Lascaux cave art

Lascaux cave art

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Dragon Slaying Myths and Cosmic Order


Joyce Tally Lionarons in "The Medieval Dragon. The Nature of the Beast in Germanic Literature" aserts that "the Indo-European dragon myth is essentially concerned with the establishment of cosmic order and/or legitimating a prevailing cosmic regime."
This can be seen in the battles between Beowulf and the monster Grendel and Grendel`s equally monstrous mother and Beowulf`s final battle with the dragon.
The struggle between Grendel and Grendel`s mother can be interpreted as a struggle for mastery over those forces who opposed the ruling regime. Perhaps the Grendel monster is a metaphor for the very real human forces that opposed the reign of Hygelac? Perhaps Hygelac was a recent interloper as the origin myth of the arrival of the orphan Scyld Scefing in the opening verses of the Beowulf poem indicates? Quite possibly Grendel and his mother represented a displaced royal dynasty.
History and indeed even the contemporary world is replete with examples of the demonisation of political and military enemies. I am positing the theory that Grendel was just such a `demonisation` of a very human enemy. The fact that Grendel has no previous pedigree within Germanic myth and appears solely in this particular poem seems to reinforce this idea.
Lionarons makes the valid observation that Grendel is pictured as an `anti-king` who reigns over Hygelac`s hall of Heorot during the nightime hours. Grendel`s mere is also viewed as a type of `anti-hall`. Whilst Grendel could be viewed as the `host` of Heorot during the night hours Beowulf likewise is the unwelcome and hostile `guest`. In turn Grendel can also be viewed as the unwelcome guest whilst Hygelac or his champion, Beowulf is the host.
The author explains that the Old English word gaest can be interpreted as `guest`, `ghost` or `stranger`. The word is compounded in various places of the poem to indicate the notion of an unfriendly, an unwelcome or hostile guest, eg waelgast[murderous guest], inwitgaest[malicious guest] and nidgaest[hostile guest].
The shifting roles of host and guest as evidenced in the battles initiated in Heorot by first Grendel and then his mother and in the final conflict between Beowulf and Grendel`s mother in the mere. Beowulf and the monsters exchange the roles of host and guest, all in a struggle for mastery and the maintenance or creation of a new order.
Beowulf`s encounter with the dragon occurs at the end of his life when a dragon ravages Beowulf`s kingdom. The dragon represents a threat to the social order established in Beowulf`s kingdom. The dragon or monster representing the `anti-hero` is fated to lose the encounter whilst the hero must inevitably encounter and defeat the anti-hero to either establish or maintain his power and authority. Beowulf on all three occasions succeeds in his struggles against his adversaries although in the last encounter it costs him his life.
Even Grendel`s mother`s role as the avenger is typical of pre-christian Germanic society with the notion of the blood feud. In short the monsters depicted in `Beowulf` are reminiscent of human adversaries demonised by the reigning and victorious political elite.
Is there a lesson in this for us today in 2006?

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