Symmetrical Structure in the Heliand

by G. Ronald Murphy
Symmetrical Structure in the Heliand
G. Ronald Murphy
The German Quarterly
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Georgetown University
Symmetrical Structure in the HeZiand

The reader ofthe Heliand has the feeling that the Gospel story in the poem has been somehow rearranged, restructured and gently eased into a more rounded-out nar- rative form.1 The most recent comprehen- sive effort, however, to describe and identify this restructuring has met with failure and has not succeeded in gaining acceptance from scholars in the field. Johannes Rathofer's monumental attempt at deline- ating the structure of the epic in his Der Heliand theologischer Sinn als tektonische Form2 has been firmly rejected, and his symbolic-mathematical method of inter- preting the sequence of the fitts 'song, epi- sodes' using the London manuscript C has been seriously questioned. His effort to see in the Heliand a division into four books, four books that by their very existence cre- ate what Rathofer thought was an almost simultaneously visible figura crucis, has been rejected by Taeger on the convincing basis of lack of codicological evidence and the impossibility of making such a pre- sumptive quadripartite division'tisib1e"as a cross in the course of chanting the long epic.3 Despite Rathofer's painstaking re- search, Taeger concludes that it has failed, but concedes one possible positive result: Rathofer may have identified the central focal song of the Heliand, the 38th, and may have thereby suggested that some struc- ture of the other song might exist around the 38th song. The Transfiguration would thus be the center point of the epic.4

The purpose of this paper is to examine that possibility and to suggest that suffi- cient evidence exists for a deliberate overall structure of the component song of the Heliand. It is based on the initial assump tion that the Transfiguration on the Mount is indeed the center of the epic. It is also based on the conclusion that, due to the for- mal unwieldiness of the Gospel story itself, the poet could not order the entirety of the Gospel's incidents into parallel episodes in his composition, but rather selected a num- ber of them based on his spiritual insight asto their appropriateness. This is perhaps what is implied in the LatinPraefatw where the poet's method is described as taking holy scripture and . . . juxta hishriae veri- tatem quaeque excellentwra summatim decerpens . . . 'in a summary way excerpting, from the point of view of the truth in the story, the thing that are more outstand- ing.'5 Though there is some difficulty with the Praefahb (it seems to refer to a work containing the whole of the Old and New Testament), its further elaboration of the poet's method seems a perfectly accurate

reference to the Heliand: . . . et interahm quaedm, ubi commodum duxit, mystic0 semu depingens . . . 'and, every once in a while, wherever it seems appropriate, de- picting the mystical meaning [of the thing that are more outstanding] . . .*

For some years I have also felt that the Heliand had an inclusw or symmetrical type of structure centered on the 38th song, but I could not think how to locate and de- fine the extended structure. Since the un- known author seems to have used an in- clusw structure to retell and to elaborate certain of the smaller scenes in the Heliand (such as the Walking on the WaterP)7for his purposes, it would not seem unreasonable to expect that he had eased the whole of the Gospel (insofar as the evangelists'storyper- mitted such rearranging) into the same
The German Quarterly 65.2 (1992) 153

form. This would seem to be a formidable task since none of the four Gospels-and a fortiori Tatian's harmony of the four Gospels-is structured in this measured epic manner. Did the Heliand poet do it by design or are its parallel song few and ac- cidental? The route Ichose to take to answer this question was one of looking for more obviously visible imagery, clearly parallel content, centered on both sides of the 38th song, rather than a numerical analysis of the songs independent of their c~ntent.~

The striking thing about the Transfigu- ration scene particularly emphasized in the Heliand is its climactic brilliance with the breaking into "middlegard" of the lwht oh 'the light of the other world' and its occur- rence on a mountain. The dazzling descrip- tion suggests by similar vocabulary and im- agery both the depiction of the light of the other world coming to the horse-guards ('shepherds' in the Gospel story) at Beth- lehem in the Christmas song (5) and the description of the dazzlingly bright angel who comes with thunder to sit on the open tomb of the Resurrection (69). There is no question in my mind that the Heliand poet is completely fascinated with light, and uses it to shine abrilliantly focused beam on the beginning, the middle, and the end of his version of the Gospel. The problem is, of course, that this same device is to be found in the Gospels themselves, and it is hard to isolate the structure of the Heliand from the point of view of its light imagery except to say that it, like the Gospels, uses light at the three critical points, to emphasize the incursion of the Divine into the terrestrial world. On the other hand, the impressive image of the mountain is more useful as a beginning point for looking for more de- tailed structure.

The mountaintop at the center of the Heliand suggests two other mountain scenes in the epic in which the author bring the Gospel story to a striking climax in Ger- manic imagery: the epic "battle scene" on Mt. Olivet in which Peter defends his Chief- tain with the sword, and the brilliant recast- ingof Christ's teaching in Germanic terms in the Sermon on the Mount. The scene on Mt. Olivet is in song 58, exactly twenty song away from the Transfiguration's song 38, and the Sermon on the Mount reaches the conclusion of its first part in song 18also twenty songs away from song 38. I do not think this placement is accidental. These three mountain scenes with their glorification of Christ and his "thanes" are the most 'Gisible" foundation of the symmetrical structure of the Heliand. One might have expected from Christian tradi- tion that the mountain of the Crucifhon, Mount Calvary, would have been given the most important dramatic role. The Heliand poet may have wanted, in order to combat the vacillation of his Christian Saxons, to emphasize the sole incident when Christ- the-Chieftain's leading thane, Peter, fought for him (on Mt. Olivet) rather than when he deserted him (on Mt. Calvary).

One of the things that must have given the author difficulty in attempting any thoroughgoing restructuring of the Gospel story asa central composition with parallel scenes is the extreme length of the Sermon on the Mount. Rather than cut any of it, however, the author seems instead to have decided to count the first portion of it (song 15-18) as one song unit. I say this because the author placed a formulaic caesura at the end of the 18th song, a formula found almost word for word in songs 16,17, and 18.This unique formulaic description of the men standing around Christ listening to his chieftain-like instructions binds these three songs to each other and to scene 15 where the men are called up onto the moun- tain to hear their Chieftain's secret instruc- tions:

Stodun uuisa man,

gumon umbi thana godes sunu gerno


uuem an uuilleon: uuas im them uuordo


thahtun endi thagodun . . . (16, 1281b-


Wise men were very eager and willing to stand around God's Son, intent on his words, they thought and kept silent. . .''

Heliaos stodun, gumon umbi thana godes sunu gerno suuido, uueros an uuilleon: uuas im them uuordo niud, thahtun endi thagodun . . . (17, 1383b- 1387b)

'Heroes [warriors] were very eager and willing to stand around God's Son, intent on his words, they thought and kept silent


Helidos stodun, gumon umbi thana godes sunu gerno suuiao, uueros an uuilleon: uuas im them uuordo niud, thahtun endi thagodun . . . (18, 1580b- 1586a)

[identical with 17, 138313-1387bl

The great length of the Sermon seems to have forced the author to consider these song (15-18) as a single unit in balancing them against a single song (58) from the other side of the central song (38) of the epic.

If we next move ten song away from the Sermon-on-the-Mount unit, from song 15 to 5, we arrive at the coming of Christ to Bethlehem, the Nativity. If on the other side of the composition we move ten songs away from the "battle" on Mt. Olivet, from song 58 to 68, we arrive at the Resurrection, also described, in parallel to the Nativity scene, as a "coming." Christ's spirit makes its way through the dark night to the corpse:

Sia obar themo grabe satun, uueros an them uuahtun uuannom nah- ton, bidun undar iro bordon, huan er thie

berehto dag o%ar middilgard mannon quami, liudon te liohte. Thuo ni uuas lang te thiu, that thar war thie gest cuman be godes

halag aaom undar thena hardon sten
an thena lichamon. (68,5765-5772)

They [the guards]sat on top of the grave, warriora on watch, during the star-lit night. They waited under their shields until bright day came to mankind all over the middle world, bringing light to people. It was not long then until: there was the spirit coming, by God's power, the holy breath, going under the hard stone to the corpse!'

The Birth and the Resurrection have been made equidistant from the Trans- figuration at the center, each being 30song from the center (counting the first part of the Sermon on the Mount [15-181 as one unit).

Furthermore, if one goes on from the Nativity, song 5, to the first song of the Heliand, one has a distance of exactly five song. By parallel, from the Resurrection to the end of the Heliand-if this analysis is correct-there would also have been five song and thus the last song of the poem would have been song *72. Since we have almost all of the text except for *72 and part of 71, by this account astonishingly little of the epic would be missing.

Confirmation of this general structure can be gained by proceedingfrom the center outward, and usually in simple multiples of five or ten. The Death of John the Baptist occurs in song 33, five songs before the Transfiguration, Jesus Foretells his Death in song 43, five songs after the Transfigura- tion scene. Evidence that this particular parallelism is deliberate canbe found in the fact that song43 is primarily devoted to the very important scene in the Heliand of the curingof the blind man outside Jericho, one of the few incidents into which the author intrudes with a lengthy interpretation and a personal exhortation to the hearer Ireader. Christ's foretelling of his death does not fit into this incident at all, and yet the death description has been inserted into the song (43)in a rough way that makes it seem like a passage out of place. Out of place or not, I believe the author felt he had to have it at the beginning of the song to effect a clear

structural parallel to the beheading of John the Baptist in song 33.

Ten songs after the Transfiguration Jesus raises Lazarus from the grave at the request of Lazarus' sisters, ten songs prior to the Transfiguration Jesus raises up the cripple who has been lowered through the roof by his friends. These incidents may seem analogous only by reason of being a restoration to health and otherwise not ex- cessively similar. The Heliand poet seems to have had the same feeling since he has gone to some pains to make the incidents more spiritually similar. He does not do this as one might expect by trying to make the cripple's cure more similar to that of Lazarus, by describing it, let us say, as a beginning of "a new life." The author finds a parallelism in the fact that both Lazarus and the cripple were restored to health be- cause of the persistent loyalty of friends and relatives. Here he is looking at both inci- dents through the eyes of Germanic warrior culture and sees triuue 'loyalty'as active in both. He thus changes the Gospel story to show this virtue more clearly. Little is necessary insong28. The poet simply refers to the men who are carrying the sick man and who lower him through the roof not as friends but as erlos 'warriors'who were this man's gesihs 'warrior-companions,' 'vas- sals,' who are thus performing a loyal ser- vice for their lord. A bit more is necessary in the scene of the raising of Lazarus, but the material is there. Christ comes from far away to help Lazarus. In the Gospel story he comes because Lazarus'two sisters sum- mon him, giving as their reason "the one whom you love is sick." In the Heliand, Christ comes at the summons of the sisters, but because of his loyalty to them. They are the cause of his coming, not Lazarus. Thus in both songs, 28 and 48,a potential parallel is enhanced and brought to expression in the Heliand. At one and the same time both incidents, the cripple and Lazarus, are cul- turally accommodated in their content and, by their parallel placement in the poem, they are accommodated to epic form.

If we go further from the central scene, frfteen songs prior to the Transfigurationon Mt. Tabor, we come to song 23. In this episode Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount by warning about the Great Day, the last judgment; fifteen songs subsequent to Mt. Tabor, insong 53,the author has placed Jesus' description of Doomsday, the day of the last judgment.

It seems that the epic restructuring into parallel scenes on both sides of the center was not possible for every fifth scene in the Gospel, since the matter itself would not everywhere lend itself to such parallelism. The crucifurion, for example, in the Heliand, according to this schema, is placed parallel to the coming of the Magi, something which does not tally. I have concluded that the poet merely adjusted and jiggled his matter (especially in the first part, by omission of parables such as the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan) in order to make some epic parallelism possible. Usually, it seems he did it on every fifth song. There are, how- ever, other examples as well. In song 4 the Angel appears to Mary to announce the In- carnation, in song 69 the angel appears to the women, Mariun 'the Marys,' to announce the Resurrection. In one rather de- lightful example, songs 8 and 65, the Magi are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and Pilate's wife iswarned in a day- dream by the devil in a hiding-hood not to harm Christ. A more somber tone is struck by the parallelism of songs 22 and 54: in the first, Christ warns his followers of the dan- gers of money and tells them never to accept payment for their services, in the 54th, as I am sure one can guess, Judas is accepting the thirty pieces of silver from the Jewish leaders.

One of these parallel scenes is unusually touching. The desperate prayer of Jesus to his Father in the Agony in the Garden (song 57) to avert his comingcrucifkion, isplaced parallel to the gentle moment in song 19 when he teaches his thanes to pray the Our Father. Such a placement in itself invites meditation and indicates how well the poet could "depict the mystical meaning." It is indeed moving to think that the Christ who is praying in agony to his Father to remove the evil that is about to befall him, once taught his followers to pray to the Father in these words:

Gef us dago gehuuilikes rad, dmhtin the godo, thina helaga help . . . Ne lat us farledean letla uuihti so fora an iro uuileon, so uui uuirdige sind, ac help us uuidar allun ubilon dadiun. (19, 1610-1612)

'Give us support each day, good Chief- tain, Your holy help. . . Do not let evil little creatures lead us off to do their will, as we deserve, but help us against all evil deeds.'

It seems that there is more than enough evidence for deliberate symmetrical struc- turing of a significant number of the songs of the Heliand. If this overall analysis is correct, there may be many parallels that I have not seen, and the project invites both help, further study, and meditation. I have included in Figure 1a diagram which Ihope will invite further discussionofthe Heliand, a literary and spiritual gem of the Ger- manic-speaking peoples.

Finally I would like to mention three possible motives for the poetic restructur- ing of the Gospel in the Heliand. One was to make the Gospel story seem to be, as far as possible, a heroic epic in form as well as in content. The poet had turned the entire arrest scene, the Passion and Death into an epic in content, why not have the whole

Fig. 1.Symmetrical Arrangement of Songs in the Heliand.
Song: Content:

Angel announces the Incarnation to Mary.
Nativity: The coming to earthly light.
Dream: Warning the Magi to return by another way.
Sermon on the Mount (Part1).

Jesus teaches the prayer ''Our Father. . ."
"Accept no payment" teaching.
The Great Day (Judgment).
The cureof the bed-fast man.
Death of John the Baptist.
Transfiguration on Mount 'lgbor.

Death of Jesus foretold.
The raising of Lazarus.
Doomsday: The Last Judgment.
Judas accepts his payment, 30 pieces of silver.
Jesus prays in his agony in the garden to the Father.
Peter's defense of hisLord on Mount Olivet.

Dream: Warning Pilate's wife about Jesus.

The Resurrection: The coming back of the Lord.

Angel announces the Resurrection to the Marys.

poem be s tructured for song informaswell? A poetic form that alluded to the ancient and familiar Germanic musical past? The second motive may well have had to do with his reinforcing the notionoffatedness in the poem. There is a certain predictive and con- frontational relationship between Christ and fate in the first part of the epic, and an acceptance of the inevitability of fate as di- vine will on Christ's part at the end. If this is so, then the poet of the Heliand was also careful to help his hearers /readers partic- ipate in the uneasy relationship between Christ and fate, to realize that the pain of the growing relationship of Germanic and Christian religious feelings was birthpain. Parallel structure of beginning and end helps the poet by expressing the fatedness of that 'bright-shining'relationship not only through content, but also in form. The third motive is perhaps the most obvious and the most important of all: setting scenes in par- allel invites meditation. The juxtaposition of two analogous scenes, as in so much of medieval church art, invites the beholder to meditate on the similarities, to seek and find a richer meaning in the harmony of the two, mystico sensu.


the readers of the Heliand I would like to thank and credit my student Mary Ballad for her many thoughtful insight4 and her assistance with this paper.

?It appeared as vol. 9 of Niederdeutsche Studien (Cologne: Bohlau Verlag, 1962).

3~eehisremarks in his introduction toHeliand und Genesis, ed. Otto Behaghel, 9th edition rev. Burkhard Taeger ('l'iibingen: Niemeyer, 1984) xx-


4"Der Versuch, die Zahlung der Fittengliede- rung nicht nur als urspriinglich zu erweisen, sondern auch noch zahlensymbolisch auszudeu- ten, ist gescheitert; iibriggeblieben ist hochstens die Moglichkeit, den 'Heliand'als eine Zentralkom- position, mit der Verkliirung Chri~ti auf dem Berg Tabor ale in die Mitte des Werks gestellte, wrweggenommene brwindung des Leidens."

=~eliandund Geneais, 1.All Old Saxon citations are from thin edition; the English and Latin translations are mine (see n. 9 below).


G.RonaldMurphy, S.J.,TheSaxon Swior (OxfordINew York: Word University Press, 1989), 68-73.

%I using thin approach IrealizeIam following in the fmtatep of Cedric Whitman and his classic analysis of the narrative structure of the Iliad in his Homer and the Heroic Dadition (Cambridge: Harvard Univemity Press, 1958).

gEngliah translations are from The Helimd, the Saxon Gospel, translation with commentary by G. Ronald Murphy, S.J. (New YorWOxford: Oxford University Preee, forthcoming).
Works Cited

Heliand und Genesis. Ed. Otto Behaghel. 9th edition, rw. Burkhard Taeger. TClbingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1984.

The Heliand, the Saxon Gospel. 'Ikanslated with commentary by G. Ronald Murphy, S.J. New YorWOxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

Murphy, S.J., G. Ronald. The Sawn Swior: The Germanic Dansformation of the Gospel in the Ninth-Century 'Heliand.' New YorWOxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Rathofer, Johannea. Der Helimd theologischer Sinn ah tektonische Form; Vorbereitung und Grundlegung der Interpretation. Cologne: Btihlau, 1962.

. "Zum Aufbau des Heliand." Zeitschrifi fir deutschas Altertum und deutsche Literatur 93 (1964): 23%72.

Taeger, Burkhard. Zahlenaymbolik bei Hraban, bei Hincmar und im Heliand? Studien zur Zahlensymbolik im kihmitteldter. Munich: Beck, 1970.

Tatian. Lateinisch und Altdeutsch mit a~~~fiihrlichem

Glossm: Ed. Eduard Sievem. 2nd rev, edition. Paderborn: Schiiningh, 1966. Whitman, Cedric. Homer and the Heroic Dadition. Cambridge: Harvard University Preas, 1958.

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