Sunday, December 25, 2011

Mother's Night

I have already written a bit about Yule which was, more or less a month or season in the Icelandic calender. There were some mid-winter sacrifices made to some female deities called the 'disarblot'. There is little information about what or who the 'disir' are but the Venerable Bede wrote a small chapter on the months of the Angles in his book De Temporum Ratione, it is a book about time and calendars.
In Chapter 15, he wrote that November was 'Blod-monath' and December, as well as January, was 'Guili' (the g is pronounced as a 'y'). He also mentioned that the night of Christmas, December 25th, was called Modranicht, or 'Mother's Night', Bede suspected it was called this due to some ceremonies on that night. It was also the beginning of the new year. It is a shame he did not say more about these winter celebrations. We can only speculate what went on.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Franks Casket

In the holistic view of things, that everything is interrelated, I am going to agree that all the sides of the carved box have something to do with each other. Many scholars think the right side depicts the burial of Sigurd, which doesn't make sense to me. I like a suggestion from Thomas Bredehof that it is rather Hengist and Horsa, which balances out the left side which shows Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome, being suckled by the she wolf. Hengist and Horsa are the twins who founded the kingdoms of the English.
My interest in the casket is due to the depiction on the front of Wayland the Smith and his brother Egil appears on the lid. The casket is from early 8th century Northumbria and is now housed at the British Museum. Here is a site that discusses the casket with good photos of all sides.
Since sides and portions mirror and complement each other, I am going to go out on a limb and say that the swan/goose on the front panel with the Magi hints that Wayland may have had a swan bride early on.
For those of you who are not familiar with the story of Egil, that is because his story has been taken over by William Tell.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Wild Man of Orford

Ralph of Coggeshall was another medieval chronicler who, after he was finished writing the doings of the wealthy and powerful, collected curious little tales he had heard. He is the source for the story of the green children of Woolpit and this interesting story about the wild man of Orford. In his words, more or less, as I translate from the latin.
"At the time of King Henry II when Bartholomew de Glanville kept the castle at Orford, it happened one day that some fishermen who were fishing, caught a wild man in their net. They handed him over to Bartholomew to admire. The wild man was completely nude, and appeared as a human in all his parts. He had hair on his head, but ruined and wrecked in appearance. He had a really long beard, and he was really too hairy and shaggy on his chest. Bartholomew had him guarded for a time, day and night, so that he could not go back to the sea. Whatever was brought to him, he ate avidly. Indeed he ate fishes raw rather than cooked, but he would squeeze the raw fish between his hands and suck the juice out and thus he would eat. He emitted not one word either because he did not want to or he could not, even when he was suspended by his feet and subjected to frequent dire tortures. Although he was brought to church, he showed no signs of veneration or any sign of belief, by either bending the knee or inclining the head with which one could discern something holy. He always eagerly sought his bedchamber when the sun went down and would lie there until the sun came up.
It happened one day, that they brought him to the sea and set him in the sea, held on to by a net, three lines thick. Who, seeking the deepest part of the sea, passing through the net, was emerging again and again from the bottom of the sea and was looking at those watching from the shore of the sea a long while. Often he dipped down and blow out a bit of water as if insulting those watching because he escaped their net. And when he played in the sea thus a while and now all hope was gone that they would recapture him, suddenly he came, swimming in the waves, again all the way to them. And he remained with them again for two months. But when those keeping him became negligent and showed distaste for him, he fled in secret to the sea and never appeared afterwards. If however he existed as a mortal man, presenting himself as some human type of fish, as if an evil spirit was hiding in the body of the submerged man, just as may be read in the life of St. Audoeni, one cannot easily categorize him. Most of all because so many wonders are being told by so many about these events."

That was a quick and dirty translation on my part. The story seems part Gollum, part Free Willy. I couldn't say for sure that Tolkien had read Chronicon Anglicanum (it is not a particularly obscure text) and that this incident inspired his portrayal of Gollum (Gollum was not this hairy) but it struck me as very similar.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

No Yolking

I know, it is a sad play on words but I could not help myself. I did not have a great title ready for today's blog which is about the phrase 'egging on'.
This week's reading in Old Norse was sections of The Volsung Saga and, in keeping with Signy's rather determined efforts to avenge her father's death, she was egging her brother on. The verb in the Old Norse was eggja, that is "to incite, to urge one on" so the phrase is an old one. I don't know which came first the noun egg or the verb but there are two egg's in Old Norse. One is "egg" of course and the other is "edge". It is the edge that is the relative to the verb because you can whet a knife and that creates an edge. If that does not make sense, think about whetting your appetite. So now you know, egging some one on has nothing to do with eggs and everything to do with sharpening your knife to avenge your father. No yolking.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Twelve Dictionaries

No, this is not like the twelve days of Christmas. I was looking at my bookshelves and, although I have more reference works than these dictionaries, for a book that can be properly called a dictionary I have twelve. Non-electronic. If I factor digital ones then I have even more.
For my entertainment and your astonishment, I shall list them here in no particular order:
Brewer's Britain and Ireland, meaning of place names
Collins German Concise, German/English
Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic, Geir T. Zoëga
Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.
The New College Latin and English Dictionary
Collins Pocket French, French/English
Cassell's Latin Dictionary, Latin/English
The Pelican Rhyming Dictionary
A Concise Anglo Saxon Dictionary, J.R. Clark
Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin, Stelton
The Oxford Concise English Dictionary
The Oxford Latin Dictionary

and I use them all. Well, except that Rhyming Dictionary. It has been years since I looked at that one. Now you know.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Leif the Lucky had a sister named Freydis

It is probably a big shock to many who think that women don't get mentioned in chronicles and sagas. They do. Not as much as men but they are not completely invisible. Their complete absence from history books probably reflects a bias from 19th century and many 20th century historians.
Eirik the Red left Iceland around 985 A.D. to colonize Greenland. That colony survived for centuries and there are the Vinland Sagas that tell of the early days: Eirik the Red's Saga and The Saga of the Greenlanders. Eirik had a daughter, who was likely a half sister to Leif the Lucky. The sagas do not agree on this. She rated more than a little mentioning in the sagas because she was such a wild thing. Her name was Freydis.
There was a sister in law Gudrid, who is also mentioned at length. She gave birth to the first European born in the New World, Snorri Thorfinsson, and became a nun. This balances the account of Freydis. There are a few other women mentioned in the sagas because they sailed with the men to explore Vinland.
Freydis headed her own expedition to Newfoundland and asked her brother Leif if she could have the houses he built there. He told her that she could borrow them only. Another group went on the expedition in their own ship. For whatever reason, Freydis would not share the houses with them so they had to build their own. Then she told her husband that the leader of the other group had insulted her so that her husband and their men need take vengeance. So they attacked the other group and killed them all for no reason. No reason was ever given for why Freydis wanted them dead. Greed, perhaps? There were five women with the other group whom Freydis' men refused to kill so Freydis killed all five personally with an ax.
On another trip to Vinland, the group was attacked by natives and some of the men were killed and they were making a rapid retreat. Freydis was pregnant so she could not move fast and she could not keep up with the fleeing men. So she picked up a sword and decided to fight. She faced the natives alone by baring her breasts and slapping the sword against them. This startled the natives and they decided to run away rather than attack her.
The sagas do not tell much more of her. She was married to a man called Thorvard. "She was a domineering woman, but Thorvard was a man of no consequence. She had been married to him mainly for his money."
The history books that I read when I was a child never mentioned her. She commanded a few expeditions to the New World but we only ever heard of her brother. Mind you, should those two stories be included in a history book written for children?

I should mention that I was using the Penguin Deluxe Edition of The Sagas of the Icelanders with Keneva Kunz's translations of the two quoted sagas.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

How long does winter have to be to be a Fimbulwinter?

I was lurking somewhere on the net being distracted by someone (I forget who) 's conjecture about the length of the fimbulvetr (really big/terrible winter) which would be only a year and a half because there is no summer in between. However, the Norse measured years by winters. The Zoëga entry on 'vetr' lists year as an alternative definition.
Then there is the word for season 'misseri' which lasts for six months, giving the Norse two seasons-summer and winter only much like us Canadians. In the plural, however misseri means a twelve month period. So, you could make an argument for an eighteen month winter which would be terrible enough but it could very well be three years. Snorri stated in Gylfaginning that the fimbulwinter would be preceded by three winters (years) of fighting. Then a wolf swallows the sun, after which it won't just be cold but dark, too, since another wolf swallows the moon. The gods will be fighting in the dark. Or by the flame of Surt's sword, which everyone would want to crowd around being the only thing giving off heat for a while.
Anyway, since Snorrie mentions the other three years while discussing fimbulwinter, I think he is saying it lasts for three years.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Lay of Helgi Hjövard's Son

Helgakvida Hjorvardssonar is a poem in Old Norse from the Codex Regius. There are a number of good English versions out there. Helgi is a king's son and a hero. He married a Valkyrie named Svava. One day, his brother met a troll-woman in the woods who offered him companionship for the night. Hedin declined and she said he would regret it at the bragarful. He did, too.
It was Yule, a time when the old year ended and the new one began. It is also a time when supernatural beings were likely to appear; rather like Samhain (Hallowe'en). The bragarful is a toast drunk between the one to the Aesir and the one to the dead. One is expected at this occasion to utter a boast or make a vow. Hedin vowed that he would have his brother's wife in the New Year. Of course, such a vow would have to be fulfilled but Hedin was so ashamed he left town immediately to look for his brother and tell him what happened.
Astonishingly, Helgi was not angry. He told his brother that the troll woman must have been his fylgjur (??!!) and that he was about to die. He told Hedin that he had his blessing to marry Svava. Then he went to a battle and died. Svava and Helgi were reincarnated as Sigrun and Helgi.
I have several thoughts. First is that the old troll woman might have been an early version of the 'loathly lady'. Hedin should have let her have her way with him. Second, if she is Helgi's fylgjur, why is she appearing to Hedin and causing trouble? Third, this bragarful sounds a little like a New Year's Resolution. The Vikings don't get credit for this little nuisance. They probably should. Fourth, if Svava is a Valkyrie, then she is Odin's handmaiden and has duties. How does she get to marry a human and have children with him? I am working on that last question - what exactly was a valkyrie anyway?

Friday, November 18, 2011

fylgjur - Norse Protective Beings

In Njal's Saga, Thord sees a goat covered in blood lying in a hollow that Njal cannot see. Njal tells him that he must have seen his fylgja and he should be careful. Thord says being careful will not help, he is about to die. He does die in an ambush by Sigmund and Skiolld, while Thrain stands by.
In Hallfreder Saga, as he lay dying, Hallfred saw a woman in armour approaching him. He called her his fylgjukona.
The fylgjur is rather like the banshee, a protective spirit that is rarely seen by the people whom it protects except when someone is about to die. The banshee wails in mourning as a harbinger of death, not as a bringer of death. Banshee simply means 'woman of the Sidhe' or fairy woman.
Fylgjur may be related to fylgja or afterbirth. The belief was that when a person was born, the afterbirth followed and that was the person's fylgja. You had to be careful in disposing of the afterbirth least an animal consume it and the person's soul with it. It is interesting that Icelandic peoples thought the afterbirth was an Otherworldy being. Also interesting that Celts and Norse thought this spirit was a woman.
(from Cassell's Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend by Andy Orchard)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Hagar the Horrible

I was translating some Old Norse and came across the word 'hagr' which has little to do with the cartoon since the word as an adjective means 'skilful' and the noun has even less to do with the Viking bumbler.
Hagar has been with us since 1973. When the original cartoonist, Dik Browne (who bore a slight resemblance to Hagar) died, his son, Chris Browne, continued the cartoon. It is a funny look at Vikings in the later part of the first millennium. Hagar raids castles but he does not seem to raid small villages or sell people into slavery like a real Viking. That would not be at all funny.
I found a website with 3,450 strips to look at. I like Hagar so I recommend it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Thor and Valkyries

I have been working on a paper on Valkyries and Swan Maidens in reference to Volundrkvida (Wayland's Ballad). Sounds exciting? The majority of what I am reading says that the Valkyries are later developments in Norse myth, in the late first millennium after the Viking period got underway. This is about the time Thor rises to prominence as everyone's favourite Aesir. I don't think there is a connection but it is odd. And....... in connection to the Wayland myth, it is even odder when you consider Thor's weapon of choice is a hammer because Wayland (who is a smith) used a sword.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

I Call It Body Snatching

It seems that, since cathedrals could not be consecrated without some saint's relics and possession of relics leads to pilgrim dollars donated to the cathedral, there was a lack of sharing amongst parishes when it comes to relics. Indeed, there was quite a bit of grave robbing going on. Of course it was not called 'grave robbing' or 'body snatching' rather it was called 'translatio' within the church. A given body was translated to its final resting place which often became a feast day in its own right.
Under King Cnut, the abbot of Canterbury, Aelfstan (elf-stone) claimed to have had a dream where St. Mildred came to him wanting to be buried in her home town. He claimed to have gotten permission from Cnut to take Mildred from her tomb on Thanet and translate her to Canterbury. If that is the case, why did they have a getaway boat by the shore and snuck up to her tomb at night to pry it open? The townspeople, when they realized something was up, chased after them with clubs and pointy sticks. They got away with the body, which apparently smelled delicious. There is a term for this kind of action 'furta sacra" or sacred thefts which shows you how common this kind of body-snatching was.
Grave robbing is grave robbing, however way you rename it. Of course owning the relics of a popular saint was like money in the bank but I am not going to accuse the abbot of being mercenary. Surely it was piety that drove him to this action. Another thirty years and Anglo Saxon saints would probably be out of fashion anyway. The Norman Conquest would be underway and French would then be the fashion. So where is her body now, since following the dissolution of the monasteries the relics were dispersed or thrown away? Possibly they were taken to Deventer in Holland for safekeeping. Although the saint 'desired' to remain in Canterbury, she did not make it back however a small piece was given to St. Mildred church in 1953. It is complicated. Here is a link.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Death of a Norseman

It is always interesting how differently people expressed ideas at various times and places. I am practicing my Old Norse by reading Hrolfs Saga Kraka. I became interested in the poor fellow hiding in a bone-pile in a hall. Clearly Bodvarr hauled him out of the pile to help him. The other men in the hall notice Bodvarr and Hottr (the guy from the bone-pile) sitting at a table and start flinging bones at them. One of them throws a large knucklebone at them which Bodvarr catches and flings back at him. "Hann fekk bana" "He fetches death." In the Zoega, 'fa' means to 'grasp with both hands'. That he does. It almost looks like a middle voice verb. i.e. 'fetches death for himself'. It sounds good but it is just a plain old past indicative which started out with a 'ng' and it turned into a 'kk'.
I have to wonder - why is there a pile of bones in the mead-hall. Doesn't anyone clean it out?

My Hero, Thor

I like Thor. He was a very popular god with the masses and why not. He was the protector of mankind. The humble dead went to his halls. His popularity was the biggest obstacle to converting the Norse to Christianity.
We were reading the story in the Grimnismal where Thor went on a trip with Loki. Loki behaved himself for once. They stopped at a peasant's home where Thor slaughtered the goats that draw his chariot and allowed them to be cooked for dinner, since the peasant did not have enough to feed his guests. The only proviso was that the bones were to be left intact but the peasant's son, Thjalfi, broke one of the bones for the marrow. So, in the morning, when Thor hallowed the bones with his hammer and brought the goats back to life, one of them was lame. Thor was angry but the peasant was so frightened that he took pity. Rather than kill the entire household, he took Thjalfi and his sister as servants with him.
Then, when they were looking for a place to sleep that night, they found an empty hall and slept in a small side chamber. The next morning, they realized that they had been sleeping in a giant's glove and a rather large one at that. Thor's normal reaction upon seeing a giant is to take up his hammer, Mjollnr, and give him/her a smack with it. When Skrymir stood up; Thor was too astonished to give him a whack. Snorri makes fun of Thor and makes him look like a meat-head. He said Thor failed to hit him and then what follows is some comical attempts by Thor to open the food bag, which he cannot untie, followed by Thor losing his temper and giving the sleeping Skrymir a thwack over the head. Skrymir wakes up and asks him if a leaf has fallen on his head. Thor waited for him to fall asleep again and struck him again, with the hammer going deep into his skull. This time Skrymir woke and asked if an acorn had fallen on his head. Thor tried one more time just before dawn and still Skrymir woke up and asked if some birds had dumped some litter on him.
Is Snorri making fun of Thor? Maybe. Snorri was a Christian. I think Skrymir's size makes it understandable that Thor was taken aback at first. At least Thor was capable of thinking and not just mindlessly going in to attack mode. I think his difficulties make him endearing. When Thor and his companions went to sleep in the glove, Thor stood at the entrance to keep watch. The Old Norse said that Thor took thought to protect himself. The pronoun 'sik' is in the accusative form, object of the infinitive, and is the most damning part of the story. However, Thor did stand in the doorway and keep watch all night. Anyone who wanted to get at Thjalfi, Roskva and Loki would have to get past him first. Clearly he was not just taking thought for his own protection alone. Later in the tale, Thor's strength and determination impress and frighten even Skrymir.

Friday, October 14, 2011

One Tin Soldier

I am sitting here avoiding my Old Norse homework, having a beer and taking a trip down memory lane on Youtube. There is one old song that I always pictured with Inca style mountain top towns or in the Southwestern US desert. Maybe that is because it was the theme song for a movie called 'Billy Jack' released in 1971 about a half-Indian Green Beret fighting for justice.
The Original Caste who produced the version of the song that I was most familiar with pictured something a bit more medieval. A tin soldier, of course, that would have to be a knight.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Word of Old Norse

I was reading the Penguin Classic The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking-Lore translated and edited by Andy Orchard. Orchard more than W.H. Auden or Henry Adams Bellow tries to keep the language as literal as possible so I was a little curious about a phrase in Lokasenna (Loki's Home Truths) that I won't repeat here because I am trying to avoid cuss words. I have to wonder if the Penguin people had a few restless nights over this.
I had a chance to ask the translator 'why this word and not that?' 'Is that one more accurate?' since Bellows translated it as "Unmanly thy soul must seem" and Auden translated it as 'played a woman's part". The word in question is an adjective 'argr' and is defined in the Zoega as 'unmanly, effeminate'. The phrase that was Orchard's preference was again something I won't reprint here but does seem appropriate in a Norse trash-talking contest at a drinking party. Loki seems to have not been invited since he tends to be a bit of a buzz-kill. He succeeds well at ruining the party.
So then, what does it mean? It is uncontrollable lust basically. Usually applied to men, only once to a woman, and it is not heterosexual. So that ought to be enough to be getting on with, eh?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Stardust, A Review

I have never before read a book, the movie version of which was better than the book. Last night, that all changed. I read Stardust in three hours. It was a light and sweet story but there were a few problems. Tristan was born on the wrong side of the Wall. Everyone in his village knows this and Tristan reaches 17 without ever being told this by anyone including his father. Even when Tristan decides to venture into Faerie, his father still does not tell him about his mother.
The queen of the witches is desperate for the heart of a star. There hasn't been one for two hundred years. This may be her last chance because she and her sisters are very old and cannot live forever without the star. Tristan is not the one that will destroy her though. The squirrel has just found the acorn that will grow into the tree that will be cut down to make the cradle for the one who will kill her. How is this possible when she is falling apart now? That tree won't be big enough to cut down for at least one hundred years, probably more.
As well, *spoiler alert*, the witch queen is desperate for the heart, has ruthlessly killed others who were not even in her way but, when the star says that she has given her heart away to Tristan, she says 'oh well, that's it then.' and gives up.
Most movie producers tweak a story to give it more excitement and action. Usually that is not necessary because the novel itself has excitement enough but, in this case, it is an improvement. The dastardly Septimus is given a larger and more active role. No longer just a poisoner; he becomes a swordsman too. The lightening harvesters are also pirates and they teach Tristan how to fight. The witch queen and her sisters fight to the last witch to get that star and Septimus and his brothers cannot leave this sphere until the Power of Stormhold is found by the new heir. The novel was sweet but the movie was better.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Amon Hen, Odin's Seat of Seeing Far

I was reading Skirnismal for a class and was interesting in the seat, Hlidskjalf, that Freyr was sitting in when he saw Gerd, a giantess. Looking up Hlidskjalf in The Cassell Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend by Andy Orchard, I noted that it is Odin's seat from which he can observe all the worlds. It sounds very much like Amon Hen. The more I read Old English and especially Old Norse, the less I am going to be able to enjoy Lord of the Rings, I think.
Professor Orchard wrote that it is possible that Freyr's great longing was possibly a punishment for his presuming to sit on Odin's seat. Freyr fell so strongly in love with Gerd that he parted with his magic sword that fights giants on its own. Without that sword, Freyr will be unable to defeat Surt and will be killed at Ragnarok.
Aragorn also regretted taking the moment to sit on Amon Hen as he then came too late to save Boromir or prevent the orcs from taking Merry and Pippin.
I suppose for the comparison to work there has to be a seat of hearing as well. In Hrafnsmal, Raven-Song, Odin sat on Hlidskjalf to listen. It is an obscure little 12th century skaldic poem but I am sure Tolkien knew this one, too.

Friday, October 7, 2011

It's Freyr's Day

Not really. It is his twin's day based on the Romans' calling the fifth day of the week 'dies Veneris' which in the Norse Pantheon would mean Friday is Freya's day. Or Frigg. The Oxford English Dictionary voted in favor of Frigg. Brewer's Guide is sitting on the fence but adds that Friday was considered a lucky day of the week for the Norse and was when weddings took place.
If you ignore the Romans, this could just as easily be Freyr's day since Tuesday (Tiw), Wednesday (Woden), Thursday (Thor), and Saturday (Saturn) are all named for male gods. If Friday was named for a goddess that would make it unique unless you count the sun or the moon's day. In Norse, the sun is a goddess; to the Romans the moon is a goddess. The Northern gods seem to have been selected for those days where their character resembles a Roman god. Some one decided that Woden was like Mercury, but that is another topic.
Freyr(lord) is one of the Vanir. He came over to the Aesir after the war, possibly in an exchange of hostages. He, his father Njord, and his sister, Freya(lady) dwelt among the Aesir and are counted as one of their number. He will be at Ragnarok in the final battle between the gods and the giants but Freyr will die, killed by Surt, a fire giant, because Freyr lost his magic sword when he lost his heart to Gerd.
Freyr is a fertility god. He presides over rain and sunshine; he is kind to men. His father Njord, presides over the wind and sea, and Freya over love and sex. Freyr has a golden boar called Gullinborsti (Golden-Bristles) which pulls his chariot. Unfortunately, the sources that remain do not say who will avenge Freyr and what happens to Surt after he destroys the earth with fire. So Freya or Freyr, since they are two sides to the same coin really, could share the day. Frigg could kick Saturn out and take Saturday. Would not a week with two Fridays be fun?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Happy St. Jerome's Day

I was going to write something about Old Norse but a post by The Plashing Vole that September 30 is the feast day of St. Jerome, patron saint of translators, librarians and students made me change my mind. I usually avoid blogging about men like St. Jerome because I have a hard time saying anything nice about them. Why do dried up old prunes like St. Bernard become saints when a truly nice guy like Peter the Venerable does not? I am hoping it is merely because the name St. Peter was already taken because it would be a shame if, in the church, nice guys finish last.
So I am already lumping St. Jerome with St. Bernard. Bad sign. Jerome did write the Vulgate Bible which became the accepted version of the Bible for the Catholic Church. It was a flawed translation and I have read suggestions that he borrowed heavily from other translators. It was he that started The Gospel of John with "In principium verbum erat." In the beginning was the word. The Greek word was 'logos' which can be a 'word' but means so much more such as 'rational mind'. It is the root word for 'logical'. The Greeks had a different word for 'word' - lexis.
Jerome was born in Dalmatia and moved to Rome for his studies. He had a bad temper and was a bit of a whore. All that whoring around left him feeling empty and hollow, as it should, and so he wandered off to the deserts of Syria to find himself. The desert, at that time, was a crowded place because everyone had the same idea of creating a living martyrdom for themselves in self denial. He spent several years in the desert trying to rid himself of his sexual desires. It was a hard fight. Not sure he won either, as the above painting by Francisco de Zurbaran, copied from Wikipedia, shows.
He eventually returned to Rome acquired a reputation as a religious superstar and accumulated a few groupies, one of whom died following his orders to her for leading a more ascetic life. For that he was run out of town. As Clifford Bachman writes : "Another legacy was Jerome's intense misogyny. He was hardly the first person to teach the evils of Woman as seductress, but he was one of the most vocal and vitriolic. His pronouncements are indeed harsh but are generally aimed more at sexuality itself than at the female sex in particular." So, if you feel like observing this feast day, I suggest a few beers and a romp in the sack. Phooeeey to St. Jerome.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sleepy, Sneezy, Doc and Gut-Bucket

The topic of the day is dwarfs. More specifically dwarf names. It is always interesting to see where authors get names from. Some clearly make them up and they are cringe-worthy, others find them in heroic sagas or myth. Alan Garner said he got names from The Mabinogion, particularly "Culhwch and Olwen". I knew Tolkien took Durin's name from Norse myth but I found this list of names in the 'Voluspa' and it made me chuckle.
nyi-New Moon, Nithi - Moon Wane, Northri-North, Suthri-South, Austri-East, Vestri-West, Althjofr-Thieve All, Dwalin - Dawdler, Bivurr - Shaky, Bavurr- Grumbler, Bomburr - Gut Bucket, Nori - Old Salt, Ann ok Annar - Friend and Friendly, Oinn - Grandpa, Mjothvitnir - Mead Wolf, Vegrr - Swig, Vindalfr - Wind Elf, Thorinn - Urge, Thrak ok Thrainn - Knowing and Daring, Thekkr - Spurt, Litr ok Vitr - Wise and Bright, Nyr ok Nyrathr - Corpse and Fresh Counsel. I could go on but it is a long list. Imagine Snow White with a dwarf called Corpse.
Other names from Lord of the Rings on this list: Fili - Filer, Kili - Wedger, Fundinn - New Found, Ori - Prankster, Eikinskjaldi - Oakenshield, and of course Gandalf, which means 'Wand-elf'.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Time Has Come

“Tempus appropinquavit”, ille odobenus locutus est, "de multas rebus loqui, de calceos et navibus et cera et brassicas et regibus, et quare mare fervens est, et num porci alas habent.”

Friday, September 16, 2011

Ecce Viri Septentrionis!

Behold the men of the north! I suppose I could have tried to write that in Old Norse but I had only one class in it and it will be a while before I attempt any such thing. I shall be delving into Icelandic sagas and Norse mythology this year. Be prepared. The Vikings are coming.
I used the word 'septentrionis' for 'of the north' because the Romans referred to the north in this way. The septentriones were the seven stars near the North Pole belonging to the Great Bear. Or the Little Bear. Whichever. You could also use 'boreas'. It is all good.
Some people might object to calling Northmen vikings but it seems to have been a common word for sea-farers from Scandinavia especially those with tendencies to piracy and pillaging. The Anglo Saxon version 'wicinga' appears in the chronicle early on. The etymology is uncertain and the word 'viking' itself might not be derived from Old Norse but Old German since people along the northern coasts would be most at risk from their predations especially after the decline of the Frisian navy following Charlemagne's campaigns against them. It should be fun. I just thought I would warn my many followers why my posts will be seeming rather bloodthirsty this fall.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Cluviel Dor

Instead of studying up for a Latin exam, I have been reading the entire series of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, aka Southern Vampire Series. It is a bit trashy but I like it anyway. Dead Reckoning ended in a bit of a cliffhanger, part of which was questions about the nature of the 'cluviel dor' that Sookie's fairy grandfather gave to her grandmother Adele.
It would be nice to have an idea what a 'cluviel dor' is but it has no precedent. In an interview, Charlaine Harris said she made up what she hoped would be a mysterious-sounding name for the gift. She has a BA in English and does not appear to have an fluency in other languages. I would bet some exposure to Creole but not to any Celtic languages( some online speculation is that it is something Gaelic. Sounds very French to me.) I also get the sense she is more influenced by popular culture than by ancient civilizations. There is another interview where she said she did little research:

Crescent Blues: What kind of research did you do for Dead Until Dark?

Charlaine Harris: Surprisingly little.

This is what we know about the 'cluviel dor' from the novel:

  1. It is a fairy love gift.
  2. Fintan wanted it given to Adele if he was dead
  3. It can only be used once by the beloved.
  4. It makes Sookie feel happy to touch it, like when she is with her grandfather but more intense.
  5. You don't have to be a fairy to use it.
  6. It was given to Adele before Sookie's aunt Linda had died of cancer.
  7. It could have cured Linda's cancer.
  8. It can change the world.
  9. She can alter events in history by using it.
  10. It takes a year to make one, so they are very difficult to prepare.
  11. The wish has to be personal.
  12. Sookie can't use it to take away the telepathy.
  13. She can kill someone with it if they are directly threatening someone she loves.
  14. Other fae would kill Sookie for the cluviel dor.
So, on with the speculation. 'Dor' could be either French for 'of gold' as in d'or or it could be 'door' but I doubt that. It is contains something of gold since it is a box of green that appears to open. The theories are that 'cluviel' is derived from Latin, clavis, that is 'a key' which is a good choice. I have also read 'viel' could be French for 'old' but it is really spelled wrong. 'Vie' is French for 'life' which has a possibility. 'Clue' does not just mean evidence in a mystery but it is a ball of thread, especially one that can lead one out of a labyrinth. 'Golden thread of life'? The Oxford English Dictionary states for one of many definitions that a 'clue' can be 'the thread of life which the Fates are fabled to spin and determine'. I think I will go with that.

Charlaine Harris has also said in her faqs that Sookie will never be a vampire, cannot be impregnated by a vampire.There is another quote on the forums on her site that 'once a vampire always a vampire'. It is not clear if it is Harris saying this or if someone is repeating something they heard her say.
Now for my thoughts on what it might be used for. My first thought was that it might be used to make Eric human. If the comment was correct, then that is not possible. Maybe it is in the phrasing. Perhaps she could use it to bring Eric back to life. There is a passage in Dead and Gone, chapter 15, where Sookie had a dream, "that night I dreamed of Eric. In my dream, he was human and we walked together under the sun. Oddly enough, he sold real estate." Would Eric give up being a vampire to be human with Sookie? He said, while he was under Hallow's spell that he would give up everything for her.
What else could it be used for? If Eric is not forced to marry a vampire queen and he and Sookie stay together, Sookie wants a child. The cluviel dor appears in the story just before Tara's baby shower. Everyone in Bon Temps is getting pregnant at this point. It is even mentioned to Sookie by Andy Bellefleur that it is time for Sookie but that she would not be having any babies if she keeps dating dead men and what would her grandmother think about that?
I wonder if the fairy gift, since it was given to Adele so late, may have been really intended for Sookie, who at the time was the only other one to have the 'essential spark'. Perhaps Sookie will use it to relieve her childlessness since Fintan had already helped Adele in that way. Maybe it will make Eric able, just once, to give her a child and, in true fairy fashion, she'll have twins.
It depends on who Sookie will end up with. Humans are too challenging because of her telepathy. I can't see her marrying a human. Alcide and Quinn have burned their bridges. In spite of everything Bill has done for Sookie, she won't forgive him for how they met. That leaves Sam, who has never been more than Sookie's friend and who is dating someone else, or Eric. Or someone new. There are only two books left so it might be late to introduce a new character. We shall see. Book 12 is written and due to be out in May, 2012.
Add: at the beginning of chapt. 7 Sookie had just received an email from Tara showing her baby bump.
"I took out the cluviel dor and held it to my chest. touching it seemed important, seemed to make it more vital. My skin warmed it quickly. Whatever lay at the heart of that smooth pale greenness seemed to quicken. I felt more alive too." Sounds like a baby.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Pair of Good Links

Since I pointed out that error in the TEAMS text, you might think that I would not recommend them but I do. They still publish some great books that no one else publishes in Middle English. It is but one little error and I am sure it is a rarity. As well, they have placed most of their published work online for free. I like a printed book but if I just need a glimpse at something, an online version is nice too and you could cite these ones in an essay.
They offer The Book of Margery Kempe, many of Gower's works and John Lydgate, The Pearl, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, Charlemagne, Canterbury Tales and so many other texts all in Middle English but including a glossary. I recommend it highly.

The other link is to a gardening site. The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased some architectural elements of a Cistercian cloister from Bonnefort, France among others and reassembled them in New York. Sounds like it is worth a little visit. Here is the visitors page: But the link that I really wanted to post is for the medieval garden at the Cloisters. It is rare to find a blog on medieval gardens and it has photos as well. Here is a link:
I think you should bookmark it.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Wikipedia - 1, TEAMS - 0

     Whenever I had an undergraduate essay to write, every professor has said 'No Wikipedia'.  In spite of the excellence of many of the entries on Wikipedia, one would be seriously shamed to admit to have looked at Wikipedia.  In spite of that, any of my fellow graduate students that I have spoke with on the subject have admitted to using Wikipedia as a starting point for its excellent links, etc.. Only books put out by university presses and scholarly articles in peer reviewed journals can be cited safely. They are considered to be far more accurate than the information on Wikipedia.
     The books published by TEAMS, a group which includes the University of Rochester and University of Michigan(hosts of Kalamazoo, the biggest academic Medieval conference in North America), are among those books which would be considered suitable.  In fact, I had been assigned their copy of The Pearl and Gawain for one class.  One should be able to trust the info one would find in an introduction to one of their books, so I was surprised to read this line in their 'General Introduction' to Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales "There is the hero himself, banished and outlawed at age eighteen, by King William I" about Hereward the Wake.  I have read Gesta Herewardi in Latin.  I wrote a paper last year for a graduate course on him.  Hereward was banished by Edward the Confessor long before the Norman Conquest took place.  Wikipedia got it right.

   "According to the Gesta Herwardi, Hereward was exiled at the age of eighteen for disobedience to his father and disruptive behaviour, and he was declared an outlaw by Edward the Confessor. It has been suggested that, at the time of the Norman invasion of England, he was in exile in Europe, working as a successful mercenary for the Count of FlandersBaldwin V, and that he then returned to England."

According to a really enjoyable paper written by Elisabeth Van Houts called "Hereward and Flanders" published in the Cambridge journals, there is some evidence that Hereward may indeed have been a mercenary in Flanders while the Conquest was underway, including an Hereward witnessing a cathedral charter. Well, chalk one up for Wiki. Maybe.
      Unfortunately, the Wiki article goes on to say "Geoffrey Gaimar, in his Estoire des Engleis, says instead that Hereward lived for some time as an outlaw in the Fens, but as he was on the verge of making peace with William, he was set upon and killed by a group of Norman knights". I have read Gaimar too.  Hereward did make peace with William in his account and was fighting at Le Mans as William's man but he was killed by jealous Normans because Hereward was so awesome they could not stand it. Plus, in the Gesta, Hereward killed a prominent Norman - Frederick de Warenne - and this could have been a source for the abiding hatred the Norman nobles had for him.
      Point being, Wikipedia is not so bad, books, even peer reviewed ones, occasionally carry mistakes.  Trust only the Red Witch, she is never wrong. :) And hopefully someone at TEAMS has spotted the error and corrected it for print editions even if they have not updated the website.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A New Asterix and Obelix Book?

Rene Goscinny died in 1977 so a new book is not very likely but I forgot this fact when I was at a local bookstore looking for the latest Amulet for my kids. I saw Asterix and Obelix's Birthday, flipped through it and ran off to buy it without really examining the contents. It is understandable. I am a huge fan. I have sometimes referred to their books in class, prompting professors' to fix their best "Are you kidding me!!??" stares on me but then I also brought up the Bugs Bunny version of Wagner's 'The Ring' in my class on The Niebelungenlied. And I also made reference to the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in an essay on language. Guess I never learn.
Back to the Asterix and Obelix book, it wasn't worth buying. It was more or less a tribute book for the 50th anniversary of the indomitable Gauls. It really should not be so difficult to create additional books. There is a certain formulaic quality to the stories. With a little knowledge of history and a moderate ability with Latin, one should be able to put together some plausible adventures. It need not have ended with Goscinny's death but, considering what later writers have done with Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian, perhaps I should keep my mouth shut.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Black Death is Still Among Us

I was watching 'The Nature of Things' last night on the CBC. The show was about the re-introduction of black footed ferrets on the Canadian prairies after 70 years of being extinct. A vigorous strychnine dumping campaign to wipe out prairie dogs killed off this cute little ferret. You can see the video on the CBC site here. What made me sit up and go 'howdy!' was the discovery, a year after the ferrets had been re-introduced into the wild in Saskatchewan, that a nearby prairie dog colony had been wiped out by bubonic plague. That's right, the Black Death is alive and stalking rodents in the Canadian west.
In case you think I am making this up, here is an article from the Toronto Star on prairie dog deaths last year. I knew there were occasional cases in other parts of the world but it is very treatable with antibiotics. It is until an antibiotic resistant variety comes along.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

George Chapman

Hardly anyone knows who George Chapman was. He wrote the first English translation of The Iliad. He was an ordinary guy, born about 1559 near Hitchin. There is very little known for certain about him - i.e. his education, military service. Somewhere in his thirties, he decided to make a living as a writer. He went to debtor's prison in 1599 and fled London in 1614 to avoid a second term.
His first translation of Homer's work came in 1598, Seven Books of the Iliads of Homer, and was dedicated to Robert Devereux, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, in hopes of finding a wealthy patron. He finally found a patron in James I's son and heir, Prince Henry. Henry died in 1612 at the age of eighteen and Chapman persevered, although poor, in his translation of Homer. He published The Whole Works of Homer in 1616, having translated The Odyssey along with The Iliad. It took him almost thirty years to accomplish this feat, armed with a Greek to Latin dictionary and a Latin version of Homer alongside a Greek text. It is not certain how much education he had in Greek but, if he was untrained, his determination and accomplishment is inspirational.
Greek philosophers in the Middle Ages were not 'lost' because the texts were all lost but because people lacked the ability to read them and few translations were available. Boethius was one of the last few in the West who could read Greek. Heloise was distinguished by her ability to read Greek. Not only could she read Latin and Greek but she also knew some Hebrew. That she could read Latin was astonishing enough for a woman of her time but to know Greek and Hebrew as well made her singular even for a man. Abelard knew only a little Greek and no Hebrew.
What little was known of Plato during most of the Middle Ages was the translation of Timaeus by Calcidius. It might be worth looking at this text. Before there was 'The Force' (Star Wars), there was Plato's view of a 'World Soul'. The Timaeus lay at the heart of Boethius' ninth meter in his third book, the very center of Consolatio Philosophiae.
I sometimes think about Chapman laboring, struggling with a difficult language to write a book that no one had asked him to write and few would know or care that he wrote. It was not a literal translation, few at that time did literal translations. He was accused of merely translating the Latin text and those critics he called 'envious wind fuckers'. He died in poverty in 1634. You can still buy his version of The Iliad.
I have a 2003 edition published by Wordsworth Classics which includes an introduction on Chapman by Dr. Adam Roberts.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Lady Philosophy on Children

Summers are so short in Canada. I could be inside reading Boethius all summer long but once in a while, I like to feel the sun on my face even if turns my face red. Actually, I have been lolling about.
While Boethius is having his conversation with Lady Philosophy about what is good and results in a happiness that no one can take away from one, they turn to a discussion on children and wives in book III, chapter VII.
"Honestissima quidem coniugis foret liberorumque iucunditas, sed nimis e natura dictum est nescio quem filios invenisse tortores: quorum quam sit mordax quaecumque condicio, neque alias expertum te neque anxium necesse est admonere. In quo Euripidis mei sententiam probo, qui carentem liberis infortunio dixit esse felicem."
"In fact, the highest good should be the pleasure of a wife and children, but it is too often said of their natural temperament that someone, I know not who, invented children to be our tormentors. How bitter is the condition of any of those(parents). It is necessary to remind you who has previously neither experienced this or been anxious on that account. On which subject, I commend the opinion of Euripides, my pupil, that he who is lacking in children may be said to be fortunate in his misfortune."
One would think, since the Bible says to be fruitful and multiply and seeing how Jesus loves little children in the Apostles, that having children should be a blessing to be sought after by any good Christian. How interesting that Boethius quotes a Greek pagan philosopher and declares children to be a torment inflicted on parents. (or lays this at Lady Philosophy's feet) Even more interesting that this book was so influential to medieval thought. I know what he means; I have children too, but no one ever said it would be easy. Oprah (who knows nothing about raising children) calls it the hardest job in the world. In the words of Joe South, whose immortal words have been sung by many: "I beg your pardon. I never promised you a rose garden. Along with the sunshine, there has got to be a little rain sometime." Kids do not ask to be born. Once you have children, I do not think you are ever free from worrying about them even when they are good.
I am amazed at how differently various translators treat this and other passages. I have already said I do not like the Loeb translation and am going with my own but I have been comparing my understanding of the text with other translators and there is little agreement among them.
The quote from Euripides is from Andromache, line 420.