The Pagan Heroism Of Beowulf
The epic poem Beowulf highlights the role of God as a guiding protector who provides earthly wealth and well-being to the people of 6th century Denmark and Sweden. Beowulf and his people worship a pagan god who serves to keep humility and peace. The Anglo-Saxons were Pagan at the time in which this epic poem is set, and they later became Christianized as Beowulf continued to be passed down orally. Beowulf was transcribed by Christians which signifies why Christian themes are visible throughout the poem. Many perceive Beowulf to be a Christian hero who is fighting for the sake of the Christian God, but Beowulf’s practice of pagan traditions and efforts to preserve his earthly glory after death suggest otherwise.
Whenever any great man accomplishes heroic deeds, the narrator attributes his power to God’s favor and His divine plan. God is praised and acknowledged for each circumstance that is seen as a blessing. For instance, Hrothgar praises God when he proclaims “Holy God of His Grace has sent him to us West-Danes, as I hope, against the terror of Grendel” (Beowulf 9). God provided a hero when the Danes were in dire need of a savior. By attributing heroic success to God, the Danes and the Geats exhibit humility. The narrator’s belief in this principle is exhibited when he states, “There the monster had laid hold upon him, but he was mindful of the great strength, the large gift God had given him, and relied on the Almighty for favor, comfort and help. By that he overcame the foe, subdued the hell-spirit” (Beowulf 23). In making this comment, the narrator insightfully does not give Beowulf all the credit for his victory against Grendel. If God had not wanted Beowulf to win, he simply would not have. The religious beliefs of the Danes and Geats include the willingness to be modest about one’s own abilities rather than to be extremely boastful and to deny any divine intervention. Nearly every aspect of life in Beowulf is related to God. At first glance, this God may appear to be the Christian God, but on closer inspection of rituals, practices, and references, it becomes apparent that Beowulf and his companions worship a pagan god.
Pagan traditions are distinctly portrayed throughout Beowulf. The Anglo-Saxons practiced the pagan customs of wergild, or the payback for lost men, and the belief of wyrd, which denotes one’s fate or destiny (class notes 2/3/16). Wergild is exhibited when Beowulf proclaims “Sorrow not, wise warrior. It is better for a man to avenge his friend than much mourn” (Beowulf 25). This pagan principle is not only practiced throughout the poem but it is the reason why Beowulf must help the Danes. Hrothgar welcomed Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow after he was unable to pay the wergild for killing a man, and this obligation extended to Beowulf. This principle differs greatly from Christianity which preaches forgiveness of one’s enemies rather than revenge. Like wergild, wyrd is frequently discussed throughout the poem. The description “the Lord granted to weave for them good fortune in war, for the folk of the Weather-Geats, comfort and help that they should quite overcome their foe through the might of one man, through his sole strength: the truth has been made known that mighty God has always ruled mankind” elaborates that God is all powerful and directly in control of the lives of mortals (Beowulf 14). Beowulf demonstrates that there is no resisting one’s wyrd when he states, “If battle takes me, send to Hygelac the best of war-clothes that protects my breast, finest of mail-shirts. It is a legacy of Hrethel, the work of Weland. Fate always goes as it must” (Beowulf 10). Beowulf acknowledges that he may be fated to die fighting Grendel. For a pagan hero, a death like this would be revered and contribute to the earthly glory after death that pagan heroes strive to obtain. Beowulf references war clothing that was made by Weland, the blacksmith of the Norse gods. In addition, when the Danes were threatened by Grendel, the people prayed to the Pagan gods as this was their trusted tradition. The combination of these practices clearly represents the fact that Beowulf was indeed a pagan hero.
The occasional echo of the Christian tradition in Beowulf can be attributed to the story-telling culture of the Anglo-Saxons. Beowulf was composed in the oral tradition in the early eighth century when the story tellers were pagan (Hughes 66). As with all oral storytelling, it is extremely likely that the story had been changed over time and Christian values were incorporated so Beowulf could easily be translated into a Christian context. Grendel is described to be the descendant of the biblical figure Cain, who later “sprang all bad breeds, trolls and elves and monsters” (Beowulf 5). Other than this description, no other significant references to the bible or Christ are made. Beowulf’s funeral pyre is the epitome of his paganism. The narrator illustrates that the “Geats made ready for him a funeral pyre on the earth, no small one, hung with helmets, battle-shields, bright mail-shirts, just as he had asked” (Beowulf 52). This pyre for the hero with his treasures does not suggest belief in the Christian afterlife but rather pagan funerary traditions.
Beowulf is remembered by his people to be “of world-kings the mildest of men and the gentlest, kindest to his people and most eager for fame” (Beowulf 52). Beowulf is loyal to God throughout all of his endeavors and modeled pagan traditions for the people of his kingdom. The Christian messages reflect the fact that this tale was told by Christians about pagan culture, which allowed for the simple translation of the poem into a Christian context. The final words of the poem address the fact that Beowulf continuously seeks fame because at his core, Beowulf was a pagan hero who willingly gave out his treasure and was always dedicated to his people, yet lived and fought for the earthly glory after death, not for entrance into the Christian heaven.
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