Chapter 2
Sources and analogues

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Analogues to the Cædmon story

§ 2.1    Scholars have devoted an immense energy to tracking down analogues to Bede’s account of Cædmon’s life and work. Approximately forty-five so-called analogues to the Cædmon story, and, with some overlap, perhaps fifteen to the Hymn itself,[1] have been discovered since 1832 when Palgrave first pointed out similarities between Bede’s chapter on Cædmon and the Prefatio and Versus de poeta associated with the Old Saxon Heliand (Palgrave 1832, 341). While the initial grounds for the hunt were, as Palgrave’s examples suggest, classical and medieval Europe, twentieth-century researchers in particular have ranged far more widely, finding parallels among the aboriginal cultures of Australia and North America, the Fiji Islanders, the Xhosa of Southern Africa, the lives of the English romantic poets, and Hindu and Muslim tradition. The much smaller number of potential analogues to the Hymn itself has tended to come from cultures with which the Anglo-Saxons had close contact. These include an Old High German prayer, a Celtic creation poem, and various prayers and offices of the Anglo-Saxon church. The two main exceptions to this last trend are both found in the context of analogues to Cædmon’s Inspiration: the 96th Sura of the Qur’ān, which was recited by Mohammed during his first revelation, and Ulo Thixo Omkulu, ngosezulwini, the Great Hymn of Ntsikana, a nineteenth-century Xhosa preacher and religious leader.

§ 2.2    The search for analogues often has been conducted with more enthusiasm than rigour. The idea that parallels to the Cædmon story might be found in cultures far removed from medieval Europe was first argued in a brief note by Aurner (Aurner 1926, 536), and, more analytically, in a subsequent essay by Pound. Pound’s observation that “[i]llustrative material” paralleling Cædmon’s life and work “might be multiplied almost indefinitely” (Pound 1929, 239) appears to have been understood as a challenge by subsequent generations of scholars. In addition to discovering closer or more distant parallels to the Cædmon story in numerous and unexpected quarters, analogue researchers have also managed to produce a variety of partial analogues to individual elements and motifs: the passing of the harp in the conuiuium, for example, for which parallels have been found in the passing of the citharam at a wedding feast in the twelfth-century Latin prose De gestis Herwardi Saxonis (Anderson 1977, 3-4); the passing of a cup in the feast scenes in Beowulf (Osborn 1989, 16); and the passing of the vingull or “ossified horse’s penis... wrapped in cloths” in the Old Norse Volsa thattr (Osborn 1989, 16).

§ 2.3    It is easy to underestimate the importance this research.[2] But the exhaustive hunt for analogues to Bede’s story has not been without value. While the search was begun by scholars like Palgrave who, impressed by the mythic quality of the chapter on Cædmon’s Inspiration, sought to demonstrate its lack of authenticity either by finding Bede’s source or by demonstrating that its details were so commonplace as to hardly merit consideration as legitimate historiography, subsequent studies have tended to be more agnostic towards Cædmon’s historical existence.[3] Rather than seeing the analogues as an opportunity for testing Bede’s accuracy, these studies instead have tended to see the presumed parallels from world culture as an opportunity for establishing the folkloric, psychological, anthropological, or cultural contexts within which Bede (or in some cases subsequent generations) understood his subject’s experience and significance. By uncovering and publishing numerous more-or-less similar stories, poems, and motifs from around the world, analogue scholars have established a substantial body of comparative material that can be used to assess the cultural and archetypal influences within which Cædmon and Bede composed their respective works.

§ 2.4    One result of this assembly of material has been the perhaps surprising discovery that very few of the supposed analogues to Bede’s chapter actually mirror his account all that closely: after a search spanning nearly two centuries, no sign of the many similar traditions so often and so confidently predicted in early analogue studies has yet to appear. The key feature of the story in most modern readings, the gift of poetic utterance by a dream visitor, does show numerous more-or-less similar parallels in cultures around the world. Beyond this central feature, however, the analogous stories collected thus far tend to show more differences from than similarities to Bede’s account.

§ 2.5    The extent to which the “analogues” fail to parallel Cædmon’s story in any great detail was demonstrated most convincingly by Lester. Setting out to “test the supposition that the Cædmon story is paralleled widely elsewhere” (Lester 1974, 225), Lester broke Bede’s account of the poet into twenty-four “essential” features against which most of the then-known analogues could be compared (228):

(a) there is a religious environment, (b) the subject is an old man, (c) he tends animals, (d) he is previously untrained in poetry, (e) his social awkwardness sets him apart from others, (f) he sleeps, (g) a certain person (quidam) appears, (h) the subject is greeted by name, (i) he is instructed to sing/recite, (j) he replies that he cannot, (k) the instruction is repeated, (l) the subject requests guidance as to what to sing, (m) he is told to celebrate God’s works, (n) he sings God’s praise in his sleep in verses he has never heard, (o) he adds more on awakening, (p) he immediately recognises his gift as divine, (q) his gift is tested by others, (r) others recognise his gift as divine, (s) he is supplied with new subject matter, (t) he produces pious and religious verse, (u) he produces his work after an overnight period of thought, (v) the verse is in the poet’s own language, (w) it is of great excellence, (x) the subject becomes a great poet.

§ 2.6    The results of this comparison were surprising. Of the fourteen analogues Lester examined, only one, the story of Mohammed’s Call, agreed with Bede’s account in more than half these features—and even then only for a total of fifteen out of the possible twenty-four (63%). No other analogue agreed with the Cædmon story in even half the features of Lester’s typology. The four next most similar stories (Hallbjörn, Heliand Poet, and the stories of Valmiki and St. Dunstan) agreed in nine points each (38% congruence); the sixth most similar story (that of the sixth-century Muslim poet Abīd ben al-Abras) showed eight points of similarity (33%); the seventh and eighth (Melrose Monk and Godric of Finchale), seven (29%); and the remaining four, five points (21%) or less:

Table 1: Some commonly cited analogues to the Cædmon story (adapted from Lester 1974, 228).

Story (# common points/% congruence) a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x
Hesiod (5/21%)     ×           ×       ×                 ×   ×
Hallbjörn (9/38%)     × ×   × × × ×           ×             ×   ×
Heliand Poet (9/38%)     × ×   ×     ×                 ×   ×   × × ×
Aeschylus (5/21%)           × ×   ×                         ×   ×
Homer (5/21%)           × ×   ×                         ×   ×
Man at wake (2/8%)         ×   ×                                  
Valmiki (9/38%) × ×         ×   ×             ×   ×       × × ×
St. Dunstan (9/38%) ×         × ×   × ×     × ×   ×       ×        
Godric of Finchale (7/29%) ×           × × ×             ×       ×   ×    
Melrose Monk (7/29%) ×     ×   × ×                         ×   × ×  
Mohammed (15/63%) ×   × ×   × ×   × × × × ×     ×   ×   ×   × ×  
Abīd ben al-Abras (8/33%)     × ×   × ×   ×                         × × ×
Number of Analogues/12 5 1 5 5 1 8 10 2 10 2 1 1 3 1 1 4 0 3 0 5 0 10 5 7
% Congruence 42 8 42 42 8 67 83 17 83 17 8 8 25 8 8 33 0 25 0 42 0 83 42 58

§ 2.7    The differences between these supposed analogues and Bede’s account are not trivial. While a majority agree with Cædmon’s story in four main points—that the subject was asleep immediately before receiving his gift (67%), that the gift itself involved the appearance of one or more visitors (83%), that he is instructed to sing or recite (83%), and that the verse is in the poet’s own language (83%)—several other significant aspects are found in few if any of the parallels Lester examined. Cædmon’s great age and low status, for example, are combined in no other story. While Valmiki, the sage to whom the Sanskrit Ramayana Epic is traditionally ascribed, is old, he does not have low status: his great age, indeed, is presented instead as a means of indicating, along with his wealth, high social position, and reputation for wisdom, the reason why he was found to be particularly suited for the commission (see Lester 1974, 229). Parallels to Cædmon’s initial refusal to sing, likewise, are found in only two of the proposed analogues: St. Dunstan and Mohammed. In only one tale, that of Mohammed’s Call, does the protagonist request guidance in choosing his subject matter or recite an explicitly religious text about creation. In only five stories does the inspiration come to a subject who is said explicitly to lack any skill in traditional poetic genres (Hallbjörn, Heliand Poet, Melrose Monk, Mohammed, and Abīd ben al-Abras).

§ 2.8    In contrast to Bede’s account of Cædmon, a large number of other analogues portray their subject, often a younger man, as actively seeking out inspiration from his visitor, engaging in deliberate consciousness-altering exercises, or otherwise encouraging the development of his poetic abilities (analogues showing one or more of these elements, some identified after Lester’s article, include the stories of Abīd ben al-Abras, the early twentieth-century Turkish poet Sabit Müdamî Ataman, Hallbjörn, and Halfdan the Black). The subjects about which these protagonists ask or are asked to sing likewise differ greatly. In one case, that of Abīd ben al-Abras, the request for assistance is for inspiration in composing a revenge poem; in other examples, poets are taught to compose tragedies (Aeschylus), Latin hymns (St. Dunstan, Godric of Finchale), or praise poems in honour of a great poetic predecessor (Hallbjörn). Finally, Bede’s account of Cædmon’s inspiration appears to be unique in the nature of the test Cædmon is asked to undergo in order to prove his legitimacy: I am aware of no other analogue in which the protagonist is asked to demonstrate his skill by composing a new song to a text of his examiners’ choosing without reconsulting his muse.

§ 2.9    It is possible to quibble with some of Lester’s typological categories. He occasionally collapses what might be considered distinct attributes of the Cædmon story into a single feature: the requirement that the story have a subject who “sings God’s praise in his sleep in verses he has never heard,” for example, might as easily be counted as three separate requirements as one. Lester also omits aspects of the story that subsequent studies have treated as being more significant—the sex of the person to whom the subject of the analogue reports the story of his inspiration, or, perhaps more difficult to define, whether the inspiration is represented as the beginning of a scripture, school, or poetic tradition. Including these categories in the table or applying Lester’s typology to analogues discovered since 1974 or missed in his article, however, does not significantly change the results of his original demonstration. No subsequent work has fared better than those discussed by Lester in finding analogues that emphasise areas in which previous generations of scholars were least able to find legitimate parallels: i.e. a subject who is both old and without previous training or desire to perform; an encounter in which the gift of poetry is presented as an external, compulsive, and unwanted demand; or a first performance that is rapidly followed by a test in which the poet is asked to compose additional material in the same vein by human examiners.

§ 2.10    The failure of the analogue-hunters in their search for close parallels to Bede’s chapter on Cædmon is significant in its own right. As Ward has shown in relation to Bede’s miracle stories, differences between Bede’s work and broadly similar stories in other sources can be as revealing as the similarities (Ward 1976, 74). While the absence of direct or even very close parallels to Bede’s story of Cædmon suggests that he was not simply adapting a tale he heard elsewhere or cutting his account out of folkloric whole cloth, the fact that so many stories from around the world agree with his account at one or more points provides us with a considerable basis for separating what is common in Cædmon’s story from what is unique or unusual. This allows us both a better appreciation of what Bede considered to be important in the story, and, just as significantly, a demonstration of what Bede could have done with his tale had he wanted to bring it more closely into line with other stories of similar types of inspiration known to him or current elsewhere in world literature.

Mohammed’s call

§ 2.11    The most instructive place to begin such a comparison is with the story that, perhaps surprisingly, shows the closest similarities to Bede’s account of Cædmon’s Inspiration: that of Mohammed’s Call as told in the Qur’ān and associated Islamic tradition. Because of the importance of this analogue and its reliance on sources written in languages falling outside those most commonly cited in Anglo-Saxon studies, I quote the story at length from a modern biography of the Prophet (Lings 1983, 43-45):

[As Muḥammad rose in esteem among the people of Mecca,] he began to experience powerful inward signs, in addition to those of which he had already been conscious.... The immediate result of these visions was that solitude became dear to him, and he would go for spiritual retreats to a cave in Mount Ḥirā’ not far from the outskirts of Mecca.... During these few years it often happened that after he had left the town and was approaching his hermitage he would hear clearly the words “Peace be on thee, O Messenger of God,” and he would turn and look for the speaker but no one was in sight, and it was as if the words had come from a tree or a stone.

...[O]ne night towards the end of Ramadan, in his fortieth year, when he was alone in the cave,... there came to him an Angel in the form of a man. The Angel said to him: “Recite!” and he said: “I am not a reciter,” whereupon, as he himself told it, “the Angel took me and whelmed me in his embrace until he had reached the limit of mine endurance. Then he released me and said: ‘Recite!’ I said: ‘I am not a reciter,’ and again he took me and whelmed me in his embrace, and again when he had reached the limit of mine endurance, he again released me and said: ‘Recite!,’ and again I said ‘I am not a reciter.’ Then a third time he whelmed me as before, then released me and said:

    Recite in the name of thy Lord who created!

    He createth man from a clot of blood.

    Recite; and thy Lord is the Most Bountiful,

    He who hath taught by the pen,

    taught man what he knew not.

He recited these words after the Angel, who thereupon left him; and he said; “It was as though the words were written on my heart.” But he feared that this might mean he had become a jinn-inspired poet or a man possessed. So he fled from the cave, and when he was half-way down the slope of the mountain he heard a voice above him saying: “O Muḥammad, thou art the Messenger of God, and I am Gabriel.” He raised his eyes heavenwards and there was his visitant, still recognisable but now clearly an Angel, filling the whole horizon, and again he said: “O Muḥammad, thou are the Messenger of God, and I am Gabriel.”.... Finally the Angel turned away, and the Prophet descended the slope and went to his house. “Cover me! Cover me!” he said to [his wife] Khadījah as with still quaking heart he laid himself on his couch.... [W]hen the intensity of his awe had abated he told her what he had seen and heard; and having spoken to him words of reassurance she went to tell her cousin Waraqah, who was now an old man, and blind. “Holy! Holy!”, he said. “By Him in whose hand is the soul of Waraqah, there hath come unto Muḥammad the greatest Nāmūs, even he that would come unto Moses. Verily Muḥammad is the Prophet of this people. Bid him rest assured.” So Khadījah went home and repeated these words to the Prophet, who now returned in peace of mind to the cave, that he might fulfil the number of days he had dedicated to God for his retreat. When this was completed, he went... [to greet] the old and the blind Waraqah... and Waraqah said to him: “Tell me, O son of my brother, what thou hast seen and heard.” The Prophet told him, and the old man said again what he had said to Khadījah. But this time he added: “Thou wilt be called a liar, and ill-treated, and they will cast thee out and make war upon thee...” Then he leaned towards him and kissed his forehead, and the Prophet returned to his home.

The reassurances of Khadījah and Waraqah were followed by a reassurance from Heaven in the form of a second Revelation....

Nūn. By the pen, and by that which they write, no madman art thou, through the grace of thy Lord unto thee, and thine shall be a meed unfailing, and verily of an immense magnitude is thy nature.

After the first Messages had come there was a period of silence, until the Prophet began to fear that he had incurred in some way the displeasure of Heaven.... Then at last the silence was broken, and there came a further reassurance, and with it the first command directly related to his mission:

By the morning brightness, and by the night when it is still, thy Lord hath not forsaken thee nor doth He hate thee, and the last shall be better for thee than the first, and thy Lord shall give and give unto thee, and thou shalt be satisfied. Hath He not found thee an orphan and sheltered thee, and found thee astray and guided thee, and found thee needy and enriched thee? So for the orphan, oppress him not, and for the beggar, repel him not, and for the bountiful grace of thy Lord, proclaim it!

§ 2.12    The similarities between this story and that of Cædmon’s Inspiration have been remarked upon by a number of scholars (e.g. Thundy 1989; von See 1983; Magoun 1955, 58, n. 21). The two stories’ narratives follow almost identical patterns until after the protagonists’ first performances. Their subject is an apparently illiterate man[4] who is asked to perform in some way by an unannounced and (initially at least) unrecognised interlocutor. Both men are approached by their visitor while they are in a particularly receptive state: while dreaming in the case of Cædmon; during a meditative retreat in that of Mohammed. The interlocutor repeats his request several times in both stories, and is rebuffed at least once by each man—although Mohammed, who refuses to recite three times, is far more steadfast than Cædmon, who asks for advice on what he should sing immediately after his interlocutor’s second request. In both cases the conversation ends with the interlocutor indicating the material that is to be performed. In the story of Cædmon’s Inspiration, this takes the form of the subject the herdsman is to sing; in that of Mohammed’s Call, Gabriel provides the actual text Mohammed is to recite as well. Both protagonists conclude their performances by committing this first text to memory. Finally, both men tell the story of their vision to a close associate as soon as they are able (Cædmon tells his reeve; Mohammed his wife), who then passes the story on to a person of higher authority for authentication (the Abbess Hild and her counsellors in the case of Cædmon; the wise and old Waraqah in that of Mohammed).

§ 2.13    The differences between the stories, however, are as significant as their similarities. Where in Bede’s account Cædmon is certain almost immediately that his vision represents a true and exceptional gift from God, Mohammed is, initially at least, far less sure and requires frequent reassurance: first from the archangel Gabriel on the slopes of Ḥirā’, later from his wife Khadījah and her cousin Waraqah (both indirectly via Khadījah and later in person), and finally from God himself via the next two revelations. The reception the subjects receive after their initial revelation is also quite different. As Bede notes, Cædmon is accepted into Hild’s monastery and set to work composing sacred songs and scriptural translations after a brief test of his abilities. His success as a propagandist, moreover, is equally immediate: Bede reports twice that Cædmon’s singing excites men from sin and towards good works, and notes how even the monks assigned to teach him the sacred books were enchanted by the beauty of his song. Mohammed, in contrast, while initially able to gather a small group of disciples, and, of course, ultimately the leader of a significant religious, political, and military force, nevertheless both keeps his gift relatively quiet in the first few years of his revelation and suffers ill-treatment, exile, and war as predicted by Waraqah.

§ 2.14    The most important difference between the two tales for our purposes, however, lies in the precise nature of the gift each man receives in his vision. In Cædmon’s case, the gift is that of poetic inspiration: his visitor commissions him to compose a song about creation rather than to perform a pre-existing text, and nothing about Cædmon’s subsequent career suggests he ever needs to consult with his interlocutor again: he adds more material of his own invention to his original song when he wakes up the morning after his vision, and he is able for the rest of his life to translate quicquid ex diuinis litteris per interpretes disceret,... post pusillum uerbis poeticis maxima suauitate et conpunctione conpositis in sua, id est Anglorum, lingua, “whatever he learned from the holy Scriptures by means of interpreters,... quickly... into extremely delightful and moving poetry, in English, which was his own tongue” without additional help (Historia ecclesiastica IV. 24 [ed. and trans. Colgrave and Mynors 1969]). As noted above (§ 2.8), this emphasis on Cædmon’s ability at composition is reflected in the test set by Hild and her counsellors: while they question him about his dream and visitor, they accept him into the monastery after he proves himself able to compose a new poem on a subject of his examiners’ own choosing.

§ 2.15    In Mohammed’s case, in contrast, the gift received is that of revelation. While Mohammed’s work does require considerable effort and interpretative skill, he is himself not responsible for the content of the messages he recites. It is indeed a tenet of Islam that the Prophet does not invent his texts: Mohammed is told what he must say; his gift is the ability to understand what these (sometimes very hard to decipher) messages mean (Muḥammad ibn Ismā‘īl al-Bukhārī, I. 3 as quoted in Lings 1983, 44-45):

Sometimes it [i.e. revelation] cometh unto me like the reverberations of a bell, and that is the hardest upon me; the reverberations abate when I am aware of their message. And sometimes the Angel taketh the form of a man and speaketh unto me, and I am aware of what he saith.

As Hopkins has argued in an unpublished essay, moreover, Mohammed, in contrast to Cædmon, is not required by his closest associates to perform or produce additional revelations after he reveals the content of the first (Hopkins 2000). Waraqah’s initial comments on the divine origin of Mohammed’s first revelation come immediately after he hears of it—second hand—from Khadījah. And unlike Cædmon, Mohammed must endure an initial dry spell: while a second reassuring message comes to him almost immediately (Sura 68), he is then forced to suffer through several years of silence before the revelations begin again in earnest with the 93rd Sura.

Aldhelm and Ntsikana

§ 2.16    The differences between Bede’s account of Cædmon’s Inspiration and the story of Mohammed’s Call emphasise the extent to which Bede’s real interest in the Cædmon story lies in his subject’s ability to compose. But Cædmon is not only a poet to Bede; he is also a Christian and in Bede’s eyes at least the best (if not necessarily the first, see above, § 1.21) ever to turn his hand to the composition of religious verse in Old English. The origins of vernacular Christian verse are the subject of a number of other proposed analogues. None of these agrees with Cædmon’s story on as many points as that of Mohammed’s Call, although one, the story of Ntsikana, an early nineteenth-century Xhosa religious leader and poet, comes close, and a second, the story of Aldhelm, the Anglo-Saxon man of letters and Cædmon’s near contemporary, offers other useful points of comparison. Once again, however, the differences these tales show to the Cædmon story are as revealing as the similarities. In particular, Bede’s account of Cædmon is unique in its emphasis on the lack of continuity between Cædmon and contemporary vernacular poets (see above, § 1.33). While all three stories touch to some degree upon what might be understood as the founding of a new school of Christian vernacular verse (though see above, § 1.21 and note), Bede’s version goes to great lengths to distance Cædmon’s choice of subject and method of composition and performance from those of other singers mentioned in the story. In contrast, the stories of Aldhelm and Ntsikana depend on the reader recognising an essential connection between their subjects and the vernacular traditions their subjects adapt. Although, as argued below (Chapter 3: Cædmon’s Hymn and Germanic convention), Cædmon’s Hymn is, formally speaking, a very traditional Germanic poem, Bede devotes considerable attention in his chapter to suggesting that its composition and performance owe little if anything to the techniques and habits of earlier poets. Aldhelm and Ntsikana, on the other hand, are invariably portrayed as adapting existing techniques and forms for new Christian ends.


§ 2.17    An influential seventh-century Anglo-Saxon bishop, Aldhelm has been described as “the first English man of letters” (Lapidge and Rosier 1985, 1). He knew most of the leading political and ecclesiastical figures of his day, and had a profound effect on the development of English Latin literary life. He is the first Englishman known to have turned his hand to Latin poetry, and he remained an important influence on Anglo-Latin prose and verse style almost to the Conquest. He is, in Orchard’s words, “perhaps the most important figure in the history of Anglo-Latin, indeed of Anglo-Saxon, literature” (Orchard 1994, 1).

§ 2.18    It is Aldhelm’s claim as a potential rival to Cædmon for the title of the first recorded English vernacular religious poet, however, that most interests us. An approximate contemporary of the Whitby herdsman, Aldhelm is reputed to have composed a significant and well-loved body of vernacular verse. He is said by William of Malmesbury to have been a favourite of Alfred the Great, a king whose interest in and taste for vernacular poetry is well documented in contemporary sources; and he is reported by the same historian to have composed a “trivial” song that was still commonly sung in William’s day (Gesta Pontificum Anglorum [ed. Hamilton 1870], V. 190; trans. adapted from Opland 1980, 121. See above, § 1.22, for a caution about twelfth-century accounts of Anglo-Saxon composition):

Litteris itaque ad plenum instructus, nativæ quoque linguæ non negligebat carmina; adeo ut, teste libro Elfredi, de quo superius dixi, nulla umquam ætate par ei fuerit quisquam. Poesim Anglicam posse facere, cantum componere, eadem apposite vel canere vel dicere. Denique commemorat Elfredus, carmen triviale, quod adhuc vulgo cantitatur, Aldelmum fecisse; aditiens causam qua probet rationabiliter tantum virum his quæ videantur frivola institisse.

Although fully instructed in literature, he [Aldhelm] did not neglect poems in his native language; so much so that there was never at any period anyone to equal him, as the book of Alfred (which I spoke about above) attests. He was able to create poetry in English, and to compose a song and to sing or recite that in the appropriate manner. Finally, Alfred records that Aldhelm composed a trivial song, which is still sung among the people, adding the evidence which he gives to argue that so great a man undertook with reason things that might seem frivolous.

§ 2.19    Unfortunately, and in contrast to Cædmon, no contemporary accounts (or identifiable examples) of Aldhelm’s vernacular poetic production survive. One incident, however, is recorded in both William of Malmesbury’s early twelfth-century Gesta Pontificum Anglorum and, in a slightly different and less detailed form, Faricius of Arezzo’s late tenth-century Vita S. Aldhelmi. In this story, Aldhelm is said to have used his abilities as a vernacular poet to compose Old English songs or poems in order to entice the laity back into church for his sermon (Faricius leaves the genre and language of text unspecified in his vita, referring instead simply to Aldhelm’s eloquia). Given the dates involved, the tale, if true, must have occurred at approximately the same time Cædmon received his vision (ed. Hamilton 1870, V. 190):

Populum eo tempore semibarbarum, parum divinis sermonibus intentum, statim, cantatis missis, domos cursitare solitum. Ideo sanctum virum, super pontem qui rura et urbem continuat, abeuntibus se opposuisse obicem, quasi artem cantitandi professum. Eo plusquam semel facto, plebis favorem et concursum emeritum. Hoc commento sensim inter ludicra verbis Scripturarum insertis, cives ad sanitatem reduxisse; qui si severe et cum excommunicatione agendum putasset, profecto profecisset nichil.

The people at that time, being semi-barbarous and too little interested in divine sermons, used to run off home immediately after the mass had been sung. And so the holy man positioned himself in the way of those who were leaving on a bridge which connected the town and the country as if he were someone professing the art of singing. Having done this more than once he earned the sympathy and the attention of the people. Once he had gained that, by gradually inserting scriptural phrases between the light-hearted, he led the people back to sanity; if he had considered acting strictly and with excommunication, he would assuredly have accomplished nothing.


§ 2.20    A second, in many details closer, analogue to the Cædmon story comes from nineteenth-century southern Africa. Ntsikana was a member of the Cira clan in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and famous among his people for his social accomplishments, including composing, singing, dancing, and divining. In the early years of the nineteenth century, however, he underwent a visionary experience that left him with the gift of prophecy and an ability to compose Christian religious hymns in the style of traditional Xhosa eulogistic verse. He became the leader of a small Christian congregation that became known for its use of his hymns in their services, one of which, Ulo Thixo Omkulu, ngosezulwini or Ntsikana’s Great Hymn (trans. Opland 1980, 118), Opland reports in the late 1970s still to be “perhaps the most popular hymn among Christian Xhosas today” (Opland 1977, 63):

    You are the great God, who is in heaven.

    You are the very One, shield of truth,

    You are the very One, stronghold of truth,

    You are the very One, forest-refuge of truth,

5    You are the very One, who dwell in the heavens,

    Who created life, created it above.

    This creator who created, created the heaven.

    This maker of the stars and the Pleiades.

    A star would flash, telling us.

10    This maker of the blind, does he not make them on purpose?

    The trumpet sounded, calling us.

    He who in his hunting pursues souls.

    He who gathers together squabbling flocks.

    He the leader who has led us.

15    He whose great blanket we wear.

    He whose hands are pierced.

    He whose feet are pierced.

    Your blood, why is it flowing?

    Your blood, it is shed for us.

20    This great price, have we requested it?

    This home of yours, have we requested it?

§ 2.21    Our knowledge of the relevant aspects of Ntsikana’s life come from two main sources. The moment of his actual inspiration is narrated by his son and disciple, William Kobe Ntsikana (Imibengo, 9; as trans. and quoted in Jordan 1973, 44-45):

On the day that he was called by the Spirit, he had risen early and was leaning leisurely against the poles of his cattle-fold. When the sun rose, one of its rays smote him. Then he was heard calling to a boy who was attending the calves, “Do you see what I see?” The boy said, “No.” Three times he asked him, and still the boy said “No.”.... Then he went to a mdudo (dance), together with other people. But on this day, when he stood up to dance, the wind arose. At last he sat down. Then later on he stood up again to dance, and again the wind rose. Thereupon he ordered all those of his household to accompany him home. And when he came to the river, he washed off the red ochre. And they wondered what had befallen him....

On reaching home, he told them what had befallen him, and also that they must not listen to Nxele, who was misleading the people, but listen to this Thing that had entered him. “This Thing that has entered me enjoins that we pray, and that all must kneel!” Thereafter he held divine service at all times, and he was wont to put on his kaross of leopard-skins, and read[5] therefrom.

The story of Ntsikana’s death comes from another source, the report to the Glasgow Mission society for 1823 by John Brownlee (as quoted in Opland 1977, 62):

One of the strongest encouragements to Missions in this country, is the blessing which seems to have accompanied the labours of the late Mr. Williams [a European missionary active in Ntsikana’s region until his death in 1818], not only among the people of the Institution, but also among those who were occasional visitors, of which I shall give you an instance. There is a Kraal of about 100 population, who, from the time of his death to my entrance into Caffreland (a period of nearly two years), were accustomed to meet regularly for worship, morning and evening, and to observe the Lord’s day. The chief person of the Kraal, who conducted the worship, died about two years ago. He composed a hymn in their language, which they still sing in the worship of God. On the day of his death (of which he appeared to be fully aware), although he was able to conduct the worship, he spake as one on the brink of eternity, expressing a calm resignation to the will, and an humble confidence in the mercy of God. He appeared deeply interested in the salvation of his countrymen, and earnestly entreated those around him, to meet death in its most terrific form, rather than to give up the profession of religion.

Aldhelm, Ntsikana, and Cædmon

§ 2.22    The similarities of these stories to Bede’s account of Cædmon’s inspiration are obvious. In the case of Aldhelm, the parallels are all to the middle part of Cædmon’s story, in which Bede discusses the result of his dream vision. While there is no suggestion that Aldhelm’s poetic gifts are the result of any unexpected visitation—indeed, in the prologue to his Enigmata, Aldhelm specifically rejects the idea that his works are dream-inspired: nec/ In Parnasso procubui nec somnia vidi, “I have not lain on Parnassus, nor have I seen dreams” (lines 12-13, quoted in Orchard 1994, 136)—his religious verse and performance as recounted by William and (more indirectly) Faricius does resemble Cædmon’s post-inspiration poetry in a number of important aspects: it is of high quality, it has a strong effect on the behaviour of those who hear it, and, in its combination of vernacular and Christian elements, it is portrayed at least implicitly as having been responsible for the production of a new and unexpected vernacular genre.

§ 2.23    The story of Ntsikana shows more thoroughgoing parallels to Bede’s account. Like Cædmon, Ntsikana is a herdsman who develops his gifts as a Christian vernacular poet in response to a vision. Like Cædmon, Ntsikana’s poetry proves to be extremely popular. And like Cædmon, Ntsikana dies like a saint. He is zealous in the performance of his religious duties and the defence of the faith, shows a concern for his own spiritual health and that of his co-religionists, and is said to have had a premonition of his death.

§ 2.24    For students of Old English, however, the most important aspects of Ntsikana’s story lie in his obvious value as propagandistic icon and source of inspiration for those responsible for spreading the tale. Like Bede, Ntsikana’s first biographers, Brownlee and Kobe Ntsikana, see their poet as both an example of the success of the initial Christian missionary activity in the Eastern Cape and a sign of the likely future success of their own efforts. Just as the association of Cædmon with Hild presumably serves as a further sign of her success and significance (although, as noted above, § 1.18, the Cædmon story is in fact less emphatically tied to Hild or her monastery than is commonly argued), Brownlee introduces Ntsikana’s story as further evidence of the on-going significance of the missionary work begun by himself and his predecessors in the Eastern Cape region. There is, moreover, a self-consciousness about both accounts of these poets. As Wieland has suggested, Bede, in his account of Cædmon’s death, models his narrative consciously or unconsciously on the traditional saint’s life (Wieland 1984, 198):

There is more than overtones and influences—the Caedmon story is hagiography. Not only are there three miracles, namely the vision, the gift of poetry,[6] and the foreknowledge of death, but more important, Caedmon leads many other people to the “love of heavenly life,” thus fulfilling one of the most essential conditions for a human to become a saint. As a matter of fact, Caedmon used to be venerated as a saint at both Jarrow and Whitby, but is not now considered a saint by either the Anglican or Roman Catholic Church.[7]

In reporting Ntsikana’s life and art, the European missionaries and their followers show themselves to be similarly influenced by hagiographic style and their conscious or unconscious recognition of the Cædmonian elements in Ntsikana’s story. The description of his death in the biographies of Kobe Ntsikana and Makaphela emphasise the poet’s saint-like willingness to die in God’s service. Brownlee’s report to the Glasgow Mission Society, likewise, presents Ntsikana at least generically as a new saint for a new mission. In the course of the twentieth century, moreover, the connection between the two became explicit. In his biography of the founder of the Bantu mission, Joseph Williams, Holt describes Ntsikana’s great Hymn as “the first hymn in the Xhosa language, and [one that] will stand in relation to all subsequent literature in that tongue like Caedmon’s Paraphrase to English” (Holt 1954, 114).

§ 2.25    Despite these superficial similarities with Bede’s account of Cædmon, however, the stories of Aldhelm and Ntsikana remain very different. Perhaps the most significant of these differences lies in the relationship they establish between the new Christian vernacular poetry and the culture from which it emanates. As argued above (§ 1.33), Bede appears in his account of Cædmon’s Hymn to go to considerable lengths to establish the lack of any direct cultural continuity between Cædmon’s Christian vernacular poetry and the more traditional, presumably secular, songs sung by his comrades at the conuiuium. In the stories of Ntsikana and Aldhelm, on the other hand, the connection between the new Christian verse and the secular culture that preceded it is essential to the poets’ appeal and legitimacy. Where Bede is careful in his account to stress the distance between Cædmon’s training, skill, and style of performance and that of contemporary (and presumably traditional) Anglo-Saxon performers, William of Malmesbury in his account of Aldhelm at the bridge and the nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians and missionaries responsible for preserving the story of Ntsikana portray their subjects as accomplished traditional artists who turn their already-acquired skills with great success to the composition of Christian vernacular poetry in traditional styles.

§ 2.26    This is most clearly seen in the case of Aldhelm, who is understood by his biographers to be an accomplished vernacular performer before he turned his hand to Christian material. In contrast to Cædmon, who fails to learn the trivial and idle songs of pre-Christian tradition even after his inspiration leaves him an accomplished vernacular poet, Aldhelm is said to have been famous for his abilities as a vernacular singer before he began composing Christian verse. William reports that Aldhelm’s secular songs were still current in his own day, and, as Opland notes, presents the story of Aldhem’s performance on the bridge in part as a way of mitigating this apparently damning skill by showing it being put to good use (Opland 1980, 121). Aldhelm’s actual performance of this new Christian verse, moreover, differs from Cædmon’s in that it embraces, rather than eschews, the pre-Christian traditions. Where Cædmon distinguishes himself by performing in a different location, to a different audience, and in a different style from his contemporaries in the beer-hall, Aldhelm is said by William to adopt the traditional garb, location, and, in the beginning at least, repertoire, of the professional minstrel in his attempts to lure his parishioners back to church.[8]

§ 2.27    Ntsikana, for his part, lies somewhere between Aldhelm and Cædmon. On the one hand, the story of Ntsikana’s Inspiration does involve a rejection of traditional culture. Having had his vision, Ntsikana finds himself unable to dance that night at the mdudo—though in contrast to Cædmon, who, Bede tells us, was accustomed to rise from the conuiuium whenever the harp approached, Ntsikana clearly expected to be able to participate in the dance and indeed tries twice before giving up. Unlike Cædmon, however, Ntsikana allies his Christian verse with previous pagan tradition by adopting the garb and style of the traditional poet for its performance. Opland describes Ntsikana’s Great Hymn as being “indistinguishable in style and technique from the imbongi’s eulogies in praise of a chief” and notes that the leopard-skin kaross is “a manner of dress characteristic of the Xhosa imbongi or poet” (Opland 1977, 64).

§ 2.28    Taken together, these differences between Bede’s story of Cædmon and the analogous accounts of other pioneering vernacular Christian poets suggest that Bede for his part was not all that interested in establishing an essential connection between traditional Germanic poetry and Cædmon’s verse. While Cædmon, Aldhelm, and Ntsikana are all analogous in that all three were significant poets whose work appears both to have appealed to their contemporaries and served a propaganda function in the development of their respective branches of the church, they differ in how their relationship to the preceding vernacular tradition is portrayed. For the biographers of Aldhelm and Ntsikana, the poets’ significance seems to be that they represent an appropriation—either of traditional poetic forms by the new Christian faith or of the new Christian faith as a subject matter for traditional poetic forms; for Bede, however, Cædmon’s significance appears to be, culturally at least, far more revolutionary: rather than seeing him as a new model for poets trained in the old ways, Bede seems to have understood Cædmon as a replacement—as somebody who does not so much appropriate as obliterate the old ways of doing things.

Analogues to the Hymn

§ 2.29    The hunt for analogues and sources to Cædmon’s Hymn itself, independent of the story of its composition, has been less prolific. Over the last two hundred years, scholars have proposed approximately fifteen possible sources or parallels. If we include poems found in analogues to the Cædmon story, the number rises to perhaps twenty. With the exception of the first texts performed by Mohammed and Ntsikana (see above, § 2.11 and § 2.20), most of the proposed parallels are drawn from Old English, related Germanic languages, Irish, or the scripture and liturgy of the Anglo-Saxon Church.

Celtic and Germanic analogues

Wessobrunner Gebet and Adram in Coimdid

§ 2.30    Two of the most commonly proposed analogues, the Old High German Wessobrunner Gebet (text Kartschoke 1975, 152-153 and 155; trans. Calder 1983, 173) and the Old Irish Adram in Coimdid (text and trans. adapted from Henry 1966, 212), can be dismissed almost immediately as showing few significant similarities with Cædmon’s poem apart from the fact that both are praise poems concerned with God the Creator: they agree with Cædmon’s poem in subject matter and tone, but differ quite significantly in structure and vocabulary—a particularly significant feature in the case of the Old High German Gebet (see Kartschoke 1975, 152-153). What resemblances there are are almost certainly the product of their treatment of a common theme rather than direct textual influence:

Adram in Coimdid

    Adram in Coimdid

    cusnaib aicdib amraib,

    nem gelmár co n-ainglib,

5    ler tonnbán for talmain.

Let us adore the Lord, Maker of wondrous works, great bright Heaven with its angels, the white-waved sea on earth.

Wessobrunner Gebet

    Dat gafregin ih mit firahim      firiuuizzo meista,

    Dat ero ni uuas      noh ufhimil,

    noh paum (...)      noh pereg ni uuas,

    ni (...) nohheinig      noh sunna ni scein,

5    noh mano ni liuhta,      noh der mareͅo seͅo.

    Do dar niuuiht ni uuas      enteo ni uuenteo,

    enti do uuas der eino      almahtico cot,

    manno miltisto,      enti dar uuaren auh manake mit inan

    cootlihhe geista.      enti cot heilac...

Cot almahtico, du himil enti erda gaworahtos, enti du mannun so mannac coot forgapi, forgip mir in dino ganada rehta galaupa enti cotan uuilleon, uuistom enti spahida enti craft, tiuflun za uuidarstantanne enti arc za piuuisanne enti dinan uuilleon za gauurchanne.

That have I learned among men, the greatest of wonders, that the earth was not, nor heaven above, nor tree... and the mountain was not, nor any..., neither did the sun shine, nor the moon give off light, nor [did] the splendid sea [exist]. Then there was nothing of boundaries or limits, and then was the one almighty God, most merciful of Men, and there were also with Him many divine spirits. And holy God...

God almighty, you created heaven and earth, and you gave men so many goods, grant me in your grace true faith and good will, wisdom and knowledge and strength to withstand the devils and to avoid evil and to do your will.

Beowulf 90b-98a: “Song of creation”

§ 2.31    A third parallel, from the “Song of creation” sung by Hroðgar’s scop in Beowulf, lines 90b-98a (ed. Kiernan 1999 [edition text]; trans. Bradley 1982), likewise owes most of its congruence with Cædmon’s Hymn to a similarity of theme. While the two passages share some common language and ideas, differences in structure between the two pieces, their lack of common formulae, and, perhaps as significantly, their use of different phrases to express common ideas such as God’s decoration of the earth suggest that neither passage was directly influenced by the other (see also Klaeber 1911, 113-114):

90b         ....         Sægde, se þe cuþe,

    frumsceaft fira      feorran reccan,

    cwæð þæt se Ælmihtiga      eorðan worh[te],

    wlitebeorhtne wang,      swa wæter bebugeð,

    gesette sigehreþig      sunnan ⁊ monan,

95    leoman to leohte      landbuendum.

    ⁊ gefrætwade      foldan sceatas,

    leomum ⁊ leafum,      lif eac gesceop

    cynna gehwylcum      þara ðe cwice hwyrfaþ.

He who was skilled in recounting the creation of men in time distant declared that the Almighty made the earth, a plain radiant to look upon which water encircles; he, taking delight in his achievement, established the sun and the moon, those luminaries, as light for those living in the world; he embellished the earth’s surfaces with branches and with leaves; life too he created in each of those species which go their vital ways.

Genesis A 112-116a

§ 2.32    A stronger case for affinity can be made for a passage from the Old English Genesis A (ed. Krapp 1931; trans. Bradley 1982) in which the creation of heaven and earth is described:

    Her ærest gesceop      ece drihten,

    helm eallwihta,      heofon and eorðan,

    rodor arærde,      and þis rume land

115    gestaþelolde      strangum mihtum,

    frea ælmihtig.

Here the everlasting Lord, Protector of all beings, the Lord almighty, first created heaven and earth, raised aloft the sky and founded this spacious land by his mighty powers.

§ 2.33    Like the Beowulfian “Song of creation,” this passage shows significant differences from Cædmon’s Hymn: it uses one epithet for God not found in Cædmon’s work (helm eallwihta, “Protector of all beings”), it drops any explicit expression of the idea that God created heaven and earth for men, and it describes some very similar ideas to Cædmon’s poem in completely different language: e.g. rodor arærde, “raised aloft the sky,” vs. ...scop ..../ heben til hrofe, “created.... heaven as a roof”; strangum mihtum, “by mighty powers,” vs. metudæs maecti, “might of the Creator”; and the collocation of heofon and eorðan in a single half-line in Genesis A vs. Cædmon’s Hymn, 5b-6a (see also § 2.36, below). At the same time, however, it also shows a number of close similarities to Cædmon’s poem, and to the Hymn’s last five lines in particular. The Genesis A passage deals with an identical subject, the building of heaven and earth, in the same order, and with several similarities of detail: as in Cædmon’s Hymn the heavens are portrayed as something that must be raised, and the land as something that must be established. Stylistically, the Genesis A passage is similar to Cædmon’s Hymn in its heavy use of nominal apposition: without being quite as languid as Cædmon’s text, which has five nominative singular references to God in its last five lines but only two verbs, the Genesis A passage, with three nominal references to God and three verbs in four and a half lines, is nevertheless far less active than the Beowulfian “Song of creation”, which has six finite verbs and two epithets for God in seven lines. Finally, the Genesis A passage is also formulaically far closer to Cædmon’s work. Where the “Song of creation” in Beowulf showed no significant formulaic similarities with the Hymn, the Genesis A creation passage shares three verbatim or near verbatim formulae: Her ærest gesceop, 112a; ece drihten, 112b; and frea ælmihtig, 116a. While the stylistic differences between these lines and Cædmon’s Hymn may indicate that the two passages are not by the same author, their formulaic similarity suggests the existence of some connection. Given the wide distribution of Cædmon’s Hymn in manuscripts of the Historia ecclesiastica throughout Anglo-Saxon England and Anglo-Saxon-influenced centres on the continent, it is possible that the Genesis A poet had Cædmon’s poem in mind when he composed this section of his work.

Formulaic parallels

Beowulf 64-188

§ 2.34    The formulaic similarity of Cædmon’s Hymn and Genesis A, 112-116a, suggests another source of possible analogues to Cædmon’s Hymn—namely passages that, while not necessarily dealing with identical material, nevertheless show a great linguistic or formulaic similarity. Of these, the strongest case has been made by Bessinger for Beowulf 64 (or 67b)[9]-188 and especially 167-183. Arguing that Cædmon’s Hymn and this larger passage in Beowulf belong to essentially the same eulogistic genre, Bessinger points to what he argues are remarkable similarities in “ideas or diction, or both” between the two texts (Bessinger 1974, 95):

[T]he verbal parallels between the Hymn and its enlarged reflection in Beowulf 67b-188 are remarkable in sum and in kind. Only two verses of the Hymn (3b “swa he wundra gehwæs,” 4b “or astealde”) have no counterparts in that section of Beowulf that comprises the creation and adorning of Heorot and the universe, the intrusion of an ungodly monster into Hrothgar’s wondrous creation, and the poet’s animadversions upon the Danish inability to praise God.

Bessinger then follows with a list of 18 half-lines showing the similarities he means. Of these, however, only four can be argued to show even remotely similar formulaic properties, as demonstrated by the formulaic analysis of Magoun 1955 and, especially, Fry 1975, 50-59:

Table 2: Formulaic parallels in Beowulf and Cædmon’s Hymn (extracted from Bessinger 1974, 95)

Beowulf Cædmon’s Hymn
ece drihten, 108a eci dryctin, 4a and 8a
ielda bearnum, 150a aelda barnum, 5b (Northumbrian aelda and West-Saxon ylda recensions only)

The Germanic “creation motif”

§ 2.35    A fourth and final Germanic parallel to Cædmon’s Hymn lies in a pan-Germanic “creation motif” identified in Lönnroth 1981 and first applied to Cædmon’s Hymn in Morland 1992 and Hieatt 1985. This type-scene, attested in a number of Germanic texts, including the Wessobrunner Gebet and Genesis A, 112a-117a,[10] involves the following criteria when applied to the description of creation (Lönnroth 1981, 317):

  1. X (a mythical sage) should be challenged to tell Y about the creation.
  2. X should describe the cosmic order resulting from creation as centered around the basic dichotomy “green and low earth/high heaven,” expressed in the alliterative ioͅrð/upphiminn formula (or a slight variant such as eorðe/uprodor).
  3. Other natural elements such as the sea, mountains, trees, the sun and the moon should preferably be enumerated.

As Lönnroth goes on to note, there is some flexibility in the application of the criteria:

This “norm” should not be understood as a strict set of rules which must be followed under all circumstances by all poets but rather as a general disposition to combine semantic elements in a certain way under specific conditions. One may also think of the thematic norm as a sort of Gestalt working on the deep structural level of Germanic poetic language and capable of generating a specific combination of poetic formulas in several unrelated texts.

At the same time, however, Lönnroth argues that the presence of the specific ioͅrð/upphiminn or eorðe/uprodor alliterative formula is required in order to separate the scene itself from passages for which such similarities are principally the result of the treatment of a similar theme:

It may of course be argued that some of the elements in this thematic structure are so “natural” and “self-evident” that their combination in a specific text does not prove that the text is part of the same tradition as the other texts. But the presence of the alliterative formula is in itself proof that the texts here quoted [including the Old English Genesis A, Wessobrunner Gebet, and Voͅluspá but not Cædmon’s Hymn] are historically related.

§ 2.36    In the case of Cædmon’s Hymn, as Hieatt and Morland note, Lönnroth’s typology appears to apply primarily to Bede’s presentation of the Hymn in the context of Cædmon’s vision. Cædmon, though not presented as a mystical sage, is nevertheless challenged to tell a second person (his dream visitor) about creation. The Hymn itself does not enumerate the parts of creation, although it does set out, in a different order, a basic contrast between the heaven and earth in its two parts. The most significant differences between the Hymn and the type scene pointed to by Lönnroth, however, lie in those very elements he considers most crucial to its definition: at no point does the Hymn explicitly emphasise the “lowness” or “greenness” of the earth, and, perhaps most importantly, the text does not show the expected alliterative ioͅrð/upphiminn formula.[11] While, as argued below (Chapter 5: Filiation and transmission), eordu is very likely the original reading in 5b, and while the word is followed in the next half-line by heben, the two forms neither alliterate nor are grammatically parallel as Lönnroth’s schema requires (cf. Genesis A, 112-116 [above, § 2.32], in which heofon and eorðan appear in the same line and, while not sharing in the alliteration, are grammatically parallel). While it is possible that Bede’s account of the poet’s inspiration was influenced, perhaps unconsciously, by this type scene, the connection is clearly more general than specific.

Scriptural and liturgical analogues

§ 2.37    A second field in which researchers have sought analogues to Cædmon’s poem has been among the scriptural and liturgical texts associated with the Anglo-Saxon church. As was true of parallels to the story of Cædmon’s Inspiration, proposed scriptural and liturgical analogues for the poem itself range from brief lines or specific concepts and themes to larger analogues or sources for the text as a whole.


§ 2.38    Similarities between Cædmon’s Hymn and the Psalter were first pointed to by Blake, who argued that the Hymn’s debt to the Psalms encompassed both its general theme and its more specific choices of diction and epithet. Thus Blake argues that the two part structure of the Hymn, in which Cædmon begins by summoning creation to praise God’s greatness and concludes with “a description of what this greatness consists in,” reflects Psalm 145, where “the opening five verses... are given over to the poet’s praise of the Lord’s greatness” and the remainder of the Psalm to a recitation of the “forms this greatness takes” (N.F. Blake 1962, 244). Blake similarly suggests that the terms used to describe God and his creation may also have their origins in the Psalms, although the two texts differ in that the Psalter uses verbs for this purpose while Cædmon’s Hymn prefers nominal epithets: Cædmon’s God is “a uard, a scepen, an eci dryctin”; in the Psalms God “guards the world, mankind and heaven;... created the world; and... lives throughout all ages.” Blake also notes that the Hymn and the Psalter agree in other specific choices of diction: Cædmon’s maecti, modgidanc, uerc, uundra gihuaes / or, and aelda barnum [Northumbrian aelda and West-Saxon ylda recensions only] can all be paralleled in the Psalms’ potentia, magnificentia, consilium, opera, mirabilia, and the very common tag filii hominum (N.F. Blake 1962, 245).

§ 2.39    The fact that Cædmon’s epithets are nominal rather than verbal is perhaps the most serious problem with this argument. On the one, hand, of course, the difference could be simply the result of Cædmon’s adherence to the expectations of a different poetic tradition, even though Blake himself appears to rule this possibility out (245):

If it is accepted that Cædmon drew upon the psalms,... then we will have to reconsider Cædmon’s debt to heroic poetry.... I would suggest that the similarity in diction between Cædmon’s Hymn and the extant OE. poetry need not imply that Cædmon borrowed from heroic poetry; it is quite possible that later poets borrowed from Cædmon’s Hymn.

On the other hand, however, it is difficult to explain why a poet supposedly so influenced by the Psalter would not only not try to reproduce its characteristic syntax more closely, but also develop as one of the major aesthetic features of his own poem an element—repetitive, appositional, nominal variation—not found in the passages Blake cites.

§ 2.40    More recently, however, Biggs has suggested an attractive improvement to this argument—that is to say that the influence of the Psalter has been exerted not so much on Cædmon’s original text as on Bede’s rendering of the poem in his Latin paraphrase (Biggs 1997, 304-308). Some of the specific evidence Biggs uses to make this argument is relatively weak, however. In particular his suggestion that Bede’s translation attempts to bring the text of the Hymn more in line with Psalm 113 “by disassociating the phrase ‘aelda barnum’ from the creation of heaven” for men (307) seems nonsensical. As Biggs notes elsewhere, Bede’s paraphrase actually does the opposite (see esp. 308). On the one hand it maintains Cædmon’s reference to men as beneficiaries of the creation of heaven:

5    He aerist scop      aelda[12] barnum

    heben til hrofe...

He first made, for the children of men, heaven as a roof...

qui primo filiis hominum caelum pro culmine tecti...

who first created the heavens as the gable of a roof for the children of men...

On the other hand, it eliminates men as the explicit beneficiaries of the creation of the earth by not translating the indirect object firum foldu from 9a:

7    ...tha middungeard      moncynnæs uard,

    eci dryctin,      æfter tiadæ

    firum foldu,      frea allmectig.

...then, the guardian of mankind, the eternal Lord, the Lord almighty, afterwards made the earth, the lands, for men.

...dehinc terram Custos humani generis omnipotens creauit.

...then the almighty Guardian of the human race created the earth.

Had Bede’s intention been to bring the Hymn more closely in line with Psalm 113 in this regard, we might reasonably have expected the opposite pattern of omission and preservation: i.e. that he would drop the first indirect object in 5b (aelda barnum) and preserve the second in 9a (firum foldu).

§ 2.41    Stronger support for this argument, however, can be found in two other aspects of Bede’s paraphrase not discussed in Biggs’s article: i) the substitution of filiis hominum, “sons of men,” for what textual evidence discussed below (Chapter 5: Filiation and transmission) suggests was the original reading, eordu barnum, “for children of earth” or “the earth for children,”; and ii) the omission from the paraphrase of all examples of ornamental nominal variation found in the vernacular Hymn (see § 3.35 and O’Donnell 2004). The substitution of filiis hominum for eordu barnum replaces an otherwise unparalleled Old English collocation with a relatively common tag from the Latin Psalter. The elimination of all ornamental nominal variation from Bede’s translation of the Hymn removes one of the principal stylistic differences between Cædmon’s text and the Psalms (see above, § 2.39). Since, as argued below (§§ 5.28-5.37), Bede’s paraphrase of the Hymn appears to have exerted a strong textual influence on recensions of the vernacular Hymn found in copies of the Latin Historia ecclesiastica, this influence also ultimately shows up in the vernacular poem’s textual record: it is reflected, perhaps directly from Bede’s translation, in the Northumbrian aelda and West-Saxon ylda text of 5b, and the West-Saxon ylda, Northumbrian eordu and West-Saxon eorðe readings for 1a: Nu ƿue sciulun herga.

Liturgical prayers and texts

§ 2.42    A second set of liturgical analogues to the Hymn is found in the Offices of the Mass and Hours of the Anglo-Saxon church. Gollancz 1927 proposed the opening and closing statements of various Hours in the Old English Benedictine Office, particularly their common opening (we sculon God herian, “we must honour God”) and the end of nocturn (lxi):

    Ure fultum is God,

    þe gesceop & geworhte

    heofonas & eorðan,

    & ealle gesceafta:

    God us gefultumige

    to ure þearfe,

    swa his willa sy.


Our help is God, who made and fashioned the heavens and the earth and all creation: May God help us in our need, as his will may be. Amen.

Since then, Huppé and West have both proposed different versions of the Preface from the Office of the Mass. Huppé, apparently building on Gollancz’s discussion of similarities between the Preface and the opening lines of Genesis, suggests the Preface from the Gregorian Sacramentary as Cædmon’s model (text and trans. Huppé 1968, 125):

Vere dignum et justum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper et undique gratias agere, domine sancte, Pater omnipotens, aeterne Deus.

Indeed, it is worthy and just, right and commendable, that we give thanks to you always and everywhere, holy Lord, almighty Father, eternal God.

West, noting that “[w]hen Cædmon composed his Hymn, ca. 668, not the Gregorian but the Gelasian Sacramentary seems to have been followed in Northumbria,” cites the “Naming of the Benedictio Cerei” from the Gelasian Easter Vigil service as the “closest source or analogue to the extant portion of Caedmon’s Hymn” (West 1976, 225 n. 27):

Deus mundi conditor, auctor luminis, siderum fabricator: Deus qui iacentem mundum in tenebris luce perspicua retexisti: Deus qui per ineffabili potentia omnium claritas sumpsit exordium: Te in tuis operibus invocantes...

God, Creator of the world, Author of light, Maker of Heaven: God who uncovered earth recumbent in darkness with clear light: Splendor who, through ineffable might, laid out the beginning of all things: Calling out to you in your works...

§ 2.43    More recently, Stanley has proposed yet a third liturgical analogue for the opening lines of the Hymn, the Benedicite (“Song of the Three Children”), a canticle from Dan. 3,57 (ed. Weber and Fischer 1983; trans. Book of Common Prayer) which was required at Lauds on Sundays in the Benedictine Rule (Stanley 2002, 3):

[B]enedicite omnia opera Domini Domino laudate et superexaltate eum in saecula

O all ye Works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever.

As Stanley notes, the syntax of the Benedicite parallels one possible reading of the opening lines of the Hymn in its earliest manuscripts, where, in the absence of any other nominative form, uerc can be understood as the nominative plural subject of scylun (Stanley 2002, 3; the syntax of 1 through 3a is discussed below, § 5.24). The Canticle also follows, in very expansive form, a similar progression from heaven through earth to, in filiis hominum, the firum mentioned in 9a in Cædmon’s poem:

57    [B]enedicite omnia opera Domini Domino laudate et superexaltate eum in saecula...

59    [B]enedicite caeli Domino laudate et superexaltate eum in saecula...

74    [B]enedicat terra Dominum laudet et superexaltet eum in saecula...

82    [B]enedicite filii hominum Domino laudate et superexaltate eum in saecula...

57    O all ye Works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever...

59    O ye Heavens, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever...

74    O let the Earth bless the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever...

82    O ye Children of Men, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever...

§ 2.44    As with the influence of the Psalter, it is difficult to decide whether these liturgical texts had their strongest influence on the vernacular Hymn’s composition or reception. On the one hand, there is very little evidence of a specific debt on Cædmon’s part to any. While the Hymn agrees with these analogues in general terms of intent and theme, none of these areas of agreement are detailed enough to require us to assume Cædmon was basing his work directly on these specific liturgical antecedents. On the other hand, these general similarities of intent and theme are strong enough to associate Cædmon’s text almost unavoidably with such liturgical precedents in the minds of men and women who were familiar with them from daily use. If Cædmon did not have the Preface and Canticles in mind when he composed his Hymn, it remains quite plausible to assume that his initial, religious, audiences would think of them immediately when they first heard his performance. In the case of Hild and her counsellors, this recognition appears to have resulted in the decision to set Cædmon to work translating seriem sacrae historiae, “the whole course of sacred history.” In the case of Bede, it may also show up in changes introduced into his paraphrase that bring the Hymn more in line with the Psalms (see below, § 5.31). Interestingly, however, Bede’s translation, which supplies a first person plural subject for its equivalent to scylun, shows no obvious awareness of the similarity between Cædmon’s Hymn and the Benedicite (the relationship between the vernacular Hymn and Bede’s Latin paraphrase is discussed below, §§ 5.28-5.32 and Note B: Cædmon’s Hymn and Bede’s paraphrase).


§ 2.45    Finally there is the biblical Genesis. Although Cædmon’s Hymn is often discussed as though it were a paraphrase of the biblical book (e.g. Osborn 1989, 14), the direct influence is slight: the two works share individual ideas, but no particular section of Genesis appears to have served as a verbatim source for Cædmon’s poem. The idea that God created the heavens and the earth is found in Genesis 1:1, In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth”; the suggestion that God then “decorated” (teode) them, in Genesis 2:1 of the Vulgate: Igitur perfecti sunt caeli et terra et omnis ornatus eorum, “Thus the heavens and earth were completed and all of them decorated.” Missing, however, is the call to worship. Once again, the influence is likely to be more cultural than textual.


§ 2.46    The search for sources and analogues to Cædmon’s story (and to as lesser extent his Hymn) has been one of the most tantalising and prolific areas of modern Cædmon’s Hymn scholarship. Its greatest value to students of the poem, however, lies in its lack of success. Despite a hunt spanning two centuries, no unambiguous source or close and detailed analogue to either Bede’s account of Cædmon’s inspiration or the Hymn itself has been found. But while they do not supply us with the actual models used by Bede and Cædmon in composing their respective works, the “analogues” do provide us in their failure with something perhaps just as useful: a body of material against which the Cædmon story and poem can be compared. In the case of Bede’s account of Cædmon’s Inspiration, this comparison confirms the suggestion made above (Chapter 1: Bede and Cædmon) that Bede was, perhaps surprisingly, more interested in Cædmon’s ability as a poet than in the origins of his gift. In that of Cædmon’s Hymn, on the other hand, the closest analogues suggest that the poem may have proved so successful with its initial monastic audiences because it blent traditional, formulaic, verse forms with a subject and approach that called to mind the most common liturgical prayers. Neither Cædmon nor Bede appear to have taken their texts from any other specific source; the fact that they remind us of so many others, however, may explain their popularity.


[1]A comprehensive count is impossible. This is due both to the flexibility with which the term “analogue” is used in the secondary literature, and to the fact that scholars frequently propose analogues in passing in books and articles on topics otherwise seemingly unrelated to seventh- and eighth-century Anglo-Saxon England. Summaries of the most commonly cited parallels are reproduced below, Note E: Index of proposed analogues to the Cædmon story.

[2]See for example the unwarrantedly sarcastic response to Aurner 1926 in Klaeber 1927. Aurner’s article, which implies that parallels to the Cædmon story might be found in literature around the world also provided the initial inspiration for the important discussion of the wide dissemination of apparent analogues to the Cædmon story in Pound 1929—an article published, ironically enough, in the Klæber Festschrift.

[3]See, among numerous studies that accept the possibility of a historical Cædmon, the otherwise quite different work in Stanley 1995; Frank 1993; Frantzen 1990; Opland 1980; Magoun 1955. Modern exceptions to this agnosticism concerning Cædmon’s historicity include Isaac 1997 and von See 1983 see also Cavill 2002, pp. 2-5, for a brief discussion. Few if any modern scholars appear to accept the “miracle” of Cædmon’s Inspiration at face value. See above, § 1.8 and note.

[4]In Bede no direct mention is made of Cædmon’s literacy or illiteracy, though he is usually assumed on historical grounds to be illiterate; in the Qur’ān, Mohammed is frequently described as the ummî, “unlettered,” prophet, though there is debate as to the precise implications of the term in context and the extent of the Prophet’s actual literacy or illiteracy; see Armstrong 1992, 88.

[5]By “read” in this passage, we are to understand perform. Ntsikana was illiterate and the leopard-skin kaross is, as Opland remarks, “a manner of dress characteristic of the Xhosa imbongi or poet” (Opland 1977, 64). See also the story of Sabit Müdamî Ataman (Note E: Index of proposed analogues to the Cædmon story).

[6]See § 1.26, above, for a caution regarding this “miracle.”

[7]Although Cædmon in Bede’s account is clearly saint-like, there is no evidence to support Wieland’s claim that Cædmon was “venerated as a saint” anywhere before the Renaissance. For a discussion, see now Stanley 1998. Bede is also much more hesitant about Cædmon’s status than Wieland implies. See above, §§ 1.38-1.39.

[8]Symbolically, indeed, it is no doubt significant that Aldhelm sits on a bridge that connects the [heathen and oral?] countryside to the [literate and Christian] town.

[9]Bessinger refers to different sections from Beowulf in his article. On 93, he describes the comparative sample as extending “after an interval of violent action” from “167-83.” On 95, he describes the sample as extending from “67b-188.” In a table on 96-97, he draws comparative material from “64-188.”

[10]The citation of an extra line for the Genesis A passage here is deliberate: 116b-117a contain an important formulaic passage not found in Cædmon’s Hymn (cf. above, §§ 2.32-2.33), but required by the “creation” type-scene.

[11]Hieatt proposes expanding Lönnroth’s definition to include Old English poems that “do not contain the eorðe / upheofon [i.e. ioͅrð / upphiminn] formula” on the basis that “most... examples [of the type scene as outlined in Lönnroth 1981], even those which do contain the key formula, do not have all possible features” (Hieatt 1985, 494). In doing so, however, she seems to ignore the distinction Lönnroth makes between “‘natural’ and ‘self-evident’” elements in the theme and more specific verbal features that suggest texts showing them are “historically related.” See in particular Lönnroth 1981, 317.

[12]Biggs’s discussion assumes aelda as the reading for the first word of 5b. As argued below, Chapter 5: Filiation and transmission, textual evidence suggests that eordu was the more likely. For the sake of argument, this paragraph cites forms from the Northumbrian aelda recension, which reads aelda in 5b.