What is the ritualized significance of the drinking cup in Beowulf?

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The figure of Queen Wealtheow is an example of an archetype in Anglo-Saxon and other Germanic literature: she is a peaceweaver figure, fulfilling one of the most important roles of noblewomen in this era. As peaceweaver, it is her responsibility to take charge of the various rituals which maintain order between different groups of people, or tribes. The drinking cup, which she passes between the two groups, is part of this ceremonial behavior. By drinking from the same cup, the two groups of people are declaring that they are of the same tribe for the duration of whatever is currently happening: they are expressing a bond of fealty between the two groups. When a woman offers the cup, the element of overt threat is eradicated. Wealtheow is acting on behalf of her husband, but because she is a woman, she is a sort of neutral choice of cup-bearer.

We can see evidence of this kind of ceremonial cup-sharing in Germanic society going back to Tacitus's records from several centuries earlier. It is a significant part of the Germanic heroic society in which Beowulf is set.

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Queen Wealthow offers a drinking cup to both her Dane and Geat guests. This gesture is about more than merely quenching thirst or making sure the gathering to come will be a lively one. It also has a lot to do with showing the unity between the two tribes. The queen is emphasizing to both her people and her guests that they are on friendly terms.

Drinking and eating have great social significance in general. Across world societies, eating is a communal experience and fosters closeness in an intimate setting. The host is literally nourishing their guests. This is what Queen Wealthow is doing at the banquet as a hostess, and the passing of the drinking cup is significant in showing this hospitality. By having them all sip from the same vessel, she is treating them like family.

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Wealtheow's use of the mead cup illustrates the politics of Heorot during the celebration. She first gives the cup to Hrothgar who, as the king, should be given the first drink, and then she makes her way around the tables, giving the cup to both Danes and Geats in their turn. This ceremony helps bind the two tribes in a circle of fellowship, which is all-important in tribal cultures. She finally gives the cup to Beowulf, as the leader of the Geats, and the cup has then created a link between Hrothgar at the beginning and Beowulf at the end, a kind of political symmetry that subtly equalizes the two principal men at the celebration. Hrothgar's giving command of Heorot to Beowulf signals his complete acceptance of Beowulf as his representative.

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