Sunday, February 24, 2008

On Æl-myrcna, l. 432

Hello all -- lines 401-68 have been posted on the Andreas page.

I have been particularly interested in the following passage:

ond for dryhtnes lufan deað þrowodon,
on æl-myrcna eðelrice
sawle gesealdon. (431-3a)

and for the love of the Lord might suffer death, giving up your souls
in the homeland of wholly evil men.

Æl-myrcna does not appear anywhere else in the Old English corpus except here (according to the ASPR Concordance and the Dictionary the Old English Corpus). Bosworth-Toller gives the definition as "all sallow, a black man, an Ethiopian: omnino fuscus, Æthiops." There is no other citation given for the word other than Andreas. The word does not appear in the new Dictionary of Old English. The word, however, is definitely related to Exodus 53's Guð-myrce, given when the fleeing Israelites cross into unknown lands on their way out of Egypt.

A. S. G. Bradley, in his translation in Anglo-Saxon Poetry (1982), renders the word as “Ethiopians,” a decision that fits into the tradition set by most earlier editors and translators, including C. W. M. Grein, R. K. Root, George Krapp and J. Leslie Hall.

If this word truly means "Ethiopian" then the Andreas-poet has moved Mermedonia from Scythia or the Black Sea and placed it in Africa -- although it is possible that the "mirce" is related to the black in Black Sea, and the poet is playing with the two senses of darkness. Or else "-mirce" is meant to recall "mearc," a border, sign, limit, a word that has been important in Andreas already (Mermedonia is a mearc-land, they kill their victims after a fyrst-mearc passes, etc.).*

Of all modern editors Kenneth Brooks is unique in refuting this reading of æl-myrcna, claiming it is impossible for four reasons: 1) The prose versions do not include this fact, and all other times Ethiopia is used in Old English, either the Latin Æthiopia is used or else the OE Sigelhearwan or Sigelware; 2) Ethiopia is the site of Matthew’s martyrdom (FA 63ff.), but in the story of Andreas, Matthew is not martyred; 3) Mermedonia is very cold, contrary to the traditional idea of Ethiopia’s intense heat; and 4) there is no indication within the word itself that it is intended as a nonce for Ethiopia (Brooks, Andreas & The Fates of the Apostles (1961), 76-77). [Boenig renders the word as “Mermedonians,” noting that it is a traditional word for Ethiopia (83).]

This choice strikes me as a clear demonstration of the tendency to characterize the Mermedonians according to a colonial world-view, a feature that is quite congenial to their cannibalistic diet. The ease of the equation, however, makes me wonder at its propriety. As William Arens first argued, cannibalism has often been assumed to occur among primitive peoples, and therefore its practice is read into the actual observations of anthropologists, who never seem to see it directly, but nonetheless know it's there (The Man-Eating Myth, esp. 147). The cannibalism of the Mermedonians in Andreas becomes a not-so subtle way to read colonial entitlement back to the roots of English letters and Christian history: like our own colonial agents, the earliest civilizations waged a war against the primitive and self-consuming forces of anthropophagy. In locating Andreas against a backdrop of adventure stories and travel narratives of the English empire, the older poem is forced to parrot their racial and national ideologies.

I prefer as a straight kenning of moral, rather than geographic, character. Andreas uses mirce to mean "dark" or "evil" at 1219 and at 1314, rather than "African." I have therefore taken its meaning to be "of the all-dark, murky, or evil men" and have rendered it in the translation as "wholly evil men." This reading allows a greater sense of play within the poem, and should open up rather than close down meanings.

* Either way, if the word is meant as a geographic signifier, then this complicates Heather Blurton's recent argument that Mermedonia is meant to represent Anglo-Saxon England (Cannibalism in High Medieval English Literature, 23ff.). This doesn't completely invalidate her point: I prefer to think of Mermedonia as representing something very much like Anglo-Saxon England, or at least challenging the sense of Mermedonia's absolute difference (Blurton, 18-9).

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