The Danes’ deadly curiosity, life is dangerous in these waters (ll.1432b-1441a)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Brutal Curiousity
The Dangers of Being a Child of the Waves
Closing

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.”Stories of beowulf grendel” by J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Synopsis

The Geats and Danes kill one of the monsters of the waters and drag it ashore.

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Translation

                    “One of the Geats
severed the life of one with an arrow from his bow,
than did it battle against the waves, since that war arrow stuck in
its side; it was then slower against the waters
in that sea, until death took its fight away.
It was quickly pulled from the waves
in an assault of savagely barbed boar spears,
fiercely they attacked it to tug that wondrous
traverser of the waves to the shore; the men
all gazed upon that terrible stranger.”
(Beowulf ll.1432b-1441a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Brutal Curiousity

There is no way to soften the blow here. The Geats and Danes are downright brutal with this sea monster — be it seal or walrus or actual monster.

First, it’s struck with an arrow. Then they all watch as it goes through its death throes in the water, no doubt bloodying them up further. But then they don’t just look at each other and grunt out “huh, I guess they can die.” No. Instead they stick spears intended for hunting boars into the corpse and bring it ashore for a closer look.

At least I guess I should credit them for being curious. I mean, these guys don’t just kill the thing and then leave it there. There’s a genuine inquisitiveness present in this passage. It’s just that it’s pretty deeply cut by a brutal kind of caution. Cut so deep in fact, that the metaphorical drink it’s diluting is just about all water at this point.

Still, the assembled warriors all gawk at the corpse of this animal (monster?) that they’ve pulled to shore. Which does accomplish a few things for the story.

As I noted above, it proves that these monsters can be killed. It also proves that they aren’t likely impervious to human weapons like Grendel was. Though I’m not sure how top of mind that is and how much more likely it is that they killed the beast to make sure it didn’t attack them when they tried to get a closer look. Though, it’s still hard to set aside their letting it thrash around in the water until it dies.

It doesn’t get mentioned here, since next week’s passage will jump back to Beowulf himself, but maybe this closer observation of one of these monsters confirms something very important for the Geats and Danes around it. That it’s no monster at all.

As a sea-faring people, I have no doubts that both Geats and Danes are familiar with sea-life, whether helpful or harmful to their crossing the seas. Maybe this closer look is all it takes for them to realize that the creatures in the water here aren’t monsters at all but just creatures as common as deer. And maybe that’s why this is the moment that the poet chooses to end his general narration before getting back to the heroics of Beowulf.

Unless, this creature is indeed a monster, or just monstrous. Last week there was the mention of these creatures all around them being the same ones that were responsible for wrecking ships on their way out to sea. Maybe seeing these creatures up close didn’t lead to a revelation about their nature, it just erased the fear that all the assembled people had for these beasts as these strange and unknown creatures. But, now, at the very least, as Arnold Schwarzenegger rightly observed in a movie about another monstrous menace, Predator: “if it bleeds we can kill it.”

What do you think? Are the Geats and Danes killing, then jamming boar spears into this creature’s corpse out of fear? Or just because they want to be sure about its nature and their own safety? Let me know what you think in the comments!

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The Dangers of Being a Child of the Waves

If you’re a sea-going creature, you’ve spent your whole life in the water. You know the ebb and flow like the back of your fin. You truly are a “wæg-bora”1.

But the ways of the air are entirely foreign to you. The area above the water is where the great fiery ball lives, far off in the distance. Or it is simply quite small. None of the stories of your kind are certain. But they are certain that the space between water and fiery ball is usually clear and open. So being hit by sharp barb, or “here-stræl”2, from a “flan-boga”3 is entirely unexpected. Hard clouds sometimes pass along the surface of your waters, but stories of those sharp long barbs are few.

But they are brutal.

Especially since there are many mentions in these stories, talk of “heoru-hocyht”4 “eofer-spreot”5 being driven from an unknown enemy that lives in the space between waters and the fiery ball. Those who have witnessed such assaults with the barbs that swim through the space between often tell of these greater barbs following their smaller kin, just as certain of your own kind swim together. But instead of bringing the joy and safety of community, these barbs always cause great “yð-gewinn”6.

Such are the dangers of being a child of the waves.

1wæg-bora: child of the waves?[sic]; traverser of the waves?; goer upon the waves. wæg (motion, water, wave, billow, flood, sea) + bora (ruler)

2here-stræl: arrow. here (predatory band, troop, army, host, multitude, battle, war, devastation) + stræl (arrow, dart, missile; curtain, quilt, matting, bed)

3flan-bogan: bow. flan (barb, arrow, javelin, dart) + boga (bow, arch, arched place, vault, rainbow, folded parchment)

4heoru-hocyht: savagely barbed. heoru (sword) + hocyht (with many bends?[sic]. Perhaps a clue to how it was barbed?)

5eofer-spreot: boar-spear. eofer (boar, wild boar, boar-image on a helmet) + spreot (pole, pike, spear)

6yð-gewinn: wave-strife, life on the waves. (wave, billow, flood, sea, liquid, water) + winn (toil, labour, trouble, hardship, profit, gain, conflict, strife, war)

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Closing

Next week, the poet shifts back to Beowulf. And the Geat hero gets geared up.

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Beowulf versus the sea-deer, and, about those sea-deer (ll.550-558)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf (and Anglo-Saxons?) on armour
“Mere-deor” and other weird words
Closing

The medieval depiction of a kind of deer. Just picture this creature in the water and you may have a "mere-deor."

The medieval depiction of a kind of deer. Just picture this creature in the water and you may have a “mere-deor.”

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Abstract

Beowulf relates his struggle with one of the sea-beasts.

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Translation

“‘Then against the loathed my corslet,
hard, hand-woven, was of great help,
the broad coat of mail that on my breast lay
gold adorned. Me to the bottom pulled
the hostile enemy, held fast
in its grim grip; however I was yet given mercy,
that I the fiend could reach with sword-point,
my battle blade; in the war rush was taken the life
of the stalwart sea-deer by my hand'”
(Beowulf ll.550-558)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Beowulf (and Anglo-Saxons?) on armour

Beowulf goes on about his wondrous deeds here. And he includes a great deal of detail about how his armour saved him.

Actually, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on armour in Beowulf’s speeches.

Well, it’s not like that’s all that he talks of, but it does seem kind of strange how often he mentions armour.

In this extract, he spends just over three lines on it, and earlier, when speaking to Hrothgar he instructs him to send Hygelac his armour as a memento if he should die.

On the one hand, this armour focus could be ascribed to Beowulf and Beowulf alone. In that case, I’d say that it shows just how aware of the machinations of combat Beowulf is. He may know well the importance of the war rush, or having your opponent’s within reach of sword point, but more than that he realizes the importance of a good coat of mail.

Because sometimes you just can’t be sure.

If, on the other hand, this emphasis on armour is the poet’s doing (rather than just characterization), then it says something about the Anglo-Saxons.

Actually, it says just about the same thing, really. Though I’d add that if it is a general thing, then maybe armour has a special importance to memory.

Perhaps it’s sort of how things might be in a particularly sentimental cicada’s brain: its shell, as the armour of its youth, holds within it all of the memories that it made while wearing it. Likewise, just as a sword was regarded as imbued with special power if it’d been wielded by a male relative or great hero, a person’s armour could hold a memorial significance.

Or, more specifically, maybe these mentions of armour are part of a lost mnemonic, some sort of arcane technique for remembering not only heroes (as Beowulf would be remembered by his armour when it got to Hygelac in the event of his death), but their stories as well. It could be that the armour, after enduring with its wearer the great feat of facing Grendel (or the crash of the ocean waves), becomes a metonymy for its wearer. Not just in a metaphorical sense, but in the same sense as the shed carapace to the sentimental beetle, that armour becomes a shed part of that hero, that fighter.

Practically, speaking though, swimming in a mail shirt makes Beowulf’s bet with Breca all the wilder.

Those rings wouldn’t be made of fancy ultralight bicycle aluminium, they’d likely be made of iron. Swimming can get difficult if you’re weighed down by a particularly thick, wet shirt. It’s hard to imagine the struggle that both of them would endure wearing that sort of armour to sea.

Though it’s quite easy to imagine that weight working against Beowulf as the sea-beast he encounters in this passage drags him down.

But then, in his retelling the instance, he puts on the armour of the storyteller, shielding his tale in words reserved for warfare.

Terms like “war-rush” (“heaþoræs”) and “battle-blade” (“hildebille” (l.557)). But you know that the struggle was truly mortal when Beowulf doesn’t just say “I could just reach the fiend with the tip of my battle-blade” or “yet, I managed to wrench my sword into the beast’s gullet” but instead that he was “given mercy.”

By whom?

Well, no doubt by something between the Christian god and the Anglo-Saxon idea of “wyrd,” a kind of fate.

Invoking such a force, even indirectly, really shows how hard Beowulf was struggling because it places the battle on a cosmic level. This wasn’t just a wee brawl, it was a struggle that the cosmos had a hand in!

What do you think of the idea of a warrior’s armour being a container for the memory of his experiences while wearing it? Or of a warrior’s armour becoming metonymous for the warrior?

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“Mere-deor” and other weird words

After last week’s “whale-fish,” this week we’re faced with what could literally be a “sea-deer.”

Tee word “mere-deor” (l.558) literally translates into that. And it creates a very simple image: A fish with horns, possibly a narwhal. Why exactly Beowulf would be fending off a narwhal isn’t clear, but that’s clearly not the point of his story. What it’s all about is his strength in overcoming the power of nature.

And what a terrible power that is.

In line 553 we’re told that Beowulf was being drug down to the “grunde.” Since he’s in the sea, this word generally gets translated as “bottom.” In fact, both Heaney and Gummere use this translation.

But “grunde” could also mean “foundation,” “abyss,” “hell.” These words might not be as accurate as “bottom,” but they all have a much deeper connotation to them; “abyss” and “hell” coming neatly packaged with implications of damnation and the impossibility of escape.

Given what Beowulf has to go through when he fights Grendel’s mother, this perception and conception of the bottom of the sea becomes very curious indeed.

Just as curious as some of this week’s compounds.

There’s “lic-syrc,” combining “body” with “shirt,” or “coat of mail,” to give us “mail coat” (specifically a mail shirt that would run down to its wearer’s thighs or knees). Then we get “hond-locen,” for “hand-made” from “hand” and the verb for “to lock,” “enclose,” “fasten,” or “intertwine.” And “beado-hraegl,” or, literally, “battle dress.”

The word “feond-sceatha” makes another appearance, too. And we’re joined by the dully straightforward “headthu-raes,” a combination of the words for “battle” and “rush” that gives us: “battle rush,” or “war press.”

So what does all this mean?

Well, to be completely honest, it’s hard to say. It’s possible that the use of all of these clear, literally translatable compound words is just due to Anglo-Saxon’s being short on words for these things that were more obscure or poetic.

Or maybe they’re the best choices for each line’s alliteration (they are).

But both of those possibilities wouldn’t really shed much light on Beowulf and his dramatic retelling of his adventure on the seas.

As such, I like to think that Beowulf is shifting his energies from using obscure words and forms to shaping his sentences to reflect the action he’s describing.

What then, does the straightforward and literally translatable, but still odd “mere-deor” mean (outside of being alliteratively convenient)?

Well, I think it, and the compounds with “hrone” and “fixas” from last week, are present in Anglo-Saxon because the sea was regarded as a mysterious place.

Who knows what goes on in there, right?

The Anglo-Saxons sailed it regularly, too, and so probably had a sort of reverent fear for things like the tides and the speed at which storms could come upon those ships that were unwary. As such, they probably had only words for the things that they saw most often.

Whales and fish definitely fit this bill because both are prevalent along the Northern coasts of Europe, as deer are on the land there.

But some sort of strange creature that was a tusked or horned thing in the sea was probably a rare sight indeed, and so to express the idea of that creature the Anglo-Saxons just took two of their existing words and ideas and mashed them together. Adding, in a way, to that creature’s mystery.

Do you think that the animal referred to as a “mere-deor” is just a narwhal, or could it be something rarer?

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Closing

Next week Beowulf continues his tale with an account of the rest of the night and the next morning.

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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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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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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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Isidore of Seville on Color (Pt.2) [12:53-55] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Trickiness of Translating Color (2)
High Riders and Low Riders
Closing

{A stained glass window from The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, also known simply as Seville Cathedral. Image from the Wikipedia.}

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Abstract

Isidore continues his descriptions of colors, and ends with an indirect description of a pony express.

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Translation

[53] “Roan is what the common folk call guaranen. Brazen itself the commons call this; which is colored in the way of bronze. On the other hand, myrtle is simply purple.

[54] “Moreover, they call it [dowry], the color that is the same as the ass’ color: that itself and ash grey are the same. They are also those colors in the wild breeds: those born, as the horse breeders say, without the ability to pass on the refinement of civilization.

[55] “Moors are black, truly the Greeks call black mauron. Gallic horses are in fact small horses, which the commons call brownish. Truly gifted the old ones call those which drive back, that is lead; or which run on public ways, going to and fro as they are accustomed to do.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:53-55)

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Recordings

Latin:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Trickiness of Translating Color (2)

Some things just don’t seem to be translatable. This week’s section isn’t as bad as last week’s, but one word seems to have been left behind by Modern English: “guaranen.”

This word is indeed mysterious, but it must at the least refer to some color involving brown and white since it’s comparable to the color roan, itself the name for the color of animals whose pelts mingle brown and white closely together.

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High Riders and Low Riders

Throughout the descriptions and explanations this week, Isidore consistently refers to the commons as having a different vocabulary. Since he’s writing about horses, an animal that has many functions in human societies, this makes sense.

The common folk are likely to use horses to work and get around, whereas the wealthy are those that breed them for show and for speed – arguably less utilitarian ends. A gap between these two groups is also seen in the differing terms for copper colored: “cervinus” and “Aeranen,” (12:53). The first of these refers to the color of deer and the second to the color of a valuable metal thought to last forever.

Color terms are likely to come from things encountered in daily life, since this gives them a grounding in shared experience, and the difference in experience of the wealthy and the commons is underscored by the gap between the deer that the wealthy had time to admire and a valuable metal that the commons may well have coveted.

Curiously, this creates something of a yin-yang relationship, in that each group contains a germ of the other.

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Closing

Check back here on Thursday for the final exchange of attacks between team Beowulf and the dragon.

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Isidore of Seville on Color (Pt.1) [12:50-52] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Trickiness of Translating Color
Varieties of White: Something From Nothing?
Closing

{A simple color wheel, yet complexities hide in what it depicts. Image from the Association for Anthroposophic Medicine & Therapies in America.}

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Abstract

Although it “is especially visible,” Isidore expands on the meaning of the various colours he cited in last week’s translation.

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Translation

[50] “Bluish-gray is in fact just as painted eyes and those which are brightly dyed. On the other hand, grayish is a better color than pale yellow. Speckled it is, white dotted throughout with black.

[51] “Moreover, brilliant white and white are in turn differed from each other. For white is that which is pale, while brilliant white is in fact filled with brightness like snow and pure light. White gray it is called which comes from the colors brilliant white and black. Checked it is called because of rings which have brilliant white among purple.

[52] “Horses that are spotted have inferior colors in some ways. Those that have only hooves of true white, known as petili, and whose forehead is white, warm.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:50-52)

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Recordings

Latin:

Modern English:

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The Trickiness of Translating Color

Just as the way in which Anglo-Saxon’s differentiated colors based on brightness, the sense of the colors that Isidore expounds upon this week isn’t entirely clear in translation.

Obviously, in paragraph 52, spotted is pointed out as an inferior color, but even then the why isn’t entirely explicit.

On the one hand it could be because spotted horses don’t live as long as solid colored horses, or it could hearken back to the appearance based judgments that went into relating rippling muscles and certain sorts of ears to a great power and speed respectively.

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Varieties of White: Something From Nothing?

Yet, the differentiation between white and brilliant white is interesting. Rather than being defined by the lack that “white” is (since paleness generally means the absence of color), brilliant white is defined simply as the presence of brilliance (new fallen snow or bright light).

Again, returning to the idea that the outside reflects the inside, it goes unsaid, but chances are a brilliant white horse would be more valued than one that is merely “white.” Projecting whiteness must have been more impressive than simply being white.

Of course, if that line of reasoning is followed, you might just find yourself with an old explanation for why some people thought that Caucasians with skin that’s white-as-a-sheet are better than everyone else. Rather than being white because of lack, they’re white because of excess. A curious reversal of the spectrum, in a way.

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Closing

Check back here Thursday to see what happens when Beowulf and Wiglaf launch their counterattack on the dragon.

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