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The Heliand



American Jesus 1.0 wants your undying feelings of loyalty to save you from Ragnarok  the Final Judgment.

If you want to know what it is like to read The Heliand, imagine that Jesus Christ is Gandalf portrayed by Thor and accompanied by a band of twelve noble warrior companions.  For those of you who don’t know, the Heliand is a Saxon version of the gospel story written by an unnamed poet in the ninth century.  The translator of the edition I read assures through footnotes and commentaries that it is a beautiful epic poem full of clever symbolism.  Even though most of that also had to be lost in the act of translation, it is still a beautiful read.  In fact, as a work of literature, it is a better read than the gospel accounts because the writer thoughtfully arranged the stories from the four gospel accounts into one coherent narrative with foreshadowing.  It is also a better read because in many ways it is the form of literature that we’ve inherited in WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic) culture that descended from these Saxons who encountered Christianity.  This is what we expect from our stories to be good stories. 

The Heliand is also a gospel that was written for particular people in a particular context: privileged white men who were facing persecution and a threat to their way of life from the outside.   Like any good writer, the author of the Heliand considered his audience.  His audience was Saxon chieftans, earls, and thanes who were being forced by the invading armies of Charlemagne to be baptized as Christians or be put to death.  They were not feeling very sympathetic towards Mediterranean people in general, so the idea of accepting a religion that was born from Judaism mixed and with Greco-Roman philosophy was problematic to their worldview.  There are many points that the epic makes anti-Semitic remarks and implies the Jews are dishonorable.  

The writer knew that for there to be peace, he had to convince these noble warriors to convert.  To convince them to convert, he had to present a gospel where Jesus was a noble warrior who shared their values.  It was irrelevant what the Serfs or poor people thought, so he wrote this work of literature for the upper classes.  As such he identified with their values.  So for instance in the Christmas story, he mentions the star, the wise men coming to see Jesus, King Herod being afraid of being usurped, the virginity of Mary, and the angel Gabriel, but leaves out the crucial story about there being no room at the Inn.  When Jesus is calling his first disciples there are poor people hanging around who are interested in religion primarily because they are looking for donations from the good thanes who would gladly give it to them.  Jesus is preaching to and calling those thanes, not the poor people who are superfluous extras the writer can’t seem to comprehend.  The Lord’s Prayer – or the secret runes of the Lord’s Prayer contained in the “Instructions on the Mountain” – is changed to ask for the sort of support thanes would receive from their chieftan rather than their daily bread, because asking for daily bread would be beneath them. 

One of the most interesting things about this epic is the way that Germanic cosmology is brought into the story.  Time and fate, the two main Germanic forces have fairly large roles, especially Fate.  It is shown that Jesus, the All-Savior is superior to them.  In a rather dramatic twist, by undergoing the crucifixion, Jesus overcomes Fate’s power over the people and is worthy to be seated at the right hand of God.  The cross was a stumbling block to both Jews and Greeks, but not to Saxons.  They had regular sacrifices of both men and animals on trees to Wotan.  In fact, in the imagery, the poet mixes the Roman crucifixion methods with their own methods of tying their sacrificial victims to trees. Appendix 1 describes the Germanic religious customs and mentions these sacrifices.  There was also a final battle of Ragnarok built strongly into their mythology and a concept of muspille (about which there is another epic poem written) that might be Ragnarok mixed together with the Christian apocalypse.  So their worldview was one in which the world was already fated to be destroyed with a fiery end and this was the dramatic ending they expected. 


Another important thing to note is the role of one’s individual feelings in this epic.  Despite the fact that at this time all Christians would have been Catholic and a part of the Catholic Church, there is no mention of needing to be part of the greater church.  One loves one’s enemies by having good feelings towards them.  In the story in which Jesus weeps over Lazarus’s death, he is so moved because of the emotion of the beautiful maidens, rather than his own grief to start crying.  There are many times throughout the epic when one has to have the right feelings of loyalty for the great Chieftan/All-Savior to be saved or right.  It is interesting that salvation is not framed in terms of original sin, but in terms of having the right feelings of loyalty to the right chieftan and not switching loyalties.

So let’s recap:  We have privileged white men who in this instance really do face an outside threat to their way of life.  They are warriors and they have a moral ethic that revolves around having feelings of undying loyalty to their leader.  Their entire cosmology is rooted in war and conflict fated to a pessimistic end.  They are the elite of their society and see poor people as easily manipulated leeches waiting for handouts.  They are also anti-Semitic.  I know that all theology is contextual and that in cross cultural communication it gets murky as to when to challenge the status quo and when to preserve it.  There was after all, this whole problem of Charlemagne converting people with the sword and a desire to somehow make peace.  There is after all, the end product of this beautiful work of literature.  Still, in WEIRD societies, I think we can and should deconstruct the worldview of the angry white man and separate it from the gospel. 


Source:  The Heliand: the Saxon Gospel.  New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1992.  Translation and Commentary by G. Ronald Murphy, S.J.  ISBN:  019073754.


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