All About Beowulf’s Final "Boast-Words" [ll.2510-2528] (Old English)

Translation
Recordings
Initial Thoughts
Why so Compounded?
Three Possibilities
Closing

{What Beowulf imagines his fight with the dragon will look like – war-fire, breath, venom, shield, and all. Image from eKits.}

Back To Top
Translation

This week’s section of Beowulf sees him boast for the last time, before turning and addressing his thanes. Let’s listen in:

“Beowulf spoke, gave form to boast-words
for the final time: ‘In youth I
risked much in combat; yet I will once more
though an old king of the people, pursue the feud,
gain glory, if only the fiend to men
will come out from his earth-hall to face me!’
Addressed he then each warrior,
each helm-wearer for truly the final time,
each dear companion: ‘I would not bear a sword,
bring the weapon to the worm, if I knew how
I might otherwise gloriously grapple against
that foe, as I once with Grendel did;
but there will be hot war-fires, I expect,
breath and venom; thus I have on
both shield and byrnie. Nor will I give a foot’s length
when I meet the barrow’s guard, but between us two
what is to happen later on this sea wall, that is as fate,
measurer of men, is drawn to decide. I am firm of heart,
so that I may cease from boasting over this war-flyer.'”
(Beowulf ll.2510-2528)

Back To Top
Recordings
Now, to give you a sense of how that would sound:

And in Modern English:

Back To Top
Initial Thoughts

This passage, for all of its high boast density, is quite straightforward. Beowulf says that he will fight the dragon as long as he comes out of the barrow, and then turns to his men to tell them why he’s carrying a shield and wearing armor. Then, he closes it all off by saying that he is “firm of heart,/so that I may desist from boasting over this war-flyer” (“Ic eom on mōde from/þæt ic wið þone guð-flogan gylp ofersitte” ll.2527-8)

That’s it.

There’s definitely something to say for its directness. This quality might even be the result of Beowulf’s melancholic belief that this will be his last fight, and the poet’s own admission of the same. But, as always, there is one curious thing to poke at – like a sleeping dragon coiled around a heap of gold.

Back To Top
Why so Compounded?

This passage uses a fair number of compound nouns: “Bēot-wordum” for “boast-words;” “mān-sceaða,” for “fiend to men;” “eorð-sele” for “earth-hall;” “helm-berende;” for “helm-wearers;” “heaðu-fyres,” for “war-fires;” “guð-floga” for “war-flyer.”

All of these compound words share two characteristics. They’re all related to war, and they’re all direct , straightforward terms. Though it might be contentious, none of them are the fancier type of compound words known as kennings (like “līchama” for “body” (literally “body-raiment”) or “heofon-candel” for “sun” (literally “sky-candle”).

Maybe Beowulf isn’t in the mood for speeches wrought with fine words like cups studded with jewels. Maybe the poet is trying to just skate on through this section being straight to the point and direct. Or maybe, there’s something more going on here – something at the level of connotation and association.

Maybe direct, clear compound words, are those that are related to war specifically. Granted, you might be able to come up with more elaborate compounds that are used to describe battles and what not, but at least here, it’s curious that they’re so streamlined. If this is indicative of something about the poem that’s one thing. But what if it’s pointing to something present in all of Anglo-Saxon poetry, maybe even the culture itself?

Back To Top
Three Possibilities

If we run with the idea that this compounding cluster relates to Anglo-Saxon culture, then the compound words/phrases relating to war being straightforward and direct could mean a number of things. It could be meant to reflect the manly nature of war, men being more direct and active. Though this is a little bit anachronistic, since Anglo-Saxon women could rise to the same level of martial power as men.

Alternatively, this straightforwardness of war-related compounds could mean that war itself was something that the Anglo-Saxons regarded as straightforward. Or, maybe they saw it as something that need not be embellished when its reality is about to be brought home.

For all of Beowulf’s boasting up to this point has been about the past, only now does he actually boast about what he is going to do next. Maybe the rough drafts of boasts, boasts for deeds undone, are underplayed so that they can be elevated to ecstatically glorious places after the deeds they describe are done.

Or, again, maybe this straightforward language on the part of Beowulf (and the poet) is meant to be taken as a deference to fate.

Everything is cold and windy on the promontory. Beowulf is about to face the dragon, and talking to his men before the worm comes from its underground lair. Things are tense. Things are heavy. Beowulf knows that he’s an old man, “an old king of the people” (“frōd folces weard” l.2513). He knows that the dragon’s breath and venom are to be feared, to be protected against. So maybe his direct boasting, and its firm, resolute ending, are meant to show his humility before fate. After all, for our two combatants, it will be as fate decides, “swā…wyrd getēoð” (l. 2526).

Back To Top
Closing

What do you make of this crowd of compound words, these straightforward and unassuming combinations? Let me know down in the comments.

Next week, be ready for more of St. Isidore’s writing on deer, and Beowulf gives his final commands to the men before heading off to draw the dragon from its den.

Back To Top

St. Isidore’s En-deer-ing Take on a Natural Pharmacist [12:16-18] (Latin)

Translation
Spoken Versions
Thoughts on Deer
An Unexpected Discovery
Closing

{It’s true – things were bigger in the past. Image from the National Library of the Netherlands Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts Collection}

St. Isidore wastes no time shifting to a new class of animal, so let’s not waste any time getting to what he’s got to say:

Translation

[16] “Likewise the deer; also ibexes, avice as it were, those that appear as the birds amidst the hills and hold to heights and live in the acme of the mountains, so that they are rarely open to the human gaze.
[17] “From whence they are called bird ibexes in the southern parts, [birds] that live by the Nile river. This animal also, so called, dwells in the high rocks; and if they sense danger by human or by chase, they escape unhurt to the high mountains where they sharpen their own horns beforehand.
[18] “Deer are called “Apo Ton Keraton,” he is of horn; “Kerata” is truly what the Greeks call horns. This animal has the serpent as an enemy yet it can anticipate the severe injury from it, but it draws the spirit out from its nostrils in its caves, they overcome this terrible venom by their food. For dittany is known to them; that they use while in the field to shake off that poison. Moreover they wonderfully hiss as panpipes do.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:16-18)

Back To Top
Spoken Versions

In an effort to bring these dead languages new life, here’s the above in spoken Latin:

And in spoken English:

Back To Top
Thoughts on Deer

Now, unfortunately there’s not as much lore in this passage as there’s been in recent weeks.

But, there’s at least an implication that deer are revered as quasi-sacred animals since the height of their homes is emphasized.

The fact that they also know of the curative properties of wild marjoram (“dittany,” or the Latin “dictamnum”) also suggests that they’ve got a measure of intelligence that goes beyond that of most other animals. Underwriting this implication about deer is Isidore’s use of “ipsi” “self, himself, herself, etc.” in the sentence about dittany being “known to them” (“prodiderunt”). This wording makes it plain that the deer have figured this out on their own.

And then there’s the strange mention of the deer’s hissing sounding like panpipes (“fistularum,” or “bagpipes, tubes, panpipes”). Maybe such a high pitched sound is supposed to further highlight the deer’s harmonious state in its natural place. Or maybe it’s supposed to gently disprove pagan belief in satyrs, since there’s a natural explanation within the bounds of Christian creation.

Back To Top
An Unexpected Discovery

Fairly unrelated to all this talk of deer is a discovery made away from the translated page.

The word “avices” wasn’t turning anything up in the Collins Gem Latin Dictionary used for reference, so the words around where it should be were poked at. Among these words is “Avernus,” which refers to a lake that was “believed to be an entrance to the lower world” (according to the Dictionary’s definition).

It doesn’t seem to be related to the hall of Grendel and Grendel’s mother in Beowulf, but the idea that a lake and not just a cave could lead to the lower world suggests a Roman precedent for the underwater hall of the epic. Undoubtedly there are also precedents in Germanic myth and lore, but this one from the Romans (Virgil uses it as this in the Aeneid) is indeed curious.

Perhaps the Romans spread this story amongst the Britons and those living in the Roman-occupied British Isles?

Perhaps those stories were then passed around and eventually picked up by a Briton poet or scop ([shaw-op] Old English for “poet”) savvy enough to know that underwater halls were already popular with/known to his new patrons?

Tracking that sort of historical progression is tricky – but that’s just what makes it so fascinating.

Back To Top
Closing

Like that hypothetical scop, Beowulf also minds his words in this week’s passage from the poem as he makes the bulk of his war-boast before at last going into the barrow. Check back on Thursday for it!

Back To Top

Beowulf’s Boasts – Dayraven’s and Dragon’s Bane [2496-2509] (Old English)

Translation
A Word and a Name
Compounded Words
Conclusion and Wrap Up

There’s more boasting from Beowulf today, as he recalls the turning point in his career and then starts to talk some smack about the dragon’s hoard.

{Perhaps the younger Beowulf that our hero has in mind. Image created by Sandra Effinger}

Translation

“Always would I go on foot before him,
first in the line, and so ’til age takes me
shall I conduct war, so long as this sword survives,
that which has and will endure;
ever since before the hosts I became the
hand slayer of Dayraven,the Frankish warrior
No treasure at all did he
bring back to the Frisian king,
No breast plate could he have carried,
for, in the field as standard bearer, he fell,
princely in courage; he was not slain by the sword
but by hostile grip I halted the surge of his heart,
broke his bone-house. Now shall the sword’s edge,
hand and hard blade, be heaved against the hoard.”
(Beowulf ll.2496-2509)

As with any passage that concentrates so much on warfare there are some bits here that are so loud that they can’t be ignored.

Return To Top
A Word and a Name

One such bit is the word “feðan.” It looks like it should be a verb because of its “an” ending, but the Clarke Hall & Meritt dictionary isn’t quite so sure about it.

However, the translation of “marched” or “go on foot” makes sense since the entry right before it is feða, meaning “footsoldier.” It might not be a perfect translation, but just turning that word into a verb might be an all right way to go. Sense be damned, right?

Speaking of sense, the name Dayraven (originally Dæghrefne) could carry an odd one. As came up in an earlier entry, the raven is one of the three beasts of battle. But the significance of the raven isn’t finished there.

Based on the appearance of a raven at daybreak earlier in the poem (l.1801, during the celebration of Beowulf defeating Grendel’s mother), the bird is definitely a bringer of joy. So what could it mean for Beowulf to kill a warrior named for this good omen-bearing bird?

Moreover, should we take the suggestion that Beowulf has killed a symbol of joy to mean that he has doomed himself, or is this joy only that of the Franks who have lost their standard bearer and a man that is “princely in courage” (“æþeling on elne,” l.2506)?

Dayraven’s being identified with the Franks twice within two consecutive lines suggests that if he is to be understood as some sort of embodiment of joy he is definitely the Franks’ joy only. But given what happens to Beowulf when he faces the dragon, one wonders.

Return To Top
Compounded Words

As this passage is one of the climaxes of Beowulf’s boasting there are some cool compound words in it. Among them are “brēost-weorðunge,” “hilde-grāp” and “bān-hūs.” None of these yield any crazy literal translations, being breast-ornament, hostile grip, and bone-house respectively, but they’re all compounds that hint at bits of the poem’s culture.

“Brēost-weorðunge” is possibly the most nebulous. A breast ornament could be decorative plate armor, but maybe it refers to something like a heavy necklace, or something that you could hang off of armor – medals, maybe. But that such an accessory was important enough to have its own name (poetic or otherwise) implies that the Anglo-Saxons took their bling seriously.

“Hilde-grāp” and “bān-hūs” are clearer and more direct, but no less curious. Why? Because they’re both readily translatable into words/phrases that could easily transfer into today’s English.

Also, that “hilde-grāp” specifies a certain kind of grip makes it clear that grappling was pretty important to Anglo-Saxons. Beowulf’s feats earlier in the poem also back up this implication about their culture.

With “bān-hūs” the implication seems to be more metaphysical, or at the least spiritual. Referring to a body as a “bone-house” might hint at there being something not of flesh dwelling within that house. That Clark Hall & Meritt translate it as “body, chest, breast” supports this idea that it hints at a belief in a soul of in-dwelling life force, since the “chest” or “breast” contains the heart.

All of this connotation puts me in mind of another Old English compound: “word-hoard.”

Return To Top
Conclusion and Wrap Up

Since Beowulf has talked up his sword skill with all of this boasting the dragon definitely needs to fear what’s coming to it. But – it won’t be coming just yet. Beowulf still has some more boasting to get out of the way before he’s ready to head over to the beast’s den. And, at the opposite end of things, Isidore gets into talk of ibexes next week.

So, be sure to check back next week for those two entries. In the meantime, what do you make of Beowulf’s killing Dayraven? Feel free to leave your thoughts in a comment.
Return To Top

Edible Kids, Lust-Eyed He-Goats, and Eccentric She-Goats [12:13-15] (Latin)

Translation
On Kids
He-Goats
She-Goats
Conclusion

Goats and she goats are St. Isidore’s topic this week, and there are, as with last week’s section on lambs and sheep, some curious bits of lore thrown in with his definitions.

{Can’t you just see the lust in those eyes? Image from the CR4 article “Is Going Green Getting Your Goat?”}

Translation

[13]”Kids {“haedus”} are so named for eating {“edulare”}. For the small are the fattest and of a delightful taste, from whence [and to eat, from whence] comes the word for edible.

[14]”The he-goat is a truly lascivious animal and a butter and always eager for sex; and we can see lust lying across its eye, from whence its name {“hircus”} is drawn. For the eyes of the he-goat are angular as it is in the second book of Suetonius (Prat 171); whose nature is indeed the hottest like diamond stone, material which neither fire nor iron is able to break into, and which blood alone can dissolve. Many he-goats are called Cinyphri for the river Cinyphrus in Libya, where many were born.

[15] “We call she-goats and she-goats* {capra} for their nibbling {carpo}
of thickets. Others are caught bitterly. Some rattle the blood, from which they can be called rattlers; which are wild she goats, which for the Greeks are sharp to look upon, they are called by them ‘Oksuderkesteron durka.’ In fact, they are seen in the height of mountains, and ever so of those in the distance, however all come that far nevertheless.”
(Book 12:13-15 of St. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae)
(*This phrase caused me difficulty since the Latin is “capros et capras,” which suggests male and female “she-goats.”)

Back To Top
On Kids

“Kid’s are so named for eating.” Out of context, this could be a terrifying statement. And even in context, it’s not entirely clear automatically.

On the one hand, it makes sense that you would want to fatten an animal up before eating it. On the other, if you’re eating all of the young of an animal (the textbook definition of “kid”), then how are you to get more of the adults? A certain degree of moderation must’ve been practiced by people of that age.

Or maybe, since the kids are also known to have a “pleasing/delightful taste” they were saved for special occasions only.

But alas, St. Isidore doesn’t pause to give us such a detail. Instead, he plunges ahead into the realm of lust and cheap casinos. Or, well, maybe just lust.

Yes, he moves onto he-goats (“hircus”).

Back To Top
He-Goats

One question that comes up immediately on reading this passage is, why does lust live laying across the eye? Or, if you translate “transversus” differently, the corner of the eye? This could be a reference to the slitted pupil of the goat, or perhaps to an idea that lust wasn’t something generally conveyed with a direct look, but instead a glance out of the corner of an eye.

Maybe, in such a situation, if such a glance went unchecked by the glancer and the glancer turned to get a full look of what lust had pulled his or her attention to, then it would become full blown desire.

In the ancient world there was also a belief that a person’s gaze was more of a beam than a passive receiver of information, so maybe such a direct look was also associated with things like Cupid’s arrows. They could be pulled from a quiver (the sidelong glance) and then fired at the victim (the object of the full on look) and maybe there’d be return fire or the shot would just be deflected and all for naught. It’d be great if there’s some love poetry that uses such warlike imagery. A find like that would really cement this connection.

When St. Isidore compares the goat’s fiery nature to the impenetrable nature of diamonds a few more questions might be raised.

Why compare something like an animal’s nature to a diamond in terms of hardness?

Did having a “hard nature” carry the same meaning that it does today, stubborn and wanton, difficult to really get along with?

That “fire and iron” represent the greatest forces that St. Isidore can describe in single words is also curious, since the martial influence is again visible. And that sort of influence is quite clear in the verb “domare” (meaning to tame, break into, conquer). It’s interesting how even 1300 years ago sex and violence were associated with each other.

And speaking of sex, the characteristics that St. Isidore attributes to she goats are also intriguing (partially because the Latin seems especially dense here).

Back To Top
She-Goats

The fact that they “rattle” is definitely something lost in translation – much like how “kids are so named for eating.” A good guess is that she-goats are noisy, in that they rattle their voices, or bleat, frequently.

What’s out and out weird, is the way that St. Isidore describes she-goats as being seen in the high and far mountains but only by those who bother to look. What does this even mean? That the wild she goats are so plentiful in Greece that they just go unnoticed? Or are she-goats taking on a more spiritual meaning here?

Back To Top
Conclusion

If you’ve got some ideas about what St. Isidore is talking about when it comes to she-goats’ travel habits, or if you know of any warlike love poetry from the 7th century or earlier, simply let me know in a comment.

And check back Thursday for the continuation of Beowulf’s boasting about his deeds and for a clear statement about what he’s going to do with his sword and the dragon’s hoard.

Back To Top

Credits in a Comitatus and Boasts Filled with Wonder Words [ll.2484-2495] (Old English)


The Translation
Ongentheow’s Killer and the Comitatus
“heoro-blāc”
“ēðel-wynn”
“Gifðum”
Wrap-up

{a younger Beowulf, perhaps, flashing his gams and doing some boasting. From “Gayle’s Bard Blog.”}

The Translation

We return to Beowulf now, as he rounds out his history lesson and starts to verbally fist pump. Let’s listen in:

“Then in the morning I heard that his kin
avenged him by the blade, plunged its edge to end
the slayer’s life where Eofor’s attack fell upon Ongenþēow;
his war-helm split, the Swedish warlord
fell sword-wan; his hand held memory enough
of feuding, he could not hold off that fatal blow.

“The treasure, which Hygelac gave to me,
I won for him by flashing sword; he gave to me land,
a native place, land joy. For him there was no need,
no reason to be required to seek some worse warrior
from the gifthouse or the spear-danes or the swedes,
my worth was well known.”
(Beowulf ll.2484-2495)

Some interesting stuff is going on in this passage.

Back To Top
Ongentheow’s Killer and the Comitatus

First, there’s the question of who killed Ongenþēow. The text suggests that it was Hygelac who killed him “by the sword’s edge” (“billes ecgum” l.2485), but it also mentions an Eofor who is credited with splitting his helmet (“thǣr Ongenþēow Eofores nīosað;/gūð-helm tōglād” ll.2486-7). So who’s the real hero, Beowulf?

To a modern reader this double crediting of Ongenþēow’s kill (something that might lead to another killing if it happened in a MMORPG), might seem confused. But, to an Anglo-Saxon sensibility, it makes perfect sense.

Consider for a minute the fact that Hygelac is, at the point when Ongenþēow’s killed, the leader of the Geat forces against the Swedes at this battle since Hæðcyn has been killed. Thus, Eofor is fighting as Hygelac’s thane – Eofor is part of Hygelac’s group.

In Anglo-Saxon terms, such a group could be called a “comitatus,” a band of warriors held together by mutual quid pro quo. If a warrior pledges his life and sword to a lord, he fights until his death – even if that lord should die before he does. In return, the lord provides the warrior with treasure and land.

“The Battle of Maldon” is a perfect example of the comitatus style of loyalty because it tells of a band of warriors that fights on after their lord dies, even though they all know that they are doomed to die.

What’s happening in Beowulf, then, is that Hygelac is being credited with Eofor’s kill because Hygelac is the head of the Geats, of the Geatish comitatus, and likewise, all of the warriors within Hygelac’s comitatus are his swords. So it’s fair to say that Hygelac had his vengeance on Ongenþeow by the edge of the sword, in the sense that he was killed by one of Hygelac’s men.

At the level of words within the passage, there are indeed a few that are quite curious.

Back To Top
“heoro-blāc”

The word “heoro-blāc”, meaning “mortal wound” is unique among these curious words since it is a somewhat mysterious combination of “heoru” meaning “sword” and “blāc” meaning “pallid, pale, wan.” So, literally, someone who is “heoro-blāc” is “sword-pale.”

Unfortunately, the literal translation doesn’t work quite so well, since “sword-pale” suggests that something is as pale as a sword. Depending on what it’s made of, a corpse might get to a similar pallor as a clean, shiny sword, but it’s a rather fantastical comparison.

“Mortal wound” is a little on the nose, though, so “sword-wan” is what was used above. The term is used in the senses that Ongenþēow is weakened by the sword, and about as strong as a sword without a wielder. He is mighty, yet useless, as he lay where Eofor split his helmet.

Moving into Beowulf’s boast about his own accomplishments yields more tricky and wondrous words.

Back To Top
“ēðel-wynn”

First up there’s “ēðel-wynn” meaning “joy of ownership,” but made up of “ēðel” (native land, country, home) and “wynn” (joy). So translating the term as “joy of ownership” does work, in that there will be a joy in a native owning their own land, but at the same time “joy of ownership” falls short by generalizing the original word too much.

Nonetheless, what’s telling about the translation is that it completely ignores the fact that “ēðel-wynn” contains a specific reference to land (“ēðel”). There might not be an exact and precise equivalent term in English, but by cutting out any reference to land, it seems like that there’s a desire to deny a sense of landed-ness in Anglo-Saxon at play.

But that’s just not true.

The fact that a compound word with “ēðel” is used here is important because it shows that whenever Beowulf was written (or maybe even when it was still being sung) land ownership was a big deal to Anglo-Saxons. This means that they might have had a sense of nationhood as we do today, since it wasn’t something nebulous or abstract.

Words like “ēðel-wynn” allow you to make a case that there was a sense among Anglo-Saxons that a place defined a people and that if a certain people was given a certain space then that people would be joyous. So, it seems that Seamus Heaney’s translation of the word as “the security that land brings” is better, though still wanting for the implied sense of nationhood.

Back To Top
“Gifðum”

The other word is “Gifðum,” which is not in the Clark Hall & Meritt Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. However, Seamus Heaney translates it as “gift house.”

Heaney’s translation might just be in a newer dictionary, or it could be derived from the idea that “Gifðum” is a corruption of “giefu-hus.” A stretch, maybe, but the poem Beowulf isn’t beyond having a few textual ticks here and there.

For example, in the original Anglo-Saxon, there’s a consistent difference in spelling between the first and second halves of the poem, suggesting that there were two scribes involved in making the copy of the poem that we still have today.

Of course, textual ticks or no, that still leaves the nature of “Gifðum” a mystery.

Back To Top
Wrap-up

If you’ve got your own theory about what “Gifðum” could mean, I want to know, just leave it in a comment for me.

Next week, St. Isidore talks of the goat, we get some more medieval lore, and Beowulf starts into more boasting. Don’t miss it!
Back To Top

sheep!…Sheep! – Sheep! [12: 10-12] (Latin)

{A woolly one on the green. From the Netherland National Library’s Collection.}

Following up on his explanation of the differences between pack animals and herd animals – leaving off with the fact that “families” prefer to use goats/sheep for their sacrifices – St. Isidore explains a little bit more about this wondrous animal: the sheep.

Before getting to the translation, however, it must be pointed out that “families” is just one way to translate “gentilis.”

The almost automatic translation is “Gentile,” which may work, but the English translation of the Etymologiae that I use as a loose base text renders it “pagan.” To combine this with the Collins Pocket Gem Latin Dictionary’s translation of “family,” the word “gentilis” will be translated as “pagan clan” from here on out.

Now, without further ado, this week’s translation:

“[10] Wethers, also called males, which are stronger than other sheep; or which are virile, that is of masculine gender; or which have worms in their heads, which excite them by itching to strike each other with mutual force, and to carry out fights with great energy.

[11] Ares or [apo tou areos], that is Mars, these are called; so they are called manly in the flock by us or if that flock belongs to a pagan clan, the ram is first among the flock sacrificed. For the ram is placed on the altars by them. From whence it is: (Sedul. 1,115):

‘Upon the altar sacrifice the ram.’

[12] Lambs in Greek are called [apo tou agnou], as if holy, Latins on the other hand believe that the animal is so named for this reason, for compared with other animals it knows its mother; so that if ever it gets lost in a large flock, it immediately knows its parents by the call of their bleating.”
(St. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae: 12: 10-12)

(N.B.: the parts in square brackets are given in Ancient Greek: a dead language that I have yet to try my hand at.)

Where to start with this one? There’s the worms that, St. Isidore writes, are the reason for rams butting each others’ heads; there’s the weird reference to a mysterious work that clearly names rams as sacrifices; and there’s the etymology of the Latin word for lamb: “agnus.”

The beginning is always good.

The idea that worms cause a great itching on rams’ heads and this drives them to fight, is pure medieval bestiary material.

Completely wild ideas, but completely interesting, to boot. What’s most interesting about this idea though, is that it suggests that sheep are naturally harmonious. It isn’t that they butt their heads against trees to help soothe their itching heads, but they butt each other’s heads with “mutual force” (“invicem se concutiunt”). There’s a sense that these animals help each other out.

Even if this explanation for rams charging at each other is fantastical, it’s curious that such camaraderie is ascribed to sheep.

That these animals are also the ones that “Sedul.” dictates for sacrifice follows from this perception of sheep, no doubt. After all, why sacrifice any old animal?

If an animal has special value to humans it will be worth more amongst them. But if an animal seems to have a society going on that is similar to human society (considered the apex of all creation at this time), that must mean that within the cosmos the animal has a worth near that of humans. So, if you’re not going to sacrifice humans, why not sacrifice the next best thing – animals that help each other out.

Better yet, why not sacrifice animals that also show an inherent recognition of family?

The etymology for the Latin word for lamb, “agnus,” adds to this picture of sheep as a human-like animal, at least as far as values go. The word’s ascribed origin (the Latin word “agnosco,” meaning “to know”) also reflects the animal’s apparently Christian values – harmonious living among brethren and being aware of family. In particular, Isidore’s description of a lamb recognizing its parents by the sound of their voice (“statim balatu recognoscat vocem parentis” 12.12) is rather reminiscent of the tripartite holy family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

What’s perplexing though, is that sheep are so fixated on here.

Don’t calves know their mothers? Don’t foals?

Why are sheep so elevated as to have an etymology relating them to the Latin word “agnosco” meaning “to know”? Another, related question, is how “agnosco” morphed into the modern English “agnostic.”

At any rate, sheep might be so highly regarded and focused on simply because they could continuously provide. Year after year they could be sheared, some could be milked, and some could be slaughtered; so year after year they would provide food *and* clothing.

It’s hyperbolic, but that sheep give material for clothing and food turns the Chinese proverb “A warm coat is better than a fully belly” on its ear, since sheep could provide both. Couple that with their perceived cosmic value, and you’ve got a super animal.

What do you think about Isidore’s ideas of sheep? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

So, can St. Isidore best himself as he starts to write of goats? Find out next week!

Before that, though, this week sees Beowulf wrapping up his history lesson and moving into a demonstration of effective boasting. Check back Thursday for it!

Swedish Retribution "from over wide water" [ll.2472-2483] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
On Swedes and Geats
Compounding New Words
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

We get the history hard and fast in this week’s passage of Beowulf (ll.2472-2483, Chapter XXXV).

Back To Top
Translation

“‘Then between Swedes and Geats was war and enmity;
from over wide water causing laments,
wall-hard warfare, after Hrethel had perished,
Ongeonðēow’s sons to them came,
warlike; they would not free
those they held under sorrow’s sway, and near Hrēosnahill
they oft launched voracious ambushes.
My close-kin avenged this,
feud and war-fire, as it is known,
though one of them bought the victory, at a hard price,
with his life; Haethcyn, Geatish lord,
was taken in the war’s assailing.'”
(Beowulf ll.2472-2483)

{Approximation of the Hrēosnahill fight offered by a mural of the Battle of Maldon. From the Braintree collection of murals.}

Back To Top
On Swedes and Geats

Questions bubble up like air in a flagon of ale upon reading this passage. Who was Ongeonðēow? What’s important about Hrēosnahill? What liberties were taken with the translation?

Ongeonðēow [On-g’in-thou] was the king of the Swedes who launched an attack on the Geats to recover his daughter and his gold, both of which had been taken by the Geats on an earlier raid. He was famed as a powerful king, and two Geats (Eofor and Wulf) had to work together to defeat him (read more here). Though, as we’ll see in next week’s entry, Beowulf makes it sound like Hygelac himself lands the deathblow.

Hrēosnahill [Heh-res-na-hill] is where Hæðcyn had taken Ongeonðēow’s daughter, and is apparently a real place (modern Swedish:”Ramshult”), as well as a place that is traditionally within Geatish territory. Go to this Wikipedia page for more info.

So, what’s happening here is a little bit of old fashioned early medieval back and forth. The Geats stole Ongeonðēow’s daughter and gold (according to Wikipedia), and now the Swedes are coming for rescue and revenge – which they (again, from Wikipedia) only half exact. The Swedes recover the woman, but not the gold.

Two liberties were taken in the above translation. In the third line (l.2474) “wall-hard warfare” is altered from the literal “hard warfare” since the alliteration makes it sound more Anglo-Saxon and “hard warfare” isn’t as evocative as the original “here-nīð hearda.”

The phrase “under sorrow’s sway” was also altered from the literal “lamentation holding” since it doesn’t have enough punch in Modern English. It also confuses the metaphor of being held under extreme emotion, which is clarified by “under sorrow’s sway.”

Back To Top
Compounding New Words

The words “here-nīð,” and “inwit-scearo” are both compound words worthy of elaboration.

The first combines the word for “predatory band, troop, army; war, devastation” (“here”) and for “strife, enmity, attack, spite, affliction,” (“nīð”). Literally, then, it could be rendered “war-strife” or “troop-enmity” and so warfare is a clear translation of it. The redundancy of a literal translation also makes the standard translation of the phrase more efficient than a literal rendering.

The word “inwit-scearo” on the other hand, is more worthy. The term is a mix of “inwit,” meaning “evil, deceit, wicked, deceitful,” and “scearo,” a form of “scieran,” meaning “to cleave, hew, cut; receive tonsure; abrupt.”

Literally, the word could be rendered as “evil-cleave” or “abrupt-deceit” which sound like they could still be productive words among modern counterparts. “Evil-cleave” at least sounds like a technique in an RPG, while “abrupt-deceit” could be a spicier way to describe an ambush or surprise attack.

Back To Top
Closing

To let me know what you think about these compound words (or this entry in general) just post a comment below. And feel free to follow this blog, I’ll follow yours back.

Next week, Isidore elaborates on the workings of sheep and rams, and Beowulf tells of Hygelac’s revenge, all the while bolstering his own warrior-like image.

Back To Top