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Forum LockedCannibalism in Beowulf and other Old English Texts

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Post Options Post Options   Quote King John Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Topic: Cannibalism in Beowulf and other Old English Texts
    Posted: 03-May-2009 at 20:43
While researching my last paper for my master's degree I came across some interesting passages in a few texts.  The texts that I looked at were Beowulf, Andreas, the Saint Christopher legends/cycles, and Wonders of the East (a combination of Miracula Orientalis and Liber Monstrorum).  In these texts there are a few common elements; the most interesting that I found was the use of Cannibalism to define the alien.  As most of you know, Grendel and his mother are both Cannibals; this helps to define them as monsters but it also places them as peripheral members of pagan Germanic society.  In Andreas St. Andrew is sent to rescue St. Matthew from the Mermedonians; this group of people is described as cannibals.  Wonders has many instances of cannibals, it specifically speaks of different tribes of men like the Cynocephali, Dobuii, and other anthrophoagi.  While the Passion of St Christopher doesn't explicitly call him a cannibal, he is named a cynocephali, the other texts in the cycle do.  The common thread through out these texts is that the cannibals live at a distance from the perspective of the overall greater culture– that is from culture producing the works.  In three of the four texts one can make the argument that cannibalism is a mark of distance from God; the Grendel family is said to be descended from Cain as are the cynocephali (Augustine of Hippo claims this), Mermedonian cannibalism not only establishes cultural distance but it is in direct contrast to the "civilized" customs of the Christians.  In the St. Christopher cycle Christopher loses his cannibalistic tendencies when he is converted to Christianity.

With all that said, the purpose of this thread is to discuss the uses of cannibalism in Old English literature.  That is to say is cannibalism used to define the alien or is it there to simply disgust the audience and make protagonists, like St. Christopher (a cynocephali), seem more human?  I understand this question might seem to require a knowledge of all the works mentioned above but in actuality that is not the case.  If you have knowledge of another instance of cannibalism in medieval literature whether English or not, please feel free to post it in this thread and we will discuss it as well.

To ask the question again; what is the purpose of cannibalism in the texts mentioned above; is it meant to define the alien or is it there to disgust the audience and make the protagonists seem more human?

*Edit: All instances of cannibalism in literature can be discussed here and we will tie them into the discussion.


Edited by King John - 03-May-2009 at 20:55
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Post Options Post Options   Quote King John Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 03-May-2009 at 20:50
I just realized I failed to define a few terms in my opening post.

Cinocephali/Cynocephali = man with the head of a dog
Anthropophagi = man-eaters

If there are any other terms that need to be defined let me know and I will gladly define them.
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Byzantine Emperor Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 03-May-2009 at 21:48
Good topic, KJ.  It is always nice to discover something in class that leads to a research project.  Cuts down on some of the work at the beginning!
 
Originally posted by King John

The texts that I looked at were Beowulf, Andreas, the Saint Christopher legends/cycles, and Wonders of the East (a combination of Miracula Orientalis and Liber Monstrorum).
 
Interesting texts.  Are the Wonders of the East and Miracula Orientalis in Old English and Latin, respectively?  What genre are they, something like a mythical traveler's account or Prester John?
 
Originally posted by King John

In these texts there are a few common elements; the most interesting that I found was the use of Cannibalism to define the alien.  As most of you know, Grendel and his mother are both Cannibals; this helps to define them as monsters but it also places them as peripheral members of pagan Germanic society.  In Andreas St. Andrew is sent to rescue St. Matthew from the Mermedonians; this group of people is described as cannibals.  Wonders has many instances of cannibals, it specifically speaks of different tribes of men like the Cynocephali, Dobuii, and other anthrophoagi.
 
The Greeks, and other "civilized" societies, considered cannibalism something that was against nature and natural law.  The same thing was believed concerning close consanguinous marriages.  I think Herodotus talks about anthropagoi and cynokephaloi in his History at some point.
 
Do the Anglo-Saxons have this same idea that these practices are "against nature" when they consider the practitioners "other?"
 
Originally posted by King John

With all that said, the purpose of this thread is to discuss the uses of cannibalism in Old English literature.  That is to say is cannibalism used to define the alien or is it there to simply disgust the audience and make protagonists, like St. Christopher (a cynocephali), seem more human?  I understand this question might seem to require a knowledge of all the works mentioned above but in actuality that is not the case.  If you have knowledge of another instance of cannibalism in medieval literature whether English or not, please feel free to post it in this thread and we will discuss it as well.
 
I would wager that cannibalism might be a literary trope such as those that are commonly employed in hagiographies to make the saint appear more holy and authoritative.  However, I do not know what kind of tropes appear in Old English literature.  In Byzantine hagiographies there are many different ones that you can see over and over again.  I don't recall something as extreme as cannibalism as being one.
 
Other instances of cannibalism in Byzantine literature appear in the histories and chronicles of the Crusades.  It is usually in the context of besieged peoples having to consume the dead because they are starving.  Latin and Muslim chroniclers mention this too.  It is usually looked on with extreme pity in this case.
 
Originally posted by King John

In three of the four texts one can make the argument that cannibalism is a mark of distance from God; the Grendel family is said to be descended from Cain as are the cynocephali (Augustine of Hippo claims this), Mermedonian cannibalism not only establishes cultural distance but it is in direct contrast to the "civilized" customs of the Christians.
 
Wow, I will have to look for this reference from St. Augustine.  Do you remember which work it is from?


Edited by Byzantine Emperor - 03-May-2009 at 21:50
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Post Options Post Options   Quote King John Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 03-May-2009 at 22:07
Originally posted by Byzantine Emperor

Good topic, KJ.  It is always nice to discover something in class that leads to a research project.  Cuts down on some of the work at the beginning!
 
Originally posted by King John

The texts that I looked at were Beowulf, Andreas, the Saint Christopher legends/cycles, and Wonders of the East (a combination of Miracula Orientalis and Liber Monstrorum).
 
Interesting texts.  Are the Wonders of the East and Miracula Orientalis in Old English and Latin, respectively?  What genre are they, something like a mythical traveler's account or Prester John?
Wonders exists in three manuscripts, one is entirely in Latin, the second (the Beowulf Manuscript) is entirely in Old English, and the third is in both Latin and Old English.  In terms of the genre Wonders is closely related to the "travel" accounts of Alexander the Great.  The problem is in calling the creatures described in Wonders mythical.  The Anglo-Saxons would have seen these creatures as being very real, as real as you or I even.
 
Originally posted by King John

In these texts there are a few common elements; the most interesting that I found was the use of Cannibalism to define the alien.  As most of you know, Grendel and his mother are both Cannibals; this helps to define them as monsters but it also places them as peripheral members of pagan Germanic society.  In Andreas St. Andrew is sent to rescue St. Matthew from the Mermedonians; this group of people is described as cannibals.  Wonders has many instances of cannibals, it specifically speaks of different tribes of men like the Cynocephali, Dobuii, and other anthrophoagi.
 
The Greeks, and other "civilized" societies, considered cannibalism something that was against nature and natural law.  The same thing was believed concerning close consanguinous marriages.  I think Herodotus talks about anthropagoi and cynokephaloi in his History at some point.
 
Do the Anglo-Saxons have this same idea that these practices are "against nature" when they consider the practitioners "other?"
Interesting tidbit about the Greeks.  I haven't come across any explicit claims that cannibalism is "against nature" it is implied that cannibalism is against cultural norms.  I think when get to the more religious works the idea of cannibalism being "against nature" is much easier to see.  In short I haven't really examined that question, but I will go back through the texts and take a look.
 
Originally posted by King John

In three of the four texts one can make the argument that cannibalism is a mark of distance from God; the Grendel family is said to be descended from Cain as are the cynocephali (Augustine of Hippo claims this), Mermedonian cannibalism not only establishes cultural distance but it is in direct contrast to the "civilized" customs of the Christians.
 
Wow, I will have to look for this reference from St. Augustine.  Do you remember which work it is from?
I want to say that the reference is De Civitatis Dei XVI.8.  Come to think of it I am pretty sure that's the place where St. Augustine talks about it.  Augustine obviously doesn't talk about "the Grendel family" but he does talk about certain "monstrous races of men" like the cynocephali.


Edited by King John - 03-May-2009 at 22:09
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Post Options Post Options   Quote bod Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 03-May-2009 at 22:19
I don't know these texts, except Beowulf. It seems that in most cultures people that are seen as monsters or barbarians are accused of being cannibals, even in recent history it was the fate of many a cartoon character to be thrown into an African cooking pot Disapprove.

Strabo describes the the Irish as being "More savage than the Britons, since they are man-eaters, and since they count it an honourable thing when their fathers die to devour them".

I will think of Grendel in a whole new way now, thank youSmile
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Byzantine Emperor Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 03-May-2009 at 22:25
Originally posted by King John

The problem is in calling the creatures described in Wonders mythical.  The Anglo-Saxons would have seen these creatures as being very real, as real as you or I even.
 
Perhaps I should have defined the context of mythical.  It is probably safe to say that these were works of fiction or based on very unreliable hearsay.  They are fictional or mythical in that way.  Many most likely did believe in them because they were tales from strange lands that they knew were real "on the map."
 
Originally posted by King John

I want to say that the reference is De Civitatis Dei XVI.8.  Come to think of it I am pretty sure that's the place where St. Augustine talks about it.  Augustine obviously doesn't talk about "the Grendel family" but he does talk about certain "monstrous races of men" like the cynocephali.
 
I remember this now.  It is in the looooong chapter Augustine has on Biblical history and the preparation of the "Heavenly City" to receive the Incarnation.  I am actually taking a class on De Ciuitate Dei right now!  Here is the quote:
 
St. Augustine, De Ciuitate Dei 16.8
 

It is also asked whether we are to believe that certain monstrous races of men, spoken of in secular history, have sprung from Noah’s sons, or rather, I should say, from that one man from whom they themselves were descended.  For it is reported that some have one eye in the middle of the forehead; some, feet turned backwards from the heel; some, a double sex, the right breast like a man, the left like a woman, and that they alternately beget and bring forth:  others are said to have no mouth, and to breathe only through the nostrils; others are but a cubit high, and are therefore called by the Greeks “Pigmies:” they say that in some places the women conceive in their fifth year, and do not live beyond their eighth.  So, too, they tell of a race who have two feet but only one leg, and are of marvellous swiftness, though they do not bend the knee:  they are called Skiopodes, because in the hot weather they lie down on their backs and shade themselves with their feet.  Others are said to have no head, and their eyes in their shoulders; and other human or quasi-human races are depicted in mosaic in the harbor esplanade of Carthage, on the faith of histories of rarities.  What shall I say of the Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men?  But we are not bound to believe all we hear of these monstrosities.  But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast.  We can distinguish the common human nature from that which is peculiar, and therefore wonderful.



Edited by Byzantine Emperor - 03-May-2009 at 22:27
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Post Options Post Options   Quote King John Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 03-May-2009 at 22:32
Originally posted by Byzantine Emperor

Originally posted by King John

The problem is in calling the creatures described in Wonders mythical.  The Anglo-Saxons would have seen these creatures as being very real, as real as you or I even.
 
Perhaps I should have defined the context of mythical.  It is probably safe to say that these were works of fiction or based on very unreliable hearsay.  They are fictional or mythical in that way.  Many most likely did believe in them because they were tales from strange lands that they knew were real "on the map."
 
About this you are most certainly correct.


To Bod, part of what makes "the Grendel family's" cannibalism so scary and, dare I say, important is the fact that they are distant from the prevailing culture.  I think this is a common idea for the need to describe a population as cannibalistic.  I think you can make a similar argument for Strabo's claim about the Irish, thanks for that info.


Edited by King John - 03-May-2009 at 22:34
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Post Options Post Options   Quote edgewaters Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 03-May-2009 at 22:50

Originally posted by King John

As most of you know, Grendel and his mother are both Cannibals; this helps to define them as monsters but it also places them as peripheral members of pagan Germanic society.

That's absolutely it. I think you have to dig really a bit deeper than the Christian and medieval era to find the roots of this literary device. It's present much earlier - for instance, there are quite a number of Greek myths which feature cannibalism, from Cronus eating his children as they are born, to tribes of giant cannibals in the Odyssey (Lastragonians) to the cyclops (who resembles Grendel in some ways). It exists in many variations besides monsters and others. There are unintentional cannibals who unwittingly eat human flesh (such as Atreus, and also Demeter), and people who become cannibals during ecstatic religious rite, such as the Maenads and the Bacchantes. These were followers of Dionysius, who practiced sparagmos - the tearing apart of living beings with the hands - followed by omophagia, the eating of the raw flesh. Sometimes animals, sometimes people. Agave, for instance, is overcome by the sparagmos and tears her son Pentheus apart and eats him under the influence of Dionysius.

I believe there are similar stories among pagan groups of northern Europe as well. Such stories also exist along similar lines among other groups (for instance, the Wendigo of native American mythology - a sort of evil spirit of cannibalism who possesses humans and causes them to become supernatural cannibals).

Probably, at one time, long before the late pagan era, there were cannibal cults. I believe the literary device probably originated as a way of othering these cults, of creating and enforcing the taboo against cannibalism. Once that taboo was firmly established, and cannibals were definately othered in most minds, it continued to have currency - with cannibals firmly established as others, perhaps the ultimate others, it was a very useful literary device for othering.



Edited by edgewaters - 03-May-2009 at 22:55
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Post Options Post Options   Quote King John Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 03-May-2009 at 23:06
Great post edgewaters, thank you for the information.  I know that in a few of the Old Norse Sagas cannibalism is used as a way of goading male relatives to take vengeance for a murder, it is also used by female relatives to take vengeance for male relations.  A prime example of this would be Atlakviða in which Guðrún prepares a feast for Atli, once he starts eating he is told that he is eating his children.  Guðrún does this to avenge the deaths of her brothers Gunnarr and Högni.
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Post Options Post Options   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 04-May-2009 at 11:54

In part of the legend of St Christopher he is a cynocephalic monster. But Christianity presented another kind of cannibalism: this is Galahad's vision at the climax of the Quest (in Malory):

And at the lifting up there came a figure in likeness of a child, and the visage was as red and as bright as any fire, and smote himself into the bread, so that they all saw it that the
bread was formed of a fleshly man; and then he put it into the Holy Vessel again, and then he did that longed to a priest to do to a mass.
 
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Cyrus Shahmiri Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 04-May-2009 at 13:30
According to Iranian mythology we know Cannibals (Greek Manticore from Old Persian Martikhoras "maneater") ruled about 1,000 years over Iranian peoples, Ferdosi says in Shahnameh that they were Arabs! Armenian historian Moses Khorenatsi (410-490 AD) just talks about it in the "From the Fables of the Persians" chapter of his book, and says "What is the interest of Persians to say they were people who ate them?! When do they want to get rid of these false fables?!"
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Post Options Post Options   Quote es_bih Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 04-May-2009 at 15:16
Cyrus that has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

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Post Options Post Options   Quote Cyrus Shahmiri Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 04-May-2009 at 15:30
Originally posted by es_bih

Cyrus that has nothing to do with the topic at hand.
King John sent me a PM and asked me to post something about Cannibalism in Iranian mythology in this thread and I did it.


Edited by Cyrus Shahmiri - 04-May-2009 at 16:50
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Post Options Post Options   Quote es_bih Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 04-May-2009 at 16:40
I would love some information, too, but not quick swipes at Arabs. Some text, and bibliography.

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Post Options Post Options   Quote Cyrus Shahmiri Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 04-May-2009 at 16:49
I should also mention that the story of Beowulf seems to be very similar to the famous Persian story of Beorasb (بيوراسب) from Avestan Baevaraspa "one who has ten thousnad horses".
The interesting thing is that Baevaraspa is not an evil in Avesta but in the Middle Persian he becomes the same as Azhidahak!! Khorenatsi calls the king of Cannibals who conquered Iran "Azhidahak Bevarasp", in Jamasp Namak, we read: http://www.avesta.org/pahlavi/jamaspi.htm : "The accursed Azdahak, whom they call Baevaraspa, with the prince Spediverand with may demons caught him, slew him, and took up one thousand rays from it." and then we see Azhidahak is just called Baevarasp: "Baevarasp will come out of captivity, will conquer the world, and will then eat up men."
I think the first real historical figure who was called Azhidahak by Persians, was the last Median King Ishtovigu, as you read here: http://www.kurdistanica.com/?q=node/101 The controversial title Âzhi Dahâk for the last Median king was already known to Herodotus, albeit in a corrupted form, as Astyages.
The reason was that, as Herodotus also mentions, he was really a man-eater! You probably know the famous Median General Harpagus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harpagus -> "Astyages, meanwhile, took the son of Harpagus, and slew him, after which he cut him in pieces, and roasted some portions before the fire, and boiled others..."
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Post Options Post Options   Quote King John Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 04-May-2009 at 18:00
Originally posted by es_bih

Cyrus that has nothing to do with the topic at hand.
It does have to do with the topic at hand, since I intentionally added an edit to my original post yesterday that expands the topic to cannibalism in all literature.  I also sent Cyrus a pm asking him to bring his knowledge of Persian/Iranian literature to the topic.
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Post Options Post Options   Quote King John Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 04-May-2009 at 18:06
Originally posted by Cyrus Shahmiri

I should also mention that the story of Beowulf seems to be very similar to the famous Persian story of Beorasb (بيوراسب) from Avestan Baevaraspa "one who has ten thousnad horses".
The interesting thing is that Baevaraspa is not an evil in Avesta but in the Middle Persian he becomes the same as Azhidahak!! Khorenatsi calls the king of Cannibals who conquered Iran "Azhidahak Bevarasp", in Jamasp Namak, we read: http://www.avesta.org/pahlavi/jamaspi.htm : "The accursed Azdahak, whom they call Baevaraspa, with the prince Spediverand with may demons caught him, slew him, and took up one thousand rays from it." and then we see Azhidahak is just called Baevarasp: "Baevarasp will come out of captivity, will conquer the world, and will then eat up men."
I think the first real historical figure who was called Azhidahak by Persians, was the last Median King Ishtovigu, as you read here: http://www.kurdistanica.com/?q=node/101 The controversial title Âzhi Dahâk for the last Median king was already known to Herodotus, albeit in a corrupted form, as Astyages.
The reason was that, as Herodotus also mentions, he was really a man-eater! You probably know the famous Median General Harpagus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harpagus -> "Astyages, meanwhile, took the son of Harpagus, and slew him, after which he cut him in pieces, and roasted some portions before the fire, and boiled others..."
Very interesting Cyrus, I'm curious to know if there are any creatures similar to "the Grendel family" in the story of Beorasb?  What I am interested in knowing is, is there a character or characters that are cannibalistic villains?
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Post Options Post Options   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 04-May-2009 at 18:41
Are the Grendels strictly speaking 'villains', rather than representatives of an alien enemy? A man-eating lion is surely not a 'villain'?
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Cyrus Shahmiri Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 04-May-2009 at 19:09
Originally posted by es_bih

I would love some information, too, but not quick swipes at Arabs. Some text, and bibliography.
 
As I said just Ferdosi says that they were Arabs, maybe just because of his nationalistic views towards Arabs who had also conquered Iran some hundreds years earlier!
 
The Persian story is almost the same as the Old English one, about: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beowulf
 

Beowulf begins with the story of King Hroðgar, who built the great hall Heorot for his people. In it he, his wife Wealhþeow, and his warriors spend their time singing and celebrating, until Grendel, an outcast from society who is angered by the singing, attacks the hall and kills and devours many of Hroðgar's warriors while they sleep. But Grendel dares not touch the throne of Hroðgar, because he is described as protected by a powerful god. Hroðgar and his people, helpless against Grendel's attacks, abandon Heorot.

Beowulf, a young warrior from Geatland, hears of Hroðgar's troubles and with his king's permission leaves his homeland to help Hroðgar.

Beowulf and his men spend the night in Heorot. After they fall asleep, Grendel enters the hall and attacks, devouring one of Beowulf's men. Beowulf, who bears no weapon as this would be an unfair advantage over the unarmed beast, has been feigning sleep, and leaps up and clenches Grendel's hand. The two battle until it seems as though the hall might collapse. Beowulf's retainers draw their swords and rush to his aid, but their blades do not pierce Grendel's skin because he is magically immune to human weapons. Finally, Beowulf tears Grendel's arm from his body at the shoulder and Grendel runs to his home in the marshes to die.

------------------
 
Fereydun is the Persian hero and the Persian king is Jamshid who built the great hall of Takhte-Jamshid (Throne of Jamshid), Iranians believe that it was the same Persepolis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persepolis Grendel is Persian Azhidahak, he is also angered by the joy of Iranians, so he attacks and cannibalizes anyone he finds in Iran. Jamshid dies and another Persian hero Kaveh the Blacksmith rebels against Azhidahak but can do nothing except fleeing to the mountains, many people follow him and the country is abandoned to cannibals.
Fereydon a young Persian warrior who lives there, meets the people and hears Kaveh's troubles. He agrees to lead the people against Azhidahak, they go to fight against him and finally in a battle Fereydun strikes Azhidahak down with his ox-headed mace, but doesn't kill him; on the advice of an angel, he imprisons him in a cave underneath Mount Damavand.
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Post Options Post Options   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 04-May-2009 at 20:44
How is that similar to the Beowulf legend? Beowulf kills Grendel, his mother and a dragon. All you're saying is that there's a Persian legend in which a hero doesn't even kill, merely imprisons, an evil king. There's a similar Avestan story about Azhidahak in which he actually kills a three-headed serpent, and the linkage of the myths there is obvious.
 
But no mother, no mysterious beast and no dragon. Are you really going to claim that any story in which someone kills someone is therefore 'similar' enough to a Persian myth to indicate one affected the other?
 
PS I know there are several other versions of the Persian story. None of them is in the least like Beowulf, for one thing because the heroes are always Persian whereas Beowulf is an incoming outsider who takes over the kingdom he frees.  


Edited by gcle2003 - 04-May-2009 at 20:48
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