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The Germanic Onomasticon and the Etymology of Beowulf’s Name

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Abstract

Debate has persisted as to whether the first element of Beowulf’s name is to be identified as bēo (“bee”) or Bēow (an agricultural deity cognate with Byggvir). The present article reassesses various forms of evidence bearing on the relative probability of these two etymologies. It identifies compelling reasons to believe that bēo (“bee”) would not have been used as the prototheme of a male dithematic name, while finding that there are no genuine obstacles to credence in the theophoric analysis of Beowulf’s name.

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Notes

  1. For the history of scholarship on the name’s etymology, see Fulk et al. (2008: 464–465).

  2. See, for examples, Bloomfield (194951); Robinson (1968); Feldman (1974); Hill (1990); and Owen-Crocker (2007).

  3. See Fulk (1987, 2007); Jurasinski (2007); Shippey (2014); and Neidorf (2017b, 2018). Prior to Fulk, the purported relationship between etymology and characterization was queried by Gordon (1935).

  4. In addition to “nobility and renown”, Clark (1992: 457) identifies “national pride”, “religion”, “strength and valour”, and “warriors and weapons” as the major categories to which elements in the early English onomasticon belong. In reference to Langobardic dithematic names, Haubrichs (2009: 197–199) identifies a similar set of categories, as he associates elements with “cult and myth”, “battle and war”, “political power and wealth”, and “positive attributes”. On the probable connection between the dithematic onomasticon and poetic diction, see Schramm (1957); Barley (1974); and Pascual (2020).

  5. On the antiquity of the dithematic onomasticon and its separation from the regular lexicon, see Hough (2010: 5–8); and Insley (2006: 113–114). Kitson writes: “The particular elements have nearly all continued in use since Common Germanic times, and the dithematic naming-system as such is inherited from Common Indo-European, several millennia back” (2002: 97).

  6. For further discussion of nicknames and by-names, see Kitson (2002: 119–126); Okasha (2011: 83–90); Colman (2014: 270); and Peterson (2015). Noting the popularity of nicknames and by-names in Scandinavia and Normandy, Colman supposes that “[t]heir increase in tenth- and eleventh-century Old English records is presumably due to outside influence” (1992: 29).

  7. Müller elsewhere adds: “Ein Mann wird ‘Biber’ genannt, weil er so fleißig ist wie dieses immer geschäftige Tier, eine Frau ‘Biene’, weil sie so zierlich (oder fleißig?) ist wie eine Biene” (1970: §187).

  8. After discussing evidence for this tradition in the works of Ambrose and Augustine, Crane points to a pertinent English remark in Harley MS 2276 (Wax bitokeneth the maydenhed of Marie, Cristes modir) and observes: “The church fathers thus linked the wax of a candle with the virginity of the bees producing it, and with the Virgin Mary” (1999: 600).

  9. Incidentally, Jordanes also mentions bees when noting their absence from Scandza: “There the honey-making swarms of bees are nowhere to be found on account of the exceeding great cold” (apium ibi turba mellifica ob nimium frigore nusquam repperitur) (Mierow, 1915: 55–56; Mommsen, 1882: 58).

  10. The text and translation are cited from Amory (1997: 100). For further discussion of the Opus imperfectum in Matthaeum, see Amory (1997: 243–245); Green (1998: 82); and Müller (1970: §158).

  11. As Glosecki writes: “Incised on stone, cast in bronze, filigreed in gold, cloisonnéed in garnet, embossed in repoussé, carved in oak, envisioned in elegy, invoked in epic, petrified in personal names—an entourage of the same animals unfolds before us—boar, bear, wolf, hart, horse, raven, eagle, serpent, fish—silent, fanciful, mysterious, sometimes with glittering garnet eyes that seem supercharged with secrets” (2000: 4).

  12. As Müller writes: “Die auf zahlreichen germanischen Waffen, Schmuck-und Gebrauchsgegenständen teils ornamental, teils mehr oder weniger naturnah dargestellten Tiere—WERNER nennt Adler, Eber, Wolf, Schlange (flügelloser Drache), Stier, Bär, Schwan, Roß, Falke, Hirsch, Bock und Hund—sind dieselben, deren Bezeichnungen auch in den Menschennamen immer wiederkehren (Wolf, Hund, Adler, Falke, Eber, Bär, Rabe, Schwan, Stier, Hirsch, Wurm [Schlange, Drache], Roß, Bock) und sind schließlich identisch mit jenen Tieren, die, wie verschiedene Quellenkategorien zur germanischen Religionsgeschichte erkennen lassen, für die Germanen eine Bedeutung innerhalb ihrer religiösen Vorstellungen besessen haben müssen” (1968: 202–203).

  13. According to Wachsler, “the most common animal forms taken by shape-shifters [in Northern Europe] are the wolf, the bear and the wild-boar, these being the most admired and feared animals of the region” (1985: 383). In addition to these three animals, there is evidence for belief in shamanic transformation into eagles, bulls, walruses, pigs, dogs, goats, fishes, and other animals: see Eliade (1964: 381); Davidson (1986); Glosecki (1988, 1989); Tolley (2009); and Ramos (2015). For discussion of classical Greco-Roman visual sources that depict Germanic warriors identifying with wolves, bears, bucks, and martens, see Speidel (2004: 10–49).

  14. The theophoric analysis of Beowulf’s name was first championed in contemporary scholarship by Fulk and Harris (2002), preceded by brief remarks in Harris (1999: 15) and then substantially augmented in Fulk (2007). The analysis has also been credited by Orchard (2003: 121, n. 117); Osborn (2006: 271, n. 2); and Tolley (2009: 566–567).

  15. As it happens, Reaney includes the gadfly in his list of derogatory insect-nicknames, as he mentions the surname “Breeze, Robert Brese c1175 Newark (OE brēosa ‘gadfly’)” (1967: 273).

  16. It falls beyond the scope of the present article to analyze the numerous analogues to Beow and tease out all the ways in which they support the identification of this figure as an agricultural deity. For a particularly compelling demonstration that the figures of Beow, Scyld, and Sceaf are rooted in archaic folkloric traditions, see Tolley (1996). See also Fulk (1989); Harris (1999); Bruce (2002); and Sayers (2016a, b).

  17. The text of Beowulf is cited from Fulk et al. (2008); the translation is cited from Fulk (2010).

  18. Another question to consider in connection with the representation of Beow is why this figure should happen to be mentioned at all. Fulk provides a compelling answer: “It may be entirely an accident that Beow is mentioned at the outset of the poem, but it is tempting to see some design here, especially as the poet lays on this figure a degree of emphasis which is peculiar in view of the fact that he plays no distinctive role. In the course of the poem’s introductory genealogy, in fact, more lines are devoted to Beow than to Hrothgar’s father Healfdene, although the latter, who is less plainly mythological, is mentioned elsewhere in the poem more than fifteen times, while Beow is never mentioned again. If the poet did intend this seeming emphasis on Beow in the Scylding genealogy, the simplest and most obvious explanation must be that he associated Beow and Beowulf on the basis of their names” (2007: 124).

  19. As it happens, Shaw does not analyze Bēowulf as a kenning. After concluding that the prototheme should be identified as bēo (“bee”), he writes: “This does not for a moment, of course, imply that the name is a kenning meaning ‘bear’; it is perfectly satisfactory to interpret it simply as an ordinary variation name” (2020: 32). For weighty objections to the analysis of Bēowulf as a kenning, see Harris (1999: 15); Fulk (2007: 117–118); Tolley (2009: 566–567); and Abram (2017: 393–394). Of course, the real issue is not whether the name could be a kenning—there is no reason to believe that dithematic names ever functioned as kennings—but whether bēo (“bee”) could be a genuine element in a male dithematic name.

  20. Gordon, observing the frequent combination of the -þēow deuterotheme with theophoric protothemes (e.g., Ansedeus, Ingadeus, Gotadeo), supposes that it originally entered the onomasticon to indicate that “that the bearer of the name is a ‘servant’ of a god or a supernatural power” (1935: 171–172).

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Neidorf, L., Zhu, C. The Germanic Onomasticon and the Etymology of Beowulf’s Name. Neophilologus 106, 109–126 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11061-021-09703-8

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