A Journey Charm: Shades of Paganism

            A Journey Charm seems to be a prayer that invokes God and various biblical figures to protect the chanter on his or her journeys.  Interesting in this work is its origins: it would seem that scholars don’t regard the poem on its own, but as a part of a group of twelve others known as The Metrical Charms.  The charms seem to serve very functional purposes: to fertilize the land, and fend off bees, among other things.  It would be difficult for the reader in the present to regard many of the Charms as Christian prayers, even though most of them have very heavy and ostensible Christian overtones, because some of them involve decidedly pagan elements (especially Charms 3 and 7, which apparently ward off pagan supernatural spirits such as dwarves and elves).

            On the whole, there doesn’t seem to be much scholarship pertaining to the Metrical Charms in general, let alone “A Journey Charm” (or Metrical Charm 12) specifically, beyond the historical evidence from the manuscript from which they came.  According to Judith Vaughan-Sterling, the charms originated in a work called the Lacgnunga, located in the manuscript Harley 585, which is apparently a work that was supposed to have served very functional, medicinal purposes—not at all what people consider literary poems, or even thought of as having quite the same mystical connotations that a present-day prayer would have. I think that perhaps this is the reason why there is very little literary scholarship available to us on the Metrical Charms: we can imagine scholars thinking “they’re just not Beowulf.”

            Critic Vaughan-Sterling disagrees with this stance in her article, though she does recognize the limitations of looking at the Metrical Charms poetically: “No one would argue, of course, that the Metrical Charms are poetry of the caliber of Beowulf or The Dream of the Rood” (186). She does, however, maintain that the aesthetic value of these poems is more than what past scholars have attributed to them.  She often cites the Anglo-Saxonist G. Storms, who does not seem recognize the artistic merits of the charms in their original manuscript because they are written in prose (qtd. in Vaughan-Sterling 187).  To refute this point, she points out the various markings in the prose of the original manuscript of Charm #4 (which Storm translated).  She says that, in his own research, he found that the original scribe marked the lines of verse within the prose.  According to Vaughan-Sterling, these markings imply that the original scribes were very aware of the artistic aspects of the charms (187).
            She continues on to draw parallels between the ritual texts (as she calls them) and other more traditional poetry like Beowulf, such as the supernatural elements that both speak of (both Christian and pagan) (Vaughan-Sterling 188).  But then she goes back to the more concrete, saying that both poems and incantations are spoken only in rare and special occasions—the conclusion being that the aesthetic considerations in the charms are apparent in their poetic vocabulary and meter, even if the vocabulary tends to be looser than that of Beowulf  (Vaughan-Sterling 191).
            In my opinion, all of Vaughan-Sterling’s arguments are valid.  I particularly agree that the charms wouldn’t be spoken under normal circumstances, and the likelihood that the charms would be more literary and poetic than people consider them seems obvious, even if they were a part of a work that was supposed to have been written for functional purposes.  I would take this thought one step further and say that it is even more likely because of their subject matter: it seems only natural to use slightly more elevated language if you truly believe you were dealing with supernatural forces, Christian or not.

    Not only that, but it would seem that the strange mixture of pagan ritual and Christianity as seen in “A Journey Charm” and others would almost demand the attention of scholars, or even the curious reader in the modern day.  It seems to speak very much of a cultural shift in Anglo-Saxon society—if anything, it’s evidence that Christian conversion in the early days was certainly not the spontaneous change that I think is implied in modern times.
            In his introduction of The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, Dobbie says that “[A Journey Charm] is almost meaningless in several places (especially in the last ten lines)”  (cxxxvii).  While I must admit that many of the lines in the original Anglo-Saxon are problematic, I wouldn’t say that they were gibberish.  Particularly the words “gewlitegod” and “halre” were difficult to define in Modern English.  However, I wouldn’t say that any of the lines were so incomprehensible that they didn’t have a rough Modern English translation.  The choices I made in these “fuzzy lines” relate directly to my criteria for a good translation.

First, I think the purpose of a good translation of Anglo-Saxon poetry is to enlighten the reader about a past culture, while at the same time remaining comprehensible and interesting.  I think it’s important that everyone (and particularly students of literature) should be made aware of past cultures.  In our understanding of the past, we are able to hold a more sophisticated view of the world—we realize that there are reasons people act the way they do, and that our own culture isn’t necessarily the “right” or the “best” culture.  Having this sophistication widens people’s perspective and allows them to view the merits of others, rather than their “flaws.” 

Secondly, I think that in order to fulfill that purpose, the content of a translation should remain as close to the original values and ideas as comprehensibility allows.  I am cautious to say that the translation has to be “literal,” because many words and phrases, and much of the syntax of Anglo-Saxon, is so difficult to capture in Modern English.  However, I do think that the Anglo-Saxons had clear, vivid images and ideas that are wholly possible to capture and must not be lost.  Lastly, the technique should not interfere with the cultural authenticity of the text (the ideas, images and wording that are uniquely Anglo-Saxon to our modern eyes), but should still make the text clear and interesting to the reader. 

I would really like to capture the odd religious duality in my translation of  “A Journey Charm.”  What I find problematic in the two translations I’ve read is that they are just written like prayers invoking the name of God and the saints.  S. A. J. Bradley’s translation is entirely in prose, which, while useful if you like to read long lists of names in a paragraph, completely loses the sense that it is an incantation—for all intents and purposes a magic spell that one wouldn’t speak aloud like a laundry list.  Bradley creates the “laundry list” effect by using very lackluster language—for example, he translates line 30 of the poem as “and the Seraph, created beautiful in heaven, my spear.”  In this line, he completely loses the sense of the Anglo-Saxon “gewlitegod,” which I roughly translated as “brilliant good light.”  Also, the line says nothing of the angels’ being created in heaven, and I’m confident that the word is referring to the spear that the speaker is asking the Seraphs to be.  Another example is in line 21, where he says: “preserve my going.”  If I were to ask angels to protect me on my journey, I certainly wouldn’t ask them to “preserve my going” as if the journey can be canned like fruit.  I translated that particular phrase as “guard my way,” because I imagine that is exactly what the speaker would ask of the angels.  It’s a much stronger statement—not as vague (or as I like to say, “mushy”) as using the word “preserve” in such an odd sense.     
Gavin Chappell’s translation is a much closer to what I want to achieve, though he does have some problems in his version.  He, like Bradley, seems to have trouble with line 30.  He totally loses the Seraphs’ being a spear, and for some reason uses the line to refer to John in line 29 when he says: “Gloriously adorned, angel of the track-way.”  I have no idea why Chapell speaks of “track-way angels” in this line; there is no indication of this image in line 30 of the original Anglo-Saxon, which says “wuldre gewlitegod         wælgar Serafhin,” which is literally asking the Angels to be a spear.

Also, like Bradley, there are some areas in the poem in which he uses odd, vague verbs to describe very concrete actions.  For example, in line 22, he says: “Maintain me entirely and administer me.”  Why would a person ask angels to maintain him or her like a car?  Also, “administer” has completely wrong connotations for this passage—government agencies or schools are administered.  I don’t think the spiritual should be described in these legalistic terms.  The original Anglo-Saxon seems to call for words that are much more concrete, and much less abstract.

            My criteria for a good translation are simple, and hopefully I will achieve them in my translation of “A Journey Charm.” I think it’s important for a translation to be accurate, and by “fudging” certain lines in a poem (making them vague and generalizing their meaning), I think you lose some of the interesting aspects of Anglo-Saxon poetry that may seem foreign to a modern day reader (for example, men being described as “speech-bearers”).  I don’t want a translation to be so literal as to be incomprehensible, but the Modern English should evoke the cultural elements of the text as closely as possible without being unintelligible.  I also think that the techniques involved in the translation should make it accessible to a modern general audience and meaningful to them in a way that is more interesting than in a historical sense.

Works Cited

Bradley, S.A.J.  “A Journey Charm.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Rutland, Vermont: Charles Tuttle, 1982. 548-549.

Chappell, Gavin.  “A Journey Charm or Sið Galdor.”  Angelseaxisce Ealdriht Asatru & Heathen Pages. 9 Dec 2004.  < http://www.ealdriht.org/charm11.html>.

Dobbie, Elliot.  Introduction.  The Anglo Saxon Minor Poems.  New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 1942.

Irvine, Martin and Deborah Everhart.  “Old English Minor Poems” Labyrinth Library: Old English.  26 June 2005 <http://www.georgetown.edu/labyrinth/library/oe/minor-poems.html>

Vaughan-Sterling, Judith A.  “The Anglo-Saxon Metrical Charms: Poetry as Ritual.”

Journal of English and Germanic Philology 82:2 (1983): 186-200.   


Works Consulted


“Anglo-Saxon Metrical Charms.”  Angelseaxisce Ealdriht Asatru & Heathen Pages.  27 Oct 2004.  <http://www.ealdriht.org/charms.html>.

Hall, J.R. Clark.  A Concise Anglo Saxon Dictionary. Canada: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Mitchel, Bruce and Fred. C. Robinson.  A Guide to Old English Sixth Edition.  Mass:

Blackwell, 2002.

Northvegr Foundation.  2004.  Northvegr Foundation. 22 Oct. 2004 <http://www.northvegr.org>.