Saturday, January 25, 2014

Anglo-Saxon Saturdays: Þrym

The Anglo-Saxon culture of early medieval England seems in some ways very familiar to us today, but in many other ways their culture was vastly different. For example, their conception of emotion was as an action, rather than a state of being. So they would express the emotion of anger as "I anger," rather than how we would express it in Modern English as "I am angry." This week's word from the Anglo-Saxon lexicon illustrates another way in which the Anglo-Saxons conceived of something differently than we do:

The first page of Beowulf in the Nowell Codex


The first sentence of Beowulf, in lines 1-3, reads like this:

HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum, 
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon, 
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!

(Lo! We of the Spear-Danes, in days of yore
of the people's kings, the glory heard,
how the noble ones framed courage!)

This sentence sets the backdrop for the rest of the poem, starting with the story of the great Scyld Scefing, legendary leader of the Spear-Danes, as an example of a god cyning (good king). The word þrym, in the second line, translated here as "glory" carries a lot more meaning that just that. Þrym can also mean noise, sound, strength, power, majesty, and reputation. The last of these is the most telling, as the idea of "reputation" and noise typically do not go together in the modern reader's mind.

The Anglo-Saxon conception of reputation and glory was very different from ours today. Today, we tend to conceptualize "glory" visually, represented by bright light, often seen as a sunrise, halo, or a sort of glowing aura. (Try googling "glory" and you'll see what I mean.) The Anglo-Saxons, however, thought of glory as an audible phenomenon, thus, reputation and glory and noise could all be embedded in the same word. This has a lot to do with the Anglo-Saxon's warrior-ethos culture and the high value on boasting, storytelling, and reputation.

The Anglo-Saxons had a pre-individualist culture, meaning that in their culture, individuals placed their own needs below those of their community. Leaving your community was not really an option, and since you couldn't get away from the people you lived and worked with, their opinion of you was extremely important. The way to keep up your reputation was to act such that people spoke highly of you, that you could boast about your accomplishments publicly, and that people would continue to talk and sing about you even after you were gone.

So the idea of noise and reputation and majesty all being included in one word, þrym, helps us to understand a little bit more about the Anglo-Saxons; the more noise there was about you (the more people talked about you), the more power you had, the higher your reputation, and the more respected you would be in your community. 

Selected Sources:
Beowulf: A Glossed Text, edited by Michael Alexander, Penguin Books, 1995.
A Compendious Anglo-Saxon and English Dictionary, by Rev. Joseph Bosworth, Forgotten Books 2012, Originally Published 1848.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. This gives insight into how our thinking has changed over the years...