Although the story of Beowulf is filled with references to religion and faith, many discrepancies occur throughout the story that suggest that Beowulf is not a Christian epic.
The character of Beowulf frequently speaks to God and obviously believes in His existence. However, pagan practices are mentioned in several places. Beowulf often refers to another being rather than the Christian God. Pagan practices of cremation and blood-drinking are included in the epic.
There are also frequent allusions to the power of fate, the motive of blood revenge, and praise of worldly glory.
All of these aspects make Beowulf a pagan tale with a few Christian elements. A key pagan reference in Beowulf is the entity Wyrd. Now if Wyrd, Ruler of All, will permit, my stout sword will sing its greedy war-song….
Wyrd always weaves as it must (p. 410). The Christian tradition clearly states the existence of only one supreme entity. It also states that anyone worshipping false idols is subject to punishment.
If Beowulf was truly a Christian, he would not call to Wyrd for any type of assistance. One might argue that referring to Wyrd as Ruler of All suggests that this entity is the Christian God.But God is referred to throughout the epic. For Grendel bore Gods anger…Mighty God rules mortals forever! (p.
393). These are two separate entities that serve different functions throughout the epic. A true Christian tale would not include any other God or all-powerful being rather than the one true God of the Christian teachings. The story also mentions that Hrothgar and his people make sacrifices to idols in an attempt to overcome the monster Grendel.
And so it came to pass that the Dane-folk gathered in the heathen temples.And there, they offered acrifices to their idols (p. 388). Instead of praying to the Christian God for support, they make sacrifices to pagan idols.
A second pagan reference concerns the monster Grendel. Grendel is a fierce and loathsome creature who roams the moors and despises all people and their pleasures. He is the enemy of everything pure and true. The monster is known for his taste for human flesh and for drinking the blood of his victims.
That frightful fiend drank down his [Beowulfs] war-comrades blood and then devoured him piece by blood-smeared piece (p. 394).In the Christian belief system, the drinking of any type of blood of any kind is specifically forbidden. Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood–I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people (Leviticus 16:10-11a).
Beowulf is more troubled by Grendels larger actions of destruction rather than the breaking of this Christian belief. Although it is the evil force rather than the good and pure hero that participates in the drinking of blood, the inclusion of the practice adds to the pagan ndertones of the story.Thirdly, Christian tradition holds that human bodies are to be buried rather than cremated. Although there is no direct ban against cremation, the Bible speaks clearly about ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Christian tradition states that God created man from dirt and so the body will return to the earth. The Bible states: In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground, for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return (Genesis 3:19). Beowulf asks to be burned at a funeral pyre.Let my battle-famed war-comrades burn my body upon lofty Whales-Cliff (p.
413). If Beowulf were truly a Christian, he would not wish to participate in this pagan burial practice. After his cremation, Beowulf wants his ashes placed in a memorial tower as a reminder of his bravery. This desire of personal glory and the need for recognition leads into the next pagan reference that is discussed.
A fourth pagan tone in the epic is the strong sense of heroic pride and desire for personal gain that Beowulf displays. These feelings are in direct conflict with the Christian alues of humility and generosity.Fame, glamour, and material rewards entice men time after time in the story. The War-Geats actions are based on their motives for personal gain.
Christianity places an emphasis on benevolence and generosity rather than pride and glory. Although it outwardly appears that Beowulf fights to protect the lives of others, there is a more selfish reason that lies underneath. It is Beowulfs eagerness for material rewards and desire for earthly fame that leads him to protect others. This can be seen when Hrothgar tellsBeowulf that he will be rewarded lavishly if he defeats Grendels mother.
Do this deed for me, and I will reward you with a trove of gracious gifts–age-old treasures and twisted gold (p. 398). Hrothgar gives incentive by enticing Beowulfs selfishness. Beowulf accepts the offer, knowing that he will claim a great fortune if he wins.
Greed is also highlighted in the tale of the slave who steals the treasure-cup from the dragon. And so it came to pass that the slave offered his master the treasure-cup. The slave hoped the goblet would purchase forgiveness and peace (p. 8).
The stealing of the treasure-cup to purchase forgiveness highlights the greed of a society that places such a high premium on material wealth. This emphasis on material objects is associated with the pagan world where objects are like idols that symbolize fame and wealth. In conclusion, the epic tale of Beowulf is a pagan tale with a pagan hero. Although there are Christian images throughout the tale, the story is clearly pagan in nature.
The Beowulf poet portrays the culture and people by separating the main ideas like a prism does with light.Although there are the Christian references surface throughout the tale, a look at the epic as a whole clearly shows its true pagan nature. No matter which end of the spectrum you are looking from, all the ideas prove that pagan concepts and principles prevail over the values of Christianity. It is shown on countless occasions through the material rewards, earthly fame, false idols, and burial practices.
In the end, the separated lights in the prism come together and become one. This array of light in Beowulf is ultimately the strong presence of a pagan hero and a pagan culture.
Cite this Beowulf: Pagan or Christian Epic
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