Epithets in Beowulf: What Are the Main Epithets in the Epic Poem?
Epithet in Beowulf is an extra description given to the verses of the poem to add further imagery to the story. There are plenty of examples of epithets in Beowulf, and it’s not just the main character who has them. These epithets add to the depth of the characters because they focus on specific attributes and highlight a character’s skills. Read this to learn all about the epithets in Beowulf and how they add to the poem.
Epithet Examples in Beowulf
Beowulf has plenty of epithet examples for the characters and places. An epithet is a descriptive word or phrase taking the place of the actual name, almost like a new title. It adds a flowery element to the poem, making it even more powerful and beautiful.
Take a look at many of the epithet examples and which character or place they’re describing: (These examples all come from Seamus Heaney’s translation of the poem)
- “fiend out of Hell”: Grendel
- “Cain’s clan”: the monsters
- “God-cursed brute”: Grendel
- “The hall of halls”: Heorot, the mead hall of the Danes
- “prince of the Shieldings”: King Hrothgar, king of the Danes
- “High King of the World”: the Christian God
- “prince of War-Geats”: Beowulf
All of these epithets are simply other ways to describe particular characters and places. They add more detail to the poem and the character or place. Readers can then picture an even stronger image in their minds.
Stock Epithets in Beowulf: What’s the Difference?
While epithets fill the poem, so do stock epithets. Epithets on their own are like other titles for something such as “high king of the world.” However, stock epithets are descriptions that focus solely on attributes or elements of that person or place.
Take a look at this list of stock epithets in Beowulf:
- “sure-footed fight”: this phrase is describing the battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother
- “shield-bearing Geat”: Beowulf
- “Gold-shingled”: this is describing Heorot, the mead hall
- “well-regarded Shylfing warrior”: Wiglaf
- “strong-built son”: Unferth, a warrior jealous of Beowulf’s accomplishments
These epithets more focus on the attributes or powers of the thing or person, instead of just giving them a title. The readers can know a little bit more about them than if the poet just used their names.
Epithet and Kenning in Beowulf: Herein Lies the Confusion
The tricky part about Beowulf is that the poem has both epithets and kennings in it, which are two very similar things. All one needs to know is how to tell the difference between them, and then it can add to the enjoyment of reading the poem once the difference is understood. First, an epithet is a descriptive word or phrase that shows a particular quality of a person. It is a title rather than their actual name.
A good epithet example is “hall-watcher” for Grendel because he watches the mead hall, angry at everyone, ready to kill. On the other hand, stock epithets focus even more closely on attributes instead of simply replacing the name with something else. A stock epithet example would be something like a “stout-hearted warrior.” But a kenning is a compound word or phrase that replaces the word entirely.
For example, the poet uses “whale-road” when talking about the sea. “Sun-dazzle” is used for sunlight, and “bone-lappings” is used to describe a body. Even though these are slightly different literary tools, their purpose is very similar. They both add something to the poem, make it fuller, more beautiful, and the readers’ imaginations are expanded.
What Do Epithets Teach Us About Beowulf, the Warrior?
In the poem, there are several epithets that focus on Beowulf as a man and as a warrior. These help u to give a better idea about him and his actions during the time the epithet is used.
Take a look at these epithets focused solely on Beowulf and what they mean:
- “son of Ecgtheow”: this is mentioned in the early part of the poem. It was a common usage to state the father’s name along with the person’s name, but this helps Hrothgar to know who Beowulf is. It reminds him of the old loyalty there was between the Danes and the Geats
- “Beowulf the Geat”: Even though the beginning of the story takes place in Denmark, fighting for the Danes, Beowulf is actually from Geatland. He later becomes king of that land when he has to take on his third and final monster, the dragon
- “That prince of goodness”: Beowulf shows his loyalty, valor, and strength throughout the poem. Because he has to come up against such evil and darkness, he is always shown as the light and goodness
- “Hygelac’s kinsman”: Hygelac is Beowulf’s uncle who Hrothgar helped in the past. Again, we have a reminder of the importance of connection, loyalty, and family
- “Hygelac’s trusty retainer”: same as above but now we have more of a description of who he is. He’s dependable, trustworthy, and capable
- “earl troop’s leader”: even at the beginning of the poem, Beowulf is in charge of a group of men. That power only grows with time as he shows his strength and abilities
- “Shepherd of our land”: this title is used later by Wiglaf, Beowulf’s kinsman, to describe Beowulf as the king. He is trying to encourage the other soldiers to join him in the battle against the dragon, reminding them of their king’s goodness
- “War-king”: Even in his final moments, Beowulf’s mind and focus were on battle and victory. He was so focused that he didn’t quite remember that he’d grown old and would need help to fight
There are plenty more epithets specifically focused on Beowulf. But one can still see in this list that the use of these gives the readers more insight into the warrior.
What Is Beowulf? Background to the Famous Epic Poem
Beowulf is an epic poem written about a hero in 6th century Scaninavia. Scholars believe that the poem was originally an orally told tale that was passed down through generations. But they don’t know exactly when it was first transcribed. However, what is known is how this epic poem written between 975 and 1025 in Old English, taking place in Scandinavia around the 6th century.
There are many versions and translations of this poem, and it’s become one of the most important works of literature for the western world. It describes the tale and adventures of Beowulf, a young warrior, who goes to help the Danes fight off a monster. He showcases his power, courage, and loyalty by fighting and succeeding. He fights one monster, then another, and then later in life, he has to fight his third and final.
Beowulf is not from Denmark, but Geatland, and he becomes king of this land many years after he kills his first monster. His power and strength are legendary, but his pride gets in the way in the end. When he fights his third monster, a dragon, he loses his life, and his young kinsman becomes king instead. But the dragon also dies, making Beowulf’s battle success in that regard.
Take a look at the main points about Epithets in Beowulf covered in the article above:
- The power of the epithet in Beowulf is that it helps to add description and imagery
- There are many epithets throughout the poem for characters, things, and places, an epithet is a descriptive word or phrase used as a title for something or someone
- For example, instead of Beowulf, the poet might write: “prince of the Geats”
- Stock epithets are also used, such as “stout-hearted warrior” which focus more on an attribute of the character
- There are many epithets and stock epithets used for the protagonist in this poem, and they help to give us a little more insight into who he is as a character
- But epithets and kennings are often confused because they are very similar
- While epithets are a title, describing a character in a unique way, kennings do the same, but they replace the word entirely
- For example, two kennings in Beowulf include: “whale-road” for sea and “sun-dazzle” for sunlight
- A kenning for Beowulf which comes later in the poem is “ring-giver” which was a common term for someone who is a king
- Even if they are different, kennings and epithets in Beowulf both do the same thing. They add beauty, imagery, lovely description to the poem, and give us insight into the characters
Epithets in Beowulf are peppered throughout the famous poem, for characters, places, and things. Because so many different epithets are used so many different times, we learn so much about the characters and the places in the poem. We are pulled into the poem as readers because of the beautiful descriptions, and Beowulf wouldn’t be the same if he was always called only by his name.