Uncovering the long-lost secrets of Beowulf
For those who are unaware, Beowulf is an Old English heroic epic poem set in Scandinavia and cited as one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature of all time. Dated between the 8 th and early 11 th century, the epic poem tells the story of Beowulf, a great hero who comes to the aid of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, by defeating a beast known as Grendel who had been terrorising the great mead hall built by Hroðgar and threatening the entire kingdom. Now archaeologists in Demark have excavated the sixth-century great dining hall at the centre of the epic work.
According to the legend of Beowulf, the ‘great and splendid hall’, had been commissioned by Hroðgar so he could share with his warriors and his people the gifts God had given them. Craftsmen came from far and wide to work on the hall, and before long it was finished. Hrothgar named the hall Heorot, and there, as he had promised, he held feasts for his people, gave out gold rings and other gifts. Poets sang to the sound of the harp. The hall-roof was high over the heads of the feasters. But the jubilant noise from Heorot angered Grendel, who entered the hall while the king and his warriors had been sleeping and succeeded in devouring many of them.
The incredible discovery of the great hall of Heorot was made in the country’s earliest royal capital, Lejre, 23 miles west of modern Copenhagen. The archaeologists – led by Tom Christensen, director of the Lejre investigation – have so far managed not only to find, excavate and date the late 5 or early 6 century building most likely to have been Lejre’s first royal hall but have also succeeded in reconstructing what was on the menu at the great feasts held there.
Scientific study this year of the bones of literally hundreds of animals found near the hall, shows that they feasted on suckling pig, beef, mutton, goat meat, venison, goose, duck, chicken and fish. Other finds from around the hall have included fragments of glass drinking vessels, 40 pieces of bronze, gold and silver jewellery, and pottery imported from England and the Rhineland.
“For the first time, archaeology has given us a glimpse of life in the key royal Danish site associated with the Beowulf legend’’, said project director Dr. Christensen, curator of Denmark’s Roskilde Museum, four miles from Lejre.
Now questions emerge as to how much of Beowulf was actually legend. Historical records state that the royal hall was in fact abandoned because of the depredations of Grendel. Whether Grendel (meaning quite literarily ‘the destroyer’) originally existed in some less legendary form – perhaps symbolizing a malevolent spirit responsible for disease and death, or a particularly fierce-looking human enemy – is as yet unknown.
Featured image: Beowulf and Grendel. Credit: ndhill