Beware of these horrors!

Here are some notes on just a few of the beastly beings and crawly creatures listed in the section on Words of the Unpeople.

etin, ettin

An Old English word. Usually construed to be a giant or type of giant, frequently mentioned in Beowulf. Sometimes translated as ogre, monster or troll. The word comes from Old English eoten. The Old Norse equivalent survives in modern Icelandic as jötunn, giant; Danish has jette; Norwegian has both jette and jotun, with jotner in mythology. Swedish has jätte. It is interesting to see how a word survived so strongly in the Norse/Scandinavian languages but disappeared from English, to be replaced by one that came into English via French: giant..

Here are some references from Beowulf, approx. 725AD:

Thanon untydras ealle onwocon
eotenas ond ylfe, ond orcneas,
swylce gigantas

Then woke all evil broods: etins, elves and goblins/monsters, and also giants.

ythde eotena cyn, ond on ythdom slog,
niceras nihtes

on the seas I killed water-etins kin by night

Fingras burston, eoten wæs utweard
Fingers broken, the etin started outward.

hæfdon ealfela eotena cynnes
sweordum gesæged

countless etin kin with the sword were laid low.

And from Layamon’s Brüt, approx 1200 AD, line 917:

tha comen thære twenti ... eotendes longe, muchel and stronge
there came there twenty giants... tall, huge and strong

In line 902 eotandes, giants, inhabited the land now called Britain before Brutus slayed them. The chief was named Geomagog or Gogmagog. If we follow Layamon’s description this giant was not too gigantic, for he locked himself in a fight with Corineus, one of Brüt’s warriors, “chest to chest”. However, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his 12th century History of the Kings of Britain, is more precise: the giant was twelve feet tall and Corineus was very fond of wrestling with giants. In spite of suffering broken ribs, he managed to put Gogmagog onto his shoulders and throw him over a cliff into the sea.


A monster. Old English feondsceatha, fiend + injure, wound, Middle English feondscathe, “evil enemy”. This term might have been applied to devilish enemies both natural and supernatural. Grendel, the monster in Beowulf is described as a micle mearcstapan, “great boundary stepper”, huge prowler. It also appears in Layamon’s Brüt, line 12996, where King Arthur commands:

Aris, aris, feond-scağe, to şine fæie-siğe!
Arise, arise, fiend-enemy, to thine fate

mare, nightmare

From 8th century Old English. An incubus, a nightmare, an evil being or female demon which causes nightmares. Old English maere, mara, mera, Middle English (13th century), mare, also nigt-mare, nyghte-mare. This type of mare has nothing to do with the same word for a female horse, but denotes a tormenting goblin. Related terms are found in some Scandinavian and east European languages. During the 15th and 16th century, the meaning of a feeling of suffocation due to the visitation of a nightmare was added. The general use of the word nightmare for any kind of bad dream did not emerge until the early 1830s.


From Old English. This is the term used in the 8th century classic saga Beowulf to denote the monster named Grendel. From mere, water, + deor, beast. Deor denoted four-legged wild beasts in general but was later applied more specifically to deer.

Layamon’s Brüt also mentions a monster from the sea:

line 3209 şat wes icumen of şare sæ deor swide seluch,
there was coming from the sea a beast very strange.

line 3212 the monster from the sea is a wæle-scağe,
a wild spoiler, a murderous plunderer.


Old English ğÿrs denoted a giant or demon. Beowulf line 424ff refers to the terrible monster Grendel:

Ond nu wiğ Grendel sceal, wiğ şam aglæcan ana gehegan ğing wiğ şyrse.
And now with Grendel I must, with the monster, alone settle things with that

Middle English ğürs, a gigantic spectre of some sort. Wycliffe used the spelling thirs in a note on Isaiah 34:14 in his 1382 translation of the Bible and his notes:

...ther shall lyn Lamya (notes:... that is, a thirs or a beste hauende the bodi like a womman and horses feet).

The Authorised Version of the Bible (1611) translated this as “screech owl”, or “night monster” which was retained in the Revised Version. The word later became thurse, a hobgoblin. There were also hobthrush (adapted from hob + thurse) and hobthrust, hobgoblins.

Anyway, have a nice nightmare!

Click here for a list of 150 Unpeople words

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