Sunday, 28 July 2013

Rape and abduction in Anglo-Saxon England


I'm sure most people will remember that pretty controversial and outrageous statement that Republican (aren't they always!) Todd Akin said about rape victims being able to avoid pregnancy -
"If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down". 
Yes, Todd, I'm sure you got an A in Biology. Funnily enough, with the pro-life folk always talking about abortion being something from the Dark Ages, this view that raped women can somehow prevent pregnancy is in fact from the Dark Ages! Maybe that's why many are considered to be White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

According to Julia Coleman, in her chapter "Rape in Anglo-Saxon England", the earliest definition of rape in the Anglo-Saxon period can be found in the ninth century laws of King Alfred (remember, the guy who let the cakes burn). Here are some facts:
  • The rape of a non-virgin wasn't treated to be as serious as the rape of a virgin
  • Because marital sex was seen as a dutiful act to a spouse, it is likely that non-consnsual sex in a marriage wasn't seen as rape - unfortuantely many people still think this way
  • Abduction, elopement and adultery are also lumped in with rape
And what was the punishment for what was then considered rape? Well, mostly just a fine to the victim or her husband or father, but it could be as serious as castration in the case of a rape by a slave.

From another source, there is the likelihood that compensation was offered to the victims (or their "owners"), "ranging from 5s for seizing her by the breast to 60s for rape [...] The fine for removing a nun from a nunnery is also 120s, divided between the king and the ecclesiastical authorities [...] Compensation for rape is reduced by half if the victim was not a virgin " (Early English Laws). All this is presumably in shillings (20 shillings to a pound). Some other sources give different amounts for compensation. 

A screen shot from Corine Saunders' Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England

In post-conquest England, after the Norman invasion, it is notable that there appears to be no mention of the victim's or the rapist's social class - whether you were a slave or a Lord, your genitals were getting the chop!

"Sausies for din-dins!"

As Coleman states, it wasn't only the woman's dignity that was affected - it also affected the men in her life's pride, as they feel lessened by the fact that they were unable to protect her. This can also be seen on a larger scale, with reports from Ancient Greece up until present day - rape is a pretty common consequence of warfare. "War rape" is more than just about the physical act, and goes beyond the terrorising of the woman (or man) who is being victimised. As Susan Brownmiller says:

(R)ape by a conqueror is compelling evidence of the conquered's status of masculine impotence. Defense of women has long been a hallmark of masculine pride, as possession of women has been a hallmark of masculine success. Rape by a conquering soldier destroys all remaining illusions of power and property for men of the defeated side.

Anglo-Saxon England, being a realm which was involved in regular conflict with the Danes and later the Normans, is no exception to this, and unfortunately women were often used as a tool to demonstrate the taking of the country to the men.

Rape in Anglo-Saxon England
Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England
The Semiotics of Rape in Renaissance English Literature

Monday, 22 July 2013

Brynhildr - a Norse rom-com (minus the comedy... and much of the romance)

Brynhildr, depicted by Robert Engels in 1919

We've already talked about one (official) shieldmaiden, Lagertha, so I think it's time we talk about some more kickass Norse wimmins.

Interestingly enough (maybe? Is it? I dunno), there is a connection between Lagertha and the more famous shieldmaiden we are going to talk about today - Brynhildr. You may recall that Ragnar Lodbrok took Brynhildr's daughter, Aslaug, as his third wife, after divorcing Lagertha (I'm still a bit butt hurt over this). Brynhildr also has a connection to another figure, Gudrun/Kriemhild, who I want to discuss more in the future (she does pop up here quite a bit). Shit, she even has a connection to Grendel's Mother in Xena: Warrior Princess (Grinhilda)! Basically, Brynhildr gets around!

DISCLAIMER: There will be a whole lot of name repetitions - you will never want to hear the name Brynhildr again! Brynhildr Brynhildr Brynhildr!

The character of Brynhildr may be famous from Wagner's Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, but she started out as a figure in Norse mythology (and possibly even before this as Brunhilda of Austrasia, a real life Visigothic princess). Although, to be completely honest, most people will have heard the name Brynhildr/Brunhilde/blablabla etc, from things like Xena, various video games, World of Warcraft, Django Unchained, and by the looks of it, some softcore manga...what the...

Eh, anyway. Brynhildr appears in the Völsunga saga, a 13th century Icelandic text and some Eddic poems. In the Völsunga saga, she is condemned by Odin to live life as a mortal woman and imprisoned in a ring of fire until a man rescues and marries her. The lucky man to come and rescue Brynhildr was Sigurðr Sigmundson, hero of the Volsung saga, and needless to say, the two of them fall madly in love, ending with Sigurðr's offer of the ring Andvaranaut (which is likely to be an influence for the one ring in LOTR) as a proposal. Sigurðr, who needs to run off on important business, promises to return to make Brynhildr his bride. In the meantime, Gudrun comes over for a cup of tea and to ask for some help in interpreting a dream, which coincidentally enough foretells Sigurðr's betrayal of Brynhildr and his marriage to Gudrun - forget Freud, these guys really knew their dreams!

The man himself . Killing Fafnir.

So, at this stage, Sigurðr is off with Gjuki, the King of Burgundy. Gjuki's wife, Grimhild, who happens to be Gudrun's mother dearest AND a sorceress (how unlucky), prepares a magic potion so that Sigurðr will forget about Brynhildr. And alas, the potion does its job, and he marries Gudrun instead. In some strange series of events, Gjuki's wife then decides to marry her son Gunnar to Brynhildr (what a terrible mother-in-law she would have been). However, Gunnar finds that he can't get through this ring of flames, and so, Sigurðr offers to exchange shapes with him, and enters to claim her hand. So Sigurðr, disguised as Gunnar, stays with Brynhildr for three nights, putting a sword in between them so she will retain her virginity (imagine if they couldn't find a sword - close one!) and then takes the One Ring to Rule Them All from her finger to later give to Gudrun (oh no he didn't!). Sigurðr and Gunnar return to their true forms and Gunnar is married to Brynhildr.

And this is where shit gets real. Gudrun and Brynhildr start arguing about who has the better husband, where Brynhildr starts bragging about how brave her Gunnar was to ride through the flames to get her, causing Gudrun to drop the bombshell that it was actually Sigurðr. As you can imagine, Brynhildr goes ape, and Sigurðr starts to remember the truth, but fails to console her. So, Brunhildr tries to urge Gunnar to kill him, telling him that Sigurðr slept with her - Gunnar, being too scared to kill Sigurðr himself, gives his little brother a potion that enrages him, causing him to kill Sigurðr. Brynhildr then kills Sigurðr's son, and during Sigurðr's funeral, throws herself on his funeral pyre, thus entering into Hel with him - a somewhat romantic a rather messed up way.

Brünnhilde throws herself on the flames. By Arthur Rackham for Wagner's Ring Cycle

Have you died of boredom yet? There are differences in other versions of the story found in a few Eddic poems (eg Aslaug is Brynhildr's and Sigurðr's daughter), but honestly, ain't nobody got time fo' that.

The story of Brynhildr can then be found in the Nibelungenlied, a Middle High German epic poem about Siegfried (Sigurðr). There are quite a few differences regarding her tale in this version - Brunhild is the queen of Iceland, and with Siegfried's help (who is hidden under an invisibility claok that he got off Albus Dumbledore), Gunther (Gunnar) wins Brunhild in a series of rather warlike games. There doesn't appear to be any suggestion that Siegfried had proposed (or even known) Brunhild before this.

Brunhild, who is suspicious of Siegfried (as Gunther introduced him as a vassal, although he was actually royalty), denies Gunther her virginity until he tells her the truth. Gunther tries to take her by force, but Brunhild merely pushes away his advances as if he were a tiny kitten and ties him to the ceiling. 

Gunther's Wedding Night by Johann Heinrich Füssli

The next day, Gunther, being a little bit put out at not getting the ride, tells Siegfried what happened, so Siegfried enters their bed chamber that night under cover of the invisibility cloak, and holds Brunhild down until she submits to Gunther's will - a bit rapey if you ask me. In this version of the story, this is when Siegfried takes "a ring" from her finger (along with a girdle), which is later shown to her  y Kriemhild (Gudrun) during their "my husband is better than yours" argument - thus giving away the game. Hagen, Brunhild's vassal, promising to take revenge on the wrongdoer then kills Siegfried. So, as you can see, this version has a lot less romance, and a lot less sympathy for Siegfried/Sigurðr. 

Some other time I will discuss Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, because this post is about forty-two times longer than I'd intended it to be. It's time for me to go watch Wrath of the Titans and see if it's as class....I mean....crap.... as Clash of the Titans (whose tagline was "Titans will Clash" - I never tire of telling people this).

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Space Grendels

In the very few cases that people have asked me what my favourite Beowulf film is (most likely it's me telling them against their will when I'm shitfaced), I have to answer with Outlander. Funnily enough, it's only very vaguely got anything to do with Beowulf, and Grendel's Mother is the most monstrous that you'll probably ever see her. But all that aside, I think it's a pretty good film (but then again, I'm into all that kinda crap). And as well as its similarities to things like Clash of the Titans (I had to start calling this a guilty pleasure when I found out that it's not cool to like it) and 300, which I just can't get enough of, I think another reason I like this film is because of a certain viking....

So, I'm really gonna sell this movie to you now - basically, a man from another planet crashlands in 8th century Norway, unfortunately bringing along a 'Moorwen' which seems to have hitchhiked in his spaceship without consent. So, this fella, Kainan (played by Jim Caviezel, whoever the hell he is), then comes across King Hrothgar (John Hurt - a nod to Alien? minus chest-bursters) and his people, and the Moorwen starts attacking everybody, and the rest can be guessed from there. SOUNDS GREAT RIGHT? Yes, yes, I know, thank me later.

Outlander was made in 2008 by Howard McCain, and unsurprisingly nobody I know has ever heard of it, and it's one of those films that seems to get played on the Syfy channel sometimes (no way as good as such cinematic masterpieces like Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus and The Human Centipede of course). Anyway, as the story goes, McCain always wanted to make a Beowulf adaptation, but his agent told him that "everybody hates Beowulf" (how wrong could he be?!...actually, he was probably right...), so he decided to title it Outlander and made a few character changes....a few drastic ones. 

I'm going to concentrate on the Moorwen from here on in, because this monster beor appears to be some sort of re-imagining of Grendel's Mother. It's kind of hard to discern this Moorwen's gender, because as you'll see....

....yes, what the fuck is that?! It looks like some sort of warg-tyrannosaurus-komodo dragon-angler fish. So, according to Google Search, not many people seem to agree with my view that this is Grendel's Mother (in fact, only two results show up, neither of which actually says that the Moorwen is Grendel's Mother), but rather that the Moorwen is Grendel. But, if any of these people had paid attention, the Moorwen GIVES BIRTH to another one and then goes ape when her offspring is killed....sounds kind of like....yes, you got it, Grendel's Mother! 

Of course, like most films these days, Outlander makes us feel sympathy for the monster, and Kainan tells the Vikings about how his race of people thoughtlessly wiped out the Moorwen population in order to expand their own civilisation, and this last survivor of the species is just trying to exact revenge (and later on revenge for her dead offspring) - there seems to be a warning of urban expansion in there somewhere, but this is kind of undermined when they then proceed to "go kill this thing", seemingly losing their sympathy in a rush of adrenaline and human nature. At the very end, this vague sense of sympathy returns, just as the monster is about the die, but at the end of the day, she is just seen as a beast, and everybody can go back to drinking mead and running about on top of shields in peace, and Kainan gets the girl. Durrr.

But....saying all that, because I know it sounded very critical...I do like this film. It definitely beat watching a bleach-headed Beowulf do multiple back-flips to a soundtrack of techno, and it also beat watching Ray Winstone and Brendan Gleeson with their CGI'd abs looking like they're about to jump aboard the Polar Express. And I'll take an out-and-out monster over a porn star who turns into a praying mantis any day too! And it's worth watching it just for Wulfric. 

Sweet dreams

And, also, here is an amazing (and completely off topic) song that I feel I must spread to everyone and anyone who will listen.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The wenches of Westeros

So, for the last few days this image has been floating about the interwebs, adding to the list of kickass responses to the stupid "wtf man, why is there intelligent/interesting women in your show/books/film?". So, I thought I would write a post concerning the female characters in the Song of Ice and Fire series, and the tv series of Game of Thrones too. I know this isn't exactly on topic, but there are some influences from mythology and the Anglo-Saxon period (the seven kingdoms of Westeros can be compared to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of what is now England). Or at least that's my excucse, so deal with it.

Although the series has many boobs flying about (reeling in the viewers I guess? - and the rate of boobs per episode has greatly subsided in the last two seasons), it's plain to see that there are a lot of really strong female characters in GoT (we're just going to shorten it to that cause I'm lazy). Now, I am only on book four (A Feast for Crows), so, firstly, I'm a bit behind, and secondly, please don't spoil anything for me or I will find you and I will kill you. Which reminds me, SPOILER ALERT PROBABLY. 


So, much like how myself and many people would imagine the Middle Ages to be, life for a woman isn't exactly the most liberating experience in the world, and it's much like that in George R.R. Martin's universe that he has created, whatever exactly it's called (what is it called?). But that doesn't stop the female characters from trying to break free from expected roles and fortified castles and the hands of The Hound, and becoming some of the most interesting and complex characters in the books and series.

One of my favourite characters in GoT (with strong competition from Tyrion Lannister) is Daenerys Targaryen, because she has developed from that unsure little girl/weeping newlywed with that queynte of a brother, into a no-shit-taking Queen, and she gets some of the coolest parts in the series (for example the "You speak Valyrian?!?!" scene). We've all found ourselves not being taken seriously, or presumed incapable of certain qualities, and it feels good to prove people wrong, but we can only wish that we could do it with the same dramatic effect (and fire) that Dany does. And although a lot of her rise to power relied on the men around her (much of this was taken away with Khal Drogo's death however), I feel that she is becoming more and more independent of them as the series progresses. I truly hope that she isn't killed off before the end!

This scene made me fist pump in my mind

A character that is utterly despicable, yet quite....admirable (this isn't exactly the word I'm trying to think of) is Cersei Lannister. She really is a horrible person (with added incest), but one can't help but be impressed by her willingness to do anything or kill anyone to stay on top, and I think there are definitely times when one can feel sympathetic towards her character too (when we learn more of her disappointing marriage to Robert for example). Her character is also important with regards to gender issues, as she speaks herself of how she didn't understand how when her and Jaime reached a certain age, despite being identical in all ways, she was taught to be a lady, while her brother was given a sword, and how when she would dress in her brither's clothes, people would treat her differently. Of course, she doesn't dispute the patriarchal belief that men should rule the world, merely resents the fact that she was born a woman. 

Another character who it wouldn't do to leave out is, of course, Brienne of Tarth. Unusually, she is given a traditionally male role in the story, first becoming Catelyn's protector of sorts, and later filling the traditional role of the male knight searching for the beautiful lost maiden - except for Brienne is a woman, and does not look to gain from her rescuing of Sansa (like marriage or gold). Perhaps there is some critique in there of knights rescuing maidens purely for the motive of "getting the girl". But then again, Brienne has a lot more honour than most of the other knights in the series. 

What is also refreshing is the fact that she is not made into some sexy warrior girl who chooses to fight half naked, which for many films, seems to be the only acceptable way for a female fighter to be, but is described as being quite ugly and masculine, and most of the time she is seen wearing armour. When we see her onscreen, her fight scenes come across as really credible - we're not sitting here thinking "yeah right, like a woman could fight off that many men at once". And in another way Brienne's character defies another typical female role, in that, despite being butch and masculine, she is not a lesbian, as many probably expect her to be.

Anyway, Brienne is a great character, and I'm looking forward to seeing how her story progresses. 

There are many more impressive ladies in GoT; Arya Stark (durrr), Sansa Stark (despite my hatred of her at the start, I have come to like her), Margery Tyrell, the Queen of Thorns, Asha Greyjoy (Yara in the tv series), Osha, Ygritte, Catelyn Stark, and so on. But this is enough for today. 

Thursday, 11 July 2013

I will carry you home in my teeth

So, I finally listened to this song by American folk group The Mountain Goats...I spent half a year getting annoyed by it showing up in searches, and now, numerous years later, I have finally said "Okay, okay, jesus I'll listen to you"'s really good! And it makes me want to check out more of this band's music - they remind me of Andrew Jackson Jihad and Defiance, Ohio and maybe a bit of Wingnut Dishwasher's Union (all great bands!). A good find if I say so myself!


the cave mouth shines
by pure force of will
i look down on the world

from the top of this lonesome hill

and you can run, and run some more

from here all the way to singapore
but i will carry you home in my teeth

in the great hall you drink red wine
you chew meat off the bone
i beat down the new path to the castle
i come naked and alone
i laid my son on the bier, i burned the wreath
fire overhead, water underneath
you can stand up or you can run
you and i both know what you've done
and i will carry you home
i will carry you home
i will carry you home in my teeth

And it turns out that it's really easy to play on guitar!
Find the chords here!
Now I gotta go play it over and over and annoy everyone in my house!

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Sympathy for Eve

One of the texts I found really interesting when doing my undergrad was the Old English Genesis, especially the Genesis B section, because of its pretty unusual and unconventional depictions of God, Satan and Eve when compared to other accounts of the fall of angels and the temptation of Adam and Eve, both from the Anglo-Saxon period and other eras.

The Old English Genesis (A and B) can be found in the Junius 11 manuscript (also referred to as the Caedmon Manuscript), dating to about 930-1000AD. This manuscript also contains Daniel; Exodus; and Christ and Satan. The Old English Genesis is a translation (or transliteration when talking about Genesis B) of an Old Saxon version of the text.

 As an example of this poem's unconventionality (is this even a word?), here is an example of one of Satan's soliloquies:

‘There is no need at all for me to have a master. I can work just as many
marvels with my hands.I have plenty of power to furnish a goodlier throne,
one more exalted in heaven.Why must I wait upon his favour
and defer to him in such fealty? […]So it does not seem to me fitting
that I need flatter God at all for any advantage. No longer will I be
his subordinate.’ – Genesis B 278-291

Reading this, Satan seems to be coming across with some fair points, right? Seems like a sound enough guy! And to further top this off, the fact that God throws him and his followers into hell like an angry toddler, kind of makes us think again about who the good guy is...and why is he being such a dick?!

So that leaves us to move on to Eve, who gets off really lightly compared to other depictions of her. Rather than damning her, the poet seems to offer her a lot of sympathy, almost going out of his way to express how it wasn't her fault:

Yet she did it out of loyal intent. She did not know
that there were to follow so many hurts and 
terrible torments for humankind because she
took to heart what she heard in the counsellings
of that abhorrent messenger; but rather she thought
that she was gaining the favour of the heavenly King - Genesis B

Most importantly, this pleading for Eve's lack of blame veers toward heresy. In Genesis B, it is not out of disobedience, but of of "loyal intent" and innocent ignorance that Eve eats the fruit. This would suggest that the poet seems to be almost disagreeing with God's judgement and punishment of her and basically we've all been suffering because of God's lousy judgement of her. 

nom nom nom

Of course, it's nice that the poet is being all sympathetic towards Eve (and the Devil), but it must also be said that he is also a bit of a sexist...or more than a bit. Throughout Genesis B, Eve is described as being "lovely" and "beautiful", yet her intelligence is never commented on, while Adam is described as "self-determined" and is clear-sighted and independent enough to see through the 'messenger's' (in this version, Satan sends a messenger to tempt Adam and Eve, rather than go himself) temptations. So basically, what he's trying to say is that Eve is lovely and all, and a sight to look at, but basically, the lights are on, but nobody's home. Eve, like all of our sex, has "the frail mind of women" and does not think to question the angel/serpent, but takes the apple without too much thought. Lastly, the idea of "woman as beguiler of man" is evident here, as Adam, who can't resist Eve's "lovely" facade, gives in and takes a bite of the apple - don't you know, (warning, sarcasm alert) men can't help themselves when they are confronted with a sweet face, or a short skirt. Anyway, Adam pretty much blames it all on Eve - what a douche! This author really has us rooting for the traditional baddies!

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Grendel's Mother and translators taking the piss

Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Mother in Zemickis' film

This post is going to be like an episode of Scooby Doo, where Grendel's Mother is chasing you around, with her talons and her big ugly head, and then she takes off her monster costume and you realise it's all cool, you and Grendel's Mother aren't that different from each other, and she isn't actually a monster (speaking of which, that Scooby Doo team get a lot of really similar cases).

As I pointed out previously (and if the blog title didn't give it away), I am a Grendel's Mother fan. Furthermore I believe that she isn't a monster, but a misunderstood character who has been wrongly translated into monstrosity.

Why did it happen that she has been turned into a scary, wolf-like, reptilian, troll-thing? Don't ask me, ask the translators who thought sacrificing accuracy for artistic effects or to make Beowulf more heroic or whatever other reasons, was a good idea. And unfortunately the trend has stuck, and everybody just imagines Grendel's Mother as the monster-thing without second thought.

(Disclaimer: These are my opinions. Feel free to continue thinking of Grendel's Mother as a monster....but just so you know, I secretly clench my fists at night at the thought of you)

So, basically, Grendel's Mother has been getting a hard time of it from the very beginning, starting off with translations such as John Mitchell Kemble's 1835 translation, right up to R.M. Liuzza's 2012 translation. While researching for my thesis two years ago, I did an extensive enough search in order to find just one translation that did not demonise Grendel's Mother...but nada. I realised that there was not much point in putting too much faith in any one translation, because, when it comes to ancient languages, it is pretty impossible to interpret them exactly - there will always be some leeway, and there is oftentimes no direct translations of words.

"Big Mother", a Marvel Universe character

Grendel's Mother is first introduced to us on line 1256, where she is named as Grendel's avenger and an ides, aglæcwif (a word that would haunt me for months). This term has a pretty wide variety of translations. Alexander translates it as "monstrous ogress", Heaney as "monstrous hell-bride", "witch of the sea" (Osborn), Gummere as "monster of a woman", and there are many more similar interpretations from others. Now, the thing is, Beowulf is the only text that contains the word aglæcwif. In fancy terms, it's hapax legomenon, so it can't be compared against any other texts, which is a bit of a pain in the ass. BUT, the word can be divided into its roots, aglæca and wif. Interestingly enough, aglæca, along with other compounds containing this word, is used several times throughout Beouwulf in reference to Grendel, the dragon, Sigemund (a hero of old) and Beowulf himself. When used in relation to Beowulf, it has been translated as "gallant man" (1512, Heaney), "warrior" (Gummere) and "fierce commander" (2592, Heaney). do they get "monstrous ogress" and such terms out of a word that is otherwised used as "fighter, valliant warrior, dangerous opponent, one who struggles fiercely" (Sherman Kuhn)?? Does it not make more sense, and is it not a whole lot more accurate to translate it as "female-warrior" perhaps, seen as wif simply means "woman"? And although it is often used with negative connotations (eg in Juliana, when describing the devil), it has also been found in a description of Bede by Byrthferth of Ramsay, where he is called aglæca lareow, "awe-inspiring teacher" (Orchard). 

It's not fair to say that the poet intended aglæcwif to have negative connotations, and it is unreasonable to translate it as "warrior" or "hero" when it comes to Beowulf, but as "monstrous ogress"  or "monster woman" (Chickering) when it comes to Grendel's Mother. I will also point out that ides comes before aglæcwif, a word "always used in reference to female humans, never animals, and usually reserved for noble women” (Porter). As ides aglæcwif is the first term used to describe Grendel's Mother, it of course influences how we view her for the rest of the poem. Unfortunately, we're not introduced to her as "female-warrior" or "warrior lady", and from the very outset we are encouraged to view her as a monster. Boo. 

The cover of Seamus Heaney's Beowulf translation

I won't go into so much detail on the other terms, because we'll be here all day, and I'm suffering from a truly impressive hangover and I want to go lie out in the sun like a lizard (speaking of which, I wonder if this is what Grendel's Mother in Gunnarsson's Beowulf and Grendel must do). So I'll just lay out the necessary points. 

  • Atolan clommum, found on line 1502, has been translated as "terrile hooks" (Alexander) and "horrible claws" (Chickering), whereas it can also be translated as "terrible clasp", which does not necessarily imply any crazy physical deviations. 
  • Laþan fingrum, also, which is literally translated as "hateful fingers" has been translated as "savage talons" (Heaney) and "claws" by Chickering. These people are really out to get her!
  • Brimwylf, lines 1506 and 1599, has been translated as "wolf of the waves" (Gummere) and "sea-wolf" by Kemble. Although these translations aren't incorrect, brimwylf does not necessarily mean that Grendel's Mother is a literal sea wolf, or even resembles one physically. It may simply function as an epithet, which isn't so far-fetched as wulf or wylf is often seen in other cases to denote warriors...the really obvious one being Beowulf himself! "Bee-wolf" or "wolf of the bees" does not mean that Beowulf is literally a stripy, flying, wolf! Another example is in The Battle of Maldon, where the invading Vikings are called wælwulfas (96), meaning "slaughter-wolves", and likewise, we know that the Vikings weren't actually wolves, so having wulf or wylf as a name, does not mean you are a physical wolf...or that you are to be perceived negatively. In fact, the whole reason the "wolf" compound was used in general, was most likely because of an "early admiration for the wolf" (“wulf” def. I. Bosworth-Toller), and so far from being a derogatory term, it is most like that the poet was using this to emphasise her skills in battle.
  • Our next word, grundwyrgenne (1518) has been translated as "monster of the deep" (Kemble), "swamp-thing from hell" (Heaney, you crazy dog), and "the abyss's curse (Morgan). It is also defined in the Clark-Hall dictionary as "water-wolf". Grund is obvious - ground, earth. But wyrgenne is where the problem lies. Wearg is defined in the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary as “I. of human beings, a villain, felon, scoundrel, criminal . . .  II. of other creatures, a monster, malignant being, evil spirit”. So...and I know many disagree....seeing as there isn't exactly any solid proof (just translations) that Grendel's Mother isn't human, the second definition just doesn't really seem solid enough. And although there may be some confusion with the Old Norse cognate vargr, meaning both "outlaw" and "wolf", it must be noted that other instances of wearg are not translated as "wolf" why Grendel's Mother? Exactly, it shouldn't be. 
  • Secg: On line 1378 this can be found, and has many colourful interpretations, like "sin-flecked being" (Gummere) and "most evil monster" (Crosley-Holland). Buuuut, secg is also used for the male characters in the poem, and guess what, it doesn't seem to mean "most evil monster" in those instances, but rather "warrior" or "prince" and even "hero"(Heaney). Sorry guys, ye gotta try harder. 
  • Wif unhyre (2120), literally “awful woman” is translated as “ghastly dam” (Heaney). 
  • Handbanan (1330), “slayer-by-hand” is translated by Alexander as “bloodthirsty monster”. 
  • Mere mihtig, which appears directly after grundwyrgenne, literally “mighty sea-woman” has been translated by Heaney as “the tarn hag” and by Morgan as “the great sea-demon-woman” (whut??).
  • Heo (1292), which quite literally and simply means “she”, is translated as “hell-dam” by Heaney and “monster” by Crossley-Holland. 

If that isn't enough proof (of sorts, seen as we can't exactly ask the poet or any of his contemporaries) then I don't know what to do. 

Of course, I haven't mentioned any of the descendants of Cain hooha, but some other time I will get around to that.

Works Cited and some references for those who are interested in reading further (I'm totally just covering my ass):

Alexander, Michael, tran. Beowulf: a Verse Translation. London: Penguin, 1973. Print.

Alfano, C. “The Issue of Feminine Monstrosity: A Reevaluation of Grendel’s Mother.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 23.1 (1992): 1-16. Print.
“The Battle of Maldon.” The Labyrinth. Georgetown University. 2007. Web. 9 Aug. 2012.
 Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. 2010. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.
 Chickering, Howell D., tran. Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition. Bilingual. New York: Anchor, 2006. Print.
Clark-Hall, J. R. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Virginia: Wilder Publications, 2011. Print.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin, tran. Beowulf. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.
Cynewulf. Juliana. Ed. Rosemary Woolf. Exeter: U of Exeter P, 1993. Print.
Gummere, Frances B., tran. Beowulf. Florida: Red and Black Publishers, 2007. Print.
Heaney, Seamus, tran. Beowulf: A New Translation. New ed. London: Faber and Faber, 2002. Print.
Hennequin, M. W. “We’ve Created a Monster: The Strange Case of Grendel’s Mother.” English Studies 89.5 (2008): 503–523. Print.
Kemble, John Mitchell, tran. Beowulf: A Translation of the Anglo-Saxon Poem of Beowulf. London: William Pickering, 1837. Google Books. Web. 14 Jun. 2012.
Klaeber, Frederick, trans. Robert D. Fulk, ed. Klaeber’s Beowulf. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2008. Print.
Morgan, Edwin, tran. Beowulf. Exeter: Carcanet, 2002. Print
Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2003. Print.
Oswald, Dana M., Monsters, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature. Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 2010. Google Books. Web. 5 Jun. 2012.
Porter, Dorothy Carr. “The Social Centrality of Women in Beowulf.” The Heroic Age. 2001. Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

The real life Éowyn... kind of

As most people already know, J.R.R Tolkien was somewhat of an Anglo-Saxon, Middle Ages, and Norse Mythology enthusiast, having been involved in such works as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (translator), Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics (where he forgets about Grendel's Mother), and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, as well as being professor of Anglo-Saxon studies in Oxford. Tolkien was also the founder of the Kolbitar club (members included C.S. Lewis), where a group would sit around and read Icelandic and Norse sagas over some pints of mead...well...maybe not the mead bit, but the rest is true.


So anyway, the influence of all these cultures and their literatures is pretty obvious to spot in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 

  • There were many 'rings of power' in Norse mythology - perhaps the one ring is based on "Andvaranaut", a magical ring forged by the dwarf Andvari. Norse god of mischief, Loki, tricked Andvari into giving him this ring, and so the dwarf, in revenge, curses the ring so that it brings destruction to whoever wore it. 
  • Many of the dwarves' names in The Hobbit are taken from Norse mythology, and can be seen in the Prose Edda, including Dvalin, Bifur, Bafur, Bombor, Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Fili, Kili, Gloin and Thorin!
  • There's clearly a link between Middle-Earth and Midgard, the Norse realm of humankind. 
  • There's a possibility that the inspiration for Smaug came from the dragon that appears in Beowulf 
  • Perhaps Arwen is an adaptation of Freyja, her necklace which she gives to Aragorn a version of the Brisings necklace, which Freyja wore to enhance her beauty. It is also notable that Freyja had a human lover, Óttar. 
  • And there are many more similarities...

And now that I've gone off the point somewhat, it's time to talk about what the post is actually about...Éowyn! But it's mostly about....Æthelflæd!

So, who the hell is Æthelflæd? Well, she just so happens to be a pretty kick-ass Anglo-Saxon woman. Born during the height of the Viking invasions, she was the daughter of Alfred the Great, King of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex (the other three kingdoms being Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia). During the 9th century, England was experiencing more frequent attacks from the Vikings, which culminated in "The Great Heathen Army" in 865. In 871,  Æthelflæd's uncle, King Æthelred died from wounds received in battle, and Alfred the Great came to power, winning a victory over the Danes. This led to a peace agreement, in  which the Vikings were given the eastern part of Mercia, to be incorporated into the Viking East Anglia. 


Unluckily for Alfred, the Vikings didn't keep their word (after all, they were plundering, raiding Vikings), and after a few years laid an attack on Wessex, and Alfred and the rest of the royal family were forced to flee to the Somerset marshes, while the lousy King of Mercia fled to Europe (what a dryballs). In Somerset, Alfred apparently took shelter in the home of a peasant woman who asked him to look after some cakes on the fire. Being too preoccupied with the kingdom and all that nonsense, he accidentally let the cakes burn. 

You let the cakes burn, you dope!

Anyway, while in Somerset, Alfred got together some followers and turned them into warriors (I'll Make a Man out of You from Mulan comes to mind), and defeating the Danes at the Battle of Edington. He eventually returned London to the Mercians, and Æthelred, ruler of the remaining Mercia recognised Alfred as his Overlord. And finally, Æthelflæd comes into the story, as she was offered by Alfred to Æthelred, to cement their alliance, much like a peace-weaver would have done in Ancient Scandinavia. Alfred defeated yet another wave of Vikings, and all across England, was recognised as king. After Alfred's death, his son Edward become king of Wessex. Meanwhile in Mercia, Æthelred falls ill, and Æthelflæd effectively became ruler. 

With her brother Edward, Æthelflæd raided Danish East Anglia and repulsed the last major Danish army sent to ravage England. Æthelflæd then won the support of the Danes, and formed an alliance with the Scots and the Welsh to stand against the Norwegian invaders. When her husband died in 911, she became the sole ruler of Mercia and builds fortifications throughout Mercia. She then went on to invade Wales in order to avenge the murder of a Mercian abbot Ecgberht, and succeeded in capturing the king's wife. Æthelflæd then led her armies against the Viking invaders, capturing their stronghold at Derby. In 918, the people of the region of York promised to pledge their loyalty to Æthelflæd in order to gain her support against Norse raiders. Unfortunately, before this could be realised, she died in the same year, leaving behind her daughter Ælfwynn as ruler of Mercia (although she is removed from power by Edward). 

Æthelflæd's and Éowyn's lives are by no means identical, I am not saying they are, but Æthelflæd was most likely an influence, especially noting that the Rohirrim in general seem to have been influenced by the Anglo-Saxons - their language is based on Old English, and the Hall "Meduseld" brings to mind images of the mead-hall, especially that of King Hrothgar's in Beowulf. In fact, comparisons can also be made between Éowyn and Wealhtheow, as both serve as cup-bearers in the Great Hall. Comparisons can also be made between the hymn sang by Eorl in Lord of the Rings and 'The Wayfarer', an Anglo-Saxon poem. And many more comparisons too. It makes sense that Éowyn should be based on Anglo-Saxon sources also (although there have also been comparisons made between her and the Valkyries of Norse Mythology), and is perhaps some sort of hybrid between the traditional cup-bearer Wealhtheow, and the more active and powerful Æthelflæd. 

Too often have I heard of duty,’she cried. ‘But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will? 
'What do you fear, lady?” he asked. 

'A cage,” she said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.'”

Éowyn's deeds also remind me of my reading of Lagertha. Also a shieldmaiden, she disguises herself as a man (much like the women in Lagertha's story do when their relam is attacked by the King of Sweden) and proves herself the be as capable as any man on the battlefield. Hell, she even kills the witch king! 

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Womyn and Archery

It would seem that archery has become quite popular in the last few years, resulting in (or because of?) tons of archery related films and tv series, especially with women for some reason - Merrida in Brave, Katniss in The Hunger Games, Arya Stark and Ygritte ("Raight foot, leff foot") from Game of Thrones, Natalie Portman (can't remember the character name) in that shite film that also starred Zooey Deschanel, Mulan in Mulan, Andromeda in Wrath of the Titans,  and probably more. And that's only mentioning the female archers, phew! I'm not quite sure what exactly my point was in listing them all out, but anyway...

Looking back on ancient history, it is tough to find any real proof that women were skilled in archery, except for one group that keeps popping up - the Amazons. The Amazons were a nation of all-female warriors in Greek and Classical antiquity. Amazons were first depicted in art around the 8th century, and in writing around the same time (or later) in Homer's Iliad, in scenes concerning the Trojan War. 

In the 5th Century BC, the poet Pindar describes the Amazons as horse-riding female archers. Strabo (a 1st Century Greek historian and philosopher) speaks of the Amazons having their right breast "cauterized at a tender age" (source) to more easily throw spears, and so that a bow could more easily be drawn (although this is questionable, unless they were left-handed) - Hippocrates also mentions the missing breast trend. 

Also included in Greek Mythology is the female archer Atalanta, and the goddess Artemis (Roman equivalent, Diana) - goddess of the hunt, wilderness, wild animals and virginity. One of her epithets was "of the golden shaft", another, "arrow-pouring" (and another, "mistress of the beasts" is pretty cool too) and the image of a golden (or silver?) bow and arrows is symbolic of her. According to Greek Mythology, Artemis' father, Zeus (you may have heard of him...), asked his daughter what she desired in the whole world, to which she responded that she would have a bow and arrows, a pack of hounds to hunt with, nymphs to accompany her, a tunic short enough for her to run in, mountains and wilderness as her own special places, and eternal chastity (isn't chastity one of the first things that pops into every three year old's mind when asked what they want?). And so, Zeus granted it, and she went beneath the sea to Cyclopes to forge her silver bow and arrows. And once she had collected her nymphs, and got her hounds from Pan (as you do), she couldn't wait to try out her bow, and so hunted by torchlight.

Dianna of Versailles - a first century marble statue of the goddess Diana (Greek: Artemis)

Returning somewhat closer to home, we have Skaði, a Norse goddess associated with winter, mountains, skiing (this brings pretty funny images to mind) and.... bowhunting! In all sources (Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, and more) Skaði, daughter of Þjazi, marries the god Njörðr as compensation provided by the gods for killing her father. In the Prose Edda, the figure of 'High' tells the story of how Skaði and Njörðr go their seperate ways due to him wanting to live by the sea, and her wanting to live in the mountains. High then mentions that Skaði returns to the mountains where she skis, wields a bow, and shoots wild animals, while Njörðr goes on to have two children, Freyr and Freyja.

Njörðr and Skaði on the way to Nóatún (1882) by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine

Oh ya know, just skiing and throwin' spears, the usual

As you can see, Skaði can draw a bow with both tits intact

That is all for now. Happy arching!