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Daniel (Old English poem)

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Daniel (Old English poem)

Author(s) anonymous
Language Old English
State of existence two poems, A and B; possibly unfinished
Manuscript(s) Junius manuscript
Genre poetry
Verse form alliterative
Length 764 lines
Subject based on the Book of Daniel
Personages Daniel, Three Youths, Nebuchadnezzar II

Daniel is an anonymous Old English poem based loosely on the Biblical Book of Daniel, found in the Junius Manuscript. The author and the date of Daniel are unknown. Critics have argued that Caedmon is the author of the poem, but this theory has been since disproved. Daniel, as it is preserved, is 764 lines long. There have been numerous arguments that there was originally more to this poem than survives today. The majority of scholars, however, dismiss these arguments with the evidence that the text finishes at the bottom of a page, and that there is a simple point, which translators assume indicates the end of a complete sentence. Daniel contains a plethora of lines which Old English scholars refer to as “hypermetric” or long. Daniel is one of the four major Old Testament prophets, along with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The poet even changed the meaning of the story from remaining faithful while you are being persecuted to a story dealing with pride, which is a very common theme in Old English Literature. The Old English, Daniel is a warning against pride and there are three warnings in the story. The Israelites were conquered because they lost faith in God, who delivered them from Egypt, and started worshiping idles and this is the first prideful act. The second and third warnings are about internal pride, shown to Nebakanezer through Daniel's dream interpretations.


The Old English Daniel is based only loosely on the Biblical Book of Daniel from which it draws its inspiration. Daniel ignores the majority of the apocalyptic and prophetic writing found towards the end of the Biblical source, and focuses instead on the first five chapters of the narrative. The poem also leaves out Daniel being thrown into the lions’ den.

The primary focus of the Old English author was that of The Three Youths, Daniel and their encounters with the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (OE Nabuchodnossor). The three men and Daniel were about 14 when they were taken away. The three youths are named Ananias, Misael, and Azarias. Daniel is called aethele cnithas, meaning that he was to be trained a servant for the king. Daniel was put into servitude and him and the youths were also probably made eunuchs, the speculation comes because the master of the eunuchs trained the youths in divination, magic, and astrology.

The poem’s first lines speak of the glory of Israel but then the poem quickly speaks of how prideful the Israelites had become. Then the poem mentions that Israel was conquered for worshiping idols and putting too much faith in man instead of God. Daniel is briefly mentioned in the first hundred lines of the poem but he shows up to interpret God’s signs, warnings, to Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was given a new name, Baltassar, when he was made a servant and the other three youths were given new names as well, Sidrach, Misach, and Abdenago. At the end of their three year training, the king found that they excelled at everything that they were trained in, so he placed them in high places in his court. Daniel soon got to show off his great wisdom because he succeeded when all the other magicians in the kingdom failed. Daniel was able to recite and interpreted King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams.

Daniel is able to interoperate the king’s dream and show him that his pride is becoming out of control, but King Nebuchadnezzar is quick to forget what Daniel told him. The poem then talks about the three youths being thrown into the “fiery furnace” for not bowing down and worshiping the Babylonian gods. This was a pretty common form of execution for the Babylonians. The furnace is supposed to represent the end for the youths and the youths represent faith in God. The furnace was so hot that the men who threw them in perished. An angle of God protected the youths from the flames of the furnace. Nebuchadnezzar was told that the men were alive and when he looked into the furnace he saw four men in the furnace and the three youth were unbound. Nebuchadnezzar then told the men to come out of the furnace; he then saw the power of God and gave the men promotions in his court.

The poem says that Nebuchadnezzar is the most arrogant of men (Daniel, i 614). So God punishes him for his wickedness and castes him into exile for a while, but when he comes back he hasn’t changed his ways. So God eventually causes his kingdom to fall to another king, Cyrus the Mede. King Nebuchadnezzar has another dream the night before his kingdom falls. He is really flustered and scared because of what the dream showed him. Like before no one in the country could tell the king the dreams meaning, then Daniel recites and interprets the king’s dream for him. Daniel is quick to point out his pride and Nebuchadnezzar changes his ways quickly, but he is too late. The poem points out that Daniel knows what the dream means but he is almost too afraid to tell his king.

Daniel 523-55

Then the earthly king awoke from his sleep, the dream was at an end. He stood in fright, terrified from the sprit that God sent him. The ill-tempered leader then summoned the whole land. The prideful king then asked all the good men what the dream meant, they knew not how to interpret the dream but they knew an alternative. Daniel heated, God’s prophet, had the holy spirit give his soul support. Deep within his heart the guardian helped him craft wise words. Again he showed them many wonders , mighty works of God, for men to behold. Then he, the proud and pagan leader, spoke certain words, beginning with the dream, spoke of the horror shown to him. He asked what the dream had to offer, hiding in his heart, he asked Daniel to speak truthful words on what the dream had meant. He ask the wise man to answer his fate. He then was silent; however Daniel understood the truth and understood that his lord was guilty with God. Though hesitant the guide spoke:

Many scholars divide Daniel into two parts, Daniel A and Daniel B. Daniel A is a retelling of the beginning of the Book of Daniel. Daniel B is read by some scholars to be a version of the Old English poem Azarias in the Exeter Book, which is almost identical in lines 1-71, but less similar in the lines following. Although Daniel B comes later in the poem, it is read as a prayer for deliverance although deliverance is already granted in the first half of the poem (Daniel A). This fact has led many Old English scholars to view Daniel B as an interpolation. There are many other factors supporting this claim, including differences in vocabulary and metrical usage. Yet another piece of evidence that Daniel B seems to be an addition to the original poem lies in the general content of early Old English Christian poetry. Daniel B seems to emphasize the allegorical meaning of the Book of Daniel, which is drastically different from the majority of Old English Christian Poetry written around the approximated date of Daniel.


Book of Daniel (Vulgate) Old English Daniel Comments Old English Azarias Narrative contents
1:1—3:24 lines 1—278 Daniel A Introduction; Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar's first dream; the Three Youths cast into the Fiery Furnace.
3:25—3:50 lines 279—361 Daniel B lines 1-71 Song of Azarias; introduction to the Song of the Three Children.
3:52—3:90 lines 362—408 Daniel B lines 72-161a The Song of the Three Children.
3:81—Chapter 5 lines 409—764 Daniel A The Three Youths survive; Nebuchadnezzar's second dream; his exile and return; prophecy of end of Babylonian reign and Belshazzar's death.

Differences between the Old English Daniel and Biblical Daniel

Some scholars insist that the Daniel poet was much more interested in the literal interpretation of the Book of Daniel, but others illustrate the author's intention to write allegorically. In the Biblical Book, King Nebuchadnezzar wishes to educate Daniel, but the dramatized OE Daniel has Nebuchodnossor trying to acquire Daniel's wisdom. This change sets the character of Daniel in a way more consistent with the Old English hero. ). The three youths are named Ananias, Misael, and Azarias. Daniel is called aethele cnithas, meaning that he was to be trained a servant for the king. Daniel was put into servitude and him and the youths were also probably made eunuchs, the speculation comes because the master of the eunuchs trained the youths in divination, magic, and astrology. Daniel is also called "archi-eunouchos", which translates to “chief eunuch”, in the Septuagint, a Greeek Bible. Daniel is also called "praepositus eunuchorum" in the Volgate, a Latin bible. This is something that is not mentioned the Old English Daniel or in any recent version of the bible. The NIV and NAV versions of the bible simply call him the “chief official”. Another stark contrast is the inclusion of the author's version of the Azarias and the introduction to the Biblical Book called Song of Songs. These differences and many others are thought to indicate that the unknown author of Daniel was not simply paraphrasing the Biblical book, but was in fact original in his composition.

Critical assessment

The abrupt ending of the poem seems to denote that the work was unfinished. This assumption is based on the idea that Daniel is a mere translation of the Bible. However, the poem’s focus diverges from that of the Bible in an attempt to state a more distinctive message about pride. The poem achieves this by being less concerned about conveying details of the dreams and Daniel’s prophecies. As the role of Daniel diminishes, the message of pride and humility can be more prevalent and in turn causes Nebuchadnezzar’s role to be increasingly important.[1] The author creates a new perspective by using Nebuchadnezzar. The focus then shifts from Daniel’s prophetic gift to consequences of pride.[1] There is also, then, a stronger link between pride and God’s judgment of pride. This is because Daniel takes on the sole role of being the giver of God’s warnings.[2] Had the author then added Daniel in the Lion’s den, there would have been a shift of focus on Daniel. As a result, Daniel would overshadow the warnings of pride. Also, the accounts that are given in Daniel all have a message about pride and arrogance. In conclusion, Daniel is not just a poetic form of the Biblical book, but rather part of the same story with a different perspective.

See also



Editions and translations
  • Krapp, G. (ed.). The Junius Manuscript. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Record 1. New York, 1931. 111-32.
  • Bradley, S.A.J. (tr.). Anglo-Saxon Poetry. London; David Campbell, 1995. 66-86.
  • R.T. Farrell,Daniel and Azarias, 1974
Secondary literature
  • Anderson, E.R. "Style and Theme in the Old English Daniel." English Studies 68 (1987): 1-23. Reprinted in: The Poems of MS Junius, ed. R.M. Liuzza. New York & London: Routledge, 2002. 229-60.
  • Bosse, Roberta Bux and Jennifer Lee Wyatt. "Hrothgar and Nebuchadnezzar. Conversion in Old English Verse." PPL. 257-71.
  • Bugge, John. "Virginity and prophecy in the Old English Daniel." English Studies 87.2 (April 2006): 127-47.
  • Caie, Graham D. "The Old English Daniel: A Warning Against Pride." English Studies 59 (1978): 1-9.
  • George, J.-A. "Hwalas ðec herigað: Creation, Closure and the Hapax Legomena of the OE Daniel." In A Festschrift in Honour of Prof. Jane Roberts' 65th Birthday, eds. Christian Kay and Louise Sylvester. Rodopi, 2000.
  • George, J.-A. "Daniel 416-29: An 'Identity Crisis' Resolved?'" Medium Ævum 60.1 (1991): 73-6.
  • George, J.-A. "Repentance and Retribution: The Use of the Book of Daniel in Old and Middle English Texts." The John Rylands Library Bulletin 77.3 (1995): 177-92.
  • Harbus, Antonina. "Nebuchadnezzar's dreams in the Old English Daniel." English Studies 75.6 (Nov. 1994): 489-508. Available from EBSCO (30 Sep. 2008).
  • Remley, Paul G. Old English Biblical Verse: Studies in Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 16. Cambridge and New York: CUP, 1996.
  • Remley, Paul G. "Daniel, the Three Youths Fragment and the Transmission of Old English Verse." Anglo-Saxon England 31 (2002): 81-140.
  • Sharma, Manish. "Nebuchadnezzar and the Defiance of Measure in the Old English Daniel." English Studies 86.2 (April 2005): 103-26.
  • Encyclopedic entries in:
    • Medieval England: An Encyclopedia, eds. Paul E. Szarmach, M. Teresa Tavormina, Joel T. Rosenthal. New York: Garland Pub., 1998.
    • The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Michael Lapidge. Oxford, 1991.
    • Dictionary of the Middle Ages, ed. Joseph R. Strayer.
    • Catholic Encyclopedia
    • Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, ed. Andre Vauchez; 2002.
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