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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: February 2018

1 - From Whale's Road to Water under the Earth: Water in Anglo-Saxon Poetry


Dol bið se ðe gæð on deop wæter,

se ðe sund nafað ne gesegled scip

ne fugles flyht, ne he mid fotum ne mæg

grund geræcan; huru se Godes cunnað

full dyslice, Dryhtnes meahta

He who goes on deep water is foolish, he who does not have the skill to swim nor a sailed ship nor the flight of a bird, nor can he with his feet touch the ground; he certainly tests the power of God, the Lord, very foolishly.


Almost any subject in Old English studies begins with Bede, and the subject of water is no exception. In the very first line of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede writes: ‘Britain, once called Albion, is an island of the ocean’. This womb-like image, suggesting that the island is birthed from the sea, defines Britain by virtue of its placement in water. As Bede continues his description, he establishes the importance of water to, its interconnectedness with, the nation's very existence. He seems to emphasize the bounty that the nation reaps from the seas and other sources of water, noting:

[Britain] is remarkable too for its rivers, which abound in fish, particularly salmon and eels, and for copious springs. Seals as well as dolphins are frequently captured and even whales; besides these there are various kinds of shellfish, among which are mussels, and enclosed in these there are often found excellent pearls of every colour, red and purple, violet and green, but mostly white. There is a great abundance of whelks, from which a scarlet-coloured dye is made, a most beautiful red which neither fades through the heat of the sun nor exposure to the rain; indeed the older it is the more beautiful it becomes. The land possesses salt springs and warm springs and from them flow rivers which supply hot baths, suitable for all ages and both sexes, in separate places and adapted to the needs of each.