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The Beasts of Battle: Wolf, Eagle, and Raven In Germanic Poetry

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Introduction

Germanic literature used special conventions to depict a standard scene such as the death and destruction of a battlefield. Once of these conventions was the use of the Beasts of Battle theme1, mentioning ravens, eagles and wolves in order to suggest the impending carnage of the battle2. These animals were well-known to the Germanic peoples as scavengers of the battle-field, and were associated in pagan times with the God of Battle and Lord of the Slain, Óðinn or Wotan3. The Beasts of Battle theme was used in Germanic poetry not only to describe a battle scene to the audience, but also to add to or modify the meaning and emphasis of the work.

Beasts of Battle.  From the Ramsunaberget Runestone
Beasts of Battle.
From the Ramsunaberget Runestone, Sweden.

Since Magoun first identifed the Beasts of Battle theme in Anglo-Saxon poetry, there have been two main critical approaches to its use in Old English. Magoun and others have tended to dismiss the Beasts of Battle as a descriptive element which contributes little or nothing to the meaning of the work as a whole, while a different critical approach has been to view the theme as an integral component of meaning.

Magoun's initial identification of the Beasts of Battle formula seemed to link the device inextricably with a solid dismissal of the theme. In the same paragraph, Magoun both defines it as "the mention of the wolf, eagle and/or raven as beasts attendant on a scene of carnage," and stated that the purpose of the Beasts of Battle was "to embellish a battle-scene or a reference to warfare. It is an ornamental rather than an essential theme"4. Magoun's primary interest was not in the Beasts of Battle as a thematic unit, but rather in the formulas which make up the theme. A similar view is found in Laborde's analysis of the style of the Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon. Laborde defined the Beasts of Battle as a "conventional notion"5, and regarded the theme as a negative feature that must be "redeemed" by other stylistic elements6, although he did acknowledge that the Beasts of Battle had a wide currency in Old English poetry, and indeed survived the Norman Conquest to appear in later English literature 7. The persistence of this attitude has been so marked that later writers have felt a need to comment upon it:

[The theme of the Beasts of Battle] . . . occurs so often that it is usually regarded as something inherited, traditional, a sort of literary pyrotechnic, which can be guaranteed to give some elan and spectacle to a set battle-piece.8

The weight of opinion has even caused some critics to pay lip-service to the notion of the Beasts of Battle theme as being merely decorative, even when the author later goes on to provide an analysis of the meaning of the theme. For instance, Raw states that the theme of the Beasts of Battle is an example of the poet "making natural phenomena serve a decorative end," and says that "these passages are decorative additions to the paraphenalia of battle"9; but she them immediately reverses herself and discusses the various ways Old English poets use the theme within their works.10

Other scholars have taken a different view of the Beasts of Battle theme, examining it as a stylistic device which has a direct bearing upon the meaning of the poem. Elements of imagery such as the Beasts of Battle have various aesthetic qualities and implications which "contribute to the literary meaning of the imagery."11 One approach is analyzing the uses of the Beasts of Battle has been to examine how the theme is related to the pagan religion of the early Germanic peoples, hypothesizing that the Beasts of Battle are meant to summon associations of the omen-laden and sinister cult of the war-god, Óðinn.12 Others have discussed the literary uses of the theme, which may be used to foreshadow later events, parallel a similar narrative elsewhere in the poem, or evoke a specific emotional response.13

In addition, each of the individual Beasts carried distinct associations with it, which the poet could utilize to further his purpose. By alluding to the symbolic animals which had well-known characteristics and attributes, the poet summoned these associations for his audience in the new context of his work14: "Different spheres of reality and imagination are projected upon and illuminate one another."15



The Raven

Raven from Scabbard Mount, Broa, Gotland Raven from Copper Coin Raven. Gilt Bronze Corner Ornament from Cammin Casket

Raven. Scabbard Mount from Broa, Gotland.
(Click on image to see line drawing of design)

Raven from King Anlaf Coin.
(Click on image to see line drawing of design)

Raven. Bronze corner ornament from the Cammin Casket. (Now destroyed).

The associations connected with the raven were numerous. In many cultures, the raven was well-known as a carrion bird and a bird of prey,16 and the Germanic symbolism connected to the raven was related to this natural aspect of the bird. Ravens were a symbol of sacrifice, for they were known for "receiving and rejoicing over sacrificial victims."17 The raven was associated with Óðinn's familiars, Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory), and thus was "a source of wisdom and prophetic knowledge,18 most particularly where such knowledge concerned omens of war. The raven could be an "unlucky bird" or a "bird of evil omen" for those doomed to die in battle,19 while at the same time several Viking leaders were known to bear the sign of the raven upon their banners as a token of victory.20 In Old English, the raven was known as wælceasega, "chooser of the slain,"21 and the equivalent term in Old Norse, valkyrja, was used to denote Óðinn's handmaidens who selected the warriors fated to die, the Valkyries.22

Raven from Bronze Brooch, Lousgaard, Bornholm, Denmark Raven. Carved Ivory Panel from the Cammin Casket Odinn Preceeded by an Eagle and Followed by a Raven.

Raven. Bronze Brooch
from Lousgaard, Bornholm, Denmark.

(Click on image to see line drawing of design)

Raven. Ivory Carving
from the Cammin Casket
(now destroyed).

Óðinn Preceeded by an Eagle and Followed by a Raven.



The Eagle

Eagle. Gilt-bronze Harness-Mount, Gotland.

Eagle. Gilt-Bronze
Harness-Mount, Gotland.

Like the raven, the eagle was known as a carrion bird in Germanic literature. A Scandinavian name for the eagle was hræsvelgr, "corpse-gulper,"23 while the Old English epithet guðfugel denoted a "bird of war."24 Eagles were associated with heroes, and screamed at the birth of prominent warriors who would later feed them upon the bodies of their slain foes.25 The eagle was also the symbol of sovereignty,26 and was particularly associated with the Germanic god of kings and heroes, Óðinn. This notion was "probably influenced by Roman models and the eagle which symbolized the emperor."27

Migration Age Warriors Wearing Eagle-Crested Helms. Helmet Plates from Vendel Grave 14. Eagle.  Weathervane from Heggen, Modum, Norway.

Migration Age Warriors Wearing Eagle-Crested Helms. Helmet Plates from Vendel Grave 14.

Eagle. Weathervane from Heggen, Modum, Norway.
(Click on image to see line drawing of design)



The Wolf

Wolf. Bronze Belt Mount.

Wolf. Bronze Belt Mount.


Wolf. From Weathervane, Heggen, Modum, Norway.

Wolf. From Weathervane, Heggen, Modum, Norway.
(Click on image to see line drawing of design)

The last and perhaps most fearsome of the Beasts of Battle was the wolf, also a carrion-eater. The wolf familiars of Óðinn were named Freki and Geri, Ravener and Greed.28   The Scandinavians called wolves hrægifr, "corpse-trolls," and gave the wolf "a cebtral position in Old Norse mythology and poetry, always with negative connotations."29   The wolf was the very embodiment of slaughter and murder, for "whoever lost in the fight, the wolf was always the winner."30  

In pagan belief, the end of the world was to be a vargold, a "wolf-age," a time of "a world dominated by all kinds of evil forces,"31   when "brothers will battle to the bloody end, and sister's son their sib betray . . . ere the world crumbles."32   In the end, the sun and moon would be devoured by supernatural wolves, and Tyr, God of Law and War, with Óðinn, chief of all the gods, would likewise be consumed by the geratest and most fearsome wolves, Garmr and his sire Fenrir.33  

It is from this background that such descriptions as ulfhuguð, "with a wolf's mind, cruel," and ylfskyr, "wolfish, dangerous" were derived.34   The image of the wolf was also considered fitting to describe a dangerous man,35   and thus was associated with outlaws and berserkers (see the Viking Answer Lady article on Berserkergang). The felafæcne deor ("very treacherous beast") of the Old English poem Maxims I was a companion to outlaws,36   and the Norse law codes describe felons as vargar, "wolves," and their sons as vargsdropi, "wolf's-get."37   As Crossley-Holland states, "no other monster so embodied destruction."38  

Wolf. Gilt Bronze Corner Ornament from the Cammin Casket. (Now destroyed).

Wolf. Gilt Bronze Corner Ornament from the Cammin Casket. (Now destroyed).

  Wolf. Ivory Panel from the Cammin Casket. (Now destroyed).

Wolf. Ivory Panel from the Cammin Casket. (Now destroyed).
(Click on image to see line drawing of design)



The Beasts of Battle in The Battle of Maldon

The way in which the Beasts of Battle theme affects meaning in a poem is best demonstrated by analyzing its use in a specific work. One Old English poem which utilizes the theme is The Battle of Maldon, which concerns the historic defense by English forces under command of the nobleman Byrhtnoð, against an attack by Viking raiders. Although the English are ultimately defeated, Maldon celebrates the heroism and determination of the defenders, who die to avenge their fallenlord. While The Battle of MaldonMaldon to clerical accounts and to the evidence of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; discussions of the implications of the arrogance, heroism, or foolishness of the English leader Byrhtnoð; or the language and style of the poem.39   Little consideration has been given to the Beasts of Battle theme as it appears in Maldon, other than to disparage the theme as a "conventional notion"40   or to link it to an older, epic tradition.41  

The Beasts of Battle make their appearance in line 106-107 of the poem:42  

Þær wearð hream ahafen,
earn æses georn;

hremmas wundon,
wæs on eorþan cyrm.

(There was raised a great noise,
the eagle was eager for corpses,

the ravens wheeled,
there was clamor on earth.)43

Despite Irving's statement that "such a description of battle might have come from almost any Old English poem,"44   it is evident that the Beasts of Battle theme in Maldon is somewhat unusual, for the poet has made mention of only two of the traditional Beasts, the eagle and the raven. This is interesting, for as Davidson points out, "the raven, together with the wolf, is mentioned in practically all the descriptions of a battle in Old English poetry . . . "45   The question of why the wolf does not appear in "the greatest of the heroic poems . . . and one of the best battle poems in the English language," 46   and how this particular construction on the part of the poet in turn influences the meaning of the poem is worthy of consideration.


Ravens from a 12th Century Tapestry.

The mention of the Beasts of Battle in lines 106-107 serves to amplify the meaning of the previous lines, 103-b-105:


tir æt getohte.
þæt þær fæge men

Þa wæs feohte neh,
Wæs seo tid cumen
feallan sceoldon.


glory in battle.
when those men who were fated

(Then the fight was near,
The time was come
should fall.)

The eagle, associated with heroes and kings, demonstrates the form which "glory in battle" will take. The English will not be victorious, but will earn ever-lasting glory and fame for their courage and adherence to the heroic code. The raven, the bird of omen, was likewise present to herald the fall of the fated Englishmen. As Laborde explains, "variation, whether or subject-matter, expression or terms was one of the most important features of Old English poetic style."47   The example of this given in his essay concerns the repetition of passages in Maldon which describe the cowardly conduct of the sons of Offa, but his comments are applicable to the repetition in lines 103b-107 as well:

The latter passage is no mere repetition, but a comment on the facts related by the former. The narrative does not therefore go into details, but gives a condensed general view of the incident, with additional comment on its fatal character."48  

Thus the Maldon poet with succinct economy of words has not only provided visual detail to enhance his description of the battle, but also amplifed upon the ultimate theme of the poem, the heroism and death of the English warriors.

Prior to the onset of battle, the poet gives an interesting description of the Vikings in line 96,49   calling them wælwulfas, "slaughter-wolves," thus identifying them with the most terrifying of the Beasts of Battle, the wolf. As Britton has noted, the Vikings in Maldon are meant to be "an unnamed threat, the more terrifying because the less human, the less defined . . . . the Vikings are consciously animalized: they are not human, but 'wolves of slaughter',"50   and he further connects them with the ulfheðinn, the "wolf-coats" or berserkers of the Scandinavian sagas.51  

By explicitly identifying the Viking attackers with the most fearsome of the Beasts of Battle, the wolf, the Maldon poet has further amplified the the meaning of the poem. By naming the Vikings as wælwulfas, "slaughter-wolves," the poet has foreshadowed the ultimate outcome of the Battle of Maldon, for like the corpse-scavenging Beasts of Battle the Vikings will be the last ones alive upon the field. And it is clear that the Vikings truly are scavengers, as we see in lines 159-161:

Eode þa gesyrwed
he wolde þæs beornes
reaf and hringas

secg to þam eorle;
beagas gefecgan,
and gerenod swurd.

(An armed man came
he would seize
take spoils and rings

to the earl;
this man's bracelets,
and ornamented sword.)

A similar connection is made in the Old English poem Exodus, in which the Beasts of Battle theme is embedded in the narrative describing the pursuit of the Israelites by the Egyptian army. Here the Beasts of Battle

. . . form a parallel to the savage pursuers and intimate what the attitude of the Egyptians will be if they succeed in overcoming the Israelites; the similarity is enhanced by the use of the phrase hare heorowulfas (l. 181) for the Egyptian troops, which, though conventional, is oclored by the earlier reference to the actual wolves . . .52  

the description of the Egyptians in Exodus as hare heorowulfas, "hoary sword-wolves" is quite similar to the description of the Vikings in Maldon as "slaughter-wolves." As in Maldon, the beasts of Battle serve not only to describe the scene of battle, but also to amplify the character of the Egyptians and foreshadows their impending fate when the walls of the sea close over them in the wake of the Tribes of Israel.


Bronze Raven Brooch, Ringerike.

The theme of the Beasts of Battle does serve to add a descriptive element to the poetry in which it is found, evoking a whole series of images which paint the scene upon the mind's eye of the audience. The Beasts act as much more than a simple ornament however, for their appearance brings with them a host of associations that widen the frame of reference from the confines of the poem to the rich worlds of myth and legend. Through the use of these associations, and careful placement of the motif within his poem, the Old English scop shaped his poem deliberately, using these formulaic themes to add meaning, foreshadow events, and to introduce his audience to a richer world than would otherwise be possible with the simple words of his poem alone. Formulas such as the Beasts of Battle theme can show a warrior to be as noble as the eagle soaring overhead, as doomed as the raven-picked corpse, or as victorious as the wolves which run upon the field of battle as the only creatures which death cannot claim.



Footnotes

 1 Francis P. Magoun, Jr. "The Theme of the Beasts of Battle." Neuphilologische Mittelungen 56 (1955): p. 83.

 2 Lee M. Hollander, trans. The Poetic Edda. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1962. p. 49.

 3 Gale R. Owen. Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons. New York: Barnes and Noble. 1981. p. 15.

 4 Magoun, p. 83.

 5 E.D. Laborde. "The Style of The Battle of Maldon." MLR 19 (October 1924): p. 412.

 6 Ibid. p. 417.

 7 Ibid. p. 412.

 8 J.S. Ryan. "Othin in England." Folklore 74 (Autumn 1963): p. 468.

 9 Barbara C. Raw. The Art and Background of Old English Poetry. London: Edward Arnold. 1978. p. 55.

10 Ibid. pp. 55-6, 74, 118, 119.

11 Peter Hallberg. "Elements of Imagery in the Edda." Edda: A Collection of Essays. eds. Robert J. Glendinning and Haraldur Bessason. N.p.L University of Manitoba Press. 1983. p. 83.

12 Ryan, pp. 468-71; Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1964. p. 65; Kevin Crossley-Holland. The Norse Myths. New York: Pantheon. 1980. p. 193.

13 Raw. pp. 55-56.

14 Hallberg, pp. 48-49.

15 Ibid., p. 83.

16 N. Lukman. "The Raven Banner and the Changing Ravens." Classica et Medievalia 19 (1958): p. 134.

17 Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Syracuse: Suracuse University Press. 1988. p. 98.

18 Ibid., p. 91.

19 Anna B. Rooth. The Raven and the Carcass. FF Communications 186. Helsinki: Academia Scientarum Fennica. 1962. p. 227.

20 Lukman, pp. 140, 149, 150.

21 Charles H. Whitman. "The Birds of Old English Literature." Journal of Germanic Philology 2 (1899): p. 152.

22 Helen Damico. Beowulf's Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition. Madison: university of Wisconsin Press., 1984. p. 44.

23 Hollander, p. 48.

24 Whitman, p. 169.

25 Hollander, pp. 171, 181.

26 Ellis-Davidson, Myths and Symbols, p. 91

27 Peter Gelling and Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson. The Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age. New York: Frederick A. Praeger. 1969. pp. 174-5.

28 Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, pp. 146-7.

29 Hallberg, p. 52.

30 Crossley-Holland, Norse Myths, p. 193.

31 Hallberg, p. 61.

32 Hollander, p. 9.

33 Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, pp. 28-38.

34 Hallberg, p. 52.

35 Ibid, p. 56.

36 Raw, p. 74.

37 Hallberg, pp. 56, 70.

38 Crossley-Holland, Norse Myths, p. 193.

39 Stanley B. Greenfield and Fred C. Robinson, A Bibliography of Publications on Old English Literature to the End of 1972. Buffalo: University of Toronto Press. 1980. pp. 122-124.

40 Laborde, pp. 412, 417.

41 Edward B. Irving, Jr., "The Heroic Style in The Battle of Maldon." Studies in Philology 58 (July 1961) p. 459.

42 Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, ed., "The Battle of Maldon," Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 6. New York: Columbia University Press. 1942. p. 10.

43 All translations are my own, based on Dobbie's edition of "The Battle of Maldon".

44 Irving, p. 459.

45 Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, p. 65.

46 Kevin Crossley-Holland, ed. and trans. The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press. 1982. p. 4.

47 Laborde, p. 401.

48 Ibid., p. 402.

49 Dobbie, p. 9.

50 G. C. Britton, "The Characterization of the Vikings in The Battle of Maldon," Notes and Queries 210 (March 1965), p. 86.

51 Ibid.



Bibliography

  • Britton, G. C., "The Characterization of the Vikings in The Battle of Maldon," Notes and Queries 210 (March 1965), p. 85-87.

  • Crossley-Holland, Kevin, ed. and trans. The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press. 1982.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy this book today!

  • Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Norse Myths. New York: Pantheon. 1980.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy this book today!

  • Damico, Helen. Beowulf's Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 1984.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy this book today!

  • Dobbie, Elliott Van Kirk, ed., "The Battle of Maldon," Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 6. New York: Columbia University Press. 1942.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy this book today!

  • Ellis-Davidson, Hilda R. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1964.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy this book today!

  • Ellis-Davidson, Hilda R., Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. 1988.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy this book today!

  • Gelling, Peter and Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson. The Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age. New York: Frederick A. Praeger. 1969.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Greenfield, Stanley B. and Fred C. Robinson. A Bibliography of Publications on Old English Literature to the End of 1972. Buffalo: University of Toronto Press. 1980.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy this book today!

  • Hallberg, Peter. "Elements of Imagery in the Edda." Edda: A Collection of Essays. eds. Robert J. Glendinning and Haraldur Bessason. N.p.: University of Manitoba Press. 1983.

  • Hollander, Lee M., trans. The Poetic Edda. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1962.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy this book today!

  • Irving, Jr., Edward B. "The Heroic Style in The Battle of Maldon." Studies in Philology 58 (July 1961) p. 457-467.

  • Laborde, E.D. "The Style of The Battle of Maldon." MLR 19 (October 1924): p. 401-417.

  • Lukman, N. "The Raven Banner and the Changing Ravens." Classica et Medievalia 19 (1958): p. 133-151.

  • Magoun, Jr., Francis P. "The Theme of the Beasts of Battle."Neuphilologische Mittelungen 56 (1955): p. 81-90.

  • Owen, Gale R. Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons. New York: Barnes and Noble. 1981.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy this book today!

  • Raw, Barbara C. The Art and Background of Old English Poetry. London: Edward Arnold. 1978.

  • Rooth, Anna B. The Raven and the Carcass. FF Communications 186. Helsinki: Academia Scientarum Fennica. 1962.

  • Ryan, J.S. "Othin in England." Folklore 74 (Autumn 1963): p. 460-480.

  • Whitman, Charles H. "The Birds of Old English Literature." Journal of Germanic Philology 2 (1899): p. 148-198.
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