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Half-assed humanoids: Centaurs in early medieval England

With the upper body of a human and the lower body of a horse, centaurs are one of the most recognisable creatures of Greek mythology. However, these horse-human-hybrids also make their appearance in the cultural record of early medieval England, as this blog post demonstrates.

Half-horsed or half-assed half-humans

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Centaurs in London, British Library, Cotton Vitelius A.xv, fol. 103r; on the Bayeux Tapestry (source); and on an Anglo-Saxon coin (source)

Depicted as they are in manuscript versions of The Marvels of the East, on the Bayeux Tapestry and on various early medieval English coins, centaurs were certainly no strangers to the Anglo-Saxons. The inhabitants of early medieval England were probably aware of the centaur’s origins in Greek mythology, which describes the centaurs as a legendary tribe of half-horses living in Thessaly and often at blows with the Lapiths (both peoples were said to descend from the twin brothers Centaurus and Lapithes, sons of Apollo; Centaurus mated with horses, Lapithes did not). A mention of the centaurs and Lapiths is found in the Old English translation of Orosius’s Historia adversus paganos:

On ðæm dagum wæs þætte Lapithe 7 Thesali wæron winnende him betweonum. Þonne þa Lapithe gesawon Thesali þæt folc of hiora horsum beon feohtende wið hie, þonne heton hi hie Centauri, þæt sindon healf hors, healf men, for þon hie on horse hie feohtan ne gesawen ær þa. (Bately 1980, p. 28)

[In these days it was that the Lapiths and Thessalians were fighting among themselves. When the Lapiths saw that the Thessalian people were fighting against them from their horses, then they called them ‘Centaurs’, that is half horse, half man, because they never before then saw them fight on horseback.]

A centaur-like being also gets a mention in The Marvels of the East: “Hi beoþ oð ðene nafelan on menniscum gescape 7 syððan on eoseles gescape” [they are in a man’s shape down to the navel and afterwards in the shape of an ass] (London, British Library, Cotton Vitelius A.xv, fol. 103v; see the image of this centaur above. For more on this fascinating text, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex). The idea that centaurs were half-assed, rather than half-horsed is also evident from the Old English gloss “healf man healf assa” [half man, half ass] for the Latin words centaurus, ippocentaurus and onocentaurus in an eleventh-century glossary:

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Part of a marginal glossary in London, British Library, Additional 32246, fol. 3r.

On viking ships and in monastic rules: Centaurs in unexpected places

While centaurs might not seem amiss in texts about wonderful creatures, ancient histories and lists of obscure Latin words, references to these horse-human hybrids also pop up in more unexpected places. According to the anonymous author of the Encomium Emmae Regina (1041-1042), for instance, centaurs could be seen on the Viking longboats used by Swein Forkbeard when he invaded England in the year 1013:

On one side lions moulded in gold were to be seen on the ships, on the other birds on the tops of the masts indicated by their movements the winds as they blew, or dragons of various kinds poured fire from their nostrils. Here there were glittering men of solid gold or silver nearly comparable to live ones, there bulls with necks raised high and legs outstretched were fashioned leaping and roaring like live ones. One might see dolphins moulded in electrum, and centaurs in the same metal, recalling the ancient fable. (trans. Campbell 1949)

Who knew those Vikings were so keen to decorate their boats with such exotic and mythological animals?

Another surprising place to stumble on a mention of centaurs is in the late eleventh-century Old English translation of the Enlarged Rule of Chrodegang, a monastic rule that originated in the eighth century. In a chapter dealing with the difference between clerics under episcopal rule and clerics that were not ruled by bishops (‘acephalous’ or headless clerics), the latter are described as “gewitlease nytenu” [witless animals]. While they may pretend to be clerics, they lead base lives. They are neither clerical nor lay and, thus, the rule explicitly states, they resemble centaurs:

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The Old English Version of the Enlarged Rule of Chrodegang. Cambridge, Parker Library, CCCC MS 191, p. 128

Hi sind gelice ypocentauris, þa ne synt naðer ne hors \ne/ men, ac synt gemenged, swa se bisceop cwæð, Ægðer ge cynren ge tudor is twybleoh. Þæra sceanda and þæra swæma mænigeo wæs æfre ure westdæl afylled.

[They are like centaurs which are neither horse nor men but are mixed as the bishop said, ‘Their kindred as well as their offspring is dual’ (a reference to Virgil’s Aeneid). Our western world was forever filled by a host of these imposters and idlers.] (trans. Langefeld 2003, p. 382)

Given their appearance on boats of Viking invaders and their link to unruly clerics, it seems centaurs did not have a good reputation in early medieval England. Matters change, however, when we take into account an important medical text.

Chiron, a centaur-doctor in the Old English Herbal

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London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fol. 19r

London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius c.iii opens with a full-page miniature of a man and a centaur offering a book to a blue-veiled individual. The texts that follow this miniature are the Old English Herbal and an Old English translation of Medicina de quadrupedibus [Remedies of four-footed animals]. The presence of this centaur is not an artistic flourish, as the entry in the Old English Herbal for the herb centaury demonstrates: “Eac ys sæd þæt Chyron centaurus findan sceolde þas wyrta þe we ær centauriam maiorem 7 nu centauriam minorem nemdon, ðanun hy eac þone naman healdað centaurias” (de Vriend 1984, p. 82) [It is also said that Chiron the centaur had to find the herb that we earlier called centauriam maiorem and now called centauriam minorem, thence they also have the name centaury]. The centaur offering the book at the start of this manuscript, then, is none other than Chiron, the wisest centaur of all Greek mythology and inventor of, among other things, botany and pharmacy!

This same Chiron is associated with the zodiac sign Sagittarius, which of course was also known to the Anglo-Saxons:

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Sagittarius in London, British Library, Cotton Julius A.vi, fol. 8v

To sum up: Whether half-assed or half-horsed, on Viking boats or in monastic rules, as a mythological medicine man-horse or a zodiac sign, centaurs clearly left their mark (or: hoofprints) in the cultural record of early medieval England!

If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in:

Works referred to:

  • Bately, J. (1985). The Old English Orosius. EETS, s.s. 6 (London)
  • Campbell, A. (1949). Encomium Emmae Reginae (London)
  • Langefeld, B.T (2003). The Old English Version of the Enlarged Rule of Chrodegang: Edited together with the Latin Text and an English Translation. Münchener Universitätsschriften, Texte und Untersuchungen zur Englischen Philologie, Band 26 (Frankfurt am Main)
  • de Vriend, H.J. (1984). The Old English Herbarium and Medicina de quadrupedibus. EETS 286 (London)

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Grendel’s Mother: A Student Doodle Edition

For a bonus question on one of my Old English literature exams, my students used their artistic talents to draw their own rendition of Grendel’s mother from the Old English poem Beowulf. Together, these doodles give a neat overview of how Beowulf criticism has approached this feminine ‘monster’ and what my students have remembered of the poem.

i) Grendel’s mother: An enigmatic being

Of the three main foes of Beowulf in the poem, Grendel’s mother is perhaps the most enigmatic. Scholars have long since debated what to make of this “brimwylf” [sea-she-wolf] Beowulf, ll. 1508, 1601), living in an underwater-hall. She is presented as monstrously violent, but her actions are motivated by a completely understandable (and human?) desire to avenge the death of her son. Is she a monster or a human?These drawings by my students clearly demonstrate this complex ambiguity, ranging as they do from catlike, beastly mothers to fair-haired dinosaurs, through to a green-scaled woman in a dress:

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A compilation of Grendel’s mothers by my students

ii) Grendel’s mother enters the scene: A woman on a mission

Grendel’s mother makes her appearance halfway through the Old English poem. The poet has just recounted how Beowulf has defeated the monster Grendel by ripping off its arm. This arm is hung underneath the roof of the great hall Heorot as a sign of Beowulf’s victory and there is much rejoicing. King Hrothgar gives a lavish feast and, that night, the Danes fall asleep, confident that the monster Grendel no longer poses a threat. Enter Grendel’s mother, hell-bent on revenge:

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She trashes the Danish slumber party in Heorot, grabs hold of Æschere, King Hrothgar’s “best friend”, and then returns to her underwater hall.

According to some critics (and students), there is a particular ‘poetic justice’ about the fact that Grendel’s mother takes Hrothgar’s ‘right-hand man’ in retribution for Grendel’s ripped-off arm:

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“You took my son’s right hand! Now I will take yours!!!”

iii) A mother in her mere

The next morning, Hrothgar wakes up to the news that his friend Æschere has been killed and, spurred into action by Beowulf, he leads a troop to Grendel’s mere. Grendel’s mother, we are told, had ruled this place for fifty years.

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This eery pond is inhabited by strange monstrous creatures and none but Beowulf himself dares enter it. He swims down to Grendel’s mother’s underwater lair and soon finds out that his sword Hrunting is useless. Luckily, Beowulf finds a giant sword and manages to kill his female foe. Beowulf next finds the body of Grendel and decapitates it, turning the mere red with blood. The Danes see the blood and think Beowulf has lost, but the “faithful Geats remain in the neighbourhood waiting for Beowulf to emerge”:

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Note the wobbly ‘useless sword’ wielded by Beowulf!

iv) Grendel’s mother: An exotic monster?

As noted above, Grendel’s mother is often interpreted as a monster. How else could she live in an underwater lair and pose a threat to the strong hero Beowulf? Surely, she must have had sharp teeth, claws, webbed hands, flipper feet, “light eyes to see under water” and “biceps because she’s strong”:

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Another student imagines a monster of another kind, one with a beard [the reference to the ‘Wonders of the East’ is to another text in the Beowulf manuscript, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex]:

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“Grendel’s mother is like a hybrid of a sea-creature with a fish-like tail and a hairy woman beast with a beard (since beards on a woman were a horrible thing back then (Wonders of the East))”

Yet another student thought Grendel’s mother may have hailed from Eastern Europe and was distressed because it could no longer feed its son a bowl of borscht:

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v) Grendel’s mother as a human woman

Some critics (and students) downplay the idea of Grendel’s mother as a monster. Their main argument revolves around the interpretation of the phrase “ides, aglæcwif” Beowulf, l. 1259a), used for Grendel’s mother. This phrase has been rendered rather negatively in some Beowulf translations, ranging from “wretch, or monster of a woman” (Klæber), to “monstrous hell bride” (Heaney), “monster-woman” (Chickering) and even “ugly troll lady” (Trask). These rather monstrous descriptions of Grendel’s mother are problematic: the word “ides” means ‘lady’ and is used in the poem to refer to queens, including Wealhtheow (wife of Hrothgar, king of the Danes); the first part of “aglæcwif” is indeed used of the monster Grendel and the dragon (both called “aglæca”), but it is also used of Beowulf and another human hero, Sigemund. Since there is no indication for calling Beowulf ‘ugly troll’, ‘monstrous’ or ‘monster’, it seems strange to give the word a negative meaning when it refers to Grendel’s mother. Hence, the word “aglæc” may be best rendered as ‘opponent, adversary’. The following student certainly remembered that bit:

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“ides aglæcwif = lady warrior-woman. Grendel’s mother is called aglæcwif which can be translated as warrior-woman. Aglæc was also used for Beowulf. I don’t think she’s a monster because she’s described as ‘ides’ which means ‘lady’.”

The next student, too, sees Grendel’s mother as “not a monster, just a sad woman”:

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Æschere’s bloody head on a pole is a nice touch. In an article I recently co-authored, we argue that Æschere’s head was indeed used as a boundary marker (see: Thijs Porck & Sander Stolk, ‘Marking Boundaries in Beowulf: Æschere’s Head, Grendel’s Arm and the Dragon’s Corpse’).

The following student blamed Grendel’s mother’s misfortune on her ugly baby:

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“I think Grendel’s mother wasn’t ugly, she just made the wrong choices and had an ugly baby. This is when she finds out Baby Grendel is really weird and ugly”

vi) The Jolie-i-fication of Grendel’s mother

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Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother

Beowulf has been brought to the big screen many times and these cinematic adaptations have certainly influenced how we visualise the monsters of this poem (I wrote about this here: Spoiling the Mystery: Grendel in Beowulf Movies). One of the most memorable depictions of Grendel’s mother was the 3D animation of Angelina Jolie in the 2007 film Beowulf. The Jolie-i-fication of Grendel’s mother is captured beautifully by this student’s drawing:

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vii) The Pietà of Grendelangelo

The last student drawing is something special. It is not an exam doodle, but a ‘commissioned piece of art’. I asked Jolene Witkam, a student who wrote an excellent BA thesis about Grendel’s mother’s human nature ánd a skilled artist, to draw Grendel’s mother and Grendel in the poses of Mary and Christ of Michelangelo’s famous Pietà statue. The endresult, you will agree, is absolutely stunning:

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The Pietà of Grendelangelo. © Art work by Jolene Witkam.

If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy other student doodle editions:

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