The Lost Fire Riddle in Solomon and Saturn II

The fire and light passage in Solomon and Saturn II has not received the literary appreciation it deserves owing to a combination of defective manuscript transmission and insensitive scholarship. But with careful and imaginative reading we can recover it from oblivion, bring its beauty back into the light and savour its meaning.

The Conundrum of the Opening Lines

The lead-in to the passage is rendered difficult to understand because it is preceded by a missing page and starts at line 438 (Krapp and Dobbie numbering) in the middle of a sentence.
his lifes fæðme.    Simle hit bið his lareowum hyrsum;
full oft hit eac ðæs deofles    dugoð gehnægeð,
ðær weotena bið    worn gesamnod.

The pronouns his and hit in lines 438 and 439 have no antecedants, owing to the missing page. Because light is mentioned at lines 443 and 438 and fire at line 455, it has been suggested that hit refers to either fire or light, both of which are neuter. But neither light nor fire have their own teachers, so in line 438 it seems that hit refers to a person – perhaps to a child, which is also neuter.

But if it was a child, how could it defeat the devil’s minions? This sounds more like a property of light or fire. Can fire be said to obey its teachers? Perhaps. A fire is lit, fed, kept under control and led around by the householder, just as a child is treated by its teachers.

What can we make of ‘his lifes fæðme‘? fæðm means embrace, grasp, fist, lap, bosom, cubit, expanse. Fæðm in dative without a preposition occurs only in the plural. It is therefore likely that his lifes fæðme is in apposition to an earlier phrase which includes a preposition. So his lifes fæðme means something like ‘(within, during) his life’s expanse/embrace’. If the subject is fire, his lifes fæðme could mean the fireplace or a lamp. If it is a child, his lifes fæðme means ‘in the bosom of his family’.

The sense seems to imply a connection between the weotan in line 440 and the snottor man in line 441, because the snottor man is also a wita and where men are assembled they are likely to eat together. But the punctuation, a series of dots at the end of line 440, clearly indicates a break in the argument. I think that the scribe misunderstood the sequence and that the recovery of the morsel is an example of how light can defeat the devil when wise men gather. Otherwise, the phrase  ‘where wise men are regularly assembled’ is a meaningless orphan. The circumstances in which ‘ðæs deofles dugoð’ are brought low are set out in the following lines (441-447).

The subject in most of the remainder of the passage is fire/light, except for lines 441-447, where light also plays a role.

The Dropped Morsel

The subject of lines 441 to 447 is the snottor man, taking advantage of light to find the food. Basically he drops a chip on the floor, sees it, picks it up, dips it in the guacamole and pops it in his mouth. If the snottor man picks up his own dropped food, one might wonder what is the point of ‘him sylf friteð‘? As explained by Holthausen in 1916, it was widely believed that dropped food nourished the devil. So presumably the man is said to ‘eat it himself’ because he stops the devils minions eating it (see below). Presumably picking up food off the floor and eating it wasn’t so frowned upon in the middle ages!

ðonne snottrum men    snæd oððglideð,
ða he be leohte gesihð,    luteð æfter,
gesegnað and gesyfleð    and him sylf friteð.
Swilc bið seo an snæd    æghwylcum men
selre micle,    gif heo gesegnod bið,
to ðycgganne,    gif he hit geðencan cann,
ðonne him sie seofon daga    symbelgereordu.

Light and Fire

In lines 448 and 449, the subject is light, but the use of the personal pronoun hit in line 450, in a context where fire is meant, shows that the poet thought of them as the same thing.

Leoht hafað heow and had    haliges gastes,
Cristes gecyndo;    hit ðæt gecyðeð full oft.

From line 450 to line 456, there is no doubt that the subject is fire. The description of the flames running up into the roof and burning the house is very dramatic.

Gif hit unwitan    ænige hwile
healdað butan hæftum,    hit ðurh hrof wædeð,
bryceð and bærneð    boldgetimbru,
seomað steap and geap,    stigeð on lenge,
clymmeð on gecyndo,    cunnað hwænne mote
fyr on his frumsceaft    on fæder geardas,
eft to his eðle,    ðanon hit æror cuom.

In lines 457 to the end, the subject is clearly light.

Hit bið eallenga    eorl to gesihðe,
ðam ðe gedælan can    dryhtnes ðecelan,
forðon nis nænegu gecynd    cuiclifigende,
ne fugel ne fisc    ne foldan stan,
ne wæteres wylm    ne wudutelga,
ne munt ne mor    ne ðes middangeard,
ðæt he forð ne sie    fyrenes cynnes.

Rereading the Opening Lines

Returning to the opening lines, it is highly likely, given what follows, that the hit/his in the first 3 lines is also fire/light. But it also seems to be an obedient child. How can this be?

The key to this is to read the whole passage as Saloman’s answer to a missing riddle from Saturnus. All we can safely read back into the missing passage is the riddle requires a comparison between fire or light and a child. Solomon’s other answers often continue with further observations after the question has been answered. But if we were looking for a question which required the whole of Saturn’s reply as an answer, it would read something like the following – ‘What is as meek as a child but can fight devils, destroy a house and lead us to wisdom?’ Answer: Fire. It sits at home in the lap of the fireplace and is under the control of adults. Its light in a lamp can help a wise man recover dropped food from the devil. If it gets free it will set fire to the house and try to climb back up to heaven. It is an aspect of the divine. Everyone with eyesight (dryhtnes ðecelan) can see by it and all creation is sprung from it.

Errant Scholarship

Which brings me to the subject of today’s sermon – hot air, or to be exact in- and ex-sufflation. I recently paid a significant amount (well considerably more than I usually do) to download an article by Dr Paul F. Schaffner of the University of Michigan – “The Errant Morsel of Solomon and Saturn II: Liturgy, Lore, and Lexicon,” Mediaeval Studies 57 (1995): 223-57. It deals with our lines 441-447. I will give you a running commentary so you don’t have to do the same:

pp 223-4
Introducing the dropped morsel passage and telling us how tricky it is. Discussion of the punctuation issue at line 440.
p.  225
Tells us Holthausen’s 1916 explanation that dropped food was a boon to the devil. Which pretty much explains the so-called tricky passage. And I didn’t find this in my other readings, so I guess I got my money’s worth.
pp. 225-226
Other examples of similar beliefs to Holthausen’s explanation.
pp. 226-227
Suggestion that the snæd in line 393 and the snæd in line 396 are not the same. The poem says that the second morsel is ‘much better’ at line 8, but the question is – better than what? Schaffner wants us to believe that is better than the first recovered morsel, but it is obvious from the context that the poet means it is much better than a seven day feast. Apparently this nonsense was promoted by Wilde and Shippey, and “tentatively supported” by Menner and Vincenti. The reason for this brain explosion is apparently that the second, better morsel might actually be the host in the mass. But this idea was very effectively kiboshed by Holthausen because, good lord, who would dip the host in gravy? For ‘gesyfleð‘ means seasons, flavours. Game set and match to Holthausen! 5 pages into a 35 page article and we can stop here.
pp. 227-230
But wait. This is the argument that cannot die. The second morsel being the host is such a great idea that we can’t allow a measley bit of gravy to stand in its way. Maybe gesyfleð doesn’t mean seasoned but comes from Latin sufflare, to blow on. Not that there is any evidence of this – gesyflan is a well-attested word related to sufl, relish, stew. Phonological, etymological, all kinds of difficulties are duly noted and then ignored.
pp. 230-236
Detailed, fascinating, and entirely irrelevant description of the punishments for a priest dropping the host.
pp. 236-247
Detailed, fascinating, and entirely irrelevant description of the use of blowing (insufflation, exsufflation and sufflation) in various liturgical and extra-liturgical contexts, including exorcism. Including an amazing quote from Cyril of Jerusalem comparing exsufflation to a goldsmith’s purifying gold by blowing to heat the furnace. The Cyril quote is great stuff which is actually quite useful for interpreting the Boiling Blood sequence in Solomon and Saturn I, but quite off topic here.
p. 247
Perhaps the mass is the Easter mass, then we can bring in even more interesting ecclesiatical comparisons. This is apparently even more probable because the seven day feast might be a Jewish version of the Christian eight-day Easter feast. Oh yeah.
pp. 247-257
More blowing.
p. 257
The end.

In conclusion, Schaffner tells us “we may safely add a new word [‘gesyfleð‘ = ‘sufflat‘] to the lexicon of Old English”! Poppycock. He also tells us the paper owes its inception to suggestions from Thomas D. Hill. Oh dear, for Hill’s sake I think we’ll pretend we didn’t hear that.

Now in a generally favourable review of Daniel Anlezark’s recent edition of S&S in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, [Vol. 111, No. 3 (July 2012), pp.403-406] Charles D. Wright chides Anlezark with failing to mention Shaffner’s contribution to the identification of the snæd. “Anlezark has overlooked the detailed explication of ll. 224–30 by Paul Schaffner” says Wright. I think Anlezark’s readers can rest easy on that account!

I’ve been very harsh on this piece because it is not what it claims to be. It is an excellent article on the ancient and mediaeval clerical practices of sufflation, masquerading as a contribution to the understanding of Solomon and Saturn II. No amount of learning on sufflation is going to make this theory fly. It is as though Schaffner, who specialises in electronic text and resources management, is trying to crack the problem using a brute force password hack. Nevertheless, it is true that neither Krapp and Dobbie nor Anlezark mention in their notes Holthausen’s explanation as to why recovering the morsel is a setback for the devil. So I have Shaffner to thank for that at least.

The Meaning of the Missing Morsel

My argument, that the whole passage is Saloman’s answer to a missing riddle from Saturnus, successfully explains most of the difficulties of the passage. However it must be admitted that the dropped food example, as an example of light defeating the devil, is rather weak. Awareness of this weakness probably lies behind all those desperate efforts to misread the passage to see the morsel as the host.

Let us look at this again and see if the snæd image is perhaps a placeholder for a deeper meaning. It is notable that the context of the gathering of wise men (if we ignore the unfortunate punctuation) appears superfluous to the surface narrative of light defeating the devil. Perhaps this is a clue.

Perhaps we should view the dropped food image in the context of wisdom being exchanged, like food around a table. To drop a piece of food would then be a metaphor for missing the point of something wise said in the discussion. If a wise man realises through the operation of divine illumination that he has failed to understand something and returns to it, reconsiders it and understands it on the second attempt, this is indeed a victory against the devil and worth savouring. Understood intellectually, this is a plea for attention to detail in scholarship. And note how, in a delicious piece of self-reference, going back to the morsel passage for another look was what was required to understand its meaning.

Bon appetit!


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