Deor is a cheerful Old English poem found in the Exeter Book about a scop (an Anglo-Saxon bard) who has been dismissed by his lord. He compares it to various troubles suffered by heroes and people throughout the ages.

Like all Anglo-Saxon poetry, it is done in alliterative verse meaning the poem doesn’t rhyme (rhyme had yet to be imported from the Middle East) but rather alliterates. (For more on this see the afterward from The Song of Ceber.)

The following is the poem as I translate it. The first line is how it looks in Old English. The second is how I translate it word by word literally. The third is my synthesis of the word by word translation. I present it in this way so that as you read through it you can get an idea of what the closest modern English word is to each Anglo-Saxon one, but also see what it means and how the grammar has shifted.

There are notes at the end.

Welund him be wurman       wræces cunnade,
Wayland him by worms misry experiences(?)
Wayland by weariness experiences misry

anhydig eorl       earfoþa dreag,
Steadfast earl difficult work
The steadfast noble’s difficult work

hæfde him to gesiþþe       sorge and longaþ,
Possesses him to companions(?) distress and longing
Has given him to the companions distress and longing

wintercealde wræce,       wean oft onfond
winter-cold misry evil often on-found(?)
He discovered chilly misry and evil

siþþan hine Niðhad on       nede legde,
since him Nithad on trouble lay
Since Nithad bound him with

swoncre seonobende       on syllan monn.
supple sinew-bonds On giver(?) man
Supple sinew-bonds on the noble man

Þæs ofereode;       þisses swa mæg
That overcome; this so may
That was overcome, so this may too.

Beadohilde ne wæs       hyre broþra deaþ
Beadohida not was her brothers’ deaths
Beadohida was not sad about her brother’s deaths

on sefan swa sar       swa hyre sylfre þing,
On spirit as pain as herself thing
As pained in spirit at her own trouble

þæt heo gearolice       ongietan hæfde
That she well-knew seized possessed
That she well-knew with certainty

þæt heo eacen wæs;       æfre ne meahte
That she increasing was; after no power
That she was pregnant. She had no power

þriste geþencan       hu ymb þæt sceolde.
rash ye-think how about that obligation
To resolutely think about her obligation

Þæs ofereode,       þisses swa mæg.
That overcome; this so may
That was overcome, so this may too.

We þæt Mæðhilde       mone gefrugnon
We that Maythhilda’s moans discovered
We found that Maythilda’s moans

wurdon grundlease       Geates frige,
Arose boundless Geats (?)
Arose boundlessly- poor lady of the Geats--

þæt hi seo sorglufu       slæp ealle binom.
That they the sad love sleep all deprived
That her sad love deprived all of sleep.

Þæs ofereode,       þisses swa mæg.
That overcome; this so may
That was overcome, so this may too.

Ðeodric ahte       þritig wintra
Theodric aught Thirty winters
Theodric ruled for thirty winters

Mæringa burg;       þæt wæs monegum cuþ.
Maeringaburg That was many known (ken)
Maringburg. That everybody knows.

Þæs ofereode,      þisses swa mæg.
That overcome; this so may
That was overcome, so this may too.

We geascodan       Eormanrices
We heard Ermanric’s
We heard Ermanric’s

wylfenne geþoht;       ahte wide folc
wolfish ye-thought aught wide folk
Wolfish thoughts. He ruled widely the people of

Gotena rices;       þæt wæs grim cyning.
Goth’s reich That was grim king
The Gothic kingdom. That was a grim king!

Sæt secg monig       sorgum gebunden,
Sat warrior many distress ye-bound
Many warriors sat bound with distress

wean on wenan,       wyscte geneahhe
Wickedness on imagination wished frequently
Wickedness troubling their mind and wishing frequently

þæt þæs cynerices       ofercumen wære.
That these kingdoms overcome were
That this kingdom was overcome

Þæs ofereode,       þisses swa mæg.
That overcome; this so may
That was overcome, so this may too.

Siteð sorgcearig,       sælum bidæled,
Sits sorrowful occasionally deprived
If you sit sorrowful, on occasion deprived

on sefan sweorceð,       sylfum þinceð
On spirit darkening, self thinking
On your darker spirits, dwelling

þæt sy endeleas       earfoða dæl,
That is endless labor pit
That is endless, bottomless labor

mæg þonne geþencan       þæt geond þas woruld
May when ye-think that through this world
Instead may you think that through this world

witig Dryhten       wendeþ geneahhe,
wise Leader all be enough
The wise Lord, all will be enough.

eorle monegum       are gesceawað,
Earl many are observed
May noble men are observed

wislicne blæd,       sumum weana dæl.
true blade some (?) trouble
To have true courage, and some great trouble

Þæt ic bi me sylfum       secgan wille,
That I by? Myself tells wishes
I, myself, wish to tell you this

þæt ic hwile wæs       Heodeninga scop,
That I while was Hedening’s bard,
That while I was Hedening’s bard,

dryhtne dyre;       me wæs Deor noma.
Leader dear; Me was Deer name
Dear to my lord. My name was Deor.

Ahte ic fela wintra       folgað tilne,
Aught I many winters followed well
I followed many winters well

holdne hlaford,       oþ þæt Heorrenda nu
Held ruler to That Heorenda now
My lord, until Heorenda now

leoðcræftig monn,       londryht geþah
Song crafting man land-right ye-got
A song crafting man, stole my place

þæt me eorla hleo       ær gesealde.
That my earl protector ere ye-sold
That my earl, my patron, had first given to me.

Þæs ofereode,       þisses swa mæg.
That overcome; this so may
That was overcome, so this may too.

The Old English word “Deor” means animal or beast. Over time the meaning shifted to mean a specific kind of animal, the deer. Deor as a name is an interesting choice for the poet to choose. Being leaderless and without position was considered to be a terrible fate in Germanic society. (The most notable poem about this is The Wanderer.) So, I would like to think the name is symbolic. The Beast poet bemoaning his lost position. It’s too perfect.

Welund is Wayland the Smith, a widespread figure in Germanic myth appearing in the Poetic Edda and mentioned in Beowulf (and on the Franks Casket, and a few other places). The full story that is being referenced here is that the greedy king Nithhad, coveting Wayland’s skill kidnapped and hamstrung him so that nobody else could benefit from his talet. As revenge, Wayland killed Nithhad’s sons and ravished his daughter Böðvildr (the Beadohilde of Deor).

Welund him be Wurman (pause) Wraeces cunnade.” This line shows off the classic Anglo-Saxon verse. The repeating W is the device that holds the line together poetically. The pause in the center is the caesura.

According to Pope “worms” is likely a scribal error where a copyist mistook an open top A for U. The correct word would then be “warnum”. The first line should then correctly be understood as “Wayland wracked by weariness.” Further evidence to support this is the misspelling of the name “Weland” as “Welund”. Pope, John C. Seven Old English Poems. Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.

“Wintercealde” This is one of those fun words whose meaning jumps out at you. Old English, like modern German, was very fond of compound words and often half the difficulty of translating is finding what looks like one word is actually two or more smashed together and that instead of looking up, say, “modyþanc”, you probably ought to have looked up just þanc.

The beauty of this poem is this repeating line. “Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.” To do a simple crash course in pronunciation: first imagine you speak aggressive German, then forget silent letters are a thing, then put emphasis on the front of every word and be sure to pause just a bit after that comma. Þ is th. The final G is a Y sound, the æ sounds like the A in “father” and the F in “ofereode” sounds sort of between a V and an F. Easy, right? Ha ha ha.

Wayland is ostensibly the guy we’re supposed to root for in his poems and legends, and is one hero in a number of revenge stories dating back into prehistory. However, it strikes me as fairly… oh, let’s say, culturally disodent to root for a guy who takes revenge on his enemy by raping his daughter. The story appears to be widespread and popular at the time given how many places Wayland is mentioned in various Germanic sources (basically, if you spoke a Germanic language, Saxon, Norse, English, you’d know the story).

“That she increasing was” Euphemistic, naturally.

“Ye-” This is the ancient English prefix that forms past participles. It can also relay that an action has been completed but is still in progress, or that something is a process. Among other things. Today it only survives in the word “enough,” but it could be found all over Old and Middle English. You occasionally see it in Early Modern English but by then it was well on its path to extinction.

Ermanric: Apparently, a real person. He’s mentioned by the Romans Ammianu and Jordanes.

“That was a grim king!” And sometimes you barely need to translate at all.

Gotena rices: The Old English word for kingdom is rice which is closer in meaning to the modern German reich than it is to kingdom. However it is always translated as “kingdom” do to the negative associations English speakers have with the word. Properly, this should be understood as the Goth’s realm-- where they hold power.

Dæl is “dale” in modern English. It just means valley. Most translations of Deor I’ve read seem to favor a translation of endless or bottomless. I have several sources I can check both online and off if I don’t recognize a word and dæl is always valley. Pope whose endnotes and glossary are my primary Old English source doesn’t bother to translate this word (he doesn’t translate any word, simply presents the poems and then his notes on them). I can only assume the bottomless sense is by metaphor.

I’ve seen some articles on the internet talking about the supposed oldest word in the English language. It sited the pronoun “I” as the likely oldest. This is bullshit, of course. There is no oldest word in the English language and I in Old English is Ic related to the German Ich, anyway, and it goes back to Proto-Indo European as something like egh, which probably also gave Latinego”. So, yeah, the word’s antecedents go back as far as we can trace it, but there are old words that date before English that haven’t changed as much. In this regard “fuck” is far older than “I”. Nu, modern English’s “now” would be my candidate for oldest word. Or at least oldest attested word. Here’s why: It is the first word of Cædmon's Hymn, which makes it the first word of one of the oldest poems in the English language, the other being Beowulf which starts with yelling WHAT at the top of its lungs.

Londryht: Land right. Literally a deed.

Hasenfratz, Robert, and Thomas Jambeck. Reading Old English a Primer and First Reader. WVU Press, 2011.

Pope, John C. Seven Old English Poems. Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.

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