Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Diamonds are for Helmets

I read about the very special helmet in Parzival, and now I'm wondering about it.

Gahmuret comes by a helmet of "adamas" ("dô schouwet er den adamas: daz was ein helm"). I have the middle high german - modern German version by Reclam, and the translation of "adamas" there is always "diamond".
In Lexer's dictionary, "adamas" is translated as a gemstone, especially diamond, but might also mean a magnet. Originally, the word seems to come from greek αδάμας, adámas, „impregnable“ (says German Wikipedia, sounding plausible enough for me). Which would mean a very hard thing - a very hard stone, in our modern interpretation of "diamond".

Now when I hear "diamond", my association is a small, sparkly, clear, expensive gemstone. Usually set in a ring of some sort. Not suitable for making into a helmet. At all. And I'm wondering about the associations expected from the medieval reader when hearing "adamas" and "helmet" in one breath.

Was the word so firmly linked to the one special gemstone? Lexer mentioning magnets suggests it was not so. And "adamas" is not so far removed, sound-wise, from "damasch" which would mean damascus steel (and that material, also called wootz, was a very good steel, and extremely hard).

On the other hand, making a helmet out of gemstones would not have been very practical - and making it out of real diamond more or less impossible. How far from reality would the author of such a story want to go? Is the audience expected to think of the helmet as an impossible fantasy, the invincible helmet of sparkling stone? A sparkle or even a strong gleam, however, is never mentioned in context with the helmet - though it is at length described when Wolfram talks about a garment made of gold cloth. Maybe "adamas" in this context was alluding to, or even meaning, damascus steel? Perhaps the closeness of the two words for damascus steel and diamond were a delightful play on words for Wolfram von Eschenbach and his audience? It is delightful to my own personal taste, when reading "adamas" and thinking "damascus steel" (which is also a beautiful thing).

I am very glad I can wonder about this only for my own private pleasure, and I do not need to prove anything. But it tickles my brain in a very enjoyable way.

If you have thoughts about the possible interpretations of this helmet, please share them - I'd love to know what you think!


Matt B said...

Interesting idea. The problem I see is that, at least to me, there's no known instance of a damascus steel helmet or indeed any object from said material that isn't a blade.
Of course we're dealing with poetry here, so that doesn't have to mean anything but then again if it's an imaginary damascus helmet why not an imaginary diamond helmet?

BTW: two more thoughts: 1.) Is it possibble that it's a diamond-encrusted helmet?
2.) I don't speak Midle High-German but as far as I can read the text it says "there he saw the diamond: that was a helmet". It sees to me that "adamas" is but the name of the helmet here which perhaps refers to its sparkling in the sun as well as its hardness but doesn't necessarily make any statement as to it's material.

a stitch in time said...

Matt, thank you for your input!

As far as the helmet is concerned, it sort of irks me to think of it as diamond. At least to my mind, there's always a connection between the real objects and their more fantastic, poeticised counterparts in literature. Materials might come from fantastic regions or be made by fantastic creatures, but the outcome will be "normal" workable cloth, for example. So while it could mean a diamond helmet, this seems sort of ultra-fantastic to me, and seems not to fit into the picture I get of the poetic license to elaborate things but still keep them pretty related to the normal counterpart.

I would suppose it is technically not possible for a medieval person, however skilled, to make a helmet out of a diamond (and you would need a huge gemstone for that, in addition to the working problems). On the other hand, I suppose it would be technically possible to forge wootz steel into a helmet. I think there are at least some gun barrels made from wootz steel, not only blades, but I can't remember the reference at the moment.

It could be a diamond-encrusted helmet, but I miss the references to clarity, amount or cost of gemstones needed for this - some addition like "liechter adamas", or something like "beset all over".

Here's the first mention of the helmet (you can find the others by searching for "adamas" in the mhdbdb):
53 3 ûf erde niht sô guotes was,
4 der helm, von arte ein adamas
5 dicke unde herte,
6 an dem strîte ein guot geverte. "

Adamas is indeed given as the material (though also used synonymous to "his helmet").

Frieder said...

Maybe the description "von arte ein adamas" is meant in the sense of value: this very well-made helmet is as rare and valuable as a big gemstone. Also the other quote "dô schouwet er den adamas: daz was ein helm" could be read as relating to the value of the helmet and not necessarily the material - it just reminded me of Gollum's "It's my preciousss". This is a case where something is valued mainly for its usefulness and only secondarily (if at all) for its material.

a stitch in time said...

Thank you, Frieder!

That is an interesting viewpoint for the interpretation - I would never have approached in that angle. There's nothing I could find in the text passages containing "adamas" that would contradict this interpretation.

Now if we could only ask Wolfram von Eschenbach about it...

kuechenmeyster said...

Guess Who,

your "cuissionier" in Bamberg.

in my opinion, the term "von arte ein adamas" could mean: it's of the utmost durability you can imagine, the hardest steel you ever saw, hard as diamond. "dicke une herte" could refer to the unusual thicknes and strength of the steel.

Adam Lawrence said...

What about adamant, the mythical impregnable material?

a stitch in time said...

Thanks again for your input, Adam and kuechenmeyster. So one of you tends to steel as an interpretation too?

Adam, I looked for a bit more information on mythical adamant, but I could not find any proper references - am I missing some basic knowledge here?

By the way, the adamas helmet is weakened by animal blood later on - so it is not invincible after all...

kuechenmeyster said...

By the way: Julia told me, that medievale diamonds didn't glissen and sparkle like modern ones. After Benvenuto Cellini "Traktate über die Goldschmiedekunst" they were cut differently und painted from the back. Diamonds had too much fire in them, so they were a health-threat and the fire had to be taken out of them by putting paint on the backside. I didn't read it myselv, but in the view of medieval diatetics it makes perfect sense. You can talk to Julia about this on Friday, if you like.


kuechenmeyster said...

I just gave the diamond-idea another thought. I still think of a very hard steel-like material, but I had a thought that could support the diamond.
As I wrote last time, it was believed that colour takes the fire out of a diamond. The blood of an animal could be seen as some kind of colour. If the powers of the helmet derived from the “fire” of diamonds, some coloured fluid - paint, animal blood,… - could weaken its strength by extinguishing the fire within the gemstones.
On the other hand the “contemplation” (= character) of some animals is said to be “hot” Therefore you have to cook the meat before roasting it. The roasting adds “hotness” to the meat and it would otherwise become “to hot” for eating without risking health-damage. If the animal had a “hot” contemplation, it could probably burn out the “wet” and “cool” contemplation of several materials. I don’t know whether steel was said to have a “cold” and “wet” contemplation or “hot” and “dry”. But if the animal’s contemplation is found to be “hot”, the material its blood weakens must have been “cold” and “wet”.

kuechenmeyster said...

Please read "complexion" not "contemplation". I don't know why but I always mix them up, even in German. It's a medieval medical term meaning the mixture of the four basic fluids "phlegma" (=slime), "cholera" (=yellow gall), blood and "melancholera" (=black gall).

Teffania said...

I think I recall some very silly gem encrusted armour and weaponry from other literature, but it's been a few years since I read any of them (it would have been nearly all 12th C western european stuff, maybe till 1220 and a few chanson from the 10th & 11th C).

Perhaps if you try searching for other gemstones in the Middle High German Conceptual Database? http://mhdbdb.sbg.ac.at:8000/
I looked at adamas, and there are lots of references, but my german is not good enough to skim middle high german without a dictionary.

It does at least list adamas as part of a list of gemstones, elsewhere in parcival so i think he really is referring to diamond:

Also, aren't there other versions/early translations of parcival? It might be interesting to see what they have to say of his helmet.

a stitch in time said...

I do admit this topic leaves me absolutely dazzled now. There are so many viewpoints that it feels to me like a true (modern) diamond - sending off sparks of light into every direction.

And to be honest: I am really, really glad I do not have to come up with a proper interpretation or explanation of this!