A Foam-Bell on the River Weird

“But the end of all things is at hand . . .”

1 Peter 4:7.

“Wyrd hath swept away all my kinsmen . . . to the appointed doom.  I must after them.”

Beowulf, Brewster trans. (c. 1000 A.D.)

I recently posted a gloomy reflection on the end of all things.  It was called “The Roar of Our Cataract” and contained some stoical reflections on doom, which is to say fate.  We are all of us doomed, which is to say destined to some end, and we naturally picture our fatal condition as a voyage—without rudder, paddle or oar—down the twisting river of time.

The Anglo Saxons called fate wyrd, and often personified wyrd as an old woman who wove the fates of men and nations with her spindle and loom.  A modern writer recounts the landing of the first Anglo Saxon ship on Albion’s shore, using the terms and cadence of a gleeman of that ancient race.

                               “Few of them wist, then,
How Wyrd the weaver wove at her spindle
Of good or of ill for all men and races
That dwell on the earth, as ever she must do,
Goddess supreme . . .”*

We have our word weird from the name of this weaving goddess of fate, and it must be allowed that fate is weird in that it brings us many surprises.  If doom is like a river, it is a decidedly weird and twisting river, with a surprise hidden beyond each bend.  And weirdest of all is the fact that, when we near the river’s end and look back on these surprises, we see that they are just what we should have expected.

* * * * *

My mind is full of doom and weirdness because today is my birthday, and it is fixed on the end of all things because I am now sixty-two.  As I put it in that post from two months back:

“Age brings with it a certain fatalism.  It is when a man’s powers decline that he sees volition for the illusion that it always was.  In bygone days, he may have thought he was swimming with a sure and powerful stroke, but it now appears that he was always carried by the currents of the river.  And when he at last hears the roar of that not-so-distant cataract, he notices that the banks of the river are far too steep and slippery for him to climb.  And when he considers, he recalls that they were always steep, and slippery, and topped by a thicket of thorny brambles.  There never was anywhere for him to go, other than down the river and over the falls.”

* * * * *

The three Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth are daughters or devotees of Wyrd.  One could be forgive for assuming that Shakespeare gave them this name because they were strange, since strange they certainly were; but Shakespeare (who did not invent the trio) gave them this name because their mother had told them the fate of Macbeth.

Here is how the old Scottish legend was recounted in a history written some thirty years before the Bard set down his play.

“It fortuned as Macbeth and Banquo journeyed . . . passing through the woods and fields, when suddenly . . . there met them three women in strange and ferly [marvelous] apparel, resembling creatures of an elder [elfish] world . . . . The first of them spoke and said: ‘All hail Macbeth, Thane of Glammis’ (for he had lately entered into that dignity and office by the death of his father. . .). The second of them said: Hail Macbeth, Thane of Cawder [a title he would soon receive].  But the third said: All hail Macbeth, that hereafter shall be king of Scotland.”**

The author of this history then remarks,

“The common opinion was, that these women were either the Weird Sisters, that is  . . . the Goddesses of destiny, or else some nymphs or fairies endowed with knowledge of prophesy . . . because everything came to pass as they had spoken.”

I said that fatalism comes with age.  With age there also comes the ears to hear those goddesses of destiny the Weird Sisters, dressed in their strange and ferly apparel, resembling creatures of an elvish world, and endowed with knowledge of what is to come.

The Three Weird Sisters from Hollinshead, Chronicles (1577)

* * * * *

When river froth is caught in an eddy, the centripetal force of the swirling water causes the froth to mount in the shape of a bell.  It was from this curious phenomenon that a mass of floating suds or scum came to be called a foam-bell.  And because a rolling river will scatter bubbles as soon as it gathers them, the foam-bell was once a natural metaphor for anything fleeting, insubstantial and vain.

“A bright foam-bell on the waters rose,
On the ripples it danced away
. . .
When lo! in a golden flash it sank!
But the sun shone bright as ever,
And still as of old, from bank to bank,
Swept on that rippling river.”***


*) John Lesslie Hall, Old English Idyls (1899)

**) Raphael Holinshead, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577)

***) John Anderson, Sprigs of Heather (1884)

13 thoughts on “A Foam-Bell on the River Weird

  1. Happy Birthday, Mr. Smith. May your last things be distant and your weird things be expected. Here’s to another year of your wit and wisdom.

    The word “weird” has held a…well, weird place in my mind since I read Frank Herbert’s Dune. It referenced the “Weirding Way”. I was never quite sure what he meant. I guess he meant prophecy.

    • Thanks, Scoot. I started Dune when I was too young to understand it, and so got lost and discouraged well before the end. Shakespeare certainly made the Weird Sisters into hags and witches, and in every production of Macbeth I have seen, the actresses really ham it up in the old “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” scene. But I really must try to avoid saying weird when I mean bizarre or outlandish.

  2. Pingback: A Foam-Bell on the River Weird | Reaction Times

  3. Thanks. I wonder if some of that U shaped curve comes from the premature deaths of the unhappiest people. The alcoholics and druggies begin to fall by the wayside; the really angry people succumb to apoplexy; the suicidal finally have their way. And since we are petty-minded creatures, thoughts of our personal extinction may bother us less than annoyances like our neighbor’s barking dog or the rat in the office down the hall. I think many old people also derive considerable satisfaction from thinking how many peers they have outlived, and this satisfaction must by mathematic law increase until the day they are, by their own death, able to augment the happiness of someone else.

  4. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 11/10/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

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