Their names are lost to the ancient depths of history, their stories muted by the centuries, but the women portrayed in the Old English Epic Beowulf were critical to any understanding of both the poem and the culture of that ancient time.
The pattern was this. Men’s affairs were prefaced by a narrator, then articulated through all manner of poetic and narrative conventions, until the deed that was prophesied was played out to the last. Then, when the matter was put to rest, and men gathered in their mead hall for celebration and reward, the women emerged for a number of reasons.
First was to fulfill a crucial role of recognizing the bravery of their men, and to perform the ritualistic passing of the mead cup among those same battle weary troops. This served the purpose of nurturing the men’s bodies and souls, a distinctly female role. But the act of service did more than satisfy thirsts and empty bellies; the service was highly ritualistic, bestowing recognition on specific thanes, or men who had distinguished themselves in battle, then on to the next in the order of distinction, and so on, until the order was observed. Additionally, women served the men in order to fulfill their fundamental role of peace-weavers. The mead cup was served in order to mark the allegiance of each man in his turn to the king, whose mead hall they occupied.
Also, their appearance in every post-battle section of Beowulf–following the slaying of Grendel, after Grendel’s mother was killed, and after Beowulf was himself slain, and the dragon was dead, further amplifies the peace-keeping, peace-weaving role of women. Indeed, following the battle at Fittsburh, Hildeburh’s grief was compounded because, not only had she lost a son, husband and father in one day, she had lost herself. She’d failed, in other words, in her social role of peace-keeper.
Maintaining and preserving peace wasn’t just a role for women; it was their very identity. Another role for women was that of transition figure. Grendel’s mother is a prime example of this: She avenges her son’s death; she is in turn killed in the depths of a mere, foreshadowing Beowulf’s descent into a sort of middle-earth to find and kill a dragon near the end of the tale.
The women in Beowulf further fulfilled their peace-weaving function by arranging marriages between potentially warring clans. As did Lady Capulet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and like Helen of Troy, women were not only the arrangers for politically astute couplings, they were also the chattel involved in those couplings. Thus they knew better than men the implications of a union destined for failure.
In Beowulf, women were assigned the power of prophesy. Hrothgar alludes to this when Wealtheow, the old king’s ‘bed-companion’, having done her ritualistic distribution of mead, takes her seat at the exalted side of his throne. It’s also possible that, in serving the mead, women controlled one of the only facets of their lives in that warlike society, the power over mens’ sobriety and wits.
They also played power politics on occasion. Queen Wealtheow rewarded Beowulf handsomely on his return from slaying Grendel. But she placed an addendum on her praise, saying that Beowulf would do well to take care of her sons until one of them could attain the throne of the Danes. As females are often depicted, then, Wealtheow was caring for her offspring, anticipating their struggle to overcome the rugged and warlike machinations of men in that age.
In Beowulf, specifically, women are given something of a starring role in the explication of the ruling Germanic code of the time. The example is Grendel’s mother. Nameless, she’s depicted as a savage woman, an evil beast, just like her son Grendel. But in avenging her son’s death, she demonstrates the code of honor better than any of the men. Where Grendel had slain countless men of Hrothgar’s Heorot cohort, Grendel’s mother killed only one, the counselor Aeschene. And her act of vengeance was all the more intriguing inside the code, since she had no access to the commonly understood ‘weregild’, or man price that rightly belonged to her after Grendel was slain. Instead, Beowulf sought her out, in her own ‘mere’ home, and killed her.
The only flaw in Grendel’s mother’s observance of the code was in fleeing Heorot for her life, instead of staying and battling the men there. The Germanic code demanded that women display both elements of humanity, the compassionate and the warlike. Thus, when she fled, she betrayed the militaristic side of the code that demanded she stand her ground.
But perhaps the biggest role of women in Beowulf was that of prophetess. Wealtheow seems to be prescient in her admonition to Beowulf in protecting her sons. She warns him of dire consequences should they come to harm, thus recognizing the dangers that lie in wait for all their kind, if their warlike attitude persists. Again, following Beowulf’s demise, ‘a Geatish woman’, name unknown, appears–again, after the battle–to warn the Geats that, because Beowulf their lord lies slain, they have much to fear from former enemies.
Women play an important role in Beowulf. Despite their background presence, and a dearth of lines for them in the epic, their words and actions serve the overall purpose of the poem, its concentration on variation and opposition. They are there after the battles, interrupting the celebrations with sobering words; they strive to uphold the ancient warrior code, sometimes better than the men do; they do their duty, which is one of the salient features of that code. And they provide, in addition to offspring for the nobles, a mirror for them in which to check their own successes and failures.