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Beowulf - Historical Context of the Old English epic poem

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  • Beaw, {Legendary} (deceased)
    A figure in Anglo-Saxon paganism associated with barley and agriculture. Connections have been made between the figure of Beowa and the more well-known Beowulf.Beow is the Anglo-Saxon word for barley. ...
  • Skjöld Odinsson, King of Denmark {Legendary} (c.237 - c.280)
    His descendants claimed he was a son of the Norse god Odin .Skjöldr (Latinized as Skioldus, sometimes Anglicized as Skjold or Skiold) was among the first legendary Danish kings. He is mentioned in the ...
  • Onela "Áli", {Legendary} (deceased)
    in beowulf onelan is ottars brother. Chapter 26 in King Egil, Auns son, who was killed by a bull during a hunting party. A wife of Egil is not mentioned in Ynglingasaga.
  • Dronning av Uppsala Yrsa Hildi Hailagasdottir, {Legendary} (565 - 597)
    Birth: circa 565 ** Danmark *Death: 603 (38) **,Uppsala, Sweden Immediate Family: *Daughter of Helgi* "Acutus" "Hvasse" Halfdansson, of Denmark and Olaf the Mighty, a queen of Saxland*Wife of Adils* "A...

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Beowulf is an Old English epic poem in the tradition of Germanic heroic legend

consisting of 3,182 alliterative lines. It is one of the most important and most often translated works of Old English literature. The date of composition is a matter of contention among scholars; the only certain dating is for the manuscript, which was produced between 975 and 1025. Scholars call the anonymous author the "Beowulf poet". The story is set in pagan Scandinavia in the 6th century. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall in Heorot has been under attack by the monster Grendel. After Beowulf slays him, Grendel's mother attacks the hall and is then defeated. Victorious, Beowulf goes home to Geatland and becomes king of the Geats. Fifty years later, Beowulf defeats a dragon, but is mortally wounded in the battle. After his death, his attendants cremate his body and erect a barrow on a headland in his memory.

There has long been research into similarities with other traditions and accounts, including the Icelandic Grettis saga, the Norse story of Hrolf Kraki and his bear-shapeshifting servant Bodvar Bjarki, the international folktale the Bear's Son Tale, and the Irish folktale of the Hand and the Child. Persistent attempts have been made to link Beowulf to tales from Homer's Odyssey or Virgil's Aeneid. More definite are Biblical parallels, with clear allusions to the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel.

Historical background

The events in the poem take place over most of the sixth century, and feature no English characters. Some suggest that Beowulf was first composed in the 7th century at Rendlesham in East Anglia, as the Sutton Hoo ship-burial shows close connections with Scandinavia, and the East Anglian royal dynasty, the Wuffingas, may have been descendants of the Geatish Wulfings. Others have associated this poem with the court of King Alfred the Great or with the court of King Cnut the Great.

The poem blends fictional, legendary, mythic and historic elements. Although Beowulf himself is not mentioned in any other Anglo-Saxon manuscript, many of the other figures named in Beowulf appear in Scandinavian sources. This concerns not only individuals (e.g., Healfdene, Hroðgar, Halga, Hroðulf, Eadgils and Ohthere), but also clans (e.g., Scyldings, Scylfings and Wulfings) and certain events (e.g., the battle between Eadgils and Onela). The raid by King Hygelac into Frisia is mentioned by Gregory of Tours in his History of the Franks and can be dated to around 521.

19th-century archaeological evidence may confirm elements of the Beowulf story. Eadgils was buried at Uppsala (Gamla Uppsala, Sweden) according to Snorri Sturluson. When the western mound (to the left in the photo) was excavated in 1874, the finds showed that a powerful man was buried in a large barrow, c. 575, on a bear skin with two dogs and rich grave offerings.

In Denmark, recent (1986-88, 2004-05)[15] archaeological excavations at Lejre, where Scandinavian tradition located the seat of the Scyldings, Heorot, have revealed that a hall was built in the mid-6th century, matching the period described in Beowulf, some centuries before the poem was composed. Three halls, each about 50 metres (160 ft) long, were found during the excavation.

Legendary Poetic Genealogy

Scyld Scefing, legendary ancestor of the Danish royal lineage known as the Scyldings -father of Beaw, father of:
a Healfdene, Scylding King of the Danes

b1 Heorogar
b2 Hroðgar x Wealhþēow, Wulfing queen of the Danes

b2c1 Hreðric
b2c2 Hroðmund
b2c3 Freawaru x Ingeld, King of the Heaðobards son of Froda

b3 Halga

b2ca Hroðulf

b4 Yrsa x Onela son of Ongentheouw

Beowulf gives Hygelac's genealogy: according to the poem, he was the son of Hrethel and had two brothers Herebeald and Hæþcyn, as well as an unnamed sister who was married to Ecgtheow and was the mother of the hero Beowulf. Hygelac was married to Hygd, and they had a son Heardred and an unnamed daughter who married Eofor. When Hygelac's brother Hæþcyn was fighting with the Swedes, Hygelac arrived at Hrefnesholt one day too late to save his brother Hæþcyn, but he managed to rescue the surviving Geatish warriors, who were besieged by the Swedish king Ongentheow and his three sons. The Swedes found refuge at a hill fort but were assaulted by the Geats. In the battle, the Swedish king was slain by Eofor. After the death of his brother Herebeald, Hygelac ascended the Geatish throne. After he was killed during a raid on Frisia (by a grandson of Clovis I), Hygelac was succeeded by Heardred, according to Beowulf.

a1 Hrethel

b3Hygelac x Hygd

b3c2unnamed daughter x Eofor

b4unnamed sister x Ecgtheow




Beowulf and the Comic Book: Contemporary Readings