Lost in Translation- Ettins in Old English
Posted by Byron Pendason on , in Heathenry, Heathen worldview, Cosmology, Reconstruction
I came across a blog post recently, alleging to reevaluate ettins in Old English literature (Moniz, 2022). I read it with interest, because I’ve interacted with the author on various Discord servers and have had nothing but positive experiences with them. I feel that their argument in this case, though, is unconvincing. It takes most every instance in Old English literature that is translated as giant in modern English, and proposes that it is talking about ettins. This reflects a problem that is not entirely new, the conflating of all giants in Old English literature. However, there isn’t enough evidence to say with the kind of certainty that the author uses that this is the case.
There are four words in Old English that are translated as giant in modern English. There is eoten (which is cognate to the Norse Jötunn), ent, þyrs, and gigant. Only eoten is the ancestor of the modern English word ettin. Thyrs has a cognate in Old Norse thurs, but is even less used than eoten. In spite of the popularity that ent has enjoyed in modern times due to Tolkien’s works, they have nothing to do with trees. We will dive into the meaning of ent in a minute though. Gigant is a Latin loanword (which ultimately descends from the Greek) that ended up replacing the other three before we get to the modern era. I believe this loss of the other three words is the reason for the confusion between the different types of giants. They’re all translated into modern English by the same word, so any nuance that the original words may have carried is lost in translation. Absent compelling evidence to the contrary, though, there’s no reason to assume that different words with different etymologies have the same meaning.
In another blog post I give my attempt at building giant-lore in Fyrnsidu, but for this blog post I want to focus on academic sources and not my own lore-building. As I say in the footer of every single page on this website, I’m not an expert nor an academic, so double check everything I say. At the end of this blog post, you will find a list of the sources I used for this blog post so that you can do just that.
Exploring Giants in Anglo-Saxon lore
Let’s start with the survivals in folklore. There are two notable examples of “ettin” that has persisted to the modern day. There’s the boggle and the red ettin.
The word ettin survives in the modern English dialects of the Northumbrians and the Scotts. It is listed in Northumberland Words as another word for boggle (Heslop, pg 268). In the same book’s entry for boggle, we find:
The boggle is always a personality, having a proper name, and haunting a certain spot; and there is small doubt that his existence is the relic of an older faith. “This old Northland mythology, I find,” says Carlyle, “to be the impersonation of the visible workings of nature. The dark hostile powers of nature they figure to themselves as ‘Jötuns,’ giants, huge shaggy beings of a demoniac character. The empire of this Universe is divided between these two; they dwell apart, in perennial internecine feud. The Gods dwell above in Asgard, the garden of the Asen or Divinities; Yötunheim, a distant dark chaotic land, is the home of the Jötuns.” (Heslop, pg 73)
The word boggle is related to our word bogeyman and the modern fantasy monster bugbear. These relatives of the boggle should give you an idea of what an ettin would be to the people of Northumberland.
The story of the Red Ettin (Jacobs, “Red Ettin”) is another survival of the term “ettin”, it is an English/Scottish fairy tale collected by Joseph Jacobs in 1890. The titular character in this tale is a monstrous giant with three heads who kidnaps women, turns men to stone, and alludes to eating them.
The classic example of ettins, of course, is Grendel and his mother. Grendel was an ettin who lived alone with his mother in fens near Hrothgar’s Hall. Being annoyed by the noise of civilization, he inflicts a twelve year long bloody era of horror upon Hrothgar’s people. After he is slain by Beowulf in unarmed conflict, Grendel’s mother ventures out to exact vengeance. Beowulf tracks her back to her lair, and uses an ancient sword he finds there to slay her and then chop Grendel’s head from his body.
Considering these figures (the red ettin, the boggle, Grendel, and his mother) together, it does not give a positive impression of ettins. Of course, these should not all be lumped together to say for certainty this is what all ettins everywhere are like, but rather seen as different facets of the kinds of giants we are to find within the broad category we call ettins.
People who’ve been in Heathenry for a while might want to stop me here and ask about Wada, the father of Wayland. As far as I am aware, he’s never identified as an ettin specifically, only as a giant. People make a leap of logic from there to declare him an ettin, but there’s no reason to assume that all giants are ettins. (The same argument is sometimes made for Wōden based upon Mercury the Giant. But in Solomon and Saturn, the OE word that is used to describe Mercury (who is generally identified as Wōden) is a gigant, not eoten. This late OE identification of Wōden as a giant is probably due to the medieval Christian tendency of “demoting” gods to lesser beings, such as giants, ancestors, or even demons.)
Examining the Old English
Moniz, the author of the blog post I mentioned in the introductory paragraph, did attempt an argument for equating ettins and ents. In line 1557 of Beowulf, our titular character finds an old ettin-ish (eotenisc) sword. A couple lines down it’s called a work of giants (giganta geweorc). When it’s presented to Hrothgar in line 1679, it’s called an ancient work of ents (enta ærgeweork). Based upon this, the author claims that the ettins, entas, and gigantas are all the same. The author uses adjectives for all three words in his translation: ent-ish, ettin-ish, and gigant-ish, but only ettin-ish is an adjective in the original language, the other two are genitive (possessive) plurals. We’ll get into the significance of this in a moment.
Let’s examine these words in Old English, starting with the ents and gigants, and then moving on to the ettins. Pollington tells us, “The word ent is used to gloss the Greek gigas and Latin gigant” (Pollington, pg. 293). So the sword being referred to as a giganta work in the first instance and enta work in the second is no surprise. A literal translation of the first is work of giants, and the second is ancient work of ents. Ent and gigant are clearly meant to be equivalents. But what about it being called an old ettin-ish sword when it’s introduced? The adjective used here (eotenisc) is modifying the noun sweord, “sword”. In the other two cases mentioned, the words giganta and enta are genitive plural nouns.
Let’s look at the difference in using an adjective as opposed to plural genitive nouns, which can function similarly but can also have a slightly different meanings. Let’s take an example: King of the English and English King. At first glance, one may think they’re the same thing, but closer examination shows that the meanings can differ. The English is a noun, referring to a specific people. So The King of the English tells you who the king rules over but not necessarily his own nationality. In the English King, English is an adjective that tells us the king is an English man but doesn’t necessarily tell us who he rules over. We can conceivably have an Englishman who is king of Scotland, for example. Same with the difference between ettin-ish sword and ancient work of ents. The first only tells us that the sword has something to do with ettins (it could be that it’s gigantic or supernatural like an ettin, that it’s owned by an ettin, that it has been forged to fight ettins, etc) but not necessarily who made it, whereas the latter tells us it was made by the ents a long time ago but nothing about the current state of the sword such as who owns it now.
According to Pollington, “The adjective eotenisc is ‘gigantic’ or simply ‘supernatural’ when it describes the sword Beowulf finds in the cave of Grendel’s mother” (Pollington, pg 296). This makes sense, as the OE ending -isc is equivalent to the modern English -ish. It’s definition is “a suffix of adjectives, connoting the quality of the object denoted by the stem” (Bosworth, “-isc”). In other words, eotenisc can mean that it has some quality of ettins, that it’s in some way ettin-like.
According to the same dictionary, eotinisc means “Belonging to or made by a giant, giant” (Bosworth, “eótenisc”). So another possibility is that it’s called an ettin-ish sword because it was owned by ettins, Grendel and his mother. While I must concede that it could mean it was made by an ettin, we have no other sources that indicate that ettins had produced anything generally thought of as man-made, only geographical features. So it is, in my opinion, highly unlikely. In the tale of Beowulf, Grendel is referred to as an eotin and a þyrs, but neither he nor his mother is ever referred to as an ent. None of the giants that we have in OE that are designated as entas are ever called ettins until the modern era.
This argument that the same sword being called giant-ish, ent-ish, and ettin-ish means that all three are the same kind of giant is the lynch pin of Moniz’s entire post. Without it, it completely falls apart. The litmus test for this usage should be reasonability since absolute certainty is not achievable. Is it therefore more reasonable to assume from this one instance that across the OE corpus that ents are ettins, whereas all other cases across the corpus distinguishes between ents and ettins? Or is it more reasonable to conclude that in this case an adjective means something different than the nouns?
A Lexicon for Giant-lore
I highly recommend The Elder Gods relevant sections on Entas, Eotenas, Gigantas, and Grendel & His Mother (pg. 293ff), but I will briefly summarise the ideas he presents here. The ents (entas) are an ancient kind of giant, known for construction of buildings and the creation of weapons and armour. From the examples we are given (for example, the nephilim, Nimrod, Goliath, and Hercules), we can surmise that they are at least part human and have human appearance. They are not opposed to humanity, and are not necessarily dangerous to humans (though they can be if provoked, just like any other being). The gigantas appear to originally be a gloss of ents, but ended up becoming the word for giants in general, completely replacing the other three words by modern times. The ettins (eotenas) are another ancient kind of giants, kinsmen of the gods but are not allied with them. Many directly oppose the gods. From the examples we have of ettins (Grendel, his mother, the red ettin), it can be surmised that they are monstrous. If we go with Norse sources, some of the female Jötnar are beautiful enough to attract the attention of the gods, but the Jötnar are understood to be shape shifters so they can look however they choose (the fact that most of them choose monstrous and frightening forms should be telling of their demeanor). The word eotenas is related to the word meaning to eat, and this could be a reference to how the corpus and folklore has them being human-eaters. The thyrs (þyrsas) appear to be lonely fen-dwellers and were apparently known for their appetites, according to the Old English poem Maxims II. The epic poem Beowulf indicates that there’s at least some overlap between the ettins and the thyrsas, as Grendel is called both.
Distinguishing Between Ents and Ettins in Folklore
Since modern English folklore only refers to giants (with the exception of the Northumberland dialect) and not ents or ettins, how should we refer to the giants in folklore? If we feel the need to distinguish between them, we should use context clues provided in the folktales. In the entry for “giant” in The Dictionary of English Folklore, we read that
The word ‘giant’ has two senses. In the ﬁrst, it merely refers to a human being considerably larger and stronger than others; in the second, to an alien being who is not only monstrously large but also (usually) malevolent towards humans, and (often) remarkably stupid. In the ﬁrst sense, several English heroes became ‘giants’ in local folklore, as when King *Arthur is alleged to have lifted the capstone of a megalithic tomb at Dorstone, and *Robin Hood to have formed two hills when he dropped two sacks of earth he was carrying (both tales are from Herefordshire). Various local heroes too were said to have been abnormally large, for example Piers Shonks of Brent Pelham and the robber *Jack o’ Legs at Weston (both in Hertfordshire), *Little John, and Tom *Hickathrift of Wisbech (Cambridgeshire).
The non-human giant has steadily declined through the centuries from a monster to a ﬁgure of fun. In *Beowulf, Grendel and his mother are bloodthirsty threats to humanity, seriously presented as such by the poet; in medieval romances, however, it has become mere routine for a knight to slay a giant; while in local legends it is claimed that the actions of long-ago giants created certain types of landscape feature, though their plans were generally foiled by their own clumsiness and stupidity. They hurled rocks at churches, but missed; carried stones for building, but dropped them; killed one another in stonethrowing battles, or by accident when tossing tools across a valley.
Going with what we learned about giants in earlier sections, it would seem that the first sense of giant would fit the definition of an ent, whereas the second would be an ettin and/or thyrs. I think the bit about being “remarkably stupid” wouldn’t fit an ettin, as their Norse cognates often possess wisdom coveted by the gods, and are actually kinsmen of the gods. So this type of giant is likely (in my opinion) to be a thyrs. If the giant is a human eater, or seems to be powerful enough to at least be a threat in a one on one fight with a god, it’s likely to be an ettin. Remember though, it’s possible for a being to be both an ettin and a thyrs. The giant that Jack finds at the top of the beanstalk is probably an ettin and/or a thyrs.
If the giant is the child of at least one human, it’s probably an ent. If the giant is known to be a builder of works of construction or craftmanship (such as buildings, structures, weapons, or armour), it’s likely to be an ent. As far as I am aware, nowhere in the Old English corpus is there an ent who is also referred to as an ettin, or vice versa, so the two appear to be mutually exclusive. So Wada (the child of a human and a sea-creature who is known for building roads) and his son Weyland (who is known as a famous smith) would likely be giants of the ent variety.
Bosworth, Joseph. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller, Christ Sean, and Ondřej Tichy. Prague: Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014. https://bosworthtoller.com.
Heslop, Richard Oliver. Northumberland Words. London: The English Dialect Society, 1892. https://www.amazon.com/dp/9354034594.
Jacobs, Joseph. “The Red Ettin” in English Fairy Tales. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09PMFV54T.
Moniz, C Ryan. 2022. “Enta Ǽrgeweorc: Re-evaluating ettins in Old English literature”, Ingwine’s Homestead (blog). Accessed November 3, 2022. https://ingwine.neocities.org/speechlore/oe_ettins.html.
Pollington, Stephen. “5. Anthropomorphic Beings” in The Elder Gods. Cambridge: Anglo Saxon Books, 2011. https://www.amazon.com/dp/1898281645.
Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud. “Giants” in A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. https://www.amazon.com/dp/0198804873.