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. Zo√ęga
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.