Beowulf Norse Mythology Explained
Beowulf was without doubt the greatest poem in Old English literature. The poem was written in the heroic style and it seemed to be like an elegy to the hero’s feat.
You may have wondered why I had put a work from English literature in the Norse mythology. There are several reasons.
Old English language is actually the language of the Anglo-Saxon people. According to history, Angles and Saxons were Germanic tribes, who migrated to the British Isles in 5th and 6th century AD. Old English denoted the period where the language was written and spoken, between the time when the Angles and Saxons had settled in much of England to the time of when William of Normandy had fought the Battle of Hastings, in 1066.
The other reason why I had retold the Beowulf is that the whole scenes had taken place in Scandinavia – Denmark and Geatland. Beowulf was also a hero from the Geats, a tribe living in southern Sweden.
The poems also mentioned several known characters in the German and Norse legends, such as the hero Sigemund (Siegmund or Sigmund), and the divine smith Weland (Wayland in Middle English, Welund in German or Volund in Old Norse).
Genealogy: Beowulf and the Scyldings
|The island of Sjælland (Zealand) was the ancestral home of the Danes. Scyld Scefing was the founder of the Danish royal house, known as the Scyldings. His son, Beow, succeeded him at his death. Beow, like his father, was a powerful, yet a fair ruler. And when he died, his son Healfdene came to the throne.
Healfdene had three sons: Heorogar, Hrothgar and Halga. His daughter Yrse married the Swedish king, Onela. Hrothgar became king after him.
Hrothgar had married Wealhtheow and became the father of two sons, Hrethric and Hrothmund, and of a daughter named Freawaru. See the genealogy on the House of Scyld (the Scyldings).
Hrothgar was a strong and brave young king, who had won glory in battles. Like his predecessors Hrothgar was known for his fairness and generosity. Hrothgar built a grand palace or hall, called Heorot, where loyal and brave thanes dwelled and dined with him.
(A thane resembled something like a baron or free retainer, who provided military service to a lord or king, which was normal practice in the Anglo-Saxon. A thane was dependant on a lord or king’s generosity and largess. Since the people and scene were set in Scandinavia, then I would have used jarl, instead of thane, but I shouldn’t quip over the poetic licence of the English bard. Anyway, the name used was more like Anglo-Saxon than Old Norse.)
Hrothgar was at the height of power when the most devastating event struck his kingdom.
In Heorot, Hrothgar and his thanes had finished their joyful feast, before they had retired for the night. The thanes normally slept in Hrothgar’s hall.
Near Heorot, there was a fen where a sinister creature, which the Danes know as Grendel, dwelled at the bottom of the lake. Descriptions of Grendel were poor. Grendel could be either a giant or a demon. Perhaps, he was an ogre or a troll. Whatever, the creature was, it was humanoid, possessing arms and hands. The poem seemed to indicate that Grendel was a water-demon. What Grendel looked like was anyone’s guess. The poet informed us that the creature had lived in the fens and moors, since the time when the biblical Cain had murdered his brother. (The poet often referred to events that had occurred in the Old Testament. He also sometimes alluded to event and famous figures from German and Norse myths.)
While everyone slept, Grendel struck. The demon killed and carried off thirty of Hrothgar’s brave thanes. Grendel took the corpses back to his lair at the bottom of the lake. Grendel fed from the blood and flesh of the slain warriors.
In the morning, Hrothgar and his people were horrified at the bloody gore, and the king grieved over the loss of his loyal subjects.
Hrothgar tried to gather his most brave warriors to track down and destroy creature, or set them to guard the people in Heorot. All this, to no avail. Grendel would come to Heorot, every night on a bloody rampage, murdering the strong and the weak alike, feeding on the dead. Hrothgar had fought Grendel, but could not even harm the demon. This had gone on for twelve years, until Grendel had deprived Hrothgar of many brave warriors.
|By this time, a young thane and nephew of Hygelac, named Beowulf, had heard of the event in Heorot. Beowulf was the strongest and the bravest warrior in the world. Beowulf was determined to aid Hrothgar against Grendel: to win the glory of slaying the dreadful demon. Beowulf took fourteen of Hygelac’s bravest thanes with him.
Beowulf was the son of Ecgtheow and Hygelac’s unnamed sister. On his father’s side, Beowulf belonged to the family known as the Wægmundings, including Wiglaf (whom you will meet in the next part of the tale).
Hygelac was the son of Hrethel, king of the Geats. Hygelac had also two older brothers, Herebeald and Hæthcyn. Hæthcyn had accidentally killed Herebeald in a hunting trip. Hæthcyn succeeded his father, but Ongentheow, king of the Swedes, had killed him in the Battle of Ravenswood. So Hygelac was the current king of Geatland, in southern Sweden.
Beowulf arrived at Heorot with his 14 companions. They met Wulfgar, Hrothgar’s messenger and adviser. Beowulf entered the hall of Heorot, wearing his splendid corslet, made by the master smith, Weland (Wayland). Beowulf then introduced himself to the Danish king.
When Hrothgar heard that the young Geatish hero wished to aid him in slaying the monster Grendel, the king and his wife Wealhtheow warmly welcome Beowulf and his warriors as guests.
Here, Beowulf had told them that he had previously killed in five giants and a sea monster. Not every Danes received him warmly. Unferth thought the young hero was reckless braggart. Unferth had heard that Beowulf had lost a swimming race against Breca in the sea, while they wore full mail shirt armours and their swords.
Beowulf told Unferth, what really happened. Beowulf became separated from his swimming opponent, when he became involved in a life and death struggle against the sea monster. Beowulf despatched the monster with his sword.
Hrothgar became very fond of his young guest that he promised to reward Beowulf, if he managed to kill Grendel. Beowulf knew that the monster has carried no weapons, so Beowulf declared that he would confront the monster without the use of his sword.
After a supper and a long talk between Hrothgar and Beowulf, the king and his retainers left the hall and went to bed, leaving Beowulf and his followers to guard the hall.
Late at night, Grendel left his underwater lair, and stealthy entered the hall. All of his companions fell to sleep in the hall, while Beowulf waited in the dark. Grendel killed one of the sleeping Geatish warriors.
When Grendel went and attacked the next victim, Grendel was not only surprised to find him awake, but his prey had actually prevented him from crushing his victim. For once in his life, Grendel knew fear and pain. Pain, because Beowulf’s grips on his monstrous hands were so strong, that he could not disengage from the hero. Grendel felt agony, as he felt Beowulf crushed his hands and fingers. Beowulf was relentless.
A deadly struggle ensued, as the monster tried to escape. Beowulf’s companions watched in awe, before they joined in the fray, to protect their leader. They tried to hack at the monsters with their swords, to no avail. Grendel was invulnerable to all weapons of war.
Finally, Grendel felt excruciating pain, as Beowulf tore off one of his arms from his shoulder. His lifeblood sprouted from the large wound. Grendel immediately fled from Beowulf and Heorot, and returned to his watery home, to die in great agony, because his wound was mortal.
In Heorot, Hrothgar and his subjects were wakened from titanic struggle between the Geatish hero and the monster, found Beowulf holding Grendel’s missing arm as prove of his victory. They all knew that Beowulf had dealt a death blow to the creature that had killed many of Hrothgar’s warriors.
In the morning, the people of Heorot celebrated the death of Grendel. The Danes arranged a great funeral pyre to the Geatish warrior, who was murdered by Grendel, last night.
The bard also told of the war between the Danes and the Frisians. Hildeburh, the sister of King Hnæf of the Danes, had married Finn, the king of Frisians. War had broken out between the two tribes at Finnsburh. Hildeburh’s brother and son were killed in the fighting. Hengest became the new leader of the Danes. An uneasy truce was settled between the Danes and the Frisians. Hengest broke the peace, when the thane, Hunlafing incited the new king, to take vengeance upon the Finn and the Frisians. Finn, Hildeburh’s husband, was killed and his hall was looted.
As Hrothgar had promised, he rewarded the young hero with splendid armour, helmet and a banner depicting a wild boar. Hrothgar also gave the hero the sword of belonging to his father, Healfdene.
Beowulf had also received precious cup, which was a family heirloom. By giving the ancestral sword to the hero, it indicated that Hrothgar would like to adopt Beowulf as a son and make him heir, instead of his own son, Hrethric.
Wealhtheow was aware of her husband’s intention, anxiously asked Hrothgar to give whatever gifts he wish to Beowulf, but not to deprive one of her sons, the right to rule after him. Wealhtheow also bestowed some more gifts to Beowulf – a necklace and a corslet. The Danish queen also appealed to Beowulf to be kind to her sons.
The poem hint at that Hrothulf, Hrothgar’s nephew, would one day betray Hrothgar.
|The Danish king and his thanes thought they could sleep peacefully in the mead-hall at night, but their peril was far from over. Grendel may have died in his lair, from his wound and loss of blood, but Grendel’s mother mourned for the loss of her monstrous offspring.
Grendel’s mother was even more hideous and evil than her son (Grendel) was. The night when the Danes celebrated victory, Grendel’s mother decided to avenge her son’s death upon the unsuspecting Danes.
When the Danes and his honour guests were asleep, Grendel’s mother snatched one of Hrothgar’s thanes, murdering him while he slept. The creature immediately returned to her home, taking the thane’s carcass with her.
Beowulf was not sleeping in the hall that night. When they found that one of the thanes was missing, Hrothgar knew that Grendel’s mother had killed Æschere, a loyal adviser. Everyone was distressed that they faced a new crisis, but Beowulf promised to kill Grendel’s mother.
They tracked the monster to the lake, where they found Æschere’s severed head, which distressed everyone. They found the lake filled with unnamed serpents in the water.
Beowulf armed himself with a mail corslet and borrowed the sword from Unferth; the sword was called Hrunting (Unferth was the one who taunted Beowulf the previous day).
Beowulf then dived into the water, seeking the lair of Grendel’s mother. Grendel’s mother sensing human intruder in the water, snatch Beowulf. Other creatures in the water, also attacked the hero, but his corslet protected him. At the bottom of lake, Grendel’s mother brought the hero to a vaulted chamber – the lair of Grendel and his mother. He immediately swung his sword (Hrunting) right on the beast’s head. Though the Hrunting was a powerful sword in the battlefield, it was useless against Grendel’s mother.
Discarding the sword, Beowulf tried to fight the creature of the fens with his bare hands. Grappling with the monster by its shoulders, he flung Grendel’s mother to the ground. The monster leaped back to her feet, and tried to dash the hero to the ground. The creature then drew her dagger, but his corslet saved his life.
Beowulf saw another sword in the hall. The mighty weapon was possibly forged by a giant. It was larger than any sword even seen, and it was too heavy for one person to life the massive sword, except Beowulf. The Geatish warrior seized the sword by the hilt, and delivered a powerful stroke that severed the monster’s head. With the death of Grendel’s mother, Beowulf had avenged Æschere, the Danish thane.
As the hero explored the subterranean cave, Beowulf found that the vaulted hall was filled with weapons and treasures. Beowulf was not interested in the treasures; he had sought Grendel, who had escaped from Heorot. Beowulf found that Grendel had bled to death, but he severed Grendel’s head to take back with him, as proof of his victory. The giant’s sword melted from the poisoned blood. Beowulf discarded the now useless sword, and retrieved Unferth’s sword, Hrunting.
Hrothgar and his followers thought their brave champion must have died fighting Grendel’s mother, so they sadly returned to Heorot, after waiting for hours for the hero’s return. But the Geatish warriors stayed and waited for their leader’s return.
Beowulf returned to the surface with Grendel’s head. Beowulf’s followers were relieved that their leader was still alive, and rejoiced that their hero had overcome Grendel’s mother. His followers carried Grendel’s head, as they returned to Heorot.
There was great rejoicing when Hrothgar and Danish thanes saw that their saviour had returned triumphantly with Grendel’s head.
Once again, there was victory celebration, and Beowulf gave his account of what had happened. When the Danes went to bed, they knew that they no longer needed to fear any more creatures that would attack Heorot.
The next morning, Beowulf announced his need to return home. Hrothgar was sad that the young hero would leave so soon, since he loved his guest like a son of his own. Hrothgar gave some more gifts for the Geatish hero. Beowulf returned the Hrunting (sword) that he borrowed from Unferth. Beowulf returned to his ship and sailed back to Geatland, ladled full of Danish treasures and gifts.
In Geatland, Hygalec and his wife Hygd had joyfully welcomed the king’s nephew’s safe return from Denmark. Once again, Beowulf recounted his adventure in Heorot, his fight with Grendel, and later with Grendel’s mother.
Beowulf also foretold doom in the Danish royal house. Freawaru, the daughter of Hrothgar, was due to marry Ingeld of the Heathobards, so to end the feud between the Scyldings and the Heathobards. But Ingeld would not forgive the Danes for taunting him over his father’s death on his wedding day.
In an Old English poem, Widsith, which is the name of a legendary bard, is preserved in the 10th century Book of Exeter. This poem speak of many years of peace between Hrothgar and his nephew, Hrothulf, and of battle fought outside of Herot, and the defeat of Heathobard tribe. Ingeld’s name was mentioned in this poem, but doesn’t mention how he had married to Hrothgar’s daughter.
Beowulf would then display the gifts he had won, through friendship with Hrothgar, before the hero gave away most of his gifts.
|Hygelac, Beowulf’s uncle, was killed, fighting against the Franks, in Juteland.
Hygd, the wife of Hygelac, tried to bestow the kingdom to Beowulf, since she believed that her son was not strong enough to hold off any attack against their hostile neighbours, the Frisians and the Swedes. Beowulf refused to accept kingship, and let her son, Heardred, to rule the Geats, while the hero supported his young cousin.
However, Heardred was killed in the war against the Swedes, so Beowulf became king and his reign lasted for fifty years. He was said to be wise and powerful king.
The poem often go back to the past, recounting the events that took place during the reign of Hrethel (Beowulf’s grandfather), and his uncles Hæthcyn and Hygelac, the previous wars and battles. Not much detail was given about Beowulf’s own reign as a Geatish king.
See the genealogy on the House of Hrethel.
One day, a slave had found the treasure hoard of the dragon, which dwelled in a cave, near the sea. The slave stole a gold cup, while the dragon slept. When the dragon woke and found the cup was missing, the dragon knew that according to the track, the thief was human.
In most Norse and German myths, the dragon was often wingless. However, in the Beowulf, we find this dragon is what many most modern readers see dragons as a fire-breathing creature with strong powerful wings.
In a towering rage, the great evil dragon flew through the sky, attacking the Geats and the Geatish towns, destroying crops and properties. With vengeance in her heart, the dragon set peoples and homes on fire.
Beowulf was no longer young warrior like when he killed the monster Grendel and his mother. Yet Beowulf wished to hunt and kill the dragon, like he had always done in the past, alone. Though Beowulf took eleven of his bravest thanes with him; he only expects his followers to witness the encounter against the dragon. In fact, rather foolishly Beowulf told them that he does not want their help, and that he would not have taken his sword, if the dragon had not being a fire-breathing monster.
Beowulf and his Geatish followers found the cave or barrow. Beowulf was in the van, and headed towards the cave, where he was confronted by the dragon. With his sword drawn, the aged hero advanced upon the dragon. Beowulf struck the dragon’s head with the ancient sword, only to find the sword became blunted. The blow had only made the dragon angry.
Boewulf had seriously underestimated the dragon’s power, when the fire blasted out of its gaping maw. Beowulf’s mighty shield was bare protection from the scorching flame. Beowulf’s body suffered great agony from the flame, while the toxic fumes of the dragon’s breath seared his lungs.
Geatish warriors who witnessed their lord’s titanic battle, began to quail in terror, and fled from the troubled king. Only one warrior did not flee. Wiglaf was a kinsman of Beowulf and the son of Weohstan, who was. Wiglaf had received the citadel of the Wægmundings.
Wiglaf rushed in, with the sword of the Swedish prince, Eanmund, whom his father had killed. Together the two Geatish heroes attacked the dragon. Once again, Beowulf struck monster’s head with his sword, Nægling, but the mighty blade broke in two.
The dragon attacked again, biting into the hero’s neck and shoulder. The corslet could not protect him, as blood streamed down, and the venom entered into his body.
With his sword, Wiglaf thrust the blade into the dragon’s belly, seriously wounded the serpent. Beowulf was still alive, managed to draw his dagger, and slay the dragon.
Having killing the dragon, the hero could no longer stand, as the poison seared his body in excruciating agony; his wound was mortal.
Without an heir, Beowulf knew that his neighbouring enemies would most likely attack his Geatish kingdom, when they hear the news of his death. Beowulf asked his loyal companion, to fetch the dragon’s treasure, so he could see what he had won, before he died. Wiglaf obeyed his leader’s last wish.
After seeing the treasure, Beowulf gave Wiglaf the gold collar, which probably signifies the young hero, as his successor. Then the mighty Beowulf’s soul left his body.
Wiglaf mourned for his beloved prince and kinsman. Wiglaf was also angry and he rebuked the ten warriors who had cowardly deserted their king. Wiglaf ordered one of them to send news back to the palace, of the death of their king.
The messenger brought the sad news to the Geats and a prediction of troubled time against their enemies from the Swedes and the Frisians, now they had no strong leadership.
Wiglaf had a great funeral pyre set just outside of the barrow, on the cliff overlooking the sea, which was called Whaleness. They had pushed the body of the dragon, over the precipice into the sea. Once his body was consumed to ashes, the dragon’s hoard was buried; never to be seen or used again.