First page of Beowulf, contained in the damaged Nowell Codex. The codex contains: Augustine's Soliloquies, the Gospel of Nicodemus, Solomon and Saturn, a fragment of a life of Saint Quentin, a life of Saint Christopher, Wonders of the East, Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, Beowulf and Judith. The somewhat eclectic contents of this codex have led to much critical debate over why these particular works were chosen for inclusion. One theory which has gained considerable currency is that the compiler(s) saw a thematic link: all five works deal to some extent with monsters or monstrous behavior.
THE LETTER OF ALEXANDER TO ARISTOTLE
A translation of the Old English text
Cotton Vitellius A. xv is one of the four major Anglo-Saxon literature codices. It is most famous as the manuscript containing the unique copy of the epic poem Beowulf. The first codex contains four works of Old English prose: a copy of Alfred's translation of Augustine's Soliloquies, a translation of the Gospel of Nicodemus, the prose Solomon and Saturn, and a fragment of a Life of Saint Quentin. The second codex begins with three prose works: a Life of Saint Christopher, Wonders of the East (a description of various far-off lands and their fantastic inhabitants), and a translation of a Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, which is presented here. These are followed by Beowulf, which takes up the bulk of the volume, and Judith, a poetic retelling of part of the book of Judith. Great wear on the final page of Beowulf and other manuscript factors such as wormhole patterns indicate Judith was not originally the last part of the manuscript, though it is in the same hand as the later parts of Beowulf.
Here is the text of the letter of Alexander, the great king and the famous Macedonian, which he wrote and sent to Aristotle, his teacher, concerning the situation of the great nation of India, and the extent of his expeditions and his travels, which he made throughout the world. He says as follows in the very beginning of the letter:
I always remember you, even in the midst of the dreadful uncertainty of our battles, since you, my dearest teacher, are, next to my mother and sisters, my dearest friend. And since I know that you are well set in wisdom, I thought to write to you about the great nation of India, and the disposition of the heavens, and the countless varieties of serpents, and men, and wild beasts, so that your learning and knowledge might contribute to a certain extent to the understanding of these novelties. Although in you consummate wisdom and erudition and teaching of what is correct require no assistance, yet I wished that you should learn of my deeds, which you love, and of those things which you have not seen, and which I saw in India after manifold struggles and after great danger alongside the Greek army.
These things I write and tell you, and each of them is individually worth bearing in mind exactly as I observed it. I would not have believed the words of any man that so many marvelous things could be so before I saw them myself with my own eyes. The earth is a source of wonder first for the good things she brings forth, and then for the evil, through which she is revealed to observers. She is the producer of well-known wild beasts, and plants, and stones and metal-ore, and of wondrous creatures, all those things which are difficult to comprehend for those who look and observe because of the variety of their forms.
But now I will write to you about those things that come first to mind, in case I can be accused of empty talk and shameful lies. Look, you yourself know that the nature of my mind is always such as to keep me continually within the boundaries of what is true and right; and I have described things in words more sparingly than they actually occurred. So now I hope and believe that you perceive these things so as not at all to reckon me to boast in telling of the greatness of our struggle and contest. For I often wished and wanted that fewer of them were so severe.
In this I give thanks to the Greek army, and especially to the strength of youth and our unconquered troop, because they were with me in the easy things and did not depart during the hardships, but with patience they bore with me always so that I was called king of all kings. Be pleased with these honors, my dear teacher. And now I shall write these things jointly to you and to my mother Olympias, and my sisters, for the pair of you shall share a common love. And if it is otherwise, then you show yourself a lesser man than I previously believed of you.
In the previous letters which I sent you, I explained and indicated to you about the eclipse of the sun and moon, and the courses of the stars and configurations, and the heavenly signs. All these things cannot be otherwise than so arranged and foreordained by a great intelligence. And now I shall write down all this new information for you in a letter. When you read it, be aware that this is all such as seemed appropriate, in the opinion of your Alexander, to send to you.
In the month of May we overcame and conquered King Darius of Persia at the river Gande, and there took all his kingdom into our possession. And we set and designated our stewards over the eastern nations, and we were enriched with many royal honors. In the earlier letter I told you about this, and, in case reporting it will seem to you too repetitious to write, I will pass over it, and tell you what has happened now.
In the month of July, in the final days of that month we came into the land of India to a place called Fasiacen. And with amazing swiftness we overcame and conquered Porus, the king. And we took his entire nation under our control, and in that land we were enriched with many royal honors. But I want you to know those things which are worth having in mind. First I will write to you about the countless multitude of his troop, which comprised, not counting an innumerable number of foot-soldiers, sixteen thousand men and eight hundred cavalry, all equipped with battle-gear. And there we captured four hundred elephants, on whom were there stood armed archers, and the elephants carried towers and platforms, on which the mail-clad warriors stood. After that we entered the royal city of Porus with our weapons. And we saw his hall and his royal quarters. There were golden columns, very great, and mighty, and firm, which were enormously large and tall, of which we counted a tally of four hundred. The walls were also golden, sheathed with gold plates the thickness of a finger. When I wished to see these things more keenly and went further, I saw a golden vineyard, mighty and firm, and its branches hung about the columns. And I was greatly amazed at that. The leaves of the vineyard were of gold, and its tendrils and fruits were of crystal and emerald, and jewels hung among the crystal. His bedrooms and his main chambers were all most highly embellished with precious stones, the gem-stones unions and carbuncles. On the outside they were wrought in ivory, wonderfully white and fair, and posts of cypress and laurel supported them on the outside, and twisted golden props stood within, and there were countless hoards of gold inside and out, and they were manifold and of various kinds. And many jeweled vessels and crystal drinking-cups and golden pitchers were brought forth there. Seldom did we find any silver there.
When I had all these things in my possession, I wanted to see the interior of India. Then I came into the land of Caspia with all my army. There was the most fruitful soil in the country. And I marveled greatly at the fertility of the soil, and, truly rejoicing in my heart, I wished more eagerly to see that land. Then the inhabitants of the land told us that we should beware the various kinds of serpents and savage wild beasts, in case we came upon them. A multitude of them dwell in these hills and valleys, and in woods, and in open country, and they hide themselves in stony hollows. And yet I wished rather to travel the dangerous paths and ways than the safe paths, so that I could catch up with Porus, fleeing from the battle, before he could escape into the deserted tracts of the world.
I took with me 250 guides who knew the shorter routes of that journey. Then we traveled in the month of August through the boiling sands, and the rough places devoid of water or any moisture. And I offered a reward to those who led us knowledgeably through the unknown land of India and were willing to lead me with my army safe to the land of Patriacen And most of all I wished that they would lead me to the secret weavers of precious cloth, who spun it wonderfully from a certain tree, and from its leaves and fleece, and wove and worked it into precious cloth. But those natives strove to fulfill the will of our enemies rather than ours, since they led us through those lands in which there were intolerable varieties of serpents and savage wild beasts. Then I realized myself and saw for my part that these difficulties beset me. For I had discounted and disregarded the useful advice of my friends and of those men who tried to dissuade me from traveling on those paths. Then I gave orders to my thegns and commanded that they kept their weapons to the ready, and proceeded in battle-array. And my troop and my thegns and all my army had brought and carried a great deal with them of the gold and precious stones that they had plundered. For they expected and feared that if they left it behind their enemies would secretly take it and steal it away.
And indeed my thegns and all my troop had gained so much wealth that they could only with difficulty bring and carry with them the burden of all that gold. Also their weapons were no little burden because I had commanded that all the weapons of my thegns and all my troop and army be covered with gold plate. And all my troop looked like stars or lightning because of the amount of the gold. It shone and glittered before me and around me in glory, and they led before me war-banners and standards. And so great was the sight and spectacle of that troop of mine in splendor beyond all the other mighty kings there have been in the world. When I myself gazed and saw my prosperity and my glory and the success of my youth and the prosperity of my life, I was somewhat uplifted with joy in my heart.
But as it turns out so often in better and sounder things, fate and appearance often change them, and turn them into something else, and at that time it happened to us that we were sorely vexed and afflicted with thirst. We bore and suffered that thirst sorely, when one of my thegns who was called Seferus found water in a hollow stone and poured it into a helmet and brought it to me. And that thegn of mine was himself thirsty, and yet he cared more for my life and health than for his own. And when, as I have said, he brought that water to me, I ordered together all my troop and all my trusted band and poured it away in the sight of them all, so that I should not drink and leave thirsty my thegn and my army, and all who were with me. And then before them all I praised the deed of Seferus my thegn, and gave him precious gifts for that deed in the sight of them all. And when my troop was heartened and
Calmed by this, we went ahead on the route we had taken before, and it was not long until we came to a certain river in the wilderness. On the river-bank there stood reeds and pines, and silver-fir trees of huge size and stature grew and flourished on the cliff-edge.
When we came to the river, because of the unbearable thirst which was afflicting myself and also all my army and the animals that were with us, I ordered my host to rest and make camp. And when we had camped there I wanted to ease and cool my thirst. When I tasted the water it was more bitter and harsh to drink than any other I had tasted. And neither was any man able to drink it, nor could any animal taste it. Then I was particularly disturbed in my heart for the dumb animals, since I knew that men could more easily bear their thirst than the beasts. There was a great multitude of four-footed animals with me, and a great multitude of elephants, a thousand of huge size who bore and carried the gold, and two thousand four hundred horses, not including the cavalry, and twenty thousand foot soldiers, then there was two and a half thousand mules who carried the packs, and thirty thousand pack-horses and oxen who carried the wheat, two thousand camels, five hundred cattle, of which some were slaughtered every day for food. There was also an innumerable tally of horses and mules and camels and elephants who followed us in countless droves. They were all vexed and afflicted with unbearable thirst. Then the men sometimes licked their iron tools and sometimes they tasted oil and cooled their thirst in its pungency. Then in their shame some men in their need drank piss.
Things had then become difficult for me for two reasons: first with regard to my own necessity, and that of my troop. Then I ordered each man to equip himself with his weapons, and set out, and gave a strict command that any man who was not equipped with his weapons in battle-array should be killed with weapons. Then they wondered greatly why they had to bear the weight and size of their weapons in such great thirst when no enemy was in sight. But I knew that our path and journey led through those lands and places in which various kinds of serpents and savage wild animals had their dwelling. And since we were unfamiliar and unaware of that terrain, any disaster might suddenly befall us.
Then we went forth along the bank of the river, at the eighth hour of the day. Then we came to a village, built in the middle of the river on an island. The village was built and constructed from the reeds and trees that grew on the river-bank, and which we have written about and described already. When we looked into the village we saw dwelling in it a few half~naked Indians. But as soon as they themselves saw us they hid themselves furtively in their houses. I wanted to catch sight of these men, to find out about clean fresh water. After we had waited a long time and none of them would emerge, I ordered a few arrows to be shot into the village, so that if they would not come out to us voluntarily, they should of necessity, through fear of battle. Then they were still more greatly afraid, and hid themselves more securely. Then I ordered two hundred of my thegns from the Greek army to arm themselves with light weapons and go over to the village by swimming, and they swum over across the river to that island. And when they had swum about a quarter of the river, something terrible happened to them. There appeared a multitude of water-monsters, larger and more terrible in appearance than the elephants, who dragged the men through the watery waves down to the river bottom, and tore them to bloody pieces with their mouths, and snatched them all away so that none of us knew where any of them had gone. Then I was very angry with my guides, who had led us into such danger. I ordered that one hundred and fifty of them be shoved into the river, and as soon as they were in the water-monsters were ready, and dragged them away just as they had done with the others, and the water-monsters seethed up in the river as thick as ants, they were so innumerable. Then I ordered the trumpets to be sounded, and the army to head off.
It was the eleventh hour of the day, and we set forth. Then we saw men coming over the river, and they had made boat-shapes from the reeds and trees that stood on the river bank, and sat on top of them. When we asked the men about fresh water, they answered us in their own language and told us where to find it and said that we would find a very big lake in which there was plenty of clean fresh water, and that if we were keen we would get there fairly soon. And in addition to so many hardships we traveled throughout the whole night vexed with thirst, and greatly afflicted by the burden of our weapons. And throughout the whole night as we traveled, lions and bears and tigers and leopards and wolves attacked us continually, and we held them off. And on the next day, when it was the eighth hour of the day, we came to the lake that had been described to us. It was entirely overgrown with woods a mile deep, but there was a path to the water. I was delighted in this clean fresh water, and immediately slaked my thirst and then that of all my troop, and immediately ordered all our horses and our animals to be watered, since they were all greatly suffering with thirst. After that I immediately ordered the army to pitch camp. The campsite was twenty furlongs in length, and the same in width. After they had camped, I ordered the grove cleared, and the trees felled to make it easier for people to get to the water, and to the lake by which we had camped. Then I ordered all our horses and animals and elephants to be gathered together, and ordered them brought to the middle of our encampment, into the midst of the tents, in case any of them were lost, since we did not know what might occur during the night. And then I also ordered that fires be lit from the wood which had been felled, and the troops with me did so: they lit fifteen hundred fires, and I did that so that if something unexpected should happen to us, we should have the light and comfort of the fires.
When we had lit as many fires as seemed necessary, my trumpets were sounded, and I ate some food, and so did all my army. It was then one hour before night-time, and I ordered two thousand of the golden lanterns I had with me to be lit. Then before moon-rise there came the type of insect called a scorpion, just as they usually did, towards the water. There was a great multitude of these insects, beyond number, and they hastened greatly and scurried into our camp. Then after that there came horned serpents, the kind of serpent called Carastis. They were all of different colors, some red, some black, some white. On some of them their scales glittered and shone as if they were gold when one looked at them. And the whole country resounded with the hissing of the serpents, and we had no little terror of them. But we shielded ourselves with our shields and slew and killed them with long-shafted spears, and also burnt many in the fires. We endured these things to the extent that we were fighting and struggling with the serpents for fully two hours of the night.
After the serpents had drunk the water they went away, and harmed us no more. When it was the third hour of the night, and we wanted to rest, there came serpents still more marvelous and more fearsome than the others. They had two heads, and some even had three. They were of a fantastic size, as big as columns, and some even bigger and mightier, and these serpents came down from the neighboring hills and caves to drink the water there. The serpents came and slithered in an extraordinary fashion, with their bellies turned up and traveling on their backs, and as they advanced they ripped and tore the ground with their scales as well as their mouths. These serpents had three-pronged tongues, and when they breathed their breath came from their mouths like a burning torch. The breath and exhalation of the serpents was very deadly and poisonous, and many men died because of their pestilential breath. We fought against these serpents for more than an hour of the night, and the serpents killed thirty men from the army, and twenty of my own thegns.
Then I commanded the army nonetheless to maintain good spirits in the face those things that afflicted us in the shape of so many difficulties and hardships. Then it was the fifth hour of the night, and we intended to get some rest, but there came white lions in the shape and size of bulls, and they all approached roaring mightily. When the lions came closer they immediately attacked us, and we defended ourselves against them as well as we could, but there had been such difficulty and hardship from beasts in that dark and shadowy night. There also came boars of an immeasurable size, and many other wild animals and also tigers kept us busy during the night. There also came bats in the shape and size of doves, and they scratched our faces and pulled at us. The hats had teeth like those of humans, and wounded and tore the men with them.
In addition to the other trials and difficulties which afflicted us there came suddenly one very huge beast bigger than the others. That beast had three horns on the front of its head and was fiercely armed with those horns. The Indians call the beast dentestyrannus. The beast had a head like a horse, and was black in color. Once this beast had drunk the water, it saw our camp-site, and immediately attacked us and our campsite. It was not put off by the burning of the hot fire and flame that was in its path, but it went and trod on everything. After I had rallied the force of the Greek army, and we tried to protect ourselves, it promptly slew twenty-six of my thegns in a single charge and trampled fifty-two, rendering them cripples who could be of no further use to me. And we determinedly shot at it with arrows and also with long-shafted spears until we slew and killed it.
When it was just before dawn there appeared a pestilential vapor of a white hue, which was also variously tinged with billowing swirls, and many men perished because of the pestilential stench which arose from the pestilential vapor. Then there also came against the army Indian mice the size and shape of foxes, which bit and wounded our four-footed animals; and many of them died from their wounds. Each of the men escaped, although they were all wounded. When it was just before daybreak there appeared birds, called night-ravens, looking like falcons, birds which were brown in color, but with beaks and claws completely black. These birds sat about round the whole edge of the lake, and caused no harm or ill to any of us, but with their claws they snatched up and ripped to pieces their usual fish which were in the lake. We did not put the birds to flight nor harm them, but they soon departed of their own accord.
When it was daylight next morning I ordered all my guides who had led me into such hardships to be tied up and their bones and legs broken, so that they might be devoured that night by the serpents on their way to the water. And I also ordered that their hands be cut off, so that they might experience torment through those that wrought the torment into which they had knowingly led and brought us.
Then I ordered my trumpets to be sounded, and the army to set forth on the journey which we had started. We passed through inaccessible and impassable territory. There was soon once more gathered against us a great army of Indians and other strangers who inhabited that land, and we fought against them. We then further realized that more battles and more struggles lay ahead. Then we abandoned the dangerous routes and paths, and proceeded on the better ones. And so with my troop we came safely into the land of Patriacen, greatly enriched with gold and other wealth, and they received us there in a friendly and generous fashion. When we left the land of Patriacen, we came to the frontiers of the Medes and Persians, and there we fought once again a further great battle. And I camped there with my army for twenty days.
Afterwards we journeyed for a period of seven nights, until we came to the land and the place where Porus the king was encamped with his army. And he trusted more in the security of the terrain than in his own martial prowess. Then he wanted to know more about me and my thegns, so that he asked and inquired from people coming from my camp, and I was told that he wanted to know more about me and my troop. Then I laid aside my royal attire, and dressed myself in unfamiliar garb and lowly clothes, as if I were an ordinary man in need of food and wine. When I was in Porus's camp, as I have already said, as soon as he learned that I was there, and he was told that someone had come from Alexander's war-camp, he had me brought to him immediately. When I was brought to him he asked me and inquired what King Alexander was doing, and what sort of man he was, and of what age. I deceived him with my answers, telling him that he was extremely old, so old that he could not keep himself warm except at the fire and coals. He was at once very glad, rejoicing at these words and answers of mine, since I told him that he was such an extremely old man. And then he said 'So how can he have any success in battle against me, when he is such an extremely old man and I myself am young and fit?' Then he asked me more keenly about his affairs, and I said I did not know many of his affairs, and only saw the king seldom, since I was his thegn's man, and his cattle-herd, and his retainer. When he heard these words, he gave me a document and a letter, and told me to give it to King Alexander, and also promised me a reward if I would give it him, and I said that I would do as he asked. So I left there, and came back to my war-camp, and both before I read the document and also afterwards I was greatly rocked with mirth. I am telling you these things to you, teacher, and to Olympias my mother and my sisters, so that you can hear and understand the overweening brashness of the foreign king.
I had spied out the king's camp and the protective surroundings into which he had gone with his army. Early the next morning King Porus came into my hands with all his army and personal retinue, when he realized that he could not fight against me. And after the hostility that had been between us, he became a friend to me and to all the Greek army, and my companion, and ally. And I gave him back his kingdom, and in return for the unexpected favor of the kingdom, since he did not expect any kingdom, he showed me his entire store of treasure, and he endowed both me and all my troop with gold. And he had cast and wrought in gold statues of the two gods Hercules and Bacchus, and set them both up on the eastern edge of the world. Then I wanted to know if the statues were entirely cast as he described. So I ordered holes to be drilled into them, and they were made of solid gold, and then I ordered the holes which had been drilled to be filled up and replaced with gold, and decreed sacrifices to be offered to both gods.
Then we went forth and wished to see and witness more marvelous and noteworthy things. But as we traveled we saw nothing but desolate expanses and woods and hills by the ocean, which were impassable for men because of wild beasts and serpents. Yet I still traveled along the sea, because I wanted to know if I could go right round the earth, which the ocean surrounds. But the inhabitants told me that the sea and all the ocean was too dark for any man to travel it by ship. And then I wished to make a trip through the left-hand region of India, in case anything in that land had been hidden or concealed from me.
Then all the land through which we passed was dried up and marshy, and canes and reeds grew there. Then there came suddenly out of the fen and fastness a beast, and the beast's back was all studded with pegs like a snood, and the beast had a round head like the moon, and the beast was called Quasi caput luna, and it had a breast like a sea-monster's breast and it was armed and toothed with hard and large teeth. And that beast slew two of my thegns. And we were unable to wound that beast with spears in anyway, nor with any kind of weapon, but with difficulty we beat it and subdued it with iron mallets and sledge-hammers.
Then we came to the woods of India, and to the furthermost edge of that country, and I ordered the army to camp there by a river which is called Beswicmon. The camp was fifty furlongs in length and also in breadth. We wanted to sit down to eat, since it was then the eleventh hour of the day, when the order was suddenly given that we should get on and take up our weapons, for there was a great need for us to defend ourselves. We did so, and grabbed our weapons as we had been ordered. Then there came out of the woods a great multitude of elephants, an immense herd of the beasts; they came to attack our camp. Then I ordered the horses to be made ready at once, and the cavalry to mount up; I ordered them to round up a big herd of pigs and drive them on horseback against the elephants, because I knew that pigs were loathsome to those beasts, and their grunting might frighten them. And as soon as the elephants saw the pigs they were afraid, and immediately went into the woods. And we passed the night safely in that camp, and I had securely protected it so that no beast nor any other hardship could harm us.
When it was morning, we went into another area of India, and came into a great plain. There we saw shaggy women, and men who were as shaggy and hairy as beasts. They were nine feet tall, and naked, not bothering about any clothing. The Indians call these people Ictifafonas, and they snatch up whales from the neighboring rivers and lakes, and eat them and live on them, and drink the water afterwards. When I wanted to take a closer look and observe these men, they immediately fled into the water and hid themselves in stony hollows.
After that we saw amongst the wooded groves and trees a great multitude of Cynocephali who came because they wished to wound us, and we shot them with arrows, and they soon fled away and went back into the woods. Then we went into the Indian desert, and we saw nothing marvelous or extraordinary there.
And we returned back to the land of Fasiacen from whence we came, and camped there by some nearby water, and set up all our tents in the evening, and there were also a great many fires lit. Then there came suddenly a very mighty wind and bluster, and the wind grew so fierce that it blew down many of our tents, and also greatly distressed our four-footed animals. Then I ordered all the tents and baggage to be gathered together again, and because of the wind the baggage and camp-belongings were with difficulty gathered together. And then we camped in a milder and warmer valley. When we had camped, and all our belongings were ready, I ordered the whole army that they should sit down and partake of their food, and they did so. When it approached evening, the winds began to swell again, and the weather grew rough, and a hard frost developed in the evening. Then there came much snow, and it snowed as much as if a huge fleece had fallen. When I saw the extent and depth of the snow, it seemed to me that I knew the whole camp would be engulfed. Then I ordered the army to tread the snow down with their feet, and almost all the fires were quenched and put out by the weight of snow. Yet one thing offered us relief, that the snow lasted no longer than an hour. Immediately after that the sky grew very black and dark, and from the dark sky there came burning fire. The fire fell to the earth like a burning torch, and the whole plain was burning from the fire's flame. Then men said that they thought it was the anger of the gods which had fallen upon us. Then I ordered old clothing to be torn up and used as a protection against the fire. After that we had a quiet and peaceful night, once our difficulties assuaged.
And then we took our meal and rested without trouble, and I buried there the five hundred of my thegns who had perished and were dead as a result of the snow and fire and other difficulties that had befallen our camp. And then I ordered the army to set forth from the camp, and we set forth along the sea, and we saw the high promontories and valley and ocean of Ethiopia. And we also saw the high and famous mountain which is called Enesios, and the cave of the god Bacchus. Then I ordered condemned men to be pushed in because I wanted to know whether the tradition was true that I had been told, that no one could enter and emerge afterwards unscathed unless he entered the cave with offerings. And that was afterwards made clear by the meets death, for they perished on the third day after they had entered the cave. And I humbly and eagerly asked the gods that they honor me with splendid victories as the king and lord of the entire world, and that I be led back to Olympias my mother and to my sisters and family.
Then I intended to go back to the land of Fasiacen, but as I traveled with my army, there came two old men to meet us on the way. Then I asked them and inquired whether they knew of any noteworthy thing in that land. Then they answered me and said that there was, and could be reached in no more than ten days. But I could not travel there along with all my army, because of the narrowness of the way, but I could travel with four thousand men, and see something extraordinary. Then I was very pleased and delighted by their words. I addressed them again and spoke kind words to them: 'Tell me, indeed, you old pair, what it is of note and importance that you promise me that I can see there?'Then one of them answered me and said 'King, you will see, if you get there, the trees of the Sun and Moon speaking in Indian and Greek. The tree of the Sun is male, and the tree of the Moon is female, and they say to the people who ask what good or ill shall befall them'.
Then I did not believe them, but thought that they spoke to me in ridicule and mockery. And I said to my companions: 'My might extends from the East of the world to the West, and these aged foreigners are now mocking me'. I intended to have them punished, but they swore fervently that they spoke the truth and were not lying about those things. Then I wanted to find out whether they were telling me the truth, and my companions asked that they should not be deprived of such an honor, and that we should go and find out if it were so, since it was not a long journey. I took three thousand with me, and let the rest of the army remain in Fasiacen under King Porus and my companions. Then we set out and the guides led us through a place bereft of water and through lands unbearable with wild beasts and serpents called by marvelous Indian names.
When we approached the land we saw both women and men dressed in the skins of panthers and the hides of the beasts called tigers, and wearing nothing else. When I asked them and inquired what kind of people they were they answered me and said that they were Indians. The place was spacious and pleasant, and balsam and incense were there in abundance, and welled out from the boughs of the trees, and the people of that land ate them and lived thereby. Then we took a closer look at that place, and went through the groves, and I was amazed at the loveliness and beauty of the land.
Then the bishop of the place came to meet us. The bishop was ten feet tall and his entire body was black, except his teeth were white. And his ears were pierced through, and ear-rings hung down made of many kinds of jewels, and he was dressed in the skins of wild-animals. When the bishop approached me, he greeted me immediately, and welcomed me according to the custom of that people. He asked me why I had come, and what I wanted. I answered that I wished to see the sacred trees of the Sun and Moon. Then he answered: 'If your companions are pure of the touch of women, they can enter the holy grove'. There were three hundred of my companions with me. Then the bishop ordered my companions that they take off their shoes and all their clothing. And I ordered them to do as he asked us. It was then the eleventh hour of the day. Then the priest waited for the setting of the sun, for the tree of the Sun gave its answer at the rising and setting of the Sun, and the tree of the Moon did so likewise at night.
Then I began to take a closer look at the place, and to pass through the groves and trees. I saw plenty of balsam of the finest perfume welling out from the trees. My companions and I gathered the balsam from the bark of the trees. The holy trees of the Sun and the Moon were in the midst of the other trees; they might have been a hundred feet tall, and there were other trees of a remarkable height which the Indians call Bebronas. I was amazed at the height of the trees, and said that I supposed that they grew so high on account of much moisture and rainfall. Then the bishop said that no drop of rain ever came in that land, nor bird, nor wild beast, nor did any poisonous serpent dare to seek out the holy precincts of the Sun and the Moon. The bishop also said that during an eclipse, that is a waning of the Sun or Moon, the holy trees wept greatly, and were stirred with great sorrow, for they feared that their divine power would be taken. Then I thought that I would make a sacrifice, but the bishop forbade me, and said that it was not permitted to any man to kill any animal there or cause bloodshed, but he ordered me pray at the foot of the trees, that the Sun and Moon would give a truthful answer to those things I should ask after this was done. Then we saw the Sun's ray set, and the ray touched the tops of the trees. Then the priest said: 'Look up, all of you, and think secretly in your heart what you want to know, and let no one openly reveal his thought in words'.
As we stood very close to the grove and the oracles, I thought in my heart whether I would be able to force the whole world under my power, and then, honored by those victories, be able to return to Macedonia, to Olympias my mother, and to my sisters. Then the tree answered me in Indian words and said: Alexander, unconquered in battle, you shall become king and lord of all the world, but you shall never return to your homeland whence you came, since your fate has so decided it on your head, and so decreed it'. Since I could not understand the language of the Indian words the tree spoke to me, the bishop translated it and told me. When my companions heard that I would not return to my homeland alive, they were greatly sad because of it. Then I wished to ask more that evening, but the moon was not yet up. When we returned to the holy grove, and stood beside the trees, we immediately prayed to the trees as we had done before. And I took with me my three most trusted friends, who were especially loyal; first Perticas, and Clitomus, and Pilotas, for I had no fear that any of these would betray me, and because it was not right to kill anyone there on account of the reverence due to the place.
Then I thought in my heart and in my thoughts in which place I should die. When the Moon first rose it touched with its beam the tops of the trees, and the tree answered my thought and said: 'Alexander, you have lived the full course of your life, and in the next year you shall die in Babylon, in the month of May, from a source by which you least expect to be betrayed'. Then I was extremely sick at heart, as were my friends that were with me. And they wept greatly, since my safety was dearer to them than their own health. Then we went back to our companions, and they wanted to sit down to eat, but because of the cares of my heart I wanted to rest. But my companions asked me in such distress and anxiety of heart not to vex myself with fasting. I ate very little food, against my heart's will, and then went early to bed, since I wanted to be ready to go in again at sunrise.
In the morning, when day came, I awoke and woke up my truest friends, since I wanted to enter the holy place. But the bishop was still resting, wrapped and covered with the skins of wild animals. And the people of that place are poor in iron and lead, but rich in gold. And the people of that place live on balsam, and from a neighboring mountain there wells up clear and beautiful water, of great sweetness. The people drink it and live thereby. And when they rest, they rest without any bed or bolster, but the skins of wild beasts are their bedding. Then I woke the bishop. The bishop was three hundred years old.
When the bishop arose, I went into the holy place and for the third time I began to ask the tree of the Sun through which malls hand my end was decreed, and what kind of death my mother or my sisters could now expect. Then the tree answered me in Greek and said: 'If I tell you about your life you will easily turn aside your fate and stay its hand. But it is true what I tell you; in the space of one year and eight months you will die in Babylon, killed not, as you expect, with iron, but with poison. Your mother will leave the world by a shameful and lowly death, and she will lie unburied in the street as food for birds and wild beasts. Your sisters will have long and happy lives. And as for you, though you live but a short time you shall be sole king and lord of the whole world. But do not question or ask the pair of us any more, for we have spoken beyond the limit of our light, but turn back to Fasiacen and King Porus'. And because of that my companions wept, because I had so little time to live. But the bishop forbade them to weep, in case the holy trees should be angered by their weeping and tears.
And no one else heard the answers of the holy trees except my most trusted friends, and no one was allowed to make it known, in case the foreign kings that I had forcibly brought under my command should be glad that I had so little time to live. Nor was anyone allowed to reveal it further to the army, in case they became dispirited, and more indolent concerning my will and my honor, for which they had to carry me to success. And to me the swift ending of my life was not so much pain as the fact that I had achieved less glory than I would have wished. I write these things to you, my beloved teacher, that you first can rejoice in the success of my life, and exult in the honors. And also my memory shall forever stand and tower as an example for other earthly kings, so that they know the more readily that my power and my honor were greater than those of all the other kings who have ever lived in the world.
water-monsters = hippopotami
dentestyrannus = rhinoceros
Quasi caput luna = 'moon-head', crocodile
THE PASSION OF ST. CHRISTOPHER
The prose version of the death of the dog-headed Saint Christopher, as found in the Nowell Codex (BL Cotton Vitellius A.xv)
The translation is based on the recent edition done by Phillip Pulsiano, “The Passion of Saint Christopher: an Edition” in Early Medieval Texts and Interpretations: Studies Presented to Donald G. Scraggs. Ed. Elaine Treharne and Susan Rosser (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2002), pp. 167-200 and compared to Stanley Rypins’s older transcription in Three Old English Prose Texts in MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv. (Ed. Stanley Rypins. EETS o.s. 161. London: Oxford UP, 1924). The text is acephalous, but I have included the beginning of the Life of St. Christopher from the Old English Martyrology, ed. and trans. George Herzfeld. EETS o.s. 116. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Trübner, 1900.
In the days of the emperor Decius, Christopher came into the town called Samos from the nation where men have the head of a dog and from the country where men devour each other. He had the head of a dog, his locks were exceedingly thick, his eyes shone as brightly as the morning star, and his teeth were as sharp as a boar’s tusk. In his heart he believed in God, but he could not speak like a man. When he prayed to God to give him human speech, a man in a white robe stood near him and breathed into his mouth; after that he could speak like a man. The emperor then sent two hundred soldiers to conduct him to him: if he would not come to him, they were to slay him and to bring him his head that he might see what it was like. When the soldiers came to him, they dared not approach him, and yet he set out with them. As he came to the emperor and he saw his countenance, he was so astonished that he fell from his royal throne. Then the emperor offered him gold and silver in order to seduce him from the belief in Christ. As he would not submit to this, he ordered him to be tormented with various tortures…
*This version begins as Dagnus interrogates the captured Christopher. The first eight words are supplied from a Latin text of the Passio Sancti Christophori.
“I am not foolish, but am the servant of my lord and savior Christ but you are foolish and unwise, you who dreads not the lord who is the shaper of all things.” Then the king grew angry and ordered that Christopher’s hands and feet be bound together and he ordered him beaten with iron rods and he ordered that three men set to work on Christopher’s head.
Then the warriors that beat him spoke unto the king: “Blessed you would be, Dagnus, if you had never been born, who slaughter-cruelly orders such a champion of god to be tortured thus.”
The king then grew angered and he ordered that those men be killed at once.
Then holy Christopher cried out to the king and said, “If you have any more torments dreamed up for me, swiftly do them because your tortures are sweeter to me than the comb of the honey.”
Then the king commanded that an iron table be brought that was equal to a man’s stature in height, and twelve fathoms long. King Dagnus ordered this table set up in the very middle of city and the holy Christopher bound thereto, with a very great fire kindled beneath him. When the tongues of that fire were at their greatest heat, the holy saint was over them. King Dagnus wished that ten pitchers filled with oil be brought so that the fire’s heat would be the fiercer and more blasting upon that holy man.
The holy Christopher then, from the very middle of the fiercest and most immense flames of the fire, called out to the Lord in a bright voice and he said to the king: “These torments that you command brought upon me shall come upon your people and be your destruction. And I will never fear your torments nor your rage.”
And when the holy one said this, the table in the middle of a multitude of flames thawed from him as if they were of wax. Then King Dagnus saw the holy Christopher standing amid the fire and he saw that his face was that of roses in bloom. When he saw that he was greatly frightened at heart.
And for the fright of terror he was so alarmed that he fell upon the earth and lay there from the first hour of day until the ninth. Then the holy Christopher saw him and ordered him to rise up. When Dagnus had risen he spoke to him: “You, worst of wild beasts, how long you presume to urge my people away from me so that it is not permitted to them to sacrifice to my gods.”
The holy Christopher answered him and said: “Now yet a great multitude of people believe in my Lord and Savior Christ through me and after them you will yourself.”
The king then answered him reproachfully and said to him: “Is this your hope that you can betray me such that I pray to your god and deny my own? Then know that upon this day at morrow at this same hour, I shall wreak my vengeance upon you and I shall do what will make you lost. Your name shall be blotted out from this memory and from this life. And you must be an example to all of those that through you believe in your god.”
The next day then the king commanded the holy Christopher be led to him and said to him: “Learn my word and sacrifice unto my gods so that you might not perish in so many tortures. So you will be clothed.”
The holy Christopher answered him and said: “Always I will abominate your gods and do them injury because I will hold my belief unblemished that I took up in baptism.”
The king ordered then that a tree of unmeasured greatness be brought that was as high as the saintly man’s height, and he bade it be set before the hall. He ordered him be fastened thereon and commanded that three warriors shoot at him with their arrows until he was killed. Those warriors then shot at him from the first hour of day until evening. The king then believed that all of those arrows were affixed in Christopher’s body-home—but not even one touched him. The power of God was hanging in the air at the right side of that holy man. Then the king after the setting sun sent for those warriors and he commanded that they hold him eagerly tied so because he believed that the Christian folk wished to free him at the morrow of the day.
Then the king as going out to that holy Christopher and said to him: “Where is your God that has come not and freed you from my hands or these terrible arrows?”
Quickly then, when he had spoken these words, two points from the arrows shot into the king’s eyes, and he was blinded by them.
When the holy Christopher saw that deed, he spoke to Dagnus: “You are slaughter-cruel and you are foolish. Know you that this day at morrow at the eighth hour of the day I will take up my victory. God Himself reveals that the Christian men will come and take my corpse and set it in the place that was revealed by the Lord to them. Come then to my body and take loam from the earth upon which I was martyred. Mix it with my blood and set it then in your eyes if you believe in God with you whole heart. That same moment, you shall be healed from the blindness of your eyes. Understand the time has approached when Christopher, chosen of God, takes the reward of his struggle and goes quickened to his Lord.”
At the morrow of the day, before he was killed by those warriors, he began to pray with these words, saying: “Almighty Lord, you have turned me from error and taught me good wisdom so that I am now of your people. I pray to you at this moment that it seems that I am ready in whichever place that any part of my corpse may be there may be no famine or the terror of fire. And if there might be sick men near there, and they come to your people at that holy temple and they pray there to you from their whole heart and by your names they cry out in my name, heal them from the lord wheresoever infirmity restrains them.”
And in that same hour, a voice was heard calling to him: “Christopher my servant, your prayer is heard though your body may not be in this place. Whatever faithful men pray to your name in their prayers they will be healed from their sins and whatever they rightly ask for in your name and in your favor they shall receive it.”
When this glorious speech from heaven was heard and finished from the champion he was quickly slain and he, in the most bliss and unspeakable glory, traveled to Christ and that was a miracle for the people that holy Christopher through his good teaching had obtained for them. That was eight and four thousand men and a hundred and fifteen.
The second day then Dagnus spoke to his thanes: “Go out and see where they have set that champion.” And when they came to that place where the holy body was, the king called them with his great voice and said: “Christopher! Reveal to me now the truth-fastness of your God and I shall believe in him.” And he took his portion of this earth where the martyr of Christ had been suffering with a little of the blood and mixed them together and set it upon his eyes. And he spoke: “In the name of Christopher’s God, I judge this,” and swiftly at that same moment his eyes were unclosed and he took up sight.
And King Dagnus called in a great voice and he spoke before all his people: “Glory-fast and great is the God of Christian men, whose glorious works no human devices can vanquish. Now from this day of days forth, I will send commands throughout my entire realm that no man that belongs to the jurisdiction of my kingdom nor any creature shall presume to work contrary to the will of the Heavenly God that Christopher honored.
“If then any man be ensnared through the tricks of the devil that he might presume it at that same time to be punished with a sword: therefore I now truly know that there is no power, earthly or corruptible—there is naught but his alone.”
And so it was done through God’s might and through the favor of that blessed Christopher that the king trusted. He was before filled by the will of the devil and after by that holy Christopher. Glorious works are now long to tell that the Lord through him were wrought as praise of his name and made now unto this day, because there now flourishes and grows his holy prayers and there is obedience of the Lord with all concord and rejoicing and there is blessed Christ the living Son of God reigns with the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost forever without end.
May sainted Christopher also ask these things on the nearest time before his spirit was sent forth, speaking: “Lord my God, give good reward unto him that has written of my suffering and eternal recompense to those might read of them with tears.”
THE WONDERS OF THE EAST
A translation of the Old English text
The Wonders of the East is found in three manuscripts. It is in the Beowulf manuscript, also known as the Nowell Codex, London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A. xv. It is written in Late West Saxon in a Mercian dialect.
I. The colony is at the beginning of the land Antimolima, which land is 500 in the tally of the lesser measurement, which are called stadia, and 368 of the greater, which are called leuuae. On that island there is a great multitude of sheep, and from there to Babylon it is 168 of the lesser measurement called stadia, and 115 in the greater measurement called leuuae.
2. The colony is mostly populated with merchants; there are rams born there as big as oxen, living right up to the city of the Medes. The name of that city is Archemedon. It is the biggest city after Babylon. To there from Archemedon is 300 of the lesser measurement, stadia, and 200 of the greater, called leuuae. There are great monuments there, which are the works which the mighty Alexander of Macedon had made. The land is in length and breadth 200 of the lesser measurement, stadia, and 133 and a half of the greater, called leuuae.
3. As you go towards the Red Sea there is a place called Lentibeisinea, where there are hens born like ours, red in color. If any one tries to take or touch them, they immediately burn up all his body. That is extraordinary magic.
4. Wild beasts are also born there. When these wild beasts hear a human voice, they run far away. The beasts have eight feet, and valkyrie-eyes, and two heads. If anyone tries to touch them, they set their bodies aflame. They are extraordinary beasts.
5. Hascellentia is the name of the land on the way to Babylon, that is in length and breadth nine of the lesser measurements called stadia. It is subject to the kingdom of the Medes, and that land is filled with all good things. This place contains serpents. The serpents have two heads, whose eyes shine at night as brightly as lanterns.
6. In one land there are born donkeys which have horns as big as oxen's. They are in that very great wasteland which is in the southern part of Babylonia. They retreat to the Red Sea, because of the multitude of snakes called Corsiae which are in those places. They have horns as big as ram's. If they strike or touch anyone, he immediately dies. In those lands there is an abundance of pepper. The snakes keep the pepper in their eagerness. In order to take the pepper people set fire to the place and then the snakes flee from the high ground into the earth; because of this the pepper is black. From Babylon to the city of Persia where the pepper grows is in the lesser measure which is called stadia 800 units. It is reckoned in the greater measure that is called leuuae six hundred and twenty-three and a half units. The place is barren because of the multitude of the snakes.
7. Also there are born there half-dogs who are called Conopenae. They have horses' manes and boars' tusks and dogs' heads and their breath is like a fiery flame. These lands are near the cities which are filled with all the worldly wealth: that is, in the south of Egypt.
8. In one land people are born who are six feet tall. They have beards to their knees, and hair to their heels. They are called Homodubii, that is 'doubtful ones', and they eat raw fish and live on them.
9. The river is named Capi in the same place, which is called Gorgoneus, that is 'valkyrie-like'. Ants are born there as big as dogs, which have feet like grasshoppers, and are of red and black color. The ants dig up gold from the ground from before night to the fifth hour of the day. People who are bold enough to take the gold bring with them male camels, and females with their young. They tie up the young before they cross the river. They load the gold onto the females, and mount them themselves, and leave the males there. Then the ants detect the males, and while the ants are occupied with the males, the men cross over the river with the females and the gold. They are so swift that one would think that they were flying.
10. Between these two rivers is a colony called Locotheo, which is situated between the Nile and the Brixontes. The Nile is the prince of foul rivers, and flows through Egypt. And they call the river Archoboleta, which means 'great water'. In these regions are born great multitudes of elephants.
11. There are people born there, who are, fifteen feet tall and have white bodies and two faces on a single head, feet and knees very red, and long noses and black hair. When they want to give birth, they travel in ships to India, and bring their young into the world there.
12. There is a land called Ciconia in Callia, where people are born of three colors, whose heads have manes like lions' heads, and they are twenty feet tall, and have mouths as big as fans. If they see or perceive anyone in those lands, or if anyone is following them, then they take flight and flee, and sweat blood. They are thought to be men.
13. Beyond the River Brixontes, east from there, there are people born big and tall, who have feet and shanks twelve feet long, flanks with chests seven feet long. They are of a black colour, and are called Hostes. As certainly as they catch a person they devour him.
14. Then there are on the Brixontes wild animals which are called Lertices. They have donkeys ears and sheep's wool and bird's feet.
15. Then there is another island, south of the Brixontes, on which there are born men without heads who have their eyes and mouth in their chests. They are eight feet tall and eight feet wide.
16. Dragons are born there, who are one hundred and fifty feet long, and are as thick as great stone pillars. Because of the abundance of the dragons, no one can travel easily in that land.
17. From this place there is another country on the south side of the ocean, which is reckoned in the lesser measurement known as stadia 323, and in the greater which is called leuuae 255. There are born there Homodubii, that is 'doubtful ones'. They have a human shape to the navel and below that the shape of a donkey, and they have long legs like birds, and a soft voice. If they see or perceive anyone in those lands, they run far off and flee.
18. Then there is another place with barbarous people, and they have kings under them to the number of 110. They are the worst and most barbarous people, and there are two lakes there, one of the sun and the other of the moon. The suds lake is hot in the day and cold at night, and the moon's lake is hot at night and cold in the day. Their width is in the lesser measurement which is called stadia 200 units and in the greater called leuuae one hundred and thirty-three and a half.
19. In this place there are kinds of trees which are like laurel and olive. From these trees the most expensive oil, balsam, is wholly produced. The place is in the lesser measurement that is called stadia 151 and in the greater which is called leuuae fifty-one.
20. Then there is an island in the Red Sea where there is a race of people we call Donestre, who have grown like soothsayers from the head to the navel, and the other part is human. And they know all human speech. When they see someone from a foreign country, they name him and his kinsmen with the names of acquaintances, and with lying words they beguile him and capture him, and after that eat him all up except for the head, and then sit and weep over the head.
21. Going east from there is a place where people are born who are in size fifteen feet tall and ten broad. They have large heads and ears like fans. They spread one ear beneath them at night, and they wrap themselves with the other. Their ears are very light and their bodies are as white as milk. And if they see or perceive anyone in those lands, they take their ears in their hands and go far and flee, so swiftly one might think that they flew.
22. Then there is an island on which people are born whose eyes shine as brightly as if one had lit a great lantern on a dark night.
23. Then there is an island, which is in length and breadth in the lesser measurement that is called stadia 360, and in the greater called leuuae 90. There was built in the days of Belus the king and Jove a temple made from wrought iron and brass. And in the same place there is east from there another temple, sacred to the sun, in which is ordained a fine and gentle priest, and he governs the halls and looks after them.
24. Then there is a golden vineyard near the rising of the sun which has berries of 150 feet. On them, berries are produced like pearls or jewels.
25. There is another kingdom in the lands of Babylon where there is found the biggest mountain between the mountain of Media and of Armenia. It is the biggest and highest mountain of all. There are decent people there who have power and dominion over the Red Sea. Precious jewels are produced there.
26. Around those places there are born women, who have beards down to their breasts, and have made clothes out of horse's hide. They are called great huntresses, and instead of dogs they breed tigers and leopards, that are the fiercest beasts. And they hunt for all the kinds of wild beasts which are born on the mountain.
27. Then there are other women who have boar's tusks and hair down to their heels and ox-tails on their loins. Those women are thirteen feet tall and their bodies are of the whiteness of marble. And they have camel's feet and boar's teeth. Because of their uncleanness they were killed by Alexander the Great of Macedon. He killed them because he could not capture them alive, because they have offensive and disgusting bodies.
28. By the ocean is a breed of wild animals that is called Catini, and they are very beautiful animals. And there are people there who live on raw meat and honey.
29. On the left-hand side of the kingdom in which there are wild animals called Catini, there are hospitable people, kings who have subdued many tyrants. Their boundaries border on the Ocean, and from there, from the left-hand section, there are many kings.
30. This race of people live for many years, and they are generous people. If anyone visits them they give him a woman before they let him go. When Alexander of Macedon visited them, he was amazed at their humanity, and would not kill them or cause them any harm.
31. Then there are kinds of tree from which the most precious stones are produced, and upon which they grow.
32. There is another race of people there of black color to look at, who are called Ethiopians.
33. Then there is land in which very many vineyards grow, where there is a couch of ivory. It is 306 feet long.
34. Then there is a mountain called Adamans. On that mountain is the kind of bird which is called a Gryphon. Those birds have four feet and the tail of a cow and the head of an eagle.
35. In the same place is another kind of bird called Phoenix. They have crests on their heads like peacocks, and they build their nests from the most precious spices, which are called cinnamon; and from its breath, after a thousand years, it kindles a flame, and then rises up young again from the ashes.
36. Then there is another mountain where there are black people, and no one else can approach those people because the mountain is all aflame.
37. Here it says how Mambres opened the magical books of his brother Iamnes, and to him were revealed the deep mysteries of his brother's idolatry. The soul of Iamnes answered him with these words: 'Brother, I am dead not unjustly, but rightly and justly am I dead, and God's judgment stands against me because I alone was wiser than all the other sorcerers, and I withstood the two brothers called Moses and Aaron, who performed those great portents and signs. For that reason am I dead, and for this am I brought to the middle kingdom of hell, where there is the great heat of eternal punishment, and where there is the pit of perpetual torment from which no one ever ascends. Now, my brother Mambres, take care that you do well to your children and your friends, because in hell there is nothing good, only misery and darkness; and after you are dead, then you will come to hell, and your dwelling-place will be among the dead, down in the ground, and your pit will be two cubits wide and four cubits long.'
leuuae = 'leagues'
Judith was first discovered as an appendage to the Nowell Codex. Though it is certain that the poem is a derivative of the Book of Judith, still present in the Roman Catholic Bible, its authorship and year of origin remain a mystery. The poem is incomplete: the version in the manuscript is 348 lines long, divided in three sections marked with the numbers X, XI, and XII. The numbers correspond to the 10th verse of chapter twelve, the 11th verse of chapter thirteen, and the 12th verse of chapter fourteen. Only the last three out of twelve cantos have been preserved. What remains of the poem opens in the middle of a banquet. Had the first nine cantos been preserved, it is often thought that Judith would be considered one of the most laudable Old English works (Cook, pg. lxxvi-lxxvii). What is certain about the origin of the poem is that it stems from the Book of Judith. After the Reformation, the Book of Judith was removed from the Protestant Bible. However, it is still present in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles. Many discrepancies exist between the poem and Book, most notably in regards to the portrayal of Holofernes and the exaggeration of Judith’s righteousness in the poem.
Approximately 850 lines are missing from the beginning of this poem based on the Book of Judith, one of the Apocrypha. Holofernes, general of the Assyrians, has besieged the town of Bethulia. The town's leaders decide to surrender in five days, unless God saves them with a miracle. Hearing this, a holy widow named Judith chastises them for testing God. She tells them she has a plan and that they should wait for her return. She approaches Holofernes camp, offering to tell him the secrets of the town, so that he might capture it without the lost of men. She explains she is doing this because it is God's will to punish His people and, blinded by her beauty, Holofernes believes her. For four days, Holofernes has wined and dined Judith in his camp. The fragment begins on the last night, the night that Holofernes has decided to send a servant to ask Judith to join him in his bed.
. . . None doubted the gifts of the Grand Creator
to this great earth, where she had found help from God.
When she had the most need of the Mighty Prince,
then God protected her from greatest danger.
The Guardian of Heaven, granted her request
for she had strong faith in the Holy Father.
I have heard that the mighty Holofernes
eagerly made an invitation to serve
wine, wonderful foods. To that feast, the warrior
called his chief retainers. They came with great haste;
the troop of warriors traveled to that strong prince;
leaders of that folk came forth on the fourth day
since Judith, that shining lady, first sought him,
and the wicked warrior welcomed that wise maid.
Then the soldiers went to sit at that grand feast,
his ‘partners in crime’, those bold chain-mailed warriors,
boastful at beer-drinking. Along the benches,
cups were carried frequently; pitchers kept full
the deep bowls of hall-sitters. They drank their doom,
those brave warriors, though that ruler, wicked man,
did not expect it. Then Holofernes was
happy in hosting; that hearty friend of men
laughed and shouted and clamored the most loudly,
so that sons of men might hear his surge afar
how the resolute one bellowed and roared out,
headstrong and drunk, he exhorted earnestly
that his companions should conduct themselves well,
so that, over the whole day, that wicked man
made his own noblemen drink the sweetest mead;
that treasure-giver made his troops over-drunk,
’til they lay, dizzy, as if struck down by death,
drained of goodness. So that guardian ordered
the diners to attend until dark approached
the sons of men. Then, corrupt with sin, he said
that they should bring the blessed maid to his bed,
hasten to fetch her, heaped high with fair garlands
and adorned most richly with the brightest rings.
Then, the barons did as their bold prince had bid;
the retainers quickly went to the guest room.
The men did find there that fairest of maidens,
wise Judith; then, the warriors began to lead
radiant maid to the tent, where ruler rested,
into the tall pavilion where the prince lie
each night, as was that chief of champions’ custom.
There was a fair fly-net, all of gold, which fell
about the chieftain’s bed, so the baleful one,
that master of men, might gaze through it upon
any son of heroes who might seek him there;
he could see when his soldiers did approach him,
but not a man could gaze on the general
unless that headstrong one ordered his heroes,
commanded them closer to that chieftain,
nearer to him, champions come for counsel.
Then, the barons quickly brought her to his bed,
that wise maiden. The stouthearted warriors went
to tell their high lord that the holy lady
was brought to his pavilion. The famous prince
became blissful then; he thought of the bright maid,
to defile with impurity and disgrace.
The Almighty Lord God would not allow that,
and so, the Ruler of Heaven restrained him.
Then that fiercest warrior, wanton and fiendish,
left to go to lie where he would lose his life,
with a crowd of men, where he'd meet his cruel end,
an end as he had always striven after,
that dire prince of men, while he dwelled in this world
’neath roof of clouds. There that ruler fell so drunk
onto his mattress, that he might know nothing.
His warriors, sated with sweet wine, went from there,
out of that tall tent, quickly turning away,
the troop of men, who had led the troth-breaker,
that hostile persecutor, that earthly prince,
to his large bed for the last time. The lady,
the strong servant of the Savior, was mindful
of how she most easily might make attempt
to take old age from that most terrible one,
to deprive him, that dark lord, of a long life,
ere that wicked man awoke. Then the wise maid,
with silken hair, sought a sharp sword from its sheath
to hew hard blows, and drew it with her right hand.
Then she called on the Creator of Heaven,
Savior of all Earth-dwellers, and said these words:
"I do pray to you, Lord Prince of Creation,
Holy Son of Heaven and Spirit of Hope,
for mercy, Mighty Majesty, in my need.
Truly, I am greatly troubled with sorrows,
my soul is now inflamed and my mind made sad.
Great Guardian of the Heavens, give to me
triumph and true faith, so I might take this sword
and deal death to this dispenser of murder.
Grant to me my welfare, Great Father of Men.
I never have had more need of your mercy.
Avenge me, Almighty Lord, give me anger
in my heart, heat in my mind." Then the High Judge
filled her completely with courage, as he does
for all who look for his loving help with faith.
Her heart was unbound, trust in Holy God reborn.
Then she grabbed that heathen man hard by his hair,
dragged him toward her with her hands, drew him nearer,
took him shamefully, and placed that sinful man
so she easily had control over him.
Then, she struck her enemy with shining sword,
swung that sharp blade straight down upon his stiff neck,
his trusted weapon falling toward his bare throat,
so that she notched halfway through his naked neck;
he lie there in a swoon, still breathing softly,
drunk and sorely wounded. He was not yet dead,
completely lifeless. Then courageous lady
earnestly struck that heathen hound one more time
so that his head rolled forth to the floor below.
The body stayed behind, as his baleful soul
wandered under the wide abyss, wrapped with pain.
The spirit now roamed elsewhere and it survived
and there below was bound tight with base torments,
surrounded by serpents, sought out for tortures,
damned and detained in hell-fire after death.
He need not hope, enveloped in that hot night,
that he might go forth from the burning furnace,
from that serpents’ hall, but he should stay trapped there,
always remain, forever and evermore,
in that dreary homestead, with deepest despair.
Then Judith, wise maid, did win worldwide renown
in battle, as granted by Bountiful God,
the Sovereign of Heaven, who gave her success.
That holy widow put the dead warrior’s head,
so bloody, into the bag in which her maid,
a lady with light skin, well-mannered servant,
had brought thither some baked bread for them both,
tightly wrapped up the trophy inside the pouch;
then, Judith gave it, so gory, to the girl,
back again to the same young, thoughtful servant
to bear it home. Then both ladies hurried forth,
went directly from that place, bold and daring,
until the triumphant, brave maids traveled
away from the army’s camp, so they clearly
could see Bethulia’s brightly shining walls.
Then, radiant, adorned with rings, they hurried
and continued forth on the familiar course
away from the sleeping Assyrian force
until the rampart gate they joyfully gained.
Warriors sat waiting there; wakeful men kept watch
in that keep, as she earlier commanded
the sorrowful folk of the blessed stronghold,
when Judith, wise servant of God, shrewd widow,
traveled forth from that tribe of Hebrew people,
went on her journey. When Judith, most beloved,
returned to her people, then prudent woman
ordered one of the men to go out to her,
speedily, straight out from the spacious city
and with haste, they let him hurry in again
through the wall’s wide gate, and then, with these good words,
to that triumphant folk, he said, "I tell you
a thing deserving thanks; you no longer need
mourn in your hearts. The Maker is merciful,
that King of Splendor, for it shall be well known
through the wide world, that this wonderful future
is bright for you, and honor bestowed on you
for all the evils which you have long endured."
Then the city-dwellers became most cheerful
when they heard how the holy one had spoken
beyond the high wall; the host became eager.
The folk hastened toward the stronghold’s heavy gate,
men and women, a multitude and a crowd,
a throng and a troop; many thousands of them
pressed forward and ran toward the Prince’s fair maid,
both the old and the young. Every one of them
in the rejoicing city became cheerful
after they learned that the lady had returned
again to her home and then, most happily,
they let her enter with light hearts and good will.
Then the good widow, gold-adorned, commanded
her maid to unwrap Holofernes’ bloody head,
her wise handmaiden to hold forth the trophy,
as a gory sign, which God had given her,
to the townsfolk, of how well she triumphed.
To that people, the noble lady proclaimed,
"Here you, heroic leaders of all this host,
may now clearly stare upon this lifeless sign,
the most deeply hated heathen warrior’s head,
Holofernes’, he who harried our city,
more than any man, and made many torments,
grievous sorrows, and who would still prolong them,
but Glorious God did not grant him old age,
that the most hostile man, with hatred toward us,
might be loathsome; I deprived him of long life
with the Lord of Host’s help. Now I have to ask
each of these townsmen, every brave warrior,
that you make ready and then marshal yourselves,
fight Assyrians, as soon as our Father,
Holy Sovereign, shall have sent from the east
bright sunlight. Then, bear your shields bravely forward,
bucklers to your breasts and your burnished helmets,
as you enter the antagonists’ campground.
Slay their war-leaders with your sharp shining swords,
their doomed commanders. Because, condemned to die,
your foes will fall and you will have greatest fame
and honor; the Lord has shown this by my hand."
Then the troop of people did prepare at once,
the men were keen for combat, ready to march.
The courageous nobles went forth; fierce comrades
and bold warriors bearing their war banners high
stepped straight forward to the enemy’s campsite,
heroes under helmets, from the holy town,
exactly at sunrise. Their shields resounded,
made a loud noise. Accordingly, the lean wolf
rejoiced in the forest, and the hungry raven,
that bloodthirsty bird. Both beasts of battle knew
that soon the warriors would go to work for them,
fix their fill of food; and flying behind them,
an eagle, dewy-feathered, eager for flesh,
dark-coated, horny-beaked, did call out lowly
a sad war song. There the soldiers did step forth,
heroes at battle hidden behind war shields,
concave planks, those people who previously
endured the reproach of their old enemy,
of the pagans’ insult. They repaid all that
severely at the spear-play; they did pay back
the Assyrians after the Hebrews marched
under a battle flag, boldly to their camp.
Then the folk let fly forth showers of arrows,
bright battle-adders shooting from horn-shaped bows,
strong arrows; the grimmest of battle-seekers
shouted loudly, sent their spears soaring aloft,
flying across the sky, from the Hebrew force
into the hardened troops. The native heroes
all overflowed with anger; this hostile folk
stepped forward with stern minds and stouthearted souls,
and bitterly awoke their old enemies;
drunk and weary, the warriors drew with their hands
from dark stained leather sheaths brightly adorned swords
with tried edges. Then the evil-scheming men,
Assyrian champions, struck earnestly.
Not any of those strong soldiers were spared there,
neither the high born nor the mighty heroes
among living men whom they might overcome.
Thus the faithful folk attacked the foreigners
continuously during the cold morning
’til the commanders in that camp understood
the intense sword-brandishing shown to them there
by the Hebrew fighters who fiercely attacked.
Soldiers approached the chief attendant and spoke,
and awoke all of the warriors fearfully,
telling them the news of terrible tidings,
drunk with the morning slaughter, dire swordplay.
And I have heard it said that those doomed heroes
stood and cast off all their sleep, entirely,
turned toward their terrible leader’s bright tent,
and then, the heavyhearted host did press on
toward the tall pavilion of that people’s prince,
Holofernes’. At once, they hoped to announce
the battle to him, before blows assailed him,
before the Hebrews fell on him with fury.
All thought their leader and the lady still lay
together, under fly-net, in that fair tent,
slept soundly that morning upon the soft bed,
the lovely Judith and the licentious man,
strong and fierce. There was not a soldier standing
who dared to wake up that terrible warrior
or investigate how they had gotten on,
Holofernes with that most holy maiden,
the Creator’s servant. The soldiers crept near;
the Hebrew folk continued to fight fiercely
with their hardened battle-weapons. They brought down
their swords upon their long-standing enemy,
repaid old insults. The Assyrians’ fame
dwindled with that day’s work; pride depreciated.
Soldiers stood around their sovereign’s pavilion,
grim and angered, sad and gloomy in their minds.
Then, together, they cried out, began to call
and to shout loudly, lacking all courtesy,
desperately gnashing their teeth in despair.
Their glory was at its end, honor and good deeds.
The fighters wanted to wake their friendly lord,
but nothing availed them, no word seemed to help.
Finally and at last, one of the fighters
became bold enough, so that he bravely dared
into that pavilion, as need pushed him forth.
Then he found lying pale on the fair pillows
his gold-giver, the grim remains of a man
deprived of his life. Then at once, he fell down,
mournfully to the ground; he grabbed at his hair
and at his tunic, also, troubled at heart,
and these words he spoke to the many warriors
who were sitting outside the sad soldier’s tent.
"Here is demonstrated our own destruction,
an approaching token that the time is near,
with grief gained, when we should become greatly lost,
together at strife, perish. Here, hewed with sword,
lies our dead sovereign." Then they, sorrowful,
quickly departed in flight, with darkened hearts
cast down their swords. Then the mighty company
followed in pursuit, until the greatest part
of that host lay hewed down by the Hebrew folk
on that field of woes, felled by sharpest weapons
as a delight for wolves, and as a dinner
for bloodthirsty ravens. Then the remnant fled;
the troop, carrying shields, traveled in pursuit,
the Hebrew warriors, most worthy of honor,
praised with new found fame. The Almighty Father,
the Highest Judge, justly assisted them there.
Then, with decorated swords, daring soldiers,
stouthearted heroes carved out a straight pathway
through that hostile enemy, hewed their bucklers,
sheared their shield-wall. Brave archers and strong warriors
became enraged by fighting; the Hebrew folk,
mighty retainers, were most ready to meet
desperate spear-play. There fell into the dust
the best part of the biggest number of men
of the Assyrians, that hostile army.
Few from that host came home alive to their kin.
The nobility turned from the native troops,
warriors retreating into the wide wasteland
among the carnage, the reeking of corpses.
Hebrews, unrestricted, from that hostile host,
from lifeless bodies, took much bloody plunder,
bright armor, shining shields, broadswords and chain-mail,
burnished helmets and hoards of precious treasures.
They had gloriously gained a great victory,
overcame their foe on that broad battlefield;
the home guard slew their old enemies with swords.
They trounced upon them and killed them in their tracks,
that host who when alive, was the most hostile
kind of living thing. Then all of the Lord’s folk,
this special people, for the space of one month,
proud men with curly locks, carried and bore back
to the brightest city of Bethulia
steel helmets, heavy chain-mail and sharp short swords,
the grim war-shirts of men, gold-decorated,
and treasures of more intricate workmanship
than any of those men who saw it might say;
all of that those fighters had gained by their force,
brave under fair banners on the battlefield
through Judith’s keen advice, that courageous maid.
Those men, brave in battle, brought her a reward
from her adventure with cruel Holofernes,
his sword and his helmet, soaked with his own blood,
likewise his ample mail-coat, adorned with gold,
and all that the wicked chief of warriors owned
of princely goods or private inheritance,
necklaces and jewelry, they gave Judith,
ready-witted. The radiant lady said
the glory was God’s; the Lord gave her honor,
and renown as reward in this earthly realm,
and glory above; she believed this of God,
of the Dearest Lord. Truly, she had no doubt
of the gift for which she yearned. This was glory,
by the Almighty, who made the wind and air,
the heavens and world, likewise also wide streams
and the joys of heaven, through his own justice.