Der Heliand (The Savior): An Old Saxon Epic Retelling of the Gospel from the First Half of the 9th Century

I learned about a delightful text from medieval history recently that I had somehow missed despite being a history major and grad student and then getting to teach Beowulf for years at a classical Christian high school. Der Heliand (The Savior) is an Old Saxon epic that harmonizes the four Christian gospels in the alliterative style of Germanic poetry. Written in the first half of the 9th century, it was part of a larger (apparently unfinished) project to cover all of the Christian canon, but we only have fragments from the book of Genesis and two manuscript versions of this gospel harmony. Some of the fragments have musical directives, indicating that this was intended to be performed in Saxon feasting halls. I came across this because there is a great description of it in a forthcoming volume of The Curious Historian (published by the company where I work).

Here is a little from the opening of Heliand as translated by Mariana Scott in 1966 (and available here as a free digital download from the University of North Carolina Press):

Many there were
tensing their minds

To say what was whispered:
that Might-Wielding Christ

Had here among men
done miracles many

With His words and His works.
Wise men aplenty,

People of earth—all would praise
the preachings of Christ,

God’s holy Word,
and write with their hands

Bright in a book
how best God’s bidding

They might carry out,
the kith of mankind.

There were four from the many:
they had might from the Maker,

Help, too, from Heaven
and from the Holy Ghost,

Strength from the Savior:
so were they chosen for this.

Singly they were to inscribe
the Gospel there in a book,

Committing to writing
so many commandments of God,

Holy, heavenly Word:
nor dared any here,

Any child of man,
emulate them, these four,

Picked for the task
by the power of God:

Matthew and Mark,
as these men were called,

Luke, also John—
they were beloved of God.

Worthy were they for the work.
The Wide-Wielder

Had filled the hearts of the heroes
with the Holy Ghost,

Perfectly all
with pious opinion,

And wise words many
and still more of wit,

That they should begin
the goodly Gospel

With their holy voices,
raise it on high—

The Word in this world
which has nowhere a like:

That it praise Him ever,
the Prince All-powerful,

The Lord who layeth low
the loathsome thing,

Who doth stamp out all sin
and the hate of Satan,

Withstandeth the strife.
For He is strong of mind,

Mild, too, and good—
He who is Master of these,

Aethling and Maker,
Almighty Lord.

So were those four
to inscribe with their fingers,

Set down and sing
and say forth boldly

That of Christ’s might and His strength
much had they heard

And had seen indeed,
which He Himself had here spoken;

Proclaimed and accomplished
miracles countless,

As He Himself had promised—
He, Wielder of Power,

Wide Ruling Lord—
when He first shaped world,

Surrounding it all
with a single Word,

Heaven and earth
and all that they held,

Full-worked or still waxing:
with God’s Word

All was encompassed
and set forth accordingly

Which world-men should rule
over widest lands

And when each age of this earth
should come to its end.

There was still one before them—
for five had slipped by

For the kinsmen of earth—
and now the sixth was to come,

Blessed by God’s strength
and the birth of Christ,

Best of All Healers,
and the Holy Ghost,

Come to this mid-world
to help the many,

The world-children all
‘gainst the wiles of the Fiend

And his secret snares.

Christ as a heroic warrior from the 9th century Stuttgart Psalter (fol. 23, illustration of Psalm 91:13)

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