Re unwearnum: A Digression




Pursuit of the true meaning of unwearnum during 1994-1995 was circuitous and slow, and led down a number of forgotten bye-ways. A gate to one of these was opened by Viktor Rydberg, 1828-1895, still considered one of Sweden's greatest authors and poets. The first volume of his substantial opus, Undersökningar i Germanisk Mythologie, 1886-89, was translated into English, with the title Teutonic Mythology, by R.B.Anderson, US Minister in Copenhagen, Denmark, and published by Swan Sonnenschein, London, in 1891.

The following (slightly edited) passage occurs on p.474 of the English version:

"In the 'western halls' of Vanaheim [home of the Vanir] dwells Billing [spirit of the evening] ... His name occurs in both Germanic and Anglo-Saxon contexts. ... Codex Exoniensis, 320, 7 - [ie Widsith] makes Billing the race-hero of the neighbours of the Angles, the Varnians ("Billing [veold] Vernum"). ... When Sol [the sun-goddess] and Mane [the moon-god] leave Delling's domain [the east: land of the spirit of the dawn], and begin their journey across the heavens, it is not without danger. From the Ironwood (cp Völuspa, 39) come the wolf-giants Skoll and Hate and pursue [follow/accompany?] them. Skoll does not cease pursuit before the car of the bright-faced goddess has descended toward the western halls and reached Varna viðr:

Scaull heitir ulfr, er fylgir eno scirleita goði til Varna viðar

Grimnersmal 39."

[The reading of "pursue" for fylgir seems challenged by the Swedish scholar Björn Collinder:

39        Den lysande guden ledsagas av ulven
            Sköll till skogens värn,

Collinder's translation; 2nd Ed, 1993

Ledsagas av means "is escorted/accompanied by", or even "guided by": till skogens värn means "to the shelter of the forest"; ie Collinder, unlike Rydberg, does not treat värn as a proper noun here, nor identify värn with Varin; see second excerpt below. While Swedish följa, which must be a close equivalent of fylgir, undoubtedly means "follow" (but does not strongly suggest "hunt" or "pursue"), there is also the phrase ha följe med, which means to "keep company with". Collinder's reading suggests that the ulfr, the wolf or dog, merely accompanies the shining god, rather as Anubis (the black dog-faced god of death) might be said to accompany Horus (the sun-god, who also greets and pilots the dead), in the Egyptian pantheon. This of course casts a whole new slant on the relationship between night and day, light and dark, life and death: the two concepts go together --- they are not in opposition to each other.]

Rydberg: "Varna viðar is the forest of the mythic [?] Varnians or Varinians. The name means "defenders, protectors"; and the protection here referred to is that given to the journeying divinities of light when they reach the western horizon. In Helge Hjörvardsson's Saga, Hate, who pursues the moon, is slain by Helge near Varin's bay [Varins vik]."

            Hrimgerd kvad:
22        .............
            vi må mötas i Varins vik....

24        Vakna Helge! Ge Hrimgerd bot,
            du högg ju ihjäl Hate;

Collinder's translation

Rydberg continues: "Varinn, the 'defender', is the singular form of the word which appears in the genitive plural Varna. These expressions --- Billing [veold - "ruled"] Vernum, Varna viðr, and Varins vik --- belong together. So also the local names borrowed from the mythology, Varinsfjörðr [Varin's firth] and Varinsey [Varin's isle], in Helge [Hundingbane] Hjörvardsson's Saga. ... It is manifest that Varna viðr, where the wolf Skoll turns back from his pursuit of Sol, and Varins vik, where the moon's pursuer Hate is conquered, were conceived in the mythology as situated in the western horizon, since the sun and moon journeying across the heavens are not safe until they reach the western halls. As Billing dwells in the western halls and is remembered [in Widsith] as the Prince of the Varnians or Varinians, and as Varinsfjörðr and Varinsey are connected with events which include names of mythic persons belonging to Billing's clan [?], this shows a mythic link between Billing and his halls and those regions where Varna viðr and Varins vik are situated, and where the divinities of light, after their journey across the sky, find defenders and can take their rest."

Perhaps it is a little too fanciful to connect the Varni with the Vanir, but I will not resist noting that the Vanir in Scandinavian mythology were (earlier - matriarchal) Gods of the West; who succumbed to the Æsir (later - patriarchal) Gods from the East. There is a body of opinion that all the peoples of Europe and the Near East experienced, over millenia, the gradual encroachment of a male-dominated pantheon, and ultimately a monotheism, which eventually suppressed the multi-facetted goddess-worship of the earlier population. Akhenaton, Moses, Zoroaster, and others, have been variously blamed for this. Jehovah was a jealous god.

Kemp Malone, editor of Widsith, 1936, remarks, p.19: "The Wærns were a coastal tribe of the North Sea if Procopius is right, and there can be no doubt that they were coastal in origin, but we cannot be sure where the thulaman thought them to have had their seats." On p.128, he notes that Billing, "King of the Werns ... the particular king mentioned in Widsith cannot be identified with any other bearer of the name. ... We have no reason to think that King Billing of the Werns was a mythical person, it ought to be added."

This comment, it seems to me, is almost certainly a sotto voce rebuttal of Rydberg, whose ten year study was generally ignored by scholars (see Tore Lund's informative Rydberg website). However, I can see little reason why Billing could not be thought of as a mythical person.

On p.194 of his edition of Widsith, Malone starts a long discussion on Wernum, l.25; Wærne, Wærnum, l.59: "The Varni of Procopius, no doubt identical with the Varini of Tacitus ... and perhaps as well with the Varinnae of Pliny ...... the æ of Wærnum represents the i-mutation of an Anglian a before an r-combination (Luick, p.173), while the e of Wernum goes back to an earlier ea, the i-mutation of which would be e everywhere except in strictly WS areas (Luick, p.180). ... both the Widsith forms of the tribal name must be derived from Varni. That Varni and Varini, however, are the same name, with suffixal gradation, seems certain."

He locates the tribe thus: "The original home of the Varni [70-100 AD], however, must have been elsewhere [than at the settlement of Varni between the Elbe and Saale --- circa 400 AD?]. The Varini of Tacitus belonged to the Nerthus amphictyony, and therefore presumably lived in Jutland ..... I localize the tribe in the Vendel [Vendsyssel] district north of the Lim firth [Limfjord], at the point of Jutland."

[click for larger map]

click on map


Malone's comments were made in 1936, a few years after the publication of Gudmund Schütte's monumental study, Our Forefathers, which conclusively assigns the Varini to Thuringia. Schütte, in Part I (1929) and Part II (1933), has quite a lot to say about the Varini. Part I: paragraphs 151, 223, 249 (Varini "in Mecklenburg"), and Part II: 239 to 243. Paragraph 243 mentions "Billing, king of the Varines", but does not comment further on this name. Paragraph 315 notes that "The Lex Angliorum et Werinorum about 800 [AD] recognizes the existence of Angles [and Varini] in Thuringia, but they are soon afterwards absorbed by the Germans."

The conclusions from these scraps of information must be that the original homeland of the Varni tribe, "The Defenders", was at the northern tip of modern Jutland (occasionally also called Gotland), but that some time after 100 AD they, and a portion of the Angles, moved south. A substantial portion of the Angles, as we know, moved west, but the exact time and point of departure of those that arrived in what we now call East Anglia must be left for others to determine. I will merely speculate that the Varni, who seem to have marched hand in hand with the Angles, were more wearn than unwearn. Could their name have something to do with their homeland on the western horizon, at the edge of the Scandinavian world?

Let us move even further south, to Egypt. In a booklet entitled Egyptian Myths, by George Hart, British Museum Press 1990, there is an account of Re (also called Ra, eg by Thor Heyerdahl), sun god of the Ancient Egyptians. Re makes a 12 hour voyage through the night in his solar boat, which is described in the Book of Am-Duat of 1500 BC or earlier. It struck me as quite remarkable that on p.52 Hart states: "At the outset of his journey the sun god is at the Western Horizon approaching the River of Wernes along which he will travel........Re sails into the Second Hour of Night where he establishes landrights for the grain gods of the region (field) of Wernes." When I asked George Hart about Wernes, however, he said there was no way of knowing how the Egyptians actually spoke this name.

Let us abandon this trail, temporarily, and go back north, to tackle Billing. Various authors can be cited. W.A.Cummins wrote a remarkably interesting book entitled King Arthur's Place in Prehistory, published by Alan Sutton, 1992. In spite of its title, it is very informative about Stonehenge. In passing, Cummins notes that "Belinus ..... built 'a gateway of marvellous workmanship, which in his time the citizens called Billingsgate, from his own name' (according to Geoffrey of Monmouth)." I would propose here, however, that "gate" in this context more probably means "road" or "way". In fact, I would like to suggest (and who can stop me?), that Billingsgate could even be an extremely ancient name for the Thames itself, the route by which mariners from the east might approach the temple of Stonehenge, home of the sun god.

Belinus is a very mythical personage, sometimes called the first King of Britain, as well as being associated with the conquest of Gaul and the invasion of Italy --- about 350 BC. Anne Ross, in Pagan Celtic Britain, RKP 1967, assigns him, or his namesake, a purely mythical role: "Beltain (May Day Eve) ..... may perhaps be connected in name at least with Belenus, one of the more ancient and widespread Celtic gods associated with pastoralism whose cult was practised in northern Italy, south-eastern Gaul, etc .... There are some thirty-one dedications to him in Europe, an unusually high number. The element bel probably means 'bright' in both names." (57). In Celtic Myths, British Museum Press 1993, prolific Miranda Jane Green associates Belenus with Apollo: "The Celtic Apollo was a deity of light and healing who was equated with a number of other gods and presided over many therapeutic spring shrines. Thus Apollo Belenus ('Bright' or 'Brilliant One') was venerated ... in Burgundy (and) ... in Austria. The name Belenus may have philological links with Beltene ('Bright- or Goodly-Fire'), the great insular May 1 festival at which bonfires were lit in celebration of summer...." (46). Of Apollo, the Dictionary of Ancient Greek Civilization, edited by Fernand Hazan and published by Methuen, 1966, has this to say: "Apollo made his appearance in the world of Greek divinities at a comparatively late date, and the island of Delos, where he was supposed to have been born, had no tradition of a male god before the end of the second millenium BC at the very earliest .... It is difficult to account for his exact origins, as they differed according to the regions in which he was worshipped...."

My argument, as you may guess, is that Apollo, the sun god, was one and the same as Billing, the god of the western halls, worshipped at Stonehenge. W.A.Cummins mentions the account recorded by Herodotus that the worship of Apollo was brought to Delos from the British Hyperboreans, in about 2000 BC, via two young damsels named Arge and Opis. It is also at least of passing interest to note that Billing/Belenus/Bili resurfaces in a classic tale by Herman Melville, if an article by Andrew Porter, a music critic, in the London Observer Review, 4th June 1995, is to be believed: "At the end of his life Herman Melville wrote a fable about a prelapsarian Adam; an envious Satan who becomes tempter and destroyer; and an inadequate modern Man called upon to play all-powerful Judge: Billy Budd, Claggart, and Captain Vere .... Not an image, not a word is lightly or carelessly chosen. Bili and Budd were appellations of the Celtic Apollo; clag is to adhere as with the touch of pitch; Vere's name suggests at once truth and vacillation". I have not been able to trace "Budd" as an "appellation of the Celtic Apollo", however.

While not pretending to claim that these threads can be knitted into a knot of irrefutable substance, I believe they bear thinking on. I am attracted to the concept of Billing as the precursor of Apollo, the spirit of the sun, perhaps especially the evening sun, whose halls were somewhere in the west; and the Varni/Wærne as the "defenders" located on the western shores of the Jutland peninsula, beyond which spread the ocean into which the sun descended. It is not impossible to suppose that the word unwearnum in The Seafarer sets up a subconscious association between a defenceless man (especially a mariner), enfeebled at dusk, and his approaching departure for a distant watery realm where he will find a haven, by following the sun.

Billy in the Darbies

Fathoms down, fathoms down, how I'll dream fast asleep.
I feel it stealing now.       Sentry, are you there?
Just ease this darbies at the wrist, and roll me over fair,
I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.


Re unwearnum: A Digression 3

previous page

essays and papers

main index