Anglo-Saxon Ideologies And Customary Practices By Pagans
The poem Beowulf was written between the 8th and 10th centuries, a time of great transition. Anglo-Saxons still dominated England, and Christianity had only come to the region one hundred or so years before. Although the new religion spread quickly, Anglo-Saxon (or Norse) paganism and its influence in the English people’s lives did not subside quickly. Although Beowulf often speaks of God, the story of Cain and Abel, and the Great Flood, there are major pagan motifs and social interactions that underly the poem and keep it rooted in old Anglo-Saxon ideas. The poem synthesizes Christian and pagan beliefs, and a close reading shows that there are many more pagan elements than immediately obvious. More than Christianity, paganism is the social basis for the society Beowulf addresses.
Some elements of Christianity are obvious in this poem. Grendel is said to have descended from Cain, Adam and Eve’s fratricidal son in the Book of Genesis (Heaney, 9), and the poem makes frequent references to thanking God for bestowing victory upon Beowulf. However, as Beowulf scholar Benjamin Slade points out in his talk comparing the Christian and pagan elements of the story, the poet never names Christ explicitly. After his defeat of Grendel, Beowulf calls for the “Almighty Father be thanked” (Heaney, 63). Yet as Slade points out, giving thanks to God and making references to divine blessings and judgment after death are not at all exclusive to Christian theology. Beowulf contains very little talk of Christ’s teaching of salvation and forgiveness, and there is almost an exclusively “Old Testament” feel to the poem’s Christian elements.
An interesting point where Christianity and paganism cross in the story is the mention of a “great flood” depicted on the hilt of a sword (Heaney, 117). Indeed, there is talk of a great flood in Genesis, but Slade correctly observes that the flood described in the poem “makes no reference to Noah, or an ark, or the effect of the flood on anyone except the giants.” A flood killing many giants, however, is not exclusive to Christianity, but is also mentioned in the pagan story of Ymir in which the giant’s blood floods the world and kills all the other giants. Thus, it seems that the author blended two traditions into one poetic element in a very ambiguous way.
One of the major pagan elements that is common across the story is the idea of Fate. Fate was an integral part of Anglo-Saxon and Norse theology, and the Anglo-Saxon society from which Beowulf sprang (and the Norse societies to which the poem speaks) still placed a great deal of trust in it. Fate is what leads King Hygelac to his death in battle (Heaney, 85) and is what leads to Grendel’s death – not simply the will of God. Just as much talk as there is of God’s grace and will, there is talk of destiny and divine inevitability. Even in his final moments, Beowulf speaks of his death and his past glories as being part of his fate. As the poem’s hero says before fighting Grendel: “Fate goes as ever Fate must” (Heaney, 31).
Another pagan social ideal central to the poem is the concept of the feud or duel. In Anglo-Saxon and Norse society, the holmgang – the traditional duel for settling disputes of honor – was considered very important to maintain the balance of social harmony (Day). For Hrothgar, the King of the Danes, the need to slay Grendel is not just from a need to protect his kingdom, but to avenge the destruction of his hall at Heorot and the death of his thanes (retainers) at the hands of Grendel (Heaney, 9-11). Even the demonic mother of Grendel seems bound by this code, when she seeks revenge for the death of her son at the hands of Beowulf and his cohorts (Heaney, 89). The Christian ideal of loving one’s enemies and “turning the other cheek” seems clearly absent for the heroes in Beowulf, who seem to be bound by the need to maintain the balance of honor by feuding between various sections of society (Day). The poem’s hero sums up clearly the Nordic idea of the importance of the feud, in saying “It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning” (Heaney, 97).
The most critical remnant of Anglo-Saxon pagan social relations within Beowulf is the aforementioned concept of honor. In slaying Grendel, it is just as important that Beowulf gained a great deal of honor for himself and the Geatish people as it was for him to defend the Danes from Grendel and the monster’s mother. King Hrothgar speaks clearly of family honor, an dits importance to society, within his family and Beowulf’s family after Grendel’s death (Heaney 83-85). Even at the end of his life, Beowulf is not concerned about salvation or accession into Heaven, but instead is more concerned with having fulfilled an honorable life that is worthy of posthumous prestige (Heaney 189, 213). His death is an explicitly pagan one, with a traditional cremation on a funeral pyre bedecked with gold and treasures, rather than the simple Christian burial rites of the time (which were more concerned with the glories and riches awaiting the dead in Heaven, not their earthly possessions).
Although the poet that put Beowulf to paper was almost certainly a Christian, the society that he inhabited was not completely Christianized itself, and the content and social interactions within the poem make this quite clear. While there is much talk of God, Cain and Abel, and divine rewards, there is never a specific mention of these things being exclusively Christian elements of the story. For Beowulf, honor and prestige are far more important than enacting God’s will or achieving salvation after death, even at the end of his life. Thus, one cannot say that Beowulf is a Christian poem, but a tale that grew out of a society in transition from pagan to Christian.
Slade, Benjamin. “…þrym gefrunon, …helle gemundon: Indogermanic shruti and Christian smriti in the Epistemology of Beowulf.” paper given [in absentia] at 38th International Congress on Medieval Studies. Kalamazoo (Michigan), 2003.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.
Day, David. “Hwanan sio faeho aras: Defining the Feud in Beowulf”. Philological Quarterly, Winter 1999, 78:77-95.
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