17 August, 2010

Old English gods and myths: Eotens

The most famous monster in Old English poetry must be Grendel, the man-eating enemy in the poem Beowulf. The poem mainly refers to Grendel by name as an individual. Grendel is also called an ‘eoten’, e.g. at the climax of the fight with Beowulf when Grendel is struggling to break loose from Beowulf’s grip:

The monster strained away
--Beowulf, line 761, translated by Michael Alexander
Eoten was utweard
--Beowulf, line 761

Eotens in general are also referred to in the poem, sometimes in association with ‘cyn’, meaning something like tribe or kindred:

--Beowulf, line 112

eotena cyn
--Beowulf, line 421

eotena cynnes
--Beowulf, line 884

So eotens were a particular type – the modern term might be something like species – of monster, and Grendel could be described as an eoten. What sort of creatures were eotens thought to be?


From Cain came down all kinds misbegotten
- ogres and elves and evil shades -
as also the Giants, who joined in long
wars with God.
--Beowulf, lines 111-114, translated by Michael Alexander

eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas,
swylce gigantas
--Beowulf, line 112-113

In this list of monsters ‘eotenas’ (here translated as ‘ogres’) are considered by the Beowulf poet to be descendants of Cain, the first murderer. They are clearly seen as one among several types of evil creatures – “all kinds misbegotten”.


The fell and fen his fastness was
The march his haunt
--Beowulf, lines 102-103

... walked nightlong
The misty moorland
--Beowulf, lines 161-162

...up steep screes, by scant tracks
Where only one might walk, by wall-faced cliffs,
Through haunted fens – uninhabitable country
--Beowulf, lines 1410-1411

So Grendel (and presumably other eotens) lived in wilderness and wasteland, including mountains (fells), moorlands and marshes or fens. The kind of country where humans cannot, or at any rate do not, live.

Grendel’s particular home is in an underground cave reached by swimming down through a mountain lake in a swallow hole:

Mysterious is the region
They live in – of wolf-fells, wind-picked moors
And treacherous fen-paths: a torrent of water
Pours down dark cliffs and plunges into the earth
An underground flood
--Beowulf line 1357-1361

Appearance and behaviour

Grendel and his mother are described in Beowulf:

...a pair
Of huge wayfarers haunting the moors,
Otherworldly ones: and one of them,
So far as they might make it out,
Was in woman’s shape: but the shape of a man,
Though twisted, trod also the tracks of exile –
Save that he was more huge than any human being
--Beowulf, lines 1347-1353

There’s no more detailed description in the poem, but this shows clearly that eotens were considered to be approximately humanoid in form but larger than a human.

Beowulf’s wrestling matches with Grendel and then with Grendel’s mother show that eotens were considered to be immensely strong.

Both Grendel and Grendel’s mother only ever come to Heorot by night. During the day they lie up in the cave under the lake. So eotens were considered nocturnal.*

The eotens’ diet consists of human flesh in prodigious quantities, as the Beowulf poet describes in grisly detail:

Grim and greedy, he grasped on their pallets
Thirty warriors, and away he was out of there,
Thrilled with his catch
--Beowulf, lines 122-124

...He set his hands on
A sleeping soldier, savagely tore at him,
Gnashed at his bone-joints, bolted huge gobbets,
Sucked at his veins, and had soon eaten
All of the dead man, even down to his
Hands and feet
--Beowulf, lines 741-745

There is no indication that eotens are superior to humans in cunning, intellect, technology or magic. Grendel and Grendel’s mother do not lay traps or cast spells, they just grab people and eat them. They are formidable because their physical strength is superior to that of the average human warrior. Beowulf is possessed of superhuman strength and overcomes them by physical might, aided by a sword in the case of Grendel’s mother.


This gives a fairly clear picture of eotens – assuming that Grendel and Grendel’s mother are typical of the species – as large, strong, malevolent, nocturnal, roughly humanoid creatures that live in wastelands and like to eat human flesh. They do not appear to make use of technology or magic, nor are they shown as cunning or devious. I don’t think we can tell whether they are thought of as stupid compared with humans, because neither Grendel nor Beowulf tries to outwit the other.

So, what word to use for these creatures (or, more precisely, characters’ beliefs about these creatures) in fiction? I could use the Old English word ‘eoten’ from the Beowulf poem. However, it is no longer in common use in modern English, so not many modern readers are likely to recognise it. I could modernise the spelling to something like ‘ettin’ or ‘etten’, as Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings (“...the Ettenmoors, the troll-fells north of Rivendell…”, as Aragorn says in Book I Ch. 12). But that’s not much more recognisable to a modern reader, except perhaps to Tolkien geeks. The Oxford English Dictionary categorises ‘ettin, eten, eoten’ as obsolete, so the word can’t even be looked up easily unless one has access to a specialist dictionary.

‘Eoten’ is cognate with the Old Norse ‘jotun’, which occurs frequently in the Norse legends and is usually translated into modern English as ‘giant’. However, the Beowulf poet seems to have thought of ‘eotens’ as somehow different from the creatures called by the Latin-derived name ‘gigantas’, since they are given separately in the same list. That could just be elegant variation to fit the metre, or it could indicate that they were considered different types of monster. Another objection is that the Norse jotuns appear to have been thought of as a group of creatures on a par with the gods. In the stories in the Prose Edda, the jotuns fought with the gods, intermarried with the gods, and lived in a world that was either not part of the human world or was separated from it by a major barrier (see post on the Norse worlds). The Beowulf poet may have been familiar with this sort of concept, since the ‘gigantas’ are described as having fought against God. Eotens, on the other had, seem to be a much more earthbound sort of creature, living in unpleasant corners of the same world that humans live in. Grendel’s lair is less than a day’s ride from Heorot, with no major obstacle in the way. So eotens seem to be a sort of step down the supernatural hierarchy from giants.

Grendel is referred to once in Beowulf as ‘thyrse’, line 426. The Old English word ‘thyrse’ or ‘thurse’ is obsolete in modern English but occasionally appears in place names, e.g. Thirlspot in Cumbria. It’s usually translated as ‘giant’ or ‘demon’. Michael Alexander translates ‘thyrse’ as ‘troll’ in Beowulf for the alliteration – “a trial against this troll”. I could use ‘thyrse’ or a modernised version thereof, but that’s no more easily recognisable than ‘eoten’.

I could use ‘ogre’, as Michael Alexander occasionally does in his translation. However, I don’t personally like the word, partly because it conjures up a more fearsome image than I had in mind and partly because it doesn’t have a particularly Old English or Norse feel about it. ‘Ogre’ doesn’t appear to be directly derived from the Old English ‘orcneas’, by the way – the Oxford English Dictionary says its derivation is from Old French in the late twelfth or thirteenth century, and gives its first recorded use in English as 1713, in a translation of The Arabian Nights. I suppose ‘orcneas’ could have lain dormant for several centuries and resurfaced as ‘ogre’ in 1713 without any recorded trace in the intervening period, but this seems rather unlikely.

In the end I settled on the Norse-derived word ‘troll’. ‘Troll’ occasionally appears in place names in areas in Britain with a strong Norse influence, such as Trollers Gill in Yorkshire (Yorkshire was part of the ninth-century Danelaw and later part of the Anglo-Norse kingdom of York), and especially in northern and western Scotland, such as Trollaval on the island of Rum, and Trolla Vatn in Orkney (a name that could have come straight off a modern Norwegian map; it translates as ‘troll water’ or ‘troll lake’). The ‘Troll’ place names presumably came to Britain with the Norse incursions in the ninth century or so. If cultural links with Scandinavia were also strong in earlier centuries there may be a possibility that ‘troll’ could have been present as a regional dialect word in some regions prior to the ninth century, but there is no evidence for this. The Oxford English Dictionary has no record of ‘troll’ in use in English, except as the regional dialect word ‘trow’ in Orkney and Shetland, until it was (re?)adopted into modern English from Scandinavia in the middle of the nineteenth century. Because of this (re)introduction, ‘troll’ is in use in modern English and is reasonably familiar to a modern reader, if only from the Tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff, Terry Pratchett, or from Tolkien and/or Peter Jackson’s films.

‘Troll’ has roughly the right image to do duty as a translation for Old English ‘eoten’: large, strong, malevolent, roughly humanoid, not conspicuously bright or devious, wilderness-dwelling, nocturnal creatures who eat human flesh. The modern image of trolls perhaps has a more specifically mountainous or rocky association than the eotens in Beowulf, which may be partly derived from Tolkien’s tale in The Hobbit of three trolls turned to stone by sunlight (a fate that befell a dwarf in the Poetic Edda*). That happens to fit quite well in the context of Exile, much of which is set on the moorland of the Peak District where the strange rock formations play on the beliefs held by some of the characters.

Beowulf Old English text, available online
Beowulf, translated by Michael Alexander. Penguin Classics, 1973, ISBN 0-14-044268-5.
Poetic Edda, Alvissmal, available online

Map links
Trollers Gill
Trolla Vatn

*There’s no indication in Beowulf that Grendel or Grendel’s mother would have turned to stone if exposed to sunlight. A story on those lines is told about a dwarf called Alvis in the Poetic Edda who was tricked by Thor into talking until sunrise and then turned to stone. That story may have been what Tolkien had in mind when he created the scene in The Hobbit of the three trolls turned to stone while they were arguing over the best way to cook thirteen dwarves and one hobbit. (Note that Tolkien’s dwarves don’t have a problem with sunlight.)


Gabriele Campbell said...

Heh, ogres are just not the same since Shrek. :)

I think orcneas are Tolkien's Orcs; it's shorter and more nasty sounding.

Nicola Griffith said...

Ah, interesting. I'm using 'etin'. I don't have any particular reason (at least none I can articulate). It just seems like the right word to fit my naming protocols.

So when will there be a sequel to Paths of Exile? I'm looking forward to it.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Somewhere in one of Tolkien's letters I think he mentions the relationship between 'orcneas' and Orcs. If I remember rightly I think he said he picked the word Orc because of its sound. As you say, it sounds like something you wouldn't want to meet on a dark night.

Nicola - 'etin' looks like an updated spelling of the original 'eoten', straight out of Beowulf, so it's presumably what Hild would have called them when speaking Old English. Re the sequel, I haven't got a date yet. Thanks for asking!

Nicola Griffith said...

Well, I vote for 'soon' :)

Annis said...

I think for most people the word "troll" conjures up an immediately recognizable image which seems to fit well with the one the original writer(s) of "Beowulf" would have had in mind.

Well- now I know the provenance of Tolkien's Orcs! I should have known they had an Anglo-Saxon source :) Apparently there is some query about whether the Old English word may have had a connection with the Latin name Orcus , a god of the underworld, but this seems unclear.

Anonymous said...

I see why you make the choice for your purposes, but if I were just
translating Beowulf, on the basis of what you say here I'd choose `ogre' just to get away from the stone-based idea that Tolkien and (worse) Pratchett have firmly planted in reader's minds. `Ogre' has the Shrek problem, but even Shrek is humanoid, larger than human-sized and though he doesn't himself eat human flesh he knows that people think ogres do, and so it has all the correct associations and none of the wrong ones. Just it's not Old English, but then, neither are most of the words one has to use translating Beowulf or it wouldn't need translating...

Carla said...

Nicola - thank you; it will be as soon as I can.

Annis - many thanks, that's why I picked it! I don't know whether Old English 'orcneas' and the Latin Orcus are related, although if I remember rightly another of Tolkien's letters mentions that the Latin Orcus was one of his sources for 'Orc', so there's a relationship between Orcus and Orc.

On the subject of Tolkien, he did use 'eoten' directly in a different context - as far as I know it's the origin of 'Ent'. He evidently thought it was worth using a different form to keep it separate from 'Etten' which he specifically associates with mountain/moorland and trolls. I rather like the idea of sub-species of 'eotens' - forest eotens (like Tolkien's Ents), marsh or water eotens (Grendel might come under this category), mountain or stone eotens (for which I use 'troll'). Fortunately I only needed to deal with the mountain type in Exile so I only had to come up with one modern English word :-)

Tenthmedieval - I quite like the stone association in this particular context, as I mentioned in the post - although not quite to the extent that Pratchett uses it! For translating Beowulf, I imagine a good deal would depend on whether you were trying to retain the flavour of the alliterative measure, in which case alliteration and stress pattern would probably play a part in the exact choice of words. It presumably influenced word choice in the original, since the poet uses a variety of words (e.g. eoten, thyrse) to refer to Grendel, so they were presumably sufficiently close in meaning to do duty for each other as the metre dictated. In modern English 'ogre', 'troll', 'giant', 'monster' all have overlapping meanings but aren't exact synonyms. In the area of overlap you can pick whichever suits the context best, but the overlap isn't 100% - e.g. you could probably call Shrek a giant as well as an ogre, but he's too cute to be called a monster. I wonder what they do for dubbing Shrek into Scandinavian languages? Michael Alexander's translation of Beowulf uses ogre, troll, monster etc for Grendel depending on which fits the rhythm. A prose translation wouldn't need to take so much account of alliteration or stress.

Anonymous said...

You see, it's all very well for these literary types but for someone who spent too much time around role-playing games in his youth these differences can be crucial :-)

Carla said...

Tenthmedieval - aha, so were you an ogre or a troll, an eoten or an orc? :-)

Rick said...

Ettin or etin should be no problem - no one had ever heard of Orcs before Tolkien. But trolls work perfectly well in this role, too.

One thing about trolls, I think the connotation is not just lacking special cleverness, but downright stupid as well as malevolent. The online sense of the word just reinforces this.

There's also an association with bridges, but I have no idea where that comes from.

Unknown said...

I like to thing the oral traditions, and subsequent written accounts reflect some truth.

For instance stories about Eoten be could reflect interaction with the remnants of cro-magnon or neanderthal humans.

I also feel the same way about the Saskwatch legends.

Very scientific on my part, eh ;-)

Carla said...

Rick - the famous association between trolls and bridges is the Three Billy Goats Gruff. How far back it goes I have no idea. The arch of a bridge automatically looks like a good hiding place, reminiscent of caves and beasts' lairs and so on, and while you're on the bridge you generally can't see what might be lurking underneath it ready to leap out and grab you. Which is all good story material. And very dangerous creatures can lurk under bridges - ask the unnamed Viking who (temporarily) held the bridge at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066.

The troll in Three Billy Goats is outwitted by three goats, so was presumably fairly dim. If I had to guess, I'd guess that the attribute of stupidity appeared when people started telling stories about conflicts between trolls and humans without superhuman strength, as a narrative mechanism to allow humans to win encounters with the physically larger and stronger trolls. A tale in which a massively strong monster goes round eating powerless humans who can't do anything about it is going to be pretty miserable; I wouldn't bet on it being a great hit around the campfire :-) Stupidity or otherwise doesn't arise in Beowulf because Beowulf is himself possessed of superhuman strength so he doesn't need to outwit Grendel.

Daniel - given that Neanderthals were more robustly built than anatomically modern humans and seem to have been pretty much exclusively carnivorous, it may be possible that interactions between the two (sub?)species in the distant past might have contributed to tales of man-eating ogres, giants etc. Since people have continued telling monster stories long after the last Neanderthals had disappeared, there were presumably other sources (e.g. a need to explain people who got killed or disappeared while travelling in mountains or fens or forests - malevolent giants might be a reasonable explanation of avalanches and landslides until modern physics was invented), or the tales acquired a life of their own (as stories do).

Annis said...

Sort of off the wall here, but Daniel's mention of Neanderthals have given me a nostalgic moment, remembering AA Attanasio's "Hunting the Ghost Dancer". Loved that book--

Carla said...

Annis - I thought of William Golding's The Inheritors, which is one of my favourites. BTW, your link doesn't go to Hunting the Ghost Dancer.

Annis said...

Oops, that's what happens when you have too many links open!

I enjoyed Golding's "The Spire" and "Double Tongue", but haven't read "The Inheritors"- looks as if I should make the effort to track it down.

Btw, if the Three Billy Goats Gruff were anything like my goats, i'm not surprised they got to where they wanted to go regardless of a small obstacle like a troll :) Nothing stops an ingenious goat on a mission to find greener grass (or the lettuces in your garden)!

Carla said...

I highly recommend The Inheritors. It's one of those books that stays with you, or at least it has with me.

The Three Billy Goats Gruff were on their way to find greener grass in a mountain saeter (summer pasture), so no wonder the troll got short shrift. No mention of lettuces, though :-)

Ellie said...

Really good post - thanks Carla! Speaking as someone else who's recently been combing various translations of manuscripts - I found this post so useful! Beowulf is such a portal into the world and assumed knowledge of the inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England and it's interesting (and sometimes incredibly strange) to closely read and compare the various translations (poetic and prose) that have been published over the years. If my mind is allowed to wander, I spend far too long wondering why each translator chose the words they did.

Carla said...

Ellie - I'm glad you found it useful! Yes, the subtle variations in translation are fascinating.