Name Date Historical Context: Anglo-Saxons, Norse Mythology, and kennings

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Historical Context: Anglo-Saxons, Norse Mythology, and kennings

The epic poem, Beowulf, stems from the Anglo-Saxon tradition, which was influenced by Norse mythology.

The Anglo-Saxons

The term “Anglo-Saxon” generally refers to the people who came to Britain from the regions surrounding the North Sea, including present-day Denmark and the northern coasts of Germany, Netherlands, and France. While these people intermittently invaded Britain in the early 1st century CE, they remained in the region after 449 CE.

At this point, the Saxons from Saxony and the Angles from Denmark controlled Britain until the 11th century when it was invaded by the Romans. The term “Anglo-Saxon” was first officially used by Alfred the Great in the 890s when he declared himself King of the Anglo-Saxons to show that he ruled over all of the English people. In addition to the early English people, Anglo-Saxon also refers to the language spoken by these people.
Norse Mythology

Since the Anglo-Saxon people immigrated to Britain from the Norse regions, it logically follows that Beowulf would leave Britain to perform his tasks in Scandinavia. Norse mythology relates the legends of its tribes while memorializing the clans’ founders in myths. Many of these heroes actually resurface in several forms. The hero Beowulf also appears under the name Bödvar Bjarki.

Norse mythology encompasses nine worlds—the worlds of average human experience, elves, black elves, Norse gods, fire, giants, those who die from age or sickness, those who fight against the gods, and the netherworld. Each of these worlds is connected by Yggdrasil, a giant tree with Asgard at its top. In Norse mythology, Asgard plays a similar role to that of Mount Olympus in Greek mythology. According to Norse legends, Odin, the main God, resides in Valhalla in Asgard which can also be reached by a rainbow bridge guarded by Heimdall, a god who can see and hear for 1000 miles. As good usually balances evil in mythology, Nidhogg, a ferocious serpent or dragon, chews at the world tree’s roots and shieldmaidens act as warrior heroines who try to impede each hero’s journey.

Replete in the Norse which influenced the Beowulf poet and in the Anglo-Saxon language in which he wrote, kennings present a particular challenge to the modern day English reader and translator. Strongly associated with the Old Norse, Icelandic, and Anglo-Saxon languages, kennings are compressed metaphors found in poetry. They appear as hyphenated, compound words that employ figurative language in place of one-word concrete nouns. When discussing his translation of the kennings of the original Beowulf poet, Seamus Heaney remarks,

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“The appositional nature of the Old English syntax, for example, is somewhat slighted here, as is the Beowulf poet’s resourcefulness with synonyms and (to a lesser extent) his genius for compound-making, kennings, and all sorts of variation. Usually – as at line 1209, where I render yoa ful as “frothing wave-vat,” and line 1523, where beado-lēoma becomes “battle-torch” – I try to match the poet’s analogy-seeking habit at its most original; and I use all the common coinages for the lord of the nation, variously referred to as “ring-giver,” “treasure-giver,” “his people’s shield” or “shepherd” or “helmet.”

Throughout Beowulf, the reader can see the influence of Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature and language.

Comprehension Check: Anglo-Saxons, Norse Mythology, and Kennings
Directions: After reading the article about Anglo-Saxons, Norse Mythology, and Kennings answer the following questions using complete sentences on a separate piece of paper.

  1. Tell how the Anglo-Saxon people came to Britain.

  1. Describe one reason that the Beowulf poet has his hero travel from Britain to Scandinavia.

  1. Show two similarities between Norse and ancient Greek mythology.

  1. Analyze why kennings make Anglo-Saxon difficult to read and translate.

  1. Work with a partner to compose two to three English-language kennings to describe a battle, as well as two to three kennings to describe a feeling such as love.

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