Aeneas and Beowulf
Aeneas was the son of Anchises out of Venus (Hamilton 208), prince of Troy, a vagabond exile who became consort to a Queen and father of Rome. No other hero of antiquity had the piety so treasured by the Roman people. For his part, Beowulf was the son of Ecgbeow, exiled for his father’s crimes, Grendel’s bane, Dragon Slayer, and King of Geats. His deeds of valour are sung by Saxons and Norsemen alike. Separated by a great span of time and distance, Aeneas and Beowulf shared similarities in that both were all but fearless and are eternally remembered for their pious valor and the mighty deeds they wrought.
Aeneas of the “Iliad” was a Trojan prince. Valiant in his own right, though not as forthcoming in arms as his kinsman Hector, he labored mightily to protect his native Troy from the wrath of the Greeks (Camps 23). In the end, he failed and the realm fell to its enemies. He alone of the Trojan lords survived the rape of Troy and leads the survivors into exile. Thus does Homer conclude his tale of Aeneas, Aphrodite’s son.
In his quest to forge the founding epic of Rome, wise Virgil conceived the “Aeneid”, the saga of an exile who would become the true founder of Rome (Hamilton 220). Continuing where Homer left off, Virgil had Aeneas take the remnant of his people away from the land of their sorrows. He bore with him the statues of the household gods of Troy.
A pious symbolism of taking all that remained of Troy with him (Aeneid Book I). Daring the perils of the Mediterranean, he sailed about in a Greek lake. Every land he passed posed peril from Greeks, if not Cyclops, Harpies or other fell beasts. Yet for all his perils Aeneas held his course, he quailed not and only the charms of Queen Dido could stay the Trojans for long.
Beowulf, on the other hand, had no divine parentage. The true author of this saga cannot now be known. Tradition (Wikipedia) places the author as an Anglo-Saxon from the 7th century A.D. Unlike Aeneas, whose deeds were spun by the fruitful mind of Virgil, Beowulf may very well have been an actual King Geats sometime in the 5th century A.D.
However, his heroic deeds have placed him high in the pantheon of Anglo-Saxon heroes. Beowulf’s father Ecgbeow murdered Heaðolaf, a Wulfing noble. Unable to pay the were gild to compensate for killing Heaðolaf, Ecgbeow went into exile among the Danes. The Danish King Hroðgar paid the wereguild in his behalf and asked him to swear an oath. Ecgbeow then entered the service of the Geatish king Hreðel and marries his daughter. Their issue is Beowulf. Save for the banishment of his father, Beowulf origins were uneventful, a sharp contrast with the tale of Aeneas.
But soon enough, Beowulf was called to arms. Hroðgar and his court in Zealand are besieged by a demon named Grendel (Heaney 15). In payment for his father’s debt, Beowulf traveled from Geatland, essaying to slay Grendel if he might despite the knowledge that the no mortal weapons could harm the Grendel. So began the first of his three great battles. Grendel bore the mark of Cain and was feared by all save Beowulf only. In a mighty duel, Beowulf wrestled with Grendel and mastered him, tearing off his arm and sending Grendel scrambling home to die (Heaney 37). Beowulf then reaped great honor from King Hroðgar but earned ire of a new enemy; Grendel’s mother.
The second great battle of Beowulf was with no less than Grendel’s mother who also bore the dread mark of Cain (Heaney 88). Seeking vengeance for her dead son, she entered Hroðgar’s hall and slew Æschere, his most trusted warrior. As an aside, under the Germanic law of that day, death must be avenged with death or payment called a were gild. Thus Grendel’s mother conceived that she was merely upholding the law of vengeance (Heaney 101).
But since Hroðgar saw himself wronged once again, he essayed to slay Grendel’s mother. Again Beowulf played the heroes’ part. He dove right into the swamp and slew her with a sword that only he could wield. For the second time, he earns great honor for his deed. Here a Christian theme is played out. Thought to be dead, Beowulf returns to his fellows at ‘non’ that is, the 9th hour of day or 3:00 P.M., the same hour that Christ is said to have died (Tolkien 265).
Beowulf mastered the Cursed Spawn of Cain, the first murderer. They were demons that no lesser man could slay. Aeneas for his part was Cursed by Juno queen of the gods. But for Aeneas a lesser foe would be unworthy. Motivated by Paris’ rejection, Juno’s wrath for Troy (Hamilton 233) extended to Aeneas.
Juno’s hate is worsened by her foreknowledge that from the loins of Aeneas would come forth the race of high men who would lay low her own favored city of Carthage (Aeneid Book I). She causes a great storm to be cast upon the exiles’ fleet in a vain effort to annihilate them. The storm is so terrible that Aeneas’ fleet is driven off course and they end up on the shores of Carthage.
Dido, queen of Carthage, would find shipwrecked Aeneas and offer him Kingship of Carthage if only he would stay and love her (Hamilton 235). It is at this point that Aeneas’ piety is stirred anew for Mercury is sent to upbraid him. Shamed for straying from his destiny, Aeneas secretly leaves Carthage with all his folk, thus rekindling hope for the destiny of Rome but also earning the eternal ire of Dido’s heirs.
Aeneas held funeral games in honor of his dead father and shows his piety to his ancestor. (Hamilton 237). With Sibyl, he descended to the depths of Hades to hold converse with those who would become mighty among the Romans (Hamilton 240). His wavering faith is strengthened and ere long Aeneas leads his followers to the shores of Latinium. At last their wanderings are over, they can now rebuild their homes or so they hoped.
Beowulf too proves to be a pious man of high doom. His king Hygelac died in a raid. As the son of a Geatish princess Beowulf was offered the throne. He humbly declined in favor of prince Heardred his kinsman. Headred later harbored the Swedish princes Eadgil and Eanmund who fled Onela the usurper.
Eager to put an end to his foes, Onela invades Geatland and killed Headred. Beowulf was proclaimed King in his place and under the custom of were gild swore revenge against Onela (Heaney 165). The primary Beowulf text speaks little of this but Swedish sources speak of a counter invasion by Beowulf and Eadgil to restore Eadgil to the throne and avenge Headred (Olson).
A hero is best remembered for his greatest achievements, For a Roman hero it is his prowess for war. Juno stirred all of Latinium to war against Aeneas but this time he could resist her devices because the Trojans had become mighty in war (Camp 47). Outnumbered in a hostile land, Aeneas and the Trojans fought with desperate valor though they saw little hope.
Aeneas left camp to seek aid among his other neighbors first among his new allies is the boy Pallas. (Aeneid Book IX). Ere his gates were mastered, Aeneas returns with the valiant Etruscans. Many deeds worthy of song were forged in that war. Not the least was Aeneas’ pursuit of an Italian craven who allowed his son to die while he fled.
When the war reached an impasse, single combat was proposed between the captains (Aeneid Book XII). On the one hand was Aeneas, prince of Troy, and on the other Turnus, King of the Rutuli. Both coveted Lavinia, heiress of Latinium. Turnus was valiant in his own right but his foe was no mere mortal. In that duel Turnus fought valiantly but with no hope.
Virgil portrays Aeneas as a demigod who quickly mastered Turnus. The latter’s pleas for mercy fell on deaf ears when Aeneas saw that Turnus was wearing the armor of Pallas(Hamilton 245). A ‘true’ Roman, Aeneas accordingly slew his fallen foe in vengeance for fallen Pallas (Camps 35).
Memorable too was the final battle of Beowulf king of the Geats for 50 years. In his last days, his realm is plagued by a dragon. Despite his old age he tried to slay the Dragon in open battle but failed. Instead, he enters the Dragon’s lair accompanied only by Wiglaf his Swedish relative (Heaney 175). They succeeded in killing the Dragon but Beowulf was mortally wounded (Chance 53). According to Swedish scholar Birger Nerman, Beowulf lies in Skalunda Hög in West Geatland.
In the time of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxons and the other Germanic peoples were not yet Christianized. However, the saga tells of Germanic moral codes such as “were gild” and revenge for the slain overlaid with references to Christian Faith (Chance 47). For example, the mark of Cain, the hour of Non and Beowulf’s prayers to a “Father Almighty”, to name a few. So much so that Allen Cabaniss (101) proposed that the Beowulf was written precisely to parallel the Bible and present a Christian hero to the Anglo-Saxons.
By comparison, Aeneas was valiant and honorable, as most heroes are. He had a destiny to fulfill and a people to lead to safety. Son of a goddess, his chief foe was no less than the Queen of the gods (Camps 106). Though the saga was written by a Pagan hand, Aeneas shows “Christian” virtue as the Romans of Virgil’s time defined it. He was “pious” to friends and family, to his gods and most of all to his destiny (Camps 93). Many a time he was tempted to remain in comfort and ease in another land. Yet he ultimately resisted and would remain faithful continuing on his path to found Rome.
To conclude, Aeneas and Beowulf are valiant and brave as is fitting of true heroes. But to set them apart from the likes of Achilles, they are men who act not out of vanity and pride. Instead, they act out of service and a “pious” desire to fulfill what they believe is good.
Cabaniss, A. “Liturgy and Literature”. University of Alabama Press, 1970.
Camps W.A. Introduction to Virgils Aeneid. Oxford University Press 1969.
Chambers R.W. Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem, 3rd edn Cambridge Press 1959.
Chance, Jane. Tolkien’s Art a Mythology for England, University Press of Kentucky, 2001.
Fulk R.D. Interpretations of Beowulf: A Critical Anthology, Midland Book 1991.
Hamilton Edith: Mythology a timeless tale of gods and heroes, Warner books 1999.
Heaney Seamus, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Bilingual Edition) Norton Press 2000.
Tolkien, J.R.R. ‘Beowulf: the monsters and the critics’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 22 1936.
The Project Gutenberg Etext of Vergil’s Aeneid in English available at http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext95/anide10.txt (last accessed 14 Nov 07)
Olson, Oscar Ludvig, The Relation of the Hrolfs Saga Kraka and the Bjarkarimur to Beowulf A Contribution To The History Of Saga Development In England And The Scandinavian Countries available at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/14878 (last accessed 21 Nov 2007)