Paganism and Christianity in Beowulf

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 “remember hell” (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 “the creator”, “the almighty”, and “the lord God” 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, “Heathen gods were thought to be devils.” (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 “come to their aid” again.

“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. 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.” (175-183)

This passage is important because it is where the poet truly blends Paganism and Christianity in few words.  Prior to this passage the Christian religion is seen in light, with statements such as “comfort sent by God” (13-14) or “God-given goods” (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 “condemned as [an] outcast” (107), and when he attacks Heorot it causes a negative image of Christianity. So the Germanic people hoped (“heathenish hope”) (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.  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  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?  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.

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2 Responses to Paganism and Christianity in Beowulf

  1. cljones says:

    The core of your posting is a good one, but you made a couple of errors that weaken the agruement as a whole. I am not trying to nit pick, I am hoping this will be helpful. Christianity is monotheistic, monogamous means mating for life, or having one sexual partner at a time. A small mistake, but it would be a serious one to make in an essay or test. Also Pagan beliefs did not always follow the Greek or Roman systems (which are essentially the same and based on the earlier Greek pantheon of Gods). The Germans, the Aztecs, the Celts, the Egyptians all had their own set of unique beliefs, and not all of them believed in a “hell”. Don’t envy you this assignment. I found the poem so far to be largely Christian in it specifics and the pagan elements are more general and harder to pin down.

  2. Dane Thibeault says:

    Complements on your insightful analysis of the text. I was intrigued, namely, by your observations of the integral roles history and poetic structure serve in developing the plot, featuring an integration of the Christian and pagan religions and practices. In my opinion, while a text may be segregated from its underlying context(for example, the historical or cultural background of its author) in evaluation of it, it is generally not an optimal approach to consider the two concepts as mutually exclusive as one another, as I believe that history plays an imperative role in shaping the ways in which Beowulf is developed. For instance, your analysis explores the potential impact upon the text evoked by the historical confusion associated with conversion from one religion or way of being to another, a process occurring within Europe during the time in which the poem was composed. This leads me to consider a question, in response: Is the poet of Beowulf reflecting his own anxieties in undergoing conversion, through the text? Could a longing for a romanticized, heroic age inspired by paganism be subtly implied through the poem’s consistent allusions to such times(such as the multiple recollections of the wars, conflicts and rulers preceding Beowulf and his associates’ times)? It is my opinion that Beowulf, whether deliberately or inadvertently on behalf of the author, to an extent conveys a longing for the past(paganism) while attempting to embrace the present(devout Christianity). Could this relationship explain why praying to “heathen gods” appears to resemble sinful conduct, yet is only reflected upon with contempt from the author, and not so much the characters? While it may be inferred that divine requital is to be issued from God in response to an individual consulting a pagan spiritual medium, why is it that there is no explicit mention of such punishment within the text, on behalf of the characters? Could it be that the poet is influenced by a warped perception of Christianity and its religious institutions, and only believes that noncompliance with monogamy is a moral offense as opposed to a divine offense? One may consider that perhaps the author’s historical experiences with conversion inspired a pining for a past of paganism, and therefore, the characters within the poem find themselves doing the same in times of hardship. You mention, within your analysis, the potential that the characters within Beowulf are perhaps doubtful of the capacity of the Christian religion to protect them from forces such as Grendle, and thus aspire for their previous pagan traditions to alleviate their struggles: do you believe that it is possible that the author experienced similar beliefs and concerns in his own life? As I insinuated in my response to Olivia’s blog post, how sure can we be that the author was, in fact, a devout Christian? This is a question to continually consider. Well done with your analysis, and I encourage you to keep considering the role of such elements as history and structure in influencing texts, in your further research.

    -Dane Thibeault

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