Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Hygelac's Raid and the Necklace of the Brosings, Pt 2

In last week's post, I began looking at the curious comments in lines 1192-1214 of the Beowulf poem regarding Hama, Eormenric, and the Necklace of the Brosings. In today's post, I consider the necklace itself, and offer some suggestions as to the juxtaposition of this episode with the foreshadowing of Hygelac's death in the Frisian raid to wit: the poem may be much less critical of Hygelac than is typically thought.

The Necklace of the Brosings

The Brosinga mene mentioned here seems related to the Brisinga men of Old Norse legend as related in Þrymskviða and Husdrapa. In both poems it is the necklace of the goddess Freyja, and its name is associated in the Elder Edda with brisingr, an Old Norse poetic word for fire. Taken this way, its name might mean “shining necklace” or “bright necklace.”

The usage in Beowulf of Brosinga mene suggests another etymology: it may have originally been a necklace particularly associated with the Brisings or Brosings. In a case parallel with the etymology of the sword Tyrfing in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, a name which was originally associated with a particular group of people has lost its meaning and become associated with a physical object: most scholars accept that the name of the sword Tyrfing in this saga probably refers originally to the Tervingi, a tribe of the Goths. Over time the memory of the tribe was lost to Germanic legend, but the name itself remained closely associated with the legends about the Goths, and was ultimately transferred to the cursed sword of legend (Turville-Petre 86).

In Husdrapa, the Brisinga men is stolen from Freyja by Loki. The god Heimdallr pursues Loki, and after an extended battle manages to reclaim the necklace and return it to Freyja. Andy Orchard has suggested this story may be a distant preservation of the same myth which inspired the story of Hama and Eormenric (Orchard 116).

But we cannot confidently say more than that the Brosinga mene was a necklace of great value, perhaps originally associated with some people group supposed to have been subjugated by Eormenric.  And as Klaeber notes, this does little to explain how this apparently successful raid is meant to influence our reading of the foreshadowing of Hygelac’s doomed trip to the Rhineland (Klaeber 194).

The answer may lie in the text of Beowulf itself.

Whatever the details of Hama’s story as the Beowulf poet would have known it, it seems clear that by bringing the necklace of the Brosings to þære byrhtan byrig [to that bright fortress] Hama accomplished two things: he searoniðas fleah Eormenrices [fled* the treacherous hate of Eormenric] and geceas ecne ræd [chose eternal counsel].

Searoniðas [treacherous hate] is one of a number of nið compounds in Beowulf, including bealonið “violent enmity, baleful rage,” færnið “hostile attack,” herenið “war-hate,” hetenið “hate-violence, enmity,” inwitnið “hostile act,” and wælnið “deadly hate, murderous violence.” Bealonið is of particular interest, for it is used again in close proximity with ece rædas in Hrothgar’s sermon:

Bebeorh þe ðone bealonið,  Beowulf leofa,
Secg betesta,  ond þe þæt selre geceos,
Ece rædas…
(Beowulf 1758-60)

[Guard yourself against wicked hostility, dear Beowulf, best of warriors, and choose the better part: lasting rewards…]

Hrothgar’s advice to Beowulf comes at the end of two instructive parallels: the first is the story of Heremod, a king of the Danes who was eventually overtaken by his own bloody-mindedness. The second was the more generic story of “the man of noble family,” an explanation of where the rot sets in in the heroic society of the poem. Hrothgar tells Beowulf to avoid nið and choose ece rædas. Hama has escaped nið and chosen ecne ræd.

Given this close parallel, it is tempting to suggest that Eormenric takes on a Heremod-like role in the story. But it is enough to say that however the story of Hama ended—and the German and Scandinavian versions all agree it ended violently—by Hrothgar’s standards at least he behaved as a hero should.

The proximity of this reference to the foreshadowing of Hygelac’s death suggests a sympathetic reading of the Frisian raid. Change, as Hrothgar later suggests, is certain. In the face of such overwhelming certainty, heroes should dare—not grasp to hold on to what they have. The poet, like Hrothgar, Beowulf, and Hygelac, accepts that the wages of heroism is death, but does not consider this an indictment.

Nor need this contradict a possible censure of Hygelac’s wlenco [pride**].  For as Tom Shippey writes, “Much of the complexity of… Beowulf stems from the existence in it of two possible and valid attitudes to the heroic life—one admiring its strength and beauty… the other considering its disastrous long-term effects on nations and individuals. Accepting one does not mean denying the other” (Shippey 51).

By the apposition of the story of Hama and Eormenric with Hygelac’s death in battle, the poet allows his audience to understand the latter by means of the former, and in doing so strikes the delicate balance which is the artistic hallmark of the poem.

Or perhaps “passed through” if one takes the MS reading of fealh, as Kiernan does (eBeowulf 1202).
** wlenco may also be translated "high spirits," and whether it is intended as a pejorative is debatable (Klaeber 459).

Works Cited:

“Ævilok Heimis ok Þiðreks konungs.” Edited by Guðni Jonsson, Þiðreks saga af Bern. heimskringla.no/wiki/%C3%9Ei%C3%B0reks_saga_af_Bern_-_%C3%86vilok_Heimis_ok_%C3%9Ei%C3%B0reks_konungs.

Chambers, R. W. Widsith: A Study in Old English Heroic Legend. Russel & Russel, 1965.

“Deor.” Anglo-Saxons.net : Deor, Sean Miller, www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/?do=get&type=text&id=Deor.

Kiernan, Kevin and Ionut Emil Iacob. Electronic Beowulf, Online Fourth Edition. University of Kentucky, 2015, http://ebeowulf.uky.edu/ebeo4.0/start.html.

Faulkes, Anthony. A New Introduction to Old Norse. Vol. 2, Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011.

Klaeber, Frederick, R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles. Klaeber's Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. U of Toronto, 2008.

Orchard, Andy. A Critical Companion to Beowulf. Brewer, 2004.

Shippey, Thomas A. Old English Verse. Hutchinson, 1972.

Turville-Petre, Gabriel, editor. Hervarar Saga ok Heiðreks. Viking Soc. for Northern Research, 2006.

Thorpe, Benjamin. Beowulf: Together with Widsith and the Fight at Finnesburg. Barron, 1962.

Currently Reading: The Legend of Brynhild, by Theodore Anderson
Current Audio Book: The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien
Currently Translating: Skeireins (Gothic commentary on the Gospel of John)


  1. or would glory be the wages of heroism? Since we all die, we want to die well and win the lasting reward of glory rather than the ignominy of hatred.

    1. That's certainly how Beowulf would have characterized it.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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