His memories in a trunk

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Archive for the tag “Old English”

A few lines on the devil in Old English

Some of the most appealing parts of ancient and mediaeval — I use these adjectives chronologically, not necessarily culturally — literature are descriptions of gods, heroes, monsters and warlike meetings between any combination of members of those groups. Mythic tales are full of all sorts of such engagements, not infrequently in formulaic language. Of specific battles, the struggle with and defeat of some especially unsavory baddy marks an especial milestone of victory for a hero (see further Neil Forsyth, Satan and the Combat Myth.) One such encounter is described below in one of the Old English poems from the Exeter Book, the poem known as The Panther (lines 58b-64a), in which Jesus’ victory over Satan in the Harrowing of Hell is recounted and celebrated.

                        Þæt is se ealda fēond,
þone hē ġesǣlde on sūsla grund
and ġefeterode fȳrnum tēagum,
beþeahte þrēanīedum, and þȳ þriddan dæġe
of dīgle arās, þæsþe hē dēaþ fore ūs
þrēo niht þolode, Þēoden engla,
sigora Sellend.

Vocabulary and notes

  • eald old (cf. the vowel in “elder”)
  • fēond fiend, enemy. The word is a common epithet of Satan in OE literature (cf. Bosworth-Toller 277), and Luther’s “der alte böse Feind” (from “Ein feste Burg”) also comes immediately to mind.
  • þone masc. acc. sg of the pronoun se “this, that one, he”
  • ġesǣlan to tie up, bind
  • sūsl torment. Often of hell, see Bosworth-Toller 938.
  • grund not only “ground” but, as here, also “abyss”
  • fȳren fiery, from fȳr fire
  • tēag cord, chain (cf. mod. Eng. “tie”)
  • beþeahte is pret. of beþeċċan to cover
  • þrēanīed affliction
  • þȳ masc. instr. sg. of se
  • of note the meaning from, out of, not mod. Eng. “of”
  • dīgol grave (cf. also deāgol, basically “secret, hidden”; note, too, the name of Sméagol’s (i.e. Gollum’s) erstwhile companion and the prior Ring-bearer)
  • arās pret of arīsan to (a)rise
  • þæsþe = when
  • þolian endure, suffer (the pret. here following the conjunction þæsþe probably best rendered with pluperfect)
  • Þēoden prince, lord, chieftain. Cf. the name of Tolkien’s king of Rohan, Théoden.
  • sigor victory
  • sellend giver. The phrases Þēoden engla and sigora Sellend make a nice parallelism with formal chiasm, that is, we have nominative+genitive then genitive+nominative.


He is the old enemy,
Whom the Prince of angels and victories’ Giver
Bound in the abyss of torments,
Fettered with fiery chains,
Covered with grievous afflictions,
And when for us he’d suffered three nights’ death,
On the third day from the grave arose.

Some compound words in Old English

As is well known, in lexical terms modern English is composed largely of two chief strains of distinct linguistic basis (while both are still Indo-European, of course): Germanic (the original) and Latinate (imported later either via Norman French or Latin, the latter especially for ecclesiastical and technical terms). One of the most remarkable aspects of English in all periods is its Teutonically inherited penchant for compound words, a selection of which beginning with the letters A-H I give here. Some are noun+noun, others adjective+noun (those ending in morphemes such as –līċ [“body”] > Mod.E. “-ly”, technically also compound words from an Old E. perspective, I omit). Glossaries are convenient places to grab such things from, and most of these come from the one in Robert Diamond’s Old English Grammar and Reader (Detroit, 1970). As for the orthography, palatalized c and g are ċ and ġ, as in Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer. As always with Old English, those who know German or another Germanic language will find familiar friends here, and astute perusers will recognize the great grandparents of many words still in use in English. Some of the words below are clearly explained, some obvious, and some I simply give as-is.

  • ancorrāp “anchor-rope”
  • ānfloga “solitary flier”
  • ānhaga “solitary dweller”
  • ānstapa “lonely wanderer”
  • ārhwæt “glory-eager”, “glorious”
  • ātorscaða “poisonous enemy”
  • ǣfentīd “eventide, evening”
  • ǣrendġewrit “written message, letter”
  • ǣrendraca “messenger”
  • ǣrġewinn “former strife”
  • æschere “naval force, spear army” (æsc, i.e. “ash wood” is either “spear” or “viking ship”)
  • æscholt “ash-wood spear”
  • ǣtġiefa “food-giver” > “provider”
  • bānhūs “bone-house” > “skeleton”, “body”
  • bæcbord “port” (i.e. the left side of a ship)
  • beadurǣs “battle-rush” > “onslaught”
  • beaduweorc “battle-work” > “warlike deed”
  • bēagġiefa “ring-giver” > “lord”
  • bealusīþ “woeful journey, distressing experience”
  • bealuware “evil-doers”
  • beornþrēat “band of men”
  • billġeslieht “sword-slaughter” > “battle” (bill is “sword”, the second word related to modern “slay” and “slaughter”)
  • biscopstōl “bishopric, diocese” (biscop is, of course, not a native E. word, but derived from Greek ἐπίσκοπος via Latin)
  • blandenfeax “gray-haired”
  • blǣdhwæt “fruitful”
  • boldāgend “householder”
  • bordweall “shield wall”
  • brēostċearu “heart-anxiety”
  • brēostcofa “heart”
  • brēosthord “heart, though, mind”
  • brimfugol “sea bird”
  • brimġiest “sailor”
  • brimlād “sea-path”, “sea-journey”
  • brimlīðend “seafarer”
  • brimmann “seaman”
  • brūnecg “bright-edged”
  • brycgweard “bridge-defender”
  • burgsæl “town building”
  • burgwaran “townspeople”
  • būrþeġn “chamberlain”
  • byrnwiga “armor-warrior”
  • campstede “battlefield”
  • ċearseld “sorrowful abode” (ċearu “care, sorrow”)
  • cnēomǣġ “ancestor”, “kinsman” (cnēo “knee” but also “generation”)
  • collenferhþ “bold”, “brave”
  • cumbolġehnāst “banner-clash” > “battle”
  • cwideġiedd “song”, “speech”
  • cynerīċe “kingdom”
  • cynestōl “royal dwelling”
  • cynren “generation”, “kind” (the first part of the word is cynn “kind, race, family”, not cyning, “king”, the first part of the previous two words)
  • daroþlācend “spear-warrior”
  • dæġweorc “day-work”
  • dēaþdæġ “death-day”
  • dēaþsele “death-hall” > “hell”
  • dēaþspere “death-spear”, i.e. “deadly spear”
  • dōmġeorn “glory-eager”
  • drēoriġhlēor “sad-faced”
  • drēorsele “dreary hall”
  • dūnscræf “hill-cave”
  • ealdġewyrht “ancient deeds”
  • ealdorlang “lifelong”
  • ealdormann “chief”, “nobleman”
  • eallmihtiġ “almighty”
  • eardġeard “dwelling-place”
  • earfoþhwīl “hardship-time”
  • ēarġebland “sea-blending” > “turbulence of the sea”
  • earmċeariġ “wretched”
  • ēastæþ “river-bank” (ēa is “river”)
  • ēastende “east end”, “the eastern part”
  • ēasthealf “east-half”, “east side”
  • ēastlang “extending eastward”
  • eaxlġespann “where the beams of a cross come together”
  • ecghete “sword-hostility” > “war”
  • efennīehþ “neighborhood”, “vicinity”
  • eġesfull “terrible” (eġesa is “terror”)
  • ellenrōf “powerful” “courageous”
  • elþēodiġ “foreign”
  • ēorodcyst “elite troop”, “company”
  • ēorodþrēat “troop”, “host”
  • eorþscræf “earth-cave” > “grace”
  • eorþsele “earth-dwelling”, “cave-dwelling”
  • eorþweġ “earth”
  • eorþwela “wealth”, “worldly goods”
  • ēðelstōl “habitation” (ēðel “native land, home”)
  • faroþlācend “sailor”, “seafarer”
  • fǣrscaða “sudden enemy”
  • fealuhilte “golden hilted”
  • fēasceaftiġ “destitute”, “miserable”
  • felalēof “very dear”
  • felamihtiġ “very mighty”
  • feohġīfre “wealth-greedy”
  • feohlēas “wealth-less”
  • feorhbana “life-bane” > “slayer”
  • feorhbold “body”
  • feorhcwalu “slaughter”, “death”
  • feorhhūs “life-house” > “body”
  • feorrland “far-land” > “distant country”
  • ferhþgrimm “savage”, “cruel-hearted” (ferhþ is “mind, spirit”)
  • ferhþloca “breast”, “thoughts”, “feelings” (loca derives from lūcan “to close, lock”)
  • fierdlēas “army-less”
  • fierdrinc “warrior”, “soldier”
  • fierġenstrēam “mountain-stream”
  • flǣschama “body”
  • flintgrǣġ “flint-gray”
  • flōdgrǣġ “flood-gray” (flōd is “flood, tide, sea”)
  • flōdweġ “sea-way”
  • folcġefeoht “folk-fight” (folc is “people” and “army”)
  • folcland “country”
  • folcsæl “house”
  • folcstede “battlefield”
  • foldbūend “earth-dweller” > “human being” (folde is “earth, land”
  • foldweġ “earth-way” > “road”
  • forþġesceaft “creation”, “destiny”, “the future”
  • fōtmǣl “foot (measurement)” (i.e. “foot”+”time”)
  • frēamǣre “very celebrated” (i.e. “lord”+”illustrious”)
  • frēomǣġ “noble kinsman”
  • frēondlēas “friendless”
  • frumsceaft “creation”; “origin”
  • fyrnġēar “bygone year”
  • fyrnġeflita “ancient enemy”
  • fyrnstrēamas “ancient streams” > “ocean”
  • gamolfeax “old-haired” (gamol is “old”)
  • gārberend “spear-bearer”
  • gārmitting “spear-conflict” > “battle”
  • gārrǣs “spear-rush” > “battle”
  • gāsthāliġ “(spirit-)holy”
  • ġēardagas “year-days” > “time past”
  • ġēowine “departed friend”, “friend of former times”
  • ġiefstōl “(gift-)throne”
  • ġielpword “boast-word”
  • glēostæf “joy”
  • godcund “divine”, “holy”
  • godsunu “godson”
  • goldġiefa “gold-giver” > “lord”
  • goldwine “generous lord”
  • grundlēas “bottomless”
  • gryrelēoþ “terror song”
  • gūþhafoc “war hawk”
  • gūþplega “battle”
  • gūþrinc “warrior”
  • handplega “hand-to-hand fighting”
  • hasupād “dark-coated”
  • hātheort “hot-tempered”
  • hæġlfaru “hailstorm”
  • hēahfæder “high father” > “God”
  • hēahfȳr “high-fire”
  • hēahstefn “high-prowed” (of a ship)
  • hēahþungen “of high rank”
  • heardsǣliġ “unfortunate”
  • hellscaða “hell-foe” > “devil”
  • heofonrīċe “heaven-kingdom”
  • heoloþhelm “helmet of invisibility”
  • heorþġenēat “hearth-companion”
  • hereflīema “army-fugitive”
  • hereġeatwe “battle-gear”
  • herehūþ “booty”
  • herelāf “army remnant”
  • hierdebōc “shepherd-book” > “pastoral book”
  • hlāfordlēas “lordless”
  • hlēowmǣġ “protecting kinsman”
  • hlinduru “prison door”
  • hlōþġecrod “troop-throng”
  • holmmæġen “sea-might”
  • holtwudu “the trees of the forest” (holt is “wood, grove”)
  • hōpġehnāst “clashing of waves”
  • hordcofa “treasure-chamber” > “breast”, “heart”, “thoughts”
  • hornsæl “gabled building”
  • horshwæl “walrus”
  • horsþeġn “horse-thane” (title of a royal officer)
  • hrædwyrde “hasty of speech”
  • hrēowċeariġ “sorrowful”
  • hrēþēadiġ “glorious”
  • hreðerloca “breast”; “heart”
  • hrīmċeald “cold as hoarfrost”
  • hrīmġicel “icicles”
  • hringloca “coat of chain-mail”
  • hwælhunta “whale-hunter”
  • hwælhuntoþ “whale-hunting”
  • hwælmere “whale-sea”
  • hwælweġ “whale-way” > “sea”
  • hyġecræftiġ “wise”, “clever” (hyġe is “mind”, “heart”)
  • hyġeġeōmer “mind-sad”
  • hyrnednebba “horny-beaked”

While most of us probably don’t have occasion to speak often of battle onslaughts and whales as much as these compound words might allow, or think regularly about a brycgweard or heoloþhelm, we might nevertheless let many of the others enliven our own modern English! Here’s to compound words, then! Go use some!

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