1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Heliand

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HELIAND. The 9th-century poem on the Gospel history, to which its first editor, J. A. Schmeller, gave the appropriate name of Heliand (the word used in the text for “Saviour,” answering to the O. Eng. hœlend and the Ger. Heiland), is, with the fragments of a version of the story of Genesis believed to be by the same author, all that remains of the poetical literature of the old Saxons, i.e. the Saxons who continued in their original home. It contained when entire about 6000 lines, and portions of it are preserved in four MSS. The Cotton MS. in the British Museum, written probably late in the 10th century, is nearly complete, ending in the middle of the story of the journey to Emmaus. The Munich MS., formerly at Bamberg, begins at line 85, and has many lacunae, but continues the history down to the last verse of St Luke's Gospel, ending, however, in the middle of a sentence. A MS. discovered at Prague in 1881 contains lines 958-1106, and another, in the Vatican library, discovered by K. Zangemeister in 1894, contains lines 1279-1358. The poem is based, not directly on the New Testament, but on the pseudo-Tatian's harmony of the Gospels, and it shows acquaintance with the commentaries of Alcuin, Bæda and Hrabanus Maurus.

The questions relating to the Heliand cannot be adequately discussed without considering also the poem on the history of Genesis, which, on the grounds of similarity in style and vocabulary, and for other reasons afterwards to be mentioned, may with some confidence be referred to the same author. A part of this poem, as is mentioned in the article Cædmon, is extant only in an Old English translation. The portions that have been preserved in the original language are contained in the same Vatican MS. that includes the fragment of the Heliand referred to above. In the one language or the other, there are in existence the following three fragments: (1) The passage which appears as lines 235-851 in the so-called “Cædmon's Genesis,” on the revolt of the angels and the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve. Of this the part corresponding to lines 790-820 exists also in the original Old Saxon. (2) The story of Cain and Abel, in 124 lines. (3) The account of the destruction of Sodom, in 187 lines. The main source of the Genesis is the Bible, but Professor E. Sievers has shown that considerable use was made of the two Latin poems by Alcimus Avitus, De initio mundi and De peccato originali.

The two poems give evidence of genius and trained skill, though the poet was no doubt hampered by the necessity of not deviating too widely from the sacred originals. Within the limits imposed by the nature of his task, his treatment of his sources is remarkably free, the details unsuited for poetic handling being passed over, or, in some instances, boldly altered. In many passages his work gives the impression of being not so much an imitation of the ancient Germanic epic, as a genuine example of it, though concerned with the deeds of other heroes than those of Germanic tradition. In the Heliand the Saviour and His Apostles are conceived as a king and his faithful warriors, and the use of the traditional epic phrases appears to be not, as with Cynewulf or the author of Andreas, a mere following of accepted models, but the spontaneous mode of expression of one accustomed to sing of heroic themes. The Genesis fragments have less of the heroic tone, except in the splendid passage describing the rebellion of Satan and his host. It is noteworthy that the poet, like Milton, sees in Satan no mere personification of evil, but the fallen archangel, whose awful guilt could not obliterate all traces of his native majesty. Somewhat curiously, but very naturally, Enoch the son of Cain is confused with the Enoch who was translated to heaven — an error which the author of the Old English Genesis avoids, though (according to the existing text) he confounds the names of Enoch and Enos.

Such external evidence as exists bearing on the origin of the Heliand and the companion poem is contained in a Latin document printed by Flacius Illyricus in 1562. This is in two parts; the one in prose, entitled (perhaps only by Flacius himself) “Praefatio ad librum antiquum in lingua Saxonica conscriptum”; the other in verse, headed “Versus de poëta et Interpreta hujus codicis.” The Praefatio begins by stating that the emperor Ludwig the Pious, desirous that his subjects should possess the word of God in their own tongue, commanded a certain Saxon, who was esteemed among his countrymen as an eminent poet, to translate poetically into the German language the Old and New Testaments. The poet willingly obeyed, all the more because he had previously received a divine command to undertake the task. He rendered into verse all the most important parts of the Bible with admirable skill, dividing his work into vitteas, a term which, the writer says, may be rendered by “lectiones” or “sententias.” The Praefatio goes on to say that it was reported that the poet, till then knowing nothing of the art of poetry, had been admonished in a dream to turn into verse the precepts of the divine law, which he did with so much skill that his work surpasses in beauty all other German poetry (ut cuncta Theudisca poëmata suo vincat decore}. The Versus practically reproduce in outline Bæda's account of Cædmon's dream, without mentioning the dream, but describing the poet as a herdsman, and adding that his poems, beginning with the creation, relate the history of the five ages of the world down to the coming of Christ.

The suspicion of some earlier scholars that the Praefatio and the Versus might be a modern forgery is refuted by the occurrence of the word vitteas, which is the Old Saxon fittea, corresponding to the Old English fitt, which means a “canto” of a poem. It is impossible that a scholar of the 16th century could have been acquainted with this word, and internal evidence shows clearly that both the prose and the verse are of early origin. The Versus, considered in themselves, might very well be supposed to relate to Cædmon; but the mention of the five ages of the world in the concluding lines is obviously due to recollection of the opening of the Heliand (lines 46-47). It is therefore certain that the Versus, as well as the Praefatio, attribute to the author of the Heliand a poetic rendering of the Old Testament. Their testimony, if accepted, confirms the ascription to him of the Genesis fragments, which is further supported by the fact that they occur in the same MS. with a portion of the Heliand. As the Praefatio speaks of the emperor Ludwig in the present tense, the former part of it at least was probably written in his reign, i.e. not later than A.D. 840. The general opinion of scholars is that the latter part, which represents the poet as having received his vocation in a dream, is by a later hand, and that the sentences in the earlier part which refer to the dream are interpolations by this second author. The date of these additions and of the Versus, is of no importance, as their statements are incredible. That the author of the Heliand was, so to speak another Cædmon — an unlearned man who turned into poetry what was read to him from the sacred writings — is impossible because in many passages the text of the sources is so closely followed that it is clear that the poet wrote with the Latin books before him. On the other hand, there is no reason for rejecting the almost contemporary testimony of the first part of the Praefatio that the author of the Heliand had won renown as a poet before he undertook his great task at the emperor's command. It is certainly not impossible that a Christian Saxon sufficiently educated to read Latin easily, may have chosen to follow the calling of a scop or minstrel[1] instead of entering the priesthood or the cloister; and if such a person existed, it would be natural that he should be selected by the emperor to execute his design. As has been said above, the tone of many portions of the Heliand is that of a man who was no mere imitator of the ancient epic, but who had himself been accustomed to sing of heroic themes.

The commentary on the gospel of Matthew by Hrabanus Maurus was finished about 821, which is therefore the superior limit of date for the composition of the Heliand. It is usually maintained that this work was written before the Old Testament poems. The arguments for this view are that the Heliand contains no allusion to any foregoing poetical treatment of the antecedent history, and that the Genesis fragments exhibit a higher degree of poetic skill. This reasoning does not appear conclusive, and if it be set aside, the limit of date for the beginning of the work is carried back to A.D. 814, the year of the accession of Ludwig.

Bibliography. — The first complete edition of the Heliand was published by J. A. Schmeller in 1830; the second volume, containing the glossary and grammar, appeared in 1840. The standard edition is that of E. Sievers (1877), m which the texts of the Cotton and Munich MSS. are printed side by side. It is not provided with a glossary, but contains an elaborate and most valuable analysis of the diction, synonymy and syntactical features of the poem. Other useful editions are those of M. Heyne (3rd ed., 1903), O. Behaghel (1882) and P. Piper (1897, containing also the Genesis fragments). The fragments of the Heliand and the Genesis contained in the Vatican MS. were edited in 1894 by K. Zangemeister and W. Braune under the title Bruchstücke der altsächsischen Bibeldichtung. Among the works treating of the authorship, sources and place of origin of the poems, the most important are the following: E. Windisch Der Heliand und seine Quellen (1868); E. Sievers, Der Heliand und die angelsächsische Genesis (1875); R. Kögel, Deutsche Literaturgeschichte, Bd. i. (1894) and Die altsächsische Genesis (1895); R. Kögel and W. Bruckner, “Althoch- und altniederdeutsche Literatur,” in Paul's Grundriss der germanischen Philologie, Bd. ii. (2nd ed., 1901), which contains references to many other works; Hermann Collitz, Zum Dialekte des Heliand (1901). (H. Br.)


  1. The term Volkssänger, commonly used in German discussions of this question, is misleading; the audience for heroic poetry was not “the people” in the modern sense, but the nobles.