Idols of love (ll.175-188) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Wants and Worship
“Love is all you need”
Closing

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Abstract

After going over the Danes’ religious practices, the poem’s recorder (poet?) gives them a stern talking to.

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Translation

“Meanwhile they made demands of cherished idols
at household shrines, with words of worship,
so that they sought help against their problems
from the soul-slaying fiend. Such was their way,
their heathenish hope; they concentrated on hell
in their hearts, they knew not the Measurer,
deeds of the Judge, they knew not almighty God
nor knew they of the praiseful protection of heaven,
glorious God. Woe betide them that shall
cast their soul into the flames’ embrace when
embroiled in cruel enmity, cheer they never know,
never a person restored! Well be those that might
after their death day seek the Lord
and hope for the safety of God’s grace.”
(Beowulf ll.175-188)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Wants and Worship

What’s striking about the description of the Danes and their idols is the relationship that’s presented. It doesn’t seem that these idols are things that they regard on a regular basis, but instead whenever they have some request. A request that they very courteously couch in worship, of course.

This is a worship that seems to be entirely for the sake of appealing to their deities. Quite literally: “they made demands of cherished idols/at household shrines, with words of worship” (“hie geheton æt hærgtrafum/wigweorþunga, wordum bædon” (ll.175-76)).

In making this connection, the poet sets himself up for the very Christian address that follows. The Danes serve the soul-slaying one because their worship isn’t of any deity, but ultimately their own desires and wants is what underpins his complaint. According to the poem’s recorder (or poet?), this hip new Christian god, on the other hand, is something that requires worship in good times and in bad – with eternal rewards. And even if you’re not too sure about this Christian god, then, well, Danes, you can see for yourselves in a few hundred lines that its power is greater than even Grendel’s.

At the same time, the poet doesn’t break out all the fire and brimstone when condemning the Danes’ practices. He very clearly states that “they knew not the Measurer,” (“metod hie ne cuþon” (l.180)). So the Danes aren’t even aware of this Christian god that Beowulf is strangely always on about.

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“Love is all you need”

There are hundreds of thousands of words in English. Hundreds of thousands. But, there isn’t a single word (so far as I know) that expresses the same thing as a certain word in Latin that is best translated as “in the bosom of.” The Latin word (an adjective, I believe, which, unfortunately, escapes me) actually refers to keeping something in layer/piece of clothing that went over the chest – meaning that whatever it described is kept very close indeed.

Maybe it’s the fifth grader in me, but “in the bosom of” just seems off the mark. There are connotations of motherly love in this term, true. The same concept is at play in the Latin term, but the Latin term transcends “in the bosom of” because its connotation is genderless and relies on a cultural commonality.

More than likely this lack on English’s part is due to its difficulty in expressing several kinds of love. Sure we all have acquaintances, friends, lovers, platonic partners, significant others, and the like, but we don’t really have too many words to describe the feeling between people in these various roles. “Love” is about the only one that comes up, though you would probably think it strange to hear someone say that they love an acquaintance (maybe even a friend, depending on the person speaking).

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Closing

Next week, we hear about how a certain Geat first heard of Hrothgar’s woe.

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