restricted access “Guardians of Souls” or “Host(s) of Spirits”?: (Genesis A 12a and 41a)
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“Guardians of Souls” or “Host(s) of Spirits”?
(Genesis A 12a and 41a)

The first folio of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11 contains the two attested instances of the phrase gasta weardas in Old English, in the beginning of the poem Genesis A. The first occurs in a description of God’s establishment of the heavens as a home for his angels:

soðfæst and swiðfeorm sweglbosmas heold þa wæron gesette wide and side þurh geweald Godes wuldres bearnum, gasta weardum.

(ll. 9–12a)1

It is plain from the context that both gasta weardum and wuldres bearnum refer to the angels of God, identified more explicitly in the following sentence by the phrase engla þreatas (l. 13b). This apparent use of gasta weardas as a distinctive appellation for angels is remarkable, inasmuch as angels are themselves spirits, whom we might sooner expect to find referred to as gastas than defined in relation to gastas. Angels are, of course, protectors or guardians of souls in the Christian tradition. Yet the context of Genesis A offers no particular warrant for an emphasis on this angelic duty, since the first ninety-one lines of the poem concern the angels and their fall, before the creation of mankind. It seems, then, that gasta weardas must be a conventional poetic expression used to denote angels regardless of context. But two things invite some doubt: no other instance of such an expression has survived; and the use of gastas alone to refer to angels (and devils) is well attested,2 and evident in the beginning section of Genesis A, in the half-lines geomre gastas (l. 69a) and werige gastas (l. 90b), which both describe the fallen angels. It is therefore reasonable to ask whether gasta weardum might be the relic of an earlier expression in which gasta referred simply to the angels. [End Page 141]

The second instance, indeed, casts doubt on the originality of gasta weardas in Genesis A. It occurs in a description of God’s creation of hell as a new home for the fallen angels:

heht þæt witehus wræcna bidan deop, dreama leas, Drihten ure gasta weardas.

(ll. 39–41a)

While the manuscript reading of this passage has generally been left to stand in editions of Genesis A, the early editors that commented on it did so to note a discrepancy between genitive plural wræcna and accusative plural weardas: they understood heht þæt witehus wræcna bidan to mean “commanded that that house of punishment await the exiles,” taking gasta weardas as a second object of bidan in apposition with wræcna, despite the difference in case.3 This reading was supported by T. N. Toller, who brought forward a corroborative parallel from the Old Saxon Heliand in which bidan is once used in a single contruction with both an accusative and a genitive object: bed metodogiscapu, / torhtero tideo (ll. 4827b–28a).4 Yet several translators of Genesis A have read the passage differently, taking gasta weardas, not þæt witehus, as the object of heht; rendering bidan with “to endure” or “to suffer” rather than “await”; and taking wræcna as modifying þæt witehus: thus “Our Lord . . . commanded the keepers of souls to endure the abode of torments and miseries” (R. K. Gordon), “That outcasts’ prison . . . our Lord commanded the guardians of souls to suffer” (S. A. J. Bradley), and “Our Lord commanded the guardians of spirits to endure that torture chamber of exiles” (Daniel Anlezark).5 A third interpretation [End Page 142] of the passage, finally, is found in the generally freer prose translation of Charles Kennedy, who took wræcna together with þæt witehus, just as Gordon, Bradley, and Anlezark, but agreed with the early editors and Toller in making þæt witehus the object of heht, and understanding bidan to mean “await”: thus “Our Lord prepared this torture-house of exiles . . . for the coming of the angel hosts” (where “prepared . . . for the coming of” corresponds to heht . . . bidan, and “the angel hosts” to gasta weardas).6

Each of these three interpretations, while avoiding some doubtful assumption or difficulty of one or both of the others, involves one or more of...