In this week’s episode of Monster Talk Eve Siebert discusses creationist claims that in the Old English epic poem Beowulf, Grendel and his mother were actually dinosaurs. Therefore, since Beowulf is a medieval hero, dinosaurs lived in the Middle Ages and Darwin is wrong, QED. Siebert has an article about this coming out in Skeptical Inquirer, and I am eager to read it.
As far as I can see, the creationist redefinition of Beowulf’s monster has been making the rounds for the better part of the last decade. The earliest reference I could find was from 1999, but there may be earlier ones. (There is a creationist book on dinosaurs from 1993 that creationist home school guides recommend for understanding Beowulf, but I haven’t read it.) I think it’s fairly obvious that the creature and his mother, which are never clearly described in the poem (we know only that they had hands and feet and could cry out loudly), are not dinosaurs, especially since the Old English poet was careful to distinguish between Grendel and his mother—both alike in form—and a dragon, which, theoretically at least, should be much close in form to a dinosaur. If Grendel and his mother are not dragons, then they are not likely dinosaurs either. Grendel has a “shoulder” in which he is wounded; I’m not sure I know of any dinosaurs with shoulders. His mother is described as a woman with the form of a demon, again not quite a dinosaur. (Creationists rationalize these descriptions as discussing bipedal, carnivorous dinosaurs, shoulders be damned.)
But listen to this. One creationist, Bill Cooper, who claims to have originated the claim, explains why we should accept Beowulf as a literal record of the past. This is very important:
Let’s think about that one. William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, a play about an ostensibly historical figure (there really was a Macbeth), and he carefully recorded the relationships and genealogies of the various members of the Scottish aristocracy. The characters’ names can be verified, and we know Macbeth was Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, King of Scots (reigned 1040-1057), who did in fact become king after killing Donnchad mac Crínáin, better known as Duncan I, King of Scots. The various genealogies of the characters are correct, so according to the creationist criteria, we must therefore be justified in assuming the reality of the Weird Sisters and their psychic predictions of Macbeth’s future. Because, after all, if the names are correct, then so too must be the story, including the supernatural details.
Of course, this isn’t the case. Shakespeare concocted the plot of Macbeth from Holinshed’s Chronicles, which featured several separate stories that the Bard wove together. The outlines of Macbeth’s reign derive from the king’s history, but the witches come from a completely separate story. In that tale, the wife of a fellow named Donwald pressures him to kill King Duff after the king kills Donwald’s family in retribution for consorting with witches. These witches, however, did not predict the future but rather were accused of using spells to sicken the king.
If Shakespeare could weave together historical facts, legends, and outright fiction, there is no particular reason for assuming that the poet of Beowulf could not have done so as well. The existence of a fact or a series of facts is no indication that everything in the story is therefore factual. But creationists must support the position that genealogies are a reliable guide to history, because if this were not so, then biblical genealogies would be called into question, and with them any reason for believing the earth was created on October 23, 4004 BCE.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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