The Problematic Nature of Defining Grendel’s Mother in "Beowulf"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0


The problematic nature of defining what exactly Grendel’s mother is in Beowulf has left little doubt that she has been even further removed from humanness than her son. The problem seems to lie in the difference between modern conceptions of what distinguishes a ‘monster’ from a ‘human’ and the Anglo-Saxon understanding of these terms. A possible explanation for this could be that there has been relatively little exploration of this female figure as an entity independent of her son, and what interest there has been has tended to classify her as a mere-monster, or quite literally, a mere monster. Even in Edward Irving’s rereading of Beowulf, although he prudently observes that “the feminist movement has given us the power to open our eyes” to the phenomenon of the lack of critical attention given to Grendel’s mother, he still cannot brig himself to view Grendel’s mother as anything other than a monster.[1] In this essay I will attempt to turn the reader’s attention to this female character not as a monster, but as a warrior-woman, one who consciously violates the customs and rituals observed by peace-making women in Germanic society.

If we are to accept the Beowulf-poet as a Christian Anglo-Saxon, “who was responsible for giving the poem the general shape and tone in which it has survived”,[2] then it is possible for us to imagine that he presents us with a picture of Danes and Geats who, although noble, are fatally pagan, whose ignorance causes them to perceive such figures of evil as Grendel and his mother as ‘monsters’ rather than bearers of God’s wrath. After all, it is the poet and not Hrothgar who tells of how Grendel and his mother are descendants of Cain, living in the shadow of his God-given curse. It is also in the poet’s description that we are told of Grendel’s mother’s crucial fear as she realizes the danger she is in once she enters a hall full of war-hardened men. She comes to seek out the man responsible for killing her son, but on hearing the sound of “heardecg togen / sweord ofer setlum” (1288b-89a) she is suddenly “on ofste, wolde ūt þanon / feore beorgan þā hēo onfunden wæs’ (in haste and wanted to get out of there, fearing for her life now that she had been caught, 1292-3).[3] The narrator’s account of Grendel’s mother is unlike that given by Hrothgar, who adopts the tone of someone accustomed to hearing folk-tales of malignant elves and other creatures. He describes her as an alien creature from another world, stemming from a fatherless background of “dyrnra gāsta” (mysterious beings, 1357a). Belonging to a pagan culture, the story of Cain as told in Genesis is, of course, unknown to him. Furthermore, the narrator refers to Grendel’s mother as “ides āglæcwīf” (warrior-woman”, 1259a), whereas to Hrothgar, she is not even a woman, but an imitation of one, “idese onlīcnæs” (in the likeness of a woman, 1351a).

This disparity between the narrator’s and Hrothgar’s description of Grendel’s mother creates a greater sense of irony when we consider the fact that the terms applied to this warring woman are, in fact, used in reference to the hero of the poem himself, Beowulf, and to Sigemund. Let us begin with “āglæca”, which, as Klaeber notes, is principally used for Grendel and the dragon.[4] But what is more interesting is that when applied to Grendel’s mother, Klaeber seems to alter the meaning of the term in its compound form with “wif”. When referring to Beowulf, he defines “āglæca” as “warrior, hero”, but when it comes to Grendel’s mother, “āglæcwif” is suddenly transmuted into a “wretch, monster of a woman”. This interpretation seemed to set the trend for other translators who were intent on dehumanizing Grendel’s mother, such as Heaney’s “monstrous hell-bride”, Donaldson’s “monster-wife”, Alexander’s “monstrous ogress”, and Trask’s “ugly troll-lady”.[5] While Doreen Gillam justifies Klaeber’s double use of the term by arguing that in other Old English works “āglæca” is used to connote both “devils and human beings”,[6] it is more likely that the Beowulf-poet – whose sense of irony as a Christian Anglo-Saxon is exquisitely depicted in Hrothgar’s complacency after Grendel’s defeat – intended to convey the potential of man (Beowulf and Grendel) and woman (Grendel’s mother) to behave monstrously, rather than the potential of monstrous creatures to behave as humans do. Sherman Kuhn remarks:

If the poet and his audience felt the word to have two meanings, 'monster,' and 'hero,' the ambiguity would be troublesome; but if by áglæca they understood a 'fighter,' the ambiguity would be of little consequence, for battle was destined for both Beowulf and Grendel and both were fierce fighters.[7]

Likewise, this explanation can be applied to Grendel’s mother, whose actions following her son’s death reflect on the values of Germanic heroic society. In seeking out her wrong-doer, she easily merits the title of “warrior-woman” or “female combatant”[8], abiding by the Germanic code of revenge in claiming the doomed Æschere (and Grendel’s arm) as compensation for the loss of her son. In this respect, Kuhn regards Grendel’s mother as a “female warrior”, undeserving of the title “monster” inasmuch as Beowulf is.[9] He further notes that in the contexts where “āglæc” appears as a compound, such as “aglachade” (Riddle 53, l. 5), “aclæccræftum” (Andreas 1362), and “āglæcwif”, violent combat is involved. He therefore defines the Old English “āglæca” as “fighter, valiant warrior, dangerous opponent, one who struggles fiercely”, comparing it to the Middle Irish “óclach/ óclæch”, which he defines as “young warrior/warrior”.[10] This understanding of the word is also in accordance with C. M. Lotspeich’s interpretation as “one who goes in search of his enemy” and “an attacker, stalker, pursuer, and adventuring hero.”[11] E.G. Stanley also observes that the poet “does not speak of his monsters abusively”, noting that “ides” is not a pejorative term in Beowulf, but although he is correct, he still fails to drop the term “monsters” when referring to Grendel and his mother.[12] Moreover, O’Keefe notes that by assigning different meanings to “āglæca” in reference to the figures of good and evil in the poem, translators often ignore the possibility that the poet has consciously adopted the same word to describe seemingly different characters.[13] When Grendel’s mother comes to invade Heorot, she is a warrior-woman, “yrmþe gemunde” (mindful of misery, 1259b), and, likewise, when Beowulf trespasses onto her territory he is also a fierce combatant intent on battle (“āglæcan”, 1512a). Melinda Menzer has also remarked that the common misinterpretation of “āglæca” is a result of the term’s problematic meaning. Referring to “āglæcwif” she writes: from the semantic norms governing compounds with -wif [...] the word does not merely refer to the female equivalent of a male or genderless aglæca ('female warrior,' 'female monster'); aglæcwif denotes a woman, a human female, who is also aglæca [...] Indeed, wif alone always refers to a woman, rather than a female being.[14]

Other attestations for “āglæca” as a term that does not have its origins in monstrosity come from Signe Carlson, who traces the origins of “āglæca” back to the Old Norse “agi” (terror) and “lac” (gift/sport), as well as the Gothic “aglo” (terrible), claiming that an appropriate translation would be “bringer of trouble”.[15] These results offer little justification for categorizing Grendel’s mother as a monster.

It is also crucial to note that the narrator uses the term “ides” in his description of Grendel’s mother, and that this term is also applied to Hildeburh (“geōmuru ides”, mournful lady, 1075b) and Wealtheow (“ides Scyldinga”, lady of the Shieldings, 1168b). Although starkly different, like Grendel’s mother these characters suffer the loss of their sons at the hands of men. Unlike these two noble women, Grendel’s mother shows no interest in the role of woman as freoðuwebbe, peace-weaver, but instead opts for the male code of revenge. She is, as Schrader notes, “a victim, an exile, a woman who has lost male protection”[16], and, unlike the speaker of The Wife’s Lament, she is fatally incapable of uttering a lament. Alternatively, she is ready to switch gender roles and become wrecend, an avenger (1256), which is the first description of her we come across when she is introduced into the poem. Even if she displays a male resolve, this does not necessarily detract from her human and even noble element. She is, like her son, a descendant of Cain, but less terrible than he, since the narrator tells us:

(The terror was less by as much as a maiden’s strength, a woman’s war-terror, is in comparison to an armed man, when the ornamented, hammer-forged sword, a blood-stained sword with solid edges, severs the opposing boar-crest from above a helmet.)

Since she is recognised by Hrothgar as bearing a resemblance to a woman, she is perceived as physically less threatening than her son. Yet as we learn during the fight against Beowulf in the mere, this is not the case. The violence of her actions seems all the more horrific because she is a woman. Beowulf himself possesses a strength unlike any other man, yet though he is, as Andy Orchard observes, an “outlandish” warrior whose behaviour is comparable to that of Grendel and his mother, his gender allows him to be accepted by the heroic society he circulates within. Orchard also remarks that Grendel’s “vengeful mother seems more bestial than human”[17] because modern translations have distorted our perceptions of what we now wrongly regard as a female monster. The word “ides”, therefore, is simply seen as an ironic gag, and like the word “āglæca”, is subjected to dual (ab)use. The poet’s application of “ides” to Grendel’s mother is not, however, merely intended as an ironic inversion of the noble freoðuwebbe.

Mary Kay Temple finds that the word “ides” carries connotations of the extraordinary, since the word is applied less frequently to “ordinary women than to poetic and scriptural heroines”.[18] She has also observed that the term is significantly used with respect to women who are mothers “of men whose deeds had great impact on human history, whether for good or ill”[19], but also, I would add, women who do not meet heroic society’s standards of how to be a noble lady. Like Modþryðo (in the first half of her story), Grendel’s mother refuses to be taken for a passive subject handed from one tribe to another as a peace-pledge, thereby rejecting her female identity to take on masculine traits. According to Temple, Modþryðo is seen to be actively rebelling against her “commodification”, refusing to be seen as an object by men. When she assumes a dominant, masculine stance on society, she becomes an “active subject” incapable of being an “object”. She has “the power to rebel, to refuse, since she has assumed the masculine gender”.[20] Likewise, Grendel’s mother rejects her femininity by prioritizing revenge as opposed to peace-making. Both women are considered ‘monstrous’ because they resort to aggressive measures in the absence of men, but as Temple observes, it is likely that the poet uses the term “ides” for both Grendel’s mother and Modþryðo in an attempt to draw attention to the monstrous elements in pagan Germanic society, “as if to suggest that the Grendel-kin are not so far from the human order as the dwellers in Heorot would like to think”.[21] Christine Alfano has argued that the phrase “ides āglæcwif” is telling of how Grendel’s mother’s “moral ambiguity resides in her departure from the peace-weaver stereotype” and not in any kinship ties with Cain.[22] Grendel’s mother’s reaction is perhaps better justified once we realize that she no longer has a male protector and is not, as far as we know, a wife. She has, it would seem, no other option than to take revenge, since she does not belong to any tribe and, therefore, cannot be used as a peace-pledge. Her nobility is one she defines for herself, one that Hrothgar and his tribe cannot comprehend because a peace-maker does not normally take on the role of a loyal retainer.

Keith Taylor argues for the “inherently noble status” of Grendel’s mother, referring to the “bravery” she displays when she ventures out to Heorot, “alone and unarmed, one formidable woman against a host of warriors, to avenge the murder of her only son.”[23] She is the lady of her mere-hall, where her “selegyst” (hall-guest, 1545a) Beowulf receives as poor a welcome as her son did in Heorot. Her nobility as a (tribeless) lady is expressed by the narrator when he recognises the bravery of her actions in seeking out her son’s killer. As Taylor puts it, “at the moment that Grendel's mother is called ides āglæcwif by the Beowulf-poet, there is no information available to the audience of Beowulf to indicate that Grendel's mother is an inherently evil creature”.[24] Beowulf himself even gives her credit when recounting his fight against her to Hygelac, acknowledging her courage as an avenger in killing Æschere “ellenlīce” (bravely, 2122a). Her association with greatness does not seem far-fetched when one considers the origins of the word “ides”. As Helen Damico maintains, Grendel’s mother may be associated with the Norse conception of the valkyries, stating: in both their benevolent and malevolent aspects, the valkyries are related to a generic group of half-mortal, half-supernatural beings called idisi in Old High German, ides in Old English, and dis in Old Norse, plural, disir. Both groups are closely allied in aspect and function: they are armed, powerful, priestly […] The Beowulf poet follows the tradition of depicting the valkyrie-figure as a deadly battle demon in his characterization of Grendel's Mother. [25]

While the preservation of this tradition may have influenced the poet to an extent, it was not, however, intended as a glorification of this pagan concept. Furthermore, while tracing the origins of “ides” may bring us to this Old Norse concept of “wælcyrige”, “chooser of the slain”, it is important to note that although the Anglo-Saxons may have been familiar with the term, its supernatural connotations are never used. Christine Fell asserts that when Anglo-Saxons came across goddesses of battle or avenging furies in their classical readings, they were not always entirely clear “about their half-forgotten pagan background and the half-understood classical one they met in the borrowed cultures of Rome and Greece”.[26] For such homilists as Wulfstan, “wælcyrige” may have signified little more than someone who practised magic, along with criminals such as robbers and fornicators, of which there were plenty in Anglo-Saxon society. While it may be clear to the modern mind exactly what the distinction is between human and supernatural, “between immortal and gifted mortal”,[27] it was not so clear to the Anglo-Saxon mind. Tolkien refers to this ‘condition’ as “the muddled heads of the Anglo-Saxons”, while John D. Niles adds that “the result of this unsettling mixture of elements is a terrifying uncertainty as to just what these creatures are”.[28] It is crucial, therefore, when trying to understand Grendel’s mother, to avoid assumptions about her “supernatural” attributes. The uncertainty as to what exactly Grendel and his mother are has naturally arisen out of the poet’s attempted reconciliation between two religious ideologies. Consequently, this dichotomy is embodied within the characterization of “monstrous” figures in Beowulf, since, as Niles puts it: “On the one and hand, they recall the night-striders of Germanic folk-belief […] On the other hand, they are devils of Christian belief,”[29] which supports my contention that pagan-worship and devil-worship are, in the poet’s view, one and the same. Old Norse provides us with representations of the valkyries that take the form of supernatural servants of Oðinn, or of women belonging to a normal family background in relation to their unnatural abilities. Grendel and his kin are referred to as “helrūnan” (163a), which, far from implicating monsters of the deep, literally means ‘those skilled in the mysteries of hell’, servants of the devil but not necessarily non-human.[30] From an orthodox Christian point of view, this heathen practice is equated with devil-worship, and suggests ‘devilish’ beings in general.

The connection Damico makes to the valkyries is, therefore, a loose one, specifically because the poet withholds information about Grendel’s mother’s origins. Damico’s observation does, however, suggest the poet’s difficulty in invoking pagan customs through characters that are both pagan and sinful. Grendel’s mother belongs to a circle of “helrūnan”, but is also aware of and able to enact Germanic heroic customs. What information we do have on her is ambiguous precisely because she embodies Christian sin and the values of a pagan society, i.e. Hrothgar’s society. She is only ever known as Grendel’s “mōdor” (mother, 1258b), the term reserved almost exclusively for her, even though there are other mothers present in the poem. By inserting her vaguely into the poem, the poet makes her “a vital part of the parody of social roles embodied in the three monsters”.[31] Since Grendel’s mother is only ever recognized as such, Jane Chance argues that she presents a “parodic inversion both of the Anglo-Saxon queen and mother”[32], yet I would add that this inversion goes even further by becoming an exaggeration. She is not, after all, a “friðusibb folca” (the people’s peace-pledge, 2017a) or a “freoðuwebbe” like Wealhtheow and Freawaru, but she is an “ides”, vulnerable to maternal instincts, reacting violently after receiving no wergild (money as compensation) from Beowulf for having murdered her son. Interestingly, Chance goes even further in confirming the nobility of Grendel’s mother by comparing her to the Virgin Mary, stating that “her vengefulness as a mother invites implicit comparison with the love and mercy of the Virgin Mother”. She remarks that the Latin and Old English glosses for “ides” appear alongside virgo, which is indicative of maidenhood, and “on idesan” is paired with in virgunculam. This conclusion is made plausible by the omission of Grendel’s father.[33] While the parallel drawn between Grendel’s mother and the Virgin Mary arises from his absence, Chance ignores the possibility that the poet might simply be seeking to relate Grendel’s mother to a more primitive example of a female existence without a male authority. She claims that Grendel’s Mother merely “resembles a grieving human mother” and insists on her presence in the poem as an “avenging monster, antitype of Hildeburh and Wealhtheow”,[34] without considering that she simply represents a wronged, exiled woman taking on the only role left for her, that of a man. Alexandra Hennesey Olsen makes a key observation in the justification for Grendel’s mother’s gender transgression, remarking:

In the Old Norse context, it is clear from portraits like Aud in Laxdælasaga, Hervor in The Waking of Angantyr, and Guthrun in Atlaqviþa that women are expected to act in the absence of male relatives [...] so that when necessary the role of avenger is played by women as well as men.[35]


[1] Edward Irving, A Rereading of Beowulf, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989) p. 70. This work of Irving’s is a revision of his earlier look at Beowulf in A Reading of Beowulf, and in it he seeks to highlight the poet’s deliberate and ironic suppression of the importance of Grendel’s mother, thereby raising awareness of female subordination in Anglo-Saxon society in general.

[2] Dorothy Whitelock, The Audience of Beowulf (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958) p. 3.

[3] Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, Beowulf: An Edition with Relevant Shorter Texts, Revised Edition (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006). All subsequent references will be to this edition, the line numbers of which will appear in parentheses.

[4] Friedrich Klaeber, and ed. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg (Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1950).

[5] Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, Bilingual Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001) p. 89; Talbot Donaldson’s translation of Beowulf in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th ed., 2 Vols., Gen. Ed. M. H. Abrams (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986) Vol I, p. 50; Michael Alexander, Beowulf: A Verse Translation (London: Penguin Books, 1995), p. 90; Richard M. Trask, Beowulf and Judith: Two Heroes (Lanham: UP of America, 1998), p. 95.

[6] Doreen M. Gillam, “The Use of the Term ‘Aglæca’ in Beowulf at Lines 893 and 2592, Studia Germanica Gandensia, 3 (1961) p. 169.

[7] Sherman Kuhn, "Old English Aglæca-Middle Irish Olach." Linguistic Method: Essays in Honor of Herbert Penzl, Eds. Irmengard Rauch and Gerald F. Carr (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1979) pp. 216-7.

[8] The gloss that Robinson and Mitchell provide for “āglæcwīf” in their translation of Beowulf.

[9] I would like to add that Beowulf’ is less deserving of the title “monster” since his actions appear to receive God’s approval, unlike Grendel’s mother, who has lost all hope of salvation.

[10] Kuhn, “Old English Aglæca”, 218.

[11] C. M. Lotspeich, “Old English Etymologies,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 40 (1941) pp.1-5.

[12] E. G. Stanley, “Two Old English Poetic Phrases Insufficiently Understood for Literary Criticism : Þing Gehegan and Senoþ Gehegan,” Old English Poetry: Essays on Style (University of California Press, 1979) pp. 75-76.

[13] Katherine O’Keefe, “Beowulf, Lines 702b-836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 23 (1981) pp. 484-485.

[14] Melinda Menzer, “Aglaecwif (Beowulf 1259a): Implications for -Wif Compounds, Grendel's Mother, and Other Aglaecan,” English Language Notes 34.1 (September 1996) p. 2.

[15] Signe Carlson, “The Monsters of Beowulf: Creations of Literary Scholars,” Journal of American Folklore 80 (July-September, 1967) pp. 357-64.

[16] Richard J. Schrader, “God’s Handiwork: Images of Women in Early Germanic Literature,” Contributions in Women’s Studies, Number 41 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983) p. 41.

[17] Andy Orchard, “Beowulf and Other Battlers: An Introduction to Beowulf”, in Beowulf and Other Stories: A New Introduction to Old English, Old Icelandic and Anglo-Norman Literatures, Eds. Richard North and Joe Allard (Harlow, England: Pearson Longman, 2007) pp. 67-9.

[18] Mary Kay Temple, “Grendel’s Lady Mother”, English Language Notes 23.3 (1986), p. 11.

[19] Temple, “Lady Mother”, 14.

[20] Mary Dockray-Miller, Motherhood and Mothering in Anglo-Saxon England (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000) p. 85.

[21] Temple, “Lady Mother”, 14.

[22] Christine Alfano, “The Issue of Femininity: A Reevaluation of Grendel’s Mother,” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 23.1 (1992) p. 5.

[23] Keith Taylor, “The Inherent Nobility of Grendel’s Mother”, English Language Notes 31.3 (1994) p.21.

[24] Taylor, “Inherent Nobility”, 20.

[25] Helen Damico, “The Valkyrie Reflex in Old English Literature”, New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, Eds. Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990) pp. 176, 178.

[26] Christine Fell, Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the Impact of 1066 (London: Colonnade Books, 1984) pp.29-30.

[27] Fell, Women, p. 30.

[28] J. R. R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics“, Modern Critical Interpretations: Beowulf, Ed. Harold Bloom, (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987) p. 17; John D.Niles, “Pagan Survivals and Popular Beliefs”, The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, Eds. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991) p. 138.

[29] Niles, “Pagan Survivals”, p. 138.

[30] This literal gloss is provided be Mitchell and Robinson.

[31] Jane Chance, “Grendel’s Mother as Epic Anti-Type of the Virgin and Queen,” Woman as Hero in Old English Literature (New York: Syracuse UP, 1986) p. 97-8.

[32] Chance, “Grendel’s Mother”, p. 97.

[33] Chance, “Grendel’s Mother”, p. 97.

[34] Chance, “Grendel’s Mother”, p. 100-101. Emphasis my own.

[35] Alexandra Hennessey Olsen, “Gender Roles”, A Beowulf Handbook. Robert E. Bjork and ohn D. Niles, eds. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska P, 1997) p. 322.

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The Problematic Nature of Defining Grendel’s Mother in "Beowulf"
Free University of Berlin  (Institut für Englische Philologie)
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Beowulf, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, Women
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Giulia Hatton (Author), 2012, The Problematic Nature of Defining Grendel’s Mother in "Beowulf", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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