Of Birds and Seafarers: Exile/Ksenitia in Medieval Oral Traditions

Of Birds and Seafarers: Exile/Ksenitia in Medieval Oral Traditions

I

On the 30th of May 2020 at around 3:22 ET, two men by the names of Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley left planet Earth. Meanwhile, the world was burning. Eschatological fears were rekindled as a global pandemic followed by BLM protests swept across the Euro-Atlantic. Those two men will return in about a month to find a new world, already well into the third decade of the 21st century. 

But imagine if they weren’t coming back. What if these two men, were not Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the two smiling NASA astronauts in Interstellar-themed suits but instead two exiles (after all what more exilic place than outer space?) – one an overzealous transhumanist seeking redemption, the other a cyborg outcast. Too futuristic? How about this: two kids from Bangladesh who grew up to become brilliant engineers, off to work on a zero-gravity project in the moon’s orbit. That ought to do. 

What hopes, what anxieties will these people have? What would they think of themselves and of those they are leaving behind? 

You and I and anybody who has ever lived or who will ever live, who find themselves at the beginning of a long, potentially perilous, but ultimately enriching journey, share in this uniquely human experience. 

In the twentieth century, modernism redefined cultural assumptions about exile and travel. George Steiner called this period the death of at-homeness in literature. The modern writer, he argued, is unhoused, uprooted, at home everywhere and nowhere. The exiles and émigrés of the first half of the century convinced Steiner of the coming of this new age. Marx, Freud, Joyce, Nabokov, аll of them for one reason or another, were forced to leave their patriae or did so of their own accord. 

It’s important to remember, however, that these were not the first exiles in history. That title belongs to Adam and Eve. In centuries to come, humanity’s poetic wisdom would acquit them with those of their progeny who came to suffer the same fate as them. But not before another great “stray story” was composed – that of Odysseus. His is one of the few extant nostos narratives or poems that depict the return of Greek heroes from the Trojan war. There in the two primordial springs of Western Civilization – the Bible and the Greeks – we already get a taste of harsh exile and nauseating nostalgia. 

It once occurred to me, that the human soul is really like an onion and the layers are the same as the circles in the trunk of a great big tree; the anxieties and aspirations of the Old English “Wanderer” are part of it as much as those of the roving bird of Greek folk poetry, as much as those of any other people at any other time who have sung, written or philosophized about the Road

II

In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (8th century), there is a striking passage that describes king Edwin’s deliberation on the matter of converting to Christianity. The following is spoken by one of the king’s counselors: “Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a lone sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you sit in the winter months to dine with your thanes and counsellors. Inside there is a comforting fire to warm the room; outside the wintry storms of snow and rain are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the darkness whence he came.”[1]

The effectiveness of this allegory hinges on the contrasts between inside and outside. The space within the hall is warm and well-lit by the “comforting fire”, while outside it is violently cold and dark. Leaving the hall for the vast unknown that lies beyond its gates is in this passage synonymous with oblivion and death. 

From further sources we learn that strange creatures stalk the ways of the weather-beaten traveler, such as the two gender-ambiguous monsters of the epic Beowulf: 

“I have heard my people say, 

men of this country, counselors in the hall, 

that they have seen two such beings, 

equally monstrous, rangers of the fell-country, 

rulers of the moors; and these men assert

that so far as they can see one bears 

a likeness to a woman; grotesque though he was,

the other who trod the paths of exile looked like a man,

though greater in height and build than a goliath, 

he was christened Grendel by my people”

Despite all these perils, men did venture far out of their halls to explore new lands and seas. Such was the Norwegian adventurer Ohthere, who recounted to King Alfred, how driven by curiosity he sailed as far north as he could go and reached the White Sea. Others, like the legendary “Seafarer”, made famous by the modernist poet Ezra Pound’s translation of the eponymous poem containing his tale, voluntarily sought exile from the cozy habitations of the land-dwellers, so as to find redemption.

The Greeks, a sea-born people as well-travelled as the English (if not more) have many poems of their own that sing the dangers of foreign lands. Consider this short Greek folk song from some time in the 17th c.: 

Πουλάκι ξενιτεύτηκε πολύ μακριά στα ξένα

Πάησε να δει τη ξενιτιά και πίσω να γυρίσει. 

Η ξενιτιά το πλάνεψε και πίσω δεν γυρίζει. 

Πάησε και έκτισε φωλιά σε ένα δεντρί επάνω, 

κι έκατσε και έκλαιγε πικρά, πικρά φαρμακωμένα. 

-Πανάθεμά σε ξενιτιά κι εσύ και το καλό σου, 

πανάθεμα που αγάπησα πολύ μακριά στα ξένα. 

Little bird went abroad, far away in foreign lands

Went to see what it’s like and to come back. 

The strange place beguiled him, and he did not return. 

He’s gone and built himself a nest atop a tree, 

there he sits and cries with bitter, bitter poisoned words. 

-All curses to you alien land, you and your “good”, 

all curses to me for falling in love so very far abroad. 

The image of the migratory bird comes up in many of the folk songs dedicated to ξενιτιά (ksenitiá), or life abroad. It has no spiritual nor existential connotations but is rather a metaphor for the person who has chosen to leave their home in search of better life abroad. There is deep irony in the fact that the bird, universally associated with freedom, is ensnared by its own emotions in the foreign land. It pines away in its nest, overlooking the hateful place that has deceived it so cruelly. The last two lines follow a formula that comes up often in these songs: a curse aimed at life abroad and its false promises. 

At first sight, it might seem like nostalgia is the chief cause of distress in the little bird poem, and in many cases it certainly is. But there is usually also another more existential fear at work. 

A second prominent formula reveals this: 

Γω το είδα με τα μάτια μου σ’ έναν αποθαμένο

τον πήγαν και τον έθαψαν σαν το σκυλί στον τάφο

χωρίς θυμιάμα και κερί, δίχως παπά και ψάλτη, 

δίχως μανούλας κλάματα, γυναίκας μοιρολόγια. 

I saw it with my own eyes: a dead man

they brought and put like a dog in the grave

without incense or candle, without priest or choir, 

without a mother’s tears, without a wife’s lament. 

Burial rites have always been important to ensure the proper passing of the soul. One who is denied them faces its potential destruction. This is the true drama of the foreigner. Because there is no one to bury him with “proper”, i.e. Greek Orthodox, rites, no one to mourn for him, he is in a very sad predicament indeed. 

Oblivion was as we saw the fear of the Anglo-Saxons as well. However, in the Greek folk songs compared to the Old English elegies, we invariably hear a much more practical, experienced, and earthy voice. Strange folks with strange rituals and not man-eating monsters are the source of terror. 

Experience plays a crucial role in both traditions, yet it is approached differently. In the piece above, for example, the speaker’s experience is meant to deter future travelers, by giving a grim account of what lies ahead. Such use seems fitting in the social context of the Greek folk song, which circulated among small rural communities. 

In a poem like the Old English “The Wanderer”, however, experience is treated much more philosophically. This longer piece, like the folk songs we discussed so far, has no author and no precise date of composition. It tells the story of a soldier who has lost his lord and was forced to go into exile. The ostracized soldier is recounting his fate in an emotionally charged and highly evocative monologue. Some of the images are indeed striking, such as the description of the journey’s start “I left that place in wretchedness / ploughed the icy waves with winter in my heart”. Much latent irony can be detected, as in the cruel dream the wanderer relates in which he sees himself once more laying “hands and head / upon his lord’s knee as he had sometimes done”. The dream ends with the man waking to a bleak scene of “dark waves surging around him, / the sea-birds bathing spreading their feathers / frost and snow falling mingled with hail”. Then the wanderer, while still drowsy with sleep, imagines that those birds are the spirits of his lost comrades, who drift away and dissipate on the waves. This is followed by a description of an abandoned city – the work of giants – and the dark conclusion: “here possessions are fleeting, here friends are fleeting / here man is fleeting, here kinsman is fleeting / the whole world becomes a wilderness.” 

Fortunately, the antidote to the transitory nature of human life is also given in the poem. In fact, it is the poem itself. The wanderer stresses numerous times the need for man “to bind fast all his heart’s feelings, / guard his thoughts, whatever he is thinking” if he is to survive the cruel twists and turns of fate. As the poem puts it “The weary in spirit cannot withstand fate, / and nothing comes of venting spleen: / wherefore those eager for glory often / hold some ache imprisoned in their hearts.” Ultimately, the poem tells us, only those who cherish all of their experiences and reflect on the good and the bad alike will have a chance to attain both wisdom and glory. Only they can break the wheel of transience.

Up to this point, I have kept my motivation for writing somewhat secret. But by way of recounting what has been said so far and attempting to employ the sublimation strategy put forth by “The Wanderer”, I have decided upon a short personal interlude. 

Though I’ve never had to bear fettering frost on the high seas, I have weathered my share of metaphorical winters in the world and have become no less wise for it. 

I first trod the paths of exile in sun-kissed Greece out of all places. The monsters I met on the way didn’t pray on my soul, as a matter of fact, they quickly became my friends. We were all strangers then, brought forth from our various homelands by the beguiling prospect of spending a year abroad in the port city of Thessaloniki. Yet, some of my loneliest hours were spent in that beautiful corner of the Aegean. I have stored vivid memories of the winding, narrow streets that I scaled endlessly, devoid of companionship, the shrub-laden hills adjacent to my house, where I sat contemplating sad truths. 

And what of those I left behind? My friends did not forget me, though maybe had sufficient time elapsed they would have done so. While my beloved once complained of feeling like the wife of a crusader, who’d locked her up in iron pants. 

With hindsight, I can now see why this was a perfectly valid way to feel. 

III

Coincidentally, the only two poems in the Old English canon spoken by women, “The Wife’s Lament” and “Wulf” both pair unsurmountable suffering with physical confinement to render truly dark and hopeless poetic spaces. Both poems are also remarkably obscure and don’t easily land themselves to interpretation. Critics have therefore suggested foregoing attempts of reconstructing the actual “plot” of the poems and focusing on their imagery and language. 

Nonetheless, “The Wife’s Lament” is commonly interpreted as the story of a woman who has married abroad, and whose husband after attempting to murder one of his family members has fled, leaving her alone and forced to hide. “Men forced me to live in a forest grove, / under an oak tree in the earth-cave. / This cavern is age-old; I am chocked with longings.” The sense one gets from reading these lines as well as the rest of the poem is of a young woman, disengaged from her own desires and forced to waste away and forfeit her youth in waiting for a husband’s return. “There are lovers on earth, / lovers alive who lie in bed / when I pass through this earth-cave alone.” There is no way for her to effectively internalize her experiences and attain any wisdom by them: “there [in the earth-cave] I must sit through the long summer’s day / and there I mourn my miseries, / my many hardships; for I am never able / to quiet the cares of my sorrowful mind, / all the longings that are my life’s lot.” The poem offers no consolation.

In “Wulf”, which is arguably about an unfaithful woman, whose lover, Wulf, is en route to the woods to kill the child she has had with her lawful husband, Eadwacer, we witness what appears to be a woman’s psychological denouement. The hopelessness of her situation is enforced by the refrain “O, we are apart” and by the constant repetition of the lost lover’s name. The confinement she endures is formally on an island surrounded by an unpassable fen or marsh. Yet just as much she is confined by the hands of her hateful husband, to whom she surrenders, despite longing for another. “When rain slapped the earth and I sat apart weeping, / when the bold warrior wrapped his arms about me, / I seethed with desire and yet with such hatred.” Wulf is the exact opposite of her – a freewheeling character who comes and goes at will, a true vagrant who doesn’t bulge at killing an infant. The contrast between the two underscores, even more, the woman’s disadvantaged position. Towards the end of the poem, there is a sense the speaker has gone unhinged, when she screeches at her husband: “Can you hear, Eadwacer? Wulf will spirit / our pitiful whelp to the woods.” The obscure ending: “Men easily savage what was never secure, / our song together.” enforces the impossibility of sound reflection and sublimation through poetry: as the song is broken it can offer no solace. 

A pertinent comparison can be made here with this most touching of Greek lyrics:

-Καρδιά, με δεκαοχτώ κλειδιά τι στέκεις κλειδωμένη; 

Για δε γελάς, για δε γλεντάς, για δε χαροκοπιέσαι; 

-Τι να σας πω, τι να σας πω, τι να σας κουβεντιάσω; 

Τα χέρια που με κλείδωσαν είν’ μακριά στα ξένα.

Του στέλνω γράμμα, δε γυρνάει κι αντιλογιά δεν έχει. 

Του στέλνω και το δάκρυ μου σ’ ένα χρυσό μαντίλι. 

Το δάκρυ μου είναι καυτερό και καίει το μαντίλι. 

-Heart, with eighteen keys why stand you locked?

Why don’t you laugh, why don’t you make merry and rejoice? 

-What may I say, what may I say, what words may I speak to you? 

The hands that chained me are now far abroad. 

I send him a letter, he doesn’t come back, he gives no reply. 

So, I send him my tear in a golden handkerchief. 

My tear is hot – the handkerchief burns. 

It is safe to assume that this poem like the previous two is also spoken by a woman. She has been ensnared by sorrow at losing her lover to ξενιτιάEven words come to her with great difficulty. When she finally does speak it is to mourn the impossibility of a tangible connection with the beloved. Her letter, pleading for his return has fallen on deaf ears. Her tears can move no one but herself. The poem is brief and pathetic. One can’t help but pity the abandoned girl. 

Another very human and sincere moment is captured in the following exchange by a severing couple: 

-Πάρε μ’, αφέντη, πάρε με, πάρε κι εμέ κοντά σου,

να μαγειρεύω να δειπνάς, να στρώνω να κοιμάσαι, 

να γένω γης να με πετάς, γιοφύρι να διαβαίνεις, 

να γένω και ασημόκουπα να πίνεις το κρασί σου.

Εσύ να πίνεις το κρασί και εγώ να λάμπω μέσα. 

Take me, lord, take me, take myself too by your side, 

To cook for you, so you may eat, to make your bed so you may sleep, 

To become earth, so you may step on me, a bridge so you may cross me, 

To become a silver chalice so you may drink your wine. 

So, you may drink your wine and I may brighten up inside. 

Though I have not included it in the translation, the poem gives additional details of the context of this exchange. The woman, who is speaking the lines above, is attending to her lover, who is ready to depart. Between every one of her pleas, beginning with the plaintive address to the “lord” who now holds her fate, she brings him more cups of wine. In the first line, she simply asserts her usefulness as a companion and caretaker. A drastic change of tone occurs in the second with its submissive and even masochistic proposal. The last two lines raise the stakes to the extreme. By means of the extended metaphor of the chalice, which is often understood as a representation of the womb, the woman offers what in a traditional society would have been considered her most prized possession – her fertility. Unfortunately, this also proves too little. She is refused and abandoned at the end. 

As I sit and write now, every passing moment brings me closer to the start of another fateful journey. Hundreds of roving little birds from all corners of the world, will belie their instincts and pour into the north just as the autumn rains and the humdrum of academic life come again to the ancient piers of Oxford. With that strange flock will I also fly. Once before I’d left my lover behind. I locked her virile heart away, with eighteen keys I bound her. One may ask: was it that much better than a clear and complete break? 

She in herself only knows. Now she pleads with me and tells me: “I will not give up on us.” What a precious gift you are, my dear. 


[1] Crossley-Holland, 1982: 159 (all subsequent translations from Old English are from this book, unless stated otherwise)

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