Christianity vs. Pagan Elements

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

Throughout the text of Beowulf  it is easy to see a strong sense of Christian elements in a poem about pagan individuals. We know from the Norton Anthology of English Literature that the original poem was found in old English written about Germanic warriors. Since the text also mentions wars back in 520 A.D. we know that the text was written in a previous time then it was recorded. This may reflect why the author has mixed or blended together the pagan habit and lifestyle with the Christian beliefs.

The pagan lifestyle can be seen with the values of being “morally upright” (pg. 37). This is seen through the values that Hrothgar and Beowulf. With Hrothgar it is seen through the value and safety of his people in that he is willing to do anything including letting a stranger come into his territory to fix the problem. He even associates Beowulf as his “friend” (457). These acts done by a great and powerful king to be so gracious and welcoming reflect the values of a good man which ultimately reflects that of a pagan man. Beowulf is also seen as a good man for coming to Dane to risk his life to free these people from this horrible monster. He does not ask for any gold or money but merely states that he has “come here to you” (417). Throughout these two characters we see a strong sense of good coming forth from them that is commonly seen throughout the pagan beliefs of being “morally upright”. These characters represent the traits of pagan individuals very strongly with their actions. However other ideas presented in the text give the idea of Christian beliefs and elements are also strongly recognized.

The Christian Beliefs can commonly be seen as a “well established English Tradition” pg.37. Even though the characters are that of pagans the forces of the poem reflect those of Christian elements. This can be seen with the origins of Grendle being that he came from Cain the son of Adam and Eve who has been

“condoned as outcasts for the killing of Abel

The Eternal Lord has exacted a price:

Cain got no good from committing that murder […]

and out of the curses his exile there sprang

orges and elves and evil phantoms” (104-114)

 

This quote represents a couple of things. It represents the history of his past which is tied closely to God in that God decided the fate of this horrible monster, this is shown in that Cain is the father of Grendle. Since Grendle came forth from this “evil phantom(s)” It also shows why Grendle is so horrible in that he was born out of evil or sin, something which is commonly seen throughout the Christian faith on the idea of good and evil. With God representing the good and sin and punishment bad or evil. God’s judgement and power is also strongly effected throughout the poem in that “God can easily halt these raids and harrowing attacks” (478-479). This quote shows the power of God in that he is the ultimate control of fate and that “fate goes ever as fate must” (455) which, demonstrates the idea of “a just judgement by God.” (441). Showing that God has all the power and control something which is commonly seen throughout a Christian ideals in that he is the creator the one who gave life and can take it away. Lastly the poem reflects a monotheist view in that there is one God and he is all mighty all powerful and all knowing. Throughout the text the idea of “God” and “Lord” are commonly seen. This shows a common Christian theme of there being one almighty. This differs from a pagan view in that pagan lifestyle reflected on more than one deity.

The text itself seems to be at an identity crisis in that it is a story about individuals with pagan morals but a very strong sense of Christian elements and beliefs which the characters feel strongly tied to. Perhaps this crisis can reflect the author and give us a glimpse back into history to show us how strong religion was at the time it was written. If you continue with that branch of thought the story is not merely about a “morally upright” pagan battling monsters but, a glimpse into the strength that the Christian religion had during the time it was written.

 

Works Cited

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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3 Responses to Christianity vs. Pagan Elements

  1. Dane Thibeault says:

    Hayley,

    Your speculation that perhaps the author of Beowulf integrates paganism and Christianity as a means of adapting a distant story to his contemporary experiences and influences(namely Christian values, imposed by conversion from paganism to Christianity) is both provocative and intriguing. As I have asserted, in my other comments to this week’s blog post submissions, it appears as though history plays an integral role in shaping both the plot and structure around which the text of Beowulf revolves. I agree with your observation that characters such as Beowulf and Hrothgar appear to be pagans(in their actions) practicing a Christian faith(in their beliefs)—a concept that illuminates the blending of the two religious ideologies throughout the text. Consideration of just what it is that constitutes a pagan clarifies the relationship between the characters of the poem, and the idea itself, one might suggest. A question one might then consider is: Is paganism considered to be moral practice(or acts) and Christianity considered to be moral belief, within the text? Could this explain why the two concepts are integrated with one another, and why it is that the author does not establish one as explicitly superior to the other? In this respect, Beowulf himself is the manifestation of this blending of the two belief systems, as his actions are honest, steadfast and benevolent, while his belief in one divine creator is genuine. I commend you for your insightful analogy of the text as experiencing an “identity crisis”, in its compilation of the Christian and pagan belief systems, leading me to consider this one final question: How would the text of Beowulf be altered, were it absent of any of the author’s potential Christian influences? Would the poem be of the same significance it is today, or would it be obscured through being categorized as simply another pagan myth, or Germanic heroic legend? Well done with your analyses, and best of luck with your continuing research.

    -Dane Thibeault

    • cljones says:

      Hayley you make a lot of really good points but I am not sure that the qualities that you list as pagan are in fact so. They resemble closely the qualities associated with the Arthurian knights who, as in the search for the Holy Grail, representatives of Christian virtues. I think what the pagan element is is that Beowulf’s strengths come from Beowulf himself, like in the more commonly knows stories of Hercules, where Christian heros like David (vs. Goliath) and St. George (who slew the dragon) get their strength from God. As I said, I do not envy you this assignment since I find the pagan elements much harder to tweeze out then the Christian ones. I also saw Grendel’s being spelled so that no sword could pierce his skin as a pagan element, since Christianity (except for the periods when the Church abandoned its tenets and went witch hunting) does not believe in spells per se. As Dane said, though, well done.

  2. jddieu says:

    Hey Hayley,

    A crucial aspect in comprehending the discussion question heavily relies on the definition of the terminologies, specifically, the word pagan. Within context of the poem and with regard to the era in which Beowulf was composed, one can suggest that paganism binds strongly in relation to the cousin term heathenism, by which is essentially defined as non-Christian and/or non-Jewish, especially when considering the period of the Middle Ages. This clarification allows that Beowulf is largely comprised of elements associated with mythology, theology, folklore and notions excluded from Old and New Testament texts and are derived from alternative sources, whether Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Assyrian, Aztec or Celtic, although geography largely limits the probability of certain sources as inspiration or insight, proving other forms of paganism, including Slavic, Finnic, and Germanic theology and mythology, to be principally connected in regard to Beowulf.
    Principally, it is evident that Christian teaching and ideas are the prominent foundations on which Beowulf is comprised. This basis of Christianity provides the distinction between good and evil, light and darkness, heroes and villains. Largely, the protagonist and his comrades, family and company thanes are portrayed as God-fearing, worshiping and glorifying men, quick to praise the Christian God as seen numerous times throughout the course of the poem. They bless “Holy God [who] has, in His goodness, guided [Beowulf] here / to the West-Danes, to defend us from Grendel” (381-382). They thank God for providence and triumph, giving Him prominence in victory speeches, that “‘First and foremost, let the Almighty Father / be thanked’” (927-928). This drives the contrast between godly, Christian men and the paganism of Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the spawn of Cain.
    An interesting note is how the poet intertwines Christian theology with pagan mythology, incorporating the creation story of Genesis 1 “of man’s beginnings / how the Almighty had made the earth” (91-92), then introducing the pagan entity of Grendel, a mythological creature never mentioned or encountered explicitly in Biblical texts, suggesting that this creature was “a fiend out of hell” (100), “among the banished monsters, Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed” (105-106). Through the crux of Christian theology and accounts, the poet had built a conduit through which these fantastical creatures and demons can be contrived, much like the methodology employed by many fantasy, speculative fiction and comic book writers in our contemporary times. Monsters such as Grendel, or the fifty-foot dragon were given a platform supported by what was considered the veracity and truth at the time, Christianity. Through applying Christian doctrine, the author claimed a sense of reliability, that the work is grounded in reality, much alike the way in which he features several instances of allusions to historical events, accounts and peoples (i.e. the account of Sigemund (884)).
    Furthermore, pagan mythos were introduced to create necessary conflict and intrigue, villains which would sharply depict evil against the godliness and faith of Beowulf, thus each fight, with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon were derived from cultural folklore to challenge and ultimately be defeated by Christian strongholds. As well, the mentioned pagan-inspired ogres, elves, evil phantoms and giants (although giants existed in the Old Testament recorded as Goliath and evil phantoms possibly as a synonym for evil spirits or demons, otherwise known as fallen angels in the New Testament) were narrative, plot-driven devices to which the conflict, battles and thus fascination of Beowulf arises (112-113).

    John Dieu
    16.9.12

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