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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
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:
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:
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
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:
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:
- Anglo-Saxon obscenities: Explicit art from early medieval England
- Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?
- Sitting down in early medieval England: A catalogue of Anglo-Saxon chairs
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)
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:
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:
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:
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.
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”:
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”:
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]:
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:
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:
The next student, too, sees Grendel’s mother as “not a monster, just a sad woman”:
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:
vi) The Jolie-i-fication of 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:
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:
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy other student doodle editions:
- The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
- The Old English Judith: A Student Doodle Edition
Pikachus, Togepis, Flareons, Charmanders and Bulbasaurs. These days, the World seems obsessed with Pokémon GO. However, this fancy for exotic monsters with special powers is nothing new: in the early Middle Ages, people also showed a keen interest in remarkable creatures from faraway. The author of ‘The Marvels of the East’ collected various monsters that could rival Pokémon’s finest, as this blog post reveals…
The Marvels of the East
The Marvels of the East (also known as The Wonders of the East) is something of a liber monstrorum, ‘abook of monsters’. The text, which survives in Old English and Latin, list various beings and places located in the East (Babylonia, Egypt, India, etc.). These oriental things are particularly extraordinary: dogs with boar-tusks breathing fire, bearded women hunting with tigers and pearls growing from vines! Each creature and place is described with what appears to be factual information (length, height, colour for most of the fauna; geographical distance from known places for the flora). Since races of half-human-half-donkeys, polyglot cannibals and giant gold-stealing ants probably never roamed the Earth, we can be sure that most of the beings listed in The Marvels of the East stem from fantastical traditions (although the text also lists Ethiopeans among its remarkable humanoids). Nevertheless, the text had some popularity and can be found in three medieval manuscripts: Cotton Vitellius A.xv (c. 1000-1015; a.k.a. the Beowulf Manuscript); Cotton Tiberius B.v (c. 1050) and MS Bodley 614 (1100-1200). In these manuscripts, the descriptions are accompanied by illustrations.
The combination of information about wonderful beings, along with illustrations, may remind some of a Pokédex. For the non-enlightened, a Pokédex is a digital, illustrated encyclopaedia, which lists all sort of information about the various Pokémon that you can catch and train in games of the Pokémon franchise (more info here). Indeed, some of the marvellous creatures mentioned in The Marvels of the East show (faint) parallels to specific Pokémon. I provide seven examples below. Information about most of the Pokémon is from Bulbapedia; the Old English text and translation are taken from Orchard 1995.
Seven Pokémon and their early medieval doppelgangers
1) Torchic and the fiery hens of Lentibeisinea
Your local Pokémon centre will tell you that Torchic is an orange Fire Pokémon that resembles a chick (its first evolution, Combusken, resembles a chicken – this makes perfect sense). As a Fire Pokémon, Torchic is warm to the touch, as Bulbapedia explains: “Somewhere in its belly, this Pokémon has a place where it keeps a flame. This internal flame causes Torchic to feel warm if hugged.” The Marvels of the East makes mention of a similarly fiery fowl, though hugging it may not be the best idea:
Sum stow is ðonne mon færð to ðare Readan Sæ, seo is gehaten Lentibelsinea. On ðan beoð henna akende gelice ðam þe mid us beoð reades hiwes. 7 gyf hi hwylc mon niman wile oððe hyra æthrineð ðonne forbærnað hi sona eall his lic. Þæt syndon ungefregelicu lyblac.
[As you go towards the Red Sea there is a place called Lentibeisinea, where there are hens born like ours, red in colour. If any one tries to take or touch them, they immediately burn up all his body. That is extraordinary magic.]
2) Terlard and the two-headed snakes of Hascellentia
A Terlard is a Dragon/Ground Pokémon with a serpentine body and two heads. Since each head has its own brain, Terlard’s two heads often get into a fight with each other, making this Pokémon particularly aggressive and hard to train (according to its entry in the Pokémon Uranium Wikia). Two-headed snakes also make an appearance in The Marvels of the East:
Þæt land is eallum godum gefylled. Ðeos steow næddran hafað. Þa næddran habbað twa heafda, ðæra eagan scinað nihtes swa leohte swa blacern.
[That land is filled with all good things. This place contains serpents. The serpents have two heads, whose eyes shine at night as brightly as lanterns.]
Judging by the manuscript image in Cotton Tiberius B.v, the heads of these snakes, like those of Terlard, do not always see eye to eye.
3) Kricketune and the camel-eating ant-grasshopper-hybrids
The red-and-black insectoid with the fancy moustache is Kricketune, a Bug-type Pokémon. As its name suggests, Kricketune is based, in part, on the cricket or grasshopper. The Marvels of the East features another red-and-black, cricket-ish insectoid: dog-sized grasshopper-ants with an appetite for camels!
Þær beoð akende æmættan swa micle swa hundas. Hi habbað fet swylce græshoppan, hi syndon reades hiwes 7 blaces. Þa æmettan delfað gold up of eorðan fram forannihte oð ða fiftan tid dæges. Ða menn ðe to ðam dyrstige beoð þæt hi þæt gold nimen, þonne lædað hi mid him olfenda myran mid hyra folan 7 stedan. Þa folan hi getigað ær hi ofer þa ea faran. Þæt gold hi gefætað on ða myran 7 hi sylfe onsittað 7 þa stedan þær forlætað. Ðonne ða æmettan hi onfindað, 7 þa hwile ðe þa æmettan ymbe ða stedan abiscode beoð, þonne ða men mid þam myran 7 þam golde ofer ða ea farað. Hi beoð to þam swifte þæt ða men wenað þæt hi fleogende syn.
[Ants are born there as big as dogs, which have feet like grasshoppers, and are of red and black colour. The ants dig up gold from the ground from before night to the fifth hour of the day. People who are bold enough to take the gold bring with them male camels, and females with their young. They tie up the young before they cross the river. They load the gold onto the females, and mount them themselves, and leave the males there. Then the ants detect the males, and while the ants are occupied with the males, the men cross over the river with the females and the gold. They are so swift that one would think that they were flying.]
4) Ho-Oh and the Phoenix
The Ho-Oh is a Legendary Pokémon that can resurrect the dead and create rainbows by flapping its wings. In terms of its appearance, the Ho-Oh combines features of the peacock and the Phoenix. A peacockesque Phoenix is also found in The Marvels of the East:
On þære ylcan stowe byð oðer fugelcynn Fenix hatte. Þa habbað cambas on heafde swa pawan, 7 hyra nest þætte hi wyrcaþ of ðam deorweorðestan wyrtgemangum þe man cinnamomum hateð. 7 of his æðme æfter þusend gearum he fyr onæleð 7 þonne geong upp of þam yselum eft ariseþ.
[In the same place is another kind of bird called Phoenix. They have crests on their heads like peacocks, and they build their nests from the most precious spices, which are called cinnamon; and from its breath, after a thousand years, it kindles a flame, and then rises up young again from the ashes.]
As a Legendary Pokémon, the Ho-Oh is naturally hard to find. Judging by the entry for the rather similar Phoenix in The Marvels of the East, ambitious Poké-trainers could try and follow the scent of cinnamon!
5) Lopunny and the people with long ears
Lopunny is a Normal-type Pokémon that looks like a bipedal, oversized bunny with overly long ears. Lopunny is proud of its ears and rightly so, since they come in handy when danger rears its ugly head: Bulbapedia notes “Lopunny is a timid Pokémon that will cloak its body with its ears or spring away when it senses danger.” Interestingly, Lopunny’s timidity and tendency to covering its body with its ears parallel the behaviour of a long-eared race of doubtful humans in The Marvels of the East:
Hi habbað micle heafda 7 earan swa fann. Oþer eare hi him on niht underbredað, 7 mid oðran hy wreoð him. Beoð þa earan swiðe leohte 7 hi beoð an lichoman swa hwite swa meolc. 7 gif hi hwylcne mann on ðam landum geseoð oðþe ongytað, þonne nimað hi heora earan on hand 7 feorriað hi 7 fleoð, swa hrædlice swa is wen þætte hi fleogen
[They have large heads and ears like fans. They spread one ear beneath them at night, and they wrap themselves with the other. Their ears are very light and their bodies are as white as milk. And if they see or perceive anyone in those lands, they take their ears in their hands and go far and flee, so swiftly one might think that they flew.]
6) Onix and the pepper-hoarding snakes
Onix is a snake-like, Rock/Ground Pokémon with a rocky spine on its head. One of Onix’s special moves, tunnelling through the ground, links it to the Corsiae: the pepper-hoarding, horned snakes of The Marvels of the East, which also go underground:
… ðæra næddrena mænigeo … þa hattan Corsias. Ða habbað swa micle hornas swa weðeras. Gyf hi hwylcne monn sleað oððe æthrinað þonne swylt he sona. On ðam londum byð piperes genihtsumnys. Þone pipor þa næddran healdað on hyra geornfulnysse. Ðone pipor mon swa nimeð þæt mon þa stowe mid fyre onæleð 7 þonne ða næddran of dune on eorðan þæt hi fleoð; forðan se pipor byð sweart.
[… the multitude of snakes called Corsiae … . They have horns as big as rams. If they strike or touch anyone, he immediately dies. In those lands there is an abundance of pepper. The snakes keep the pepper in their eagerness. In order to take the pepper, people set fire to the place and then the snakes flee from the high ground into the earth; because of this the pepper is black.]
7) Jigglypuff and the headless people
Jigglypuff may be the cutest Pokémon out there, with its round balloon-like body and blue, puppy-dog eyes. Jigglypuff is particularly known for singing sleep-inducing lullabies (the lyrics are, if I am not mistaken, “Jigglypuff, Jigglypuff, Jigglypuff!”). The fact that Jigglypuff does not seem to have a head that separates it from its body reminded me of the headless people we find in The Marvels of the East:
Ðonne is oðer ealand suð fram Brixonte on þam beoð menn akende butan heafdum, þa habbaþ on heora breostum heora eagan 7 muð. Hi syndan eahta fota lange 7 eahta fota brade.
[Then there is another island, south of the Brixontes, on which there are born men without heads who have their eyes and mouth in their chests. They are eight feet tall and eight feet wide.]
On the basis of the text we could imagine a tribe of gigantic Jigglypuffs south of the Brixontes – the Anglo-Saxon artists that illustrated Cotton Tiberius B.v and Cotton Vitellius A.xv, however, appear to have preferred more humanoid beings, showing off their genitalia. Given the choice, I’d choose you, Jigglypuff!
*UPDATE* One of my students rightly pointed out that the Pokémon Hitmonlee is a much better parallel for the headless people south of the Brixontes – he has a point!
Naturally, there is absolutely no one-on-one relation between the ‘monsters’ described in The Marvels of the East and Pokémon. However, both cultural products seem to derive from a similar interest in marvellous beings – beings which resemble our own fauna to some extent but are made special through the attribution of extraordinary traits. Information about these creatures is well worth collecting, the early medieval compiler of The Marvels of the East thought. So, the next time someone complains when you are going out to play Pokémon GO in order to expand your Pokédex, you can tell them you are following a long-standing tradition that stretches back at least a thousand years!
Works referred to:
- Orchard, Andy. 1995. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-manuscript (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer)