“Just don’t take any course where they make you read Beowulf”

 Woody Allen in Annie Hall, 1977

Beowulf and the dragon – J. R. Skelton

Maybe Woody was right.  This can be a pretty dreary read for a woman who flicks over the battle pages in novels and is bored to tears by chest-beating.  If you must be a hero, guys, please be the strong, silent kind that I can ignore. However, I’ve had a strange fascination with Beowulf since I was a teenager, an odd, melancholy thing that I’d almost forgotten about until the recent movie2.  That got me started thinking about Grendel’s Mother and the possible presence of a forgotten goddess in the poem, although it is pretty unpromising at first sight.  But no piece of literature survives for so long if it doesn’t speak to us on many levels, including the subconscious, which is perhaps where much of our longing for the divine feminine now resides.

I had expected to find one or two places I could point to in Beowulf and say look, I’ve found some traces of an ancient Goddess here, and maybe here.  In fact, and perhaps I ought not to be surprised, a little research and a year’s worth of living with the poem has taught me a great deal, and Goddess is found everywhere in relation to Grendel’s Mother (as she is never named in the text, I shall henceforward mostly call her GM). She’s hiding behind language, as I’ll show: exactly the same word was used for GM and our hero but given dramatically different meanings. There are many similarities to hunting goddesses, such as Artemis, while dragons and serpents hide in nooks and crannies in the poem, waiting to take us by surprise but also acting as pointers, as signs to an older, deeper layer of meaning.  We will also briefly visit Crete and the ancient labyrinth to be shown some likenesses between Pasiphaë and GM, and ponder the lupine nature both of Grendel and his mother, as well as considering swords in lakes, not to mention bog bodies.

We’ll take in a couple of movies in passing, not just the latest offering of Beowulf but also Alien, comparing monsters.  We also have a handful of Northern deities and the various offspring of the Earth Goddess and Loki to consider, including Hel, a wolf called Fenrir and the world-serpent, plus what the son-in-law of Agricola thought about Goddess in a wagon and her effect on the locals.  With a nod to Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey, we’ll also examine boggarts, Black Annis and English dog hauntings, before returning to the Goddess Hel to conclude our journey – for now.

But to begin this labyrinthine journey, first some basic information about the poem – I suspect it is a long time since it was required reading in most schools and on many college courses.  First – and oddly – Beowulf isn’t really English at all but is about a Swedish hero at the court of a king in what, today, is Denmark.  It’s English in the sense that the manuscript we know was written down in Old English, West Saxon to be specific, around the 10th century, almost certainly by a couple of monks.  That isn’t to say that there wasn’t an earlier written version but it is almost certain that the original poem would have been orally transmitted.  We know that one character mentioned in the poem probably died in a battle against the Frisians around 520 CE so that gives us some kind of a date for the work.

Very briefly, after the Romans left Britain in the early 400s, much of England was quickly colonized by a mixture of tribes - Saxons, Danes and Angles (we get the name England from the last of these).  Originally pagan, they were Christianized between around 600 and 800 CE.  The Vikings and their raids came around the end of the 8th century and went on until the Norman Conquest (and the Normans were, of course, descendents of the Vikings).  All this adds to the strangeness of the apparent popularity of a work set in Scandinavia, considering what Vikings were doing to the English at this time.

The written version of the poem contains a number of Christian references which were almost certainly interpolated by the monks who wrote it all down – although interestingly all are to the Old Testament. Perhaps the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” philosophy appealed at the time more than the New Testament message.  Robert F. Yeager notices that Beowulf’s own beliefs are never made explicit as he prays to “Father Almighty” or “Wielder of All”.3

In case you’ve managed to take Woody Allen’s advice and give it a miss so far, here’s a brief outline of the story:

Beowulf visits the kingdom of Hrothgar, where he has heard that a monster, Grendel, has been attacking and eating men as they feast in Hrothgar’s grand new mead hall, Heorot. Together with 14 warriors, he is welcomed to the hall and after a feast with the Danes, Beowulf’s men fall asleep.  When Grendel arrives at the hall, Beowulf is waiting for him and they wrestle.  Beowulf tears off Grendel’s arm, and the latter retreats to his lair to die.  There is a celebratory feast and Beowulf is rewarded by the king, but later Grendel’s mother enters the hall to take her revenge.  She carries off one of Hrothgar’s men and Beowulf is summoned again.  He immediately heads for the lake that is Grendel’s mother’s home, and plunges into the water – it takes him nearly a full day to reach the bottom, whereupon Grendel’s mother drags him to her cavern.  She is getting the better of him in combat, but Beowulf suddenly discovers a strange, enormous sword and uses it to finish her.

Again richly rewarded, Beowulf returns home to Geatland and becomes the ruler of his own people.  After some fifty years, a dragon begins to lay waste to the land and Beowulf, despite his age, decides to take on the dragon and sets off with a number of companions, all but one of whom, Wiglaf, desert Beowulf when the dragon quickly overwhelms him.  Beowulf does, with his companion, manage to kill the dragon, but our hero is mortally wounded and gives instructions on how a mound should be built over the dragon’s hoard for his grave.

To me, of course, the really interesting character in Beowulf is Grendel’s mother, although the poem features other women, notably Wealhtheow (Hrothgar’s dignified queen), the intelligent, young Hygd, Queen of the Geats, and the wicked Queen Modthryth, who likes to punish anyone who looks at her the wrong way.  But what, other than queenship, were the career options for Anglo-Saxon women?  Interestingly, not many fewer than those offered to me when I left school in the 1960s.  There was marriage, of course, where your fortunes would go hand in hand with your husband’s – another Old English survival, a rather lovely poem called The Wife’s Lament, makes that clear (the husband has been exiled but she must stay and live as directed by her in-laws):

When I had found a well-matched man,
ill-starred, melancholy-minded,
his dissembling heart was plotting homicide
with pleasant mien. Full oft we pledged,
save death alone, naught should divide
us else; that is altered now.
Now is destroyed, as though it never were,
our friendship. Far or near I must
endure the feud of my much-loved one.
.... They bade me dwell in a wooded grove,
under an oak-tree, in this earth-cave.
Old this earth-hall; I all longing-filled

Wealhtheow – J R SkeltonIn one particular kind of marriage, the woman had the beautiful name – if not role - of Peace-Weaver.  As the name suggests, she would be married off into an opposing tribe to establish peace between warring people.  Hrothgar’s queen, Wealhtheow, is so described in Beowulf:  “(a) peace-pledge between nations”.  Ellen Amatangelo believes that the woman in The Wife’s Lament was likely to have been a Peace-Weaver, and a difficult job this must have been, requiring diplomacy and political awareness as a minimum.5  I wonder whether “hostage” might be a better name for the role, but given good faith on both sides it could have worked on occasion.  Wealhtheow is portrayed, notes Yesenia Vivar, as aware of the politics of the court and cautious for the well-being of her family - as well she might be.6

The “weaver” part of the name seems to be literal as well as metaphorical – the word “wif” (meaning “woman” as much as it did “wife”)7 may well be connected with weaving, and of course cloth-making was associated with women in many cultures.  In wills, Tanja Säily tells us, “the male line was called wæpnedhealf 'weapon half' or sperehealf 'spear half' and the female line was wifhealf 'wife half' or spinelhealf 'spindle half'. It would seem, then that men were traditionally warriors or hunters, while women were cloth-makers and embroiderers.” 8  It isn’t clear whether independent women could be weavers or cloth-workers.

Later on, you could be a nun, and Abbesses often ruled over both monks and nuns (Caedmon, the monk/writer, lived in a monastery ruled by Abbess Hilda).9  And, despite popular belief today – you could be a warrior.  Anglo-Saxon burials have yielded, among others, two women interred with spears & knives in North Yorkshire (around 450-650 CE) and another from near Lincoln with dagger and shield, dated around 500 CE.10  Not to mention Queen Aethelburgh, who is supposed to have destroyed a fortress at Taunton in Somerset (the town where I do my day job) – in 722 CE.11

Or you could be a monster.  Is Grendel’s mother a monster? In the written version of the poem that we have she is described as having sprung from the line of Cain, the accursed one who killed his brother, Abel (Genesis, in the Old Testament, tells that story).  In the Heaney translation of Beowulf Hrothgar tells us that folk around the area simply said she looked like a woman as far as anyone could tell, and that Grendel is the one who looks monstrous.  They have no known father and “dwell apart among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags …”12

We’re also told that GM lives in or under an uncanny, bottomless lake whose water burns at night – a lake so terrifying that a stag will stop and face its attackers rather than dive in there.  I can’t help but wonder what the effect would be on the poem and our understanding of it if we were to change GM’s name to “Lady of the Lake”.  After all, there’s a sword down there ….

Beware the ides

Now, we cannot expect GM to be described in flattering terms, yet it is the translators into modern English who seem really to have gone out of their way to pick the most pejorative words of all possible –  for example, the construction aglaec-wif we find rendered “Monstrous Ogress” and the like.  Even Seamus Heaney, in his otherwise admirable translation13, describes her as “monstrous hell-bride”.  Yet the Old English words:  ides, aglaec-wif don’t necessarily mean anything like that – aglaec can mean, among other things, simply "warrior" or "formidable one" and ides is translated “female person, woman” in the online Thesaurus of Old English14 and actually has a connotation of “lady” according to Hilda Davidson, who adds that ides is a poetic word used elsewhere in Beowulf - of Wealhtheow, for example.  She goes on to say that in view of the “well-established ability of the hunting-goddess to alternate between the form of a beautiful, seductive woman and that of a fearful hag this deliberate use of ides would strengthen the case for taking Grendel’s mother for a being of this kind”. 15 We will look at Davidson’s view of GM as a hunting goddess a little later.

So a straightforward translation of

Grendle’s Modor, ides, aglaec-wif … (lines 1258-1259)

then, could just as easily be:

Grendel’s Mother, formidable lady, warrior-woman.

Of course, as Christine Alfano points out, the prejudicial description of GM is even more damaging as it is given the first time we come upon her and our expectations are now set.  Alfano adds that many translators have also chosen to render “mother” in GM’s context as “dam” - a word we’d normally use for livestock or wild animals.  There’s more - for example, words translated as “fierce grip” for a male warrior are in the case of GM rendered in language such as “horrible claws”.16  Should we be surprised?

Hilda Davidson, in Roles of the Northern Goddess, believes that GM’s behaviour may point to memories of a hunting goddess.  She is closely associated with the wilderness and the deep lake and is “specifically called the ruler or guardian of the depths, grundhyrde (2136), which would be appropriate for a being remembered as a Mistress of the Wild”.17  The fact that Grendel appears to have no known father strengthens Davidson’s case for a suspicion that GM is in fact an ancient hunting goddess – after all, goddesses like Artemis, deities of the hunt, commonly accept lovers for a time and often bear children (some of whom may appear to be animals, others human).  But essentially they – the goddesses - are sufficient unto themselves.

The idea of the hunting goddess having children who are sometimes animal in appearance is particularly interesting given what C. Scott Littleton suggests - that there are similarities between Beowulf and Theseus, that “the two figures have a common origin and are part of the Indo-European sword-hero complex”.18  There do seem to be some interesting parallels - Theseus (who killed the Minotaur, a monster who has been devouring Crete’s young people) frees, with his mother’s help, a sword that his father had placed under a heavy stone.  That is, he obtains a magical sword from a rocky place, just as Beowulf finds a sword in GM’s underworld cave.

Theseus also seems to make a habit of killing bulls – another goddess symbol, of course. He fights & defeats the Amazons, then “marries” their queen, Hippolyte, in what looks for all the world like yet another patriarchal attempt to subdue an independent virgin goddess.

So – both heroes descend into an “underworld” to fight, using wondrous weapons obtained with a woman’s involvement. Both cross the sea for their adventures, and return to be king.  And in both cases, the monsters are not dragons, but creatures of at last partial human descent, but physically stronger than normal folk.  The monster’s mother also appears in each story - GM of course, and Pasiphaë (who to some extent aligns herself with the monster by falling in love with the white bull).19

What do monsters represent?  According to Carolyn Anderson, the portrayal of GM is ‘as a masculine or ides aclæcwif, “monstrous woman”’; she embodies the threat of violence between kin, between guests and hosts.  The term aglaec, used to describe both Beowulf and GM, points to a cultural anxiety, but (as noted above) GM is the one carrying the “monster” label - “conveniently projecting all instability of the subject onto the feminine”.20 Anderson is relying, she says, on Kristeva, who sees a struggle between the pre-symbolic, the monstrous, and the symbolic (the Hero), where the abject is never successfully banished from the symbolic order but remains to challenge and threaten it.

The abject, according to Kristeva, includes marginalized groups such as the poor, the disabled, prostitutes – you name it.  In particular, says the theory, we must abject the mother, in order to construct our own identity.21  We try to maintain boundaries between nature and culture and when these are transgressed we have something like a monster.  The film Alien,22 according to Barbara Creed, gives an excellent example of Mother as monster – the Alien’s nature is clearly feminine yet a crew member is forcibly impregnated – what follows is the famous and truly horrific scene where Kane (John Hurt) is ripped apart by the emerging creature. The female is everywhere in this film; the crew are woken out of sleep by the voice of the ship – “Mother” – and, says Creed, the alien ship is very feminine in shape. The alien that “impregnates” Kane appears to be an egg – but a monstrous thing leaps out and penetrates Kane’s mouth.

And finally, as Creed points out, “Mother” herself, the mother ship, turns out to be treacherous, programmed to sacrifice the lives of the crew in the interests of “the company”.23 A great example of corporate culture blaming women … and here we have it all, the birth-giving and devouring mother in one, set in a future where the symbolic order has changed not at all.

Serpent or wolf?

The poem is singularly unhelpful in telling us what GM looked like.  We know that apart from her fighting strength there don’t seem to have been any supernatural abilities.  What is interesting is how much we want to ascribe dragon-like qualities, and this may be partly due to the many references to dragons in the poem – Beowulf’s success with Grendel leads to the telling of Sigemund’s dragon-slaying adventure at the victory supper and the lake wherein GM lives is described as having sea-dragons.  Of course, Beowulf’s final fight is with a dragon, also.  It’s what we expect from heroes, after all – think of Tiamat and Marduk, Medusa and Perseus, Python & Apollo; the list seems endless.  It’s nothing new to suggest that under patriarchy it became necessary to kill dragons and serpents, which represent chthonic Mother Earth, and if “men” are to have dominion over her, clearly she must be defeated.  This is a complex area and serpents and dragons were by no means necessarily evil to pre-Christian people.

As you’d expect, northern peoples had their own serpent deities and Jörmungandr (or Jorgamund), unsurprisingly for people who depended so much on the sea, was a sea-serpent, or some say a world snake that encircles Mother Earth. Of course, no dragon or serpent in these ancient tales seems complete without a “hero” to slay them – and Thor fulfils that function with Jörmungandr, although there’s a difference as it’s said that the world-snake will kill Thor at Ragnarok (the apocalypse).24

Lokis Gezücht (by Emil Doepler) Loki's brood; Hel, Fenrir and Jörmungandr. The figure in the background is presumably Angrboða. Copyright expired.Despite the dragon motifs in Beowulf, however, there seems more evidence to connect Grendel and his mother with wolves than any other creature.  Grendel is referred to as wolf several times in every translation of the poem and there are plenty of wolf references, in particular around the uncanny lake, home of GM.  She is called brine-wolf, sea-wolf, wolf-of-the-deep, wolf of the waves, and Grendel is called war-wolf. Hrothgar also tells Beowulf that Grendel and his mother live among wolves.

Interesting, then, that the three children of Angrboda (the Earth Goddess) and Loki are Jörmungandr, as mentioned above, Fenrir (the wolf) and Hel, of whom more later.

Also of major interest here is the goddess whom we now know, thanks to the Roman writer Tacitus, as Nerthus (or Herthum in some versions).  And she’s a lake-dweller.  Tacitus, in his Germania, famously notes that when Nerthus visits in her cart “(the people) go not to war; they touch no arms; fast laid up is every hostile weapon; peace and repose are then only known, then only beloved, till to the temple the same priest reconducts the Goddess when well tired with the conversation of mortal beings. Anon the chariot is washed and purified in a secret lake, as also the curtain; nay, the Deity herself too, if you choose to believe it. In this office it is slaves who minister, and they are forthwith doomed to be swallowed up in the same lake.”25

It certainly seems likely that Nerthus is a latinization of Njorthr, goddess of fertility & water, and Hilda Davidson26 believes that a centre for her worship may have been Zeeland (the island where Copenhagen now stands).  She adds that there is a story of how the island was formed by the goddess Gefion (or Gefjun) who ploughed around it and separated it from Sweden.

Terracotta Matronae – from Bibracte, city of the Aedui in Gaul (Open Source)Apart from Nerthus, adds Davidson, it is hard to find out much about the Mother Goddess of the Scandinavians. There is Frigg or Frija, mother of Balder, and who gave us the name of Friday (which gives us a clue as to her nature, as the same day in Mediterranean languages is the day of Venus (Friday is venerdì in Italian, viernes in Spanish). Frigg is also connected to the Parcae, goddesses or fates for whom places were often laid at table and who, it was believed, could affect the destiny of the new-born. This is very reminiscent of the Matronae, many representations of whom are to be found in Germany, but there are also Romano/British ones around Hadrian’s Wall. The Matronae were perhaps also connected with the important festival of Modranicht, which Bede mentions in his history of the calendar (around 730 CE).  This “Night of the Mothers” was celebrated on 24 December of the Roman calendar.  Unfortunately, we know almost nothing more about this festival.

Davidson also writes that Gefion bears some resemblance to Freyja (one of whose names was Gefn) and the name is also, interestingly like one given to the mothers – the Gabiae (meaning “richly giving”).  It is also close to the words “given” and “gift” in modern English, of course. Freyja was known as the goddess or bride of the Vanir and married her brother, Freyr.  The Vanir are one of two groups of deities in Norse mythology, the other group being the Aesir.  They are rivals to some extent and some think the Vanir were an earlier pantheon, rather like the Greek Olympian gods who took over from the Titans.  It is tempting to say that the Vanir were earlier, earth-based deities and largely concentrated on goddesses, with the later Aesir consisting of sky gods and warlike male deities, perhaps reflecting a shift to patriarchy.  In any case, it was common for Vanir goddesses to marry their brothers.

John Grigsby believes that Beowulf may be based on a memory of the overthrowing of the Vanir religion by that of the Aesir; that Grendel's mother is derived from the lake-dwelling Nerthus, and that Beowulf's victory over her is symbolic of the ending of the Vanir cult in Denmark by the Odin-worshiping Danes.27

Freyja also bears some similarities to goddesses from other traditions.  Her red-gold (amber?) tears are shed as she searches for her lost husband, Od, notes Davidson.  This is very reminiscent of Isis and Osiris, of course.  Freyja is also called Syr (sow), so we are reminded of a number of goddesses, both Mediterranean and northern European.  Both Frigg and Freyja, adds Davidson, were also known to be able to take the shape of a bird when they wished.

Davidson finally suggests a triple – with Frigg & Freyja as mother and maiden, and the shadowy Skadi (or Skade) as the huntress. It is very tempting to associate Skadi with Grendel’s mother, given what we have seen earlier about the hunting goddess.  Again, we don’t know a great deal about Skadi, other than her love of hunting and that she is considered to be the embodiment of winter and is also known as the snowshoe goddess.  She was once married to the god Njordr but he wanted to live by the sea, whereas Skadi needed to be in the mountains, so they eventually separated. Some say she then married Odin and therefore could be the mother of Freyr and Freyja.

Tollund Man – photo: Alex RenouIt is also tempting to associate Grendel’s Mother with Nerthus, particularly given the number of carts that have been found buried in bogs in the region, and the large number of bog bodies found in Denmark and which date from between around 900 BCE and 300 CE.28  It is possible that Tacitus’ reference to the drowned slaves actually refers to this practice.  One of the bog bodies, known as Tollund Man, found in Denmark in 1950, appears to have been hanged before being placed in the bog, and had eaten or otherwise ingested ergot (a hallucinogen related to LSD).  Could Tollund Man have been a slave or priest of Nerthus, placed in the bog as a sacrifice to the great Earth Goddess?

I would suggest there is another reason for believing that GM may represent an ancient, chthonic Goddess and that is her position in the story itself.  The poem follows the basic structure of the Hero’s Journey, as made famous by Joseph Campbell.29 Many myths follow the structure, as do modern films and novels (Star Wars in particular was structured after the Hero’s Journey as outlined by Campbell).

Briefly, Beowulf fulfils many of the “hero requirements” and is also possibly, like Tammuz, a personification of the cereal crop, as “Beow” is thought by some to mean “barley”.  Others, however, have considered the name Beowulf to mean “Bee-Wolf”; a kenning30 for “bear”, and to be a shamanic character, able to shapeshift into the form of a bear.  As a young man, Beowulf seeks adventure and is “called” to the assistance of Hrothgar, where he finds a number of “threshold guardians”, possibly including Grendel himself, given that the more exciting and perilous underworld encounter is actually with his (Grendel’s) mother.  There is also often a mentor and we have a number of them in Beowulf – including Hrothgar, Wealhtheow and Unferth (the latter at first opposes Beowulf, so was perhaps a threshold guardian, but by the encounter with GM he has come round and even lends Beowulf his sword).

The next main stage of the adventure is the “belly of the whale”, as Campbell calls one of the places of greatest danger, as was the underworld for Inanna – a place controlled by her sister, Ereshkigal.  For Beowulf this is represented by the underwater cavern of Grendel’s mother.  It is at this stage of the hero’s journey that a meeting with the goddess (or in variants, a temptress) occurs, and it is at precisely this point that the climax of Beowulf’s fight with GM occurs.

Finally, the hero returns to the ordinary world, often with treasure or a gift to his fellow humans.  In Beowulf’s case, the boon he grants to his people is the death of GM, the monster who threatened them – and he takes his leave of Hrothgar knowing they have an excellent future relation and also with much treasure.  Returning to his own land, he becomes king and rules well for fifty years, until his final meeting with the dragon that brings his death.

The barrow of Skalunda in Sweden – Beowulf’s burial site?

I first started writing this article a year ago and never expected it to take so long – I don’t regard it as complete now, but intend to return later and expand in various ways.  It’s a can of wyrms for me in many ways – opening up a whole vista of books to read, mythology to study, and more.  I was certainly never interested before in Anglo-Saxon or any Northern epics, although tales of Troy, Romans & Greeks have always thrilled me, particularly anything by Homer. Saxons, Angles & Danes just didn’t do it for me, nasty, brutish and hairy, I thought.

But there’s something about Beowulf – not only the red flag with “goddess?” written on it that for me goes up on any mention of female monsters, dragons or serpents in ancient tales, but something more.  My childhood nightmares of things coming from out of bogs came back to haunt me.

I spent a large part of my early childhood near Saddleworth Moor in Lancashire, at a time when the Moors murders31 were taking place, and children my age were disappearing frequently.  I have dreamed about Lesley Anne Downey, one of the victims, all my life. Possibly because of this, and very understandably, my parents were terrified and I was not allowed to play outside often; I picked up the idea that there was something terrifying and monstrous out there on the moors. In addition, my mother would occasionally obliquely refer to a creature called a “boggart” but would never explain exactly what this might be – she would say I looked like “a boggart had been after me” if I looked particularly dishevelled, for example.

But I made up my own “boggart” perhaps, of a drowned creature who would crawl up the stairs to the bedroom and hide under the bed ready to grab my ankles, necessitating a flying leap into bed from the bedroom door.  Not until years later, when I read of the bog burials mentioned above did I wonder about archetypes and collective memory.

There are also tales of Boggarts as black dogs; in Derbyshire, for example, the Kinder Boggart appears as a large black dog.  These English black dog phantoms, notes Grigsby,32 are often seen as harbingers of death, but they turn up everywhere, with names like Black Shuck, Bargest and Padfoot.  I also came across a reference to the Yorkshire name for a creature like a boggart – Grindylow – which sounds awfully like Grendel.

It’s noticeable, too, that many of the goddesses who guard to entrance to the underworld appear with dogs.  Hecate, of course, but also Nehalennia, whose name may well connect her with Hel, who is in turn connected with the dog Garmr, who guarded the entrance to Nifleim, the underworld kingdom.

Then, of course, there’s the legendary Black Annis or Anna, who is often spoken of together with the Cailleach Bheur – the blue/black death hag.  Kate Westwood writes that Annis is said to have clawed out her own cave in the rock of the Dane Hills of Leicestershire with her long, sharp nails.  At the mouth of the cave grew an oak tree where Black Annis crouched to await children on whom she’d pounce, then carry them back to her cave, sucking them dry of blood and eating their flesh, very like the behaviour of Grendel’s mother, of course.

Apparently there’s a standing stone called the Holsten stone, also called Hell or Holy Stone nearby, where people believed the fairies lived, for they heard groaning and some said Black Annis’ cave was actually here.33  Hel’s stone, perhaps?

Interesting, then, to look at the last few lines of the quote from The Wife’s Lament, given above.  Could this story be related to the devouring death goddess, too?

They bade me dwell in a wooded grove,
under an oak-tree, in this earth-cave.
Old this earth-hall; I all longing-filled

Right at the end of the 2007 movie Beowulf there is a fascinating moment.  The movie is not exactly bursting with such moments, especially as it doesn’t follow the original story but is really more for special effects aficionados.  But I found this interesting:

Grendel’s mother walks out of the sea towards Wiglaf (Beowulf’s second-in-command) and he walks into the sea towards her – they both stop and exchange the most extraordinary look.

Angelina Jolie, playing Grendel’s mother, is a bit too pneumatic to make a proper Goddess – but for a moment, in that shot, that is what I thought she was.  As Wiglaf looks back, the line from Genesis (3:15) went through my head:

“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed …”

©2008-9, Geraldine Charles


Just yesterday my daughter gave me an early Mother’s Day gift – a book of English folklore tales, containing at least two stories of boggarts.  My daughter had never heard the word before, nor did she know of the article I was just finishing.  Coincidences and intuitions like this have piled up over the last year, making me quite certain that the serpent lady hasn’t done with me yet.

Note on Orthography

I’ve tried to avoid using anything but “normal” English spelling for names & concepts as otherwise words are difficult to read and typeset.  In names such as Wealhtheow, spelt with the Anglo-Saxon thorn, this is replaced by “th” and the letter ash is replaced by “ae” etc.


1. Wyrm is an Old English word for dragon or serpent.

2. Robert Zemeckis (Director), 2007, Beowulf

3. Robert F Yeager. (1999). Why Read Beowulf, available: http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/1999-03/yeager.html (link no longer working, January 2019)

4.  Louis J. Rodrigues. Translation of “The Wife’s Lament”, available: http://www.brindin.com/porodwi1.htm Last accessed 07/02/09.

5.  Ellen Amatangelo. Peace Weavers, available: http://research.uvu.edu/mcdonald/Anglo-Saxon/wife%27slament/wifepeacew.html Last accessed 14/02/09.

6.  Yesenia Vivar, (2000), A Woman's Duyt, available: http://csis.pace.edu/grendel/women.htm Last accessed 07/03/09.

7.  University of Glasgow, (2005), available: http://libra.englang.arts.gla.ac.uk/oethesaurus/. Last accessed 07/03/09. Link no longer active March 2016.

8.  Tanja Säily, (2000), Woman in the Middle Ages: Anglo-Saxon England, available: http://www.elisanet.fi/tape/aswomen.html Last accessed 2/5/08.

9.  Benjamin Slade (ed), Bede's Story of Caedmon, available: http://www.heorot.dk/bede-caedmon.html#bede-oe. Last accessed 07/03/09.

10.  Women as Warriors - Viking and Saxon. available: http://www.lothene.demon.co.uk/others/womenvik.html Last accessed 07/03/09.

11. Anonymous, Translator: J.H. Ingram (1774-1850),  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/657, Last accessed 15/03/09

12.  Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: A New Translation, (1999), Faber & Faber (pg 95)

13.  Ibid

14.  http://libra.englang.arts.gla.ac.uk/oethesaurus/, op cit.Link no longer active March 2016.

15.  Dr Hilda Ellis Davidson (1998). Roles of the Northern Goddess, Routledge

16.  Christine Alfano (1992) The Issue of Feminine Monstrosity: A Reevaluation of Grendel's Mother,  in “Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies”: Vol. 23, Article 1.

17.  Davidson, H. op cit

18.  C. Scott Littleton (2008),  “Theseus as an Indo-European Sword Hero, with an Excursus on Some Parallels between the Athenian Monster-Slayer and Beowulf”, in The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe. Issue 11, http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/11/littleton.php

19.  Robert Graves, Greek Myths, Vol I, (2003), The Folio Society

20.  Carolyn Anderson (2001), “Gæst, gender, and kin in Beowulf: Consumption of the Boundaries”, in  The Heroic Age. Issue 5, http://www.heroicage.org/issues/5/Anderson1.html.

21.  Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Kristeva: On the Abject." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory, 2003, Purdue U. 07/03/09, http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/psychoanalysis/kristevaabject.html

22. Ridley Scott (Director), 1979, Alien

24.  Jörmungandr, Mythology Wiki, http://mythology.wikia.com/wiki/J%C3%B6rmungandr

26.  H.R.Ellis Davidson (1964), Gods and Myths of Northern Europe , Penguin Books

27. Grigsby, J (2005). Beowulf & Grendel: The Truth Behind England's Oldest Legend, London: Watkins Publishing

28.  Ibid

29.  Joseph Campbell (1993), The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Fontana

30.  A kenning is a circumlocution used in poetry – for example the sea was referred to as “whale-road”.

32.  Gribsby, J, op cit.

33.  Kate Westwood. (1998). Black Annis - Leicester Legend or Widespread Myths? available: http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/blackann.htm. Last accessed 07/02/09.

34.  Louis J. Rodrigues, op cit.