Christianity and Paganism in Beowulf

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

In Beowulf, the author incorporates elements of Christianity and paganism by using the characters’ beliefs and habits to show how the people use religion to react to different situations.   The author establishes a chief Christian tradition for the Danish people but also suggests a slight conversion to paganism during troubled times, which indicates that although Christianity is recognized and accepted, paganism was the back- up religion for society.

The characters of the poem often thanked the Lord for blessings and for successes, but acts differently when the situation changes.  The poet implies that the Danish people claim to believe God as the “Almighty Judge of good deeds and bad, the Lord God, Head of the Heavens and High King of the World,” (180-82) and constantly refers to God for the reason behind problems.  The poet indicates that the reason the creature Grendel is an evil demon from hell is because he is a banished monster along with the rest of Cain’s clan, all of which “the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts”  (106-07). God’s judgment is the reason why Grendel is banished.  The poet uses Christianity to explain how Grendel came to be and uses Christianity as the basis of the people’s beliefs because God is conveyed as having answers to questions.  However, the people are shown to worship pagan deities instead when God has not provided an answer or outcome.  When the time came where Grendel attacked the people of Heorot, they turned away from God and instead, at “pagan shrines vowed offerings to idols, swore oaths that the killer of souls might to their aid and save the people” (175-78). The people worshiped pagan deities instead of the one God that they have once depended on for understanding.   The poet uses this example from Beowulf to show that although Christianity is the main tradition that people have depended on, they still have tendencies to turn to paganism and pray to pagan deities, hoping to be relieved from their problems.  Both the aspects of Christianity and paganism are in the minds of society.

After Grendel was defeated, the poet expresses that Beowulf had won because of the “wondrous gifts God had showered on him: he relied for help on the Lord of All, on His care and favor” (1271-72). The poet reveals how the people thank the Lord again and not the pagan deities that they were praying to earlier.  God was thanked because he had provided gifts to Beowulf so Beowulf could win over Grendel.  God is once again an understanding and answer to how Beowulf beaten Grendel.   This habit they have reflects how people tend to switch between Christianity and paganism when they are in trouble.  They relied other gods to get an answer or solution to Grendel, but once the problem is gone, they revert back to Christianity to thank God for giving power and being the judge.

The poet uses the character’s tendencies and beliefs to mix in pagan and Christian elements.  Although the Christian tradition seems to be well established and incorporated into daily lives, when Grendel attacked, the people chose paganism over believing in God. Christianity may be recognized, but paganism still stood as a back-up for people to depend on.

Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed.
Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. 41-108. Print.

 

 

 

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2 Responses to Christianity and Paganism in Beowulf

  1. Dane Thibeault says:

    Olivia,

    I commend you for your provocative insights regarding the mosaic, if you will, featured as the underlying cultural setting developed by the poet within the text of Beowulf. I was intrigued by your observation that the pagan and Christian elements within the poem are namely conveyed through the characters themselves, in ultimately believing in God, while consulting other, pagan inspired mediums(such as the deities you mentioned) in times of peril or desperation. What I myself observed, through inquiring into the text, was that these pagan elements appear to be more unspoken and subtle, while Christianity is expressed more explicitly. This consideration prompts a question for me, that being, are the characters within the poem considered to practice taboo when they seek guidance from alternative spiritual mediums to God? The poet appears to believe so(as expressed within lines 175-178, and 180-186). Still, one has to wonder, what if it was Beowulf who was praying to deities? Would it then be considered a more noble or valiant act? If the other characters commended Beowulf for practicing paganism, would it then render the belief system as superior to that of Christianity, in the character’s perceptions? I would argue that this might in fact be the case, as heroism is virtually an object of worship throughout the entire duration of the text, and there is an implication that one can secure a status of immortality through performing heroic exploits. Praise and celebration of such acts of valour resemble the practice of attributing or developing a cult of personality around the individual, a concept in stark contrast to the Christian belief that all humans serve as subordinates and servants to God. Is the poet aware that this contradiction is being made? While the introduction to Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf compiled within The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume A: The Middle Ages (Ninth Edition, pages 36-41) serves to suggest that the poet’s personal convictions were influenced by devout Christianity, could such blending of pagan and Christian values, practices, and beliefs within the text resemble a contextual longing for the past, while acknowledging the present, on behalf of the poet? Well done with your analysis, and I encourage you to continue exploring this correlation as you work towards further understanding the text, as I know that I myself will continue to consider the author’s methods and influences in mixing the two belief systems within the poem as I perform a comprehensive rereading of it.

    -Dane Thibeault

  2. jddieu says:

    Hey Olivia,

    In the second and third paragraphs of your post you mentioned the nature of the Danes within the text of Beowulf as comprising a sense of duality; one character facet that worships God in glad and prosperous times and another that pleads to demons and pagan deities during crises. In contrast to the Old Testament Bible, the Israelites were dominantly displaying these practices and behaviours, but in the reverse circumstances: in periods of disaster, desolation and pain the people would pray and seek the Lord for mitigation of agonies and alleviation of sorrows. However, the joyous, blissful times which the Israelites indulged in were eras of wickedness and abominable sins which was regarded by their God as ‘backsliding’, during which times they “did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare, struggling in your blood”, when the Lord had rescued and saved them from perishing (Ezekiel 16:22).
    Old Testament Jewish doctrine portrays a God that magnificently abhors paganism and the worship of other heathen, created, man-made deities. Again, the Danes within the poem of Beowulf can be greatly compared to the Jerusalem depicted in the book of Ezekiel where by God condemns and warns against unfaithfulness, saying “‘Repent, turn away from your idols, and turn your faces away from all your abominations’” (Ezekiel 14:6). Indeed, many of the Danes had turned to “pagan shrines” where they “vowed offerings to idols, swore oaths / that the killer of souls (the devil, as the footnote suggests), might come to their aid / and save the people” (175-178). The narrator proclaims the derelict state of “heathenish hope” in which those pagan worshipers were cursed, “who in time of trouble has to thrust his soul / in the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help / he has nowhere to turn” (179, 183-186). An intriguing point is the correlation between desperation and evil, between the lack of hope and the abundance of unrighteousness, between the decline of heroism and the increase of villainy. Desperation, as seen in Grendel after his fatal fight with Beowulf, is a characteristic prominent in evil and deviant creatures, who do not rely on God but rather are drawn to the denigration of paganism. We see that “he was desperate to flee to his den and hide / with the devil’s litter” just as his mother latter on is described as “grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge” (754-755, 1278).
    The differentiation between paganism and the Divine is a line on which the conflict of the poem flourishes and thrives, providing the bedrock battleground on which epic encounters and wars occur between villain and hero.

    John Dieu
    16.9.12

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