Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Of Salmon and Arm-Rings

Every word's a story.

Anyone who has ever tried to plow through Beowulf in the original Old English knows the word béag: “ring, circle.” It seems to occur on practically every page, so important was it to Anglo-Saxon culture.

The béag was the most important form of jewelry: not so much a ring for the finger, as an arm-ring, a neck-ring, a torc, a crown. Conferring wealth and status, it was also a basic form of currency. One's lord was preeminently a béag-gifa, a “ring-giver”: the lord as generous giver of gifts to his dright. Think of the Horned Drighten, his antlers hung with neck-rings.

After 1066, the word was lost, perhaps because the impoverished English-speaking peasantry no longer owned much in the way of jewelry. It survived, almost unrecognizably, only in the word bee, as in a “spelling-bee,” once presumably performed in a circle. These days where Wicca says “circle,” Old Craft tends to say “ring,” not “bee.” More's the pity, maybe.


Something similar happened with “salmon,” from Norman French saumon. Old English leax died out, no doubt because consumption of salmon was reserved for the gentry. In a like manner, the English-speaking peasantry raised the pig, but the French-speaking ruling class ate the pork (= French porque, “pig”). Likewise, only nobles ate venison; commoners were forbidden to hunt deer. Farewell leax, hello salmon.

 Ah, history's little ironies. In fact, both béag and leax have now re-entered modern English vocabulary, courtesy of Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigration* from Central Europe. Welcome back, bagel (“little ring”) and lox.



So now we've come full circle.

Full bee, one might say.

*Yiddish, a fine (and important) old Germanic language once spoken by more than 10 million people, remains largely ignored (for reasons that I won't go into here) in the realm of Germanic studies. In the "more-Germanic-than-thou" sweepstakes, with a Germanic vocabulary about 72% (the rest is mostly Hebrew and Slavic), Yiddish comes in way ahead of English (with about 25% Germanic vocabulary). English, in fact, derives a larger percentage of its vocabulary from French (28%) and Latin (28%) than it does from its Germanic roots. Go figure.




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • susan
    susan Monday, 18 May 2015

    I read this with some interest being of Swedish ancestry. Gravlax is a prepared salmon often found on a smorasborg. While entertaining cousins a few years back, I served a salmon cream cheese appetizer. After some hand gestures and discussion in Swedlish, we arrived at the word lax for salmon. I love learning about how languages evolve and share linguistic links.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Monday, 18 May 2015

    I love the way that ancestral foods connect us to...well, the ancestors. The land. the sea. And they've all got their own stories.

    According to my local informants (Minneapolis being the westernmost city of Scandinavia), gravlax literally means "buried salmon" (grav = English "grave"!). My understanding is that they used to bury the fish to let it ferment a while. Whew.

    I suspect I'd like your version better!

  • tehomet
    tehomet Friday, 18 March 2016

    There's a town here in Ireland called Leixlip (salmon leap). It was founded by the Vikings a while back.

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