Beowulf and Heorot

Beowulf is one of the oldest surviving works written in Old English. It is known from only one copy which is held in the British Library. The surviving copy is believed to have been written down in the 10th or 11th century and copied from an earlier written document. From linguistic analysis the original document (which no longer exists) is believed to have been written down in the 8th century, but is describing events in the early 6th century. It is a long poem, with over 3,000 lines and is split into two parts. In the first half of the poem Heorot, the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, is being ravaged by a monster. Beowulf comes to the aid of Hrothgar and kills the monster, (Grendel), and after Grendel’s mother has reeked revenge on the Danes he also kills her. In the second half of the poem which is set 50 years later Beowulf is an old man and now king of the Geats. He fights and kills a dragon but he is fatally wounded. This article is about the location of the events in the first half of the poem.

Beowulf was written in Old English and is incomprehensible without being translated. Fortunately, because it is such an important work, there are hundreds of translations available but these vary in their objectives. The choices are whether to translate into poetry or prose, and a literal translation or translation the retains poetic qualities. One of the best literal translations can be found at http://www.Heorot.dk. but the best translation that retains the poetic qualities is that by Seamus Heaney. For this article I have used several different translations and haven’t used the original Old English.

I am making some assumptions:

  • Heorot is a real place somewhere in southern Scandinavia
  • The description of the voyage is a description of a real journey
  • Heorot hasn’t been washed into the sea by coastal erosion
  • Beowulf’s journey started from his homeland around modern day Gothenburg

Fact or Fiction?

The poem appears to be a mixture of fact and fiction.  Hygelac (Beowulf’s king) is known from Gregory of Tours to have died around 521, so this puts the events in the poem in the very early 6th Century.  The Danish king, Hrothgar and his hall, Heorot, are mentioned in another Anglo Saxon poem, Widsith , and other characters have equivalents in Northern sagas.  For example Hrothulf, Hrothgar’s nephew, is also known as Hrolf Kraki and has his own saga but in the end he is defeated in a great battle at Lejre. The historical reference to Hygelac and the references to other characters in various sources suggest that there are some historical elements to the story. The references to Lejre have led many to believe that Heorot was located at Lejre.

Heorot and Lejre

Archaeological excavations at Lejre have uncovered halls from the Scandinavian Iron Age and this has convinced many that Heorot could be found at Lejre but this does not seem to fit well with the description of Beowulf’s voyage. The initial description of the voyage is short. Beowulf orders a boat to be prepared and sets off from beneath the sea cliffs. On the second day he sights land – sea cliffs, broad headlands and high rocky shores.  There are various translations of the appearance of the sea cliffs. They are said to shine, are sunlit, or are silvery (according to Tuso, Heaney and Chickering respectively).  When these landmarks are reached the poem is quite clear – their journey is at an end.  Beowulf and his crew are escorted a short distance inland from where Heorot can be seen in a prominent position. Unfortunately none of the features described can be seen on the approach to Lejre which is about 7km away from the end of the Iselfjord and Roskilde Fjord, about 50km away from the open sea. Although the description in the poem is short there is one feature that can narrow down the search. There aren’t many cliffs in Southern Scandinavia. The highest feature in Denmark is reputed to be the top of the bridge between Funen and Zealand but there are three locations within Southern Scandinavia that have chalk cliffs: Stevns Klint (Zealand in Denmark), Møns Klint (Island of Møn, Denmark) and Jasmund Peninsula (Rügen, Germany).  There are also sandy cliffs on the north coast of Zealand but these don’t have the special qualities that have generated the various descriptions of the cliffs in the poem.  The island of Bornholm has granite cliffs but again these could not be described as silvery or shining. If we make the assumption that the shining/sunlit/silvery cliffs are chalk cliffs we can say that Heorot lies within a few kilometres of one of these locations:

Stevns Klint, Møns Klint, Jasmund peninsula (Rügen)

Stevns Klint


Møns Klint


Rügen

Home of the Geats

Beowulf is described as a Geat but the homeland of the Geats is a bit debateable. The two main contenders are the area around modern day Gothenburg and the island of Gotland to the east of Sweden. The map, taken from ‘Sweden’ by M. Stenberger shows Iron Age strongholds in Sweden and seems to indicate the presence of two distinct communities. The assumption I have made is that the Swedes are from the eastern part of Southern Sweden and the Geats are from the area around Gothenburg. We shall see later that there is some evidence for the homeland of the Geats in this area.

Additional Clues to the Route

As I have already said the description of the route in the poem is quite sparse and does not give enough detail to identify the location of Heorot. However, in the poem there are some phrases, known as kennings, that have been thought of as metaphors for the sea that are in fact descriptions of actual locations. The kennings in question are:

  • salt sea
  • gannet’s bath
  • sea street
  • swan road
  • sliding waves

Before considering these we need to consider the geography of Southern Scandinavia as this helps locate the kennings.

Two hundred rivers flow into the Baltic but there are only three channels out – the Oresund between Denmark and Sweden, the Great Belt between the islands of Funen and Zealand and the Little Belt between Funen and Jutland. Freshwater is flowing constantly from the Baltic, through the three channels, into the Kattegat. In some conditions salt water can get into the Baltic but the salinity is less than normal sea water and gets progressively fresher as you go further into the Baltic. The water in the Kattegat mixes freely with water in the North Sea so it has a salinity close to normal sea water. These changes in salinity affect the distribution of bird life and it was the kenning ‘swan road’ that first made me consider if the kennings were metaphors for the sea or locations of actual places.

There are three species of swan in Southern Scandinavia. The Whooper swan and Bewick’s swan are migratory but the Mute swan is resident and present all year round, although numbers increase in winter. When I first started investigating swans in the region I looked at migration routes of Whooper and Bewick’s swans to see if these routes could be described as a swan road. There is a major bird migration route down through Sweden, crossing the Oresund into Denmark and Bewick’s swans migrate to western Europe via the lakes of Estonia and the southern shore of the Baltic. Unfortunately when trackers were fitted to migrating swans they were found to migrate along a broad front rather than a well defined route. The behaviour of Mute swans may give a better indication of a location for the swan road. Swans are not a bird of the open sea; they prefer freshwater or slightly salty water so are usually found on inland waterways or at river mouths. So swan road is a bad metaphor for the sea and more likely to be a description of an actual location. A distribution map of overwintering Mute swans in southern Scandinavia gives some possible locations for the swan road.

There is a large concentration of mute swans in the slightly salty water to the south of Zealand and a lower number around Rügen, a German island on the southern coast of the Baltic. Before trying to narrow down the search for Heorot let’s consider the other kennings.

The salt sea, in the context of southern Scandinavia, is a meaningful description of one area. It would not be used to describe a location within the Baltic as this is mostly freshwater. The salt sea must refer to the Kattegat, Skaggerak or perhaps even the North Sea. The gannet’s bath would appear to be another reference to the same area. The gannet is a sea bird that nests on cliffs and feeds in the sea. They are never seen in the Baltic and only rarely in the Kattegat, and then only at one specific time of year. In late September and October gannets fly around ‘the Kattegat loop’, flying and feeding down the south west coast of Sweden, along the north coast of Zealand and northwards along the east coast of Jutland. The sliding waves is a term used by Chickering in his translation. At first sight this would seem to be a fairly meaningless phrase but I believe this refers to the phenomenon that yachtsmen call ‘slippery water’ and this occurs when freshwater flows over the top of more dense salt water, exactly the condition you get at the outlets form the Baltic into the Kattegat. The sea street is a term that would seem to best apply to the narrow stretch of water between Denmark and Sweden, the Oresund, which would have been a busy route even in the 6th century. The waters ridge is a kenning which has no obvious meaning. The waters ridge could refer to an underwater feature of shallow water (the sea bed of the Baltic has deeper basins that are separated by ridges) or it could refer to the boundary between salt and fresh water. The term is obscure and is not a clear metaphor for the sea. More likely it refers to a feature which meant something to the seafarers of the time but whose meaning is now lost.

From the description of the voyage and the kennings elsewhere in the poem it is possible to construct a coherent narrative of the voyage. Whilst there is little absolute proof the pieces fit together like a jigsaw. The voyage starts at Hygelac’s island stronghold. Beowulf sails south through the Kattegat (salt sea or gannet’s bath) through the Oresund (sea street) into the Baltic and goes over the swan road. This rules out Stevns Klint as a destination as the congregation of swans is after this, so Heorot is near Møns Klint or the cliffs of Rügen. According to the poem Beowulf departs, then on the second day sights land, so the maximium length of the journey is 48 hours. Is the journey achievable in this time? There isn’t any archaeological evidence for sailing craft in the Southern Scandinavian region in the early sixth century.  The Sutton Hoo boat is about the nearest chronologically (early seventh century) and whilst there was no evidence of this having sails a half scale model was built, with sails, and tested.  From the results of the sea trials Gifford and Gifford estimated that the full size boat could achieve a top speed of ten knots and average seven knots for a long voyage (with suitable wind conditions).  Møn is about 220 nautical miles from Gothenburg and Rügen is about 260 nautical miles so Møn could be reached in about 32 hours sailing time and Rügen in around 38 hours so both are possible. Some night sailing would be required but on a clear night with some moonlight, coastal sailing or rudimentary navigation by the north star could be used to reach Heorot.

The routes to Møn and Rügen are very similar and the landscape features are also similar. The major difference between the two sites is the archaeological evidence. There is evidence that Møn was inhabited in the Scandinavian Iron Age and Timmesøbjerg was described as ‘a place of refuge’. However there is no evidence for Scandinavian settlement on Rugen in the same time period.

Arrival at Heorot

Beowulf and his crew sight land – shining cliffs, high rocky shores and broad headlands; their journey is at an end. They anchor their ship and unload using the gangplank. They have a confrontation with the Danish coastguard who agrees to show them the way to Heorot for an audience with Hrothgar. The path is stone paved but Gordon translates this as a path paved with stones of various colours. The path guided the men together or kept them in marching order (various translations). These features can all be seen in the landscape of Møn.

Shining cliffs

High rocky shores.

The boat needed to be anchored offshore so that it wasn’t damaged by the rocks along the sea shore.

Path paved with coloured stones.

Boulders and stones accumulate at the bottom of the chalk cliffs. Most are grey coloured flints but there are other hard rocks, left on the surface by glaciation, that are used for building paths.

The path guided the men together….kept them in marching order

Heorot was then visible in a prominent position; the coastguard returned to the shore and left Beowulf and his men to complete the journey. There is a candidate for the location of Heorot. The hill top site of Timmesøbjerg has been excavated and the evidence indicates a palisaded enclosure around the top of the hill that may have served as a place of refuge during the Scandinavian Iron age. The poem says that there were at least two buildings in close proximity. The screams of those being attacked by Grendel could be heard from within the palisaded enclosure and Hrothgar retires to his own quarters. This puts the Great Hall of Heorot on the flat area adjacent to the hilltop of Timmesøbjerg.

The hilltop of Timmesøbjerg

The flat area near the hilltop of Timmesøbjerg

LIDAR image of Timmesøbjerg. I suggest that the flat area to the north of the fortified hill is the location of the great hall of Heorot.

We have reached our destination. We left the land of the Geats near Gothenburg, crossed the salt sea and the gannet’s bath, sailed over the sliding waves, through the sea street, crossed the swan road until we saw the shining cliffs. We landed on the high rocky shore, anchoring our boats off shore, then took the path paved with coloured stones. We climbed the wooden steps that kept us in marching order, up to the great hall of Heorot.

Conclusion

It is now clear that the phrases used to describe the sea – the swan road, gannet’s bath, sea street, sliding waves and the salt sea refer to specific locations. The shining cliffs, high rocky shores and paved paths also refer to real features. It is likely that one of the sources that the poet had when he started constructing Beowulf was a description of a voyage from the Kattegat to the island of Møn and a short inland journey to Heorot, and the poet wove elements from that description into the poem. Recent Beowulf scholarship has been mainly aimed at treating the poem as a work of art but this has not always been the case. At the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century the scholarship treated Beowulf as a historical document. This study demonstrates there are more factual elements in the poem than were previously recognised and other elements of the story could well have a factual basis.

Around 1500 years after Beowulf’s journey Richard John Mac Cullagh was sailing around the Baltic. He remarked upon his sighting of the cliffs of Møns Klint:

In sunshine the rising wind caressed our carefree brows, and the low shores of Zealand to starboard and Sweden to port swept past.  We lifted the island of Møn over the starboard bow, and Møns Klint gleamed in the bright light as it came abeam.

Mac Cullagh, Vikings’ Wake, D Van Nostrand Co Ltd

The special qualities of the cliffs of Møns Klint had been noticed before. The source used by the Beowulf poet had an intimate knowledge of the road to Heorot.

Further Reading

Parallel Texts

Parallel texts allow you to see the original Old English and the modern English on facing pages. Good for those learning Old English. I have mostly used Chickering but others are available.

Howell D. Chickering Jr, Beowulf, A Dual Language Edition, Anchor Books 2006

Benjamin Slade, ed, Beowulf on Steorarume, http://heorot.dk/

Translations

There are numerous translations of Beowulf. These are a few of the better known and most accessible

R K Gordon, Anglo Saxon Poetry, Everyman 1926

David Wright, Beowulf, Penguin 1957

Seamus Heaney, Beowulf, Faber and Faber 1999

J R R Tolkien, Beowulf, HarperCollins Publishers, 2014

J F Tuso, Beowulf, W W Norton & Co 1975

General References

Rune Leithe-Eriksen (Ed), The Baltic, Greenpeace, The Seas of Europe, Collins and Brown 1992

M Stenberger, Sweden, Thames and Hudson

The Swan Road

Tracking map of Bewicks swan migration:

  1. https://www.wwt.org.uk/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/tracking-map.jpg

Map of mute swan distribution:

Henrik Skov, Waterbird Populations and Pressures in the Baltic Sea, Nordic Council of Ministers, 2011. p47 Map of Distribution of Numbers of Wintering Mute Swan, Cygnus Olor, in the Baltic Sea 2007 – 2009

Words for the Sea

Caroline Brady studied the words for the sea in Beowulf in 1952. She wrote

In conclusion, we must say that the metaphorical content in the sea-vocabulary of Beowulf is negligible.

In depicting the sea this poet is no artificer mechanically piling up synonyms and conventional metaphors, but an artist who knows how to use a variety of words and phrases in their literal senses to convey the effect he desires.

I have taken her studies to their logical conclusion and identified the locations that the words describe.

Brady, Caroline.  The Synonyms for ‘Sea’ in Beowulf Studies in Honor of Albert Morey Sturtevant, University of Kansas Press, Lawrence 1952

Sailing or Rowing

The poem refers to Beowulf and his men sailing to Heorot. This has been used by some to argue that since the earliest archaeological evidence for sailing in the Baltic is from about 750 (one of the boats found at Salme in Estonia) then the reference to sailing in the poem cannot have come from a 6th century source and was simply an invention of the poet. Haywood has demonstrated that sailing boats were being used by germanic tribes in the North Sea in the roman period and this article has demonstrated that the voyage originated outside the Baltic so it is perfectly feasible for the Geats to be using sails in the early 6th century.

J Haywood, Dark Age Naval Power, Anglo-Saxon Books, 1999

Timmesøbjerg

This website gives some information:

http://www.fortidsmindeguide.dk/Timmesoe-Bjerg-tilflugtsborg.589.0.html

It is in Danish but can be translated with online translating tools

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