History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

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The Warrior's Grief

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

I ease my students into Beowulf by having them read the Anglo-Saxon poem 'The Wanderer' first. It's a great introduction to the warrior ethos that the longer narrative celebrates, but in a short form. It's a poem about grief but the first thing we'll notice is that the loss mourned isn't a partner, child or parent, but the narrator's leader.

Wyrd bið ful aræd!       Fate always goes as it must!

The center of the warrior's life is a relationship the Roman historian Tacitus named comitatus when he first observed it in the continental Germanic tribes. A leader gained followers by offering them praise and treasures for courageous behaviour in battle. They rewarded him with their loyalty. It was the center of their lives; it also took a central role in the poetry of the era.

We're accustomed to poetry and other popular art forms celebrating romantic love, but this culture valued the comitatus much more. The extreme example may be the portrayal of Jesus in The Dream of the Rood, where the cross (who narrates the poem) makes him the leader of a comitatus who actually climbs up on the cross as any warrior would do.

In "The Wanderer" the lonely man bemoans his lost lord, his lost kindred and the cold sea and icy shore around him emphasizes the coldness of life without that protection, but also the inconsolable grief of the loss. While it may seem strange to mourn your 'boss' so emotionally, the poem makes clear how the grief weighs on the wandering one. He speaks of needing to bind his thoughts because there is no one with whom he can share them, being friendless.

He offers his opinion on the ideal warrior (patient, never too impulsive, and as in Beowulf, knowing the difference between words and actual deeds). In the end he concludes that as all things pass away, beloved lords included, the only sure thing is to put your trust and confidence in the greatest lord, god. The twinning of the earthly leader and the heavenly one (the word is the same, hlaford) is often used by poets to emphasise the need to see your self as a loyal thane of god. You offer your loyalty, he rewards you with riches. Unlike mere gold, his riches are eternal.

The Anglo-Saxons carved out their own version of Christianity that had a healthy dose of the pagan warrior ethos (though they wouldn't have seen it that way). Grief throws us all off track. For some it calls for an outpouring, other find it necessary to 'bind fast' the thoughts in their breast.

I recently stayed with a friend who's going through unexpected grief after sudden death took her husband.

[On a personal note, my friend is a priestess of the Fellowship of Isis and runs Universal Pathways, an amazing retreat center. She's now facing financial difficulties and I would like to ask anyone who has advice about how to better use the facility to put it on more sure financial grounds -- or who has had experiences running a similar facility successfully -- to pass along wise words and I will relay them to Mary.]

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.

Comments

  • Hunter Liguore
    Hunter Liguore Friday, 21 September 2012

    Really great information here. Lots to take in and consider.

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Tuesday, 02 October 2012

    Thank you, Hunter.

  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard Tuesday, 02 October 2012

    We don't hear enough about the sanctity and beauty of the warrior ethic from these traditions. You know how much I love "Beowulf" as a glimpse into history and a rip-roaring tale. But I go back to it again and again as an inspiration for my spiritual life--how to be a leader, how to really live life and how to deal with a deep need for honor in a world that has little to spare. Thanks!

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Tuesday, 02 October 2012

    Thank you, my dear. This piece actually motivated me to kick off a series on Hávamál, so I hope you'll find that appealing as well.

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