Beowulf: The Slaying of Grendel and the Water Witch

J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

Beowulf was originally written in Anglo-Saxon times as a poem in Old English by an anonymous writer.  It tells the story of its heroic protagonist, Beowulf, who embodies the much revered Anglo-Saxon qualities of strength, courage, heroism and virtuous behaviour.   It is these qualities, blended with fictional, legendary and historical elements that make Beowulf the ideal role model for the Anglo-Saxon warrior aristocracy.   Presented her is a retelling of the story after his arrival in Denmark to his triumphant return to Geatland drawn from the sources below.

Beowulf comes of Age

The story of Beowulf begins in a part of Scandinavia called Geatland that was a land of tall mountains,  narrow valleys and a long rugged coastline. It was populated by a brave and virtuous people called the Geats who were ruled over by King Hygelac and his wife Queen Hygd, the Wise and Fair.  At regular times King Hygelac would call his earls and warriors to his great hall for feasting and drinking.  These were popular and events that brought together his people from distant parts and helped bond his nation to him and each other.  At these events the stories of their valour and that of their of their ancestors were told by the bards and sometimes one of them might be called upon to tell of a heroic deed they had performed.  Young Beowulf would sit in the great hall taking in all of the stories. He was the son of the king’s sister who from a very young age had caught the eye of his uncle for his physical stature and strength. 

One night a great feast was held in the king’s hall and all of the bravest and renowned warriors and noble of Geatland gathered to enjoy the festivities.  As the evening progressed, King Hygelac stood up and introduced a visiting minstrel, whom he named as The Wanderer,  and asked him to sing a song.  The minstrel brought a stool before the king and sat down and began to play his harp.   He sang of the wild northern lands and of the forbidden mountains that were home to beasts and demons far more dangerous than any of those found in Geatland.  He told of terrible dragons and of their slaying by brave men and he told of the sea serpents and wild things of the sea.

The Song of Grendel

The song of The Wanderer began to change and took on a darker and more disturbing tone.  It told of King Hrothgar of Denmark and of the terrible calamity that had struck that land. He sang of a demon that was part animal, part man and part all terrible creatures and the name of the demon was Grendel. He told how Grendel had appeared one fearful night, twelve years ago after a great feast in the great hall of King Hrothgar that was called Hereot.  After all had ate and drank their fill and the king and queen retired to their own apartments his earls and warriors lay asleep in the great hall. As they had lain peacefully sleeping unaware of any pending peril, Grendel had come and forced aside the great door and carried away thirty of the sleeping earls, murdering and devouring them.

This had caused great sorrow throughout the land and although there had been many attempts to kill Grendel he violently defeated and killed all of his attackers showing no mercy at all.  Now no one dared to sleep in the great hall of Heorot because Grendel often visited it and wreaking his havoc wherever it was in use.  He has killed most of the young and vigorous warriors of the Danes who has dared to stand up to him and now all that remained were defenseless women, children and the elderly.   Beowulf was now completely taken with the song and a fire sprang up in him lighting up his blue eyes. As he listened he knew what he must do.  Springing from his seat he thumped the table shouting, 

“My King and Queen and earls of Geatland, in days gone by King Hrothgar of Denmark was the friend of Ecgtheow my father in his hour of need.  I, Beowulf, the son of Ecgtheow, will slay Grendel for King Hrothgar in thanks for his friendship to my father and the glory of Geatland!”

The Wanderer stopped his song and throughout the hall a silence fell.  King Hygelac stood up and commanded silence and turning to Beowulf said in a voice that all could hear,

“Beowulf your time has come to prove yourself.  You have been blessed with the strength and vitality of thirty men and you should use your powers to help everyone.  Hrothgar, our friend and neighbor has great need. Go now to Denmark and prove yourself and slay Grendel!”

King Hygelac ordered that Beowulf should be given suitable equipment for his purpose and told him to choose fourteen comrades to accompany him.  These should be such as Beowulf, young men who had come of age and in need of proving themselves.  At last suitable equipped and attired the company made their way to the harbour where a ship had been prepared.  At sunrise the next day Beowulf and his company set sail on their great adventure.

Their voyage across the sea was not to be an easy one as they sailed into a great storm. At last they came safely through and arriving on the shores of Denmark they pushed their ship up a beach.  There they met an old man who welcomed them and showed them the path to the great hall of King Hrothgar of Denmark and promised to stray and guard their ship until their return.

The Hall of King Hrothgar

Beowulf and his company followed  the path through dense forest for many miles until the came into a long valleyAt the far end of the valley stood the once fair hall of Heorot.  As they passed through the valley they saw the deserted farms and the homes of the people while all around there hung the stench of death like the very land rotted.  There was no sign of humans so Beowulf led his company onwards towards the great hall. until at last came to it gates.

Three times Beowulf knocked upon the gates and at last a frightened gatekeeper appeared and nervously asked what business they had at the hall.  Beowulf requested the man go to King Hrothgar telling him that a band of warriors from Geatland had arrived wishing to speak to him and were asking for food and lodging.

The gatekeeper hurried off and presently Beowulf saw the king approach in the company of a band of elderly warriors.  King Hrothgar was now an old man himself with a full beard of flowing white and eyes that told of days of fear and sorrow.  As he approached he opened his arms wide saying,

 “Welcome strangers,  I can see by your bearing you are friends and here on some errand to my sad and unhappy kingdom.  Therefore, speak of your errand and who you so that I may help you as I can.”

Stepping forward Beowulf loudly proclaimed, “I am Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow whom you befriended and KIng Hygelac of Geatland is my uncle.  We come to Denmark to slay the demon called Grendel and free you from his terror.”

Then Hrothgar looked long and hard at him and said, “Ecgtheow was my friend and brother-in-arms.  You and your friends are very welcome in Denmark but I warn you Grendel comes often to Heorot and is hungry for young men to devour.  Now come rest and tonight for the first time in twelve years there will be feasting in Heorot and Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful will pass to you the drinking-horn as is our tradition of friendship.”

For the first time in twelve years the great hall of Heorot was made ready for a great feast and fires were lit cooking meats of every kind.  When all was ready the king and queen arrived followed by a great company and took their seats in the hall according to rank. Their number had been greatly diminished by Grendel and now it was mostly old men who sat with the king and queen.  It was not a very joyful atmosphere for fear dwelt in the hearts of all those present of the evil of Grendel.

Queen Wealtheow Pouring Wine – J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

King Hrothgar sat at the head of the assembly with Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful.   In a place of honour below the king sat Beowulf. Beside him on the right his right sat Aescher the king’s most trusted advisor. Next to him on his left sat Unferth, whom The Wanderer had sang about that night in Geatland in his uncle’s hall.  At the word of the King the feast began and as the drinking-horns were passed around many oaths were uttered encouraging the slaying of Grendel.   It was only Beowulf’s company of Geat warriors that were joyful and as the drink flowed they began boasting of the prowess and courage of Beowulf. Aescher endorsed their praises of their leader but Unferth became increasingly sullen and silent never offering a single word of praise as was the Danish custom.

Beowulf noticed this and turning to him said, “You keep very quiet Unferth, the son of Ecglaf, tell us of your deeds of valor that we may give praise to you.  Come, tell us and then I can drink from the cup with you!”

At this Unferth stood up and slamming his fist on the table cried, “Beowulf!  Who is this Beowulf but a beardless boy who stands before us telling us he will save us from Grendel?  Who are the beardless boys who accompany him over the sea? Does anyone think that what so many good Danes have failed this stripling will succeed?  Let him and his friends return to Geatland instead of laughing at our sorrow and loss!”

Beowulf felt his anger burn hot for this was the same Unsferth the Wanderer had sung about who had not dared to fight the demon himself.  Beowulf rose, but knowing the words of his accuser to be false spoke clearly and softly without anger, “Take back your words they are dishonorable.  I come in friendship offering to rid Denmark of this vile Grendel.  Unferth, tell us of your great battle with Grendel?”

A murmur of approval of Beowulf’s words from Danes and Geats ran around the hall and KIng Hrothgar stood up and said, “Having listened to the quiet words of Beowulf I know he is a hero. There has been too much sorrow these last twelve years and makes us bitter and say things we do not mean.  Beowulf, forgive us!”

Then Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful took up a jewelled cup and filling it with wine passed it to Hrothgar who drank from it and then she took it to Beowulf.  He drank and she went around the company of Geatland and thanked them for coming to Denmark in their time of great need and asking each to drink. When they had done so she went around the king’s earls and they also drank to the king and queen and the death of Grendel.

Then the festivities were reopened with much good will from both Danes and Geats.  While the Danes praised the glory of King Hygelac and Queen Hygd, the Wise and Fair, the Geats praised KIng Hrothgar and Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful.  At last Hrothgar rose from his chair and taking his queen by the hand said,  “Now it is time for us Danes to go to our beds and leave Beowulf and his company alone and pray their sleep be untroubled.” 

He led his queen out through the great door of Heorot followed by all of his earls and retainers and the Geats were left to face the night as the great fires slowly burnt out.

The Demon Grendel

Grendel by J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

Beowulf ordered that the doors of the hall be secured and his companions made them so well no mortal man could have entered.  With the doors safe the company spread their cloaks over the benches and lay down to sleep. One of Beowulf’s favorite companions named Hondscio took it upon himself to lay next to the door vowing to be the first to do battle should Grendel choose to appear.   Soon all except Beowulf were sound asleep.  He had vowed to stay awake and lay still and quiet listening as silence crept over the hall.  He could hear the breathing of his comrades but little else.

Outside fog was forming and hiding the moon.  Slowly all sounds died away and even the wind stopped its sighing and all was silent.  As the fog crept across the land and wrapped itself around the hall, despite his vow, Beowulf became very drowsy.  He fought to stay awake but his limbs felt heavy and his eyes closed and he sank into a deep slumber.

Outside the fog thickened and completely obscured the moon and tightened its hold upon the hall.  For a second the fog parted and a gigantic black shape loomed and slowly moving towards the great hall and stood before the door in the weird light.

Inside, unaware of the horror that lay outside, Beowulf and  his company slept under the bewitchment Grendel had wrought upon them.  Beowulf fought hard to break the spell and desperately tried to crawl out of the nightmarish pit he found himself in.

Outside Grendel slowly brought his strength to bear silently pushing the door open despite its  securings. Beowulf, fighting hard, crawled from the pit and saw the door wide open and fog streaming in.  He saw the great shape of Grendel bend down and picking up the sleeping Hondscio tear his limbs from his body and now he saw clearly the nature of the demon he faced.  It resembled a gigantic but twisted and deformed man yet there was something beast like about it. Its body was covered in grey scales that rattled when it moved and a pale light flickered from its eyes.  Struggling to his feet he watched in horror and disgust as it crushed the body of Hondscio and greedily ate his remains. Then it turned its vile gaze around the hall until it fell upon Beowulf. Slowly the monster moved towards him.

Beowulf, full of loathing and disgust shook off the spell and ran at the beast.  Clashing together the two grappled to gain a hold on one another. Although the claws of Grendel were strong and dug into his flesh, Beowulf was quicker and slipped easily from his hold.  As Grendel sought to grasp, hold and tear his opponent apart, Beowulf moved quickly around him dodging his grabbing hands. While his company lay in spell induced sleep he and Grendel engaged in a deadly hand to hand fight for life. 

Grendel tried to grasp and crush the head of Beowulf who in turn evaded him and continued to seek some advantage or weak spot.  At last Grendel managed to grab Beowulf but his quick turn forced both of them to the ground and for a split second the demon experienced fear and doubt. Like a true warrior Beowulf sensed this and quickly took advantage of this lapse and managed to grasp him briefly by the throat, but its scales prevented him from taking a killing grip. 

Then Grendel thrashed out and almost gained the advantage but Beowulf grasped hold of his arm and giving a quick twist jumped behind the brute pushing it high up its back causing it to scream in agony.  The two fell to the floor and Beowulf continued to grip his arm wrenching this way and that until he felt the muscles and sinews weaken and give way and he pulled the arm free from its socket. Grendel stumbled up and through the door disappearing into the fog leaving the exhausted Beowulf clutching his severed and bleeding limb.  With the spell broken his companions awoke and gathered around in wonder and horror. 

As dawn broke people slowly appeared at the great hall to see how the Geats had fared though they expected the worse.  Soon a great crowd of people thronged the hall and they were astounded by what they saw. Hanging high from one of the roof beams was the massive severed and bloody arm of Grendel.  Upon the king’s dais stood Beowulf wearing a scarlet cloak his blue eyes flashing fire and his fair hair shining like gold like some god of old. 

King Hrothgar was sent for and quickly arrived and said, “Give thanks now to Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, to be sure, this is the end of Grendel and his terror.  Hail, to Beowulf hero of Geatland!” Then Queen Wealhtheow praised him and called on the servants to prepare a great feast. The celebrations went on all day and into the night and Beowulf was greatly honored by all.

Vengeance of the Water Witch

Beowulf and the Water Witch by J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

The next day a  messenger rushed in his face white with fear, body shaking and eyes wild and kneeling before the king said in a trembling voice,   “Sire, I have just run as fast as I could from Heorot;  The good and wise Aescher has been most terribly murdered.  His head has been severed from his body and his limbs crushed to a pulp.”

With that Hrothgar and Wealhtheow, accompanied by Beowulf, hastened to the great hall. They found the mangled remains of Aescher amid a scene of great destruction and the severed arm of Grendel had been removed.  Queen Wealhtheow cried, “This is the revenge of Grendel’s mother.  In our gladness at the defeat of Grendel we had forgotten her evil presence.  Unless she too is slain she will wreak unending devastation upon us. Beowulf, we implore you to hunt her down and slay her too!”

On hearing  this Beowulf called his company to him saying, “Come, let us finish this evil once and for all before night comes,” and begged Hrothgar for horses and hounds to hunt down the monster.  Then Unferth, stepped forward from the crowd and said, “Beowulf, I am put to shame that I have ever doubted you.  Take with you my sword. Its name is Hrunting. It is a magical sword and will be of help to you.  Forgive my foolishness and let us be friends.”

Gladly, Beowulf embrace Unferth and taking the sword he and his company mounted the horses that had been brought for them.  He called for the dogs to be set loose and they soon picked up the powerful scent and raced away on the trail with Beowulf and the Geats  and King Hrothgar and the Danes following on behind. The dogs ran over hill and fen for many miles until at last they reached a small dark mere.  Strange and slimy things moved in its depths and putrid vapours rose from its surface. The dogs stopped at the water’s edge and Beowulf and his company rode up.  Throwing off his cloak and unbuckling his sword he cried, “I go into the mere alone.  Wait here until I return!”

All of his companions protested, each wanting to accompany him but he would not allow it.  He embraced his followers in turn and paid homage to King Hrothgar and turned and ran into the dark water holding Hrunting before him.  The mere covered him and he found himself sinking into the cold darkness. To his surprise the water was deep and as he sank through the darkness he entered into light. Looking down he found he was being dragged by a most vile hag. Her hair was a mass of twisting and hissing snakes. Her mouth was filled with long green fangs and her eyes  burned red like hot coals. She held him by her skinny arms and dragged him into the cave.

Quickly, looking around Beowulf saw he was in a cavern with a great fire at one end.  Huddled in one corner was a dark mass that he knew to be Grendel and now he knew this to be Grendel’s mother who now gripped him.  In that cave at the bottom of the world Beowulf grappled with the fiend striking her with his sword but it could not pierce her skin while she clawed at him trying to reach his throat.  She cast a spell and he found the strength ebb from his body. He managed to trip her off balance and threw her in the air, but she fell on top of him and he felt her claws around his throat.  Confident she had him in a death grip she relaxed a little and for a split second the spell lifted. 

Quickly, he threw her from him and staggered to his feet and moved to put his back to the wall.  There he found driven into the wall the hilt of an old sword. Grasping it he heaved with all of his might and pulled it free.  As she attacked he struck a blow that cut her clean in two. Turning to Grendel he cut off his head and then threw both bodies into the fire.  Clasping the severed head of Grendel he ran to the cave’s mouth and into the mire and surged upwards through the water until he reached the surface where his friends were waiting.

His companions were still there but King Hrothgar and the Danes had gone for he had been absent for a very long time.  He was greeted joyfully as they all crowded around wanting to hear his story, but he would tell them nothing. Instead he showed them the head of Grendel as proof of his victory.  With that he commanded them to mount their horses and they returned to Heorot and King Hrothgar. 

When the company arrived back at Heorot bearing the head of Grendel, Hrothgar was delighted Beowulf had survived and even more so to see the head of the demon he carried.   He presented all of the company with rich gifts of fine swords and weapons and chests of gold, silver and precious jewels rewarding Beowulf the greatest of all.

Having achieved all he had set out to achieve Beowulf thanked the King and Queen of Denmark and took his leave deciding to sail for home with his company. He led the company back along the forest path and at last they reached the beach where the old man still sat guarding their ship.   With all aboard he gave the order to set sail for Geatland.

Return to Geatland

King Hygelac was delighted to welcome his nephew home bearing riches from his exploits in Denmark.  After hearing of his heroics in freeing Denmark of its monsters he acclaimed Beowulf the greatest hero of his people.  The minstrels made songs of his bravery and heroism and he became famous throughout the northern lands but there were still further exploits written in the stars including a great flame dragon for him to overcome.

© 20/11/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 20th, 2019 zteve t evans

Legends of Wild Edric: The Wild Hunt, the Faerie Bride and the Monster Fish

Image by Franz Stuck [Public domain]
This article was originally posted on #FolkloreThursday.com on 27/06/2019 titled British Legends: Wild Edric, the Wild Hunt and the Bride from the Otherworld by zteve t evans.

Wild Edric was an Anglo-Saxon earl from Shropshire who was also known as Eadric Salvage, Eadric Silvaticus and Eadric the Wild. He was one of the wealthiest men in Shropshire and the lord of fifty-six manors. Tradition says he was a great huntsman, hunting areas of the Forest of Clun, Stiperstones and the Long Mynd. Although he was a real person many myths and legends became attached to him such as the Wild Hunt, his faerie bride and the monster fish of Bomere Pool.

The Norman Conquest

Wild Edric was not believed to have fought at the Battle of Hastings, but most of his manors were taken by King William to be given to his own barons.  Therefore, between 1068-70 he allied himself with Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, Prince of Gwynedd, and his brother, Riwallon, the Prince of Powys, who were Welsh resistance leaders opposed to William.  They attacked the Normans in Herefordshire, devastating Hereford, but, unable to capture the castle, they retreated.  In retaliation, the Normans attacked Edric many times, but could not defeat him.

Retreat

In 1069, William led his northern army to put down a rebellion led by the Earl Mokar of Northumberland and his brother Edwin. While William was preoccupied, Edric and his Welsh allies joined with rebels from Cheshire, attacking Norman lands in northern parts of Shropshire. They burnt Shrewsbury, but were unable to take the castle.

When news of the assault reached William he turned his army around and headed south. Instead of confronting William, Edric retreated back to Shropshire. The Welsh and Cheshire rebels fought William but were defeated near Stafford.  William was not satisfied with this victory and proceeded to attack and lay waste the land. Eventually, Edric was forced to make peace and swear allegiance to King William who took all but three of his remaining manors. In 1072, Edric supported and accompanied William in an attack on Scotland.

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Beowulf’s Last Battle: The Great Flame Dragon

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com as British Legends: Beowulf and the Great Flame Dragon by zteve t evans on 26/07/2018

Role Model

Beowulf is an anonymously written long poem originally written in Old English, the language commonly spoken in England in Anglo-Saxon times. It is named after its protagonist, Beowulf, a warrior from Geatland, and tells of his heroic adventures, great strength, courage, and prowess in battle. As well as providing an exciting story, its hero displays all the desired virtues of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy and warrior class in which it is set, making Beowulf a role model and inspiration for others of the time to follow. The main events of the poem tell how he defeated two monstrous beings, and ends with a battle with a flame dragon that costs him his life.

Beowulf and JRR Tolkien

The poem has influenced many modern works such as The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Fans of Tolkien will recognise many of the motifs and themes in the poem. In 1936, Tolkien gave a distinguished lecture,“Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics“ which was published in the journal Proceedings of the British Academy and a translation of the poem “Beowulf” was published posthumously. The underlying theme of the poem was the mortality of humankind and the struggle to live in an unsympathetic and often unfriendly world, which inevitably brings defeat and death in due time regardless of fame, status, and achievement. There are many different versions that have been made of the story by many different writers. Presented here is a retelling from the poem of Beowulf’s battle with the flame dragon and his death, influenced by various sources listed below.

Grendel and his Monstrous Mother

In his youth, Beowulf set out leading a company of young men to Denmark to slay the monstrous being called Grendel. Beowulf encountered Grendel in the great hall of King Hrothgar, and successfully defeated and mortally wounded him. Grendel escaped to the lair he shares with his mother at the bottom of a lake and dies. His mother, seeking vengeance, returned to the hall and killed one of King Hrothgar’s earls. Beowulf tracked her back to the lake and, entering the water, sank to the bottom where he found a cave which is the lair of the two monstrous beings. There he fought and killed Grendel’s mother and cut off Grendel’s head, returning with it to the surface as proof of his victory. For slaying the monsters, Beowulf won great praise and was richly rewarded by King Hrothgar of Denmark. Returning to his homeland of Geatland, he was welcomed by King Hygelac, his uncle, who proclaimed him the greatest warrior in the north lands. Songs and stories were made of his encounter with Grendel and his monstrous mother, and his fame spread far and wide.

Beowulf is Crowned King

After King Hygelac was killed in battle and death took his son and heir, Beowulf was crowned King of Geatland.  Beowulf’s rule was long and happy and the country prospered. With age, Beowulf grew wiser and more dignified and his people loved him and looked up to him. Despite his fame and past success, he yearned for a chance to once again prove himself in some test of strength and courage. He had won many battles, but nothing appeared to match the slaying of Grendel and his monstrous mother, and he grew restless.

One dark, cold winter’s night, as Beowulf sat in his great mead hall with his earls about him, there came a frantic knocking at the door. On opening the door, the doorkeeper found a ragged stranger, begging to be taken to the king. The man was poorly dressed for a cold winter’s night, and what he did wear was torn and dirty. Not liking the look of the man the doorkeeper forbade him entry. Wiglaf, the son of Weohstan, one of the king’s most faithful earls, came over to see what was happening. On seeing the state of the man and the terrified look upon his face, he spoke to him saying:

“Welcome stranger, the night is bitter and I see you shiver.  I know not whether you shiver from the cold or some unknown terror, for I see fear in your face and eyes. Whatever the cause tell us your name and come in and eat and drink with us and explain yourself to our king.”

The Stranger’s Tale

The stranger became confused and his head jerked this way and that. Wiglaf, thinking the man was refusing to say his name and rejecting the hospitality offered, dragged him before the king saying:

“Sire, this man comes knocking at your door this bitter winter night and refuses to say his name and refuses our hospitality. Therefore, I bring him to answer in person to you. What would you have me do with him?”

Beowulf leaned forward and set his keen blue eyes upon him and, looking kindly upon the shivering, ragged stranger, said:

“Come now man, have no fear. No one will harm you here. Tell us your name and why you come knocking at the door of my mead hall on this cold night.”

The stranger knelt before Beowulf and said in a trembling voice:

“Sire, I have no name and I have no home, and because of this, these last few days I took to wandering in the wilds in search of a place I could shelter through the winter. This morning I found a great barrow, and seeking shelter I found an entrance that turned into a long tunnel. The tunnel at least offered the potential of shelter, so I followed it until I entered a great wide and high space and found it lit by some unknown light. Looking about I was amazed to see piled all around the sides masses and masses of gold and silver artifacts and many, many chests of precious jewels of all kinds and colors. Indeed, the worth of all this treasure must be beyond measure. Then I realized the light was coming from a sleeping dragon that glowed in the dark, lighting up the cave, and in terror I ran back the way I had come.”

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Elen of the Hosts: Goddess of Sovereignty, King Maker, Warrior Queen of the Britons

This article was first published #FolkloreThursday.com as British Legends: Elen of the Hosts – Saint, Warrior Queen, Goddess of Sovereignty on 21/06/2018 by zteve t evans

Elen of the Dream

Historically, Elen of the Hosts was a real woman who lived in the 4th century, but in British legend and Welsh and Celtic mythology, may go back even further.  She appears to have been a woman of many roles that have grown and evolved over the centuries to the present day. Today, Elen is best known for her part as the subject of the affections of the emperor of Rome in strange tale of The Dream of Macsen Wledig, from the Mabinogion. The story depicts her as a mysterious woman of power who knows how to gets what she wants and appears linked to the giving and taking of sovereignty a very powerful attribute.  Presented here is a discussion about who Elen was, and how she has changed and evolved over the centuries, hopefully  encouraging the reader to perhaps research and create their own ideas for themselves.

The Dream of Macsen Wledig

Her story begins one day when the emperor of Rome, Macsen Wledig, was out hunting. Feeling tired in the midday sun, he decided to take a nap. As he slept, he experienced a dream that had an incredible effect on him. In that dream, he travelled across mountains and along rivers, and undertook a sea voyage which brought him to a fair island. He crossed that island and found a magnificent castle and in that castle, seated in a golden hall, was a beautiful woman and he fell in love with her. Macsen had found the woman of his dreams within his dream and, typical of a dream, he never gets his kiss. When he moves to kiss and embrace her, he awakens, and in the waking world there is no Elen. But Macsen wants his kiss badly and now the world has changed for him. He is obsessed with her to the point that he can think of nothing and no one else. His health fails and he begins to waste away and pines for her, telling his counsellors, “and now I am in love with someone who I know not. She may be real and she may be unreal, but I am mortally stricken, so tell, what am I to do?”. Although he did not know it at the time, the woman in the dream was named Elen, and it is clear from the dream that she was someone very special, but who was she?

Who was Elen?

Although very little for certain is known today about her, it can be seen from the dream that Elen was not an ordinary woman. Today she is known by many names. She is Elen Luyddog in Welsh or in English, Elen of the Hosts, and also known as Elen of the Ways, Elen of the Roads and Elen Belipotent in reference to her military leadership skills. She also is known as Saint Elen or Helen of Caernarfon, sometimes being named as Helen rather than Elen, and there are still more names. Elen was believed to be the daughter of Eudav, or Eudaf Hen, a Romano-British ruler of the 4th century who became the wife of Macsen Wledig, also known as Magnus Maximus, a Western Roman Emperor from (383-388AD). She was the mother of five children including a son named Constantine who was also known as Cystennin, or Custennin. She introduced into Britain from Gaul a form of Celtic monasticism and founded a number of churches. There are also many holy wells and springs named after her and there still exist roads were named after her such as Sarn Elen.

She was also a warrior queen. According to David Hughes in his book, The British Chronicles, Volume 1, after Macsen was defeated and executed, Elen reigned over the Britons. She led the defence of the country against invading Picts, Irish and Saxons. After a long, hard fight she pushed the invaders out, earning the name Elen Luyddog, or Elen of the Hosts and Elen Belipotent meaning “mighty in war”. In the Welsh Triads, Elen of the Hosts and Macsen Wledig, or in some versions Cynan her brother, lead an army to Llychlyn, which some scholars such as Rachel Bromich see as a corruption of Llydaw, or Armorica which does fit better with what is known.

There is a line of thought that sees characters in the Mabinogion as Christianised versions of far older gods. Some people also see her as being a conflation of several women and ultimately derived from an ancient Celtic goddess of sovereignty. The theme of sovereignty in one form or another does appear in the dream and she appears as the catalyst that can make it happen, or take it away.

Elen’s Power

From the dream, we learn that she was in the company of her father, Eudav, who was the son of Caradawc and is also known as Eudaf Hen, (Eudaf “the Old”), or Octavius, a King of the Britons, so she was a lady of considerable importance. This is evidenced by the surroundings in the dream, which matched exactly those she was in when the messengers of Macsen find her. Her response to the messengers is not one from a woman who sees herself as being subordinate to men or emperors, or anyone else no matter who they may be. When the messengers tell her about the great love their emperor holds for her and request she accompany them back to Rome, she revealed part of her true power by flatly refusing. Instead she told them to return to Rome and tell the emperor that he must travel to her if he truly loved her as he claimed. Macsen obeyed …

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The Rule of Vortigern, Legendary King of the Britons

This post was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on 18th March, 2018, titled, British Legends: Treachery, Murder, Lust and Rowena – The Rule of Vortigern

hamilton_vortigern_26_rowena

Rowena and Vortigern By William Hamilton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

British Legends: Treachery, Murder, Lust and Rowena – The Rule of Vortigern

Vortigern was legendary 5th century King of the Britons featured in the work of early British writers such as Gildas, Nennius, Bede, Geoffrey of Monmouth and others. There is a debate over whether Vortigern was a term for a high king who was chosen by a form of consensus to rule or whether it was the name of a person such as a warlord, lesser king, or political leader. This work takes it as the name of a person of high status who through his ruthless cunning and experience took over the rule of the Britons during dangerous times. 

Vortigern is usually presented in a bad light, as a man of immoral and selfish character who used duplicity and deception to rise to the top of the British establishment of his day. He is usually blamed for encouraging the arrival of the Saxon and Germanic invaders to Britain. At first, these were employed as his mercenaries to support his own power and to fight against the Picts and Scots but later he was to find he could not control them. Some scholars say the ruling elite of the Britons may deserve at least an equal share of the blame through their own weakness and disarray in facing their enemies. It may be that as far as the defense of realm was concerned, he did the best he could with the resources he had available to him which had been seriously depleted by the actions of earlier rulers. Yet questions are posed by some of the early writers about his morality and behaviour. Indeed, acts of lust, intrigue, murder, duplicity, and treachery are usually seen to be the hallmarks of his reign. This work presents a brief overview of the rule of Vortigern, looking at some of these alleged acts and incidents some of which resonate through the ages to the present and are the very stuff of legends.

Vortigern Takes the Crown

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vortigern set up Constans, the eldest of the sons of King Constantine II who had been assassinated, to rule the Britons because he rightly believed he could control him and eventually take over the crown. After arranging for his murder, he usurps the crown to find that one day a cleverer and more ruthless man would appear on the scene. That man was Hengist, the leader of the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes in Britain.

After the assassination of Constans by Pict mercenaries controlled by Vortigern, there was no one of suitable status, experience or age to take his place. The rightful heirs to the throne of the Briton were Aurelius Ambrosius and his younger brother Uther, who were the sons of King Constantine II and the younger brothers of Constans, but they were just children and deemed too young to take the throne. Vortigern was the most experienced political figure of the Britons at the time and very ambitious. Insidiously, he had wormed his way into becoming the chief advisor of Constans, while all the time working secretly to promote his own ambitions and quietly gaining power, authority, and the king’s trust.

With the murder of Constans that he carefully and covertly set up, he stepped forward and seized the crown for himself. Not all of the British lords were friends of Vortigern, and some of these, fearing for the safety of the two young heirs, sent them into exile to Armorica for their own safekeeping. There they grew up safely and were taught the arts of royalty and leadership while all the time preparing to return one day and claim back the crown of the Britons.

Having seized the throne, Vortigern would find the rule of the kingdom was far from an easy task. In the north, Picts and Scots made frequent raids into his realm, but there was also another impending and growing threat that he feared. As the years passed by, he was aware of the maturing and coming of age of the royal brothers. He received reports of the building of a vast fleet and the mustering of a great army, and his spies confirmed his fears that they were intent on taking back their rightful inheritance. Taking stock of the situation, he found he was desperately short of men at arms to defend the kingdom.

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The Strange Fate of King Herla

King Herla

King Herla was a legendary King of the ancient Britons who along with his men became caught in a strange spell.   After attending  the marriage of the Dwarf King in the Otherword, Herla and his host of men became trapped in an endless cycle.  They became doomed to wandering the world on horseback never being able to set foot on the ground.   Along the way they attracting the souls of the newly dead into their company who joined them in riding the earth in wild, meaningless circles and were often called The Wild Hunt in England by those who witnessed them.

This unearthly and unwelcome situation arose through an agreement he made with a king from the dwarf realm.  According to the legend the Dwarf King visited King Herla and together they made a binding promise with each other that they would  attend each others wedding.

The Dwarf King

The story begins with King Herla and his retinue traveling through an ancient forest. Feeling tired he decided he needed a rest so he bid his men to leave him in peace while he lay down underneath the trees to sleep.  As he began to doze he heard a sound of rustling coming towards him through the undergrowth.  Drawing his sword he readied himself for what should appear.  To his surprise he was greeted by a small human figure riding on the back of a large goat.

Compared to the humans the dwarf was smaller and squatter and probably about half as tall.  The dwarf had a huge head and a bright face with a long red beard down to his chest. His skin was light yellowish brown and his shoulders, arms and chest were very hairy.  His legs were also hairy and he had cloven hooves instead of feet and he rode upon a huge mountain goat.

Riding up to him the Dwarf King told Herla his people had chosen him to be a guest at his wedding because he was the only king at the time who they regarded as having the wisdom and goodness to attend such  an important occasion.  The Dwarf King told him,

I, the king of many kings and chiefs and of a people numerous beyond all count, come willingly, sent from them to thee, and though I am to thee unknown, yet I glory in the fame which hath raised thee high above other kings, since thou art the best and the nearest to me in place and blood, and art moreover worthy of having me grace with high honour thy wedding as a guest, when the King of the French giveth his daughter to thee—an arrangement concluded without thy knowledge, and Jo, his messengers come this very day. Let there be an abiding compact between us, that I shall attend thy wedding, and thou mine a year later to the day.’ (1)

Dismounting he bowed and held before Herla a bronze horn of exquisite workmanship and asked him to drink from it to seal the compact.  Herla was unsure about accepting this strange and unworldly binding agreement.  Nevertheless, taking the horn he drank from it and handed it back to the Dwarf King who drank the rest, sealing the contract between them. He then rode off into the undergrowth on his goat without another word.  Herla rejoined his men and returned to his court thinking no more of the peculiar affair other than it had probably been a dream when he was half asleep.

The wedding of King Herla

Nevertheless, arriving back home and to the King’s amazement ambassadors from France arrived accepting the terms of his marriage to the daughter of the King of France.  As the wedding was about to begin the Dwarf King entered with many of his subjects and servants.  There were so many more chairs and tables were needed to accommodate them all.

From tents pitched by the Dwarf King’s followers fine wines were served from pitchers exquisitely decorated and studded with precious gemstones and poured into goblets of silver and gold and crystal.  They had brought the most wonderful food with them and they laid a banquet the like that has never been seen before and their minstrels entertained the guests.   Even though they worked like beavers they were so pleasant and courteous that that King Herla and the Britons were made to feel wonderfully honored.  At the end of the banquet the Dwarf King stood and bowed before King Herla and his wife and said,

‘0 best of kings, the Lord is my witness that, according to our compact, I am present at thy wedding. But if anything that thou cravest besides what thou seest here can be asked of me, I shall willingly supply it; but if not, thou must not put off thy requital of this high honour when I shall ask for it.’ (2)

Abruptly the Dwarf King turned on his heel and left the wedding reception taking his retinue and servants with him.  the tents were packed quickly away and all signs of them vanished in a trice.

The wedding of the Dwarf King

King Herla heard or saw nothing of the Dwarf King until one year from his wedding day when once again he appeared riding on his goat with a retinue behind him. Standing before Herla he reminded him of their agreement and asked him if he was willing to fulfill it.  Herla agreed and along with a retinue of knights followed the Dwarf King along strange paths through the forest until at last they came to a towering cliff.  There Herla and his men followed the Dwarf King into a small cave and along a passage that opened into a huge and marvelous cavern that was lit my many hundreds of lights.

There were many thousands of dwarves gathered there awaiting their arrival for the wedding of the Dwarf King.  The Dwarf King was married and King Herla and his knights bore witness to it and celebrated with the dwarves and the contract between the two was fulfilled.

The warning

Before he left the Dwarf King gave Herla and his men many presents of hawks, dogs and horses such as were used in the hunt.  As they were about to leave the underground world to enter the world above ground he presented the king with a small bloodhound which he told him should be carried before him on the saddle of his horse.  He then issued a stern warning telling him that the world he had known had changed and it was not safe for him and his men to leave and begged them to stay.

King Herla, not understanding why the Dwarf King spoke in this way politely refused saying he wanted to return to his wife and kingdom.  Shaking his head the Dwarf King then gave him another warning.  He told him that no rider’s foot should touch the ground before the bloodhound he had just given Herla jumped to the ground on its own accord from its seat on the saddle. If this was not followed death would strike as soon as the foot of a rider touched the ground.  With this warning the Dwarf King turned abruptly and left them.

Returning to the outside world

Herla and his men rode into the sunlight and they deemed they had been in the cavern for no more than three days.  On the way back Herla came across an old shepherd tending his flock and stopped to ask him what news he had of the queen.  The shepherd looked at him in confusion and said,

‘My lord, I scarce understand thy language, since I am a Saxon and thou a Briton. But I have never heard of the name of that queen, save that men tell of one so called, a queen of the very ancient Britons, and wife of King Herla, who is reported in legends to have disappeared with a pigmy into this cliff and to have been seen nevermore on earth. The Saxons, having driven out the natives, have possessed this kingdom for full two hundred years.’ (3)

Herla and his men had only thought they had spent no more than three days in the cavern and they were greatly surprised to learn this.   Some of them, forgot the warning of the Dwarf King and dismounted, but as soon as their feet touched the ground their bodies disintegrated into dust.  Remembering the Dwarf King’s warning, Herla immediately forbade his men to dismount until the bloodhound that sat before him should leap to the ground on its own cause.

Herla’s fate

Now there are those that say the dog has never taken that leap to earth and that Herla and his men are fated to ride their horses across the world without rest, or stopping for all eternity.  However, others say their strange ride was was seen by many over many centuries until the first year of the Coronation of King Henry II.  Then it was seen around noon by the River Wye near Hereford.  According to some accounts an army was raised to challenge them to battle but the host took to the air and vanished into the clouds and has not been seen since.  Others say the Wild Hunt still at times can be seen before some disaster such as war, or famine occurs and is seen as a portent of doom.  Yet still, other accounts say that the bloodhound jumped to the ground breaking the spell upon the king and his men and they are now at rest.

The Otherworld

Now some also say this story is a warning for those that visit the Otherworld that time there passes slower and the outside world changes faster and can never be the same on the return. They also say it is a warning of the danger of dealing with the people of the the Otherworld for they can be capricious and deceptive in their dealings with humans who have never really understood them.  They doubt why the Dwarf King would want such a strange compact with King Herla anyway.

Now, what do you think?

© 20/01/2016  zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright January 20th, 2016 zteve t evans

Legends about Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall

Bedivere throwing Excalibur into the lake – Public Domain

Dozmary Pool is a small lake hidden away in the bleak wilderness of Bodmin Moor, Cornwall. It is a wild, remote and desolate place that is associated with a number of Cornish and British legends.

King Arthur and the Lady of the Lake

This is a place of ancient legend and traditions that tell of great people and great events and evil people who must pay their dues to the devil.  This is the place where the Lady of the Lake received Excalibur from Bedivere after the mortal wounding of King Arthur, after the Battle of Camlan his last battle.

Jan Tregeagle

It is also the place where the evil Jan Tregeagle was committed to endless toil until the Final Judgement Day after making a Faustian pact  with the Devil.   Read more … Continue reading