Just how important Beowulf’s gift of horses is

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

A drawing of an Anglo-Saxon chariot, complete with horses.

A 10th century illustration of a two-horse chariot from Prudentius’ Psychomachia (a poem about a battle between virtues and vices). Click the image for the source.


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Synopsis

The poet describes the gifts Beowulf gives to Hygelac and Hygd.


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The Original Old English

“Hyrde ic þæt þam frætwum feower mearas
lungre, gelice, last weardode,
æppelfealuwe; he him est geteah
meara ond maðma. Swa sceal mæg don,
nealles inwitnet oðrum bregdon
dyrnum cræfte, deað renian
hondgesteallan. Hygelace wæs,
niða heardum, nefa swyðe hold,
ond gehwæðer oðrum hroþra gemyndig.
Hyrde ic þæt he ðone healsbeah Hygde gesealde,
wrætlicne wundurmaððum, ðone þe him Wealhðeo geaf,
ðeodnes dohtor, þrio wicg somod
swancor ond sadolbeorht; hyre syððan wæs
æfter beahðege breost geweorðod.”
(Beowulf ll.2163-2176)


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My Translation

“I heard that next four ornate horses were brought in,
quickly, each of them as beautiful as the last,
bay and brilliant. Beowulf gave unto his lord such gifts
in horses and treasures. And so shall all kinsmen do;
not scheme and lay out nets laced with malice for others
through deceitful craft, not arrange death
for hand-companions. Hygelac proved a grand uncle
to Beowulf, a nephew who held fast to the bond,
and each was mindful of the other’s joy.
I heard that then he gave the gorget to Hygd,
Wealhtheow’s well-wrought wonder treasure, that which
the queen had given him, daughter of the prince, three horses as well,
each supple and with ornamented saddles.
The gorget shone like the sun upon Hygd’s breast.”
(Beowulf ll.2163-2176)


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A Quick Interpretation

Ah, horses. Today we admire them for their grace and speed. And, back in the early medieval period, people liked horses for the same reasons. Though these qualities were also tied up with ideas of nobility, virility, divinity, and symbolism.

Elaine Moxon wrote a fantastic post about horses in early medieval Britain over on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. Definitely check it out for the full story.

But, over and over in that post, Moxon points out that horses are prized because they embody the qualities that warriors wanted. Horses were seen as agile, strong, virile, and a simple comfort. Plus, they made it easy to travel the long distances between towns and kingdoms. But, more than that, having and keeping a horse was a sign of wealth. Paying for all that hay and getting someone to muck the stables wasn’t any easier back then it seems.

So Beowulf’s giving Hygelac and Hygd all of these horses is a truly grand gesture. It implies that they’re worthy of such gifts already and yet having an extra seven horses around makes Hygelac and Hygd that much worthier and wealthier. Also, according to Moxon’s post, bay horses were a symbol of the goddess Freyja and fertility. So Beowulf’s gift shows the depth of his fealty to Hygelac through symbolically boosting his ability to produce an heir.

Personally, I think that horses are indeed magnificent creatures. Speaking as a big fan of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I also really appreciate horses as a means of fast travel — maybe just as much as the Anglo-Saxons and early Britons did.

What do you like most (or least) about horses? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week: A bit of an intermission in the life of Beowulf.

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3 thoughts on “Just how important Beowulf’s gift of horses is

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