Heroes of Celtic and Germanic Mythology
Throughout the myths of the Celtic and Germanic peoples of northern Europe tales of epic heroes and their extraordinary deeds abound. These tales depict heroes performing a variety of incredible feats; many of which appear to be magical, superhuman, and, quite honestly, utterly impossible (e.g., wading across oceans, defeating armies virtually single-handedly, and other astounding exploits). Since the Celtic and Germanic tribes of antiquity inhabited neighboring lands and lived in close proximity to one another (as many of their modern descendants continue to do: i.e., in Great Britain), it is not surprising that they often established intimate relationships with each other via commerce, conquest, and the spread of religious beliefs. In light of this intimate association, it is not astonishing that the cultural and consequent poetic traditions of these ethnic groups were often remarkably analogous.
Frequently, the archetypical champions of Celtic and Germanic mythology exhibited similar characteristics regardless of whether or not they were Anglo-Saxon, Rhenish, or Irish. Indeed, there are many parallels between the behaviors demonstrated by the heroes of Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied, and the Tain Bo Cuailnge. Some of the most striking of these parallels are: the noble and divine lineage of the hero; the hero’s increased endurance and his exceptional combat abilities (including the use of powerful weapons and berserker behavior); the hero’s ability to attain victory against seemingly insurmountable odds or indestructible creatures; and the ritual practices of the taking of heads and the giving of rings.
The epic poem Beowulf may be considered unique in the context of mythology as it contains a plethora of accurate references to historical regional tribes and their heroes, “The main story of Beowulf has been called a fairy-tale with all the magic removed -Shippey N & Q” (Beowulf Chickering 257). Nonetheless, Beowulf displayed many characteristics, which are not unlike those exhibited by other legendary champions. Although Beowulf’s birth does not appear to have been divine or shrouded in mystery or magic, his lineage was noble since his mother was the daughter of the high Geatish king Hrethel. Furthermore, in his analysis of the Beowulf Legend Howell D. Chickering, Jr. suggests that Beowulf was a vessel, through which divine power operated. He claims that the appearance of the shining light as Beowulf decapitated Grendel’s mother was a manifestation of white magic and symbolized good triumphing over evil:
The sword itself is destroyed in the process, its blade melting away in battle-icicles from the poisonous blood of the monster. Only the golden hilt remains, engraved with the legend of how God destroyed the race of giants in the Flood. This sequence suggests that Beowulf wins his underwater victory as an agent of Providence and in a manner that somehow resembles the cleansing of...