Friday, 19 June 2009

A Glossary for Beowulf

To take revenge for somebody else. So to avenge a friend who has been killed would be to kill his killer. Or to extract Wergild (manprice) which was a legal compensation price set for each man/ woman /child and status in society.


A large mound of earth with a grave inside for burying a person and his belongings. A barrow often looks like a small hill. It is by digging in some of these that many Anglo-Saxon objects have been found.

battle standard
A battle standard is the pole and the banner which a lord's army carries into battle.
blood-feud This is a feud started by an act of bloodshed when somebody is killed. Because of this killing, two groups or tribes are at war as more and more killings take place in revenge for those who have died.

Nowadays we might say that boasting is a big-headed thing to do, but to the Anglo-Saxons it meant something quite different. A boast was a kind of promise a warrior made in front of other people. When a warrior had boasted that he would carry out a brave action and everyone had heard it, then he had to do it. If he succeeded (or even if he died trying) his would be talked about and praised. If he did not, he would not be respected any more.

This is another word for skeleton or rib-cage.

Craftsmen are people who are clever at making things. To make the mead-hall Hrothgar has to find people who are skilful at building with wood, and at carving and decorating.
drinking horn A drinking horn was usually made from the horn of a wild ox. It was polished and decorated and used to hold wine, beer or mead. This is what a pair of drinking horns probably looked like The silver parts were found in the ship-grave at Sutton Hoo.

Fame was very important to warrior tribes like the Geats and Danes. Life was short - many died in battle or from disease. What mattered was for the things you had done while you were alive to be spoken about and praised when you were dead. Then you would have created something that lasted longer than a life. You could win fame by brave deeds in battle or by being a wise adviser, for making good decisions or bringing about peace. You could win ill-fame too, of course, for leaving your friends in battle or being a bad lord or murdering your relatives. Fame was the way you were remembered and spoken of, the way your story was told.

A feud is a state of hatred and killing between two groups of people. It is a war by one family or tribe against another. Often a feud can begin when a member of one tribe kills a member of another in a quarrel. The dead person's friends and family kill the killer, or some member of his tribe, and so it goes on. Feuds are very difficult to stop because too many people on each side want revenge for their loved ones who have died.

Finn the Frisian and the Fight at Finnsburgh
This story was well known and liked in Anglo-Saxon times. Finn, the lord of the Frisians, married Hildeburgh, a Dane, to end a feud between their two tribes. But when Hildeburgh's brother came with a group of Danes to visit her, the Frisians attacked them in the night. This was especially wicked, as the Danes were guests in the Frisians' home. Hildeburgh's brother and her son were killed. The rest of the Danes at last managed to get revenge and in the Fight at Finnsburgh, Finn was killed. Hildeburgh was taken home by the Danes.

Franks, Frisians, Swedes and Hetware
The Franks, the Frisians and the Hetware were tribes living in the areas of Europe that are now part of Germany, Holland and Belgium. The Swedes were the neighbouring tribe of the Geats, living in the north of the country we now call Sweden. Later on, the Franks moved south into what is now France. The word France comes from their name.

funeral pyre
This is a huge pile of wood for burning a body at a funeral. The ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons believed the soul left the body when it was burnt, not at the moment when the person died. Sometimes a person's armour and other treasures would be burnt with them.

In Anglo-Saxon times land was measured in hides. One hide of land was supposed to be enough to meet the needs of one family - for them to live on, grow crops and graze animals. So 7000 hides of land is a very large gift of land indeed.

Sutton Hoo Royal Sword


The hilt of a sword is the part you hold it by. The hilts of Anglo-Saxon swords were often beautifully decorated with jewels and complicated patterns.

Ring Sword Showing Hilt

holy places
These are places or buildings especially for worshipping. Anglo-Saxon holy places were often in woods or on hills. When the Anglo-Saxons became Christians they often built churches on the same spot. So many of the churches you can see today actually stand on the holy places of the Anglo-Saxons.

The swords in Anglo-Saxon stories often have names. Beowulf's own sword is called Naegling (you will read about it later).An Anglo-Saxon warrior depended on his sword to save his life and kill enemies. The Anglo-Saxons admired swords for being beautifully decorated and well-made things. A sword often lasted longer than the life of its owner and was handed down from father to son. A sword could see more battles than one person could. So a sword that had been successful many times seemed to have magical powers to protect its owner and destroy his enemies. This is why it had a character and a name of its own.

hunting with his hawk
A hawk is a bird with hooked beak which kills small animals (like rabbits) for food. An eagle is a type of hawk. Hawks can be caught and trained to hunt animals for humans. This sport was popular in Anglo-Saxon times and for hundreds of years after.
This picture shows the Anglo-Saxon King Harold out hunting with his hawk and hounds. It comes from the Bayeux Tapestry which was made by Anglo-Saxons to tell the story of the Norman Conquest.

This is another word for relative. Beowulf is Hygelac's nephew.

mailcoats (also sometimes called mail-shirts in the story).
Anglo-Saxon warriors wore mailcoats to protect their bodies from spears, arrows and swords. They looked like this:

They were made of hundreds of tiny metal rings linked tightly together so that the sharp points of weapons could not easily find a way through.
mail-shirt (also called mailcoat in this story) This is made of tiny metal rings linked tightly together. It covers the body to protect it from spears, swords and arrows.

In Anglo-Saxon society the highest position was that of the lord or king. Then came noblemen (called thanes or eldermen - these were usually warriors or advisers). There were also the farmers (called churls) and slaves. A slave could be bought and sold like a cow or a pig. Some slaves were born the children of slaves. Some became slaves after being taken prisoner in wars. Sometimes people sold themselves into slavery just to have enough to eat. Sometimes when the slave-owner died, their will said that their slaves should be set free.

The word 'mead-hall' means a place for drinking 'mead'. Mead is a drink made from honey. The Anglo-Saxons liked to drink mead, wine and beer. The mead-hall was a building where everyone could meet together.

A mere is another word for a lake or pool. You can still see this word in place-names today - for example, Lake Windemere in the Lake District.

ninth hour of the day
The Anglo-Saxons counted the hours of the day beginning from 6 o'clock in the morning. So the ninth hour is 3 o'clock in the afternoon.

These are gifts that people make to please the gods so that they will answer their prayers. When the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons still lived in Sweden and Denmark they sometimes killed people to give them as offerings to the gods. These offerings - or 'human sacrifices' - were to please the earth-goddess. The bodies of some of these people have been found in large bogs in Sweden and Denmark. The bodies did not decay because the peat in the bogs kept them whole.

olden days of the Giants
This is a story from the Bible, which says that once a race of Giants lived on the earth. They were at war with God. The people grew wicked too, so God sent a great flood to punish and destroy all this wickedness. Noah and his family were saved, along with two animals of every kind, because Noah kept them safe in his Ark while the earth was flooded. Grendel and his mother are supposed to be related to this race of Giants who once ruled the earth.

Your reputation is how you are known among your group (or tribe). You can have a reputation for being a coward, or clever, or funny. It is what people know or say about you. A warrior's reputation must be that he is brave and willing to face danger. Unferth loses his reputation as a brave warrior because he does not dare to face Grendel's Mother. For the Anglo-Saxons, reputation was connected to fame (how a person was talked about after he or she was dead) and was very important.

As you know from the story, the lord often gave gifts to his warriors at feasts. As well as weapons and armour, he might give rings like these:

or this

Or brooches:
These might have been used for fastening a cloak.

swan's riding-place
The 'swan's riding-place' is the sea. The Anglo-Saxons liked to make word-pictures like this, especially in poetry. For example, the sun is called 'the sky's candle' later in the story. The Anglo-Saxons used at least fifteen different words for the sea - another example is 'whale-road'.

Tapestries are pictures sewn onto cloth or woven out of thread. Large tapestries often hang on the walls in castles.
These ships are part of the Bayeux Tapestry. The tapestry was made soon after William the Conqueror and the Normans conquered the Anglo-Saxons in 1066. It was made by Anglo-Saxons and tells the story of their defeat by the Normans

The group of soldiers on guard against enemies is often called the Watch. Here, the man in charge of these soldiers looking out for raiders from the sea is called the Watchman.

Whale road
The 'whale-road' is the sea. The Anglo-Saxons liked to make word-pictures like this, especially in poetry. For example, the sun is called 'the sky's candle' later in the story. The Anglo-Saxons used at least fifteen different words for the sea - another example is 'swan's riding-place'.

wild boars
A wild boar is a male wild pig. They used to be common in Britain and still live in countries like Poland in Eastern Europe. They are large and hairy and have very sharp tusks. They can be very fierce and dangerous.

Beowulf's helmet is decorated with them to frighten his enemies.

This is an Anglo-Saxon helmet with a boar on top. It was found at a place called Bentley Grange

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