Beowulf & Grendel: Monsters, Mistranslations & A Genetic Interpretation
The 6th century epic poem Beowulf echoes as loud today as it did when it was written fifteen hundred years ago. Ink has been spilt, careers made, films produced, and academic wars have been waged in the analysis and interpretation of this monumental story. It is only fitting that this great tale of battle and glory, that blurs the line between history and legend, has itself become an intellectual battlefield.
While one faction has sought, and found, archaeological evidence of historic validation, the other is entrenched in its position that the Beowulf epic holds little to no historical value, but is an exquisite literary metaphor about human corruption due to vanity, wealth, and power. But if the former faction is correct, and the account has some degree of historical accuracy, could there be a nucleus of truth to the existence of Grendel and his mother? Could the conflict between the Danes and these cave-dwelling, cannibalistic trolls, be a stylized recollection of interspecies hominin warfare?
The Story of Beowulf: Quick Literature Review
For those who may have dodged their mandatory reading or who were understandably irritated by the Old English awkwardness, Beowulf is a Swedish hero of great renown. In the epic, Beowulf sails to aid the Danish king, Hrothgar, whose grand mead hall is being terrorized by the cannibalistic night raids of a grotesque troll known as Grendel.
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Beowulf’s strength and valor are highlighted by the epic poem as it recounts his heroic deeds: he slays Grendel, his vicious mother, and eventually, Beowulf is crowned king of the Geats. The epic poem climaxes when Beowulf destroys a dragon, but is mortally wounded in combat. He dies with a glorious legacy and, like kings before him in Denmark and Sweden, he was entombed within a grand burial mound, rich with fabulous treasure.
Grendel by John Henry Frederick Bacon. ( Public domain )
Who, or What, Were Grendel and Modor?
The translations that apply to the characteristics of Grendel, and the limited descriptions, are all steeped in controversy. Nevertheless, there do exist some clues, like the word sceadugenga, which means shadow-walker. When Grendel is tracked to his dwelling, it is an underground cave whose entrance is concealed by a bog.
Neither Grendel nor his mother breach the surface during daylight, and when they do, they conduct ambush raids, then quickly retreat back to their subterranean safe haven. The term shadow-walker then, may be a reference to their night-going, nocturnal, or general preference to live in darkness. Although, there do seem to be vague references in the tale to a supernatural shroud of darkness that envelopes Grendel.
Nobel Prize winner, Irish poet and translator Seamus Heaney deciphered descriptions of Grendel that indicate he was roughly human, but very large and with hard skin, covered in growths or scales of some kind.
“The other, warped in the shape of a man, moves beyond the pale bigger than any man, an unnatural birth, called Grendel by the country people in former days. Every nail, claw-scale and spur, every spike and welt on the hand of that heathen brute was like barbed steel. Everybody said there was no honed iron hard enough to pierce him through, no time proofed blade that could cut his brutal blood caked claw. ”
Descriptions of Grendel’s mother, who he calls Modor, are even more scant, and similarly scholars have a variety of translations and interpretations for this character. These include ugly troll woman, hag, fiend, warrior woman, and even monstrous hag wretch. But again, besides these descriptions, it is clear that she is very powerful. In fact, Beowulf barely defeats her, and only thanks to an ancient sword. It is also clear that she lives underground and that she conducted an ambush night raid on the Danes in retaliation for the death of her son.
Scholarly Battles Over Different Translations
The crux of the scholarly debate is the word áglæca. The most common translation of this word is monster; however, the way in which it is used to describe Beowulf as well as Grendel, his mother, and the dragon, call into question the negative connotations associated with monstrosity. The essential function of the poem is to glorify the heroic deeds of Beowulf and this is the problem with the monster translation.
Alternatively, opponent scholars have suggested the word means something more like warrior or combatant. This translation also leaves something to be desired due to the reality that the dragon, although engaged in battle, is certainly more of a beast or monster than a combatant of warfare.
It’s also important to keep in mind that none of the other soldiers in the tale are referred by this word, even though Beowulf is constantly surrounded by subordinate soldiers in the story. Only Grendel, his Modor, Beowulf, and the dragon are referred to by this word, with one exception. The epic poem contains a story within a story, in which the word is applied to Sigmunde, a Nordic / Germanic hero of legendary renown.
The epic poem Beowulf burr describes a battle in Denmark between Beowulf and a terrible monster called Grendel. Could it be that Grendel was actually a member of an archaic species? ( Public domain )
An Alternative, Genetic Interpretation?
How can this word be reconciled? Perhaps the reason the solution is so elusive is because there is a physical, scientific, even genetic component that distinguishes these characters from the others. Beowulf, according to the story, is not a normal guy. The seemingly inhuman capabilities of Beowulf are easily dismissed as the exaggeration or aggrandizement of the hero of a story; however, if this dismissal is delayed and a biological lens is applied there is a possibility that Grendel, his Modor, the dragon, and even, to some extant, Beowulf may have been genetic relics of archaic species.
Archaic hominins were wild and lethal hunters with physical capabilities, especially combat related, which far exceeded that of Homo sapiens. Evolutionary biologist and paleontologist at the University of Bath, Dr. Nicholas Longrich describes the scenario of conflict between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals in the following manner:
“Neanderthals probably had tactical and strategic advantages. They’d occupied the Middle East for millennia, doubtless gaining intimate knowledge of the terrain, the seasons, how to live off the native plants and animals. In battle, their massive, muscular builds must have made them devastating fighters in close-quarters combat. Their huge eyes likely gave Neanderthals superior low-light vision, letting them maneuver in the dark for ambushes and dawn raids .”
Beowulf as depicted by Helen Stratton in the 1915 edition of "A Book of Myths". ( Public domain )
Neanderthal / Archaic Hominin Extinction and Range Theories
There have been no officially documented discoveries of archaic humans in Denmark. The long standing anthropological consensus has been that Ice Age conditions of Scandinavia prevented even the cold climate geared Neanderthals from reaching that far North. There is also, of course, the oceanic travel issue, all of which seems to indicate there were no archaic hominins in Denmark.
Meanwhile, the prevailing theories on Neanderthal extinction hypothesize that this occurred around 45,000 to 50,000 years ago. But despite all of this, recent discoveries are challenging these paradigms. This is not uncommon when it comes to the subject of Neanderthals. It was only decades ago when Neanderthals were believed by the experts to be a small step up from apes, a king of knuckle walking species with no language and no culture.
Due to this textbook confirmation bias, “the experts” were looking for an ape-man. Today, however, science has taught us that these basic concepts are incorrect. In the words of Dr. Longrich:
“Behaviorally, Neanderthals were astonishingly like us. They made fire, buried their dead, fashioned jewelry from seashells and animal teeth, made artwork and stone shrines. If Neanderthals shared so many of our creative instincts, they probably shared many of our destructive instincts, too. The archaeological record confirms Neanderthal lives were anything but peaceful. Neanderthalensis were skilled big game hunters, using spears to take down deer, ibex, elk, bison, even rhinos and mammoths. It defies belief to think they would have hesitated to use these weapons if their families and lands were threatened. Archaeology suggests such conflicts were commonplace .”
Neanderthal Artifacts Discovered on a Danish Island
Lasse Sorensen, head of research at the National Museum in Copenhagen, recently announced the possible discovery of Neanderthal artifacts on a Danish island. “I did not think we would find anything at all, but we have actually found some stones that have possible traces of being humanly worked, and that in itself is amazing,” he explained.
The importance of this discovery in understanding the spread of Neanderthals throughout the world, and into Denmark, can’t be underestimated. “If we find out that these stones have been worked by Neanderthals, we are writing Danish history, and it will resonate all over the world,” highlighted Sorensen. But that’s not all. A newly published paper on climate models from Aarhus University in Denmark indicates that the climate would have been sufficiently warm for the Neanderthals to have thrived hundreds of thousands of years ago.
To Be or Not to Be (Extinct)? The Trick Question of Extinction
The gold standard of scientific reasoning is that a hypothesis must be testable by experimentation and observation. This makes definitive science regarding the extinction of a species very difficult at best and impossible at worst. Reasonable presumption of a species’ extinction is understandable, but these presumptions have a way of becoming perceived facts. In fact, many other species have been presumed extinct, only to appear alive and well.
In some cases, the presumed extinction was believed to have occurred hundreds of millions of years ago. Goblin sharks , tree lobsters, Arakan forest turtles, coelacanths, night parrots, Chacoan peccary, New Guinea big-eared bats, New Guinea singing dogs. All of these species were believed to be extinct. Others, such as the giant squid, were for centuries believed to not exist at all, except in the imaginations of sailors and storytellers. As a whole, our species tends to overestimate our awareness of the environment, and we appear to be quick to jump to biased conclusions regarding the potential existence or extinction of the various species that share our planet.
Beowulf decapitates Grendel by John Henry Frederick Bacon. ( Public domain )
Archaic Hominins Interbred and Fought with Homo Sapiens
Smithsonian paleontologist Briana Pobiner has recently made the suggestion that Neanderthals aren’t exactly extinct. “Some would say Neanderthals didn’t go extinct, because everyone alive today whose ancestry is from outside of Africa (where Neanderthals never lived) carries a little bit of Neanderthal DNA in their genes.”
Territorial competition between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens was also cited by Dr. Pobiner (and every other expert on the subject), as a major contributing factor to the downfall of archaic hominin species like Neanderthal. Flashing back to the Beowulf narrative, the tale begins with the expansion of the Danes’ geographic footprint, as they erect a massive, new mead hall. According to the story, the sound of the Danes merrymaking somehow triggers the cannibalistic night raids of Grendel.
Anthropologists on multiple continents have discovered evidence of cannibalism in Neanderthal bone heaps, and the interbreeding that took place was in all likelihood not a romantic, consensual affair. Anthropologists suspect that this copulation probably resulted from abductions during Neanderthal night raids on the camps of Homo sapiens, resulting in the women being taking captive and impregnated.
Making Sense of Beowulf
Beowulf scholars mostly agree that the main characters of the story were at least based on genuine, sixth century, historical figures. The epic poem references the location of burial mounds belonging to a Geatland king, Eadgils, and the actual site Galma Uppsala, in Sweden was excavated in 1874. The excavations revealed a royal burial of the correct time period, and to some degree, validated the Beowulf account.
When a species reaches the brink of extinction, from the human perspective, these species become fascinations and legends. If a Homo sapien were to have a chance encounter with a rare relic of hominin, it would most likely be a terrifying ordeal, like encountering a monster indeed. Even today, when looking at images of goblin shark online, this bygone species of shark looks absolutely hideous in comparison to the common breeds of shark we are more familiar with.
Perhaps Beowulf’s inhuman strength, and his áglæca designation, reflect his genetic ancestry, perhaps Beowulf was a hybridized descendant of archaic hominins and Homo sapiens. Perhaps Grendel was closer to a full-blooded archaic hominin, like a Neanderthal, or even some other human species, like Denisovan, Heidelbergensis, or the mysteriously forgotten Cro-Magnon.
Beowulf face to face with fire-breathing dragon in an illustration by Logan Marshall. ( Public domain )
And the Dragon?
Homo sapiens being freaked out by relics of an archaic species would not only apply to hominins, but also to megafauna, and gigantic, beastly megafauna certainly did exist. Our ancestors came into contact with all manner of these enormous and savage creatures. It not such a stretch to suggest that as Homo sapiens expanded exponentially and spread their civilization into more and more remote areas, they would have encountered rare, ancient, relic species, which undoubtedly would have seemed monstrous.
In this way, the term áglæca could be understood to describes remnants of an ancient species, most of which would have appeared monstrous to Homo sapiens. This also relieves the poet from any offense to Beowulf, because it is no insult to acknowledge Beowulf’s rare, archaic ancestry.
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It is not so much that Beowulf, Grendel, Modor, the dragon, Sigmunde are all “monsters”. The point is that they would have appeared as freaks of nature to the eyes of a contemporary Homo sapien. If a modern Homo sapien were to see a goblin shark in an aquarium, they could apply the term áglæca, just as it was applied to whatever frightening relic species this “dragon” may have been.
Probably the most luminous of all the scholars to translate Beowulf was J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, in his time, was apparently not pleased with the quest to discover the historic value behind the tale, instead, preferring to admire it for its literary impact. The reflective inspiration and intimate relationship between history and mythology in this mystery, bring to mind the true story of Troy and the great Heinrich Schliemann , the amateur archaeologist who discovered the ancient city of Troy precisely where Homer had described it. And for Tolkien, perhaps “some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth.”
Top image: Beowulf fighting a shadow-walker. Source: matiasdelcarmine / Adobe Stock
By Mark A. Carpenter
Beck, A. M. 8 February 2016. “Neanderthals could have survived in Scandinavia” in ScienceNordic.com. Available at: https://sciencenordic.com/archaeology-denmark-the-origin-of-man/neanderthals-could-have-survived-in-scandinavia/1429163
Gibbons, J. 11 August 2015. “Why did Neanderthals go extinct?” in Smithsonian Stories . Available at: https://www.si.edu/stories/why-did-neanderthals-go-extinct
Kuhn, S. 1979. "Old English Áglæca-Middle Irish Olach" in Linguistic Method: Essays in Honor of Herbert Penzl, pp. 216–217. Mouton Publishers.
Longrich, N. R. 2 November 2020. “Did Neanderthals go to war with our ancestors?” in BBC. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20201102-did-neanderthals-go-to-war-with-our-ancestors