His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

A few lines on the devil in Old English

Some of the most appealing parts of ancient and mediaeval — I use these adjectives chronologically, not necessarily culturally — literature are descriptions of gods, heroes, monsters and warlike meetings between any combination of members of those groups. Mythic tales are full of all sorts of such engagements, not infrequently in formulaic language. Of specific battles, the struggle with and defeat of some especially unsavory baddy marks an especial milestone of victory for a hero (see further Neil Forsyth, Satan and the Combat Myth.) One such encounter is described below in one of the Old English poems from the Exeter Book, the poem known as The Panther (lines 58b-64a), in which Jesus’ victory over Satan in the Harrowing of Hell is recounted and celebrated.

                        Þæt is se ealda fēond,
þone hē ġesǣlde on sūsla grund
and ġefeterode fȳrnum tēagum,
beþeahte þrēanīedum, and þȳ þriddan dæġe
of dīgle arās, þæsþe hē dēaþ fore ūs
þrēo niht þolode, Þēoden engla,
sigora Sellend.

Vocabulary and notes

  • eald old (cf. the vowel in “elder”)
  • fēond fiend, enemy. The word is a common epithet of Satan in OE literature (cf. Bosworth-Toller 277), and Luther’s “der alte böse Feind” (from “Ein feste Burg”) also comes immediately to mind.
  • þone masc. acc. sg of the pronoun se “this, that one, he”
  • ġesǣlan to tie up, bind
  • sūsl torment. Often of hell, see Bosworth-Toller 938.
  • grund not only “ground” but, as here, also “abyss”
  • fȳren fiery, from fȳr fire
  • tēag cord, chain (cf. mod. Eng. “tie”)
  • beþeahte is pret. of beþeċċan to cover
  • þrēanīed affliction
  • þȳ masc. instr. sg. of se
  • of note the meaning from, out of, not mod. Eng. “of”
  • dīgol grave (cf. also deāgol, basically “secret, hidden”; note, too, the name of Sméagol’s (i.e. Gollum’s) erstwhile companion and the prior Ring-bearer)
  • arās pret of arīsan to (a)rise
  • þæsþe = when
  • þolian endure, suffer (the pret. here following the conjunction þæsþe probably best rendered with pluperfect)
  • Þēoden prince, lord, chieftain. Cf. the name of Tolkien’s king of Rohan, Théoden.
  • sigor victory
  • sellend giver. The phrases Þēoden engla and sigora Sellend make a nice parallelism with formal chiasm, that is, we have nominative+genitive then genitive+nominative.

Translation

He is the old enemy,
Whom the Prince of angels and victories’ Giver
Bound in the abyss of torments,
Fettered with fiery chains,
Covered with grievous afflictions,
And when for us he’d suffered three nights’ death,
On the third day from the grave arose.

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