Beowulf: A Mosaic between Christianity and Paganism, Developed through a Converged Code of Beliefs and Practices

 

Beowulf: A Mosaic between Christianity and Paganism, Developed through a Converged Code of Beliefs and Practices

English 302- Group One Blog Post Assignment Submission(Blog Post Type One)Dane Thibeault (100 878 71)

Discussion Question: How does the poet mix Christian and pagan elements, especially beliefs and habits? 

 

In response to my inquiry into the text of Beowulf, it is my intention to posit here that the author of the poem blends Christian elements and pagan elements through establishing a superimposition of a Christian belief system—assuming a single God acting as the divine authority acknowledged by the characters of the text—over a backdrop of pagan traditions. To elaborate, God is considered to be the almighty creator by the characters of the poem, a Christian principle, yet, the author incorporates supernatural elements more consistent with the pagan belief in multiple god-like entities serving to manipulate fate. Additionally, elements of superhuman capabilities (a staple of the pagan mythology of antiquity) are integrated into the text, while they are supposedly distributed by God—a testament of convergence between the two belief systems. Also, pagan practices are incorporated into the text through the author’s scornful recollections of the Danes resorting to idols and hell inspired forces to alleviate their burdens(a pagan practice), while the poet at the same time expresses a praise for those who continue to consult with the single God in times of crisis(a Christian practice). In essence, the author develops a state of intermingling between Christianity and paganism through motivating the characters with a belief in one God, yet surrounding them by a pagan inspired fantastical environment, often in contradiction to that God.

With regards to the supernatural elements within Beowulf, such as demons, one might contest that, additionally, contemporary mainstream religions—applying in this case, Christianity—feature negative states(hell and creatures such as the devil) to supplement the ultimate positive state of heaven, thus displaying supernatural elements of their own. While I concede that this is, indeed, the case, I wish to advance that the creatures within Beowulf are more consistent with pagan mythological features, such as Medusa within the paganism of Greek antiquity. What relevance is there of this? The ultimate significance is that the author of Beowulf incorporates these pagan elements with the intent of posing an opposition to those supposedly favoured by God within the poem(namely Beowulf), thus mixing both Christian theology and pagan theology to complicate the plot of the text. Grendle and his mother described by Hrothgar in terms of being “…fatherless creatures/ and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past/ of demons and ghosts”(1355-57) insights a number of questions for me regarding their possible connection to Christianity. Is the description of the demons as “fatherless” a replication of the state of birth without conception celebrated in Christianity(that being, the birth of Christ)? Could Grendle and his mother being hypothetically formed in the same way serve as yet another example of the author’s correlation of Christian and pagan principles throughout the text, with the ironic element of representing those born of the same way as Christ as grotesque and detested, as opposed to praised?  Digressing from such considerations, it is important to reflect upon the more concrete ways in which the two belief systems are mixed within Beowulf. 

In terms of pagan practices occurring within the established Christian world of belief, the poet depicts the Danish people, rendered desperate by Grendle’s onslaughts, consulting the pagan inspired principle of praying to alternative spiritual mediums, such as idols or the devil. Such acts are reflected upon with dismay in the author’s lamentation that:

Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed offerings to idols, swore oaths that the killer of souls might come to their aid and save the people…. The Almighty Judge of good deeds and bad, the Lord God…was unknown to them. Oh, cursed is he who in time of trouble has to thrust his soul in the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help; he has nowhere else to turn (175-78, 180-86).

Therefore, while Christian values are conveyed by the author as favourable, pagan forces(such as the “killer of souls”) are recognized to exist as an alternative option, serving as another combination of the two belief systems coexisting within the text.

Another integration of pagan and Christian elements within Beowulf occurs with the application of a common characteristic of pagan mythology—the celebration of a mortal or other force as having divine or “godlike” status—to a Christian context by the poet. Beowulf, in praise of his valour, is considered to have achieved perceived immortal status through slaying Grendle unaided by a weapon, yet this bestowed immortality is believed to be purveyed by God, the symbol of Christianity. Hrothgar, in commending Beowulf for his heroic efforts, illustrates this subtle blending of concepts from both belief systems in his statement: “…you have made yourself immortal/by your glorious action. May the God of Ages/ continue to keep and requite you well,” (953-55). This blending occurs in the regard for Beowulf as “godlike”, yet, at the same time attributing God as being responsible for bestowing these qualities. Beowulf’s remarkable heroism is somewhat reminiscent of the pagan idol, Hercules, and his superhuman strength bestowed by the heavens.

Beowulf’s poet masterfully compiles elements of both paganism and Christianity both with regards to beliefs and practices into one established unified literary environment throughout the text, prompting the remaining question: what elements of paganism, whether we are aware of them or not, motivate our daily activities, and the plots and themes of contemporary literature? To conclude with another thought for consideration: how would the text have differed, where it deprived of all aspects of pagan belief?

 

Works Cited

Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. p.37-80. Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume A The Middle Ages 9th ed. 6 vols. New York: NY, 2012. Print.

 

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2 Responses to Beowulf: A Mosaic between Christianity and Paganism, Developed through a Converged Code of Beliefs and Practices

  1. Athena G. Csuti says:

    “Beowulf’s poet masterfully compiles elements of both paganism and Christianity both with regards to beliefs and practices into one established unified literary environment throughout the text”

    While I agree that Beowulf is an enjoyable text because the poet more or less successfully infuses a pagan story with his Christian beliefs, as a reader I do not find that the Christian elements necessarily sit well in the text. My knowledge of history contributes to that; I know that in order to make Christianity the dominant religion in Europe there were paradoxical actions taken to suppress pagan beliefs by incorporating them into Christian tradition. This text reflects that. But even beyond that there were sections I read where I felt as though the Beowulf poet’s beliefs seemed to be at odds with what is ultimately a pagan story. I desperately wish I could find the specific passage that is coming to mind. Somewhere near the end of the text there is a description of qualities which the author praises but made me wonder if those of Beowulf’s time would have felt the same. We know so little of this era that it is difficult to dispute, but certain things in the text don’t always seem to fit.

    It is kind of like how now when we see historical dramas in theatres or on TV they get criticized if they have elements that make them seem too modern. When a period piece has something in it that is distinctly not from that time it can change the entire experience.

  2. stephanievandewark says:

    Hey Dane, I have two comments to make in regards to your post:

    The first of which refers to your comment that “the creatures within Beowulf are more consistent with pagan mythological features.” I too thought of the similarities between the characters of Beowulf and pagan myths while reading. For instance, Beowulf strikes me as a reproduction of the Greek hero Hercules. With the aid of a quick wikipedia search http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labours_of_Hercules#Second_Labour:_Lernaen_hydra), I found out that Hercules too was into the whole “slaying monsters with his bare hands” thing, especially when it came to strangling things. However, I do not think Beowulf is comparable to a God or immortal being. Though Hrothgar does praise Beowulf on achieving immortality through the slaying of Grendel, I do not think he means immortal in the sense of never dieing. I think he means more of a figurative immortality, in that his name will be remembered and the story of his achievement will be retold throughout the land. His vulnerability toward death is further proven as he goes on to fight Grendel’s mother and he essentially recites his will to his comrades: “If this combat kills me…Unfurth is to have what I have inherited” (1480-1488). So, while Beowulf does share some characteristics of pagan heroes, he is still fundamentally human, and this fact only augments his bravery.

    Secondly, you speculated some questions as to Grendel’s connections with Christian theology. To me, Grendel and his mother are basically a representation of evil. They are associated with darkness, murder and hatred, in much the same way that pagan daemons and ghosts are also associated with evil. Yet, the author still manages to slip in Christian allusions, such as his description of Grendel “…dwell(ing) for a time/in misery among the banished monsters,/Cain’s clan.” The reference to the Cain family is an allusion to Genesis 4.9-12 when Cain murders his brother out of jealousy. God therefore curses him to farm the land but never yield a good crop. This reference explains much of Grendel’s jealous tendencies and his desire to live on the barren moor. Yet it is also another way that the author blends these two contrasting ideologies.

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