The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 16 (2015)

Neorxnawang: Aelfric's Flawed Anglo-Saxon Paradise

Sandra M. HordisMailto: Icon

Arcadia University

©2015 by Sandra M. Hordis. All intellectual property rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2015 by The Heroic Age. Permissions granted for educational and personal purposes only.

Abstract: Aelfric's use of the word neorxnawang for the Latin place-name Paradise in his translation of Genesis presents many difficulties in negotiating the relationship of Anglo-Saxon and Christian thought. Aelfric uses the Old English compound clearly to situate the idea of Eden in the Anglo-Saxon cultural, poetic, and religious frameworks but ultimately fails to accomplish a smooth integration because of his inconsistent use of the word, unclear meaning, and muddled functionality.

§1. Aelfric's translation of the Heptateuch, dating from about AD 1000, has been something of a curiosity in the studies surrounding translation, biblical history, and the Anglo-Saxon desire for an Old English Bible. Clearly, Aelfric translates the Latin Vulgate with an awareness of his audience and their sensibilities, and it is also clear that he has insight into the prominent critical perspectives and commentaries on the Vulgate source text. But researchers have long noted that Aelfric sometimes falls into Latinate constructions in his translation, leading scholars such as Mark Griffith to raise inquiries into the value and integrity of the grammatical structures of the text (1999, 176). Mitchell and Robinson even go so far as to call Aelfric's translated rhetorical structures "marred … un-English, [and] Latinate" (1992, 173).

§2. Putting aside the value-based language of Mitchell and Robinson, we might turn to one rare word which appears in Aelfric's translation three times and explore the veritable cultural battlefield which it reveals. The compound neorxnawang, conceptually translated by linguists such as Robert Simek (2007, 229) and Jacob Grimm (1882, 405) to mean everything from "Asgard" to "garden where there is perpetual change," presents an interesting lens into the discordances of Aelfric's translation. For the purposes of direct translation, we might closely translate the word into "garden-not-near," acknowledging that linguists have not yet discovered the meaning of the first element of the compound. In conjunction with the difficulty in translation, the word presents some difficulty for modern translators as it appears very few times in Anglo-Saxon texts (with no cognate words corresponding to the first element), though three of those times are in Aelfric's Genesis translation. He initially uses the word in Chapter 2:

God ða forð ateah of ðære moldan ælces cynnes treow, fæger on gesyhðe ond to brucenne wynsum, eac swylce lifes treow on middan neorxnawange ond treow ingehydes godes ond yfeles (Aelfric Gen 2:9).
God made all kinds of trees grow forth, trees that were fair and good for food, but in the middle of the garden-not-near were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

And a few verses later, Aelfric continues:

God genam ða ðone man ond gelogode hine on neorxnawange, ðæt he ðær wyrcean sceolde ond ðæs begyman (Aelfric Gen 2:15).
God took the man and put him in the garden-not-near, that he should work there and take care of it.

These first instances of the word neorxnawang are something of a surprise, considering what follows in the next chapter. No other word or name referring to Eden has been used yet in the text, and the two proximal references to the "garden-not-near" suggest that the Old English word is not simply an adjectival referent describing a formal place-name. Indeed, the consistency of the Old English would have us believe that it is more of a place-name in itself which has taken the place of the Latin Vulgate's Paradise in Aelfric's translation.

§3. Aelfric's shift to the Latin referent to Eden does come soon after, beginning in the conversation of Eve and the serpent in the following chapter. He asks her that enticing and provocative question:

Hwi forbead God eow ðæt ge ne æton of ælcon treowe binnan Paradisum? (Aelfric Gen 3:1).
Why did God forbid you to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Paradise?

From the mouth of the serpent, the Latin place name comes forth. But Aelfric continues by making an interesting translative move in the construction of Eve's answer:

Þæt wīf andwyrde: "Of ðǣra trēowa wæstme ðe synd on Paradīsum wē etað: and of ðæs trēowes wæstme þe is onmiddan neorxnawange, God bebēad ūs ðæt wē ne ǣton, ne wē ðæt trēow ne hrepodon, ðī lǣs ðe wē swelton" (Aelfric Gen 3:2–3).
The wife answered: 'Of those fruits of the trees in Paradise we eat: and of that tree's fruit that is in the middle of [the] garden-not-near, God told us that we cannot eat, nor should we touch that tree, lest we should die.'

Here, within two lines and within a single quote from Eve, Aelfric uses the Latin dative plural Paradisum and returns to the Old English dative singular compound neorxnawange. In this abrupt shift from the initial Old English conceptual place-naming in Chapter 2, to the Latin form in the serpent's dialogue, then back to the Old English compound in Eve's quote in Chapter 3, we discover an unsteady tension and negotiation occurring between the languages of the two contending cultural idioms. The connotations of proximity, language culture, and world-view contained in this lexical shift expose a troubled domestication of the biblical vision in Anglo-Saxon thinking. Aelfric attempts to conceptually maneuver the idea of the Garden of Eden into the Anglo-Saxon cultural framework but ultimately falls short because of the necessarily foreignized distance required of biblical translation.

§4. Certainly, in translating this passage we are left with several options surrounding the Old English phrase of onmiddan neorxnawange as it is contained in Eve's answer. The Vulgate presents the source phrase of the passage as in medio paradise, constructing the Latin as the place-name which had been used consistently through the Latin text previous to Eve and the serpent's conversation (Vulgate Gen 1–3). Aelfric's words, however, could be translated as either "in the middle of the garden-not-near," using neorxnawang as a poetic noun-adjective compound kenning describing Paradise, or it might be rendered as a reflection of the Latin place-name which renames Eden, as "in the middle of Garden-Not-Near." With this indeterminacy of grammatical function touching the word as both a place-name and the Old English kenning, Aelfric's choice in moving away from the uniformity of the Vulgate's use of Paradise as a place-name opens up further potentials for the translation, specifically potentials which more comfortably align his text with Anglo-Saxon poetic sensibilities.

§5. As is the case in Anglo-Saxon heroic and elegiac poetries, the kenning served to rename a noun, usually an important event, landscape, or person whose significance is paramount to the poetic moment. Kennings are usually rendered as a phrase or hyphenated compound of base word and determinant. Aelfric's compound, however, sidesteps the phrasal nature of other Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon kennings by direct compounding. No matter how we construct the translation of the compound, we are given a single word, not a phrase as in other kennings. The elements of this compound may be translated in various ways, most of which cannot be confirmed because of the elusive first element, but by using known words, the compound might be constructed using neor meaning "near," and na meaning "not," and wang, meaning "garden" or "field" (Bosworth 2010). A certain mystery lies in the intrusive "x"; scholars have no equivalent referent in Old English to determine its meaning, whether it is a declension of neor or some intrusive symbol. There are no other Old English texts which contain this compound construction, and no linguists have yet explained the word's etymological background.1

§6. If this is a renaming of the Latin place-name for Paradise which gives Eden a new Old English name, it stands as a clear break from the Latin name to the Anglo-Saxon, used initially without any nod to the shift and without any contextual referent. On the other hand, if this is a kenning, it is grammatically constructed in such a way which defies the Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetic traditions of using a kenning proximal to a direct referent, in apposition. No originating referent exists here in either Chapters 2 or 3, save for Eve's other late use of the word Paradisum in the midst of the Old English usages. In addition, we might note that the Bible, obviously, is not a poem, and Aelfric makes no other clear attempts to poeticize his translation except for this potential kenning.

§7. In this, we might see Aelfric's struggle with trying to incorporate Anglo-Saxon poetic technique and diction into a Latin, biblical template. No matter the translation of the compound, Aelfric plays his Anglo-Saxon hand in using neorxnawang, forcing the domestication of the grammar and poetic content of the phrase while still remaining chained to the prose, Latin, grammatical tendencies of his source text. He side steps the poetic, rhetorical structures of kennings and the consistency of the use of the Latin place-name, forcing the two quite disparate writing styles into an uncomfortable intermediate space. Moreover, because of this moment of translative disruption, the textual space which Aelfric creates is now neither quite Latin, nor quite Anglo-Saxon, and while we might argue that such a translative move foreignizes the translation in distinct ways, it also opens the possibility of further discordances beyond grammar and lexical choice by muddying the translator's own intentions. In this untidy textual moment, the audience must enter the space in between texts and interpret them, thereby potentially creating a further struggle of Aelfric's foreignizing and domesticating translation practices.

§8. Furthermore, taking cue from Jennifer Neville and her exploration of the natural world in Old English poetry, we find further discordances in broader strokes than even the grammatic and lexical explorations might give us. Neville suggests that Anglo-Saxon poets defined the relationship of God and the natural world in their poetry in a telling dichotomy, whether that relationship is complicated and fraught with changes and shifts, or uncomplicated and simply expressed (1999, 142). In Aelfric's reference to the Garden of Eden as neorxnawang, we discover several tensions seated in meaning and connotation which point to a troubled expression of the relationship of iconographic Christian settings and characters within this translative practice. There is surely here an attempt to domesticate the text, to bring the translation into the world of Anglo-Saxon understanding through its poetic imaging, but in doing so the text is compromised, leaving it again in the unclear and unidentifiable space in between texts, in which the translation, despite what Aelfric likely intended, problematizes itself.

§9. This troubled movement in meaning begins with the apposition of the word neorxnawang with the Latin Paradise in Eve's answer in Chapter 3. Whether it is to be translated as a kenning or a place-name, the negative aspect of the word imbues a shift in tone which is quite distant from the source. To provide a bit of etymological context, the Latin word Paradise was originally borrowed in the sixth century BC into Latin from Old Iranian to mean "walled enclosure," and it was again borrowed into the Greek in the fourth century BC to mean "royal preserve" or "animal park" (OED). Approximately two centuries later, the Greek parádeisos was used to translate both Hebrew pardes and gan, or "garden." It is from this period in Greek that the use of Paradise to refer to the Garden of Eden derives. The definition remained relatively consistent through the word's history to mean "private, walled natural area in which animals lived."

§10. The construction of neorxnawang, however, is something quite different in both denotation and connotation. By creating a negative phrase to rename or appose Paradise, we discover that the focus of the phrase is diverted from the garden itself; the garden is simply assumed. The central element of the phrase, because of its initial placement in the word and because of its determinative, descriptive function is neor (near).2 The nearness of the garden becomes the key, and with the following na, it turns out to be a rather sobering descriptor. This garden of perfection in which life began, this paradise, is not near. Such sentiment, of course, echoes the desolation and loneliness of the Anglo-Saxon poetic elegies in which solitary figures lament the loss of past happiness and sorrow in present disquiet. Such a choice is clearly reflective of Anglo-Saxon poetic sensibilities, but is rather surprising used in the biblical story itself, not only by the narrator in Chapter 2, but in Eve's own words in Chapter 3.

§11. We must, of course, also consider the possibility that the negative is referring to wang (garden) instead of neor. Such a construction also has interesting ramifications. If Aelfric is subtly suggesting a "not-garden," we must question the "not-gardenness" of Eden in Anglo-Saxon thinking. Certainly, Eden is a garden as we ourselves understand it. But while we cannot deny the Anglo-Saxon understanding of an area brimming with flora and fauna (Hamerow 2003), we do see in this "not-garden" the distance of Anglo-Saxon thought from conceiving of Eden as fully as it might be. Neville would suggest that the tripartite relationship of God, the natural world of the garden, and Anglo-Saxon world-view is likewise strained in this construction because the conceptual definition of "garden" is denied, leaving the audience with little framework and even less cultural connection to the image of the "near not-garden."

§12. What results from either and both negative grammatical constructs places this translative act once again in the textual space in between source text and translation; the audience must engage in their own interpretive acts, as was the case with the kenning/place-name question discussed previously. The "garden-not-near" and the "near-not-garden" distance the concept of Eden and the potential physical location itself, adding new layers of distance to the biblical space which the etymology and the Latin concept of Paradise do not convey. And while Eden—Christian paradise—is addressed as distant, unrecoverable, and denied in the conceptual framework of the fallen world, Aelfric reminds his audience of this even before the plot takes us to The Fall, where the Latin does not. This perspective or tense shift in the Old English in many ways reconstructs the initial biblical images of Eden not as Paradise, the perfect garden in which no sin or want exists, but as that treasure which will be irretrievably lost and made distant. Aelfric, in effect, chose to include the word neorxnawang since he knew the end of the story; in in making the choice to emphasize the lost, elegiac nature of Paradise, he both domesticates the translation and foreignizes it by making it poetically familiar but conceptually distant to Anglo-Saxon thinking.

§13. These considerations, then, present an interesting question: in the Chapter 3 conversation between Eve and the serpent, why does Aelfric transition to the Latin and back to Old English words for Eden, and in what ways does Eve's use of both language cultures reveal the positioning of Aelfric's translation in the acceptance of Christianity into Anglo-Saxon culture? Of course, we might first suggest that the answer lies in the position of the serpent as tempter, that his sole use of Latin shifts and obscures, destabilizing the Anglo-Saxon linguistic world-view of the text, and that Eve's use of the Latin and then the Old English attempts to stabilize the proximity again. But as we have seen, this answer is problematic. Because the Old English neorxnawang itself exists in a distant and destabilized space, we find that in this case Aelfric simply trades one disrupted translative potential for another and ultimately fails to render the Latin Paradisum and neorxnawang as equivalent terms. In effect, if Eve's use of both terms is meant to stabilize and equate the meanings, Aelfric's translation has already set itself up to fail at that task because the foundational Old English word used consistently in the previous chapter is itself unstable, as we have seen.

§14. We might also answer this question concerning the purpose of Eve's shifting language from the opposite perspective, that the shift in language underscores the instability of the situation and highlights the insecure potentials of the forthcoming fallen world. Eve's use of the Latin in this way would be prompted by the serpent's temptation and purposeful use of the Latin in its own question. But we must note that Eve returns to the Old English which was used to denote Eden in—shall we say—happier times. She ends by returning to the consistencies established in Chapter 2 (even though those consistencies are in themselves unstable), thereby rendering any linguistic motive the serpent may have had ineffectual.

§15. In the end, we do not have a clear picture of the accommodation of Anglo-Saxon thinking into a Christian translated text, nor do we see the Bible being clearly translated to suit the Anglo-Saxon. Aelfric's purpose, surely, was to make the Bible accessible to Anglo-Saxon readers, but in exploring the shift—Mitchell and Robinson might call it a "marred" shift—of Old English to Latin and back again, we discover that Aelfric's translation falls short of both foreignizing and domesticating consistency, thereby troubling the smooth incorporation of the text and Christianity into Anglo-Saxon thought.


1. Neorxnawang has been an inconsistent word of study for linguists, though Jacob Grimm (1882, 405) disparaged the initial etymological thought on the word: "The A. gen. pl. neorxana, which only occurs in 'neorxena wong' = paradisus, has been proposed, but the abbreviation would be something unheard of, and even the nom. sing. neorxe or neorxu at variance with norn; besides,the Parcae are nowhere found connected with paradise." Thirty years later, James Bright (1913, 334) suggested that the first element of the word might be a conflation of the phrase ne wyrcan, meaning "no work." [Back]

2. Such an analysis of the negative construction of the compound would also apply if we are to accept Bright's evaluation of neorxna as a conflation of "no work" (1913, 334). [Back]

Works Cited

Aelfric. 1922. The Old English Version of the Heptateuch, Ælfric's Treatise on the Old and New Testament and his Preface to Genesis. Edited by S. J. Crawford. London: Early English Text Society.  [Back]

Bosworth, James. 2010. A Compendius Anglo-Saxon and English Dictionary. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press.  [Back]

Bright, James Wilson. 1913. An Anglo-Saxon Reader. New York: Henry Holt and Company.  [Back]

Griffith, Mark. 1999. "How Much Latin Did Aelfric's Magister Know?" Notes & Queries 46:176.  [Back]

Grimm, Jacob. 1882. Teutonic Mythology: Translated from the Fourth Edition with Notes and Appendix. Translated by James Stephen Stallybrass. London: George Bell and Sons.  [Back]

Hamerow, Helena. 2003. Early Medieval Settlements: The Archaeology of Rural Communities in North-West Europe 400–900. London: Oxford UP.  [Back]

Mitchell, Bruce and Fred C. Robinson. 1992. A Guide to Old English. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.  [Back]

Neville, Jennifer. 1999. Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry. London: Cambridge UP.  [Back]

OED Online. 2011. Oxford University Press.  [Back]

Simek, Robert. 2007. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. London: D. S. Brewer.  [Back]

Vulgate Bible. Retrieved on May 24, 2011.  [Back]