Monthly Archives: August 2014

What is a Beowulf?

Bear vs. Woodpecker

Brown bear photographed by Makeen Osman, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0. Great spotted woodpecker photographed by Maarten Visser and licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0. Compilation created by Lee Raye, and hereby released under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Species Mentioned: Possibly one bee-wolf (?Ursus Arctos? Dendrocopus Major?)

Source: ‘Beowulf’ the most famous Old English story.

Date: Uh-oh, best not to ask. The version we have probably somewhere c.700-1050.

Highlights: Beowulf is the all-star hero of his story, so his name must mean something, right? It quite nicely breaks down to beo-wulf (=bee-wolf). But what could a bee-wolf be?

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What happens when you cut a wyrm in half?

Image of worm and wyrm
Earthworm photographed by Jacopo Werther, licensed under CC-SA-BY 2.0. Hydra concept art from Dragon’s Dogma, a 2012 computer game. Display and discussion of this cover image comprises fair-use under the 1988 Licenses, Designs and Patents Act.

Species Mentioned: Folklore originally attached to various medieval fictional serpents but now attached (falsely) to all British earthworms.

Source: Most medieval Bestiaries.

Date: Bestiary tradition most popular in Britain c.1150-1450.

Highlights: The source attests that snakes can be chopped into pieces and still try to kill you like an ineffective cartoon supervillain. Many people in Britain sometimes still believe this about worms, the modern descendants of poisonous “wyrms” to this day. Are we really any less gullible than our predecessors?

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Sea Eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) in ‘Anogaeth i Rys ap Rhydderch o’r Tywyn’ (An Exhortation for Rhys ap Rhydderch of Tywyn)

sea eagle

Sea Eagle photographed by GerardM, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0. Sea eagles (=white-tailed eagles; fish-eagles) often nest in lowland trees.

Species Mentioned: Most importantly the sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla).

Source: ‘Anogaeth i Rys ap Rhydderch o’r Tywyn’ a praise poem justifying why Rhys should take the lordship of his father.

Date: c.1485-1500.

Highlights: This text contains what is almost certainly a reference to a sea eagle, and may be therefore one of the last references to a sea eagle in Wales for centuries. However the sea eagle is identified in an old phrase and the continued use of this phrase might post-date the extinction of the eagle.

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Toads, newts and snakes in ‘A Bawd’

toad

Photograph of a toad (B. bufo) by JKL-Foto, Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0. Is this water clean or dirty?

Species mentioned: toads (?B. bufo; E. calamita?) snakes (?N. natrix?) and newts (?T. cristatus, L. vulgaris, L. helveticus?).

Source: ‘A Bawd’, a mock-sermon discussing bawdy (rude) people.

Date: 1630. Late for this blog but still centuries ahead of its time.

Highlights: John Taylor does not describe toads, newts and snakes as polluting the water they are in but rather as only being found in clean water. It is centuries before this fact is generally accepted, and even longer before the significance of amphibians and reptiles as bio-indicators is appreciated.

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