Sigelwara Land

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Sigelwara Land is the title of an essay in two parts by J. R. R. Tolkien, appeared in Medium Aevum Vol. 1, No. 3. December 1932 and Medium Aevum Vol. 3, No. 2. June 1934. It treats the etymology of the Old English word for Ethiopians, Sigelhearwan. Tolkien concluded that, while the meaning of the first element was evidently sigel "Sun", the meaning of the second element hearwan was not recoverable:

"a symbol ... of that large part of ancient English language and lore which has now vanished beyond recall, swa hit no wære."

The phrase Sigelwara land appears in a free translation of the book Exodus (Codex Junius 11):

.. be suðan Sigelwara land, forbærned burhhleoðu, brune leode, hatum heofoncolum.
"... southward lay the Ethiop's land, parched hill-slopes and a race burned brown by the heat of the sun ..."

The mysterious hearwan, adapted to modern English phonology, may be an inspiration of some placenames in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, viz. Dunharrow, and, less prominently, Underharrow, a placename in Rohan. However, harrow is less mysterious and meant "place for sacrifice", see its cognate Horgr.

The main thrust of Tolkien's argument in this two-part paper seems to have been that "Sigelwara" was a corruption of "Sigelhearwa", and had come to mean something different in its later form than it had in its original. He begins by pointing out that Ethiopians in the earliest writings are presented in a very positive light, but by the time they written of as "Sigelwarans", the perception has become the opposite. He does not speculate why, but instead demonstrates a clear relationship between "sigelwara" and "sigelhearwa" and shows how discovering the original meaning of the word "Sigelhearwa" is almost impossible; that trying to do so must be "for the joy of the hunt rather than the hope of a final kill".

The word sigel as a conflation of two words, the inherited word for Sun, the feminine sigel and an Old English neuter sigle or sygle for "jewel, necklace", loaned from Latin sigilla.

Suggesting a connection of hearwa with Gothic hauri "coal", Old Norse hyr-r "fire", Old English heorþ "to roast", heorð "hearth", Tolkien tentatively concludes that in the Sigelhearwan we may be looking at "rather the sons of Muspell than of Ham", an ancient class of demons "with red-hot eyes that emitted sparks and faces black as soot", English equivalent of the Norse fire giants ruled by Surtr, that had been forgotten even before the composition of Exodus.

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