Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Animal Companions

This week, September’s theme continues with a discussion of domestic animals. Ever wonder if Anglo-Saxons kept pets? The answer, as you might have expected, is ‘not really’ – animals largely fell into the two categories of ‘functional’ and ‘food’. The Anglo-Saxons weren’t entirely without animal companions, however, and this week’s words offer a little exploration into two of the most commonly domesticated animals: dogs and cats.

Anglo-Saxon dogs probably resembled modern deer hounds.

Anglo-Saxon dogs probably resembled modern deer hounds.

Dogs in Anglo-Saxon England were kept primarily for the functions they performed. There were no specific breeds – a fact reflected in the word mongrel, which, though it came into usage in the early Middle English period, can trace its origins to the Old English gemong, meaning a mixture, crowd, or assembly. The largest dogs would have been about the size of modern Labradors or Alsatians, and would’ve resembled modern deer hounds. These would have been used for hunting and guarding. Smaller dogs, similar in size to collies, would have functioned as herding dogs. Occasionally, even smaller dogs were utilised to control the rat population, or as lap dogs for noble ladies.

Dogs were valued work animals, but there is some evidence that they could also be cherished companions. Pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon burials were noted for their not uncommon inclusion of dog bones; this became much less common after widespread conversion, when animals bones were largely consigned to the midden heap, but even then it was not unheard of that a man might be buried with a favourite hunting dog. Textual evidence tells us that dogs were valuable gifts – Ælfred the Great, known for his great love of hunting, is recorded as having given a fine pair of hunting hounds to the bishop of Rheims.

As to the general value of dogs, there is some evidence to be found in 9th century Mercian and West Saxon law codes. A king’s hunting dog, untrained, was worth 60 pence, and a trained dog worth twice that much. Best estimates place that at a modern-day equivalent of something like £1200 for the trained dog, and £600 for the untrained. By contrast, a common house dog or working dog would’ve been worth something like £80. These figures functioned something like a sort of canine wergild, or man-price – a concept we’ll revisit in the future (my master word list tells me it’s on the books for March – stay tuned!).

The most common word for dog in Anglo-Saxon was hund, which we can easily recognise as an etymological forerunner for hound. Interestingly, there did exist in late Anglo-Saxon a word for dog – docga – but it was rarely used, and only came into fashion much later in the Middle English period (usually spelled dogue, dogge, or doge, which alas bears no linguistic relation to internet doge-speak. So spelling, much orthography. Wow.) It’s suspected that docga was considered an informal or un-literary word, and thus we don’t see it often in the remaining texts. ( A note about pronunciation: the cg combination in Anglo-Saxon is pronounced like the dge combination in the word edge.)

Hwelp, the word for puppy, is easily recognised as whelp, and a female dog was a bicce  or bicge, from whence comes the word bitch.


There is no linguistic linkage between Anglo-Saxon and Lolcat.

There is no linguistic linkage between Anglo-Saxon and Lolcat.


Cats in Anglo-Saxon England were less likely to be pets than dogs – aside from being kept as control for the rodent population, cats were used primarily for their fur! There is no evidence, however, that they were ever seen as a common food source, and some cats likely did enjoy a companion-like status. An archaeological dig in Bishopstone, East Sussex revealed the presence of three cats – one of whom had been fed a regular diet of fish, and two who had not. It appears that this cat was fed deliberately by humans, and therefore perhaps kept as a pet, whereas the other two cats were not.

 Domestic cats were likely brought to England during the Iron Age; there is archaeological evidence that lynx and wildcats were also present. Like dogs, there were no specific cat breeds accounted for during the Anglo-Saxon period.

 Old English distinguishes between male and female cats linguistically, using the words catt and catte respectively.

 For more information on the long history of cats in England, Ireland and Wales from the 5th century until the Norman invasion, University of Nottingham researcher Kristopher Poole’s article “The Contextual Cat: Human–Animal Relations and Social Meaning in Anglo-Saxon England” is open access, and available here.

This week’s animals were seen mostly in terms of their function; next week’s discussion delves into that other category I mentioned at the beginning – food! What sort of creatures made up a common Anglo-Saxon diet?

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Elephant!

elephant-drawing-717The theme of animals continues this week with elephant – one of the request words I received via Facebook. Incidentally, this request came with a second word, which doesn’t exist properly in Anglo-Saxon, but did allow me to have a bit of fun putting this week’s entry together. More on that in a bit.

Ælfric discussed elephants in his homily on the Maccabees, but he knew none of his audience had ever seen one – nor, likely, had he himself. To make up for this, he relied on descriptions found in the Etymologiaea 7th century text written by St. Isidore, a Christian bishop who compiled a vast array of knowledge from classical source that he felt worth keeping into a single volume. The Etymologiae covered everything from grammar and rhetoric to nature, law, and religion – and included, fortunately for Ælfric, several handy descriptions of elephants. He doesn’t include all of the details he finds, however; Ælfric described of the elephant as:

“an immense animal greater than a house, all encased with bones within the hide except at the navel, and it never lies down. The mother goes twenty-four months with foal, and they live three hundred years if they are not injured, and man can raise them wonderfully for war.”

(translations of the original by E.J. Christie, The Idea of the Elephant: Ælfric of Eynsham,                                                               Epistemology, and the Absent Animals of Anglo-Saxon England)


…but he leaves out the folklore elements that St. Isidore covers, such as the elephants’ famously exceptional capacity for memory, or their fear of mice.

The word Ælfric used for elephant — elp or ylp — was borrowed from the Latin elephantus. 


Companions_adelie_penguinsThe accompanying word in this request was penguin – another animal which most speakers of Old English would never have seen, and indeed an animal for which there is no word. However, in verifying this, I became interested in the etymology of penguin, and saw an opportunity to play around a bit. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest mentions of the word attest to Welsh origins, and break the word down to pen gwyn, or white head. In Welsh, pen can refer to the head sitting on someone’s shoulders, or to a headland – a hill that extends out into a body of water. Anglo-Saxon has a similar word: héafod. As you might imagine, this one comes up an awful lot in Judith, but it can refer equally to head as a body part and head as a landform. Hwíte is the Anglo-Saxon (and, incidentally, Old Frisian, Anglo-Saxon’s closest relative) word for white. Unlike Welsh, nouns do not precede adjectives, syntactically in Anglo-Saxon. Therefore, if we wanted to construct a nominative singular translation of penguin in Anglo-Saxon, I think we could do a lot worse than hwítehéafod. It’s even pleasingly alliterative. 🙂

Last week, we discussed some kennings for ravens and eagles, as beasts of battle. Then penguin is a flightless bird; one way of describing them poetically might be na-flyge flugel, or ‘no-flight bird’. What other ways would you describe penguins?





Anglo-Saxon Word(s) of the Week: Beasts of Battle!

Last week I crowd-sourced Facebook for suggestions of things people would like to see showing up on ASWotW. The suggestions were numerous, and many of them could be linked together in some way, so after taking a look at the list, and at my own list created from some aspects of my research I’d like to write about, I’ve come up with a plan: each month, the words chosen for individual weeks will be oriented around a central theme. And September’s theme? Animals! This month, you can expect to see animals in poetry, in food, in daily domestic life, and even once in a bit linguistic play from your translator.

Odin, preceded by an eagle and followed by a raven.

Odin, preceded by an eagle and followed by a raven.

For week one, I’m starting with an idea probably familiar to anyone who’s had a look at Anglo-Saxon battle poems: the beasts of battle. The term, first used in Francis Magoun’s 1955 article “The Theme of the Beasts of Battle in Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” refers to the raven, the wolf, and the eagle – three animals that commonly appeared in Germanic and Scandinavian poetry in connection with war. All three animals were known for eating carrion, and at least two of them – the raven and the wolf – were considered sacred to Odin in Germanic and Scandinavian mythological traditions. Though these religious connection are not present in the largely Christianised Old English texts, the animals themselves do still appear as heralds of battle in eight Old English poems, namely: The Battle of Brunanburh, The Battle of Maldon, Beowulf, Elene, Exodus, The Fight at Finnsburg, Genesis A, Judith, and The Wanderer.

First, the raven. The exact word in Old English is hræfn, but the bird was also referred to by several other kennings, or visual metaphors. You might see the word hræfn, but you might also read heard-nebba (literally ‘hard-beak)niht-roc (night-rook), or
wæl-ceásiga (which translates as the rather grim ‘chooser or picker of the battle-slain or corpse’).

Eagle, likewise, has a direct correlation in the Anglo-Saxon – earn – but might also be referred to as a gúþ-fugel or war-bird. I like to think that Gene Roddenberry’s Romulans read a lot of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

The word for wolf is probably the most familiar, as wulf is still present today in surnames. One of the kennings used to refer to wolves was mearc-weardwhich translates literally to ‘mark or border-warden’, and paints a picture of wolves stalking the edges of settlements, waiting at the borders of civilisation. Heoru-wearh is a compound only seen in poetry, and translates literally to ‘sword or bloody villain.’

Finally, to round out our brief and bird-filled discussion, a look at how the beasts of battle appear in Judith. The Anglo-Saxon is taken directly from the poem;prose translations are my own.

þæs se hlanca gefeah
wulf in walde                                  ond se wanna hrefn

*wælgífre fugel.                           Wistan begen

þæt him þa þeodguman                    þohton tilian

fylle on fægum.                     Ac him fleah on last

earn ætes georn                       urifethera

salowigpada                         sang hilde leoþ


Then the lean-flanked wolves in the woods were glad, and the dusky raven, that bloodthirsty bird – they knew that the warriors sought to lay for them a feast full of ill-fated men. The wet-feathered eagle, eager for flesh, flew in pursuit; dark-plumaged, hard-beaked, he sang a battle-song.


*I didn’t specifically cover wælgífre fugel in this entry, but you’ve seen wæl and fugelcare to do a little digging of your own and identify the other half of that compound, gífre?