What are the Beasts of Battle?

A handcrafted replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet

‘Beasts of Battle’ is a recurring image in Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and Old Norse (Viking) poetry. The three beasts are the raven, the eagle, and the wolf, who feast on the bodies of the slain.

Old Norse tradition

These animals are associated with the God Óðinn (Odin), so the ‘Beasts of Battle’ motif can have mythological overtones in Old Norse poetry.

Old English tradition

In Old English poetry, the ‘Beasts of Battle’ motif is used in poems about secular topics such as battles, and Christian themes such as Bible stories. Some poets describe the Beasts of Battle feasting on the dead after a battle; others mention them before a battle to foreshadow the slaughter to come. The most famous poem that uses the ‘Beasts of Battle’ motif is Beowulf.  

Metaphor

In the poem The Wanderer, a bird carries one man away and a wolf kills another; this is a metaphor for death in battle. In the poem The Battle of Maldon, the poet describes ravens and eagles circling over the battlefield, and embeds a reference to wolves in a metaphor used to describe the Vikings: wælwulfas (slaughter-wolves).  

Shared heritage

The Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons spoke closely-related Germanic languages, and used many of the same conventions and images in their poetry. The Battle of Maldon uses the ‘Beasts of Battle’ to demonize the Vikings, but the motif is, ironically, part of the Anglo-Saxons’ and the Vikings’ shared cultural heritage.

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Sutton Hoo belt buckle detail

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