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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Poem about the Phoenix — Anon PhoenixIII

Anonymous Poems

R. D. Fulk 2017, ‘(Introduction to) Anonymous, Poem about the Phoenix’ in Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold (eds), Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 1255.


In two mss, AM 194 8° (194 8°, c. 1400-1500, the main ms. for this edition) and AM 764 4° (764, c. 1360-80) of an Icelandic encyclopedia there occurs a prose account of the phoenix which closely parallels an Old English homily in alliterative prose, likewise found in two mss, one of the second half of the eleventh century (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 198), the other of the mid-twelfth (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian D. xv). In the course of the homily (see Context below) the bird’s Egyptian admirers offer words of welcome, and it has been argued persuasively by Helgi Skúli Kjartansson (2015) that the Old Icelandic rendering of the greeting is composed in a late variety of fornyrðislag. The stanza has therefore been included in the present volume and is edited here as ‘Poem about the Phoenix’ (Anon Phoenix). Although the prose of the Old English homily is alliterative (but not metrical), in the Old Icelandic version only sporadic alliterative phrases are encountered, as discussed below, and they appear to be the result of reliance upon the diction of the Old English source rather than any attempt to compose Old Icelandic alliterative prose.

The legend of the phoenix originated in Egypt, where the bird was associated with the sun-god Ra and his temple at Heliopolis. It is this connection with the sun that is the source of the bird’s association with a continual cycle of death and rebirth. The phoenix legend was taken up and elaborated by classical writers, including Herodotus, Ovid, Pliny the Elder, Martial and Tacitus, in whose writings the bird is most commonly described as travelling to Egypt from its homeland (Arabia or India) and there being immolated on a nest of perfumes and aromatic wood, only to rise again. It is in Late Antique Christian authors, however, including St Clement the Roman, Lactantius and Claudian, along with the composer of the Greek Physiologus, that this theme of death and rebirth comes to represent the most salient aspect of the legend, since the phoenix was associated among Christians with the hoped-for resurrection of humankind on Doomsday. In Old Icelandic the phoenix is mentioned as well in the Physiologus in AM 673 a I 4°(1r), where it is said that the bird is a type of Christ, suffering death and resurrection (on this, see Marchand 2000, 234). For a summary of the development of the legend, with references, see Blake (1964, 8-13). The Old Icelandic stanza occurs at the point in the tale at which the bird has just arrived in Egypt: for the specific context, see below.

The Old English text corresponding to the poem (as edited by Blake 1964, 94-9, from whose edn this and the following quotations derive) reads as follows: Hāl bēo þū, fenix, fugele fægerest. Feorren þū cōme. Þū glitenest swā rēad gold, ealra fugela king, fenix gehāten ‘Greetings, Phoenix, handsomest of birds. You have come from afar. You glisten like red gold, king of all birds, called “phoenix”’. The Old English homily is apparently a translation from Latin (see Förster 1920, 64-5), and because it uses the word cristal ‘crystal’, whereas the Old Icelandic prose passage uses the latinate kristallus, Blake (1964, 97) argues that the Old Icelandic text is translated from the (unattested) Latin source rather than from the Old English. Yet there is no scholarly agreement about whether the source of the Old Norse text was Latin or English (see, e.g., Larsen 1942 and Helgi Skúli Kjartansson 2015, 276-8), and it has even been argued that the Old English text is translated from Old Norse (Yerkes 1984). Though Yerkes rightly concedes that it is improbable that the Old English text should have been translated from Old Norse (especially given the difference in the date of the mss), his reasons for thinking it possible are not inconsiderable, given that the Old English text uses the terms carlfugol ‘cock, male bird’ and cwenfugol (or cwenefugol) ‘hen, female bird’, corresponding to karlfugl and kvenfugl in the Old Icelandic text, given that carl is not a word otherwise attested in Old English, and neither the Old English cognate ceorl (with one possible exception: ceorlstrang ‘strong as a man’ in a late glossary) nor cwen-/cwene- is commonly used as a sex-differentiating prefix in Old English (Yerkes 1984, 26; see also Helgi Skúli Kjartansson 2015, 277 and n. 12). However, there are good internal reasons to believe that the Old Icelandic prose is translated from some version of the Old English, given certain similarities in form. The Old English homily is to a great extent composed in alliterative prose, and although the Old Icelandic text is not, in certain passages it adopts expressions with equivalents in the Old English that can be explained plausibly only as motivated by the alliterative form. For example, the Old Icelandic text twice refers to the bird as fagri fenix ‘handsome phoenix’, where fagri is hardly required by the sense of the passage but corresponds to fæger ‘beautiful’ in the Old English version, in which it serves the alliterative form. Likewise, the Old English homilist says of the bird, Hē is mycel and mǣre swā se Mihtige hine gescōp ‘He is large and splendid, as the Mighty one made him’, in which the latter clause has the appearance of a cheville, composed merely to fulfill the alliterative requirement, though it is taken over in the Old Icelandic version: hann er harðla mikill ok undarligr at skepnu svá sem Guð skóp hann ‘he is very large and wondrous in form, as God made him’. In the expression gull rautt ‘red gold’ (on which see below, Note to l. 4) rautt also seems to have been adopted from the Old English text, as ‘red’ is not a usual descriptor for gold in Latin texts. That the Egyptians’ greeting to the bird takes the form of verse in the Old Icelandic text of course also suggests that the Old English homily was the model.

Aside from Helgi Skúli Kjartansson’s article, the editions cited below treat the passage as prose. Of these, in addition to the study of the poem cited above, Rafn (1850-2) is an anthology of medieval Scandinavian texts relevant to early Russia; Konráð Gíslason (1860a) is a miscellany of previously unpublished texts; is an edition of ms. 194 8°; and Blake (1964; the basis for the discussion of the prose below) is an edition of the Old English poem The Phoenix, in which the Old English homily and the Old Icelandic version found in ms. 194 8° are conveniently presented together in an appendix. The prose text as found in 764 has been edited by Simek (1990a, 436-42). As explained in the Notes, the metrical faults of the passage are weighty enough to raise doubts about its status as verse, but its metrical idiosyncrasies are not at serious odds with the assumption of composition in the fourteenth century, and its syntax is more readily understandable as poetic than prosaic. Each pair of lines is a syntactically independent unit, reinforcing the impression conveyed of strophic composition. Although it is true that a stanza in fornyrðislag normally comprises eight lines, stanzas of six are not infrequently met with (as rightly observed by Helgi Skúli Kjartansson 2015, 278), as in Vsp 15, 29, 61, etc.


  1. Bibliography
  2. = Kålund, Kristian and Natanael Beckman. 1908-18. Alfræði íslenzk: Islandsk encyklopædisk litteratur. 3 vols. SUGNL 37, 41 and 45. Copenhagen: Møller.
  3. Konráð Gíslason, ed. 1860a. Fire og fyrretyve for en stor deel forhen utrykte prøver af oldnordisk sprog og literatur. Copenhagen: Gyldendal.
  4. Simek, Rudolf. 1990a. Altnordische Kosmographie: Studien und Quellen zu Weltbild und Weltbeschreibung in Norwegen und Island vom 12. bis zum 14. Jahrhundert. Ergänzungsbände zum RGA 4. Berlin: de Gruyter.
  5. Rafn, Carl Christian, ed. 1850-2. Antiquités russes d’après les monuments historique des Islandais et des anciens Scandinaves. 2 vols. Copenhagen: Berling.
  6. Blake, N. F., ed. 1964. The Phoenix. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  7. Förster, Max. 1920. ‘Der Inhalt der altenglischen Handschrift Vespasianus D xiv’. Englische Studien 54, 46-68.
  8. Helgi Skúli Kjartansson. 2015. ‘Vísan um fönix: Örlítil viðbót við forníslenskan kveðskap’. Gripla 26, 275-85.
  9. Larsen, Henning. 1942. ‘Notes on the Phoenix’. JEGP 41, 79-84.
  10. Yerkes, David. 1984. ‘The Old English and Old Norse Accounts of the Phoenix’. Journal of English Linguistics 17, 24-7.
  11. Marchand, James W. 2000. ‘The Old Icelandic Physiologus’. In Grotans et al. 2000, 231-44.
  12. Internal references
  13. Not published: do not cite ()

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