Beowulf: Mighty in Arms, Loose in Words? [ll.2732b-2743b] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Peering in, But Just Dipping Toes
Not Many Oaths Sworn “in Unrighteousness”
Kinds of Kin-Slaying
Closing

{Words spoken and frozen in wood, just as bad oaths are remembered. Image found on documentarystorm.com.}

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Abstract

Beowulf says that he’s come to terms with his death because he was a good king and can stand blameless before the final judgment.

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Translation

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp”‘I this people have ruled
for fifty winters; never was there a king of the people,
any of the neighbouring folks
would dare attack with war-friends,
threaten terror. I in my homeland awaited
destiny, it guarded me well,
I did not seek contrived hostility, nor swore I many
oaths in unrighteousness. In all of this
infirmity of a mortal wound I have joy;
because the Lord of men has no cause to accuse me
of murderous killing of kinsmen, when my
life passes from my body.'”
(Beowulf ll.2732b-2743a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Peering in, But Just Dipping Toes

For such a short passage, there’s a fair bit going on here.

It’s revealed that Beowulf has ruled as long as Hrothgar and Grendel’s Mother did; that Beowulf was the sort of king that defended his lands on reputation or by some other passive means; that he had a fairly Taoist, go-with-the-flow life philosophy that kept him out of trouble; that he has been mostly true to his word; and that he is guiltless when it comes to murdering kinsmen.

Though there’s quite a bit of depth here, this entry is just going to focus on the last two in that list.

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Not Many Oaths Sworn “in Unrighteousness”

What does Beowulf mean when he says “nor swore I many/oaths in unrighteousness” (“ne me swor fela/aða on unriht.” (ll.2738-2739), emphasis my own)? Is it an accepted part of Anglo-Saxon life (perhaps especially or only in positions of power) that some oaths are not sworn in the best of circumstances?

What exactly does it mean to swear an oath in “unrighteousness”?

Did Beowulf swear some oaths to do some unsavory things? Did he swear some oaths to escape others? Did he make pacts with spirits?

The wording itself aside, what can be looked at here is the word “fela,” which I translated as “many.” So there haven’t been a lot of oaths sworn poorly. is this just a matter of practice?

Though we don’t see Beowulf swearing oaths unrighteously, it is curious that Beowulf plays fast and loose with his retelling of the fights with Grendel and with Grendel’s Mother to Hrothgar. Specifically, Beowulf adds Grendel’s terrible glove to his story (ll.2085-2088), and greatly shortens his encounter with Grendel’s mother (ll.2135-2141).

Words were considered incredibly important to Anglo-Saxons, especially when it came to the valuation of people. So, could this alteration of words mean that Beowulf didn’t always take words so seriously?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the next part.

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Kinds of Kin-Slaying

Within the poem itself, there have been several instances of kin-slaying.

Most recently is Beowulf’s story of Hæðcyn killing Herebeald, but there is also the story of the Battle of Finnburgh, and, of course, Beowulf’s implication that Unferth killed his brother. Though it’s the most distant to this point in the poem, the Unferth instance might actually be the most relevant here.

According to some, the first half of Beowulf represents Beowulf’s destroying his shadow self, in so far as Grendel and Grendel’s Mother are embodiments of Beowulf’s animalistic nature.

In fact, others also suggest that Beowulf and Grendel are somehow related, making Beowulf a kin-killer.

On one hand this seems like an unstable interpretation, but, on the other, every statement in the section of Beowulf’s speech translated for this entry gives further information about his life through implication. Thus, either Beowulf is suggesting that accusations of kin-killing have been made against him, or that kin-killing is a common crime among kings, but he is innocent of it.

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Closing

Next week, as a relief from the animal, the first verse of the thirteenth century Latin poem “O Fortuna” will be translated. Plus, Beowulf makes his penultimate request of Wiglaf, and the plucky young thane goes darting off to fulfill it.

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Extending Lore on Love and Passion [12:60] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Repetition Leading to Implication
Word Woes: Overcome?
Closing

{Words upon words – some to be lost between languages. Image found on the blog Thoughts on Books.”}

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Abstract

Isidore further expounds on the theory and lore of good animal husbandry.

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Translation

[60] “Then are those which have the heavy mares look at no animal of deformed appearance, such as dog-headed apes and gorillas, such faces are not made visible to those looking like they are pregnant. Truly this is natural for females that is if such is seen or if the mind conceives of it in the extreme heat of passion, that is conception, such will be in the children that they create. As a matter of fact, animals in the enjoyment of Venus transfer their outside to the inside, and they seize their fill of such a figure of their types in appropriate quality. Among animals those born of diverse kind are called two-kinded/mutts such as mules from mares and donkeys; hinny from horses and female donkeys; mongrels/half-breeds from boars and pigs; sheep-goat (tityrus) from ewes and he-goats; raidos [from ram + IE *ghaidos] (musmo) from she-goats and rams. On the other hand, these are truly the leaders of the herds.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:60)

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Recordings

Latin:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Repetition Leading to Implication

While he repeats much of what was written in paragraphs 58 and 59 here, Isidore seems to be expanding to all women the reproductive lore from those paragraphs. Otherwise he would have gone with a different phrase than “…this is natural for females” (“Hanc enim feminarum esse naturam”) to describe the practice of keeping ugly things away from pregnant women.

Unfortunately, this is just a matter of implication, since Isidore jumps right back to the animal after he has finished getting into some titillating descriptors (the “extreme heat of passion” (“in extremo voluptatis aestu”) and the “enjoyment of Venus” (in usu Venerio) both being polite euphemisms for orgasm and sex respectively).

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Word Woes: Overcome?

When he settles back on animals, Isidore rounds off the first part of his book about animals with some of the different two-kinded and hybrid mixtures that people have come up with.

Now, either English breeders have been put to shame here, or Latin simply has a far greater depth of expression, since “burdo” translates easily enough into hinny, but “tityrus” and “musmo” remain untranslatable to varying degrees (as far as I can tell).

It’s not as satisfying as a portmanteau of the two, but sheep-goat is the result of a sheep/goat cross-breeding, though these are apparently rare in nature (and referred to as geeps when created in labs). So sheep-goat is the closest translation of “tityrus” that English has to offer.

On the other hand, “musmo” is apparently entirely untranslatable, since even a satisfactory compound English name isn’t available. Yet, if mules and hinnies are different based on the gender of the horse or donkey in the pairing, so too should the result of a she-goat and a ram and a ewe and a he-goat be different.

So, to remedy the untranslatable malady of “musmo,” a little digging was done and the word “raidos” was created. It’s a combination of “ram” and the reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European word for sheep – *ghaidos. It sounds kind of like “Raiden,” and so is appropriate, given the sentence that Isidore ends with: “…these are truly the leaders of the herds” (“Est autem dux gregis”).

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Closing

This Thursday, Beowulf continues his speech, talking about his time as king and making a very curious statement.

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On Water and Words [ll.2720-2732a] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Good Washing
Passing (Things) On
Closing

{Wiglaf raising the washing water to Beowulf. Image found at the Tolkien Library}

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Abstract

Wiglaf tends to Beowulf and Beowulf begins to speak to Wiglaf, signalling that his death is imminent.

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Translation

“Then he with hand, blood-stained,
the famed lord, a man unmatched for good,
washed his dear lord with water,
battle-worn, and unclasped his helm.
Beowulf spoke – he spoke through the pain,
the ache, of his miserably vexatious wound; well he knew,
that he had fulfilled the days of his life,
of earthen joy; that all of his life-time had
fled, death was immeasurably near:
‘Now I to the son of mine would give
the war garments, if it had been so granted
by fate that I any heir had,
flesh of my flesh.'”
(Beowulf ll.2720-32a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Good Washing

The washing of Beowulf requires some note here.

First, there’s the general importance of the act as a means of humbling yourself before someone whom you respect.

Then there’s the fact that it’s a simple act of subservience, the sort of thing that is an active display of obedience and respect.

And that interpretation of the act leads into the Christian significance. However, if this death is meant to mirror that of Christ in the New Testament, then there’s something interesting going on here.

In the NT and in the Catholic ritual recreating the Last Supper, it’s Christ who washes his disciples’ feet.

Wiglaf’s washing is more general, but if the parallels between these stories are followed, then Wiglaf is effectively becoming the Christ figure of the story, possibly in a more meaningful way than Beowulf.

Yes, Beowulf defeated the dragon, but that cost him his life, and Beowulf would never be characteristically elegiac if he came back to life afterwards (nor would the Anglo-Saxons have told it like that, regardless of whatever their source material may have been).

This transference of Christ-ness might even have been one of the original purposes of the poem as a conversion tool, since it’s the sort of succession that Anglo-Saxon’s would have understood. After all, it’s the exact same way that kingship would be transferred when no heir was available: through a ritualistic act and acknowledgement.

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Passing (Things) On

The opening of Beowulf’s speech also says a lot about the Christian intent of the written version of the poem.

If Beowulf is taken as a heroic heathen, someone who is Christian in all ways but name (ignore for a moment, his constant references to a single ‘Lord of Men’/’Ruler’/’King of Glory’), then he simply can’t have an heir. There can be no continuation of the virtuous heathens, since there is no further need for such people, the virtuous will, of course, be Christians. And so enter the transitional figure of Wiglaf, the one who reprimands the cowardly thanes and does his best to guide Geatland gently into the good night awaiting it after Beowulf’s death.

Beowulf signals his death not by saying that he has reached the end, as the poet/scribe does before we get his dialogue, but by saying that he has no heir to give his weapons to.

He has no offspring that he could call “flesh of my flesh” (or “belonging to my body” for a curiously medieval Christian rendering of “lice gelenge” (l.2732)) that can continue his line directly. And so, it passes to one who’s proven himself to be worthy: Wiglaf.

However, it’s important that Beowulf opens his speech with talk of handing down his war garb. Because Wiglaf is not his son, the war garb will not be touching the same flesh (more practically, it may also be less of a snug fit than on any son of Beowulf). As a result, Wiglaf is not going to be able to do the same things that Beowulf did with his gear, in both the literal and figurative senses.

And that a body patently different from Beowulf’s carries forward the symbols of the old way embodied by Beowulf’s war garb (arguably, his most precious possession) is a great metaphor for the spread of Christianity throughout Early Medieval Europe.

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Closing

Check back here next week, for Isidore’s finishing off the first section of book 12 with further discussion of fertility lore, and for Beowulf’s quick review of his kingship and current predicament.

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Sex, Horses, and Reproductive Lore [12:58-59] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Galen Connection
Beautiful Thoughts, Beautiful Offspring
Closing

{Jacob, showing the sheep the peeled rods. Image found in the National Library of the Netherlands’ Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.}

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Abstract

Isidore gets into the details of managing the conception and birthing of animal offspring for desired results.

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Translation

[58] “Certainly human diligence has paired many diverse animals together in sex, so too are discovered other types mingling in forged embraces; just as Jacob was able to get animals of unnatural color and likeness. For the rod was absorbed by those fertile sheep, which they would see by the water as the shadow of a ram looming over them.

[59] “Further, this itsef is done with the fertile mares of a herd, so that the birth of horses is affected by what is thrown before them while they conceive, which are able to conceive and create their likeness. For on their collars are painted in a beautiful way and placed in their presence, those that they respect, which leads to quick births of animals like those that they see.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:58-59)

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Recordings

Latin:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Galen Connection

The ideas that Isidore writes about here might just be pulled from the works of the famed second century physician and philosopher, Galen. His theory of conception was that it was necessary for both a man and a woman who wanted to have a child to orgasm at the same time, thereby having their contributions to the child line up.

A failure to impregnate a woman or to become impregnated was a failure to climax at the same time in other words, and not necessarily chalked up to either partner’s having something wrong with their equipment.

Further, though, Galen also wrote about how it was important for the parents-to-be to imagine beautiful things during intercourse.

This was especially true for women, since there was a vague sense that they carried the human essence that would become a child and that men merely helped to shape and quicken this essence. So, if a man was thinking of a lovely thing, and the woman he was with was thinking of some sort of “dog-headed ape” (to borrow Isidore’s “cynocephalus” (12:60)), it was believed that her conception would result in the child being somehow deficient.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on simultaneous orgasm didn’t last too far into the medieval period since the re-discovery of Aristotle led to the adoption of his ideas on the matter. According to old Ari, only the man had to orgasm during sex; it was merely the woman’s job to catch his ejaculation properly.

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Beautiful Thoughts, Beautiful Offspring

As far as the animals that Isidore writes about here are concerned, the same principles are in play. Plus, he wisely refers to the greatest auctoritee of them all in the medieval world – Scripture.

Jacob used his own sort of animal engineering, and that lead to his prosperity, so why can’t contemporary people do the same, the reference implies.

In fact, paragraph 59, though only about mares, talks about presenting those that are fertile with beautiful things so matter of factly that the lore presented is definitely taken as pure fact.

Perhaps there is some truth to it, since a birth might not go so smoothly if a mare gets spooked in the middle of it, or is under extra duress because she’s being stared down by some cynocephalus or other.

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Closing

Check back here Thursday for Wiglaf’s washing, and the beginning of Beowulf’s rather telling speech.

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Silent Sorrow Following Frabjous Joy [ll.2706-2719] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Strengthened by Juxtaposition
Who’s Heart-Wise?
Closing

{Wiglaf tends to Beowulf. Image found on Wikipedia.}

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Abstract

The poet revels over the victory of Beowulf and Wiglaf, but their joy is short lived as Beowulf’s wound is shown to be dire.

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Translation

“The fiend had fallen – courage punished his life –
and those two both had killed it,
brother nobles. So should every man be,
loyal thanes ready for the need! Yet for that king it was
the final hour of victory for his own deeds,
his works in the world. Then that wound began,
the one the earth-drake had earlier dealt him,
to sear and swell; soon he discovered that
poison welled forth from within the wickedness that
marred his chest. Then the prince went
to him that was by the wall, wise at heart,
he sat on the stone; looked upon the work of giants,
how the stone arches were secured with columns,
beheld what the cave-dwelling held within.”
(Beowulf ll.2706-2719)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Strengthened by Juxtaposition

The juxtaposition of the opening lines of this passage is perfectly suited to Anglo-Saxon thought.

Placing a bit of gnomic wisdom aside the revelation that Beowulf is indeed dying only strengthens that wisdom. After all, Wiglaf now proves himself to truly be one of the “loyal thanes” (“þegn” l.2709).

Within this passage we see him run over to his dying liege lord and take a seat beside him. For now, there is no dialogue, but instead Wiglaf looks over what they’ve won together. Without words of any sort he takes up the role of world interpreter for Beowulf as he lies against the wall, his wound festering in fast forward.

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Who’s Heart-Wise?

In the above translation the person being desribed as “wise at heart” (“wīs-hycgende” l.2716) is unclear, and so too is it in the original: “Ðā se æðeling giong/þæt hē bī wealle wīs-hycgende/gesæt on sesse” (ll.2715-2717).

This ambiguity shows not only the shared wisdom of these two, but it also works to further the idea that Beowulf has successfully passed on the role of Geatish ruler to the best candidate. Though his death and the cowardice of the other 11 thanes does prophesy that tribe’s beginning decline.

Turning to what either case might mean more specifically, if the phrase refers to Wiglaf, then it simply means that he is doing what he feels is right and the poet is validating this.

On the other hand, if this phrase refers to Beowulf, then it may be a bit of foreshadowing of a phrase that comes up in a passage nearly 100 lines away, or it may simply refer to the inborn wisdom that a fifty winters as a successful king brings.

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Closing

Next week, Isidore writes of the ways in which animals are manipulated while conceiving, and Beowulf finally comes to terms with his end.

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Moving from Horses to Mules [12:56-57] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Moving Mules from Language to Language
The Power of the Bigenerum?
Closing

{Simply grey, but what a worker. Image from the National Library of the Netherlands’ Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts collection.}

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Abstract

Isidore’s generalization about the three kinds of horses moves into a piece about mules, their uses, origins, and habits.

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Translation

[56] “There are three kinds of horses: those apt for war and work, others to drive the commons and the herd, but are not apt to ride, the third arises from a mixture of the diverse kinds, that are truly called two-kinded (bigenerum) which from diverse sorts are born, like mules.

[57] “Moreover, the word mule is had from the Greek for “drive” (tractum). Among the Greeks, millers truly use this mule to turn the mechanism of their mills. The Jews freed those flocks when Jacob made them conceive mules in the desert by himself, made of the first born, so that the mules from there were newly and against nature born among natural animals. Wild asses to this also are added as well as donkeys: and they themselves by the same method are found in intercourse, so that very quickly are donkeys born.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:56-57)

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Recordings

Latin:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Moving Mules from Language to Language

Although mules are well suited to menial tasks, like powering mills, Isidore did not make them easy to translate into English. Much of paragraph 57 is understandable with some tweaks and some twists, but it all runs on contemporary shared knowledge more than anything else save for its opening sentence.

The relationship between whatever Greek word is in question and the Latin tractum is not entirely clear. The sentence could mean that the Greek is derived from the Latin, or that the Latin term and the Greek are the same, and so there’s no need for the differentiation that including both terms brings.

The quick retelling of the story of Jacob and Laban’s flocks is also altered in the original Latin. The crux of this is the phrase “Ana abnepos Esau” (12:57) Esau is a familiar name, but Ana looks off, and the combination of the two with the word for “great great grandson” makes it even more bizarre. Perhaps there’s some esoteric bit of lore about a grandson that’s at work here, but that has since been forgotten about.

Other interpretations of these passages are possible, but these are the ones that seem most likely to me, given my limited knowledge of Latin’s complexities.

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The Power of the Bigenerum?

To sum up the entirey of paragraph 57, mules are work animals.

But the question that arises from these two paragraphs is: Does this designation as a work animal come from mules’ being a perfect mixture of two types of horse – as seems to be implied by a Latin adjective describing mules – “bigenerum” (12:56)?

Given the description of mules thus far, it seems that the answer must be yes, resoundingly. After all, combine horses that can be ridden into war, and those that can be used to herd animals, and the natural result would be something hardy and used for strenuous activity.

But then, if Esau is being credited with the creation of mules, then does that mean that he did it intentionally?

According to the story in the KJV (Genesis 30:25-43), Jacob creates these mules in order to steal away Laban’s flock after he has worked for him for seven years in exchange for Laban’s daughter Rachel.

Since the idea to use the rod to scare the females into giving birth while they were drinking, resulting in mules, was his own, Isidore is definitely in the right to say that these mules were “were newly and against nature born among natural animals,” (“nova contra naturam animalia nascerentur” 12:57).

Truly intriguing in the KJV though is the mention in verse 41 of chapter 30 of Genesis that Jacob only used his trick when the strong ones among Laban’s flocks and cattle were pregnant. In other words, they weren’t just bred for necessity, they were bred for strength – something that Isidore nails here.

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Closing

Check back here on Thursday for Beowulf and Wiglaf’s brief revel, and a tragic realization.

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