Leakages from an Alternate Literary History: Homer and Virgil in Old English


In an alternate (fictional) timeline, an Old English speaker ca. 750 AD took the liberty of translating Homer and Vergil into verse. The text survives of course only in Late West Saxon, even though the translator himself composed in a different dialect. The translator bucks taboo and nativizes his material to the point of substituting Germanic gods for the mediterranean ones. The role of Zeus/Jupiter, for example, is given sometimes Wōden, and sometimes to Þunor. (Sometimes they appear together, or Þunor speaks on behalf of Wōden. The translator can do this because his version is not a literal one.) Various other characters are Germanicized. For example, Aeneas is given the name Wīdhere. 

Here are some fragments:

Odyssey 1.1-10

Hwæt! Þisne sang  be sīðfætum   
Searuðoncles fyrdbeornes fand ic on sefan.
Ic oft gefrægn  in fyrndagum
hū wearþ þes eorl  tō ȳðwræccan
swīcende geon Midgeard   siþþan his gūðwudu
wǣpenwedere  on wælbedde
hlōðede rancre hēahbyrge godhearh.
Moniges lēodes  medubyrig sceawode,
moniges monnes  mynd gewiste
monge ælfsorge  sinnihte þolode
on sefan on sǣ. Sylfes feorhhūse 
ealle hwīle   ond hāmcyme  
swǣsra gesīða   sōhte tō beorgenne.
Ac nā hē cūðe  nerian his gesīðas
worhte swā hē wolde.  Witlēast hiera
sylfre hīe swefde.  Sottmenn, hīe ǣten
hālige cȳ Sōles,  swegles wægnfrōwe,
þe him feorhcandla  cwencede on bānhūsum.
Dæges lēohtcwēn dwǣscede of ēagum
hāmcymes dagunge. Hēr saga þisra,
Wōdnes godbearn,  wōþgāst Breohcwis,  
gal þæt hēahlēoþ eft  ūre tīdum.

Listen. In my soul I found this song of the journeyings of the shrewdminded war-man. I have often heard tell how in ancient days this noble man turned a wave-fugitive, errant through the mid-earth after his war-wood
1, in weapon-weather on the gore-bed of battle, despoiled an overweening capital city's god-hall. Many a people's mead-city he saw, many a man's mind he fathomed, and many an elf-sorrow2 in evernight he endured in his soul at sea. All the while he sought to save his body-housed life, and ensure the homecoming of his own dear comrades. But he stood no chance of saving his comrades, try whatever he did. It was their own witlessness did them in. Those fools ate the cattle of Sowilo3, the heavens' charioteeress, who put out the life-candles in their bodies. The light-queen of day blackened from out of their eyes the daybreak of homecoming. Here, tell us of these things once more in our time, Oh godchild of Woden, verse-spirit Breohcwis4, lift that great song again.

1— Guðwudu "warwood" is a poeticism found in the Finnsburg fragment, where it is assumed to mean "spear."In this timeline, at least, that is exactly what this quite old poetic stock phrase means. The translator has reporposed it to both refer to spears, and to the war-wooden Trojan horse. Of course, many alt-present day scholars aren't sure the pun is intended.

2 — elf-sorrow, i.e. a sorrow induced by supernatural powers. Cf. Germ. Albtraum.

3 — The sun deity is a woman here, as per usual in Germanic, unlike in the Greek.

4 — Immediately after Johnson Grimmer's discovery of the Lowell Codex containing these translations, one of the first thing alt-present day scholars noticed was that the translator consistently substitutes the entity "Breohcwis" for the Graeco-Roman Muse. Generally they have sought, or simply assumed, a connection between this figure and Bragi, the Norse poetry god. They are, however, mistaken. This is the name of the alt-timeline Anglo-Saxon poetry god (well, originally goddess). But it is simply a compound of "prince" (*brag-) and "speech" (*kwiss-) and has no connection to the Norse god. Part of the difficulty recognizing the compound for what it is lies in the fact that one would normally have expected the form *Bregucwiss or the like, rather than Breohcwis. The name as given originates in Old Kentish (whence the diphthong), and underwent irregular development due to taboo-deformation. (The god was briefly and locally euhemerized into a saint on the Isle of Wight.) Even the West Saxon copyist who produced the Lowell Codex didn't know what the name was or meant. In this instance, Breohcwis is given an epithet using wōþ "poetry, song, exclamation" (cf. Lat. Vātēs) from the same root that yields Woden's name (compare Old Norse Óðinn vs. Óðr.) Alt-present day comparative philologists have made a great deal of hay over this, imagining it to reflect awareness of an ancient connection on the part of the translator. Some have even posited that this is a relic of a genuine pagan invocation to the poetry god. In fact, it's a complete coincidence. The translator was unaware of the etymological connection, and just did it because he thought it would sound cool.

Corresponding Greek passage:

Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, Μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσε·
πολλῶν δ’ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
πολλὰ δ’ ὅ γ’ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν,
ἀρνύμενος ἥν τε ψυχὴν καὶ νόστον ἑταίρων.
ἀλλ' οὐδ' ὧς ἑτάρους ἐρρύσατο, ἱέμενός περ·
αὐτῶν γὰρ σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὄλοντο,
νήπιοι, οἳ κατὰ βοῦς Ὑπερίονος Ἠελίοιο
ἤσθιον· αὐτὰρ ὁ τοῖσιν ἀφείλετο νόστιμον ἦμαρ.
τῶν ἁμόθεν γε, θεά, θύγατερ Διός, εἰπὲ καὶ ἡμῖν.

Aeneid 1.1-8

(There is a lacuna of several lines after this passage, due to fire damage. Lord Peter Pintle, who owned the Lowell Codex in the late 15th century, was an incorrigible pyromaniac. On March 5th 1492, while Lord Pintle was enjoying an evening performance by his live-in torch juggler, his 3-year-old ran headlong into the performer's knee. The torches went careening, and parts of this translation were one casualty of the ensuing fire. Another was Lady Pintle's dildo. Though this was not as much of a blow to her sex life as was the summary firing of the torch-juggler.)        

Lēoþ ic secge  secga ond þæs ǣrbeornes
se þe fram Trōian sīþ  āsette tō Eatules
Wǣgrimum, wyrdes  wræcmon ond sǣrinc.
Hine geon mearclond  ond mererāda þrēow
Ōsþrymmes mihtmōd.  Irregemynd Wælfrōwan
Feor in wælfǣhþe  wræc his bānhūs.
Wann eac beadugryras  oþ þæt þā burh sette
and his cōfgodas gecorene bǣre
in Lǣdene lond  þanon Lǣdencynn,
Ealdras Alban and eaforan hiere
rison, and regnhēage  Rōmbyrge weallas.
Hwæt! Breohcwis wecþ  on breoste þā þing...  

A lay I sing of swords1 and of the original hero who from Troy set forth to Italy's wave-rims, fate's exile2 and seawarrior3. He through countrylands and the waveroads was thrown about by the fell passion of the Aesir powers4. Valfreyja's5 rage-memory in deadly feud harrowed the bones of his body far in exile. And war-horrors he weathered also, until he founded a city, and brought his dear household gods into Latium, whence rose the Latin race, the Elders of Alba and their sons, and the all-high6 ramparts of Rome. Attend! Breohcwis quickens in my breast the causes...

1 — This word could also be translated as "warriors, men." Secg as a feminine i-stem noun means "sword." As a masculine a-stem noun it is a poetic word for "warrior, man." Some in the alt-present day who don't feel comfortable with the idea of this kind of wordplay are unsure as to whether this word is meant to translate Latin arma or to refer to warriors.

2 — Other possible translations are "wretch, persecuted one." In the alt-present day, scholars have tried to read much into the translator's use of compounds with wræc-, attempting to tease out of it an idea about the translator's attitude toward Aeneas/Wīdhere. 

3 — Also translatable as "sea-raider." This word can be used to describe Vikings in attested OE. Alt-present day Scholars have wondered whether this suggests a complicated attitude toward the protagonist, and much has hinged on when the translation is dated to (some who opt for a later date have read sǣrinc as a negative word, implying ambivalence about a protagonist reminiscent of Norse invaders).

4 — Alt-present day scholars have been vexed by the word ōsþrymm. Like many words used by the translator, it is attested nowhere else in surviving OE. While a word like ærbeorn is transparently interpretable as "the first man, the original hero," it is not clear to scholars what the ōs- of ōsþrymm is to mean exactly. It is clearly a cognate of ON ǫ́ss, and the same element found in Saxon theophoric names. They therefore conclude that it is some form of pre-christian divine power, though they are unsure of the specifics. In fact, the translator himself (who was of course a Christian) did not have a very clear sense of it. It was the vague associations of the word ōs in his mind that in part motivated ōsþrymmes mihtmōd as a rendering vi superum. (The Ms. reads osþrymmas, which is clearly a scribal error, owing to the fact that the scribe was less devoted to declensions than he was to his wife. See below.)

5 — The translator renders Juno as Wælfrōwe (Slaughterdame, gore-woman, Our Lady Of The Slain), which is a morpheme-for-morpheme cognate to Norse Valfreyja, one of the names of the goddess Freyja in the Skáldskaparmál. In the alt-present day scholars don't know what to make of this, as they have no way of guessing that the translator was actually repurposing what had by his day become an epithet of the Virgin Mary when invoked as a protector in battle. The prayers in which it occurs were seldom written down, and were not long in use after the mid 8th century, so alt-present day scholars have no knowledge of them. In fact, even the scribe who produced the extant manuscript of this translation in the 900s (at the behest of his extraordinarily eccentric yet inexplicably wealthy father-in-law) did not know what this was, and assumed it to simply be a Pagan Goddess. The irony is that the brief tradition of addressing the Blessed Virgin as Wǣlfrōwe before battle only arose by syncretizing her with the war-goddess Sigewyn whose epithet this was.

6 — This use of the prefix regn- has puzzled alt-present day scholars. In fact, it is simply an archaism that the translator deployed for stylistic effect. 

Corresponding Latin passage: 

Arma virumque canō, Troiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs
Italiam, fātō profugus, Lāvīnaque vēnit
lītora, multum ille et terrīs iactātus et altō
vī superum saevae memorem Iūnōnis ob īram;
multa quoque et bellō passus, dum conderet urbem,
īnferretque deōs Latiō genus unde latīnum
albānīque patrēs atque altae moenia Rōmae
Mūsa mihī causās memorā...

By a strange series of events involving a crossbow, a bag of supposedly magical grain and a very temperamental astrologist from Limousin, the codex was briefly owned by a renegade monk from Fleury who — a week before being killed by the man he had stolen it from — penned the following lines of verse along the margins:

 Chant lays de guerra  e l'ome guerreian
 Lo prims de Troya q'en fayditz sobrastratz,
 Son azil quist en lo sol Italian.
 Molt fo per mar e terra trabaillatz
 Sotz lo poder  dels speritz celestiaus.
 Car fetz aici ab malcor immortal
 Iunon cruzela qe li volc maior dan

Aeneid 1.198-207

(The scribe was pissed off and distracted the day he copied this part, after having to deal with a surprise visit from a belligerently drunk cleric who wanted to baptize his dog. So it's no surprise that this is one of the places where the West Saxon copy betrays a few telltale traces of his Mercian antigraph.)

Wīdhere mæðelode  wīdgenga ārǣd 
"Ealdgesīðas! Ǣr wē onfundon
Earfoða on ȳðum. Yflu gē wyrsan
þolodon ealle.  Ende þisses
ēac giefþ ūs god.  Gē þe Sceorfþyrses 
cyrmendum clifum cāflīce nēalǣhton, 
þe Ēageotenes ecestānas wiþstōdon,
mōd hēr nimaþ,  and mānōgan
ālecgaþ eallne. Eaxlgesteallan,
ēaðe wē mægen  munan ēac þissa
wynnum and wordcræfte  in wīnærne.
Gomen æfter gyrnstafa  giefþ ūs Wōden.
Monigum þorh gelimpum  mislicum and þingum 
orleahtrum in þisse  eorðan sceattum,  
Lǣdene tō londe  ūre lād fundiaþ. 
Weoroldwefenda   Wyrda þǣr ūs ābīedaþ
on behātsande sīðlīce frið.
Þǣr is ālīeded   þāra Trōiāna   
rīce eftārīsan  in randgebeorh. 
þȳ healdaþ forð heortena fūse
uferran þingum. Biþ þæt mīn hāt."

So spoke Wīdhere, the resolute wayfarer: Oh Long-standing comrades! We have been through hardships on the waves before. Worse woes than this have you all endured. God will send us an end to this too. You who who bravely drew nigh the shrieking cliffs of the Ripper-Troll (Scylla), who survived the pain-stones of the Eye-Eoten (Cyclops), take courage here and dispel vile terror now. My shoulder-comrades! This too may yet be a thing we look back on with delight and eloquent lays in the wine-hall. Woden shall give us joy after sorrow. Through many varied events/misfortunes, and dangerous/decisive crises/affairs in the regions of this earth our course holds on for Latin land. There the world-weaving Fates hold out to us peace at last (or: at journey's end) on the Promised Strand. There it is given to the Kingdom of the Trojans to rise again into a wave-buffered bulwark. So hold on, with ready hearts, for better/higher things/deeds. This I promise.

Note on Monsters:

Sceorfþyrs (Ripper-Troll) and Ēageoten (Eye-Eoten) are the translator's equivalents for Scylla and the Cyclops. Later scholarship has almost without exception assumed that he took these from native Anglo-Saxon lore and much ink has been spilled trying to identify them. In fact he just made them up for the purposes of translation, but — based on their occurrence in this translation — an elaborate lore was confected (especially by the Romantics) around these creatures as rough Germanic counterparts to Scylla and the Cyclops, and so in the alt-present day, they are reasonably well known as mythical English monsters. Much is found in translation by misunderstanding. Just ask Isaiah about that virgin. 

Corresponding Latin passage:

Ō sociī (neque enim ignārī sumus ante malōrum),
Ō passī graviōra, dabit deus hīs quoque fīnem.
Vōs et Scyllaeam rabiem penitusque sonantīs
accestis scopulōs, vōs et Cyclōpia saxa
expertī: revocāte animōs maestumque timōrem
mittite; forsan et haec ōlim meminisse iuvābit.
Per variōs cāsūs, per tot discrīmina rērum
tendimus in Latium, sēdēs ubi fāta quiētās
ōstendunt; illīc fās rēgna resurgere Troiae.
Dūrāte, et vōsmet rēbus servāte secundīs.

Aeneid 1.275-88:

(The text here is corrupt in one or two places. The penultimate line contains an unorthodox break across the caesura which also produces an internal rhyme.)

Wōden maðelode, woruldes hēahfæder:
Wynsum in geolhȳde  wylfes Rōmling
his cynn bewāt wyrcende Tīwsweallas
cwiðende Rōmwaran  be rihtnaman his.
Nāne mearce  mete ic þissum,
ac endlēasne onweald. Ēac swā Wælfrōwe
þe nū hranrāda   ond hēahwolcnu
ond werwegas þrīt   mid wælnīðe,
hyge sceal settan  sǣligre æhte,
ond dēoran ēac mē  dōmēadige Rōmwaran,
weorlddryhtnas mǣrðes, māþþumgiefan.  
Gewurðe min willa.  Weorðaþ þā hālgēar
þā Grēcþegnas  geþȳþ Trōia,
oþ þæt nīdgomban   gieldeþ se Ealdfēond.
Cynrenes Trōiesces  Cāsere āwiexeþ,
hlīsan mid steorrum,  stōl mid gārsecgum,
ymbsettende. Swā   hit sōðlīce agā.
Iūlius hē hāteþ on āre giūldæges....

"Thus spoke Woden, Worldfather Almighty: delightful in tawnhide of the she-wolf, Romulus shall take up his race, rearing the Walls of Tiw1 and naming by his true name the Romans. No boundary have I set for these, but unending weal over all. Even Valfreyja who now wearies the high heavens and the whale-roads and man-ways with her banewrath, shall set her thought to a better reckoning, and hold dear the judgement-prosperous renowned Romans, glory's worldlords, the treasure-givers. My will be done. As the holy years (?) come, so Troy shall enslave the thanes of Greece, and the Ancient Foe will be forced to yield tribute. A Caesar of Trojan stock shall spring forth, surrounding his fame with stars and his throne with the Oceans (lit: spearmen)2. So let it truly be. Julius shall be his name in honor of the Yule day3...

1 — Tīw is the god commonly equated with Mars. The day of the week known as Diēs Martis "Marsday" (cf. Fr. mardi) was Tīwesdæg, or Tuesday to Germanic peoples. Alt-present day scholars are correct to see this as a mechanical equation of the "tuesday" type.

2 — In Pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon mythology, the Ocean was apparently personified by a man with spears. Old English texts use gārsecg in the sense "Ocean" quite naturally, generally without note of its etymology. But gārsecg in the sense "Ocean" is always singular. Here the text uses the dative plural. Among alt-present day scholars, only alt-present Day Tolkien guessed the correct explanation: the translator is reviving a dead image for a dual sense, wherein Caesar's throne is literally guarded by spearmen, even as his rule is littorally bounded by the ocean's worldwater. Unfortunately Alternate Tolkien was a bit more eccentric than his counterpart in our timeline. And after witnessing the horrors of the (alt-timeline's) Anglo-Aragonese war of 1950, alt-Tolkien went off to join a neo-pagan druid cult in the breakaway Republic of Provença. Later 20th century scholars didn't take his insights as seriously as they should have.

3—   The translator has substituted for Virgil's fantastical etymology of "Julius" an equally fantastical Saxon etymology of his own. The disgruntled copyist (wondering if it really was worth agreeing to copy this silly thing for his father-in-law in exchange for his wife's hand in marriage) scribbled a note in the margin of the MS here: "satis absurditate imbutus videtur." Fire-damage due to Lord Pintle's juggling mishap has destroyed the corner of the page on which the scribe's maladjusted nephew scrawled a quote from Martial "in tuis nulla est mentula carminibus" with an appropriate drawing to remedy the situation so described.

 Corresponding Latin passage:

Inde lupae fulvō nūtrīcis tegmine laetus
Rōmulus excipiet gentem et Māvortia condet
moenia Rōmānōsque suō dē nōmine dīcet.
Hīs ego nec mētās rērum nec tempora pōnō:
imperium sine fīne dedī.   Quīn aspera Iūnō,
quae mare nunc terrāsque metū caelumque fatīgat,
cōnsilia in melius referet, mēcumque fovēbit
Rōmānōs, rērum dominōs gentemque togātam.
Sīc placitum. Veniet lūstrīs lābentibus aetās
cum domus Assaracī Phthīam clārāsque Mycēnās
servitiō premet ac victīs dominābitur Argīs.
Nāscētur pulchrā Troiānus orīgine Caesar,
imperium Ōceanō, fāmam quī terminet astrīs,
iūlius, ā magnō dēmissum nomen Iūlō.

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