Beowulf and Grendel
The Truth behind England’s Oldest Myth
Prologue: Where Now the Horse and Rider?
Introduction: The Keenest for Fame
PART I: OLD ENGLAND
Chapter 1: Clans of the Sea Coasts
Chapter 2: Former Days
Chapter 3: On the Altars of their Idols
Chapter 4: In Dread Waters
PART II: GODS AND MONSTERS
Chapter 5: Scyld Scefing
Chapter 6: The Barley God
Chapter 7: Freyr
Chapter 8: The Wagon Ran After
Chapter 9: Elves and Evil Shades
Chapter 10: Choosers of the Slain
PART III: TO KILL A KING
Chapter 11: Royal Obligations
Chapter 12: The Hall turned to Ashes
Chapter 13: The Wandering Inguz
Chapter 14: A Midwinter Game
PART IV: BARLEY WOLF
Chapter 15: The Demon’s Head
Chapter 16: The Brimwylf
Epilogue: People of the Wolf
Prologue: Where Now the Horse and Rider?
From the late 19th century onwards a series of archaeological discoveries were made that seemed to confirm as fact much of what had previously been thought fanciful in ancient myth and legend. In the 1870s, Heinrich Schliemann discovered the site of Homer’s ‘Troy’ at Hisarlik in Turkey, and in 1900, Sir Arthur Evans located, near Heraklion in Crete, the mythical palace of King Minos at Knossos, whose labyrinth had reputedly imprisoned the fabled Minotaur. Not only did Evans uncover a maze of labyrinthine passages, but also evidence of a ritual (and possibly sacrificial) bull cult of which the tale of the flesh and blood monster was a dim memory. More recently, in the 1960s, Leslie Alcock’s excavations at Cadbury Castle in Somerset, a site reputed by some to be King Arthur’s Camelot, revealed that it had indeed been the stronghold of a Romano-British warlord. Increasingly, it seemed reasonable to consider that beneath the patina of misunderstandings and exaggerations that overlaid most ancient myths (and which had led to their dismissal as valid historical sources), there may lie an historical core and thereby clues to the beliefs of the people that had created them.
But where were the great myths of the English? Arthur, if he existed, was probably a Celt who had opposed the invading Anglo-Saxon tribes – and other English figures such as Robin Hood and Hereward the Wake were more folk heroes than the stuff of proper myth. England’s mythology and the pagan religion that had produced it seemed to have been lost, the victim of conversion, invasion and suppression.1
England, it has been said, is the most de-mythologized land in Europe. It is also often said that it was this lack of a native English myth and tradition that prompted JRR Tolkien to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a replacement ‘mythology for England’.2 But, as Tolkien, professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, was fully aware, some tantalizing fragments of this lost tradition had survived.
Aside from the charms and the snippets of herb-lore and leech-craft that give us glimpses into the world of magic and superstition inherited from pre-Christian times, there were also a number of surviving poems. Composed after the advent of Christianity, these poems offered a glimpse into this lost pagan world through the filter of the later faith. The most important of these was an Old English poem that told of the dragon-slayer Beowulf, who single-handedly vanquishes the troll-like monster Grendel and his hideous lake-dwelling mother, thus ending their 12-year reign of terror wreaked upon the mead-hall of a Danish King. This tale, set in the original homeland of the English in Denmark, told of a world in which tribal kings were buried in ships full of treasure, and where mail-clad warriors boasted of brave deeds over horns of mead. Yet, like the other extant fragments of Old English lore, this poem (not translated into modern English until 1892 – and even then regarded by scholars as a minor folktale compared to other epics) had not entered popular culture as had the Arthurian myth.3
The main reason for this cultural void, as far as Saxon tradition was concerned, can be traced back to the Norman conquest. Prior to 1066, tales such as Beowulf were the mainstay of the Old English aristocracy, but when the conquest introduced a new ruling class and a new language, the stories of Arthur, derived from Celtic oral tradition, replaced them. The figure of Arthur provided the Norman conquerors with a non-Saxon ideal of British kingship to aspire to, as depicted in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae – ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’; a kingship which ruled an empire extending over much of northern France – matching that of the Normans.4 Alhough the Old English tales no doubt continued to be told amongst native English speakers, they were never translated into Norman-French or remoulded, as were the Celtic myths, to fit in with current courtly ideals, so that in time they faded from memory.
It is probable that some of these Anglo-Saxon tales were, like Beowulf and the fragments of folk-magic recorded by monks, only finally to perish when the monastery libraries in which they were housed were destroyed during the Dissolution. Miraculously, the Beowulf manuscript escaped both the Dissolution and a subsequent fire – but it was the only complete epic that did. (Just two pages of one other Old English epic, the hitherto unknown tale of Waldhere – Walter of Aquitaine – were discovered in Copenhagen, in 1860, in the bindings of another ancient book. This is a sobering reminder of the fragility of recorded tradition.5) The Old English poems ‘Deor’ and ‘Widsith’ allude to many more such stories, some, like Waldhere, which can be reconstructed tentatively from continental Germanic literature, but the majority of which, like the love story of Maethhild and Geat, are lost forever.6 One of the handful of surviving ancient English poems ‘The Wanderer’, the lament of a warrior exiled from his hall after the death of his lord, perfectly encapsulates for us this sense of loss:
Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup!
Alas for the mailed warrior!
Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night, as if it had never been!
‘As if it had never been’ – these words could have been written about the fate of Old English tradition as a whole. Tolkien adapted the lines in The Lord of the Rings and set them in heroic verse telling of the faded glory of the Riders of Rohan, a people he modelled on the Anglo-Saxons:
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harp-string, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?7
Beowulf and its associated lore might still be unknown to many outside academia were it not for Tolkien, who dared to stand alone from the crowd and defend its worth. In a lecture at the British academy, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’, Tolkien argued that it should be studied not only for its language, but also as a work of art in its own right; its monsters, so reviled by academia, should be regarded as central to the tale, rather than as embarrassing additions to what was essentially a saga of warring dynasties and family feuds.8
Tolkien’s defence could not have been timelier. Just three years later, in 1939, at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, archaeologist Basil Brown unearthed an entire Anglo-Saxon ship buried within a great burial mound with a wealth of priceless treasure.9 This discovery, dated to the early 7th century, seemed to confirm that the boat burials and material culture such as the helmets and swords described in Beowulf, once thought to be imagined or exaggerated by the Dark Age poet, had actually existed.10 Perhaps, as with Homer’s Iliad, there was some fact to the tale; perhaps, a real-life warrior might lay behind the ‘Beowulf’ of legend.
In this book, we examine whether, like the Minotaur at Knossos, there was more to the monstrous Grendel and his lake-dwelling mother of the Beowulf story than make-believe. Although generations of scholars have approached the poem from every conceivable angle, every facet of content and language, none has considered asking whether, like the heroes of the poem, these characters might also have had a form of real historical existence. To scholars, the monsters are either allegories or borrowings from folktale; the one thing they are not is real. In opposition to this, it will be argued in Beowulf and Grendel that the poem was not just a fantastical piece of fiction, composed to brighten a winter’s evening, but the recounting in poetic form of a religious conflict between two pagan cults in Denmark around AD 500.
This conflict occurred because the religion of the ancestral English, rather than being identical to that recorded in the later Viking sources, differed from those of other Germanic peoples in that, above all other divinities, they worshipped a goddess in whose sacred lakes human victims were drowned in secret rites. Old English paganism had much in common with that of the ancient Britons, being similarly rooted in the ancient megalithic tradition of the Atlantic coasts of Neolithic Europe. It was a tradition based on the worship of a dying and resurrecting fertility god and his divine Mother whose legacy was the practise of ritual regicide, and the taking of a sacred intoxicant; all this was tied in with the arcane and menacing symbolism of the wolf (from which, incidentally, the later werewolf legend was ultimately derived). And it was when this tradition encountered that of other northern tribes during the age of migration that conflict ensued.
Just as Sir Arthur Evans discovered that the Minotaur of Knossos was not a myth but the dim memory of an ancient bull-cult, so too, behind the seemingly fantastic monsters of the poem, lie the divinities of Old English paganism – a dark goddess and her son/lover. This radical interpretation not only provides a solution to the problem of why, when and where the Beowulf poem was written, but it also sheds new light on the coming of the English to Britain and the ultimate fate of their pagan religion.
Introduction: The Keenest for Fame
The Beowulf tale begins with the arrival of a mysterious child – a foundling, lacking clothing or wealth – sent over the sea to the coast of Denmark by powers unseen and unknown. But he has a name, ‘Scyld Scefing’ (Shield Sheafson), and in time all the kings of the neighbouring sea-kingdoms who sail the ‘Whale’s road’ are under his lordship.
When his time comes to leave the world, Scyld’s people send him back to the ocean upon a great ship, a gold standard above his head – bedecked with armour, swords and a mound of gold. He leaves his throne to his son Beow, and he in turn, to his son Healfdane – the father of four children: a daughter Ursula, and three sons, Heorogar, Halga and Hrothgar, the last a mighty warrior, who is the next king of the Scylding line when Healfdane dies.
Hrothgar, great-grandson of Scyld, decides to build a great mead-hall, greater than any known to man, named ‘Heorot’ (Hart). In time, it will fall to a blood feud, burned to the ground after the ending of this tale, but for the moment all is merriment – the noise of feasting, song and harp drifts from the hearth into the wilds – where it will soon fall on unwelcome ears.
For dwelling in the marshes and swamps beyond Heorot lies a monster – a descendant of Cain, kin to such evils as ‘eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas’ (ogres and elves and evil-shades). His name is Grendel. Evil swells in his breast, and, as night falls, he strides through the marshes towards the source of the merriment. The Danes are now sleeping, their mead-horns empty, and in no state to defend themselves when Grendel bursts into the hall and snatches thirty warriors, and is gone into the night – a trail of blood behind him.
The day dawns and Hrothgar sits silently in his chair, wracked with grief and shock – a position he will adopt again the following day after Grendel returns for a second night’s feasting. Warriors soon learn to leave Heorot’s hearthside after the evening light disappears behind heaven’s bright edge. Hrothgar’s great mead-hall stands empty and Grendel now has the upper hand. Not only for this night, but for the next twelve years this fiend haunts the mead-benches – his monstrous form seen at night on the ‘mistige moras’ (misty moors). He even rests in the hall itself, under Heorot’s golden roof, the night-time ruler of Hrothgar’s throne. By day, when the hall once more belongs to man, the council meets, debating how to rid themselves of this terror. Some pray at heathen shrines for deliverance, but when help does arrive, it comes, like Scyld, from over the sea.
Across the Whale’s road, a day’s sail north and east of Heorot, lies the land of the Geats – a land of lakes and mountains ruled by Hrethel’s son Hygelac. One day, Hygelac’s sister-son hears of the evil that threatens Heorot. Beowulf is the name of this man, Hygelac’s nephew, a man keen for fame. He assembles a fourteen-strong crew, to sail eastwards to the land of the Scyldings.
From Denmark’s seacliffs, the coastguard spots them and challenges them on their purpose in Hrothgar’s land. Beowulf, son of Edgtheow, answers that they are there to aid the Shepherd of the Danes in overcoming his foe – and so the Geatish warriors, their helmets adorned with the shapes of boars, are permitted to have audience with the king.
Grey-haired, and haggard, Hrothgar welcomes the Geats and their leader (whom he knew as child). Beowulf boasts of his deeds – he has defeated giants and sea-creatures – and declares he will take on Grendel single-handed. That night, Dane and Geats together fill Heorot with song, and the mead-horns are emptied. Wealtheow, Hrothgar’s queen, toasts the Geats, and Beowulf swears on her cup to defend her people, or die in the attempt.
The sun sets, and slowly the company of Danes disappears from the hall. Hrothgar leaves, giving over control of his hall to Beowulf. And so the Geats are alone in the accursed hall, settling down to sleep, not thinking they will ever rise or see their own homes again, while across the vast dark expanses of marshland Grendel begins his approach.
The iron-clad doors of the hall fly asunder at Grendel’s assault, and he looks over the hall, from his eyes shines ‘ligge gelicost, leoht unfaeger’ (an unlovely light, like that of fire). Warriors he sees, and he laughs at his quarry, not knowing that his days of feasting on men’s flesh will soon come to an end.
He seizes one unlucky warrior, bolts down great chunks of flesh, crunches his bones, and eats every last piece. He stretches out his hand to grasp another Geat, but his arm is wrenched aside by a grip stronger than that of any man he has met in Middle Earth. His heart sinks, and he makes to flee, but Beowulf has him in his hands. Heorot shakes at their wrestling; warriors, roused by Grendel’s unearthly screams, run to defend their prince, but their ancestral swords are turned back by his enchanted flesh that magically repels all blades.
With a ripping of tendons, Beowulf tears the fiend’s arm and shoulder from his body – only thus is Grendel able to flee the hall of Hrothgar and crawl back to his marshy den, where his life will soon ebb away.
Dawn comes and the monster’s arm is hung from the gable of the hall as proof of the noble deed, and the trail of blood is there to be followed, leading those tracking it to the bubbling black waters of a mere, now stained with gore. Grendel has vanished beneath the water, and there dies: ‘In fen freoddo feorh alegde haeddene sawle’ (in his fen-lair he has laid aside his heathen soul).
Hrothgar rejoices at the sight of the bloody limb. To the deliverer of his hall he gives horses, armour, a standard of gold and the name of ‘son’. That eve the hall throngs with song and revelry, as it has not heard in twelve years. While the scop (storyteller) sings of the story of Hengist and Finn, Queen Wealtheow offers Beowulf a rich collar of gold, as fine as the fabled Brising’s necklace the Brisingamen, (see page xxx) a precious and princely gift.
But the Danes and Geats rejoice too early, for inhabiting the wastelands, doomed to dwell beneath the brackish waters of the bog like all Cain’s kin, is Grendel’s Mother. She leaves her lake-dwelling in search of vengeance for the life of her son. When she arrives, the hall is peopled with sleeping forms on which she will exact her revenge. Unlucky it is for them that the prince of the Geats sleeps this night in separate quarters – an honoured guest; unlucky for Ashere, Hrothgar’s most-loved thane, whom she drags from the hall into the night.
Hrothgar grieves for the loss of his friend, and he tells Beowulf that he knows who is behind the deed: often a pair of these creatures had been seen haunting the wolf-slopes: one mannish, the other in the shape of a woman. Her lair is a dark mere, uncannily lit at night by a fire under the water, and overhung by groves of gnarled, frost-covered ash trees. A hart pursued by hounds would rather remain on the shore and be torn apart than plunge into those waters.
Hygelac’s thane sets out and soon reaches those dreaded groves and the boiling waters they encompass. Ashere’s severed head by the cliff’s edge marks this as the place. Beowulf, encased in mail and boar-adorned helm, takes Hrunting, his wave-patterned sword in hand, and dives into the mere. A day’s dive below is the bottom of this dank pool where the ‘brimwylf’ (lake-wolf) marks his arrival, clasps him in her claws and drags him into her lair – a dry hall, lit by fire.
The water hag looms over him, Hrunting bites, but she is unharmed by its steel. Beowulf grasps her shoulder, but the water-witch throws him to the floor. Straddling his prone body she brings down her knife, but it meets his mail shirt and does him no harm. Beowulf sees, amid the weapons and armour that litter the hall, a massive sword – forged by the giant Weland, smith of the gods. Grasping it by its golden hilt, he swings it in an arc, taking the head off the mere-wolf. (On the shore of the mere, the Danes, spying blood, presume the hero is dead, and leave.)
Beowulf finds the body of Grendel, and claims his head too before he begins his ascent, the head in one hand and in the other the golden hilt of Hrunting – its coil-patterned blade having melted away like an icicle from the boiling blood of the monsters.
Beowulf returns to the land of the Geats a hero, and tells his lord Hygelac of his deeds. But a death in war awaits his liege-lord, who will fall against the Frisians and Franks on a foreign shore. Though he is offered the throne by Hygelac’s widow Hygd, Beowulf declines, instead nominating Heardred, her son. But death in battle is the son’s fate, too – killed by Onela, the king of the Swedes, in bloody feud, for harbouring his nephews Eadgils and Eanmund, and so the Geatish throne falls at last to Beowulf. As king, he helps Eadgils seize the Swedish throne from his uncle Onela. He rules Geatland well and wisely for fifty years, until fate sends him one last monster.
On the headland, above the breakers, lies a vast barrow – its ancient treasure hoard guarded by a dragon. All men fear to enter that place, save one – a slave, fleeing from a flogging, his hand alighting on a golden cup that will make a good peace offering for his master. For three hundred years, the dragon has watched over this heathen gold, and this theft rouses his anger. Spewing flames, the beast rises from his underground lair and ravages Geatland with his fiery anger. He burns buildings to cinders, even Beowulf’s hall he turns to ash. And so Edgetheow’s son, Beowulf, strides onward to meet the dragon – his shield newly forged of fireproof iron –knowing that ‘wyrd ungemete neah’ (fate was all too near).
From the stone arch in the barrow’s curved side flickers the dragon’s fire. With a war cry issuing from his throat, Beowulf rushes into the passage. Coiling and flaming, his adversary approaches, blasting fire as Beowulf’s sword finds bone – but not deep enough. Flames engulf him, and all but one of his retinue flee to the woods in fear. Wiglaf, Woexstan’s son, of the Waymunding line – kin to Beowulf – remains by his side. Wielding in his hands the sword he claimed as battle spoil against the Swedes, he remembers the gifts of gold given freely by his lord in his hall, and swears he would rather die alongside him than return home a coward.
The dreaded worm spies Wiglaf, and lets fly more flame, destroying his coat of mail and charring to ash his linden shield, so that he steps behind the iron shield of Beowulf for protection. Emboldened by Wiglaf’s bravery, Beowulf strikes at the beast with his sword, but his arm is too strong for such a weapon, and in his ferocity the blade breaks.
The fire-drake lunges once more, grasping the Geat’s neck in its fangs, drawing forth his life-blood. But it has left itself open to Beowulf’s thane; Wiglaf strikes below the head, and the drake’s fire falters. Released from the jaws of the dragon, Beowulf reaches for his knife and stabs the beast. Between their two blows, the dragon is killed.
But Beowulf is mortally wounded – the dragon’s poison boils in his breast. He bids Wiglaf to build him a barrow overlooking the sea. In ten days, the people build a mighty barrow about the pyre on which the Geat is lain. And with him they bury the dragon’s hoard. Twelve princes’ sons ride around the barrow, they sing a grief stricken dirge: they praise his manhood, they raise his name.
cwaedon thaet he waere wyruldcyninga
manna mildest ond monthwaerust,
leodum lithost ond lofgoernost.
They said he was of all the world’s kings
the gentlest of men, and the most gracious,
the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame. 1
It is exceedingly fortunate that we know the story of Beowulf at all. Not only do no other manuscripts or poems from the Anglo-Saxon period so much as mention his name, but the one copy of his tale that has survived has done so against overwhelming odds. Written in what is known as the ‘classic’ Anglo-Saxon dialect of Wessex, probably in the first 15 years of the AD 11th century,2 it is reasonable to suppose that for the first 500 years the manuscript was safely housed in the library of one England’s many abbeys. Like thousands of other books, Beowulf was kept safe and sound until the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536–40) when many thousands of precious and unique manuscripts were destroyed – some deliberately torn apart and used for mundane purposes such as wrapping fish and as stoppers for wine kegs. Fortuitously, the Beowulf manuscript survived, falling into the hands of Laurence Nowell, dean of Lichfield, from where it passed into the famed collection of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571–1631). In 1700, Cotton’s collection was donated to the public by his grandson John Cotton and relocated to Ashburnham House in Westminster. In 1731, a fire tore through the aptly named Ashburnham collection, damaging Beowulf and destroying many other volumes. The manuscript survived intact (though scalded in places) by being thrown out of a window. Today, one can see that the edges of the manuscript are in a poor state – the spine has completely burned away and each leaf is now mounted on frames of paper.
Cotton Vitellius A.15, as the manuscript is known (after its location in the Cotton collection under a bust of the Roman Emperor Aulus Vitellius), contains more than the tale of Beowulf. Bound alongside the poem are another poetic work, ‘Judith’, and three prose pieces, ‘The Passion of St Christopher’, ‘The Wonders of the East’ and ‘The Letters of Alexander to Aristotle’. The subject matter of the latter two pieces, with their tales of strange beasts and monsters, have lead some to believe that the manuscript was put together as a kind of bestiary (see page xxx).
While scholars disagree on most aspects of the poem, they are able to agree that it was originally an oral work, and that the author (an anonymous Christian court poet) did not invent the story but drew on an existing tale of which at least two versions were available to him at the time of its composition.3 What is more, it is highly probable that the two sections of the poem – which might be labelled the ‘Danish/Grendel’ (concerned with the Scylding royal house) and the ‘Swedish/Dragon’ (concerned with the Scylfing royal house) sections – were also originally separate tales, to be united later by the Beowulf poet. But with regard to the date and place of composition of the poem, disagreement, again, is the rule.
The proposed dates of composition range from the 7th to 11th century, and Northumbria, Kent, Mercia, Wessex and East Anglia have all been suggested as the location of the poet. However, the pro-Danish stance of the poem suggests that it was written before the first Viking raids (late 8th century) soured the sense of kinship that had once existed between the Danish and the Anglo-Saxon peoples. This has lead to a consensus is that it was probably authored (given certain clues of dialect) in an Anglian court, possibly that of Mercia, East Anglia or Northumbria, sometime around the late 7th or early 8th century.
While most study of the poem has concentrated on its use of language and its provenance, another fascinating branch has sought to discover its historicity. Beowulf’s people, the Geats have been identified as the Götar of southern Sweden, and their king, Hygelac (Beowulf’s uncle), with the Chochilaicus, mentioned in the chronicles of Gregory of Tours (written around 540), who lead and perished during an ill-fated raid into Frankish territory around 520. The Swedish king Eadgils, who Beowulf helps to the throne, is undoubtedly an early 6th-century king named Athils, whose massive grave-mound can still be seen in the royal graveyard at Gamla Uppsala in Sweden.4 But while such figures seem to place the poem on an historical footing, the majority of scholars agree that in all probability the hero Beowulf was not himself historical, given that his name does not follow the Germanic tradition of familial alliteration (as in Hrothgar son of Healfdeane) and that his actions are clearly superhuman.
One early theory was that Beowulf was an echo of an earlier pagan sun god and that the events of the poem were corrupted nature-myths in which Grendel represented the spring floods, his mother the sea, and the dragon the winter storms that finally overcome the power of the summer sun.5 Others saw him as the wind purifying the pestilent marshes, with Grendel a personification of disease. More recently, the preferred argument has been that he is based on the folkloric motif of the ‘bear’s son’ or, as it is also called, ‘the three princesses’.6
This tale is found throughout Europe and Asia, and over 200 versions have been recorded. No two versions are alike, but a basic plot can be reconstructed. The tale tells of a prodigiously strong boy, often the son of a bear, who sets off with a number of companions, and arrives at a deserted house that is haunted by a supernatural foe. The hero’s companions are worsted by the foe, but the bear’s son manages to wound him and tie him up, but he escapes. The hero and his band follow the trail of his blood to a hole in the ground into which the hero jumps lowered on a rope by his friends. He defeats the foe and discovers three princesses whom he sends back up the rope, but when he comes to climb the rope, his friends drop it, seize the princesses and leave him stranded. Eventually he escapes and takes his revenge.
On the surface, the similarity between this tale and Beowulf are striking, and it is no wonder that scholars have argued that the Old English poem is a retelling of the Bear’s son tale. Beowulf does defeat Grendel in a deserted hall, does follow his trail of blood, and when is fighting beneath the water is deserted by the Danish if not the Geatish, troops who accompanied him there.
But the first point to note is that the three princesses are absent from the tale. If the poet had no qualms about introducing a purely folkloric character into his historical saga, why not go the whole way and include the three princesses? Why not make them Hrothgar’s daughters? The obvious answer seems to be that the princess motif did not fit in with the historical tale on which these folktale elements were later pinned.
It is more likely that they were hung on the story of a real event or hero, a Geatish warrior (or warriors), perhaps, who came to Denmark to help out the Scylding dynasty, and whose historical deeds suggested parallels with the monster-slayings of the ‘Bear’s son’ story. In other words, the monster-slaying episode within Beowulf is not just an idle fancy but based on an actual historical occurrence.
The evidence to argue such a point, does not appear in the text of Beowulf itself, but in the rites and symbols of Germanic prehistory. For it is in seeking out the lost rites and beliefs of our Germanic ancestors that it is possible to unearth the existence of a tradition that illuminates the Beowulf poem and reveals that the seemingly fabled deeds of its hero were not borrowings from folklore, but were rooted in actual events. To find the first clues to this lost tradition, as a first step it is necessary to become acquainted with the peoples of pagan Germania from which the ancestors of the English people sprang.
Clans of the Sea Coasts
Was it not Scyld Scefing that shook the halls, took mead-benches, taught encroaching foes to fear him – who, found in childhood, lacked clothing? Yet he lived and prospered, grew in strength and stature under the heavens until the clans settled in the sea coasts neighbouring over the whale-road all must obey him and give him tribute.
The modern-day descendants of the Old English have little or no knowledge as to their own origins. Most modern history books begin their accounts of English history with the arrival of two brothers, Hengist and Horsa, on British soil (at Ebbsfleet in Kent) some time in the 5th century. But so little attention is given to where they and their people came from, that one could be forgiven for thinking that they appeared in their ships from out of the mist like the mysterious Scyld Scefing of Beowulf. Today, the landing point is a mile or so inland: the Wantsum Channel which once cut through north-east Kent, separating the Isle of Thanet from the mainland, has silted up since Hengist and Horsa’s day.1 The exact place of the landing is not marked with any formal monument, though a stone cross close by supposedly marks where St Augustine arrived a few generations later to convert Hengist’s great-great-grandson, Ethelbert, to the new faith. Instead, away on the coast, there stands the dragon-prowed ship Hugin (named after one of the Norse god Odin’s oracular ravens), which was sailed from the continent in 1949 to mark the 1500th anniversary of the brothers’ arrival. The simple plaque on its side records where the ship, and therefore by analogy, the two brothers, left for England: Denmark, land of the Scyldings.
History books may not record the origins of the English, but for many generations after their arrival in what was to become ‘England’, the descendants of Hengist and Horsa continued to think of themselves as part of the continental Germanic peoples; hundreds of miles of sea were no barrier to a seafaring folk to whom the ocean was known as the ‘swan’s road’, as accessible in their minds as a modern motorway is to us today. While it may seem strange to us Beowulf, the nearest thing to an English epic, is set in Denmark and tells of the deeds of a hero from southern Sweden, to the poet and his audience, the tale would have been rooted in a tradition they considered their own, a tradition far more English than we can imagine. For the arrival of the English in Britain stands not at the start of their history, as we might presume, but at the end of their prehistory – a vast stretch of time spent in the lands the Romans knew as Germania (see Map 1), for the English were by origin a mix of Germanic tribes.
Like most of the non-literate inhabitants of early northern Europe, such as the Celts, we are to some extent reliant for our information on the Germans, the inhabitants of a vast swathe of territory east of the Rhine extending north into Denmark and its islands and east into modern day Poland and Hungary, from their literate neighbours, the Romans.
This source is not perfect, for the Germans both fascinated and repulsed their ‘civilized’ Roman neighbours, and their accounts tend towards bias in both directions. Some eulogized the German’s uncomplicated lives (along the lines of the ‘noble savage’), while others demonized a people who had in the past, and might in the future, pose a threat to Rome itself. In 113 BC, two nomadic German tribes – the Cimbri and Teutones – had migrated south over the Alps from Denmark and attacked northern Italy.2 Though they were defeated by General Gaius Marius, from that time on the Romans harboured the fear that these barbarians might one day sack Rome. (The Goths did just this under their chieftain Alaric in AD 410.) Accordingly, Rome had tried to pre-empt this strike but had failed to defeat the Germans.
The nomadic tribes that constituted the Germans lived in isolated temporary farmsteads that made them a more difficult enemy to pin down and destroy than the comparatively Romanized Gauls with their static villages and defended hill forts. Caesar, having conquered the whole of Gaul, was never able to get beyond the Rhine; in AD 9, when his adopted son, the emperor Augustus sought to annexe Germania, the result was one of the greatest military disasters in Roman history. Three legions and six cohorts (some 25,000 men), under the command of Publius Quintilius Varus, were slaughtered almost to a man in the Teutoburg forest. Stretched out in a thin line, treading a narrow path between forest and marshland, they were picked off by German natives using guerrilla tactics during a relentless and horrific three-day march.3
But although the Germans were the bogeymen of the Roman world, their primitive, non-urban lifestyle also provided Roman writers and critics a perfect foil to hold up against their own corrupt city life with its greed and excesses. One such writer was Cornelius Tacitus, whose Germania (‘On the History and Geography of Germany’), written in AD 98, provides many details of the Iron Age tribes who inhabited this land. His comments are illuminating, and help support the fragmentary archaeological evidence.4
The name Germania, he explains, was not an old name but the original tribal name of the Tungri, one of the first tribes to cross the Rhine into Gaul; the name was later adopted by the Germans as a blanket term to denote all their peoples. Germania, Tacitus recorded, was a land of forbidding landscapes and an unpleasant climate, ‘dismal to behold for anyone who was not born or bred there’, a land of forests and marsh. And its people, like the landscape, were earthy, harsh and primal.
The Germans, Tacitus tells us, did not live in cities, but in isolated houses built from wood. They wore no clothes except cloaks or skins fastened with brooches or thorns (only the wealthy wore tight-fitting undergarments), and were used to cold and hunger. While they did plant some cereal crops, it was not in an organized fashion, and they lived mainly off meat, curdled milk, wild fruit and ale made from barley. Though this image of the half-naked Germans living off the land is presented (save for the harsh climate) as an Arcadian idyll, Tacitus’s portrait generally corresponds with what archaeologists have discovered of the culture of Germania in the Iron Age.
At most, the settlements were small groupings of farmsteads made up of basic longhouses, each divided into a living quarters around a central hearth, and a cattle byre. Cattle were clearly important in the economy, and despite what Tacitus said about cereal farming being unimportant, there is ample evidence for the growing of barley (for bread and beer), einkorn and emmer wheats, oats, millet and flax.5 But it seems that farmland was not owned, as in Rome, by a landed aristocracy. Caesar records that land was owned by the tribe, and distributed yearly amongst kin groups to farm. Such a communal ownership prevented the accumulation of wealth in the hands of any one individual or group, and this lack of a landed aristocracy may have lead the Romans to underestimate the importance of cereals in the German diet.6 But it also meant that if wealth was counted in terms of heads of cattle and not acres of land, then the tribal members were free to roam where they willed and still maintain their social standing, unlike the Roman gentry who were tied to their land. For the most part, the Germans seemed content to stay within their tribal territories, but the freedom to move was always there. This would prove important in the later history of the Germanic peoples in the centuries following Tacitus’s account, as the existence of modern-day England amply demonstrates.
The term ‘German’, like that of ‘Celt’, was really a linguistic tag rather than an ethnic one and denoted a shared language and culture, not necessarily a shared genetic inheritance.7 One clue to a possible varied racial background amongst the Germanic tribes is that Tacitus divides them into three ‘peoples’: the Ingaevones who inhabited the land nearest to the sea, the Herminones, who occupied the interior and the Istaevones, who made up the rest. These three peoples were named after the three sons of Mannus, the son of the earth-god Tuisto.
As well as a shared language, one thing that did unite these people was a common set of political and societal customs, most importantly those surrounding the figure of the king. As there was no fixed line of succession, Tacitus states, the German people elected kings from amongst the nobility, and it is the people that decided matters of importance in specially convened assemblies. Such assemblies tried criminal cases and dealt out punishments. Traitors and deserters were hung on trees, cowards, shirkers and sodomites were drowned in bogs under wicker hurdles. It is interesting to note that some of the Germanic customs noted by Tacitus continued to be practised centuries later in Anglo-Saxon England: one such was ‘wer-gild’ (man-price) a financial compensation to be paid by the wrongdoer to the victim or victim’s family in cases of death or injury.8
Another custom found in England was the loyalty to one’s lord in battle, a convention mentioned by Tacitus but which also appears in Beowulf, when Wiglaf stays beside his lord’s side during his final battle with the dragon, thinking it unmanly to flee (see page xxx). The ultimate expression of this custom is the 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’ which tells of the last stand of an English ealdorman (literally an ‘elder-man’: a high-ranking chief usually in charge of a Shire) named Byrhtnoth against the Vikings at Maldon in Essex in 991.9
In a world of limited material resources, the Germans relied on such personal acts of courage to define status, and not, as was increasingly common amongst their Celtic neighbours, through the giving of gifts received through trade. Their world was one of honour, where to make a name for oneself in battle meant everything, and in which, despite a certain boyish bravado, an almost chivalric moral code seems to have existed.
In the Germania, Tacitus follows his portrait of the Germans with a detailed list of the tribes who make up the country. Of particular interest is his description of the coastal tribes, the Ingaevones, for these are the ‘clans settled in the sea-coasts’ of Beowulf. The first of the coastal tribes he mentions are the Frisii and the neighbouring Chauci, who he says inhabit an area between the Rhine and Elbe on the North Sea coast in settlements extending around vast lagoons. To the east of these are the Suebi, distinguished from the others by their custom of tying their long hair in an elaborate knot to one side of the head, who were, it seems, more of a conglomeration of tribes rather than an individual group. Numbered amongst them were the Langobardi10 (long-beards) who, in time, would settle in Italy, giving their name to the region of Lombardy but whose origin was in the southern region of Sweden known as Scandza. The most important part of the Germania concerning the origins of the English follows the description of the Suebi. Tacitus writes about seven tribes inhabiting an area north of the Suebian tribelands, in the region, it must be assumed, of modern Denmark:
After them [the Langobardi] come the Reudigni, Aviones, Anglii, Varini, Eudoses, Suarines, and Nuitones, all of them safe behind ramparts of rivers and woods.
These seven tribes were an isolated population and the most important names are the Anglii and Eudoses, as these were in all probability the Angles and Jutes which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (compiled in the 9th century) records as two of the three main tribal groupings that formed the English people. The Angles, it says, came from the region known as Angulus in the neck of the Danish peninsula, (modern-day Schleswig-Holstein), where today there is a region named Angeln. Beyond them, to the north, in modern-day Jutland was the land of the Jutes. The other main tribal group that made up the English, according to the Chronicle, were the Saxons, though modern archaeologists would also add a contingent of Frisians and Franks to the list.
Tacitus does not mention the Saxons, but a century later Ptolemy in his Geographia does, locating them at the bottom of what is known as the ‘Cimbric peninsula’ just below the Anglii. Archaeology shows us that this Saxon culture later spread south-west to between the Elbe and Weser – the land of the Chauci. As the Chauci tribe disappears from history at this point, it seems likely that the tribes of this broad zone had united into a new confederacy under a new name.11
What is of particular interest about the tribes that would later become the English is that they seem to have developed in situ over a number of preceding millennia. Unlike their later history of exile and invasion, the archaeological remains of this coastal part of Germania seem to show that these tribes had been settled in Denmark and Northern Germany for at least 2,000 years before Tacitus mentioned them by name. This means that though no written texts survive of their early origins, the glittering finds of prehistoric Denmark are as much the inheritance of the English as the Danes.
We have heard of the thriving of the throne of Denmark, how the folk-kings flourished in former days.
The homeland of the ancestors of the English peoples, the Cimbric peninsula of the Ingaevones, an area encompassing modern day Denmark and the Schleswig-Holstein region of northern Germany, stretched out from the top of landlocked Germany into the North Sea to where its scatter of islands cross to Sweden. This swathe of land was isolated from the rest of Germania and in many respects was a cultural backwater compared to some of the tribal zones to the south that had been in direct contact with the civilizations of the Mediterranean. However, in prehistoric times, long before the founding of Athens or Rome, it lay at the centre of many of the long-distance trade routes that had connected the cultures of northern Scandinavia and the coasts of the Baltic to the Bronze Age centres of power such as Mycenae and Crete. Indeed, in former days there had been a ‘golden age’ in this region of Scandinavia, unknown to Tacitus but remembered by the Germanic peoples themselves.
For them, this area, Scandza, was seen as the birthplace of their tribal ancestors: the Christian Goth historian Jordanes in his Getica, (a history of the Gothic peoples written in 550) referred to Scandza as ‘vagina nationum’ (the womb of nations).1 His own people, the Goths, had probably originated on the south-west coast of Sweden – an area still known as Götland – crossing the Baltic to present-day Poland by the time Tacitus was writing. It is likely that part of the tribe remained behind to become the Geats of Beowulf. The Langobards and Burgundians, too, claimed an origin in Scandza, though it is not clear whether these tribes all originated in this area, or the ‘golden age’ provided them with an idealized past. Either way, from the start Scandza was unique both geographically and socially.
Denmark, its islands and the southern tip of Sweden had probably formed a cultural whole soon after the ending of the last ice age (c. 8000 BC) when we see evidence of Mesolithic (middle Stone Age) hunter-gatherer groups inhabiting its coasts and wooded river valleys, such as the Gudena river in Jutland. These groups moved from camp to camp, following the herds of wild game as the seasons dictated. This was happening all over Europe, but there was something about coastal people, as opposed to those living inland, that helped forge a sense of community and connectedness with the land: the ocean. To an inland group, the massive wildwood that covered much of Europe was without boundaries, but to those dwelling on the Atlantic coasts (including those of northern France and the British Isles) the knowledge that the land was limited, that one could not simply push forever onwards, created a difference. Here land was scarce, and so it was important to mark it out as belonging to one’s kin or extended family, to defend one’s territory, to define boundaries.2
It may be that it was here that tribal identities first began to form in earnest, and there is certainly archaeological evidence that might suggest this in the cemeteries, such as those at Vedbaek (near Copenhagen) on the Danish Isle of Zealand (Sjaelland) and across the water at Skateholm on the southern tip of Sweden. The cemeteries show that a similar material culture existed in this region at this time, yet they also show remarkably different methods of burial rite and grave goods (the Skateholm people, for instance, buried their dogs with grave goods, affording them the same honours as humans). Such differences have allowed archaeologists to postulate the existence of three major ‘tribal’ zones in Mesolithic Scandza: one in Jutland, another on the Danish islands, and another in southern Sweden.
Houses of the Dead
It is probably this well-defined sense of tribal identity and land ownership that explains, in Scandza as well as in Britain and northern France and Spain, the appearance of great megalithic structures during the following the Neolithic age (new Stone Age). The Neolithic age saw the arrival of farming practices in northern Europe (around 4200 BC), ultimately from the Middle East where crops were first grown around 5000 years earlier.
Farming societies were much more tied to the land than their hunter-gatherer ancestors, enabling each member of the tribe to help on the farm whatever their age or ability. The development of farmsteads and villages in place of seasonal shelters and camps must also have had an impact on the nature of society. The more settled community could now concentrate more effort into expressing its tribal and ancestral identity and the house of the ancestors – the tombs for the dead, provided such an expression.
These tombs were usually placed in highly visible positions, defining tribal boundaries – the ancestral bones within them demonstrating the occupation of the land by that tribe. But the building of these tombs seems to have gone far beyond the need to establish land ownership. The whole tradition shows a preoccupation with the ancestors and their connection with the earth that was almost fanatical in its fervour (see page xxx). The fact that such effort was put into making these structures out of the hardiest materials says much of the motivation of these people, whose own dwellings have long since vanished. Such tombs were not mere reliquaries but formed the centre of tribal life. The bones of the ancestors were not hidden away; instead the doors to these ‘houses of the dead’ (often mimicking the houses of the living in design) frequently remained open, with the bones of the dead being carried out for use in certain rites. Thus the ancestors could be taken from the tomb to be present at special occasions – marriages, perhaps, or alliances and feasts. And supplications and offerings were made to the ancestors to ensure the fertility of the land over which they presided.
The worlds of the dead and the living overlapped. When an individual died, his body would be dismembered and placed anonymously into the tomb where he would become one with the amorphous throng of ancestors – perhaps, who knows, one day to be reborn into the tribe.
In Denmark, two major types of mortuary structure once dominated the landscape. The earliest were the great dolmens (dysser) which consisted of a small burial chamber formed from three or four upright stones capped with a massive monolith: 3,500 of these are to be found on the Danish islands alone.3 It is thought that such structures developed from earthen long-barrows with wooden mortuary chambers, and that the dysser were originally contained in low mounds. In time, another type of tomb emerged, the passage grave, of which 600 examples have so far been discovered. Thought in later times to have been the work of giants – thus the term ‘jaettestuer’ (giant’s graves) – these passage graves allowed access to the remains of the dead.
The tombs reveal the use of both individual and communal burial traditions, and have been associated by modern authors with the belief in the ‘great goddess’4 – the tomb within the green rise of earth representing the pregnant belly of the goddess into which the dead were placed for rebirth. While it is not known which gods, if any, were worshipped at such times, there is ample evidence for ancestor worship. Indeed, it may be that their beliefs and rituals were not centred on any specific divinity, but rather on the throng of ancestral spirits who made the tombs their home.
Stone Age Ceremonies
While little is known of the rites of the megalith builders, archaeology does provide us with some clues as to the nature of the ceremonies with which they were associated. In Denmark, the building of the megaliths coincided with the arrival of a type of pottery vessel known as ‘Funnel-necked beakers’, long-necked gourd-shaped vessels which may have been used in a drinking ceremony that accompanied the newly introduced rites of farming. This is only supposition, but evidence does exist in Britain where the first grain to be found was not grown locally but imported from the continent, and it was not used to make bread, but, so it seems, a kind of ritual drink. Evidence from Skara Brae, a Neolithic village on the Orkneys, and two other ritual sites in Fife reveal that barley grain was brewed into a hallucinogenic beer containing meadowsweet for flavour, and deadly nightshade, known in Old English as ‘dwale’ (trance), and henbane, both of which contain psychoactive alkaloids. It may be that the brew (such ‘drinks’ were in reality more like a kind of fermented porridge than modern beer) once drunk from the funnel-necked beakers was similarly spiked.5
At Tustrup in East Jutland, we get some idea of the ceremonies that may have once accompanied the taking of this hallucinogenic ‘drink’. Built around 3200 BC, Tustrup appears to have been a kind of necropolis consisting of three tombs (two dolmens and a passage grave) and a temple all in use during a single period within one community, a fact that argues against different grave types being indicative of different eras or tribes.6 The temple complex fell within the triangle formed by the three tombs; it was a horseshoe-shaped structure of stones forming a 5-m sq internal area open to the north-east. The whole structure may have been roofed, with its apex on a massive pillar at the centre of the open end – an opening whose orientation suggests it was built to face the rising sun on the morning of the summer solstice, or the setting sun of winter solstice for those looking towards the temple, as was the case at Stonehenge. The temple may have been a mortuary temple, perhaps where the newly dead were placed before joining the rest of the ancestral bones in the tombs. At the centre of horseshoe was a pit surrounded by 28 vessels and 100 vessels were found around entrances of the tombs.
The tradition of leaving offerings to the ancestors may have continued well into the modern age – the Danish archaeologist PV Glob reports that even in the last century, at passage grave at Øm near Roskilde, farmhands were sent to clean out the passage at midwinter so the farmer’s wife could leave a bowl of porridge for the ‘giants and the spirit that dwelt there’.7 Similar such observances survived into the last century in connection with the so-called ‘cup-markings’ – shallow bowls carved into Neolithic and Bronze Age stone monuments, which were used as depositories for food or drink for ‘the elves’ (see page xxx).
What is intriguing is that these temple structures were ritually burned: that at Turstrup was burned after a single rite, while there is evidence that a temple site at Ferslev was cleared and re-used a second time before being burned. It is here that we may see the first expression of the custom of lighting midsummer and midwinter fires that continued to be practised throughout northern Europe until recent times.8
The collective burial of nameless individuals found in the majority of megalithic tombs is often seen as evidence of a kind of Neolithic ‘communism’, but the fact is that the number of bodies accounted for in the tombs can only be a small percentage of the total population; there was clearly some kind of ‘selection’ process at work, although it is not possible to say whether this was political or if it points to the existence of an elite. Whatever its origins, around 2000 BC the communal burial rite comes to an end and we begin to see a rise in the number of individual graves.
Beakers and Battle Axes
Much argument has raged over whether the change in burial traditions found throughout Europe at this time was brought by a new invading population or whether it was the result of a shift in ideas. In recent times, the latter view has become predominant. Although there was undoubtedly some movement of individuals, including, no doubt, skilled artisans bringing new ideas and techniques with them, there was not a huge migration of people. And since there is no evidence for any major incursions of peoples into Denmark after this point (until a possible invasion of the Danes around AD 300), it is safe to assume that the people who were buried individually in low round mounds in wooden coffers were: a) the descendants of the builders of the megaliths, and b) the ancestors of the English people. In other words, like the Celts who are now their neighbours, the English were in origin a megalithic people.
To archaeologists, the individuals who are found buried in single graves are known as the ‘corded ware’ people after their innovative pottery that was decorated by making elaborate impressions with hemp cords (that some suggest betray the contents of these drinking vessels: a cannabis-based brew).9 This solitary inhumation did not necessarily mean that the ancestors were no longer important to man; on the contrary, it may have been that the nameless throng of ancestors had been joined by named individuals who could be supplicated directly by their descendants. These named ancestors who, in time, would perhaps be able to grant their people supernatural help, when all personal memory of them had faded and they began to acquire superhuman attributes, became what might be termed ‘gods’. (Thus the idea of being able to trace one’s a lineage back to a god, as reflected in Anglo-Saxon genealogies that link the Royal Houses back to the Germanic god Woden, or, in Christian times, to a Biblical figure such as Adam.)
The new pottery and funerary techniques seem to have spread across western Europe in two main ‘waves’ – those of the Corded-Ware/Battle-Axe cultures to the north and the ‘Beaker traditions’(that saw the drinking of alcoholic beverages and the first use of metalworking) to its immediate south. While the Beaker cultures to the south began to use metal, crafting the first bronze swords and daggers, and formed a military elite to use them, the peoples of Scandza were left out on a limb. With no sources of metal of its own, its people exported the amber that was washed up on their beaches and maybe fur in return for a few items of these new and highly-prized crafts.
With so little disposable wealth and prestige goods, the tribes of Scandza developed no real warrior aristocracy, their chieftains remained just heads of families, of the farming landscape, and their power lay in the wealth of the soil. Hence the terms ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’ in Old English were Hlaford (loaf-guard) and Hlafdige (loaf kneader).
However, the developments of new trade links during the Bronze Age changed all this. Denmark suddenly found itself at the crossroads of a massive increase in trade between the Baltic and the Rhine, Danube and Oder rivers. For one short Golden Age, the chieftains of Denmark, the middle-men in this trade, were buried in huge domed round mounds, kitted out with swords and spears.
The Mound People
The ‘Mound People’10 as PV Glob termed them, flourished for some 200 years around 1500 BC. And, luckily for us, the construction of their domed tombs, made from layers of turf and clay protected them from the elements and kept them hermetically sealed so that many of them are well preserved today. Among them are the ‘family’ from Borum Eshøj, in East Jutland, whose burial goods were not the richest ever found, but whose unity in death presents us with a glimpse of an ancient ‘English’ family.
Buried within a massive earthen mound in split and hollowed oak trunk coffins, the old man, woman and possibly their son had been preserved by the tannic acid in the oak bark that had leached into the waterlogged graves. The old woman had been buried in long woollen skirt, an elaborate hair net on her head, and with bronze jewellery and a dagger. Her husband, aged in his late 60s, was simply buried wearing a woollen skullcap, a cape and a loincloth. Their son (whose wisdom teeth were just emerging) was buried with greater wealth, wrapped in a hide shroud with a bone comb, in his scabbard a six-inch dagger – his sword, it is supposed, inherited from his weaponless father and passed on to the one who ordered the mound to be built and who lead the funeral rites. Although by some standards these were not rich goods, the sheer volume of earth in the mound that enclosed them was a testament to their status.
Ancestors of the Anglii tribe were also found preserved in their graves. Perhaps the most interesting find was that of a ‘princess’ of the Mound People from Egtved in the neck of the Cimbric peninsula (see plate xxx). She was – aged 18–20, 5 ft 3 in tall, with a 23-inch waist, sported a shoulder-length blond bob, and a corded short skirt with no undergarments beneath. At her side lay a bucket of wheat and honey beer flavoured with cranberries. A beautifully engraved circular bronze disk lay on her otherwise bare belly, and some yarrow flowers lay at her left knee, showing she died in the summer. At her feet lay the body of a girl aged about 9 or 10, possibly a serving girl robbed of her young life to accompany her mistress into the world beyond.
It is likely that her revealing attire with the solar symbol over her womb was a type of ritual costume – there are found similarly dressed Danish figurines depicted leaping and dancing (from Grevensvænge, South Zealand, and Kaiserberg in Holstein). The sun image is found on many items from the Bronze Age, most impressively borne on a model wagon drawn by a bronze horse from Trundholm, Zealand (see plate xxx). In later Norse myth, we find the image of the sun drawn across the heavens by horse, so it is possible that this image appeared in their rites. These people were the children of the sun – and the myriad of carvings they made on rocks throughout Scandza give some fleeting idea of their rites: there are images of a circle with a cross inside (symbolizing the sun), the horse and, above all, the ship. There are also figures playing huge curved trumpets (lurs) and what seem to be men and women engaged in sexual acts to promote fertility.
At Kivik in Sweden there is a rare stone sarcophagus carved with images of darker rites associated, most probably, with the funeral of the individual whose grave it is. Figures in long robes process towards a large vat or altar, while bound figures are being led by a swordsman, perhaps to be sacrificed. There is an open grave, a chariot, stallion fights, the blowing of lurs, and drumming.
After only a few generations, the Mound People declined and cremation in urns became the normal rite of burial. But even though their Golden Age was brief, the aristocratic Mound People presaged the later Iron Age ‘Folk-Kings’ such as Hrothgar. Quite why the Golden Age ended is open to question but it is most probably linked with the general collapse, occurring around 1200 BC, that saw the fall of many of the great Bronze Age civilizations, including those of Minoan Crete, Mycenae and, further afield, the Indus Valley. Whether the collapse was brought about by a deterioration in the climate or another factor, the knock-on effect for a powerful ruling class founded ultimately on trade was catastrophic. But, for the majority of the farming peasantry, little would have changed. It was at this period that the Trundholm sun-chariot (see page xxx) was placed in a bog, suggesting that the deposition of the chariot may have been a supplication to the gods for the return of a stable climate. By Tacitus’s time, the ritual deposition of goods (mainly weapons) in lakes and bogs had become the main ritual expression of northern Europe.
Folk on the Move
During the closing years of the Bronze Age and the following Iron Age there was less emphasis on building communal ritual structures and instead the widespread emergence of more defensive structures as populations grew and pressure on land increased, so leading to inter-tribal tension. It is during this period (perhaps catalyzed through trade with Rome) that we first begin to see the mass relocation of tribes from overpopulated areas including that of the Cimbri and Teutones, possibly from Denmark. And it is was as a result of their contact with a literate civilization that their names began to be recorded, although we will never know how far back these tribal names went.
Tacitus mentions seven tribes in Denmark (see page xxx), whereas later Anglo-Saxon records identify just the Danes, Angles and Jutes, with the Saxons to their south. In all probability this was due to the formation of larger tribal units; it may have been that, in a growing population, small tribes of extended kin were no longer able to exist independently within the same landscape. This was especially the case as there were major folk movements from the east, where tribes were being driven westwards by nomadic interlopers such as the Huns, who were pushing eastern Germanic tribes, such as the Goths into Roman territory.11
It is not clear whether the appearance of a people named the Danes, Hrothgar’s people, in former Anglian territory was due to an influx of new people perhaps from the southern tip of Sweden, or whether, like the Saxons, they were essentially a later confederation of aboriginal tribes. That Hrothgar appears in Beowulf under the title ‘Lord of the Ingwine’ (friends of Ing) could support either theory; his people were either descended from the Ingaevones (which means the same as Ingwine) or they achieved dominance over them. Archaeologically, there is increased evidence of prestige goods (especially gold) associated with trade in Denmark around the 4th and 5th centuries, as well as a massive increase in iron production that went beyond local demand. This could be taken as evidence that a number of tribes in this area became, as had the Mound People before them, middle-men in trade between the Roman provinces and the Baltic, and developed into a rich confederacy we know as the Danes. If this is the case, it may be that these Danes put pressure on the Jutes and Angles, forcing them either to join their confederacy of leave their homeland. This is clearly suggested in Beowulf: Scyld, it says,
… shook the halls, took mead-benches, taught encroaching foes to fear him … until the clans settled in the sea coasts neighbouring over the whale-road all must obey him and give him tribute.(Beowulf, 5–12)
It addition, there was also an element of environmental pressure on the coastal tribes at this time. Archaeologists have shown that during this period the sea levels were rising, and that many coastal sites, such as the Saxon village of Feddersen Wierde,12 at the mouth of the Weser, were abandoned (c. 450). With the sea encroaching on one side, and nomadic warring tribes on the other, it is no wonder that the now inadequately defended Britain to the west seemed a more than tempting proposition.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 449 records:
Martianus and Valentinian received the kingdom and reigned for seven years. In their days the Angles were invited here by King Vortigern, and they came to Britain in three longships, landing at Ebbesfleet. King Vortigern gave them territory in the south-east of this land, on the condition that they fight the Picts. This they did and had victory wherever they went. They then sent to Angeln, commanded more aid, and commanded that they should be told of the Britons’ worthlessness and the choice nature of the land. They soon sent hither a great host to help the others … Their war leaders were two brothers, Hengest and Horsa, who were Wihtgils’ sons. First of all they killed and drove away the King’s enemies; then later they turned on the King and the British, destroying through fire and the sword’s edge.13
This part of English history is relatively well known. The coming of the Anglo-Saxons (Adventus Saxonicum) to Britain, has been much discussed by historians, and for the most part their theories have been confirmed by archaeologists, who have been able to show that material goods from the relevant tribal regions of Germania match those of the respective parts of England. Types of brooches common in Jutland, for example, appear in Jutish Kent, Saxon pottery found in Wessex matches exactly that of Saxony (some examples may even have been the work of the same potter).
No contemporary records for this period exist, the nearest being that of the West Country monk Gildas whose De Excidio Britanniae (‘The Ruin of Britain’) was written in the second quarter of 6th century, and whose descriptions of the Adventus Saxonicum were written in a deliberately apocalyptic style.
The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons was probably a gradual affair.14 Saxon pirates had been harrying British shores for at least a couple of hundred years, prompting a number of defensive shore forts to be built along the channel coast around AD 280. In 407, the would-be emperor Constantine III left Britain taking the remaining Roman legions with him in an attempt to stabilize the western Empire, but his defeat in 410 meant the troops never returned, leaving a vacuum. The Saxons, pressured by loss of land in their homeland, but also other more local barbarian peoples, such as Irish and Pictish raiders (from Scotland), took advantage of this.
Eventually, under tremendous pressure from continued barbarian attacks, the Christian Roman ruling class, headed by an individual bearing the title Vortigern (Celtic for ‘Overlord’) made the decision to grant a number of Germanic warriors land in Kent to act as federate troops (foederatii) to defend against the Picts. These warriors were lead by the Jutish Hengist and Horsa mentioned by Bede, and are represented by a number of Germanic military style burials found in the south-east dating from the mid-5th century. That there seem to have been earlier burials in this area suggests that in reality Vortigern was not granting new lands to the Anglo-Saxons but legitimizing land that had already been occupied by them after 407.
This measure, probably based on established Roman policy, seems to have been effective, as after this date the Picts are not mentioned as a problem. However, it also had the result of establishing a strong Germanic warrior presence in the south-east, so that when the foederatii did rebel (perhaps over the payment of food rations) they were already armed and established in prime military positions. It was at this point that the major Anglo-Saxon advance took place, checked for half a century around 490–500 when the Britons were able to win a major victory at a place called Mons Badonicus (Mount Badon), probably under Ambrosius Aurelianus (though legend would attribute it to King Arthur). The rest, as they say, is history.
Although the general picture of the Adventus that portrays Saxons replacing Britons is a massive oversimplification of a long process of piecemeal settlement, integration, acculturization and some violence, by the 7th century most of lowland Britain was speaking a Germanic tongue within one of seven Germanic kingdoms. In time, the varied tribes that made up the Adventus – Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, Franks and Anglii – would take the name of the latter, then the most powerful faction, and become the Angelcyn – the English.
To all intents and purposes, the period between the 5th and 6th centuries saw the pagan Germanic inhabitants of Denmark and north-west Germany shift a few hundred miles westwards over the sea, bringing their culture and language with them. It was a land not unlike their old one – a maritime province that once had formed part of the megalithic zone of the Atlantic coasts. But the centre of their imaginative world remained in Germania, in ‘Old England’, and would continue to do so for many generations, and it is there that Beowulf is set.