Pagan and Christian elements in Beowulf

I found that a lot of the recurring themes and habits of the characters are in direct contradiction to the core values of Christianity. This is interesting because the poem intends to be a strong reflection of Christian traditions and value: as stated in the introduction, the poem is a reflection of the “well-established Christian tradition” (37). The poem does have a clear underlying Christian pretext as God, or the “glorious Almighty,” (17) and “the Lord of Life” (16) is continually referred too, making it clear that the characters do believe in a Christian God. It is however their actions and habits that reflect the Pagan belief system and contradict Christian fundamentals. At the time Beowulf was written we know that the Pagans were given Christianity as a new religion to accept so this contradiction could be a reflection of how the transition is sitting uncomfortably with them. A lot of the actions that the characters display such as killing and the concept of revenge are contradictory to Christianity; killing is one of the major sins.

It is interesting to look at the concept of life or ones time spent on earth as it highlights the fundamental differences between the Pagan and Christian religions. Christianity looks at life as a journey towards what is left after death, and you should live in an honorable way on earth and not commit any sins to attain this so called afterlife. The Pagan belief is more focused on the reputation that you have on earth and the legacy that you leave behind. In Beowulf we can see that one of the main themes is to build a reputation by being a great warrior and to be a great warrior you are engaged in killing and revenge, hence the “never-ending blood feuds” (38) that occupy the content of the poem. Beowulf is “determined to take revenge for every gross act Grendel had committed” (1567-1568), yet it is clear in the Christian bible that individuals are not to judge or determine what others should be judged for and particularly are not to take action on enforcing the punishments for such judgments. It is like the poem was written with the intent to convey a deep Christian moral code yet the characters cannot escape the Pagan belief system as they commit sinful acts proclaiming these acts are to please a Christian God.

Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed.
Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. 36-108. Print.

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One Response to Pagan and Christian elements in Beowulf

  1. rubyalsharaf says:

    I think the example you used of “killing and the concept of revenge” to argue how Christianity and Paganism differ is incorrect. Since you are writing about the actions of the characters as being Pagan, I think a stronger example would have been, “the pagan shrines they vowed offerings to”, because this shows that they still believe in Pagan rituals (45.175 – 176). That same passage on page 45 also leads into your other argument of the transition phase these people would have been experiencing at that time from Pagan to Christian because the author writes about the pity he feels for those who have to turn to their previous Pagan beliefs out of fear. I think you have also misconstrued the Pagan religion in comparison to Christianity when you wrote:
    “Christianity looks at life as a journey towards what is left after death, and you should live in an honourable way on earth and not commit any sins to attain this so called afterlife. The Pagan belief is more focused on the reputation that you have on earth and the legacy that you leave behind.” The core belief of Paganism is to be one with nature. Pagans see the divine within earth and its elements rather than one divine God. Therefore, the connection that Pagans hold to the earth does not have to do with their reputation but with what nature provides them. Pagans value the cycle of life and death and, just as Christianity, see it as a continuous journey. This is more of a similarity rather than a contradiction or difference between the two beliefs. The other example that you used: “Beowulf is “determined to take revenge for every gross act Grendel had committed” (75.1577-1578) yet it is clear in the Christian bible that individuals are not to judge or determine what others should be judged for and particularly are not to take action on enforcing the punishments for such judgments”, is incorrect to your argument. The example you chose does not tie in with your argument in the second portion of the passage. Yes Beowulf is determined to take revenge on Grendel as a consequence of the murders he committed. However, this is not a sinful act upon Beowulf’s part because according to the Just Law doctrine of war, a Christian may fight in battle as long as 1) the loss of human life is kept to a minimum, 2) states have a responsibility to defend and protect their citizens, and 3) protecting innocent human life and moral values sometimes requires the willingness to use force. Beowulf abides by all three of these rules of the Just Law.

    Sources:
    Pelikan, Jaroslav. “Christianity: Christianity in Western Europe.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 1687-1694. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 25 Sep. 2012.

    (Paganism)www.OED.com

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