Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Ides & Wíf

Apologies for missing last week’s entry,and for the brevity of this week’s – last week I was moving house, and this week I have been taken down by flu! But I bravely blog on in the face of endless cups of Lemsip, and hope to also bring you a recap of my storytelling adventures with Jo in Cambridge. Spoiler alert – they were delightful!


Anglo-Saxon woman from the Dover Museum.

But onward to this week’s word! And, indeed, this month’s theme – which is women. I’ll be touching on various words used to denote the female gender in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and a few specific adjectives, as an eventual precursor to a more in-depth discussion of the complexities of the portrayal of gender in general.

I’m starting with ides and wíf because they are the most commonly used, and the simplest to discuss. Wíf is the Anglo-Saxon word for woman or female person. Contextually, it could also mean wife or widow, and is related to the Old Saxon and Old Frisian wif, the Old Hugh German wip, and possibly to the Icelandic poetic vif. You might see the word wíf-mann, which is related – its counterpart wǽpen-mann was an Anglo-Saxon word for male personMann could indicate a human being of either gender.

Ides is another word for woman, found primarily in poetry. It is related to the Old Saxon idis and the Old High German itis, and possibly to the Icelandic dis. The idis, (pl. idisi) was, in Germanic mythology, was a figure something like the Scandinavian valkyrie. They are seen being invoked in the Old High German Merseberg Charms, the only examples of a pre-Christian paganism to exist in that language. Jacob Grimm, who was a linguistic scholar in addition to a collector of folk tales, proposed a connection between idisi and the Norse goddess Iðunn. In Anglo-Saxon, the word does not denote any sort of supernatural or goddess-like qualities; instead, in is generally used for well-respected or especially dignified women. One can see the potential for correlation, though, between the use of the term as a word for goddesses, and the use of the term as a poetic device to denote a woman who is especially worthy of note or praise. Both Judith and Grendel’s mother were called ides.

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