The Lord’s Prayer in the Heliand

What, you might ask, is the Heliand? As good Saints, you will remember that Nephi “likened scripture” to himself, his people, and his situation. Well, he wasn’t the only one. In the 9th century an unknown Northern European warrior-monk-poet took it upon himself to “liken” the Gospels to his own people and situation: a chieftain society, a defeated people, a nation forcibly Christianized by Charlemagne. The result was the Heliand, a re-imaging of the Jesus story.

The Heliand, then, is a 9th century work in Old Saxon with a fair number of Latin loanwords for some, but not all, theological expressions. At 5984 lines, it’s twice the length of Beowulf and far more charming. Ever thought about the miracle at Cana as a mead-hall scene? Yup. All that Mediterranean imagery is now transplanted to the world of The Lord of the Rings, more or less.

So then in the original Old Saxon we’ve naturally got “Nazarethburg,” which comes into English not as the “castle” of High Medieval times, but as the “hill-fort” of the pre-Viking world. Like a good Saxon, Jesus was born inside the walls of a hill-fort. He was in and out of Fort Capernaum several times in his life and he taught in the shrine at Jerusalem, too. And of course, there’s Pilate of Pontusland who is threatened by the Jewish warriors with the ill-will of the emperor at Fort Rome.

As far as characters and characterization go, we have warriors, earls, and thanes. God is a Chieftain or Victory-Chieftain, or some such, and Christ is naturally “the Son of the Chieftain.” After his resurrection, Christ joins the warrior-company of earls on the road to Emmaus. In short, the whole thing is addressed to the warrior-nobility of the era, and meant to be sung in their mead-halls, not liturgically. Some manuscript even have neums in certain places. Here’s how the Sermon on the Mount begins:

Heroes were very eager and willing to stand around God’s Son, intent on his words. They thought and kept silent. They needed very much to think about the many brilliant things that the holy Child had told them this first time in words. Then one of the twelve, one of the intelligent men, spoke in reply to God’s Son…

N.B. The second and third sentences retain their force, no?

And so we come to the Lord’s Prayer. Now there’s one aspect of that pericope that has bothered folks since about forever. It’s the sixth petition, which reads in the AV “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Despite the fact that it’s part and parcel of the OT that God is responsible for everything that happens to us, good or bad, folks don’t like that sixth petition so they change it.

As with the rest of humanity, the author of the Heliand was very solicitous of God’s reputation. Here’s his version of the Lord’s Prayer:

Father of us all, the sons of men
You are in the high heavenly kingdom
Blessed be Your name in every word
May Your mighty kingdom come
May Your will be done over all this world—
just the same on earth as it is up there
in the high heavenly kingdom.
Give us support, each day, good Chieftain,
Your holy help, and pardon, Protector of Heaven,
our many crimes, just as we do to other human beings
Do not let loathsome wights lead us off
to do their will, as we deserve,

but help us against all evil deeds.

And there you have it – a “likening” of the scriptures, brought to you from 9th century Northern Europe. You can find a complete copy by searching under either Heliand or, as it is more commonly called in English, The Saxon Gospel. I used a translation by G. Ronald Murphy (NY: Oxford Press, 1992), but if your German is up to it, that’s also a great experience. It’s a treat in either language.

8 Replies to “The Lord’s Prayer in the Heliand”

  1. Yes. The first chapter of my dissy is done, so I can come out and play again. I have conclusively shown that precisely 42 angels can dance on the head of a pin. In my next chapter, I will explain what dances they are doing…

    If you want to see modern alterations of the sixth petition, check out the Lord’s Prayer in Romance language versions. You will I find, I expect, that it’s been shifted into the passive voice and reads “Do not let us be lead into temptation” or some such.

  2. There is MUCH in the Heliand where the Saxons applied the gospel to themselves. Not only applied, but adapted in very creative ways to fit the old Germanic values of guete (goodness), kiusche (Keuschheit or chastity), ere (Ehre or honor), triuwe (Treue or loyalty), etc. For example, the structural center (the climax!)of the Heliand occurs when Peter exhibits many of the Germanic virtues in one moving scene by defending his “Chieftain” in the garden as the soldiers were trying to take him away. The passage is very detailed, and, of course, climactic.

    The Saxons also adapted the gospel to fit their religious paradigms in this tract. When the Chieftain is baptized, there is a very detailed scene where the Holy Ghost descends upon him and actually lands on his shoulder, beginning to whisper in his ear. Of course, this would conjure up to the Saxon the image of Wotan with his ravens Nunin and Hugin (memory and mind) perched on his shoulders whispering in his ear. The conclusion for the Saxons, who had been quite alarmed at the prospect of Christianity up until that time: Christ = Wotan!

    With the Saxons still reeling from Charlemagne’s forced conversion of their people (largely by hanging the Saxon princes from their sacred oak trees, then chopping down the trees, also by beheading some 4500 Saxons who refused to convert- now that’s the power of the Word!…), it is no wonder the author of the Heliand found a receptive audience to a gospel which adapted Christianity to the pagan teutonic paradigm.

    While it is a real treat to read, in my opinion this “likening of scripture” to the Saxons was more a changing of scripture so as not to offend the Saxon world view.

    I often wonder how often we as Latter-day Saints indulge in the same sort of re-writing as we attempt to liken scripture to all sorts of diverse situations, many of which some scriptures probably weren’t even meant to address.

    The suggestion to “liken scripture unto ourselves” probably should not come at the expense gospel principles we do not agree with.

    But the Heliand is a great piece of literature, and Murphy does do an unparalled job of translation.

  3. Thanks, Jordan for adding your thoughts. That’s a great bit of insight and the link to the nativity passages is also a pleasure.

    I shall pick up Old Saxon next semester…or maybe the one after that…


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