Tuesday, August 22, 2017


Old Oswestry Hillfort

Having confirmed that the name of one of the fathers of the three Guineveres in Welsh tradition is properly Gogfran, 'Jackdaw' (or chough, etc.), I'm now convinced the tradition which associated this giant with Old Oswestry hillfort in Shropshire is correct.

The jackdaw is a member of the crow family. Here is a photo of the bird:

Oswestry has an early legend of a "great bird of the crow family". The story of this bird is related in "The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria" by Max Adams:

Although most commentators on the Life of St. Oswald have preferred to see in this bird a raven, there is no reason why it couldn't have been a gogfran.

Sunday, August 20, 2017



Much ink has been spilt on the nature of Grendel, the chief monster of the Anglo-Saxon heroic epic poem, BEOWULF.  Although described vividly, the problem has always been coming up with a decent etymology for his name.  Scholars have also been frustrated by the fact that despite the infamy associated with this monster, no other sources – Danish or otherwise – see fit to so much as allude to him in passing.

The difficulty of assigning a meaning to the name Grendel was well laid out in the classic study BEOWULF: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF THE POEM, by R. W. Chambers, in 1921:

“The name has generally been derived from grindan, "to grind"; either directly, because Grendel grinds the bones of those he devours, or indirectly, in the sense of "tormentor." Others would connect with O.N. grindill, "storm," and perhaps with M.E. gryndel, "angry."

It has recently been proposed to connect the word with grund, "bottom": for Grendel lives in the mere-grund or grund-wong and his mother is the grund-wyrgin. Erik Rooth, who proposes this etymology, compares the Icelandic grandi, "a sandbank," and the common Low German dialect word grand, "coarse sand." This brings us back to the root "to grind," for grand, "sand" is simply the product of the grinding of the waves. Indeed the same explanation has been given of the word "ground."

However this may be, the new etymology differs from the old in giving Grendel a name derived, not from his grinding or tormenting others, but from his dwelling at the bottom of the lake or marsh. The name would have a parallel in the Modern English grindle, grundel, German grundel, a fish haunting the bottom of the water.

The Old English place-names, associating Grendel as they do with meres and swamps, seem rather to support this.

As to the Devonshire stream Grendel (now the Grindle or Greendale Brook), it has been suggested that this name is also connected with the root grand, "gravel," "sand." But, so far as I have been able to observe, there is no particular suggestion of sand or gravel about this modest little brook. If we follow the River Clyst from the point where the Grindle flows into it, through two miles of marshy land, to the estuary of the Exe, we shall there find plenty. But it is clear from the charter of 963 that the name was then, as now, restricted to the small brook. I cannot tell why the stream should bear the name, or what, if any, is the connection with the monster Grendel. We can only note that the name is again found attached to water, and, near the junction with the Clyst, to marshy ground.”

More recent scholarship on the question of an etymology for the name Grendel is found in Klaeber’s Beowulf, Fourth Edition, ed. R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles:

“The following explanations of the name Grendel have been proposed: (1) The name is related to OE grindan ‘grind’, here ‘destroyer’… and to OE *grandor… ON grand, ‘evil’, ‘injury’. (2) The name is related to OE grindel ‘bar, bolt’, OHG grindel, krintil… (3) The name is related to ON grindell, a term in a thula for ‘storm’, grenja ‘to bellow’… (4) Formation by means of –ila (cf. strengel) from Lat. Grandis… (5) Grendel < *grandil-, from *grand ‘sand’, ‘bottom (ground) of a body of water’… (6) As a deformation of dialectical drindle or dringle, ‘trickle’, ‘small trickling stream’ or of *Drengel, ‘drowned’ or ‘drinker’… (7) Grendel and Grettir both derive from the root *grandi-.”

More profitable than the above exploration of the name is the ongoing debate on the relationship between the Anglo-Saxon words for giants and Jutes: eotenas.  Grendel is himself designated an eoten, and the eotenas play a key role in the Finnsburg fragment.  This last describes an early Dark Age battle in England between Danes and Frisians, the latter being accompanied by a Jutish force.  The Finnsburg battle and its aftermath is also told about in Beowulf.

In reality, the debate as to whether there are Jutes or giants present at Finnsburg is a moot one.  Why?  Because the tribal name ‘Jutes’ would have been associated in heroic legend with giants and, eventually, would have become indistinguishable from latter.  You start out as Jutes, you end up as giants.  And it may well be that the tribal name originally denoted a fierce race of unusually tall Northern people.  Simek, discussing the Old Norse cognate jotunn, says simply that

“As yet it has not been totally explained whether the word originally belonged to eta ‘eat’ (thus, ‘the big eater’) or to the tribal name of the Etiones.”  

Here is the listing for eoten, extracted from the classical Anglo-Saxon dictionary by Bosworth and Toller:


, es; m. I. a giant, monster, Grendel; gĭgas, monstrum, Grendel :-- Wæs se grimma gǽst Grendel, Caines cyn, -- ðanon untydras ealle onwócon, eótenas and ylfe and orcnéas, swylce gigantas Grendel was the grim guest, the race of Cain, -- whence unnatural births all sprang forth, monsters, elves, and spectres, also giants, Beo. Th. 204-226; B. 102-113. Eóten, nom. sing. Beo. Th. 1526; B. 761. Eótena, gen. pl. Beo. Th. 846; B. 421. II. Eotenas, gen. a; dat. um; pl. m. the Jutes, Jutlanders, the ancient inhabitants of Jutland in the north of Denmark; Jūtæ :-- Eótena treówe the faith of the Jutes, Beo.Th. 2148; 6. 1072: 2180; B. 1088: 2286; 3. 1141: 2294; B. 1145. [O. Nrs. jötunn, m.] v. ent, eten.

Now, as the Hall of Heorot is believed to have stood at Lejre in Sealand, not far east of the Jutland of the Jutes, might not Grendel himself have been a Jute?  The fact that eoten had the meaning of ‘giant’ may well have imparted much to his character, and a mere Jutish chieftain or warrior would then have been transformed in heroic legend to the status of a horrible devouring monster.

As this seems plausible enough to me, I would put forward as the historical prototype for Grendel an early 5th century governor of Jutland called Gervendil.  This man was father of the more famous Horwendillus of Saxo Grammaticus’s History of the Danes, ON Aurvandil, but Old English Earendel.  The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson has Thor toss the toe of Aurvandil up into the sky.  The evidence strongly suggests this toe is the Morning Star (Venus; see below).

As for Aurvandill, a derivation from a Proto-Germanic reconstructed compound *auzi-wandilaz "luminous wanderer" or from a Norse borrowing of Latin aureum, ‘gold’, do not have much credence.  Instead, we must again look to the Norse myth, which has Aurvandill carried across Elivager, the ‘stormy wave or sea’, thought to be (see Simek) the name for the proto-sea that surrounds the world.  As ON aurr, ‘wet clay, mud, wet soil’, has as its cognate in OE ear, ‘sea, ocean’, we might assume that at some point in the development of Norse aur carried the same meaning, which was later lost.  Thus Aurvandill may be simply the ‘Sea-wanderer’, i.e. the one who crosses Elivager.

Finally, I’ve shown elsewhere that aur as ‘clay’ is used poetically for the cloud that the Norns take from the sea and spread over the sky-tree.  As Thor is the thunderstorm god, and he carries Aurvandill, ‘Cloud-wanderer’ might also work, allowing for a possible poetic meaning of aur. 

If a form like Aurvandil or [H]orwendillus can become Earendel in Old English, then Gerwendillus (also from Saxo), which in Old Norse would probably have been Gervandil or Gerrvandil, could by a very regular and rather simple process evolve into ‘Grendel’.  We first allow for the dropping of the v/w, and then either propose the dropping of the /e/ in Ger through elision or a metathesis of Ger- to Gre-, followed by the loss of the /e/ in –wendil[l].

However, the vowel in ger-, geir-, OE gar- is long and takes the principle stress. It does not seem to be a good candidate for metathesis,  in which case the Ger- of Gerwendillus is unlikely to be the word for 'spear'.  Instead, I would propose

ON gerr, 'greedy, gluttonous', found in Geri, 'the ravener' or 'greedy one', one of Odin's wolves. The name Geri can be traced back to the Proto-Germanic adjective *geraz, attested in Burgundian girs, Old Norse gerr and Old High German ger or giri, all of which mean "greedy".  Derived from *geraz is OESc giri, 'greed', Norw. dial. gir id., OS fehu-giri 'rapacity', OHG giri 'rapacity, greed'. The word does not appear in Old English.

I have confirmation of this last possibility from Jackson Crawford of the Department of Scandinavian Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison:

“In Old Norse (the language in question which I can comment on with most authority), you can get *ger- > gr-, though the only cases I'm aware of are those which involve the old perfective prefix *ga-/ge-, like "granni" ("neighbor," cf. Gothic "garazna"). And for the loss of v in such a position, there is the common verb "gera"/"gøra" which in old poems rhymes as "gørva."

There is also the point that from an Old English standpoint, you may not necessarily have to go from *ger > gr to be cognate with Geri. No exact (pre-)OE cognate to the adjective "gerr," of which "Geri" is a formation (and to which OHG ger/giri, Modern German Gier/gierig are cognate), is attested, but that is not to say that it might not have existed, and that it might have metathesized (so have been something like *gre-).”

In either case, we end up quite naturally with Grendel, a Jute or ‘Giant’ who for 12 long years raided Hrothgar’s Hall of Heorot until he was slain in personal combat by Beowulf.

As for Grendel being made into a creature of the fen and mere, it is probable this is a reference to the many pools and extensive peat bogs of ancient Jutland, where hundreds of bodies, well-preserved by tannins, have been discovered in modern times.

Lastly, the placing of Grendel’s hand/arm/shoulder high up under the roof as a trophy suggests that Gerwendil, like his son Orwendil, was featured in a celestial myth. I’m here reading the roof as symbolic of the heavens, and the hand/arm/shoulder as being representative of a planetary body or, perhaps, a constellation.

There is little reason to doubt the identification of the Old English Earendel with the Morning Star.  For more on this, I would refer the reader to David Allen Swanson’s “The Old English Christ Poems and Anglo-Saxon Law”, to be found online here:


Earendel, in these Christ poems, is clearly substituted for Latin Oriens, ‘Morning Star’.  Of more recent interest is "Eala Earendel: Extraordinary Poetics in Old English" by Tiffany Beechy in Modern Philology 01/2010; 108(1):1-19.  A similar discussion of Earendel as the Morning Star can be found in her book THE POETICS OF OLD ENGLISH, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013.

Most authorities agree that the –wendil component of the father’s and son’s names comes from a Germanic root meaning ‘to wander’:


Some have related such a meaning to our word planet, from the Greek word meaning ‘wanderer’.  The Greek word was adopted into the Latin language.  I would note that in the Old Norse myth, Thor carries Aurvandil in a basket.  Old English has windel, ‘basket’, from the Germanic root mentioned above.  

We do know that Grendel, perhaps the 'ravenous wanderer', as described in “Beowulf”, is strictly a night creature.  He is never described as being abroad in the day, and all his devastating raids on Heorot occur after darkness has covered the land.  He himself is a ‘deorc death-scua’, a “dark death-shadow”.

As the Beowulf account has it, when the monster’s arm was ripped from his body,

‘Grendel was driven under the fen-banks, fatally hurt, to his desolate lair [beneath the mere].” (from Seamus Heaney’s translation)

As we shall see when investigating the nature of the dragon slain by Beowulf at the end of his life, each of the three monsters of the epic poem are lunar in nature.  The hero Beowulf is placed either in the 5th or 6th centuries or straddling the two.  When I checked NASA's Five Millenium solar eclipse catalog, there were no notable events for Lejre, Sealand, Denmark (scene of Heorot) or Ormror, Gotland (again, see the following chapter on the Beowulf dragon) throughout the 500s.  However, during the previous century, there were three total eclipses of major significance for the region.  The first had its central path right over Sealand, with its northern and southern paths nicely matching the northern and southern points of the island.  This occurred on April 16, 413 A.D., with the maximum eclipse happening at 2:53 p.m. The second eclipse covered the southern half of Gotland, including Ormror and Rone (the last being a site associated with Beowulf's funeral cairn).  This fell on December 23, 447, with the maximum eclipse happening at 3:15 p.m., about 5 minutes AFTER sunset (although the eclipse would certainly have been noticeable BEFORE sunset). The third eclipse of May 28, 458 passed over the northern tip of Sealand, but hit Gotland dead-center, with its northern and southern paths lining up with the northern and southern points of the island.  The time of maximum eclipse for this date was 1:18 p.m.

I found it remarkable that between the first eclipse and the third, 45 years elapsed.  In the Beowulf poem, we are told the hero became king some time after his slaying of Grendel and Grendel's mother, and that he reigned for 50 years before dying as a result of the wounds he sustained fighting the dragon.

While the poem's narrative presents the killing of Grendel's mother as something that occurred immediately - perhaps a single night after - the killing of Grendel, I would make a case for the interval between the first and second eclipses being compressed for the sake of dramatic effect.  Furthermore, the fact that the second eclipse only reached maximum AFTER both sun and moon dipped below the horizon mimics the story of Beowulf's diving into the mere and being pulled down to the bottom by Grendel's mother, where the actual combat took place.  Thus, Grendel - the New Moon, the invisible, dark moon, that moves over the land unseen - would have been "killed" by the solar hero (and later solar king) Beowulf in 413.  The monster's mother would then have been slain in 447, while the dragon (again see the next chapter) would perish at Beowulf's hands in 458.  All three eclipses took place within the life span of the hero of the poem.

Grendel's trophy arm/hand/claw may well be symbolic of the waxing lunar crescent, which becomes visible after a New Moon.  In other words, Beowulf "killed" the New Moon monster during the 413 eclipse, and by doing so made possible the reappearance of the waxing crescent.  Grendel's mother - the New Moon of 447 - reclaims the hand/arm/claw of her son when she visits Heorot, this act representing the disappearance of the waning lunar crescent that precedes the eclipse.  But Beowulf brings the head of Grendel back after slaying the monster's mother, and we can assume this means the moon has once again entered its first visible phase.



As long ago as 1985, archaeologist Gad Rausing published his paper “Beowulf, Ynglingatal and the Ynglinga Saga: Fiction or History?”.  In this study, he made a case for finding both the barrow of Beowulf and that of the hero’s enemy, the dragon, on the island of Gotland:

“Today, one of the southern parishes on Gotland is named Rone. Beowulf's "Hronesnes" has been taken to be derived from anglo-saxon "hron", whale. This word is not known from any other Germanic language. Although whaling is usually associated with the Atlantic, until recent times it played a very important part in the economy of south Scania, of Öland and of Gotland. The dolphins, (Phocaena phocaena, L.) who enter the Baltic in spring and leave in the autumn, were netted by the thousand. Their meat, fat, bone and hides were all utilized. The derivation of the name "Rone" is not known. It appears as "Ronum" and "Rone" in the fourteenth century (Karl Inge Sandred, pers. comm. 10.2.1984). It may be no more than a coincidence, there being no linguistic evidence either way: can possibly "Rone" be derived from "hron" as "the place where dolphins are caught?" It is suggestive that a hill on the next headland to the north, now called cape Nabbu, is called Arnkull, Eagle Hill.”

Rausing was correct when he states the AS hron, whale, is not found in other Germanic languages.  I confirmed this with Dr. Scott Mellor of the Department of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

“There is no old Norse reflex of this word.  However, there are two probable Modern Scandinavian cognates etymologically related: Swedish harr and Norwegian harr.  Both are a type of salmonoid fish.  The origins of these words are obscure, which you may well know.  Hellqvist attributes the modern Swedish to a borrowing from Germanic harju(s), proto Germanic *harzu, and Lithuanian kirzlys (with the same meaning as modern Swedish) and Kérzsas with the meaning black and white spotted,  back to sanskrit krsna- meaning black (the computer I currently find myself on has only limited diacritics).  Though not certain, Old English is likely related to these words and has changed through metathesis from har* to hra* (like brid to bird), and hra* to hro* like stan to stone.”

Modern place-name scholars prefer to see in Rone the word (h)raun, “stone heap, stone foundation”(see Swedish place names lexicon. Uppsala : Institute for Language and Folklore, ed. Mats Wahlberg, 2003).  I've been in communication with Gotlandic place-name expert Professor Evert Melefors of the University of Uppsala.  His opinion on Rone is pretty much the same:

"One or two scholars have suggested an interpretation from 'hraun'. I have myself written a paper where a bunch of old gothl. parish names (very old from the time of the birth of Crist) containing the vowel o like in Boge, Sproge and Rone are involved. There is a problem when Rone on a medieval runestone is written ronum instead of the expected Raunum, so I am not fully convinced of the interpretation. It is hard to explain why these sounds differ! Nevertheless, from a matter of fact view it is a very good interpretation; there are a lot of stones and rocks along the coast and there is on old gothl. saying that 'the ice along the coast is 'rauning' when the ice blocks turn upon each other."*

Of course, there is no reason why a name that RESEMBLED hron could not have been, at some point, identified by the Anglo-Saxons in England with their own word.  This is a perfectly reasonable proposition.  Nor is there a problem with situating the Geats of the poem on an island bearing a name that records a form of this very tribal designation.  Nowhere else in Gotland or in the coastal regions of the Gotalands in Sweden – the other homeland of the Geats - do we find a name matching Hronesness that has a major barrow cairn.

And the importance of Rone lies in its great Bronze Age burial cairns.  The largest of them all – Uggarderojr, i.e. Uggarde Cairn – is given first or, perhaps, second place (behind the Baticke cairn in Anga parish) in terms of size for the entire island.  As sea level has changed significantly over the intervening centuries, it is known that at a certain stage in history Uggarderojr, now a fair distance inland, was once on the coast.  Archaeologists now believe it served a double purpose as both a burial cairn and a beacon for ships.  This last may be reflected in Beowulf’s dying wish that his barrow would

“be a reminder among my people –

so that in coming times crews under sail

will call it Beowulf’s Barrow, as they steer

ships across the wide and shrouded waters.”

[Lines 2805-2808, Seamus Heaney translation]

As for which of the various large cairns in Rone parish may be Beowulf’s barrow, I will return to that question in a bit.

And what of Rausing’s Arnkull or Eagle Hill?  It is now usually referred to as Ornkull or Ornkullen, and is a hill at the headland of Nyan next to Nabban in Nar parish.  This is some 20 kilometers NNE of Rone.  I’ve checked with the archaeology service of the Swedish National Heritage Board and there is, indeed, a stone setting and grave on the hill of either Bronze or Iron Age date.  The monument is not very significant, however, and certainly does not resemble the dragon’s barrow described in the Beowulf poem.  The full record of this site, as drawn from Riksantikvarieämbetet – Fornsök, reads as follows (translation from Swedish into English courtesy Johann Andersson of Riksantikvarieämbetet, FMIS/Fornsök):

"Stone circle (?), probably round, about 9 meter in diameter and 0,6 meter high. Covered filling, with in the surface occasional occurring 0,3-0,5 meter large granite stones. Some clearing stones is applied in the south. Probably a burial.

Terrain: Crest of a moraine height. A small islet in farmland. (The first part is about the surroundings, the second part is about where the burial is placed on.

Tradition: A treasure is said to be buried in Örnkullen, E. Oxenstierna, 1939." (Eric Oxienstierna was a Swedish archaeologist who mainly did research on Swedish Iron Age and the Germanic tribes. I can’t tell where he found the source for this tradition).”

To be honest, I have always had difficulty with accepting the AS place-name Earnaness, the "Eagle's Ness", where the dragon lived in its barrow before he slain by Beowulf.  Here's my problem with the name: it is given only once, and only at the end of the dragon battle, when the hero is dead, having slain the monster.  Needless to say, there is no 'eagle' in the story.  As given, Earnaness would appear to be a name bestowed on the headland precisely because it had been the home of the dragon, and the place where the king had slain the beast.

Let us suppose the original name utilized a Norse Orm, ‘serpentine dragon, snake,’ instead.  It would take but one mistake in transmission somewhere along the line for the m to be miscopied n.  The resulting orn is, in fact, Old Norse 'eagle'.  Orm may not even have been recognizable to the Anglo-Saxons in England, whose word for this creature was the cognate wyrm.  So I would guess that the reason no one is satisfied with Arnkull – myself included -  is because Earnaness should instead be Ormanes, the Orm's Headland (cf. ON ormaboeli, ormagardr, ormabedr).

If I’m right here, we must abandon Rausing’s Arnkull and look elsewhere for the Ormanes.   

There are three or four dozen 'Orm-' place-names on Gotland. The majority of these contain the common male personal name Orm.  We are looking for an Orm- barrow mound or cairn and a ness, or at least such a cairn where there may have been a ness when the sea level was higher as well as, preferably, a ness name still extant in the vicinity.  Although various cairns on the island are associated in modern folklore with orms, as one might expect, there is only one that actually bears a name like that which we are searching for: Ormror (or Armror or Arm-rair) just north of Drakarve in Nas parish.  Nas is the Swedish form of Old Norse nes, 'nose', a promontory or headland and the cognate of the Anglo-Saxon ness.  Ormror is listed in the archaeological database as being in Havdhem parish, although the place-name database shows some confusion, possibly due to shifting parish boundaries.  Ormror is there shown to be in Nas parish, and is listed as 'missing' from Havdhem.  In reality, Ormror is about 3.75 kilometers north of Nas, and 5.25 kilometers southwest of Havdhem.

And, indeed, I've had this parish change confirmed by Hanna Larsson of Riksantikvarieämbetet, FMIS/Fornsök:

"There used to be a parish Näs on southern Gotland. Today it no longer exists as a parish, it has been taken up into the parish of Havdhem. In Fornsök you can still find it as a geographical unit, because the archaeological data of National Heritage Board is divided into the parish units that existed in the 1970ies, with a few exceptions."

According to Kristina Neumuller of Forskningsarkivarie, Drakarve preserves the Swedish byname Drake or Draki, ‘Dragon’, known from the Middle Ages, plus the ending -arve meaning 'inheritance, hereditary estate'. Ormror, a very interesting ancient site, is literally Orm Cairn (ror, with an umlaut over the o, is a variant form of rojr, found appended to many cairns on the island), and is under 15 kilometers SW of Rone and only some 2 kilometers from the coast.  For the sake of comparison, Uggarde is approximately one and a half to two kilometers from the coast, depending on direction.

Here is the full description of Ormror from Riksantikvarieämbetet – Fornsök, again kindly translated from the Swedish by Johan Andersson:

 "1) Grave field, in a area of 70x40 meter (East-West) with 8 ancient burial monuments. These are 1 cairn and 7 round or next to round stone circles. The cairn, in the eastern part of the grave field, is 22 meter in diameter and 1 meter high. The stones is 0,1-0,5 meter big. In the SSW part of the cairn is a residue of a kerb, 0,2-0,4 meter high, of 0,6-0,7 meter large stones. Otherwise is a partly visible smaller kerb, 0,1-0,2 meter high, of 0,3-0,7 meter large stones. Outside of this kerb is a stone-brim, 3-4 meter wide and 0,2-0,3 m high, of 0,15-0,3 meter big stones - largely covered with sod. The cairn is vigorously stirred and the SSW part is dismounted down to the bottom. The eastern part of the cairn is partly covered by the burnt mound (Havdhem 38:2). The round or the next round stone circles is 4-7 meter in diameter (six of them is 4-5 meter in diameter) and 0,1-0,3 meter high. All of the stone circles are covered with sod and have in the surface numerous visible stones, 0,1-0,5 meter big. One stone circle has a kerb, 0,1 meter high, of 0,2-0,5  eter large stones. Three stone circles has a pit in the centre part, 1-2 meter in diameter and 0,1-0,2 meter deep. Mostly of the stone circles are vigorously stirred and are hard to delineate. The grave field is vegetated with pines and junipers. Next to and in the eastern part of the grave field is 2) Burnt mound, next to round, 11 meter in diameter and 1,5 meter high. Covered with sod and have in the surface numerous visible cracked stones. In the centre is a pit, 3x2 meter (east north east-west south west) and 0,3 meter deep. The burnt mound is partly covering the cairn in the grave field. Vegetated with 3 pines and 5 small junipers.

Terrain: Flat gravel and limestone soil. Coniferous forest.

Comment of an antiquarian: The cairn is named Ormrör."

So all of this looks very promising.  But it is?  Alas, no.  The name Ormror is modern.

Professor Evert Melefors of the Department of Scandinavian Languages at the University of Uppsala reminds me that the name Ormror may be fairly recent, and is due to real snakes - perhaps common European adders - hibernating in the Ormror mound:

"Translation into English of P.A. Säve´s Tale nr 616 in R 623:4 UUB (Uppsala Univerity Library):

616. Årm-råir (Orm-rör) [Snake-cairn]

On the border to Havdhem [parish] i the forest belonging to Gann [a farm in Näs] in Näs there is a stone cairn that now (1871) is called Arm-råir [i.e. Årm-råir] and consisting of grey-stone: because, when people on the 2-nd of January 1815 excavated the cairn (treasure-hunting?) unto the depth of one eln (6 decimeter), they found amongst burned clay and bones 19 snakes that moved very little because of the cold. [Informant: the farmer] P. P[erso]n Källder, born 1794."

We are once again at a loss, it would seem, to find the dragon's barrow! Or, at least, we are forced to return to ancient Gotlandic traditions in our quest for the site.

According to Guta Saga:

"Gotland was first discovered by a man called Thielvar. At this time Gotland was bewitched so that it sank by day and [only] surfaced at night. But that man brought fire to the land for the first time, and after that it never sank.

This Thielvar had a son called Hafthi. And Hafthi's wife was called Whitestar. Those two were the first to settle on Gotland. The first night they slept together she dreamt that three snakes [ormar] were coiled in her lap. And it seemed to her that they slid out of her lap. She told this dream to her husband Hafthi. He interpreted it thus:

"All is bound with bangles,
it will be inhabited, this land,
and we shall have three sons."

While still unborn, he gave them all names:

"Gute will own Gotland,
Graip will be the second,
and Gunnfjaun third."

These later divided Gotland into three parts, so that Graip the eldest got the northern third, Guti the middle third, and Gunfjaun the youngest had the south."

The significant passage here concerns the sons of Hafthi (or Havde), who are symbolically represented AS SERPENTS.

From  “Guta Saga: The History of the Gotlanders” (ed. Christine Peel, VIKING SOCIETY FOR NORTHERN RESEARCH, 1999):

“Dreams about snakes

The dream that Huitastierna has on her wedding night, of the three snakes issuing from her womb or breast, has folklore parallels. The
motif of pregnant women dreaming of events connected with the birth of their children is very commonplace. There is, for example, a tale concerning William the Conqueror’s mother who is said tohave dreamed that a great tree grew from her womb. Equally, dreams concerning snakes are not unusual and the combination of the two motifs (with the snakes proceeding from some part of a woman’s anatomy) is also encountered. Henning Feilberg (1886– 1914, IV, 316, s. v. orm) mentions a motif concerning a snake growing out of a young girl’s back and coiling itself around her neck. Snakes also figure largely in Celtic myth in various guises: as protectors, as fertility symbols and in connection with the underworld and death. The snake motif is common on Gotlandic picture-stones and one
in particular, from Smiss in Gotland, is of interest; see Note to 2/8. It is therefore possible that a literary or oral motif concerning a pregnant woman’s dream has been combined with snake iconography to give this version of the tradition. What the true source is for the dream-sequence it is probably not possible to know: it could have been a folk-tale applied in a particular case or it could have been a specific story associated with the island’s settlement, perhaps linked to some native or foreign mythological element. It could even have been an invented story based on the seeds of an idea sown by some artefact similar to the disc found in a woman’s grave at Ihre, Gotland; cf. Note to 2/8.”

According to archaeologist Per Widerstrom with the Gotland Museum,

“Tjelvavrs grave is best known and is a ship setting in Boge parish. There is a parish on the southern island called Havdhem, maybe after Havde. No grave that I know of.

Gute is a farm in Bäl parish, a bit northeast from Visby. No grave that Im aware of.

Theres also Graips house (RAÄ Garde 16:1,2 or 3, I don’t remember which one) in Garda parish, and his grave nearby (RAÄ Garde 1:1).

There’s an old ruined chapel in Ardre parish that’s called Gunnfjauns chapel (RAÄ Ardre 35:1). Its still in use sometimes and there used to be a trading/market site nearby during the medieval period.”

The most important reference here is to Graip’s grave at Garde 1:1.  This is the massive Digerrojr cairn (35 meters in diameter and 4-5 meters high), also called Graipershög or ‘Graip’s Howe’.  This is another cairn that would have been on the coast before the sea-level fell and it has fascinating traditions associated with it, as is made plain in the account from the Riksantikvarieämbetet database.  One of these traditions concerns a precious cup or beaker (Swedish dyrbar bagare) belonging to the trolls of Digerrojr, which sounds suspiciously like the goblet removed from the Beowulf barrow.

In my opinion, the great cairn of Graip the Serpent, with its precious beaker, is the folk remnant of the dragon barrow of Beowulf.

As for the actual barrow of Beowulf himself in Rone parish, I do not think this is the famous Uggarderojr cairn.  Why?  Well, according to the Beowulf poem, after Beowulf's barrow had been raised about his cremated remains,

"Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,

chieftain's sons, champions in battle,

all of them distraught, chanting in dirges,

mourning his loss as a man and a king..."

Now this story reminded me of a common folklore motif in which men or women or witches who are dancing or piping in a circle, often on the Sabbat, are turned to stone.  As ancient barrows on Gotland are often associated with other megalithic monuments - like stone ships or CIRCLES - could it be that a major burial mound in Rone parish was surrounded by or very close to a stone circle of EXACTLY twelve stones?

Well, this seemed too much to hope for, but I went looking, anyway. And, sure enough, I found what I was searching for: right next to the very large earth-covered cairn a short distance to the SE of the major Lejsturjor cairn there is a stone circle composed of twelve stones.

For a drawing of this circle, see the following link:


BEOWULF'S GRAVE (Photos courtesy Drew Parsons)      

But what is better, the circle itself surrounds a barrow.  In the words of Johan Andersson, Information on archaeological sites and monuments (Riksantikvarieämbetet, FMIS/Fornsök):

"According to the sketch that was done at the same time when this site was recorded in 1978, there are seven stones in the western part of the stone circle that were artificially placed. The five larger "naturally" situated stones are to the east.  One of these is a large stone, flanked by two stones to either side, making for a total of five.  The stone circle surrounds a burial mound in the center. "

The proximity of this stone circle-surrounded grave to the ancient farm of Anggarde is significant.  Why?  From http://www.segotland.se/servlet/GetDoc?meta_id=1099&file_id=6:

“153. Lejsturojr

Numerous remains from the Bronze and Iron Ages can be seen in the beautiful, grazed meadowlands and pastures at Änggårde near Ronehamn. The earliest monuments are the two impressive cairns from the Bronze Age, one of which is covered with soil. Traces of at least two farms from about the Birth of Christ, with house foundations, prehistoric fields and remains of stone walling, can be seen beside the cairns.

Approaching the largest cairn, Lejsturojr, halfway in the meadow, feels almost supernatural. The huge cairn seems to be guarding a secret, and it is with great awe that you venture to draw near. Two sturdy standing-stones south of the cairn attract particular attention. We do now know their function, but since they are standing south of the cairn, we presume that they might have been connected with sun worship.

The actual cairn, like so many others, has a deep crater in the centre. The crater may be the result of the collapse of some construction, such as a tower or wall inside the cairn. However, the crater may have been deliberately incorporated in the cairn construction, quite simply to save stones. Several people have often been buried in cairns, over a long period of time. Few cairns have actually been excavated, however. There is another cairn further on in the pastureland, although this one has been covered with soil. Soil or peat-covered mounds are rare on Gotland, although they are common in Scania and Denmark. Since air, which destroys all organic material, cannot gain access to soil-covered mounds, their graves tend to be much better-preserved than graves in stone cairns.

There were two farmsteads here during the Iron Age, up to the 6th century A.D. There are five house foundations at the front end of the field, and beside these you can see remains of stone walling, which once enclosed the fields and meadows. A nature and culture trail will lead you through the grounds, passing all the prehistoric remains. By road from Visby: Drive along road 142 to Hemse. Turn off towards Ronehamn and then along a minor road signposted to Lejsturojr.”

As Beowulf was of the 5th century A.D., this farm may well have been his primary residence.  The Lejsturojr cairn is Bronze Age and 40 meters in diameter and 4 meters high, while the earth-covered cairn by the stone circle burial is 47 meters in diameter and 2 meters high.  The last is dated to both the Bronze Age AND the Iron Age.  The actual stone circle surrounded grave, numbered Rone 72:3 in the Swedish National Heritage Board's database, is also considered to be of Bronze Age and/or Iron Age date.

Anggarde is approximately 20 kilometers SSW of Digerrojr/Graipershög.

* Professor Melefors was kind enough to also forward me information on the other place-names I've discussed above:

"The majority of Gotlandic farmstead names are medieval (from the 13th century); very few can be dated back to the Viking age. About 50% contains personal names, but that is not the case with the ones you are asking about. Äng-garde means the farm-stead ('gård' = farm) situated in or built in a meadow ('äng' = meadow), Lejstu is the name of an deserted farm originally called Lei(l)-stuga, meaning 'the little cottage'. Uggarde is the farm situated in the outskirts of the parish Rone, derived from *U(t)-gard, Out-gard, the farm that is situated out 'ut' from the center. Later the form *Ut-garde is pronounced, by assimilation, Ug-garde."




In “The Hill of the Dragon: Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds in Literature and Archaeology”, H.R. Ellis Davidson makes her case for the fiery dragon of the barrow being a symbol for the cremation blaze that consumed the dead.  While she makes a good case, and her argument is compelling, there are some obvious problems in her chain of reasoning.

For one, the sources make it plain that the dragon is not itself the fire that it breathes.  Second, these dragons are aerial beings.  A comparison of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle MSS. seems to suggest they are storm-cloud monsters whose movements generated the wind:

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Laud (E) and Parker Chronicle (A):

ormete ligræscas, 7 wæron geseowene fyrene dracan on þam lyfte fleogende.

immense flashes of lightning , and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air.

Worcester Chronicle (D) variant:

excessively high winds and flashes of lightning

Modern folklore in Gotland often identified a dragon with an eldklot or fireball, i.e. a meteor or, presumably, a comet.  From Professor Ulf Palmenfelt, Institutionen för humaniora och samhällsvetenskap, Etnologi, Gotland University:

"There are quite a few folk legends collected by Per Arvid Säve about dragons and snakes on Gotland. There are no sharp limits between the different legend categories, but mostly the snake stories emphasize how scary these beings were and how difficult they were to get rid of. The dragon legends are typically associated with buried treasures. According to popular belief, you were supposed to bury a live animal together with your treasure. The animal would then be transformed into a magic guard in the shape of a dragon. These treasure dragons were said to move the hidden treasures from one place to another, and at such times they could be observed as fireballs moving over the night sky."

Finally, we must take into account the Viking dragon-ships that were burned during ship-funerals, and the ancient stone ship-settings found all over Scandinavia. Thus there are a number of characteristics of dragons that point to their being something other than the cremation blaze.

Let us take a closer look at the nocturnal habit of the Beowulf dragon.  We are told quite specifically:

“So the guardian of the mound,

the hoard-watcher, waited for the gloaming

with fierce impatience…

…Then, to his delight,

the day waned and he could wait no longer

behind the wall, but hurtled forth

in a fiery blaze…

…Then back to the hoard

he would dart before daybreak, to hide in his


[Lines 2302-2320, Seamus Heaney translation]

As with Grendel, we are dealing with a monster that is active and most powerful only at night.  In my mind’s eye, I saw the crescent moon – not only in the form of a boat, i.e. a Viking ship, but in that of a serpent that like the moon could shed its skin, forever becoming new again.

The Norse dragon Nidhoggr from the Eddas carries dead men across the sky.  To quote from Voluspa 62 (Ursula Dronke’s translation):

There comes the shadowy

Dragon flying,

Glittering serpent, up

From Dark of the Moon Hills [Nidafiollom].

He carries in his pinions

- he flies over the field –

Malice Striker [Nidhoggr], corpses.

The name Nidhoggr is usually rendered something like the above, deriving Nid- from ON nid, contumely, derision, libel, insult, cf. nida, to libel, lampoon, nidingr, villain, scoundrel, vile wretch, nidstong, pole of insult.  However, there is also nidr, ‘down’ and, significantly, nid, THE WANING MOON, TIME BEFORE NEW MOON.  In keeping with the symbolism of a glittering dragon flying up into the sky from the waning moon hills, I would opt for ‘Waning Moon Striker’ as the real name of this monster.

The Viking ship of the dead was called Naglfar.  Simek (in his Dictionary of Northern Mythology) explains how the name betrays folk etymology, as "Nail-ship" should be "Dead/Corpse-ship".  However, the tradition records that the ship is made of the unshorn nails of the dead.  I would only mention that the white portion of fingernail, which we commonly keep trimmed off, forms a white crescent.  Such a color and shape may have reminded people of the crescent moon and as the death-ship symbolized this heavenly body, the name "Nail-ship" may be an intentional poetic metaphor.  Or such an observation could have contributed to the folk etymology from an earlier meaning "Corpse-ship".

The ship of the gods is called Skidbladnir, literally ‘Wood-Leaf’, and it belongs to Freyr in most sources, but to Odin in YNGLINGA SAGA.  Among its magical properties it has this: “when not at sea, it is constructed so skillfully and of so many parts that it can be folded up like a cloth and put in a pouch.”  A lunar boat conforms nicely to this description, as it “folds” up when going from waning crescent to New and becomes invisible – presumably being stored then in the said pouch. When unfolded, it appears as the waxing crescent.

Draugs – revenants inhabiting barrow mounds – are often told about in the Norse sagas.  The most famous draug is Glam of Grettir’s Saga, whose name is literally a poetic word for the moon.  At least in the Norse sources, then, the dead man in the barrow, guarding his grave-goods, became identified with the moon. The sagas record instances of men like Fafnir who, after death, transform into dragons in their barrows (see H.R. Ellis Davidson, “Gods and Myths of Northern Europe”, p. 161).  It may be significant that in Norse belief the moon is male, while the sun is female.

Beowulf, then, slays the lunar dragon that guards its golden sun-hoard within the earth-barrow. Likewise Sigurd the Dragon-slayer slays the dragon Fafnir, who was sitting on his solar gold inside the barrow on Gnita Heath. That the dragon breathed fire appears to be a later development.  Initially, the lunar dragon or ship, bearing dead men, would have been visualized as coming down from the sky, passing through the fiery cloud – itself symbolic of the cremation blaze – before it could set into the earth.  The sun, too, made this dangerous passage of the flaming cloud (clouds during sunset or sunrise can appear as if aflame), and the many stories recounted in the Norse sources of heroes, heroines and gods wading through fire, smoke and water before they can enter a barrow or the underworld represents the same passage through watery, fiery cloud.  In all likelihood the Norse underworld river Slidr in Voluspa 36, said to be full of knives and swords, is actually full of lightning-weapons.  We are often told streams "burst" forth from barrows and some of these may also be symbolic of the "cloud-river" one has to wade in order to enter the underworld.

But why kill the moon monster at all?  Unless it were considered inherently malicious and dangerous?

The answer to this question could lie in a unique phenomenon experienced only in the far North: the major lunar standstill.  To quote from Dr. Judy Young, Department of Astronomy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (personal correspondence):

 “The Moon could be said to "die" if one observed from high latitudes in a Major Standstill year.  Then, the full Moon of summer might not be visible (above latitude 61 degrees, i.e. Orkney), but it would be visible a few days before full (and then reappear a few days later).

Even at latitude +57 degrees, the Moon could 'disappear' if there are sufficient hills on the horizon. At Callanish, lat=58, the Moon is only 3 degrees above the horizon when full near summer solstice in a Major Standstill year. So big enough hills could hide that.  But not if one is looking over the ocean...”

Rone, Gotland, the location of both Beowulf's barrow and that of the dragon (see Part 1 of this essay), is a bit above the 57th line of latitude. However, a major lunar standstill does not take into account Beowulf’s presence during the slaying of the dragon.  Furthermore, we could not account for so many other dragon stories set in much lower latitudes!

The solution to the problem is to rely on good old-fashioned solar mythology – specifically, the kinds of stories that arise from the occurrence of a total solar eclipse.

Running dates from NASA’s Five Millenium Catalog of Solar Eclipses, and restricting myself to the generally agreed upon floruit of Beowulf being 5th or 6th century, I found a total solar eclipse whose central path crossed Gotland on May 28, 458 A.D.  The northern and southern path limits of the eclipse covered exactly all of Gotland from its northernmost extremity to its southernmost.

For a map showing the eclipse, go here:


See also the following diagram of the eclipse:


This would have been a major event for the Iron Age inhabitants of the island.  Not only is the eclipse total, with its central path crossing the midpoint of Gotland, but the eclispe was at maximum at 1:18 p.m., so the whole event played out around noon.   Beowulf as a solar hero vanquishes the lunar dragon, but himself succumbs during the struggle.


"The Snake-witch (Ormhäxan), Snake-charmer (Ormtjuserskan) or Smiss stone (Smisstenen) is a picture stone found at Smiss, När parish, Gotland, Sweden. Discovered in a cemetery, it measures 82 cm (32 in) in height and depicts a figure holding a snake in each hand. Above the figure there are three interlaced creatures (forming a triskelion pattern) that have been identified as a boar, an eagle, and a wolf.] The stone has been dated to 400–600 AD." [Description from Wikipedia]

To confirm the date, I contacted the chief archaeologist of the Gotland Historical Museum, Per Widerstrom.  His response:

"That stone is in the shape of the stones from appx 200- 600 AD. And in that span it is believed to belong to the later part, the 5th or 6th centuries."

This is, of course, the floruit of Beowulf.

As the triskelion or triskele is often a solar symbol, the goddess on the lower register of this stone, holding two snakes, is probably a moon deity.  The reader will observe that the primary bend of the snake on the left conforms to a waxing crescent moon, while the main bend of the serpent on the right bears the shape of the waning crescent.  The goddess herself, or more likely her head, would be symbolic of the full moon.  While some theories have attempted to connect her with Celtic Cernunnos figures sitting in the 'yogi' posture, this figure is plainly either in a birthing position or a receptive sexual one.

In my opinion, this figure is "evidence" of the worship of a pre-Viking era lunar snake goddess on Gotland.