Grendel looms large and threatening on the moors of Beowulf, an outcast from the light and joy of Heorot, a “grimma gæst” [grim spirit] and “wonsæli wer” [unblessed man] (ll.102, 105). His existence is a cursed one: “Đa se ellengæst earfoðlice / þrage geþolode, se þe in þystrum bad” [Then the bold-spirit suffered for a time in difficulty, he who lived in darknesses] (ll.86-87). However, it is a different beast-like and unblessed creature lurking in the shadow of Grendel’s family tree that defines not only the epic’s plot but the character of Beowulf himself: Cain, who “wearð / to ecgbanan angan breþer” [became as a slayer with the sword to his brother] (ll.1261-62). As numerous scholars have described, Cain, not unlike his monstrous descendant, was portrayed in later medieval tradition as distinctly animalistic after God’s curse—hairy, horny, and shiny-eyed. Cain was also held responsible for the first kin-slaying, a sin that holds significant weight in Anglo-Saxon culture and in Beowulf criticism as it represents a crime that cannot be easily resolved by the payment of wergild or other judicial measures. Horace Hodges even goes so far as to say that Beowulf substitutes this act of kin-slaying as the original sin rather than the consumption of the forbidden apple by Adam and Eve, because it introduces the evil of most concern to Beowulf’s audience.
Recent work by Andy Orchard and Dana Oswald, as well as the work of David Williams, has concentrated on Cain insomuch as he accounts for the possible monstrous origin of Grendel, but not as much in the way that he potentially marks Beowulf as monstrous himself. Rather, those scholars who do question his humanity found their conclusions on Beowulf’s close physical association with Grendel. The proliferation of monsters in the texts included alongside Beowulf in the lone extant manuscript, Cotton Vitellius A.xv., and the heroes of analogous texts from Scandinavia also drive their arguments. Oswald, for example, in Monsters, Gender and Sexuality, discusses Beowulf’s questionable humanity in his fight with Grendel in the hall and in taking up the ancient sword in the mere. However, Oswald does not elaborate on the implications of the Cainite tradition that she finds useful elsewhere in describing Grendel’s attributes. In Pride and Prodigies, Orchard goes further, describing Beowulf as monstrous and noting instances where the Beowulf-poet uses similar words to describe his hero as his monsters. For example, only Beowulf, the monsters, and Heremod, the proud leader featured in Hrothgar’s sermon, are described with a particular fury that enables victory, gebolgen or bolgenmod [furious; furious at heart]. And for a last example, David Williams, who perhaps addresses the Cainite tradition in Beowulf most intensely, finds that this tradition greatly influences the world and moral of the epic, but does not fully address how greatly this tradition might impact Beowulf’s own nature or identify the ways in which the Beowulf-poet inserts not only Grendel, but also his hero, into this tradition. If we accept Beowulf as a poem recorded or written by a Christian poet reflecting on a pagan culture, as most scholars do, then the presence of this important Biblical allusion deserves careful analysis.
This article will argue that the body of Latinate and Anglo-Saxon texts evidenced to be in circulation among Anglo-Saxon writers from the period of Beowulf’s composition which comment upon and retell the Genesis story suggest that there was a well-developed tradition of familicide associated with the kin of Cain. It will further argue that this tradition, in turn, influenced the narrative of Beowulf, inscribing the hero and his actions with Old Testament significance. Beowulf must enter into the family of Cain in order to successfully kill any of its members. This entry is faciliated by Beowulf’s use of sword and armor in the fight with Grendel’s mother and in Beowulf’s own gigantic physicality and associations with the grotesque.  Beowulf not only takes on attributes similar to Grendel, but characteristics more specifically Cainite as well.
Since, as Richard Marsden has discussed, it was the Old Testament rather than the New that was more readily available to an Anglo-Saxon audience, it is not surprising to find a Christian text dwelling on these themes and characters. In the introduction to their book dedicated to the influence of the Old Testament on Old English literature, Michael Fox and Manish Sharma emphasize that the Old Testament might be considered the one most influential source for all of Old English literature, basing their assumptions on the work of Malcolm Godden and others. As such, a discussion of the Cainite tradition as understood by Anglo-Saxon culture is appropriate prior to an analysis of the implications of this tradition for Beowulf.
Cain’s family history, as understood by the Anglo-Saxons, is an intriguing one, largely located in biblical commentaries, apocryphal books, theological works, and extra-Biblical poetry, rather than in Biblical canon itself. The Vulgate, as we know it now, provides a straightfoward account of Cain and his descendants, introducing the cast of characters that later play a role in the most important legends surrounding Cain. Cain murders his brother Abel due to envy, and is cursed by God: “Cum operatus fueris eam non dabit tibi fructos suos. Vagus et profugus eris super terram” [When thou shalt till it, it shall not yield to thee its fruit. A fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be upon the earth] (Gen. 4.12). Cain responds in fear, afraid that men will kill him if they find him friendless. God bestows on him a mark of protection:
Dixitque ei Dominus, “Nequaquam ita fiet sed omnis qui occiderit Cain septuplum punietur.’ Posuitque Dominus Cain signum ut non eum interficeret omnis qui invenisset eum.”
[And the Lord said to him, “No, it shall not be so, but whosoever shall kill Cain shall be punished sevenfold.” And the Lord set a mark upon Cain that whosoever found him should not kill him.] (Gen. 4.15).
Thus protected, Cain founds a city and bears children.
Into this line is eventually born Lamech who begets Jabal, Jubal, and Tubalcain. Each is a founder and inventor in his own way. Jabal is the father of sheperds, and Jubal the father of musicians. Tubalcain is skilled in metallurgy: “Sella quoque genuit Thubalcain, qui fuit malleator et faber in cuncta opera aeris et ferri” [Zillah also brought forth Tubalcain, who was a hammerer and artificer in every work of brass and iron.] (Gen. 4.22). Genesis also includes a very short anecdote in which Lamech comes home to his wives and laments that he has killed a man, though the victim and circumstances are unclear:
Dixitque Lamech uxoribus suis, Adae et Sellae, ‘Audite vocem meam uxores Lamech; Auscultate sermonem meum, quoniam occidi virum in vulnus meum et adulescentulum in livorem meum. Septuplum ultio dabitur de Cain, de Lamech vero septuagies septies.
[And Lamech said to his wives, Adah and Zillah, “Hear my voice, ye wives of Lamech; hearken to my speech, for I have slain a man to the wounding of myself and a stripling to my own bruising. Sevenfold vengeance shall be taken for Cain, but for Lamech seventy times sevenfold.”] (Gen. 4.23-24).
Based on this brief account, an entire legend and commentary was crafted around the interaction between Cain and Lamech, extending the kinslaying of Abel into a familial trait. St. Ambrose composes De Cain et Abel in the fourth century, accusing Lamech of a greater sin than Cain and therefore worthy of greater punishment—namely seventy times seven the vengeance granted Cain—because, though more knowledgeable than Cain, he does not keep himself from sin:
Unde in Lamech septuagies septies vindicatur, quia gravior culpa eius est qui nec post damnationem se correxit alterius.
[For which reason, in Lamech is seven times seventy punished, because his fault is greater who did not, after the condemnation of another, correct himself].
Stephen Bandy notes that Ambrose’s text can be traced most likely to the work of Philo Judaeus, who said of Cain that he was considered by his family to be “a genus peculiar and separate from the rational species, like one transformed into the nature of beasts.” It is Cain’s animalistic appearance that led to his murder at the hand of his descendant, the sin for which Ambrose condemns Lamech.
More detailed descriptions of Cain’s death come out of the tradition of Jewish midrashim, the commentaries of rabbis on Jewish scripture. Heather O’Donoghue, searching out the influence of the Cainite tradition in the fratricidal death of Baldr in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda as an analog to Beowulf’s account of the death of Herebeald, points specifically to the Midrash Tanhuma Yelammendenu, composed in the eighth or ninth centuries from the commentary of Rabbi Tanhuma as a source for the account of Cain’s death at the hands of Lamech. In this commentary and others, Lamech is blind, and, when hunting, is guided by his son Tubalcain. One day, while hunting, Tubalcain points out what he thinks is an animal but is in reality the beast-like Cain. Lamech shoots and kills his grandfather. In grief at his discovery, he hits Tubalcain accidentally and also kills him. As O’Donoghue points out, this Jewish account most likely entered the Anglo-Saxon corpus through the work of St. Jerome in the fourth and fifth centuries. Some evidence of the presence of this legend in Jerome’s work is found in the genealogy that he provides in his Epistulae:
Adam quippe genuit Cain, Cain genuit Enoch, Enoch genuit Gaidad, Gaidad genuit Malaleel, Malaleel genuit Mathusalam, Mathusalam genuit Lamech, qui septimus ab adam non sponte, sicuti in quodam hebraeo volumine scribitur, interfecit Cain.
[Adam indeed begot Cain, Cain begot Enoch, Enoch begot Gaidad, Gaidad begot Maleleel, Maleleel begot Methusaleh, Methusaleh begot Lamech, who, seventh from Adam, accidentally, as it is written in a certain book by the Jews, killed Cain].
Two other Latin-language sources crucial to the development of the Cainite tradition in Anglo-Saxon literature were a translation of the Book of Enoch and the collection of patristic commentary simply referred to as the Reference Bible or the Irish Reference Bible. The first has been more studied and referenced in Old English studies, though scholars like J. E. Cross have argued for the latter’s equal influence on Anglo-Saxon texts, especially Beowulf. The Book of Enoch, according to R. E. Kaske, was evidently available to Anglo-Saxon writers, as shown by its presence in the work of Bede and a recovered eighth century fragment of the text translated into Latin and seemingly of English provenance. The interest that the Book of Enoch holds for Beowulf scholars lies in the section entitled The Legend of the Watchers, which is generally recognized to be connected with the passage in Genesis 6 in which angels descend to mingle with human women and, consequently, produce a race of giants. Kaske argues that it is the Book of Enoch that so clearly places Grendel into Old Testament context. Not only are these Old Testament giants cannibalistic, but, like Grendel, they are portrayed ambiguously, as both corporeal and incorporeal, thus both eoten and ellengæst, words that connote evil spirits. Kaske also responds to the objection that, whereas the Book of Enoch clearly explains the giants as the descendants of unions between angels and earthly women, the Beowulf text appears to echo the later Christian explanation that giants were descended from godly men and Cainite women; Kaske posits that the Beowulf-poet could easily have conflated the two traditions, mating Cainite women with angels.
For the Anglo-Saxons, the presence of giants in Beowulf, via the incorporation of Cainite tradition, would have grounded the text not only in the Old Testament but in their own geographical past in which giants inhabited their isle and were responsible for the ruins they lived among. In his work on mapping Anglo-Saxon England, Nicholas Howe references the “enta geweorc” and “orðanc enta geweorc” found in Anglo-Saxon poems like The Ruin and Maxims II. The English saw their predecessors in these ruins, who carried their own Biblical weight once read through a Christianized worldview. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen suggests that Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of the invasion of Brutus and men, which is responsible for the exile of the giants to the mountains and the domestication of Britain, is full of biblical typology, equating the island to both Canaan and Eden by linking the giants with the inhabitants and guardians of these locales. The giants stand as representations of the bounty of Britain, and it is their excessive appetites that mark them as sinful. However, Cohen points out that despite the giants’ monstrous sizes they are disturbingly human, therefore liminal figures, and ultimately threatening. Beowulf seems to represent a similarly liminal figure, often praised as much larger and stronger than other men, but also embraced by humans as their savior. Despite his positive reception by Hrothgar and the Danes, the audience must wonder about the possibility of his gigantic ancestry as well—a possibility in congruence with both Biblical tradition and British pagan myths of origin.
Kaske highlights the usefulness of The Book of Enoch in understanding and contextualizing Grendel, especially with respect to the place that giants held in the Anglo-Saxon imagination. The Reference Bible goes further, however, to help flesh out the Cainite tradition available to the Beowulf-poet and evidences the likely linkage for an Anglo-Saxon audience, of Cain with familicide more broadly, rather than simple fratricide.
Bischoff has dated the Reference Bible to 750 A.D., and Gerard MacGinty, the editor of Brepols’ 2000 edition of the text, argues that it may have been composed even earlier. Both Cross and MacGinty cite research concluding that the Reference Bible was probably produced in Ireland. The text is not a retelling or collection of Biblical stories, but rather a compilation of patristic commentary on Biblical texts, resulting in a somewhat fractured text focused on theological questions raised by Biblical figures. In the following passage, for example, Origen explains why eating meat with blood is prohibited, referencing the giants of the Old Testament—and, for the Beowulf reader, evoking the nature of Grendel’s feasts:
Id est, ideo iussit carnem quea ante diluuium genus Seth non edit carnem; et ideo prohibuit sanguinem, quia gigantes carnem cum sanguine manducauerunt ante diluuium—ideo venit diluuium super terram.
[It is, for that reason, he appointed meat, which, before the flood, the race of Seth did not eat; and therefore, prohibited blood, because the giants consumed meat with blood before the flood—therefore the flood came upon the earth.]
The giants from the Reference Bible are not so different from those in the Book of Enoch. The discussion of Cain, Lamech, and their archetypal significance in this text is particularly intriguing, however. Andy Orchard notes that the Reference Bible offers a parallel treatment of the kin of Cain to that found in Beowulf. Putting Augustine and Ambrose into conversation, the text studies the significance of seven-times-seventy vengeance in the context of genealogy:
“Vel ‘septuplum’ indicat quod ‘in VII generatione’ ab Adam occisus est ‘Cain’; id est, ‘Cain’, ‘Enoch’, Aidad vel ‘Iareth’, ‘Malalel’, ‘Matusalem’, ‘Lamech’—‘qui’ occidit ‘Cain.’
[Actually, “sevenfold” indicates that ‘in the seventh generation’ from Adam, ‘Cain’ was killed; that is, ‘Cain,’ ‘Enoch,’ Aidad or ‘Jareth,’ ‘Malalel,’ ‘Methusaleh,’ ‘Lamech’—‘who’ killed ‘Cain.’]
Comments from Origen shortly thereafter discuss Lamech and his progeny at further length:
Lamech ex Adda uxore genuit Iobel, qui primitus inuenit domum in toto mundo, id est, tentorium. Item ex Sella, uxore sua, genuit Iubal, qui primus inuenit citharam; quam causa timoris excogitauit, id est, sono venti contra se, et arma in speluncis contra ventum arripuit.
[Lamech begot Jabal from his wife Ada, who for the first time in the whole world, invented the house, that is, the tent. Likewise, from his wife, Zillah, he begot Jubal, who first invented the zither; which he invented on account of his fear, that is, the sound of the wind against him, and he picked up arms in the caves against the wind].
The use of the zither as a weapon against Jubal’s fear of the wind is a bit odd, but the invention of both the home and music in this short passage seems significant to the beginning of Beowulf, in which we see a Grendel outcast from the warmth of Heorot and tortured by the music of the sceop. Williams explains that though the medieval perspective on music was that it might be considered either harmonious or disharmonious, Jubal’s musical talent was connected with the disharmony of the mind, due to the malignant influence of his Cainite ancestry, and therefore signified the corruption of the mind. Here, perhaps, we see for the first time a link between the monster and the human—one that will only become more emphatic as the narrative continues. Grendel is unsettled by the work of his own kin, setting up familial conflict, both of species and of geneaology.
Origen’s description of Tubalcain follows shortly after his description of Jubal and Jabal, but instead of just attributing the working of metal to Tubalcain, Origen makes explicit the connection between Tubalcain’s invention and the invention of weapons—a link important for placing into the context of familicide the sword that Beowulf finds in the mere when fighting Grendel’s mother. His explanation of Tubalcain’s behavior also rests heavily on the description of Jubal’s zither and his fight against the wind:
Tubalcain primus faber excogitavit in illa spelunca, contra sonum venti, malleum quo dolatur metallum, ut sonum faciat contra sonum uenti, id est, arma contra arma macinauit. Inde inuenit malliolum in spelunca habitans, ex qua feriens parietem in speclunca habens metallum ferri, et aeris sonum ei reddidit.
[Tubalcain, the first craftsman, devised in the cave, against the sound of the wind, the hammer by which metal is shaped, so that he might make sound against the sound of the wind, that is, he created arms against arms. Then, living in the cave, having the metal of iron, he invented the mallet, from which striking the wall in the cave, the sound of the air returned to him.]
Thus, the invention of metal, even when devised in the context of music, is spoken of in terms of weaponry, and the text seems to parallel weapons with a sibling’s creation of music—an attempt on Tubalcain’s part to also combat the sound that was assaulting him. This again strikes the reader of Beowulf as redolent of the violence associated with, and the primary role of music in setting events into play. Music recreates the beginning of the world, and the singing of the sceop is linked to the beginning of Grendel’s rage. Music portrayed as a weapon reminds the audience of Grendel’s torment, but the emphasis on the cave-dwelling also reminds the reader of Grendel’s outcast state and the home of his mother. The kin of Cain is presented as a lonely and inherently violent race—even music conceived as a weapon—that encompasses both man and monster.
Other early religious commentaries and educated works also credit Tubalcain as the first to work with metals. Isidorus, in AD 615, writes of both Jubal and Tubalcain:
Hac quoque aetate Iubal ex genere Cain artem musicam repperit, cuius etiam frater Tubalcain aeris ferri que inuentor fuit.
[Likewise, in this age, Jubal, of the race of Cain, discovered the musical art, whose brother Tubalcain also was the inventor of bronze and iron].
The Anglo-Saxons learned of the legends surrounding Cain in much the same way they learned about Tubalcain: through Latin texts influenced by the Book of Enoch. Ruth Mellinkoff notes that the Book of Enoch credits the angels fallen from heaven for the knowledge of weaponry. As touched on before, these angels were also reputed to have taken the daughters of Cain as wives, thereby producing a race of giants. Oliver Emerson, working with the Book of Enoch as well, traces the lineage of Tubalcain to this gigantic race, thus associating him not only with the production of farming tools but also with weaponry. If this is the race associated with the sword found in the mere in Beowulf (as a prime example of the work of the smith), inscribed with the destruction of the flood, then it is also the race that is wiped out by the flood. This distinction between the races of giants is established by the use of different words in regards to the gigantic stature of the ante-diluvian race and Grendel’s race: gigant, the biblical term referring only to those giants that drowned, and eoten, referring to those giants that sprang from Cain.
Yet the existence of the sword poses a complicated problem in tracing an uninterrupted lineage from Cain to Grendel. It both records the destruction of the giants and yet seems to be made by smiths associated with the very race presumably destroyed. Thus, the race of Cain, associated with the ante-diluvian race of giants as they are, has been both destroyed and has crafted a sword picturing their own destruction—a seeming impossibility. Cohen explains that the ante-diluvian giants are often portrayed as escaping the flood by climbing to the tops of mountains, but this does not provide the best of explanations, given the images of destruction found on the sword-hilt.
A second explanation for how Cain’s race can still exist on the earth, and one which draws the connections between the discovered sword and the kin of Cain even closer, is found in the confusion between the character of Cham, the son of Noah who entered the ark, and the character of Cain. Orchard attests to numerous conflations of this kind in Anglo-Saxon literature, not only in a scribal confusion in the manuscript of Beowulf, but also in Augustine and Bede. Cham, mistaken for Cain, is saved from the flood because of the ark, but also preserves the lineage of Abel’s murderer in the post-diluvian world, representing the same role as Cain because of this confusion. An Anglo-Saxon audience which conflated these two figures might be able to reconcile the destruction of Cain’s descendants, the giants, and yet also accept him as a figure who survived the flood. Interestingly, Cham is also associated with preserving secrets in metal and stone during the flood, a process that has been carried out on the hilt of the discovered sword as well. Thus both Cain (Cham) and Tubalcain may be linked with the origin of the sword that Beowulf uses against Grendel’s mother despite seemingly impossible chronological odds.
Beowulf, however, is not the first to enter into the kin of Cain in order to presumably save those that it threatens. The Reference Bible explicitly draws Jesus into the Cainite family as well, a necessary prerequisite for his act of salvation. Having already established the seven generations between Adam and Cain, the Reference Bible tracks the seventy-seven generations between Lamech and Jesus, in an effort to explicate the importance of Lamech’s seventy times seven vengeance:
OCIDI UIRUM IN UULNUS MEUM, reliqua, usque SEPUTAGIES SEPTIES. ‘Quae sunt “septuagies septies” uindicte in Lamech’? Exsoluende sunt pro eo quod occidit Cain, etiam se ‘non sponte’. Dicunt alii lxxcii sunt in genelogia secundum Lucam ab Adam usque Christum: ‘sicut enim in septima generatione peccatum Cain desolutum est,’ ‘ita peccatum Lamech, id est, totius mundi,’ sanguine ‘Christi soluitur, ‘qui tullit peccata mundi’.
[I HAVE KILLED A MAN TO MY HURT, that the price to be owed, is up to SEVENTY TIMES SEVEN. ‘What are the ‘seventy times seven’ to be vindicated concerning Lamech?’ They will be discharged on behalf of him who killed Cain, ‘even if by accident.’ Others say there are seventy-seven in the genealogy, according to Luke, from Adam to Christ: ‘just as even in the seventh generation, the sin of Cain was paid,’ ‘so the sin of Lamech, that is, of the whole world,’ is paid by the blood of Christ, ‘who bears the sins of the world.]
Though I do not argue that Beowulf is a Christ-figure in this poem, I would point out that the act of inscribing the hero into a lesser or flawed genealogy or providing the hero with monstrous characteristics would not be unfamiliar to a Christianized Anglo-Saxon audience and certainly not to the clerical author often theorized for Beowulf, even if only on the theological level of Jesus casting off godhood and debasing himself in order to save cursed mankind. For example, The Dream of the Rood (portions of which are dated to the 8th century or earlier), as Hugh Magennis points out, shows “the crucifixion to be a cause of both grief and triumph and conveys a sense of Christ’s dual nature as man and God and of his dual role as victim and victor.” Similarly, Asa Simon Mittman shows how Anglo-Saxon saints like Guthlac and Edmund take on monstrous elements in achieving their holiness.
The last analog text that I would like to look at briefly before turning to an examination of Beowulf itself is Genesis A, a poem composed in Old English and found in the Junius 11 manuscript, which is dated to the late-tenth or eleventh century, though the composition of the poem itself could be much earlier than that. Genesis A shows the extent to which the Anglo-Saxon writers had absorbed the Cainite tradition into their own texts. In it, Lamech’s confession to his wives that he has killed a man, only briefly discussed in the Vulgate, is clearly associated with the murder of Cain:
þa his wifum twaem wordum sægde
lameh seolfa, leofum gebeddum,
adan and sellan, unarlic spel:
“ic on morðor ofsloh mira sumne
hyldemaga, honda gewemde
on caines cwealme mine,
fylde mid folmum fæder enoses,
ordbanan abeles, eorðan sealde
wældreor weres, wat gearwe
þæt þam lichryre on last cymeð
soðcyninges seofonfeald wracu
micel æfter mane. min sceal swiðor
mid grimme gryre golden wurðan
fyll and feorhcwealm þonne ic forð scio.”
[Then, Lamech himself said words to his two wives, dear bedfellows, Ada and Zillah, a disgraceful story: ‘I slew, in murder, my certain near kinsman, defiled my hands in the murder of Cain, befouled with my hand the father of Enoch, murderer of Abel, gave battle-gore of men to the earth, know well that death will came at last for it, the sevenfold revenge of God, much after wickedness. Mine shall be much more punished with grim fierceness, death and slaughter when I go forth’]. 
Lamech is fully aware of God’s curse and his own impending destruction for the sin which he has committed, killing his hyldemaga in much the same way that Cain slew Abel. Genesis A also provides a more extensive description of Tubalcain and his abilities as a smith. He is credited as the first to make farming equipment, used by men over the whole earth.
The context concerning the kin of Cain that the Beowulf-poet potentially brings to the text is thus extensive. And despite the overwhelming amount of material concerning Lamech and the familicide that he helps to establish as a crucial part of the Cainite tradition, most Beowulf scholars have primarily focused their research on Cain alone and on his connections to Grendel alone. David Williams, in Cain and Beowulf: A Study in Secular Allegory, provides an exhaustive list of the ways in which Cain overshadows the text even when not explicitly referenced: Grendel looking with envy on Heorot and seeking to destroy it for that reason, the cannibalism of Grendel, the curse that prevents Grendel from approaching the gift-seat, the light in Grendel’s eyes which can be traced back to Cain’s fratricide, the connection between the work of Tubalcain and the dragon’s hoard, Hrothgar’s sermon warning Beowulf of the actions of Heremod who killed his companions, the death of Herebeald at the hand of Hæthcyn, and the presentation of Unferth as a type of Cain. But again, none of these details explore the many ways in which the text does not merely warn Beowulf of the dangers of Cainite traits, but actually inscribes him into Cainite genealogy. The way in which the legends surrounding Lamech help to do this cannot be ignored, especially in a text that struggles so much with appropriate kin-relations and possibly even the heirlessness of its hero. An underlying theme of familicide might go a long way in helping to understand Beowulf’s lack of descendants at the end of the poem, a problem identified by Scott Gwara and other scholars.
When Beowulf steps into the poem, he steps into a culture of vengeance, structured by the custom of wergild, in which a man’s death is recompensed by a suitable price or the killer is called to reckoning. This system is one that relies heavily on the ties of kin. The very first lines of Beowulf establish Hrothgar’s ancestry, and genealogy is one of the most important factors of this poem’s culture. A cycle of vengeance, based upon the need for retribution for those considered kin, has often been cited as one of the problems or themes with which the text of Beowulf struggles. Williams points to the fate foreshadowed for the Geats at the end of the poem as the legacy of Cain and an ominous note of warning concerning the system of wergild: “we are presented with a universalized image of a social and personal evil traditionally expressed through the figure of Cain and his progeny, passed down from generation to generation, civilization to civilization, lasting until the end of time itself.”
Beowulf is intentionally written into a system of family ties, ties that bind him to both Cain and the vengeful cycle of wergild. In his fight with Grendel, Beowulf stands not only as himself, but as a representative of his family. He is referenced as the “maeg Hygelaces” [kinsman of Hygelac] (l. 813). The name of Hygelac is not without its own significance. As Bandy points out, Hygelac was widely known by the Anglo-Saxons to be of gigantic stature and is included as a spectacle in the Liber Monstrorum, a text whose sources are also attributed to texts in the Nowell codex, the Beowulf-mansucript. All of the texts found in the Nowell codex are, in fact, considered to be possibly arranged around a theme of the monstrous. The first book of Liber Monstrorum includes a description of this monstrous king, Hygelac: “and there are monsters of an amazing size, like King Hygelac, who ruled the Geats and was killed by the Franks, whom no horse could carry from the age of twelve.” The first instance in which Beowulf is associated with Hygelac is in the beginning of the epic, in fit three, when the poet relates how Beowulf has heard of Grendel’s attacks on Heorot:
Þæt fram ham gefrægn Higelaces þegn
god mid Geatum, Grendles dæda;
se wæs moncynnes mægenes strengest
on þæm dæge þysses lifes,
æþele ond eacen”
[The thane of Hygelac, good among the Geats, learned of that from home, the deeds of Grendel; he was the strongest of strength of mankind in that day of this life, noble and mighty ] (ll.194-198).
In both cases, Beowulf is shown in a position of strength—almost unnatural strength—while his kinship with a gigantic man is reinforced. Beowulf’s strength is again emphasized when he handles the sword in the lair of Grendel’s mother:
Geseah ða on searwum sigeeadig bil,
ealdsweord eotenisc ecgum þyhtig,
wigena weorðmynd; þæt [wæs] wæpna cyst,
buton hit wæs mare ðonne ænig mon oðer
to beadulace ætberan meahte,
god ond geatolic, giganta geweorc.
He saw, then, among the arms, a sword blessed by victory, an old sword made by giants, strong with edges, the glory of warriors; that was the best of weapons, except it was greater than any other man could carry to play of battle, good and splendid, the work of giants. (ll.1557-1562)
This scene marks Beowulf as different from other men—he is able to handle this sword though its size would be prohibitive to any other warrior. The prohibitive size, as it is made by giants, also may suggest that it was used by giants as well. The giants under discussion are distinguished by giganta—a term which points specifically to those of the race of Cain who supposedly perished during the flood and yet seemed to have miraculously escaped extinction. Emerson supports this conclusion, stating that the sword is a direct link to Cain and his gigantic offspring. He cites later the fact that Tubalcain himself was often numbered among these giants, the man to whom tradition accredited the discovery of metalworking, and an immediate player in the death of Cain. Since Beowulf has the ability to pick up this sword, his stature and strength seems equivalent to the ancient giants and Cainite kin, rendering his status as human even more ambiguous. Oswald explains that in picking up a non-human sword, Beowulf becomes “more than human.”
By linking Beowulf with the giants, the text also links the hero ever more closely with Grendel and the kin of Cain. Though Beowulf praises God for his victory, the text questions which tools God uses—after all, the sword heralded with glorious praise was forged by condemned giants. It is also the sword and seemingly Beowulf’s victory therewith that prompts Hrothgar to deliver a speech against pride, a warning for Beowulf. According to Williams, the speech expresses the possibility that Beowulf might become like the unnatural Heremod, a figure who alludes to Cain, a man willing to kill his closest kin or companions. Heremod turns against his own companions and commits deeds of violence that echo the crimes and misery of Grendel, despite having carried the blessing of God:
Ne wearð Heremod swa
eaforum Ecgwelan, Ar-Scyldingum;
ne geweox he him to willan, ac to wælfealle
ond to deaðcwalum Deniga leodum;
breat bolgenmod beodgeneatas,
eaxlgesteallan, oþ þæt he anna hwearf,
mære þeoden mondreamum from
[Heremod was not so to the sons of Ecgwela, the Ar-Scyldings; he did not grow himself as joy to them, but as slaughter and as death for the people of the Danes; he, enraged, killed his table-companions, comrades, until he alone, turned, renowned prince, from human joy] (ll.1709-1715).
Grendel is an outcast from those who experienced joy, or dreamum, and when Grendel approaches the hall before his fight with Beowulf, he is described as dreamum bedæled [bereaved of joy] (l. 721). In his potential to become Heremod, Beowulf also carries likenesses to Grendel.
In addition to Beowulf’s ancestry, the language and structure of the text seem to implicitly categorize him among the monstrous as well. Oswald defines a monster as “an outlier within its race or kin, whether that kin-group is human or animal. The monster is always read against the body of those who are not monstrous.” Oswald uses this definition as a way to understand Grendel and, to a small extent, discusses the way in which Beowulf, by vowing against the use of weapons in his fight with Grendel, associates himself with the monstrous. She does not, however, use her definition to look at the way in which the text describes Beowulf. His whole characterization is revealed to the audience almost solely in the terms of comparison to the rest of his kind—he is an outlier in terms of his strength and gigantic stature. As Oswald points out, monstrosity is defined solely upon the basis of physical characteristics, though cultural differences like Grendel’s refusal to abide by customs of wergild, can amplify monstrosity. Based on this definition of physical anomaly equating to monstrous status, especially given the context of the numerous examples, including many giants, given in Wonders in the East and the other texts in the Nowell Codex, the Anglo-Saxon reader or listener, approaching the text in its manuscript context, would probably note the monstrous characteristics of Beowulf. Considering Beowulf to be monstrous is hard to avoid when close Beowulf analogs also present their heroes with potentially monstrous characteristics. One good analogous tale is found in the Old Norse Hrolfs Saga Kraka, in which the hero is born to a man who lives as a bear by day but changes into a man at night. Orchard elaborates on another comparative text, Grettis saga, and notes that the hero of this narrative, Grettir, is cursed and becomes an outcast himself after battling a draugr, the undead, Glámr, who, similarly to Grendel, dislikes music, specifically that of the church. Grettir becomes referred to as a troll. Given this context, Beowulf’s gigantic characteristics invite comparison to the more explicitly monstrous character in the text—Grendel, the descendant of Cain.
It might be this relation between Beowulf and Cainites alone that is able to save him. When serving as the hero of men and when fighting both Grendel and his mother, Beowulf continually seeks to fight on the enemy’s terms and on the enemy’s battlefield, seemingly embracing the gigantic and monstrous qualities that potentially place him within the kin of Cain. Facing the threat of Grendel, Beowulf swears off weapons because his enemy does not use them and because he thinks himself equal to his strength:
‘No ic me an herewæsmun hnagran talige,
guþgeweorca, þonne Grendel hine;
….nat he þara goda . . . ac wit on niht sculon
secge ofersittan, gif h[e] gesecean dear wig ofer wæpen”
[‘I do not consider myself poorer in vigour of war, in warlike deeds than Grendel considers himself…he does not know of skills…but we two shall forgo swords in the night if he dares to seek battle without weapon’] (ll.677-685).
The poet later informs us that Grendel has also forsworn swords, which seems to explain his invincibility to their bite:
ænig ofer eorþan irenna cyst,
guðbilla nan gretan nolde; / ac he sigewæpnum forsworen hæfde, / ecga gehwylcre
[The best of swords, over any of the earth, could not touch the evil ravager, for he had renounced weapons of victory, every blade ] (ll.801-805).
Beowulf realizes he must make himself as similar to Grendel as he can in order to defeat him, mimicking him not only in being, but in actions. As a result, Beowulf is victorious, but he also becomes so analogous to his adversary that the text seems to have difficulty attributing actions to specific characters and instead resorts to ambiguous pronouns. Oswald has noted this as well, saying that when entwined in their arm-wrestling match, Beowulf and Grendel nearly become one, and Beowulf emphasizes this by using a dual pronoun form used very little in the poem: wit. At one point in their struggle, both Beowulf and Grendel are even titled the same: “Yrre wæron begen, / reþe renweardas; reced hlynsode” [Both were furious, the fierce guardians of the hall; the hall resounded] (ll.769b-770). Beowulf wins because of extraordinary strength, described in terms that echo again the overwhelming size of Hygelac: “Heold hine fæste / se þe manna wæs mægene strengest / on þæm dæge þysses lifes” [He held him fast, he who was strongest in strength of men in that day of this life] (ll.788b-790). He wins on the terms of the giant—a race that, in Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon corpus at large, has been linked into the genealogy of Cain. It is from Cain, after, all that a whole mournful lot of “eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, / swylce gigantas” [Giants and elves and evil spirits, also giants] come (ll.112-113). In order to defeat the kin of Cain, Beowulf must embrace his own gigantic identity and enter the Cainite genealogy, for tradition has seemingly fated them to die only at the hands of kin, as Jerome’s Epistulae described: “Malaleel genuit Mathusalam, Mathusalam genuit Lamech, qui septimus ab adam non sponte, sicuti in quodam hebraeo volumine scribitur, interfecit Cain.” [Maleleel begot Methusaleh, Methusaleh begot Lamech, who, seventh from Adam, accidentally, as it is written in a certain book by the Jews, killed Cain].
As it takes center stage within the epic, the fight with Grendel’s mother forces Beowulf to more fully embrace a Cainite identity. He faces a progenitor within the race of Cain. As a way to link Grendel and his mother more closely to the Cainite tradition, Williams points to the legend that Cain slept with his mother Eve, and consequently bore evil into the world. The relationship between Grendel and his mother parallels that of Cain and Eve. As a progenitor and Eve figure, Grendel’s mother forces the text to consider procreation and the functions of kinship, and in order to kill her, Beowulf must embrace his own geneaology. In destroying Grendel’s mother, Beowulf appears to wipe out the entire race in that region. At least, after her death, the waters are cleansed around her dwelling, foreshadowing the heirlessness and lack of procreativity in the rest of the text. In killing the mother, Beowulf also kills what is potentially the only character directly sprung from Cain, for, as Bandy points out, Grendel’s mother has inhabited her waters since the time when Cain killed Abel:
se þe wæteregesan wunian scolde,
cealde streamas, siþðan Ca[in] wearð
to ecgbanan angan breþer,
[She who had inhabited the fearsome waters, the cold streams, since Cain became as a slayer by sword to his only brother, kinsman on his father’s side] (ll.1260-1263).
The text indicates that Grendel’s mother has existed since Cain’s crime and even suggests that she may exist on account of that crime or herself be the monstrous offspring of Cain. Even the dwelling place of Grendel’s mother is a reminder of the first murder—the first fratricide. Not only do Grendel and his mother stand as physical reminders of Cain’s sin, but Oswald points out that they, in fact, live in the “land designated for the banished kin of Cain.” Since the dwelling place of Grendel’s mother is directly related to her identity as one of the kin of Cain, Beowulf’s entrance into that dwelling place links him with this identity as well. As a gigantic and monstrous figure, he enters into a place specifically designated by God to hold the kin of Cain and the very description echoes the means by which Beowulf will have to defeat Grendel’s mother. The reference to the sword used as Cain’s murder weapon seems to foreshadow Beowulf’s own discovery of the ancient sword in the mere, and encourages a reading of cyclical familial violence, rather than an easy resolution of human victor over monstrous victim. This is further supported by the way in which the text describes Grendel’s attack on the hall: “Heo þa fæhðe wræc” [She advanced that vendetta] (l.1333). Grendel’s mother involves Beowulf in a feud, implying a certain humanity or, conversely, a monstrous equality between the two of them.
In order to thrive in this environment, Beowulf must first arm himself in contrast to his fight with Grendel, fought in the house of men. His armor, though, is the armor of the ancient smiths and thereby connected to Tubalcain and the giants:
ac se hwita helm hafelan werede,
se þe meregrundas mengan scolde,
secan sundgebland since geweorðad,
befongen freawrasnum, swa hine fyrndagum
worhte wæpna smið, wundrum teode,
besette swinlicum, þæt hine syðþan no
brond ne beadomecas bitan ne meahton.
But the shining helm guarded his head, that which had to stir up the bottom of the mere, enter the surging waters, embellished with rich ornament, encircled by lordly bands, as the smith had made it in days of old, wonderfully formed, set round with boar-figures, so that afterwards no sword nor battle blade could bite it. (ll.1448-1455)
In the text, the helmet performs the action rather than Beowulf, subsuming its wearer and taking over his identity. This metonymous identity, however, is that of ancient armor, perhaps akin to the ancient sword that Beowulf finds in the lair of Grendel’s mother—a Cainite identity. The armor’s effect on Beowulf is to make him invincible to the bite of swords in much the same way as Grendel was invincible. He enters the mere as an avenger, but as one closely linked to the kin of Cain himself. Edward B. Irving, Jr., points out that the text repeatedly emphasizes the protection of the armor, though Beowulf does not himself emphasize it in his later retellings. Those elements of protection that have helped Beowulf to succeed in combats with men, like his original sword, fail against Grendel’s mother. Only the work of ancient smiths, associated with Cain by similar descriptions to those of the sword found in the mere, can succeed. This armor bestows qualities on Beowulf that Grendel also possesses: “þæt hine syðþan no / brond ne beadomecas bitan ne meahton” [that no sword nor battle blade could since bite him] (ll. 1453-55). Grendel also is unable to be harmed by weapons as wielded by Beowulf’s men in the hall. The armor that Beowulf wears on entering the mere establishes him all the more in the kin of Cain.
Upon entering the water, Beowulf finds that he cannot reach the lair on his own. It is Grendel’s mother who draws him to herself, and he is powerless to resist. The sword given to Beowulf by a man is not sufficient for this fight, and he is forced to cast away the weapon. In describing Beowulf’s renewed vigor as he casts off the tool given him by men, the poet repeats again Beowulf’s relation to Hygelac, the giant: “Eft wæs anræd, nalas elnes læt, / mærða gemyndig mæg Hylaces” [He was again resolute, not at all slack of courage, the kinsman of Hygelac intent on glorious deeds ] (ll.1529-1530). Beowulf is no mere man, and his ancient armor helps to protect him. In order to fully conquer Grendel’s mother, however, Beowulf must not only be clad as a Cainite, he must also be armed as one. He finds the ancient sword and easily slays Grendel’s mother now that he has fully assumed the Cainite identity. Victorious, Beowulf is again referred to in terms of Hygelac:
He æfter recede wlat;
hwearf þa be wealle, wæpen hafenade
heard be hiltum Higelaces ðegn,
yrre ond anræd
[He looked about the hall; turned then toward the wall, raised the weapon hard by the hilts, the thane of Hygelac, angry and resolute ] (ll.1572-1575).
He conquers as the thane of a giant, armored in the works of ancient smiths. He conquers by entering the Cainite tradition, killing Grendel’s mother as one of her own descendants.
The possible implications of this reading help address the issue of heirlessness and the impending chaos that faces his people upon Beowulf’s death. Beowulf is killed by the dragon, a creature that William allies with Tubalcain: “The dragon is a Vulcan—Tubal-Cain figure embodying the most potent of antisocial forces whose destruction is the challenge that must be met by all heroes.” The dragon is jealous, like Cain, and hoards the work of the smith. William also points out the presence of wyrm-like creatures in the mere of Grendel’s mother, linking the dragon ever closer to the kin of Cain. It is natural that the monstrous dragon might descend from this same line. So Beowulf himself, even, might be said to have been killed by the kin of Cain.
The stronger connection to be drawn here, however, is that, assured of his death, Beowulf’s thoughts are of his family, and that family is one associated with fratricide. The family of Beowulf’s former thane and uncle, Hygelac, is one filled with tragedy. The father of his own thane, taking Beowulf in alongside his own three sons, experiences the death of the eldest two, the younger killing the elder, leaving only Hygelac and an unassuaged sorrow. The audience, of course, knows that Hygelac has also died and that the line of thanes following ends with Beowulf. Beowulf recalls the deaths of Herebeald and Hæðcyn, and so reintroduces familicide to the text, and with familicide, the threat of what a culture based on vengeance will produce:
Wæs þam yldestan ungedefelice
mæges dædum morþorbed stred,
syððan hyne Hæðcyn of hornbogan,
his freawine flane geswencte,
miste mercelses ond his mæg ofscet,
broðor oðerne blodigan gare.
Đæt wæs feohleas gefeoht….
[For the eldest brother was stretched out on his death bed, by an unseemly deed, since Hæðcyn shot at him, his lord, an arrow from his horned bow, and he shot his kinsman missed the mark, other brother, bloody from the dart. That was a strife past compensation] (ll.2435-41)
So, even at his death, Beowulf cannot escape from his kin, a kin associated with giants and familicide. With such connections, any heir Beowulf could have brought into the world, would only enter into a tradition of death—therefore causing the audience of Beowulf to recognize the fruitlessness of any endeavor at procreation. By extension, then, this emphasis on the tragedy of familicide underlines the dangers into which a cultural emphasis on vengeance would lead, the dangers of which many scholars have recognized as the main theme of the text. It is appropriate, then, that the last echo of Cainite tradition within the text is the image of an old man, grieving the death of his sons—lost to him through kin-slaying and the dictated need for vengeance. By thrusting Beowulf into the kin of Cain, the poet asks a mournful question concerning the nature of hero and monster.
Erin K. Wagner
Erin K. Wagner is a Ph.D. candidate at The Ohio State University, writing her dissertation on the vocabulary of late medieval English heterodoxy. This area of study necessitates an interest in languages, so she has taken numerous Old English and Latin classes as well and enjoys working with Anglo-Saxon texts.
 David Williams, Cain and Beowulf: A Study in Secular Allegory (Toronto: Toronto UP, 1982), l.26; Ruth Mellinkoff, The Mark of Cain (Berkeley: U of Cal., 1981), 59; Heather O’Donoghue, “What Has Baldr to Do with Lamech? The Lethal Shot of a Blind Man in Old Norse Myth and Jewish Exegetical Traditions,” Medium Aevum 72.1 (2003), pp. 82-107, at p. 95; Stephen C. Bandy, “Cain, Grendel, and the Giants of Beowulf,” Papers on Language and Literature 9 (1973), pp. 235-249, at p. 237.↩
 I use the term gigantic here in a very technical sense, as developed by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in Of Giants, as will be discussed later in the article. See: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1999).↩
 J. E. Cross, “Towards the Identification of Old English Literary Ideas—Old Workings and New Seams,” Sources of Anglo-Saxon Culture, eds. Paul E. Szarmach and Virginia Darrow Oggins (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute, 1986), pp. 77-102, at p. 82.↩
 “þa him alumpen wæs / wistfylle wen” [then, the expectation of a lavish feast was come on him] (ll.733-34).↩
 Though figuring Beowulf as a Christ-figure is not entirely unheard-of in the corpus of Beowulf scholarship. See for example: M.B. McNamee, “Beowulf—An Allegory of Salvation?,” Interpretations of Beowulf: A Critical Anthology, ed. Robert D. Fulk (Indiana UP, 1991), pp. 88-102.↩
 Sean Pollack, “Histories of Violence: The Origins of War in Beowulf,” War and Peace: Critical Issues in European Societies and Literature, 800-1800, eds. Albrecht Classen, Nadia Margolis (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2001), pp. 121-154, at pp. 123-24.↩
 Bandy, p. 243. The Liber Monstrorum, dated to the ninth or tenth centuries, is a book of monsters, using as sources Isidore’s Etymologiae and other texts which were to ultimately influence and produce the texts found in the Beowulf manuscript, The Wonders of the East and Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle. Discussed in Orchard, pp. 86-87.↩
 Edward B. Irving, Jr., “The Nature of Christianity in ‘Beowulf’,” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 13, eds. Peter Clemoes, Simon Keynes, Michael Lapidge (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984), pp. 7-22, at p. 15.↩
 For a few examples, see Pollack; Stanley J. Kahrl, “Feuds in ‘Beowulf’: A Tragic Necessity?,” Modern Philology 69.3 (1972), pp. 189-198; Robert E. Bjork, John D. Niles, A Beowulf Handbook (U of Nebraska Press, 1997); Paul R. Hyams, Rancor and Reconciliation in Medieval England (Ithaca: Cornell U, 2003).↩