s sy am halgan onc
t he usic geweorade
wuldres ealdor
ece dryhten in ealle tid


Why "Ancient of Days"?

Blake image, 1794, from here

so may we hallow him
for he has valued us
the ancient of days
eternal lord for all time


9. The thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of Days did sit.     22. The Ancient of Days came, and judgement was given. Daniel 7, AV.

"In praising Beowulf, (Hrothgar) says that the hero's mother was blessed by Ealdmetod (945) a unique and curious word which may have been suggested by Daniel's vision of the Judge who is called antiquus dierum (Dan 7:9 and 7:22); it has an appropriately antique sound in Hrothgar's mouth." Note by Margaret Goldsmith, in The Mode and Meaning of Beowulf, University of London Athlone Press, 1970, p.158.

Compare L.Ettmüller, Lexicon Anglosaxonicum, 1851, p 5: ealdmetod, -es, m. creator, Beóv. 1883.

Meotod/meotud is used by the Seafarer poet in lines 108 and 116 for God the Measurer/Architect.

Wuldorgimm is rendered "sun"; ie "gem of glory"; wuldor is glossed in dictionaries as "glory". "Glory" is "effulgence" or "radiance" or "daylight", ie "days". Ealdor means, in effect, "ancient".

The standard translation of wuldres ealdor is "Prince of Glory", but is "prince" really a good gloss for ealdor? "Eld" connotes "old age, old people": see Thomas Wright, Obsolete & Provincial English, 1858. Wuldor is a fascinating word, apparently with few, if any cognates. Dazzling aura? Charisma? Dayspring?


Biblical Echoes in The Seafarer

Quote: "Ancient of Days is a name for God in Aramaic: Atik Yomin; in the Greek Septuagint: Palaios Hemeron; and in the Vulgate: Antiquus Dierum. The title "Ancient of Days" has been used as a source of inspiration in art and music, denoting the Creator's aspects of eternity combined with perfection." See here, and countless other websites.

Sooner or later, even to this dedicated agnostic, it becomes clear that the The Seafarer is steeped in biblical allusions. There are echoes from both the New and Old Testaments, but the major emphasis appears to derive from the Old. There appears to be less of any explicitly New Testament Christian gospel: little suggestion of cheek-turning or charitable enemy-loving. The missionary zeal is resolutely authoritarian and monotheistic. The early Christians were, of course, born as Jews, and later converted to what was at first a schismatic Jewish sect.

The following comment, by John Goldingay, from Songs from a Strange Land; Psalms 42-51, published by Inter-Varsity Press 1978, p.21, stimulates further thought. "The Psalms are poetry, though they are not set out as such.......Old Testament poetry has two distinctive features...........The first is that there are a set number of stresses in each line. There can be any number of unemphasized syllables, but the number of stressed syllables generally falls into a pattern. The most common pattern is 3-3 (three stressed in each half-line).........Hebrew makes a great deal of use of compound words ........ the other characteristic of Hebrew poetry [is] the phenomenon of parallelism. In each verse the second half of the line balances the first half, by repeating, amplifying, developing or contrasting with it. The whole line is thus the unit of thought, and sometimes it is important to realise this in order to understand the psalmist aright."

Old Testament

Domine, ...... verumtamen justa loquor ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? Jeremiah 12. I. Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? ibid. AV.

See also Pope Gregory (590-604), eg Moralia in Job; Book V. Quote: "But why do we say such things concerning envy, unless we likewise point out in what manner it may be rooted out? For it is a hard thing for one man not to envy another that, which he earnestly desires to obtain; since whatever we receive that is of time becomes less to each in proportion as there are many to divide it amongst. And for this reason envy wrings the longing mind, because that, which it desires, another man getting either takes away altogether, or curtails in quantity. Let him, then, who longs to be wholly and entirely void of the bane of envy, set his affections on that inheritance, which no number of fellow heirs serves to stint or shorten, which is both one to all and whole to each, which is shewn so much the larger, as the number of those that are vouchsafed it is enlarged for its reception. And so the lessening of envy is the feeling of inward sweetness arising, and the utter death of it is the perfect love of Eternity."

See here. Pancoast & Spaeth annotate "His strength shall be hunger-bitten" from Job. xviii:12.

9. The thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of Days did sit. 22. The Ancient of Days came, and judgement was given. Daniel 7, AV.

1. Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us. 2. The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning. 3. Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power. Ecclesiasticus 44, AV.

6. All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field. Isaiah 40, AV.

28. Your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions. Joel 2, AV.

1. The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Psalm 19, AV.

9. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. 10. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold. Psalm 19, AV.

6. They that trust in their wealth and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; 7. None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him; 17. When he dieth he shall carry nothing away; his glory shall not descend after him. Psalm 49, AV.

5. God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. 6. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time. 7. Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you. Psalm 91, AV.

15. For man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. Psalm 103, AV.

Corey Owen notes: "line 106, which contains a reference to Psalm 110: 10, initium sapientiae timor Domini, 'the beginning of wisdom [is] the fear of the Lord.'"

In The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 22, 1992, Georgiana Donavin discovered Allusions to Jonah in 'The Seafarer', but these may not be so evident to some of us.

unwearnum does not mean "irresistibly", or "relentlessly"; though "unresisting" is a slight improvement on those two. The concept of man's vulnerable defencelessness at the approach of death derives, most immediately, from:
Ecclesiastes 5:15 "Naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing from his labour, which he may carry away in his hand. mamum mislicum t hine mid nille (wille ?)
Job 1:21. "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. See also 1 Timothy, 6:7.

New Testament

I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. The Gospel according to St John, 14.6, Authorised Version 1611. Parts of this gospel were translated into Anglo-Saxon by Baeda, 673-735 AD. The Anglo-Saxon translation presented in Joseph Bosworth's edition of The Gothic and Anglo-Saxon Gospels, 1865, reads: Ic eom weg, and sofstnys, and lif; ne cym nan to fder, buton urh me. This translation is not attributed to Baeda, but I don't suppose for a moment he used si instead of weg. References to John's gospel in The Wanderer have been pointed out by Tim Romano.

3. Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 5. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Matthew 5, AV.

Hallowed be thy name. The power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. Matthew 6, 9-13. AV.

13. These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14. For they that say such things, declare plainly that they seek a country. 15. And truly if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned: 16. But now they desire a better country, that is an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for he hath prepared for them a city. Hebrews 11, AV.

24. All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away. 1 Peter, 5, AV.

7. Your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire. 1 Peter, 1, AV.

4. To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you. 1 Peter, 1, AV.

8. Your adversary the devil. 1 Peter 5, AV.

18: For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. Romans 8, AV. Noted by J.Glenn.

Many other allusions mentioned by other commentators can be found in Corey Owen's annotated bibliography.

See also Frederick S.Holton on page following.

Northward Ho!

The simple proposition being put forward on this site is that a poem such as The Seafarer is a product of the fusion of two disparate elements: a Germanic, or perhaps more accurately a Scandinavian, language, and a Mediterranean culture, or perhaps, more accurately, politico-religious world-view. Culturally, the amalgam contains very little that could be described as exclusively deriving from pre-biblical northern folk paganism. Even the innate tribalism, the kingly rulers, the warrior and warlord mentality, and the burial practices alluded to, notably the provision of golden goods for the afterlife, can be thought of as Mediterranean: Egyptian and, in some respects, even Hebrew. Literacy was spread in the British Isles via Coptic monasticism; and monasticism is defined, here, as having "its origins, for Christianity, in the Essene practices, where Jews chose to dwell in community in the caves of the Dead Sea area, in the wilderness, as textual communities obedient to a Rule. These practices were later carried into Egypt and then Ireland by Christian monks dwelling in lauras." A dictionary definition of a "laura" is "an aggregation of separate cells tenanted by monks, esp. in the desert". "Eventually, circa 547, Benedict codified his monastic practices with his Ordo and Regula, his Order and his Rule."

The Egyptian Desert in the Irish Bog
Father Gregory Telepneff

The work is sub-titled The Byzantine Character of Early Celtic Monasticism. Yale-educated, Father Gegory is described, 1998, as serving the Old Holy Virgin Cathedral (Russian Orthodox Church Abroad) in San Francisco. This may account for his determination to promote as "Eastern" what others might term "Mediterranean". In some sections of his short but eloquent book he even describes Egypt as "Oriental", which is not a geographical orientation I have seen used elsewhere for the land of the Pharaohs; nor is it very obvious how Celtic monasticism could have acquired a Byzantine character.

No matter. Father Gregory's conclusions, right, are enough to show how the Coptic Christianity of Egypt would have travelled to Ireland, though perhaps more probably via the coast of Spain than through Gaul.

Celtic Christianity was more Coptic than Roman; and its traditions more Jewish than Imperial.



The Seafarer is a sermon. It was composed by a learned man, a monk or other cleric, multilingual: certainly as adept in Latin as Anglo-Saxon, possibly also with some Irish, and even Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew. Gasps of disbelief in all directions. By the time the work was written and delivered, say 800-850 AD, this missionary/evangelist would have been preaching to the converted, while mindful of back-sliders, still hankering after old values, days of martial glory; and still harbouring a robust contempt for death. The sermon is structured in the manner adopted by countless similar sermons. Divided into two precise halves, the first half is an exemplum; and the second half draws a moral conclusion. An exemplum, courtesy the Free Online Dictionary, is "an anecdote that supports a moral point or sustains an argument, used especially in medieval sermons." The verse moves from the concrete to the abstract, from experience to reflection. The indications are that the experience may have been personal, but unlikely to have been repeated more than a few times; between monasteries, as it were. It is also possible that all that was needed was a vivid imagination. No one supposes that Coleridge had himself endured the trials of his Ancient Mariner. At the same time, the poetic ingenuity, culture and sophistication demonstrated in this work were not entirely acquired at the helm of a sea-craft. Many commentaries during the 19th and 20th centuries have been convinced that the poem is purely autobiographical, whereas it is better understood as a vehicle for doctrine.

Like Jehovah, the Christian god, or the god conceived of as Christian by Paul, the ultra-zealous convert fired by a desire to proselytize beyond the Hebrews to the Gentiles, was a jealous god. This topic has been explored in some detail by Nietzsche, so there is no reason to repeat the argument. The point is that after 312 AD the Christian, or Pauline, religion came to be adopted, with increasing enthusiasm, by those wielding authority, as a foolproof means of social control. See here for the Roman impulse to control the populace, recorded by Plutarch. Control was promoted by the missionaries to pagan Anglo-Saxon England, early Britain and the North in general, by an insistent emphasis on man's instinctive fear of death, and a vivid representation of the notional after-life. This is expressed with exceptional eloquence in The Seafarer. The fear of death is central to its theme. Lines 39-43: Foron nis s modwlonc mon over eoran/ne his gifena s god ne in geogue to s hwt/ne in his ddum to s deor ne him his dryhten to s hold/t he a his sfore sorge nbbe/to hwon hine dryhten gedon wille. In the exemplum, this fear is likened to apprehension before a sea-voyage, but also the sense of discovery, anticipation and expectation.

Conversely, the pagan gods were not jealous. Graven images proliferated. The Greek and Northern gods were jolly and often faintly ridiculous, and the stories about them could be comic and absurd. Touching on the after-life, this quote from Compton's Encyclopedia Online seems apt: "Scholars have argued, based on surviving texts, that Hel was not considered an evil deity until Norse beliefs began to be influenced by Christianity ... There was no stigma of cruelty attached to her; rather, she appeared to be sad or depressed. Her palace was as imposing as the halls of the gods, and she met the dead souls who came to her with courtesy. They seemed to dwell peacefully in Hel; they were not tortured or mistreated in any way." In her Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets Barbara Walker remarks that "Though Christian theology gave its underworld the name of the Goddess Hel, it was quite a different place from her womb of regeneration. The ancients didn't view the underworld as primarily a place of punishment. It was dark, mysterious and awesome, but not the vast torture chamber Christians made of it." At this point, the thread begins to wander: the seafarer does not threaten his congregation with hell (although the sinner may well quake) --- instead, he seems to be arguing, their life on earth has been hell, so death, and the afterlife, if any, must be better. Any readers still interested are invited to join the dots themselves. Or see here

From Corey Owen's exemplary and wholly admirable The Seafarer: A Hypertext Edition, 1999:

"The value of The Seafarer as a guide for a monastic audience suffering from some sort of doubt, then, is made clear by the position in which the speaker places the audience. By inviting the listener/reader into the seafarer's experience and awareness at each stage of his crisis and conversion, the poet, or possibly poets, offers a subtle guide for one whose faith is suffering. Considering their access to such works as St. Gregory the Great's Cura Pastoralis and John Cassian's Institutes Monachorum, Anglo-Saxon monks would have considered notions of spiritual struggle commonplace. Such a monastic reader, in a time when encouragement is desired, could read The Seafarer, or almost any other spiritually didactic poem in the Exeter Book, and find a figure with whom he or she could identify. In The Seafarer, such a figure reminds a monastic audience of its purpose for renouncing the world: for on me hatran sind / Dryhtnes dreamas onne is deade life / lne on londe (64b-66a), "for the joys of the Lord are dearer to me than this dead life, fleeting on land." Whether this poem was composed by a monastic poet or interpolated for an audience of monks remains unclear; however, the vernacular lyric's therapeutic function for such listeners or readers is confirmed by the speaker's description of his dedicating his life to a spiritual purpose."

The Seafarer is a sermon. It is a sogied. Bosworth-Toller, 1898: "gid, gidd, gied, gyd, gydd, ged, es; n. ..... II. as Old English or Saxon proverbs, riddles, and particular speeches were generally metrical, and their historians were bards, hence, A speech, tale, sermon, proverb, riddle; sermo, dictum, loquela proverbium, ænigma etc." The most natural conclusion, that The Seafarer is, quite simply, a sermon, has been sedulously avoided by all and sundry, except, of course, by Olof Arngart.

See Jackson C.Campbell, Oral Poetry in The Seafarer, Speculum, 1960, pp 87-96. Quote: " .... many early Christian poets, rather than being simple, devout, and unlettered like Caedmon, or even professional pagan scops who continued to exercise their gift after being converted, were often English monks and churchmen, well-educated in Christian Latin literature and actively working to introduce Christian elements into their native poetic tradition, not only in the form of Biblical narratives, but also in matters of diction and formulaic phrasing. ... none of the evidence we can deduce from the poems we have actually precludes a poet putting together a poem in the solitude of a monastic library." Campbell, however, goes on to argue that "it appears" that The Seafarer, although undoubtedly a unity, is " a vivid and dramatic oral poem, full of the older conventions, [which] has been remembered and reworked by a lettered homilist-poet, a man with full knowledge of the style of oral poetry and even a certain reduced command of its formulas." Arguable.

To wrap this page up, the idea floated on the public forum was merely that, along with the rest of the baggage conveyed from Coptic Egypt via Ireland to Anglo-Saxon England, the verse forms as well as the content of the psalms, as described by John Goldingay, quoted above, exerted an influence on Anglo-Saxon poetry.

mid-13th century

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late 8th century

Image of St John, right, from the Book of Moling, Trinity College, Dublin
Try The Irish Tradition in Old English Literature, by Charles D.Wright, 1993.

350 AD. The face of early British Christianity.
Authority and Command. In Hoc Signo. Rebirth.
Acknowledgements to Neil MacGregor,
BM: A History of the World.

From History Today
November, 2010


© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2010, 2016