The Descent into Hell

            In its most basic description, the Descent into Hell reimagines the tale of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell in the three days between His crucifixion and His resurrection. It is split into three sections, as Thomas Hill points out: “The first seventy-five lines describe the coming of the women to anoint Christ’s body and the Harrowing of Hell; lines 76-106 consist of a series of lyric apostrophes to Gabriel, Mary, Jerusalem, and the river Jordan, and lines 107-37 are a prayer…ask[ing] Christ for mercy by virtue of his baptism” (Hill 382). While many critics agree with Hill’s separation of this work, there are still many other aspects of the Descent into Hell that have undergone thorough scrutiny and debate, such as the poem’s source material, meaning, speaker, juxtaposition, and movement.

There is not one fully confirmed source from which the poem derives. Many critics, as M.R. Rambaran-Olm mentions, posit that the main source of the work is the Gospel of Nicodemus, in which the original account of the Harrowing of Hell is found (74). However, others, such as Patrick W. Connor, disagree, arguing that the source can be found in the Mass of Holy Saturday, specifically the Light and Baptismal Services (180) or in the peculiar juxtaposition of events in which the Descent is structured.[1] The work opens with the three Marys arriving at the sepulcher of Christ three days after his death, only to discover that He has been resurrected. Christ’s descent into Hell follows after this episode, placing Christ’s Harrowing chronologically after His resurrection. Why are these events placed out of order? In her article, “Is the Title of the Old English Poem the Descent into Hell Suitable,” M. R. Rambaran-Olm offers that the poet may have sacrificed physical chronology in order to convey “a contemporary and timeless Salvation message for readers” (76); it is, according to Rambaran-Olm, an attempt to emphasize the glory of Baptism and Salvation, not to retell the story of Christ’s descent into Hell (76).

Another fascinating juxtaposition in this work is between Christ’s Harrowing and His birth, referenced through the four apostrophes in the poem. Thomas D. Hill argues that “[Christ’s] birth and the Harrowing involve a transition from one mode of existence to another; both involve ‘birth’ into a new life” (386), like the rebirth received through baptism.

S. A. J. Bradley, in his article, “Grundtvig’s Palm Sunday 1867 and the Anglo-Saxon Descent into Hell,” also argues that “the movement [in the poem] is that of the spirit…the spirit that yearns toward God” (202). In Bradley’s reading, Christ comes to seek out the spirit through the process of Baptism and the spirit moves from a state of despair over sin and mortality to a state of joy and the hope of Salvation.

This salvation theme is also touched upon by Constance B. Hieatt, who mentions that the poem marks the transition to the miracle of salvation “by means of steps constantly emphasizing reversals and contrasts” (437). One contrast in the Descent that is popular within Old English poetry is a contrast between what people already know and what they discover to be true. Hieatt explains that when the Marys travel to the sepulcher of Christ, they expect to find His body. However, they come upon nothing but an empty tomb. This is instance which emphasizes a transition from the Old Law to the New, through the hope and miracle of Salvation.

One of the most widely argued aspects of the Descent into Hell is the identity of the work’s speaker. Ultimately, identifying the speaker on the basis of philology alone has proven to be inconclusive. For example, arguments have been made in favor of both Adam and John the Baptist from looking at various word choices in the poem, such as ord, which translates to “first” (Adam is Christ’s first kinsman and John the Baptist is the first to see Christ in Hell) and mæg, which translates to “kinsman” (Adam is Christ’s kinsman in human nature, John the Baptist is Christ’s cousin). There is also a section in the poem that mentions the sweord ond byrnan, helm ond heorsceorp, which Genevieve Crotty believes could be connected to John the Baptist, whose father, Zacharias, received weapons from God that he was to bestow upon his son.

A major reason why the identity of the speaker of the Descent into Hell is so contested has to do with the phrase git Iohannis, found in line 135. The literal translation is “with John,” which brings up the question of why John would refer to himself in the third person. Both Richard Trask and Genevieve Crotty suggest, independently, that perhaps this moment marks an interjection by the unnamed poet himself or, according to James Anderson, that of an anonymous follower of Christ who is celebrating Holy Saturday. R. E. Kaske offers a different interpretation, arguing that John the Baptist may indeed be the speaker and that the git in line 135 may actually be in reference to Christ and the water of the Jordan. Kaske’s interpretation makes sense, as there is an apostrophe to the Jordan earlier in the poem and would add support to the theme of Salvation and Baptism. The translation he offers is “…may you sprinkle with the water, Lord of hosts, with glad heart, all the hell-dwellers, just as you two [you and the water], by the baptism of John in Jordan, graciously inspired all this world” (59). While supporting the themes running throughout the work, Kaske’s translation does not completely dispel the confusion created by the git Iohannis line because he still mentions John’s name and even includes a bracket of his own interpretation, which, while well-researched, could still be incorrect and therefore seen as an attempt to include some of his own poetry and artistic freedom into the poem. Ultimately, this line only emphasizes the fact that many Anglo-Saxon words can have multiple meanings and interpretations, which makes finding a concrete answer to the question of the identity of the speaker in the Descent into Hell that much more difficult.

Admittedly, I initially chose to present this work to the undergraduate public based on the title alone: I was hoping to further explore how the Anglo-Saxons viewed Hell in their day. However, what I came upon instead was a brilliant reimagining of Christ’s Harrowing. This topic is conveyed through the Descent poem in an unusual manner that sacrifices a literal retelling in favor of using the Harrowing as a backdrop for a much larger theme of Salvation through Baptism. The poet thus transforms a singular event in Anglo-Saxon liturgy into a universal and timeless message. The poet’s ability to enact such a transformation is the most fascinating aspect of this work, and ultimately, why I chose to translate and present this work specifically.

In translating the Descent into Hell, my purpose was to break down the barriers of time, language and culture that separate the Anglo-Saxons from modern English speakers. I hoped that my readers would be able to see all humans as one and gain a deeper appreciation for the relevance of this piece to their own experiences, regardless of time, language, and cultural differences. I wanted my readers to see familiar theological concepts in a way that highlighted historical differences and also shed a light on the similarities in thought and belief that bridge those differences. In terms of working with the poem’s specific techniques, my primary goal was to make the work coherent and the content clear for the modern reader. However, I also wanted to engage the modern reader’s imagination with the uniqueness of the Anglo-Saxon language and cultural perspectives as much as possible without obscuring the meaning of the work or confusing the reader.  

There are very few existing translations of the Descent into Hell, which is a shame considering its compelling nature. One translation I managed to find is by S. A. J. Bradley, in his book, Anglo-Saxon Poetry. In comparison with my own translation criteria, Bradley’s translation has significant weaknesses. First of all, he has chosen a prose format over a poetic one which, in my opinion, deters a web-based modern reader from wanting to read the entire work. Modern readers live in a Web-based society, in which everything is quick. Formatting the work in a traditional poetry form makes it appear quicker and simpler to read. If modern readers can take the work line by line, instead of having to read each section smashed together in a paragraph form, they will be more likely to absorb the meaning of what they are reading.

Bradley also does not emphasize the importance of John the Baptist within the poem, referring to him as “The man” in line 23 and “John” in line 50. A reader unfamiliar with the poem’s source material is not going to know who John is, much less why he is the supposed speaker.

One of the biggest issues I had with Bradley’s translation is his treatment of git Iohannis. Bradley translates the line as “just as you and John happily inspired this whole world by/the baptism in Jordan” (The Descent 126-7), completely neglecting to address the issues previously mentioned and seemingly ignoring how confusing it may sound to a modern reader. 

In contrast, another translation of the Descent poem that I looked at is found in John the Baptist's Prayer or The Descent into Hell from the Exeter Book, by Rambaran-Olm. Here, she does an effective job of addressing the git Iohannis issue, ending line 134 with closed quotation marks and translating the last three lines outside of those quotation marks, indicating that someone else is speaking. Rambaran-Olm is aware of the git Iohannis issue and has addressed it in the best way she can. I want to do my best to follow this example and make the content of the poem coherent and easy for a modern reader to follow. I hope to approach this line in a way that is concrete enough that a modern reader is not tripped up, yet ambiguous enough that I will not be accused of altering the content of the source material. 

Another aspect of Rambaran-Olm’s translation that I feel surpassed Bradley’s was her indication of sections of the original manuscript that are no longer legible due to a large amount of lacunae. The only downfall is that she has attempted to reconstruct the broken lines which, while coherent in terms of context, could indicate a use of artistic freedom that goes against my personal criteria. In my own translation, I have chosen to keep the lacunae, remaining true to the source material, despite a choppy translation.

It is my hope that my translation of the Descent into Hell is coherent enough for a modern audience while still effectively reflecting its Old English origin. I want my English readers to realize just how far our language has come and to appreciate the beauty and artistry of a language long forgotten. It is my wish that readers will recognize the themes of Salvation and Baptism present throughout the work, both gaining exposure to the beliefs and preoccupations of the Anglo-Saxons and noticing connections to their own lives. The written word is truly remarkable, for it bridges those gaps in time and culture that make it difficult to relate to others and allows us to see every person as one universal being. If I would like readers to take anything away from my Descent translation, it is that the Anglo-Saxons are no different from us. In fact, their beliefs, anxieties, and even their language are the building blocks upon which much of today’s society was formed. Yes, they lived in a very different time than the one we live in today, but they were still people, people with creativity, a strong sense of faith, and the desire to ensure that their voices were heard. Now, I think this is something that we can all relate to.


Annotated Bibliography for Further Reading

Anderson, James E. "Dual Voices and the Identity of Speakers in the Exeter Book Descent into Hell."

     Neophilologus (Neophil) 70.4 (1986): 636-40. Print. James E. Anderson explores the duality

     and identity of the speakers in the Old English "Descent into Hell", arguing that John the

     Baptist is closest in kinship to Christ, and therefore must be the logical speaker throughout

     most of the poem.  The speaker in the poem's conclusion, Anderson argues, appears to be an

     anonymous third person celebrant of "solemn Holy Saturday baptism".

Bradley, S. A. J., trans. "The Descent into Hell."  Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Trans. S. A. J. Bradley.

     London: David Campbell Publishers, 1982. 390-95. Print. S. A. J. Bradley provides a brief

     preface to his translation of the "Descent into Hell", discussing the opening and its

     relationship to the traditional story of the Harrowing of Hell.

--------------------. "Grundtvig's Palm Sunday 1867 and the Anglo-Saxon Descent into Hell."

     Grundtvig-Studier (GStud) 44 (1993): 198-213. Print. S. A. J. Bradley describes N. F. S.

     Grundtvig's encounter and study of Anglo-Saxon literature, focusing specifically on the

     "Descent into Hell".  He highlights the liturgy of the work, its use of movement contrasted

     with stasis, and how it relates to Grundtvig's "prophetic optimism" and his appeal to the

     pattern of the reversal of the heart's mood.

Brantley, Jessica. "The Iconography of the Utrecht Psalter and the Old English Descent into Hell."

     Anglo-Saxon England (ASE) 28 (1999): 43-63. Print. Jessica Brantley argues that a potential

     source for the Old English "Descent into Hell" may be the Utrecht Psalter, which features

     images of the women visiting Christ's sepulchre and Christ's descent into Hell back-to-back

     (coinciding with the order of the "Descent" poem).   

Connor, Patrick W. "The Liturgy and the Old English 'Descent into Hell.'" Journal of English and

     Germanic Philology (Urbana, IL) 79 (1980): 179-91. Print. Patrick W. Connor explores the Old

     English "Descent into Hell" in terms of its liturgical context.  He argues that the poem does

     not depend on the "Gospel of Nicodemus", but rather that it represents the Mass of Holy

     Saturday (the day before Easter).  Connor explores this relationship between the "Descent" poem

     and Holy Saturday, explaining how the poem conveys the Light and Baptismal Services, and how

     the poem's structure agrees with the ritualistic mood of this holy day.

Crotty, Genevieve. "The Exeter Harrowing of Hell: A Re-Interpretation." PMLA 54.2 (1939): 349-58.

     Print. Genevieve Crotty discusses the differences between the Old English "Descent into Hell"

     and the traditional story of the Harrowing of Hell.  She addresses the issues of the identity

     of the speaker in the poem and the phrase "git Iohannis".  She offers the translation "just as

     John formerly did in the Jordan", and suggests that the other speaker is the poet himself,

     interjecting at the end of the work.

Hieatt, Constance B. "Transition in the Exeter Book Descent into Hell: The Poetic Use of a 'stille'

     Yet 'geondflow[ende]' River." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen: Bulletin de la Societe

     Neophilologique/Bulletin of the Modern Language Society (NM) 91.4 (1990): 431-38. Print.

     Constance B. Hieatt explores the "Descent into Hell" in terms of its poetic aspects,

     specifically on its use of literal movement and transition, versus stasis, and its use of

     contrast between what people think they know and what they find to eventually be true.  Hieatt

     argues that the "Descent into Hell" is about the moment of transition from the Old Law to the

     New, through the constant emphasis on reversals and contrasts.

Hill, Thomas D. "Cosmic Stasis and the Birth of Christ: The Old English Descent into Hell, Lines

     99-106." Journal of English and Germanic Philology (Urbana, IL) 71 (1972): 382-89. Print. Lines

     99-106 of the Old English Descent into Hell, in which the poet apostrophizes Jerusalem and the

     river Jordan, are rather cyptic; most of the difficulties however, can be resolved once one

     understands that the poet is alluding to a traditional belief that all created things were

     still for a moment when Christ was born. This analysis of the passages raises a new problem-why

     the poet chose to juxtapose the birth of Christ and the Harrowing of Hell; it is argued that

     the juxtaposition of these two events derives from their frequent association in patristic

     literature, and association which depends upon their essential similarity as 'liminal' places

     of Christ's career.

Izydorczyk, Zbigniew. "The Inversion of Paschal Events in the Old English Descent into Hell."

     Neuphilologische Mitteilungen: Bulletin de la Societe Neophilologique/Bulletin of the Modern

     Language Society (NM) 91.4 (1990): 439-47. Print. Zbigniew Izydorczyk discusses the inversion

     of events in the Old English "Descent into Hell", particularly on the inversion of the scenes

     that feature the women visiting Christ's sepulcher after His resurrection and His Harrowing in

     Hell.  It is suggested that the source of the poem may not be a singular text, but rather an

     overall viewpoint, of the Anglo-Saxons, on redemption.

Kaske, R. E. "The Conclusion of the Old English 'Descent into Hell.'" (Paradosis): Studies in Memory

     of Edwin A. Quain. Ed. Harry George Fletcher III and Mary Beatrice Schulte. New York: Fordham

     UP, 1976. 47-59. Print. R. E. Kaske discusses the conclusion of the Old English "Descent into

     Hell".  He explores the meaning behind the phrase "git Iohannis", in line 135, and how this

     affects our understanding of the poem's speaker and the emphasis of the poem's overall message.

      He suggests that the pair referred to in the pronoun "git" are Christ and the river Jordan,

     and brings up the question of syntactic adventurousness in translating Anglo-Saxon works.  

Rambaran-Olm, M. R. "Is the Title of the Old English Poem the Descent into Hell Suitable?" Selim 13

     (2005-6): 69-82. Print. R. M. Rambaran-Olm studies and reevaluates the traditional acceptance

     of titles of OE poetry in the example of the case of the Exeter Book's "The Descent into Hell",

     also known as "The Harrowing of Hell".

--------------------------- John the Baptist's Prayer or The Descent into Hell from the Exeter Book.

     Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2014. Print. M. R. Rambaran-Olm discusses multiple aspects of the Old

     English poem, the "Descent into Hell", including the language, the descensus motif, and the

     literary qualities.  She explores comparative studies, explains and reconstructs parts of the

     original folio that were damaged, and includes her own translation of the work.

"The Descent into Hell." The Complete Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Poetry. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2015. <>. Source of the Descent poem in its original Anglo-Saxon text. 

Trask, Richard M. "The Descent into Hell of the Exeter Book." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen:

     Bulletin de la Societe Neophilologique/Bulletin of the Modern Language Society (Helsinki,

     Finland) 72 (1971): 419-35. Print. Ruchard M. Trask discusses the Anglo-Saxon "Descent into

     Hell" in terms of the speaker of the work and the poem's source.  He notes that the poem cannot

     be compared on the same terms with the traditional story of the Harrowing of Hell, as the

     intention and tone are very different.  Trask concludes by stating that the "Descent" is a

     "celebration of the reality of Christ, temporal and eternal, and his meaning to men."


[1] “The Inversion of Paschal Events in the Old English Descent into Hell” by Zibgniew Izdorczyk and “The Iconography of the Utrecht Psalter and the Old English Descent into Hell” by Jessica Brantley.