Seafarer Essays & Papers

A translation is faithful when it conveys the meaning, not merely the words, of its original.
The aim of the translation on this site is to achieve the closest fidelity to its source, in both manner and meaning.
This text is subject to continuous experiment and improvement.

a summing up


If you believe the scribe forgot to insert an at the red line intersection, then you will believe anything.
pace Iron Duke

c250-c325 AD

from Sensory Perception in the Medieval West, p 21

More than one Seafarer scrutineer has detected the influence of Lactantius, as quoted in translation above, in the poem's central crux, lines 58-64a. The thought that in its imagination the mind might wander far and wide has been a commonplace for some years. A well-known poet once noted that the poet's eye (read mind) glances from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. One of his contemporaries decided that his mind was a kingdom; and a little later another poet decided that the mind was an ocean where each kind might find its own resemblance. Later still, a poet felt that he had an inward eye, which saw dancing daffodils; and fairly recently a group of singers asked the bird on the wing, high in the sky, to carry them with it to where their thoughts ever strayed. None of these, however, envisaged their mind as a yelling, screaming, death-delivering valkyrie or banshee, eager and greedy. This is how I, and one or two perceptive others, see the anfloga. That is, the Anflug of the anflygande Anfliegender Anflieger.

Accepting that it is not at all unlikely that the author of what is now called The Seafarer verse composition had read Lactantius, and that Lactantius' words had lingered at the back, or indeed front, of his mind, two compelling facts may be deduced. One, that the author was learned and multilingual, and extremely unlikely to have been a professional seaman or fisherman, although he may have experienced some intermittent personal sea-voyaging. Two, that, like Lactantius, he was concerned to persuade his readers, or listeners, of the merits and advantages of Christian belief. Lactantius wrote works explaining Christianity in terms that would be palatable to educated people who still practised the traditional religions of the Roman Empire. I quote. The Anglish poet, like Lactantius, preaches that a man, unwearnum, a poor, bare, forked animal, should prepare for his death --- by turning to the Christian god. Wl means Death. The first part of the poem is an exemplum, a metaphor for the struggles of the ordinary man, perhaps the author himself, who is then encouraged to reflect on the possibility that when death comes he will bask in the bosom of his maker. Well, he might as well believe that, if only to feel consoled. Further back in his mind is the ineradicable perception that all that really survives death is the reputation of the dead person. The realistic pagan point of view.

lines 58-64a: contested interpretations

These above four versions are interesting to compare. All four scrutineers have decided on the meaning of the lines before seriously tackling their translation. Consequently, the modern English words are selectively chosen, in order to satisfy the "interpreter's" predetermined reading of the passage. Thus hyge is translated; "soul, mind, aim, or spirit." Can it really be all four ? Sceatas is translated: "regions, corners, surfaces". The adjective unwearnum (in the dative case of attendant circumstance), meaning "einer der sich nicht htet", is translated either "irresistibly", or "without warning". "The road of the whale" = "The deadly way" = "The whale-path". These interpreters are influencing each other, or are influenced by other earlier interpreters, and pay insufficient attention to the original composition. Where they do attempt an understanding, they produce a curiously contorted language which barely resembles normal current speech.

A realisation that Modern Swedish is immeasurably closer to Anglish than Modern English will rapidly provide us with the translation of hyge as hg, of sceatas as skte and unwearn as ovrn. It helps to know Swedish. It helps to know what the words of the crux are saying before deciding on their meaning. Modern Swedish is also decidedly closer than Modern German to Anglish, as can be demonstrated by dozens of cognates.

Previous annotation available here.

A Pot-Pourri

The "lap" of Haga, as seen by Bellman: interpreted as "leas" by Britten Austin

Harrison & Baskervill

Klinck corrects Mitchell's error: "categorically 'magan + infinitive does not express a wish'".
Allow me to disagree; see here

Cassell's German Dictionary

Cassell's German Dictionary

Wl means Death


"Lactantius has been criticized for being too close to the paganism, from which he was converted, to be an adequate exponent of Christianity. This is true only in the sense that his newfound faith had not been able to mature sufficiently to give a comprehensive account of his own religious convictions". Incidentally, mens and/or animus are good translations of hyge.

Stephen Oppenheimer

The cover of the 2007 paperback edition of The Origins of the British is studded with praise: "British prehistory will never look the same again" [Colin Renfrew]. "British prehistory will have to be radically re-thought" [Barry Cunliffe]. "Be prepared to have all your cherished notions of English history and Britishness swept away". [Clive Gamble].

Much of the book is concerned with Angles and Saxons.The index lists at least 30 references to Saxons, and about the same incidence of reference to the Anglish. I didn't count the references to Anglo-Saxons.

The relationship between the Saxon and the Anglian is not unlike the relationship between the Eskimo and the Inuit. "Eskimo", however, has been perceived as offensive and an insult; and although there is a tinge of disparagement in "Sassenach" and "Seisin", the Anglian felt no dishonour in being described as a seax-man, since the seax was the means whereby he had won and maintained his distinctive superiority.

Gradually, taking all comments into account, the suspicion grows that the Anglians had actually been settling on the east side of Britain for years before even the Romans arrived; but everyone kept calling them Saxons.

In my opinion, and I could be wrong, if someone can produce any contrary evidence, no-one, before about 600 AD, would have self-identified him- or herself as a "Saxon"; but, if asked, would self-describe as an Anglian, from Scandinavia. Eventually a region in Germany came to be called Old Saxony, in order to satisfy the puzzlement of later chroniclers. Is that clear ?

"It is dangerous to be right when established authority is wrong." Voltaire.
Henry Sweet is the Aristotle of Anglo-Saxon studies.
The Horace Walpole of Linguistics.

The following comments are undeniable:

"Accuracy is measured by the degree to which users of a translation get the same meaning which the original text had."
Wayne Leman
"Much of the literature of translation is not about errors in translation; it is about errors in understanding the original ."
E.Bruce Brooks

Click for fidelity, integrity and truth.

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2019

all rights reserved

Vivian Salmon, 1960.
But it doesn't mean soul. It means death, which preys on every earthly thing..
Death flies, but it is not a bird. Death is supernatural, is it not ?

Zeus or Jove

A Seafarer edition was published June 2005, limited to 125 copies: ISBN 0-9550 126-0-0

The published text has since been repeatedly revised

essays & papers
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a summing up