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Seafarer Birds
other than the anfloga --- the Bird of Death
which is also time's winged chariot, hurrying near

There's a lot on the internet about the mythology of birds, especially in connection with the sea. See here: eg, Soul Birds, or Poems of Sailors and Seafarers, or Seafaring Superstitions, Marine Myth Rituals or On The Relationship between Birds and Spirits of the Dead. This page on Bird, Ship, Sea, Sun might even be consulted, despite the remarkably unsympathetic, semi-literate "reader reports".

Sea Change, by John Masefield

"Goneys an' gullies an' all o' the birds o' the sea
They ain't no birds, not really", said Billy the Dane
"Not mollies, nor gullies, nor goneys at all", said he,
"But simply the sperrits of mariners livin' again.

"Them birds goin' fishin' is nothin' but souls o' the drowned,
Souls o' the drowned, an' the kicked as are never no more

All I ever heard along the ice-way
was sounding sea, the gannet's shanty
whooper and curlew calls and mewling gull
were all my gaming, mead and mirth
At tempest-tested granite crags
the ice-winged tern would taunt
spray-feathered ospreys overhead
would soar and scream

Billy the Dane is the Dansker, from Melville's Billy Budd. Masefield's "gully" is possibly a gull, and a "goney" may be a goose (Wright's Obsolete English Dictionary) , but what bird is a "molly" ? An albatross ?

From Soul Birds on the internet: Belief in metempsychosis or the transmigration of souls into other living beings is ancient. In Western tradition, one of the most common sites for a formerly human soul to inhabit is that of a bird. Such birds are invariably also ominous, in its original sense of prophetic, the rationale being that the dead, as spirits, know both past and future. They are ominous also in its secondary meaning of "boding ill."

Seagulls warned of approaching storm. An extension was the belief that they cried before a disaster.

In West European fishing communities it was thought unlucky to kill a gull; and, as with petrels, some said they embodied the souls of fishermen and sailors, especially those who had drowned. Belief in gulls as soul-birds was still active in coastal districts of Great Britain and Ireland up to at least the late nineteenth century.

Among East Anglian fishermen, the spirits of the drowned were believed to migrate to the gannet.

To my mind, however, despite the above, the poem's text merely implies that the seafarer, when faring alone at sea, had simply foregone the wassail, and the swaggering upspring reels in the mead-hall, for the company of various varieties of birds. The seafarer presents his experiences as an illustrative exemplum, leading to religious and philosophical advice to his hearers on how to face the inevitable approach of death. Death is brought by the anfloga --- Time, on eagle wing.

There is current a belief that the anfloga is the seafarer's returning mind. This is an interpretation that, with the greatest respect to all who hold it, I find exceedingly difficult, in fact impossible, to accept.

Swedish is the modern language which most closely resembles the language spoken by the Anglians. The Swedish word hg, earlier hug, is an exact rendering of the word hyge in The Seafarer. A Swedish-English dictionary definition of hg is 1) mind, 2) inclination. A phrase such as "I am minded to put out to sea" comes to mind. The word simply does not imply a disembodied spirit flitting away from its physical origin.

A valkyrie may possibly bring a disease; but it quite certainly, seriously and irrevocably, brings death, since the val part of its name simply means death. Valhalla, with its several entrances, means the hall of death, perhaps recalling the Roman Colosseum, where men fought all day and feasted all night. Val or wl recurs in the frequently but needlessly emended word wl weg. In its MS form, onwlweg, it alliterates with unwearnum.

It has generally been realised that The Seafarer is a verse composition constructed in two halves, although no real consensus about the nature of these halves has been reached. If we take the single word "Amen" to constitute the poem's last line [line 125], then its midpoint, at lines 62a - 62b, is occupied by the word unwearnum.

Try A Thesaurus of Old English: by Roberts, Kay, Grundy 1995, 2000 P 1476, on the internet.
It gives an interestingly faulty definition for unwearnum, 11.12.01: Absence of restraint, freedom. [???]
unwearnum actually means a "defenceless", "vulnerable" or "unprotected" human being.
wearn is an adjective, essentially meaning "guarded"; unwearn therefore essentially means "unguarded".
"For fear the cruell Feends should thee vnwares deuowre". Spenser.

Above are two versions of lines 58-64. Notes, first of all, on the site version. "Sea swell" is an allusion to T.S.Eliot, Death by Water in The Waste Land. "Keening call" conflates gifre and grdig, and alludes to J.M.Synge's "black hags", in Riders to the Sea. "Creation's coast" is an alliterative approximation to sceatas, which actually means lap or womb, cf Swedish sköte and/or German Schoss. The word certainly does not mean "surfaces". Hwete is interpreted as the seafarer steeling or preparing himself at apprehension of his approaching death, and arrival of the anfloga. His own mind would hardly be gifre and grdig, ie "ravening and greedy".

Notes on North's changes between his 1991 and 2016 versions. 1) For this reason my mind now/So now my aim. 2) voracious and greedy/ravening and greedy. 3) My imagination/my mood-sense. 4) The lone-flier yells (auguring)/The lone-flier yells. 5) Relentlessly/irresistibly. Perhaps "ravening" was favoured for suggesting a raven ? The version's words which, sadly, to my mind are simply wrong are: aim, moves, surfaces, comes back, lone flier, incites, breast, whale-path, irresistibly. The Anglian word eft means "eftsoons"; ie "anon".

Now read below what interesting words Professor J.R.R.Tolkien has to say about the manner in which Anglian verse is structured. What he says here about Beowulf also applies to The Seafarer.

Here is what Anne L. Klinck, in The Old English Elegies, 2001, has to say. Her comments are reasonably balanced and objective, and I have a soft spot for the supplementary bibliography of her paperback edition. However, she goes astray, it seems to me, in suggesting that the "the anfloga can be understood as the speaker's spirit which ranges over land and sea like a bird". Hyge does not mean "spirit". A valkyrie might be disease-bringing, but it is definitely death-bringing. Anne Klinck unfortunately does not appear to discuss unwearnum, the meaning of which is crucial to an understanding of the entire poem. Sadly she elsewhere glosses it "irresistibly".

Pace Gordon, a close approximation to gifre is the Swedish word ivrig. It does not really mean "full of fierce longing", which is too excessive an interpretation, unless "avid" can mean "full of fierce longing". Death is avid, and "preys hungrily and keenly on every mortal thing", to adapt a phrase. What about "agitated" ? No.

In Homage to Catalonia George Orwell wrote that he saw "eager intellectuals buildng emotional superstructures over events that had never happened". He wasn't thinking about eager Anglo-Saxonists building interpretative structures over creative translations that avidly misread their sources.

"A" is the same as the letter "A"
Ludwig Wittgenstein

commentaries: one, two, three [more than 60 other versions], four, five, six
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site text      seafarer birds
Life & Death
Smithers One
Anfloga BC1          Anfloga BC2
Seafarer Fidelity

"It is dangerous to be right when authority is wrong". Voltaire

This page is partly influenced by a conversation with someone
I had mistakenly believed to be familiar with the Anglish language,
but who turned out to be a historian, and not a linguist.
I was left with the impression that I was considered insulting
for having wished to discuss the meaning of The Seafarer.

"Ignoring pertinent information makes one an idiot". Ethan Indigo Smith, 2014,
The Complete Patriot's Guide, p 41.

Truth treads on toes.
In 1992 the Vatican conceded that Galileo had been right in 1633.
"no one to keen him but the black hags that do be flying on the sea"

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2018
All Rights Reserved

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