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Beowulf and its female characters

Posted on October 11, 2012


Simply put, the poem Beowulf centres on the masculine. It is written from a male
perspective, its principal characters are male, and it is heavily influenced by
male-dominated themes such as valour, prowess and violence. This has left littl
e room for the influence of women, so much so, that the literary scholar Gillian
R. Overing has cast the women as marginal, excluded figures . However, a re-examin
ation into the roles of women in Beowulf reveals that the females significantly
contribute to its narrative.
The females in Beowulf enact the social roles that the men cannot fulfil, specif
ically the role of peace weaver, the role of hostess, and the role of mother. Qu
een Wealhtheow is an example of a successful peace weaver, for she plays an acti
ve role in society through words of encouragement to her people and handing out
of treasure to her heroes. On the other hand, Queen Hildeburh essentially fails
at this role and is presented in contrast to Wealhtheow as Hildeburh is more pas
sive, for example she fails to say anything throughout the entire poem. Regardle
ss of whether the queens succeed or fail in their role, their gender has an impa
ct on the narrative of the poem. Wealhtheow is the glue that holds the relations
hip between the Scyldings and Beowulf intact, and Hildeburh remains the central
part to the lay song which depicts her account. Wealhtheow is also the perfect m
odel of a good hostess. It is her cup carrying practice that gives the greatest
insight into the role of the hostess, as it was used not only to welcome, but al
so to highlight social status and allegiance. Queen Modthryth and Grendel s mother
are examples of unsatisfactory hostesses, but what is interesting is that whils
t both these characters fail at their role it is only Grendel s mother who is shun
ned, bringing to attention the fact that Grendel s mother is a monster and not par
t of normal functioning society. Therefore, the female role of hostess deciphers
the relationships in society and also exposes the prejudices in the poem. Grend
el s mother s role as a mother has a huge impact on the poem and particularly on the
audience. She is described as grief-racked , a human attribute with which the audi
ence would have identified with. As a result of her motherly bond, the poet is a
ble to evoke empathy towards a monster that is descended from Cain. Following a
presentation of this thesis, a respondent has added to this argument by highligh
ting how grief has a further and more important role to play amongst the female ch
aracters. It is grief that drives Grendel s mother to avenge her son and it is gri
ef which transitions Hildeburh from a more passive to an active character, for e
xample when she orders that the corpses of her brother and her son be burned on
the same bier.
It can be claimed that not only do the females live up to their own gender roles
, but they also cross the boundaries into what were stereotypically considered m
asculine roles. It is Grendel s mother who performs the role of a warrior, a posit
ion only ever taken up by men. She alone challenges the stereotype of a passive
female when she takes on Beowulf and his men at Heorot Hall. Indeed, as a monste
r, Grendel s mother s challenge to normal social conventions was to be expected, how
ever the queens of the poem also enact the roles traditionally given to men, suc
h as the role of leadership. Wealhtheow protects her own interests by urging Hro
thgar to take Hrothulf as his heir and to hold the kingdom for her sons, and the
re is no indication by the poet that her words are ignored. Moreover, Queen Hygd
effectively takes leadership into her own hands when she attempts to deliver th
e kingdom of the Geats to Beowulf following Hygelac s, her husband s death on the ba
ttlefield.
Beowulf may be a poem which moves on the actions of men, but this does not direc
tly result in the exclusion of females. The females depict roles that only they ca
n play out as part of a normal functioning society. Moreover, they delve into wh
at were traditionally considered masculine roles, showing that there is more to

these characters than meets the eye.


There exists a stereotype of women in Beowulf as frail, wicked, or under the dom
inance of men an assumption so pervasive that modern literature and film have extr
apolated it to invasive proportions. However, the female presence in Beowulf is
far from a subservient one and must be revaluated from an Anglo-Saxon perspectiv
e. Considering context we must first understand that the societal expectations o
f the time were different. In the Laws of Aethelbert we are given several rules
regarding behavior and legal ramifications for crime. Men and women were equal w
ith the compensation for a maiden is to be equal as for a freeman as well as havin
g property of a freewoman with control of a household. Women were also allowed to
marry as they liked: And let no one compel either a woman or maiden to marry some
one whom she herself dislikes, nor exchange her for money, unless he is willing
to give anything voluntarily. Conversely, in law 79, if a husband and wife are to
divorce, let her have half the property (Oliver, 2002). While each gender was con
sidered free and equal, they were also deemed suitable for certain roles within
the society. Typically men were looked on for their physical prowess while women
were the focus of fertility, which can be seen in the titles they are given: me
n were referred to as wpnedhealf (weapon-half) or sperehealf (spear-half) and wom
en were wifhealf (wife-half) or spinelhealf (spindle-half). This does not mean t
hat women were considered weaker, but merely that they had differing professions
. In the mind of the Anglo-Saxons, what a person possessed outwardly was the way
in which they were identified.

Perhaps the most extensive source of literature from the Anglo-Saxon period come
s in the Beowulf epic. Though there is no knowledge of who first transcribed it,
it remains the primary example of old English poetry as reflective of the socie
ty. Yet the common assumption that often comes from the reading of this text is
that the women are believed to take on the predictably subservient role. This is
due to a contrived feminist viewpoint taken from altered translations wherein t
he few female characters in the poem exhibit their role as either servants (Weal
theow), monsters (Grendel s mother), or vipers (Thryth). It is not difficult to un
derstand how the poem has been liberally altered from the original text. For exa
mple, in the unaltered poem Wealtheow is described as noble lady ( frolc wf)1 Lady of
e Helmings (mb-ode idesHelminga) and
Gold-adorned (goldhroden) whereas in a modern t
ranslation she is mentioned in passing only as either giving men drinks or silen
tly sitting beside Hrothgar (Ringler, 2005). It is in the dissonance between the
original text and the modern ones that lead to the incorrect assumptions regard
ing the women in Beowulf.
To look at the poem from this perspective degrades it of context and power, thus
lessening its importance and connection to the Anglo-Saxon world. On the surfac
e it only appears that the women of Beowulf have only minor roles because their
significance is either glossed over or specifically put down by scholars and ana
lysts. To look at the poem from this perspective degrades it of context and powe
r, thus lessening its importance and connection to the Anglo-Saxon world. On the
contrary, in early Anglo-Saxon literature there is a stern representation of th
e strong woman in Beowulf. We are shown several female roles within the text, bu
t none are more telling than those of Wealhtheow and Hygd. Although it can be as
sumed that these women have a lesser position given the little that is said abou
t them in comparison to Hrothgar and Beowulf, they nevertheless have imperative
roles within the tale whether positive or negative. Through the narration we can
see the central positions that women hold within the society and the hall. Weal
htheow is Hrothgar s wife and as such is expected to act as her position requires.
She is known as The woman of the Helmings (Ymbeode a ides Helminga), clan host (medos
tigge mt mga hose) and the great gold-adorned lady of the hall (grette goldhroden gum
an on healle)2 Her wisdom and ability to weave through the etiquette of court is
central to the liquidity of the kingdom as seen during the passing of the cup. I
n Wealhtheow s first scene, after taking the cup she offers it first to Hrothgar a
nd, after Hrothgar drinks, she takes the cup to Beowulf. She asserts her power i

n this scene by visually displaying that Hrothgar is of the highest status in th


e court since he is given the cup first and that Beowulf has risen to higher pla
ce by Wealhtheow offering the cup after the king drinks. Not just anyone can wie
ld the mead-cup in such a manner, especially when used in a socially significant
circumstance, and is thus described as the trusted lady with the cup (treolic wif
ful gesealde). She carries the ability to make decisions for the court, bestowi
ng Beowulf with the grace and trust of Hrothgar.
Beowulf understands the significance of the gesture and thereafter promises that
he will complete the task set before him, or else die in battle. His proclamati
on does not go unnoticed, as he is held to his words by those in the hall, parti
cularly Wealtheow who pleased with those words,/ With the boastful speech of the
Geat; the gold-adorned lady went/ Glorious queen to sit with her lord. (am wife a w
ord wel licodon, gilpcwide Geates; eode goldhroden, freolicu folccwen to hire fr
ean sittan).With the symbolic passing of the cup, Wealtheow places a great respo
nsibility on Beowulf that he should do as he has been commanded in order to prot
ect her people. Her position as the ring-giver, the gift-giver, places her in a
unique place because it is she who has the power to bestow Beowulf with the rewa
rds that comes from his killing of Grendel. Though Hrothgar is the one who promi
ses Beowulf riches if he should be successful, it is Wealtheow who decides what
gifts he will receive and if he will receive them at all. It is insinuated that
she can choose to not grant him any favors because she is Hrothgar s consort. Howe
ver, the strongest display of Wealtheow s power comes during the celebration of Gr
endel s death. Independent of counsel, the queen rises in the hall to address the
warriors and hail Beowulf for keeping his bargain. Again, this is done visually
with Beowulf seated next to Wealtheow and Hrothgar s sons and a cup being passed t
o him along with ornaments and jewelry. She is the supreme gift-giver, but does
not reveal her true autonomy until she delivers a commanding speech to the compa
ny in the hall:
Ic e an tela
sincgestreona. Beo u suna minum
ddum gedefe, dreamhealdende!
Her is ghwylc eorl orum getrywe,
modes milde, mandrihtne hold,
egnas syndon gewre, eod ealgearo,
druncne dryhtguman do swa ic bidde'
I who am the ring-giver3
Commanded you, my son, to action
and death. Revelry-keeper!
Here of every glorious warrior, courageous, merciful, lord-gracious.
As a thane ought to do, returned justice to where our ancient peoples drink
All men will do that which I bid.
She makes a very powerful assertion that they will obey her desires because she
is in just as high of a status as Hrothgar, and her command of speech confirms t
his. Moreover, she displays the value of doing as she says by rewarding Beowulf
for protecting their people after she had laid the responsibility on him, but sh
e also warns him that with his new status he is expected to behave in a certain
way and she will hold him accountable if he wavers from this role. She acts of h
er own accord in this section, as she does often during the prose, without the i
nfluence of Hrothgar or any man. To suggest that Wealtheow is acting as a mere i
nstrument of Hrothgar is to ignore the weight of her words and her clear authori
ty over Beowulf and the other warriors in the hall.
The influence that women have transcends the queen of Hrothgar, specifically in
the case of the peace-weaver wives as portrayed by Freawaru. Peace or discord du
e to a peace-weaver s influence on politics and the amount of gravity that is best
owed upon this position cannot be overstated. The pace-weaver existed as a woman

who was married to a man of position in a different clan in order to create a b


ond between the two families. War is something to be avoided in Beowulf, somethi
ng that nearly every character treats heavily: Hrothgar speaks of Beowulf s father
instigating a feud between clans and they conceded to him to forgo invasion as
well as recalling with sorrow the days when his houses and other were bathed in
blood and the poet comments on Hildeburh s loss as being a sorrowful circumstance
that no one would wish another kinsman to endure. The entire purpose of the Beow
ulf epic is to show how he restored calm to the kingdom of Hrothgar from the mon
sters who kill without distinction. The deaths of any members of the clan are ta
ken seriously because every life is worth something and the figures that are abl
e to stave off feuds and death are women as peace-weavers. Nevertheless, the pri
stine argument for peace-weavers are that the exist in a patriarchal system whic
h only allows women a pretense of authority, or that they are just figureheads o
f peace without doing anything significant to ensure it. However, this stance gr
eatly diminishes the valued role of a freouwebbe, a peace-weaver. Since women ser
ve as the central power that can determine peace or discord, even Beowulf exalts
:
t he mid y wife wlfha dl,
scca gesette. Oft seldan hwr
fter leodhryre lytle hwile
bongar buge, eah seo bryd duge!
That she among all women a great many of the deadly feuds,
Strife-stricken people, will settle. Too seldom when
After the fall of a people curtails awhile
A spear bends down, through that bride gifts.4
Without the position of these women there are feuds that must be fought, people
who die, because a treaty cannot be established. Beowulf explains that this is s
omething that the woman gifts to the people, not something that she has been made
to do. A woman is the key to mending these disputes. They are far from backgroun
d ornamentation, but characters who carry the weight of their social and politic
al positions both symbolically and realistically.
Furthermore, the importance of women s roles is shown in the dichotomy between Hyg
d and Thryth. Hygd is heralded as being wise-minded, distinguished/ through few w
inters/ Within the castle walls. . . (wis, welungen, eah e wintra lyt under burhloca
n gebiden hbbe) and goodness famed, her life she lived in high-love for all manki
nd (gode mre, lifgesceafta lifigende breac, hiold heahlufan wi hlea brego). She has m
ade a peaceful court and country with her political presence, which is in contra
st to Thryth who displays
ne bi swylc cwnlic aw
idese t efnanne ah e ho anlicu s
tte freouwebbe fores onsace

Such queenly habit


Is not for a woman to perform, though she be matchless
That peace-weaver far denies life.
In a world where the survival of kin is paramount, one who produces discord can
unravel a stable society while a peace-weaver woman can strengthen ties between
communities. Yet the Hygd is also shown as holding power when she delivers the k
ingdom of the Gears to Beowulf: There Hygd bade him hoard and kingdom, ring and t
hrone; she did not trust in her child with the ancestral seat to keep steadfast
when Hygelac was dead. (r him Hygd gebead hord ond rice, beagas ond bregostol; bear
ne ne truwode, t he wi lfylcum eelstolas healdan cue, a ws Hygelac dead). Doubting he
wn son s ability, she offers the position to Beowulf of her own volition in order
to keep her kin safe. In Beowulf, Wealtheow and Hygd exemplify this ideal of wom
an as a relative equal to men, a peace-maker, and a wise leader.

This ideal is contrasted with the presence of Grendel s mother and Thryth. These w
omen exert physical strength and violence over less aggressive means. They are h
ostile, do not welcome guests, and use irrational violence in order to settle di
sputes. Thryth is presented as a princess who used to kill the men who came into
her hall and it is commented that this is unacceptable, even by someone who is
beautiful. Grendel s mother also attacks without discrimination, as she does with
Beowulf. Yet there is a difference between the two women in that Thryth is conne
cted through lineage and Grendel s mother is not. Thryth is the daughter of a king
; she has social status, and can change through the influence of society via her
marriage: famous for good things, used well her life while she had it, held high
love with that chief of heroes. . . (lifgesceafta lifgende breac, hiold heahlufa
n wi hlea brego). Unlike Thryth, Grendel s mother is much more dangerous because she
functions outside of society, so terrorizing the warriors when she enters the ha
ll that they do not even don their armor before taking up their weapons. Her lac
k of lineage and loyalty is fearsome because she seeks to disrupt the ability fo
r the society to thrive.
But it is not just Grendel s mother s otherness that causes Hrothgar s unease, it is a
lso her refusal to follow even the basic societal expectations, the wergild (lit
. man-gold), or vengeance, in this case. The wergild existed as a form of repara
tion for killing. In the Laws of Aethelbert, the wergild is a way for which a se
nse of justice can exist without further bloodshed. If one has killed another me
mber of society, then they would have to pay a certain amount of money depending
on the status of the victim and after the kinsman are paid the accused is then
considered to have done what is proper. Knowing this, we can then look to how Gr
endel and his mother are described as having no settling of money:/ Nor did any c
ounselor have hope to expect noble reparation from the killer s hands (fea ingian, n
e r nnig witena wenan orfte beorhtre bote to banan folmum). What makes the villains
so terrible is their indiscriminate killing without reason and reparation. It is
clear that there is a great weight placed on human life and even the most antag
onistic member of society would still be expected to function and perform their
part within the community. Life was not taken lightly, and someone who died befo
re their time was grieved for. Thus, Grendel s mother s attack on Hrothgar s hall is h
er attempt to gain retribution for Beowulf killing her son, albeit in an immoral
way:
Grendeles modor,
siode sorhfull; sunu dea fornam,
wighete Wedra. Wif unhyre5
hyre bearn gewrc, beorn acwealde
ellenlice; r ws schere,
frodan fyrnwitan feorh ugenge.
Grendel s mother,
Journeyed in sorrow; her son s death consumed
Her need to bring hate. The fierce woman
Took toll for her child, she daringly killed in blindness
The noble; that was Aeschere, wise counselor life departing.

She then takes the man, Hrothgar s counselor, with her In her fiendish embrace unde
r the mountain-stream./That was for Hrothgar the most grievous of the affliction
s/ The leader of the folk had long attained (leofne mannan; hio t lic tbr feondes fmum
under firgenstream. t ws Hrogare hreowa tornost ara e leodfruman lange begeate). When
this is compared to the way in which Beowulf enacts the wergild, he is seen as f
irst answering the call of Hrothgar and indulging the lord so that he might kill
the beast. In Beowulf s actions there is a sense of some small justice that he ha
s come to the land in order to create peace due to the years the land has suffer
ed, but Grendel is indiscriminate, much like Grendel s mother, and kills for the s
ake of it. Beowulf, on the other hand, kills the two in order to restore balance

to Hrothgar. It is in Grendel s mother s failure to adhere to the proper wergild la


w that makes her a threat to the society, not her gender, which makes her a beas
t. Furthermore, it appears that only more modern versions of Beowulf depict them
as monsters as the original text relates to us that they are only fiends and ve
ngeance-ridden people. Like animals, they are given no voice in the tale because
they have long since lost their societal right to speak as one s voice is directl
y connected to how much power they have. They are killing without reason in a cu
lture that values life and it is their exile that makes them beast-like, not the
ir physical appearance.
The women in Beowulf are the representatives of an Anglo-Saxon culture that put
value upon all members of the community regardless of gender. As the revaluation
shows, the perspective that the men have of the women is especially favorable a
nd not at all as dominant as would be believed. It is thus that a reading of Beo
wulf should warrant a contextual judgment with regards to the role of women rath
er than relying solely on the liberal modern adaptations.
References
Klaeber, F. (2008). Klaeber s Beowulf. Ed. Fulk, R.D., Bjork, Robert, and Niles, J
ohn.Boston. New York: Heath & Co
Oliver, Lisi. (2002). The Laws of Aethelbert. The Beginnings of English Law. Tor
onto: University of Toronto Press.
Ringer, Dick.(2005). Beowulf: A New Translation for Oral Delivery. Madison: Univ
ersity of Wisconsin-Madison. Web.2 Jan 2012. >
1.) All Old English quotes are taken from F. Kraeber, Klaeber s Beowulf, edited by
Fulk, R.D., Bjork, Robert, and Niles, John (2008) and all Modern English transl
ations by the author.
2.) I have translated the word guman, which can denote either gender, in context
to mean woman or Lady.
3.) Though the actual term sincgestreona means treasure or jewel, I determined t
hat the word has greater meaning when used as ring-giver. Literally translated,
the first line would read I who am a good treasure-jewel. Wealtheow is proclaiming
her position within the society as a giver of gifts and of her power as a conso
rt and, given the context, ring-giver is an appropriate translation
4.) The fact that Beowulf specifically uses the words eah seo bryd duge! indicate
s the high respect that he has for the peace-weavers.
5.) Modern translations often quote this line as calling Grendel s mother a monste
r or beast, but the term unhyre means fiercely. Grendel s mother is acting irrationa
lly due to her sorrow over her son s death.

The Social Centrality of Women in Beowulf: A New Context


By Dorothy Carr Porter
Western Michigan University

ABSTRACT: This paper examines the roles of the women in Beowulf, focusing on tho
se of hostess, peaceweavers, and monsters. When read through an anthropological
lens, Beowulf presents the female characters as being central both in the story

itself and in the society presented in the poem.


Contents:
Introduction
Wealhtheow and Hygd: Woman as Hostess
Hildeburh and Freawaru: Woman as Peaceweaver
Grendel's Mother and Thryth: Woman as Monster

In her 1995 book article "The Women of Beowulf: A Context for Interpretation," G
illian R. Overing writes that "[t]he women in Beowulf, whether illegitimate mons
ters or pedigreed peaceweaving queens, are all marginal, excluded figures . . ."
[1]. In this article, Overing's approach is that of a literary critic, and alth
ough valuable for Beowulf studies (and required reading for anyone interested in
the women in Beowulf) she fails to take into account possible anthropological a
pproaches to the text. Read within the context of the society presented in the t
ext, it is clear that the women are central and important to the poem as a whole
. This paper will not take issue with Overing's article or approach to the sourc
es, but instead analyze these women in a complementary, anthropological fashion.
Through these discussions I will show that, when read carefully, Beowulf presen
ts the female characters as women central both to the story itself and within th
e society presented in the poem, and far from "marginal, excluded figures".
Let us first examine the major female characters. There are six women in Beowulf
who have major roles: Wealhtheow, Hygd, Freawaru, Hildeburh, Grendel's mother,
and Thryth, all of whom can be combined in corresponding pairs[2], and in this w
ay I will examine the role of these women. Wealhtheow and Hygd are both queens a
nd, as hostesses, they both exert influence in the hall (usually thought of as a
masculine enclave), influence that does not always coincide with the wishes of
their husbands. The first section will present Wealhtheow and Hygd as hostesses,
discussing their place in the structure of the court society shown in the poem,
a society that focuses on the hall and the words that are spoken within the hal
l. Hildeburh and Freawaru are both failed peaceweavers, Hildeburh in the past ti
me of the poem and Freawaru in the future. "Peaceweaver" is a term in modern sch
olarship reserved for a woman married into one group from another, in an attempt
to weave peace among them. As peaceweavers, these women have the potential to h
old influence in both groups - potential which does not come to fruition for rea
sons that will be discussed in the second section, which will present Hildeburh
and Freawaru as peaceweavers, discuss the effect of tribal loyalties on their ma
rriages, and examine the general practice of peaceweaving. Grendel's mother and
Thryth are both women of a monstrous type who are eventually "tamed", through de
ath and marriage, respectively. These monstrous women serve as counter-examples
of both the hostesses and the peaceweavers. The third and final section will pre
sent Grendel's Mother and Thryth as counter-examples of hostesses and peaceweave
rs; perhaps they can be considered hostile hostesses and strife-weavers.

I. Wealhtheow and Hygd: Woman as Hostess


First, let us examine Wealhtheow and Hygd, their actions, and how the poet descr
ibes them. They are both illustrated using positive terms that stress their prud
ence. Wealhtheow is "mindful of customs," (613), "of excellent heart" (624; can
also be translated as "mature of mind"), and "sure of speech" (624), while Hygd
is "wise and well-taught" (1927) [3]. The primary function of these women within
the story is that of hostess: they carry the cup of mead around the hall and of
fer it to the warriors. This appears to be a relatively unimportant function unt

il one reads carefully and examines how this duty is carried out. In Wealhtheow'
s first scene (612-641), after taking up the cup she first offers it to Hrothgar
. After Hrothgar drinks she takes the cup to all his retainers until finally she
reaches Beowulf. She greets him, he reasserts his promise, made in a previous s
cene, to rid the Danes of Grendel, and Wealhtheow, satisfied, returns to her sea
t.

Comparing Wealhtheow's second scene (1162-1231) to her first scene shows some of
the importance of the queen's cup-carrying practice. Again Wealhtheow first app
roaches Hrothgar, who is sitting next to his nephew, but next instead of carryin
g the cup to all the other retainers she delivers it directly to Beowulf, who ha
s been seated with her sons. This difference may show that Beowulf has risen in
status in the court since he kept his promise to kill Grendel. However, it also
calls attention to the parallel between the story that has just been told about
Hildeburh and the death of her sons and brother and Wealhtheow's own sons and th
eir uncle. But because the function of this change is unclear in the text itself
, it is helpful to look to other sources for a possible answer.

Michael J. Enright, in the first chapter of his book Lady with a Mead Cup, discu
sses the place of women in the political society of the Germanic warband, making
special reference to those scenes in Beowulf involving Wealhtheow [4]. Enright
argues that, because she always offers the cup to Hrothgar first, Wealhtheow is
an extension of and a support for his kingly power. He cites another Old English
poem, Maxims I, that seems to confirm this argument. The section that he cites
discusses the nobleman's ideal wife, how "at mead drinking she must at all times
and places approach the protector of princes first, in front of the companions,
quickly pass the first cup to her lord's hand . . ." [5]. The order of serving
is then directly tied into the rankings within the warband. This argument makes
sense in reference to the scenes in question: in the second scene, Wealhtheow se
rves Beowulf after Hrothgar as a representation of his newly earned status withi
n the band.

Hygd, the other woman who plays the role of hostess in Beowulf, has a much small
er part. She is described as moving through the hall, carrying the cup, but no o
rder is given for her rounds (1980- 1983. "The daughter of Hreth passed through t
he hall, cared for the people, bore the cup to the hand of the hero"). The poet
does not say whether or when she delivered to cup to Hygelac or to Beowulf. Cons
idering the above argument for the importance of order in the cup-distribution,
it seems that the lack of that information in the case of Hygd is just as import
ant as the information included at Heorot. In the scenes involving Wealhtheow, B
eowulf is a stranger in a rival hall, so it is necessary for Hrothgar to show hi
s power. The poet illustrates this power through the passing around of the cup,
and Beowulf knows that, because the king receives the cup first, he is the maste
r of the hall. However, because Beowulf has returned to his own hall and to his
own lord, there is no need for Hygelac to show that he is the master. We know th
at Beowulf is Hygelac's thegn: that is how he is first introduced in the poem (H
igelaces egn, 194).

These examples of Wealhtheow and Hygd show them as instruments of the kings in t
he hall. Enright does disservice to them, however, by focusing only on their fun
ction as extensions of their husbands. Although he concludes that Wealhtheow's p
osition as cup-bearer and supporter of the king gives her some power within the

structure of the warband, Enright argues against her and other women in her posi
tion having a significant influence on politics. He does not take seriously enou
gh the words spoken by Wealhtheow to Hrothgar and Beowulf during the celebration
of Grendel's death (lines 1161-1187 and 1216-1231). In her speech to Hrothgar,
Wealhtheow urges him to be gracious (gld) to Beowulf and the Geats, but not to ma
ke him heir to the Danish kingdom (as she has heard he wishes to do) (1175-1180)
. Instead, she asks him to take Hrothulf (Hrothgar's nephew) as his heir, to hol
d the kingdom for her sons (1180-1187). In this act, Wealhtheow is actively prot
ecting her own interests, and the poet gives no indication that her words were i
gnored or not accepted into consideration by Hrothgar [6]. Her words to Beowulf
reflect the same concerns. First, she urges him to accept the gift she has just
given him, a ring (beag), illustrating her own graciousness and generosity [7].
She then praises his deeds and urges him to be kind to her sons, reminding him o
f the truth and loyalty that exist in Heorot. Her final words illustrate her sel
f-confidence: "the troop, having drunk at my table, will do as I bid" (1231). Ag
ain, the poet gives no reason for us to believe that her demands will go unheede
d [8].

Hygd also held at least some political power, and this is shown most clearly whe
n she attempts to deliver the kingdom of the Geats to Beowulf following Hygelac'
s death on the battlefield, in effect passing over her own son, Heardred. The po
et says, "Hygd offered him [Beowulf] the hoard and kingdom, rings and royal thro
ne; she did not trust that her son could hold the ancestral seat against foreign
hosts, now that Hygelac was dead" (2369-2372). Perhaps she is acting as an exte
nsion of her husband's power (as she does during the cup distribution in the hal
l), doing what he would have wished her to do. However the poet does not say tha
t she is acting on anyone's authority but her own - apparently it is Hygd and Hy
gd alone who does not believe her son is strong enough to hold the kingdom. Jane
marie Luecke has examined historical and anthropological evidence and concludes
that the social arrangement in Beowulf, though patrilineal, dimly reflects the m
atrilineal (the bloodline descending through the mother's line) and matrilocal (
the household centered around women as opposed to men) organization of early Ger
manic society [9]. Stephen O. Glosecki (in an article reprinted in this issue) a
grees that there are many references in Anglo-Saxon sources in general, Beowulf
in particular, that may "persist as reflexes of a totemic system in which the ba
sic exogamous group was both matrilineal and matrilocal" [10]. The lineage is tr
aced through the women: a man belongs to his mother's line, and his son belongs
to 'his' mother's line, not his father's. This would create a system of inherita
nce quite different from the later medieval system of primogeniture. In the tote
mic system, "if the father bequeathed his ancestral wealth and status upon his s
on, this patrimony would pass out of his own natal clan and into the matriclan o
f his affines" [11]. To avoid passing his ancestral wealth into another family,
then, the father must choose another male relation related to his own mother thr
ough another female relation. The closest relation in this case would be the son
of a sister (this relationship will be dealt with in greater detail in the next
section), and, although referred to many times as the son of his father, Ecgthe
ow, Beowulf is also the son of Hygelac's sister. Return then to Beowulf and Hygd
, and take into account the possibility of a reflexive totemic system. One can s
uggest that Hygd wishes to keep the kingdom in her husband's family, not because
she or her deceased husband doubted the abilities of Heardred, but because the
totemic system prescribes that it should be so.

II. Hildeburh and Freawaru: Woman as Peaceweaver

Let us now move from a discussion of relations within a group to that of relatio
ns between groups. A good place to begin this discussion is with an examination
of the term "peaceweaver" and its use in Old English literature. It is commonly
believed that the term freothuwebbe, "peaceweaver," is most often applied to wom
en given in marriage in order to secure peace among enemy or rival peoples [12].
Freothwebbe, however, is only used three times in the Old English corpus, and L
arry M. Sklute has thus concluded that the term "does not necessarily reflect a
Germanic custom of giving a woman in marriage to a hostile tribe in order to sec
ure peace. Rather it is a poetic metaphor referring to the person whose function
it seems to be to perform openly the action of making peace by weaving to the b
est of her art a tapestry of friendship and amnesty" [13]. Using this definition
, in their courtly functions both Wealhtheow and Hygd can be called freothuwebbe
[14], and in fact Wealhtheow is referred to using a similar term, frithu-sibb f
olca (2017, peace-pledge of the nations). Although Sklute does not see a differe
nce in the way the terms freothuwebbe and frithu-sibb are used in Beowulf, John
Hill describes a distinction hinging on the second element in the compounds, "we
aving concord in contrast to kinship peace alliance." Thus, Wealhtheow acts as b
oth. "As a link between two peoples, Wealhtheow is obviously the latter [i.e., f
rithu-sibb]; as a personage in the hall she is the former [i.e freothuwebbe]" [1
5]. Though I use the modern English term "peaceweaver" for Hildeburh and Freawar
u I want it to be clear that I am referring to their functions as frithu-sibb, w
omen given in marriage as a peacekeeping force between rival groups.

The story of Hildeburh is told by a scop in Heorot following Beowulf's defeat of


Grendel (1071- 1158). She was the daughter of the king of the Danes and was mar
ried off to Finn, king of the Jutes. In one respect she succeeded in her duty: s
he had at least one son, a representation of the mingling of the blood between t
he two tribes [16]. Unfortunately the match did not keep the tribes from fightin
g, and Hildeburh ended up losing her son, brother, and husband, and was taken ba
ck to her people, the Danes. Far from being simply a geomuru ides (mournful woma
n, 1075), Hildeburh and her position of being pulled, as it were, between two lo
yalties, is central in the story. The scop narrates the story in relation to her
: the story begins and ends with her, and she is mentioned in the middle. Except
perhaps for Hengest, the story tells us more about Hildburh's viewpoint than th
at of anyone else.

Reading from an anthropological point of view, Hildeburh's story illustrates the


conflict between the peaceweaver's marriage tribe and birth tribe, and an answe
r (at least within the society of the poem) of which one was to take precedence.
After the first battle, the one in which Hildeburh's son and brother are killed
, the scop says, "blameless she was deprived of her dear ones at the shield-play
, of son and brother; wounded by spears they fell to their fate. That was a mour
nful woman" (1072- 1075). The poet does not mention any grief resulting from the
death of her husband, nor does he register any wish on her part that the murder
s of son and brother not be avenged. This indicates Hildeburh's continuing close
relationship to her birth people [17]. If Hildeburh's loyalties were naturally
with her people, then she would naturally mourn for those folks who shared her b
lood. Also, at the end of the story, Hildeburh returns to her people (leodum) that is, the Danes. Although she was married into a non-Danish tribe (we do not
know for how long - at least long enough to have a child of fighting age), she i
s still considered a Danish queen, and the Danes still think of her as one of th
eir own [18].

The story of Hildeburh offers a doorway into discussion of an issue near to that

of matrilocality and matrilinity mentioned above in relation to Hygd: that of t


he closeness between a woman's sons and her brother (SiSo-MoBr). This issue is d
iscussed in detail by Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr., who examines SiSo-MoBr in non-litera
ry sources, as well as in Beowulf, and even suggests that Wiglaf is the son of B
eowulf's sister [19]. Throughout Beowulf, the poet emphasizes this special relat
ionship. Beowulf and Hygelac, one pair of SiSo-MoBr, are mentioned in detail abo
ve. Hildeburh is the one sister and mother in Beowulf who is active as the conne
ction between her male sibling and child. Hildeburh's brother, Hnf, and her son a
re killed in battle, and the poet does not say whether her son was fighting with
his father or his uncle. He does say that, after Hnf's pyre is built and his bod
y set upon it, Hildeburh has her son laid with him and they are cremated togethe
r. "Then Hildeburh commanded at Hnf's pyre that her own son be consigned to the f
lames to be burnt, flesh and bone, placed on the pyre at his uncle's shoulder .
. ." (1114-1117). Through this action, Hildeburh emphasizes that her son is hers
, not her husband's. Her son is to be associated with his uncle, her brother, an
d the Danish people.

Freawaru plays a much smaller role in the poem than Hildeburh [20]. After Beowul
f returns to Hygelac he tells a story of perceived insult and revenge surroundin
g the marriage of Hrothgar's daughter to Ingeld, son of Froda, king of the Heath
obards, whom the Danes have defeated in the past. The plan of marriage is clearl
y one of peaceweaving (2026-2029). Beowulf's description of Freawaru is fairly i
ncidental to the story; she mainly serves as a way of introduction to the confli
ct. He tells how she went about the court, offering the cup to warriors [21]. He
then describes what he fears the outcome of her marriage will be. At the feast
following the wedding, an aging warrior will recognize the Heathobard treasures
being carried by the Danes and will urge the younger thanes to battle, and not e
ven the finest bride will be able to stop them (2029-2031). Though Freawaru's pa
rt in all this is admittedly quite small, she is nevertheless a character centra
l to the story.

III. Grendel's Mother and Thryth: Woman as Monster


The final pair of women, Grendel's Mother and Thryth, are two very different typ
es of monsters who act as counter-examples to the hostesses and peaceweavers. Fi
rst, they act in a more masculine manner than do the other women. Rather than us
ing words or marriage to exert influence, they use physical strength and weapons
. They do not welcome visitors into their homes. They are hostile hostesses, "us
ing the sword to rid their halls of intruders or unwanted "hall-guests"" [22]. T
hey are strife-weavers who are content to use violence to settle their disputes.
Thryth was a princess who used to kill the men who came into her hall. The poet
comments that this sort of behavior, even by a beautiful queen, should not be t
olerated (1940-1943). Grendel's mother also attacks anyone who would come into h
er hall, as she did with Beowulf. Both women are finally tamed, Thryth by her ma
rriage to Offa, and Grendel's mother by the death inflicted upon her by Beowulf
[23]. Grendel's mother and Thryth, however, are also very different from each ot
her, much more different than either Wealhtheow and Hygd or Hildeburh and Freawa
ru.

Thryth is an evil woman, guilty of terrible crimes (firen ondrysne), but neverth
eless she is also described as a famous folk queen (fremu folces cwen) [24], lad
y (idese), and even peaceweaver (freothu-webbe) [25], which she decidedly is not
. These descriptive terms illustrate one major difference between Thryth and Gre
ndel's mother: Thryth functions within society. As the daughter of a king she ha

s social status, and although her actions are not praiseworthy the poet does not
condemn her as a person. She is also capable of change through the influence of
society. After her marriage, a social event, her attitude changes. "She caused
less calamity to the people, less malicious evil . . . famous for good things, [
she] used well her life while she had it, held high love with that chief of hero
es . . ." (1946-1947 and 1953-1954).

Throughout her story, Grendel's mother is described as an evil, masculine, monst


rous woman, and never with such positive terms as are used in reference to Thryt
h. She is described as a monster woman (or perhaps warrior-woman, aglc-wif, 1259)
[26], greedy, grim minded (gifre ond galg- mod, 1277), and is associated with t
he descendents of Cain (1260-1268), the ultimate (and first) evil human. She is
also referred to using a term always used in reference to female humans, never a
nimals, and usually reserved for noble women: ides (1351). The use of this term
indicates that Grendel's mother, though she is in some way cursed by God, and mo
nstrous, is nevertheless a human [27]. This fact brings up some problems related
to her ability to avenge the death of her son. As it is stated at the beginning
of the poem, Grendel and his mother are outcasts from society (106-114) and the
refore, perhaps, are not held to the same societal expectations as other people.
For example, Grendel is described as being unwilling (or unable) to receive tre
asure from the king because God, who banished Cain from humankind, likewise bani
shed his offspring (168- 169 ) [28]. However a few lines earlier the poem says t
hat Grendel did not wish to end the killing by a payment of wergild (154-158). P
erhaps the banishment was in fact partially self-inflicted. In any case, some sc
holars have used these reasons to argue that Grendel and his mother were not con
sidered as subject to the laws of society and were therefore unable to participa
te in the laws concerning wergild and vengeance killing [29]. Other scholars, fr
om the evidence of the text itself, have argued that Grendel's mother was capabl
e of and even respected for attempting to avenge her son [30]. Through my own fa
miliarity with the text I am inclined to agree with those scholars who view Gren
del's mother as law abiding, if not fully accepted by society, in her search for
justice.

Grendel's mother, despite the poet's own words (1282-1284), is a hardier opponen
t than her son was, and she is certainly physically capable of carrying out her
desired vengeance. Compare her entry into Heorot with that of Grendel [31]. Alth
ough when she approaches the hall Grendel's mother is frightened and wishes to l
eave as soon as possible, her presence has a stronger influence on the sleeping
thanes than does Grendel's (1279-1295). When Grendel first enters Heorot (115-12
5) he takes 30 men, and yet his work is not discovered until the next morning. I
n his second entry (720- 749), he tears the door open and walks into the middle
of a room filled with sleeping warriors. Not only were they able to sleep despit
e their knowledge that he was coming, they also apparently sleep through the des
truction of the door. Grendel is able to grab one man and almost grab another be
fore Beowulf begins their battle. It is only then that the sleeping thanes awake
. When Grendel's mother enters, however, her mere presence awakens the men. Ther
e is no warning, they did not know that she was coming (as far as they knew, dan
ger died with Grendel), and the poet gives no indication that she made any noise
when she came into the hall. The warriors, however, wake immediately. "She reac
hed Heorot, where the Ring-Danes slept throughout the building; sudden turnabout
came to men, when Grendel's mother broke into the hall" (1279-1282). They are s
eized by a terror (broga) and do not even think of donning armor before they gra
b their weapons (1290-1291). This is only one example of the contrast evident be
tween Grendel and his mother [32].

Through this short analysis of the roles of the women in Beowulf, I have endeavo
red to show the centrality of female characters to the poem. In the form of the
work, the presentation of these women is purposefully symmetrical, inviting comp
arisons and contrasts. Those women who act as hostesses and peaceweavers, even w
hile looking out for their own interests, are central to the poem, and an unders
tanding of the functions of the women in Beowulf assists the comprehension of a
complex poem. Those women presented as monsters, the hostile hostesses and strif
e-weavers, are interesting in themselves, and also serve as counter-examples to
the other female characters. A thorough investigation of the relationships betwe
en the women and their men uncovers possibilities of a matrilineal undercurrent
in the culture of Beowulf, which may indicate a dim memory of a pagan Germanic p
ast for the Anglo-Saxon poet. Though they are all defined by the men that they a
re close to, either sons, fathers, or brothers, none of the women in Beowulf are
marginal or excluded
Throughout the history of literature, female characters are often side character
s that do not get much recognition from readers. Further analysis of male-centri
c works, reveals that women play central roles in literature regardless of the p
roximity to the protagonist (oftentimes, male) who is struggling with internal a
nd external conflicts. Many of these conflicts in literature lead to significant
analysis of the moral fabric that defines such a character. For example, the ep
ic of "Beowulf" is revered for its accounts of heroism and male comradery. Beowu
lf is a courageous hero who defeats three monsters for the sake of a nearby coun
try. The women in "Beowulf" are overlooked; however, a close examination of the
poetry demonstrates that the women play roles that are central to the story and
to that of society. Three major women play integral roles throughout the epic: W
ealhtheow, Grendel's Mother, and Hildeburh. These women entertain, bring peace,
and contradict societal expectations of the female gender, either directly or in
directly. The epic of "Beowulf" illustrates three major roles for the women in t
he society: the hostess, the peacemaker, and the monster.
The peacemaker is a pivotal role played by the women throughout the epic of "Beo
wulf." As a peacemaker, the woman is responsible for uniting tribes (warring or
not) and maintaining solid relations between these groups. The strongest model o
f the peacemaker in "Beowulf," is Hildeburh, the Danish princess who was married
off to the King of Jutes. Hildeburh is a gift from the Danes to the Jutes in ho
pes to bring peace between the countries and establish an alliance. According to
Nicole Smith, she claims that Hildeburh's main job as a "happily confined" quee
n is to act as a "mediator and a departure from male dominated activities and re
lationships," which means that she eases tensions that may arise between men. Fu
rthermore, when Hildeburh's brother of Danes and son of Jutes perish in a battle
in which they are enemies, she stresses that they be burned together (Beowulf l
ines 1070-1185). Her desire to burn enemies together demonstrates an act of join
ing the opposed forces regardless of the alliances. Although the marriage did no
t bring peace to these groups of people, Hildeburh fulfilled her duty as a peace
weaver by maintaining loyalties with her homeland and the land of her husband's.
In addition to the peacemaker, the queen in "Beowulf" acts as hostess to the men
of the land. It is important to note that the hostess does not solely serve the
men; rather she is the instrument that reaffirms social customs and publicly es
tablishes the status of the men who are in the presence of the king. Wealhtheow,
the queen of Daneland and wife of Hrothgar completes these duties in the mead h
all when the warriors are dining with the king. For example, Wealhtheow establis
hes a warrior's status by using the cup of mead. She carries the cup of mead sta
rting with the king and then to the warriors. In the first scene, she serves Beo
wulf last since he had just arrived in Daneland. However, in lines 1162-1231, sh
e serves Beowulf directly after serving her husband. The act of the cup demonstr
ates that Beowulf has earned his right to sit beside the king, as though he were
a Dane himself (Porter 1). Furthermore, the hostess holds political power in th

e hall. Wealhtheow demonstrates this power by publicly requesting to the King th


at he not allow Beowulf to be the heir to the throne, but to remember that her s
ons are the rightful heirs to such a position (Beowulf, lines 1180-1191). She is
confident that the King will abide by these social customs and there is no repr
imand or indication in the poem that her wishes will not be granted (Porter 1).
Beowulf does become the king; however, he only holds the place until the sons ar
e old enough to fulfill their duty as king. The hostess becomes the voice of rea
son; she is responsible for upholding the socials customs of her country when al
l of the warriors have forgotten the importance of these codes.
Unlike the peacemaker and the hostess, the female monster embodies masculine ene
rgy and counteracts the social expectations of a woman in society. The most impo
rtant female monster in "Beowulf" is Grendel's mother who depicts the aforementi
oned behaviors. First, the female monster uses physical force and violence to so
lve conflict. For example, Grendel's mother is viewed as evil and monstrous; she
attacks anyone that enters her cave without reason (Beowulf lines 1259-1260). G
rendel's mother is a "hostile hostess" who uses "the sword to rid her hall...of
unwanted hall guests" (Porter 2). The behavior is masculine and demonstrates tha
t the female monster does not solve conflict with words and marriage (like the p
eacemakers and hostesses), but with physical action. This male behavior accordin
g to the poet should never be tolerated regardless of social status (Beowulf lin
es 1940-1943). Moreover, the female monster exhibits unexpected masculine energy
by engaging in the customs assigned to a warrior. In this society, only men see
k vengeance, therefore a woman that does so is considered villainous for disobey
ing the expected behavior of a female in civilized society. After the death of h
er son, Grendel's mother goes on a "sorrowful journey to avenge her slain son" (
Beowulf lines 1276-78). Smith claims that "her role as an avenger" makes her a d
isturbing and "grotesque" for her ability "to carry out the male dominated act o
f revenge." Seeking vengeance is not acceptable as a female. Her actions make he
r an outcast, a monster to the village because she does not fulfill her female d
uties. These qualities in a woman during this time classify her as a monster.
The epic of "Beowulf" is lined with heroic men seeking vengeance, ruling halls,
and fighting battles. The women in the story are expected to fulfill duties that
best serve the men of the land. The importance of the roles that women adapt in
the story is underestimated. Many of the women have more power than one would e
xpect during this time. The roles are central to the story and in maintaining a
civilized society. The hostess serves as a political instrument that brings hosp
itality and order to the land, while the peacemaker weaves herself between lands
to form alliances. At last, the monster is a complex female that opposes the so
cial expectations of a female and utilizes the law of man to solve problems. The
poet does not exalt the women in the story for their influence over men, howeve
r, it should be considered to full grasp the purpose of the actions taken throug
hout the epic.
- See more at: http://www.thedomesticbeast.com/write/beowulf-roles-of-women#stha
sh.ztjcstuI.dpuf