Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Draca

Please don't slay me!

Please don’t slay me!

This week’s word is draca – or, dragon. Draca comes from the West Germanic *drako, which ultimately originated from the Latin. The first recorded use of this word we have is from Beowulf:

draca rícsian sé þe on heaum hofe…

In the fiftieth year of Beowulf’s reign, long after Grendel and his mother had been defeated, someone managed to wake a sleeping dragon by stealing a goblet from its hoard. The story of the hoard itself is a sad one. It was buried in the earth by the last survivor of a long-forgotten race whose kin had all died in war, leaving him alone with a useless treasure.

Beowulf narrowly defeats the dragon – if you want to find out how, go read it! – and secures the treasure for his people, but he pays for it with his life. One of Beowulf’s last requests is to see some item from the gold-hoard he was dying for; his young thane Wiglaf obliges him. Beowulf is glad that his people will be provided for, but it is up to Wiglaf – the only man who stood with him against the dragon – to look after them. Beowulf’s final words, spoken to Wiglaf, are eerily familiar; they are reproduced here in Anglo-Saxon, and in English from Seamus Heaney’s transltion:

þú eart ende-láf         ússes cynes
Wægmundinga         ealla wyrd forspéon
míne mágas       tó meodscafte
eorlas  on elne        ic to him æfter sceal.

You are the last of us, the only one left
of the Waegmundings. Fate swept us away,
sent my whole brave high-born clan 

to their final doom. Now I must follow them.

Now Beowulf is the lonely, kin-less wanderer, and the gold, as we learned before, won’t save his people from destruction. In truth, the gold-hoard Beowulf died for is a cavernful of story-less objects, things divorced from their history. One hopes, as the poem’s final lines close on a lament for a lost king, the the goblets and feast gear, hauberks and helms will be imbued with new tales to tell.

Do you have a particular ‘storied’ item? A favourite bear from childhood, a blanket your grandmother made? Or even a new item, something for which the story will start with you? What tales might people tell about your object in another 2,000 years, if it could hang around that long?

One thought on “Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Draca

  1. What does Dane or Thane Draca mean? There is an Old English inscription in Ipswich which reads:
    “Her sce mihael feht wiþ þane draca” and the carving shows St Michael with wings defending himself from a dragon with a curled-up tail

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