Posted by: nicanthiel | March 26, 2009

Seo lágu-wif (The lake-woman)

A while back, I was recommended Beowulf and Grendel: The Truth Behind England’s Oldest Legend by John Grisby. It arrived last week, and I finished it over the weekend. I just want to talk about some things that I found interesting.

The premise of the book is that Mr. Grisby believes the tale of Beowulf is more than just a pretty story. He uses the examples of Troy and others to show that many legends, particularly epics, have historical roots, and postulates the same for Beowulf. What he feels the true nature of the poem is is a remembrance of  a time when two pagan culti were in conflict, immortalised in the mythology of the early Danish/English peoples – specifically, a cult of ritual sacrifice based around grain-agriculture and associated with lakes and bogs, being taken over by a warrior cult. It is fairly obvious that the struggle he is referring to is probably the rising pre-eminence of the Æsir cultus over that of the Vanir in the Late Bronze and Iron Ages.

The major theory in the book is that the first cultus (I’ll call it the Vanir for ease, and Æsir for the other) was an elaborate ritual system among Neolithic farming peoples in Europe and the Near East that involved several major elements – the association of the grains with a fertility God (He mostly discusses Frey, but includes others such as Dionysos and Wesir [Osiris]) Who was yearly sacrificed by His mother/sister/consort (often the same person) after the manner of the grain harvest; the imbibing of a ritual sacred drink made from grains that caused non-ordinary experiences; and an association of sovereignty with the God’s cycle of death and renewal, where a king would be chosen and marry the land (symbolic of the Sacrificing Goddess, thus becoming a God through association), only to be sacrificed at the new year by the Goddess and Her new consort.

In the context of Beowulf, Grisby reads Grendel and his mother as the fertility spirit and the sacrificing goddess, with Hrothgar as the catalyst for the new cultus by refusing to submit to his ordained sacrificial fate, and rather attempting to set up a system of inherited kingship through his sons. He ties Beowulf to the Scandinavian Hrólfssagakraka (The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki) and the Old English poem Widsith, which have many of the same characters, and which, he feels, add elements to the story that are missing from the version in Beowulf. Beowulf himself, Grisby states, is none other than the king of the Æsir, Odin, made into a superhuman hero.

There were several things I didn’t agree with, such as his equating the Vanir with the Alfar, and certain things about his treatment of Nerthus; however, the rest gives much food for thought, including certain things about Celtic myth, and all in all, I feel that he’s on to something. I would recommend it to anyone interested in seeing a different side of English myth and history, especially religious history.

Wæs þu hál.



  1. *nods* Those were the two main things I took issue with. A friend of mine has said “The Aesir are to men what the Vanir are to the Alfar”, and while I do think the Vanir and elves are closely related, I disagree strongly with this statement. Frey being Lord of Elphame does not mean He owns the place nor the Vanir necessarily being kin to the elves.

    Other parts of the book where I took issue was saying Gerda and Idunna are the same Goddess (LOLWHUT), and as you and I have discussed elsewhere I don’t necessarily think Ing and Oengus are the same entity.

    However, it is a tendency of historians working on our lore who are not a part of our religion/s, to “miss the boat” with certain things and oversimplify what was believed. Overall, I think Grigsby’s book is good if a person has at least an intermediate understanding of Heathen cosmology, especially Vanic cosmology and theology, as his basic premise of Beowulf being a gloss for Odin (oh snap, I just did a spoiler) supplanting the cult of Nerthus glossed by Grendel’s “daemonic” mom, is sound. Every other European culture demonizes its original Gods, and we are not exempt from that ourselves.

    So, yeah, Grigsby has not so much influenced my train of thought with “Vanir cult older, Aesir cult conquered/supplanted” as it has… augumented it, confirmed a few of my suspicions particularly about Lammas and human sacrifice.

    Not that I’m condoning human sacrifice, or anything…

    …Well, perhaps for those who butcher Old English. *snerk*

    Excellent way to begin discussion on this blog, fwiw.

    -Siggy 🙂

    • Oh yes, I forgot that part.

      I really did enjoy the discussion about the Matronae, though, and have been speculating for the past several days on relations between Gefjon and Nerthus (unlike Grisby and most other mythologists, I think Gefn-Freya and Gefjon are separate individuals, but perhaps the title is a familial one?)

      • I think Gefion and Freya *are* the same Deity, for this reason: in the mythology of Gefion, She is allotted as much land as She can plough after She, uh, ploughed the king who awarded it to Her. In Lokasenna, Loki says Gefn sold Herself for a necklace. While I just got done bitching about scholars from outside our religion who will turn everyone into aspects of each other by different names, there is only so much hair-splitting you can do. Gefion and Gefn are the same name, just different spellings, like Woden and Odin are the same God. Freya and Frigga, OTOH, come from different etymological roots as do Holda and Hela. I digress. That’s my take on it ;P

        The Matronae discussion WAS good.

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