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Beowulf and modern appliances:

I've just been reading Beowulf in the recent verse translation by Seamus Heaney. It's a bilingual edition, with the Old English on the left and Heaney's version on the right. On two separate occasions, I've noticed a particular expression, "sæl ond mæl."

For instance, in lines 1008-09, we have:

... | þa wæs sæl ond mæl
þæt to healle gang | Healfdenes sunu;
which Heaney translates: "Then the due time arrived for Halfdane's son to proceed to the hall." Similarly, in lines 1607-11, we have a wonderful image describing how the sword that Beowulf used to kill Grendel's mom melts from her scalding blood:
... | þæt wæs wundra sum,
þæt hit eal gemealt | ise gelicost,
ðonne forstes bend | fæder onlæteð,
onwindeð wælrapas, | se geweald hafað
sæla ond mæla; | þæt is soð metod.
which Heaney translates: "It was a wonderful thing, the way it all melted as ice melts when the Father eases the fetters off the frost and unravels the water-ropes. He who wields power over time and tide: He is the true Lord."

Unraveling the water-ropes! How can one not love the Anglo-Saxons?

(Digression: Someone should film Beowulf, not like in the atrocious 1999 version with Christopher Lambert, but rather with Klingons. "It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning." Perhaps the upcoming Robert Zemeckis version will have a Klingon in it? Or, for a more complex vision, perhaps David Boreanaz as Beowulf?)

The word "sæl," also spelled "sele," is listed as "obsolete, except in dialect" in the OED, which hasn't seen the word since 1875. The word apparently has no modern equivalents or similar words, and I'm unaware of common related words in other languages. Anyway, this word means "happiness, prosperity, good fortune," and in addition means "favourable or proper time, opportune moment; occasion, opportunity; season, time of day."

The word "mæl" is the same as the modern English word "meal." No, I'm not talking about the sense of "something ground," as in "cornmeal" (similar to the word "mill" and even related to the Russian word "blin"). Rather, I'm talking about the sense of "a time or occasion; a particular time, a suitable time; a period of time," which is also used in a more specific sense of "a customary or social occasion of taking food, esp. at a more or less fixed time of day, as breakfast, dinner, etc.," and in its metonymic sense of "the food and drink consumed at or provided for such an occasion." (Compare with the German words "Mal," as in "einmal," and "Mahl," as in "Abendmahl.")

So "sele and meal," meaning "the due time," or, if you will, "time and tide."

Why do I bring this up? Only to alert you that, when you come across this expression, you should not confuse it with the kitchen appliance Seal-a-Meal.

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  1. Don't hate me because I'm beautiful:
  2. Beowulf and modern appliances:
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Don't hate me because I'm beautiful:

Now that you've read all about "sele and meal" from my previous post, here's some useful advice for the beautiful.

(The following is from the same Heaney translation of Beowulf that I quoted in my previous post; this can be found at lines 1931-41. I won't reproduce the Old English this time, but you can find a text here and here, among other places. I've noticed that not everyone agrees that the name of the queen is Modthryth; a few versions have "mod" as a separate word and "Thryth" as the name of the queen. Anyway, that's not important here.)

... Great Queen Modthryth
perpetrated terrible wrongs.
If any retainer ever made bold
to look her in the face, if an eye not her lord's
stared at her directly during daylight,
the outcome was sealed: he was kept bound
in hand-tightened shackles, racked, tortured
until doom was pronounced — death by the sword,
slash of blade, blood-gush and death qualms
in an evil display. Even a queen
outstanding in beauty must not overstep like that.
Good advice, even today.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Don't hate me because I'm beautiful:
  2. Beowulf and modern appliances:
8 Comments