Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Helm of Awe

More because I haven't posted in a few days than for any other reason, I am going to blog about my theories on the Helm of Awe. It is an item that Sigurd, the Volsung, took from Fafnir after he killed him. Most scholars translate it as a 'helmet' but it is also a rune that Viking sailors used to tattoo themselves with for protection. Although, most of the information you will find on the internet is what could be called 'speculative' rather than being 'academic', there is a book by Terisa Green called The Tattoo Encyclopedia in which Green, an archeologist, shows the tattoo as being of ancient origins.
Perhaps it is translated as a 'helmet' because Sigurd's German counterpart Siegfried has a 'tarnkappe' which is normally translated as a 'cloak of invisibility' in spite of the fact that 'kappe' can also be translated as 'helm'. When Siegfried is wrestling Brunhilde, it seems to me that a head covering would stay on better than a cloak. Even more so, when Siegfried is trying to win Brunhilde for Gunther and is throwing things and trying to make it appear as though it is Gunther doing it. This would be harder to accomplish swathed in a cloak.
We are expected to suspend disbelief but, if there is a way to translate these words that aren't so contrary to logic, why not use them. Are scholars saying that people in the 12th century were any less logical than ourselves?
Sigurd did not seem to have the covering that made him invincible like Siegfried but I question that. If he acquired this rune from the dragon, then he did possess invincibility, he just didn't use it.

image of the aegishjalmr courtesy of Scandinavian Wikipedia

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

St. Augustine's Justification of War

I was reading T.S. Asbridge's essay on the crusader community at Antioch and I found his comment that the justification for wars like the Crusades were found in St. Augustine's City of God. So, we can lay some of the blame for the Crusades on St. Augustine. Fine by me. Sounds about right since I don't recall any passages in the Bible that, in spite of some of the goings on in the Old Testament, actually state that war is okay. 'Thou shalt not kill' seems pretty clear and there is no '...except in cases of ....' added to that commandment but what do I know. I come from a long line of Anabaptists and an anti-war stance has probably been bred into my DNA.
While I was plugging away at this very influential book, I noticed Book I, chapter 21, entitled 'of the cases in which we may put men to death without incurring the guilt of murder'. This must be the passage. It follows a discussion of suicides who are rape victims. Augustine, very generously, says that if a violated woman commits suicide "who that has any human feeling would refuse to forgive them" but he did not encourage women to do so since the stain for the violation rests on the abuser not the victim. Pity more people didn't pay attention to this part of Augustine. I almost feel like I might grow to like him but there is still a whole lot of book left in which he can annoy me so I won't be hasty about that.
Book I, chapter 21 states there are two exceptions to that prohibition - 'thou shalt not kill' - and those exceptions are made by divine authority justified by a general law or by a special commission. The special commission makes the person who kills 'a sword in the hand of the person who uses him' and not morally responsible for the death. So then, would he say the sin for all those deaths in the Crusades would then be laid upon the popes who called for them? Interesting thought. He went on to say that "those who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such person have by no means violated the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill".
I know, huh?
First off - 'wisdom of government' is an oxymoron. Is there such a thing? 'Divine command' - do we really know what God wants? The pope is God's representative on earth but many, many popes have been such deeply flawed individuals that one could question if they speak for God at all. God himself is silent on this point. Augustine did not point out what laws this war is in conformity to. There are wars in the Old Testament and it seems at times these wars are waged with God's permission or even command but it does not appear to be explicitly so, not that I know the Bible well enough to say this for certain. He did not define what he meant by 'wicked men'; if we are talking pedophiles, you won't get any argument from me.
He gave three examples of killing that were directly ordered by God - the command given to Abraham to slay Isaac, Jephthah who killed his own daughter because he swore to sacrifice the first thing he met if he was victorious in war, and Samson who had been given secret instructions to pull down the building and crush his enemies. So, we could give him that. If God appears and tells you that you have to do this thing, then you better do it but the question remains - does the Pope then have the right to issue commands like this on God's behalf? I think not and, in Augustine's time, the office of the Bishop of Rome was still evolving and very different from what it is today so he did not comment on what the Pope may do in this case.

I am using the Marcus Dods translation, which looks to be out of copyright at the moment. yay.

Monday, May 23, 2011

What is it all about anyway?

I have not picked up a single book in Latin this week. I did read some St. Augustine but that was in translation. (Augustine is tough enough translated; I don't feel like tackling him in Latin.) It has been nice. I wandered out into the garden, baked some Irish Coffee cupcakes, and visited with some friends. I even had a beer last night.
I have some doubts about graduate studies. I think I wrote better when I didn't care about my grades. I am not having any fun and I think studies in the Humanities are changing in ways that make it no longer fun. Everyone in my class last year was groaning about weight gain and not having time for anything but studying, even the one woman who made it to the gym didn't make it enough. I like balance in my life. I don't live to work.
My next post will be back to blogging about the Middle Ages. This week I just felt like smelling the roses.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Peter Abelard, Rock God

Just for fun, I am posting a link to Youtube. It is a song or, rather a hymn, written by Peter Abelard. I have it on my iPod along with The BeeGees and Lady Gaga because I am a complicated gal. Abelard also wrote love songs which were popular among Parisians. Unfortunately, we don't have any of those but we do have this hymn that he wrote for Heloise after she became a nun so she would have something to sing on a Saturday night when everyone else was down at the pub singing the other songs. Just kidding. He did write this hymn for Heloise while she was abbess of a convent that he set up for her.
In spite of it being over 800 years old, it still has a certain charm. Lennon and McCartney have a long way to go to catch up with him. I think if he was alive today, he would be a rock star like Amadeus.
Here it is: Quanta Qualia

Friday, May 13, 2011

Tancred, Prince of Galilee

It is not a good sign for Boethius that I took a short break from his book after one page. I am reading St. Augustine's City of God along with Boethius but I also started on Raoul of Caen's biography of Bohemond's nephew Tancred. I like that name Raoul and I am prepared to like Raoul himself but, like most medieval authors writing in latin, he piles on the superlatives and doubles up the adjectives. There was no medieval version of the phrase "Keep it simple, stupid."
He begins his tale by stating that Tancred was the brightest offspring of a shining lineage and was even more sublime than his maternal uncles. (including Bohemond) The whole Guiscard family was just awesome and glorious and they kicked the Byzantine emperor's butt but Raoul was not going to tarry about on this awesomeness because he had to get into his topic: The princely genius of Tancred disposed itself to holy war. (and that was awesome, too.)
Tancred wasn't like all the other little boys. He was serious, man. He was zealous in his studies, insatiable to be taught, remembered everything he was told, more agile than the other youths, more serious in mind than any old man, able to leap over tall buildings with a single bound! He didn't spare his own blood; he certainly was not going to spare any of the enemies'. He signed up right away when the call went out from Pope Urban for a crusade. Before or after Bohemond, enquiring minds want to know.
He did seem content to live in his uncle's shadow; he does not appear to have coveted a kingdom for himself. Bohemond appointed Tancred regent over Antioch when he was away and Tancred never tried to usurp him. He was noted for having given his banner to some Arabs who had taken refuge on the roof of the Temple of the Mount, which placed them under his protection. They were killed anyway and Tancred was reported to have been very angry about this. I wonder if it was a matter like when the crusaders took Marra and Bohemond told some Saracens that if they wanted to live, they should gather up their belongings and family and go to a palace near the gate. (Gesta Francorum) After the fighting was over, Bohemond took all their gold and precious items, killed some and sold the others into slavery. Maybe Tancred was angry that this potentially lucrative slave money was spoiled for him rather than because he had any pity for the people.
An Arab, writing during the Third Crusade, Usamah ibn Munqidh, tells a story that during a truce between Shaizar and Antioch, Tancred asked for the gift of a horse. The horse was delivered by a young Kurd named Hasanun, who rode that horse to victory in a race. Tancred bestowed a cloak of honour on him and he, in return, requested that if he should be taken prisoner by Tancred that his life might be spared. Later he was captured and Tancred ordered his right eye to be put out and his life ransomed. Glorious. Not one of his finer moments but then, in an article, T.S Asbridge tells how Usamah also related a story about Robert fitz-Fulk the Leper who was close friends with Tughtegin, the atabeg of Damascus and this friendship did not prevent Tughtegin from personally beheading Robert when he was captured in 1119. Walter the Chancellor added that Tughtegin had a gold and jewelled cup made out of Robert's skull.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

If I Had A Hammer....

I have just seen Thor in 3D. I could have done without the 3D and I expected the producers would not be strictly following Norse mythology. They didn't.
A large chunk of the movie does not take place on earth but in Asgard and Jotunheim, the abode of the ice giants. It reminds me a little of the bogus mythology that introduced Hellboy II, The Golden Army. It didn't make my head blow off that they made Nuadda a son of Balor and I could deal with the alteration of the facts here too. Odin destroyed the ice giants before there were humans but that's okay. Loki was not an ice giant or Odin's son but that's okay too. Frigg is not Thor's mother but we won't quibble about that either. Bifrost is a rainbow not a wormhole but they are trying to make it believable to a modern sophisticated audience. There was a gratuitous shirt-free scene which was awesome. We wouldn't want all that working out to go to waste. If all the Asgardians look like that - call me converted.
On the whole, it was good. Not too hokey. It was strange seeing a ninja Asgardian but every movie has their little team, made up of the big, dumb gorilla, the sassy girl, smart guy, square-jawed hero and the chinese ninja guy. At least we did not have to look at them for long. The story focused on Loki's rather complicated love/hate relationship with Asgard which works since Loki does cause most of the problems.
Thor is not the brightest thing; he just likes to fight and gets Odin angry with him. He is deprived of his hammer and sent to earth to learn some humility. He learns just enough to get his hammer back and then he starts kicking *ss again. He falls in love with a human - Natalie Portman's character. I don't like her as Thor's love interest; she is too wimpy. I can't seen him joining S.H.I.E.L.D either. Those are the good guys from Iron Man. Thor doesn't take orders from anyone but Odin.
I went with two teenaged boys, one teenaged girl and myself - middle aged mama. We all liked it. Don't look for insight into the human condition; Dostoyevsky and Zola did not write Thor novels and that's okay, too.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Ibn Fadlan's Journey to Russia: a Review

I wanted to read this book after reading Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead. He wrote his book to appear to be Ahmad Ibn Fadlan's Risala, complete with real and fake annotation. Mostly fake. It was not clear in the appendix if he took Ibn Fadlan's visit with the Rus beyond what is in the remains of the original text or not. He did. The Arab missionary and ambassador did not travel anywhere with the Rus. He merely observed them when a group of them came to Bulghar capital along the Volga.
Richard Frye wrote this book for the non-academic public. That is, it is written for the laymen. It is a translation of the largest piece of the Risala which had been preserved at Meshhed. He filled out his translation with a bit of history of the time in which Ibn Fadlan made his journey, c. 922 A.D.. I am not sure how best to refer to the Arab author since Ibn means 'son of', so perhaps Ahmad would do.
Ahmad took a long way around to visit the Bulghar king at Kazan because the Khazars, whose land he would have to cross, were hostile to the Caliph at Baghdad, Ahmad's master. It is an interesting look at a culture and history that is largely unknown to me. It is not too long or filled with obscure details that only a scholar would love. It contains some maps and illustrations, which I love. All in all, it is a good book. Two thumbs up.
If you are curious about the Ahmad's observations on the Rus, you will need to look further because Frye did not comment much on them. He stated there were many scholarly articles already on the subject.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Alfred's introduction to Boethius

I expected bias and found it. I'll put a few comments in brackets in my text but, I have to say, if Boethius sent a letter like that to the Byzantine emperor then he was nuts to do so. I try to keep my translation as close to the author's words as possible.

At that time, the Goths of Scythia, kindred to the Romans, won the Roman kingdom, having risen up and with their kings, called Raedegota and Alaric, stormed the city of Rome. (Radagaisius was dead by 406, having been defeated by Stilicho. Alaric took Rome in 410 dying that same year.) They subjugated all of the Italian kingdom that lies between the mountains and Sicily; and then after them, the aforementioned King Theodoric seized that same kingdom. (as you may see from my timeline at right, Theodoric was not born until about 45 years later. He took the kingdom almost 85 years after Alaric) This Theodoric was an Amelung. He was Christian, although he persisted in the Arian heresy. He vowed his friendship to the Romans so they might be in possession of all their old rights and he performed that vow with great evil and ended very wroth with many a crime.
That was in addition to other countless evil, he slew John, then named pope. There was a certain consul, what we call a commander, who was named Boethius. He was into book-craft (scholarship) and on worldly custom he was the wisest. He then perceived the manifold evil that King Theodoric did with that Christendom and with Roman torments. He then remembered their ease and their old rights that they had under their Caesars (under Nero? Caligula? Tiberius?) their old lords. Then he began to think and to learn for himself how they might take that kingdom from the wicked king and to bring the ruler to the orthodox and righteousness. (Boethius denied sending a letter. ) He secretly sent a letter to the Caesar in Constantinople. (Zeno had given the kingdom to Theodoric, who although king of the Ostrogoths never called himself anything but Patrician over the Western Roman Empire) There is the chief city of the Greeks and their throne because the Caesar was their lord from ancient times.
He asked him (Justin I) to help him to their Christianity and to their old rights. When the bloodthirsty king Theodoric perceived this, he commanded that Boethius be brought to jail and locked therein. Then it befell that the mercy-worthy man came to greater distress. Then he was much more troubled in his mind as his mind was much more accustomed to worldly prosperity. And he remembered no solace within that prison, and he fell prostrate down on the floor, and stretched himself out, very despondent, and sad, he began to weep for himself and thus singing he quoth,"

from here it moves into the Lay of Boethius which includes some lines that are not in the Latin version. In spite of being the slayer of a pope and of Boethius, Theodoric was immortalized in heroic verse as Dietrich von Berne. In the Nibelungenlied, he, Attila and Hildebrand are the sole survivors of the massacre at Etzelburg. It is he who tackles Hagen and ties him up for Kriemhild.

Almost forgot to add, I took this text in the OE from A Guide to Old English, seventh edition, Bruce Mitchell and Fred. C. Robinson.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


For my summer holidays, I am going to tackle Boethius in Latin. I may post some translations occasionally. As I was considering the reception of his work, I remembered King Alfred did a translation of De Consolatione Philosophiae into Old English. Yeah, yeah, did Alfred actually do the translation? Who cares? This morning, I don't. It looks interesting too. I think I will read the two side by side. Chaucer also did a translation of Boethius. It looks very interesting as well. I think I will read all three.
While reading the introduction to Chaucer's translation, in an 1868 publication with Richard Morris as translator and commentator that the university library has an online link to, I could not help but chuckle at Morris' comments about how noble Boethius was and how terrible Theodoric was to suspect him of treason. Boethius wrote a book supporting the Catholic view on the trinity and condemning Arianism. What did he expect? When your king is an Arian, you are taking your life into your hands in calling him a heretic.(Boethius probably did not attack Theodoric in print but heresy was a serious business) Morris also compared him to Cato the Younger, who took his own life, and was an insufferable prig. He also called Boethius 'the last Roman'. I thought that title belonged to Aetius.
Alfred prefaced his translation with the historical background to the book. I think I shall tackle that first. I expect some bias in his presentation.