Tag Archives: Translation

Translating Eolhx

This is a stanza about a plant; this is clear from the context and from the word secg, which means a sedge or reed. It also means a person, poetically, and a sword. In Beowulf it is a sword: ac wit on niht sculon secge ofersittan, gif he gesecean dear wig ofer wæpen (but we two are obliged to abstain from the sword in the night, if he dare seek battle without a weapon.) I translate secg as sword to enhance the riddling nature of the stanza. Of all the plants, a sharp sedge is the most sword like. It’s got edges like razors and will cut you just like that. This one in particular will give you grim wounds, with burning bloody blisters. Stay away, don’t grab hold of it. Like the thorn, this plant wants you to bleed.

This sedge lives in the fen. The stanza says fenne,More

Translating Sigel

The answer to this riddle is the sun, though when you read it it could be something else related to seafaring. Semannum, more commonly spelled sæmanum, means mariners, plural, people in boats on the sea. Such people this stanza tells us, are always hoping for the answer to this riddle. They expect it toohihte means joy as well as hope, but in the sense of an expectation of joy with elements of trust and comfort, which might otherwise be lacking in the cold and perilous waters of the North Sea.

Much of the time sæmanum is used to mean a general sailor, but it is also a word for invaders by sea and by the ninth and tenth centuries became a word for Viking. In the Old English poem “The Battle of Malden,” about a Viking attack that happened in the year 991, the Vikings were called sæman. But … More

Translating Peorð

Nobody knows what this is for certain. The only time we ever see the word peorð in Old English is in lists of rune names, so we only know what the Rune Poem riddle says, that it is what it is. We don’t even have all the clues we need to identify it. The Peorð stanza has a hole right in its very center. In the first half of the second line a word most likely starting with W, so it can alliterate with wlancum, is missing. What? Why? Was it at the edge of a crumbling page? Did the vellum dry and split through the word? Did a worm eat it? Did a scribe forget to copy it? The Rune Poem exists in only one copy of a manuscript that tragically burned in a fire, so we don’t know. We know the missing word is not wlancum, the dative plural … More

Translating Eoh

A tree does not show up in the Rune Poem unless it is important. You think they’ll let just any tree grow in these sacred woods? No. These are the god trees. Useful too. The oak grows here, you can eat the nuts, feed them to the pigs, make a drink from them, make boats from the wood, and the elders used to revere it as the world tree. The actual world tree is here too, the ash, also useful for making spears that won’t shatter on impact. Nice straight grained strong wood, that, holds it all up. The birch is a calendar tree, the first to green up in spring so you know the new year has come. You can eat the new shoots, tap it for the sap which makes a nice drink, and it provides twigs for divination. Everybody wants to know the future. And here we More

Translating Tiw

The Rune Poem says Tiw is one of the signs, a tacn, a token. This is the first clue in the riddle. A sign is a clue to something as well; signs symbolize in shorthand something else. A letter in an alphabet is a sign that means a sound and sometimes a whole word. The color of a light hanging over a road is a sign standing as evidence of broader meanings, covenants of mutual trust, expectations of behavior. And signs can be signs for signs, like these: 💰, 🐮, 🌹🌵, 😉, 🛣, 🔦, 🎁, 🤑, , 💔🆘👂, ❄️, 🌱, 🌲🪦, 🎮, 🧬, 🌅, 🪧⭐⚖, 🌳🔮, 🐴🫂🪦, 🌊, 🛒👋, 🏠, , 🌳🌰⛵, 🌳😇👊, 🏹, 🦫, 🪦. These are signs in nested levels of scale. More

Translating Beorc

This stanza’s riddle is about a tree. There lives a whole forest of important trees in the Rune Poem; this one is hrysted fægere, beautifully adorned, fair and decorative with leaves lyfte getenge, pressing against the sky.

Why is this tree important? You can tell the future with this tree, that’s why. It has tanas, twigs for divination. There are lots of words for a twig including twig, also gerd, croh, hris, læl, spranca, sprota, spæc, sumorloda, telga. This particular word for twig, tanas, tan, is the only one that specifies they are used for divining the future. Tanas are special twigs, prophetic twigs. Which trees produces twigs so special you could carve a rune into them and find out what’s coming? Who would know that? You know who knows that, Tacitus knows that, that’s who. He visited the people who lived north of Rome, all the … More

Translating Ger

This stanza is about time. Some see it as a specific time, like harvest when the bright bleda (fruits) mentioned are ready for eating. Others translate this as springtime, when bleda, which also means blossoms and green shoots, appear on plants. Which bleda do we want? In Old English poetry, multiple meanings apply. What kind of temporality were the people of the Rune Poem working with? We can look closely anywhere in Old English and see it, but we ought to pay attention here in the Ger stanza to find out how they managed their solar time reckoning at least. The moon is another matter.

The name of this rune is ger, year. What is a year? A cycling of the seasons. There is a time when the sun is with us a lot, and then another time after that when it is not, and then when it is again. Time is … More

Translating Is

The Is stanza says there is nothing more cold than ice. it is oferceald. There is nothing more slippery than ice: slidor ungemetum. Met means measurement, it is slippery beyond measure. Winter’s ice can be a dreadful hazard and for multiple reasons survival is much easier to accomplish in warm weather, so people spent their warm months working to ensure their winter survival. The coming of the frost meant the dying of plants, and the food you had put by, the fodder available for your animals, had better be enough. The people would cull their livestock when the frost came, down to what they could afford to keep, to alleviate the problem of not enough feed for the animals for the entire winter and not enough food for themselves: one of the many annual challenges brought by cold weather. Yet the Rune Poem is rather upbeat about ice. The ice may be cold … More

Translating Eh

There’s lots of words for horse in Old English, hors, for one. But there’s wicg, hengest, friþhengest, onrid, radhors, mearh, sceam, steda, stott, blanca, gelew, all words that mean specific types of horses by the style, sex, physical appearance, color. This was a horse culture. Horses were a very big deal. Why? They made life easier. Having a horse changes everything. They were useful for pulling stuff, not for ploughing though, they would use oxen for that, but they would use horses to bring goods to market and to haul just about anything anywhere, including themselves: in carts and on horseback. During their prime, horses were particularly indispensable for sending messages long distances. Speedy communication has always been desirable. Finally, literally, chop marks in their bones mean that sometimes horses were eaten, particularly after they’d reach five years of age. Even … More


H: At the start of an Old English word, H is almost silent, an H on its way out. Hha. A burst of breath in cold air, watch it freeze.

I: Short vowel. Hint and hinge and hinder.

L: Hill.

D: Duh.

E: Short. Death, dead, desecrate.

G: In front of a short I, palatalized (fronted, front of the mouth). Sounds like Y. Yield.

I: Short.

C: Between a short I and a short E, a K sound. Ick. A long I here would make it itch, but what’s going on here is way past itchy. It’s gross.

E: Short. The E in Kenning.

L: Hildegicel. Hild means war, gicel means icicle. A warcicle. A word found only in Beowulf.

King Hroðgar, descendent of Scyld Scylding, deceased, has a massive problem. A moody wight called Grendel is killing people in Hroðgar’s hall. Beowulf, great hero, total legend, hears about this and More

Translating Mann

In Old English, a mann is a human being of any gender, translated into modern English as anyone, they, people, a citizen, a human. Mann is not a male person here, so when you see Mann as the name of this rune, it does not mean man as in male. Most correctly it can be either Person or Human but I need to pick one: Human. Person says more about ourselves as bodies. We carry things on our person, we are a person in a room. We are also a human in a room, but we do have a collective human nature, a human understanding, and human sensibilities. Human is a word that suggests the connection we have from our shared experience of being people in the world. It’s a choice that feels right to me as an answer to the riddle of the stanza. Maybe I’m wrong. As a person I’m only human.… More

Translating Nyd

Need‘s Rune poem partner is the Human stanza, but you can’t translate the Need stanza without keeping an eye on the Hail stanza next door. Need and Hail are so much alike. Hail comes suddenly and can destroy a crop, smash berries from bushes, fruit from trees, destroy a roof. Hail makes need. Need can come suddenly too. You know quickly when you are in need. The sky opens up and pummels you with it.

Both the Need and Hail stanzas are anomalies in the Rune Poem. They stand out for being only two lines each, when the others are three or four (five for the final one) and they stand out for having many more stressed words per line than is customary for Old English poetry. The effect when sung is a fast staccato beat. A rapid pounding of the heart. Sounds like hail feels like need.

Hail and need … More

Your hand hurts. Your non-ergonomically correct work station is giving you all kinds of scoliosis. You are low on ink and making more is a whole thing. That stuff doesn’t grow on trees. And you are the copy machine with a pile on your desk that won’t duplicate itself. Your work requires precision. You absolutely must stick faithfully to the originals, however wordy they may be. How do you get through it? There’s hacks and workarounds for speeding up the process and you know every alt. You erase parts of words, exile the vowels. When you take it down to just one letter you’ll spend less ink and stay as accurate as you like.

What’s that you’ve got there? Well that’s a word that shows up all the time. That’s in the Human stanza, and in Aurochs. Well it’s in the copy you’ve left us, the original to our copy burned up More

Life and Death

The Rune Poem stanzas Wealth and Human have so much in common they ought to be a matched set, except they already have their own partners, The Grave, and Need. Here are Wealth and Human repeating themselves:

Wealth: Sceal ðeah manna gehwylc (though each of us must).
Human: Sceal þeah anra gehwylc (though each and every one must).

And look at how many words they share: byþgehwylcum/gehwylc, sceal, wile/wyle, ðeah/þeahdrihtne/dryhten, dome/domes, 7 not counting pronouns. The name of the Human rune, manna, appears in the Wealth stanza so let’s count that one too: 8 words in common is a large number, especially when you consider that the Wealth stanza has only 18 words and the Human stanza has 23 if you include ꝥ, which isn’t a whole word but a grammalogue for the More

Translating Hægl

The Rune Poem’s stanzas vary in length. Each of the first eight stanzas consist of three lines containing four beats of stressed syllables: twelve beats total. Then we get an abrupt shift toward brevity with a pair side by side, Hail and Need, which have two lines each. They are shorter, but their words beat out the same number of stresses as the previous three line stanzas: still twelve beats total. Sing it. To get all twelve beats into two thirds the space, your song has to speed up. The stressed words come fast, as does hail and need when they storm down suddenly on your head and destroy your abundance.

There’s more math going on here too. The Rune Poem is traditionally divided into three groups of eight stanzas with five extra vowels tacked onto the end as necessary accommodations for sound changes over time. Hail starts the second group … More

Translating Lagu

Waterways were busy places during the time of the Rune Poem, making for convenient connections between coastal settlements and with ports of trade farther afield. However, things become a lot less easy when the sea won’t cooperate. The whole endeavor becomes as the stanza sayslangsum, longsome, long lasting, lengthy. This also means tedious, as in when is this boat going to stop pitching endlessly in these waves? Langsum, that’s when. You’ll be riding this out for a good long while, and langsum geþuht (longsome thought) means it seems even longer. Time slows down when you are scared and in your head, and this is scary. The boat is tealtum, unsteady, and it’s not a big ship. You are right there in the soup and you will feel every one of those sæyþa (waves) coming at you. They are swyþe, strong and violent, and frightening too. Bregaþ says it’s frightening, as I’m … More

A Horrible Wonder

There each of the nights might
see a horrible wonder,

Fire on flowing water.
None so wise live

Of the children of the people,
that know the depth.

Though the heath stalker
pressed by hounds,

The hart with strong horns
might seek the forest,

Pursued from far off,
he’d first give up life,

His body on the shore,
before he will into it

Hide his head.
That is not a gentle place:

From there surging water
rises up

To dark clouds.
From there wind stirs up

A hateful storm,
until the air becomes mournful,

And the skies weep.


Translating Ing

Ing is a mystery. Who is Ing? Where did he go? Why did he leave? We don’t know. You know who knows? The Rune Poem knows: the Rune Poem has the only specific intel we’ve got on Ing.

Case File: Ing

Clue: Ing was first among the East Danes. Where are these East Danes? The Rune Poem predates the Viking expansion (973-1066), so there’s only one place to look for Danes: modern Denmark and southern Sweden plus the coasts and islands thereabout. The East Danes lived in the Southern Sweden and Zealand half of things, where you can find plenty of people named after Ing: Inge Inga Ingmar Ingrid, living in places like Ingegerd, and Ingeborg. What’s Ing doing in the Old English Rune Poem? His people traveled. Just west of Denmark across the north sea to Northumbria there are also plenty Ings (Inglby Ingoe Ingram Ingham). He’s left a forest of family trees … More

Translating Wyn

The Wyn stanza breaks with the usual byþ beginning: it starts with ne. Ne means not, or no. It can be used as a conjunction too, but here ne is neither this nor that. Old English is an inflected language meaning it uses different prefixes and suffixes to change a word’s grammatical usage in a sentence. The Wyn rune often shows up in manuscripts as a grammalogue (a single symbol used to represent an entire word) with a suffix attached, like this: ᚹne instead of wynne, meaning “of joy.” Th ne at the start of this stanza is a suffix, not a complete word and not a negation. Wyn starts out with a note of joy!

Usually the mood of Old English poetry is not joyfulness — it tends toward the gloomy, but there’s still plenty of wyn in it, particularly in the Rune Poem where the word wyn occurs six times. … More

Ing is for Scylding

To them then Scyld went, at the fated time, on a journey full of exploits, to God. Then they carried him away to the surf on the shore, his beloved companions, as he himself asked, while he ruled with words, friend of the Scyldings. The beloved first of his land long had possession. There near to harbor stood a ringed prow, icy and ready to set out, a prince’s vessel. Then laid down the beloved chief, the giver of rings, on the ship’s bosom famous by its mast. Of treasure there was much, ornaments brought from distant parts. I had not heard of a ship more beautifully adorned with war weapons and battle dress, with blades and armor. For him, on his body lay a multitude of treasures, that with him must into the flood’s possession, far depart. They provided him with no lesser gifts than the people’s treasures, then those did, who at his … More

Translating Gifu

Gift giving was a big deal to the people of the Rune Poem. It was everything. They gave everything. It could be food or goods, but they loved ornament and anything old especially: gilded, edged with silver, blinding shiny, these were the best gifts, but it wasn’t about the bling so much as the message. What you give is what you’re worth and what you will be remembered for. Everybody wants to be worth something and everybody wants to be remembered, it’s the only permanent thing in a world where every single thing is temporary. We are each other’s immortality on earth through the memories we lay down in other people, it’s the only way to live, so by God you will remember me.

With the gift comes gleng, which means both ornament and honor, and as is typical in such cases, it’s the intangible half of this pair that’s worth more. It … More

Translating Eþel

The Rune Poem is sung in a tempo that changes from time to time. You can find the beats and the rests between them in the stresses of the words in each stanza. Some move quickly like the adjacent Hail and Need stanzas. Stand in the hail and you’ll see why it needs a quick stanza. Stand in need and you’ll feel the staccato tempo of a life crashing down. The Home stanza is the last in a string of four stanzas bound together by a change of tempo: Human, The Sea, Ing, and Home. Together they tell a story about Ing who was a goddamned legend. He appears in the adjacent pair to Gift and Home, so we’ll visit Ing soon. For now know that home is where you start from and the end of the story as well. You have nothing else.

In the world of the Rune … More

I Sing This Wretched Song

I sing this wretched song, my full sorrow
Of my departure by myself, that I might speak
That I dwelt in destitution, since I grew up,
Newly until of old, no more than now,
Forever I suffered my compensation, a journey of exile.

First my husband departed away from our people,
Over the tumult of the waves; I have sorrow at dawn
Of where on this land the leader of our people might have been.

Then I departed on a journey, seeking to follow
A friendless exile, because of my woeful need.

I began so that after, my kinsmen consider the servant
Through secret council, that they separate the two of us,
That we two, in the widest wealth of the world
Lived we most horribly, and grieved for me.

I commanded myself, my man, to take a dwelling in the sacred grove,
I had few loved ones in this place
Of loyal friends, because … More

Translating Dæg

The word drihtnes appears twice in the rune poem, here and in stanza one, feoh, wealth. It means God, but in the sense of God as a lord, God the leader, the one in charge. God has other jobs: judge, executioner, advisor, muse, physician, daycare, security, human resources, accounting, project manager. All the jobs really, God is busy. Further down the CV God is also the metodes which sometimes gets translated as measurer. Metlic is something that is measurable, a metrap is a measuring rope for a field, or a sounding line to measure depth at sea. Metod is used in poetry mostly, where it means fate, destiny, and death, especially in earliest Old English, and the Rune Poem is early. God measures out our fate. God sizes us up and calculates our destiny.

Drihtnes isn’t the only repetition going on here, we’ve seen tohiht (hope) and eadgum before. They were together in … More

Translating Cen

Cen is a rare word in Old English. It’s a torch here in the Rune Poem, and Cynewulf uses it to mean torch in his games with runes. Cynewulf: an Old English poet and fascinating person who made acrostics out of runes when signing his name to stuff, and about whom we know pretty much nothing. We know he was one of a limited few who ever signed anything. Perhaps he was a monk: it is thought most writers of Old English lived in monasteries, where the individual is not the main focus. They have a whole other focus. But you can slip your signature in there if you make something amusing out of it. Cynewulf was pretty cunning like that when it came to self promotion.

Perhaps we can look at Cynewulf’s name to learn a bit more about him. Sometimes the cen rune shape is written in manuscripts as shorthand for the More

Translating Rad

Rad means riding on horseback, the ride itself. Sometimes it will mean the road, especially when found in a compound word. This stanza specifies it’s going to be a long ride ofer milpaþas. Mile paths. Long distances. These aren’t the paths between local settlements, this is a ride on the Roman roads built to take you somewhere far. The Roman roads had cylindrical mile stones set out every 1000 paces (mille in Latin means thousand, Roman numeral M). At these points the mile stones would tell the traveler how far to the next place, who’s the local boss, and sometimes the name of a person in charge of road repair. The Romans took their roads seriously.

The stanza points out that it’s easy to talk smack about the ride in a nice cushy recyde (a building) sitting somewhere sefte (soft) but when you are actually out there on a horse and … More

Translating Ac

The Ac stanza is a bad riddle because the answer to the riddle is right there in the wording. Since when does an Old English riddle include its answer? I’ll tell you when. Never. That’s when.

The Ac stanza is a good riddle because if it’s not Ac, then what is it? Hwæt? And if it does mean oak why does this riddle get to be so transparent? Let’s see if we can shine a light on it.

Clue: A line of Old English poetry starts with three alliterating stresses, three words that start with the same letter, and ends with a fourth stress that does not alliterate. The answer to the Rune Poem’s riddles is always the missing first word, so the first clue is always to be found in the beginnings of the next two stressed words: eorþan (earth) and elda (age). The answer to this riddle must be a word … More

Translating Æsc

The ash tree is oferheah. Over-high. Tall. And it grows from nothing: the smallest sapling can become something oferheah, massive, with root systems that are fairly shallow, but more extensive than most other trees growing in similar habitat. No wonder the stanza says it is stiþ on staþule, firm in its foundations. With far spreading roots like that it will stede rihte hylt, steadily and rightly hold firm in conditions that might cause another tree to topple. The wood from an ash tree is firm in another way too, it is a particularly hard wood and its grain grows straight, which makes it the ideal wood for a spear: it can take a powerful blow without splintering. Several blows. It also makes fantastic handles for axes and daggers. This is why the Rune Poem says him feohtan on firas monigmany people fight it, it made great weapons. 

Don’t fight the More

Translating Os

Os means God, non specified, though this stanza might be talking about a specific one. There are other specific gods in the Rune Poem. Tiw is here. So is Ing. We don’t know much about Ing. We don’t know much about any of the Gods the rune carvers were listening to. We do know the Nordic ones thanks largely to the thirteenth century Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson, who compiled folk traditions into stories for a Norse king who liked his entertainment. Britain also being a North Sea culture, there was plenty of overlap. There’s not much written about the deities in Old English, though. Most everybody doing the writing was Christian, so. They had an agenda. These Christians preferred a reduction of the Gods down to a singularity, a point encompassing all other points, so the extra Gods they’d encounter tended to disappear.

The word Os was disappearing too, by the … More

Translating Thorn

Let’s worry about the þegna, the thegns. They set up camp at night, prepare food, tend to horses, fires. Get ordered around by el jefe to do every damn thing. They can’t do that themselves? Come on. It’s late. The thegns are tired. They have to be up first and early to get the whole show back on the road. All that work and nervous energy. It’s going to be a battle! They’re wiped out and finding places to sleep. Let’s pause here.

Raise you hand. Have you ever walked right into a bramble of some kind, in broad daylight, and you didn’t see it until the burning tear right into your skin? This is Britain. They have thorns all over the place. Do you live where blackberries grow like a plague upon the land? I do. They hurt. Now, find a place to sleep at night like a tired thegn in the super … More

Translating Yr

In Old English yr means only the name for this rune. A bow is a guess, a bow made out of yew. In Old Norse yr means the yew tree. The Icelandic Rune Poem says yr is “bent bow and brittle iron, and Farbauti (a giant) of the arrow.” Yew Bows from Britain were prized all over Europe, so I think a yew bow as an answer to this riddle makes the most sense from the minimal context we have. But in Old English yew is spelled eoh, so this rune could be describing something else. Some think this stanza describes a horn or a saddle bow or buckle. Whatever yr was, it was something to see. This is what this stanza is all about. Being something to see. Looking good on a horse. That’s sexy. Nobody wants to look bad on a horse.

This rune is about the elite. They could … More

Translating Ior

What is this thing Ior? Runes are riddles and this one is unsolved, but let’s try anyway.

The Rune Poem calls ior a river fish that forages on land. Amphibian. Eel fits well. Some say it is a newt or possibly a water mammal like an otter. Most translators choose eel because it was important in medieval Britain, it was food. I assumed eel for this reason for quite a long time. But this is no way to solve a riddle.

The name of this rune is Ior. There exists an Old English word for eel and it’s not ior, it’s ælfisc. Eel fish. They didn’t call this rune eel fish. They didn’t call it anything we can understand: ior is not a word in Old English, unless it means the letter IO or the rune ᛡ. We have to look under the surface if we want to find this river … More

Translating Ur

Ur, the aurochs, is a wild bovine, like a cow but not a normal cow. Dangerous. Think of the fiercest cows you know: the toro bravo they use for bull fighting, or the Jersey dairy bull which is particularly unpleasant. Gather them together, herd them up, the dangerous cows, and look at them. Imagine what they could do to you if they wanted to, and they want to. These angry cows are nothing; the aurochs was worse. The aurochs was all their daddies.

And wild. The cow is domesticated, the bison is not, so as a wild bovine the bison makes for a better comparison to the aurochs, personality-wise. Take a minute and search up some video of what happens when tourists tease bison. Go ahead, separate window, take a look. Did you see that? Don’t mess with a bison. Leave it alone. Take no selfie. The bison hates you.

The bison is a sweetheart … More

Translating Feoh

Feoh means cattle, which meant everything to the rune carvers. People kept sheep and pigs, but it’s the cows that were the money. Cattle are useful, they pull things, they’re delicious, you can make stuff out of their fat and their hides. Lots of stuff. Good stuff. Stuff people depend on and value. Stuff you must give away. You must. Yes this stanza says the people sceal spread it around, it sounds like shall, but the meaning is more of a must than that. You shall and you will and you had much better do it than don’t.

Do what?

Daelan. Deal it out. Give it away.

Why? That’s gif he wile. If you will.

You will. It’s a big mistake not to, the last line says so. What you do with your wealth you do in front of God and everybody, and fate has a way of paying attention to how you … More