Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Man Who Could Not Sing

 Anglo Saxon Lyre

The Tale of Osred Gleeman


In the days of Osbert, King of the Hwicce, there was among his hearth-companions a certain man who knew no songs, and indeed, was wholly lacking in gleecraft, and the name of this man was Osred.

When, at a feast, he would see the harp approaching, when each would take it in turn to sing for the others, he would arise, and leave the beer-hall, and go to sleep in the cow-byre instead.

On one such occasion, he went to the cow-byre, and there fell asleep. There he dreamt that someone stood before him, and addressed him, and called him by name.

Osred, he said, sing me something.

He answered, saying, I cannot sing. That is why I left the beer-hall and came here: because I cannot sing.

Once again the speaker said, Nevertheless, you must sing for me.

Of what shall I sing? asked Osred.

Sing to me of Beowulf, he said.

Thereupon, he began to sing, and this is what he sang:


Beowulf I sing, best of kings,

guest of Hrothgar, Grendel's bane:

of all kings, keenest to glory,

of all men, liefest to love.


When he awoke, he remembered this stave, to which he soon added more staves in a like manner.

Then he arose, and went to his lord at his gift-stool, and told him of this dream, and of the gift which he had received. Then he sang for him the staves which he had made, and all who heard them wondered at their sweetness and beauty.

Sing to me of Sigemund Wyrm's-bane, said the king, and so he undertook the task and went away, and in the morning he sang to them of Sigemund and of his mighty wyrm-slaying.

Sing to me now of Shield Sheaving, said the king, and so, in the next morning, he did.

So it is that Osred received the gift of gleecraft, which consisted of this: that whatever tale he heard, he could in one night turn it into the finest staves, such that all who heard them marveled and longed to hear more, like some prize cow who grazes and, chewing her cud, in the morning produces the sweetest and creamiest milk, which all long to drink.

Long years he dwelt in the hall of Osbert, King of the Hwicce, and was accounted among the foremost of gleemen, and many rings he received from him.

Indeed, do we not sing his songs to this very day?



I've been polishing up my Old English skills lately and, while rereading Bede's tale of Caedmon's Hymn, it occurred to me that there was nothing intrinsically churchly about the story.

Many among the royal family of the Hwicce, the original Anglo-Saxon Tribe of Witches—and among non-royals as well—had names featuring the first element ós-, the Old English cognate of Old Norse áss, singular of æsir. Osbert means “bright god,” Osred “god-rede [counsel].”

In Old English, glee meant “music.”

Is this story, you might ask, intended as an origin-tale for Beowulf, the sole-surviving Old English epic?

Like the identity of Osred's mysterious interlocutor, I think some questions best left unanswered.





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Tagged in: Beowulf Hwicce
Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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