One of the more fascinating discoveries of my research has been the influence of the Book of Enoch on the depictions of demons in various Anglo-Saxon sources. The supernatural elements found in the Anglo-Saxon hagiographies have typically been traced either to Irish Celtic hagiography or, more commonly, to Gregory the Great’s late sixth-century Dialogues. Loomis has identified the influence of both upon the miracles in described by Bede in his writings. Cuthbert’s authority over wild beasts, for example, appeals to a distinctly Celtic construction of sanctity. At the same time, Bede’s Life of Cuthbert contains episodes such as the occurrence of a phantasmal fire of demonic origin, a demonic attack that is paralleled in the Dialogues. This intersection of Celtic and Roman influences is not exclusive to Bede; Schapiro’s analysis of the iconography on the Ruthwell Cross demonstrates how Celtic and Roman approaches to the Christian faith could coexist in various ways.
So, I am not denying the arguments of Loomis and Schapiro, but on the specific subject of demons – particularly demonic power – Celtic and Roman precedents do not sufficiently account for the iconography that was used by the Anglo-Saxon writers. This is particularly evident in the frequent appearance of demonic weapons. In Felix’s Life of Guthlac, for instance, the demons beat the saint with ‘iron whips’ whilst the devil pierces Guthlac’s heart with an arrow of despair. Neither weapon has a clear parallel in the sources that we have discussed so far. Similarly, the tenth-century Lacnunga, a collection of medical remedies in Old English, explicitly associates demons with ‘hurling shafts’ that pierce into the body to cause internal injury. Even Bede jumps on this bandwagon of supernatural weaponry, including an episode in his Historia Ecclesiastica where an unrepentant man stabbed by evil spirits, which causes poison to enter into his body and eventually kill him. This belief in a demonic armoury is nowhere to be found in any of Gregory’s writings or in the Celtic tradition.
I suggest that these beliefs may have originated from the Book of Enoch. The Book of Enoch, also known as I Enoch, was an apocryphal (or, strictly speaking, pseudepigraphical) text that circulated widely in the early Church until its canonicity was explicitly rejected by Pope Gelasius I. This papal injunction did not, however, prevent the Book of Enoch from circulating further and influencing the beliefs of early medieval Christians. M.R. James has remarked how the Anglo-Saxons were ‘in possession of a good deal of rather rare apocryphal literature’. Indeed, a fragment of the Book of Enoch has been found in England. This has lent credence to the arguments put forward by various scholars of Old English literature that the Book of Enoch was a primary source of inspiration for many works of Old English and their accompanying imagery (e.g. Coatsworth, Anzelark).
The Book of Enoch describes the fall of the rebel angels from the perspective of Enoch, a man mentioned in Genesis as not having died, but as having been taken up into heaven to be with God. Curiously, I Enoch 8:1-2 describes how the art of metalworking was taught to mankind by the fallen angel Azazel, leading to great destruction and bloodshed on earth. We know that this negative portrayal of metalworking was current in Anglo-Saxon England. Bede alludes to it in his Commentary on Genesis, where he explicitly states that every piece of metalwork only has a purpose because of human sinfulness. The demonic origins of metalwork has also been studied in Beowulf by Erin Wagner and R. Kaske, and more broadly within the Anglo-Saxon corpus by David Hinton.
We therefore have reasonably strong evidence that the Book of Enoch and its depiction of metalwork as having demonic origins were well-established within Anglo-Saxon theology. Aideen O’Leary has argued that even supposedly orthodox (by modern Protestant standards, at least) writers like Aelfric and Aldhelm displayed a surprising willingness to refer to the apocryphal passiones of the apostles in their writings. This same inclusive attitude towards non-canonical works seems to have extended to the Book of Enoch, which became an important source of knowledge about demonic origins and powers among the Anglo-Saxons.
Anlezark, Daniel. ‘The Fall of the Angels in Solomon and Saturn II’. In Apocryphal Texts and Traditions in Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Kathryn Powell and Donald Scragg, pp.121-33. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003.
Bede. ‘Life of Cuthbert’. In The Age of Bede, trans. J.F. Webb and D.H. Farmer, pp.41-104. Penguin, 1965.
Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, translated by Judith McClure and Roger Collins. Oxford University Press, 1994.
Coatsworth, Elizabeth. ‘The Book of Enoch and Anglo-Saxon Art’. In Apocryphal Texts and Traditions in Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Kathryn Powell and Donald Scragg, pp.135-50. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003.
Felix. The Life of Guthlac, translated by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.
Hinton, David. ‘Anglo-Saxon Smiths and Myths’. In Textual and Material Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Donald Scragg, pp.261-282. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003.
James, M.R. ‘A Fragment of the ‘Penitence of Jannes and Jambres’’. Journal of Theological Studies 2, 8 (1901): pp.572-7.
Loomis, C. Grant. ‘The Miracle Traditions of the Venerable Bede’. Speculum 21, 4 (Oct., 1946): pp.404-418.
O’Leary, Aideen. ‘Apostolic Passiones in Early Anglo-Saxon England’. In Apocryphal Texts and Traditions in Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Kathryn Powell and Donald Scragg, pp.103-19. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003.
O’Leary, Aideen. ‘An Orthodox English Homiliary? Ælfric’s Views on the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 100 (1999): pp.15-26.
Schapiro, Meyer. ‘The Religious Meaning of the Ruthwell Cross’. The Art Bulletin 26, 4 (Dec., 1944): pp.232-45.
‘The Lacnunga’. In Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from British Library Ms Harley 585: The Lacnunga, 2 vols., edited by Edward Pettit. Edward Mellen Press, 2001.