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Beowulf fighting the dragon.

Beowulf (Old English: Bēoƿulf) was a legendary heroic dragon slayer of the Geats who lived from 495–583 AD. His exploits include slaying several sea reptiles and a terrestrial dragon called a grendel. Beowulf ultimately lost his life at the age of 88 from wounds he received while fighting a flying reptile that may have been a giant pterosaur.[1] The story of Beowulf is preserved in an epic poem of the same name that is often considered to be one of the most important pieces of Anglo-Saxon literature.[2]

Beowulf Epic Poem

First page of the Beowulf manuscript.

The Anglo-Saxon (i.e. Old English) poem that contains the story of Beowulf's heroic deeds survives from only a single manuscript that is dated to 1000 AD. The original, which is now lost, is believed to have been written in the mid-8th century. It is an epic work consisting of 3182 lines[2] that arguably pre-dates the migration of the Saxons to the British Isles,[1] and takes place in modern-day Scandinavia.[2]


Although modern commentaries often insist that Beowulf is merely fiction, an examination of the complex genealogies and personages within the poem are verified by the recorded histories of Denmark and Sweden. There is an astonishing accuracy throughout the Beowulf epic whenever it deals with characters and their relationships with one another. In his book After the Flood, Bill Cooper notes that:

Eadgils' burial mound at Uppsala, identified in 1874 from archeological evidence. When Eadgils' mound (to the left in the photo) was excavated the finds supported the Beowulf sagas.[2]
"No compiler of fairy-stories ever went to such enormous lengths to add such circumstantial verisimilitude to his tale as we find in the Beowulf."[3]

The dating of the events that take place in Sweden have been confirmed by archaeological excavations of barrows (grave mounds) and by the graves of Ohthere (dated to c. 530) and his son Eadgils (shown at right - dated to c. 575), which were held by Swedish tradition. Recent archaeological excavations at Lejre Denmark, where Scandinavian tradition located the Scyldings (royal family of Danes mentioned in the Beowulf), have revealed that a hall (i.e. Heorot) was built in the mid-6th century, exactly the time period of Beowulf. Three halls, each about 50 meters long, were found during the excavation. The majority now view the people in the poem, such as King Hroðgar and the Scyldings, as having been based on real people in 6th-century Scandinavia.[2]

Dragon Slayings

The main story of the epic involves Beowulf who travels from where he grew up with the Geats to assist the Danish King Hrothgar for whom his father Ecgtheow was in service. King Hrothgar's great hall (Heorot) was being plagued by a dragon called a Grendel,[4] who had attacked the Danes for 12 years with impunity (AD 503-515).[1] At the request of the king, Beowulf comes with fourteen warriors to assist with the destruction of the monster.[4]

Prior to slaying the Grendel in AD 515, Beowulf encountered and destroyed other reptiles (dragons) whose names and physical descriptions are provided. While searching for the Grendel's lair, Beowulf encountered aquatic dragons that were collectively known by the Saxons as wyrmeynnes (monstrous serpents[5]) that were living in a large swampy lake. Among them were creatures known as saedracan ("sea-dragons"[5]), and the nicor ("water monster"[5]). In England, the nicor later became known as knucker. Several knuckers were reported in the country of Sussex, such as the famous monster at Lyminster. On the Orkney Isles the nicor were known as Nuckelavee, and the Nykir on the Isle of Man.[1]

Another type of wyrmeynnes called the ythgewinnes ("wave thrasher"[5]) was the first creature killed by Beowulf. After shooting it with an arrow, it was harpooned by Beowulf's men, then dragged ashore and laid out for examination. He then preceded to clear the narrow sea lanes between Denmark and Sweden of niceras that were making life hazardous for the Vikings. Following that operation, the carcasses of nine niceras were laid out on the beaches for display and further inspection.[1]

8th-10th century Saxon carving showing bipedal (2-legged) dinosaurs (theropods) attacking a group of quadrupeds (4-legged). Bill Cooper suggests the depiction may be of the creature known to the Saxons and Danes as a Grendel.[1]

Beowulf had become a seasoned hunter of large reptilian monsters and renowned amongst the Danes at Hrothgar's court. However, the Grendal and its mother were a different type of beast that was apparently man-like in stance (i.e. bipedal) and had two small forelimbs that the Saxons call eorms (arms). It was described as a muthbona ("one who slew with his mouth or jaws"[5]), and was able to swallowed the body of one of his victims in large chunks.[1] Its skin was impenetrable, but Beowulf was able to defeat it by jumping on it and tearing off one of Grendel's weak arms, which was then mounted on the Hall.[6] It could be argued that the description of the grendel is consistent with that of a theropod like the allosaur.

Beowulf's burial mound in Skalunda, Sweden identified in 1950 by the archaeologist Birger Nerman.[7]

The incident in the poem is translated to the following:

'Searing pain seized the terrifying ugly one as a gaping wound appeared in his shoulder. The sinews snapped and the joint burst asunder.'[1]

The last dragon Beowulf destroyed was a flying reptile that lived on a promontory overlooking the sea at Hronesness on the southern coast of Sweden. The Saxons knew such creatures in general as lyftfloga ("air-fliers"[5]), but this particular species was known to them as a widfloga ("wide flyer"[5]) and ligdraca ("fire-dragon"[5]) It was described as fifty feet in length, which may have referred to its wingspan,[6] the known wingspan of a giant pterosaur called the Quetzalcoatlus.[8] During the battle with the dragon, Beowulf is wounded and died in the year AD 583.[1] After his cremation, he was buried in a tumulus (burial mound) in Geatland[2], the location of which was verified in 1950 by the archaeologist Birger Nerman (shown at left).[7]

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  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Beowulf and the Creatures of Denmark Chapter 11, After the Flood by Bill Cooper.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Beowulf by Wikipedia.
  3. The Historical Characters of Beowulf Appendix 9, After the Flood by Bill Cooper.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Beowulf (hero) by Wikipedia.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 Zoologically applied terms in the Beowulf Epic Appendix 10, After the Flood by Bill Cooper.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Dinosaurs and dragons: stamping on the legends by Russell M. Grigg. Creation 14(3):10–14. June 1992
  7. 7.0 7.1 Ewald, Gustav (1950). "Är Skalunda hög kung Beowulfs grav?" (in Swedish). Västgöta-Bygden 1: 335–336.
  8. Gish, Duane T., Dinosaurs by Design. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1992. p58.