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'Last of Our Race'
Considering Brands, Swords, Fetters and Rings from Xerxes and Beowulf to Emma: 8/4/21
© 2021 James LaFond
Last week, when napping between ditching shifts, I listened to Beowulf over and over again. The translation is that which I find most pleasing, a version with the most olden tone. Over and over again the term “brand” was used for the sword, and that the sword was the symbol of man's rule, the veritable life-taking queen [1] in the king's hand.
The chief duty of the sword king was to protect the people from monsters—a task which the swords in Beowulf failed at as often as not. The sword would also be the chief weapon of the executioner among Аrуаn men into the Modern Era, eventually replaced by the slave-making nose.
I was struck by the whimsical declaration in Beowulf that the hero who stood by Beowulf when he died slaying the dragon—as the rest of the mailed warriors fled, was “the last of his race,” and also, that with the death of the outward, risk-taking, monster hunting Beowulf, the sword king paramount, that the people, the race, was doomed to slavery.
A return to the nature of the monsters, of Grendel and his mother and the dragon, places them firmly as ancients and of giant kind, Promethean beings that made and guarded great artifacts of old and were also closely related to the natural order, particularly the sea, full as it was with monsters, often returned to as “brine wolves.” The monsters of Beowulf are clearly, in ancient Hellenic terms, Titans; lonely, displaced and once great earthly powers, consigned to monsterdom, which is to say, alienation.
These monsters are not described as unsympathetic and are vested with loss, being the last of their once great kind, “lonely” and “grim.” Of interest in Beowulf is the fact that he and Grendel are so often described in similar terms as “dread,” “grim,” and other attributions prefacing “one,” such as “the dread-one.”
Beowulf alone is vested as “the bold-one,” for he is the harrier of the monsters. These monsters are sad, lonely, antisocial, driven to the last waste places unwanted by man. The dragon itself is not even to blame for his rampage, having been stolen from by a dastardly woe-bringing man. He is a guardian of ancient things valued by men.
Grendel and his mother are specifically sons of Cain, cursed for slaying Abel, exiled by God to the far places, a fallen power he was and so are his dwindled kind. This brings me to the beach yesterday, where I stood and watched dolphins, prowling much like sea wolves just beyond the breakers as little Emma fumed and raged, angered that her sandy throne she sat in was being swept away by the surf.
Up came the little shovel and shrill was her shout as she declared the mighty Ocean that once swallowed Atlantis, was now her enemy, and smote it with her shovel-turned sword. A day earlier a boy, seeing my patched eye and beard picked up his shovel like a sword and declared that he too was a pirate.
Merely the fun of children?
These young ones were acting in earnest.
Do they have antecedents among men who have waxed wroth against Ocean, affronted by seas or rivers?
There was Achilles of legend fighting The River Skammander.
And, very near there, there was Xerxes, Archimedean King of Kings, who ordered the disciplining of the Hellespont. The brine river that connects the Black and Aegean Seas and separates Asia from Europe, had been bridged by his Egyptian and Phonecian engineers. The straight was bridged by ships, and boats and ropes, topped with planks and earth and fenced so as the beasts of burden would not panic upon seeing they were surrounded by the wine dark waters.
The wind and water then conspired to burst the massive cordage and the King of Kings went into a rage. The engineers were beheaded, “by those who business it was to accomplish such unpleasant tasks.” Such executioners, who Herodotus refuses to name directly, in aftertimes would ever bear a sword, as one still does in Suadi Arabia.
Then, the fetters [brass shackles] and “branding irons” borne by these grim servants of the King Over Kings, as well as the rods and flails they wielded as punishing devices upon the backs of men, were employed in punishing the very sea. Just as Emma assailed the Atlantic yesterday, the “slaves of The King” assailed another body of water, another precinct of Poseidon—and I will refrain from blaming today's ocean borne rain on her tiny actions.
Herodotus, did, however, point out, that Xerxes—like Achilles and Odysseus before him—would be punished by Poseidon “Earth-shaker” soon after he crossed the body of water he had ritually flogged, branded and shackled.
This brings us back to the term “brand” used for a sword. A sword does emerge from the forge as a flaming brand and in after times was used to punish, maim and kill criminals. Just as gunpowder was used by Maryland slave-catchers to burn an R on the cheek of a captured runaway, swords as “brands” would be used to punish the monstrous urge to freedom and divorce from the slave matrix of civilization.
Finally, the mollifying aspect of the Аrуаn hero king of the sword is reached. The Persians, were Аrуаns corrupted by Middle Eastern slave patterns, where rings were used to mark “bond-servants.” Such a slave-master king had surrogate sword-bearers, overseers, torturers, executioners, whip-wielders to drive slave soldiers towards the enemy. The ring of the Slave-Master King binds men like Tolkien's One Ring bound them in mythic darkness.
However, the rings of the Hero-King, the Brand-Wielding King, are worn wound about his arms. These are then broken off, made of silver and gold and such soft precious metal, and given as gifts to his loyal men. The Sword-King is, in Beowulf the named the “ring-breaker” where in Herodotus, he is the shackle-maker and the servant-breaker.
These are but some of the reasons by which the careful reader may perceive that Beowulf is a more ancient tale than Gilgamesh, the Iliad or the Odyssey. This story of “the last of his race” should, this reader thinks, be revisited as an antecedent tale to the other great epics of ancient myth and history.
-1. Burton, in his Book of the Sword, named the sword “the white arm” the “queen of weapons.”
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