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Sep 3 The Heliand - Old Norse Epic Poem about the life of Christ

Today in 1830 the first complete edition of the Heliand was published by Johann Andreas Schmeller. This was a ninth century epic poem about 6000 lines long which recounts the life of Jesus in Old Saxon. The text is based, not directly on the New Testament, but on a harmony of the Gospels, and was probably written at the request of emperor Louis the Pious around AD 830 to combat Saxon ambivalence toward Christianity. The word Heliand meant saviour in Old Saxon.


The preface begins by stating that the emperor Ludwig the Pious, desirous that his subjects should possess the word of God in their own tongue, commanded a certain Saxon, who was esteemed among his countrymen as an eminent poet, to translate poetically into the German language the Old and New Testaments. The poet willingly obeyed, all the more because he had previously received a divine command to undertake the task. He rendered into verse all the most important parts of the Bible with admirable skill, with the creation, it relates the history of the five ages of the world down to the coming of Christ.

The Saxons had become Christian after defeat by the Franks under Charlemagne. Around the time that the Heliand was written, there had been a revolt of the Saxon and it is thought that the Heliand had a significant influence over the fate of European society. Germanic cultural values such as their strong warrior ethos did not mesh well with Christian values or approaches to teaching. This made educating Saxons about the Gospel more difficult. This poem may have been written to remedy that so that they could be integrated into the growing civilization that was Christendom. The author therefore created a unique cultural synthesis between Christianity and Germanic warrior society – a synthesis that would plant the seed that would one day blossom in the full-blown culture of knighthood and become the foundation of medieval Europe (see pod of Apr 23). There is some evidence that the epic poem was known by Martin Luther as he referenced it as an example to encourage translation of Gospels into the vernacular. Luther seemed to favour some of the wording presented in the Heliand for example the angel's greeting to Mary– "you are dear to your Lord" – because he disliked the notion of referring to a human as "full of grace. The epic poem also shows acquaintance with the commentaries of Alcuin of York (see pod of May 19) and with the fragments of a poem based on the Book of Genesis, it is all that remains of the poetical literature of the old Saxons. It may be connected to the Gospel of Thomas. Which was found in 1956 that has been attributed the apostle Thomas. The Heliand shares a poetic style with the Gospel of Thomas

It ends in the middle of the story of the journey to Emmaus as told in St. Luke's Gospel. The poem gives evidence of the trained skill and a certain genius of the author, though the poet was no doubt restricted by not deviating too widely from the sacred originals. The storytelling represents attitudes and social structure found in warrior epics. John the Baptist is characterised as Christ’s ‘warrior companion’ (gesið), while the disciples become ‘earls’ (erlos). This poem may originally have been sung or recited out loud: the text is divided into fitts, or songs. Like modern day TV episodes, these would have provided reasonably sized chunks of a longer saga. The Saviour and His Apostles are conceived as a king and his faithful warriors . To give a flavour of what would have been listened to – here is an excerpt from the account of the Eucharist Then he spoke and said there would come a wise king, magnificent and mighty, to this middle realm; he would be of the best birth; he said that he would be the Son of God, he said that he would rule this world, earth and sky, always and forevermore. he said that on the same day on which the mother gave birth to the Blessed One in this middle realm, in the East, he said, there would shine forth a brilliant light in the sky, one such as we never had before between heaven and earth nor anywhere else, never such a baby and never such a beacon

Within the limits imposed by the nature of his task, his treatment of his sources is remarkably free, the details unsuited for poetic handling being passed over, or, in some instances, boldly altered. In many passages his work gives the impression of being not so much an imitation of the ancient Germanic epic, as a genuine example of it, though concerned with the deeds of other heroes than those of Germanic tradition. It is preserved, with in two manuscripts (one at the British Library, one in Munich The manuscript in Munich at the Bavarian State Library is produced on calf skin of high quality, has been preserved in good condition. A fragment discovered at Prague in 1881 contains lines 958–1006, and another, in the Vatican Library, discovered by K. Zangemeister in 1894, contains lines 1279–1358. Two additional fragments exist that were discovered most recently. The first was discovered in 1979 at a Jesuit High School in Straubing by B. Bischoff contains 157 poetic lines. The final fragment was found in Leipzig in 2006 and contains 47 lines of poetry’