I am just back from Wake Forest University [Mary Kate’s alma mater, I might add], where I was graciously invited by Gillian Overing to talk to the students enrolled in an honors seminar she is co-teaching with Ulrike Weithaus, titled “The Other Middle Ages.” The students had been discussing Beowulf just before my visit, so it was decided I would focus on that, and since alterity is one of the primary focuses of the course, I had to think about what I might do with that in relation to Beowulf. Although I think everyone knows that I have written about Beowulf quite a bit, more recently my attention has wandered to the issue of “unsettled” and “migrant” inter-subjectivity in the Saint Guthlac narratives [Felix’s eighth-century Vita as well as the Old English poems Guthlac A and B; go here for some of my initial ruminations on that], and I decided to bring in some of the reading and thinking I have been doing recently, relative to that project, on the subject of the relation of frontiers [geographical, cultural, and otherwise] and Otherness, especially as discussed by François Hartog in The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History (trans. Janet Lloyd; Berkeley, 1988).
More specifically, I wanted to share with the students Hartog’s commentary on Herodotus’s commentary on the Scythians’ supposed “extreme hatred of all foreign customs, particularly those in use among the Greeks” [Histories, Book IV], by way of the examples of two Scythians, Anacharsis and Scyles, who, in different ways, go “Greek” and pay with their lives as a result. The relevance of Herodotus’s narratives to Beowulf is not as remote as you might imagine, since the Scythians are also the nomadic Getae, a “giant” and warrior race famed in the classical period for their fierce resistance to the Greeks [and also classified as the Greek empire’s “barbarian” and “wandering” Other], and who, in the medieval world, as John Niles has written, by way of the work of Jane Acomb Leake’s The Geats of Beowulf: A Study in the Geographical Mythology of the Middle Ages [Wisconsin, 1967], “were regarded as common ancestors of the Jutes, Danes, Goths, and Gautar. They stood in relation to these tribes as an Ur-Germanic people of remarkable size and prowess. Their homeland was a great place for dragons, among other such marvelous inhabitants as the Amazons, cynocephali, anthrophagi, and sea-serpents who are described in the Marvels of the East” [“Locating Beowulf in Literary History,” Exemplaria 5.1 (March 1993), p. 101]. Further, and more pointedly, “the Hygelac who, in Beowulf, rules over the Geatas and dies at the mouth of the Rhine, appears in the Liber Monstrorum under the name of Higlacus; and there (contrary to Gregory of Tours, who calls him a Dane) he is said to have ruled over the Getae” [Niles, p. 100]. In this sense, I would tentatively offer, the Beowulf who crosses from Geatland to Daneland in the poem would have carried with him, for an Anglo-Saxon readership, certain connotations of a primevally strange, if genealogically familiar, Otherness. He would be, however subtly or uncannily, related to the Getae of Herodotus’s Histories, who are said to be such fierce warriors that they use the skulls of their slain enemies as drinking cups and also the skins flayed from the right arms of those same enemies, with the shape of their fingers intact, as quivers for their arrows. How, then, to separate in one’s mind the terror of the genealogy of a Beowulf from the anthrophagy of a Grendel, or to ultimately differentiate a Scythian from a Geat from a Dane from a misshapen child of Cain? From where, in other words, does Beowulf really come, not only for the Danes, but for his more modern readers in Anglo-Saxon England? How would the distance be measured [geographically and culturally] from Geatland to Daneland, in relation to the distance that could be measured from Grendel’s mere to Hrothgar’s Heorot, and why might that matter? Who, in Daneland, is the ultimate stranger, the ultimate foreigner, and is that “foreignness” or “strangeness” measured by miles traveled, or by the contours and gait of one’s body, the forms of one’s language and habits of living, the architecture of one’s “home,” the landscape in which that home is situated? What does it mean to be out of place, as opposed to in place, in the world of the poem?
Of course, the language of the poet is such that, in terms of shared customs and histories and cultural values and language, the Geats and Danes are entirely similar to each other (and perhaps, also, to an ancestral model the Anglo-Saxons might have imagined for themselves), while Grendel appears to come, as Hrothgar says at one point, from “I know not where” [ic ne wat hwæder, l. 1331], bearing, as Beowulf points out, an “unknown violence” [uncuðne nið, l. 276]. But somehow, the only person who can match, or out-match, this violence, is Beowulf himself, who travels the furthest distances in the poem—both geographically and culturally—and is the ultimate border-crosser, the ultimate migrant, whereas Grendel and his mother can almost be viewed as something more aboriginal, more in place, something very old and ancient that is always re-arriving [or re-stirring from below] to disturb the “newness” of Heorot and its vertical “purchase” upon the landscape. And the poem would seem to be interested, especially in its language (which, after all, marks Beowulf and Grendel and Grendel’s mother and the dragon as aglæcan, or those who “violate a natural or moral law”), in what Homi Bhaba has characterized as a predominant feature of modernity: “the emergence of the interstices—the overlap and displacement of domains of difference—. . . [in which] the intersubjective and collective experience of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated. How are subjects formed ‘in-between,’ or in excess of the sum of the ‘parts’ of difference” [The Location of Culture, p. 2]?
Speaking of the “in-between,” we can return to Herodotus and his account of the stories of the two Scythians, Anacharis and Scyles, which can be summarized as follows: Anacharsis was a philosopher [which already marks him, in a sense, as ‘Greek’] who, after having spent a good deal of his life traveling all over the world, was on his way home to Scythia [the ‘hinterland’ of the Greek colonies on the Black Sea coast—today, parts of northern Bulgaria and southern Romania], when he touched down in Cyzicus [now part of Turkey], where “he found the inhabitants celebrating with much pomp and magnificence a festival to the Mother of the Gods, and was himself induced to make a vow to the goddess, whereby he engaged, if he got back safe and sound to his home, that he would give her a festival and a night-procession in all respects like those which he had seen in Cyzicus.” When Anacharsis arrives back in Scythia, he immediately takes himself to Hylaia [‘the woodland’] “and there went through all the sacred rites with the tabour in his hand, and the images tied to him.” By complete chance, another Scythian sees him engaged in these rites and reports the occurrence to the king Saulinus [Anacharsis’s brother, actually], who shoots and kills him with an arrow while he is still in the throes of his worship of the goddess.
The story of Scyles is a bit more complex: we are told that he is the son of a Scythian king and a Greek [or, Istrian] mother, through whom he learned the Greek language and Greek literature. When his father died, he became king and inherited one of his father’s wives, but because “he disliked the Scythic mode of life,” whenever he was in the colony of the Borysthenites, Olbia, he would “make it his habit” to leave his army outside the gates of the town, “and, having entered the walls by himself, and carefully closed the gates, to exchange his Scythian dress for Grecian garments, and in this attire walk about the forum, without guards or retinue.” Scyles lives exactly as the Greeks, offering sacrifices to their gods, eventually even building a house there and taking a “native” wife. Although he was very secretive about this “other” life, what finally undoes [or, discloses] him, according to Herodotus, is his desire to participate in the Bacchic mysteries, for which the Scythians hold much scorn. As soon as Scyles participates in one of these “raves,” one of the Borysthenites runs to the Scythians to say, “You Scyths laugh at us because we rave when the god seizes us. But now our god has seized upon your king, who raves like us, and is maddened by the influence.” In short, Scyles is discovered in the throes of a bacchic ritual and is ultimately beheaded by the Scythians.
Hartog raises several interesting questions and ideas regarding the stories of Anacharsis and Scyles:
“How do Anacharsis and Scyles move from one place to another? What spaces do they cross? In the case of Scyles, the schema is quite simple: he moves to and fro between the ēthea of the Scythians (the word denotes an animal’s lair, one’s habitual domicile) and the town of the Borysthenites, namely, Olbia. He leaves the Scythian space, a space more animal than human, where he feels ill at ease (he detests the Scythian lifestyle) and sets off for the town, but the narrative specifies that he leaves his train on the outskirts . . . in that intermediary zone outside the domain of the ēthea but not yet in that of the astu [urban area]. It is as if it were impossible for the Scythians to progress any further, for they are not bilingual.” [pp. 145–46].[I would note here, too, that if you are familiar with your Herodotus, you may recall his account of Darius’s attempted “invasion” of Scythia, in which he built a bridge over the Ister River and futilely chased the Scythian army without ever laying eyes on them—in this sense, there is a “frontier,” the river itself, which can be crossed, but there is also no frontier, because there is ultimately no way to get into Scythia, such that the Scythians could be captured; as Hartog puts it, the “aporia” of the Scythians is “unaffected” by Darius’s crossing over into their so-called “territory,” and they are everywhere and nowhere at once.]
“[In the case of Anacharsis]: (1) Is the Hylaia a completely Scythian space or is it a particular, even marginal, part of that space? (2) What is the position of the town of Cyzicus in relation to the ‘Greek’ space? Is it a particular part of that space? These are questions that cannot be answered simply by examining the journeys from a geographical point of view. . . . What is Hylaia? In the Greek the word means ‘wooded’ but also ‘wild’; as is to be expected, the forest belongs to the border spaces and thus to wildness. . . . Just as, once its doors are closed, Olbia offers Scyles shelter to do things that the Scythians must not behold, similarly the Hylaia, into which Anacharsis plunges . . . provides him with a hidden space where he can celebrate a cult the Scythians refuse to recognize. . . . Through the metapor of looking, the narrative conveys the spatial ambiguity of the Hylaia and Oblia: even when you are screened by the forest or the fortifications, a look, whether a chance one or one with intent to harm, may at any time discover you.” [pp. 146, 147, 148]
“Cyzicus and Olbia are situated on the very edges of Greek space. Might we postulate a homology here and suggest that the same might be said of the Mother of the Gods and Dionysus? . . . . If the Mother of the Gods does seem a truly marginal figure, the process of Dionysus, in contrast, is (apparently) known everywhere, throughout the non-Greek space as well as the Greek one. But the interesting question that the text now raises is the manner in which Dionysus and the Mother of the Gods operated as criteria of Greekness not only for the Scythians and Greeks but also for the actual addressees of this discourse, Herodotus’s audience.” [pp. 151, 152]
“. . . so that their radical rejection (on the part of the Scythians) may be as meaningful as possible to Herodotus’s addressee, perhaps these two powers, the Mother and Dionysus, should be seen as both Greek and, at the same time, as close to the Scythians. The fact is that they must be perceived to be Greek by the addressee if the behavior of the Scythians is to make sense and in order to illustrate the general rule put forward by the narrative. But they must also be recognized to be close to the Scythians not only geographically but culturally, if their rejection is to astonish and take on its full meaning. These are deities that it ought to be possible for them to accommodate easily (by reason of their origin, the rituals they entail, their ‘barbaric’ aspect); yet these are the very deities that they utterly reject (as Greek). In this way, the explicit moral of the story is further reinforced: truth lies on this side of the frontier, error beyond it.” [p. 156]
How this all might relate to Beowulf [or to “unsettled” inter-subjectivities in the Guthlac narratives], I leave aside for the moment [or rather—well, I’m still thinking about that!], but I want to end by plugging here the really excellent essay collection edited by Clare Lees and Gillian Overing, A Place to Believe In: Locating Medieval Landscapes [Pennsylvania State, 2006], in which, late in the evening before my meeting with the students at Wake Forest, I stumbled, oh so happily, across the essay by Kelly Wickham-Crowley, “Living on the Ecg: The Mutable Boundaries of the Land and Water in Anglo-Saxon Contexts,” and which I believe may provide a suturing point between Hartog, Bhaba, and Beowulf. Of her essay’s intentions, Wickham-Crowley writes,
“I want to look at what I have called ‘mutable boundaries,’ to consider how water—especially through Alfred’s time and that of the Viking incursions—was an integral part of the Anglo-Saxon perception of ‘landscape.’ The mutability of the ‘edge’ between land and water, as recorded in Anglo-Saxon texts and archaeology, fits with a way of thinking that considered land/water insersections as a habit of perception or vision, coloring and marking more than the physical environment. . . . if change is paradoxically taken as a constant [because water and land in a sea island environment are always in flux with each other], as a habit of vision, can we track how that view influences a culture defining or negotiating identities in a new place?” [pp. 85, 86]
Wickham-Crowley surveys a wide array of “negotiations” of fluid “sites,” inherent in the influence of rising and sinking sea levels in early medieval British agriculture and settlement, the tidal culture/liminal ecg spaces in the Cuthbert and Guthlac narratives [which set up saintly persons as impermeable enclosures in fluid environments], the elevated pagan burial sites that persisted into the ninth century, the “wandering villages” of early Anglo-Saxon settlement, the role of water in Old English elegy and in Danish-Viking experience, and the temporally-culturally multilayered archaeology of Whitby (which itself possessed gender fluidity]. Ultimately, Wickham-Crowley concludes that,
“Where does all this negotiating of edges and boundaries lead us in considering traces of Anglo-Saxon attitudes? Boundaries distinguish differences on either side, yet have identities and characters of their own. Introducing water into landscape considerations gives us a variable that suggests permeable, dynamic boundaries; in some circumstances, such as the siting of religious foundations, their inherent uncertainty and ambiguity may be cultivated. Use of the environment demonstrates habits of mind, of attitudes, influences, and choices. . . . Is the ‘haunting’ of fens in sources such as Guthlac’s Life, or the siting of places in areas known to have importance to pre-Christian believers, a symptom of the return of the oppressed or repressed? That Alfred cultivates the ‘betweenness’ of fens to salvage England by retreating to Athelney is perhaps more resonant than we realized. The very mutability of the fens, their resistance to clear paths and boundaries, allows him to resist, negotiate, and reestablish the boundary of being Anglo-Saxon figuratively and literally in his treaty with the Danes, in his recording of travelers’ voyages, and in his vision and re-envisioning of English history and languages.” [pp. 106–7]
If Wickham-Crowley is right, and the “very mutability” and “betweenness” of the fens and other "watery" sites is cultivated, not just by Alfred, but by many who dwelled and moved through early medieval Britain, in order to establish and reestablish the “boundaries” of “being Anglo-Saxon” or “being English,” how does this bring us back to the struggles being played out in a poem like Beowulf, which both privileges the exile who continually moves back and forth through deep seas, wild moors, and bloody lakes, and also condemns the exile who makes of the deepest waters his home [and also doesn’t know how to stay put]? We might say that one fluid power [Christian, northwestern-centric, proto-national] simply usurps another [chthonic-demonic, Eastern, stateless], and thereby establishes what, today, we call “order," or what we call "human." But that is only a beginning.