more notes
concerning onwæl weg
as well as the anfloga

December 2009

Eagle image from the Book of Kells


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

page one         page two: here


Philology has been defined as "the historical or comparative study of language; love of learning or literature." The philology of G.V.Smithers is evident from the predominance of his pan-Scandinavian sources, Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, as well as German, namely: Oscar Almgren, K. von Bahder, Friedrich Behn, N.K.Chadwick, Myles Dillon, Falk, Walther Gehl, G.A.Gjessing, Wolfgang Golther, J. H. G. Grattan and Charles Singer, Elof Hellquist, Rudolf Imelmann, R.Jente, Jón Johannesson, Finnur Jónsson, Guðni Jónsson, (and possibly also Thorleifr Jˇnsson?), Nils Lid, Sune Lindqvist, E.H.Meyer, Oscar Montelius, Gustav Neckel, F.Nordin, Åke Ohlmarks, Axel Olrik, Ingjald Reichborn-Kjennerud, B. Sijmons and H.Gering, Knut Stjerna, F. Ström, Jan de Vries. An occasional Anglo-Saxon here and there.

A taint of Germanic nationalism hangs over some of these authorities, particularly those who were at their most industrious during the years 1920-1945. Bearing in mind that "Old English" had been chosen to replace "Anglo-Saxon" at the turn of the 19th century, in order to promote an illusory continuity of the language beyond the Norman Conquest, the belief self-evidently expressed by Smithers, that any discernible continuity was consistently greater from the Germano-Scandinavian homelands, would have been frowned on in 1960. Dorothy Whitelock, grande dame of English Anglo-Saxonism, was a safer bet for the insular-minded, notwithstanding what mistakes she might have made.

When political ideologies meddle with academic integrity, the first victim is truth. See Bernard Mees: V÷lkische Altnordistik: The Politics of Nordic Studies in the German-speaking Countries 1926-1945, delivered at the University of Sydney, July 2000, and also The Science of the Swastika, 2008. Opposing distortions by counter-distortions is nevertheless a disreputable tactic. According to Mees, and there is no reason to doubt him, "V÷lkisch thought first makes its overt presence felt in scholarship of the 1890s with Gustaf Kossinna .... Rudolf Much .... Ludwig Wilser .... they were to engender v÷lkisch modes of thought in German archaeology, anthropology, literary philology, linguistics, runology and Old Norse studies." The first stirrings of the linguistic conversion of Anglo-Saxon into Old English must have taken place at about the same time, re-inforced by the compulsory inclusion of what persistently wanted to be called Anglo-Saxon (by Bosworth, Sweet, Clark Hall) in the Oxford English degree course.

Mees notes that "German texts published between 1933 and 1945 are often used with some care by researchers today", and fingers Gustav Neckel, 1878 - 1940, in particular, as well as Jan de Vries, 1890 - 1964, among authors who continued writing on these topics after WWII. The backlash against compulsory "Old English" in the Oxford degree, abolished in 2000, seems to have escalated from about the 1960s onwards, apparently spearheaded by Professor Valentine Cunningham. Stuart Lee, in Whither Old English?, 2001, quotes Peter Jackson quoting Cunningham as charging that "the language has no 'essential kinship with our own', the themes and concerns of the literature have left no trace on ours, and the very term 'Old English' implying that such a connection exists, is spurious". The term "Old English" is indeed totally spurious, but the other two contentions are insubstantial. The themes of The Seafarer, for instance, have left traces on our literature (although, arguably, not until the revival of interest in Anglo-Saxon works after about 1700), and the language, although sufficiently different to qualify as foreign, is undeniably distantly akin to Modern English. It's just that it is far, far more closely related to the modern Scandinavian, and even the German and Icelandic languages. Failure to acknowledge and appreciate their closer kinships to these tongues leads to one textual misreading after another.


Lindisfarne Gospel
late 7th or early 8th century
In principio erat uerbum

N1. The general view put forward on this website is that the seafarer poet is positioning himself in the footsteps of St John. He adopts an unobtrusively evangelical stance, by drawing on the local and traditional lore current among his audience, while at the same time incorporating a consoling Christian message: death need not be unwelcome, if we live like good, unmercenary soldiers.

Symbol of St John

N2. Imago aequilae. A poem compresses disparate thoughts into words and images of multiple meaning. The aquiline or other raptor image has many functions: malign, benign or evangelical. All may co-exist in a few lines, and in images of immemorial antiquity: Sumerian, Egyptian, Graeco-Roman, Hebrew.


N3. The objections of boggling scholars are easily routed. But Smithers overplays the valkyrie card. Valhalla was a Nordic post-Christian concept, modelled on garbled tales of the Colosseum in Rome, not fully completed until 96 AD. The seafarer appears to have travelled to Anglo-Saxon England via Erin, bringing Coptic Christian imagery with him. But the death bird is ubiquitous, and non-denominational.

Jewish memorial monument
date and location mislaid

William Blake: his anfloga

N4. Ubiquitous, and perennial, for millenia. Blake was obsessed with images of the "famished eagle". Vala.

Book of Dimma
7th - 8th century
In principio erat uerbum

N5. Is that a transported shen below the verbum carried by the floga in the Book of Dimma? Translated as well as transported.

Image of St John in Ivory
Aachen. Carolingian, 8th-9th century

N6. In the beginning was the word. By the word and the flying eagle, John attains the heavens. More volans aquile verbo petit astra Joannes.

Smithers makes too much of the V÷lkische Altnordistik, and tends to overlook the poet's actual religion. It is just possible there was an undercurrent of later northern paganism in the poet's mind, but Smithers himself seems uneasy about this. The influence of the Coptic monks or hermits, arriving in Ireland as early as circa 443 AD, along with their Egyptian visual imagery, appears to be far stronger. By the 7th, 8th, 9th centuries, when The Seafarer was composed, these images are almost all-pervasive, and must have impressed the literate, who were, one assumes, also deeply involved in manuscript illumination.

Symbol of St John

What is the meaning of this?
Elucidation welcome.

N7. Rather unlikely that the anfloga designates a valkyrie. Solitary, if you insist, but certainly not a human soul. Instead, and more importantly, the personification of inescapable death, which man is being evangelically encouraged not to fear. Wælweg still means death-way.

Silent Highwayman: Punch 1858
by John Tenniel: his wælweg

onwæl weg or hwælweg

Smithers suggests that "wælweg would be a word originally of heathen connotations, but here used in a Christian setting". To be accurate, it is perhaps more likely that the wælweg, meaning a watery way of death, was originally an Egyptian concept, as Smithers intimates, and the civilizations of the Middle and Near East are not usually referred to as either heathen or pagan, both words implying the nature-centred religions of pre-urban communities. The cultural influences on the arts of Anglo-Saxon England perhaps come less from Germanic/Northern paganism, than from pre- or non-Roman cultures. The dead had been buried in boat-shaped coffins, or in actual ships, for 2,000 years before The Seafarer was written.

One of the lesser objections to reading wælweg as "way to the abode of the dead" is that wæl necessarily implies a violent death in battle. A glance at the 69 compounds incorporating wæl as a first element, listed by Clark Hall and Meritt, shows this not to be case. Moreover, in one sense, and one which suited the Anglo-Saxon, all life is a form of engagement in battle, against the Devil and other foes, finally ending in slaughter by the Reaper. Age and sickness are allied with edge-hate, and may strike the fatal blow at any unforeseeable time. The anfloga is less singular than triple.

simle ■reora sum ■inga gehwylce
Šr his tiddŠge to tweon weor■e­
adl o■■e yldo o■■e ecghete

Another, more well-considered objection was as follows: "If you want to leave wælweg as is, there is a severe metrical problem. There seems to be a categorical rule requiring poetic compounds to alliterate. There are very few apparent exceptions. ..... The rule doesn't apply in the most closely related Old Norse meter, so its severity in OE poetry really stands out as interesting. Kennings are obviously poetic compounds, and forms like "hron-rad" (whale-road) must I think alliterate. I'm not sure there is a single persuasive exception in the long poems with meter evaluated as reasonably good by Hutcheson. The other kind of poetic compound is the kind with a redundant first constituent, e.g. "guth-sweord" (battle-sword)." The reference will be to B.R. Hutcheson, Old English Poetic Metre, 1995.

In all literature, but especially in poetry, form and content interact. Seldom is their fusion perfect. In almost all compositions the one will dominate the other. There is something circular in the above statement that, implicitly, longer works which obey categorical metrical rules may be judged to be "reasonably good". Beowulf and The Seafarer share features common to all Anglo-Saxon verse, but in many respects they are quite different. The Seafarer is notable for its half-lines, hypermetric lines, and the vastly contrasting tempos of its first and second halves: lines 1-62a and 62b-125. It anticipates the irregularities of the English ode, as in Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality, metrically pigeon-holed as anisometric.

The poem is also remarkable for the several meanings its author compresses into its syntax and lexis, the most obvious example being the double implications of dryhten in line 41 and in lines 43, 65, 106, 121, 124. It would satisfy all significant interpretation if wælweg, anfloga, and other instances were allowed similar licence.

G.V.Smithers: Page One
back to anfloga & wearn
The Cambridge Old English Reader
An, Ân, & Eft: Old English Grammar. A. Campbell
Hugr, Hyge, Håg
coptic origins
themed picture index
essays and papers

Journey's Jargon

The Trundholm Chariot

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

"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

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"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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© Charles Harrison Wallace 2009
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