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

No comments:

Post a Comment