Was the story of Beowulf inspired by a woolly mammoth?

Timothy J. Burbery, Marshall University

Copyright © 2015 The Author. All rights reserved.


Could a woolly mammoth be one of English literature’s “ancestors”? Perhaps. Whenever I teach Beowulf, the first long masterwork in the English canon, inevitably the question arises: Is the story true in any sense? I then tell my students that Hrothgar’s mead-hall may have existed, according to recent archaeological finds. And Hygelac, Beowulf’s uncle and king, seems to have been an actual person. His death around A.D. 521 is recorded in the poem and in three other medieval sources. Now we can add another historical item: Hygelac’s characterization, as well as that of Beowulf’s, might have been inspired by the fossilized bones of a mammoth, unearthed during the middle ages in what is now the Netherlands. The fuller story appears in the December 2015 issue of the journal Folklore.