Angan hine þa gyrwan godes andsaca,
fus on frætwum, (hæfde fæcne hyge),
hæleðhelm on heafod asette and þone full hearde geband,
spenn mid spangum; wiste him spræca fela,
[Then God’s antagonist began to prepare himself, eager in his armour – he had evil intentions – he set a disguising helm on his head and fixed it very firmly, attached it with clasps; he knew many a speech, twisted words.]
Genesis B, lines 442-446a
In the Old English poem known as Genesis B, an imaginative retelling of the tales of the Fall of the Angels and the Fall of Man found in a tenth-century illustrated manuscript of biblical poetry known as Junius 11, there is an intriguing account about a particular andsaca [‘antagonist’, ‘enemy’], commonly referred to by scholars of the poem as hell’s ’emissary’ or ‘messenger’ (Old English boda). The poet tells us that Satan, who is bound and shackled amidst swirling fires on the floor of the hellscape, commands his messenger to seek out God’s new creations and bring them to destruction. Thus prompted, the emissary flies upward through the expanse of the abyss, passes through the black gate of hell and then winds and works his way upwards into Eden, transforming into the wyrm that brings about the Fall.
The scene of the devilish emissary preparing for his journey across the gulf of creation is particularly interesting for the bizarre and unsettling ‘trappings’ with which he arms himself. Is the ‘helm of invisibility’, with its device-like, crafted clasps, a piece of devilish cunning that allows for movement between realms? Is it a contraption that allows this dark being to fly? The supernatural messenger, with his accoutrement, is an enemy that would be at home in the darkest graphic novels. He seeks out the innocent with his machinations and his desire for corruption, as his ‘twisted words’ work their way into the minds of those he persuades, perplexes, and fills with false visions.
Satan shackled – a monstrous warlord bound in chains amidst a ceaseless barrage of flames – spoke in sparks and venom, the words pouring from the chasm of his contorted mouth: ‘We cannot weaken the might of the Creator, but we can turn our attention to his children and deceive them into breaking his bond, into betraying his word. If I ever gave any of my loyal followers glowing, royal treasures when we sat in the kingdom of heaven, let one of them come forth now and fly upwards and onwards through these obsidian gates in a feather-home; wind through the sky to where Adam and Eve stand, and have them break the oath they made with God, so that they will seek out this world in which the land boils. Whoever achieves that will be granted whatever rewards can be salvaged from this fire. I will allow him to be seated beside me.’ …
Then the enemy, the antagonist to Creation, the Devil’s messenger, began to gather his gear in the visible darkness. He placed a great helm of invisibility and deceit on his head. The fastenings closed firmly around his face – the bestial visor charred and glowing like iron from the forge – and he fixed the clasps that moved and clicked and drew themselves tightly around his half-melted face. He knew twisted, gnarled words. From there he wound his way through vapour and falling ash, undulating and somersaulting upwards through the coal-gate of hell. He swooped, he flitted and he glided in strange air with a mind turned to evil craft, whipping aside the howling fire with a fiend’s skill. With his helm of stealth he longed to deceive and mislead God’s underlings.
He traveled on until he found Adam.
(based on Genesis B, lines 442-453)
This medieval ‘snapshot’ of what it means to be human is one of a series to inspire Karrie Fransman’s medieval comics artwork. To read more, go to project + snapshots.
Dr Carl Kears (@carl_kears) is a Lecturer in Old and Middle English at King’s College London. His research interests include representations of vengeance in Old English literature, medieval and modern science fiction, and the re-creation of the Anglo-Saxon past by the renegade poets and artists of the British Poetry Revival.