The area of Beowulf is based on the epic Old English poem, which was probably composed sometime in the eighth century. Based on internal evidence, however, the events described are set sometime after the Saxons began colonizing the British Isles, but before the colonization was complete. The poem does not deal with Englishmen but with the Scandinavian tribes of the Geats and the Danes, who lived in southern Sweden and the Danish island of Zealand.

What Beowulf might have looked like. What Beowulf might have looked like.

The culture of the Danes was later spread southwards as well by Goths migrating from Danish and Swedish islands southwards towards their eventual conquest of Rome. It was a warrior-based culture, strong on community bonds. Kings or leaders had a band of warriors sworn to advise and defend them; hospitality was considered one of the highest virtues; and in the Old English language, kings were often referred to as 'gold-givers' or 'ring-givers.' These phrases, called kennings, are used a great deal in the poetry of the time.

The Danes and also the later Saxons who composed the poem were an extremely poetic culture, revering their 'scops' or bards as teachers and as the repositories of oral history. Much of the area of Beowulf is based on Gothic and Norse myth far older than the poem, the same myths that later became part of Wagner's Ring Cycle. The tale told by the scop in 'Beowulf' is a retelling of part of the legends of the Walsing tribe that make up the Volsunga Saga and the German Nibelungenlied, and it is not a stretch to equate the Geats of the Anglo-Saxon poem with the Gauts of the Norse sagas.


Related Links

The Electronic Beowulf
The Guide the the Electronic Beowulf
Ramsey Library Research Guide: Beowulf
The Beowulf Resources page, including translations of the poem
Bullfinch's Mythology: Beowulf
An adaptation from the Old English version by Dr. David Breeden