Christmas amongst the Saxons

John posted this a few years ago. I love it though, and it reminds me of my days as a graduate student when I learned Old Saxon by reading the Heliand in its original language. So enjoy the birth of the Chieftain as experienced by the medieval Saxons!

———————

[Originally posted Christmas, 2004]

Because Christmas as we know it is built upon the vestiges of pagan holidays, my mind turns to the ninth century Heliand poem (c. 830 A.D.) at Christmastime. This is a poetic translation of the New Testament done by a Saxon monk in Old Saxon. The poet does a superb job of translating the Gospel not only linguistically but also culturally into a language comprehensible by the Germanic tribes of more than one thousand years ago. And the story of Christ’s birth expresses some of the poetic license taken by the monk while still conveying something powerful about our Savior and about his Gospel. Enjoy.

Song 5
The Chieftan of mankind is born in David’s hill-fort.

Then there came a decree from Fort Rome, from the great Octavian who had power over the whole world, an order from Caesar to his wide realm, sent to every king enthroned in his homeland and to all Caesar’s army commanders governing the people of any territory. It said that everyone living outside their own country should return to their homeland upon receipt of the message. It stated that all the warrior heroes were to return to their assembly place, each one was to go back to the clan of which he was a family member by bith in a hill-fort.

That command was sent out over the whole world. People came together at all the hill-forts. The messengers who had come from Caesar were men who could read and write, and they wrote everyone’s name down very carefully in a report–both name and nationality–so that no human being could escape from paying the tax which each warrior had on his head.

The good Joseph went also with his household, just as God, ruling mightily, willed it. He made his way to his shining home, the hill-fort at Bethlehem. This was the assembly place for both of them, for Joseph the Hero and for Mary the Good, the holy girl. This was the place where in olden days the throne of the great and noble good King David stood for as long as he reigned, enthroned on high, an earl of the Hebrews. Joseph and Mary both belonged by birth to his household, they were of good family lineage, of David’s own clan.

I have heard it told that the shining workings of fate and the power of God told Mary that on this journey a son would be granted her, born in Bethlehem, the strongest child, the most powerful of all kings, the Great One come powerfully to the light of mankind–just as foretold by many visions and signs in this world many days before.

At that thime it all came to pass, just as wise men had said long ago: that the Protector of People would come in a humbe way, by His own power, to visit this kingdom of earth. His mother, that most beautiful woman, took Him, wrapped Him in clothes and precious jewels, and then with her two hands laid Him gently, the little man, that child, in a fodder-crib, even though He had the power of God, and was the Chieftain of mankind. There the mother sat in front of Him and remained awake, watching over the holy Child and holding it. And there was no doubt in the mind or in the heart of the holy maid.

What had happened became known to many over this wide world. The guards heard it. As horse-servants they were outside, they were men on sentry duty, watching over the horses, the beasts of the field: they saw the darkness split in two in the sky, and the light of God came shining through the clouds and surrounded the guards out in the fields. Those men began to feel fear in their hearts. They saw the mighty angel of God coming toward them. He spoke to the guards face to face and told them that they should not fear any harm from the light. “I am going to tell you,” he said, “somthing very wonderful, something very deeply desired. I want to let you know something very powerful: Christ is now born, on this very night, God’s holy Child, the good Chieftain, at David’s hill-fort . What happiness for the human race, a boon for all men! You can find Him, the most powerful Child, at Fort Bethlehem. Take what I now tell you in truthful words as a sign: He is there, wrapped up, lying in a fodder-crib–even though He is king over all the earth and the heavens and over the sons of all the peoples, the Ruler of the world.” Just as he said that word, an enormous number of the holy army, the shining people of God, came down to the one angel from the meadows of heaven, saying many words of praise for the Lord of Peoples. They then began to sing a holy song as they wended their way through the clouds towards the meadows of heaven.

The guards heard how the angels in their power praised the all-mighty God most worshipfully in words: “Glory now be,” they said, “to the Lord-Chieftain Himself, in the highest reaches of heaven, and peace on earth to the sons of men, men of good will, those who because of their clear minds recognize God!”
The herdsmen understood that something great had been told to them–a merry message! They decided to go to Bethlehem that night, they wanted very much to be able to see Christ Himself.

Song 6
The Baby is Brought to the Ruler’s Shrine

. . . .

Song 7
Three Thanes from the East, led by a the Workings of Fate, Follow a Star

Even though holy men there recognized Christ, still it had not yet become known at the king’s court to the men who in their attitude were not very inclined to Him–and it remained hidden from them in word and in deed until men of the East, very wise men, three strong thanes, came to this people, walking the long road over the land to get there. They were following a bright-shining beacon, and with clear mind were looking for God’s Child. They wanted to kneel to Him, to go an become His followers–God’s fate-workings were leading them on.

They found Herod there, the powerful man sitting in his hall, the slithery-mouthed king, angrily talking with his men–he always enjoyed murder. The wise men addressed him in his house properly and fittingly in the royal manner, and he soon asked what business brought these warriors out on a journey far from home. “Are you bringing wound gold to give to someone? Why are you traveling like this, walking on foot? I do not even know where you come from, earls of other peoples! I can see that you are of noble birth, clansmen of good family. Never before have such messengers com here from other peoples since I have ruled this noble and wide kingdom. You are to tell me truthfully in front of these people of our country why you have come to this land.”

Then the men of the East answered him, those word-wise warriors. “We can easily tell you the truth of our business and say to you openly why we have come here from the East on this journey to your country. A long time ago there were noble men, men of good speech, who promised so much good and help in truthful words from the King of Heaven. At that time there was a wise man, a man of experience and great wisdom–this was a long time ago–our ancestor there in the East. There has never been since then a single man who spoke so wisely. He was able to interpret God’s speech, because the Lord of mankind had granted him the ability to hear the Ruler’s words up above from down on earth. For this reason, this thane’s knowledge and his thoughts were great.

“When the time came for him to depart, to leave the earth and the throng of his relatives, to give up the comings and goings of men and to travel to the other light, he told his followers, his heirs and his earls, to come closer, and told them truthfully in soothsaying, everything that would come afterwards, everything that has happened since in this world. Then he said that a wise king, great and mighty, was to come here to the middle world; he would be of the best lineage. He said that it would be God’s Son, and that He would rule this world forever, both the earth and the heavens, for days without end. He said that on the same day on which His mother gave birth to Him blessedly in this middle world, in the East there would shine a bright light in the sky such as we had never had before between the earth and the heavens nor anywhere else–never such a baby nor such a beacon! He ordered that three men of the people should go to do adoration–he told them to remember well that when they saw God’s beacon journeying upward they should get ready immediately. He said that we were to follow it as it goes before us, in a westerly direction, over this world.

“Now this has all happened, it has come true by the power of God. The king is born, daring and strong. We saw His beacon-light shining cheerfully among the stars of heaven, and thus I know that the holy Chieftain powerfully placed it there Himself. Every morning we saw the bright star shining, and went toward it, following the beacon all the time over roads and through forests. The greatest of our desires was to be able to see Him Himself, to know where we should look for Him, the King in this empire. Tell us to which clan He has been born.”

At that, Herod felt pain in his chest and in his heart, his mind began to reel, his spirit was worried. He had just heard it said that he was to have a more powerful king, of good clan, over his head, that there was a more fortunate person than he among his warrior-companions.

Then he called together all the good men in Jerusalem, the most learned and eloquent and those who truly held the most book-power in their breasts, and he asked them very carefully with words, that evil-minded man, the king of the people, where Christ, the greatest Man of Peace, was to be born in the earthly realm. The people then responded to him, men of truth, saying that they did indeed know that He was to be born in Bethlehem. “It has been put down thus in our books, wisely written, just as the soothsayers, very intelligent and learned men, spoke long ago by the power of God: it is from Bethlehem that the Herdsman of Hill-forts, the beloved Protector of the Country, is to come to the light–the mightly Counselor who will rule the Jewish people and who will distribute His gifts generously throughout the middle world to many peoples.”

Song 8
The Three Foreign Warriors Present Their Gifts to the Ruler’s Child.

I have heard it told that immediately after the cruel-minded king said the words of his soothsayers to the foreign heros, who were earls in their homeland and had traveled afar, he asked them when they first saw on the roads of the East the King’s star coming, the sign shining down cheerfully from heaven. They did not wish to conceal anything from him and so they told him the truth. He then instructed them to go on their journey and to investigate the matter thoroughly about the coming of the Child. The king himself, the lord of the Jews, commanded the wise men very sternly, that, before they left the West, they let him know where he could find the Child himself. He said that he wanted to go there with his warrior-companions to adore the Child. (He was hoping, with the edge of his sword, to become the Child’s murderer.)

But the ruling God thought about this: He [the Child] should accomplish more, do more in this world; His light must shine longer, making known the power of God.
The sign then moved on, shining among the clouds. The wise men were ready to travel. They decided to leave and go on, they were eager about their mission! They wanted to see the Son of God Himself. They had no other warrior-companions of their retinue with them; there were only three of them–they understood things, they were smart men, the ones bearing the gifts.

Then they looked up to the high heavens, where they saw in their wisdom how the bright stars which had been created by Christ for His world, moved across the cloudy sky–they recognized God’s sign. The warriors walked on after it, following faithfully–the Force helped them–until the road-weary men saw God’s bright-shining beacon, the white light in the heavens, stand still. The bright star shone brilliantly over the house where the holy Child willed to live, where the woman, the maiden, was taking proper care of Him. The thanes’ hearts became merry within them, they understood from the beacon-light that they had found God’s Peaceful Son, the holy King of Heaven. They then walked inside the house with their gifts, those road-weary warriors from the East, and immediately recognized Christ, the Ruler. The foreign fighting men fell on their knees to the good Child and greeted Him in the royal manner. They carried the gifts to Him: gold and incense as a sing of divinity, and myrrh as well. The men stood there attentively, respectful in the presence of their Lord, and soon received It [the Child] in a fitting manner in their hands.

Then the Wise Men decided, road-weary as they were, to go home to the guest-hall. It was there, as they were sleeping during the night, that God’s angel showed them in their sleep, in a dream, what the Chieftain Himself, the Ruler, wanted. It seemed to them that a man was telling them in words that they, the earls, should leave the place by another way when they went home, and that they should not go back to that loathsome man Herod again, that moodily violent king.
Then morning came shining to this world. The Wise Men began to tell one another their dream and they recognized the Ruler’s word themselves–they had great wisdom in their hearts. They asked the All-Ruler, the high King of Heaven, that they might be able to continue to work toward His glory, to carry out His will. They said that they had changed their minds and their hearts that morning–for every morning!

Then the men tranveled away again, the earls from the East, just as the angel of God had instructed them in words. They took another road, following God’s directions. The messengers from the East, road-weary men, would never tell the Jewish king a thing about the Son’s birth; rather they traveled on as they wished.

The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel, A Translation and Commentary by G. Ronald Murphy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 15-27

2 Responses to Christmas amongst the Saxons

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I’d love the missing chapter in the middle (perhaps as a separate page?) as well.

    “Song 6
    The Baby is Brought to the Ruler’s Shrine”

    Just strikes me as very Orlanthi.

  2. lief says:

    Thanks for this, Jordan. All this talk of how (mostly Germanic) pagan symbols have been adapted as Christmas symbols, and here is a poem directly from the heart of that transition stage.

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