Geats in Beowulf

Ethan McNeill, Dori Starnes
  • Author
    Ethan McNeill

    Ethan has taught 7th, 9th, and 12th grade ELA for over 2 years. They have a Bachelor's Degree In Secondary Education from Kansas State University. They also have a Professional Kansas Teaching License

  • Instructor
    Dori Starnes

    Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

Learn about the Geats in Beowulf. Discover the Geatland, explore the Geat characters in the epic, review their background and role and understand their significance. Updated: 02/28/2022

Table of Contents


The Geats in Beowulf

''Beowulf'' is work of epic poetry that was written sometime between the 6th and 7th centuries by an anonymous author. It depicts the deeds of a brave Geatish hero, Beowulf, who sails from Geatland to aid a Danish king. Geats are a sea-fairing warrior culture. They are featured as brave and noble warriors, who are masters of battle and sailing. The most notable Geats from the poem are Beowulf himself, King Hygelac, and Wiglaf, Beowulf's trusty liegeman. The poem also features semi-historical accounts of Geatish battles, conflicts, and kingly successions.

Geats, sometimes referred to as Goths or having originated from Gothic peoples, were a tribe that inhabited Geatland, now known as Gotland in modern Sweden. They shared northern-Germanic heritage and were depicted as tall, fair skinned, and having either blonde or red hair. They were in contact with Swedes, Danes, and inhabitants of the British Isles, such as the Angles and the Saxons. The earliest known mention of the Geats comes from the works of Ptolemy, a writer from 2nd century Alexandria.

While Geatland would eventually be conquered by Sweden, they stood as politically and ethically independent from the Swedes, or Svear, during the time before Swedish consolidation, until around the 10th century. This process of unifying Sweden and Geatland is highly debated among historians, but at some point Sweden and Geatland were unified under one Swedish king through conquest and assimilation.

Geatland in Beowulf

The epic of Beowulf depicts the mighty deeds of its titular hero, but readers unfamiliar with the context of the poem may ask: what country is Beowulf from? Beowulf is from Geatland, a kingdom rather than a country, which is found in an area now encompassed by modern day Sweden.

Red indicates Geatland

Red marks Geatland while pink marks the Scylding Danes

The words Geat and Goth both derive from a Proto-Germanic word 'geutan' which means 'to pour.' This is likely a reference to the rivers that ran through Geatland, or to the Trollhatten waterfall on the 'River of Geats,' which ties the Geatish people with their local geography. It is debated how long Geatland remained independent of Sweden, estimates on their fall ranging from around 530 A.D. to 1000 A.D. It is likely that the Geats fell to Swedish military conquest.

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  • 0:00 The Geats of Beowulf/Geatland
  • 0:43 What was a Geat
  • 1:31 Famous Geats in Beowulf
  • 2:31 The Actions of the Geats
  • 3:45 The War with Sweden
  • 4:21 Lesson Summary
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Who Are the Geats in Beowulf?

Beowulf is concerned with the Geats, their lineage, and the Geatish heroes featured in the epic. The poem names several kings that can also be found in Norse sagas and historical records, such as s Ongentheow, Onela, Ohthere, Eadgils, and Hygelac. The following are the most important Geatish characters from Beowulf:

  • Beowulf: He is the epic hero of the poem, epitomizing the traits of a noble, courageous hero. Beowulf was born into Geatish nobility and won glory and riches by defending King Hrothgar's Hall of Heorot from the monster Grendel and his wicked mother. When Beowulf returns to home, he was honored for his deeds and ascended to the throne of Geatland after the deaths of Hygelac and his son King Heardred. Beowulf meets his end at the hands of a terrible dragon late into his reign as an old king.
  • Wiglaf: Wiglaf is Beowulf's loyal liegeman, a warrior who stood by the hero until his death. He inherits Beowulf's throne after he proves himself to be the most courageous of the Geatish warriors. When Beowulf sets out to kill the dragon with an army, all but Wiglaf fled at the sight of the terrible beast, showing Wiglaf is a great Geatish warrior while the rest of the Geats wane in their heroism. This signifies the coming fall of the Geats to Swedish power as Wiglaf stands alone in his bravery.
  • King Hygelac: Hygelac is depicted as a noble, virtuous king by Geatish values. He is generous in his gift giving, an important function of a powerful king, and was known as a great warrior. Hygelac is killed in battle against Swedish forces. Echoing themes of weaker generations, his son Heardred is seen as ineffective and unfit to defend Geatland from invaders or properly rule his kingdom.

Significance of the Geats

The Geats, as depicted in the poem, are fierce, dedicated, and vigilant warriors, Beowulf being the embodiment of the ideal Geatish warrior. While the poem glorifies Geatish warriors, it also foreshadows the weakening of the Geatish people and their eventual collapse and conquest by Sweden. Beowulf is in his prime when he defends Heorot, but he represents the slow decay of Geatish power in his reign as king. Beowulf meets his end after he defeats his final foe, the colossal dragon. While Beowulf's liegeman and warriors stood by his side in his battles when he was a young hero, his men abandon him in his reign as king. Only Wiglaf faces the dragon, while the rest of the Geatish warriors flee.

Geatish Longboat

Beowulf sailing from Geatland in a longboat

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Frequently Asked Questions

How do the Geats support Beowulf?

Beowulf is aided by his trusted band of Geatish warriors and receives prestige from his king, Hygelac. Wiglaf, Beowulf's most loyal companion, fights for Beowulf no matter the challenge.

Who are the Geats in Beowulf?

The Geats were a northern-Germanic tribe that hailed from Geatland, which is now part of southern Sweden. In the Poem, Beowulf, Hygelac, and Wiglaf are all Geats.

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