WEALTH'S DISEASE: BEOWULF AND
THE RETURN OF THE HOARD1
"I speak with my words thanks to the Lord of All for these treasures, to the King of Glories, Eternal Prince, for what I gaze on here, that I might get such for my people before my death-day..." Beowulf (Donaldson, trans., 1974, 79)
"... Now haste is best, that we look on the people's king there and bring him who gave us rings on his way to the funeral pyre. Nor shall only a small share melt with the great-hearted one, but there is a hoard of treasure, gold uncounted, grimly purchased, and rings bought at the last now with his own life. These shall the fire devour, flames enfold..." (ibid, 83)
Treasure Hoards in Ritual and Epic
It had never seemed easy to understand: Beowulf slays a dragon, wins its treasure hoard, and expresses pleasure that he could enrich his people, and then his people quickly consign the hoard to his pyre along with other treasure collected just for the funeral. Then several years ago my teacher Robert Creed gave me Janet Levy's article (1982) about Bronze Age treasure hoards, suggesting that it had some bearing on this enigmatic final third of Beowulf. That suggestion has led to this chapter, which relates the archaeological pattern of treasure hoards to the story pattern of the treasure hoard in Beowulf. I also examine briefly an analogous pattern in the Old Norse lays of Sigurth. Together, the archaeological and narrative patterns form the greater picture of what may have been an important ritual in early Germanic culture. The role of story traditions in supporting this ritual is the topic of concern here, and from it we begin to discover the relationships between social problems, rituals, and narrative art.
Hoards of valuable objects occur in Europe's archaeological record from the Bronze Age through the medieval period. (Although note that hoards are found in other times and places, and perhaps deposited for different purposes; see for example Smith 1976, 47 (Paleolithic [19,000 YBP] hoard of flint blades in France), and Clark 1968, 184, 250 (Neolithic European hoards of flint bars and axes). These are generally caches of valuable objects not directly associated with human remains, and so hoards usually form a counterpoint to funeral goods. Archaeologists have often suggested that these caches are votive offerings or attempts to safeguard valuables in times that did not have bank vaults. (See Bradley 1990 for a general review of approaches to hoards from the Neolithic to the Roman Iron Age in Europe.) These general explanations are logical but only tell us that people made sacrifices or feared plundering expeditions or local thieves. However, Janet Levy (1979; 1981; 1982) offers another explanation for Bronze Age finds, whose approach, as I already mentioned, I apply to the Iron Age. Levy correlates the existence of internal tensions of a society — especially the tension produced by the differential distribution of wealth — with the use of hoarding to reduce those tensions. I became interested in her idea as I was studying the other record of past behavior, storytelling. In particular, Beowulf and the Sigurth story recorded from medieval Europe preserve information about hoards.
The dragon and its hoard in Beowulf has itself generated much thought. Cherniss (1968, 473) summarizes the situation well:
The final one-third of Beowulf, that portion of the poem which deals with the hoard, the dragon, and the death of the hero, continues to be a source of problems and cruxes for modern scholars and critics. Many have offered various explanations for the burial, discovery, rifling, conquest and final cremation of the dragon's store of treasure, but still the controversies go on and questions remain unanswered. What, precisely, is the significance of the dragon? What is the nature and ultimate effect of the curse on the hoard? Why is the hoard not distributed among Beowulf's comitatus?
I will try to answer some of these questions by considering explanations of treasure hoards proposed by anthropological archaeologists; then I will extrapolate the consequences of these explanations to the story patterns to discover their own specific role. Epics have sometimes been expected to verify archaeological reconstructions of past cultures, as Schilemann expected the Iliad to validate the Trojan war (of course, he was deceptively proved correct, because there were many 'Troys' over the site's long history, and the city was destroyed many times, by raids and earthquakes). But ancient stories can themselves retain information that the trowel and transit cannot yield. Archaeologists suggest ways in which treasure hoards were part of an adaptive mechanism for reducing social tensions and inflation; I will examine how hoarding and poetry were complementary components of this mechanism.
Literary Criticism about the Beowulf Hoard
First, I will summarize Beowulf, focusing on the final third of the poem containing the dragon hoard episode. The poem, set in the early sixth century A.D., can be approximately divided in three main parts.
In the first third, Hrothgar, an aged Danish king, is plagued by an ogre named Grendel, who had become envious of the joy he hears streaming from the royal hall. Grendel had attacked the hall and occupied it nightly for 12 years so that none could enter this symbol of community. Beowulf, a Geat (the Geats are from the southern part of Sweden) hears of the monster's depredation and sails forth with companions to offer help against the monster. He rips off Grendel's arm in combat in the hall.
In the second third, following joyous celebrations, Grendel's mother, an even stronger ogre, attacks the hall and kills Hrothgar's old companion. Beowulf again offers service, entering Grendel's mere, swimming downward to kill Grendel's mother and bring back Grendel's head (he sees piled treasure in the underwater hall but takes none of it). Beowulf returns to his home and tells his story and gives his gifts to his own king, Hygelac, who rewards him with a sword and a throne.
In the last third, the story jumps over many years. Beowulf is now an old king himself, having ruled the Geats for 50 years. A fugitive slave accidentally finds a hoard of treasure guarded by a dragon. In a flash-back, the poet depicts the Last Survivor, who buried the treasure after the last of his people were killed in war. Later, a dragon finds and guards the treasure. The thief steals a cup to bring back to his master as a peace offering, and the enraged dragon lays waste the kingdom with his fiery breath. Beowulf prepares to fight the dragon. He seeks the dragon's barrow (which is described to be rather like a Neolithic passage grave), speaks of his own history, then orders his companions to withdraw as he challenges the dragon. The dragon comes forth, Beowulf breaks his sword on its head, is overwhelmed by flames and a poisonous bite to the neck, and his companions flee to the woods. Only his young nephew, Wiglaf, comes to his aid, and Beowulf is at last able to slay the beast, though he now lies dying from wounds. After his death, Wiglaf exposes the hoard to the public and arranges for Beowulf to be cremated and the hoard deposited with him.
Literary discussion of the hoard might well start with the dragon who guards it. Scholars have used the dragon with its western associations with the Devil to explicate the poem as a Christian rather than a pagan epic. The dragon has been seen realistically (as a great creature but an enemy like any other), a symbol (the dragon is death), and allegorical (the dragon is Satan) (Calder 1972, 33). Dual roles have also been proposed — dragon as either satanic serpent or the world serpent from Germanic myth (Fisher 1958, 182). The dragon has also been seen simply as an agent of fate rather than a creature of evil (Leyerle 1965, 91), and as a presider over treasure that symbolizes reciprocity, honor, hall joy, and protection (Berger and Leicester 1974, 66). Helder (1977, 321) feels that the hoard thief is a righteous man taking back treasure from the miserly dragon, a treasure which, like the ideal of Heorot, symbolizes social harmony when distributed properly. Thus the princes who laid the spell on the hoard are likewise guilty of hiding treasure (ibid, 322) — a viewpoint that should now be tempered by Levy's theory of hoarding. The dragon has even been seen as an incarnation of the Last Survivor (the speaker who inters the hoard and utters the elegy over it near the beginning of the dragon passage), who, like Fafnir in Norse lore, might have turned himself into a dragon, although the poet has stated the speaker dies (Klaeber 1950, 209). Sisam notes that Beowulf's, Sigurth's, and Frotho's dragons are all vulnerable in the same way, suggesting a tradition of Germanic dragons (1958, 134). He also notes that the words for the dragon's den — beorh and hlæw — can mean both mountain or tumulus, and so the hoard might well be either natural or artificial in setting (ibid, 131-132).
In the dragon passage Beowulf himself has been seen as 1) a deliverer and sacrifice for his people (ibid, 178), 2) a failure through his pride and self-will (ibid, 183), 3) a man damned to Hell (symbolized by his funeral pyre) because of his avarice and earthliness (Brown 1980), and 4) one doomed by social restrictions (as I discuss later).
The hoard has been discussed as a symbol of earthly wealth in a Christian, antimaterialist context rather than as a treasure in the Germanic social context (Fisher 1958, 181), and as a means to honor Beowulf for his victory over the dragon (Sisam 1958, 139) and service to his people (Cherniss 1968, 485). The poet may even be ambivalent about the hoard, seeing it as representative of useless things in general (Berger and Leicester 1974, 74).
These arguments have been put forth by some remarkable scholars. However, in the tradition of Occam's Razor I want to shear away from these arguments and return to a more direct explanation assisted by modern archaeological theory: first, that the Beowulf poet was speaking of material things well known in Germanic society — exotic status goods — rather than of moral philosophies whose context is more modern than ancient; and second, that rather than borrowing from a relatively new religious symbology, the poet was rather drawing his dragon out of a native symbol for the terrible events that might spring from a disease of overabundant wealth. I will now describe this illness and a possible prevention of it.
The Functions of Bronze Age Hoarding
To start, I ask my reader to follow me through a general archaeological discussion pertaining to the facts and theories of treasure hoards, following which we can consider the narrative traditions that may have supported the rituals of hoards.
Hoards have traditionally been categorized in these ways: 1) personal hoards: an individual's personal valuables buried for safe keeping; 2) industrial hoards, consisting of merchants' hoards: fresh pieces awaiting distribution to customers; and 3) founders' hoards: scrap metal awaiting reworking (Bradley 1990, 12-13). In general all of these hoards have been thought of as "utilitarian hoards" (ibid). Archaeologists sometimes use the term 'cache' for such hoards.
Bradley notes that "...specialists in different archaeological periods take the term 'hoard' to mean different things" (ibid, 15). Interestingly, the Old English poet did, too, the word hord meaning both the cache of wealth a chief had at hand for his use (usually for distribution to followers) and the wealth deposited in the dragon's barrow. But problems have arisen with these different scholarly traditions, problems that have impeded a broad understanding of hoarding (ibid). Levy's approach to hoards marks an important break with traditional approaches.
My theory is based on Levy's work — or the assumption that certain kinds of hoards were deposited for ritualistic purposes and not for directly practical ones. Some hoards are evidence of such practical concerns as the guarding of valuables against theft. But if all hoards reflect only a concern for safety, one might expect more of them to be of a varied, personalized nature. Yet particular guidelines seem to have dictated the deposition of some hoards, as Levy has discovered in her Scandinavian assemblage. She notes that Bronze Age hoards sometimes contained sets of artifacts that denoted ranks of high-status people (1982). She suggests that the conspicuous wealth of such people caused social tensions — what I call the 'envy syndrome' — and that hoarding these status symbols would remove them from sight and reduce conflict. I quote Levy (1982, 45) at length:
It would have been very useful to the elite if they could have maintained their control over fertility religion. A population is not likely to rebel against those who control access to a spiritual world which influences health and prosperity. Yet, where differences in wealth and prosperity exist, resentment and rebellion may grow despite fears of spiritual retribution. The offering ritual, as reflected in the hoards...helped to ameliorate these tensions. It consisted, after all, of burying wealth and status symbols. The ritual thus allowed high status individuals to demonstrate their power by making the appropriate gifts to the gods. At the same time, it served to remove wealth and sumptuary goods from the elite's control. When the offering ritual was over, the elite were reduced in wealth and lost control of the very sumptuary goods that had set them apart from the general population. Tensions would be eased, yet the hierarchical ranking would remain clear.
Analogies to this mechanism exist in the present. Levy (ibid) cites an example in the cargo ritual in Mesoamerica, in which
...the expenses and organization (called cargoes) of various religious festivals rotate among the wealthy and high-status men of the community. Social position can be maintained only by taking on the most expensive and complex cargoes. Whoever takes on the responsibility is almost impoverished in the process, but public acknowledgment of his contribution to the festival strengthens his elite status. Nevertheless, envy of his wealth is lessened in the rest of the community because his resources are greatly reduced.
Levy has described the effects of a 'ritual of communion', which reduces evident status. Perhaps such a ritual is akin to rituals of status reversal, which Victor Turner has studied. He states that these rituals "...reaffirm the hierarchical principle" when low-status people mimic or caricature high status people, and also by "...restraining the initiatives of the proud" (1969, 176). He observes that these status rituals occur at fixed points of the annual cycle, near movable feasts, and "...when calamity threatens the total community" (p. 177). Such rituals reaffirm the hierarchical order of society because order is not destroyed, but instead reversed for a short time before those of high status are again returned to their positions, humiliated but back in their high seats. "Rituals of status reversal, either placed at strategic points in the annual circle or generated by disasters conceived of being the result of grave social sins, are thought of as bringing social structure and communitas into right mutual relation once again" (p. 178). He concludes that the liminal state that occurs during rituals of status reversal offers "release" to the superior whereas inferiors enjoy temporary rank (p. 200-201).* Turner's definition of communitas as a Utopia in which equality and lack of property are equated (p. 134) seems useful to apply to the hoarding ritual, in which status seems to be destroyed (submitted during the ritual) and people are forced to seem equal in terms of their material goods.
Bradley (1990, 38) challenges Levy's analysis:
If they were able to display their status so effectively through the offerings that they provided, it is hard to see quite how any 'leveling' mechanisms can have operated. And if the population was equally reassured by their leaders' knack of accumulating wealth and by their willingness to let it go, it is hard to see why this charade was so beneficial.
An answer to these questions may exist in the possibility that the population is indeed impressed by the discarding of material goods because few others were rich or 'generous' enough to make such a sacrifice (when this behavior is ritualized, anthropologists call it potlatch, which I discuss below). When elites rid themselves of visible status goods, stress arising from the material inequity of the community is eased (or "leveled"), but the fact the the elite were rich enough and generous (or holy) enough to make an offering in the first place is a fact that easily remains in the population's memory,
* "Communitas" is Turner's term for the liminal period of status transition in which all social structure is abolished for those about to undergo a change of status. Communitas blends "lowliness and sacredness...homogeneity and comradeship...a communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of ritual elders." Communitas is opposed to the normal system of relationships in hierarchical society which separates individuals "in terms of 'more' or 'less'" (1969, 96).
and the elite guarantee themselves respect in the community and a charter for their position of authority. The reputation of the sacrificers would earn them status as news of the sacrifice circulated through the oral tradition of the community, both soon after the sacrifice and in later times.
We should also consider that hoards do not represent the entire material wealth of a community — no evidence supports this notion. Therefore, a hoard ritual may represent material goods considered to be in excess of some amount that the community thought was sufficient for its elite (as an analogy, we may not begrudge a financially successful person a Mercedes Benz automobile, especially if the person is reputed to have 'earned' it; and yet we might think the ownership of a car for each day of the week to be excessive materialistic behavior). The elite may have collected this excess wealth through trade or war or well-managed industry. The wealth must go somewhere, at least in a chiefdom or egalitarian society. Perhaps the elite could not or did not wish to distribute wealth to the community, for reasons discussed below. And so distribution to the gods is an acceptable alternative, still leaving the elite with socially-acceptable status goods but reduced stress. I say stress is reduced, even if the elite retains some goods, because unused wealth must have been a curse itself as the community waited tensely to see where it would go — to create alliances with other elite or subordinates, or to fulfil ritual obligations, or to sit unused, unhelpful to human or god, the worst possibility of all.
Second, if the population is impressed, to use Bradley's words, by their leaders' knack of accumulating and sacrificing wealth, then their respect need not surprize us. The ability to accumulate wealth might, in the ancient community, have been perceived as verification of the luck and prowess of the community's leader, certainly a thing to be proud of, especially when wealth is returned to the gods to fulfill important contracts with the supernatural forces perceived to govern life. Levy's analysis of the benefits of hoarding seems to hold strong.
In support of these ideas, note that in many societies wealth production is encouraged, but not necessarily its retention (John R. Cole, personal communication 1992). As stated above, the ability to accumulate wealth might be perceived to be a good thing — especially when wealth is distributed in socially approved directions. The existence of potlatch ceremonies in different parts of the world attests to this general philosophy. The term 'potlatch' specifically refers to the "... extravagant ceremonial distribution of property by North Pacific Coast [Kwakiutl Indian] chiefs to chiefs and nobles of the moiety opposite their own, given in order to establish superiority in social and political status, or to assume inherited status" (Leach 1972 rpt./1949, 882).
This type of ritual was first studied extensively after the 'inexplicable' Kwakiutl ritual was discovered. At potlatch rituals, food was given away to guests from other groups by powerful chiefs — those vying for the status to be gained by 'outgiving' other powerful chiefs — or valuable materials such as fish oil, blankets gained from fur trading, and sometimes even the chief's own house, were destroyed; the more material that one could afford to give away or destroy, the more status one could attain to attract followers (Harris 1974, 112-115).
Potlatch serves more than the 'big man' vying for status. True, in such rituals it is a fine thing to show off your wealth and earn status, but the wealth is consumed by the local population. As the giver receives respect, the receivers receive gifts or food. The society in general also benefits, as Harris (1974, 118-119) writes:
Under conditions where everyone has equal access to the means of subsistence, competitive feasting serves the practical function of preventing the labor force from falling back to levels of productivity that offer no margins for safety in crises such as war and crop failures. ... [and in addition:] Despite the overt competitive thrust of potlatch, it functioned aboriginally to transfer food and other valuables from centers of high productivity to less fortunate villages.
The only losing group is the one comprising competitors for status who become ruined economically as they spend but do not win the competition.
The term 'potlatch' is generally used in anthropology to label similar rituals in other societies, as Harris (1974, 116) notes:
All of the basic ingredients of the Kwakiutl giveaways, except for their destructive aspects, are present in primitive societies widely dispersed over different parts of the globe. Stripped down to its elementary core, the potlatch is a competitive feast, a nearly universal mechanism for assuring the production and distribution of wealth among peoples who have not yet fully acquired a ruling class.
Bradley suggests that some European hoards represent the 'potlatch-type' of competition, which is an alternative to Levy's theory that also seems compelling; his theory has the important distinction that the redistribution ceremony leaves the local gods wealthy rather than the local human population. Thus, the individual making a hoard offering can gain status while ruining his competitors at the same time, even though in the hoard ritual the wealth is given to the supernatural community. Offerings made to the gods might earn the depositor status, thus sparking competition among other elite (analogous to potlatch ceremonies). In effect, the richest person wins, because he has the material wealth to continue disposing of, whereas, to keep up with him, competitors drive themselves to ruin. This event can happen because of the general concept in these societies that holds that to give gifts is to gain alliances, but to receive gifts is to admit subordination to the giver (Bradley 1990, 38-39). Additionally, unlike gifts to humans, which can be returned to fulfill the original debt and end subordination, gifts to the gods cannot be returned, and competitors have a reduced metal supply after the ceremony and are less able to respond with a counter ritual (ibid, 138).
In the end, whether one accepts either Levy's or Bradley's theory, troublesome status goods are removed from society, and the status of the most powerful elite is maintained. At the same time, perhaps, the community is centralized because the weaker leaders have been reduced in the competition, or given incentive to try again later. Observe that my theory about the function of the poetry to support hoarding (by showing the consequences of recovering the goods) remains unchanged no matter what viewpoint we take of the hoarding ritual: the poems always assist the ritual by supporting the notion that hoarded goods must stay hoarded.
Besides reducing conflicts associated with the envy of conspicuous status, the ritualistic deposition of hoards may have also mitigated problems created when inflation reduced the value of prestige goods. The hypothesis of inflation has been developed by other authors in regard to exchange systems (Dupre and Rey 1973, Rathje 1975, Haselgrove 1982, Halstead and O'Shea 1982) and in regard to the value of status symbols (Champion, Gamble, Shennan, and Whittle 1984). Haselgrove writes,
As Dupre and Rey (1973) point out, because the production of prestige goods is an integral part of the [social] system, there will be a tendency for them to accumulate, leading to an 'inflationary spiral' and the collapse of the whole structure, unless some form of periodic readjustment is made. Such readjustments may be particularly vital where a major external input of prestige items is involved, and such behavior patterns as burial, hoarding and votive deposition might well have a role in the overall regulation of the system. (1982, 82)
(See Note 2, where I mention a possible source of "major external input of prestige items".)
Champion's (et al) concept of inflation also seems applicable to eras after the Bronze Age even though these authors use the Bronze Age for their application:
The value of the status conferred by such objects [of prestige]... depended on control over their supply and on limitation of the quantity available; the more bronze there was in a society, for instance, the harder it would be to restrict access to it, with the consequent risk of diminution in the status to be derived from its manipulation. One solution to this problem was to take prestige items out of circulation by depositing them where they would not be recovered; it would be then possible to continue to acquire them by exchange without the risk of lowering their value. (ibid, 294)
In such a case, high-status people whose rank is partly dependent on their monopoly and distribution of trade goods can maintain their rank; this might be called the 'selfish' hypothesis of hoarding, although some communal importance to keeping the elite in power is not necessarily excluded (see, for example, Earle 1987 on the managerial function of the elite in chiefdoms).
Inflation could affect the position of entire groups in relation to other groups. Haselgrove (1982, 81) suggests that groups monopolizing trade in prestige goods were able to exchange the goods in return for tribute: "...whereas within the lineage the supply of prestige goods is merely used to regulate the advance of individuals to senior status, between groups it is used to maintain a permanent difference of status between lineages, which is nevertheless advantageous to the seniors of a dependent lineage in that they receive the prestige goods they require to regulate the reproduction of their own group." I extrapolate these consequences: when abundant prestige items become devalued, the previously subordinate groups might no longer sacrifice materials or services to acquire these objects, and the would-be monopolizer might have suffered reduced power.
Finally, I have speculated that over-abundant status objects might have also created confusion in a community when distribution of the objects 'created' many apparent leaders or 'big men'. For example, such a situation could exist after a successful battle, in which valued objects (war booty) might suddenly flood the group of victors. In this case, those with the actual capability and training for leadership would have suffered reduced effectiveness because inflation would affect (perhaps increase) positions of leadership rather than simply the status goods attending those positions. That is, too many roosters spoil the coop. The community would have been less centralized or united for some time, which might have cause danger during times of crisis when a strong, central leadership is desirable (as in times of war). The hoarding ritual, if it were a community event calling for ritual donations from those who could donate, would relieve individuals of status objects, leaving, perhaps, the original elite in control of the majority of the goods. In this case, the person with the most toys in the end really does 'win' and retains the most control over the community, for better or worse.
I am not seeking to determine whether the various possible tensions arising from overabundant prestige items were co-existent or mutually exclusive. What is important is that ritualized hoarding can reduce any of the pathologies mentioned above by removing from circulation those valuable objects which are ordinarily expected to be distributed. Few people will withhold tribute to the gods.