A Dark Age British Sasquatch? November 18, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback
*** This post is dedicated to Adrian S ***
One epic poem survives from Anglo-Saxon England: Beowulf.
Beowulf, for those who do not know, was a Danish hero who, in the course of said poem fights three monsters: first Grendel, second Grendel’s mother and third a dragon who gets the better of him. Grendel particularly has excited attention from scholars and cryptozoologists who have suggested that we might have here a glimpse of a humanoid monster from the Scandinavian swamp-lands.
Beachcombing knows Beowulf relatively well: or perhaps it would be truer to say that he once knew the poem well. And this morning, spurred on by an email from Adrian S, he decided to ransack the text looking for references to Grendel. What is striking though (and this, by the way, passes for wisdom in Anglo-Saxon circles) is the vagueness of the description of Grendel. The poet accidentally or by design has created a ‘Thing’ that never actually appears on the screen.
It is, of course, the classic strategy of the horror film director. You don’t show the man in the gorilla suit, you just see hints and flashes and noises in the bushes with possibly one final ‘money shot’. Film the screaming face, not the goon in the pantomime outfit!
This is fine psychology. Any viewer (or in the case of Beowulf) a listener or reader is forced to construct their own demon in their head. And reading Beowulf this morning the experience is a frightening one.
But what about the ‘hints’ and ‘flashes’. Well, Grendel and his mother are described as male and female shaped. They belong to the race of Cain – the ‘evil’ son of Adam. They are large enough that Grendel (a young of the species?) can eat men: he kills thirty at a time. Grendel in his fight with Beowulf leaves an arm behind: and this has been taken to mean that Grendel was or could be bipedal. Finally, they dwell in a mire on the moor: indeed, Grendel’s mother lives underwater.
So what is Grendel? The sensible explanation would be that Grendel is a human nightmare: like trolls, fairies and elves. Marshland is, after all, traditionally associated with supernatural creatures. And no creature that the world has known in the last several million years is capable of doing what Grendel does in the poem.
However, let’s say for the sake of argument that this was a real creature: what was Grendel then? There is one simple explanation that the dating of the poem hints at.
Beowulf appears in an eleventh-century manuscript. It describes events, meanwhile, in the fifth or sixth century. It could have been composed any time between. Michael Lapidge, in an important recent article, gives very strong reasons for thinking that the copy from which our one surviving manuscript derives dates back to before 750.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Beowulf was written c. 700, what could the Anglo-Saxon poet be describing? Well, the easiest explanation would be one of the last British bears. We know that there were bears in Roman times in Britain, particularly in the north. Very likely some stragglers survived into the eighth century along the margins of Britain, in East Anglia, the Pennines and Scotland.
Bears were, of course, still known in Scandinavia where the poem was set, but in Anglo-Saxon parts they would have been less familiar and grandparent’s exaggerated stories about bear atrocities out hunting is as credible explanation as any for Grendel and his mother.
A curiosity: the name Beowulf (Bee-wolf?) might mean bear.
Any other explanations: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
19 Nov 2011: First up is CCBC ‘In 1978 the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia held a Sasquatch Symposium and various papers were presented and later collected in Manlike Monsters On Trial, Halpin and Ames, UBC Press, 1980. These include ‘Medieval Monsters’ by David Lyle Jeffrey. Jeffrey notes that there were two medieval monster traditions: one derived from St. Augustine who saw these creatures as part of ‘the deliberate diversity of creation in which each rational being is still descended from Adam’. The other tradition is from north Europe, Germanic, and pagan; it holds that these monsters embody evil forces. As the North became Christian, so the traditions melded and “the Germanic monsters became ‘descendants of Cain’’. Jeffrey notes that both the Tiberius and Cotton Vitellius mss contain drawings of humanoid monsters and points to a particular man-eating monster as a type of þyrs, a term used (once) to describe Grendel. Jeffrey also notes that, though these hairy giants were always evil in the North, in the South they were often more benign and that some of the Northern names for these creatures seem to indicate a derivation from more gentle concepts. (Which may also have to do with differing concepts of wilderness, if you accept – and you needn’t – that Grendel and similar creatures are projections of wilderness.) Anyway, Jeffrey develops the notion that Grendel is a thinking being, a monster but ‘not wholly outside the human condition’. ‘In placing Grendel as ‘of the race of Cain’ the poet at once accomplishes two things. First, he heightens our appreciation for the violation of hospitality and sanctuary which is taking place by alluding to a figure from biblical literature who is profoundly associated with such a violation. Secondly, by using Cain he applies specific Christian traditions concerning pollution of family order and outcast experience which at once strengthens the human character of Grendel and elevates the character of his depredation to that of a conscious moral agency’. So Grendel is human-ish, a soul-bearer, who has been cast out of the human community and is thus non-human in a profound way. Whew! I didn’t think I was going to write all that! This just shows that I’ve spent too much time thinking about the Christian/pagan divide in Beowulf. I just want to add that the creatures that Grettir the Strong fights in his saga are not in the same category of being, although they are mentioned in various places, as sasquatchi: they are walking dead, if you will, not hairy forest giants. Now, as to your actual question: was there such a creature in Britain c. 700? I doubt it. Bears don’t make the cut, I think. My thoughts on this follow some forty years of following sasquatch stories in British Columbia. We have bears, sasquatch are human creations. There are no such creatures outside of human myth, no zoological specimens. (Disappointing to a guy who loved Ivan Sanderson’s books, but such is the price of knowledge.) On the other hand, I try to maintain an open mind on Yeti matters, though that has become more difficult as my opinions ossify with age.’ Then there is Jon K. ‘Ignoring the possibility that the Beowulf legend is a fictional narrative in entirety, I like the idea of a residual bear population. The behaviour of brown bears in N. America is sometimes problematic as they are drawn to human populations for their resources. In that light, it isn’t difficult to imagine a dwindling population coming into conflict with settlements in their territory. Sheep and goat had been domesticated for centuries and would present easy prey. I looked at the etymology of bear and this isn’t so encouraging. In Koch’s Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopaedia (p121, p129 ) he notes that Welsh and Celtic words for bear were rooted in variations of ‘arto.’ This doesn’t go far in shedding doubt on the idea of a bear, but it makes me wonder why, if Beowulf had pre-Anglo-Saxon origins, ‘art/arto’ isn’t part of Grendel’s name? Let’s face it, if it was real, what else could it have been? Perhaps it was an early iteration of the Sawney Bean mythos whereby some cannibalistic family stalk the darkness on the outskirts of settlements? Such tales litter regional folklore and appear to have no basis in reality. A bear is likely the most parsimonious explanation beyond rural legend. Incidentally, beyond Bullfinch’s Mythology and childhood encyclopaedias, my abiding love of the Grendel story comes from a Marillion B-side where they played it live. Between that and the animated movie, the cultural impact of the story is rather impressive.’ Beowulf is certainly Germanic, my understanding though is that there is no consensus as to what the word means: though coming up with cooky theories is always good for bating Anglo-Saxonists. Thanks Jon K and CCBC!