A Christmas Gospel

24 December, 2012

This week On the Reading Rest I have a chapter or ‘fit’ from the Old Saxon poem Hêliand that tells us the story about the life of Jesus. I read:
Heyne, Moritz. 1866. Hêliand. Mit ausführlichem Glossar herausgegeben von Motitz Heyne. Paderborn. Verlag von Ferdinand Schöningh.
In prep school, one of the Saint Joseph sisters told us about the life of Jesus and while we listened to her oral gospel harmony we colorized line drawings,24 scenes as it were, illustrating the passage from Manger to Calvary. Selective gospel harmonies have these wonderful didactic qualities made up to make the gospels understandable and to catch the attention of the not-yet-educated – the sheep of shepherds. We continued with the Acts of the Apostles before illustrations, tales and a number of sheep disappeared.

The holy family colorized

The holy Saxonian family colorized, uncolorized

Hêliand (c. 830 CE) is composed in order to render the gospels reasonable to the newly conquered Saxons, when they needed to become Christians. Given Hêliand’s dubious agenda and its once strikingly 19th c Germanic qualities, there are a number of horrible editions with dubious illustrations to match the introductions and analytical epilogues. The illustrations are just waiting to be colorized and the poem’s attitude is worth a comment. The fact that my copy was published in Paderborn, a town not far from the monastery where Hêliand was probably composed, rings a bell to schoolboys reminding them of the joke about the comparison of the German adjective ‘black’ (referring to the frocks of clerics as in The Red and the Black) goes: Schwartz – Münster – Paderborn.
I read the fifth song or ‘fit’ of the poem – the Christmas gospel.
The Hêliand author (THA) was commissioned to rewrite the Gospels in a politically correct way holding in balance Carolingian political ambition and the loyalty of newly defeated Saxon leaders. To some, doing this, indicates a Christian theologian selling his pass. To others less naïve the author seems to be the first in a North European line of preachers eventually flogging their gospel to any congregation. Betraying one’s religious cause for another (in effect. taking steps to reform others) is often the beginning of their career. THA is interesting because his commission is political, his agenda radical, and his task delicate. That the poem might have had some dissonant qualities is implied by the fact that Hêliand was soon followed by Otfied’s Evangelienbuch, a much more orthodox and harmonic albeit less interesting harmony. Instead of translating Otfried we may simply compare Hêliand V to the familiar modern version of the Christmas Gospel.Heliand 01

THA tells us about the birth of Jesus, but adds some basic insights into the social order of the Christian society and the way Jesus fits into this construction to be sure that we understand. The Christmas Gospel is a suitable story because it starts at the top of the construction, with the emperor, and ends at its bottom with the shepherds. The biblical society is somewhat simple, but THA knows how to upgrade the description of a suitable social hierarchy. He starts
by expanding upon Luke 2:1-5. Luke gives us some seemingly innocent initial facts, coincidence it would seem, but of course we suspect the Lord in mysterious ways to have arranged the taxation, in order to let ancient prophecies to become true. But if so, he works in his New Testament style, i.e.  without direct interference the way he used to employ  in the Old Testament.

THA takes the opportunity to explain in some detail how taxation works and the reason why it is difficult to evade. Many have pointed out that his model is Carolingian taxation with the emperor’s emissaries send out to keep track of people who were forced to go back to their birth place, family and assembly places (in effect their traditional thing place. It has also be observed that since a Carolingian emperor would refer to himself as Augustus, THA has chosen Otavian (Augustus before Augustus) to impose taxation. Many Saxon chieftains may be expected to oppose Carolingian taxes, as nine hundred years earlier Roman taxation made Germans unite behind Arminius, and THA knows. To be completely sure that no one can accuse Carolingian emperors of having invented taxation, THA eventually tells us that God (i.e. Jesus’ father) is behind this – ‘Joseph … … went too, as the mighty God had ruled’.

Heliand 02

To Luke, Joseph and Mary are humble people, but to THA it is unthinkable that a King such as Christ could belong to anything but the upper classes. Joseph therefore goes with his household to his hall and Manor in Bethlehem. We are not told whence he came since that may have indicated that he was permanently living at Nazareth, and why should he? THA has already explained to us that Joseph kept a low political profile during the reign of Herod.


Bethlehem in Saxony

In the first section we are introduced to God, the heavenly ruler, the emperor the worldly ruler, petty kings and chieftains such as Joseph, emissaries and warriors with a seat in the assembly. This is almost the whole social order yet we haven’t reached Luke’s Joseph and Mary.

In his matter-of-fact style Luke sees to it that Mary give birth already in verse 7. But THA is in no hurry. He has a hall, a heritage and a social situation to describe. On this journey therefore
Mary is to give birth and it is Jesus as well as God who thinks this is convenient. Actually Christ is born because he want to come out since he is ‘strong’, ‘great’, ‘king’, ‘splendid’ and ‘mighty’ as soon as he enters this world – ‘the light of men’. Luke’s commonplace reference to the days were accomplished that she should be delivered, doesn’t bother THA. Gods are born when they want to be born. We have all reason to believe that Joseph is sitting in David’s high seat overlooking the world the way Late Iron Age kings used to. Needless to say there is no reference to Mary being great with child. The state of pregnancy is nothing the upper classes bother about or discuss.

Heliand 03

Before Luke has reached the cowshed and the end of verse 7, THA has marched off in the opposite direction. The whole scene with the manger has become impossible and fully booked inns not much to bother about if you are giving birth at home in your hall. Swaddling clothes are not used in halls either.

To THA, the amazing thing, well worth to point out, is the care with which this upper class mother takes of her child. She is actually doing things herself. The jewelry and laying the ‘lord of mankind’ with ‘God’s power’ in a crib is perhaps overdoing it, but Mary, who in Hêliand is an emancipated woman,  wanted to do so and her loving affection was spoken of.

Heliand 04

Even when they are on duty, it is prudent to inform one’s housecarls, i.e. one’s bodyguard, when the lady of the household has been delivered, since the housecarls come second in rank in their lordship’s household. This opens a window of opportunity for THA – he can get out of the hall, put the shepherds on hold for a while, and use God’s housecarls, the angels, an awe-inspiring troop coming directly from God’s manor in Meadow of Heaven, to convey the message to Joseph’s housecarls who are out looking after the horses in the fields around Joseph’s manor. Having hooked up with the Gospel by means of his excursion into the fields and the manorial use of household troops, THA is ready to follow the gospel praise the Lord and point to the child in the crib.

Heliand 05


Saxon ‘Horse shepherds’

Political and power based theology, is be it 9th century Catholic or 21st century Muslim Brotherhood is always appalling and its interpretations doubtful. Nevertheless, interpreting and harmonizing the Scriptures gives us a clear picture of politics and society.  If these insights concerns 9th c. Saxony, they become interesting because their affinities with Carolingian and Pre Carolingian Iron Age in Northwest Germany and among Scandinavia become obvious. And we know little about that, and don’t want to embrace what we think we  know.

It has often been suggested that Christianity was an upper class religion, strongly defending the upper strata of society leading the lower ones as flocks of sheep behind a member of the brotherhood, but it is revealing that the ideological consciousness of these upper classes as they are represented e.g. by THA, was so well developed and conceptualized. If one reads all the songs of Hêliand, tends to about the authors ulterior motives, because he emerges as a good poet in addition to being a cleaver propagandist. That was probably why he was chosen or volunteered to do the job, but then again many dictatorial regimes have engaged good authors to write the right epics.

Be this as I may just don’t forget that the comparison of the Egyptian word for black’ (referring to beards of the clerics) goes: Suda  – Brotherhood – Salafist.



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