Raging Wolf – Can We ID the Body?

The ‘weallende wulf’ passage is arguably the best part of Solomon and Saturn II (see my earlier post). But a scribal error right at the start has created confusion as to exactly who the warrior protagonist is. The passage starts with the following lines:

Saturnus cuæð:        
“Se mæra was haten         sæliðende
weallende wulf,         werðeodum cuð
Filistina,         freond Nebrondes.”

Now because he was ‘haten‘, his name must be here somewhere. The traditional explanation is that his name was ‘Weallende Wulf’, ‘Raging Wolf’, making him sound like a character from Beowulf, or perhaps a Silvester Stallone movie. This is odd, because every single other character in the poem has a name which at least sounds biblical.

Two things about these lines are noteworthy. The first is that ‘weallende wulf’ could just be an epithet meaning that he was a fierce warrior – he did after all kill twenty-five dragons. The second it that the first line does not alliterate. True it has se in the first half and sæliðende in the second, but the definite article se is not a part of speech which can normally bear an alliterating stress. No problem for Grein and later scholars, they simply changed sæliðende to the synonymous merliðende and hey presto, alliteration! But the putative substitution doesn’t look like a normal scribal error. Even if the word was partly obliterated in an earlier ms. (leaving -liðende), what scribe worth his salt would supply sæ- instead of mer-, when it didn’t alliterate? For this reason, sæliðende is most likely to be original, leaving us with the alliteration problem.

But what if the scribal error isn’t in the second half of the line, but in the first? Se can’t bear alliteration if it is the definite article, but if it is the first syllable of a name it certainly can. Perhaps the person was not se mæra, but Semæra, or some similar biblical-sounding name. A quick check of my copy of Charles Randall Barnes’ “The People’s Bible Encyclopedia” comes up with one possible candidate. The eponymous first resident of Samaria was called Shemer, transliterated Semer in the Vulgate, σεμηρ (Seme:r) in the Septuagint and Samareus in Isidore (1 Kings 16, 24 – Hebrew script shows no vowels, hence the variation). A good fit with the ms. would be Semer, lifted directly from the Vulgate. Semere is less likely as it is hard to see why a form in -e would be used for either the latin -er or the -eus ending from Isidore. Semere in O.E. would mean ‘conciliator’ anyway, which is not a good name for a warrior. An alternative spelling Semær fits the ms. even better – it looks suspiciously germanic (-mær is a germanic name element), but then so does Nebrond for Nimrod (-brand being also a germanic name element).

In the Bible, Shemer was only the original owner of a hill on which the city of Samaria was built, but all the poet needed was authentic-sounding name, the more obscure the better. Scribal confusion between an unknown proper name at the start of a sentence and Se mæra, capitalised owing to position, is easy to imagine.

So this might turn out to be a classic case of the answer being hidden in plain sight! The start of the passage can be emended to read:

Semær was haten         sæliðende
weallende wulf,         werðeodum cuð
Filistina,         freond Nebrondes.

Now we have a real Biblical name and alliteration too, with only a minor emendation. We already know the rest of the story.


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