The spinner who weaves her hostile threads
The Old English word wæfer-gange (pronounced “WA-ver-GONG-eh”) literally means “walker-weaver”. This is a kenning, a figure of speech in which a compound of figurative language takes the place of a more concrete, one-word noun. You find them a lot in Old Norse and Old English poetry. I adore them, and you can see my ongoing collection on the Old English Wordhord site.
So what kind of animal is a walker-weaver? A spider, of course!
The kenning appears only a couple times in extant (still existing, not destroyed or lost) Old English literature, in Old English glosses (translations) of Psalms (the third section of the Hebrew Bible and a book of the Christian Old Testament).*
The title for this section is Natura [a]ranee, or The nature of the spider.***
Translation and glossing by Hana Videen. Hover over words to see how they’re pronounced. More about this project here.
The spinnere on her web weveð quickly, fastening her hostile threads at the hus-rof—on the roof or on the eaves—as if she were on a hill. She casts her web thus and weaves in her way.
When she has it all prepared, she driueð from that place. She hides in her hole, but she always watches the web, until fleȝes come there and fallen in, wiðeren in it and wishing to wenden.
Then she runs rapelike, for she is always redi. Going at once to the net, she seizes them there. She bites them bitterlike, becomes their bane, murders them, and drinkeð their blod.
She does herself no other good but eats her fille and then lies stille.
*Both examples appear in the Winchcombe Psalter (Cambridge, University Library, MS. Ff.1.23), a copy of the Psalms in Latin and Old English, dated between 1025 and 1050. In Psalms 39:12, Latin sicut araneam (like a spider) is glossed with Old English swa gangewæfre. In Psalms 89:9, Latin sicut aranea (like a spider) is glossed with Old English swa wæfyrgange, so the spider can be a weaver-walker as well as a walker-weaver. [back]
**The excerpt translated here is lines 316-328. [back]
***Square brackets around the letter a in aranee means that the a was added by the editor — it was not in the original text but the editor thought it made sense to include it. I’m using Hanneke Wirtjes’s The Middle English “Physiologus” (Oxford Univ. Press, 1991). [back]