Poisonous Obligations

“Poisonous Obligations”: The Politics of the Gift in Beowulf and The Nibelungenlied

Gift giving, the ritualized transference of objects, persons, and/or services from one party to another, in Beowulf and The Nibelungenlied is the binding and enforceable practice that acknowledges the cohesive validity of the gift as a total social phenomenon [1], which, by its very spirit, “has a significance that is at once social and religious, magic and economic, utilitarian and sentimental, jural and moral” (Lévi-Strauss qtd. in Bjork 994). Yet, despite these multilayered aspects of the gift, epic literature, by and large, telescopes gift-giving ceremonies to their primary heroic applications—namely, the communal recognition of either high moral character, the hospitality gift, or valour-tested service, the victory gift. Indeed, the obligation to give, receive, and reciprocate, in relation to the heroic contract (the relationship between a lord and his retainers), perpetuates the fundamental structure of warrior societies by ensuring a crucial “reciprocity: gifts, trust and honor on the lord’s part for service, honor and loyalty on the retainer’s part” (Hill 177-8). Under alternative—even drastic—circumstances, the gift, however, can become a great source of ambivalence because of its double meaning in Germanic languages: “on the one hand, a gift, on the other, poison” (Mauss 81). The practitioners of gifting rituals in Beowulf and The Nibelungenlied, therefore, must be cautious towards those whom they entrust to fulfill the articles and terms of this sacred contract, lest they become susceptible to either magical or physical harm from embittered individuals. In the Germanic gift-economy, the poisonous obligations of the fatal gift ultimately test, try, and raise the indomitable, selfless spirits of both Beowulf and Rüdiger to validate them as paradigms of heroism.

The fatal gift in Beowulf and The Nibelungenlied, aside from inadvertently maintaining a morally acceptable standard, creates a foreboding and threatening atmosphere that disrupts local patterns of social intimacy. This pervasive principle of gifting receives its efficacy from the fearful fact that contracting parties become liable to either physical or spiritual decay, if they disregard the terms of an exchange, because the gift, according to ancient Germanic law, is “not only a binding obligation, but also binds the honour, authority, and mana of” (Mauss 80) those involved in gift-giving ceremonies. The invisible inner-workings of mana [2], moreover, become relatively apparent in one of the first maxims of Beowulf that promises young princes prosperity for their continued adherence to heroic munificence, which is, interestingly enough, “the path to power among people everywhere” (24-5). Inversely, this statement indirectly reveals the destructive potential of mana by implying that selfishness or oferhygd, the inability to give freely to others, transforms stagnating gifts into poisonous objects that inflict havoc and even death on their owners: Hrothgar, in mentioning Heremod and other vile lords (1709-57), suggests this alternative reading in acknowledging that those who dishonour custom and give nothing tragically ignore “the shape of things to come” (1753). Likewise, The Nibelungenlied develops the motif of the fatal gift through prominent figures such as Kriemhild who carelessly expends human life to further her own personal vendettas. For instance, the Hungarian knights, in apprehending the injustice of underhanded and suicidal attacks against Hagen and Gunther, rightly disavow themselves of the poisonous obligations that they foolishly acquired from the gifts of Kriemhild, which lure them towards their own doom (222). Given the insidious qualities of the fatal gift, epic heroes must exercise the necessary wherewithal to navigate—perhaps harness—these awful powers for good, if they truly wish to prove themselves as resourceful and sagacious heroes.

Both Beowulf and Rüdiger, through extravagant temptations of material wealth, become entrenched in a moral dilemma that derives its strength from the poisonous obligations of the fatal gift. After Beowulf purges Heorot, the Danish gift-hall, from the malevolent presence of Grendel (808-35), Hrothgar presents Beowulf with a series of dynastic gifts (1019-48); in particular, Hrothgar’s war-seat, as a symbol of his martial and royal identity, implicates Beowulf in the Danish succession of kings since this class of gifts is strictly reserved for those with direct heredity ties to a king’s patrimony, kingdom, and people (Hill 184-7). Hrothgar also expresses this intention by telling Beowulf, “there’ll be nothing you’ll want for, / no worldly goods that won’t be yours” (948-9) during his adoption speech. Responding to Hrothgar’s impropriety in electing Beowulf before Hrothgar’s own sons, Wealhtheow imparts Beowulf with a golden torque—similar only to the legendary Brosing necklace [3], which is “tainted by lasciviousness, theft, deceit and a cruel bargain or two” (Hill 188)—and, in doing so, suggests that, if Beowulf accepts the logical conclusion of these dynastic gifts, he is effectively overreaching to his own peril and perhaps death (1191-24). Rüdiger, conversely, “is gripped by conflicting obligations, on the one hand of law and ethics, on the other of custom and sentiment, obligations the common meeting-ground of which was ‘honour’ or reputation” (Hatto 334). The latter obligation transpires in the 27th Aventiure wherein Rüdiger establishes a guest-host arrangement [4] with the Burgundians and, above that, respects their authority and station in gifting them a sword, the “sign of political power and rule based on violence” (Pafenberg 106), whereas the former obligation transpires throughout The Nibelungenlied in the specific instances that Rüdiger gives his feudal and personal oaths to both Etzel and Kriemhild (161; 266) and accepts their numerous gifts (174; 265-268). Therefore, Etzel and Kriemhild’s request for Rüdiger to slaughter the Burgundians threatens his very soul and reputation as a Christian (266). Despite the impending and terrible consequences of these respective dilemmas, they nonetheless demand a response, on the part of Beowulf and Rüdiger, that will salvage the sanctity of the Germanic world and its institutions.

Far from degrading themselves in their respective dilemmas, Beowulf and Rüdiger preserve both heroism and the heroic contract in their selfless pursuit of the common good. In mitigating the potential for estrangement with the Danes, Beowulf remains silent while accepting the victory gifts from Hrothgar and Wealhtheow, and this non-action [5] is consequently the ethically pure choice since it removes the possibility of Beowulf implicating himself in the Danish succession (1007-250). To completely purge himself of any poisonous obligations or destructive mana that he may have incurred from the Danish gifts, Beowulf bestows all the treasures that he received in Heorot to Hygelac, his rightful gift-lord (2152-76); this act also demonstrates his adherence to the ealde riht [6], the law of nature. In return, Hygelac gives Beowulf the sword of Hrethel, a dynastic heirloom of the Geats, in order to ensure the moral integrity and physical security of Geatland under Beowulf, a just and true leader (2190-4; see Hrothgar’s declaration of Beowulf’s suitability for kingship, 1840-65). Rüdiger, despite being less adept than Beowulf at responding to acute conflict, strives nonetheless to diminish the impact of his dilemma by assenting to the decrees of Etzel and Kriemhild (268). The logic behind Rüdiger’s decision is, on the one hand, emotional—the shaming of his character by Kriemhild—and, on the hand, rational—the appointing by Etzel of his kingdom, Pöchlarn, to a dukedom [7]. Rüdiger, in honouring the primacy of his feudal obligations and the greater freedoms of his people, effectively sacrifices his life to obtain these objectives and confront the Burgundians. Yet, at the same time, Rüdiger becomes “the father of all knightly excellence” (272) by publically demonstrating “the nobility of his soul and the genuineness of his friendship for the Burgundians [in gifting Hagen his very shield during his final battle] so that he may be fully rehabilitated and freed from the stigma of betrayal” (Campbell 23). Thus, the poisonous obligations of the fatal gift, if handled correctly, can paradoxically spur heroes towards achieving utilitarian ends.

Although this essay does not exhaust every conceivable aspect of the fatal-gift motif in Germanic narratives, it nevertheless explores and analyzes several correlations between gift-giving ceremonies and epic heroism. The overarching assumption of this essay, furthermore, is that the fatal gift distinguishes the potency and even value of heroes by challenging them with complexity and adversity. In this regard, both Beowulf and Rüdiger assert themselves as paradigms of heroism in pacifying the poisonous objects that corrupt communal ethos and dispatch human life. Since the “nature and intention of the contracting parties [in gift exchanges] and the nature of the thing [or the gift] are indivisible” (Mauss 59), this heroic task is particularly difficult in that Germanic heroes must be ever-vigilant and ever-prudent towards the chaos and ruin that can arise at a moment’s notice from the botched interaction of gifting rituals and personalistic cosmologies [8]. Therefore, Beowulf and The Nibelungenlied are innovative and holistic texts since they emphasize the inner qualities of both Beowulf and Rüdiger, who consequently contradict traditional (and perhaps stereotypical) notions of heroism.

Works Cited

    Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. Bilingual ed. New York: Norton, 2000. Trans. of Bēowulf. 1000 C.E.

    Bjork, Robert E. “Speech as Gift in Beowulf.” Speculum 69.4 (1994): 993-1022.

    Campbell, Ian R. “Hagen’s Shield Request—Das Nibelungenlied, 37th Aventiure.” Germanic Review 71.1 (1996): 23-34.

    Donahue, Charles. “Potlatch and Charity: Notes on the Heroic in Beowulf.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation. Ed. Lewis E. Nicholson and Dolores Warwick Frese. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1975. 23-40.

    Hill, John. M. “Beowulf and the Danish Succession: Gift Giving as an Occasion for Complex Gesture.” Medievalia et Humanistica 11 (1982): 177-97.

    “Mana.” Def. 1. Oxford English Dictionary. April 21, 2008. April 21, 2008. .

    Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: the Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Trans. W. D. Halls. London: Routledge, 2001. Trans. of Essai sur le don. 1950.

    The Nibelungenlied. Trans. A. T. Hatto. Toronto: Penguin, 2004. Trans. of Das Nibelungenlied. 1200 C.E.

    Pafenberg, Stephanie B. “The Spindle and the Sword: Gender, Sex, and Heroism in The Nibelungenlied and Kudrun.” Germanic Review 70.3 (1995): 106-15.


[1] The term “total social phenomenon” describes how certain ritualistic acts can encompass the totality of human experience by intersecting almost every aspect of social and cultural life.

[2] As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, this Polynesian and Melanesian term refers to “an impersonal supernatural power which can be associated with people or with objects and which can be transmitted or inherited,” (“Mana”) but, in the context of Germanic culture and literature, it refers to “the power that is inherent in the thing” (Mauss 80).

[3] For a convenient summary of its lore and properties, see Michael Alexander’s note on page 122 of his Beowulf translation in the Penguin Classics series (2001, Toronto). In framing and associating the golden torque with the Brosing necklace, the poet underscores Wealhtheow intentions to humiliate Beowulf since the Brosing necklace is a symbol of Freya’s infidelity to Odur and, by extension, Beowulf’s to Hygelac.

[4] In Germanic culture, Rüdiger, as a host, is honour bound by the gift to ensure the safety of the Burgundians. If Rüdiger transgresses or betrays this sacred relationship, he not only risks breaking a taboo but also commits one of the greatest sins in Christianity.

[5] Non-aggressive strategies in conflict resolution are often the wisest solutions, especially when direct conflict involves social intimates. The Germanic institution of weregild, for instance, upholds this ideal. Additionally, it may be useful to compare Beowulf’s silence with the Taoist belief of wuwei to distinguish a cross-cultural acceptance of this standard.

[6] Donahue notes that this term “included, to be sure, the warrior code and that did demand that the warrior, who owed everything to his lord, if necessary, sacrifice everything, including his life [and his property], to protect his lord or to avenge him” (32).

[7] In the 37th Aventiure, Rüdiger becomes a duke by gaining sovereignty, which, in turn, benefits the security and agency of his descendants.

[8] The term “personalistic cosmologies” describes any non-scientific belief system that recognizes the efficacy of personal and subjective forces (the machinery) in directing the occurrence and outcome of all universal events.