Friday, March 23, 2012

What's In A Name: The Giant Edition

     In Beowulf, one comes across several words for 'giant': eoten, ent, gigant, and þyrs. After reading Tolkien's paper called "On Translating Beowulf", I have to wonder what are the differences between them.  Are they all synonyms or are there subtle shifts in meaning between all four? Gigant should be easy; it is a loan word from Latin giganteus, which would have been used in the Biblia Sacra Vulgata in describing the Biblical giants. However, one has to wonder how people originally understood the word because it was used in classical Latin to describe the titans, some of whom were gigantic but not necessarily all.  This is similar to the Old Norse jotunn, which is cognate with the Old English eoten, since jotunn were not always of extraordinary size. Some jotunn were very human looking and intermarried with the Aesir. 
     þyrs meant ogre or troll really, but also applied to giants and had a cognate in Old Norse þurs. And then there is ent.  We know what Tolkien made of the word but it has not cognate in any other Germanic language and it did not survive into Middle English, probably being of archaic usage when the Beowulf poet was composing his poem.  He did employ other archaic language to give his poem the look of antiquity. The etymology of the word is called 'uncertain' although there are a couple of brave scholars willing to speculate. I won't relate their arguments here because I didn't find them convincing.
     So what is the difference between the various words?  Near as I can tell, þyrs means ogre or troll. The gigant is the primitive giant destroyed in Noah's flood, the eoten are the descendants of Ham, like Nimrod who built the Tower of Babel.  Giant works in stone are called the work of eoten but also of the ent.  There might be no difference but dialect between eoten and ent but no one can say at this time. This is why they are slightly different than the gigant who is just a dumb brute and incapable of the skill and craft of the eoten.


Kristin said...

I had a really long comment all ready to go, and then I was having issues getting into my gmail account to authorize. :( Will type it back out later, but just real quick, Ham's son Canaan had a curse put on him by Noah. Canaan was the "father" of all the giants living in Canaan and the Promised Land at the time. There are several examples: King Og of Bashran, Gog and Magog (who were the mythical founders of Britain), and of course Goliath.

Anachronist said...

The giants destroyed in Noah's flood were hardly described as primitive - their fathers were angels. They were brutal and violence-prone, proud, insolent, arrogant, and self-centered but primitive?

Gigantic people from Canaan were called Children of Anak too.

The Red Witch said...

Conversion to Christianity came later and the influence of gigant on whatever a 'eoten' or 'ent' was later too. The Romans equated Odin with Mercury and Thor with Jupiter but they were hardly the same thing. They shared some attributes but it would be nice to know how the pre-Christian Germanic world viewed 'eoten' and 'jotunn' or ents.
Snorri called the frost-giants 'hrimthursar' and not 'jotunn'.