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The Dream of the Rood

The Ruthwell Cross is an eighth-century Anglo-Saxon preaching cross eighteen feet tall. It is remarkable for its runic inscriptions, which contain excerpts from The Dream of the Rood, an Old English poem translated below by Carmen Butcher.

 

Now I want to tell the best of dreams!
At midnight, when those gifted with speech sleep,
I thought I saw the most amazing tree

 

Hwæt! Ic swefna cyst secgan wylle,
hwæt me gemætte to midre nihte,
syðþan reordberend reste wunedon!
Þuhte me þæt ic gesawe syllicre treow

5 soaring through the sky, the brightest beam
wound with light, a beautiful beacon
covered in gold, and jewels crusted the corners
of the earth, five shone on the crossbeam.
  5 on lyft lædan, leohte bewunden,
beama beorhtost. Eall þæt beacen wæs
begoten mid golde. Gimmas stodon
fægere æt foldan sceatum, swylce þær fife wæron
uppe on þam eaxlegespanne. Beheoldon þær engel dryhtnes ealle,
10 Crowds of angels—the beauty of creation—looked on it.
And no way was this a cross of shame,
holy spirits, people everywhere, and the whole of creation
looked on it. That tree of victory was wonderful
and I was not
because I was sin-stained and shame-wounded
I saw the tree of glory
  10 fægere þurh forðgesceaft. Ne wæs ðær huru fracodes gealga,
ac hine þær beheoldon halige gastas,
men ofer moldan, ond eall þeos mære gesceaft.
Syllic wæs se sigebeam, ond ic synnum fah,
forwunded mid wommum. Geseah ic wuldres treow,
15 clothed and glowing splendidly,
the Ruler's tree, all gold and sparkling
jewels. But through that gold I could see
the ancient struggles of lost humanity
  15 wædum geweorðode, wynnum scinan,
gegyred mid golde; gimmas hæfdon
bewrigene weorðlice wealdendes treow.
Hwæðre ic þurh þæt gold ongytan meahte
earmra ærgewin, þæt hit ærest ongan
20 when it began bleeding on its right side
I was totally overwhelmed
by sorrow and afraid of this vision's beauty.
I saw the quick beacon change its clothes and color,
sometimes wet from sweat,
sometimes drenched with bleeding,
sometimes crusted with treasure.
I lay there a long time, troubled, and looked at
  20 swætan on þa swiðran healfe. Eall ic wæs mid sorgum gedrefed,
forht ic wæs for þære fægran gesyhðe. Geseah ic þæt fuse beacen
wendan wædum ond bleom; hwilum hit wæs mid wætan bestemed,
beswyled mid swates gange, hwilum mid since gegyrwed.
Hwæðre ic þær licgende lange hwile
25 the Savior's tree, until I heard it call out,
the best wood began speaking:
"That was years ago. I still remember
when I was felled at the forest's edge,
  25 beheold hreowcearig hælendes treow,
oððæt ic gehyrde þæt hit hleoðrode.
Ongan þa word sprecan wudu selesta:
"Þæt wæs geara iu, (ic þæt gyta geman),
þæt ic wæs aheawen holtes on ende,
30 slashed from my trunk. Powerful enemies seized me
then and there and used me for their executions.
They made me lift up their criminals.
Soldiers carried me on their shoulders
and put me on that hill, (1)
and when many enemies set me up there, then I saw the Lord of all
humanity running bravely towards me
as if he wanted to climb on me.
  30 astyred of stefne minum. Genaman me ðær strange feondas,
geworhton him þær to wæfersyne, heton me heora wergas hebban.
Bæron me ðær beornas on eaxlum, oððæt hie me on beorg asetton,
gefæstnodon me þær feondas genoge. Geseah ic þa frean mancynnes
efstan elne mycle þæt he me wolde on gestigan.
35 And I dared not bow or break or disobey
the word of the Lord
when I saw the earth around me shake
I could have destroyed every enemy,
but I stood fast. The young hero—
almighty God—stripped himself,
  35 Þær ic þa ne dorste ofer dryhtnes word
bugan oððe berstan, þa ic bifian geseah
eorðan sceatas. Ealle ic mihte
feondas gefyllan, hwæðre ic fæste stod.
Ongyrede hine þa geong hæleð, (þæt wæs god ælmihtig),
40 strong of body and will
he mounted the gallows of the cross
to ransom all humanity.
Many saw his courage.
I trembled when this warrior embraced me,
but I dared not bow down
nor fall to the ground.
I had to stand fast. I was raised up as a
rood. I lifted up the great King, (2)
  40 strang ond stiðmod. Gestah he on gealgan heanne,
modig on manigra gesyhðe, þa he wolde mancyn lysan.
Bifode ic þa me se beorn ymbclypte. Ne dorste ic hwæðre bugan to eorðan,
feallan to foldan sceatum, ac ic sceolde fæste standan.
Rod wæs ic aræred. Ahof ic ricne cyning,
45 the Lord of heaven. I dared not bend.
They pierced me with dark nails,
and the treacherous blows left scars on me
plain to see, and yet I dared not harm anyone.
They smeared both of us with their lies.
I was absolutely drenched
by the blood that gushed from the man's side
when he had given up the ghost.
  45 heofona hlaford, hyldan me ne dorste.
þurhdrifan hi me mid deorcan næglum. On me syndon þa dolg gesiene,
opene inwidhlemmas. Ne dorste ic hira nænigum sceððan.
Bysmeredon hie unc butu ætgædere. Eall ic wæs mid blode bestemed,
begoten of þæs guman sidan, siððan he hæfde his gast onsended.
50 There on that hill I faced the worst fate.
I saw the God of hosts crucified.
Clouds of darkness covered the bright light
of the Ruler's body. Darkness covered the earth.
  50 Feala ic on þam beorge gebiden hæbbe
wraðra wyrda. Geseah ic weruda god
þearle þenian. þystro hæfdon
bewrigen mid wolcnum wealdendes hræw,
scirne sciman, sceadu forðeode,
55 All creation wept. The King's death was mourned.
Christ was on the cross.
And yet his friends hurried
to the Prince from far away. I saw it all.
I was stricken with sorrow,
brought low, yet I bent to the hands of those men,
obedient.
  55 wann under wolcnum. Weop eal gesceaft,
cwiðdon cyninges fyll. Crist wæs on rode.
Hwæðere þær fuse feorran cwoman
to þam æðelinge. Ic þæt eall beheold.
Sare ic wæs mid sorgum gedrefed, hnag ic hwæðre þam secgum to handa,
60 They got almighty God and raised him
off the painful crucifixion.
The warriors left me standing there
covered in blood.
I was injured all over with arrows.
They laid the limb-weary one there,
stood at the head of his body, and looked
at heaven's Lord, and he rested there a spell,
  60 eaðmod elne mycle. Genamon hie þær ælmihtigne god,
ahofon hine of ðam hefian wite. Forleton me þa hilderincas
standan steame bedrifenne; eall ic wæs mid strælum forwundod.
Aledon hie ðær limwerigne, gestodon him æt his lices heafdum,
beheoldon hie ðær heofenes dryhten, ond he hine ðær hwile reste,
65 exhausted after that great fight. (3)
The warriors then began
to dig a grave for him in sight of his murderer.
They carved it out of bright stone and put the Lord of victories in it.
Then they began to sing a song of grief, for
they were miserable that evening and exhausted,
and so they left the excellent Prince.
He rested there with a small company. (4)

  65 meðe æfter ðam miclan gewinne. Ongunnon him þa moldern wyrcan
beornas on banan gesyhðe; curfon hie ðæt of beorhtan stane,
gesetton hie ðæron sigora wealdend. Ongunnon him þa sorhleoð galan
earme on þa æfentide, þa hie woldon eft siðian,
meðe fram þam mæran þeodne. Reste he ðær mæte weorode.
70 But we stood there a long time, weeping, (5)
after the voice of the warriors left.
The corpse, that beautiful temple of life, grew cold.
Then men began to chop us all down.
That was an awful ending!
  70 Hwæðere we ðær greotende gode hwile
stodon on staðole, syððan stefn up gewat
hilderinca. Hræw colode,
fæger feorgbold. þa us man fyllan ongan
ealle to eorðan. þæt wæs egeslic wyrd!
75 One buried us in a deep pit.
But the Lord's thanes—his friends—heard I was there
and decorated me with gold and silver.
Now you have heard, my much-loved hero,
how I endured these crimes
  75 Bedealf us man on deopan seaþe. Hwæðre me þær dryhtnes þegnas,
freondas gefrunon,
ond gyredon me golde ond seolfre.
Nu ðu miht gehyran, hæleð min se leofa,
þæt ic bealuwara weorc gebiden hæbbe,
80 and this piercing sorrow.
Now it's time for people all over the world
and all this awesome creation to worship me,
and pray to this cross. God's Son suffered on me a while.
  80 sarra sorga. Is nu sæl cumen
þæt me weorðiað wide ond side
menn ofer moldan, ond eall þeos mære gesceaft,
gebiddaþ him to þyssum beacne. On me bearn godes
þrowode hwile. Forþan ic þrymfæst nu
85 That's why I'm mighty now and raised on high
and can heal anyone who respects me.
Before, I was the harshest punishment and most hated,
before I revealed the way of Life and Truth
to those gifted with speech.
  85 hlifige under heofenum, ond ic hælan mæg
æghwylcne anra, þara þe him bið egesa to me.
Iu ic wæs geworden wita heardost,
leodum laðost, ærþan ic him lifes weg
rihtne gerymde, reordberendum.
90 Now the Prince of glory, the Lord of heaven,
has honored me above all other trees,
just as he who is almighty God honored his mother
Mary above all women, on behalf of all people.
  90 Hwæt, me þa geweorðode wuldres ealdor
ofer holmwudu, heofonrices weard!
Swylce swa he his modor eac, Marian sylfe,
ælmihtig god for ealle menn
geweorðode ofer eall wifa cynn.
95 Now I command you, my much-loved companion,
Tell others of this vision and publish these words:
On the tree of glory the almighty God suffered
for humanity's many sins
  95 Nu ic þe hate, hæleð min se leofa,
þæt ðu þas gesyhðe secge mannum,
onwreoh wordum þæt hit is wuldres beam,
se ðe ælmihtig god on þrowode
for mancynnes manegum synnum
100 and Adam's ancient deed.
He tasted death there, but then
the Lord rose up, ready to help us with his great power.
Then he went to heaven.
The Lord himself will return to this earth to find us
  100 ond Adomes ealdgewyrhtum.
Deað he þær byrigde, hwæðere eft dryhten aras
mid his miclan mihte mannum to helpe.
He ða on heofenas astag. Hider eft fundaþ
on þysne middangeard mancynn secan
105 on Judgment Day, with his angels,
and he will judge, for he has the seat of power,
and every person will receive whatever he or she has earned in
this transitory life.
  105 on domdæge dryhten sylfa,
ælmihtig god, ond his englas mid,
þæt he þonne wile deman, se ah domes geweald,
anra gehwylcum swa he him ærur her
on þyssum lænum life geearnaþ.
110 No one there will be unafraid of the Ruler's words.
Before all there, he will ask who would taste death
for his or her Lord's sake, as he did earlier on the tree. (6)
  110 Ne mæg þær ænig unforht wesan
for þam worde þe se wealdend cwyð.
Frineð he for þære mænige hwær se man sie,
se ðe for dryhtnes naman deaðes wolde
biteres onbyrigan, swa he ær on ðam beame dyde.
115 Those there will be afraid and
cannot begin to think how to answer Christ.
But no one has to be fearful if
they bear in their breast the sign of the cross,
for every soul who wants to live with the Ruler
  115 Ac hie þonne forhtiað, ond fea þencaþ
hwæt hie to Criste cweðan onginnen.
Ne þearf ðær þonne ænig anforht wesan
þe him ær in breostum bereð beacna selest,
ac ðurh ða rode sceal rice gesecan
120 must seek his kingdom
through the cross, along the earthly way."
Full of joy, I then prayed to that tree ardently there
where I was alone, with a small company. (7)
  120 of eorðwege æghwylc sawl,
seo þe mid wealdende wunian þenceð."
Gebæd ic me þa to þan beame bliðe mode,
elne mycle, þær ic ana wæs
mæte werede. Wæs modsefa
125 My soul was encouraged for the journey to come.
It had endured many longings.
Now the joy of my life is seeking
the tree of victory, alone, more regularly than others
and honoring it well. I desire this
  125 afysed on forðwege, feala ealra gebad
langunghwila. Is me nu lifes hyht
þæt ic þone sigebeam secan mote
ana oftor þonne ealle men,
well weorþian. Me is willa to ðam
130 above all things, and my protection
is directed to the cross.
I don't have many powerful friends on earth
because they have already left the joys of this world
and gone to the King of glory, and now they live in heaven
with the Father on high and
  130 mycel on mode, ond min mundbyrd is
geriht to þære rode. Nah ic ricra feala
freonda on foldan, ac hie forð heonon
gewiton of worulde dreamum, sohton him wuldres cyning,
lifiaþ nu on heofenum mid heahfædere,
135 dwell in glory. And I myself can't wait until that day when
the Lord's cross, which I focused on here on earth,
will fetch me from this short life
and take me to great joy in heaven,
  135 wuniaþ on wuldre, ond ic wene me
daga gehwylce hwænne me dryhtnes rod,
þe ic her on eorðan ær sceawode,
on þysson lænan life gefetige
ond me þonne gebringe þær is blis mycel,
140 where the Lord's people are sitting and feasting and happiness is everlasting,
and the cross will make me a home there in glory,
where I can truly enjoy heaven's pleasures with
all the saints. May the Lord be a friend to me.
  140 dream on heofonum, þær is dryhtnes folc
geseted to symle, þær is singal blis,
ond me þonne asette þær ic syþþan mot
wunian on wuldre, well mid þam halgum
dreames brucan. Si me dryhten freond,
145 He's the one who suffered here on earth
on the gallows tree for the sins of all people.
He set us free and gave us abundant life
and a heavenly home. Joy was resurrected
with wonder and happiness for those who had
suffered there in that burning.
  145 se ðe her on eorþan ær þrowode
on þam gealgtreowe for guman synnum.
He us onlysde ond us lif forgeaf,
heofonlicne ham. Hiht wæs geniwad
mid bledum ond mid blisse þam þe þær bryne þolodan.
150 The Son was triumphant on that mission, (8)
mighty and quick, he rescued that great company of souls,
and the almighty Ruler came with them to God's kingdom,
delighting angels and the holy ones already
  150 Se sunu wæs sigorfæst on þam siðfate,
mihtig ond spedig, þa he mid manigeo com,
gasta weorode, on godes rice,
anwealda ælmihtig, englum to blisse
ond eallum ðam halgum þam þe on heofonum ær
155 living in heaven. Then their Ruler—
who is almighty God—came to his native Land.
  155 wunedon on wuldre, þa heora wealdend cwom,
ælmihtig god, þær his eðel wæs.
Translation Copyright © Carmen Acevedo Butcher 2005   Old English text from "Dream of the Rood," The Vercelli Book, ed. George P. Krapp, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), pp. 61-66.
(1) For background information on the crucifixion of Christ, see the Gospel accounts at Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19. This hill is called Golgotha or Calvary.
(2) Rood comes from the Old English word, rod, for 'rod' or 'pole.' Rod also referred to 'a measure of land' and to 'the cross on which Christ was crucified.'
(3) Exhausted here is a litotes for 'dead.'
(4) "With a small company" is a litotes meaning 'alone.' Company denotes the Anglo-Saxon 'comitatus.' See also footnote (7).
(5) The cross of Christ is referring here to himself and to the two other crosses on Golgotha, for the thieves crucified with Jesus.
(6) Sake here is literally 'name.'
(7) Another example of a litotes, "With a small company" means 'alone.' See footnote (4).
(8) Mission refers here to the Harrowing of Hell, a popular Medieval topos depicting Christ as the warrior leader who rescues all those condemned to hell in the long stretch of time after the Fall and before Christ's resurrection. The Harrowing of Hell was said to have taken place between Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.

Image of cross uses photo of the head of Ruthwell Cross (north side) (Humphrey Bolton) / CC BY-SA 2.0