Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Only Gistradagis

The Gothic word for "tomorrow" is 𐌲𐌹𐍃𐍄𐍂𐌰𐌳𐌰𐌲𐌹𐍃, gistradagis. If that word looks familiar, it should. It's a compound made up of two elements:

gistra-, which is cognate with Old English geostran- which in Modern English becomes yester-.

-dagis is of course from dags, cognate with Old English dæg which becomes Modern English day.

That's right. The Gothic word for "tomorrow" is the same as our word for "yesterday." This is doubly curious, because the same set of compounds in every single cognate language, including words like Latin hesternus, mean "the day before this day." Gothic is the only one where it means "the day after this day."

In A Gothic Etymological Dictionary, Lehmann speculates the reason for this might be that the Proto-Germanic prefix *gistr- may have originally meant "adjacent day," and that in non-Gothic languages it may have taken the meaning "previous day" whereas in Gothic it took the meaning "next day."

Possibly supporting this idea is that in the Old Norse poem Hamðismál we see the cognate form used to speak of the next day:

Vel höfum vit vegit,
stöndum á val Gotna,
ofan eggmóðum,
sem ernir á kvisti;
góðs höfum tírar fengit,
þótt skylim nú eða í gær deyja;
kveld lifir maðr ekki
eftir kvið norna."
(Hamðismál stanza 30)


Currently reading: Worlds of Medieval Europe, by Clifford Backman
Current audio book: The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Currently translating: Aiwaggeljo Þairh Maþþaiu, Chapter VI, from Wright's Gothic Grammar.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Hygelac’s Raid and the Necklace of the Brosings, Pt 1

In lines 1192-1214 of the Beowulf poem, Wealtheow gives the poem’s hero a necklace or torc which provokes an ominous prediction of the future: Beowulf will give it to Queen Hygd, who will give it in turn to King Hygelac of the Geats. Hygelac will wear it during the doomed Frisian raid in which he loses his life in battle with the Franks, and “a worse warrior strips the slain” (Beowulf 1212).

But, as with the hilt of the giant’s sword which Beowulf gave to Hrothgar, meditation on this artifact turns the gaze of the reader not only toward a possible future, but also on a legendary past. Wealtheow’s torc is the greatest “treasure of heroes, since Hama carried away… the necklace of the Brosings… fleeing the treacherous hate of Eormenric, chose long-lasting reward” (Beowulf 1199-1200).

This reference is as tantalizing as it is cryptic. Who are Hama, Eormenric, and the Brosings, and why is their story significant in the context of Wealtheow’s gift and Hygelac’s eventual demise? Beneath these allusions lies a tantalizing hint at a body of legendary tales which would have been known to the poet’s audience, but which are now lost.

Scholars have argued about the placement of this episode in the poem--what it means, if it means anything, and whether or not the poet "knew his job" when he included it. In this and the following blog post, I want to argue that the poet did indeed know what he was doing; that this episode is present at just this moment in the Beowulf poem for a specific reason, and that that reason can be ascertained by looking to the other literature of the Old North to shed light on these forgotten names and "lost tales," then returning to the poem for a close read.

This week, we'll begin with trying to figure out who Eormenric and Hama were.

Eormenric and Hama

Eormenric appears in at least two other surviving works of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The first is Deor, a eponymous poem about a court scop who has fallen upon hard times. Forsaken by his lord, his position taken by another, Deor comforts himself by singing of various figures from the legendary Germanic past, retelling their trials and tribulations. He ends each story with Þæs ofereode þisses swa mæg [that was overcome; so may this be]. Deor’s Eormanric is the wolfish king of the Goths, under whose rule “many a warrior sat, bound up by cares, woes in mind, wished constantly that the kingdom were overcome.” 

The second reference comes from Widsith, a poem which bears many similarities to Deor—they are even found in the same manuscript. Like Deor, it claims to be written by a court scop, and like Deor its primary material is taken from the historical and legendary fabric of the Germanic Iron Age. But its tone is more triumphant. The poetic successes of Widsith “the wide-farer” cover an impossible amount of time and territory, praising the generosity of kings who reward poets well—and providing present-day scholars with a valuable word-hoard of onomastic data. 

Widsith’s Eormanric first appears in the poem’s 9-line introduction, in which the poet undertakes a journey accompanying the “unfailing peace-weaver” Ealhild to the land of Eormanric. Of both Ealhild and Eormanric the poet has more to say: Eormanric ruled the Goths and was wraþes wærlogan [an angry breaker of covenant] although he seems to have been generous enough to the poet: 

…and ic wæs mid Eormanrice  ealle þrage
Þær me Gotena cyning  gode dohte,
Se me beag forgeaf,  burgwarena fruma
On þam siex hund wæs  smætes goldes
Gescyred sceatta,  scillingrime,
Þone ic Eadgilse  on æht sealed,
Minum hleo dryhtne,  leofum to leane,
Þæs þe he me lond forgeaf,  mines fædereþel,
Frea Myrginga; and me þa Ealhild 
Oþerne forgeaf,  dryhtcwen duguðe
Dohtor Eadwines:  hyre lof lengde
Greond londa fela,  þonne ic be songe
Secgan sceolde  hwær ic under swegle
Selest wise  goldhrodene cwen
Giefa bryttian. 
(Widsith 88-102b)

[…and I was with Eormanric; during which time the Goth’s king treated me well, he gave me a collar, chieftain of his people, six hundred sceats of gold in coin reckoned, which I to Eadgils in keeing gave, my patron lord, when to home I came, in requital to my friend, because he had given me land, my paternal heritage, prince of the Myrgings; and to me then Ealhild another gave, noble queen of chieftains, Eadwie’s daughters; her praise I extended over many lands whenever I by song had to say where I knew a most excellent and gold-adorned queen dispensing gifts.]

This scene depicts Eormenric as a generous lord: he gives Widsith a ring (probably an arm-ring) of enormous worth—so valuable it seems to be implicitly intended for Widsith’s lord Eadgils.  Then Ealhild gives Widsith a second gift, this one apparently for himself, prompting him to sing her praises through many lands. The interlude telling of the gifting of the ring to Eadgils need not be read as an interruption of the scene, as some scholars have insisted. In typical Anglo-Saxon poetic style, the poet digresses on the fate or provenance of a material object before returning to his narrative.

(See the Auðunar þáttr vestfirska for another example of this sort of gift-giving. By giving a gift via proxy, a powerful king could honor a peer (or a rival) while still saving face (Faulkes 207). Note also the similarities to the situation in Beowulf: a king gives a ring to the retainer of another king of a value far beyond the retainer’s station. The retainer then returns home and gives it as a gift to his lord.)

We can reconstruct the experience of Widsith the character thus: he travels in the retinue of Ealhild, who is on her way to marry Eormenric as part of a “peace-weaving”—an alliance secured by marriage between the Myrgingas and the powerful tribe of the Goths. He tarries long as a scop in Eormanric’s court, and at the end of his time there he is given a great gift by Eormanric, destined for Eadgils, as well as a lesser gift from the now-queen Ealhild, whose great generosity he praises. This is a far departure from the “wolfish” Eormanric of Deor, and it is difficult to reconcile with the reference in Widsith’s introduction to Eormanric’s treachery. To answer these questions, we will need to look further afield, to Latin and Old Norse sources concerning Eormanric.

In his Getica, the sixth-century historian Jordanes describes the great “Hermanaricus, rex Gothorum… nobilissiumus Amalorum, quem merito nonnulli Alexandro Magno conparavere maiores,” and his rule over not only the Germanic peoples of Eastern Europe, but also over the Wends and the Slavs. But facing invading Huns and treachery among his own vassals, Hermanaricus punished a rebellious vassal by ordering his wife, Sunilda, to be torn apart by wild horses. In the end, an old and ailing Hermanaricus took his own life (Chambers 16-17).

Against this historical account we may set the Scandinavian version of the story as preserved in the Hamðismal, Snorri’s Edda, and the Vǫlsunga saga. Although each of these accounts differ slightly, they all tell how the great king Jormunrekk sent his son, along with his counsellor Bikki, to woo Svanhild, the daughter of the hero Sigurd and his wife Gudrun. Bikki, for reasons unknown, first urges Jormunrekk’s son to woo this fairest of women for himself, and afterwards betrays him to his father. Jormunrekk orders his son to be hanged, and Svanhild to be torn apart by horses (Chambers 19).

Chronologically, Widsith stands somewhere between Jordanes and the Scandinavian sources, with most scholars agreeing that the introduction containing the allusion to Eormanric’s treachery is considerably newer than the rest of the poem (Chambers 28, 145). This becomes important if, as Richard Heinzel suggested, the Ealhild of Widsith is the analog to the Sunilda of Jordanes and the Svanhild of Scandinavian legend. Several factors suggest this, as Chambers elaborates at great length (Chambers 22-8), and it certainly seems unlikely that Eormanric would have had two different queens with similar names attributed to him. Ealhild is a likely corruption of Gothic *Sonahildi since names like this were frequently abbreviated to “Hild” for poetic purposes, and then later expanded again. 

All of this suggests a body of stories over time which associated Eormanric with a foreign queen, either the wife of one of his vassals, or the daughter of some great house wooed as part of a marriage alliance. The character of Eormanric gradually developed from the great but luckless king in Jordanes to the fabulously wealthy but wolfish tyrant of Deor and Beowulf. And if the introduction of Widsith is indeed of later composition than the rest of the poem, it might account for this accusation of wraþes wærlogan leveled against him, as the legends regarding Eormanric developed in England and he became associated with the death of Ealhild, whom the poem specifically praises.

(This is a more satisfactory explanation than the alternative, which is that there are several lines that were simply missed by the scribe who copied or compiled our present manuscript, which would reveal the identity of the wraþes wærlogan. “There is no hiatus in the manuscript,” wrote Benjamin Thorpe, but he cannot otherwise explain the apparent incongruity of Widsith’s later praise of Eormanric (Thorpe 218).)

Hama also appears in Widsith as one of two wræccan, a word which suggests both “hero” and “exile.” The other is his companion Wudga (Gothic Widigauja), a hero of Germanic legend closely associated with the stories about Ermanaric and his perpetual foe, the noble and heroic Dietrich von Bern (the historical Gothic king Theodoric the Great). In these stories, Heme is merely the assistant or cohort of Wittich, companion the betrayal of both Emanaric and Dietrich and the “slayer of youthful princes” (Chambers 51). 

But the Saxon and Scandinavian sources take a more sympathetic view of the pair. Þiðreks saga af Bern, an Icelandic retelling of a lost Low German version of the legend, Vithga is a valiant warrior forced, by a combination of personal honor and complex political machinations, to fight against his former lord. Heimr, the friend of Vithga, is here an outlaw champion who insults Ærminricr to his face before escaping to live as an outlaw, harrying Ærminricr’s lands before retiring to a monastery, until being finally convinced by his old lord Þiðrek to go into battle one last time (“Ævilok Heimis ok Þiðreks konungs”).

In Þiðreks saga and its Saxon source material, we find late echoes of the legend alluded to in Beowulf. Eormanric’s legend, already several centuries old by even the earliest estimates of Beowulf’s date of authorship, had grown from that of a peculiarly tragic king to that of a cunning, wrathful, treacherous tyrant—generous no doubt to poets, but liable to turn on his own family members at the slightest provocation. Against this tyrant the legend cast Hama, the outlaw, who seems to have gotten the better of Eormanric in at least one important escapade: the theft of the Necklace of the Brosings.

That's enough for today. In next week's post, we'll take a look at the "Necklace of the Brosings," and consider the placement of this episode within the poem.



Currently reading: A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture, edited by Rory McTurk
Current audio book: The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Currently translating: Aiwaggeljo Þairh Maþþaiu, Chapter VI, from Wright's Gothic Grammar.

The Necklace of the Brosings - Beowulf lines 1192-1214

The following is a translation of the “Necklace of the Brosings” digression in lines 1192-1214 of the Beowulf poem. This translation was made using the critical text in Klaeber 2008, and aims to preserve the word-order of the Anglo-Saxon text as much as possible in Modern English.

To him was the cup born and friendly invitation
With words offered, and twisted gold
With good will presented, arm-ornaments twain,
Garment and rings, of neck rings greatest
Of those that I in earth have heard.
I under heaven heard of no better
Treasure of heroes, since Hama carried away
To that fair stronghold the necklace of the Brosings,
Jewel and fine setting – fleeing the treacherous hate
Of Eormenric, chose lasting reward.
This collar had Hygelac of the Geats
Grandson of Swerting, at [his] last expedition,
When he under the standard defended treasure,
Guarding the spoil of the slain; fate bore him off,
When he for pride looked for woe,
Assault on Frisia. He those adornments wore,
Precious stones over the cup of waves,
Powerful prince; he under shield fell.
Passed then the life of the king into the Franks’ embrace,
Breast-garment and collar together.
A worse warrior stripped the slain
After war-slaughter; the Geatish people
The place of corpses guarded. The hall received [the gift] with applause.
(Beowulf 1192-1214)

Over the next couple of weeks I'll be posting a close reading of this passage, arguing for its placement within the Beowulf poem and specifically its relevance to Hygelac's (and Beowulf's) eventual demise.



Currently reading: A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture, edited by Rory McTurk
Current audio book: The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Currently translating: Aiwaggeljo Þairh Maþþaiu, Chapter VI, from Wright's Gothic Grammar.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Reading the Old North: Where to Begin

I was recently asked by a young person of my acquaintance for some recommendations on where she might find inexpensive and approachable versions of the literature of the Old North, particularly Old Norse literature. She was more interested in primary sources than published summaries, so I've prioritized this list accordingly.

Volsunga saga - This legendary saga (fornaldarsaga) tells the story of the Volsung family, and includes the archetypal dragon-slaying. It's the basis for the later medieval German Nibelungenlied, Wagner's Ring Cycle, and (ultimately) Star Wars. There's no reading old Germanic myth or legend without reading the Volsunga saga, since everyone who is anyone is ultimately related to the Volsungs in some way.
  • An old-school translation by William Morris (this is the one Tolkien read as a boy; by a coincidence it is also the first thing of the Old North that I read as a boy) is freely available online. The English may be a bit archaic for some, but if you can get around that it's quite good.
  • Jesse Byock has a translation that's been around for a while. When it comes to Old Norse scholars, Byock is the real deal.
  • Dr. Jackson Crawford has new translation that dropped earlier this year, which includes a translation of the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (sort of the unofficial sequel to Volsunga saga). I haven't read it yet, mainly because it's been so popular it keeps going out of print. I have a copy now, so when I get time I'll do a review.
Hervarar saga - This is one of my favorite sagas. It tells the story of the cursed sword Tyrfing (probably originally the name of a Germanic tribe, not a sword), and its bloody history as it is handed down through the generations and ultimately results in brother rising up against brother. This saga has everything you could want: cursed swords, shield maidens waking the angry ghosts of their beserker fathers from cursed barrows, and one of the greatest riddle-contests of the Old North (undoubtedly the inspiration for the riddle-contest in The Hobbit).

  • The best version of this poem remains Christopher Tolkien's translation and commentary, which fortunately is available for free
Snorri's Edda - Also called the Prose Edda or the Younger Edda. For a variety of reasons, it's not a reliable summary of pre-Christian Germanic religion or mythology (though many people would like it to be), but it was an early attempt to summarize the stories of the ancient North, intended as a tool to instruct those who would compose (or appreciate) skaldic poetry. Despite the fact that it never seems to be quite what anyone wants it to be, it remains one of our most important primary sources for studying and understanding the Old Norse myths and legends.
  • There is a free version available on Sacred Texts. As with most Sacred Texts offerings, it's pretty old (having been translated in 1916). 
  • Project Gutenberg has an even older translation (which I rather like) by Rasmus Anderson.
  • Byock has a translation via Penguin classics.
The Poetic Edda - Also called the Elder Edda. The Edda is really a collection of different poems, composed at different times and on a variety of themes (but mostly about the old Northern myths and legends). It's not what you'd call a religious text (though again, some people would like it to be so), but it is the oldest and best preservation of the stories of the pre-Christian North that we have. If you read the works listed above and find you enjoy the poetry interspersed throughout, this collection of nothing but poetry is for you.
  • There is a very good free version I will recommend from The Viking Society of Northern Research. It's perhaps a bit old, but it isn't as though these things have changed that much. What I particularly like about this edition is that there is a huge introduction, comprised of a summary of each of the poems. Don't try to read the whole introduction all at once. Instead, read the introduction for the poem you're about to read, to help you understand the context and any of the particularly difficult allusions, then read the corresponding poems.
  • Dr. Jackson Crawford has a great new translation that has been selling very well on Amazon (as has his translation of Volsunga saga). I recently gave my own copy away, but once I get another I'll do a review. I have very minor "quibbles" with a couple of the translation decisions, but on the whole this is an easy and approachable way to get into Norse poetry.
The Sagas of the Icelanders - This is not a free edition, but it's a wonderful collection of Icelandic sagas (including my favorite, Egil's saga). Unlike the above works, these sagas operate within the historical and quasi-historical past of the Icelanders themselves. So although they are informed by the old moods and literary conventions of the North (including larger-than-life heroes, skaldic poetry, etc.), they are broad in scope. I can think of no better collection of stories to introduce a student to the unique spirit of Northern literature. The paperback is a very reasonable price, especially for such a large book.

There's a lot of other reading you could do, and I haven't even touched on Beowulf. But this is more than enough to start with. My final recommendation is to check out Dr. Jackson Crawford's YouTube channel if you haven't done so already. It's full of free, engaging, and scholarly explanations of Old Norse literature and language, and the man knows how to wear a hat.


Currently reading: From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic (A Linguistic History of English), by Don Ringe
Current audio book: The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien
Currently translating: Aiwaggeljo Þairh Maþþaiu, Chapter VI, from Wright's Gothic Grammar.

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...