Names and resonance – Holofernes in the Old English ‘Judith’

When I was in college, one of the guys in our circle was writing a novel (shocking, I know).  Though I can’t recall anything of the storyline apart from that it was some sort of detective story, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the name of his protagonist:  Damien Cole.

"Hello?  Yes.  It's me.  I just heard the world's lamest fictional name."

“Hello? Yes. It’s me. I just heard the world’s lamest fictional name.”

That name pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the character, doesn’t it?  If Mr. Cole wasn’t a tortured, dark antihero prowling the noir-colored streets of some nameless city on a personal quest for vengeance, I owe you a Coke.

The author of the Old English poem known as Judith didn’t have the luxury of being able to name his characters from scratch; he was drawing on a biblical story, after all.  But despite that, I suspect he was happy with the material at hand, particularly the name of his villain, Holofernes (or, as it appears in the poem, Holofernus).

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “Holofernes” “is evidently of Persian origin, similar information [sic] to ‘Artaphernes,’ ‘Dataphernes,’ ‘Tissaphernes,’ the last element of each of which is ‘pharna’ = ‘glorious'”.  I think, though, we can safely assume the Anglo-Saxon poet and his audience were unlikely to have been aware of this meaning.  What associations might have been made, then, with the name?

The first element may appear to be similar to Old English holh or hol, which can mean “hole,” “hollow” or “perforation,” according to Clark Hall’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon DictionaryHol (with a long vowel) also has the meaning of “slander.”  No obvious associations here; in any case Judith’s beheading of Holofernes could hardly be considered “perforation,” unless understood as an extreme understatement!  The verb holian means “to oppress,” which could have some resonance: Holofernes, the general of Nebuchadnezzar, was sent to subdue or oppress the Jewish people.  Finally, and probably most fittingly,  Hloh, meaning “laughed,” occurs just 2 lines beneath the name Holofernus in Judith:

                                    Ða wearð Holofernus,

goldwine gumena,    on gytesalum.

Hloh ond hlydde,    hlynede ond dynede,

þæt mihten fira bearn    feorran gehyran… (21b-24)

Which Chickering translates (in his essay “Poetic Exuberance in the Old English Judith,” appearing in On the Aesthetics of Beowulf and other Old English Poems):

                                        Then Holofernes became,

gold-giver to men,    merry from drinking.

He laughed and clamored,    roared and made a din,

so that the sons of men    might hear from afar…

In fact, the occurrence of Holofernus in line 21 anticipates the hl alliteration in line 23.  Perhaps Anglo-Saxon readers or listeners would have found the echo of (arrogant, drunken) laughter in the very name of the Assyrian general to be fitting.

Heolfor (“gore,” “blood”), also appearing in Beowulf and Andreas – poems which deal with similarly heroic matter – and its adjectival form heolfrig (“gory,” “bloody”), which itself appears in Judith, may have evoked a more distant kind of resonance, connecting the name of the enemy general to his bloody fate at the hands of the poem’s heroine.

But perhaps the strongest connection is to be found not in Old English but in Latin.  Infernus means “infernal,” and the -fernus element is a perfect match with the Old English version of the villain’s name, Holofernus.  Certainly the poet dwells on Holofernes’s hellish fate once his head is cut off by Judith (ll. 112b-121).  It may have been this resonance that led Peter Constantine to begin his translation of a portion of the poem (appearing in The Word Exchange):

Infernal Holofernes, illustrious king,

wild with wine raged and roared,

hollered and howled, unruly in carousing.

Of course, it is ultimately impossible to determine with certainty how an Anglo-Saxon audience would have experienced the poem.  But I like to imagine that the unusual name of  Judith’s villain could have rung with some of these jumbled echoes, both in the vernacular and in the language of the church, the half-heard words and concepts echoing in the strange syllables, reinforcing the listener’s (or reader’s) understanding of the character, bloody fate, and spiritual torment of one of the most lively villains in Old English poetry.


Old English: this is happening.

This morning I had the chance to read one of the essays that constitute On the Aesthetics of Beowulf and Other Old English Poems.  It was a piece by Howell D. Chickering titled “Poetic Exuberance in the Old English Judith.”

The poem in question concerns the heroine’s beheading of Holofernes, a leader of the Assyrians, as he sleeps drunk in his tent.  It’s an Anglo-Saxon take on an Old Testament story – and, as Chickering shows, is characterized by an especially lively use of language.

Alliteration is properly understood as the outstanding feature of Old English verse – so much so that rhyme may seem to be wholly a French import.  But there’s this astonishing couple of half-lines in Judith that make wonderful use of off-rhyme:

                          sloh ða eornoste

ides ellenrof    oðre siðe

þone haeðenan hund,    þaet him þaet heafod wand

forð on ða flore.

Chickering translates:

                                                then in earnest she struck,

the courageous woman,    a second time

that heathen hound,    so that his head went rolling

forth upon the floor.

Chickering then quotes an analysis by T.A. Bredehof, author of Early English Metre:

the “hund”/”wand” off-rhyme pair implicitly evokes, for readers or listeners, each of the corresponding true rhymes, calling to mind both the “hand” of Judith, and the “wund” [“wound”] of Holofernes.  As the passage insists, this crucial moment of separation (Judith from Holofernes; head – and soul – from body) is simultaneously a moment of binding (Holofernes’s soul is bound in hell), and the use of rhyme and secondary alliteration serves to emphasize the binding aspects of the passage through a kind of linguistic or poetic interlacing.

I love stuff like this, and I’m not sure if I can explain why.  “Hund/Hand/Wand/Wund” – as concrete an example as I can think of to display on a small scale what the Beowulf-poet meant on a larger scale when he wrote “word oðer fand” (“one word found another”), describing the method of storytelling and singing as the Danes rode back to Herot from Grendel’s lair.  It’s the kind of thing Roberta Frank wrote about in her fantastic “The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Philologist.”  Words linked to words, sending echoes of meaning banging back and forth.

All this is a long way of saying that it’s time once again to try to learn Old English.  I never had the chance to take a course on the language in undergrad or graduate school, but I’ve got plenty of books and, I realize, enough time to give it another shot.  “Another”, because I’ve made probably half a dozen attempts over the past decade.  The closest I’ve gotten to a respectable mastery was around 7 years ago, when I memorized Brunanburh and in the process got a good handle on some of the vocabulary and grammar.  My problem is that I find my interests shifting to other things and as a result tend not to stick to a single language for more than a couple months.  Learning a language entirely solo also presents its challenges.

It’s time, though.  My mind rarely feels as stretched as when I’m trying to learn a language.  And don’t I owe it to the kids to bring them up bilingual?  They’ll thank me.

Damn right, Dad.  Get on it!

Damn right.