Unit 7 Death

Section 1

Using the modern English word-search, find the section headed ‘Death’. Click on this section and scroll down, looking at the words and sub-headings. Many of them use metaphors to express the concept of death. For example, sub-headings such as ‘As loss of life’, ‘As end of life’, ‘As separation’ indicate different ways in which death is viewed metaphorically.

Q1a. Which sub-heading yields the largest number of synonyms? Answer Q1a

Q1b. Can you think of any Modern English words for ‘death’ or ‘die’ which use the same metaphor? Answer Q1b

Q1c. Can you think of reasons why this metaphor is felt to be so appropriate? Answer Q1c

Q1d. Look up the verb ‘die’ in the Mod. E. word search and select ‘To die, perish’. Scroll down and find the sub-group of verbs that employs the same metaphor. Answer Q1d

Compounding, or forming new words by putting existing words together, was common in OE. Look up ‘Death’ again. Scrolling down, you will see that feorh occurs several times as the first element of compounds. One example, divided into its separate elements, is feorh+lyre, under the heading ‘As loss of life’. Look up feorh and lyre in the OE word search: you will see that feorh means ‘life’ and lyre means ‘loss’. This example illustrates how the meaning of a compound can often (but not always) be deduced from its parts. If you go back to the search menu and choose Old English Word Search, Wildcard search, Beginning of word, you will see that feorh occurs in many more compounds

Q2a. Five more compounds, divided into their elements, are given below. Look up the elements in the OE word search and work out what the compounds mean.
lif + lyre
ealdor + bealu
feorh + cwalu
feorh + cwealm
forþ + weg
 Answer Q2a

Q2b. Using the OE word search, find the two elements of the compound þeoden+gedal. (Remember to enter T for þ!) Work out the meaning of the compound from the headings. Would you expect to find a word with this meaning in Modern English? What can this word tell us about Anglo-Saxon society? Answer Q2b

The compound words in section 2 have at least one element which is metaphorical in meaning. For example, feorhlyre = feorh ‘life’ (literal element) + lyre ‘loss’ (metaphorical element). Another example is ellorsiþ: ellor ‘elsewhere’ (metaphorical element) + siþ ‘journey’ (metaphorical element). The high level of metaphor in Death can be attributed to the fact that death is a taboo topic, deemed too sensitive or unpleasant to discuss directly in certain contexts. As a result, speakers tend to seek less direct ways to express the idea. This type of metaphor, motivated by a desire to avoid specific reference to a taboo topic, is a form of euphemism.

Q3. Identify the metaphorical element or elements of the compounds in Q2a. Answer Q3

Some linguists identify a category of words called dysphemisms, which might be defined as the opposite of euphemisms. These are metaphors which emphasise the vulgarity or humour of a topic by drawing on semantic domains perceived as vulgar rather than elevated. An example of a Mod.E. dysphemism for ‘die’ is kick the bucket (believed to derive from the kicking of a pig’s hind legs against a beam from which it was suspended; bucket here is an obsolete word meaning ‘beam’. In the past, pigs were slaughtered by hanging them upside down and cutting their throats).

Q4a. Can you think of five more Mod.E. dysphemisms for ‘die’? Answer Q4a

Q4b. Think about the contexts in which you would use your list of words from Q4a (e.g. in speech or writing, formal or informal language). No dysphemistic terms for ‘die’ survive in our record of Old English. Can you suggest why this might be so? (Clue: think about Old English texts and how the function and practicalities of writing in Anglo-Saxon England might have differed from modern times.) Answer Q4b

The common word for ‘die’ in OE was steorfan. Some linguists think that steorfan replaced the ancestor of Mod.E. die, which had become a taboo word. Die was probably reintroduced later from Old Norse, or may have continued in dialectal use.

Q5a. The Mod.E. reflex of steorfan ‘to die’ is starve ‘to die of hunger’. How would you describe a semantic change of this kind? Answer Q5a

Q5b. Can you describe how the meaning of starve has changed again in colloquial language in recent years? Answer Q5b

Q5c. It has been argued that ‘Beowulf’, the name of the warrior hero in the OE poem Beowulf, is a kenning (compound riddling name), euphemistically referring to an animal which lived in Northern Europe and frightened our North Germanic ancestors to the extent that its name became taboo in some of their languages. Using the OE word search, separate the compound ‘Beowulf’ into its elements and guess the identity of the animal. Answer Q5c

Section 2

Burial practices
In Anglo-Saxon England, as today, the main ways of dealing with the dead were burial and cremation. Cremation declined throughout the Anglo-Saxon period from the seventh century onwards, perhaps due to the growing popularity of Christian beliefs about the dead being called to rise up out of the ground on Judgement Day. Archaeological evidence tells us that bodies (and the ashes of cremated bodies) were buried in cemeteries close to, but removed from, centres of habitation. There is evidence that coffins were sometimes used (some metal components, such as nails, have survived) but it is thought that corpses were frequently placed directly into the grave, a bier having been used to transport them to the cemetery.

An important factor in distinguishing types of burials is the amount of labour and resources apparently expended by the living. This was related to the status of the deceased. It was common practice in the pagan period preceding the seventh century to deposit grave goods (objects of symbolic significance or which might be useful to the deceased in the after-life) with the corpse in a grave or on the cremation pyre, but this became increasingly uncommon in the Christian period. Objects might include dress accessories, weapons, tools, grooming equipment and drinking vessels. Scientific analysis of bones has confirmed that dress items tended to be placed in women’s graves and weapons in those of men. The quality and quantity of the items deposited reflects the status of the deceased as well as the ability of the family to provide them.

In many cases grave goods may have had symbolic as well as functional significance. For example, drinking vessels might prove useful in the after-life but may also have represented the ‘provider’ role of a member of the privileged ranks, who would have been expected to reward those who served him with the provision of food and drink. In the same way, weapons in graves may have had a dual function in that the type of weapon indicated the deceased’s status as well as being potentially useful. Weapons were part of everyday Anglo-Saxon life; this was a warrior society structured by groups (tribal groups in the early period and eventually kingdoms) which battled against each other and against invaders (most notably the Vikings) for dominance and survival. However, the presence of weapons in the graves of children who would never have been capable of wielding them points to their symbolic role.

Graves containing multiple corpses have been found and there is archaeological evidence that they were opened years apart to admit another body. It is believed that occupants of such graves would have been related, which accords with what we know about the importance of kinship in Anglo-Saxon society (see Unit 8 Families). It also tells us that visible grave markers must have been used to identify graves over long periods of time. Presumably these would commonly have been made of wood, since it was a plentiful resource, but no examples have survived. Many stone markers survive, however, for example from Lindisfarne and Hartlepool monasteries. Examples of the stone ‘hogback’ markers (so-called from their curved shape) favoured by Scandinavian settlers survive in parts of England and Scotland, including Govan Old Church in Glasgow.

A type of early grave marker still in evidence in Britain today is the barrow or burial mound (Tolkien fans may remember the barrow-wights, inhabitants of the Barrow-downs in The Lord of the Rings). Many of these date from prehistoric times but some are Anglo-Saxon. There are also instances of ‘intrusive’ burials where prehistoric barrows have been re-used during the Anglo-Saxon period. The creation of such mounds must have been very labour intensive and was certainly restricted to the burials of the privileged few. The most famous Anglo-Saxon examples are at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk where, in the 1930s, an entire ship twenty-seven metres in length, a second smaller ship, and a wealth of artefacts, many of gold and precious stones, were found buried within a series of mounds. Only traces of human remains have been found but the location of Sutton Hoo and the amount and value of the treasures discovered there has led many archaeologists to identify the burial with the dynasty of Rædwald, king of East Anglia from 599 AD to about 625 AD. A result of the discovery at Sutton Hoo has been that the vast treasure hoards described in Old English works such as Beowulf are now known to have historical veracity.

Section 3

Further Reading

Crawford, Sally. 2013. ‘Cemeteries, furnished’. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon
, eds Michael Lapidge et al, 2nd edn. Chichester: Wiley, 93–94.
Crawford, Sally. 2013. ‘Grave goods’. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England,
          eds Michael Lapidge et al, 2nd edn. Chichester: Wiley, 223-224.
Fischer, Andreas. 2002. ‘Non olet: Euphemisms we live by’. New Perspectives on English
          Historical Linguistics II: Lexis and Transmission
, eds Christian Kay, Carole Hough,
          Irené Wotherspoon. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 91-107.
Enright, D. J. 1985 (ed.), Fair of Speech: the Uses of Euphemism. Oxford: Oxford University
Glasswell, Samantha. 2002. The Earliest English: living and dying in Early Anglo-Saxon
. Stroud: Tempus.
Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University
          of Chicago Press.
Lucy, Sam. 2000. The Anglo-Saxon Way of Death: burial rites in early England. Stroud:
Wilson, D. 1981. The Anglo-Saxons, 3rd.edn. Harmondsworth: Penguin.


has lots of information about the Sutton Hoo burial mounds and excavations.

is the Electronic Beowulf website.

is the website of Govan Old Church, with pictures of hogback grave-stones.

The Ashmolean Museum website has a section on death in Anglo-Saxon England: http://anglosaxondiscovery.ashmolean.org/Death/death_index.html

Ideas for essays and projects

1. Discuss the impact of Christianity on Anglo-Saxon burial practices.

2. Identify a taboo area, other than ‘death’, in Modern English and consider the range of metaphor, euphemism and dysphemism in the language used to express it.

3. Using the Metaphor Map of Old English at http://mappingmetaphor.arts.gla.ac.uk/old-english/, discuss the metaphorical links with category 1B26 ‘Death’.