Genesis B (Anglo-Saxon poem)


Satan fallen to Hell in Anglo-Saxon poems



So, where are we?  It’s getting pretty late in the day, and we still don’t have anyone supervising the torments of Hell except Hades, who would have been consistently recognized as a nonentity, a mere personification.

To tell you the truth, I’m stumped.  I also haven’t been able to pin-point when Satan was given his last commission, of running Hell.  It seems that the question is usually fudged, by having “Demons” in general be the operatives responsible for tormenting souls.  Remember, even in the Descensus ad Inferos, Hades is said to have Demons who work for him, at least as custodians, if not as tormentors.

Well, while I continue to look for more evidence of medieval ideas on this point—I’ll make it a research project for the future—let’s move on to the Sentences of Peter Lombard.  Lombard was a theologian who taught in Paris, and he finished his treatise shortly before he died in 1160.   The title means, basically, “Quotations from the Fathers of the Church.”  It became the standard text after it was approved at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and it was customary for doctoral students in theology to write a commentary on it.

When Lombard deals with Satan and the other Fallen Angels, he doesn’t go back to his standard Fathers, Augustine, Jerome, Hilary of Poitiers, and so on, but silently relies on a theologian of his own century, namely Hugh of St. Victor, another Parisian, who died in 1142; he draws on his Summa Sententiarum 2.3-4 (PL 176:82-85).

All the views of Lombard that follow come from Book 2 of the Sentences, Distinction 6 (PL 192:662-64).  Soon after the creation of the Angels, Peter says, some of them turned towards their Creator, while others turned away from Him and against Him, and, of course, fell from Heaven.  Among the latter was the one who had hitherto been the greatest of all Angels, Lucifer, and other higher Angels,



as well as lesser Angels, fell with him.  This event is documented in the Book of Revelation, which reads:  “The Dragon falling from Heaven drew with him a third part of the Stars.” (Actually, Revelation says that the Dragon with his tail cast down a third of the Stars (12.4), and then he and his Angels got into a fight with Michael and his Angels, and Dragon’s Angels were cast out along with him (12.7-9), with no mention of rank or number.  See chap. 6.2.)

These Fallen Angels were not allowed to dwell on the Earth along with human beings, lest their pestilential influence be too oppressive against us.  Rather they were forced to live in the Foggy Air (Aer Caliginosus) above the Earth.  This is also the perspective of the Golden Legend‘s account of the Archangel Michael (GL 145):  The great battle between Michael and the Dragon, that is, Lucifer, described in the Book of Revelation, took place at the very beginning, and the Devil and his hordes were forced down to the Lower Air.  They are as innumerable as the specks of dust seen floating in the air, and they regularly descend from the air to Earth to tempt men.  But James also cites Gregory the Great as saying that the battle depicted in Revelation is Michael’s coming fight with Antichrist.  Furthermore, the same account refers to Michael’s constant battling with Demons to prevent them from doing too much damage on earth.

Lombard goes on to say that it is likely that some of these Fallen Angels, who are now Demons, descend every day to Hell, taking with them the souls of the wicked who have just died, and it may be that these Demons take turns with other Demons who are in the Upper World, to keep the souls in a state of confinement and to administer torments.  There are some who believe that Lucifer has been bound in Hell from the time that he was defeated by Christ in the Desert, or at the time of His Passion.  Others, however, believe that he was buried in Hell from the time of his original fall—thereby bypassing the Foggy Air—because of the magnitude of his sin.

But whether or not Lucifer is presently detained in Hell, Lombard continues, we can easily believe that he does not now have



as much power to tempt us as he will have in the future, in the time of the Antichrist—when he will be released from any such detention upon his person or powers and allowed to wreak maximum havoc.  Finally, Lombard cites via Hugh the opinion of Origen that Demons whose temptations are resisted by Saints have their power of tempting removed or reduced.

Thus far Lombard.  But it is all very frustrating:  why can’t the man make up his mind?  We go to theology books to be told what’s what, not what may or might be what.  It’s quite clear that Lombard doesn’t know what to think.  People in the next century, the age of the great Scholastics, will not be so wishy-washy.  They tend to come to a definite decision on every point under discussion, as we will see in the following chapter when dealing with the theology of Thomas Aquinas.

Let’s summarize.  Satan may or may not be tied down in Hell.   That means that he’s not in charge of Hell, right?  No, not necessarily.  Notice that his fellow-Angels are the prison-guards and tormentors.  So it would only make sense that they would take their orders from Satan, whether he is still roaming about in his virtually omnipresent way in the Upper World, or whether he is in chains in Hell.  For, unless his mouth is clamped shut, as in the Descensus ad Inferos, he could still be the CEO of Evil, Inc.

* * *

To show that this latter picture is not just a fantasy on my part, let me cite some Old English interpretations of Genesis.5  In Genesis B, an Anglo-Saxon poem based in turn on a (lost) Old Saxon poem, Satan with all of his Angels has been cast into a fiery Hell.  He loudly maintains that they have been robbed of Heaven, where they will be replaced with humans.  Satan himself is bound in fetters, feet and hands and neck.  He knows that God has done this because He is aware that Satan would make trouble for Adam if he were free.  Let’s listen a bit to what he says:



Is thaes aenga styde    ungelic swithe

Tham othrum ham    the we aer cuthon!

Oops!  That English is really Old, isn’t it?  We’ll modernize it a bit, while keeping the rules of alliteration:

This desolate place is    different by far

From that other home    that ere we knew!–

High in Heaven-Realm,    handed me by my Lord—

Though we by the All-Ruler    to own it were not allowed,

Or our Realm to broaden.    But right He has not done

To have felled us    into the fiery depths,

Into this hot Hell,   Heaven-Realm taken away—

Which now He has marked    with Mankind

To settle.    That is of sorrow most to me,

That Adam shall,    of Earth being made,

Move in upon    my mighty throne,

Being in bliss!    –while we bear this torment,

Harm in this Hell!    Oh, oh, had I my hands to use,

And for one time    could wend out of here,

Be gone for a winter’s hour,    then with this army, I—-

But binding me about    are bands of iron,

Ropes around me,    I am reft of power!  (356-72)

But then he calls for a volunteer to go to Adam and Eve in his place, and that is what happens, with terrible results for Mankind.

In another poem, Christ and Satan, Satan and his hordes are indeed thrust into Hell after their original sin, and Satan is chained there, while the others who fell with him rebuke him.  But it turns out that Satan and the others can fly out occasionally, while bearing the shackles of their torments with them.  At the Harrowing of Hell, Jesus imposes greater bonds of punishment on Satan and the other Fiends and thrusts them deeper into Hell.

The poet Cynewulf, in contrast, in Christ II, has Satan and his Host hurled down to Hell only after Christ’s death on the Cross, at



the Harrowing of Hell.  Satan is bound then with fiery fetters, and he lies there still.  But in another poem, Elene, about St. Helen and her unearthing of the True Cross, Cynewulf shows that the Devil is still very much at large in the World.  The Devil himself explains that Christ has often shut him up in Hell, and the implication is that He will continue to do so.  In Juliana, Cynewulf follows the account that the Golden Legend adopted (see above):  the King of Hell-Dwellers seems to stay in Hell while sending his minions to Earth to do his dirty work.  But Cynewulf greatly expands the Demon’s account of his exploits and has him take credit for many of the major events during the life of Christ.  His successes may even have started with Adam, but a leaf of the poem has been lost at the beginning of his confession.  In the non-Cynewulfian Andreas, the Devil is bound in fetters of fire, but he can still move about on his evil business, taking his fetters with him.

The upshot is that, even though the theologians were reluctant to pronounce on Satan’s status in Hell, the poets were not.


                5For modern English translations, see Anglo-Saxon Poetry, ed. and tr. S. A. J. Bradley (Everyman’s Library, London 1982).