Widsith

Widsith is an alliterative poem of 142 lines (slightly abridged here) that provides a kind of inventory of the peoples and characters, both historical and fictitious, who comprise the world of early Germanic literature — most of which is lost to us. There is a brief introduction to its speaker, a prototypical Germanic scop who provides what was probably a mnemonic list of tribes and rulers, followed by a résumé of the tribes and courts he has visited, interspersed with praise and rewards he has received for his performances. It closes with a brief comment on the importance and fame of poets like Widsith.

Although the poem is primarily a catalog, Widsith opens a window — or rather a peephole — on the oral tradition of Germanic poetry. Like so many of the brief allusions to stories in Beowulf — for example, the feud between the Danes and the Heathobards or the story about Offa's taming of his haughty bride — the poem tantalizes and frustrates the modern reader with the desire to know more about the tales known to Widsith's audiences. We have italicized names that also occur in Beowulf.

The translation is by S. A. J. Bradley from Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London: J. M. Dent, 1982).

 

Widsith spoke forth, and unlocked the treasury of his words, he who had traveled through most of the peoples, nation and tribes upon the earth; many a time on the floor of the hall he had received some commemorative treasure. His family were sprung from the Myrgingas, and he had in the first instance gone with Ealhild, the beloved weaver of peace, from the east out of Anglen to the home of the king of the glorious Goths, Eormanric, the cruel troth-breaker. He began then to say many things.

"I have heard tell about many men ruling over nations. Every prince ought to live ethically — one man governing the land in succession to the other — who presumes to receive its princely throne. . . .

"Attila ruled the Huns, Eormanric the Goths, Becca the Baningas, Gifica the Burgundians, Caesar ruled the Greeks and Cælic the Finns, Hagena the Holmrygas, and Heoden the Glommas, Witta ruled the Swabians, Wade the Hælsingas, Meaca the Myrgingas, Mearchealf the Hundingas. Theodoric ruled the Franks, Thyle the Rondingas, Breoca the Brondingas, Billing the Wernas. Oswine ruled the Eowan and Gefwolf the Jutes; Finn son of Folcwalda the tribe of the Frisians. Sigehere ruled the Sea-Danes for a very long while, Hnæf the Hocingas, Helm the Wulfingas, Wald the Woingas, Wod the Thuringians, Sæferth the Secgan, Ongendtheow the Swedes, Sceafthere the Ymbras, Sceafa the Longbeardan, Hun the Hætwere and Holen the Wrosnas. . . .

"Offa ruled Anglen, Alewih the Danes, who was the most spirited of all those people; he did not, however, accomplish heroic achievements beyond those of Offa, for of these men Offa, being in his youth, first conquered the greatest of kingdoms. No one contemporary with him made a greater heroic achievement in battle. With his lone sword he defined a frontier against the Myrgingas at Fifeldor. From then on the Angles and the Swabians maintained it as Offa had conquered it.

"Hrothwulf Hrothgar, nephew and uncle, kept peace together for a very long while, after they had driven off the tribe of the Wicingas and humiliated the vanguard of Ingeld and cut down the host of Heathobardan at Heorot.

"Thus I journeyed through many foreign lands throughout this spacious earth. Good and evil I experienced there; separated from family, distant from noble kinsmen, I served far and wide. I can sing, therefore, and tell a tale, and mention before the assemblage in the mead-hall how royal benefactors have been generously kind to me. . . .

"And I was with Eormanric for quite a while, where the king of the Goths was graciously kind to me. He, the ruler of the city-dwellers, gave me a collar in which there was six hundred coins' worth of pure gold, counted by shillings. This I gave to Eadgils, my lord and protector, to keep when I arrived home as a reward to the beloved man because he, the lord of the Myrgingas, gave me land, the ancestral home of my father. And then Ealhhild, Eadwine's daughter, the queen of the people, gave me another. Her praise extended through many lands, whenever I was to say in song where below the sky I best knew a queen ornate with gold, bestowing gifts. Whenever Scilling and I with clear eloquence upraised a song before our victorious lord and my voice rang out melodiously and loud to the lyre, then many people high-mettled of mind, those who were well informed, have said they never heard better singing. . . .

"I have always found it to be so in my journeying, that the man most acceptable to the country's inhabitants is the one to whom God gives the government of the people to uphold for the time that he lives here."

So the people's entertainers go wandering fatedly through many lands; they declare their need and speak words of thanks. Always, whether south or north, they will meet someone discerning of songs and unniggardly of gifts who desires to exalt his repute and sustain his heroic standing until everything passes away, light and life together. This man deserves glory; he will keep his lofty and secure renown here below the heavens.


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