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Ecgþeow (pronounced [ˈedʒðeow]) or Edgetho (Proto-Norse *Agiþewaz) or Ecgtheow is a character in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. He is not mentioned outside the Beowulf manuscript, and it is not known whether he was based on a real person. He belonged to a probably Swedish family (an ätt, see Norse clans) called the Waegmundings. He married the daughter of Hreðel, king of the Geats, and was the father of Beowulf.
His name could be read as ecg + þeow, "edge-servant" (that is, sword-thane); alternatively, if his name was a compound of the ancient bahuvrihi type as were many other Germanic heroic names, it would indicate proficiency with the sword, meaning literally, "whose servant is the sword".
He is first mentioned in Beowulf at lines 262-266, when Beowulf tells the coast-guardian that "My father was known to everyone," calls him a "noble battle-leader", and says that he died after living through "many winters" and that he is remembered well by wise men everywhere.
At lines 456-472, Hroðgar recalls the story of how Ecgþeow once came to him for help: he had slain Heaðolaf, a man from another tribe called the Wulfings (probably the rulers of the East Geats). One of the Germanic ways of resolving a blood feud was either to pay a wergild (Anglo-Saxon, "man-price") or to be banished. Either Ecgþeow's people could not pay a wergild, or the Wulfings refused to accept it from them; so Ecgþeow had to leave home. He went to Dane-Land; Hroðgar paid the wergild, and Ecgþeow swore oaths of friendship to him.
The Wulfings were probably the same as the Wylfings mentioned in Widsith, and according to Widsith one of their lords was Helm. Hroðgar married Wealhþeow, a Helming lady, who thus likely belonged to the Wulfings, and this may explain why Ecgþeow went to Dane-Land particularly. Hroðgar may have been able to use his family ties to persuade the Wulfings to accept the wergild and end the feud.
Hroðgar interprets Beowulf's journey as a son's gratitude for what Hroðgar had done for Beowulf's father.
At lines 2428-2429 we learn that the young Beowulf was fostered and raised in the home of Hreðel starting when he was seven years old; presumably Ecgþeow died when Beowulf was seven.
At lines 461-472 Ecgþeow starts a blood feud by killing Heatholaf and eventually is killed in the feud between his family and Hroðgar's family. It is finally ended when Hroðgar pays the man or death price, thus settling the feud.
Hreðel | --------------------------------------------- | | | | Herebeald Hæþcyn Hygelac daughter Ecgþeow | | | | ---------------- Hygd | | | | Beowulf -------------- | -------------- | | Heardred daughter Eofor | | --------------
- Howell D. Chickering, Beowulf: a Dual-Language Edition, Doubleday, New York, NY, 1977.