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The Hill of the Dragon: Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds in Literature and Archaeology

Hilda R. Ellis Davidson

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

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.

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