Monday, August 24, 2009

The Saxon Saviour

It was not until Charlemagne’s conquests that Christianity really made any headway with the Saxons. Charlemagne’s policy was to make sure that the conquered were forced into mass baptisms at the end of a campaign, and then later to send the missionaries among the Saxons in order to explain the religion to which they had just joined. Not surprisingly the Christianity of the Saxons was somewhat on the superficial side, since they didn’t really know what they were getting into. Nethertheless Charlemagne’s and the missionaries he supported did succeed in moving the eastern boundary between paganism and Christianity from the Rhine river to the Elbe river where it would remain until the time of the crusades.

One text in particular tells us a great deal about what the conversion of the Saxons entailed and some of the ways in which the Carolingians made concessions. In the first half of the 9th century, a version of the Christian gospel was translated into old Saxon, apparently so that the Saxons had a better understanding of Christianity and could read it for themselves. This version of the gospel is called the Heliand and it presents a retelling of the Gospel story as a Germanic heroic epic.

Having been thoroughly ‘Saxonised’, Christ becomes a warrior, the towns of ancient Israel become ‘hill forts’ and the three wise men become warriors and thanes. John the Baptist is called a ‘soothsayer’ and the Lord’s Payer apparently contains ‘secret runes’. When Christ leaves the wedding at Cana, the Heliand says that

‘Christ, the most powerful of kings decided to go to Capharnaum, the great hill fort, with his followers. His forces of good men, his happy warrior company assembled in front of him’

In the passage of the Gospel of Luke regarding the arrest of Jesus of Nazareth in the garden of Gethsemane the differences between the original and the Germanic version are interesting. In the original revised edition version:

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”

While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus asked him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”. When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

The same scene in the Saxon Version appears under the titles ‘Christ’s deep fear before battle, his last salute in the garden’ and ‘Christ the chieftain is captured, Peter the mighty soldier defends him boldly’. The passage reads:

‘Christ’s warrior companions saw warriors coming up the mountain making a great din
Angry armed men. Judas the hate filled man was showing them the way.
The enemy clan, the Jews, were marching behind.
The warriors marched forward, the grim Jewish army, until they had come to the Christ.
There he stood, the famous chieftain.
Christ’s followers, wise men deeply distressed by this hostile action
Held their position in front.
They spoke to their chieftain, ‘My Lord chieftain’, they said, ‘if it should now
Be your will that we be impaled here under spear points
Wounded by their weapons then nothing would be so good to us as to die here
Pale from mortal wounds for our chieftain’.

Then he got really angry
Simon Peter, the mighty, noble swordman flew into a rage.
His mind was in such turmoil he could not speak a single word.
His heart became intensely bitter because they wanted to tie up his Lord there.
So he strode over angrily, that very daring Thane, to stand in front of his commander
Right in front of his Lord.

No doubting in his mind, no fearful hesitation in his chest he drew his blade
And struck straight ahead at the first man of the enemy with all the strength in his hands
So that Malchus was cut and wounded on the right side by the sword.
His ear was chopped off.
He was so badly wounded in the head that his cheek and ear burst open with the mortal wound
Blood gushed out, pouring from the wound.
The men stood back; they were afraid of the slash of the sword.

The author took a few liberties here. For a start, Simon Peter is supposed to be a fisherman, not a swordsman, and the gospel account doesn’t elaborate on the High Priest’s injury, or glorify it as the greatest head wound ever suffered as if it were appearing in a Rocky movie. Yet to gain Saxon acceptance of Christianity compromises would have to be made, after all what kind of God would not resist his arrest?.

The point of this passage is that Christ tells his followers to not resist, but in the Saxon version it is because he must undergo ‘the workings of fate’, the ultimate determinant of reality to the pagan Germanic peoples. When he is crucified, the cross is interpreted as a tree or gallows, which would have seemed similar to the hanging of Woden in the cosmic tree when he tried to learn the riddle of death and discovered the mysterious runes:

There on the sandy gravel they erected the gallows
Up on the field, the Jewish people set it up
A tree on the mountain

Once resurrected, the warrior Christ becomes greater than Woden having escaped his own fated death with his own power and ascending to the right hand of God; the old Gods have been replaced by the Saxon saviour.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum



My YouTube film which features Galileo

Anonymous said...


I'm curious as to how that relates to the above entry.

Justin said...

That's easy. Bede is a Christian who blogs about science. Obviously he doesn't realize that Christianity is anti-science. Luckily for him a roving atheist stopped by to set him straight with the story of Galileo.

Humphrey said...

Tor's stuff is kinda trippy

Unknown said...


Exactly how does that video relate to how the Saxons viewed Christ? Because right now I am inclined to agree with Justin's assessment.

Humphrey said...

I think it's the old 'Post comments on as many blogs as possible in order to generate hits' technique.