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Beowulf against the dragon.

Finding Beowulf: Is Some of the Famous Anglo-Saxon Heroic Epic Based on Truth?

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Beowulf is possibly the most famous example of Anglo-Saxon literature. The heroic epic was created between the 8th-11th century and is set in Scandinavia. In the tale, Beowulf helps the king of the Danes, Hroðgar, by defeating a monstrous being called Grendel. Until Beowulf showed up, Grendel had been wreaking havoc on the mead hall and the rest of the kingdom. Just a piece of fiction? Maybe not. The 6th century dining hall at the center of this epic has been found in Denmark.

Beowulf, The Legend

In the Beowulf story, Hroðgar had a ‘great and splendid hall’ created to share the gifts of God. The legend says craftsmen came from distant lands to build the hall and their skilled hands completed the construction quickly. This hall was called Heorot and it was the site of grand feasts, the gifting of gold rings, and the sounds of songs and poetry around a harp. But all the merrymaking annoyed Grendel, who snuck into the hall while Hroðgar and his warriors were resting…he devoured many of them.

Hroðgar receives wine from the Queen.

Hroðgar receives wine from the Queen. ( Public Domain )

Veronica Parkes describes how the rest of the Beowulf story involving Grendel goes:

“As a result, Heorot is abandoned by those who are left and a call is made for aid. Beowulf answers this call and faces Grendel one on one, without any weapon. Beowulf’s men come to his aid in the heat of battle, but their swords cannot pierce the monster’s skin. Finally, Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm from his body and the monster retreats to the marshes and it dies.”

That’s not even the end of it. Grendel had a mother and she sought revenge for her son’s death. Beowulf tracked her down, found she took Grendel’s body with her, and that her skin was also immune to his weapons. But he was able to defeat her with a sword found in her lair. The warrior decapitated Grendel’s mother and Grendel, then brought the heads to Hrothgar and was presented with many gifts at Heorot.

The Real Setting of Heorot

Heorot has now been named a real location. It was discovered in the old royal capital of Denmark, Lejre, 23 miles (37 km) west of modern Copenhagen by Tom Christensen and his team. The archaeologists found, excavated, and dated the building to the late 5th or early 6th century. They also managed to name the foods that were probably consumed at the grand feasts held in Lejre’s first royal hall.

A representation of Heorot.

A representation of Heorot. ( An Historian Goes to the Movies )

By analyzing the bones of hundreds of animals discovered at the site, the researchers showed that suckling pig, beef, mutton, goat meat, venison, goose, duck, chicken, and fish were all feasted on. They also found fragments of glass drinking vessels, pottery from England and Rhineland, and 40 pieces of bronze, gold, and silver jewelry.

Reflecting on the discovery , project director Dr. Christensen, curator of Denmark’s Roskilde Museum, said, “For the first time, archaeology has given us a glimpse of life in the key royal Danish site associated with the Beowulf legend.”

Beowulf fighting Grendel’s mother beside Grendel’s body.

Beowulf fighting Grendel’s mother beside Grendel’s body. (ndhill/ Deviant Art )

Is There More Truth to the Beowulf Story?

The find raises the question as to how much of the Beowulf story is legend and what may be truth. Historical records also state that the grand hall was abandoned due to Grendel’s attacks. If Grendel (literarily ‘the destroyer’) existed as a malevolent spirit causing disease and death, or was a fierce human enemy, is still unknown.

Another depiction of what Grendel may have looked like.

Another depiction of what Grendel may have looked like. ( Public Domain )

Riley Winters has explored this topic in a previous Ancient Origins article . She came to the conclusion that:

“Grendel is likely a version of a Scandinavian giant . While the Anglo-Saxon author—whoever he was—might have created his own version of a "monster" while placing the tale of Beowulf in Scandinavia, the numerous interactions with Viking forces in modern day England, Ireland, and Denmark make it possible that the author attempted to incorporate Scandinavian mythology in the text as well. Further, there is quite a bit of overlap between pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon gods and Norse ones.”

Either way, it is exciting to think that at least some of the Beowulf story is based on real life – as shown by the identification of the story’s legendary hall.

Top image: Beowulf against the dragon. Source: Andimayer/ Deviant Art

By Joanna Gillan

Updated on July 23, 2020.

Comments

Hi RWTHLESS,

Didn't mean to confuse you it's just that the name Cain caught my attention it got me too thinking of Enoch; the intriguing thing I that I found out about Enoch is Enoch 2 Book of Secrets of Enoch; apparently, it was translated in Scandinavia isn't that region where Beowulf originated?

As for when Enoch got cast out from the Bible both the Vatican and the Protestant Reformation removed it the only place that still read The Book of Enoch is Ethiopia their Bible has over 87 Book's in its Scriptures; plus Enoch was so valued that in the mid-1700s a Scottish Missionary of the name Jerome who was hanging out in Ethiopia, saw a copy of The Book of Enoch in the Marketplace and immediately took that copy back to Europe, since He was Scottish, I'm going to assume that Jerome took it too Scotland.

Getting back to Cain, the symbol of Cain in the story of Beowulf for me at least also helped me to understand what I'm reading all about in Enoch and if you're interested Enoch 1 Book of Watchers is online for Free, Enoch 2 Book of Secrets of Enoch also online for Free Pseudigraphia is its heading, and Finally Enoch 3 Book of Giant's is Free Online yes I'm in the midst of studying these 3 Sacred Text.

Anyway sorry about the confusion Goodbye look forward to speaking too you again.

You are beginning to confuse me. Ancestors are before us. Our children and their children are our descendents.

I had forgotten about the daughters of Cain marrying angels. We have to remember when the book of Enoch was left out of the bible. I think the writer of the poem was Christian, but would only have the book of Genesis to draw on. England was almost entirely Christianised when the poem was written down, but perhaps to explain the wickedness of the monster the poet or editor called on the most sinful man who acted without outside influence by killing a person of his own blood to describe the indescribable. It's just a possibility that I have no particular evidence for.

Hello RWTHLESS,

Thank you wait did you say Cain as in Cain who murdered his Brother Abel?

Okay now Beowulf is beginning to make a little more sense too me, according; (this book I'm mentioning was dismissed by the Church in my case I'm beginning to believe this Book), to the Biblical Book of Enoch 1 The Book of the Watchers, who are 200 Fallen Angels, and Enoch 3 The Book of Giant's the 200 Angels married the daughters of Cain and some Angels married a female animal of a different Species, perhaps those half-human/half-animal gods paints a whole new meaning to those Ancient Statues of the World which now for me explains; Beowulf/Grendel/& his Mother Hrothgar.

I think that Hrothgar is also an Ancestor of Cain; Grendel an his mother must be his sister or distant Cousin's, perhaps an ancestor of one the Fallen Angels, God rendered Judgement and so as punishment because of what these 200 Angels did, turned their children in to Demons and Evil-Spirits.

Though to be fair God did try talking to the Children of these Angels who were the more reasonable ones but if one feels as though their invincible and there's nothing God can do too you then I suppose they would thumb their nose up at God's Olive Leaf.

God can't be bought He is no Respecters of Persons.

Which now helps me better understand Beowulf thank you for what you shared with me Goodbye!

According to the poem , and only source studied in Anglo-Saxon, Grendel is not described. If my memory serves me correctly he (or she) is referred to as the inheritor of Cain, who slew his brother Abel.

As an avid consumer of detective literature, this suggests to me that Grendel is human, and perhaps a relative of Hrothgar. The impervious skin suggests armour of some kind. I think the 'mother' is more of a garrison than a person or single monster. In armour and/or armed to the teeth.

The motive is clearly envy, and contempt for Hrothgar who seems unable to learn by his mistakes. Where did Hrothgar get the wealth in the first place to hand out in exchange for loyalty? By conquest? or a mine?

Cutting it all back to basics, after the feasting, Grendel massacres six men, then comes back and kills another six. Why only six when everyone on the hall is dead drunk and why not Hrothgar? Were the six nominally the guard? So the guards were killed on a second occasion. Normally the penalty for sleeping on guard duty. So Beowulf stays awake and disarms and seriously wounds Grendel who goes home to Mother. A garrison of soldiers who send out a patrol to investigate. When they see someone, they lock their shields to make a many legged 'tortoise' and go back to report. Beowulf finds the garrison of (probably only 10 men and six full sets of armour left behind by/or captured from the Romans. Maybe a small group that didn't want to go back to Rome. Perhaps local troops trained by a centurion's family. So Hrothgar's cousin has grown a bit bored by the feasting and sloppiness has found the camp and joined them to train in Roman warfare. He warns his cousin that he is at risk from his sloppiness so steals the weapons of the the first 6 guards, but kills the second lot of guards, taking their treasures and weapons.

Remember that Beowulf later goes on to kill a dragon whose hoard turns out to be cups and arm rings and other manufactured treasure,

Hello Joanna,

This is probably the most exciting article that I've came across and read. I'd sat in my teen years I would of thought Beowulf as this is just another great mythical story.

However, I've been reading and studying the cast out Biblical Book of Enoch; a Bible Book that I dismissed, for me it was a matter that if it wasn't in The Bible, then God didn't want it in The Bible but upon learning that Man made the decision and not God; well now I know better and because of the Book of Enoch, I thought they were all Myth's now I believe that those stories are true an that Beowulf did happen.

It is a bonus that archeological evidence supports the Beowulf account only thing is I wouldn't recommend searching for The Cave of Grendal an his mother (my attempt at humor).

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