Exeter Book

Exeter Book Beasts of Battle

The Beasts of Battle is a Germanic poetic trope found in Old English and Old Norse literature. The wolf, raven, and eagle are traditional animals that appear when warriors go off to battle. They are known to feast upon the bodies of the slain, so their presence in a poem usually foreshadows a death to come. In this way, these animals also represent the transience of life on Earth. Germanic readers would have been familiar with these animals as scavengers on the battlefield. They also appear in Pagan legends like God of Battle and Lord of the Slain, Wotan.

Literary scholar Francis Peabody Magoun coined the term "Beasts of Battle" in 1955. Magoun and his contemporaries developed two opposing critical approaches to this motif. One interpretation is that it is merely descriptive and not expressive of any deeper meaning, and the other is that it is a significant aspect of the text. Magoun's initial studies focused on the former idea. He believed that the purpose of these animals was to embellish a scene of carnage or battle, but not to function as a thematic unit. Other scholars of Magoun's time agreed with him, classifying the trope as a convention or mere decoration. The frequency of the image added spectacle and allure to a poetic battle. Later critics, however, took the latter view, finding the "Beasts" to be laden with literary significance. They believed that the trope was potentially used to inspire a specific emotion in a reader, parallel a narrative structure elsewhere in the text, or allude to Wotan and his cult.

Anglo-Saxon listeners/readers would have had specific associations for each animal and thus, the poet could utilize the context for invoking a specific feeling. The raven was known as a carrion bird and bird of prey; it was also a symbol of sacrifice associated with Wotan. The raven supposedly could foretell evil and bring bad luck. In Old English the raven was also seen as a "chooser of the slain." The eagle was also a carrion bird, but was a symbol of heroism and sovereignty. It was associated with Wotan as well. The wolf was highly feared by the Anglo-Saxons, who associated it with murder and death. The wolf also appeared prominently in the apocalyptic legends of Pagan Germanic peoples. The wolf was used to describe outlaws and other dangerous men. Overall, the wolf symbolized evil and destruction.

The wolf appears as a menace in the Old English poems "The Battle of Brunanburh", "The Battle of Maldon", "Beowulf", "Elene", "Exodus", "The Fight at Finnsburgh", "Genesis A", "Judith", and "The Wanderer".