The Whale Road

At the beginning of Beowulf the poem describes how Scyld Scēfing was exacting tribute from the tribes ‘ofer hronrāde’, usually translated as ‘beyond the whale road’.  We have seen on the page ‘Beowulf and Heorot’ that phrases such as salt sea, gannet’s bath, swan road and sea street could describe real locations and they are not just metaphors for the sea.  Could the whale road also describe an actual location?

One of the problems is the translation of hron as whale.  The Old English word for whale is hwael.  Tolkein thought that hron probably referred to a dolphin but nowadays the only whale species that inhabits the sea around southern Scandinavia is the harbour porpoise.  Dolphins and whales are occasional visitors but quite rare so a whale sighting in the Baltic is a newsworthy event.  Harbour porpoises and dolphins feed on the same fish but the harbour porpoise is smaller.  Although harbour porpoise numbers in the area seem to be declining (from surveys in 1994 in 2005) the distribution is similar and they are concentrated on the east side of the Jutland peninsula and into the Great Belt and Little Belt. There is a small population in the Baltic proper.

Distribution of Harbour Porpoises

It is likely that, 1500 years ago, the number of marine mammals in southern Scandinavia was higher than at present.  It is reasonable to assume that their prey would be more numerous and their predators (mainly human) would be having less impact than at present.  It is likely that their range would be wider than at present and they would have inhabited marginal areas.  As numbers fell it is likely that they retreated to their core areas where their habitat and food supply were optimum.  My conclusion is that areas that are inhabited by harbour porpoises today would have been inhabited by the same animals 1500 years ago.  It is also possible that dolphins also inhabited the same area as these creatures eat the same prey.  Therefore hronrāde could be describing the area on the east side of the Jutland peninsula.  The powerbase of Scyld Scēfing was probably on Zealand or Fyn so the tribes beyond the hronrāde would be the tribes of the Jutland peninsula, the Jutes, Angles and Saxons, the tribes said by Bede to have been the main migrants to Britain.  Perhaps now we have a motivation for the migration; the Jutes, Angles and Saxons had been subjugated by Scyld Scēfing and rather than submit and pay tribute they had packed their bags and headed for a land of opportunity, now outside the Roman Empire, and with land to spare now that they no longer had to feed the Roman army.  The timing is about right. Scyld Scēfing was the great grandfather of Hrothgar and since the events in Beowulf took place in the early part of the 6th century, his great grandfather would have been active in the early 5th century.

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