History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

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Winter Cold

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

As the solstice comes upon us here in the Northern Hemisphere our thoughts turn to surviving the cold. While it's considerably milder here in Scotland than it was while I was teaching in New York, cold it is and cups of tea provide welcome warmth. It's hardly surprising that people in the Middle Ages measured their lives in winters survived. In many ways the mid-winter celebrations offer a chance to celebrate that hope and restore it for the lean months ahead.

It's the perfect time to consider the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, which I think of as a companion to The Wanderer. Both elegiac poems that mourn a lost past, they celebrate the power of the comitatus, the loyal troop of warriors and find poetic resonance in the harsh world of winter.

For many of us the world has become a much more unwelcoming place and we may find comfort in the words of an exile (the two countries I live in have both chosen very dark paths). In a time many many groups seek to pervert the history to create a modern ahistorical version of some 'lost white culture' it is important for scholars of culture, history and literature to reveal the multifaceted, international and complex nature of the period with evidence instead of fantasies.

Calde geþrungen    Fettered by cold
wæron mine fet,    were my feet,
forste gebunden    bound by frost
caldum clommum,    in cold clasps

Like the Wanderer, the Seafarer is in exile and struggles to make a soðgied (true song) of his troubles. On the ship he endures the iscealdne sæ (ice-cold sea) through winter's harsh world. While the Wanderer looks back to his own lost comitatus and the lord he loved (men are the emotional ones in Anglo-Saxon poetry and most affection embodied is homosocial), the Seafarer sees a wider scene of calamity.

Dagas sind gewitene,    The days are gone
ealle onmedlan    of all the glory
eorþan rices;    of the kingdoms of the earth;
nearon nu cyningas    there are not now kings,
ne caseras    nor Cæsars,
ne goldgiefan    nor givers of gold
swylce iu wæron,    as once there were.

It's not just his band of warriors, but the culture that has been lost. A dark spirit has come upon the globe (yes, people in the Middle Ages were well aware we live on a globe) that threatens all life. Gold only has value when it is used to reward courage, as the Beowulf poet teaches us well. Gold when it rewards the weak and the poor in spirit, is gold wasted.

Gedroren is þeos duguð eal,    All that old guard is gone
dreamas sind gewitene;    and the revels are over --
wuniað þa wacran    the weaker ones now dwell
ond þæs woruld healdaþ,    and hold the world,
brucað þurh bisgo.    enjoy it through their sweat. 

His contempt is clear: those who have not earned the praise of their people do not deserve the rewards and the stewardship of the world. For the Seafarer, the reward for those unjustly ousted will be found only in the afterlife, but he offers a plan for action in the meantime:

Forþon biþ eorla gehwam    And so it is for each man
æftercweþendra    the praise of the living,
lof lifgendra    of those who speak afterwards,
lastworda betst,    that is the best epitaph,
þæt he gewyrce,    that he should work
ær he on weg scyle,    before he must be gone
fremum on foldan    bravery in the world
wið feonda niþ,    against the enmity of devils,
deorum dædum    daring deeds
deofle togeanes,    against the fiend.

In the midst of winter, it may be hard to reignite our will to fight. The winterceald may keep us occupied with mere survival, but we must plan for the work ahead fighting the fiends that bedevil us or we will not survive many more winters. This solstice rekindle that fire.

Image via The British Library, Detail from a November calendar of a boar being snared, from a Book of Hours, Germany (?Worms), c. 1475–c. 1485, from Egerton MS 1146, f. 12v

Text of The Seafarer via Anglo-Saxons.net

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.


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