Translating Ur

Ur, the aurochs, is a wild bovine, 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. This is nothing. The aurochs was all their daddies.

And wild. The cow is domesticated. The bison is not, so it 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. 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 compared to what an aurochs would do, given half the chance. And it would do it in a much bigger way. An aurochs was about six and a half feet tall at the withers, just behind the neck. Six and a half feet tall. Think of the tallest person you know. The neck of an aurochs rises up from the top of your friend there to a massive head, horned, attached to a body built like a tank. An angry tank.

Don’t worry, they’re gone. Extinct from Britain long before the Rune Poem was written down. Not extinct in Europe when runes were first in use. Not extinct in northern European forests when Julius Caesar saw them up close. Here he is talking about them in Galic Wars (vi.28):

In size these are somewhat smaller than elephants; in appearance, colour, and shape they are as bulls. Great is their strength and great their speed, and they spare neither man nor beast once sighted.

Elephants. Fast. Caesar goes on to say you can’t tame a baby one either, they grow up fierce, and single minded in attack the second they spot you. As soon as they see you they have one goal: you gone.

There’s something more to this Rune Poem aurochs, though, it’s more than the baddest beast. This thing is a mære morstapa, a famous moor stepper. A moor stalker. This is a formulaic phrase in Old English poetry. It shows up a lot. In Beowulf, the monster Grendel is a moor stalker too. In reality the aurochs lived in forests not moors, they foraged under a bunch of trees in a place with lots of plant life. You can think of a moor as an opposite of a forest. No trees. Swampy. Acidic. It’s like a frozen tundra, thawed. This is challenging place to live, unlike a nice rich forest. So the aurochs was not literally a moor stepper, but the point is taken, the poem says this thing lives where the monsters live, in the wilderness, out of bounds.

The aurochs is moody too. Look at the words anmod and modig. I’m calling the aurochs singleminded and spirited, but these words just don’t satisfy. It’s because of the word mod, from which we get the word mood. What is mod? I don’t think we really know, not for sure. I believe we have to have been there to get it. I use spirit here. And mind in singleminded comes close, except sometimes in Old English you can find the phrase modes gemynd, the mod‘s mind. The mind has a mind. A mind with nested levels of scale. A mind with a mind of its own.

Besides mind and spirit, mod shows up in translations as heart, mood, temper, courage, arrogance, pride. It might be your will or your agency. It might be your emotions. Sometimes it is a part of your body, sometimes it is not a part of your body. Mod is tricky to pin down.

Think of your soul, the people who spoke Old English thought of their souls. They called it sawol. They did not think sawol and mod were the same thing. What is a soul? Generally it might be the spiritual aspect of your existence. Your soul is a part of you but not a physical one, or an empirical one. You can’t prove it’s there. But if you think you have one then you know about it. You’re aware of it. It’s a thing that is a bit of you without having any physicality. Mod is like that too. It’s not your soul, its not your emotions. Not your mood. It’s something else and if you have one, it’s part of you and you know what it is.

We know some things about how the word mod is used in Old English we can say for sure. It’s something that you can control, you can hold your mod back. Sometimes it gets out of control like a charging aurochs, and you have to restrain it. Sometimes you can’t restrain it, like a charging aurochs. Your mod can also be deceived and tricked. It has decision making power. It desires stuff. It’s moody. The aurochs is moody, but in a mod kind of way.

It’s also a wight, so no wonder. Look at that word at the end there. Wuht. Wight. This is some kind of creature, or a being, but not a natural one. Supernatural. Again like Grendel in Beowulf who is called a wiht unhælo. An unhealthy wight. To say the least. The aurochs in the Rune Poem is a monster, but not like Grendel is a monster. Look at the last bit at the end, next to mære morstapa, it’s another formulaic phrase in Old English poetry, or rather, it sounds like one: þæt is modig wuht. In Old English we’ll regularly see a version of this phrase at the end of a glowing description of an admired ruler: þæt wæs god cyning! That was a good king! Usually punctuated with an exclamation point. The aurochs is a moody monster! And we admire it.