DQ: “How does the poet mix Christian and pagan elements, especially beliefs and habits?”
The poet of Beowulf crafts a unique blend of Paganism and Christianity. While the poem was being written the British Isles were in the midst of being converted from Paganism to Christianity. The poet seems to use Beowulf as a reflection of this conversion, discussing history. The British Isles were Christian in name, but everyone did not necessarily give up their Pagan beliefs or practices. Beowulf and Hrothgar continually thanked the Lord and praised the Lord, while many of the other characters only seemed to embrace Christianity in times of good, but when situations got rough they seemed to revert back to Paganism and â€œremember hellâ€ (180) which they had believed for so long. The combination of using both religions beliefs and habits (especially in sentences, paragraphs and pages so close together) creates irony, but also takes a look at history too.
Christianity is a monogamous religion, meaning there is only one god. Throughout the poem â€œthe creatorâ€, â€œthe almightyâ€, and â€œthe lord Godâ€ are mentioned many times. On the other hand Paganism is a belief of no single God, and their belief system normally followed that of Greek Mythology or a Roman belief system, and also had a reference to hell (noted on the bottom of page 45, â€œHeathen gods were thought to be devils.â€ (pp. 45)) This creates a beautiful irony in Beowulf because those who are in the midst of preying to both Christian and Pagan gods are sinning in the Christian religion by preying to the devil.
The poet of Beowulf describes how the people under the rule of Hrothgar prey at Pagan shrines; offerings were given in hopes that he would â€œcome to their aidâ€ again.
â€œSometimes at pagan shrines they vowed offerings to idols, swore oaths that the killer of souls might come to their aid and save the people. That was their way, their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts they remembered hell. The Almighty Judge of good deeds and bad, the Lord God, Head of the Heavens and High King of the World, was unknown to them.â€ (175-183)
This passage is important because it is where the poet truly blends Paganism and Christianity in few words. Â Prior to this passage the Christian religion is seen in light, with statements such as â€œcomfort sent by Godâ€ (13-14) or â€œGod-given goodsâ€ (72) the tone and mood are happy right now, then Grendel descends. Grendel (whom is said to be a descendent of Cain, whom is a part of the Christian religion) was judged by God and â€œcondemned as [an] outcastâ€ (107), and when he attacks Heorot it causes a negative image of Christianity. So the Germanic people hoped (â€œheathenish hopeâ€) (179) that their prior religion could and would save them.
As mentioned above, notice throughout Beowulf that when times are good they thank God, but when times are bad they prey to the devils.Â It seems that the poet combined Paganism and Christianity not only to reflect on history, but also to create an irony in the poem because people had not picked one religion to follow and that caused suffering for themselves. If the Germanic people had not continually reverted back to Paganism (sinning), the poem may not have had such a rollercoaster of the tone and mood, because God would not have judged those who sinned. The changing of religions caused a vicious circle (just meaning that when one used habits and beliefs from one religion it meant disbelief (more or less) in the other religion, yet they switched between them so easily it was surely a sin, which may have created good and bad times, from a mixture of praise and perish from both religions.)
Beowulf Â mixes two religions artfully, putting them side-by-side in many instances and having the charactures use a combination of practices from both religions. This causes discussion on whether the poet used this as a literary device, causing irony throughout his poem, or if he was just recalling history and the chaos that came with the conversion of religions, or if there is some other reason. In the end though the poet provokes thought about history, and what was going on during the time it was written, but it also causes opinions on the irony that undoubtedly created during this poem.
Class discussion question: Was Paganism and Christianity both used in this poem to reflect on history and/or to create irony to change the tone and mood?Â Did it cause a vicious circle in this story?
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.