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.