This was our first week of translating the Rune Poem. We had prepared a number of lines each in advance and added these to a shared Google Doc, for discussion in person. In educational-speak, this might be termed something like ‘blended learning.’ For us, this means taking the existing, and very valuable, model that we have developed for translation group of individual study and collaboration, and adding a digital presence – both a working-document and a record of progress. The different layers to our practice and approaches analogise with the multiple levels of the Rune Poem: literary and semantic, runic and lithic, visual and semiotic, oral and aural. Between these layers – in both contexts – falls knowledge and the lack thereof; hypotheses and some false conclusions.
We went through the first nine lines of the poem and encountered, within the first four, the seduction of neat analysis and its duplicity. The poem opens with the rune ᚠ, ‘feoh’. Many students of Old English will be used to translating ‘feoh’ as ‘tame beasts’ or ‘cattle’ (see Bosworth Toller entry or the Dictionary of Old English). Halsall has pointed out the appeal of this interpretation when contrasted to the poem’s next rune, ᚢ, ‘Ur,’ which denotes the aurochs, a very large wild animal from the ox family, now extinct. But as Halsall has cautioned, whilst this might bolster an argument about the structure and order of the poem, the lines that follow the ‘feoh’ rune (1-3) are nothing to do with domesticated animals but rather a conventionalised Christian message about generosity and gaining glory before God (Halsall, p.97). We have translated ᚠ / ‘feoh’ as ‘wealth.’
ᚢ, ‘Ur’ didn’t provide any lexical false friends but it did take some imagination to visualise what an Anglo-Saxon author or audience might have in mind. The descriptions for the aurochs can be translated variously to different effects – is the aurochs infamous or renowned (‘mære’) and does this recall mares (in the sense of the demons of nightmare)? A moor-stamper or –stepper (‘morstapa’)? A moody or noble (‘modig’) creature? Or all of these things at once? The aurochs has been an extinct breed since the seventeenth century and would not have trodden the Anglo-Saxon landscape. But the conception of this over-horned (‘oferhyrned’) animal would have transmitted through cultural memory, passing across in the Germanic traditions that tangle with the runic tradition.
From the huge aurochs to the tiny thorn; the folkloric to the everyday. Lines 7-9 of the Rune Poem follow the rune ‘ᚦ,’ ‘ðorn’ – a familiar symbol for Old English students as a letter in the Anglo-Saxon alphabet and the prickly part of a plant that causes immeasurable (‘ungemetum’) pain for all men (‘manna gehwelcum’) who rest on it. Who hasn’t been there?
Maureen Halsall, The Old English Rune Poem: A Critical Edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982)
Vicky, PhD on the Old English Orosius