Monday, 28 March 2016

Grendel the þyrs

The second part of my "Grendel's Gigantism" post is here already...despite concerns that it would take me a year to get my lazy ass to write it, Easter has proven so mind numbingly boring and awful that I may as well do it now.

I may as well also mention that, in my time spent holidaying (avoiding) from this blog, I have two published articles. And yes, I am totally just bragging here.

  1. The Grendel-kin: From Beowulf to the 21st Century - Boolean Journal, UCC, November 2015
  2. The Monster in the House: Grendel's Mother and the Victorian Ideal - Sibeal Feminist and Gender Studies Network, March 2016

Grendel by Charles Keeping

In my last post I spoke about Grendel's gigantism in relation to the term eoten, A second term used of Grendel is þyrs, once again, generally translated as "giant" or "ogre" or "demon" or bla bla bla. þyrs is generally agreed to be a pretty negative term, both in Old English, Old Norse, Old Saxon and Old High German sources. All these cognates appear to have descended from Proto-Germanic *þurisaz, which itself, according to the Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic, was perhaps a God of war or sea-monster, as evidenced in the Iku-Turso or Turisas of Finnish folkore, a giant who appears to reside in the ocean. The Iku-Turso appears in The Kalevala, Finland's national saga.

Iku-Turso - Minna Sundberg

þyrs doesn't appear many times in the Old English corpus, which is pretty damn annoying when you want to develop some sort of in-depth understanding of its conception in Anglo-Saxon England. But saying that, the few examples that do exist are pretty clear-cut and damning. þyrs appears also in Maxims II to describe a creature which dwells alone in the fens - Ðyrs sceal on fenne gewunian ana innan lande, and again appears in Wright's Anglo-Saxon glossses to describe Cacus, Orcus and cyclopes . . . 

Hercules killing Cacus - Sebald Beham (1545)
Orcus Mouth 
Polyphemus, Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1802

. . . all of which you can see, don't look like the most upstanding folks. Furtermore, if we look at Old Norse þurs, it only gets bloody worse. In two Rune Poems, the Icelandic and the Norwegian, the word þurs is associated with some very bad things indeed;
Þurs vældr kvinna kvillu; kátr værðr fár af illu, “Giant causes anguish to women: misfortune makes few men cheerful” (Norwegian Rune poem, Dickens 25)
þurs as kvenna kvöl ok kletta búi ok varðrúnar verr, “torture of women and cliff-dweller and husband of a giantess” (Icelandic Rune poem, Dickens 29) 

In general, it appears that they were associated with female anguish - perhaps rape? They are also associated with malevolent magic in the Poetic Edda's Skirnismal. As well as being a rune (þ) associated with hostile magic and woman-torture, the þursar also appear to be a race in mythology. Although often lumped together with the jotunn, it should be noted that the þursar had pretty much nothing going for them - they were a shower of bastards really, it seems. They were completely antagonistic towards the deities (especially Thor) and were also known for being a bit thick. Cleasby and Vigfusson, in their ON dictionary cite the phrase hár sem risi, sterkr sem jötunn, heimskr sem þurs, “tall as a risi, strong as a jötunn, stupid as a þurs” (498).

As with all mythological figures worth their while, they appear as a beer

While the OE þyrs isn't necessarily completely comparable to the ON þurs (we don't really know how much influence ON mythology and paganism had on Anglo-Saxon England, besides a few similarities like Woden and Odin), it still seems like a pretty shitty figure - even if we forget the ON sources, there is still its appearance in Maxims II - living alone in the fens is NEVER GOOD, and its connection to ancient Greek and Roman mythological baddies also does not help this term's case.

But...does this mean that Grendel is a giant? That he is a þyrs? Well, it is important to note that it is not the poet or the narrator who names Grendel as one of these creatures, but rather Beowulf, the lad himself. This may lead us to the possibility that maybe perhaps maybe not, it is not meant as a definitive term for Grendel - perhaps it is a means for Beowulf to belittle his foe. And as I noted in the last post, Robert E. Kaske believes eoten is used in this way of the Frisians in the Hildeburh passage. Similarly, Alexandra Hennessey Olsen believes that the use of þyrs changed to that of an insult for large, dim-witted men. Perhaps this really seems like grasping for straws, but it does seem to me to be a conceivable alternative (although this is coming from someone who thinks that doing a PhD in Old English will lead to job opportunities, harhar, kill me now please).

folio 139v, ðing wið þyrse

Friday, 25 March 2016

næfne he wæs mara þonne ænig man oðer

It has been too long (pretty sure I said that last time) - for the past few months a sense of guilt over not updating this thing has crept into my dreams and shadowed my life, resulting in an existence of anguish and marginality ... yeah, not really. But I was reminded that I do actually have this blog, so thought I really should get back to it, seen as it apparently helped me in forming ideas?

So, at the moment I am currently working on a paper that I will be delivering next month at Borderlines XX in Trinity College Dublin, dealing with Grendel (NOT GRENDEL'S MOTHER WHAAAT) and his gigantism. For this I am just going to talk about the word eoten, and will continue on with this topic in further blog posts (in like a year based on the rate I'm going).

Grendel by J.R Skelton

When people think about Grendel (as they often do), the images that come to mind are much like J.R Skelton's ape-like hula skirt Grendel shown above, or the Grendel of Zemeckis's 2007 work, which tends to remind me of some sort of whingy snot-covered ent from LOTR - ugh. Basically, Grendel is fugly, and generally sort of huge, and one of the terms which supposedly proves this, is eoten

Eoten itself is generally translated as "giant" or "troll", or something along those lines, when it comes to its reference to Grendel and also often in its appearance in the list of creatures who sprang from Cain - just sprang out of him. When reading a translation of the poem, which to be honest most people do, this is grand. But then you realise the Jutes who appear in the Hildeburh Fragment...well, they might not even be Jutes! They may be Frisians. Shit, they may even be god-damn GIANTS. The appearance of the word eoten in the Hildeburh Fragment has thus caused much debate - firstly cause, well, what the hell are the Jutes doing here, we thought this was a feud between the Danes and the Frisians? What. Secondly...well, if eoten means can it also mean giants? Did the Jutes spring from Cain? IS GRENDEL A JUTE (it seems like today is a regular all-caps day)?

Zemeckis's giant snot-monster

A few theories seem to stand out for this eoten problem:
  • R.W. Chambers is of the opinion that the scribe was just some dipshit who wrote down the wrong word - he meant to say eotnum, not eoten, the fool. So basically, in Chambers' mind, the Jutes are at the Battle of Finnsburg
  • R. E. Kaske says that the Jutes are not ever mentioned in this piece and the word eoten is actually just an insult for the Frisians - not one that means Jutes, but one that means "giant". Kaske refers to jotnaheiti, "giant-terms" being used in Old Norse as insults for ordinary men.
  • David Williams says that the word eoten is used as a reference to Cain and his murder of Abel, and that he is likening them to Finn and Hnæf - presumably he sees the eotenas as figures associated with Cain - possibly the giants of Genesis, the Nephilim. 
  • Signe M. Carlson, then, argues that eoten means neither Jute nor giant, but means "blood-thirsty one", a theory which I quite like!
Carlson argues that eoten is related to etan, "to eat" (which it also is in Proto-Indo-European), and so, rather than referring to height, is actually just a term referring to blood-lust. Grendel is blood thirsty, and so, you could say, are the Frisians; they kill the shit out of the Danes.

Arthur Rackham's Giants and Freyja

It may also be useful to look to Norse mythology and the jotunn, or jotnar, the giant-race prevalent in many myths. In general these lads are pretty hostile towards the gods, but it must be noted that this isn't always the case - some of them are related to the Gods, some are described as beautiful (Skaði), and importantly, some of them aren't tall. It may even be argued that the name jotunn is also related to Proto-Indo-European *etan, and refers rather to gluttony or blood-thirstiness as opposed to gigantism.

Lastly, we also the eoten appear in relation to the sword Beowulf uses to kill Grendel's mammy - okay, sure you may say Beowulf is a strong lad, he can pick up any sword he wants. But...Wiglaf and Eofor also have eotenisc swords, and they are never said to have superhuman strength as Beowulf is...unless there are shitloads of lads with superhuman strength running around Denmark, but this I doubt. If the swords are pretty easy for someone (granted, a warrior) to pick up, surely the eotenas must not have been of huge stature and strength either? Yes? No? 

Anyhow, those are my thoughts on the word eoten. I always find I start off strong with these posts and then gradually everything just goes so downhill the more fed up I get. Hopefully sometime in the next year I will write about þyrs and Grendel's connection  with the Nephilim and whether these also make him unnaturally large. Gōd-sped.