I am the Door
Better to Reign in Hell than Serve in Heaven
Naming the Divine
Thesis Abstract
Naming the Divine: Designations for God in Old English Poetry
Þu ure fæder þe eart on heofenum.
sy þin nama gehalgod cume þin rice.
Sy þin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofenum. 1

In the one prayer common to all Christians throughout the ages, regions and confessions, the name of God takes a prominent place. But what is this name, which is 'hallowed' within the Pater Noster? Origen, writing on prayer in general and the Pater Noster in particular, explains the divine names as follows:

Since God never changes and remains the same, we have for him only one name to use forever, the name 'He who is', which is found in Exodus and elsewhere. We all make guesses about God, trying to say something about him. Not everyone knows what he is like, and only a few, or fewer than few, can see his holiness in all things. It is with good reason then that we are taught that the name of God is holy, for this helps us see his holiness in creating, in exercising providence, in judging, in choosing and abandoning, in accepting and rejecting, in rewarding and punishing each according to his merits. It is in these things and others like them that the specific quality of God is brought to light. And in my opinion it is this quality which scripture calls the name of God. 2

In essence, the names (or designations) for God show us God, but only as we are able to know him. They exemplify man's relation to God. However they are more than mere signification, since the quality described is inherent in the name. J.H. Thayer defines this coexistence of quality and name in his entry on the divine name:

a very freq. usage in the O.T., the name of God in the N.T. is used for all those qualities which to his worshippers are summed up in that name, and by which God makes himself known to men; it is therefore equiv. to his divinity, Lat. numen, (not his nature or essence as it is in itself), the divine majesty and perfections, so far forth as these are apprehended, named, magnified. 3

The paradoxon of the name as numen lies in the transcendence of God. As the true nature or quality of God is in everything which exists but is in its entirety only know to the supreme being, who transcends all human understanding, God is to be praised - according to Pseudo-Dionysius - 'by every name - and as the Nameless One.':

And yet, on the other hand they give it many names, such as "I am being," "life," "God," the "truth." These same wise writers, when praising the Cause of everything that is, use names drawn from all the things caused: .... They say he is in our minds, in our souls, and in our bodies, in heaven and on earth, that while remaining ever within himself he is also in and around and above the world, that he is above heaven and above all being, that he is sun, star, and fire, water, wind, and dew, cloud, archetypal stone, and rock, that he is all, that he is no thing. And so it is that as Cause of all and as transcending all, he is rightly nameless and yet has the names of everything that is. 4

The inexpressibility of God's true name was alluded to by Cynewulf in Elene:

Ongit, guma ginga, godes heamægen,
nergendes naman. Se is niða gehwam
unascecgendlic, þone sylf ne mæg
ond moldwege man aspyrigean. (ll. 464-67) 5

The tendency of the above-mentioned writers to use names drawn from all the things finds its realisation in Old English in almost 900 different designations established around approximately 100 central terms. While the central terms themselves are almost exclusively drawn from Latin models, as André Crépin rightly states in his doctoral thesis , it is the compound or collocated expression and its use where the distinctly Anglo-Saxon can be found.6 Christian content within Old English poetry fuses two literary and intellectual traditions into one. Just as a Christianised culture and the Christianising tradition influence each other, thus producing an assimilated form of Christianity within the new cultural group, the transliteration of Christian literary content into Old English is no one-to-one process, but rather the paraphrasing into a new literary context. In the words of Roberta Frank, "the composition of vernacular poetry with biblical content was a process of re-creation in a new context of thought, not of simple translation into a new language." 7

Our vision of how this new literary context functions however has undergone substantial revision since the last studies on the designations for God have been conducted in the 1950s and 60s. Scholarship on formulaic poetic style has moved from the concept of on-the-spot metrical and alliterative choice of semantic modules without much attention to the refinement in meaning to the study of oral-traditional poetry within a literary environment. Conscious word-play, semantic finesse, the implicitness of poetry's symbolic language (also as carrier of separate meaning to the main narrative), have been much more highlighted in recent years' scholarship. Against this backdrop, arbitrary exchange of one designation for God through another by the modern editor is no longer acceptable in translation or interpretation. It is the object of this thesis to study the semantic values and the usage of these designations for God within Old English poetry.


1) Feria III de Dominica oratione in: P. Clemoes, Ælfric's Catholic Homilies The First Text, EETS, s.s. 17 (Oxford, 1997), p. 325. "Our father who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, in earth as it is in heaven." [BACK]

2) Origen, Libellus de Oratione, Cap. 24,2. in: I. Hausherr, The Names of Jesus Used by Early Christians: The Development of the 'Jesus Prayer' (Kalamazoo, MI, 1978), pp. 3-4. [BACK]

3) J.H. Thayer, D.D., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament being Grimm's Wilke's Clavis Novi Testamenti (2nd ed., Edinburgh, 1890), p. 447. [BACK

4) Pseudo-Dionysius, De Divinis Nominibus, in: Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York, 1987)pp. 54-56. BACK

5) "Observe, young man, the transcendent might of God, the name of the Redeemer, which is inexpressible to any mortal man, and which one cannot fathom by oneself here on earth." BACK

6) A. Crépin, 'Poétique Vieil-Anglaise: Désignations du Dieu Chrétien,' DLitt, Université de Paris, 1969. BACK

7) R. Frank, 'Some Uses of Paronomasia in Old English Scriptural Verse,' Speculum 47 (1972): 207-26. BACK