Anglo-Saxon Word(s) of the Week: Beasts of Battle!

Last week I crowd-sourced Facebook for suggestions of things people would like to see showing up on ASWotW. The suggestions were numerous, and many of them could be linked together in some way, so after taking a look at the list, and at my own list created from some aspects of my research I’d like to write about, I’ve come up with a plan: each month, the words chosen for individual weeks will be oriented around a central theme. And September’s theme? Animals! This month, you can expect to see animals in poetry, in food, in daily domestic life, and even once in a bit linguistic play from your translator.

Odin, preceded by an eagle and followed by a raven.

Odin, preceded by an eagle and followed by a raven.

For week one, I’m starting with an idea probably familiar to anyone who’s had a look at Anglo-Saxon battle poems: the beasts of battle. The term, first used in Francis Magoun’s 1955 article “The Theme of the Beasts of Battle in Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” refers to the raven, the wolf, and the eagle – three animals that commonly appeared in Germanic and Scandinavian poetry in connection with war. All three animals were known for eating carrion, and at least two of them – the raven and the wolf – were considered sacred to Odin in Germanic and Scandinavian mythological traditions. Though these religious connection are not present in the largely Christianised Old English texts, the animals themselves do still appear as heralds of battle in eight Old English poems, namely: The Battle of Brunanburh, The Battle of Maldon, Beowulf, Elene, Exodus, The Fight at Finnsburg, Genesis A, Judith, and The Wanderer.

First, the raven. The exact word in Old English is hræfn, but the bird was also referred to by several other kennings, or visual metaphors. You might see the word hræfn, but you might also read heard-nebba (literally ‘hard-beak)niht-roc (night-rook), or
wæl-ceásiga (which translates as the rather grim ‘chooser or picker of the battle-slain or corpse’).

Eagle, likewise, has a direct correlation in the Anglo-Saxon – earn – but might also be referred to as a gúþ-fugel or war-bird. I like to think that Gene Roddenberry’s Romulans read a lot of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

The word for wolf is probably the most familiar, as wulf is still present today in surnames. One of the kennings used to refer to wolves was mearc-weardwhich translates literally to ‘mark or border-warden’, and paints a picture of wolves stalking the edges of settlements, waiting at the borders of civilisation. Heoru-wearh is a compound only seen in poetry, and translates literally to ‘sword or bloody villain.’

Finally, to round out our brief and bird-filled discussion, a look at how the beasts of battle appear in Judith. The Anglo-Saxon is taken directly from the poem;prose translations are my own.

þæs se hlanca gefeah
wulf in walde                                  ond se wanna hrefn

*wælgífre fugel.                           Wistan begen

þæt him þa þeodguman                    þohton tilian

fylle on fægum.                     Ac him fleah on last

earn ætes georn                       urifethera

salowigpada                         sang hilde leoþ


Then the lean-flanked wolves in the woods were glad, and the dusky raven, that bloodthirsty bird – they knew that the warriors sought to lay for them a feast full of ill-fated men. The wet-feathered eagle, eager for flesh, flew in pursuit; dark-plumaged, hard-beaked, he sang a battle-song.


*I didn’t specifically cover wælgífre fugel in this entry, but you’ve seen wæl and fugelcare to do a little digging of your own and identify the other half of that compound, gífre?