The bird who builds, burns, and is reborn
This text is made up of selected excerpts from the Old English poem The Phoenix.* You can access the full Old English text here.The Phoenix is an Old English reworking of the fourth-century Latin Carmen de Ave Phoenice (Song Concerning the Bird Phoenix) that has been attributed to Lactantius. The Old English poem is found in the tenth-century Exeter Book.
Translation and glossing by Hana Videen. Hover over words to see how they’re pronounced. More about this project here.
When the grey-feathered one, haswigfeðra, becomes sad, gomol, old in years, the best of birds aflyhð from the grene eorðan, the land in bloom, seeking out the vast rice middangeardes, his dwelling and home, where no men live.
Fuglas throng around the noble one. Each wants to be the great prince’s þegn and þeow until they, in the greatest of multitudes, journey to Syrwara lond. There the pure one quickly gets away and lives in the shade of a wudubearwe, a weste stowe, concealed and hidden from many men.
There he inhabits and guards a high beam in the wood, secure upon its roots under heofunhrofe. People call that tree Fenix on account of the bird’s name.
When the wind rests and the weather is fair, when the clear, holy gem of heaven shines and the wolcen are dispersed, when the waters’ torrent stille stondað and every storm under the sky is quieted, when the warm sun, wedercondel, dazzles from the south, giving light to men, then the bird begins to prepare and build his nest in the branches.
From feor ond neah he collects and gathers the sweetest, most pleasant wyrta. He himself carries that bright treasure back to the treow. There in the high tree in the wasteland the wilda fugel builds his house, lovely and pleasant. He makes himself at home in the tree’s upper chamber.
In the leafsceade he surrounds his feathered body on all sides with sacred stencum and the noblest bledum of the earth. He sits, ready for a journey.
In summertime the sun, the swegles gim, is at its hatost. The herbs grow warm and a smell–sweet fragrances–waft from that willsele. Then in the heat, in the fire’s embrace, the bird byrneð with his nest.
A flame is kindled. Fire covers the hus of the sorrowful** one. Fierce, hastening, fealo flame consumes and burns the phoenix, who is old from fyrngearum.
Then the finest of nests, the brave warrior’s hof, is clæne destroyed by the blaze. The corpse, a banfæt gebrocen, cools. The burning subsides.
Something rather like an apple can be found in the pyre’s ascan. From it grows a wyrm, wonderfully fæger, as if hatching from an egg, scir out of the shell.
He grows in the shade. At first he resembles an earnes young, a lovely fugeltimber. Happily, he grows still more so that he has the shape of a full-grown eagle. Then he is adorned with bright-blooming feþrum, just like he was in the beginning. His flesh is all made new.
Once the feather-proud bird has aweaxen amongst the plants, his life is renewed. He is geong and graceful. From the greote, what remains of the fire, he lifts up his leoþucræftig body that was destroyed by flame. Carefully gathering the ruined bone after the blaze, he brings back together the pyre’s remnants, ban and cinders. He covers these spoils, adorning them beautifully with plants.
The front of the bird is fair of hue, and his breast is adorned in bleobrygdum. His heafod is green at the back, wonderfully mingled and blended with wurman. The tail is beautifully varied—partly brun, partly basu, and cleverly decorated with shining splottum. The wings are hwit at the tips, the neck green up and down, and the beak gleaming like glæs or a gem, the jaws bright inside and out. His eye is stearc in nature—it looks very much like a stone or a sparkling gem set in gold plate by the cunning craftsmanship of smiϸa. His scancan are covered with scales and his fotas yellow.
In appearance that fugel is unique in every way.
*To be exact, lines 153-158a, 163b-174, 182-189a, 192b-194a, 199b-209, 213-219a, 226b-241a, 265-274a, 291-297a, 299b-304, 310-312a.
**An excessively academic-y note even though there really is no place for such things in this blog so please feel free to ignore…There is not a good translation for heoru-drēorig (line 217a). Bosworth-Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary says that the word means either “bloody with sword-wounds” or “very sad, sad unto death” and suggests using the latter definition for its occurrence in The Phoenix. Karl Wentersdorf has argued that although Old English dreorig is almost certainly derived from dreor (blood), there is no evidence of the adjective’s use in Old English to mean “bloody”. In his article about dreorig in another Old English poem (The Battle of Brunanburh), Wentersdorf says there is “no reason to assume that the derivative dreorig would necessarily have suggested ‘blood’ to readers”. I disagree. That the bloody resonance of a word like heoru-drēorig would not occur to a poet seems highly improbable. After all, the phoenix represents Christ (think wounds, the Passion, etc.). Unfortunately, I can think of no word in modern English that means “sad” or “sorrowful” but also has the sound of the word “blood”…hence, my copout translation “sorrowful”. See K. Wenstersdorf, “On the Meaning of Old English dreorig in Brunanburh 54″, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 74.2 (1973), 232-37.