Friday, December 1, 2017

Digitizing Hervor: Part 3 - Creating the Facsimile Layer

In my previous post I introduced TEI encoding and the Menota project. As I mentioned, Menota supports three different levels of text representation: facsimile (as close to the text as possible), diplomatic (abbreviations expanded and some special characters removed) and normalized (word forms match those which would be found in a grammar or dictionary of the language in question). In today's post, I will talk about the process I used for creating the facsimile level of the transcription for the Digital Hervararkviða.

Abbreviations and Special Characters

Abbreviations and what we would call "special characters" (that is, they do not correspond to the characters typically available on an English-language QWERTY keyboard) are extremely common in Old Icelandic manuscripts. Actually, they are extremely common in most medieval manuscripts, but medieval Icelandic scribes seem to have increased the number of abbreviations they were using just at the time that everyone else was moving away from the practice. There may be any number of reasons for this--Iceland's geographic remoteness still lends itself to an extreme linguistic conservatism--but one important factor may have been economic.

Parchment was always expensive in the medieval world, and suitable sheets could not be made from older animals. That meant that in addition to the time-consuming work of turning a mere skin into parchment, that skin came with an opportunity cost of a calf who would never grow into a cow/bull, or a lamb which would never produce wool. In Iceland, perhaps more than in some warmer and less remote places, the cost may have been felt heavily.

Of course Iceland also has its own robust literary tradition throughout the Middle Ages, complete with its own orthography and stylistic tendencies (it has been noted, for instance, that the practice of Skaldic poetry was primarily an Icelandic art form). So it may be as simple as saying that this is the way they liked to do things. The abbreviations found in Icelandic manuscripts can be traced back, via the Anglo-Saxon scribes from whom the Icelanders seem to have chiefly learned their craft, to Roman and even Biblical times. There are three major sources: the Tironian notae, a system of shorthand invented by Cicero's personal secretary; the old Roman system of legal shorthand; and the nomina sacra, a system of abbreviating the names of God which early Christians ultimately borrowed from the Hebrew Scriptures, and which had become commonplace in Latin texts by the early Middle Ages.

Matthew James Driscoll identifies four basic types of abbreviations found in old Icelandic texts. I have listed them below, along with examples from the Hauksbok manuscript. But these are only examples which I think typical of these kinds of abbreviations and their use in the text; cataloging every variety of abbreviation in the MS would be too exhaustive for the purpose of this post.

1. Suspension, where only the first letter or letters of a word are written, generally followed, and frequently also preceded, by a point or, occasionally, with a superscript stroke.

e with superscript i for eigi.

h with horizontal bar for hann

h with superscript o for hon

q with points on either side for quað

long s with a point for segir

þ with horizontal bar for þat

minuscule t with superscript i for til
2. Contraction, where the first and/or last letters are written, normally with a superscript stroke, or, less commonly, a point or points.
the name Angantyr, contracted by a superscript stroke over the g

two long s with points on either side for synir

3. Superscript letters, a superscript vowel normally representing that vowel preceded by r or v, a superscript consonant that consonant preceded by a.

hug with a superscript r for hugar
4. Special signs (‘tittles’) or brevigraphs, sometimes originating in a letter or combination of letters.

meg with superscript "er" character for megir. This character is far and away the most common abbreviation used in the Hauksbok manuscript, with the possible exception of the Tironian et.
Learning these abbreviations was by far the most difficult (not to say maddening) part of this process, since none of the training I had in Old Norse up to this time had prepared me to encounter them. Still, I knew they were abbreviations because I had worked with the poem before (in the form of a critical text) and so I knew more or less what it should say. Working backwards in this way, I was able to figure most of them out on my own--but it was a halting process, and my first attempt at a transcription took about three weeks of hard work as I would get halfway through and then suddenly realize I'd been reading a word or a character wrong. I learned a lot, though, and so when I made my final pass (the XML encoding pass) I was able to get it done in about a week. All right, so it was a long week, but the final result is something of which I'm proud--a facsimile which faithfully preserves each and every abbreviation in the original text (or will when the proofreading is finished!).

For the most part, I stuck to the standard encoding for abbreviations as defined by the Menota handbook. When I encountered an abbreviation the handbook didn't cover, I turned to Driscoll's Marking Up Abbreviations in Old Norse Manuscripts. This is a very useful resource which I wish I'd found before I started this project. Where Driscoll also failed me, I used my best judgement, combining the characters at my disposal. Since most of these non-standard cases involved the application of a horizontal bar to a pre-existing letter, this wasn't too hard once I got the hang of it.

In addition to the abbreviations, Menota standards also allow for certain symbols not on the US QWERTY keyboard. Anyone who has spent any amount of time at all with Old English or Old Norse will already be familiar with ð (eth) and þ (thorn). Additionally, Menota recognizes the use of certain rotunda ("rounded") variants of standard letters. For instance, Old Norse often uses an r rotunda instead of the usual r following any letter with a rounded stroke on the right side (such as a b or an o). There are also "small capitals" which are often used to indicate a geminated consonant. The Menota handbook contains instructions for handling each of these characters; however viewing them in a web browser requires the user have a special font installed.

Paleography is, as Prof. Peterson says, something you can really only learn by doing. Tackling this manuscript and creating the most accurate facsimile possible turned into a six-week crash-course in the subject. I hasten to add, lest the reader be daunted, that it was also a whole lot of fun. In his plenary session at Mythmoot IV this year, Michael Drout talked about how much we owe to the philologists of yesteryear, and just how great a gap lies between them and us. Although we are capable of summarizing and sometimes even explaining their work, we're rarely capable of going back and "showing our work" -- explaining how we know the things we know, and how our forerunners came to the conclusions that they did. But until we can, we will not be equipped to question (let alone challenge) those conclusions. The discipline of philology becomes static, and a vicious cycle results.

That is one of the primary reasons I undertook this project. The first job of the philologist is, as Fulk says, the editing and preparation of texts for readers. I wanted to do the work--not just talk about the work that others before me have done. But in the process I have discovered a marvelous thing--the joy of reading Old Norse as it was written down on the page over 600 years ago; the joy of deliberating over each stroke of the pen as much as over each half-line or case-ending. As Svanhildur Oskarsdottir writes, philology "means love of words. So let’s do it – let’s fall in love."

Attached below you'll find a PDF of the Facsimile layer of this project. There are no frills, nor has the proofreading process been completed yet, so take it for what it is. But perhaps it'll give you a better sense of what it might have been like to pick up this poem and read it in the 1300's.

The next layer of this project, the Diplomatic layer, is still in progress. In the meantime, my next post will be a (hopefully shorter) dig into the meter of Eddic poetry, and of the Hervararkviða in particular.

The Digital Hervararkviða - Facsimile Layer

Thursday, November 30, 2017

To the letter: Philology as a core component of Old Norse studies

I have just finished reading To the letter: Philology as a core component of Old Norse studies, by Svanhildur Oskarsdottir. This excellent article was originally published in volume 60 of Scripta Islandica (citation below) and by a very happy serendipity it hits right at where I am in my own journey as a Germanic Philologist. I want to use this space to explore some of these ideas at greater length later, but for now, some especially choice quotes:

"But to shut manuscripts up in libraries abroad, where no one will ever be able to understand them, and thus keep useful sources away from capable readers forever – a practice, which out of ignorance has long been tolerated, to the great detriment of historical enquiry – is indeed not to preserve old lore but to destroy it." These are the words of Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson of Skálholt in a letter to Professor Villum Lange in Copenhagen, the librarian of King Frederik III, dated the 10th of July 1656. The letter accompanied several manuscripts, one of them probably Flateyjarbók, which the bishop sent to the king in response to a request for old books for the royal library. This statement follows from Brynjólfur’s urging that the texts contained in the Icelandic manuscripts be published, in the original language as well as in Latin translation. (Svanhildur 7-8)

That [the question of how to raise funds to finance editorial work] is a central problem related to the low status editions and editorial work occupy within the academic hierarchy, a condition that needs to be challenged at every opportunity (within funding bodies, in academic committees etc.). But I would also like to stress that, in my view, working on editions is not a question of either/or. Rather, editorial work should form a part of every Old Norse specialist’s training and they should subsequently reckon editing to be one of the avenues for their scholarship, not the only outlet. (Svanhildur 7)

The scenario he pictures in the quotation is of mute books stored away from their interpreters. The words on the pages will not be heard unless they find their mediator, a human mind that is able to convey their meaning to the wider world. Brynjólfur mentions Latin translations, and translations are of course an important element in the transmission of Old Norse texts. But because my time is limited here today, I shall have to leave these outside my main focus. I want, instead, to use Brynjólfur’s letter as a starting point for a discussion of palaeography, textual criticism, textual commentary and the practice of editing – a discussion of philology in other words, where philology is seen to encompass all the fields I mentioned. (Svanhildur 8)

We are, it seems to me, in the middle of a strange paradox: the worldwide interest in Old Norse texts seems to be greater than ever before – as the record number of participants at this conference seems to bear out; this interest has spread to cover more genres than in the past; and the development in electronic text-processing is gradually opening up possibilities of transmitting these texts in new, revolutionary ways. At the same time the production of text editions seems to be grinding slowly to a halt. There are telling exceptions to this, the most obvious one being the Skaldic editing project, which I will return to later on. But the pessimistic (and by no means unrealistic) view is that
we will continue to rely on Unger and Finnur Jónsson for decades to come unless we begin to see some change in the way we go about these things. (Svanhildur 12)

On the literary front there were also developments that changed the circumstances for textual editing and in fact changed the whole definition of what constitutes a text. New criticism arrived with its reaction against the biographical approach to literary studies. The sixties and the seventies came with structuralism, oral-formulaic theory, anthropological approaches and an inclination to read the texts as evidence of the society that produced them. University syllabuses changed drastically in the 1970s as the content of degree programmes was redefined. Old languages did not do well out of that shake-up. The scholars who represented fresh ideas or new approaches and who were most likely to inspire new generations of students did not do philology. Philologists withdrew into their shell and their defence sometimes took the form of shrouding their activities in mystery, giving the impression that dealing with manuscripts was only for the hardiest of souls – or possibly only for curmudgeons. Philology had developed a serious image-problem, as Odd Einar Haugen noted very succinctly in his Gothenburg paper: Philology was seen as elitist and monumental, obsessed with narrow detail and archetypes. In short: it was out of date and out of touch. Boring.
At this point one has to pinch one’s arm – are we not talking about incredibly important texts preserved in old manuscripts, each different from the other, each with its fascinating history? How could it have come to this? Show a moderately curious person a manuscript and he or she is invariably smitten, drawn towards its peculiarity, its message, the miracle of its existence. Verily I say unto you: Those medievalists who deny themselves the opportunity to work with manuscripts are losing out on one of the greatest pleasures they can have with their clothes on. (Svanhildur 14-5, bold emphasis mine)

One of the main reasons, I believe, for the bankruptcy (if that is not too strong a word) of the Arnamagnæan approach to editing is the fact that projects have been the responsibility of individuals. The ever-increasing demands that every stone be turned have blown the edition of even the shortest of texts into a gigantic task that requires years of solitary confinement to complete. No sane person wants to spend her life like that. And why should she? Modern editorial projects should be defined
as group projects. Not only will this save editors from depression and loneliness, but it will increase the likelihood of the projects making it past the goalposts, of editions actually materializing, and – last but not least – it is the only way out of the prison of specialization. By bringing together the efforts of a group of people and pooling resources, we can have our cake and eat it – we can fulfill the modern criteria for accuracy and transparency in the presentation of the manuscript evidence, but we can also unite the world of nineteenth-century philologists and the interests of the many branches of twentieth-century scholarship. This is because every member of the group will wear the cloak of the philologist as well as being a linguist, or a historian, a literary historian, or art historian. The collective work on the text will inform the studies of the individuals, and their various expertise will bring valuable insights and interpretations which will be fed into the commentary on the texts. (Svanhildur 16-7)

And the main thing is: anyone can do it [manuscript editing]. The only prerequisite is a knowledge of the language – a skill that is necessary anyway for any person who intends to become seriously involved in Old Norse studies. The flip-side of that coin is that one’s knowledge of the language is greatly enhanced by grappling with editing texts. So it works both ways and gradually one becomes more adept. However, the basic responsibility for language acquisition lies with all your universities. It is vital to preserve the teaching of Old Norse/Icelandic language in as many places as possible. And when students have progressed beyond the initial stage, it is desirable that editing projects be accepted as part of their degrees. (Svanhildur 19)

Electronic editions must not become yet another area of specialization, where we have on the one side a small band of experts who know all about how to produce them – in theory – and on the other hand a handful of ageing philologists who are supposed to be the practitioners but haven’t a clue how to orientate themselves in the unfamiliar building. Theory and practice must go hand in hand. And practical considerations must be given attention. If editorial projects are to be realistic, a balance must be struck between possibility and feasibility. There is hardly a limit to the detail one can get into when editing and commentating a text. This holds true for printed editions, and in the electronic world the possibilities have multiplied. You can tag yourself to death. Let’s not lose the will to live. (Svanhildur 21)

And she ends with this:

Every person in this auditorium knows the meaning of the word philology. It means love of words. So let’s do it – let’s fall in love. (Svanhildur 21)
From:

Svanhildur Oskarsdottir. “To the letter: Philology as a core component of Old Norse studies.” Scripta Islandica, vol. 60, 2009, pp. 7–21.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Digitizing Hervor - Part 2: Approaches & Methods

In the last post, I introduced the Digital Hervararkviða, the labor of love I have undertaken in my quest to come to a better understanding of the ancient Germanic world, it's languages and literature. In this post, I'll talk a bit more about the methods I'm using to create the digital edition of the poem, and why what I'm doing isn't just redundant with previous critical texts of the poem and of Hervarar's saga.

TEI Encoding

First, I'll need to explain a little about TEI encoding. The Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) is "a consortium which collectively develops and maintains a standard for the representation of texts in digital form." Essentially, TEI encoding is a set of standards for taking a text--say the poems of Emily Dickinson or a sixteenth-century Polish fencing manual--and turning them into a robust, searchable XML document which can then be displayed in a number of different formats, inserted into a database in order to perform corpus linguistics analysis, and etc. Basically, once the text is in this standardized XML form, you can do anything with it.

[If you're reading this on a web browser there's a pretty good chance you have an idea of what XML is, but if you don't, you can go and educate yourself here.]

The Menota Project

Now, there are a lot of TEI encoding projects out there (including some which are pretty useful for medievalists and classicists everywhere, like the Perseus project), but the one that is important to this project is the Medieval Nordic Text Archive (Menota). Menota is basically a network of institutions working to do for the Scandinavian languages (mostly Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian at this point, though there are some Old Swedish texts as well) what the Perseus project has done for Greek and Latin. Menota has laid out a process as well as a series of standards for encoding these Old Norse manuscripts at three different levels of text representation:

Facsimile: At this level, the manuscript is transcribed character by character, line by line, retaining all abbreviations and allographic variations found in the original text. This is the closest level of reading possible short of actually handling the manuscript.

Diplomatic: Certain allographic variants are normalized (for instance, the rotunda "long s" is frequently changed to the modern "short" s. Abbreviations are also expanded, and the expansions usually italicized.

Normalized: Spelling and word forms are standardized to conform to grammars and dictionaries for the language in question. For our purposes, this means altering the words to match what you'd find in a dictionary like Zoega's, or a grammar like A New Introduction to Old Norse. This level is useful for newer students of the language who might be confused by the inconsistencies in orthography and even morphology which might be found in an unedited manuscript. It is also the level at which most critical editions tend to be produced. Old English texts, for instance, tend to be normalized to a particular West Saxon literary style, which can often lead to the misleading impression that writing in Anglo-Saxon England conformed to a fairly homogeneous standard.

How normalized spelling is determined for a dead language is a subject for another post, but for now it's enough to know that this...

The beginning of Hervararkviða from G. Turville-Petre's critical edition of Hervara saga.
...is not the same as this:

The same passage from 74r of the Hauksbok manuscript
The Birth of the Digital Hervararkviða 

In a way, that gap between the manuscript and normalized editions is what birthed this entire project. I knew I wanted to do something with the Hervararkviða or with Eddic poetry in general; I knew that pretty much all of the Eddic poetry out there already had at least one good critical edition along with multiple translations (maybe not as many translations as Beowulf, but the Poetic Edda has been done lots of times). It was while chatting with one of my professors at Signum, Prof. Paul Peterson, that I stumbled upon the idea for this project. Paul suggested a TEI text and, knowing I was interested in the Hervararkviða, pointed out that high resolution photographs of the entire Hauksbok manuscript were available online. 

Curious, I began trying to read the manuscript, very quickly realizing I only thought I knew how to read Old Norse. This manuscript was full of strange letters I did not recognize, spelling variations I had never seen, and more abbreviations I had ever seen in a single text (and I work with the US Government, where abbreviations are our stock and trade). I had always known that the normalized text was not quite the text I was encountering in a textbook or reader, but until I actually studied the manuscript for myself I had no appreciation for just how wide that gap could be. 

Bridging that gap, then, for other students of Old Norse, is one of the primary goals of the project. And the Menota Project's encoding standards allow us to do that by encoding each word with readings on all three representation levels.

XML in Action

Let's take the word berserkjanna, the genitive plural of berserkr. This word appears in the prose introduction to the Hervararkviða. In the manuscript, it's actually written as: 



Which in my facsimile I have transcribed as:

I have to render the transcription as an image for this blog post, because otherwise there are characters which won't show up unless you have certain medieval fonts installed. You'll notice that there's a little squiggly line over the b. This is an abbreviation for er. The funky-looking "f" is really a long s. You'll note there's an i here instead of a j, and a bar over the n to indicate a second n has been omitted. I'll talk in greater detail about Old Norse abbreviations in a future post, but it's important to understand that it was fairly standard to use this many abbreviations in a word.

On a diplomatic level, we would render this word: berserkianna. The s has been standardized, and the abbreviations have been expanded and italicized. 

In our normalized edition this word would be rendered (as Turville-Petre in fact does): berserkjanna. Note the i has been changed to a j here, because that's in keeping with the way you'd find the form listed in a grammar or dictionary.

A properly formed Menota XML document allows us to encode all three levels in a single word, like so, with the <me:facs> tag corresponding to the facsimile-level reading, and so on:

<w>
   <choice>
    <me:facs>b<am>&er;</am>&slong;erkian<am>&bar;</am>a</me:facs>
    <me:dipl>b<ex>er</ex>serkian<ex>n</ex>a</me:dipl>
  <me:norm>berserkjanna</me:norm>
   </choice>
</w>

Of course to do this, it means you're encoding every single word three times. Which is what I've done. For the entire poem. Yep, it took me a while. And I'm still not done.

Once it's all in there, though, you can use an XSLT stylesheet (a topic for another post) to render any single reading level. That means that every Menota XML document has the potential to contain readings on all three levels, not to mention a wide variety of information about each word--lexical citation forms, base forms, morphology, syntax, the type of word (noun, proper name, verb, etc.). Although this kind of secondary information wouldn't typically be displayed by your style sheet, it might be accessible via a specialized web page or app. So in the final edition of the Digital Hervararkviða, the student should be able to mouse over a word and see its case/number (for nouns) or tense/mood/number (for verbs), as well as the lexical citation form that they can look up in the dictionary. The student should also be able to toggle between the facs/dip/normalized views at will and compare them to photographs of the text. And of course, since all of this information is being stored in XML, it has the potential to be used in a database for performing corpus-level analytics.

In the next post, I'll talk about the process used for creating the manuscript facsimile. We'll jump into the deep end of the pool of Old Norse paleography, and I'll recount the roadblocks and frustrations I encountered as I attempted to figure out just how people decided how things should be put down on paper more than 600 years ago.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Digitizing Hervor - Part 1: The Project

Related image
"Wake thou, Angantyr!
Wakes you Hervor,
Svafa's offspring,
Your only daughter;
The keen-edged blade
From the barrow give me,
The sword dwarves smithied
For Sigrlami."

This is the first of a series of posts I hope to do about a project I've spent the last 7 weeks working on, and which I expect will occupy my attention to some extent all the way through the summer of 2018.

The Project

I am creating a digital edition of the Hervararkviða, also known as Hervor's Incantation or The Waking of Angantyr. This edition will be based on the version found in the Hauksbók manuscript and will include a Manuscript Facsimile, Diplomatic, Normalized Old Norse, and Modern English translation, along with textual apparatus and a short commentary. The Digital Hervararkviða is intended to be a student's edition specifically for students of Old Norse and Germanic Philology.

The Hervararwhat?

The Hervararkviða is an Old Norse poem, written in an Eddic verse form called fornyrðislag, literally "ancient-sayings-law." It tells the story of the shield-maiden Hervor's quest to wake the ghost of her famous berserker father Angantyr (and his eleven brothers) and bully him into handing over her family's cursed sword, Tyrfingr, a weapon so bloodthirsty that once drawn it cannot be sheathed again without shedding blood, even if it is the blood of a kinsman. Hervor succeeds in acquiring the sword, even though she knows it will prove the destruction of her descendants. Hervor's story is part of a larger saga known as Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks or The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise, written down in the late 13th or early 14th century, but clearly compiled from a number of much older stories.

So why are you doing this?

In the Fall of 2014 I began working on my MA from Signum University. Over time, my interest in general medieval literature has developed into a particular interest in the discipline of Germanic Philology and the languages and stories of the ancient northern world (although I remain interested in a wide variety of Indo-European studies). A project like the Digital Hervararkviða ticks a lot of boxes for my final thesis project: it's a good way to showcase my strengths as both a technology professional and a philologist. It's also a useful proof-case for the application of the digital humanities to what has traditionally been regarded as a pretty "dusty" field. In that way, it's a neat microcosm of Signum's mission statement.

Right, right. But why are you really doing this?

Someone (I do not remember whom) once said, "I read because I want to speak with the dead." That's an apt way to sum up my relationship with old texts, and particularly poetry like the Hervararkviða or Beowulf. The almost-alien quality of the medieval script, the arresting strangeness of the alliterative verse, the sonorous music of the language--all of these things take me back (as surely they must have done for 13th century Icelanders) to a different world of larger-than-life characters.

And it's hard to imagine anyone more larger-than-life than Hervor (who, as it happens, also wants to speak with the dead). Stunningly beautiful, as a young woman she cares more for swordplay and horsemanship than for weaving or embroidery, and takes out her teenage angst by essentially heading for the woods and living the life of a bandit. After she is goaded about her parentage by a slave, she decides to prove she is actually the daughter of the famous berserker Angantyr by going and claiming the family's cursed sword from her father's ghost. This she eventually manages to do, as the poem retells, after Angantyr's repeated attempts to terrify her fail. But it turns out Angantyr has a good reason for denying his daughter the sword: It is cursed, and if she takes it it will be the ruin of all her family. Hervor acknowledges this, but says she doesn't care. As so often is the case in these stories, the prophecy comes true. By her pride, Hervor secures her reputation, but dooms her future heirs.

Hervor (like Eowyn or Turin Turambar) is the sort of proud, doomed character with whom I fall in love rather easily, and the Hervararkviða--which I first encountered during Signum's Introduction to Old Norse--is one of my favorite Old Norse poems.

But do we really need another edition?

That's a good question. After all, a very good critical edition of the whole of Hervarar saga (a synthesis of the three main manuscript sources) is freely available from The Viking Society for Northern Research, as is a facing translation and commentary by Christopher Tolkien. I'll answer this question in my next post, when I introduce the methodology I am using in this project, and what will make The Digital Hervararkviða so different from previous editions of the poem.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Whole and Holy


On the Etymology of ‘Whole’ and ‘Holy’

Although the words whole and holy sound similar in Modern English, differences in spelling and semantics mean that many speakers may not immediately recognize a relationship between the two. They are still less likely to notice relationships between hail, health, hallow, and heal. A quick glance at an etymological dictionary shows that this family of words are all descended from Old English hal and halig, which both ultimately derive from a related Proto-Germanic root.[1] (“holy”; “whole”) Such etymologies are easy to summarize, but a summary alone does not really tell the story of the words, or explain the origin of such divergent definitions as “free from disease,” “entire,” and “sanctified, set apart for religious purposes.”

Looking at other modern Germanic languages shows that the aural similarities between these words is no mere coincidence. In Modern German their relationship is even clearer: it has heil [both salutary as in Modern English hail and meaning “whole, unhurt, in one piece”] and heilig [“holy, sacred thing; saint”]. Dutch has heil [“prosperity, salvation”] and heel [“whole, all, entire”]. Norwegian has heil [“whole, healthy”] and hellig [“holy”], while Swedish has hel [“whole”] and helig [“holy”]. (“holy”; “whole”)

The consistency of these words across the family of modern Germanic languages suggests that at some point in the past, a close relationship existed in the minds of Germanic speakers between the ideas of “wholeness” and “holiness”—or at least between whole things and holy things. Similarly, the fact that this relationship survives in both West Germanic (Mod. English, Dutch, German) and North Germanic (Norwegian, Danish, Swedish) suggests a semantic unity that existed before the two language families diverged. To test this hypothesis, we can trace the words whole and holy back to their use in earlier forms of the language to determine when the divergence of meaning occurred—and whether that divergence is due to some change in the language, or to the shifting relationship of Germanic speakers with religious concepts.

Removing the 15th Century unetymological spelling initial h(w)- as wh- (as in hwæt > what) in whole brings us to Middle English hal[2], hol, or hool, [“sound, healthy, intact” or “whole, undivided”]. (“whole”) This in turn is descended directly from Old English hal, the sense of which can be seen in the promise of the Danish coast guard to Beowulf: “…swylcum gefiþe bið / þæt þone hilderaes hal gedigeð.” (Beowulf line 300) This word was an important component in common Old English greetings; Beowulf, meeting Hrothgar, wishes him “Wæs þu, Hroðgar, hal.” (Beowulf line 407) Its use as a salutation is analogous to archaic Modern English hail, Modern German heil, and Latin salve.

Similarly, Modern English holy < Middle English holi, hali < Old English halig. (“holy”) Unlike the Modern English form of the word, halig is used exclusively as an adjective, describing something which is holy or sacred in a religious sense (usually the Christian God). Thus Hrothgar, in his speculation on the reason for Beowulf’s coming to Heorot, says, “…hine halig god / for arstafum  us onsende…” (Beowulf line 381) One might also think of one of the many appellations of God in Cædmon’s Hymn, halig scieppend. (Fulk and Pope 4)

A look these words in cognate Germanic dialects helps to narrow the semantic gap between them. Otfrid, in the Old High German Evangelienbuch, uses the OHG heil (cognate with hal) both as a salutation (“Heil thu”, quadun sie, “Krist! / thu therero liuto kuning bist”) (Otfrid 1 I:113) as well as to render salvatio (“Nu will ih scríban unser héil”). (Otfrid 4 XXII:27) In Old Norse, this word appears as the feminine noun heill, which can be translated as “good luck” but also “omen.” (“*xailaz I”) In fact, hal and its cognates seem particularly associated with omens: OE hel and OGH heil are both used to translate Latin omen, augurium and auspicium. (Green 17)

According to Tacitus, the religion of the Germani centered closely around the practice of divination—consulting oracles to know the will of the gods. Such ceremonies seem to have usually been accompanied by sacrifices (the ON term for consulting an oracle is fella blótspán; the element blót- specifically suggests a blood sacrifice), and would hopefully result in a favorable omen. It seems likely, then, that hal originated as a word referring to the oracular practice, and later to general welfare or good luck. A similar sort of shift has occurred between Latin auspicium [“augury”] and Modern English auspicious [“of good omen, indicating future success”].

The Old English adjectival endings -eg and -ig are descended from the Proto-Germanic adjectival ending, used to form adjectives from nouns or verbs and communicating the sense “having the qualities of.” (“-y, suffix1”) Halig and its cognates could thus be applied to describe those who possess and give hal, the material goods associated with the oracular ceremony used to seek hal, as well as the ceremony itself.

Green suggests that OE hal and its cognates originally referred to the good fortune which came from, or could be withheld by, the gods, and which was sought in the religious practice of consulting the oracle through sacrifice.[3] He further argues that the nature of the good fortune desired by the Germanic peoples may be seen in the meanings which hal’s modern descendants have retained: whole, heal, health.

Heil therefore came from the gods, directly or through an intermediary, whilst heilag could be applied to the originator, the transmitter or the recipient of this gift from above… Like the Christian sanctus[4], the Germanic term heilag denoted a quality of divine origin, but unlike sanctus the gift it presented was not to be enjoyed in the afterlife, but in the here and now. (Green 19-20)

But it is unnecessary to limit the concept of hal in this way. Allowing that hal is the gift of the gods, it does not follow that its application to the intangible, or for that matter the afterlife, was a strictly Christian innovation. When Wulfila renders the “teaching which brings salvation” as laiseinai hailai, does it really represent a new stage in the development of hal, or might he be using a concept which would have been familiar to his audience when he translates salvation as a kind of spiritual good fortune? (Wulfila An Titus 1:9) It is safer to assume a close connection in the mind of the early Germanic speakers between the natural and supernatural, than to insist they had no idea of blessing beyond their physical needs.

In Modern English, the words holy and whole are separated not only by meaning, but by context: one belongs to the realm of the spiritual, the other to the physical.[5] But by tracing these words back to an earlier form of the language, we see that this is a relatively recent divide. For the speakers of early Germanic, health and success—”good fortune”—was inextricable from their interaction with the divine, a relationship preserved by those languages’ earliest Christian writers. The gap between the two concepts widened over the course of centuries, as the ideas of physical well-being and religious practice became less and less associated with one another.

Works Cited
“-y, suffix1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 9 September 2017.Fulk, Robert Dennis., and John C. Pope. Eight Old English poems. New York, W. W. Norton, 2001.

Green, Dennis Howard. Language and History in the Early Germanic World. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

“hale, adj. and adv.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 24 September 2017.

“holy, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 9 September 2017.

Otfrid von Weißenburg. Das Evangelienbuch. http://titus.uni-frankfurt.de/texte/etcs/germ/ahd/otfrid/otfri.htm. Accessed 9 September 2017.

“Sanctus”. Valpy, F. E. J. An Etymological Dictionary of the Latin Language. London, Printed by A.J. Valpy, sold by Baldwin and Co., 1828.

“whole, adj. (and int.), n., and adv.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 9 September 2017.

“*xailagaz”. Orel, Vladimir E. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. Leiden, Brill, 2003.

“*xailaz I”. Orel, Vladimir E. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. Leiden, Brill, 2003.

“*xailaz II”. Orel, Vladimir E. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. Leiden, Brill, 2003.








[1] whole descends from the Proto-Germanic adjective *xailaz, while holy descends from the Proto-Germanic noun *xailaz by way of its adjectival form *xailagaz. (“xailaz I”; “xailaz II”; “xailagaz”) Throughout this post, I have chosen to deal with these words in their attested forms in the various dialects of Old Germanic.
[2] Modern English hale, now seldom used except as an archaism, is a parallel to the more common whole, and developed in a Northern dialect from Middle English hal. (“hale”)
[3] These attested forms, of course, only survive in a Christian context.
[4] Green is here using sanctus to refer to the Christian concept of holiness. But sanctus’ own etymology might tell an interesting story, since it is derived from the verb sancio “I decree, I consecrate a law by the offering of a victim.” (“Sanctus”) This suggests an association (in fact well-attested) between the legal and religious practices of pre-Christian Latin speakers, without insisting those speakers could only conceive of holiness as a matter of jurisprudence.
[5] The religious usage “to make whole” may provide an interesting example of the reunification of these concepts: it originates with early English translations of the Bible, in passages referring to physical healing. It came very quickly to refer by analogy to spiritual salvation, so that Wycliffe could write, “God wolde þat proude men and leprous heretikes wolden wel confesse þe feiþ, and þan shulden þei be hool.” (“whole”)

Monday, June 5, 2017

How do I really feel about Beowulf?

Beowulf came to me, not as lightning out of a clear sky, but as the treasure-laden funeral ship of Scyld: gray prow and mast and ropes looming up out of the mist, the guilt edges of the golden sail billowing just beyond sight.

When I first read the poem, as a young lad, I could only see the faintest outline of its dragon-headed prow. It was a story full of monsters, one which happened "in days of yore" in a land and culture so far from my own that it may as well have been on another planet. But there was something familiar about it even then, though I did not know what, and discovering the poem was like remembering something that I had forgotten.

As I grew older and read the poem again and again the outline of the ship became clearer, and I even began to mark the significance of the strange carvings on its ring-whorled prow. Or rather, I began to attempt to infuse them with significance of my own, for I knew that they must mean something, so I tried to give them meanings which they could not hold. The ship was fixed, like an island in the sea; it would endure, it was I who was falling away into the mist.

Then I first began to see where other men and women had also struggled to draw the ship into their own harbor, catching it with great hooks of iron and trying to drag it out of the mist and re-purpose it for their own use. "This is a fine ship," they said, "and it is a great shame that it should hold only the bones of a dead man. We will draw it into our harbor and make it useful again, to carry more practical cargo or make raids upon our enemies.." But it could not be done. For when those men had drawn their catch to shore they found they had not captured a living vessel at all, but only dead flotsman and jetsam - unsound vessels which could not keep out the sea.

Abandoning this plan, I began to chase the ship itself, determined that if I could not bring it into my own harbor, I would instead cling to some rope or spar, and let the ship carry me where it would. It was only when I learned to read Anglo-Saxon that the whole outline of the ship became clear to me for the very first time: tall, icy, ring-whorled, the beds of ancient kings and heroes laid out upon biers of gold under ancient standards, gray ropes trailing through the mists. I can see only the faintest glitter of that treasure now, and yet I no longer wish to fill my pockets with rings and gems to take home and strew among my pet causes and soapboxes. I cling to the side, damp with mist and the spray of the sea-foam, and hope that Scyld's ship will take me back, by the straight road, to Those who sent him.

Thesis Theater: The Digital Hervararkviða

As I've mentioned recently, I've been head-down getting the Digital Hervararkviða finished and ready for prime time. Last week it ca...