In Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, we are able to better gather the complexities of one of the oldest English epic poems in history. Do kids want to read it? No, not even adults want to read it. But was it meant to be told to children around a nighttime fire? Heck. Yes. And that’s the way we should learn this epic poem. Verbally and around a campfire. Preferably with old English accents but I’m digressing. What readers have gathered throughout his translation is that Beowulf’s people praised pagan gods which were briefly mentioned due to the original translator of the story being monotheistic. Prior to monotheistic religions, when pagan gods were created they were anthropomorphic, taking not only human shape but practicing customs and a range of emotions similar to the humans that created them. Given the placement of Beowulf and his people and the fact that pagan religions are one of the oldest in history, it is believed that Beowulf’s pagan gods are in fact the gods and goddesses from Norse mythology, and that his people practiced similar funeral rights and rules of reciprocation as a Nordic pagan believer.
In cultural anthropology, some of the most telling aspects of a culture are revealed during a wedding or funeral, therefore it’s only right to begin with the beginning and the end of Beowulf. Shield’s death is the first event in Beowulf. “Shield was still thriving when his time came/and he crossed over into the Lord’s keeping./His warrior band did what he bade them/when he laid down the law among the Danes:/they shouldered him out to the sea’s flood,/the chief they revered who had long ruled them” (41). His funeral is a sea burial in which Beowulf’s father’s body is anointed with treasure, war gear, weapons, and gold, decorated in accordance with Shield’s gift-giving to the people. The Nords didn’t always have sea burials for their dead; however, in Sweden (northern Sweden being modern Geatland and Denmark now) sea burials were the popular choice from the 8th to 11th century AD (Price 125). In his academic journal Passing into Poetry, Neil Price describes an exhumed funerary boat in Kaupang, Norway where the tides were once high in the 9th century;
Spatially, though not necessarily personally, associated with him were numerous weapons: two axes of different types, of which one was an antique when it was buried; a throwing spear; a sheathed sword, its point by his head, with two knives and a whet stone next to it; a shield (two more lay nearby); a quiver of arrows implying probably also a bow, now decayed. On his midriff lay an inverted frying pan. Two spindle whorls had been carefully placed on the sword scabbard. A pot of German manufacture had been smashed and its pieces scattered over the man’s body along with three glass beads, near a soap- stone vessel. Two more of the latter were deposited at the man’s feet. An iron dog chain was draped next to him (129).
Described here are a few objects lying next to a man who was buried with two women and a baby. There are several other funerary gifts described on the ship, including a horse and a dog, a magic staff, and weaving swords. Below this magnificent ship is a smaller vessel, buried approximately one century before. In this way, Shield’s funerary boat matches that of the Scandinavians who inhabited what is now Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway and others. The same land as that of Beowulf and his kin.
It is known that when neighboring countries or peoples worship certain gods, others will adopt those gods, often inputting their own version according to personal legend and sometimes geographical setting. For instance, one culture may have their supreme god as god of the hunt but their neighbors, who live on the coast, might develop a myth in which their supreme god of water fights the god of the hunt to explain why the two cultures clash.
The second major funeral in Beowulf is that of the title character. Beowulf is killed in his old age while trying to defeat a dragon and his funeral is not set out on a ship like his father’s but rather a massive pyre piled high with treasures from the dragon’s cave as was Beowulf’s final wish. “The Geat people built a pyre for Beowulf,/stacked and decked it until it stood foursquare,/hung with helmets, heavy war-shields/and shining armor, just as he had ordered” (106). This type of funerary right was also practiced among the Scandinavians, albeit was a more common form of burial for soldiers. “To turn to a Byzantine source and the writings of Leo the Deacon, in 970 he described Rus’ warriors cremating their battle dead after a skirmish with imperial forces.41 Raising great log pyres on which they laid the slain…” (Price 137). The fact that Beowulf’s burial is a pyre is perhaps the most modest we see our title character. Like his father’s sailing coffin, Beowulf’s pyre is extravagantly decorated, just so, given that this form of burial is meant for soldiers, not kings. “…Order the building of a barrow that would crown/the sight of his pyre, serve as his memorial,/in a commanding position, since of all men/to have lived and thrived and lorded it on earth…” (105). As was stated earlier, one of the ways to best learn a culture is to experience a funeral. The two funerals described in Beowulf match those of the Scandinavians, down to the decorative gifts the dead were adorned with as described in the exhumed archeology site in Koupang, Norway.
More along the lines of every day culture are the practices of reciprocation. It was well known in the text of Beowulf that whenever a leader went into battle, the spoils were divided equally between general and comrades. The possession of treasure is a precarious relationship, especially when it comes to giving and taking as is described in the story of Wayland. Wayland is one of three brothers who married Valkyries, angels that gather the dead from the battle field. When waiting for his wife to return, Wayland begins to make rings from treasure he found in the Wolf Dales. One day, a king heard of his magnificent rings and decided to pay a visit to Wayland’s home. While waiting for Wayland to return, the king took one of his rings and hid in wait for the jewelry-maker. Wayland noticed one of his seven hundred rings was missing. The treasure found in Wolf Dales was that of the king’s and he was not happy. Rather than kill Wayland, however, the king enslaved him because the rings he made were so beautiful. Already, there is a problem regarding the distribution of treasure. The king wanted the beautiful materials that Wayland made with his treasure, not necessarily strictly vengeance for Wayland having taken his treasure in the first place (Munch 126). In Beowulf, it is expected for treasure to be equally divided, the reciprocal for the treasure being a sort of give and take. First the general goes into combat with his men, as a way to thank his men, he gives them treasure. Then, because the general repaid them with treasure, they will continue to offer their service. The only time we see that feedback loop failing is in Beowulf’s battle with the dragon. Then there’s the concept of the wergild.
The wergild is the death price in which a man must either slay the man that killed his brother (literal or figurative) or the killer must literally pay the family of the man he killed. “If one of his kinsmen had been slain, a man had a moral obligation either to kill the slayer or to exact the payment…” (37-38). In the legend of Hofund, the title character holds a dinner party in which two men —Heidrek and Gissur— were not invited. Heidrek was so offended that he showed up to the party anyway. Of course, Heidrek had some bad blood with one of the members at the dinner party and killed him. It was because of this action that Hofund outlawed Heidrek and created the law: “…he was to leave no moment’s peace to any man who had murdered his own sworn brother…” (Munch 136). The concept of the wergild in this legend is similar to the death price of Beowulf. Be killed or pay. Literally.
Gods and legends take on anthropomorphic shape in effort to relate to the people who are listening to the stories. Naturally, Beowulf would follow this pattern of humans doing heroic things —almost godly things— so that humans have someone to aspire to be and look up to. The funerary rights and rules of reciprocation fit those of ancient Scandinavians which allows us to better understand Beowulf, his kin, and where they came from.
Why the two wolves at the top of the page? My favorite Norse gods are Hati and Skoll, brother and sister wolves that chase the sun and moon. Long story short, I put photos of Takaani and Wanagi (two wolves from Wolf Mountain Sanctuary in California) up because they represent Hati and Skoll, and I’m biased, and wolves are cool. I am also jet-lagged, so there.
Thanks for reading 🙂