“That was a good class”: Elemental Beowulf — Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water

I speculated to my students that Beowulf could be read in terms of the four traditional elements: earth, fire, water, and air (wind).  I associated earth with the hall Heorot sits on (though it is attacked by Grendel and his mother).  The dragon in the last third of the poem breathes fire.  Water is clearly associated with Grendel’s Mother’s lair–the mere that Beowulf must swim through to find her–and kill her.

One scholar has linked Grendel’s Mother to the fertility goddess Gefion, whom Snorri Sturluson identifies as having been a consort Scyld.

“Snorri Sturluson” by Christian Krohg (1890s)

“Snorri Sturluson” by Christian Krohg (1890s)

Frank Battaglia argues for a shift in the first millennium in South Scandinavia from the bog to the hall for the performance of religious rituals[i] and to a “new kind of coercive authority.”[ii]   The shift to a male deity[iii] from a female goddess, Battaglia argues, is latent in the text. “Grendel wanting to mark his bog retreats (450), sounds exactly like a ritual the poem is declaring to be forbidden, the use of bogs as religious sites.”[iv] It would also suggest that Grendel’s mother functions as a reminder of this natural earth goddess who is associated with watery places. The shift from natural areas to built architecture for sacred rites suggests the coming dominance of “culture” over “nature.” You can read one of Battaglia’s articles here: Battaglia Grendel_s Mother Earth Goddess


While I was musing with my students, I had a real problem deciding how wind was part of the text.  My brilliant student, Dominic, said, “The wind is in the sails that bring Beowulf’s ship to the Scyldings.” Of course!

11th century image from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

11th century image of a Viking long ship

This is why discussion is so important in class.  Insights are not generated by professors simply lecturing, but pondering with students.  Together, we discover insights into a wonderful poem like Beowulf.

Instead of “That was a good king,” we can say, “That was a good class.” When students and the professor learn.

[i] As identified by Frank Battaglia, 54. He sees her as challenging Beowulf in the sea contest.

[ii] Battaglia, 60. “Gefjun breaks away completely from this pattern of sex roles [wherein mean were free to cross social barriers to choose their sexual partners, women were not], and acts like the male gods. Could these associations the scalds did not want to evoke when they chose not to use her name? A result of that choice could if so be that her memory faded.” Else Mundal, “The Position of the Individual Gods and Goddesses in Various Types of Sources-with Special Reference to the Female Divinities,” in Old Norse and Finnish Religions and Cultic Place-Names, ed. Tore Ahlbäck (Donner Institute for Research in Religious and Cultural History: Åbo, Finnland, 1990), 294-315, here 309.

[iii] “The Beowulf poem, too, in a similar development [to Eddic poems] shows fate as controlled by one male deity.” Battaglia, 57. Of course, I see fate and God as quite distinct entities.

[iv] Frank Battaglia, “”Not Christianity versus Paganism, but Hall versus Bog: The Great Shift in Early Scandinavian Religion and Its Implications for Beowulf,” abstract in Old English Newsletter 34 (2001): 3 A51-52.


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