious re-working. Smithers is sure that hwettan means "to urge on". I am not so sure.


hyge and gielle­

hyge. See here. Hyge means neither "soul" nor "fetch", ie a disembodied entity capable of roaming far from its normal fleshly residence. It means "mind", in the sense of "I've a mind to do something", "desire" or "inclination". If it is construed to mean "thought", it means "thought" not in the sense of ratiocination, but in the sense of "home thoughts from abroad", when the thoughts are straying to endearing objects or courses of action, and are being transformed into a form of yearning. Hugr and hyge may descend from a common ancestor, but as they flourish in 9th century Christian Anglo-Saxon England they are distinctly separate concepts. When a seafaring Anglo-Saxon refers to his hyge he is not talking about his hreðer, which may perhaps turn into a bird when he dies, but his present inclination.

gielle­. See here. The COER recommends P.Orton, The Form and Structure of The Seafarer, 1991, for further reading. Orton's opinions require deeper investigation, in view of the CEOR's firm assertion that the anfloga is a cuckoo. In The Seafarer 58-64a, published in Neophilologus 66, 1962, Orton comments that: "Since the appearance of I.L.Gordon's standard edition of the poem, few scholars have favoured her revival of Sieper's identification of anfloga with 52 geac 'the cuckoo' ... though Dorothy Whitelock supports it tentatively. Peter Clemoes finds it 'wholly unsatisfying imaginatively' and John C.Pope thinks it should be 'consigned to oblivion'". Pope himself wisely consigned his own earlier ideas about The Seafarer to oblivion in 1974.

Gordon's superficially reasonable argument in favour of the anfloga being a physical bird depends on gielle­, since she can't believe that a soul would yell, scream or shriek. (Neither would a cuckoo, however.) Because Clemoes, and others, such as P.L.Henry, are fixated on the idea that hyge means a "wandering soul", returning to its body, they feel obliged to apply the screams to the hyge, and reduce the translation of gielle­ to "cries". This is an arbitrary distortion of the meaning of gielle­. Smithers is much nearer the truth in likening the sound to that of a winged harbinger of death, although in my view he possibly rather oversteps the mark by instancing the valkyrie. The notion that it can be said of a hyge that it gielle­ is, to quote Mrs Gordon, "almost absurd". Doubly so, in fact.

In The Form and Structure of The Seafarer, nearly 30 years after his first article, Orton repeated his personal endorsement of Gordon's opinion that the anfloga is the cuckoo, quote: "... with the anfloga, literally 'solitary flier' and in my view (as in Sieper's, Gordon's and Whitelock's, but not in any more recent critics' who have expressed an opinion on the matter) the cuckoo again, still calling, but now with an urgency which the seafarer finds impossible to resist." Orton clearly believes that unwearnum means "irresistible" He makes an excellent point early in his 27 page essay, included in Old English Literature, 2002, edited by R.M.Liuzza, when he says, p 355, that: ".... in obscure or ambiguous passages, the context in which the words are used in the poem itself is the safest guide to their meaning". However, the meanings of the words also determine the context: the two aspects are interdependent. The anfloga does not, of course, mean a "solitary flier", but an "attacking flier".

The more trivial this topic, the more it fascinates.

A Seafarer




in the tomb of Senejem, Thebes, 13th/14th century BC.

G.V.Smithers: Page Two
back to anfloga & wearn
The Cambridge Old English Reader
An, Ân, & Eft: Old English Grammar. A. Campbell
Hugr, Hyge, Håg
The prefix un- in Anglo-Saxon
re: unwearnum
visualizations of the anfloga
essays and papers

Journey's Jargon


I was advised to "have fun" in these lexicographical peregrinations.

More like a whale of a time, as it turns out.
From Kungsboken, nr 12:3. 17th century, Krigsarkivet, Stockholm.

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

"A scholarly myth can spread like a computer virus until it becomes accepted historical fact." Helen Morales

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

"One gets more real truth out of one avowed partisan than out of a dozen of your sham impartialists." Robert Louis Stevenson

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

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