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Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

Heraldry in Ulysses

Heraldry is the "art or science of a herald; now, esp. the art or science of blazoning armorial bearings and of settling the right of persons to bear arms or certain bearings; in connection with which it deals with the tracing and recording of pedigrees, and deciding of questions of precedence" (OED).

The art of heraldry focuses primarily on the shield, or escutcheon, which would have been used to identify a particular person in battle. Over time, a system was developed in order to make these shields as unique as possible and avoid confusion (O’Shea 6-9). An elaborate terminology called blazon was developed to describe every element on a shield or coat of arms so that they could be replicated and recorded. Blazon consists of three basic elements: tinctures, ordinaries and charges. It also includes specific jargon pertaining to the background of a shield, as well as to locations on a shield (Ragen 6-7).

James Joyce used this language of heraldry throughout his work, with increasing complexity from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. In Ulysses, Joyce begins to use the language of heraldry not just to refer to specific coats of arms, incorporating blazon (along with Italian, French, Spanish, etc) as another of the many languages at play in the novel. For example, "murrey" is one of the "stains," or unconventional colors, in the heraldic system. It refers to a particular shade of red. Throughout Ulysses, Joyce refers to a character redundantly named "Red Murray" (U 7.24, 7.31, 7.40, 7.55, 15.4342). Here, blazon and autobiographical details both contribute to Joyce’s act of naming, since Red Murray is also the nickname of Joyce's maternal uncle. Joyce always uses this character’s full title, but fails to capitalize "red" in "Circe," drawing attention to the name’s adjective/proper noun fluidity (U 15.4342). "Red Murray" may be an obscure allusion, but it reveals the extent to which heraldic terms are intertwined with other concepts—like identity, autobiography, history, and word play—in the text.

Below you'll find a basic heraldic glossary with links to the relevant passages in the online Ulysses Concordance. This should be a starting place for anyone interested in how heraldry works in the novel, but it is by no means exhaustive. Charges, the symbols or emblems featured on a shield or coat of arms, are particularly difficult to catalog as they could have been pretty much anything. The list is limited to those that appear to be most significant to Joyce and to Ulysses.

The details of heraldry in this project are based mainly on Fox-Davies, with public domain illustrations from Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia, linked to their sources.

Important Heraldic Vocabulary


The background of a shield

Selected Textual Occurrences: Proteus, Lestrygonians, Circe


The right side of the shield as viewed

Textual Occurrences


The left side of the shield as viewed

Textual Occurrence


Used to describe a charge when it has natural coloring instead of one of the official heraldic colors

Selected Textual Occurrence: Proteus

The Rule of Tincture

Metals must not be placed on other metals; colors must not be placed on other colors.

Ulster King of Arms

Official heraldic authority in Ireland

Textual Occurrences

Coat of Arms

The distinctive heraldic bearings or shield of a person, family, corporation, or country

Selected Textual Occurrences: Lotus-Eaters, Cyclops, Ithaca