TEUTONIC MYTH AND LEGEND
by DONALD A. MACKENZIE
An Introduction to the Eddas & Sagas, Beowulf, The Nibelungenlied, etc.
London, Gresham Publications 1912
Conflict with Demons
Grendel enters the Hall--A Warrior devoured--Struggle with Beowulf--Terror-stricken Danes--The Hero Triumphant--Flight of the Demon--The Great Feast--Beowulf honoured--Grendel's Mother takes her Revenge--The Hero follows her--His Great Dive--Fight in the Cave--The Ancient Giant-sword--The She Demon slain--How Beowulf became a Prince.
OVER the moor in the black mist Grendel came stalking. The wrath of God was upon him. He saw the high hall and hungered for human flesh. . . . Stealthily he strode below the dark clouds, so that he might peer into the feasting chamber, which was decorated with gold and shining with ornaments. . . . It was not the first time he had entered it, but never before did he meet therein with a mightier warrior and braver watchmen.
So came that accursed fiend towards the Hall. The door was shut and strongly barred with iron bands; but he smote it with his great hands and it flew open. The demon was bent upon evil and swollen with fury as he tore through the entrance. With swift footsteps he strode his silent way over the finely paved floor. . . . He raged inwardly, and in the darkness awesome lights, like to fire, burned in his eyes. . . . He surveyed the hall; he saw warriors asleep on the benches and his heart exulted as he resolved to devour each one separately ere the night was spent. . . . But he had come to his last feast of human flesh.
Beowulf lay watching Grendel. Soon the hero beheld how suddenly the fiend snatched up his prey. Without delay that grim monster clutched a sleeping warrior, tore him asunder, chewed his flesh, and drank his blood, swallowing great mouthfuls quickly, until he completely devoured the man, and even his hands and feet.
Then Grendel came nearer; his claws darted out to wards Beowulf as he lay in bed. But the hero divined the demon's purpose, and he clutched the monstrous arm and threw his weight upon it. . . . Never before did Grendel feel a stronger hand-grip, and he was suddenly stricken with terror and sought to escape. . . . In vain he struggled to break free, so that he might take flight into the blackness of night-back again to the demons of his gang.
But Beowulf was mindful of his evening boast; he leapt from bed; he stood erect; tightly he grasped the monster; his fingers burst. . . . Grendel twisted and swayed; backward he sprawled towards the door, but the hero went with him, nor relaxed his grip. The wily fiend sought to slip without, if it were possible, and then flee to the darksome fen. He realized what strength there was in Beowulf's hands. . . . A luckless visit indeed had the monster made to Heorot.
Loud rang the clamour in the hall. Terror seized upon the Danes in their safe dwellings without; there was panic among them. . . . Beowulf and Grendel raged with fury; the building resounded as they struggled and crashed round and about. . . . It was a wonder that the feasting-hall was not shattered, and that it ever survived the savage conflict; it might well have fallen to the ground, but the timbers were bound together by well-forged iron bands. . . . Never could it be destroyed by hands, although the flames might devour it.
Then arose a loud and awesome scream. . . . The Danes were stricken with terrible dread, because they heard the demon's cries of despair--his screeching song lamenting for his wound.
Beowulf held fast; he would not suffer the man-eating fiend to escape alive. . . . Of little account was Grendel's life to the world of men. . . .
The battle heroes in the hall sought to help their lord. They fell upon the monster without fear, and smote him with their war swords, but without avail, for Grendel's body was charmed against weapon wounds, and they could do him no hurt.
But miserable was to be the life ending of the fiend; his alien spirit was fated to travel afar to be bound by devils. The crime worker, the devourer of men, the enemy of God, realized that his body would endure not or give him help and sure defence. Brave Beowulf had him in his power; each loathed the other with fierce hate.
In agony was Grendel. . . . A wound gaped on his shoulder; it was torn wider and wider; the sinews snapped; the flesh burst . . . . The glory of battle was given to great Beowulf . . . . Sick unto death Grendel must indeed escape to his joyless lair below the darksome fen: he knew that his life days were spun to an end. . . . So tearing away, he left his arm and shoulder in Beowulf's hands.
Thus was the desire of the Danes achieved, and the boast of the great hero fulfilled. The high hall was cleansed of Grendel. That indeed did the people who were stricken and put to shame realize when they entered Heorot, for from the great roof had Beowulf suspended the arm of the night demon with its iron-strong hand and clutching claws.
In the safety of morning the warriors hastened to the Hall from far and near the people gathered to gaze with wonder on the traces of the conflict. The blood tracks of the monster were on the ground. The warriors followed his trail on horseback until they came to the water of sea demons, which they beheld weltering with blood; the waves surged red and hot with gore. The death-doomed Grendel had laid his life down in his lair--his heathen soul. There Hela 1 snatched him away.
Then the mounted warriors rode back and proclaimed the tidings and the glory of Beowulf, of whom they said that no other warrior between the seas and the world ever was his equal or worthier of a kingdom.
Then was great rejoicing. Warriors held races on horses, one with another, and a minstrel thane sang of Beowulf's deed, and of Sigemund, the Volsung, who slew the dragon. To the Hall went many retainers to behold the arm of Grendel. The king went to view it with his nobles, and the queen went with her maidens.
Hrothgar gave thanksgiving to God because that the dread of Grendel was ended, and, addressing Beowulf, whom he called "the valiant hero", he vowed that henceforth he would love him as a son. "Thy fame," he said, "shall endure for ever."
Beowulf spake in answer, and said he had done the deed with great goodwill. "Would", he said, "that thou hadst witnessed the conflict. I thought to hold down the fiend on his deathbed until he died, but I could not prevent his going away."
The warriors were silent about him: they looked on the arm suspended from the roof; they saw the finger-claws which were like steel. Then they said that no weapon could have cut off that bloody battlehand of the demon.
Click to enlarge
1. Gold Collar from Oland. 2. Masked Helmet from Thorsbjerg Moss. 3. Drinking-horn. 4. Portion of a Damascened Sword from Nydam. 5. Bronze Sword Grip decorated with gold and garnets.
1. 3, and 5 reproduced by permission from ''Kulturgeshichte Schwedens'' by Oscar Montelius
A great feast was given in Heorot in Beowulf's honour. Hrothgar gave unto the hero as gifts a golden banner, a helm and war armour and richly jewelled sward. Eight battle steeds gave he also, and on one was the king's war saddle, adorned with embroidery and gems. To each of the hero's followers was given a sword, and blood money was paid for the warrior whom Grendel had devoured.
At the feast a minstrel sang of the deeds of King Finn 2 and of Hengest, Hnaef, and Hildeburgh--how Finn married Hildeburgh, the sister of Hnaef, who was afterwards slain and burned at the king's hall, and how Hengest went against Finn and slew him, returning to the fatherland with Hildeburgh.
When the song was ended, Hrothgar's queen, Wealtitheow, gave the golden cup to the king, and then bore it to Beowulf, to whom she also gave two golden armlets, a mantle, and a jewelled collar which was as precious as the collar of the Brisings, 3 which Hama took from Eormanric. The wondrous collar did Beowulf afterwards gift to his king, Hygelac, who wore it when, in after days, he fell fighting against the Frisians, when to them it passed.
The feast was then spread; men drank wine. They knew not stem Wyrd 4 Destiny as had many of the nobles before them there. And when evening came, Hrothgar rose and left the hall, and Beowulf went also to sleep in an outer dwelling. The benches were cleared and laid out as sleeping couches. . . . One among the revellers was doomed that night to die. . . . Each of the warriors hung his armour and weapons on the wall at his head, ready for sudden alarm and night attack. Brave men were they!
Now demon vengeance was brooding against the warriors because that Grendel was slain. His mother, a female demon, was filled with woe in her dwelling amidst awesome waters and cold streams. Ravenous and wrathful she resolved to go forth to avenge her son's death.
In the darkness she made her sorrowful way, and came to Heorot while the warriors slept on the benches. When she broke in there was again terror in the hall, which was just as much less than before as is a woman's strength unto a man's on the battlefield.
Swords were drawn hastily: there was no time to don armour. The she demon, perceiving that she was discovered, made haste to depart, but she had seized in her grim claws a sleeping noble, and she carried him off towards the fen. He was Hrothgar's comrade warrior and shield bearer, Ęschere, who was famed between the two seas and well beloved. . . . A wailing arose in Heorot; the demon had taken life for life.
The old king was sorrow-stricken when he knew that his chief warrior was slain. He summoned Beowulf to a council, and the hero went with his followers. Along the floor strode the war-famed hero, while the timbers resounded his steps. He asked of the king if he had passed, according to his desire, an easeful night.
"Ask not of my welfare!" the king cried. "Sorrow has again fallen upon the Danes. Ęschere is dead--my right-hand man, my councillor, my teacher. The death demon is his murderer. By her is her son's death avenged. My comrade she hath slain because thou didst kill Grendel, who for long slaughtered my people. So is the feud continued against us ... . . .
Then did the king tell Beowulf that ofttimes he heard that two dread stalkers held the moors by night. One of them had a woman's seeming; the other was Grendel. None knew if there was a sire in times past. Their lair was under the cliffs where a stream fell downward--in an underworld flood below a tree-girt mere. Nightly was a wonder beheld there--fire in the flood! No man knew how deep was the mere. The hart when close pursued will die rather than enter the water. An awesome place it is!
Thence do the waves surge to the clouds when the wind stirs up fearsome storms, the air is filled with mist, and the heavens weep. 5
Then said the king unto Beowulf: "Once more do we look to thee for aid. Thou knowest not yet the demon lair, the perilous retreat, where the monster may be found. Seek it if thou art unafraid! Then shall I reward as heretofore with gifts of gold if thou shalt survive."
Beowulf was, indeed, without fear. He besought the king to sorrow not. "Better it is," he said, "to avenge a comrade than to grieve without end." So he counselled that they should go forth quickly and follow the demon's blood trail to her den. Bravely he spoke thus:--
"Not in earth's bosom, in mountain wood, or in the sea depths, go where she may, shall the kin of Grendel escape me! . . . Be patient in thy grief this day, O king, as I expect of thee."
With joy the king leapt up, hearing the words that Beowulf spake. He called for his horse, and, followed by his men, went forth with Beowulf and his warriors.
They followed the track of the demon over the moor, and came to the stony places and the cliffs and the homes of sea-monsters. They reached the grey rock 6 overhung by trees, and below they beheld the mere surging and red with blood. On a cliff top they found Ęschere's head.
In the water they beheld serpents and awesome sea dragons. On a ledge were sea monsters that go down the ocean paths. When the horn gave out a battle-lay they rushed seaward, and one did Beowulf wound unto death with an arrow so that he swam slowly in the water. The war-men thrust barbed boar spears at it and dragged it ashore. With wonder they gazed on their awesome guest.
Beowulf then girded on his armour, and on his head put his battle helmet. Then gave Hrothgar's spokesman, Unferth, unto him the strong blade which was named Hrunting. Of iron was it made, and tempered with blood of battle; it had been forged with twig venom and never had it failed in battle.
Then Beowulf addressed Hrothgar and besought him to be guardian of his comrades should he himself survive not, and to send unto Hygelac the treasures he had received.
"I shall achieve fame with Hrunting," Beowulf cried, "or death shall take me."
He awaited no answer and plunged; the surging waters received him. Downward he sank a day's space ere he found the bottom. . . . Soon the demon discovered that an alien being came against her, and she clutched Beowulf in her finger claws, but by reason of his strong armour she could do him no hurt. Sea monsters attacked him with sharp tusks, 7 so that he could not use his sword, and they followed as the demon drew him into her lair. Then did Beowulf perceive that he was dragged into a hall beyond the sea's reach. The glow of fire-like light was shining bright, and Beowulf perceived that the mere wife had taken him. He smote her with his sword--a great free blow he gave, and the blade rang on her head. But no wound could he inflict. Never before had the sword failed in conflict! Then did the hero fling down the blade. He would have his strength of arm for sure defence. So, desperate-minded, does a battle man fight when he hopes for fame and recks not of life. . . . The shoulder of Grendel's mother he seized and in great fury wrestled and flung the demon down. . . .
But fiercely she clutched at him. In her claws she held him securely. They struggled together thus until the battle hero, heart-weary, at length was overthrown. On the ground he fell and the she demon sat upon him. ... She drew swiftly her broad and bloodstained dagger to avenge her only son. . . . Then would the hero have died there, but over his shoulder lay his chain armour and that saved him. . . . To his feet he leapt again.
Beowulf suddenly beheld among the armour in the demon's lair an ancient giant-sword. It was a blade without an equal. No other living man could wield it, for it was the choice of splendid weapons, and giants had made it. The hero seized it and wielded it.
Strong was Beowulf, and in battle fury he swung the giant-sword and smote the demon a fierce blow, cleaving her at the neck and shattering her bone-rings. Right through her body went the blade, and she sank in death.... Blood-wet indeed was the sword, and Beowulf gloried in his deed.
Then light flashed through the hall, as when heaven's candle gleams from on high. . . . The hero gazed about him. . . . He saw Grendel lying maimed and dead on his resting place, and in vengeance for the evil that monster had done, Beowulf smote his body so that it was split open. Then the head he struck off.
On the cliff top the warriors waited, watching the angry waters. . . . In time, Hrothgar beheld the waves rising red with blood. Old and grey-haired war men spoke one to another about the brave one; nor did they expect to see him return again in triumph, for they deemed that the wolf demon had torn him asunder. . . . So they spoke and waited, until in the ninth hour the Scylding heroes turned away. Hrothgar went with them to his home. . . . Nor did the Geats expect ever to behold Beowulf again; yet they waited, gazing at the blood-red waters.
Meanwhile, in the demon's wave-protected hall, the giant sword which the hero had wielded began to waste away in the bloodstream. A strange thing was that! Like ice it melted, as when the Father unties the frost chains and the flood flows free.
Beowulf took not any of the other arms that were on the wall, but he kept the gold and graven swordhilt of which the blade was burnt up by reason of the fiend's hot and poisonous blood. Then, seizing the monstrous head of Grendel, he entered the waters and soon again he was swimming--he who survived fearsome strife, for by this time were the waters purged of blood and he rose quickly. He came to shore, and his war men rejoiced, as did also the brave hero, for he was proud of his mighty load of sea spoil.
Quickly did his men unloose his armour, and with glad hearts they went inland with him. Heavy was the burden of Grendel's head, which was carried to the hall on a spear shaft, the warriors marching in triumph.
Into the feasting-chamber they strode, where people sat drinking, and dragged Grendel's head along the floor. . . . An awesome sight was that to the nobles and the queen who sat with them. In silence the warriors gazed upon the monstrous head, wondering greatly.
Then did Beowulf address the king, telling him of the dread peril he endured ere yet he slew the demon. "But now," the hero said, "thou canst sleep in Heorot among thy warriors as heretofore, nor fear murderous attacks in the darkness."
To Hrothgar gave Beowulf the sword-hilt rich in victory, the work of a wonder-smith. It was a heritage of the past, and upon it was engraved that primeval war when the surging sea engulfed the race of giants 8. Terribly were they punished--that people who were alien to the Eternal Lord; the Supreme Ruler gave them their final deserts in the flood. A gold plate upon the hilt had engraved in runes the name of him for whom that choicest of weapons was first made with decorated hilt and serpent ornament. 9
There was silence in the hall when Hrothgar, son of Halfdane, spoke of Beowulf's deed. Well may he say, an aged guardian who promotes truth and right among the people and remembers all from the far past, "that this nobleman is of high birth. Beowulf, my friend, thy renown is raised above all people, far and wide. With modesty and prudence thou dost bear thyself. My friendship thou shalt have, as I promised thee. Thou shalt ever be a strength to thy people and an aid to war men.
Not so was Heremod 10 to the children of Ecgwela, the renowned Scyldings. Not for their happiness did he flourish, but to bring cruelty and slaughter to the Danes. God had given him power and strength greater than any other man, but he had a fierce heart; he gave not money rings; he was without joy, and he endured grief because of his savagery and never-ending enmity with his people. Follow not that example. Have manly virtue. Many winters have made me wise, and for thee I have told this tale."
Further did the king give wise counsel to Beowulf, advising him to distribute gifts to his people, so that he might ever have their support, and to avoid vaunting pride, because the day would come when his strength would depart, and in the end death would take him.
A great feast was held in the Hall, and there was much rejoicing, and Beowulf slept there until the raven, with blithe heart, proclaimed the joy of dawn.
Then did the hero bid Hrothgar farewell. An alliance of peace was formed between the Scyldings and the Geats. The old king kissed the hero and shed tears.
To the coast guardian Beowulf gifted a gold-hilted sword. Then with his followers he went aboard the ship in which were the treasures and armour and horses which Hrothgar had given.
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1. Pin-brooch; 2, 3, 4, 5, Bronze Buckles; 6, Gold Neck-chain with Hammer of Thor hanging at bottom
The good ship clove the sea waters; the sail swallowed the wind; the timbers creaked; necked with white foam the ocean traverser, with curved stem, sailed away. Favourable were the winds until they saw the Geatish headlands and the keel grated on the shore.
To King Hygelac did Beowulf relate his adventures, and then he distributed the gifts he had received, giving that monarch a coat of mail and four horses, and to the queen, Hygd, the beauteous collar and three horses. Hygelac awarded the hero a gold-headed sword, much money, a country seat, and the rank of a prince.
1 Urd, Queen of Hela.
2 One of several heroic poems founded on the Ivalde moon-myth.
3 Probably a legend founded on the fight between Heimdal and Loke, when the latter tries to steal Brisingamen, Freyja's necklace. Hama is Heimdal.
4 Urd, Queen of Fate (as chief Norn) and of Death.
5 Ironwood and the Hag are suggested. Hati-managarm, Angerboda's son, is also a maneater like Grendel.
6 The Svipdag-dragon is also under a grey rock. The treasures he guards, and especially Freyja's necklace, also shine like fire in the water.
8 The sons of Ymer.
9 The traditional Sword of Victory, made by Thjasse-Volund, which was in the keeping of the Hag of Ironwood and her shepherd, Gymer. The runes, the smith's name, and the serpent charm suggest its magical qualities. It was evidently intended to achieve as great a disaster as did the Ymer deluge.
10 A reference to an older heroic tale. Hermod, the son of Odin, who visited Balder in Hades, has some connection with the Svipdag myth. Indeed, Rydberg identifies him with Svipdag. Beowulf is a hero of similar cast. Each has the attributes of the age in which their deeds were sung, and reflect the ideals of the people who celebrated them. Older savage conceptions, preserved by tradition, were condemned when compared with the new and nobler.