Wild ideas about boars and words from corpses (ll.1107-1118a)

Wild Boars, Wild Boars!
Words Fit for a Corps(e)

A man hunting down a boar on a 4th century AD Roman mosaic

“Mosaico de Las Tiendas (MNAR Mérida) 01” by Helen Rickard. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mosaico_de_Las_Tiendas_(MNAR_M%C3%A9rida)_01.jpg#/media/File:Mosaico_de_Las_Tiendas_(MNAR_M%C3%A9rida)_01.jpg

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The story of Hengest and Finn continues, as Finn makes good on his promise to treat the Danes well and begins a funeral for the fallen Danes – including Hildeburh’s brother Hnæf and her son by Finn.

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“What was promised was prepared, and treasure-gold
was raised from the horde: the Scyldings
best battler was readied on the pyre.
Mail-shirts shiny with crusted blood were easily visible
on that heap, old gold boar images,
the iron-hard boar, many wounded warriors
were piled there; those few that fell in battle.
Commanded then Hildeburh that at Hnæf’s side
her own son’s body be placed for the blaze,
that his body burn on that same pyre.
Beside his uncle the lady mourned,
lamented with dirges.”
(Beowulf ll.1107-1118a)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Wild Boars, Wild Boars!

There’s a quote attributed to J.R.R. Tolkien that says that the Anglo-Saxons ate too much boar and drank too much mead. The mead part of that equation isn’t present in this passage, but their passion for boar certainly is. Well, in the form of things blazoned on their armour at any rate.

So what’s the deal with the boar references in lines 1111 and 1112? Well, the passage almost answers that question itself.

The first reference to a boar is the “old gold boar images” on the mail and armour of the fallen (“swyn ealgylden” (l.1111)). These images of the animals sound like they were decorative, something that adorned the armour that the fallen wore rather than something worn for practical purposes. The fact that these boars are “gold” definitely suggests decoration.

But then what about the “old” part?

My thinking is that since Hnæf is a lauded hero, he travels with the best he could muster. If they’re all part of a comitatus, perhaps their insignia is a golden boar. Or maybe the boar image at that time was just the symbol for a certain sort of soldier. So its being made of gold, the most prized metal at the time, signifies that these are the best soldiers that the Danes had to offer.

So these “old gold” boars are symbols of the fallen warriors’ status as celebrated fighters and heroes.

The next line definitely suggests the same thing, since a group of seasoned and skilled soldiers would certainly have the raw power of “the iron hard boar” (“eofer irenheard” (l.1112)). And boars are definitely powerful animals, as you can see here:

So the boar could easily have been the symbol for great warriors of old, those who fought and fought and fought and always came back.

And maybe that’s why the Anglo-Saxons (at least according to J.R.R. Tolkien) ate so much boar. Being Germanic the old German saying “you are what you eat” could well have been at work in their dietary choices.

The other major thing to address in this passage is that despite the sombre tone of this funeral scene, Hrothgar’s poet still throws in some comedy.

Line 1113’s “those few that fell in battle” just has to be sarcastic understatement. After earlier describing the dawn-lit battle field as a place where she sees “the violent death of her kin” (1079), there’s got to be more than a “few” that fell in battle. How else could someone so great as the hero Hnæf fall in battle?

Why the poet injects this little joke here may be a matter of pride – “there’s no way the Frisians killed that many of us, we still got him to follow through on his oath (as stated in this passage’s opening – “What was promised was prepared” (“Ad wæs geæfned” (l.1107)).

But the joke might also be here to dampen the military tone of recounting the soldiers and their garb as they lay on the pyre so that he can bring up the woman in mourning motif more effectively. The joke makes for a bittersweet bridge between the two, I think.

Do you think the poet’s trying to lighten the mood with this joke? Is it even a joke? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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Words Fit for a Corps(e)

Because of the tonal variety of this week’s passage, and perhaps even to play down the glory angle of battle, the poet doesn’t use too many compound words. In fact, none of them relate to high falutin concepts as is usual when we hear about war and combat in Beowulf. Instead, they all relate to the body in very mundane ways.

Line 1109’s “beadu-rinc” is first, with its meaning of “warrior” or “soldier.” How this word derives this meaning from its parts is completely straightforward. The word “beadu” means “war,” “battle,” “fighting,” or “strife” and the word “rinc” means “man,” “warrior,” or “hero.”

So “beadu-rinc” refers to a warrior as literally a “battle man” or a “fighting man.” This is clearly someone who’s defined by their battle experience. Which, if the word’s modern cousins like “firefighter (or fireman) or “fisher” (or “fisherman”) are any indication, is probably quite a deep and long experience indeed. Maybe it’s even referring to people whose vocation was war.

Then we peer inside the warrior to get a compound word for what’s leaked out all over their torn and damaged armour: blood.

The word is “swat-fah” and it means “blood-stained,” or “bloody.” The word comes from “swat,” meaning “sweat,” “perspiration,” “exudation,” “blood,” “foam,” “toil,” or “labour”; and “fag” which means “variegated,” “spotted,” “dappled,” “stained,” “dyed,” “shining,” or “gleaming.”

There’s no doubt that the fallen warriors garments and arms are spotted or stained with blood. But I went a little further with my translation of “shiny with crusted blood” (l.1110) but I’d like to think that for the remaining Danes the blood-encrusted garb of their comrades had a certain gleam to it. That the blood dried on it was something that called out to those Danes still living and tore at their guts more than any Frisian barb about being in the service of their lord’s slayer.

On the other end of a slayer, you’ll likely find the slain. And a good word to describe such a person is “ban-fatu.” This word means “body, corpse” and comes to do so through combining “ban” (“bone,” “tusk,” or “the bone of a limb”) and “fæt” (“vessel,” “jar,” “cup,” “casket,” or “division”). So literally, “ban-fatu” means “bone vessel,” or “vessel for bones.”

Unfortunately, I can’t say if the Anglo-Saxons had any theological or cultural beliefs about bones being extra important to human life, but maybe there’s something about the bones as human frame in there. So that calling someone a “vessel for bones” meant that they were just a flesh vat carrying around their bone frame, which, in a way, is exactly what a corpse is.

What sort of image does the word “bone vessel” bring to mind when you hear it? Let me know in the comments.

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With the funeral of the fallen Danes under way, the poet next meditates on the sight of the pyre ablaze.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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2 thoughts on “Wild ideas about boars and words from corpses (ll.1107-1118a)

  1. Boars are on the superb purse-lid of the Sutton Hoo treasure. Boars are not only firce… they are a symbol of protection, rushing from a thicket to guard their young. A king protects his people. The benty Grange helmet has one proud boar as its crest.


  2. Pingback: Danes and Frisians cool the feud, but compound words tell a different story (ll.1095-1106) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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