Was Grendel a Bigfoot?

Grendel from Stories_of_beowulf 1908
Could the story of the monster Grendel in Beowulf really have been an early account of a Big Foot attack?

Grendel and Bigfoot: Big Hairy Beasts and Where to Find Them

While we normally chronicle all things weird and wonderful about the American South, we are not averse to occasional side trips into other realms of the uncanny.  Given that there are abundant reports of Big Foot and his stinky-ass cousins all over the South, it is not too far afield to inquire about that most famous monster from Old English literature, Grendel.

Once upon a time there was an obscure English scholar of Medieval Literature who wrote an obscure paper about a long forgotten Old English epic poem.  The poem was Beowulf and the eccentric academic in question was J.R.R. Tolkien.  His resurrection of the epic poem started a major re-appreciation of the poem, first by scholars, then by literary critics in general and finally Hollywood, running out of comic books to make into movies and TV shows, grabbed onto Beowulf and ran with it.  At last count, I believe there have been three movies made about Beowulf and more recently a TV series, all of which play fast and loose with the original story–but that’s Holly Weird for you.  So, in case you have to read it for a class this fall, be warned that the Germanic hero does not have sex with a demonic Angelina Jolie morphed into a dragon, or anything like it.  Read the book.

What set this latest inquiry into monsters is an article I came across by a Dark Age scholar chronicling all the (allegedly) legendary monsters who inhabited Medieval Lincolnshire.  Bear in mind, on a dark and stormy night, jolly old England in the Dark Ages could be a pretty scary place and she lists quite a few wyrd and uncanny beasts.  No doubt J. K. Rowling could raid her blog for more stuff for her sequels.  The original blog post is here: “The Monstrous Landscape of Lincolnshire.”

She posted an old illustration of Grendel, the monster from Beowulf, in the post which immediately caught my eye.  She connects Beowulf with a local monster or ogre called a byrs or thyrs in Anglo-Saxon. The illustration from a 1908 book (see below) which included the story of Grendel versus Beowulf is strikingly similar to what most eyewitnesses have described as Bigfoot.  Now, admittedly, a modern artist’s conception is not proof that the ancient creature called a byrs and which was the term to describe Grendel was the same beast, but it does set one wondering.

Artists Conception of Bigfoot jesse_Sasquatch
Artist’s conception of Big Foot.  Could it be Grendel’s descendent?


Anyone familiar with either or all of my books, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Dixie Spirits or Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee will know I have an abiding interest in Cryptozoology.  It is my belief that, more often than not, these legends of strange or uncanny creatures do have a basis in fact.  Animals though long extinct, such as the Coelacanth, manage to confound biologists all the time and fossil hunter are always uncovering previously unknown extinct species.  So whenever a biologist vehemently denies the existence of one or another creature as legendary, they should always add the qualifier “for now.”

Over the years there have been quite a few Bigfoot (Bigfeet?) sightings in the Mid-South, although they do seem to have tapered off in recent years.  I live in a suburban county to Nashville and while I can’t claim to have seen any giant ape-men (or man-apes, depending on your point of view) I have talked to a few who have.  Modern Hendersonville, Tennessee is rapidly building up and developing, but one long time resident remembers the time he was walking along Drakes Creek, before the sports complex was built up along it, and finding large claw marks high up on a tree.  He is a veteran hunter and knows quite well bear signs; he insisted to me these claw marks were far too high up on the tree for any black or brown bear to have made, even if they had wandered down from the mountains.

Dating from about the same time period is a report filed with BFRO (Big Foot Research Organization) of a multiple person sighting in Hendersonville.  When many of the old farms were just beginning to be turned into sub-divisions a group of six people caught a Big Foot in their headlights rummaging through garbage can.  When sighted the eight food creature walked away.  As noted above, even in 1965 Indian Lake was by no means wilderness, although heavily wooded in parts.  The BFRO Report is posted here.  Even now, with decades of development, there are still herds of deer that inhabit the area, so a large biped could still have plenty of big game available to feed on if it didn’t mind all the people.

Just north of Hendersonville, a resident of the Beech area also reported a Big Foot crossing an open field just off of Long Hollow Pike.  This too was some time back, but Long Hollow Pike meanders through a hilly region and sits below the Highland Rim, an area more conducive to large creatures living and feeding, with abundant fresh water and game to be had.  Some time back I charted most of the published Big Foot sightings and they tended to cluster either along the Cumberland Mountains and Highland Rim area or else in the Smokey Mountain region.  With economic development and the disappearance of natural habitats, it may well be that the Tennessee Stink Ape is extinct, or nearly so.

So the Stink Ape, or Wooley Booger or byrs or Grendel may be gone from the scene, but that does not necessarily mean they never existed, and for some they continue to exist in  memory.

Tennessee Bigfoot by Sybilla Irwin via Frontiers of Zoology
Tennessee Stink Ape after sketch by Sybilla Irwin in Frontiers of Cryptozoology


For more uncanny but true tales of the South go to Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee and Dixie Spirits.  Just remember to keep a light on at night.  You never know what might be prowling about you window.

Halloween Hauntings, Part 9: Rugby Tennessee: Tom Brown’s Ghoul Daze


Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown's School Days and high minded founder of Rugby, Tennessee.
Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s School Days and high minded founder of Rugby, Tennessee

Halloween Hauntings Part 9


First off, let me reassure folks who go to Rugby: despite the title of this essay, there are no ghouls in Rugby, Tennessee, none. No flesh-eating beings of any sort–at least not any I know of–reside there.

That out of the way, let me assure all those in search of a paranormal encounter, there is a gaggle of ghosts that inhabit the place, more per square mile than any town I know of. So, while I can’t guarantee a ghostly good time, your chances are better here than anywhere.

As I chronicle in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, this quaint rural village has been called “The Most Haunted Town in America.” It may, in fact, be the most haunted town in the world, although proving either assertion would be difficult, since the census bureau does not keep record of such things.

Early settlers of Rugby. The indolent sons of English nobility largely found Hushes' work ethic uncongenial and soon left Rugby; the middle class Englishmen who settled there did not and stayed.
Early settlers of Rugby. The indolent sons of English nobility largely found Hushes’ work ethic uncongenial and soon left Rugby. The middle class Englishmen who settled there, who did not mind honest labor, stayed on and their descendants reside there still.

Rugby,Tennessee, is located high in the Cumberland Mountains, a wild and scenic area that while by no means backward, has not been subject to the massive influx of commercialism and corporate tourist development that the equally scenic Smoky Mountains have.

The Cumberlands are located between Nashville and Knoxville: to go from one to the ‘tuther, one passes through this area; travelers rarely stay there for their vacation, however, and mostly just pause in the region long enough for a lunch or brunch at one of the many restaurants and rest stops just off the interstate. This is a pity, since they are missing quite a lot; untrammeled wilderness, scenic heights, clean air and not a few frights and sights at Rugby.

To give an idea of the difference between the two mountain regions of Tennessee, in the summer when one goes fishing in a beautiful mountain stream in the Smokies, one is generally doing so with dozens of other fishermen, all elbow to elbow enjoying the same stream. When you go fly fishing in the Cumberlands, you can cast your reel without worrying about snagging another anglers fishing hat in the process. In all likelihood, the only being within sight of you also fishing is the occasional black or brown bear–or maybe the rare Bigfoot (otherwise known as the Tennessee Stink Ape).

So while Rugby is not hard to get to, being about an hour and spare change from downtown Nashville and a similar distance from Knoxville, it is not a heavily traveled spot, which suits the ghosts just fine.

In this brief review of the spirits of Rugby, we can but hit the highlights. I have covered the subject in greater depth in Chapter 2 of Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground.

To recap from my chapter on the town, Rugby was founded by Thomas Hughes, the novelist famous for Tom Brown’s School Days. Hughes, who actually attended the English “public school” (in the US we call them private schools) named Rugby, was a high minded sort and his intent was to found a town to provide a haven and gainful employment for the younger sons of titled English nobility. In Victorian England, the family wealth and title of an aristocratic family went to the eldest brother, leaving his siblings dependent on handouts from the family patriarch; on the other hand they were prohibited by strict English social custom from seeking gainful employment on their own. So, with little to do except mooch off their eldest brother, these younger sons often whiled away their days drinking, gambling and whoring and hoping big brother would kick the bucket some time soon.

Hughes thought to provide in America a place where they could learn a trade and be productive members of society, so he funded the construction of this little Victorian English village in the Southern highlands. Unfortunately, while the village of Rugby perfectly served Hughes’ purpose, it turned out that the younger sons of English nobility actually preferred to drink, gamble and go wenching instead of soiling their soft hands with any sort of gainful employment. What this late nineteenth century social experiment left behind was a village of quaint and beautiful Victorian homes and a number of mostly English ghosts in the heart of Dixie.

The first Tabard Inn, which burned under mysterious circumstances on Halloween, 1884.
The first Tabard Inn, which burned under mysterious circumstances on Halloween, 1884.

One of the most famous haunts was the Tabard Inn, where a murder most foul took place in Room 13. Alas, one can not stay here, as the building went up in flames some years back. But I talked with Rugby Executive Director, Barbara Staggs, soon after Strange Tales was published, and she had interviewed eyewitnesses who testified that as the building burned, they could hear screams coming from the vacant Room 13. Some locals believed it was the ghost that haunted the hotel who set the fire herself.

The second Tabard Inn, scene of a grisly murder, burned under even more eerie circumstances and was not rebuilt.
The second Tabard Inn, scene of a grisly murder, burned under even more eerie circumstances and was not rebuilt.

Much of the Victorian furniture from the second hotel was salvaged from the fire however, and repurposed to homes throughout the town. Some say cursed furniture was the cause of supernatural phenomena spreading throughout the rest of the town. Others in Rugby disagree on this; but no one doubts that as towns go, Rugby has more haunts per capita than any other town in America.

More fortunate in its fate was Newbury House. Its owner was an English gentleman of high esteem but low birth who found the town quite congenial and sent for his family from England. Sadly, he died before they came and now his ghost resides in Newbury House, still waiting for them to arrive.

The Newbury House in Rugby, home to its own resident ghost.
The Newbury House in Rugby, home to its own resident ghost.

Then there is the old Victorian library, which looks for all the world like something out of Harry Potter–if Harry was a book nerd. It has signed copies of Charles Dickens’ novels. No gnarly ghost of Jacob Marley though. Some call it the “Rip Van Winckle” library, because it seems as though when one enters it, one has entered a sort of time warp. Although there is a phantom librarian reported present there, its presence is mostly unseen. You, however, may have a different experience when you visit.

The old Victorian Library is thought to be presided over by the unseen ghost of a former librarian. Its presence is more felt than seen. Ssssh!
The old Victorian Library is thought to be presided over by the unseen ghost of a former librarian. Its presence is more felt than seen. Ssssh!

There are a number of homes in the town with ghosts, some more active than others and over the years eyewitnesses have reported encounters with them all. There is Kingston Lisle, Thomas Hughes’ sometime residence; there is Roslyn, a two story mansion with several spirits, including the wild carriage driver who thunders up to the front door in a black carriage and the tale of the “weeping girl” in the front yard. Then too, there is Twin Oaks, allegedly once home to a witch, although whether she was simply what the Irish call a “Wise Woman,” knowledgeable about healing herbs and such, or of the more wicked sort, we know not. Appalachia has had its fair share of both sorts.

Again, for more in depth accounts of Rugby’s many ghosts one is better off consulting the chapter in Strange Tales. Then after reading, you will be armed with enough knowledge to tackle Rugby for yourself. The living residents are friendly and helpful to visitors and the spectral residents are mostly harmless—even if the occasional encounter with them is a bit startling. By all means, if you visit Dixie in your travels, Rugby is worth the trip.

For more of Tennessee’s ghosts and haunts, witches and monsters and things that go bump in the night, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee; the two combined are essential reading for any interested in paranormal Dixie and Southern spirits.

Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South
Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South
Happy Halloween!