The Saxon Genesis

On the fragments that have come down to us from the poem known as the Saxon Genesis and their relationship, see the Overview to this topic. Genesis B, contained in the Anglo-Saxon manuscript Junius 11, comprises 617 lines of the Old Saxon poem transcribed into the West Saxon dialect of the Junius Genesis poet (or poets). These deal with the fall of the angels and the fall of Adam and Eve. The Vatican manuscript Palatinus Latinus 1447 contains 337 lines, only twenty-six of which overlap with the story of the fall of man in Genesis B; the rest contain stories and parts of stories from other episodes in Genesis.

Although Beowulf and the Saxon Genesis are very different poems, they belong not only to similar linguistic but also to similar literary contexts. Both are epic poems composed in alliterative verse, which derives from the oral poetry common to the preliterate Germanic peoples. Both were written by Christian poets concerned with portraying and understanding the human condition in a fallen world. The Saxon poet retells the stories in Genesis in order to explain the causes and consequences of sin. The English poet portrays the pagan world of a noble hero, who fights to save its warrior kingdoms from the assault of evil monsters; but he also shows how that world is vulnerable to human ambition, betrayal, war, and especially the institution of blood vengeance that imposes upon the family the duty of exacting justice for a slain kinsman.

The translation is by S. A. J. Bradley from Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London: J. M. Dent, 1982).


From Genesis B

For the author of the Saxon Genesis, Satan's rebellion against God constitutes the origin of the original sin of Adam and Eve, inherited by their progeny. The war in Heaven does not, of course, occur in Genesis or in any other book of the biblical canon. The story, however, based on references to Satan and the Temptation in the New Testament, had been elaborated in apocryphal writings and scriptural commentary by the Church Fathers and was, for medieval Christians, the necessary prologue to human history. The Fall of Satan is the first play in all of the mystery cycles and became the epic starting point of Paradise Lost. For the Saxon poet, his Anglo-Saxon redactor, and their readers, Satan's rebellion served as a paradigm of disruption of cosmic order by the will to power. Satan is characterized as a warlord whose ambition causes him to refuse to accept the rightful authority of his Creator/Overlord. The consequences are catastrophic not only for Satan and his followers but for newly created humanity. No longer capable of waging war against God, Satan seeks to revenge himself by winning away God's newest retainers Adam and Eve and subjecting them to what he considers to be his lesser dominion over Hell.

The characters in Beowulf, although they are pagans without knowledge of Christ's redemption, possess the knowledge of good and evil that is the consequence of the fall. Good rulers like Hrothgar strive to maintain political and social order but are vulnerable to both external and internal evil. Grendel is said to be the progeny of Cain and like his ancestor condemned to perpetual exile. It is the scop's hymn about the Creation, the establishment of universal order, that provokes Grendel's attacks on Heorot and the destruction of the social order it represents. But throughout the poem, order is also threatened internally by the will to power, with veiled hints of a future usurpation of Hrothgar's dynasty by his nephew Hrothulf, more explicitly by the Swede Onela's driving out his nephews. Throughout, the savage wars between the Danes and Heathobards, between the Danes and Frisians/Jutes, between the Geats and the Swedes — wars often precipitated by a violent act of vengeance — provide a dark background to Beowulf's selfless heroism. Beowulf significantly refuses to become king in place of his lord's son Heardred. With the latter's death, he truly becomes the protector of his people until his doom is sealed by the theft of the dragon's cup by a man seeking to be reconciled with his master. Thus with insight and compassion, the Beowulf poet deals with the same forces that are unleashed in the Saxon Genesis.

The Fall of the Angels

[Click on image to enlarge] The Ruler of all, the holy Lord, by the might of his hand had ordained ten orders of angels in whom he firmly trusted that they would follow in his fealty and work his will since he, the holy Lord, had given them intelligence and shaped them with his hands. So blessedly had he established them, and a certain one he had made so strong and so powerful in his intellect, so much he allowed him to command, the highest after himself in the realm of the heavens, so dazzling had he made him, so winsome was his person in the heavens which came to him from the Lord of the angel multitudes — he was comparable to the incandescent stars — he ought to have done homage to the Lord, he ought to have prized his pleasures in the heavens and he ought to have thanked his Lord for the bounty he had allotted him in that existence: then he would have let him rule it in perpetuity. But he turned it to his own worse purpose: he began to stir up trouble against the supreme Ruler of heaven who sits upon the holy throne.

He was dear to our Lord; it could not be concealed from him that his angel began to grow presumptuous, set himself up against his Master, resorted to malicious talk and boasting against him. He would not wait upon God. He declared that his body was radiant and shining, bright and dazzlingly beautiful. He could not find it in his self-esteem to be willing to wait upon God, his Prince, in a status of fealty. To himself it seemed that he had a greater force and strength of fellow-fighters than the holy God could command. Many words of presumption this angel spoke. He contemplated how, through his sole strength, he might create for himself a more powerful throne, more exalted in the heavens. He declared that his self-esteem persuaded him that he should start building in the west and in the north and fortify the construction. He declared that it seemed to him doubtful that he would remain subordinate to God.

"Why must I labor?" he declared. "There is no need at all for me to have a master. I can work just as many marvels with my hands. I have plenty of power to furnish a goodlier throne, one more exalted in heaven. Why must I wait upon his favor and defer to him in such fealty? I can be a god as well as he. Strong comrades stand by me, heroes hardy of spirit, who will not fail me in the fight. They have chosen me as their master, those confident warriors; with such fellow-fighters one can think out a strategy and with such achieve it. They are my eager friends, loyal in the disposition of their hearts. I can be their master and govern in this realm. So it does not seem to me fitting that I need flatter God at all for any advantage. No longer will I be his subordinate."

When the Ruler of all heard all this, that his angel had promoted a great presumption against his Master and rashly voiced conceited talk against his Lord, then he had to pay for the deed and share in the suffering of this strife, and he had to receive his punishment — the greatest of all torments. So does each man who attempts to strive with iniquity against his Ruler, against the glorious Lord. Then the mighty and supreme Ruler of heaven grew angered and threw him down from the lofty throne. He had won from his Master hate; he had forfeited his favor. The good God was grown hostile to him in his heart, for which cause he would have to go to the abyss of hell's harsh punishment, because he fought against heaven's Ruler. He banished him then from his favor and threw him down into hell, into those deep pits where he turned into a devil, the fiend with all his companions.

Then they fell from on high, from out of the heavens, for as long as three nights and days, those angels, from out of the heavens into hell, and the Lord transformed them all into devils. Because they were not willing to esteem his deed and word the almighty God therefore deposited them, thwarted of their triumph, in a worse existence underneath the earth in black hell. There during nights inordinately long they endure, each and every one of those fiends, ever-replenished fire; then with the dawn comes an east wind and frost intensely cold. Fire or piercing cold, they constantly had to endure some harsh wringing torment: it had been created in the first instance for their punishment — their world was changed — and hell was filled with those conflicting elements. From then on, the angels who had previously maintained their allegiance towards God possessed the heights of the heavenly kingdom.

The others, the fiends, lay in the fire, who had once maintained so much strife against their Ruler. They suffer punishment — the hot fierce turbulence in the midst of hell, burning and broad flames and acrid fumes too and smoke and darkness — because they disregarded their duty towards God. Their arrogance and the angel's presumption betrayed them. They had been unwilling to esteem the word of the Ruler of all: they received a heavy punishment. They were then prostrated in the depth of the fire in hot hell for their recklessness and for their presumption. They sought another country: it was devoid of light and was filled with flame and the heavy onslaught of fire. The fiends realized that they had got in exchange an infinitude of punishments through their great boldness and through God's power and most of all through pride.

Then spoke the presumptuous king who had once been the most radiant of the angels, the brightest in heaven and loved by his Master, dear to his Lord, until they grew too rash so that because of their arrogance the mighty God himself grew angry at heart. He precipitated him into that torment, down into that death-bed and devised for him a name thereafter. The supreme Lord said that he should ever after be called Satan and he commanded him to take charge of black hell's abyss, in no way to strive against God.

Satan held forth; sorrowing he spoke who in future was to rule hell and have care of the abyss. Once he had been an angel of God bright in heaven, until his ambition and his presumption most of all deluded him so that he was not willing to respect the word of the Lord of the multitudes. Within him ambition welled about his heart; without was hot and bitter torment. He uttered these words:

"This confining place is very unlike that other which once we knew high in the heaven-kingdom and which my Lord granted me — though we were not allowed by the Ruler of all to keep it and to extend our realm. Yet he has not done right in having toppled us into the depth of the fire, into this scorching hell, robbed of our heavenly realm — which he has designated to be peopled with humankind. That to me is the greatest of my griefs, that Adam, who was made out of earth, is to occupy my mighty throne and be in bliss, and we suffer this torment and the pain in this hell. Alas and alack! if I had the use of my hands and could be out of here a single while, be out for one winter's space, then I, with this army —

"But bonds of iron encircle me; a halter of chain yokes me. I am powerless, such hard hell fetters have fast laid hold of me. There is a great fire here, above and below. Never have I seen a landscape more hostile. The flame, hot throughout hell, will not die down. Fetters of links, a cruel chain, have impeded my movement, deprived me of my motion. My feet are shackled, my hands tethered. The ways are blocked through these hell-gates so that I cannot escape at all from these trammels. Great bars of tough iron forged in fire surround me and with them God has tethered me by the neck: thus I know that he was aware of my purpose, and this he has also realized, Lord of the multitudes, that it needs must turn out evilly between Adam and me over that realm in heaven if I had the use of my hands.

"But we are now in hell suffering oppressions — they are the darkness and the burning — fierce and fathomless. God himself has swept us into these black mists. Although he cannot charge us with any sin, or that we did him any harm in that country, yet he has cut us off from the light and cast us down into the severest of all punishments. May we not take vengeance for this and pay him back with some harm, because he has cut us off from the light?

"Now, he has marked out a middle-earth, where he has made man after his likeness. Through him he means to resettle the realm of the heavens with pure souls. This we must earnestly think upon: that, if ever we can, we should make good our grudge upon Adam and upon his heirs as well and frustrate him of his will in this, if we can at all contrive it.

"No longer now shall I myself aspire to that heavenly existence, that blessed state, which he means long to enjoy with the strength of his angels. Never in eternity can we succeed in weakening the resolution of mighty God. Let us then subvert it from the children of men, that heavenly kingdom, now that we cannot have it, and see to it that they forgo his favor, that they transgress against what he has commanded by his word. Then he will grow angry with them in his heart and reject them from his favor. Then they will have to seek out this hell and these grim depths. Then we shall be able to have them as our subordinates, the children of men, in these tight bonds. Let us start now to think about the campaign.

"If of old I bestowed princely treasures upon any follower while we were happily situated in that pleasant realm and had control of our thrones, then never at a more welcome time could he pay me back with returns for my liberality, if any one of my followers would now prove agreeable to this — that he might escape out and up and away from this dungeon and had the strength in him so that he could fly with his wings and soar into the sky to where Adam and Eve stand created in the kingdom of earth, surrounded by riches, and we are cast down here into these deep pits. Now they are much more precious to the Lord and they are allowed to keep for themselves that prosperity and the realm which in fairness we should have in the heavenly kingdom: that benefit is reserved for humankind. It is so agonizing to me in my heart and it irks me in my pride, that they will own to eternity the kingdom of heaven.

"If any one of you can somehow bring it about that they repudiate the words and precepts of God they will straightway become more repugnant to him. If they violate his prerogative then he will grow enraged with them; then that prosperous state will be reversed for them and punishment, some cruel penalty, will be prepared for them. All of you give thought to this, how you can betray them. Then I can rest easily in these shackles if that realm is lost to them.

"For the one who achieves that, will ever afterwards be at the ready the reward of such profits as we inside here can in future obtain within this fire.

"Him I shall allow to sit by my own self, whosoever shall enter this scorching hell to say that they have contemptuously repudiated in words and deeds the precepts of the heaven King." >> note 1

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From the Vatican Genesis

Among several of the stories from the Book of Genesis, the Vatican manuscript preserves part of the poet's retelling of the story of Cain and Abel from Genesis 4. Although the poet bases his account on the Bible, he both elaborates and interprets the biblical account to read into it his view of the psychological, moral, and historical significance of the first murder. At the beginning of the fragment, Cain is shown leaving the scene of the murder, and the text focuses on Abel's body lying on the ground already dead or perhaps still bleeding to death. For a Germanic audience, the heinousness of the crime would be enhanced by the fact that no attempt has been made to inter the body and preserve it from wild beasts. Consider the importance of funerals in Beowulf and the horror of Grendel's devouring his victims or of Aeschere's severed head, left by Grendel's mother at the foot of a cliff (NAEL 8, 1.64, line 1421). The poet elaborates on Cain's futile attempt to hide the murder from God (Gen 4.9, "Am I my brother's keeper?"). The dialogue between Cain and God takes on the aspect of a legal proceeding between a lord and his bondsman. Cain's earthly punishment is to become an outlaw and exile. The mark God puts upon Cain is to protect him against the outlaw's fate; according to Germanic law, as an outlaw, Cain may be killed by anyone without retribution. Eternal punishment for the murder awaits Cain in Hell. In Christian terms, his sin is unpardonable, cutting him off both from God and his fellow man as long as he remains alive.

The Saxon poet's treatment of Cain enables us to connect him both with Satan and with Grendel, who the Beowulf poet tells us is a member of "Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed / and condemned as outcasts" (NAEL 8, 1.36, line 106). Like Cain, Grendel and his tribe are cut off from society; it is the "clear song of a skilled poet" (NAEL 8, 1.36, line 90), who like Widsith expresses the social harmony in the mead-hall and God's order of Creation, that first draws Grendel to Heorot. Epithets for Grendel, like "Godes ansaca" (God's enemy, NAEL 8, 1.69, line 1682), connect him to both Satan and Cain.

God's Judgment on Cain

[Click on image to enlarge] Then [Cain] went home. He had wrought a bitter sin against his brother. He left him there, lying on his back in a deep ditch, weakened from the loss of blood, dying — the man on the ground, keeping his deathbed. Then God the Ruler spoke to Cain with words; he was angry-minded toward him, wrathful at the killer. He asked him where then he had left his young brother. Then Cain answered Him — the evil deed of his hands had caused him great suffering — so strongly was this world smitten with sins. "I don't bother about that," he said, "or take heed where he goes. Nor did God bid me to, so that I did not need at all to watch over him, to be his keeper in this world." He really thought he could conceal his deeds from his Master, to cover them up.

Then our Lord answered him: "Just as you have wrought," he said, "so as long as you live may you suffer in your conscience for what you have done with your hands, >> note 2 the murder of your brother. Now he lies dead and bloody, wasted with wounds — not on account of doing anything to you that called for ill treatment. Nevertheless, you have cut him down, put him to death. His blood soaks into the earth where it spreads, but the soul departs, the mournful spirit, into God's keeping. The blood cries out to the Lord and says who committed those sins, that evil deed, on this middle-earth. Nor can any man in this world undo himself with any sinful deed more bitter than the crime you perpetrated against your brother."

Then after the Lord's words, Cain grew afraid. He said that he surely knew that no deed in his lifespan could be hidden from the Ruler. "Therefore now I must bear in my breast," he said, "a sorrowful heart because I killed my brother with my own hands. Now I know," he said, "that, since I have done these crimes, I must henceforth live with your hatred and enmity, because I think that my sins, my great crime, are greater than your mercy. And so, good Ruler, I no longer deserve that you set me free from these hostile proceedings and forgive these evil deeds. Now since I would not keep good faith with your righteous spirit, I know that I may not live long here. For whoever finds me on this road will kill me, slay me on account of these sins."

Then Heaven's Ruler answered him: "You shall still live here in this land for a long time. Even though you become a pariah, steeped in sins, nevertheless, I will set peace upon you, show such a mark, that you have a security in this world, even though you do not deserve it. However, you must henceforth be a fugitive and live in exile as long as you possess this earthly light. Good folk shall curse you. You shall no longer speak with your Lord, exchange words with Him. Bitter vengeance for your brother will well up against you in Hell."

Then Cain departed in a grim mood. God had completely forsaken him.

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