The Harrowing of Hell
Lady Teleri the Well-Prepared, CP
13 October 2011
My persona and interests lie in Anglo-Saxon England. Upon hearing that the Chalice theme this year was “Theseus and the Minotaur,” I paused to wonder what an Anglo-Saxon would make of the Eastern legend. The parallels to the popular “Harrowing of Hell” narrative struck me, and I decided to do a contrast-and-compare of Theseus with Christ.
Although I am not aware of a poem that so directly contrasts Jesus with the heroes of legend, it is not a far leap from similar works in Anglo-Saxon and continental Saxon literature.
Theseus bold Athenian prince
Away to Crete walks the sea-road
Seven youths and seven maids
Sacrifices to sins of the queen
Mighty warrior Minotaur mains
Kills the monster Cretan horror
Steals the princess stealthy departs
With children of Athens creeping for home
Hero he's called for hard-won battle
How much more honor heaven bestows
To Lord on High who harrowed hell
Descended the depths devil to fight
Satan he's conquered sin's first father
Ancient enemy evil's own author
Tough-hided minotaur mere thrall in his hall
But Christ defeats him drives him down deep
Binds him in chains chastises him well
No mere fourteen led forth from that place
Just forefathers gentle virgins
Righteous prophets pagans of virtue
Died in darkness devil did claim them
But no longer he holds them the Lord sets them free
Leads them all laughing to light-lands above
Til one remains - Mother Eve
Ariadne was left languished on Naxos
Eve asks for mercy in Mary's name
Bright daughter descended from sinful woman
Of her Christ was born brought into the world
One sacrifice for all even for Eve
He lifts her up helps her to heaven
Most mighty hero all hall-fame his due
No man surpasses his masterful deeds
Praise his name people who hear this
Documenting Anglo-Saxon Alliterative Poetry
The native poetry of the Anglo-Saxons is characterized by alliteration, not rhyme. There are several rhythmic patterns used to organize the stresses of the lines, but they do not have to be used in any particular order. Each line is composed of two half-lines; each contains two stressed syllables and two or more unstressed syllables. Tthe first stressed syllable of the second half-line must alliterate with one of the two stressed syllables of the first half-line.
I have appended my standard documentation for the poetic form, if more detail or references are desired.
Documenting Elements and Themes of the Poem
I can trace several features of the poem to extant works: the “Harrowing of Hell” subject matter, the use of classical subjects, the comparison of a classical/pagan figure to a Christian one to the latter’s glory, and the use of allusion in general. Also, the portrayal of Christ as a warrior-hero in the Germanic style, and the general assumption that the Daddy Monster (Satan) must be more fearsome than the Baby Monster (Minotaur) can be found in the literary corpus.
The Harrowing of Hell
Although it’s not explicitly found in any of the canonical gospels, it seems that the idea that Christ, while he was dead for three days, went down to Hell to liberate the souls of the just was a tenet taught by the early church fathers. It is codified in the early, apocryphal “Gospel of Nicodemus” (c. fourth century) and appears to be referenced in the Apostle’s Creed (documented to the 8th cen., may be older) as “he descended to the dead.” (Latin “descendit ad ínferos,” he descended to those below).
In general, Christ dies and goes down to Hell. He cows Satan and frees the souls; important figures of the Hebrew scriptures are often called out. Adam and Eve receive a special nod, and Eve in particular may point out that Christ’s mother Mary is a descendant of hers:
And she lifted up her hands unto the King of heaven, beseeching mercy of the Lord for Mary’s sake: “Lo! Of my daughter wast Thou born, O Lord, to help mankind on earth. Now it is seen that Thou art God indeed, the Everlasting Source of all creation.”
--- “Christ and Satan,” trans. Kennedy
It was a popular theme in Anglo-Saxon England, appearing in the poem “The Harrowing of Hell,” as a part of the poem “Christ and Satan,” in homilies, and as the basis for the first known liturgical drama (also titled “The Harrowing of Hell”). A copy of the Gospel of Nicodemus also exists in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript known as the Book of Cerne.
Classical Subjects in Anglo-Saxon Verse
The Exeter Book contains a poem called “The Phoenix,” based on [goes here]. Although the pagan references have been purged from it, it is certainly classical in origin.
“Solomon and Saturn” casts the god Saturn as a “Chaldean prince” whose pagan wisdom is handily trumped by biblical Solomon. This is also my source for comparing and contrasting Christ to a pagan figure.
Aldhelm’s Latin riddles contain many borrowed from classical sources, as well as some more concerned with Anglo-Saxon interests.
“Elene” tells the story of St. Helena and her quest to find the True Cross. While not exactly in the same realm as stories of the phoenix, it is also not in the same genre as Germanic stories of Sigmund and Weyland.
Allusions in Anglo-Saxon Poetry
While I haven’t seen a straight-up side-by-side comparison like this, allusions to mythology are used in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Most famously, the narrator in “Deor” goes through a laundry list of legendary figures who’ve had terrible fates visited on them, ending each stanza by reflecting “That also ended; so too may this,” where “this” is his own troubles.
“Beowulf” shows their use as well, with tales of an ancient king used to frame his ancestor, Hrothgar; and after Beowulf has killed Grendel, a scop recites the tale of Sigmund, who slew the dragon Fafnir. The idea of making parallels between legend and current events (in my poem’s case, the arrival of Christianity and Christ as a powerful figure) is certainly available in Anglo-Saxon verse as a technique.
Christ the Warrior-Hero in Anglo-Saxon and Saxon Literature
“The Heliand” is the “Saxon gospel,” a translation of the gospel into the Saxon language for use in the conversion of the continental Germanic tribes. The apostles become a “war band,” and Christ is otherwise given the trappings of a powerful chieftain - although of course he conquers through his divine power, not swordplay.
“The Dream of the Rood” puts the following description of Christ in the mouth of the Cross:
…Then saw I mankind's Lord
come with great courage when he would mount on me.
Then dared I not against the Lord's word
bend or break, when I saw earth's
fields shake. All fiends
I could have felled, but I stood fast.
The young hero stripped himself--he, God Almighty--
strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows,
bold before many, when he would loose mankind.
I shook when that Man clasped me.
--- lines 33-42
The various accounts of the Harrowing show a forceful Christ defeating Satan. He descends in light and in thunder, striking fear into the hearts of the demons, ending their authority over the stained souls of mankind, now redeemed by his sacrifice:
Then terror came upon [Satan and his devils], and crashing thunder went before the judge, who bowed and burst the doors of hell. And bliss came unto the men when they beheld their Saviour’s face. But the hearts of that doomed folks, that dread host named aforetime, were sore afraid. They were smitten with terror throughout their windy hall, and wailed aloud:
“Bitter is this Storm that burst upon us, the Angel Prince, the Warrior with his legions. Before Him shineth a fairer light than ever our eyes beheld, save when we dwelt in heaven among the angels. Now He will end, by power of His glory, the torment we inflict. Lo! This Terror cometh, with thunders before the face of God, and soon this wretched throng shall know affliction. It is the Son of God, the Lord of angels. He leadeth souls up out of hell, and we shall be abased hereafter by his avenging wrath.”
-- “Christ and Satan,” trans. Kennedy
The Parent Monster is Worse than the Son
I drew a little on “Beowulf” in trying to suggest that Christ is better than Theseus because Christ defeated Satan, the originator of sin and evil, while Theseus only fought a monster that was one of Satan’s progeny. Grendel’s mother is arguably a far more difficult foe than Grendel, after all. (Although the poet remarks that she is less fearsome, as she is a woman, the actual battle goes much harder for Beowulf. He needed no weapons to kill Grendel; he destroyed one sword and had to eventually use an enchanted one to kill the mother.) (Puhvel 1969)
Documenting the Performance
All performance of medieval poetry and music is, to some extent, speculative. But we can base our speculations on the best available evidence. For a very early piece like this one, we look to archaeological records, appearances in history, literature and iconography, and comparisons with modern living oral traditions. All the usual caveats apply: literature (and even the history of the era) is not necessarily fact, care must be taken in interpreting illuminations, modern Serbian gusli players are not the same as Anglo-Saxon scops, etc.
If one can believe the image of David singing the psalms in the Winchcombe psalter (9th century), quite the ensemble could be assembled. David on frame harp is supported by a lyre player, a vielle player, someone on some sort of fingered horn instrument, and someone playing clappers. The Vespasian psalter (8th centtury) shows David on the lyre, with four men on two different kinds of wind instruments, and a pair of men clapping. Yet in the poem “Beowulf,” the scop (court poet) is seen reciting an epic poem along with his lyre - the word used for his performance can be used for poetic recitation or singing, so it’s not clear what exactly he’s doing. But he’s doing it alone, not as part of an ensemble. Similarly, the farm workers in Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of England” pass around a harp or lyre and take turns singing to amuse themselves after dinner, much like a Scadian bardic circle. Each goes individually, singing and playing the instrument solo.
A recitation or chant, accompanied by a frame harp, is a perfectly reasonable reconstruction of a performance. The accompaniment could most legitimately be an echo of the melody or a simple “home and away” pattern of open octaves or fifths. The addition of a drone (stationary or moving) on a bowed string instrument and the use of a simple percussion instrument are supported by the Winchcombe and Vespasian psalter illustrations, if they can be taken literally (as opposed to being representations of “making a joyful noise”).
The span of such a chant may well be an octave, although up to a tenth may be done (according to Guido d’Arezzo, writing about church music in the 1050s). Modern oral epics may fit within a fifth or a sixth (and interestingly, the Ango-Saxon lyres found in the ground seem to have typically had six strings). I will not be writing the tune, if any is used, for this piece, so I can’t say much more on it.
I will also attach my class notes on Anglo-Saxon performance, for more detail and references. It includes both images of David singing the psalms with his band. Mistress Fevronia, the performer, may include her own notes on her performance.
It’s often not easy to fit SCA competition themes into one’s area of expertise. The Anglo-Saxons didn’t retell the Greek legends the way post-Crusade poets did, so I have no direct models upon which to base a Theseus and the Minotaur-themed work. However, the idea of a hero who descends into a dark place of terror, defeats the evil there, and then leads those in bondage to liberty would have been extremely familiar to a post-conversion era Anglo-Saxon poet, as it corresponds precisely to the Harrowing of Hell narrative. While I could have simply written a poem about the Harrowing, I wanted to make the parallels explicit. Features and themes found in other Anglo-Saxon poetic works led me to construct a comparison of Theseus to Jesus, with the Savior coming out on top.
While the performance practices of days gone by are lost to us, we have a certain amount of evidence from which to extrapolate our presentation of the work. There is no One True Way to present Anglo-Saxon poetry, with everything from plain spoken recitation to a multi-instrument ensemble backing a singer having some amount of evidence for it. I am confident Mistress Fevronia’s performance will fit somewhere in that envelope, and that moreover she will emotionally charge the piece with appropriate fervor.
“Solomon and Saturn” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_and_Saturn
Martin Puhvel. “The Might of Grendel’s Mother.” Folklore 80(2), 1969.
“Deor.” Translation at http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/?do=get&type=text&id=Deor
“Beowulf” mostly from memory, honestly.
“The Heiliand: The Saxon Gospel,” trans. G. Ronald Murphy, Oxford University Press, 1992.
“The Book of Cerne.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Cerne
“The Harrowing of Hell (drama)” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harrowing_of_Hell_%28drama%29
“The Harrowing of Hell” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harrowing_of_Hell
“Christ and Satan.” trans. Charles W. Kennedy. Old English Series, Cambridge, UK. 2000. Downloaded at http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/Christ_and_Satan_Kennedy.pdf
“The Dream of the Rood,” translation at http://faculty.uca.edu/jona/texts/rood.htm