What is a Beowulf?

Bear vs. Woodpecker

Brown bear photographed by Makeen Osman, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0. Great spotted woodpecker photographed by Maarten Visser and licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0. Compilation created by Lee Raye, and hereby released under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Species Mentioned: Possibly one bee-wolf (?Ursus Arctos? Dendrocopus Major?)

Source: ‘Beowulf’ the most famous Old English story.

Date: Uh-oh, best not to ask. The version we have probably somewhere c.700-1050.

Highlights: Beowulf is the all-star hero of his story, so his name must mean something, right? It quite nicely breaks down to beo-wulf (=bee-wolf). But what could a bee-wolf be?

‘Beowulf’ is an Old English text, which is found in only one early manuscript, the Nowell Codex. The manuscript is in poor condition, and parts of it are only legible with the assistance of a transcript taken in the eighteenth century (the Thorkelin Transcript).

The manuscript is usually dated to around 1000 A.D., but this estimate could be centuries off target. The text is unlikely to have been only ever recorded in the Nowell Codex, but since it is not preserved anywhere else it is difficult to be sure of this.

The text is named after it’s main character, Beowulf, but the origin of the name is harder to assess. Beowulf does not seem to have been a common name, and it is possible it was created for this character by the author of the story.

Most scholars of Old English agree that Beowulf is an Old English term which would be “Bee-Wolf” in modern English. If that’s true, the term is a “kenning”: a sort of riddling wordplay for the reader. So what is a bee-wolf? The answer is likely to be some kind of animal which acts like a hungry wolf even when faced with bees.

Sweet (1876) was the first to argue that a bee-wolf is probably actually a brown bear (U. arctos). Bears in modern European folklore are notoriously fond of honey, and will attack bee hives ignoring the stings to get at the honey found inside. They are also popular comparisons for heros. One of the common Old English terms for a warrior or lord is ‘beorn’ a word cognate with the Norse bjorn (a bear). This remains the most popular explanation to this day. It is supported by the many parallel stories which describe an actual bear or bear-son being attacked by a swamp monster.

However not everyone is comfortable with this hypothesis. Although the bear explanation is ingenious, it is important to note that the kenning refers to a wolf of bees rather than a wolf of honey. Brown bears do not eat bees, but another creature is famous this. The idea that the term ‘Beowulf’ was intended to mean woodpecker is the explanation suggested independently by Grimm (1836) and Skeat (1877).

Skeat (1877) in particular suggests the black woodpecker (D. martius) may have been the species intended because of its bee-eating ways, warlike spirit and its common distribution across Norway and Sweden. Skeat may have been premature with his species-level identification. The black woodpecker is not found in northern Norway at all (Hume, 2002, p.284), and many species of woodpeckers are known to eat bees (Conrad, 2007, p.181). The reference could just as easily refer to one of these. The picture at the top is of a great spotted woodpecker (D. major) which eats bees and is native to Britain, unlike the black woodpecker.

Grimm (1836) does not attempt a species level identification. However, he suggests that the nickname bee-eater is still common for woodpeckers in Germanic countries, and that two other Old English names: Beowa and Beowine may well also refer to woodpeckers. Both these arguments are denied by most scholars. ‘Beow’ means barley in Old English and at least one character called ‘Beowa’ is associated with the harvest as we shall see. Beowine alone is no more convincing because a bee-eater would not ordinarily be described as a ‘friend of the bee’. Grimm even goes so far as to say that the four swallows that are used in heraldry to represent Wessex could actually be misunderstood woodpeckers. However. the heraldry must have been first invented in much the same age as Beowulf was written, which allows very little time for the creature intended to be forgotten.

There are two other possibilities, both of which reject breaking down the name to ‘beo-wulf’. There seems to have been a mythical figure called Beow or Beowa in Germanic folklore who may have been associated with fertility. Kemble (1834, p.416) has noted this character is named in several genealogies. Several places also seem to have been named after him including a place in Wiltshire which was named Old English charter ‘Beowan hamm’. It is quite possible that Beowulf’s name comes from Beowa and has nothing to do with him being a bee-wolf at all. This theory is not popular, although it is usually accepted that the figure of Beowa must have had some influence on the story of Beowulf (ten Brink, 1877, p.376). Some modern translations of Beowulf call the king in the early part of the text Beowa, and only the later hero Beowulf.

The final possibility is suggested by the Bosworth Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. The dictionary suggests that the term Beowulf is a shortening of Beado-wulf, which in term is an Anglicisation of Norse ‘Böðúlfr’ (war-wolf). I have never seen this opinion advocated outside of the Dictionary.

Of course, the name could be no more than a name. Just like you probably never think of yourself as the meaning of your name, it’s possible that Beowulf was called Beowulf just because the author liked that name. Cynewulf and Seaxwulf don’t have to go through this. Can’t we just enjoy the story for what it is?

Even if it is supposed to mean something, isn’t this just an issue for pedantic academics? Not quite. There is at least one important issue which relates to it. Since the text only survives in Old English, the idea that it is a British text is a very common argument. But I recently explained that the brown bear is likely to have become extinct in Britain shortly after c.550 A.D (Hammon, 2010). With this in mind, it is unlikely the bear could have loomed large enough in its cultural landscape to inspire a British author to name their main character after an ambiguous riddle about the bear. More likely scenarios are either that the text was written in Scandinavia first or the hero’s name pre-dated ‘Beowulf’ the text. Ultimately researchers arguing for a British genesis for the text need to either espouse a different etymology (i.e. the Beowa or woodpecker hypothesis) or explain what special reason the authors had to name their saga after a bear.


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Conrad R. (2007) Natural Beekeeping. The Green Press Initiative, White River Junction, Vermont.

Grimm J (1836) ‘Gottingische gelehrte Anzeigen’ pp.199-200 in: Shippey TA & Haarder A (1998) Beowulf: The Critical Heritage. Routledge, London.

Hammon A (2010) The Brown Bear. pp.95-103. In: O’Connor, T& Sykes, N. ed. Extinctions and Invasions. Windgather Press, Oxford.

Kemble (1834) The Saxons in England. vol 1. 1875 ed. Bernard Quaritch, London.

Simrock KJ (1859) ‘Beowulf’, pp.305-14 in: Shippey TA & Haarder A (1998) Beowulf: The Critical Heritage. Rouledge, London

Skeat W (1877) The Name Beowulf. p.201. in: Cox G & Jones EH (1886 ed) Popular Romances of the Middle Ages. Henry Holt &Co, New York.

Sweet H (1876) An Anglo Saxon Reader. Macmillan &co, London.

ten Brink BKA (1877) ‘Beow’ pp375-80, in:Shippey TA & Haarder A (1998) Beowulf: The Critical Heritage. Rouledge, London.


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