While I was researching the fragments of Annianus this past week with an eye toward assembling them into a reconstructive narrative, I ran into an odd academic article I had never before encountered. Written in 1971, R. E. Kaske’s “Beowulf and the Book of Enoch” appeared in the unfortunately named journal Speculum and made a case that the beloved Old English epoch poem is founded on the Watchers myth taken directly from the Book of Enoch.
A few years ago, I explored the notion that Grendel and Grendel’s Mother were envisioned as Nephilim from Genesis 6, a claim that was made rather plain by the Beowulf poet’s description of the pair as descendants of the ungodly race of Cain, those who gave rise to the Giants in the apocryphal legends that grew up around Genesis:
The wan-mooded being (Cain) abode for a season
In Beowulf, the ancient sword used to kill Grendel had been forged by the Nephilim. Although the poet asserts that the Flood killed the Nephilim, the description of Grendel and his Mother as giant in stature, cannibalistic, violent, etc. strongly implies that the poet intended them to be read as surviving Nephilim.
Kaske argued that the similarity wasn’t due just to the widespread myth of the fall of the Sethite Sons of God in medieval legendry but rather to the specific influence of the Book of Enoch. As evidence, he pointed to the fact that a fragment of Chapter 106 of 1 Enoch—the chapter in which Lamech witnesses Noah’s miraculous birth and fears he might be a Nephilim, prompting Enoch to explain the Fall of the Watchers to Lamech, who presumably was around to see it—exists in a Latin excerpt made in Britain in the eighth century. This fragment is often assumed to belong to a lost Book of Noah.
The fragment, found in 1893 by M. R. James in MS Royal 5.E.13, fols. 79v-8v and published by him that year and by R. H. Charles in his translation of the Book of Enoch from the Ethiopian. Neither man, however, thought to translate the text to English, assuming that their audiences were fluent in Latin. I will make the translation since modern readers are much less likely to be Latin readers:
And it came to pass that when Lamech had attained three hundred and fifty years, there was born to him a son whose eyes were bright like the rays of the sun, whose hair was as white as the winter snow, and whose body no man was able to look upon. And he rose up from between the hands of his midwife and worshiped the Lord of the Living World and praised Him. And Lamech was afraid that he was not actually his son but rather the son of an angel of God, and he went to his father Methuselah and told him everything. Methuselah said, “This I am not able to know, unless we go to our father, Enoch.” And when Enoch saw that his own son Methuselah had come to him, he said to him, “Why is it that you have come to me, my son?” He said, “Because there was born to my own son named Lamech one whose eyes are bright like the rays of the sun, whose hair is as white as the winter snow, and whose body no man is able to look upon. And he rose up from between the hands of his midwife only an hour after he emerged from his mother’s womb and worshiped the Lord of the Living World and praised Him. And Lamech was afraid.” Enoch then said: “It has been announced to me, my son, that in five hundred years God will send a cataclysm of water to destroy all creatures, [lasting] forty days, as it is shown to our eyes. And he [your son] shall have three sons, and the names of his sons shall be Shem, Cham, and Japeth, and he will himself be called Noah, which means “repose,” for he shall demonstrate repose [i.e., peace] in the Ark.
The parallel passage in 1 Enoch 106 is long but important to compare:
And after some days my son Methuselah took a wife for his son Lamech, and she became pregnant by him and bore a son. And his body was white as snow and red as the blooming of a rose, and the hair of his head and his long locks were white as wool, and his eyes beautiful. And when he opened his eyes, he lighted up the whole house like the sun, and the whole house was very bright. And thereupon he arose in the hands of the midwife, opened his mouth, and conversed with the Lord of righteousness. And his father Lamech was afraid of him and fled, and came to his father Methuselah. And he said unto him: I have begotten a strange son, diverse from and unlike man, and resembling the sons of the God of heaven; and his nature is different and he is not like us, and his eyes are as the rays of the sun, and his countenance is glorious. And it seems to me that he is not sprung from me but from the angels, and I fear that in his days a wonder may be wrought on the earth. And now, my father, I am here to petition thee and implore thee that thou mayest go to Enoch, our father, and learn from him the truth, for his dwelling-place is amongst the angels. And when Methuselah heard the words of his son, he came to me to the ends of the earth; for he had heard that was there, and he cried aloud, and I heard his voice and I came to him. And I said unto him: Behold, here am I, my son, wherefore hast thou come to me? And he answered and said: Because of a great cause of anxiety have I come to thee, and because of a disturbing vision have I approached. And now, my father, hear me: unto Lamech my son there hath been born a son, the like of whom there is none, and his nature is not like man’s nature, and the colour of his body is whiter than snow and redder than the bloom of a rose, and the hair of his head is whiter than white wool, and his eyes are like the rays of the sun, and he opened his eyes and thereupon lighted up the whole house. And he arose in the hands of the midwife, and opened his mouth and blessed the Lord of heaven. And his father Lamech became afraid and fled to me, and did not believe that he was sprung from him, but that he was in the likeness of the angels of heaven; and behold I have come to thee that thou mayest make known to me the truth. And I, Enoch, answered and said unto him: The Lord will do a new thing on the earth, and this I have already seen in a vision, and make known to thee that in the generation of my father Jared some of the angels of heaven transgressed the word of the Lord. And behold they commit sin and transgress the law, and have united themselves with women and commit sin with them, and have married some of them, and have begot children by them. And they shall produce on the earth giants not according to the spirit, but according to the flesh, and there shall be a great punishment on the earth, and the earth shall be cleansed from all impurity. Yea, there shall come a great destruction over the whole earth, and there shall be a deluge and a great destruction for one year. And this son who has been born unto you shall be left on the earth, and his three children shall be saved with him: when all mankind that are on the earth shall die, he and his sons shall be saved. And now make known to thy son Lamech that he who has been born is in truth his son, and call his name Noah; for he shall be left to you, and he and his sons shall be saved from the destruction, which shall come upon the earth on account of all the sin and all the unrighteousness, which shall be consummated on the earth in his days. And after that there shall be still more unrighteousness than that which was first consummated on the earth; for I know the mysteries of the holy ones; for He, the Lord, has showed me and informed me, and I have read (them) in the heavenly tablets. (trans. R. H. Charles)
This is the crux of the argument that the Book of Enoch existed in a Latin translation, even though James recognized that this is not identical to chapter 106. It tells the same story, but it is radically condensed, with important deletions and a few unusual additions. The Ethiopian version contains a restatement of the fall of the Watchers and the sins of the angels and the giants, but the Latin fragment does not. It almost seems as if it has been edited to remove heretical ideas about fallen angels, in keeping with the “new” belief that the Sons of Seth were the Watchers. The Latin text follows the Septuagint and Old Latin Bible in deriving Noah’s name from “to rest, to repose,” while 1 Enoch 106:17-18 gives the name as meaning “remain,” from the same Hebrew root. The difference, however, implies that the Latin text was, at the very least, corrected against the Old Latin Bible.
However, there is a complicating factor: James and Charles wrote before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the Genesis Apocryphon we find the same story, badly mutilated, but recognizably the same. One small part:
[…] Go, speak to Lamech your son [… … …] and placed/cast it/him on the earth, and every deed of the heavenly beings [… … …] he lifted his face, and his eyes shone like the s[un … …] this child, fire (?) and [… … 2 lines missing …] Behold, then they were confused and [… … …] eternal [Lord?] they give [… …] they will commit many deeds of violence until [… … …] and ascending (?), and all the paths [… … …] And now I shall declare to you the mystery [… … to Lamech] your son declare this mystery [… … …] during his days … the deed [… … …] praised be the Lord of all [… … …]
In the same passage of the Genesis Apocryphon, in a part not quoted here, the Watchers are named as Watchers, but in Enoch they are called angels, as in the Latin fragment. Similarly, the Apocryphon omits key repetitions that are found in both 1 Enoch and the Latin fragment. For these reasons, 1 Enoch is the more likely source text, but it isn’t as clear that the Latin fragment came from a complete translation, or an epitome, as the Latin writers were fond of making in Late Antiquity.
Either way, it proves that apocryphal literature was available in Britain at the time Beowulf was composed, suggesting that the epic’s monsters were intended to reflect the legendary bloodthirsty cannibal Nephilim giants of Enochian lore rather than generic giants of any old biblical text.
Perhaps the strongest part of Kaske’s argument the part he considers a minor point, namely that in Beowulf Grendel appears ambiguously as both a physical and a supernatural creature, as a giant and an evil demon. This reflects, he suspects, the claim in 1 Enoch that the Nephilim died and became evil spirits and demons as punishment for their sins.
He similarly argues that Grendel’s Mother is depicted as a daughter of Cain, for in 1 Enoch, the daughters of Cain are condemned by God to be Sirens. While the Beowulf character is not a Siren in the Greek mythic sense, she follows the pattern of the medieval Jewish idea of Sirens, who were flesh-eating, violent wastrels—basically the forerunner of the Arabian ghouls.
Kaske notes a half dozen or so other correspondences between 1 Enoch and Beowulf, many persuasive, but I am more interested in the idea that there was once a complete, if abridged, Latin translation of 1 Enoch in circulation and that it somehow disappeared for centuries. What happened that it completely vanished from the Latin West from around 900 CE until the rediscovery of excerpts preserved by Syncellus in the 1600s followed by the recovery of the book from Ethiopia in the 1700s? It is strange to think that the Latin West expunged it so perfectly, while the Greek East did so only incompletely, and Slavonic and Ethiopian fringes of the Christian world kept the story more or less intact.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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