Marking Boundaries in Beowulf: Æschere’s Head, Grendel’s Arm and the Dragon’s Corpse

In: Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik
Thijs Porck Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society, Universiteit Leiden Niederlande

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Sander Stolk Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society, Universiteit Leiden Niederlande

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In the Old English poem Beowulf, several body parts are put on display, including Grendel’s arm at Heorot and Æschere’s head on top of a cliff. The first instance has been widely discussed by various scholars, who have tried to find out why and where the arm was hung. By contrast, scholarly treatments of the second instance are relatively scarce. This article places the exhibition of Æschere’s head by Grendel’s mother in the context of similar practices of decapitation and display in Anglo-Saxon England. It will be argued that the placement of the head of Æschere on top of the cliff towering over Grendel’s mere resembles the Anglo-Saxon heafod stoccan, ‘head stakes’, which acted as boundary markers. The monster’s act, therefore, would not strike as foreign to the Anglo-Saxon audience, but would be familiar. As we will show, the identification of Æschere’s head as a boundary marker, placed at the edge of the monsters’ domain, also has some bearing on the interpretation of other potential boundary markers in the poem, including Grendel’s arm and the dragon’s corpse. Lastly, we will argue for a new reading of two textual cruces in Beowulf’s speech prior to his fight with Grendel.


Þæt wæs tacen sweotol
syþðan hildedeor hond alegde,
earm ond eaxle (þær wæs eal geador
Grendles grape) under geapne hrof.
Beowulf, ll. 833b–8361

[That was a clear sign, after the one brave in battle placed the hand, arm and shoulder (there all of Grendel’s grip was together) under the vaulted roof.]

Many scholars of Beowulf have grappled with Grendel’s arm. The prominent display of this monster’s limb inside or outside Heorot has given rise to varying interpretations. There are those who would see this display as a symbol of victory, a ‘clear sign’ of Beowulf’s triumph over the monstrous threat to Heorot, hung inside the hall as a trophy (e.g., Kiernan 2010). Other scholars have linked the display of Grendel’s arm to judicial practices in England. Just like the hand of a counterfeit coiner would be cut off and placed on top of the perpetrator’s mint shop under the laws of King Æthelstan (d. 939),2 the arm of Grendel was hung outside the hall to act as a warning for other potential transgressors (Bremmer 1996; Lockett 2010, 375–377).

Beowulf scholars have been inclined to extend the conclusion drawn on Grendel’s arm to also cover the second prominent exhibition of a body part in the Old English poem: that of Æschere’s head by Grendel’s mother. Those who interpret the display of Grendel’s arm as a sign of triumph also consider Æschere’s head a trophy (Kiernan 2010; Cavell 2014, 169); similarly, scholars who place Grendel’s arm in a judicial context also interpret the display of Æschere’s head in light of legal procedures surrounding feuds (Lockett 2010, 372). In this article, we aim to reverse the order of analysis, by first interpreting the display of Æschere’s head in its own right, supporting the recent claim by Helen Appleton (2017) that the head functions as a boundary marker.3 Next, we review how this interpretation of Æschere’s head problematizes the role and representation of other potential boundary markers in the poem, including Grendel’s arm and the dragon’s corpse. We end our article by speculating about two textual cruces in Beowulf which can be solved by accepting the notion that Æschere’s head may have functioned as a boundary marker.

1 A Sign at the Border: Æschere’s Head as a Boundary Marker

In her search for vengeance, Grendel’s mother kills Hrothgar’s chief counsellor, Æschere.4 This murder leaves Hrothgar deeply distraught. Only after Beowulf has reminded the old king that it is better to avenge his friend than mourn for a long time does Hrothgar come to his senses. The old king jumps on a horse and leads Beowulf, the Geats and a group of Danes to Grendel’s mere. On their way, the company is confronted with a sight that intensifies their distress: the decapitated head of Æschere, on a cliff near the mere:

he feara sum beforan gengde
wisra monna wong sceawian,
oþ þæt he færinga fyrgenbeamas
ofer harne stan hleonian funde,
wynleasne wudu; wæter under stod
dreorig ond gedrefed. Denum eallum wæs,
winum Scyldinga, weorce on mode
to geþolianne, ðegne monegum,
oncyð eorla gehwæm, syðþan Æscheres
on þam holmclife hafelan metton.
Beowulf, ll. 1414–1421

[he (Hrothgar) went ahead with a few of the wiser men to examine the place, until he suddenly found mountain trees leaning over a grey stone—a joyless forest; water stood below, blood-stained and disturbed. To all the Danes, to the friends of the Scyldings, to many a thane, it was painful to suffer in the heart, a grief to each of the warriors, after they met Æschere’s head on the water-cliff.]

The shocking nature of this discovery is emphasized by the poet, who delayed the phrase “hafelan metton” to the end of the passage (see Fulk et al. 2008, xcvi; Orchard 2003a, 82–83). Like Grendel’s mother, the poet has separated Æschere from his “hafelan” by inserting the phrase “on þam holmclife”.

Grendel’s mother’s actions have often been interpreted in the context of a rightful retribution for the murder of her son. In avenging her son’s death, Grendel’s mother acts as would be expected of a grieved party in a feud. Her display of Æschere’s head in this context is usually seen as mimicking the exhibition of Grendel’s arm. This view is exemplified by Kevin Kiernan, who interprets Grendel’s mother’s actions as follows:

At first glance it may seem particularly monstrous that she singles out as a victim Hrothgar’s favorite thane and then leaves his head, as a trophy, floating in the mere. But Hrothgar used her boy’s arm as a trophy in his hall, and because she retrieved it, Beowulf returned from the mere with Grendel’s severed head as a gruesome replacement. Her grief seems as real as Hrothgar’s, and her response, swift life-for-life vengeance, is (mutatis mutandis) as heroic as Beowulf’s.

kiernan 2010

In Kiernan’s view, both Grendel’s arm and Æschere’s head are trophies, displayed to exhibit the heroism of their slayers. By contrast, Leslie Lockett (2010) interprets the display of Grendel’s arm not as a trophy but as a public claim to the legitimacy of Beowulf’s murder of Grendel. She assumes that Grendel’s mother’s exhibition of Æschere’s head served a similar purpose:

Although the killings committed by her son are without just cause and are therefore kept concealed, her slaying of Æschere is—at least from her perspective—a legitimate requital of her own son’s death, for which reason she prominently displays the head at the entrance of her own home, on high ground at the edge of the mere.

lockett 2010, 372

Their differing opinions on the purpose of the displays notwithstanding, Kiernan and Lockett see the fate of Æschere’s head as mirroring that of Grendel’s arm.

In addition to offering distinct readings of the function of the displayed body parts, Kiernan and Lockett also suggest different locations for the head of Æschere. Kiernan’s suggestion that the head is “floating in the mere”, however, has no basis in the text, which makes clear that the head is “on þam holmclife” [on the water-cliff] (Beowulf, l. 1421a). As Lockett correctly identifies, this water-cliff is an elevated area at the edge of the mere; in fact, the cliff is possibly mentioned earlier as the “harne stan” [the grey stone] (Beowulf, l. 1417a) looming over Grendel’s mere. William Cooke (2003) identifies this grey stone as a boundary marker: “it marks the boundary between the world of men and the ogres’ domain” (298).5 Indeed, by placing Æschere’s head on this elevated ground at the edge of her domain, Grendel’s mother appears to mark her territory with the decapitated head. Helen Appleton (2017) has convincingly linked this use of Æschere’s head as a boundary marker to Anglo-Saxon judicial practices that included decapitation and display at the borders of estate properties. Her interpretation is corroborated by evidence from various sources, including charters, archaeology, history, literature and art.

Anglo-Saxon charters, to begin with, often contain vernacular boundary clauses which describe the areas under discussion. Within these boundary clauses, the term heafod stocc ‘head stake’ is frequently attested,6 suggesting that it was common practice to mark the limits of estate properties with impaled heads (see also Appleton 2017, 434–435). Various charters locate such head stakes in the vicinity of a road: e.g., “æfter foss to þam heafod stoccan” [after the way to the head stakes] (S 115); “of heafod stocca andlang stræt” [from the head stakes along the street] (S 309); and “7lang stret to þam heafod stoccan” [along the street to the head stakes] (S 695).7 These examples suggest that the head stakes would have been visible to people travelling to and from locations, possibly along main access roads, marking the boundaries of a community’s estate. Given their function as boundary markers in surviving Anglo-Saxon charters, these head stakes must have been a lasting as well as salient feature in the landscape.

The presence of head stakes and the location of execution cemeteries at estate boundaries is supported by archaeological evidence (see, e.g., Reynolds 2009, 169; Appleton 2017, 435). For instance, excavations at an Anglo-Saxon execution site in Walkington Wold (Yorkshire East Riding) revealed several victims of decapitation (Buckberry 2008). Damage to some of the skulls at Walkington Wold was attributed to display prior to burial: the heads “may have been displayed on a gibbet at the top of the barrow, where a large post hole was found during excavation” (Buckberry 2008, 164). As for the location of Anglo-Saxon execution cemeteries, they were typically found close to boundaries, especially of hundreds, and near routeways (cf. Buckberry 2014, 133). Hayman and Reynolds (2005, 251) list several Anglo-Saxon sites that meet these criteria:

There are further examples, comparable to the Staines execution cemetery, of sites located on administrative boundaries of settlements regarded locally or regionally as central places or towns. These include Guildford (Guidown), Eashing (Milford bypass), Winchester (Old Dairy Cottage), Old Sarum, Cambridge (Chesterton Lane), Steyning (Heathen’s Burial Corner), Burpham (Peppering) and potentially at Abingdon and Wallingford…. The location of the Staines cemetery on a major route has many parallels at other late Anglo-Saxon towns, including Winchester, Cambridge and Old Sarum, where execution sites are located alongside Roman roads.

It was common practice, it seems, to display the heads of criminals near the borders of a given area. Their location near routeways suggests they were specifically aimed at those entering a community (to make them aware that harmful intentions and acts would be met with severe punishment) and, perhaps, at those leaving a community (so that they realised they were leaving a well-protected, safe environment).

Historical instances of decapitation and impalement, moreover, suggest that these practices existed throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum [The Ecclesiastic History of the English People] (731) implicates King Penda of Mercia (d. 655) in two early cases of decapitation. First, Penda is responsible for the death of King Edwin of Northumbria at the Battle of Hatfield Chase (633). Edwin’s head, Bede reports, is later retrieved from the battlefield and brought to the church of St Peter in York—an indication that Edwin’s head had been separated from his body. Edwin’s successor, Oswald of Northumbria, suffered a similar fate: he was slain at the Battle of Maserfield (642) and Penda had his head, as well as his arm, put on stakes; Oswald’s head and arm remained there until his brother Oswy retrieved them, a year after the battle (see Bremmer 1996, 125). An example from near the end of the Anglo-Saxon period involves Uhtred of Northumbria (d. 1016) and is recorded by Symeon of Durham in the De obsessione Dunelmi [On the Siege of Durham] (1104×1109). Having warded off a siege by Malcolm, King of the Scots, Uhtred commanded to have the best looking heads of the fallen Scots to be brought to Durham:

The heads of the slain, made more presentable with their hair combed, as was the custom in those days, he had transported to Durham, and they were washed by four women and fixed on stakes around the circuit of the walls. The women who had previously washed them were each rewarded with a single cow.

cited in and trans. thompson 2002, 193

Impaled on the outer walls of the city, the decapitated heads of the Scots not only marked the boundaries of the town but also sent a clear message to anyone who saw them: subsequent sieges would be met with a similar fate. As the actions of both Penda and Uhtred demonstrate, the Anglo-Saxons were well aware of the symbolic value and the potential for spectacle offered by the decapitated heads of their enemies.

As various scholars have noted (e.g., Bremmer 1996; Owen-Crocker 2002), this potential for spectacle made decapitation and display an appealing subject for medieval writers.8 Examples of decapitation abound in Anglo-Saxon works, including hagiography (e.g., the decapitation of Saint Edmund of East Anglia) and biblical narratives (e.g., Judith decapitating Holofernes in the Old English Judith) (for an overview, see Owen-Crocker 2002, 96–98). Some texts also feature public impalement. The anonymous Old English version of The Legend of the Seven Sleepers is a case in point: the seven saints who refuse to worship the pagan gods are decapitated and displayed:

Swilce oðer wæterflod swa fleow heora blod; and ða heafodleasan man hengc on ða portweallas, and man sette heora heafda swilce oþra ðeofa buton portweallon on ðam heafodstoccum.

[Their blood flowed like a second Flood, and they hung the headless on the town-walls, and they set their heads, like those of other thieves, upon head stakes outside the town walls]

ed. and trans. magennis 1994, 65–67

The intriguing detail that this was a fate common to thieves was added by the anonymous Anglo-Saxon translator and is not attested in the Latin source of the text (Owen-Crocker 2002, 90; Appleton 2017, 438). The Old English adaptation of the Mediterranean romance Apollonius of Tyre similarly features the display of decapitated heads, here placed on top of a city gate (discussed in Bremmer 1996, 126). As such, these Anglo-Saxon writers occasionally deployed and made use of the image of the decapitated head on the outskirts of a settlement.

Anglo-Saxon illuminators also depicted decapitation and, more rarely, impalement.9 A unique visual depiction of a head on a stake is found in the Old English Hexateuch (London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv), an eleventh-century Old English translation of the first six books of the Old Testament. The artist of the Hexateuch illustrated Gen. 8:6–7 (“… [Noah] sent forth a raven, which went forth and did not return, till the waters were dried up upon the earth”) with a depiction of a raven pecking at a head impaled on the ark’s prow (see fig. 1).10 Given the lack of an iconological tradition depicting Noah’s raven pecking at an impaled head, it seems likely that the artist here used his own imagination (Gatch 1975, 11). Perhaps it was his familiarity with the decapitation and impalement practices in early medieval England that led this Anglo-Saxon artist to depict God’s wrath in this manner.

figure 1
figure 1

Raven pecking at an impaled head on Noah’s Ark, Cotton Claudius B.iv, fol. 15r.

Citation: Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 77, 3-4 (2017) ; 10.1163/18756719-12340090

© london, british library

The Beowulf poet too made use of the themes of decapitation and display. The most prominent case is the head of Grendel, which Beowulf cuts off after he has also cut through the neck of Grendel’s mother. On their return to Heorot, Beowulf and his men parade Grendel’s head on a stake towards Heorot: “feower scoldon / on þæm wælstenge weorcum geferian / to þæm goldsele Grendles heafod / oþ ðæt semninga to sele comon” [four had to carry Grendel’s head with hardships to the gold-hall on a battle-pole, until they forthwith came to the hall] (Beowulf, ll. 1637b–1640).11 When Beowulf enters Heorot, it is clear that this display of Grendel’s head is a token of victory:

Þa wæs be feaxe on flet boren
Grendles heafod, þær guman druncon,
egeslic for eorlum ond þære idese mid,
wliteseon wrætlic; weras on sawon.
Beowulf maþelode, bearn Ecgþeowes:
‘Hwæt, we þe þas sælac, sunu Healfdenes,
leod Scyldinga, lustum brohton
tires to tacne, þe þu her to locast.’
Beowulf, ll. 1647–1654

[Then Grendel’s head was dragged by the hair over the floor of the hall, where warriors drank, terrible for the warriors and for the lady with them, a wonder-inspiring spectacle; the men looked upon it. Beowulf, the son Ecgtheow, spoke: ‘Lo, with joys we bring you this sea-booty, son of Healfdene, member of the Scyldings, as a sign of glory, which you look upon here.’]

Judging by Beowulf’s own words, there can be no doubt that Grendel’s head here acts as a trophy, especially since it is part of a public ceremony.

The case for interpreting Æschere’s head as a trophy is less convincing (cf. Kiernan 2010; Cavell 2014, 169). If this head were to function in this manner, the location is somewhat unexpected: on a high cliff at the outer edges of the mere, rather than inside the underwater hall. Given its location, the display of Æschere’s head does not seem aimed at guests who might marvel at Grendel’s mother’s heroics, but rather appears intended to make unwanted travellers aware that they are about to trespass. In addition, since her son has just died, and given the likelihood of a continuation of the feud, it is unlikely that Grendel’s mother would have been in a celebratory mood.

Given all of the above, Appleton’s (2017) interpretation of Æschere’s head as a boundary marker rather than a trophy is a convincing one. It fits, first of all, with the historical context of using decapitated heads to mark estate boundaries. In addition, as Appleton rightly points out, the style of the passage leading up to the discovery of Grendel’s mere, with its mention of many landscape features, “echoes the rhetoric of boundary clauses”, encouraging the audience “to recognize the head as a boundary marker” (440). With an Anglo-Saxon audience, then, the display of Æschere’s head would have struck a familiar chord: like they themselves, Grendel’s mother marked her border with the head of an enemy, warning trespassers and other potential transgressors.

Indeed, after they have encountered Æschere’s head, the company acts as if they have passed into another’s territory. Cooke (2003, 299), who identified the “harne stan” [grey stone] (Beowulf, l. 1415a)—though not the head on top of it—as a boundary marker, points out that the Danes and Geats start to blow their horns after having seen the cliff with Æschere’s head: “Horn stundum song / fuslic (fyrd)leoð” [time and again, a horn sang a ready war-song] (Beowulf, ll. 1423b–1424a). Cooke relates this action to Anglo-Saxon law codes that declare a man a thief if he does not blow his horn before leaving the common path and so passes into another’s territory.12 In addition, the effect of Æschere’s head on the company is what would be expected from a warning sign at the edge of a hostile territory: aside from Beowulf, everyone who has seen the gruesome boundary marker is unwilling to go into the mere.

Thus far, our findings complement and support Appleton’s interpretation of Æschere’s head. Like her, we deem it likely that the poet intended to “disturb the reader” by having a monster act in a way that was so akin to the mores of the Anglo-Saxon audience (Appleton 2017, 428). It is even possible that the poet intended to problematize such practices as feuds, decapitation and display of heads at borders; by having the Grendelkin act like Anglo-Saxons, the poet implies that some of these familiar practices are, in fact, monstrous.

In the remainder of this article, we take the interpretation of Æschere’s head as a boundary marker as a given and investigate how this line of thought allows for speculation about other potential boundary markers in the poem, such as Grendel’s arm and the dragon’s corpse. In the last section, we argue that this interpretation may hold the key to two textual cruces in Beowulf.

2 ‘A Clear Sign’ and more than a Trophy: Grendel’s Arm as a Boundary Marker

Þæt wæs tacen sweotol
syþðan hildedeor hond alegde,
earm ond eaxle (þær wæs eal geador
Grendles grape) under geapne hrof.
Beowulf, ll. 833b–836

[That was a clear sign, after the one brave in battle placed the hand, arm and shoulder (there all of Grendel’s grip was together) under the vaulted roof.]

At first glance, Grendel’s mother seems to be the only one associated with the use of severed body parts as boundary markers. The Geats parade Grendel’s head around as a trophy and the display of Grendel’s arm, ripped off by Beowulf and hung under the roof of Heorot, has been interpreted in a similar way, as a celebration of Beowulf’s victory,13 even though the significance of the display of Grendel’s arm is not specified by the Beowulf poet. Indeed, the dismembered limb is a clear indication that the monster’s threat has been quashed and this fact is celebrated by those that look upon it: the Danes proclaim Beowulf’s glory and Hrothgar extends his heartfelt gratitude to Beowulf.

In a way, the display of Grendel’s arm indeed seems to parallel the way Grendel’s head is presented at Heorot. In both cases, the body parts represent Beowulf’s victory and are greeted with enthusiasm. Yet, there is at least one significant difference: while Grendel’s head is presented as part of a performance at Heorot, “a social, public display, directed toward the entire court” (Godfrey 1993, 3), no such ceremony is mentioned for Grendel’s arm. In fact, Beowulf hangs Grendel’s arm under the roof of Heorot immediately after the fight, so that various travellers could see it the next morning, well before the Danish king stepped forth from the “bryd-bure” [women’s quarters] (Beowulf, l. 921a). The placing of Grendel’s arm under the roof of Heorot rather than presenting it ceremoniously to Hrothgar raises the question as to why this particular course of action was chosen.

Scholars like Bremmer (1996) and Lockett (2010) have explained the placement of Grendel’s arm on a prominent and highly visible location as being motivated by more than the mere desire to signal the victory over Grendel. Drawing on the evidence of Germanic law codes, Bremmer (1996) notes that public exhibition of severed limbs “signalled the superiority of the victor over the victim, and at the same time had a warning function.” Other potential transgressors would certainly have thought twice of performing deeds similar to those of the dismembered criminal. Bremmer (1996) relates the display of Grendel’s arm to the laws of King Æthelstan (d. 939), which prescribe that the hand of a debaser of coins is to be cut off as punishment and that the severed hand is to be placed on top of the perpetrator’s mint shop.14 Lockett (2010), similarly, places the exhibition of Grendel’s arm in the context of the visual mutilation of thieves in Anglo-Saxon England that signify “that a brutal requital awaits future perpetrators of robbery” (376–377).15

If, as Bremmer and Lockett suggest, Grendel’s arm has a warning function, it is worth contemplating the intended recipients of the warning. If the intention is to warn other monstrous outsiders from acting out murderous deeds, why isn’t the arm hung on the outer gate of the settlement or, perhaps, exhibited along the paved street leading towards it (Beowulf, l. 320a)? Regardless of the question of whether the arm was hung inside or outside the hall,16 the building itself would most likely have been in the centre of the Danish settlement itself, surrounded by other structures.17 As such, the display of the arm seems targeted not at individuals outside, but at those within the Danish settlement.18 If so, what message are Beowulf and the Geats (who are responsible for the display) sending to the Danes?

With the use of Æschere’s head as a boundary marker in mind, one could speculate that, while Grendel’s arm was not put up at the edge of the settlement of the Danes, it did mark the outer borders of the temporary domain of Beowulf and the Geats. After all, Beowulf and his men had been granted authority over the mead hall by Hrothgar; seen in this way, their positioning of the arm on a high place on the outside of Heorot is akin to the placing of Æschere’s head on the cliff over Grendel’s mere. To the Geats, then, exhibiting the arm carries a powerful message beyond simply signalling that the Danes are finally rid of Grendel. The Geats show the Danes that they are superior in their might—to the Grendelkin as well as to their hosts.

As a matter of fact, not every Dane who beholds Grendel’s arm is overjoyed. The Danish champion Unferth,19 who had challenged Beowulf’s might the night before, reacts in a telling manner: “ða wæs swigra secg, sunu Eclafes, / on gylpspræce guðgeweorca” [Then the warrior, the son of Ecglaf, was quieter in boasting speech of deeds of war] (Beowulf, ll. 980–981). Perhaps Unferth, now that he has sobered up and realises that his insulting words were without ground, is the only one to understand this aspect of the Geatish sign loud and clear: “Look! It is only us, the Geats, with the power to defend our own and eliminate even the greatest of threats.”

3 A Sunken Sign: The Defeated Dragon as a Potential Boundary Marker

dracan ec scufun,
wyrm ofer weallclif, leton weg niman,
flod fæðmian frætwa hyrde.
Beowulf, ll. 3131b–3133

[they also shoved the dragon, the worm, over the cliff, they let the wave take him; the flood embrace the guardian of the treasures.]

Whereas the gigantic body parts of Grendel had been put to good use, the remains of the dragon are unceremoniously thrown into the sea. Owen-Crocker (2000) identifies this disposal of the dragon’s corpse as a “truncated travesty of a burial at sea” (86), possibly echoing the ship burial of Scyld Scefing at the start of the poem. As for the rationale behind getting rid of the dragon’s corpse, Owen-Crocker merely notes that “fifty feet of dead reptile to be disposed of” represented an “unpleasant practicality” for the retainers that need to take care of Beowulf’s remains (86). Given the potential of using bodily remains of opponents as fear-provoking boundary markers, however, this removal of the dragon’s corpse, even if it were lying in the way, seems rather a waste. The question of why the dragon’s remains are disposed of, thus, invites further speculation.

The removal of the dragon’s remains may have been inspired by a similar motif in the dragon fight traditions surrounding the archangel St Michael. Aside from his well-known fight with a dragon in The Book of Revelation, St Michael is reported to have fought a fire-breathing dragon inhabiting a mountain in a non-biblical tradition that survives in various manuscripts of an English origin.20 Rauer (2000) points out that this lesser-known dragon fight features a number of parallels with the dragon-fight in Beowulf, including the disposal of the dragon’s dismembered body into the sea. Crucially, the traditions surrounding St Michael also indicate the purpose of these measures: “to avoid infection from the rotting carcass of the dragon” (120) which would cause people and cattle to die. Given these and other parallels, it is possible that the Beowulf-poet was familiar with this tradition surrounding St Michael and its reasoning behind throwing the dragon’s remains in the sea.21

An alternative explanation for doing away with the dragon’s body is that its display would not signal the desired messages to the Geats as well as to their enemies: that of a strong community able to defend their own and capable of doing away with threats. In the end, this dragon had been responsible for Beowulf’s death, which left the remaining community weakened. Indeed, as the messenger and Wiglaf both speculate in the poem, Beowulf’s death will issue in the very demise of the Geats. The messenger, in particular, expects retaliation from various tribes—Franks, Frisians and Swedes—now that the news of the death of their king will spread (Beowulf, ll. 2910–2927). The dragon’s corpse, had it been put on display like Grendel’s arm or head, would only have served as a reminder of the cause of their lord’s death and would, consequently, have constituted a sign of a weakening of the community beyond compare. This message is best left untold—sunk to the bottom of the sea.

4 Signs of Foresight: “hafalan hydan” and “mearcað” in Beowulf’s Speech, ll. 445b–451

When Beowulf first enters Heorot, he introduces himself as an experienced monster slayer. He tells Hrothgar that he has learned about Grendel’s ways and announces that, like the monster, he will fight without weapons. Next, Beowulf anticipates what were to happen should his battle against Grendel turn sour:

Na þu minne þearft
hafalan hydan, ac he me habban wile
dreore fahne, gif mec deað nimeð:
byreð blodig wæl, byrgean þenceð,
eteð angenga unmurnlice,
mearcað morhopu— no ðu ymb mines ne þearft
lices feorme leng sorgian.
Beowulf, ll. 445b–451

[You will not at all need hafalan hydan, but he will have me, stained with blood, if death takes me; he will carry my bloody corpse, he will intend to eat, the solitary one will eat unmournfully, mearcað the moor retreat—you need not at all worry about the tending to my body any longer.]

The general sense of this passage is clear: should Beowulf fall, Hrothgar would have no need to worry about burying Beowulf’s body. However, these lines from Beowulf’s speech contain two textual cruces: “hafalan hydan” and “mearcað”.

The first crux, “hafalan hydan”, has been interpreted as referring to burial or a related rite. Fulk et al. (2008, 143) note that “hafalan hydan may perhaps refer either to interment, as in Wan[derer] 84 (in eorðscræfe eorl gehydde [he concealed the earl in an earth cave]) but with hafalan synecdochically, or to a custom associated with interment.” With respect to the second interpretation, it has been argued that the custom referred to was the covering of a dead person’s head with a cloth, on the basis of some analogues from Scandinavian and classical sources (see, e.g., Hoops 1920; Frank 1981, 136). Yet, Fulk et al. (2008, 143) claim that “[t]he existence of such a custom at this date now lacks the support of any reliable evidence.” This leaves the first interpretation suggested by Fulk et al.: “hafalan hydan” as referring to burial, with “hafalan” as pars pro toto for the entire body.22 This interpretation is also favoured by the Dictionary of Old English, s.v. hȳdan: “hafelan hydan, literally ‘to hide (someone’s) head’, i.e. ‘to bury (someone’s) body’.”

It is not strictly necessary, however, to take this phrase synecdochically: Mezger (1951), for instance, already argued for interpreting the phrase on a more literal level, as referring to the actual practice of burying heads. He states that, in Scandinavian sources, heads were often cut off during feuds and were then sent back to the deceased’s family, who, most likely, buried the head. In the thirteenth- or fourteenth-century Icelandic Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, intriguingly, Grettir’s head is even buried by his slayer. As Mezger rightly notes, Grettis saga has been considered a close analogue of Beowulf (cf. Orchard 2003a, 140–168), which gives some strength to his argument that “hafalan hydan” here refers to the practice of burying heads. In addition, examples of the burial of skulls without their bodies has also been attested in the archaeological records for Anglo-Saxon England (Wilson 1992, 93; Reynolds 2009, 79–80). On the basis of this, admittedly circumstantial, evidence, then, it is possible to interpret “hafalan hydan” as referring to the burial of only a head.

But why would Beowulf reassure Hrothgar that he would not need to inter his bodily remains or, specifically, his head? Is it because he anticipates that Grendel will eat him from head to toe? That scenario is certainly suggested by the lines that follow: “byreð blodig wæl, byrgean þenceð, / eteð angenga unmurnlice” [he will carry the bloody corpse, he will intent to eat, the solitary one will eat unmournfully] (Beowulf, ll. 448–449). Yet, there is no reason to assume that if Grendel were to eat Beowulf’s body he would also devour the head. After all, his mother did not do so with Æschere.23 In addition, another group of monstrous beings in the Beowulf manuscript, the Donestre in The Marvels of the East,24 are described as eating the strangers they deceive, but leaving the heads:

Þonne hy fremdes cynnes mannan geseoð, ðonne næmnað hy hyne ond his magas cuþra manna naman, ond mid leaslicum wordum hine beswicað ond hine gefoð, ond æfter þan hy hyne fretað ealne buton heafde ond þonne sittað ond wepað ofer ðam heafde.

[When they see a person of a foreign race, they (the Donestre) name him and his kinsmen with the names of acquaintances, and with devious words they delude him, and they get hold of him, and after that they eat him, all but the head, and then sit and weep over the head.]

ed. and trans. by fulk 2010, 24–25

Given the habits of the Donestre and Grendel’s mother, it cannot be assumed that monsters like Grendel at all times completely devoured their victims.

That Beowulf thinks his head could serve a purpose other than food may be suggested by the next half line and second crux in this passage: “mearcað morhopu” (l. 450a). Fulk et al. (2008, 143–144) list various options for “mearcað”: “probably ‘will mark with blood,’ ‘will stain’ … ‘marks with his footprints,’ ‘traverses’ … ‘inhabits’.” With Grendel’s mother’s use of Æschere’s head as a boundary marker in mind, we would like to suggest another translation: ‘will mark the border’. Treharne (2012, 19) notes that Old English mearcian can indeed be used with this sense:

… the Old English term mearcian (“to mark”) can be used to describe the measuring out of a boundary or space … Notably in relation to a partially or completely literate culture, mearcian is a term denoting the making of any sign on any surface, like the writing of a charter’s vernacular boundary clauses themselves, written by the specialist mearcere (“a notary”).

Above, we have already noted that heads could be used as boundary markers in Anglo-Saxon England, as reflected in the use of the phrase heafod stoccan in various charters. If Grendel wanted to mark the border of his retreat, it is likely that he would have done so in the same manner as his mother: with a head of one of his enemies. Interpreted in this way, Beowulf, in his speech, seems to anticipate his head being used as a boundary marker. This interpretation of “mearcað morhopu” would strengthen Mezger’s case for “hafalan hydan” literally referring to the burial of a head; Hrothgar would have no need to worry about the interment of this specific body part, since Beowulf’s skull would have been put to another use: marking the border.

If we solve the two cruces as suggested above, this part of Beowulf’s speech can be translated as follows:

You will not at all need to bury my head, but he will have me, stained with blood, if death takes me; he will carry my bloody corpse, he will intend to eat, the solitary one will eat unmournfully, he will mark the border of the moor-retreat—you need not at all worry about the tending to my body for a long time.

Read in this way, Beowulf truly shows that he has learned of Grendel’s ways. He not only knows that Grendel fights unarmed, but he also realises that the Grendelkin will not squander the opportunity to have his head and use it to mark their territory. Beowulf’s speech thus foreshadows what will happen later on in the poem, when Grendel’s mother demarcates Grendel’s mere with the head of one of her victims.

5 Conclusion

The interpretation of Æschere’s head as signifying the border of the monster’s domain has allowed us to problematize what happens in the poem to other possible boundary markers, such as Grendel’s arm and the dragon’s corpse. The former may have been more than a mere trophy signalling Beowulf’s victory; it also sent a message of Geatish superiority to the Danes. The latter was thrown off a cliff to avoid setting up a reminder of Beowulf’s death and the consecutive weakness of the Geats. We were also able to offer a novel reading of Beowulf’s speech prior to his fight with Grendel, which suggests the hero’s awareness of the signifying potential of heads displayed at the border of a territory. The exhibition of bodily remains of wrongdoers would have reminded an Anglo-Saxon audience of similar practices of impalement and display found in its own culture: Æschere’s head and Grendel’s arm, in other words, were signs of the times.


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All quotations from Beowulf are taken from Fulk et al. 2008; all translations from Old English are our own, unless otherwise noted.


On this law, first recorded in the 920s, see O’Gorman 2014.


We were only made aware of the appearance of the article by Helen Appleton (2017) during the writing of this article. Our original argument was similar to hers, but we have now rewritten our article so that it builds on her interpretation.


On the importance of Æschere, see Biggs 2003.


Cooke (2003) finds a parallel in the Old English poem Andreas, ll. 839–846, where the saint realizes he has reached the land of Marmedonia because he has encountered a “harne stan” [grey stone] (Andreas, l. 842b).


Reynolds (2009, 273–274) lists sixteen charters with “heafod stocc.”


S numbers refer to the Electronic Sawyer, available online:


According to Godfrey (1993) and Paz (2013), decapitation and display of heads appealed to poets because the head represented the source of (poetic) eloquence. While this may be true, it would be the gore and spectacle that made the scenes appealing to a broader audience.


For examples of depictions of decapitation in Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscripts, see Owen-Crocker 2002, 98–99.


The Bible translation used is the Douay-Rheims translation of the Latin Vulgate, available at According to patristic thought (e.g., Ambrose, Augustine, Isidore and Bede), the raven did not return because it feasted on corpses of those who had died in the flood. See Gatch 1975.


Here we follow Bremmer’s (1996) interpretation of the transportation of Grendel’s head on top of a pole, lifted in the air for everyone to see; an alternative interpretation is offered by Owen Crocker (2002, 88, n. 8): “I imagine Grendel’s head fixed in some way (skewered perhaps) to the spear shaft, which would be carried horizontally, supported by two men at each end.”


This law is attested in the law codes of Ine of Wessex (r. 688–726) and Wihtred of Kent (r. 690/691–725). See Cooke 2003, 299.


Orchard (2003b, 146–147) compares Grendel’s arm and head with the mutilation and display of Nicanor’s head and hand by Judas Maccabeus in 2 Maccabees 15.


O’Gorman (2014) also comments on the similarities between Beowulf and this law of Æthelstan, noting: “At a minimum … I would claim that themes that would resonate with the poem’s audience—namely the forcible amputation of a transgressor’s offending limb, that limb’s prominent display at the location where the transgression occurred, and the assertions of authority and communal security inherent in this display—would strike a similar chord among those who encountered this legislation” (154–155).


In addition, Lockett interprets Grendel’s arm as a public claim to the legitimacy of Beowulf’s murder of Grendel. Various Germanic law codes differentiate between illegal killings, which were kept secret, and permitted homicides, which were made public.


For which, see Bremmer 1996.


Pollington (2011) states that in the majority of the excavated early Anglo-Saxon settlements, one building is larger than those that surround it: the mead-hall. The mead-hall “was in both a literal and a figurative sense the centre of its community” (20).


O’Gorman (2014, 156–157) notes the same difference between the displayed hands of debasers of coins under the laws of Æthelstan, on the one hand, and the public display of decapitated heads on head-stakes, on the other. Whereas the latter were placed on the boundaries of communities, the former “constituted a spectacle encountered much more regularly by a far broader swathe of people” (157), being located at the centre of communities.


On the various interpretations of Unferth, see Neidorf 2017.


Rauer (2000, 117–119) discusses the textual transmission of this story of St Michael and the dragon.


For an overview of parallels, see Rauer 2002, 116–124.


Also favoured by DuBois 1955.


In his report to Hygelac, Beowulf describes that the Danes were unable to burn Æschere’s body, since “hio þæt lic ætbær / feondes fæð(mum un)der firgenstream” [she took the body away, in the enemy’s arms, under the mountain stream] (Beowulf, ll. 2126b–2128). Cf. Owen-Crocker 2002.


On the importance of this text for contextualizing Beowulf due to their shared manuscript context, see Orchard 2003a.

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