Epithets in Beowulf: The Power of Titles in Beowulf  (2023)

Epithets in Beowulf: The Power of Titles in Beowulf (1)Epithet in Beowulf is an extra description given to the verses of the poem to add further imagery to the story. There are plenty of examples of epithets in Beowulf, and it’s not just the main character who has them. These epithets add to the depth of the characters because they focus on specific attributes and highlight a character’s skills. Read this to learn all about the epithets in Beowulf and how they add to the poem.

Epithet Examples in Beowulf

Beowulf has plenty of epithet examples for the characters and places. An epithet is a descriptive word or phrase taking the place of the actual name, almost like a new title. It adds a flowery element to the poem, making it even more powerful and beautiful.

Take a look at many of the epithet examples and which character or place they’re describing: (These examples all come from Seamus Heaney’s translation of the poem)

  • fiend out of Hell”: Grendel
  • Cain’s clan”: the monsters
  • God-cursed brute”: Grendel
  • The hall of halls”: Heorot, the mead hall of the Danes
  • prince of the Shieldings”: King Hrothgar, king of the Danes
  • High King of the World”: the Christian God
  • prince of War-Geats”: Beowulf

All of these epithets are simply other ways to describe particular characters and places. They add more detail to the poem and the character or place. Readers can then picture an even stronger image in their minds.

Stock Epithets in Beowulf: What’s the Difference?

While epithets fill the poem, so do stock epithets. Epithets on their own are like other titles for something such as “high king of the world.” However, stock epithets are descriptions that focus solely on attributes or elements of that person or place.

Take a look at this list of stock epithets in Beowulf:

(Video) Beowulf Video Summary

  • Epithets in Beowulf: The Power of Titles in Beowulf (2)sure-footed fight”: this phrase is describing the battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother
  • shield-bearing Geat”: Beowulf
  • Gold-shingled”: this is describing Heorot, the mead hall
  • well-regarded Shylfing warrior”: Wiglaf
  • strong-built son”: Unferth, a warrior jealous of Beowulf’s accomplishments

These epithets more focus on the attributes or powers of the thing or person, instead of just giving them a title. The readers can know a little bit more about them than if the poet just used their names.

Epithet and Kenning in Beowulf: Herein Lies the Confusion

The tricky part about Beowulf is that the poem has both epithets and kennings in it, which are two very similar things. All one needs to know is how to tell the difference between them, and then it can add to the enjoyment of reading the poem once the difference is understood. First, an epithet is a descriptive word or phrase that shows a particular quality of a person. It is a title rather than their actual name.

A good epithet example is “hall-watcher” for Grendel because he watches the mead hall, angry at everyone, ready to kill. On the other hand, stock epithets focus even more closely on attributes instead of simply replacing the name with something else. A stock epithet example would be something like a “stout-hearted warrior.” But a kenning is a compound word or phrase that replaces the word entirely.

For example, the poet uses “whale-road” when talking about the sea. “Sun-dazzle” is used for sunlight, and “bone-lappings” is used to describe a body. Even though these are slightly different literary tools, their purpose is very similar. They both add something to the poem, make it fuller, more beautiful, and the readers’ imaginations are expanded.

What Do Epithets Teach Us About Beowulf, the Warrior?

In the poem, there are several epithets that focus on Beowulf as a man and as a warrior. These help u to give a better idea about him and his actions during the time the epithet is used.

Take a look at these epithets focused solely on Beowulf and what they mean:

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  • son of Ecgtheow”: this is mentioned in the early part of the poem. It was a common usage to state the father’s name along with the person’s name, but this helps Hrothgar to know who Beowulf is. It reminds him of the old loyalty there was between the Danes and the Geats
  • Beowulf the Geat”: Even though the beginning of the story takes place in Denmark, fighting for the Danes, Beowulf is actually from Geatland. He later becomes king of that land when he has to take on his third and final monster, the dragon
  • That prince of goodness”: Beowulf shows his loyalty, valor, and strength throughout the poem. Because he has to come up against such evil and darkness, he is always shown as the light and goodness
  • Hygelac’s kinsman”: Hygelac is Beowulf’s uncle who Hrothgar helped in the past. Again, we have a reminder of the importance of connection, loyalty, and family
  • Hygelac’s trusty retainer”: same as above but now we have more of a description of who he is. He’s dependable, trustworthy, and capable
  • earl troop’s leader”: even at the beginning of the poem, Beowulf is in charge of a group of men. That power only grows with time as he shows his strength and abilities
  • Shepherd of our land”: this title is used later by Wiglaf, Beowulf’s kinsman, to describe Beowulf as the king. He is trying to encourage the other soldiers to join him in the battle against the dragon, reminding them of their king’s goodness
  • War-king”: Even in his final moments, Beowulf’s mind and focus were on battle and victory. He was so focused that he didn’t quite remember that he’d grown old and would need help to fight

There are plenty more epithets specifically focused on Beowulf. But one can still see in this list that the use of these gives the readers more insight into the warrior.

What Is Beowulf? Background to the Famous Epic Poem

Beowulf is an epic poem written about a hero in 6th century Scaninavia. Scholars believe that the poem was originally an orally told tale that was passed down through generations. But they don’t know exactly when it was first transcribed. However, what is known is how this epic poem written between 975 and 1025 in Old English, taking place in Scandinavia around the 6th century.

There are many versions and translations of this poem, and it’s become one of the most important works of literature for the western world. It describes the tale and adventures of Beowulf, a young warrior, who goes to help the Danes fight off a monster. He showcases his power, courage, and loyalty by fighting and succeeding. He fights one monster, then another, and then later in life, he has to fight his third and final.

Beowulf is not from Denmark, but Geatland, and he becomes king of this land many years after he kills his first monster. His power and strength are legendary, but his pride gets in the way in the end. When he fights his third monster, a dragon, he loses his life, and his young kinsman becomes king instead. But the dragon also dies, making Beowulf’s battle success in that regard.


Epithets in Beowulf: The Power of Titles in Beowulf (3)Take a look at the main points about Epithets in Beowulf covered in the article above:

  • The power of the epithet in Beowulf is that it helps to add description and imagery
  • There are many epithets throughout the poem for characters, things, and places, an epithet is a descriptive word or phrase used as a title for something or someone
  • For example, instead of Beowulf, the poet might write: “prince of the Geats”
  • Stock epithets are also used, such as “stout-hearted warrior” which focus more on an attribute of the character
  • There are many epithets and stock epithets used for the protagonist in this poem, and they help to give us a little more insight into who he is as a character
  • But epithets and kennings are often confused because they are very similar
  • While epithets are a title, describing a character in a unique way, kennings do the same, but they replace the word entirely
  • For example, two kennings in Beowulf include: “whale-road” for sea and “sun-dazzle” for sunlight
  • A kenning for Beowulf which comes later in the poem is “ring-giver” which was a common term for someone who is a king
  • Even if they are different, kennings and epithets in Beowulf both do the same thing. They add beauty, imagery, lovely description to the poem, and give us insight into the characters

Epithets in Beowulf are peppered throughout the famous poem, for characters, places, and things. Because so many different epithets are used so many different times, we learn so much about the characters and the places in the poem. We are pulled into the poem as readers because of the beautiful descriptions, and Beowulf wouldn’t be the same if he was always called only by his name.

(Video) Beowulf Supplementary notes

Ancient Literature (June 7, 2023) Epithets in Beowulf: What Are the Main Epithets in the Epic Poem?. Retrieved from https://ancient-literature.com/epithet-in-beowulf/.

"Epithets in Beowulf: What Are the Main Epithets in the Epic Poem?." Ancient Literature - June 7, 2023, https://ancient-literature.com/epithet-in-beowulf/

(Video) Tapestries and Tolkien (with Avedan Raggio)

Ancient Literature March 2, 2022 Epithets in Beowulf: What Are the Main Epithets in the Epic Poem?., viewed June 7, 2023,<https://ancient-literature.com/epithet-in-beowulf/>

Ancient Literature - Epithets in Beowulf: What Are the Main Epithets in the Epic Poem?. [Internet]. [Accessed June 7, 2023]. Available from: https://ancient-literature.com/epithet-in-beowulf/

"Epithets in Beowulf: What Are the Main Epithets in the Epic Poem?." Ancient Literature - Accessed June 7, 2023. https://ancient-literature.com/epithet-in-beowulf/

(Video) Where do Monsters come from?

"Epithets in Beowulf: What Are the Main Epithets in the Epic Poem?." Ancient Literature [Online]. Available: https://ancient-literature.com/epithet-in-beowulf/. [Accessed: June 7, 2023]


What are the epithets for Beowulf in Beowulf? ›

Like Unferth, Beowulf has many epithets that help add depth to his character. He is known as Prince of the Weders, Son of Ecgtheow, the Geatish Hero, Lord of the Seamen. Each of these epithets provides us with more information to better understand who the hero of the tale is and what he will bring to the tale.

What is the epithet for Hrothgar? ›

HROTHGAR is the noble and wise king of Danes. He is referred to as "protector of warriors" and "ring-giver," the latter epithet used to tell readers he is generous.

What are the epithets of the dragon in Beowulf? ›

Daeghrefn a Frisian warrior, champion of the Hugas, whose beating heart Beowulf, as a young man, crushed with his bare hands. dawn-scorcher, flame-snake, the worm epithets for the dragon.

What is a epithet example? ›

any word or phrase applied to a person or thing to describe an actual or attributed quality: “Richard the Lion-Hearted” is an epithet of Richard I. a characterizing word or phrase firmly associated with a person or thing and often used in place of an actual name, title, or the like, as “man's best friend” for “dog.”

What are epithets in epics? ›

The repeated use of a word or phrase for the same person, place, or object. Also called the Homeric epithet, fixed epithets are commonly used in epic poetry. In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus is repeatedly referred to as “many-minded,” Penelope as “prudent,” and Telemachus as “sound-minded.”

What are the main types of epithets? ›

There are three types of epithets that exist within literature and conversation: fixed, kenning, and argumentative.

What are the epithets of Grendel's mother? ›

She is specifically called a "mon- strous woman" and a "lady monster-woman.". . . It seems clear from these epithets that Grendel's mother inverts the Germanic roles of the mother and queen, or lady.

What are 4 kennings from Beowulf? ›

Some of the kennings found in Beowulf include 'battle-sweat' for blood, 'raven-harvest' for corpses, 'whale-road' for the sea, and 'sleep of the sword' for death.

How is Grendel described? ›

A descendant of Cain, Grendel is described as "a creature of darkness, exiled from happiness and accursed of God, the destroyer and devourer of our human kind".

What does Grendel represent in Beowulf? ›

Grendel represents evil, so the poet's Christian worldview turns him into a fiend from hell. The wicked creature, grim and greedy, was at the ready, savage and cruel, and seized in their rest thirty of the thanes. The poet describes Grendel's first attack on Hrothgar's men.

What is the role of unferth? ›

In a society of kings and warriors, the social taunter acts as the spokesman of the court, revealer of truths, means of social control, and provocateur. Unferth performs these functions, thus fulfilling the role of social taunter.

What are epithets in the Trojan War? ›

The protagonist in the Iliad, Achilleus, is referred to as “shepherd of the people”, “swift-footed” and “like to the gods” to reflect his role in the ranks of the Greek army. Homer does not only use epithets for mortals as deities such as Athena are nicknamed “daughter of Zeus” while Thetis is called “silver-footed”.

Is Grendel a dragon? ›

In the Light Novel, Grendel is the only known bipedal dragon. However, Tannin is also portrayed as bipedal in the anime and manga. Grendel is a fusion of two creatures in the Beowulf-myth.

Is the dragon Beowulf's son? ›

The Dragon appears as the secondary antagonist in the 2007 film adaptation of the same name. He is also known as the Golden Man and is the son of Beowulf and Grendel's mother.

What are 5 examples of transferred epithet? ›

More examples
  • 'sleepless nights'
  • 'a wonderful day'
  • 'wide-eyed amazement'
  • 'He pointed an angry finger at me. '
  • 'She looked at him through concerned eyes. '

What are 4 example of transferred epithets? ›

An example of a transferred epithet is: "I had a wonderful day." The day is not in itself wonderful. The speaker had a wonderful day. The epithet "wonderful" actually describes the kind of day the speaker experienced. Some other examples of transferred epithets are "cruel bars," "sleepless night," and "suicidal sky."

What is an epithet for Odysseus? ›

What epithet does Homer use for Odysseus? Homer describes Odysseus at the start of The Odyssey as "shifty" and "man of many ways", before detailing him as a man of "many sorrows" as his journey continues.

What is Achilles epithet? ›

Importantly, the epithets themselves show both repetition and variation; for example, Achilles is often called 'swift-footed', but also 'glorious' and 'glorious swift-footed'.

What does epithet mean title? ›

also -thət. Synonyms of epithet. : a characterizing word or phrase accompanying or occurring in place of the name of a person or thing. : a disparaging or abusive word or phrase. : the part of a taxonomic name identifying a subordinate unit within a genus.

What are epithets and Kennings? ›

An epithet can be used to describe a person, place, or item. A kenning is a descriptive group of words that are used to replace the name of a character. An epithet may include the name of the character, while kenning will use words to replace the name of the character.

How do you identify epithet in a sentence? ›

descriptive word or phrase. 1) He hardly deserves the epithet 'fascist'. 2) The opera-singer's 104-kilo frame has earned him the epithet of 'Man Mountain' in the press. 3) Gross would be another epithet for it.

What are the rules for epithet? ›

Epithets can be verbs, nouns, swears or animals. They cannot be multiple words (unless they mean one specific thing together) or proper names. Animals cannot have epithets. There is a reason for this but it has not revealed because it might end up being a spoiler.

Does Beowulf sleep with Grendel's mother? ›

There were many differences between the book and the movie. The main difference is in the book Beowulf kills Grendel's mother and in the movie they sleep together. A second difference is Beowulf did not have a son because he kills Grendel's mother before he could sleep with her.

Why does Grendel's mother not have a name? ›

Grendel's mother's lack of a name emphasizes her status as an outsider who defies categorization. Only an unnamed sword that preserves the story of the giants—other outcasts from the world of men—can kill her.

What are two Kennings for Grendel's mother? ›

Next Beowulf has to face Grendel's mother, a creature called: Hell-bride. Hell-dam.

Is Grendel Hrothgar's son? ›

He is portrayed as King Hrothgar's illegitimate son after an affair with his mother.

What is Grendel a metaphor for? ›

The description of Grendel's mere in Hrothgar's speech to Beowulf (1345a- 1379b)1 is an extended metaphor for terror. The difficulty of reconciling all the features of the landscape surrounding the mere into a realistic picture has been noted by previous commentators.

Who kills Beowulf? ›

Sensing his own death approaching, Beowulf goes to fight the dragon. With the aid of Wiglaf, he succeeds in killing the beast, but at a heavy cost. The dragon bites Beowulf in the neck, and its fiery venom kills him moments after their encounter.

What does Hrothgar symbolize? ›

Hrothgar was successful as a young king. However, his success caused him to build a huge hall (Heorot) (largest ever seen) to symbolize his greatness. It is a representation of his success and power (called Heorot).

What does Grendel's mother symbolize? ›

Many readers have seen the mere as powerfully symbolic of the human subconscious, or of the mysteries that lie beyond human knowledge. To these readers, Grendel's mother represents the dangers that await anyone who seeks to confront the unknown, either in the world or in themselves.

Why was Grendel deformed? ›

Described by the film crew as "The embodiment of pain", he was born with a large external eardrum which causes him pain whenever the singing in Heorot echoes in his lair. This weakness is exploited by Beowulf in his battle with the monster. When frightened or weakened, Grendel is shown to shrink in size.

What three words describe Beowulf? ›

  • Strong.
  • Great.
  • Brave.
  • Warrior.
  • Mighty.

What are the 3 meanings of the name Beowulf? ›

Henry Sweet, a philologist and linguist specializing in Germanic languages, proposed that the name Bēowulf literally means in Old English "bee-wolf" or "bee-hunter" and that it is a kenning for "bear".

How is Beowulf characterized in Beowulf? ›

In his youth, Beowulf is a great warrior, characterized predominantly by his feats of strength and courage, including his fabled swimming match against Breca. He also perfectly embodies the manners and values dictated by the Germanic heroic code, including loyalty, courtesy, and pride.

What are some descriptions about Beowulf? ›

The protagonist of the epic, Beowulf is a Geatish hero who fights the monster Grendel, Grendel's mother, and a fire-breathing dragon. Beowulf's boasts and encounters reveal him to be the strongest, ablest warrior around. In his youth, he personifies all of the best values of the heroic culture.


1. Proto-Indo-European Family Structure
(Bailey J. Pope)
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(Survive the Jive)
3. The Mythology Behind Hades
4. Clifford Venho: "The Genius of the English Language"
(The Literary Arts)
5. Lecture 2 The highest achievement of Old English literature - Beowulf
(Department of English and German languages)
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