The ancient symbol known as the ouroboros is a snake, serpent, or dragon with its body looped in a circle. Its mouth is open, and its tail is adjacent to its mouth. It is not easy to tell if the snake is biting, eating, regurgitating, or even giving birth to itself. Interpretation depends on the culture and situation where it appears. Usually, it is considered a symbol of renewal – the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth, and immortality, but there are other interpretations.
The name “ouroboros” comes from Greek. The “oura” part means tail, and “boros,” meaning “eating,” so together, it becomes “tail devourer,” or ouroboros. It entered Western tradition and symbolism from ancient Egyptian and Hellenic iconography and conventions. It later became adopted into the mystic symbols of alchemy, Hermeticism, and Gnosticism.
THE OUROBOROS THROUGH THE AGES
Remarkably similar versions of this motif have occurred worldwide throughout history. Despite the vast distances that sometimes separate it, the symbol carries similar connotations, though may be known by other terms. It is not known if there was a central origin for the image from which it spread or if it evolved independently in various places. The distance and the different human cultures where the ouroboros appears indicate a degree of independent evolution. However, it could also spread from one place to another through trade, invasion, or the movement of people.
In certain ancient cultures, because snakes shed their old skins and grow new ones, they are symbols of the renewal of life. There is also the idea that the snake’s tail is a phallic symbol, with the mouth representing a womb, associating it with fertility. Mystics also linked the ouroboros with metempsychosis or transmigration of the soul.
The ouroboros differs from other representations of serpent-like entities being a positive and necessary force for good. In other religions such as Christianity, snakes and serpents represent evil and other religions may have different associations not mentioned here.
The first known use of the image is an artistic decoration on Chinese pottery belonging to the neolithic Yangshao People, who dwelt from 5000-3000 BC along the Yellow River in what is now eastern China. However, its use as a motif or symbol seems to have evolved later independently in other places.
The ancient Egyptians associating the symbol with time and the universe. They considered time to be a succession of recurring cycles rather than a linear, constantly manifesting line of events. They were greatly influenced by the annual flooding of the Nile and the daily recurrent movement of the sun across the sky.
A 14the BC funerary text, usually referred to as the “Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld,” inscribed on the second shrine of the sarcophagus in the tomb of Tutankhamun depicted a prominent figure, possibly representing the mummiform body of Tutankhamun, which is titled, “He who hides the Hours.” Alternatively, some archaeologists see it representing a union between Ra and Osiris. The ouroboros motif encircles the head of the figure while another encircles the feet.
Experts deem the text refers to the functioning of time. In this case, the circular serpent motif signifies the deity, “Mehen, the Enveloper,” guardian of Ra on his journey underground. It also appears in other Egyptian works and may represent the chaos surrounding the orderly world is considered a form of the ouroboros.
Mystics and scholars of Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and alchemy adopted the symbol because of its associated meaning. Gnosticism developed from Jewish and Christian religious and philosophical thinking in the first and second centuries. It sought to develop and use specialized knowledge to achieve salvation. Gnostics saw the head of the serpent as the spiritual world, while the tail represented the physical world, both being eternally united. While both worlds appear to conflict, they exist in unison and are necessary for a unified universe.
In alchemy, the ouroboros is considered one of the oldest symbols representing the idea of eternity and continuous return. Alchemy was a predecessor form of medieval chemistry and philosophy that sought to achieve the Magnum Opus or great work.
This great work might include achievements such as the transmutation of matter, a panacea to cure all ills, the philosopher’s stone, and the achievement of immortality, depending on the interests of the individual alchemist. It was a discipline rich in allegorical expression and many of its terms and goals are metaphorical. However, the true purpose of alchemy was the evolution of the human soul through its study and practice.
The alchemist also used other related disciplines, including astrology, Hermeticism, mathematics, geometry, Gnosticism, and other early sciences and mysticism. One of the most highly desired but challenging aims for an alchemist was to discover a way to turn a base substance such as lead into gold, an activity known as “chrysopoeia” in alchemy.
A short alchemic text called “Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra,” by Cleopatra, the Alchemist, shows a version of the ouroboros. This author is not Cleopatra VII – the Egyptian queen who wooed Julius Caesar and Mark Antony even though later works refer to her as Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. The identity of Cleopatra the Alchemist is murky, and to complicate matters her identity became conflated by scholars with Cleopatra, the Physician. However, the name Cleopatra the Alchemist may be an alias for an anonymous author or school of alchemists.
Cleopatra, the Alchemist, was a Greek author and physician who lived about 3 AD and was one of the founders of alchemy. She was also one of four female alchemists able to generate the philosopher’s stone and the inventor of special apparatus used in the alchemic distillation process.
In the Chrysopoeia, an ouroboros, with the words, “the all is one,” is seen. This idea is associated with a philosophical system based on the traditions of the legendary Hermes Trismegistus known as Hermeticism. The Chrysopeoia also described the ouroboros as,
“One is the Serpent which has its poison according to two compositions, and One is All and through it is All, and by it is All, and if you have not All, All is Nothing.”
The ouroboros expressed many of their beliefs in a visual symbol recognized and understood by other alchemists. But the world is mutable, and alchemists of the Renaissance began to consider time as linear rather than cyclical. Therefore, instead of looping back and repeating, eternity became a neverending stream of events that may have had any cycles unrolling as they happened. This new viewpoint makes it very relevant to how the present moment is understood.
van der Sluijs, M. A., & Peratt, A. L. (2009). The Ourobóros as an Auroral Phenomenon. (“Witnessed Experience and the Third-Path | SpringerLink”) Journal of Folklore Research, 46(1), 3–41. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40206938
The concept of animism where objects are believed to have a soul, spirit or consciousness is found in many religions, past and present around the world. The following is a retelling of a story from The Romance of the Milky Way and Other Studies & Stories by Lafcadio Hearn that he called The Mirror Maid that features this idea.
The Mirror Maid
The story is set in Old Japan in the period of the Ashika Shōgunate. When the sacred Temple of Ogawachi-Myōjin, at Minami-Isé fell into a state of disrepair, Matsumura Hyōgo, the Shinto priest of the temple begged Lord Kitahataké who administered the district for funds for repairs. Unfortunately due to war and other difficult circumstances Lord Kitahataké could not provide such funds. Therefore, Matsumura went to Kyōto and appealed to the great daimyō Hosokawa who had influence with the Shōgun.
Lord Hosokawa was sympathetic he could not authorize the funds without the permission of the Shōgun but promised to bring the problem to his attention. He advised the state of the shrine would need to be investigated and an estimate of the expense and a plan of work would have to be provided. Therefore he warned that in might take considerable time and he advised Matsumura to remain in Kyōto while the matter was dealt with.
Matsumura rented a house and sent for his family and servants. The house was situated in the old Kyōgoku quarter of the city and was old, imposing and rather daunting. It had been unoccupied for some time and had a dark and inauspicious reputation. Situated on the northeast side of the garden was a well in which several preceding tenants of the house had been found dead in its water. Not surprisingly, an air of mystery and suspicion hung over the house and dark words were whispered about it. Matsumura took no notice of the reputation of the house and well. Being a Shinto priest he had no fear of evil spirits and so he soon became settled and comfortable in his new residence.
In the summer there came a time of drought and no rain fell on Kyōto and the surrounding area for months. The lakes, rivers and wells dried up and the land became as bare and as dry as a bone. The only well which still bore water in Kyōto and the surrounding area was the one situated in the garden of Matsumura which remained full to the brim.
The water was cold and clear with a hint of blue but it was good and plentiful and always available. People came from all parts of the city and surrounding area to beg for water. Matsumura allowed each and everyone to draw as much as they pleased. Many people came to draw water but still the well remained full to the brim.
One morning Matsumura had a shock. The corpse of a young servant who had been sent to draw water by his master from the far side of the city was found floating in the well. It was apparent he had been a fit and active young man and it was not thought likely he had slipped and fell into the water.
Although Matsumura searched diligently he could find no clue as to how the young man could accidentally have drowned. There was no sign of a struggle or reason to believe he had been deliberately murdered either. Furthermore, after speaking to his master and family he could find no reason for such a young man to commit suicide. His imagination exhausted he remembered the dark reputation of the house and began to suspect some unknown evil had manifest.
The Maid in the Well
Matsumura stood looking at the well wondering what to do. He thought perhaps he should have a fence built around it to stop people going near for their own protection. As he mulled over these thoughts he became aware of a sudden movement in the water which startled him. It was as if there was some living thing in the water moving around under water.
The movement stopped and as the ripples settled he became aware that there was the face of a young woman in the water. She appeared to be around nineteen or twenty years of age and was very beautiful and was engaged in the activity of coloring her lips red as was the practice of females in those times. At first he could only see her face in profile and she seemed unaware or unconcerned by him watching. Slowly she turned her head to face him and as she did she smiled at him looking deep into his eyes.
Matsumura was frozen to the spot and began to experience a strange shock that shot through his heart. He became dizzy as if intoxicated with wine and all he could see was that strange, smiling, face while all around was darkness. Very white and very beautiful was the face, as white and as beautiful as the moon.
It seemed to grow whiter and even more beautiful as he stared. He became aware with sudden alarm that he was being drawn down, lower and lower, into the darkness towards that face and those red lips. Desperately he tried to master himself and break the spell and with one last supreme effort he succeeded to close his eyes shutting out the vision.
When he opened his eyes again he found he was on his knees with his face close to the surface of the water. One more second and he would have suffered the same fate as the servant who had been drowned. He was glad to find the light had returned and went back to the house. Understanding the danger from the well he ordered that it be fenced in and no one should be allowed near.
A few days later the drought was broken by a massive thunderstorm. While lightning flashed and thunder roared rain fell in torrents on the parched city and land. For three days and three nights the rain fell hard and fast. The river rose higher than it had ever risen before and carried more force than it had ever carried before. All along its course bridges were overpowered and washed away and along its banks water burst across the land flooding fields and homes.
On the third night of the raging storm, at the Hour of the Ox, there came a knocking on Matsumura’s door and the voice of a woman could be heard outside begging to be let in.
The Appearance of Yayoi
The experience Matsumura had suffered by the well immediately came to his mind and he forbade his servants to answer the door. Instead he went himself to stand by the door and called out, “Who can it be who is out on a night like this and rapping at my door?”
A female voice answered, “I beg your pardon and ask for your forgiveness. My name isYayoi and I have something that is of great importance that I must say to Matsumura Hyōgo and no one else. Please, I beg of you to let me in that I may deliver my message .”
Matsumura opened the door a little and looked out. He saw the same beautiful female face that he had seen smiling up at him from the water in the well. Now she was not smiling but had a sad forlorn expression.
“You cannot come in,” he told her sternly, “You are not human, you are a creature from the well. Why do you drown and kill innocent people?”
To the surprise of Matsumura she answered in a musical voice like the tinkling of rare and precious jewels which he had never heard before. She said,
“This is exactly the matter that I wish to talk to you about for I have never wanted to harm humans. Long ago in the most ancient of days a an evil dragon became the Master of the Well which is why it was always full.Long ago I fell in the well. He was more powerful than I and he made me to his bidding, forcing me to lure people to their deaths in the well.
However, time does not stand still and things change according to the will of the gods. The Heavenly Ruler has ordained that the dragon must leave the well. He will dwell in the lake in the province of Shinshū known as Torii-no-Iké and will never again return to this city. He left for his new home tonight which is why I am now free to beg for your compassion your aid.
I ask that you have your servants search the well. They will now find it dry with the departure of the dragon despite the rain . At the bottom of the well you will find my body. I urge that you do this as soon as possible and you can be sure that for your compliance you shall enjoy my benevolence and reward.”
Withher last words she vanished before his eyes.
The storm finally died out just before dawn. As soon as it was light Matsumura ordered his servants to search the well which was dry just as Yayoi had said it would be. Although they searched they found no body. All they found were a few very old hair ornaments such as was used by women in ancient times and a mirror. The mirror was of curious style and shape but had become encrusted with grime and mud.
The absence of a body puzzled Matusmura to begin with but then he realized his error. He remembered that mirrors are weird things with weird properties and every mirror had a soul that was its own and the soul of a mirror was female.
Carefully he cleaned it up treating it with great care and reverence. When he had cleaned all the encrusted grime from it he saw that it was indeed a rare and beautifully made piece of very ancient origin. On its handle and back were beautiful designs and some lettering some of which he could not understand but he could make out some letters that appeared to spell out “third month, third day” appearing to relate to a date.
He realized that in years gone by the third month was the Month of Increase and called Yayoi. Then he remembered that the third day of the third month was the Festival that was still called Yayoi-no-sekku the creature from the well had called herself Yayoi. This led him to the conclusion that the ghostly creature from the well was actually the Soul of the Mirror.
With this concluded he treated the mirror with even more reverence and care having it carefully cleaned again and re-silvered so that it was like new. He ordered a case to be made using fine wood and quality craftsmanship to make and decorate it. Then he prepared a special room to keep it in and carefully carried it there and put it in its designated place of honour. That evening as he sat before the box contemplating upon the recent events Yayoi appeared before him.
The Soul of the Mirror
He was stunned that she looked even more beautiful than before but now there was a softness to her light like that of a summer moon. She greeted him courteously and respectfully and said in her sweet, musical voice,
“I have come to thank you for saving me from an eternity of sorrow and loneliness. I can confirm that you are indeed correct in thinking that I am some kind of spirit. Yes, I am the Spirit of the Mirror – its very soul as you have guessed.
During the rule of the Emperor Saimei many long centuries ago I was brought to this residence from Kudara. Here I dwelt until the rule of the Emperor Saga and was presented to the august Lady Kamo, Naishinnō of the Imperial Court. From that time I became an heirloom of the House of Fuji-wara until the time of the period of Hōgen. During the period of the great war I laid forgotten for many, many years.
In those days the Master of the Well was an evil dragon. He had once lived in a lake that once covered this whole area. A government order came for the lake to be filled in to make land for the building of houses. The dragon could not stop the lake being filled in and took up residence in this well.
After I had fallen in I was helpless against his power and he forced me to lure people to their deaths. Now that the great god has ordained he must take up residence in a far away lake I am free.
Nevertheless, I have one last favour to ask of you. With all my heart I beg that you offer me to the Shōgun, the Lord Yoshimasa. By descent he is related to my former possessors and it would be fitting I should return to him as he is their heir.
If you would do this great kindness for me – it is the last I shall ask – it will bring you great good fortune.
Now I have to give you a warning. This residence is in danger and you must evacuate the premises as soon as possible. Tomorrow this house will be totally destroyed.”
The Prediction Fulfilled
As soon as Yayoi had finished speaking she bowed and vanished. Matsumura heeded the warning and moved his family and servant to another house in a distant part of the city immediately. The next day a violent storm arose and lightning struck his former residence several times destroying it completely. The rain fell in torrents and washed away the remnants of the shattered building but Matsumura and his family were safe.
Soon after Matsumura asked for an audience with the Shōgun Yoshimasa and was fortunate to be granted one. This gave him the opportunity to present the mirror to the great lord and to give him a written account of the marvellous history of the august piece. The Shōgun was delighted with this ancient gift and was intrigued by its strange history. In gratitude he gave Matsumura many expensive presents and also allotted ample money for the refurbishment of the Temple of Ogawachi-Myōjin making the prediction of Yayoi, the Soul of the Mirror come true.
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 valley. At 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 Beautifulwill 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.
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
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
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.
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
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.”
The legendary Uther Pendragon was the father of Arthur Pendragon, who was destined to become the greatest King of the Britons. Arthur would drive out the invading Saxons, bring peace to the country and build an empire in Europe. Uther was usually seen as a strong king and a great warrior but could also be vain, quick tempered, impulsive and ungrateful at times. This impulsiveness and ingratitude came to the fore when he fell passionately in love with Igraine, the young wife of one of his oldest and most loyal nobles, Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall.Gorlois had served the king bravely and faithfully and through his wisdom had turned a likely defeat into a resounding victory for Uther, who may have been expected to show his thanks and gratitude. Nevertheless, when love strikes as it struck Uther, the result can be devastating. Uther’s burning passion for Igraine unleashed a violent and bloody war to win the object of his lust, aided by the subtle arts and magic of Merlin. This work draws mostly from Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gildas and Wace, and brings together the elements of lust, violence, deception and the magic of Merlin. It was from this mix that King Arthur, the great defender and savior of the Britons from the Saxons, would be conceived, and eventually come to power to save his people.
The Prophecy of Merlin
Uther became King of the Britons of the island of Britain after the death of his brother King Aurelius Ambrosius from poisoning. As Aurelius lay seriously ill in Winchester, word came that Pascentius, the son of Vortigern, and Gillomanius the King of Ireland had landed with an invading army. With Aurelius incapacitated, Uther, accompanied by Merlin, led the army of the Britons to meet the invaders, having no idea of the treachery that would befall his brother.
On his way to the battle, Uther saw a most remarkable spectacle in the skies. There appeared a star of such magnitude and brilliance that it was seen both day and night.The star emitted a single ray of light that created a fiery mass resembling the body and head of a dragon. Shining from the mouth of the dragon came two rays of light. One extended out across the skies of Britain and over Gaul. The other extended out over the Irish Sea culminating in seven lesser beams of light. Such was its magnitude, it could be seen all across Britain and beyond, and filled the people with fear and dread not knowing what it might portend.
On seeing it, Uther called Merlin to him and asked its meaning. Merlin looked up at the sky and cried out in sorrow,
“O irreparable loss! O distressed people of Britain! Alas! the illustrious prince is departed! The renowned king of the Britons, Aurelius Ambrosius, is dead! whose death will prove fatal to us all, unless God be our helper. Make haste, therefore, most noble Uther, make haste to engage the enemy: the victory will be yours, and you shall be king of all Britain, For the star, and the fiery dragon under it, signifies yourself, and the ray extending towards the Gallic coast, portends that you shall have a most potent son, to whose power all those kingdoms shall be subject over which the ray reaches. But the other ray signifies a daughter, whose sons and grandsons shall successively enjoy the kingdom of Britain.” (1)
Uther, although undoubtedly impressed by the heavenly display, doubted Merlin’s interpretation. Maybe he did not want to believe his brother was dead and maybe he did not want to be distracted by thoughts of taking the crown. Maybe the prophecy that his son would build a great empire and from his daughter would come the future Kings of the Britons was too much of a distraction. Whatever the future might bring, the immediate peril lay before him and he was determined not to fail. He was now less than half a day’s march from Pascentius and Gillomanius who presented a real threat that could not be ignored or postponed. Therefore, with great determination, he pushed on to meet them head to head in battle.
The two sides attacked each other on sight, and a furious and bloody fight ensued that raged unchecked throughout the day. Eventually, Uther and the Britons gained the advantage and when Pascentius and Gillomanius were killed, the Irish and Saxons fled the field, making for their ships.Uther gained a stunning victory, confirming the accuracy of the first part of Merlin’s prophecy. The next day, as Uther and his troops were savouring their victory, a messenger arrived from Winchester with the grievous news of the death of his brother, King Aurelius Ambrosius. The messenger told how he had been buried in the Giant’s Dance, the monument he had caused Uther and Merlin to bring to Britain, thus, sadly confirming another part of the prophecy.