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by Michael Vaugh
Beowulf is an epic poem that combines the contrasting beliefs of the traditional Paganism and the modern assessment of Christianity. The majority of the characters in Beowulf are Pagans. This religion is based in the belief of many gods (polytheism). The story Beowulf was passed down by word of mouth for years prior to being written down. As is the case with any word of mouth story, Beowulf undoubtedly changed each time it was retold. One aspect of these changes was most likely the addition of more pro-Christian elements. The first person to write down the story of Beowulf was most likely a Christian monk. This original writer is suggested by the fact that it was written on parchment, which was a luxury reserved for the Church at the time. The monks were for the most part the only class that could read and write. However, the core of the story remains in the Pagan values of personal wealth/accomplishment, super human strength, monsters, and burning the dead. Beowulf is a Christian reworking of a pagan poem with “a string of pagan lays edited by monks; it is the work of a learned but inaccurate Christian antiquarian” (Clark 112).
The story was set in a time when Christianity was a newly budding religion in England. Beowulf is a link between two traditions, Pagan and Christian. Throughout the book there are obvious references to both Christian and Pagan rituals. The characters in the epic are newly found Christians who are trying to remain true to their new faith but are weak and hence, in times of great trouble, they resort back to their Pagan traditions and gods out of fear. Pagan rituals in the book are usually present only as reflections of the past or in times of the character s greatest turmoil. Otherwise, in times of happiness and rejoicing, they worship their one, almighty, Christian God.
When Grendel is attacking Herot, and it’s people think they are in their greatest danger, the people of Herot have one such lapse of faith. Hrothgar and his counselors make useless attempts to appease Grendel. They can’t offer him gold or land, as they might an ordinary enemy, which puts them at a loss.
Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
offering to idols, swore oaths
that the killer of souls might come to their aid
and save the people. That was their way,
their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts
they remembered hell. The Almighty Judge
of good deeds and bad, the Lord God,
Head of the Heavens and high King of the World,
was unknown to them. (Heaney 175-183)
The passage shows that it was because of doubt and fear the people of Herot regressed back to their Pagan roots. The use of the word heathenish shows that the people did not acknowledge God or the Bible at this time. Hell refers to their previous state under the Pagan religion. Obviously, the characters were not the Christians as portrayed by the writer. The Christian element is further added in the next lines.
Oh, cursed is he
who in time of trouble has to thrust his soul
in the fires embrace, forfeiting help;
he has nowhere to run. But blessed is he
who after death can approach the Lord
and find friendship in the Father s embrace. (Heaney 183-188)
This says that the people whose fear consumes them to the point that they lose faith that, after death, their souls will not be granted eternal peace by the Lord. The soldiers who have fallen from faith in their battle are doing so because of great fear, but God and good Christians look down upon them. Only those who will sacrifice themselves and trust in God will be let into Heaven.
The magnificent monsters of Beowulf are derived from the trolls of Scandinavian mythology. They were shadowy creatures of pagan beliefs that lurked around waterfalls or caves. During the telling of the origins of Grendel however, it is written that the monster is a product of Cain (Heaney 106), a Christian character. This is a way that the characters and Christian writers of the book justify their belief in monsters. If they can say that the monster comes from a biblical character, then they can’t consider themselves blasphemers for believing in the Pagan idea of monsters. The characters are both scared of the monster that is taking their lives and of what will happen if they show a lack of faith, as is shown in the above quote.
A similar rationalization can again be made when Beowulf is bragging about his numerous victories and stops to say that he is not boastful but that he is truthful. Having too much pride had been the downfall of many Biblical characters and is the first deadly sin in Christianity. Beowulf proceeds to tell his story but only after he has put on a facade of humility, demonstrating that, at heart, he certainly isn’t an orthodox Christian but only needs to appear to be one. It is easy to see that Beowulf s humility could have easily been added to this story at a later time as a result of Christian influences in the documenting of the oral story.
The characters of Beowulf are very focused on the accomplishments they achieve in their lifetimes rather than their lives after death (Heaney 1386-1389). The afterlife is not mentioned as stage of existence. Christianity relies on the promise of afterlife to sustain its belief. Also, revenge is preferred over mourning according to Beowulf in lines 1384 and 1385. These passages show two aspects of Beowulf being the classic Pagan. The pagan virtues of the story also require the characters to prove themselves and their personal worth. Beowulf claims that the fight with the dragon is no one s but his own. He says the battle is to measure his strength (Heaney 2534) and prove his worth (Heaney 2535) even though he has demonstrated these things on many occasions. Paganism also includes the belief that every human life is in the hands of fate or destiny. Beowulf gives an illustration of this is by saying what occurs on the wall / between the two of us will turn out as fate, (Heaney 2525-2526). He clearly feels that his life and death is all inevitable and predetermined.
Shield’s burial at sea in lines 26 through 52 showed obvious Pagan traditions. He was buried with Far fetched treasures and precious gear. Christianity’s moralities are based on meekness and poverty not wealth and treasures. Throughout the story, the good deeds of hero s are rewarded with great riches and treasures as well. The importance of material goods was one of the cardinal characteristics of the Pagan’s beliefs. On the other hand Christianity’s moralities are based on meekness and poverty. Even though Beowulf possesses spiritual strength, he isn’t particularly concerned with the Christian virtues. He wants to help people, in a Christian way, but his motivation for doing so is directed toward fame. Beowulf demonstrates an eagerness for material rewards and earthly fame, which is a characteristic of Paganism. He has the heart of the Christian to help people but received the selfish rewards of Paganism.
At the end of the story, Beowulf is cremated (Heaney 3137-3148) which is far from a proper Christian burial. In fact, throughout the story, all but Shield’s death ceremonies are conducted by cremation, a ceremony looked down upon by Christians. Indeed in times of death and hardship the people of Beowulf’s England are not the devout Christians they were portrayed as. This shows that bad times go hand in hand with Pagan values in the writer s eyes, suggesting a bias against the religion. This is easily explained by considering the faith of the original writer.
Throughout Beowulf fundamental pagan characteristics are strongly evident. Even after centuries of Christian translations the pagan core of the story remains only slightly altered. However the details of the story have been distorted to fit the Christian requirements of an epic. The writer cites pagan rituals only if they occurred in the distant past or in times of extreme hardships. Even in these cases the writer describes the unfaithful as heathens not worthy of gods heaven. In the description of Grendel, who is obviously a pagan belief, the writer places the monster in the lineage of a biblical character. This is pretty ingenious if the writer is a Christian himself or herself. The main character of the story, Beowulf, is described as a hero. He possesses magical super strength while fighting in unbelievable environments, but according to the writer he had god given abilities. The writer of Beowulf has turned around the pagan facets of the story in order to conform to his or her own beliefs. Personal wealth, accomplishment, strength, and fate also play a role in the story. Each of these qualities is of a pagan nature. People are cremated versus leaving the body whole for the afterlife. In fact, little consideration is given by the characters to the afterlife, which is a Christian requirement. Treasure and riches are used as status symbols. With all of these pagan merits combined with the probable faith of the writer, a belief that Beowulf is originally a pagan story can be supported.
Works Cited :
Clark, George. Beowulf. New York: Twayne, 1990.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.