The Hill of the Dragon: Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds in Literature and Archaeology by Hilda R. Ellis Davidson (1950)

A Paper read before a meeting of the Society on October I9th, 1949.1

THE idea of raising an imposing mound of earth to guard the bones or ashes of the dead is one which has roots deep in antiquity. ” Man ” said Sir Thomas Browne ” is a noble animal, splendid in ashes and pompous in the grave “; and when the Anglo-Saxons raised howes over the graves of dead kings and warriors they were following a tradition long familiar in Northern Europe. They themselves were aware of the nobility of which Browne wrote, as the words from Beowulf prove:

” Bid the famous warriors build a shining mound after the funeral fire, upon a headland by the sea. It shall tower high upon Whale’s Ness as a memorial to my people; so that the seafarers in after days shall name it the mound of Beowulf, as they urge their steep ships from afar over the misty deep ” (2802-8).

But the Anglo-Saxon burial mound was more than an impressive symbol to preserve a hero’s memory; and if the evidence of archaeology, ancient custom and early literature is pieced together it is possible to attempt to discover something of the significance of the burial mound in the minds of those who raised it.

The findings of archaeology make it certain that in Anglo-Saxon times the grave beneath the large impressive grave-mound was not the common lot. The majority of graves were arranged in cemeteries, and could not have been marked by more than a small heap of earth above. But to this rule there are notable exceptions. Sometimes a number of men, women and children, apparently the members of an ordinary village community, have been found buried in a large tumulus of an earlier period, as at  White-horse Hill, Berkshire,2 which held 46 graves, or Uncleby, Yorkshire,3 which had 68. It seems likely that the Anglo-Saxons were attracted by the sanctity of an existing mound of impressive proportions and preferred that their dead should rest in what in a pagan sense was hallowed ground ; for they were careful not to disturb the original burial. These were simple folk, but in the large mounds raised in the Anglo Saxon period over a single grave there is evidence for considerable funeral pomp in preparing a memorial for some person of importance. In many cases we are unfortunately dealing with early and unscientific records which must be treated with caution, but nevertheless there is a rich fund of material at our disposal.

A simple example is the impressive barrow built on the Roman site at Lowbury Hill, Berkshire.4 Here an elderly warrior lay in an oval grave under the mound, with his spear beside him, his sword in its scabbard with the hilt on his breast, his shield apparently fallen across his knees, his knife in his hand and a beautiful hanging bowl tilted against the side of the grave over a comb in a leather case. His buckle and the bone fastener of his cloak and traces of his woven clothes could be recognised. A more elaborate burial was that in the famous Taplow Barrow in Buckinghamshire.5 The mound, 80 ft. in diameter and still 15 ft. high in 1883, stood in the churchyard, towering over the later graves. A yew tree had at some time been planted on its flat top, and this collapsed into the trench half-way through the excavation, which partly accounts for the confused accounts of objects in the burial chamber. However we know enough to form a vivid picture of a man interred in a rectangular grave chamber lined with stout planks, who was richly dressed, with a cloak decorated with gold braid caught by a clasp at his shoulder. He had a sword and knife, a long spear placed above the chamber, two shields and possibly other weapons, while in the centre was a large bronze pan holding two glass beakers, two wooden cups and two drinking horns. There was also a bronze bowl of Coptic workmanship, two small buckets and fragments of a cauldron; and at the foot of the grave a set of playing pieces and what we now know to have been a small harp.

Taeppas Mound in the old churchyard, Taplow
Taeppas Mound in the old churchyard, Taplow

A grave on very similar lines was that at Broomfield, Essex.” This held a fine sword and other weapons, and again two  pairs of wooden cups and two horns were placed in a large metal vessel. Unfortunately part of the grave was destroyed before excavation began. But the third of the great Anglo-Saxon barrows, that at Sutton Hoo,7 provides us with a grave of royal proportions unspoiled by plunderers or unskilled excavators. This mound belonged to a group of eleven on the heath above the sea at Woodbridge, Suffolk. A ship had been lowered into the grave like a coffin and a burial chamber of wood built on its deck. This held weapons, including sword, knife, many spears and angons, axe, elaborate helmet and shield and coat of ring-mail ; ornaments of magnificent workmanship, including jewelled clasps, purse-mount and great gold buckle; and plentiful provision for a feast in the form of two drinking-horns, (one a gigantic auroch’s horn holding about six quarts),8 gourd cups, many dishes, cups and spoons of silver, bowls of both native and foreign workmanship, cauldrons and buckets. There was a little six-stringed harp, whose reconstruction is one of the triumphs of Anglo-Saxon archaeology,9 and two objects which may denote the royal standing of the man for whom the mound was raised : a whetstone which suggests a sceptre, and an iron object with the fine figure of an adult stag at its crest which was probably a royal standard.

Two important problems raised by this grave are the absence of a body and the choice of a ship to hold the treasure, and neither is an isolated one. At Broomfield also no trace of a body was found, but here it is impossible to establish facts. But two smaller mounds have been claimed by their excavators to cover empty graves. One near Salisbury10 held weapons, buckles and a late Roman pan, but no traces of bones or indication where they could have lain, and a second even more convincing example comes from Bourne Park, Canterbury.”11 Here two mounds contained skeletons, but the grave under the third, which was filled with mould which preserved the contents well, held only a bucket, some iron, including a shield-boss, a copper bowl leaning against the wall and a disc like a playing counter. The grave had not been disturbed.

Brogger12 claimed to have excavated an empty barrow in Norway, and suggested the name Farmanns Haug indicated a memorial to a man who died abroad. But here there was no gravechamber or goods, only what appeared to be a wooden stretcher or bier near the centre. One of the  great mounds at Jelling in Denmark13 seems to have been a memorial of the same kind ; it held no real gravechamber but a framework of wood which was propped up with turf and could never have stood alone. The other mound at Jelling held a gravechamber with space for two bodies, but it would seem that these had been removed together with most of the gravegoods through a hole made into the mound. The most likely explanation seems to be that the bodies of the king and queen were removed to be given Christian burial.

At Sutton Hoo however we have a grave royally equipped, never disturbed since the mound was closed, where careful and scientific search has failed to find trace of a body or place where it had lain. Mr. Bruce Mitford14 suggests it was a memorial to Æðelhere, probably the last pagan king of East Anglia, whose body might well have been lost at the retreat at the river Winwwed where many were drowned; and if this were so the grave, like those at Jelling, would mark the end of a pagan epoch. But the question of the pagan cenotaph is one on which the last word has by no means been said.

The ship in the mound has many Scandinavian parallels, of which the royal graves at Vendel and Valsjarde in Sweden, Oseberg and Gokstad in Norway and Ladby in Denmark are the most striking examples. In these tombs men (and at Oseberg a woman) were buried with rich possessions, usually with sacrificed animals and possibly human beings also, in sea-going vessels or smaller boats. Ship-funeral was regarded as predominantly Scandinavian, yet the Sutton Hoo grave, dated at about 650, is as early as any dateable Scandinavian examples. Nor is it an isolated example. A ship 48 ft. in length was buried under a tumulus on Snape Common, near Aldeborough,15 with a few grave-goods which indicated the early Anglo-Saxon period, and which seems to have stood in a cremation cemetery, though the accounts are not very clear. There was also an 18 ft. boat in one of the smaller Sutton Hoo mounds, but this had been plundered.

Anglo-Saxon pottery cremation urn from a cemetery at Loveden Hill, Lincolnshire.
Anglo-Saxon pottery cremation urn from a cemetery at Loveden Hill, Lincolnshire.

The problem of cremation must also be included in a survey of Anglo Saxon burial mounds. The Christian church condemned it, but there was time for a great number of the Anglo-Saxon dead to be burned on the pyre before the practice was abandoned. Most cremation graves are on a small scale in the cemeteries, but in the Asthall barrow16 in Oxfordshire a fine mound, 55 ft. in diameter, stood on a ridge. It was surrounded by a  dry-stone wall, and contained a large-scale cremation burial. The floor of the mound was lined with yellow clay brought from a distance, and on it the funeral pyre had stood. Large pieces of timber had burned to a charred mass, and burned bones, human and animal, and remains of bronze, silver, pottery, playing pieces, a bowl and a belt were identified, all having been subjected to intense heat. Leeds believed the remains were those of a woman, and the ornament discernible suggested a seventh century date, which would make the barrow practically contemporary with the Sutton Hoo grave. A small barrow at Sutton Hoo also contained burnt bones, which were placed on a wooden tray with an axe, a Roman lamp lid and marble plaque”17; and the fact that unburnt grave-goods could be deposited with cremated remains is shown by a grave from Coombe, Kent,18 where the bones lay in a copper bowl covered with a cloth, and two swords, also wrapped in cloth, a spearhead, a bead and a pendant beside them.

Thus archaeological evidence from the time when burial mounds were still raised by the Anglo-Saxons is rich and varied. Elaborate funeral rites, including cremation and ship-burial, were still practised at the end of the pagan period, and weapons, personal possessions, cups and dishes were carefully arranged in the grave. The objects were often of considerable beauty and value, though they might be old and worn and repaired, as were the shield, great hanging bowl, and other pieces from Sutton Hoo. In the richest graves some kind of definite pattern in the arrangement of the objects can be worked out, and there are interesting parallels between them. There are also suggestions of funeral ritual. The Bourne Park grave had little recesses at the corners containing seed and the bones of mice (perhaps attracted by it), recalling prohibitions in the Anglo-Saxon penitentials against burning seed near the dead,19 and other examples from the cemeteries . In the Sutton Hoo grave an oval clay basin above the roof of the burial chamber suggests libations of some kind before the mound was closed,20 but to this I know no parallel in this period.

The Bartlow Burial Mounds, Cambridgeshire, England before being seriously damaged (Engraving)
The Bartlow Burial Mounds, Cambridgeshire, England before being seriously damaged (Engraving)

Only a small number of mounds of any size have survived into our time, but we gain some idea of how many have been lost from the work of Kemble on Anglo-Saxon boundary charters.21 In the Codex Diplomaticus he found 150 instances of barrows used as landmarks along the edge of an estate. In some cases where only the words beorh or hlaw or the expression ” heathen burial place ” is used they might be pre-Saxon mounds, but often they are identified by the names of the men laid in them. Evidence from Norway collected by Taranger22 and others throws new light on the custom of recording the names of men in their mounds when defining the limits of an estate. In the Norse sagas a king claiming his inheritance might do so by sitting on his father’s burial mound, and in some cases the king dispensed his royal power while sitting upon a grave-mound.23 These incidents, taken together with passages from the laws, show that it was common for the important family burial places to stand not far from the house, and of special importance was the mound of the founder of the family or first owner of the land, the odalshaugr. It was this mound, before written charters existed, which proved the right of a man to hold the land, if he could give the name of the man buried there and trace his descent from him. Magnus Olsen24 has published a letter telling of an old man whom the writer knew in boyhood. The old man (then over go) used to tell him that he was 13th or 14th in direct line of descent from a Viking called Odd Skarnaev who was laid in a mound near his farm. While fishing he used to sing a verse (unfortunately now forgotten) about this Odd, and could tell the story of his death in a desperate fight. So long a survival of the tradition of tracing one’s genealogy from the man in the mound shows how powerful it must once have been, and it throws new light on the preoccupation with death and burial in some of the Old Norse poems. The strange poem Ynglingatal, which gives a list of kings of Norway, telling how each met his death and where he was buried, now becomes comprehensible, for the poet is bent on proving that his patron, King Ragnald, with whom the list ends, had as good a claim to the throne of Norway as Harald Fairhair himself, and he does this by reciting his ancestors and giving their burial places. In certain places a king who won new territory might require more than one odalshaugr, to prove his right to separate regions, and Taranger suggests this as a possible explanation of such cenotaphs as the Farmanns barrow. It seems likely, from the frequent references in the boundary charters, that the same custom prevailed among the Anglo-Saxons at one time. Two instances from the Book of Llandaff25 where  over land to the church while sitting or lying on the tomb of a former king certainly suggests something like it in Wales.

There is also a good deal of evidence for local assemblies in England meeting upon mounds.26 Many of the pre-Domesday hundreds certainly assembled out-of-doors, and in some cases the mounds on which they sat are known to be tumuli. We know too that some Anglo-Saxon barrows, like that at Taplow, had flat tops, and sometimes they apparently had stones upon them, like mounds in Sweden27 which are known to have been used for public assemblies.

The importance of the Anglo-Saxon burial mound in early society is also shown by the sanctity with which it continued to be invested in Christian times. Early Christian churches were sometimes built beside or even over a burial mound. At Taplow the mound stands in the old churchyard. Under Fimber church28 in Yorkshire Mortimer discovered that an earlier building, destroyed by fire, had stood upon an artificial mound containing skeletons which was almost certainly a barrow. Again at Ludlow29 the parish church occupied the site of a former tumulus. Leland tells us that in 1199 the townsmen decided to clear away the large barrow which stood there and extend the church, and they found within it three sepulchral deposits (mausolea lapidea) which were declared to be those of the father, mother and uncle of St. Brandon. Such apparent credulity might be explained by the tradition of a Celtic monastery on the site.

There must have been many other places where early churches were built over ancient mounds or cemeteries, and we know of many on the continent. One of the most interesting is that of Jelling in Denmark,30 the royal burial place before the country became Christian. Here two great barrows stand with a church of medieval date between them. It was formerly believed that Gorm, the last pagan king, was buried in one and his queen Thyra in the other. The northern barrow was the one mentioned above which held the burial chamber from which the bodies appear to have been removed not long after burial; probably both the king and queen rested in that howe, which was planned under Gorm, and which proves to have formed part of a great triangular sanctuary,  marked out by upright ” bauta ” stones. Many of the stones may still be seen, and the lines, planned with mathematical exactitude, made out ; it would be natural to assign such a grouping of stones to a far earlier date, had we not archaeological proof that these were erected in the tenth century A.D. The sanctuary was later remodelled, and a second mound built about thirty years after the first, across the apex of the triangle. It contained the rough model of a wooden burial chamber referred to earlier, and may have been erected by Gorm’s son Harald when he rejected heathenism, as a substitute for his own burial mound; the famous runic stone on the site with its grandiloquent inscription praising him as the converter of Denmark supports this view. Soon after this, the first Christian church was built along the central line of the old sanctuary, and its foundations have been recently discovered by Dyggve beneath the east end of the present church. The history of Jelling shows how imposing a sanctuary could be built round a burial mound at the close of the heathen period, and may prove important for our understanding of Sutton Hoo, similarly erected at a time of transition from one faith to another; it shows too how what was probably the earliest Danish church was placed in the centre of the old sanctuary.

Jelling II, Rundata DR 42
“King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.”

Another proof of the sanctity of burial mounds is shown by the fact that saints might choose them for dwelling-places. A clear indication of this is given by the Anglo-Saxon Life of St. Guðlac, written in Latin in the eighth century by Felix of Croyland and later translated into the native language. After his conversion Guðlac spent some time in the Celtic monastery at Repton and then determined to retire into the wilderness and discovered an obscure island in the Cambridgeshire fens. Several had tried to dwell there but been forced to leave ” on account of the dwelling of the accursed spirits “, but Guðlac resolved to settle there. We are told :

” There was on the island a great mound (hlaw in the A.S. version) raised upon the earth, which in former times men had dug into and broken open in hope of wealth. On one side of the mound a hollow had been made like a great cistern, and in the hollow the holy man Guðlac began to build himself a house as soon as he arrived.” (III).

Thus he actually dwelt upon a burial mound, and here he had to defend himself against certain terrible creatures, the ” accursed spirits ” whose appearance is given at some length:

” They had great heads, long necks and lean faces; they had filthy squalid beards, rough ears, distorted countenances, fierce eyes and foul mouths; their teeth were like the teeth of horses, their throats  filled with flame and they had grating voices; they had crooked shanks, knee joints bent backwards and toes back to front ;31 their voices were hoarse and they came with such an immoderate din and such immeasurable horror that it seemed to him that all between heaven and earth resounded with their fearful noise ” (IV).

St. Guthlac of Crowland (c. 673-714)
St. Guthlac of Crowland (c. 673-714)

Something in this picture may be due to the conventional attributes of devils from Hell, but I believe something also is due to the pagan tradition of the dead in the grave-mound, and that these creatures are its inhabitants; it would then not be surprising to find, as we do later, that they are heard by Guðlac speaking Welsh, since the inhabitants of an ancient burial mound might be expected to use the language of the earlier race. It is interesting to find, moreover, that in spite of Guðlac’s sufferings he is much envied, and a priest actually tries to kill him so that he can dwell in the mound in his stead. There seems little doubt that a man who could keep his place upon the mound would be held in reverence and expected to possess special powers ; that he would in fact be the Christian successor of those pagan seers who sat upon mounds for inspiration.

Finally we may turn to Anglo-Saxon poetry for information about the burial mound, for this should prove the richest of sources. We are unfortunate that such Anglo-Saxon secular poetry as we possess was only written down in its present form about four centuries after Christianity came to Kent, so that there cannot be as much direct evidence about pre-Christian beliefs as in Old Norse literature. But we are fortunate on the other hand that the longest and greatest of the poems, Beowulf, has much to say on the subject of funeral customs and burial mounds. Also we know that this poem is far older than the date of its manuscript, and likely to be of eighth century date or even earlier.

The first of the funeral ceremonies mentioned in the poem is the account of the dead Scyld, founder of the Danish dynasty, being sent out to sea in a ship loaded with treasure and arms. Although no mound is mentioned, it is worth noticing because it might well be taken as a symbolic interpretation of the ship-burials in Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England, an explanation of the custom of lowering the ship into the mound and loading it with riches :

” Then they laid their dear king, the famous treasure-giver, in the bosom of the ship, beside the mast. Many treasures and adornments had been brought there from far-distant lands. Never have I heard of a vessel more splendidly adorned with swords and mail-coats, the weapons of war and the raiment of battle. An abundance of treasures lay in it  bosom (or ‘on the king’s bosom ‘) which were to make the distant journey with him into the domain of the sea… Moreover above his head they placed aloft a golden standard; then they gave him to the sea to carry, committed him to the ocean. Their spirits were gloomy and their hearts full of sorrow. Those who rule in the hall, heroes under heaven, cannot say in truth who received that cargo.” (34-52).

We have other accounts of dead or dying kings sent out to sea, from Old Norse literature, and Balder himself made such a voyage.32 This, however, is the most detailed account, and the most poetic and moving. The question of how far actual practices and how far literary tradition has prompted such accounts is a very difficult one, but certainly our increased knowledge about Anglo-Saxon ship-burial must invest it with new interest.

This is not the only funeral treasure mentioned in Beowulf. After the Finnsburh battle it is ” before the mound ” that the funeral pyre for the slain men blazes up, enriched with helmets and mail-coats and perhaps with gold from the treasure-hoard also, but we learn nothing of how the ashes are buried. (II120). The next treasure has lain long in the earth: it is that watched over by the dragon which caused Beowulf’s death. To the Anglo-Saxon poets there is little doubt that a burial-mound containing treasure was ” the hill of the dragon “. It is so stated in the Cottonian Gnomic verses : ” The dragon’s place is on the howe, ancient, exulting in treasure.” The treasure over which Beowulf’s dragon exults is described when Wulfstan enters the mound:

” …. precious treasures, glittering gold lying upon the earth, a wondrous thing upon the wall. He saw the den of the serpent, the ancient night flier, wherein stood drinking-cups, goblets of men of long ago, lacking the polisher and robbed of their gems. There was many a helmet old and rusty, many coiled rings cunningly twisted… likewise standing high above the hoard he saw a banner all of gold, of most wondrous handiwork, wrought by skilled craft, and from it a light shone so that he could see the floor clearly and gaze freely on the gems.” (2757-71).

In another passage there is mention of ” drinking cups and beakers, dishes and precious swords, all rusty and eaten away ” (3047-9) and the messenger’s speech has allusions to ornaments to grace a maiden’s neck. (3016-7.) This is evidently a description of an ideal treasure-hoard of vast proportions, but it will be seen that the constituents-swords, helmets, drinking-cups, dishes and ornaments and the gold standard towering over all-are just such as did make up the contents of rich  Anglo-Saxon graves. It is not of course presented to us as a treasure of Beowulf’s time, but is said to have lain in the lap of earth for a thousand winters; however it would be natural for the poet to picture it in the form familiar to him from the rich heathen graves of his own land. The mound itself on the other hand seems to be deliberately modelled on a passage grave of the megalithic period, since it has ” an arch of stone standing ” and Beowulf ” gazed upon the work of giants, seeing how the long-enduring earth-hall held within it the stone arches, firm upon upright stones.” (2717-2719).33

In the picture of the inhabitant of this mound more than one tradition seems to have mingled, but the Anglo-Saxon poet appears to have very definite ideas as to what a dragon was like. The creature is a fire-dragon, “a bright and horrible monster “, ” grisly-bright and scorched with flame “; (3041) it spits out deadly fumes, and its attacks on the Geats may be described as incendiary ones:

” Then did the visitant spit forth embers and burn up the bright dwellings; that flaming ray wrought mischief to men, for the enemy flying through the air would leave nothing alive … he had encompassed the people of the land with burning, with flame and fire.” (2312-22). Beowulf tries to protect himself with a non-inflammable shield, which, however, proves less effective than he had hoped. (2337 f. 2570 f.). The dragon was reckoned by the Geats to be 50 ft. long (3042) when they saw it after death (the size of a large sperm whale), and it had some of the characteristics of a serpent, for the term hring-bogan (coiled into rings) is used of it, (2561) and the word orm (serpent) as often as draca. But it is definitely a winged creature, the ” far-flier ” and ” night-flier ” : ” it had been wont to delight in the air in the night hours and come down again to seek its den.” (3043-5). It had also powerful teeth, with which it dealt Beowulf his death wound. Above all it is the guardian of the burial mound:

” the smooth malicious dragon, who seeks out mounds all afire, and flies by night wrapped in flame ; he is greatly feared by the land-dwellers. It is his lot to seek out the hoard in the earth; ancient in years, he mounts guard over the heathen gold, yet he is not one whit the better for it.” (2272-77).

Plate X (Hill - Sutton Hoo)
PLATE X: The Anglo-Saxon Dragon of the Sutton Hoo Shield.

There are many carvings on wood and stone from Scandinavia and some from Viking England showing dragons, a particular favourite being Sigurd’s dragon Fafnir; but there seems to be no representation of the  flying dragon in Scandinavian art. There are allusions to flying dragons in Norse literature, but most of the creatures described in detail are of the serpent type, twining themselves round rocks or crawling down to the cliff to drink, and they are so depicted. But Stjerna’s34 claim that there is no archaeological confirmation of Beowulf’s dragon has been proved incorrect, for there are at least two dragons depicted on objects from Anglo-Saxon graves which are not snakes. One on a tiny workbox, probably of seventh-century date, from the cemetery at Burwell35 is of very great interest because it is the earliest picture we have of the dragon fight in Teutonic art, and the dragon is shown with four legs and a plump body. More dramatic confirmation of the Anglo-Saxon poet comes from the Sutton Hoo shield,36 on which there is a dragon equipped with four pairs of wings and jaws filled with sharp teeth (Plate X). It is possible that the creature’s prototype may be looked for in Roman art. The Roman dragons were sea-dragons, and a very fine specimen appears on the decorated helmet dredged up from the River Wensum near Norwich in 1947 (Plate XI).37 The helmet may have been made in Britain, where thirteen of this type have now been found, and Miss Toynbee has commented on the unconventional, almost barbaric treatment of the classical sea dragon. This dates from about the third century, and towards the end of the Roman period we have to take into account also the dragon standard which was taken over by the Roman army from the eastern barbarians. On Trajan’s Column some of these are seen approaching with their dragons, which give the impression that they are inflated by the wind, like the sleeves used at airports. The purple dragon became the emblem of Caesar and was carried before him by his standard-bearer, and it has been claimed that the Welsh dragon is derived from this. Here then we have one possible means by which the eastern conception of the flying dragon reached Western Europe and may have influenced the picture of the creature who guarded Anglo-Saxon burial mounds.

Plate XI (Hill Dragon)

This, however, does not explain why the dragon is connected with the dead. The account in the poem is not entirely clear. First we are told that the last descendant of a noble family survives with a mighty treasure to guard. This he places in a great mound : ” All ready on the earth stood the howe, newly built upon the headland  beside the seashore, secure by its inaccessibility, and into it the guardian of rings carried such part of the plated gold, the treasure of princes, as deserved to be hoarded.” (2241-46).

Then after he too has died we are told that the ” ancient foe of the dawn ” (the dragon) ” found the splendour of the hoard left open “, (2271) and took possession. He brooded over the treasure for 300 years until a man badly in need of ransom money came upon it by chance and carried off a cup while the dragon slept. The account suggests that this is a rationalization of the idea (which would be repugnant to a Christian audience) that the dead man himself became a dragon. It is a familiar idea in Old Norse literature: Fafnir himself only turned into a dragon when he had gained possession of Andvari’s treasure, whereupon he retired to a lair on Gnitaheath, which as described in a note to Fáfnismál suggests a burial mound, and in one of the Icelandic Sagas38 several members of a strange family become dragons and lie on chests of gold behind a waterfall. Very interesting in this connection is the story of the tomb of Charles Martel given in several medieval chronicles.39 The Bishop of Orleans dreamed that Charles was in hell, and his tomb was opened, whereupon a fiery dragon darted out, leaving the tomb blackened as if burnt up. The story is found as early as 858, about a century after the incident is said to have taken place, and is vouched for by the writer, who claims to have known some of those present.

A more primitive form of this conception may be preserved in the shape of Niðhogg, who must have occupied some place in Norse heathen beliefs about the dead; he is said to devour dead men, and at the close of the poem Völuspá is described as ” A dark dragon flying “, and said to ” bear corpses on his pinions “, but unfortunately there is little information about him. Certainly there must be some connection between the dragon who so resents interference with his treasure and the dead man himself, who in many Old Norse stories is said to brood over his treasure in the mound, and who is also enveloped by fire, as we learn from Grettis Saga (18) :

” It happened one evening rather late that Grettir was about to go home when he saw a great fire shoot up on the headland below Auðunn’s house. Grettir asked what new sight that might be? Auðunn told him not to try to find out. ‘ If something like this were seen in our country ‘ said Grettir ‘folks would say it burned over treasure.’ The landowner replied ‘ He who looks after that fire is one it will not pay you to be  inquisitive about.’ ‘Still I should like to know’ said Grettir. ‘On the ness stands a howe ‘ said Auðunn, ‘ and in the howe was buried Karr the Old, the father of Thorfinn ‘.”

Grettir is ready to fight in this illustration from a 17th-century Icelandic manuscript
Grettir is ready to fight in this illustration from a 17th-century Icelandic manuscript.

Grettir afterwards breaks into the howe, fights with the howe-dweller and carries off a sword. Another description of such fire is given in Hervarar Saga, (IV) when the heroic girl Hervör goes to recover her father’s sword from his mound. A poem is quoted in which at dusk fires are said to shoot up over the island where the burial mounds stand, and the howes to open. The sword is said to lie under the dead man’s shoulder ” wrapped in flame “. Whether any natural phenomenon can in part account for this connection between fire and the dead is a difficult question; it seems more likely that poetic symbolism is the basic explanation. Lindqvist40 suggested that the idea was based on the cremation fires, but the connection is rather with inhumation graves; Lewis Spence41 suggests the fiery dragon is a drought symbol, but this does not explain his preoccupation with gold. There is no doubt that this is a widely known and very ancient element in the dragon’s make-up, and Chadwick42 has noted references to ” gold-guarding griffins ” living in the far north in Herodotus. Has the glow of treasure, so emphasised in early poetry, become fire? However, the brightness of the dragon in the sky must have been very familiar to Anglo-Saxon poets; there is an almost casual reference in the Finn fragment when the lights of the attackers draw near: ” This is no day from the east, nor does a dragon fly here “; and in the famous entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 793 it has become a portent for evil:

” In this year terrible portents came about through Northumbria, and sorely terrified the people; there were huge lightning flashes and fiery dragons were seen flying through the air, and immediately great famine followed these portents.” While we know that the dragon came across Europe from the East, it is not easy to understand how this complex conception of the fiery guardian of treasure established itself so firmly in England and Scandinavia, and became closely connected with the burial mound in literature and art.

One more burial mound must be mentioned, that of the hero Beowulf himself; and we are given an account of its making. Like all the dead in the poem except Scyld he is cremated. First wood is brought from all parts of the kingdom, and then the great pyre ” firmly built on the earth,  hung round with helmets and bright mail-coats ” with the prince’s body in the midst. There is a wonderful account of the kindling of the fire, while all lament; ”

Then the liegemen of the Wedera raised a barrow on the cliff, high and broad, such as might be seen from afar by those who crossed the waves; in ten days they raised the memorial of the man famed in battle; they encircled the remains of the burning with a wall, even as the wisest men could best devise. Within the grave mound they placed rings and gems, all such adornments as the bold warriors had before taken from the hoard. They left the treasure of princes for the earth to hold, so that it still remains as useless to men as it was formerly.” (3156-3168).

Many scholars have criticised this account, feeling, as Lindqvist put it in a recent article,43 that ” it could not possible be said to correspond with actual practice as revealed by archaeology.” But it must be remembered that this is not an antiquarian’s account of a prince’s funeral, but a poem, a work of creative imagination above all. The main objection is that some goods are said to be burnt on the pyre and others buried unburnt, and Lindqvist suggests that old traditions about cremation ceremonies may have been pieced together with what the poet knew of great inhumation burials like Sutton Hoo. It might be answered that the Asthall barrow shows cremation on a large scale going on in England as late as the seventh century, and also that cremated remains and unburnt grave goods are found together in the Coombe grave and elsewhere.44 But the real answer to such criticisms is surely that if the poem is read as a whole and not as a series of isolated passages it becomes clear that this is never intended to be a normal funeral ceremony. Besides the usual ritual at the death of a king and hero, the burning of arms and treasures on the pyre with him, there is a new factor, since the Geats decide to sacrifice the great treasure he has won from the dragon and commit it again untouched to the earth from which it came.45 They were wise in this, for we are told that a curse had been laid on it. (3069-75).

The Geats mourn their dead hero-king...
The Geats mourn their dead hero-king…

If we allow for the fact that this is a poetic account on the heroic level of the funeral of a mighty prince after his battle with a dragon, then surely the description is borne out with surprising faithfulness by what we know of Anglo-Saxon funeral customs, and gives us every reason to believe that we are dealing with old and genuine heathen traditions. The  majestic close of the ceremony, when a company of twelve nobles rides round the completed mound, reciting a dirge over their king, has also the note of authenticity. There seems no reason to object as Chambers did because it does not square in every detail with the recorded funeral of Attila in Jordanes ;46 the important point being that seized on by Chadwick,47 that there should be an underlying resemblance to the account of the warriors riding in a circle round the body of the Hunnish king and telling of his deeds in funeral dirges. Other accounts of non Christian funerals in Old Norse literature and various prohibitions48 against Anglo-Saxon clergy indulging in songs and laments at the funeral feast testify to the importance of the dirge over the dead at the heathen funeral.

It would seem indeed that the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf brings us very close to the days when great mounds were raised over the honoured dead. What we can learn of the burial mound from the evidence of excavation, from the contents of the great Anglo-Saxon graves, and from the references in literary records and in early poetry all emphasises its significance, and its importance in the lives of the people in pre-Christian times. Archaeology here serves to illuminate the poetry and literature puts new meaning into archaeology, and while there are many unsolved problems it is, I believe, by such piecing together of scattered evidence from different sources that we may hope to draw nearer to an understanding of the thoughts and beliefs of a vanished age.

Note on the resemblances between Anglo-Saxon burial mounds and those of the Steppe, contributed by G. N. Naundreq.

The question arises whether there is any relation between the Germanic grave mounds in Britain and the tumuli of the Pontic steppe. It has been stated that elements of the Scytho-Sarmatio culture have penetrated from Southern Russia as far as Mecklenburg, Sleswick and the Danish islands (Cf. M. Ebert, Sudrussland, Reallexikon der Vorgeschichte XIII, 1919, pp. 74, o10). On the other hand the Scandinavian Goths who reached the Crimea might have brought with them their habit of burying the dead, and continued to do so in the new surroundings. Cultural relations existed between the Pontic region and Scandinavia after the settlement of the Goths North of the Black Sea. These early relations were continued later  by the Norman expansion in the Dnieper valley (from the eighth century onwards).

Rumanian historians and archaeologists speak of Germanic graves in Eastern Rumania. The Germanic archaeological heritage of Southern Russia and the Danubian countries has not yet been studied. (Cf. M. Ebert, Sudrussland im altertum, 1921, 362). The Scytho-Sarmation tumuli culture may have influenced the Nordic grave mound culture; on the other hand the Goths and Normans may have mixed their culture brought from Scandinavia with the Scytho-Sarmation-Greek culture of the Pontic region.

A reconstruction of the Hochdorf Chieftain's Grave.
A reconstruction of the Hochdorf Chieftain’s Grave, a large Iron Age burial mound dating from c. 550 BCE in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Although constructed a thousand years before the Anglo-Saxon barrows, there are cultural similarities between the two.


  1. I am greatly indebted to Mrs. Chadwick for valuable discussion and suggestions on the subject of mounds and dragons, and to Mr. R. L. S. Bruce-Mitford for helpful criticism of this paper.
  2. Crania Brittania, II, pl. 51.
  3. Proc. Soc. Antiq. XXIV, p. 146f.
  4. The Romano-British Site on Lowbury Hill, D. Atkinson, Univ. College Reading, 1916.
  5. Vict. County Hist. Bucks. I. p. I99 gives full references.
  6. Vict. Count. Hist. Essex. I. p. 320 gives full references.
  7. Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial, Brit. Mus. 1947.
  8. I am indebted to the staff of the B.M. for this information. The pieces are as yet unpublished.
  9. Arch. News Letter, April 1948, p. Ii.
  10. Colt-Hoare, Ancient Wiltshire, II, p. 26f.
  11. Arch. Journ. I, p. 253f.
  12. Aarb. f. nord. Oldkyn, 1921. p. 105f.
  13. Antiquity, 1948, p. I9of. See p. 175 below.
  14. Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial, op. cit., p. 42f.
  15. Vict. Count. Hist. Suffolk, I, p. 326f
  16. Antiq. Journ. IV, 1924, P. 113f.
  17. From information in a letter from Mr. Maynard, Curator of the Ipswich Museum.
  18. Akerman, Pagan Saxendomn, p. 47.
  19. B. Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, Penit. Theod. Arch. Canter. 15. Confess. Eegbert. Arch. Ebor. 32.
  20. Antiquity, 1940, p. 12. 21
  21. Arch. Journ. XIV, 1857, P. I.
  22. A. Taranger, ” Om Kongevalg i Norge i sagatiden,” Norsk Hist. Tidsskrift 5, Raekke 9, 1934, P. IIof. K. Lehmann ” Grabhiigel und Konigshiigel in nord. Heidenzeit “, Zeit. f. deutsch Phil. 42, 1910, p. If.
  23. I have discussed these passages in The Road to Hel (H. R. Ellis), p. I05f.
  24. Mal og Minne, 1919, p. 120.
  25. Liber Landauensis, (L. J. Rhys, ILlandovery, 1840), pp. 141, 1.
  26. G. L. Gomme, Prim. Folk-Moots. W. Johnson, Folk-Memory, ch. 8.
  27. Lindquist. Uppsala Högar (Stockholm, 1936), esp. p. io f. Kemble quotes references to stones from his article on the Codex, op. cit. p. 130.
  28. J. R. Mortimer, Forty Years Researches in the British and Saxon Burial Mounds of East Yorkshire, p. 189 f.
  29. T. Wright, History of Ludlow, 1852, p. 13 f. Leland, Collectanea, III, p. 407.
  30. E. Dyggve. ” Jelling Kongehoje “, Fra Nationalmuseets Arbejdsmark, 1943, (Copenhagen) p. 19 f. and Acta Archael. xI II, 1942, p. 65 f. Full details of the work on Jelling will ultimately be published. I am indebted to Dr. Dyggve for information about the discovery of the original church.
  31. Doubtful : plantis aversis in the Lat. origin.
  32. 32 See H. R. Ellis, The Road to Hel, pp. 41-50.
  33. Keiller and Piggott ” Chambered Tomb in Beowulf”, Antiquity, 1939, p. 360, suggest the account is based on chambered tombs of Ireland or Scotland.
  34. U Stjerna, Essays on Questions connected with the O.E. poem of Beowulf, p. 39.
  35. T. C. Lethbridge, Recent Excavations in A.S. Cemeteries in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, p. 48.
  36. Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial (Brit. Mus. 1947), P. 17.
  37. J. M. C. Toynbee and R. R. Clarke, ” A Roman Decorated Helmet ” Journ. Roman Stud., 1948, p. 20 f. I am indebted to Miss Toynbee for helpful information about the dragon in Roman art.
  38. norskfirdinga Saga, III and XX.
  39. See Chadwick, The Heroic Age, p. 127 f.
  40. Forvånnen, 1921, p. 136.
  41. Spence, Minor Traditions of British Mythology, p. 129.
  42. Chadwick, The Heroic Age, p. 127, note.
  43. Sutton Hoo and Beowulf. Antiquity, 1948, p. i39.
  44. See p. 8 above.
  45. The messenger’s words (3010-3015) suggest that some of the treasure was to be burned but are not entirely conclusive : it may be noticed that he too emphasises the unusualness of the occasion.
  46. Introd. to Beowulf, p. 124 f.
  47. Chadwick, The Heroic Age, p. 53.
  48. Bosworth and Toller, Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, under byrgen.


Source: Folklore, Vol. 61, No. 4 (Dec., 1950), pp. 169-185

Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.

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