A mead hall, by any other name…

While I was reading Beowulf, the following passage particularily intrigued me:

“So they went on their way.  The ship rode the water,

broad-beamed, bound by its hawser

and anchored fast.  Boar-shapes flashed

above their cheek-guards, the brightly forged

work of goldsmiths, watching over

those stern-faced men.  They marched in step,

hurrying on till the timbered hall

rose before them, radiant with gold.

Nobody on earth knew of another

building like it. Majesty lodged there,

its light shone over many lands.” (300-311)

 I found myself running this scene through in my mind like a movie hours after reading it.  I feel the imagery here is undeniably grand and beautiful.  For a moment, I forgot I was reading a piece of epic poetry for school. I wasn’t paying attention to the meaning of every single word, I just read it as if it were a novel I had chosen to read in my spare time. The language created this powerful vision of the ship rising and falling on the sea as Beowulf’s party unloaded onto new terrain, marching powerfully in step with looks of determination on their faces as they followed the fearless Beowulf… It excited me! Because story was potentially written to be told orally to a group of people shows how important it was that the author created vivid imagery for the mind to play with.  This passage makes me feel like whoever the author was did a pretty decent job!

What most interested me, however, was Heorot. I loved reading about the moment the group first set eyes on the mead hall, ornamented in gold, glinting sunlight off of its surface like a beacon of light up on a hill.  I decided to look into the name Heorot to see if I could learn more about this place and why it was so majestic, more-so than anybody on earth knew of at that time as mentioned in line 309?  I went here and learned that the name Heorot means “Hall of the Hart”; hart being a medieval word for male deer.  I also found some artwork done of the supposed Heorot in which its roof was adorned with a buck’s antlers.

I decided to look further into the meaning of the male deer in the Middle Ages seeing as it looks to be important. I found that the hart was a highly respected animal, and had “great symbolic and mythological significance in that time period“. It was often compared to Christ for its suffering as it was often hunted by man or dogs although it was the king of the forest. I found it interesting that the name of this mead hall was actually named after something that too experienced suffering. Just as Christ and the male deer suffer by being crucified and hunted, Grendel preyed ruthlessly on the people sleeping in the mead hall every night. The name is obviously very symbolic.  This makes me wonder if Heorot was named before or after Grendel began to wreak havoc on its people? I also wonder what other names or allusions to Christianity are made throughout the text that we have not picked up on, and if the people who this story was initially written for would have picked on on such references, especially in the time of transition from paganism to emphasis on Christianity?

Works Cited

Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. p.48. Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume A The Middle Ages 9th ed. 6 vols. New York: NY, 2012. Print.

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5 Responses to A mead hall, by any other name…

  1. Dane Thibeault says:

    Dayna,

    I found your inquiry into the symbolic significance of the word Heorot, or “male deer” to be a subject of immense intrigue, as I never before realized its pertinence to the plot of the text of Beowulf. I had superficially presupposed the title of the coveted mead hall to be one characteristic of the time—I had, honestly, dismissed the name as merely an object of insignificance among many within the text. Thus, it is now evident to me that one must probe into a text on a more critical level in order to identify its unifying aspects. With regards to the potential correlations between Christianity and the suffering of the male deer that you have speculated in your analysis, however, I do not entirely agree. For me, the deer does not so much imply a sacred status, as it does a target for a hunt. Thus, I consider the symbolic significance of entitling the prestigious establishment with the name of a male deer as suggesting it to be vulnerable target, apt to be preyed upon by scavenging creatures, such as Grendle. While the majestic nature of the deer may have been celebrated within archaic time periods, the animal is also consistently employed within literature as defenceless, and as an object of game, as opposed to the formidable entity that it may also represent. However, I digress, as, it is not so much significant just exactly what the symbol represents, but rather, what the symbol accomplishes. Through ascribing the dignified title to the hall of Heorot, the poet either satisfies your suggested effect of glorifying the building or equating it to the suffering of the saviour within Christianity, or conversely, the effect that I have proposed(rendering Heorot a target for Grendle), or otherwise, another effect, entirely. Additionally, the modern interpretations of the significance of the deer(as I have chronicled) evidently vary from the conceptions of the same animal in the Middle Ages, demonstrating the capacity of language to drastically evolve over time, and assume new perceptions and meanings. Therefore, Heorot could be considered sacred for its name during the Middle Ages, or, contrarily, imperilled within a modern sense(through implying it as a vulnerable target). An appropriate question for reflection to conclude with then, would be To what extent are symbols altered in their meanings based upon changing literary contexts, over time? Well done with your analysis,

    -Dane Thibeault

  2. amsovak says:

    I too, was intrigued by the prescence of the hart in my chosen passage. Not only is it a beautiful animal, but it clearly holds special significance within Beowulf as a text as well as to the people of the Middle Ages. I found the comparison of the hart to Christ very exciting – yet logical in a sense. In my chosen passage, I found that the hart may likely also be a symbol for man in many parts of Beowulf. I think you did a good job with your analysis (and I liked that you chose to include pictures!)

  3. jenniferbist says:

    Hello,
    I enjoyed your blog post, and also I had ignored the meaning of the term “Heorot” until I read this. I suppose it just didn’t seem to me as important, or I did not think much of the name as much as the significance of the building itself. I also see that, now with the connection of the deer in mind, perhaps the building itself was of purpose not only as a general hall and throne-room, but also maybe as a kind of “trophy” to all the accomplishments the people had so far produced in society, with their utmost ability and craft, and with the deer in connection to the “prize” of their triumph as humans over the animals (or demons?). But also like the deer, the hall would one day fall from greatness as it too was preyed upon by it’s “worthiness” to be a “game”. After all, it’s standing high above the ground, in great size and lavished in gold, it’s just waiting to be taken advantage of. And the name/deer connection can also relate to how Grendel’s arm was hung on the wall, like a deer’s antlers, and how the “hunter” had now become the “hunted”. The name does have significance, then, which I never noticed before, and maybe there are other ideas connected to it as well. I also never knew that a deer could have been compared to Christ in terms of suffering, I found that bit interesting of your post and perhaps it is related to the later sufferings of the hall and people.
    As for your question as to whether the name “Heorot” was named before or after Grendel’s attacks, it’s an interesting question, in which I had not thought of really before. However, I believe that the name of the building should be as a “prize”, a symbol of greatness to the people and their accomplishments and not of something unpleasant as Grendel’s attacks. Also in order of the story, it is mentioned that the king named it after it was built, and Grendels attacks came later-on down the line. Even though it appeared Grendel was known to them beforehand, “I have heard it said by my people in hall…who live in the upland country…seen two such creatures prowling the moors…” (1345-50), it doesn’t seem likely that they would name it such after him or his attacks. It appears to me Grendel did not attack anyone that we know of until the incident with Heorot, living quietly in darkness perhaps until people spotted him and his mother. Overall I liked your post because it gave me new ideas to think about and question.

  4. rwhittaker says:

    Dayna,

    I found your post to be very insightful, and like the previous comments was oblivious to the fact that Heorot was the medieval term for a male deer, but interested in this connection. Your description of the deer as “the king of the forest” grabbed my attention as it reminded me of Grendel’s power, as he attacked Heorot night after night. Prior to Beowulf’s arrival, Grendel is an unmatched force against the Danes – not unlike a deer, which could be considered a very powerful creature – but despite Grendel’s power, he, like a deer, eventually becomes prey to something more powerful. In Grendel’s case, this force is Beowulf.
    Through reading your post, and reading the comments attributed to it, I found it interesting that the author of Beowulf placed so much prevalence on the name of King Hrothgar’s mead-hall (Heorot), but none on King Hygelac’s mead-hall, which remains nameless. What makes Heorot more significant than King Hygelac’s mead-hall?

  5. mkennedy says:

    It is interesting the affect names can have upon our perceptions. I had not even thought about the name of the mead hall, Heorot. With so many other names of characters floating around to distract the reader, the name of a building easily passes by without a second thought. No doubt this was not the case for the author, who likely thought for some time about the appropriate name for each character, and the mead hall. Interestingly the mead hall is almost a character in itself. Heorot plays an important role in the beginning of the poem, representing the greatness of Hrothgar and the evil nature of Grendel. It is the center of conflict between Grendel and the Hrothgar and his people, and causes much pain among the people it was built for. It is interesting that the analysis points out that Heorot has it’s etymology based on a male deer, often compared to Christ for his suffering. It seems likely that the author had this in mind when naming the hall, which would be the place and cause of much suffering and angst for Hrothgar and his people. As for whether the hall was named before after Grendel is an intriguing question. Perhaps it was named before for the majesty of the male deer, or after for it’s associations with suffering. Whatever the case, the names of mead halls will now always capture my attention!

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