Aþum Swerian: Swearers of Oaths?

Beowulf is a story about a doomed people who are destined for annihilation as a result of depredation, feuding, and cyclical inter-tribal violence. Yet, the violence described in the poem is not always outward but often occurs from within, as acts of intra-tribal violence frame much of the narrative. Even seemingly positive events are thus generally short-lived. Accordingly, in the eminence of King Hrothgar’s glorious construction of Heort, the narrator reveals the hall’s imminent doom:  

Sele hlifade  
heah ond horn-geap.   Heaðo-wylma bad
laðan liges.                Ne wæs hit lenge þa gen  
þæt se ecg-hete aþum swerian 
æfter wæl-niðe wæcnan scolde. (81-5)

The hall sheared upward, high and horn-vaulted. For the battle-surge it waited, loathsome fire. Nor was it long before the edge hate of aþum swerian must awaken for slaughter-spite.

Beowulf Manuscript, excerpt with aþum swerian.” BL, Cotton Vitellius a.vx. MS 130v, BL 133v.

This dire prediction identifies the causal agents of disaster as aþum-swerian. But given that this term is unattested and grammatically invalid, we are bound to ask: Who are these aþum-swerian? The conventional approach solves this conundrum by creating a new term in imitation of such copulatives as suhtergefaedaran (“nephew and uncle” from Beowulf), gisunfader (“son and father” from Heliand), and sunufatarungo (“son and father” from Hildebrandslied). Following these models, the editors of Klaeber 4 (120, 350, 437) emend the term to aþum-sweoran, thereby conjoining aþum (sons-in-law) and sweoran (fathers-in-law). Because this solution apparently predicts the sundering of vows between Ingeld and Hrothgar (2022-66), this emendation has become the dominant convention. 

Nevertheless, there are problems. First, the emended term, glossed as “sons-in-law and fathers-in-law,” differs markedly from the models, which are glossed as “nephew and uncle” and “son and father.” And though the term is indeed attested with the gloss “son-in-law,” the rendering aþum-sweoran is a hapax legomenon attested nowhere in the extant corpus of Old English literature. Making the invention yet more suspect is the well-attested phrase, sweor ond aþum (father-in-law and son-in-law), which would seem to preclude a need for the copulative. 

The proposed term also falls short in its narratological salience. There are no “sons-in-law” implicated in the violence that erupts at Ingeld’s wedding, only one “son-in-law.” Yet more problematic, this single crisis cannot account for the apocalyptic imagery that frames Heorot’s catastrophe. Prior to the prediction of calamity, the hall’s construction is marked by an array of tropes that suggest the Tower of Babel. As Tristan Major observes, “Hrothgar’s rise to power [64-79] and the building of his hall, Heorot, echoes Nimrod and the Tower of Babel” (242).” Likewise, as Daniel Anlezark observes, the hall’s destruction is marked by retributive images of Flood and Hellfire (336-7). In sum, the proposed solution leaves important problems unresolved. It inaccurately predicts “sons-in-law” in respect to Ingeld. And it does not account for the apocalyptic imagery of idolatry, flame, and fire that marks Heorot’s doom.

The Tower of Babel. London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.IV, fol 19r. 

In this review, we promote an alternative initially proposed by Michael Alexander. This alternative interprets aþum as the plural dative “oaths” and emends swerian to the plural dative -swaran (swearers). The rendering “swearers of oaths,” acknowledged by Klaeber 4 as possible, has the advantage of relying on attested terms. The plural dative form aþum (oaths) occurs not only in the corpus but also in Beowulf, and the second term (-swara) occurs in a similar compound, man-swaran (criminal swearers). Yet more support for this construct can be found in the oath-swearing between Hengest and Finn. Here the term aðum also occurs as a plural dative, framing a parallel scenario in which oaths will be broken and a hall destroyed:

Fin Hengeste
elne, unflitme aðum benemde
þæt he þa wealafe weotena dome 
arum heolde, þæt ðær ænig mon 
wordum ne worcum wære ne bræce . . . .  (1097-100)

“Fin with Hengest without quarrel declared his oath that he would by his council’s judgment hold [the truce] with honor that any man there by word or deeds should not break the covenant . . . .”

The emendation to aþum-swaran also offers much stronger alignment with the narrative arc. Notably, this alignment begins with the paired disclosures that define Fitt I: Whereas the history of Grendel’s origin locates Cain’s act of murder as a calamity in the past, the prediction of murderous oath-swearers locates Heorot’s destruction as a calamity in the future. This parallel design is highly significant: In effect, it forges a link between Cain’s crime of kinship murder and the internecine violence that spells Heorot’s doom. This linkage, moreover, not only intimates the Danes’ ongoing state of iniquity but also explains the apocalyptic tropes that frame the hall’s calamity. Accordingly, Heorot’s doom emerges not as a circumstantial event caused by brawling Danes and Heathobards but as an in-kind retributive event that aligns perfidious Nordic warriors with the curse of exile from human joys, entailed in Cain’s crime and punishment.

Cain killing Abel with a scythe. Bible Historiale. British Library, MS Harley 4381, f.10r, 1403-1404.

Notably, also, the intimation of Danish perfidy is borne out across the narrative arc. Beowulf and the narrator declare Unferth’s fratricidal treachery; the narrator insinuates Hrothulf’s possible resentment against his uncle, Hrothgar; the lay of Finn and Hildeburh recounts the Danes’ violation of peace oaths in favor of murderous revenge; Hrothgar’s adoption of Beowulf sparks Wealhtheow’s resistance and her appeals to warriors in the hall; and Hrothgar violates his promise of protection to the Geats, potentially inciting Beowulf’s revenge. This surfeit of Danish treachery, in other words, aligns perfectly with the narrator’s revelation that “swearers of oaths” will soon incite violence.

For this reason, also, the reference to oath-swearers functions as a formula for suspense—a design that impels the audience to consider, in a fictive world replete with perfidy and oath-making, which of the oath-swearers will incite a conflagration? Will Unferth the fratricide murder again? Will Hrothulf avenge his displacement from the throne? Will one of the Danes retaliate against Hrothgar’s covenant with Beowulf, the foreigner? Will Wealhtheow incite the same kind of intertribal violence that erupts in the Frisians’ hall? Will Beowulf retaliate against Hrothgar for deserting his men?

The emendation to aþum-swaran presents a solution that is better attested and more meaningful than the conventional emendation to aþum-sweoran. As noted above, the gloss of “sons-in-law” does not possess predictive value regarding Ingeld, and the sundering of vows between Ingeld and Hrothgar cannot explain the apocalyptic imagery surrounding the disclosure of Heorot’s doom. Conversely, that same apocalyptic imagery aligns perfectly with a depiction of Danish society as inherently unstable, doomed to self-destruction, as the unchecked impulses of egoistic aggrandizement overcome the covenants that bind social order. Likewise, the depiction of Danish perfidy permeates the narrative arc. Accordingly, the disclosure of violent oath-swearers functions within an ingenious narrative design. It affords the schadenfreude of dramatic irony, as the audience anticipates a disaster the characters know not of. And it thus generates a game of blind corners, in which the audience’s knowledge of impending violence from oath-swearers charges subsequent events with anticipation and suspense. 

Chris Vinsonhaler & Richard Fahey
Medieval Institute
CUNY University & University of Notre Dame


Selected Bibliography & Further Reading

Alexander, Michael. Beowulf: A Glossed Text. Penguin Classics, 1995.

Anlezark, Daniel. Water and Fire: The Myth of the Flood in Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester U Press, 2006. 

Major, Tristan. Undoing Babel: The Tower of Babel in Anglo-Saxon Literature. U Toronto Press, 2018. 

Gendering the Harpy: Mythology, Medievalism, and Macabre Femininity

I have a fascination with the strange and obscure, and if I find oddities and curiosities during my travels that intersect with my medieval interests, even better. On a recent trip to Italy, I encountered a creature from both Greek mythology and medieval bestiaries at one of the most wonderfully macabre sites I’ve explored.

While on vacation in Rome this summer, I visited the Capuchin Crypt, an underground mausoleum containing an elaborate arrangement of human bones – lots and lots of bones. No one knows who designed the beautiful and haunting configurations comprised from the bones of approximately 3,700 bodies, presumably those belonging to Capuchin monks who sought refuge from religious persecution in France and perished while in Rome.

Unfortunately, photos are not allowed, and efforts to describe the intricacies and expanse of the design prove rather futile. Skulls and pelvic bones combine to create sculptures reminiscent of butterflies in the arches of doorways. Vertebra dot and line the ceilings of the chambers like so many fresco tiles. Massive piles of assorted bones have been shaped into seats for carefully posed skeletons. Reviewing his experience, the Marquis de Sade rated the exhibit five stars by modern standards.

Inside one of the chambers of the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, Italy, courtesy of the Liturgical Arts Journal.

But the crypt is a 17th-century construction. It’s the museum that contains the medieval bits, and that’s where I noticed an early print book, dated to the 15th or 16th century, that clearly depicted a cockatrice and that the museum had identified as a harpy.[1] To be fair, the label included a question mark, indicating that the curator was unsure as to what kind of creature was on display.

Far less familiar than the harpy, the cockatrice is a legendary creature with a dragon’s body and a rooster’s head. The beast was believed to be hatched from a rooster’s egg incubated by either a serpent or a toad. Its first recorded mention in English appears in a Wycliffite bible dated 1382.[2]

Labeled as a koketrice in this medieval bestiary from England circa 1500, the creature combines a rooster’s head and feet with a dragon’s wings and tail. (Yale Center for British Art, Helmingham Herbal and Bestiary, folio 18v).

The cockatrice seems to have become synonymous with the basilisk in medieval bestiaries. [3] Most often, basilisks are depicted as a bird, typically a rooster, with a snake’s take. In some illustrations, the basilisk is all snake in terms of physical characteristics, though often with a crest reminiscent of a rooster’s head. The mythologies of the cockatrice and basilisk also share similar elements. As with the basilisk, it is fatal for a person to look the cockatrice in the eyes. Both creatures’ breath can also cause death according to folklore.

This medieval bestiary dated 1225-50 and produced in England portrays the basilisk as the king of serpents with lesser snakes paying homage. The creature exhibits mostly serpent features but retains the wings, legs, and crown of a cock. (Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 764, folio 93v).

A harpy, in contrast to the cockatrice, has a bird’s body with a human head and no serpent components. When I mentioned the mislabeling to the front desk staff, I was told that a historian had recently visited the museum and indicated the reverse but without additional explanation. I assured them that the rooster-headed serpent was—hands down—a cockatrice. Harpies have bird bodies, human heads, and zero snake parts. As imperatively, harpies are depicted as female.

Illustration of a harpy from Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum Historia, Bologna, 1642, via World History Encyclopedia.

According to Greek mythology, harpyiai were winged female spirits thought to be embodied in sharp gusts of wind, and while certainly fearsome, they were not always so bestial. Known as the “hounds of Zeus,” the female entities were sent from Olympus to snatch people or objects from the earth. Sudden disappearances were, as a result, often attributed to the harpies.

In their earliest representations, harpies appeared as winged women, sometimes with the lower bodies of birds. They were vengeful creatures but not hideous in appearance. Writing between 750 and 650 BC, Hesiod describes harpies as winged maidens with beautiful hair, whom he praises for swiftness in flight that exceeds the speed of storms and birds. Homer, writing roughly around the same time, mentions a female harpy but says nothing derogatory about her looks.

By the end of the classical period, harpies had become monstrous portraits of femininity. They were birds with the heads of maidens, their faces visibly hungry, and had long claws extending from their hands. In the writings of Aeschylus around 500 BC, they are described as disgusting creatures with weeping eyes and foul breath. Virgil, in his Aeneid dated 30-19 BC, refers to them as bird-bodied and female-faced with talons for hands, whose faces reflect insatiable hunger and whose droppings are notably vile. These grotesque portrayals of the harpy—half woman, half monster—are the most well-known from classical mythology.

Harpies depicted as winged women take food from the table of the blind king Phineus on an Athenian vase from 480 BC housed at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Interestingly, one mythographer did stick a rooster’s head on the otherwise female body of a harpy. Writing in Rome during the 1st century AD, Hyginus describes harpies as having feathered bodies, wings, and cocks’ heads and the arms, bellies, breasts, and genitals of a human woman.[4] Still, there are no serpent parts here to suggest that a medieval image of a cockatrice might instead be a harpy based on Hyginus’s design.

During the Middle Ages, harpies may not have been so distinctly gendered, at least in their encyclopedic cataloguing. Most representations in medieval bestiaries depict the creatures with bird bodies and female faces, but several manuscript illustrations appear androgynous and some even portray the harpy with a beard. The beard, however, may not be indicative of a male beast but instead emphasize the beastliness of the female creature.

Illumination of a harpy with facial feathers reminiscent of a beard from the medieval encyclopedia Der Naturen Bloeme, or The Flower of Nature, written in Middle Dutch and produced in Flanders circa 1350 (Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KA 16, folio 75r).

Furthermore, Ovid’s retelling of the Jason story in his Metamorphoses specifically mentions the harpies having the faces of virgin women. Written in the 9th century, Ovid’s collection of myths served as a source text for many medieval writers, including Dante Alighieri and Geoffrey Chaucer, and his treatment of the harpies suggests that their association with female monstrosity continued to resonate soundly during the period.

Engraving of the harpies in the Forest of the Suicides in reference to Dante Alighieri’s Inferno by French printmaker Gustave Doré (1832-83).

Turning to the etymology of the term, the first recorded instance of harpy in English actually appears in Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale around 1405.[5] The creatures are not specifically gendered; they are simply mentioned among the monsters defeated by Hercules, at which point the text reads, “He Arpies slow, the crueel bryddes felle” [“He slew the Harpies, the fierce cruel birds”] (2100).[6] Yet one cannot help but see the feminine slippage in the spelling of “bryd,” meaning both “bird” and “bride” in Middle English.[7] Indeed, the term harpy adopts a derogatory connotation in writing by the mid- to late 15th century.[8] The term cockatrice, too, took on a negative meaning specifically with respect to women by the mid-16th century, at which point it referred to a prostitute or a sexually promiscuous woman.[9]

Illumination of a harpy with a female face from the medieval encyclopedia Liber de natura rerum, or Book on the Nature of Things, written in Latin and produced in France during the 13th century (Bibliothéque Municipale de Valenciennes, MS 320, folio 86r).

While it’s possible that the harpy may have maintained some gender ambiguity during the medieval period, contemporary etymology and ideology has synonymized the harpy with femaleness but also, importantly, with power. The sheer number of times Hillary Clinton was called a “harpy” during her presidential campaign highlights how a powerful woman was characterized as not only threatening but also monstrous while pursuing a position historically deemed male domain.[10]

Harpies in medieval fantasy films are also perched at the intersection of femaleness and power, glorious in their might regardless of how monstrous their bodies may be. The Last Unicorn, a 1982 animated adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s 1968 novel, provides a poignant example. Captured by a traveling circus, the titular character finds herself caged across from a harpy, the only authentic creature of legend in the menagerie apart from the unicorn herself.

In a magnificently ominous scene, the audience hears the harpy before they see her. A low growl grows to a raspy screech as the harpy appears on screen. She appears more bird than human, but her grotesque body is blatantly female with three elongated breasts visible beneath her beard and boar’s tusks. A knotted tree limb cracks from the strength of her talons, and her eyes glow red with rage when her captor approaches her cage. Once freed, she kills the old woman who boasted of keeping a harpy captive when no one else could.

In The Last Unicorn, the titular character recognizes the harpy as Celaeno, the same name given to one of the harpy sisters in the Greek story of Aeneas. The unicorn is freed from her cage under the cover of night, and she then proceeds to free her fellow immortal.

Considering the harpy’s history, it seems a shame to mistake her for any other creature from Greek mythology or medieval bestiaries. She has been such a fraught representation of both femininity and monstrosity, but she has also endured as a symbol of female ferocity. Even as her beauty eroded over the centuries, her power has not waned, and her macabre femininity has never ceased to inspire fear.

Emily McLemore
Ph.D. in English
University of Notre Dame


[1] Photos are prohibited in the museum, so I have no physical record of the image. I attempted to contact the Capuchin Museum regarding the object on display to acquire additional information, including the date and location of production, but received no response.

[2] “Cockatrice,” n. Oxford English Dictionary.

[3] “Basilisk,” The Medieval Bestiary.

[4] Fabulae from The Myths of Hyginus, translated and edited by Mary Grant.

[5] “Harpy,” n., def. 1, Oxford English Dictionary.

[6] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Monk’s Tale, The Canterbury Tales, Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website.

[7] “Brid” and “Brid(e,” n., Middle English Compendium, University of Michigan.

[8] “Harpy,” n., def. 2, Oxford English Dictionary.

[9] “Cockatrice,” n. def. 3, Oxford English Dictionary.

[10] For more on Greek mythology, female monstrosity, and contemporary resonance, I recommend Jess Zimmern’s Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology (Beacon Press 2022).

Aglæca: Awesome Opponent or Uncanny Invader?

One of the most challenging Old English terms to translate is the enigmatic aglæca, a term that has prompted an extensive amount of ink spilled. Earlier translators tended to gloss the term as “monster,” a definition that applies to the most frequent usage in the corpus. In this vein, J.R. Clark Hall’s Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary defines aglæca (m.) as “wretch, monster, demon, fierce enemy” and the related term, aglæc (n.) as “trouble, distress, oppression, misery, grief” (15). Similarly, Bosworth Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary offers these six definitions for aglæca (n.): “A miserable being, wretch, miscreant, monster, fierce combatant.” These foundational sources substantiate the many translations that render the term as “monster,” albeit with neutral exceptions such as “fierce combatant” when referring to positive figures and heroes.

A close up of a stone

Description automatically generated
Beowulf Manuscript, atol æglæca “terrible æglæca” BL, Cotton Vitellius a.vx. f145v.

Recent critical editions, however, reflect a different trajectory. These editions shift to something more akin to “fierce combatant” than “monster.” For example, in Beowulf: A Critical Edition, edited by Bruce Mitchell and Fred Robinson, the term appears as “fierce combatant, adversary” (241). Similarly, Klaeber’s Beowulf: Fourth Edition, edited by R.D. Fulk, Robert Bjork and John Niles, glosses aglæca (m.) as “one inspiring awe or misery, formidable one, afflicter, assailant, adversary, combatant” (347). Lastly, the University of Toronto’s Dictionary of Old English [DOE] adheres to this trend, in glossing the term as “awesome opponent, ferocious fighter.” None of these more recent editions include “monster” or “wretch” as definitions for the term, nor do any related terms such as “demon” or “miscreant” that carry an unequivocally pejorative sense.

The new convention attempts to solve a longstanding problem associated with Beowulf. In that poem, references to both monsters and heroes provoked a blatant inconsistency, which glossed negatively in referencing the monsters and positively in referencing the heroes. The proposed solution to this inconsistency was located in a reference to Bede as the aglæca lareow aglæca teacher, master, preacher.” Given Bede’s renowned for learned equanimity, it was reasoned that the term could not denote a pejorative meaning. Accordingly, the now conventional glosses, “awesome opponent, ferocious fighter” applied equally to demonic monsters (Satan in Juliana and Grendel in Beowulf), heroic warriors (Beowulf and Sigemund in Beowulf), missionary saints ( St. Andrew in Andreas) and the venerable scholar (Bede in the prose text, Byrhtferth’s Manual).

A painting of a person standing on a monkey

Description automatically generated
Depiction of Mambres with book contemplating Hell’s torments: from a scientific miscellany, England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1,  f. 87v.

The Old English poem Beowulf contains the majority of uses of aglæca forms in the entire literary Old English corpus. Indeed, 20 of the 34 iterations of aglæca occur in the poem (159, 425, 433, 556, 592, 646, 732, 739, 816, 893, 989, 1000, 1259, 1269, 1512, 2520, 2534, 2557, 2592, 2905), and 11 iterations apply specifically to Grendel (159, 425, 433, 591, 646, 732, 739, 816, 989, 1000, 1269), marking him as the primary aglæca in Old English literature. Outside of Beowulf, the term aglæca features predominantly for Satan and his demonic minions, marking the term as principally associated with devils. Including Grendel, references to explicitly demonic monsters as aglæca occur in 24 of its 34 occurrences, suggesting either a demonic or monstrous association and underscoring that aglæca often carries a pejorative sense. Moreover, if we apply a critical lens to some of the heroes in Beowulf who are labeled aglæca, namely Heremod, Sigemund and Beowulf himself, as Griffith, Koberl, Orchard, Gwara and others have done, the pejorative could then extend to the heroic figures in the poem.

In sum, the term is used primarily throughout the corpus to refer to monsters or demons—and above all Satan and Grendel. But, it is also notably used to describe heroes in Beowulf, Saint Andrew in the Old English Andreas, and most bewilderingly of all, to describe Bede. Alex Nicholls points this out in his transformative article highlighting this outlier reference to a renown and highly respected church father as an aglæca, which rightly prompted careful study aimed at reconsidering the Old English term’s semantics based primarily on the unusual context in which the term appears in this text, “Bede ‘Awe-inspiring’ Not ‘Monstrous’: Some Problems with Old English Aglæca.” And, while we commend this thoughtful reconsideration, we would argue that in fact the article may ultimately have had too large an impact on the semantics of the term, especially defined neutrally as “awesome opponent” as it appears in Toronto’s Dictionary of Old English. As in with other terms, here seems one where two definitions could help, one for the predominant usage of the term, and one that also accommodates the single prose use of the term for Bede. 

Detail of a miniature of the First Temptation of Christ: from a Psalter, England (Oxford), c. 1200–1225, Arundel MS 157, f. 5v.

One glaring problem with this solution is that the modern sense of “awesome” is primarily—almost universally—positive, which is diametrically opposed to what the extant lexicographical evidence suggests with respect to the semantics of aglæca. Instead, the sense is principally and overwhelmingly pejorative. Thus, we would argue that “awesome opponent” as a modern English translation does not bear out across the corpus. We contend rather that “awful opponent” would better capture the general sense of the term in the vast majority of contexts in which aglæca appears. But, even this isn’t quite right. 

Unfortunately, the DOE’s second definition provides an equally unsatisfactory solution in opting for “ferocious fighter” as a translation for aglæca. As Mark Griffith observes, if the term merely signifies an “formidable opponent,” or something similar, “then it is very curious that it is not used of other figures in the poetry who could be appropriately so labeled” (35). The term aglæca is a noun traditionally understood to be derived from a compound that combines a form of the ege, which Bosworth-Toller defines as “fear, terror, dread, awe” with a form of the verb lacan, which Bosworth-Toller defines as “to swing, to wave about, to play, to fight.” Thus, defining aglæca as “ferocious fighter” erases the wondrous and terrifying quality [ege] and strips the term of one of its formative elements.

Nichols offers “awe-inspiring” thereby maintaining the “fear” sense in the term, the semantics would apply to both monstrous figures (like Satan and Grendel) as well as marvelous/wonderous heroes. It is ege or “awe” in the sublime and wondrous sense of the term. We would argue that “monster” is actually not so bad a translation as the concept of “wonder” and “monster” in the medieval period were interwoven in the early medieval literature. Indeed, Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short’s A Latin Dictionary, generally regarded considered the best resource for medieval Latin, offers two definitions of monstrum:

1.) a divine omen indicating misfortune, an evil omen, portent
2.) a monster, monstrosity (whether a living being or an inanimate thing)

This wondrous, portentous quality—this uncanniness—is consistently applicable to aglæca —from Satan to Bede. There is of course also the combative aspect of the compound, which seems in every case to correspond to not only an intruder but something akin to a fearsome marauder—an uncanny invader.

Image of a scribe, perhaps Bede, from Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r.

This brings us back to Bede—the one lone positive iteration that seems not to carry a pejorative sense—which occurs in a text from later than most iterations (11th century) and is also the only iteration of the term in prose writing. While this use of the term for Bede is puzzling, though far from inexplicable, it seems overkill to disregard the pejorative sense that applies to the term in 33 of 34 iterations and interpret the semantics of the term as neutral because of a single outlier, especially one removed from the poetic and to a lesser extent the historical context in which the majority of uses of the term appear. Moreover, if we consider the possibility of including “wondrous intruder” as a definition for aglæca, it better applies to Bede’s supernatural visitation. While we are in no way advocating for a return to rendering aglæca as “monster” in modern English translations of Beowulf, nor do we consider “awesome opponent” or “ferocious fighter” suitable definitions for aglæca, because the former definition suggests disingenuously probative semantics and the latter disregards the sense of ege “awe” contained in the term. If the term aglæca is understood as a “wondrous intruder” or an “uncanny invader” it applies more neatly to all the Old English contexts in which the term appears. But even these translations lack satisfaction as they largely elide (or at least diminish) the fearful, pejorative sense carried by at least the major of the contexts in which the term appears. This is in part because the word “wonder” and its related forms in modern English are regarded much more positively, whereas an Old English wundor could certainly be marvelous in either a neutral or miraculous sense, but could equally be regarded as monstrous.

Richard Fahey & Chris Vinsonhaler
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame & CUNY University


Selected Bibliography & Further Reading

Fahey, Richard. “Grendel’s Shapeshifting: From Shadow Monster to Human Warrior.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. Medieval Institute: University of Notre Dame (October 27, 2021).

—. “Enigmatic Design & Psychomachic Monstrosity in Beowulf.” Dissertation: University of Notre Dame (2019).

—. “The Lay of Sigemund.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. Medieval Institute: University of Notre Dame (March 22, 2019).

Griffith, Mark. “Some Difficulties in Beowulf, Lines 874-902: Sigemund Reconsidered.” Anglo-Saxon England 24 (1995): 11-41.

Gwara, Scott. Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

Köberl, Johann. The Indeterminacy of Beowulf. Lanham, MD: University of America Press, 2002.

Nicholls, Alex. “Bede ‘Awe-inspiring’ Not ‘Monstrous’: Some Problems with Old English Aglæca.” Notes and Queries 38.2 (1991): 147-48.

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “Beowulf, Lines 702b-836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 23.4 (1981): 484-94.

Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Schulman, Jana K. “Monstrous Introductions: Ellengæst and Aglæcwif.” In Beowulf at Kalamazoo: Essays on Translation and Performance, 69-92. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2012.

Vinsonhaler, N. Chris. “The HearmscaÞa and the Handshake: Desire and Disruption in the Grendel Episode.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 47 (2016): 1-36.