The Heroic Age

Issue 5

Summer/Autumn 2001


Beowulf and the Wills:

Traces of Totemism?

By Stephen O. Glosecki

Department of English, University of Alabama at Birmingham

This paper accounts for the prominence of the avunculate (the mother's brother-sister's son relationship) in Beowulf and other OE sources. Commentary from 1861 to the present is examined in order to establish that the avunculate does indeed reflect matrilineal kinship structure, which in turn suggests that a full-scale totemic kinship system prevailed in prehistoric Germania.

Reprinted with revisions from: Philological Quarterly, Winter 1999, 78: 15-47.


After Hygelac falls in his Frisian raid, Beowulf receives a surprising offer from Hygd, his widowed queen (lines 2367-70a):

Oferswam ða sioleða bigong sunu Ecgðeowes,
earm anhaga eft to leodum;
þær him Hygd gebead hord ond rice,
beagas ond bregostol.

Then he overswam the surrounding seas, son of Ecgtheow,
troubled exile, returning to his people;
there was he offered by Hygd hoard and kingdom,
rings and prince-seat.

Hygd's offer sounds strange for a number of reasons.[1] I wonder, for instance, whether the early Germanic queen really had the power to select her husband's heir from the array of likely claimants, thus overriding folkright, the unwritten but implicit rules of descent. Further, I wonder exactly how those rules operated in preliterary Germanic Europe, whose folkways were at least as obscure to the insular Anglo-Saxon as they are to us today.[2] Given the tenacity of oral tradition, I assume the legend inherited by the Beowulf Poet included a Geatish queen who offered the throne to the hero, whom Hrothgar also singles out as Hygelac's most viable heir (lines 1845b-53a). That is, the poet receives, in his palimpsest-like folklore, an already ancient and overscored tradition of non-patrilineal descent among his ancestors. To him this is not altogether outlandish, since lateral succession prevails in Alfredian Wessex as in Scylding Denmark, Hrethling Geatland, and Scylfing Sweden, where brother follows brother to the throne.[3] In Anglo-Saxon England right up to the time of the Conquest there was not only regional and temporal variation, but in general no fixed rule of succession anyway, with various kinsmen of kings being potentially throneworthy (and therefore inherently predatory).[4] There is, however, no question that primogeniture was gradually asserting itself, favored by the same interrelated forces that gradually eroded the solidarity of the kindred: Church, monarchy, remnants of Roman law, and the infiltration of feudalism, finalized by the Anglo-Norman regime.[5] Ultimately, prone to such influences and therefore inclined toward primogeniture as the "right" line of inheritance, the Beowulf Poet has his hero reject the Geatish crown on behalf of Hygelac's son Heardred (lines 2373-79a), whom he then serves as sagacious regent until his cousin's death again confronts him with his throneworthiness.[6] I think the poet thus accommodates a murky, idealized, misapprehended past to his own turbulent times.[7] Yet the questions persist nonetheless, despite nice theorizing about probable periods and possible motives: could prehistoric queens select royal successors? What inheritance pattern prevailed in the lost culture of North Central Europe that shaped the legends received in Anglo-Saxon England?

Ultimately, in a reality that denies us Wellesean time travel, such issues cannot be completely resolved. But at least we can narrow down the range of probability, working from literary and documentary evidence. Such is my goal here: to reexamine an old solution to some of the inheritance problems posed by Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon wills. Since the argument for a matrlineal past in prehistoric Germania fell from grace decades ago, my case takes some time to present. I will, however, return to the primary texts toward the end of this paper. Meanwhile, my argument profits from advances in literary study and cultural anthropology-recent discoveries that make certain discarded solutions worthy of a second look today. The methodological advance reinforcing this paper-an outgrowth of structuralism, perhaps-can be seen in books by Davis (1996) and Hill (1995), both of whom explore more recent tribal societies to discover culture traits comparable to the hypothetical situation of the Anglo-Saxons.[8] Although a final resolution may continue to elude us, certain likelihoods nonetheless need to be reviewed if we are to acquire some inkling of the dynastic traditions suggested by Hygd's strange offer of the crown to Beowulf.

Perhaps an offer like Hygd's is not really strange at all. Rather, it may only seem so, since our "own kinship system is so taken for granted that other systems will at first seem bizarre, irrational, and difficult to appreciate."[9] This is the lens we look through, unavoidably-the familiar arrangement in our surrounding society, which seems "natural" to us because we rarely need to fathom any of the multifarious alternatives that have developed in "alien" systems. "Everywhere children begin learning their kinship system at birth. Many of their first words are kinship terms; the people who care for them are all relatives. The kin words become essential guides to action because they place persons in categories and assign statuses."

Accordingly, our own kinship perspective is as limited as that of the Beowulf Poet, although along different lines. Like ours, his kin structure was bilateral, i.e., the individual reckoned descent through both parents, mother and father. Recurrently, the laws and wills specify obligations and bequests for both sides of ego's kindred, maternal and paternal.[10] We may assume that folkright was equally bilateral, albeit now unrecoverable. The bilateral family, somewhat like the obsolescent wachselnde Sippe, "shifting kin group,"[11] has traditionally been considered antithetical to long-lasting "kinship solidarity" (Phillpotts 1913:3),where enduring clans develop to produce fixed rules of exogamy, ancestor veneration, and, ultimately-given natural, usually zoological eponyms-the quasi-religious culture complex called totemism. But "we are not compelled to regard highly corporate kin functions simply in terms of the unilineal principle, for we now know that groups recruited on the basis of cognation, or a combination of principles, can carry them out as well" (Murray 1983:25). Most likely, the long prehistory of Anglo-Saxon kinship structure involved various shifts in reckoning patterns, although there is no reason to impose any pat evolutionary schema upon the Germanic or any other tribal past. In comparison with our own form of cognation, nowhere in Anglo-Saxon England had the system crystallized into the rigidly patronymic arrangement that has governed Western culture in the modern period. Children did not receive their father's surname regularly and automatically at birth, an institution we have come to consider "normal." The early English kinship system thus appears to have been in flux when compared to ours:[12] the inclination toward a more fixed patrilineal arrangement had established itself without fully eclipsing significant reflexes of an archaic matrilineal element. The outstanding reflex (see Glosecki 1989:1 for definition), often noticed but rarely explained, manifests itself in the provocative distinction given to the mother's brother, a distinction apparent in the wills as well as in Beowulf.

Following Lancaster, scholars have tended to deny that an outmoded unilineal system existed in the Germanic past and exerted subtle influence upon kinship structure in Anglo-Saxon England. While the emphasis on the mother's brother has never been satisfactorily explained, recent writers tend to agree with Lancaster (1958:232; also Hill 1995:13-14):[13]

Bilateral or cognatic kinship systems may in simplest terms be described as those in which descent from ancestors and affiliation to a set of kinsmen may be traced through both females and males. All societies have some cognatic elements, but those which are thought of as having unilineal descent minimize, in some or all contexts, associations with kin linked to either parent. Consequently, such societies form demarcated kin groups, which persist from generation to generation. In societies that trace relationships bilaterally, on the other hand, each sibling group has affiliations with a different set of cognatic kin . . . . Every person may have his own range of relationships, which coincides exactly with no other in the society. Evidently, bilateral sets of consanguineal kin centered on Ego, the focal relative, have no structural persistence over generations . . . . Anglo-Saxon kinship systems, like those of modern England, belong to the class of non-unilineal kinship.

Granted the evidence marshalled by, for example, Hill, Lancaster, Lyon, and Phillpotts, the cognatic arrangement in historical Anglo-Saxon society is indisputable. But, as noted above, bilateralism does not necessarily exclude corporateness of kin groups. And, more to the point, the Anglo-Saxon record preserves several controversial features that suggest cultural change, long before the Migrations, from a totemic arrangement involving matrilineal clans to the more amorphous, less durative, agnatically biased kindred of the historical period.[14]

Chief among these features is the mystifying emphasis on the mother's brother, by the time of the Beowulf Poet already a sentimental, vaguely discerned anachronism, employed by the narrator partly as an aspect of his heritage and partly to enhance the antiquarian dignity of his patriotic song. Yet several other elements also suggest the kin-solidarity of an obsolete clan system. One of these is the tenacious corporateness of the mægð , "family,"[15] the undeniably bilateral kindred that nonetheless seems to have kept its shape over generations while maintaining the gradually diminishing power reflected in the legal codes (Phillpotts 1913:216).[16] In Beowulf, certain terms for the comitatus seem like holdovers from an earlier age, when the united warriors, members of a factitious kin group-precursor of the mægð -considered themselves consanguineal relatives: mago-driht, sibbe-gedryht, "the band of noble kinsmen-warriors" (cf. mago-rinc, "kinsman-warrior," and mago-ðegn, "kinsman-retainer"). The mægð itself remains obscure; none of the extant evidence allows us to define its limits or its full array of social applications. As Loyn (1973:202) observes, "much was taken for granted . . . . The laws are practical documents. They do not pause to reflect on the substance of kinship. They describe rather kinship in action. Function predominates." Phillpotts (1913:217) is more emphatic: "in England no passage, in the laws or out of them, gives the slightest indication of the limits of the mægð."

Yet she also quotes one of Aethelstan's laws (VI. 8, § 2), attributed to the authorities in London, that allows for raising armies to do battle with any mægð powerful enough to harbor a thief and thus contend with an entire city.[17] Like the determined early Londoners, we are obviously confronted with an organized corporate group, if not a territorial clan, with the size and strength to resist a besieging army.[18] There could be no other motivation for such a law. Clearly, too, we can discern that "at this level the kindred was in closest contact with the power of the state, and out of contact, often developing into conflict, came elucidation" (Loyn 1973:203). Out of this contact, too, came demise-the demise of the kindred and the rise of monarchy.[19]

As Murray (1983:25) argues, though, "corporate functions are in themselves no argument for unilineal kin structure."[20] Nor would I base an argument upon evidence so sketchy and inconclusive as that of the corporate mægð. Yet I see its stamina as one among several "symptoms" of the lost system of totemic clans. The mægð shows a cohesiveness that resulted partly from kin loyalty,[21] partly from military devotion to the lord, and, to some degree, from the lingering influence of primeval clan solidarity. Such at least is my contention here, supported too by another feature, odd from our perspective, but not at all unusual in the record of tribal kinship patterns.

Most writers on this subject echo Lancaster's (1958:237) observation: "there was a remarkable dearth of special O.E. terms for the relationship of cousins." Phillpotts (1913:243) sees this "remarkable dearth" as an Old English shortfall, remedied by rivals across the Channel:

We have to add the extraordinary fact that Anglo-Saxon literature appears to contain no word signifying "cousin." . . . The whole range of Anglo-Saxon literature does not furnish us with one instance of the use of such a word. Nor can I find the Latin consobrinus in the Latin charters. It is significant that English found it necessary to borrow the word "cousin" from French.

It is indeed significant, but not because of any ethnic or linguistic inadequacy. It is just that the Saxons did not compute their genealogies on our graph. Spolsky (1977:234) bring us closer to the real significance of this lack of specificity in the nomenclature-particularly on the father's side, where the terminology is less distinctive than on the maternal side:

A further ambiguity in nefa is the lack of distinction between collateral descent and direct descent. My son's child and my brother's child are not necessarily distinguished. Nefa is also used to refer to a stepson, presumably my generation minus one. What do all of these people have in common which is important enough to warrant calling them all by the same name?

The answer is simple enough, but its ramifications are complex, especially when we add that nefa could also designate a grandnephew or a grandson, and that "the suhterga can be a brother's son . . . or an uncle's son that is a cousin" (Spolsky 1977:234). Hill (1995:43) almost answers Spolsky's question when he considers "the significance of such precise but compacted compounds as suhtergefæderan applied to Hrothgar and Hrothulf in their kindred . . . the 'father's-brother's son' can become a 'father' . . . and he can become 'son' to his eald fæder, his father's father (moving functionally both up and across in the family tree)." Interpreting the word for "father's brother," Hill continues, "fædera can name Hrothgar's position in relation to Hrothulf, whose sons could be called Hrothgar's brother's grandsons or 'nephews' (nefa)." Adding to this complexity is Beowulf, line 373a, "where Ecgtheow is referred to as Beowulf's ealdfæder though the word usually means grandfather" (Spolsky 1977:234).[22] Indeed, "what do all of these people have in common" that, from our perspective, erases the "normal" distinctions between cousin, nephew, grandson, grandnephew, and even father and grandfather?[23]

Simply put, this telescoping of ego's patrilineal and patrilateral kinfolk typifies what anthropologists call the Crow kinship system, named after the Native American tribe whose classic matrilineal structure has become the template applied elsewhere.[24] In the Crow system, matrilineal relatives are deemed "consanguineal," while patrilineal relatives, though significant in ego's life, are not viewed as members of his clan, which is "the focal point of a person's life where descent is unilineal. Clans may determine an individual's spouse, occupation, religious role, and position in the prestige system" (Schusky 1972:29). As Murdock (1960:15; see also n. 15) puts it, "a rule of descent affiliates an individual at birth with a particular group of relatives with whom he is especially intimate and from whom he can expect certain kinds of services that he cannot demand of non-relatives, or even of other kinsmen."

Accordingly in the Crow system, though still important, the entire array of paternal relatives collapses into an "other" group, loosely defined as "father's kindred," with much less distinctive nomenclature than the members of the native matrilineal group, who play far more influential roles in ego's life.[25] Hence, to define these roles, the language of a matrilineal society develops more specific terms for ego's clan kindred, all of whom are mediated by maternal relatives only. Thus, only the maternal relatives are considered close, even "consanguineal," although this may seem illogical to us, given our own bilateral orientation. On the other hand, "in thinking of the relatives in 'father's' lineage, ego may regard all of them as lineage mates of father; that is, lineage mates are like a 'brother' and 'sister' to father. The implied logic is that any lineage mate of father is a brother of my father . . . That is, a large group of men are in the same status relation to ego, something like men of the lineage that 'fathered' ego. Missionaries and others who translated native terms into English had to equate the indigenous word with the English 'father'." (Schusky 1972:30). Thus we struggle to translate ambiguous terms like nefa and suhterga into Modern English, which has grown much farther away from the prehistoric unilineal structure whose reflexes remain apparent-and perplexing-in Old English.

As asserted above, then, a simple answer can be supplied for Spolsky's question, "What do all of these people have in common which is important enough to warrant calling them all by the same name?" It is an old answer, but one now supported by advances in cultural anthropology. Old English kinship terms are less distinctive for paternal kinsmen because, deep in the Germanic past, presumably in the formative stages of the society, a Crow kinship system prevails. Later on-centuries if not millennia later on-a bilateral system develops.[26] But the cultural palimpsest retains faint, barely discernible traces, the focal points of this paper. Although the Beowulf Poet and his generations of Anglo-Saxons cannot fathom a system they never knew, their language and culture still preserved these traces, willy-nilly-the vestiges of a matrilineal clan system.

Characterized by this blending of the father-kin, "Crow terminology is almost always associated with matriliny" (Schusky 1972:33). Recognizing the conflation of paternal relatives means acknowledging this theory of a Crow kinship structure, viable at some period in proto-Germanic prehistory. Among the convergent terms for paternal kindred (Fig. 1), the most notable Crow types are fæder, "father," and fædera, "another father," i.e., "father's brother." Faðu, "father's sister," is interesting here too, since it seems to blur "sexual distinctions" somewhat (cf. Goody 1972:25). Back formations from fæder, these terms lack much distinctiveness. Their key denotation seems to be "father-sibling." This convergence reflects the matrilineal point of view described above, where ego regards "relatives in 'father's' lineage . . . as lineage mates of father."[27]

Conversely, relatives in the mother's lineage assume more distinctive roles, apparent in the Old English term eam, "mother's brother." Although the eminence of MoBr, "mother's brother," seems largely sentimental by the historical period, the fact remains that eam is among the most distinctive of all Old English kinship terms. Prehistorically important-before the first Germanic expansion-its cognates surface in sister-tongues[28] and persist (in orthographic variants) right through the Middle English period.[29] The very inertia of this archaism suggests great weight originally, strong cultural impetus. My inference is that this uncle was at some time the heafodmæg, "head-kinsman," of the matrilineal Germanic clan. Perhaps, as in Tewa clan hierarchy, the senior mother's brother was "the enforcer," hence chief, while his sister was venerated as figurehead.[30] Significantly, heafodmæg is the term Beowulf applies to his MoBr Hygelac at line 2151a.[31] I have treated the etymons of eam elsewhere, in my study of sibreden, "the kin treaty," where I suggest the following etymology for this term that may persist in Germanic lexicons as a reflex of matriliny: "*awo-z-haim for the head of a household, a key role played, apparently, by the senior mother's brother . . . the *awozhaim or 'great father of the hamlet'" (Glosecki 1989:46-47).[32] Germanic kinship structure, though markedly different from the Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-American, is thus similar in one respect, at least, to various tribal systems studied in modern times, where the avunculate-the bond between MoBr and SiSo "sister's son"-tends to overshadow less important relationships.[33]

Keeping in mind that "the domestic group in preindustrial societies is usually the economic group" (Goody 1972:21), I view reflexes of the avunculate in Beowulf and the wills as traces of totemism.[34] One of the most plausible explanations is that these reflexes persist as remnants of a totemic kinship system in which the basic exogamous group was both matrilineal and matrilocal. In such an arrangement, the male finds a wife outside of his own clan. After marriage, he-or at least his children-will reside with the wife's family, the offspring's matrilineage. When a son is born, he inherits his totem from his mother and not from his father. The lineage is thus mediated by maternal kindred only; in effect, the descending line stops at male and continues through female progeny (Schusky 1972:24-33). Therefore, if the father bequeathed his ancestral wealth and status upon his son, this patrimony would pass out of his own natal clan and into the matriclan of his affines. To avoid weakening his own matriclan by thus siphoning off its wealth and titles, the father bequeaths obliquely, to his sister's son, born into the clan where the father grew up and where his emotional ties, his kin-solidarities and family loyalties, still reside. In this kind of kinship system, where neither patriliny nor cognation nor primogeniture prevail, the bond between maternal uncle and uterine nephew eclipses the bond between father and son. It is the most important bond of all, economically and politically.[35]

In theory, then, the preexistence of an exogamous matriliny-the Crow kinship system-would explain why patrilineal kinship terms converge, why the avunculate leaves traces in Old English sources, why the "spindle-kin" retain notable status, and why the Anglo-Saxon wills enrich nephews at the expense of sons. Regarding Old English reflections of the avunculate, Bremmer (1980:23) observes that "it has not escaped scholars that Beowulf stands in a special relationship to king Hygelac of the Geats, but they have rarely gone beyond quoting this illustrative example of MoBr and SiSo in an Anglo-Saxon context. And yet quite a few instances of this bond are to be found in non-literary works of the period."[36] Bremmer assembles not only avuncular elements from the epic; he also lists references to sustres sun, sweoster-sunu, and so on in history, chronicle, will, and Riddle 46 from the Exeter Book.[37] This Riddle is usually taken as a reference to Lot's incest with his daughters, which produced two sons. Notably, the term applied to the sisters' sons in line 4a is frumbearn, glossed by Bosworth and Toller as "firstborn, primogenitus," with the genitival compound frumbearnes riht meaning "firstborn's right" or the right to inherit. There thus seems to be a lack of definiteness regarding the identity of the principal heir-son or sister's son?[38]

The question is only affirmed, not resolved, by the Anglo-Saxon wills, which demonstrate no clear precedence for either, nephew or son.[39] Granted their relative obscurity in Anglo-Saxon studies, we may think of the wills as neglected orphans lurking on the fringe of the literary domain. Though neglected, they have not been abandoned: about fifty wills are readily available in editions by Harmer (1914) and Whitelock (1930). Substantial studies appear in books by John (1960) and Sheehan (1963). Although I first approached the wills expecting to find inheritance rules neatly mapped out, with mothers' brothers regularly leaving lands to their sisters's sons, the documents themselves soon dispelled such rosy preconceptions. Like the laws, they provide for the exception, not the rule: they assume on the reader's part an intuitive grasp of folkright. John and Sheehan agree that folcriht represents part of the Anglo-Saxons' native Germanic heritage; they also agree that these implicit folkways, vestiges of a preliterary society, remain very obscure to us today (John 1960:16, n. 2; Sheehan 1963:5)

There is little question, though, that these lost customs specified rightful heirs, probably a good number of them, perhaps with a preference for sisters' sons. Testamentary power was unheard-of, initially, among the Anglo-Saxons, whose estates were transmitted by well-established conventions beyond individual control-folkright. But by the end of the period, written wills had become common, even expected, to judge from the laws of Cnut, which allow for property owners who die intestate (Sheehan 1963:81). The written will evolved in response to the folkright restrictions; it opened a loophole in customary inheritance laws; it instituted the right to alienate property (propria postestas); it let the landowner concentrate family wealth in the hands of chosen heirs. Thus the advent of the written will marks "a revolution in English landholding, making it possible to consolidate family power by establishing primogeniture and keeping the family holding together" (John 1960:41, n. 1).

The wills grew up alongside the charters or "landbooks," already common by Alfred's day. Charters granted bookright as opposed to folkright. They distinguished bookland, alienable estates, from folkland, inalienable estates. Concomitantly, the wills capitalized on the freedom to collect and bequeath bookland. In his late ninth-century will (c. 880), for instance, Alfred, Ealdorman of Surrey, designates bookland beneficiaries but acknowledges his lack of control over the folkland (Harmer 1914:14, 48):

7 gif se cyning him gunnan wille þes foldlondes to ðem boclonde, þonne hebbe he 7 bruce.

And if the king will grant him the folkland as well as the bookland, then let him have it and enjoy it.

But such wills do little, overtly, to clarify the issues of folkland, folkright, and the traditional lines of inheritance.

Wills and charters alike resulted from ecclesiastical efforts to preserve clerical estates, the original booklands, within a social system that originally did not provide for bequests untrammeled by claims of the kindred. There was no lay bookland in the seventh century, when the written charter was introduced by Theodore and St. Wilfrid (John 1960:1). But in 734 Bede complained about the fraudulent monasteries of Northumbria-lay estates falsely represented as abbeys by sly nobles eager to acquire bookland and the associated right to consolidate and bequeath it.

This right, treasured by Anglo-Saxon nobility, is often mentioned at the outset of the will, which assumed a fairly consistent format by the tenth century. The testator, almost invariably an aristocrat, first gives his or her name, then declares royal permission to bequeath, and then specifies heriot. Often a parcel of gold, land, arms, and horses, the Late Saxon heriot seems like a payment to the king for the right to make a will and the insurance that he will uphold it.[40] From the king's perspective, it is a lucrative inheritance tax. After heriot come the ecclesiastical grants, sawolsceatt, "soul-tax," to the church of burial, wealth and lands to other minsters and monasteries. After the church come the kindred, in no discernible order aside from pride of place for widows. Although movable goods appear (and offer rich resources for the study of domestic life), the wills mainly concern themselves with distributing land to king, cleric, and kinfolk. Therefore, estates are tallied up in detail-over seventy separate holdings spread through eleven counties in the will of Wulfric Spott (Sheehan 1963:99). As it concludes, the will may designate a mund, "guardian/executor," gifts to priests and servants, plus elaborate arrangements for almsgiving and manumission of thralls. Following an anathema calling the wrath of God down upon will-breakers, the document concludes with a list of witnesses. Although content, order, and emphasis vary from one document to the next, these are nonetheless the standard components of the Late Saxon will.

While they generally ignore the folkright inheritance rules, assumed at the time to be common knowledge and therefore otiose, the wills do contain intimations of a native kinship system formerly matrilineal and totemic. One such hint is the high status of the early English noblewoman, whose prestige declined markedly during the ensuing Middle Ages.[41] Before the Anglo-Saxon period, Tacitus seems surprised to find that Germanic tribesmen respected their women(ch.8); with disgust he reports that one tribe debased itself by allowing women to rule (ch.45). Beowulf retains vestiges of the prestige queens enjoyed: Wealhtheow gives the richest ring in Heorot, Hygd feels free to manipulate the Geatish succession, and the merewife is manifestly more powerful than her son Grendel, despite the poet's hastening to say that femininity alone makes her the weaker monster (lines 1282b-87). The wills also reflect feminine power and status-part of the noblewoman's Germanic birthright-which declined steadily after the Conquest, falling to the point where, by 1285, the wife no longer had the right to make a will nor, implicitly, any other right to alienate property controlled by her husband and inherited by her eldest son.

But Anglo-Saxon widows could retain control of their husbands' estates, as shown by several rich wills in Whitelock's edition, where ten of thirty-nine are bequests by women.[42] And even where the husband stipulates that his widow must remain unmarried in order to inherit, he acknowledges her ownership of the morgengyfu, "morning-gift," usually seen as a sort of life-insurance policy, support for the wife if she should survive her husband.[43] Thus in his ninth-century will the reeve Abba says that, should his widow remarry, then his kinsmen should take charge of his estate 7 hire agefen hire agen, "and give her back her own property" (Harmer 1914:3). The widow Wynflaed also distinguishes her morning-gift from the rest of her estates, bequeathing it to her son with reversion to her daughter in the event of his death. But this daughter has already appeared as first heir in Wynflaed's will, receiving jewelry and lands before the son is even mentioned (Whitelock 1930:10).

Elsewhere sons fare much more poorly, as in the aforementioned will of Alfred, Ealdorman of Surrey (Harmer 1914:13-14). His wife and daughter receive 104 hides of bookland, with forty-four of those to go unbefliten, "undisputed," to the daughter after the wife's death. On the other hand, Alfred's son receives a scant three hides, and only 100 swine as opposed to 2,000-twenty times as much livestock-for wife and daughter. By favoring female heirs over sons, such arrangements may reflect the substratum of a lost Germanic inheritance system, which once gave vast prestige to the maternal kindred. Such arrangements also show that primogeniture was not yet the rule in Late Saxon England. In fact, as Sheehan (1963:78) writes, "it is remarkable how rarely a son is indicated" in these wills. And earlier in the period sons fared more poorly still. In Middle Saxon times, according to Bede, the sons of Northumbrian nobles were forced to leave the country if they wanted land, virtually exiling themselves (John 1960:45).[44] Apparently, Anglian folkright offered them next to nothing. Puzzled by this problem, John asks, "Why could these young men not expect to inherit from their fathers?" They suffered such dim prospects, I suggest, because the native Germanic inheritance system, disintegrating for various reasons while the written will evolved, favored not the son but rather the sister's son as principal heir.

Sisters' sons do seem to appear as often as sons in the bequests, despite the late date of most surviving wills. For instance, King Edgar's Ealdorman Alfheah bestows one estate upon his son and one upon his sister's son (Whitelock 1930:no. IX). Here son and nephew share equal status as heirs. Another mid-tenth-century will bequeaths the bulk of the estates, aside from rich ecclesiastical endowments, upon three sisters's sons (Whitelock 1930:no. I). Most striking, though, is the eleventh-century will of Wulfric Spott, mentioned above, who bestows estates upon a variety of kinfolk, including his suhtergan, "brother's son,s" Wulfheah and Ufegeat. But no one receives nearly as much land as Morcar, who in effect becomes Wulfric's principal heir. Unfortunately Morcar's relationship is not specified in the will; but Whitelock assumes he is yet another sister's son (Whitelock 1930:153).

Beowulf, too, is one of these, a favored nephew who inherits wealth and status from his mother's brother. Together, he and Hygelac form the centerpiece of an avuncular series that not only "antiques" the epic for the poet, but also unifies it for the reader. First we encounter the Sigemund digression (lines 874b-900), which suggests that the link between mother's brother and sister's son is the closest of all Germanic kin bonds. For the poet emphasizes its confidentiality, stating how Sigemund's nephew Fitela was the only person who knew of hidden deeds, heroic feats lost to history and hence Hrothgar's knowledgeable scop, too. The scop knows as much as anyone except Fitela, in whom Sigemund confided (lines 880-83)

þonne he swulces hwæt secgan wolde,
eam his nefan, swa hie a wæron
æt niða gehwam nydgesteallan;

when confidences he cared to share,
uncle to nephew, since they forever remained
in each pitched battle companions in need.

As Bremmer (1980:32-33) suggests, the sister's son may have been expected to join his mother's brother's warband: "within as well as outside the poem we have evidence that MoBr and SiSo went to battle as comrades." Thus the poet gilds his patrons' past with glimmerings of noble antiquity, adding these avuncular pairs, once upon a time revered as king and prince in the matriclan, where as heafodmagas, "head-kinsmen," they shared uppermost status and authority. At the same time, while enhancing the romantic setting and unifying the epic, these archetypal pairs are not figments of the poet's fiction, but remnants of his mythos and folkright-part of his Germanic heritage, fixed by tradition in the material he inherited. Yet the artist, as nexus of folkways, continually reweaves old strands and new.[45] It is fitting that Sigemund and Fitela appear first, since like the historiola or "epic" of a charm, they supply the mythic precedent that not only foreshadows but also validates ensuing avuncular allusions, glittering like rivet heads elsewhere in the epic, holding the ornate artifact together.

Emphasizing the closeness of the bond, Bremmer offers an alternate reading of the next pair, Hnaef and his sister Hildeburh's son, nameless in the Finnsburg Episode (lines 1063-1160a) [46]. Although "critics have usually assumed that they were fighting on different sides," Bremmer (1980:33) argues, "there is no indication whatsoever in the text for this assumption. The probability should not be dismissed, therefore, that Hildeburh's son was a member of Hnaef's comitatus." This scenario is worth considering, especially since in a preliterary matriclan the uncle and nephew would share the same unilineal totem and unilocal residence, thus forming a tight configuration, a "true atom of kinship." Whatever the nature of their relationship, though, it is undeniably close, emotional, and, to the Beowulf Poet, not just sentimental but exceptionally tragic when the two fall in the same fight. His geomuru ides, "mournful lady," Hildeburh (line 1075b), sheared of brother, son, and in the next battle husband too, commits the two to the same sad pyre (lines 1114-17):

Het ða Hildeburh æt Hnæfes ade
hire selfre sunu sweoloðe befæsten,
banfatu bærnan, ond on bæl don
eame on eaxle. Ides gnornode.

Hildeburh commanded on Hnaef's funeral pyre
that her own son then be sent to the flames,
his bone-vats burnt, and so upon the bier he lay
by his mother's brother. She mourned, that lady.

This scene may represent the utmost tragedy in the old Germanic tradition: the fall of uncle and nephew-formerly chieftain and heir?-upon the same battlefield. Thus could a dynasty's present and future be cruelly swept away.

Beowulf's devotion to Hygelac represents the same kin-loyalty, since he and his uncle were "shield-companions" in their prime. Recounting his adventures before the dragon fight, the aged hero clearly takes pride in his archetypal devotion to king and uncle. Equally clear is the inspiration the old man finds in fond memories of his beloved leader (lines 2497-2500):

Symle ic him on feðan beforan wolde,
ana on orde, and swa to aldre sceall
sæcce fremman þenden þis sweord þolað,
þæt mec ær ond sið oft gelæste.

Always in the foot-troop before him I went,
alone at the point; and in life must I thus
excel in battle while this sword endures
that soon and late saved me often.

To us it may seem strange that, although the paternal relationship crops up throughout the epic with hollow regularity, Beowulf's own father Ecgtheow seems somehow distant, divorced from the hero, a biological necessity and not the close companion represented by his maternal uncle. This, too, suggests the traces of a matrilineal arrangement, where sometimes "the word for father carries only a social definition . . . it means 'a man married to my mother'" (Schusky 1972:37). In the Crow system, it is mother and her brother who stand out as focal points in the clan--as heafodmagas. The miscellaneous fathers all fade together.

Commonly, too, it is the sister's son who inherits status and property from his mother's brother, a point emphasized above. My position is that the Beowulf Poet, swayed by Late Saxon influences like primogeniture, had no sharp recollection of avuncular inheritance, although traces of it lingered in the wills of the nobility. But this oblique line of bequeathal was petrified in traditions received from the continental home of his ancestors. Although we can only attribute the uncle/nephew relationship tenuously to the last two leading characters, the pattern established by other riveting pairs supports Bremmer's (1980:35-36) hypothesis:[47]

In his farewell-speeches Beowulf has given Wiglaf full instructions as to the funeral (lines 2802-8). Wiglaf, so to say, becomes the executor of Beowulf's will, and indeed carries out his lord's instructions with authority. Although the epic ends with the funeral rites performed for Beowulf and a last ode to him by the poet, it does not seem adventurous to assume that Wiglaf, as the last member of the Waegmunding clan (lines 2813-14a), succeeds his kinsman to the throne.

I share Bremmer's assumption that "Beowulf is Wiglaf's maternal uncle, or, in other words, that Wiglaf is the son of a sister of Beowulf's, even though such a sister is not mentioned in the poem."[48] He supports his argument with a convincing diagram, showing the stemma from Waegmund through Wihstan to Wiglaf. Thus Bremmer views Wihstan as aðum, "son-in-law," "sister's husband" (the term had both meanings) to Ecgtheow and Beowulf, respectively. The intimacy of the avuncular bond seems implicit in Wiglaf's exceptional fidelity to the hero, which mirrors Beowulf's own loyalty to his uncle before him (and so forth back down through the mythic lineage to an Anglo-Saxon alcheringa, "illo tempore"). Indeed, the patterning of the epic seems to demand that a mother's brother/sister's son pair complete the narrative, thus filling out expectations set up by the recurrent focus on the preceding pairs. As in three-dimensional design, the same stylized motifs repeat themselves. This gives us a matching "rivet head" at the close of the epic by placing "Wiglaf in the same relation to Beowulf as Hildeburh's son to Hnaef and Fitela to Sigemund" (Bremmer 1980:36), not to mention the hero himself to Hygelac min, "my Hygelac" (line 2434b).

The warmth of Beowulf and Wiglaf's relationship is equally characteristic of the avuncular bond. And to my mind the gifts bestowed by the dying king seem exceptional indeed. More than opulent rewards, these treasures are the royal regalia, like the crown jewels, a globe and scepter, or the riches from Sutton Hoo (lines 2809-16):[49]

Dyde him of healse hring gyldenne
þioden þristhydig, þegne gesealde,
geongum garwigan, goldfahne helm,
beah ond byrnan, het hyne brucan well-
"þu eart endelaf usses cynnes,
Wægmundinga; ealle wyrd forsweop
mine magas to metodsceafte,
eorlas on elne; ic him æfter sceal."

From his neck he took the torque of gold,
thinking of glory, gave it to the thane,
the young spear-warrior, and the yellow-gold helm,
rings and his mail-shirt, commanded, "Use well!-
Now come you last in this lineage of ours,
we Waegmundings, all wasted by fate;
kinsmen of mine carved out their doom;
noble the heroes; now must I follow."

The necklace seems tantamount to a crown, typologically if not historically. It is a large gold ring, property of the sacral king-royal regalis symbolic of state, more than we would expect a retainer or an earnest cousin to get from any grateful lord. And when we pile on the other gems and accoutrements, the image cluster becomes more than rich, even in the glittering catalogues of epic. It is royal, like the grave goods of Anglian or Upplandish kings. Beowulf's gifts to Wiglaf are a virtual investiture. The dying monarch bequeaths the emblems of office. Again, I suspect that hints of Wiglaf's succession filter through to us from a much earlier period, from a culture quite different from that of the poet, who feels bound to attribute impulses of primogeniture to his fading hero (lines 2729-31):

Nu ic suna minum syllan wolde
guðgewædu, þær me gifeðe swa
ænig yrfeweard æfter wurde.

Now would I bestow upon a son of my own
these war-garments if he were given to me,
any guardian of heirlooms afterwards coming.

The fuzzy image here, son superimposed upon nephew, reflects the blurring of cultures in the social continuum of Anglo-Saxon England. Wiglaf's impending succession-barely suggested in the poet's own material and so as faint to him as to us-gives the epic artful closure, like the Aristotelean restoration of order in the catastrophe of Lear. Thus he hammers his last rivet home.

Aside from these reflexes of the avunculate in Beowulf, other "symptoms" of totemism need further study. Shamanic lore lurks in rune, riddle, and charm as well as in epic, gnome, and elegy (see n. 8). In the future, more connections should be made between sources usually studied alone, e.g., epic and charm, epic and will, epic and charter. Archaeology steadily unearths surprises that reconfigure the corpus. For example, we have yet to articulate the implications of the Pioneer Helmet, found in the Midlands in 1997. But as the third boar helm in a corpus of four, its ramifications are significant. This paper barely introduces kinship concerns. Nor has the full range of animal folklore been explored. Along with the shapeshifting motif, zoological nomenclature also suggests totemism. In personal names, animal referents suggest that proto-heraldic beasts once symbolized the kindred. The same can be said for the place-name Heorot, "Hart," Hrothgar's dynastic seat, his men's house said (line 780a) to be banfag, "decorated with antlers." Other group-related animal images have similar overtones, e.g., the boar-adorned battle standard that Hrothgar gives Beowulf (who in turn presents it to Hygelac upon his homecoming; line 2152b). This standard can be compared with the anomalous Sutton Hoo scepter, adorned with a stag figurine, an artifact that "may have been vested with a totemic significance that cannot easily be translated into modern concepts."[50] Along with the stag image, individualized faces carved on the scepter suggest ancestor veneration in the culture of the artist, which was probably as much "Swedish" as "English" in the early seventh century. At the outset of the epic, too, the mythic overtones of Scyld Scefing-a culture hero comparable to Ing or Frey-may stem from venerating the eponymous ancestor, another totemic trait. Is that Scyld's face peering down from the Sutton Hoo scepter, first in line?

When viewed alongside the kinship concerns discussed above, these isolated motifs gain a new coherence, since they all look like traces of totemism in Old English sources. In a totemic frame, these scattered elements combine into an integral whole-ancestor veneration, zoomorphic names and symbols, suggestions of kin-solidarity, converging terms for paternal kinsmen, flecks of matrilineal patterning plus faint reflexes of the avunculate from Beowulf and the wills. Suggesting an obscure past, these reflexes reach the poet who in turn transmits them to us. Ultimately, then, in view of the restrictive nature of folkright, it is unlikely that his character Hygd, despite the high status of the Germanic queen, ever had the power to abrogate customary rules of succession in prehistoric Geatland. And when the poet implies that Hygelac's rightful heir is his son Heardred, he probably introduces an anachronism by projecting primogeniture upon continental Germanic culture long before it developed there. He hastens to explain Hygd's motive for the attempt to disinherit Heardred in favor of Beowulf, sister's son of the slain king (lines 2370b-72):

Bearne ne truwode,
þæt he wið ælfylcum eþelstolas
healdan cuðe, ða wæs Hygelac dead

She didn't trust her son,
that against threatening outsiders the throne of the homeland
he knew how to hold with Hygelac dead.

I suspect that the poet imputes this motive and interpolates the reign of Heardred because primogeniture was gaining currency in Anglo-Saxon England when the epic was composed. He received legendary material wherein the sister's son succeeded the mother's brother. Unaccustomed to this prehistoric pattern, he may have invented Hygd's offer in order to account for Beowulf's oblique ascent to the Geatish throne-transversely, along the lost line of the avunculate. But the avuncular line of inheritance, weakly reflected in the wills too, may have been the folkright rule in early Germanic Europe. And vestiges of this pattern, not fully eradicated, are among the more notable traces of totemism in the Old English corpus.



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Copyright © Stephen O. Glosecki, 2001-2. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2001-2. All rights reserved.