After the Flood, by Bill Cooper


Chapter 11

Beowulf and the Creatures of Denmark



The Beowulf poem survives in a single manuscript copy that was made in ca AD 1000. Moreover, this manuscript (1) is often stated by modern critics to be a copy of a mid-8th century Anglo-Saxon (i.e. Old English) original, now lost. This original is in turn described as an essentially Christian poem. Yet, the continually repeated assertion of the supposedly Christian origins of the poem not only contributes toward a serious misunderstanding of the poem's nature and purpose, but notably fails to take into account the following facts.

Firstly, there are no allusions whatever in the poem to any event, person or teaching of the New Testament. This is in sharp contrast to other Anglo-Saxon poems (The Dream of the Rood, and so on) that certainly are Christian in sentiment. There are definite allusions to certain facts and personages contained in the Old Testament, namely to God, the Creation, to Abel and to Cain, but these are no more than those same historical allusions that are to be met with in the other preChristian Anglo-Saxon genealogies and records that we have already studied in chapter 7 of this book. Like those records, and whilst likewise showing a most interesting historical knowledge of certain events and personages that also appear in the Genesis record, the Beowulf poem clearly pre-dates any knowledge among the Anglo-Saxons of Christianity per se.

In view of this, it is hardly surprising to find that the sentiments of the poem are strongly pagan, extolling the highly questionable virtues of vengeance, the accumulation of plunder and the boasting of and reliance upon human strength and prowess. Allusions are also made to blatantly pagan oaths, sacrifices, sentiments and forms of burial. But there are certainly no exclusively Christian sentiments expressed anywhere in its 3182 lines of text.

Nowhere in the poem is any reference made to the British Isles or to any British (or English) king, personage or historical event. This is simply because this epic poem pre-dates the migration of the Saxons to these isles. And what are we to make of the following passage?:

'fortham Offa waes geoflim ond guthum garcene man wide geweorthod wisdome heold ethel sinne thonon Eomer woc haelethum to helpe... ' (2) (Emphases mine)

Which Alexander (see bibliography) translates thus:

'So it was that Offa [i.e. king of the continental Angles], brave with the spear, was spoken of abroad for his wars and his gifts; he governed with wisdom the land of his birth. To him was born Eomer, helper of the heroes...' (3)

The Offa who is mentioned here was the pre-migration ancestor of his 8th century namesake, King Offa of Mercia (AD 757-796), whom we have already met (along with this same ancestor), in the early Saxon genealogies. We have also met Eomer in the same genealogies, where his name is rendered Eomer and where he is, strictly speaking, the grandson, and not the son, of Offa. These ancient genealogies were clearly fresh in the mind of the writer of Beowulf, which again tells us something of the times in which the poem was composed. (4)

There is, moreover, no sycophantic dedication of the poem to any Christian Anglo-Saxon English king, not even to that King Offa whose ancestor is immortalised in the poem and under whose auspices some modern scholars suggest the poem was written. Many other scholars would plump for an even later date for the poem, yet the characters in the poem can be historically dated to the late 5th and early 6th centuries, years that long preceded the adoption of Christianity by the Saxons. In other words, the poem belongs very firmly indeed to the pagan times which it describes.

A detailed study of the historical characters contained in the Beowulf epic and their relationships to each other, is set out in Appendix 9. But to briefly summarise here, Beowulf, the character in whose honour the poem was written, was no mythical figure. His place is firmly set in history. He was born the son of Ecgtheow in AD 495. At the age of seven, in AD 502, he was brought to the court of Hrethel, his maternal grandfather (AD 445-503) who was then king of the Geatingas, a tribe who inhabited what is today southern Sweden (and whose eponymous founder, Geat, also appears in the early genealogies--see chapter 7). After an unpromising and feckless youth, during which years were fought the Geatish/Swedish wars, in particular the Battle of Ravenswood [Hrefnawudu] in the year AD 510, Beowulf undertook his celebrated journey to Denmark, to visit Hrothgar, king of the Danes. This was in AD 515, Beowulf's twentieth year. (This was also the year of his slaying the monster Grendel which we shall examine shortly.) Six years later, in AD 521, Beowulf's uncle, King Hygelac, was slain.

Hygelac himself is known to have lived from AD 475 - 521, having come to the throne of the Geatingas in AD 503, the year of his father Hrethel's death. He is independently mentioned in Gregory of Tour's Historiae Francorum, where his name is rendered Chlocbilaichus. (5)

There, and in other Latin Frankish sources, (6) he is described as a Danish king (Chogilaicus Danorum rex), not a Geat, but this is the same mistake that our own English chroniclers made when they included even the Norwegian Vikings under the generic name of Danes. The Liber Monstrorum, however, did correctly allude to him as rex Getarum, king of the Geats. Saxo also mentions him as the Hugletus who destroyed the Swedish chief Homothus. Homothus, in turn, is the same as that Eanmund who is depicted in line 2612 of the Beowulf poem.

On Hygelac's death, Beowulf declined the offer to succeed his uncle to the throne of the Geatingas, choosing instead to act as guardian to Hygelac's son, prince Heardred, during the years of Heardred's minority. (Heardred lived from AD 511- 533. He was therefore in his tenth year when he became king.) Heardred, however, was killed by the Swedes in AD 533 (for giving shelter to the Swedish king's nephews--see Appendix 9), and it was in this year that Beowulf took over the reins of kingship. Beowulf went on to rule his people in peace for fifty years, dying at some 88 years of age in the year AD 583. The manner of his death, though, is particularly relevant to our study, as we shall see.

But first, we must dispel one particular and erroneous notion that has bedeviled studies in this field for years. Since the poem's rediscovery in the early 18th century (although it was brought to the more general attention of scholars in the year 1815 when it was first printed), scholars have insisted on depicting the creatures in their translations of the poem as 'trolls'. The monster Grendel, it is said, was a troll. And the older female who was assumed by the Danes to have been his mother, is likewise called by modern translators a troll-wife.

The word 'troll' is of Nordic origin, and in the fairy-tales of Northern Europe it is supposed to have been a human-like, mischievous and hairy dwarf who swaps troll children for human children in the middle of the night. For good measure, trolls are sometimes depicted as equally mischievous and hairy giants, some of whom lived under bridges or in caves. Which would be all well and good but for the singular observation that the word 'troll' is entirely absent from the original Anglo-Saxon text of Beowulf! The poem is full of expressions that we would call zoological terms, and these relate to all kinds of creatures, (see Appendix 10). But none of them have anything whatever to do with dwarves, giants, trolls or fairies, mischievous or otherwise. And whilst we are on the subject, the monster Grendel preyed on the Danes for twelve long years (AD 503-515). Are we seriously to believe then that these Danish Vikings, whose berserker-warriors struck such fear into the hearts of their neighbours, were themselves for twelve long years rendered helpless with terror by a hairy dwarf; even a 'giant' one? For that is what certain of today's mistranslations of the poem would have us believe.

By the time of his slaying the monster Grendel in AD 515, Beowulf himself had already become something of a seasoned hunter of large reptilian monsters. He was renowned amongst the Danes at Hrothgar's court for having cleared the local sea lanes of monstrous animals whose predatory natures had been making life hazardous for the open boats of the Vikings. Fortunately, the Anglo-Saxon poem, written in pure celebration of his heroism, has preserved for us not just the physical descriptions of some of the monsters that Beowulf encountered, but even the names under which certain species of these animals were known to the Saxons and Danes.

However, in order to understand exactly what it is that we are reading when we examine these names, we must appreciate the nature of the Anglo-Saxon language. The Anglo-Saxons (like the modern Germans and Dutch) had a very simple method of word construction, and their names for everyday objects can sometimes sound amusing to our modern English ears when translated literally. A body, for example, was simply a bone-house (banhus), and a joint a bone-lock (banloca). When Beowulf speaks to his Danish interrogator, he is said quite literally to have unlocked his word-hoard (wordhord onleoc). Beowulf's own name means bear, and it is constructed in the following way. The Beo-element is the Saxon word for bee, and his name means literally a bee-wolf. The bear has a dog-like face and was seen by those who wisely kept their distance to apparently be eating bees when it raided their hives for honey. So they simply called the bear a bee-wolf. Likewise, the sun was called woruldcandel, lit. the world-candle. It was thus an intensely literal but at the same time highly poetic language, possessing great and unambiguous powers of description.

The slaying of Grendel is the most famous of Beowulf's encounters with monsters of course, and we shall come to look closely at this animal's physical description as it is given in the Beowulf epic. But in Grendel's lair, a large swampy lake, there lived other reptilian species that were collectively known by the Saxons as wyrmeynnes (lit. wormkind, a race of monsters and serpents--the word serpent in those days meant something rather more than a snake). Beowulf and his men came across them as they were tracking the female of Grendel's species back to her lair after she had killed and eaten King Hrothgar's minister, Asshere, whose half-eaten head was found on the cliff-top overlooking the lake.

Amongst them were creatures that were known to the Saxons and Danes as giant saedracan (sea-drakes or sea-dragons), and these were seen from the cliff-top suddenly swerving through the deep waters of the lake. Perhaps they were aware of the arrival of humans. Other creatures were lying in the sun when Beowulf's men first saw them, but at the sound of the battle-horn they scurried back to the water and slithered beneath the waves.

These other creatures included one species known to the Saxons as a nicor (pl. niceras), and the word has important connotations for our present study inasmuch as it later developed into knucker, a Middle English word for a water-dwelling monster or dragon. The monster at Lyminster in Sussex (see table of previous chapter) was a knucker as were several of the other reported sightings of such creatures in this country. The pool where the Lyminster dragon lived is known to this day as the Knucker's Hole. The Orkney Isles, whose inhabitants, significantly, are Viking, not Scots, likewise have their Nuckelavee, as do also the Shetland Islanders. And on the Isle of Man, they have a Nykir.

However, amongst the more generally named wyrmas (serpents) and wildeor (wild beasts) that were present at the lake on this occasion, there was one species in particular that was called an ythgewinnes, (9) evidently a surface-swimming monster if its name is anything to go by, rather than a creature that swam at depth like the saedracan. Intrigued by it, Beowulf shot an arrow into the creature, and the animal was then harpooned by Beowulf's men using eoferspreotum, modified boar-spears. Once the monster was dead, Beowulf and his men then dragged the ythgewinnes out of the water and laid its body out for examination. They had, after all, a somewhat professional interest in the animals that they were up against. Moreover, of the monstrous reptiles that they had encountered at the lake, it was said that they were such creatures as would sally out at midmorning time to create havoc amongst the ships in the sea lanes, and one particular success of Beowulf's, as we have already seen, was clearing the narrow sea lanes between Denmark and Sweden of certain monsters which he called merefixa and niceras. Following that operation, the carcasses of nine such creatures (niceras nigene--Alexander mistakenly translates nigene as seven) were laid out on the beaches for display and further inspection.

The last monster to be destroyed by Beowulf (and from which encounter Beowulf also died in the year AD 583) was a flying reptile which lived on a promontory overlooking the sea at Hronesness on the southern coast of Sweden. Now, the Saxons (and presumably the Danes) knew flying reptiles in general as lyftfloga (air-fliers), but this particular species of flying reptile, the specimen from Hronesness, was known to them as a widfloga, lit, a wide (or far-ranging) flyer, and the description that they have left us fits that of a giant Pteranodon. Interestingly, the Saxons also described this creature as a ligdraca, or fire-dragon, and he is described as fifty feet in length (or perhaps wing-span?) and about 300 years of age. (Great age is a common feature even among today's non-giant reptiles.) Moreover, and of particular interest to us, the name widfloga would have distinguished this particular species of flying reptile from another similar species which was capable of making only short flights. Such a creature is portrayed in Figure 11.1, a shield-boss from the Sutton Hoo burial which shows a flying dragon with its wings folded along its sides. Its long tooth-filled jaws are readily seen, and the shield-boss can be seen to this day in its showcase at the British Museum. Modern paleontologists, working from fossilized remains, have named such a creature Pterodactyl.

But our attention must now be drawn towards another reptilian monster which was surely the most fiercesome of all the animals encountered by Beowulf, the monster called Grendel.

It is too often and mistakenly thought that the name Grendel was merely a personal name by which the Danes knew this particular animal. In much the same way as a horse is nicknamed Dobbin, or a dog Fido, this monster, it is assumed, was called Grendel. But, in fact, Grendel was the name that our forebears gave to a particular species of animal. This is evidenced by the fact that in the year AD 931, King Athelstan of Wessex issued a charter in which a certain lake in Wiltshire (England) is called (as in Denmark) a grendles mere. (10) The Grendel in Beowulf, we note with interest, also lived in a mere. Other place-names mentioned in old charters, Grindles bee and Grendeles pyt, for example, were likewise places that were (or had been) the habitats of this particular species of animal. Grindelwald, lit. Grendelwood, in Switzerland is another such place. But where does the name Grendel itself come from?

There are several Anglo-Saxon words that share the same root as Grendel. The Old English word grindan, for example, and from which we derive our word grind, used to denote a destroyer. But the most likely origin of the name is simply the fact that Grendel is an onomatopoeic term derived from the Old Norse grindill, meaning a storm or grenja, meaning to bellow. The word Grendel is strongly reminiscent of the deep-throated growl that would be emitted by a very large animal and it came into Middle English usage as grindel, meaning angry.

To the hapless Danes who were the victims of his predatory raids, however, Grendel was not just an animal. To them he was demon-like, one who was synnum beswenced (afflicted with sins). He was godes ansaca (God's adversary), the synscatha (evil-doer) who was wonsaeli (damned), a very feond on helle (devil in hell)! He was one of the grund-wyrgen, accursed and murderous monsters who were said by the Danes to be descended from Cain himself. And it is descriptions such as these of Grendel's nature that convey something of the horror with which the men of those times anticipated his raids on their homesteads.

But as for Grendel's far more interesting physical description, his habits and the geography of his haunts, they are as follows:

At one point in the poem, Hrothgar, king of the Danes, relates to Beowulf the following information when describing Grendel and one of the monster's companions:

'Ic thaet londbuend leode mine seleraedende secgan hyde thaet hie gesawon swylce 1-wegen micle mearcsta pan moras healdan ellorgaestas. Thaera other waes thaes the hie gewislicost gewitan meahton idese onlienes, other earmscea pen on weres waeslmum sraeclastas traed naefne he waes mara thonne aenig man other thone on geardagum Grendel nemdon foldbuende...' (11) (Emphases mine)

... the best translation of which is Alexander's:

'I have heard it said by subjects of mine who live in the country, counselors in this hall, that they have seen such a pair of huge wayfarers haunting the moors, otherworldly ones; and one of them, so far as they might make it out, was in woman's shape; but the shape of a man, though twisted, trod also the tracks of exile - save that he was more huge than any human being. The country people have called him from of old by the name of Grendel." (12)

The key words from this passage, and from which we gain important information concerning the physical appearance of Grendel, are idese onlicnes when referring to the female monster, and weres waestmum when referring to the male. Those Danes who had seen the monsters thought that the female was the older of the two and supposed that she was Grendel's mother. She may have been. But what exactly do the descriptive terms tell us that is of such importance? Simply this: that the female was in the shape of a woman (idese onlicnes) and the male was in the shape of a man (weres waestmum), 'though twisted'. In other words, they were both bipedal, but larger than any human.

Further important detail is added elsewhere in the poem concerning Grendel's appearance, especially when the monster attacked the Danes for what was to prove the last time. In lines 815-8, we are told, in the most graphic detail, how Beowulf inflicted a fatal injury on the monster by holding the creature in an arm lock, which he then twisted 'wrythan'(line 964). The poem then goes on to tell us that:

'Licsar gebad atol aeglaeca him on eaxie wearth syndolh sweotol seonowe onsprungon burston banlocan.'

Which may be translated thus:

'Searing pain seized the terrifying ugly one as a gaping wound appeared in his shoulder. The sinews snapped and the (arm) joint burst asunder.' (My translation)

For twelve years the Danes had themselves attempted to kill Grendel with conventional weapons, knives, swords, arrows and the like. Yet his impenetrable hide had defied them all and Grendel was able to attack the Danes with impunity Beowulf considered all this and decided that the only way to tackle the monster was to get to grips with him at close quarters. The monster's forelimbs, which the Saxons called eorms (arms) and which some translate as claws, were small and comparatively puny. They were the monster's one weak spot, and Beowulf went straight for them. He was already renowned for his prodigious strength of grip, and he used this to literally tear off one of Grendel's weak, small arms.

Grendel, however, is also described, in line 2079 of the poem, as a mutbbona, i.e. one who slays with his mouth or jaws, and the speed with which he was able to devour his human prey tells us something of the size of his jaws and teeth (he swallowed the body of one of his victims in large 'gobbets'). Yet, it is the very size of Grendel's jaws which paradoxically would have aided Beowulf in his carefully thought out strategy of going for the forelimbs, because pushing himself hard into the animals chest between those forelimbs would have placed Beowulf tightly underneath those jaws and would thus have sheltered him from Grendel's terrible teeth.

We are told that as soon as Beowulf gripped the monsters claws (and we must remember that Grendel was only a youngster, and not by all accounts a fully mature adult male of his species), the startled animal tried to pull away instead of attacking Beowulf. The animal instinctively knew the danger he was now in and he wanted to escape the clutches of the man who now posed such an unexpected threat and who was inflicting such alarming pain. However, it was this action of trying to pull away that left Grendel wide open to Beowulf's strategy. Thus, Beowulf was able in the ensuing struggle eventually to wrench off one of the animal's arms as so graphically described in the poem. As a result of this appalling injury, the young Grendel returned to his lair and simply bled to death.

But is Beowulf's method of slaying Grendel unknown elsewhere in the historical record? Are there no depictions to be found of similar creatures being killed in a similar way? It would seem that there are, the illustration below being one example (see Figure 11.2). It is taken from an impression of an early Babylonian cylinder seal now in the British Museum, and clearly shows a man about to amputate the forelimb of a bipedal monster whose appearance, though stylistic, fits the descriptions of Grendel very closely. I know of no scholar who would venture to suggest that the Old English author of Beowulf filched his idea from his knowledge of Babylonian cylinder seals. So we may, I think, safely assume that Beowulf's method of slaying this particular kind of animal was not entirely unknown in the ancient world. Nor, indeed, was the Grendel itself entirely unknown in the ancient world, as is evident from the following item depicted in Figure 11.3.

Here we are presented with a truly remarkable scene. The stone in which these strange animals are carved, is preserved in the church of SS. Mary and Hardulph at Breedon-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire. This church used to belong to the Saxon kingdom of Mercia. The stone itself is part of a larger frieze in which are depicted various birds and humans, all of them readily recognisable. But what are these strange creatures represented here? They are like nothing that survives today in England, yet they are depicted as vividly as the other creatures. There are long-necked quadrupeds, one of whom on the right seems to be biting (or 'necking' with) another. And in the middle of the scene appears a bipedal animal who is clearly attacking one of the quadrupeds. He stands on two great hindlegs and has two smaller forelimbs, and carries what appears to be armour plating on his back. His victim seems to be turning to defend himself; but with his hindlegs buckled in fear.

Now it cannot be pretended that these are merely caricatures of ordinary animals that are indigenous (these days) to the British Isles, for none of our present native species have long necks or are bipedal. So how are we to satisfactorily account for them? Is there a predatory animal from the fossil record known to us, who had two massive hindlegs and two comparatively puny forelimbs? There is indeed. In fact there are several such species, but how was our Saxon artist to know about such creatures if he'd never seen one? Are we looking here at a depiction in stone of the creature known to the Saxons and Danes as Grendel? Considering the close physical descriptions that we find in Beowulf, it would seem that we are.

The Beowulf epic tells us that as for his haunts and habits, Grendel hunted alone, being known by the understandably frightened locals who sometimes saw his moonlit shape coming down from the mist-laden fens as the atol angengea, the terrifying solitary one. He was a mearcstapa (lit. a marsh-stepper), one who stalked the marshes or outlying regions, ('haunting the moors', as Alexander so powerfully renders it). He hunted by night, approaching human settlements and waiting silently in the darkness for his prey to fall asleep before he descended on them as a sceadugenga (lit, a shadow-goer, a night-walker). Gliding silently along the fenhlith (the waste and desolate tract of the marshes), he would emerge from the dense black of night as the deathscua (death's shadow). The Danes employed an eotanweard (lit. a giant-ward, a watcher for monsters), to warn of Grendel's approach, but often in vain. For so silent was Grendel's approach when he was hunting in the darkness of the night that sometimes an eotanweard himself was surprised and eaten. On one particular and long-remembered night, no less than thirty Danish warriors were killed by Grendel. Little wonder then Beowulf was rewarded so richly and was so famed for having slain him.

In all, a comprehensive and somewhat horrifying picture of Grendel emerges from the pages of Beowulf, and I doubt that the reader needs to be guided by me as to which particular species of predatory dinosaur the details of his physical description fit best. Modern commentators who have been brought up on evolutionary ideas are compelled to suggest that monsters like Grendel are primitive personifications of death or disease, and other such nonsense. (It had even once been suggested that he was a personification of the North Sea!) But really, the evidence will not support such claims. One modern and refreshingly honest publication on the poem makes a more telling comment:

'In spite of allusions to the devil and abstract concepts of evil, the monsters are very tangible creatures in Beowulf. They have no supernatural tricks, other than exceptional strength, and they are vulnerable and mortal. The early medieval audience would have accepted these monsters as monsters, not as symbols of plague or war, for such creatures were a definite reality.' (13)


1. Brit. Mus. Cotton. Vitellius. A. XV.

2. lines 1957-61 (Klaeber).

3. Alexander, M. Beowulf. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth. pp.ll2-3.

4. Which incidentally verifies the pre-Christian origins of the Mercian, and therefore other pedigrees, proving that the early Saxon genealogies were in existence before the Saxons migrated to England.

5. Historae Franconim. Book III. chap. 3. See Thorpe, Lewis tr. Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth. 1974. p. 163.

6. cit. Klaeber. p. xli.

7. ibid.

8. This is the one flaw that mars Michael Alexander's otherwise excellent translation of Beowulf. Surprisingly, Klaeber also makes the same error, having actually edited the original text of the poem.

9. Ythgewinnes. lit, a wave-thrasher. Its surface-swimming nature would explain the ease with which the creature was harpooned from the shore of the mere. It is also probably the ythgewinnes whose likeness was portrayed so often on the prow of Viking ships. Rather than being merely a superstitious emblem, perhaps that likeness had the very practical purpose of deterring other wave-thrashers from attacking the vessel.

10. Cartularium Saxonicum. (W. de Gray Birch ed.). ii. 363 if. (cit. also by Klaeber. p. xxiv).

11. Beowulf lines 1345-1355 (Klaeber).

12. Alexander. p. 93.

13. Longman Literature Guides. (York Notes Series). Beowulf. p. 65.

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