Heorot or Herot (Old English 'hart, stag') is a mead-hall and major point of focus in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. The hall, located in Denmark, serves as a seat of rule for King Hrothgar, a legendary Danish king. After the monster Grendel slaughters the inhabitants of the hall, the Geatish hero Beowulf defends the royal hall before subsequently defeating him. Later Grendel's mother attacks the inhabitants of the hall, and she too is subsequently defeated by Beowulf. The hall is generally held to correspond to the great hall of Lejre in Denmark found in North Germanic texts. A location of the same name receives mention in the Old English poem Widsith.
The name Heorot may stem from an association between royalty and stags in Germanic paganism. Archaeologists have unearthed a variety of Anglo-Saxon finds associating stags with royalty. For example, a scepter or whetstone discovered in mound I of the Anglo-Saxon burial site Sutton Hoo prominently features a standing stag at its top.
In a wider Germanic context, stags appear associated with royalty with some frequency. For example, in Norse mythology—the mythology of the closely related North Germanic peoples—the royal god Freyr (Old Norse: "Lord") wields an antler as a weapon. An alternative name for Freyr is Ing, and the Anglo-Saxons were closely associated with this deity in a variety of contexts (they are, for example, counted among the Ingvaeones, a Latinized Proto-Germanic term meaning "friends of Ing", in Roman senator Tacitus's first century CE Germania and, in Beowulf, the term ingwine, Old English for "friend of Ing", is repeatedly invoked in association with Hrothgar, ruler of Heorot).
According to historian William Chaney:
Whatever the association with the stag or hart with fertility and the new year, with Frey, with dedicated deaths, or with primitive animal-gods cannot now be determined with any certainty. What is certain, however, is that the two stags most prominent from Anglo-Saxon times are both connected with kings, the emblem surmounting the unique 'standard' in the royal cenotaph of Sutton Hoo and the great hall of Heorot in Beowulf.
The anonymous author of Beowulf praises Heorot as large enough to allow Hroðgar to present Beowulf with a gift of eight horses, each with gold-plate headgear. It functions both as a seat of government and as a residence for the king's thanes (warriors). Heorot symbolizes human civilization and culture, as well as the might of the Danish kings—essentially, all the good things in the world of Beowulf. Its brightness, warmth, and joy contrasts with the darkness of the swamp waters inhabited by Grendel.
Modern scholarship sees the village of Lejre, near Roskilde, as the location of Heorot. In Scandinavian sources, Heorot corresponds to Hleiðargarðr, King Hroðulf's (Hrólfr Kraki) hall mentioned in Hrólf Kraki's saga, and located in Lejre. The medieval chroniclers Saxo Grammaticus and Sven Aggesen already suggested that Lejre was the chief residence of Hroðgar's Skjöldung clan (called “Scylding” in the poem). The remains of a Viking hall complex was uncovered southwest of Lejre in 1986–1988 by Tom Christensen of the Roskilde Museum. Wood from the foundation was radiocarbon-dated to about 880. It was later found that this hall was built over an older hall which has been dated to 680. In 2004-2005, Christensen excavated a third hall located just north of the other two. This hall was built in the mid-6th century, all three halls were about 50 meters long.
Fred C. Robinson is also convinced by this identification: "Hrothgar (and later Hrothulf) ruled from a royal settlement whose present location can with fair confidence be fixed as the modern Danish village of Leire, the actual location of Heorot." The role of Lejre in Beowulf is discussed by John Niles and Marijane Osborn in their 2007 Beowulf and Lejre.
An alternative theory was proposed in 1998 by the archaeologist Paul Wilkinson. He suggested that Heorot was at Harty on the Isle of Sheppey; Harty was indeed named Heorot in Saxon times. He suggests that the steep shining sea-cliffs of Beowulf would match the pale cliffs of Sheerness on that island, its name meaning "bright headland". An inlet near Harty is named "Land's End", like Beowulf's landing-place on the way to Heorot. The sea-journey from the Rhine to Kent could take the day and a half mentioned in the poem. The road to Heorot is described as a straet, a Roman Road, of which there are none in Scandinavia, but one leads across the Isle of Harty to a Roman settlement, possibly a villa. The toponymist Margaret Gelling observed that the description in Beowulf of Heorot as having a fagne flor, a shining or coloured floor, could "denote the paved or tessellated floor of a Roman building". Finally, the surrounding area was named Schrawynghop in the Middle Ages, schrawa meaning "demons" and hop meaning "land enclosed by marshes", suggestive of Grendel's lonely fens in the poem. The archaeologist Paul Budden found the theory risible, even if "the story appealed" to him as a Kentish man; he noted that Wilkinson conceded that the subject was "mythology, not archaeology or science".
Modern popular culture
- Eikþyrnir, the stag that stands atop Odin's afterlife hall Valhalla in Norse myth
- Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór, the stags that chew on the cosmological tree Yggdrassil in Norse myth
- Freyr, a Germanic deity who wields an antler as a weapon and whose name means 'lord'
- Valhalla, the afterlife hall of Odin in Norse myth, featuring a stag at its top
Notes and citations
- For general discussion, see Fulk, Bjork, & Niles (2008:119–120). For images and details regarding the sceptre or whetstone, see the British Museum's collection entry for the object here.
- See discussion in, for example, Chaney (1999 :130–132).
- Chaney (1999 :132).
- Beowulf, lines 1035–37
- Halverson, John (December 1969). "The World of Beowulf". ELH. 36 (4): 593–608. JSTOR 2872097.
- Niles, John D., "Beowulf's Great Hall", History Today, October 2006, 56 (10), pp. 40–44
- Lapidge, Michael; Godden, Malcolm (1991). The Cambridge companion to Old English literature. Cambridge University Press. p. 144. ISBN 978-0-521-37794-2. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
- Robinson, Fred C. (1984). "Teaching the Backgrounds: History, Religion, Culture". In Jess B. Bessinger, Jr. and Robert F. Yeager (ed.). Approaches to Teaching Beowulf. New York: MLA. p. 109.
- Niles, John; Osborn, Marijane (2007). Beowulf and Lejre. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. ISBN 978-0-86698-368-6.
- Hammond, Norman (7 December 1998). "How Beowulf's lair was pinned down to the Thames Estuary". The Times.
- Wilkinson, Paul (2017). Beowulf - On the Island of Harty in Kent. Kent Archaeological Field School. ASIN B07Q27K3XG.
- Budden, Gary (2017). "Background reading: Beowulf in Kent by Dr Paul Wilkinson" (PDF). Kent Archaeological Field School Newsletter (16 (Christmas 2017)): 22–23. Retrieved 9 December 2020.
- Tolkien, J. R. R., Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (2015), p. 153.
- Shippey, Tom, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (2001), p. 99.
- Dryden, Mary (2 August 1987). "The Legacy of Heorot by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes; maps by Alexis Walser". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 13 January 2021.
- Chaney, William A. 1999 . The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity. Manchester University Press. ISBN 0719003725
- Fulk, R.D.; Bjork, E. Robert; & Niles, John D. 2008. Klaeber's Beowulf. Fourth edition. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 9780802095671