Or Wundra Gewhaes: Caedmon’s Hymn and Creativity

I’m about to join two other medievalists at my current insitution, Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, in a presentation to our colleagues concerning what the study of the Middle Ages has to offer students and scholars in the present–especially students and scholars at a protestant Christian institution who can tend to treat history as something that began when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517. As an exercise toward that end, I’ve decided to start a series reflecting on some of what some works in my own area–the literature and culture of the British Isles in the Middle Ages–might add to that conversation. To begin, I’m going to parse along with some of the very-canonical (and some not-so-canonical) works I’m addressing in my British Literature survey course this fall. One of those colleagues, Chris Armstrong–a church historian at Bethel Seminary–is also offering his own wonderful reflections from a more theological standpoint over at his blog, Grateful to the Dead.

It’s a pretty common technique to start out British Literature survey courses with the poem known as Caedmon’s Hymn. Common because, for one thing, it’s generally regarded as the earliest surviving English poem–although the poem’s structure indicates a very well-developed poetic tradition. In some cases the poem gets used as a bludgeon to students, read in the original Anglo-Saxon, without preamble, as the first thing out of the professor’s mouth. I have to admit I used to do this, but have begun, more recently, to warn students of what I’m about to do, having heard from so many that they nearly left the room, having felt assaulted with an arcane language.

The poem survives because it was recorded by the English historian Bede in his 7th-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The story with which Bede surrounds the poem is impossible to verify, but nevertheless a great story indeed. It begins with the image of a poor monk, Caedmon, who finds himself embarrassed and alienated at a gebeorscipe (a “beer-ship”–a drinking party), when the others are taking turns singing songs with a harp. Feeling humiliated that he doesn’t know any, he leaves the party before the harp is passed to him, and heads to the stables to tend the animals. He falls asleep in the stable, and, in a dream, someone (possibly an angel?) stands by him and says, “Cademon, sing me something.” Caedmon answers, sheepishly, that he doesn’t know how to sing, and that that was the very reason he’d left the party earlier. The visitor says “Regardless, you must sing.” Caedmon asks him what he should sing, and the visitor replies, translating from Bede’s Latin, “Sing to me of the beginning of creatures” (Canta principium creaturarum.) The Anglo-Saxon translation of Bede’s line is even more interesting, and possibly more indicative of an Anglo-Saxon creative sensibility: Sing me frumsceaft–“Sing me first creation.” Not *of” creation, not about it, just “sing the creation.”

In the most often-repeated West Saxon text, the poem looks like this:

Nu sculon herigean heofonrices weard,

meotodes meahte and his modgeþanc,

weorc wuldorfæder, swa he wundra gehwæs,

ece drihten, or onstealde.

He ærest sceop eorðan bearnum

heofon to hrofe, halig scyppend;

þa middangeard moncynnes weard,

ece drihten, æfter teode

firum foldan, frea ælmihtig.

It’s significant that an Anglo-Saxon version of the poem doesn’t appear in the earliest manuiscripts of Bede’s history. He included a Latin version, which he tells the reader is essentially the “gist” of what Caedmon sang in his sleep. It appears that later scribes began adding early Anglo-Saxon versions (which have a whole manuscript tradition unto themselves) to Bede’s text fairly soon after Bede’s death. (You can get the whole story of the manuscript tradition in this wonderful article by Kevin Keirnan, one of the great scholars of Anglo-Saxon language and literature.) Thus what we think is probably the earliest extant English poem comes to us not as part of Bede’s text, but as someone else’s marginal note. Not a “text” but a “gloss.” A footnote.

But this is a blog about the importance of margins, after all, and what a marginal note this is.

A fairly literal translation of the poem as it appears in the text above (which it’s important to remember is the result of a tradition that probably beings with an oral poetic tradition, and then stretches from medieval scribes through a succession of modern editors), might run something like this:

Now we ought to praise the Guardian of heavenrealm

Great words here: “weard” is the ancestor of the English word “ward,” as in a sort of official guardian or protector. “Heofonrices” compounds the word for heaven (recognizable enough) and that for a kindom, rice, like reich in German. The connotations enter the realm of political theology: this is about a king in his role as protector and “ward” of a people.

The Measurer’s might, and his spirit-thought

More fascinating words: Meotod: measurer, the Creator in the sense of one who “has the measure” of everything. The word in earlier times may have had meanings closer to words like “fate,” or “destiny.” This is the God who “has the whole world in his hands.” Modgethanc is pretty amazing, too: mod is the ancestor of the modern English word “mood,” but means differently, and the connotations are all over the place: it can mean “spirit” (in the sense of what you mean when you say someone is “spirited” or has a “great spirit”), or possibly something more like “mind.” Of course, this is a great word for God, as mind and spirit in those senses are one in that case. Gethanc is the past participle of thincan–to think. So it’s the “spirit-thought” and the “mind-plans” of the creator. The being whose calculations are inseparable from his spirit.

Work of the gloryfather.

Wuldor, glory–but also many other potential meanings. Splendor-father. Honor-father. Praise-father. Thanks-father. Heaven-father.

So, eternal lord, he established the beginning of each of wonders.

Not just the beginning of “stuff,” here, but of wonders. What the world is made of. Here God is the ece Drighten, Ece, eternal, everlasting, enduring. Drihten: a lord, a leader of people. It’s not by mistake, here, that in the middle of a sentence about the Being who created the beginning of every wonder, that same being is also identified as a direct leader of persons. The one who made the best of it is also the one that leads his people through it.

He first shaped, for the children of earth

heaven as a roof, holy Creator

Two words in this sentence are based on the verb that means “to shape,” in the sense of what a craftsman or artist does with his or her materials. This is God as the Holy Sculptor, and the children of earth live in an environment that is not simply a surface, but a work of art, with heaven as its roof.

Then, the guardian of man-kin, the Eternal Lord

afterward adorned the earth for the people, Almighty Master.

The word for “ground” here is foldan–earth, not as in the planet but as in the stuff. Ground. Soil. The stuff you walk on, till to grow a crop, in which your body is laid to rest in death. Of course, we still call a place where sheep dwell a “fold,” too–so it’s also the place where the sheep of the Almighty Master, the Shepherd, the Guardian, looks after those sheep. And he didn’t simply populate that earth, he adorned it. Teode is a word that elsewhere might be used to describe a woman adorning herself with jewels. There’s also a sense of nurturing in the word. The verb teon can mean to furnish forth, to prepare, to arrange, even to play in the sense of playing a musical instrument. The Eternal Lord is the one nurturing and adorning the “fold” for the people. The one who sings the people and their world into existence–and also the one who gives Caedmon, the rotten singer, the best of songs.

And notice the structure of the song. How it starts as a concept in the mind of the measurer, his modgethanc. How it moves then, to the beginning of each wonder. Then to the Shaper, sculpting heaven as a roof and adorning the earth for his people. The guy who left the party, too humiliated to even try to sing, is given a song that is a direct mirror of the process of creation itself, carried from concept, to execution, to appreciation. From the mind of God, to heaven, to the grains of dirt that form the earth. It is no mistake that, in the Anglo-Saxon language, another word that derives from the same root as the words sceop and Scyppend in the poem is scop, the word for a poet.

Sing me frumsceaft, indeed.

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Rediscovering the Lost Gospel of Murgatroyd

1873960reblogged from the Hoboken Bi-Daily Ecclesiastical Examiner, August, 2013:

“Lost” Gospel May Be More Familiar Than You Think

SEATTLE, WA: In a news conference sure to become a landmark in the already-controversial world of biblical textual studies, a team of scholars at Southeastern Pan-Religious University have revealed the existence of an early gospel text heretofore only known through the most
roundabout of means.

According to Professor of Textual Divinity Georgianna Bennett-Helmsford,
the text, known as the Gospel of Murgatroyd, has a most unusual
history. According to Bennett-Helmsford, the early Latin manuscript was
acquired in the mid-1960’s, on a whim, by Ray Ennis, then a member of
the pop band the Swinging Blue Jeans (probably best known for their sole
1964 hit single “Hippy Hippy Shake”), who purchased the manuscript for
an undisclosed sum from an antiquities dealer in Cairo while the band
was engaged on an (unsuccessful) Egyptian promotion tour.
Bennet-Helmsford, in her recent book The Lost Gospel You Already Knew,
quotes Ennis as saying:

“I was bumming around this smelly little shop
browsing for an antique hookah and found this seriously ancient book and
it looked all kinda groovy and old and stuff, ya know? I looked at
every page but couldn’t understand any of the words and went, like,
““whoa.”” So I bought it.”

Ennis, according to Bennett-Helmsford’s interviews, began carrying the
remarkably well-preserved manuscript with him as a sort of personal
totem, bringing it to numerous high-profile celebrity parties and clubs.
It was at one of those clubs where the manuscript came to the attention
of classics scholar Marvin Zdan, who, through his mimeographed underground
publications of psychadelic philosophical musings, had become well-known
in the hedonistic celebrity social circles of the 60’s and 70’s. He
spent a feverish night translating Ennis’ manuscript, after which his
translation, scribbled on the back of a series of cocktail napkins,
accompanied the manuscript on its peregrinations through the world of
late 1960’s and 1970’s pop stardom, where it was a frequent feature at
parties. In another Bennett-Helmsford interview, Zdan says of his
translation, ““I was a little obsessive that night, and the atmosphere
was feeling all apocalyptic and King James-y, which may have affected my
linguistic choices in the translation somewhat.””

Zdan’s translation was apparently read by many of the lead songwriters
of the day, leading to the slow but inevitable insinuation of much of
its text, which recounts various nuggets of gnostic wisdom attributed to
Jesus by the second-century Roman prophet Silvius Murgatroidus, into
the lyrics of the popular music of the day. Perhaps the most famous is
the line which reads, in Zdan’s English translation,

“Thou mayest not at all times

receive that which thou desireth,

but, through thy intermittent strivings,

thou mayest receive those things

of which thou art most in need.””

Other snippets of this lost gospel also seem to have gained a life in
the pop music of the 1970’s, such as a saying attributed by Murgatroidus
to Jesus upon his realization of Judas’ betrayal: (again in Zdan’s

“Leavest not mine heart in sadness;

shouldst thou turn thy
countenance from me,

I shall walk in misery,

for a sundering is indeed
difficult in its accomplishing.”

The newly-discovered gospel is also noteworthy for its inclusion of a
psalm attributed to Jesus as a farewell to Mary before the crucifixion:

Shouldst I depart from this place on the next day,

wilt thou hold me in thy remembrance?

For I must now embark upon a great journey,

and multitudinous are the lands to which I must bear witness.

Were I to sojourn in this place with you, O woman,

little could remain as it now is,

for I am now set free, as the fowl of the air,

and such a feathered one thou mayest not alter.

Also noteworthy is this addendum to the famous Sermon on the Mount, in
which Jesus exhorts his followers: “

Feedest thou the infants who have
not sufficient sustenance;

shoest thou the children that walk unshod;

give shelter unto those who go unsheltered in the streets,

for truly I say unto you,

for all these things there is a remedy.”

On a related sidenote, David Crosby, formerly of The Byrds, continues to
insist that the resemblance between that band’s 1965 hit-single cover of
Pete Seeger’s “”Turn, Turn, Turn,”” and the third chapter of Ecclesiastes
is entirely coincidental.


[Note: Any scholars of pseudo-textual studies interested in either identifying the classic pop songs here referenced, or, indeed, interested in posting additional passages from the Gospel of Murgatroyd for identification by others should free free to do so in the comments. Scholars are encouraged to share a link to this blog to others who might be interested in contributing.]

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