Beowulf: Pagan Or Christian? Essay,
by Michael Vaugh
Beowulf is an
epic poem that combines the contrasting beliefs of the traditional
Paganism and the modern assessment of Christianity. The majority of
the characters in Beowulf are Pagans. This religion is based in the
belief of many gods (polytheism). The story Beowulf was passed down
by word of mouth for years prior to being written down. As is the
case with any word of mouth story, Beowulf undoubtedly changed each
time it was retold. One aspect of these changes was most likely the
addition of more pro-Christian elements. The first person to write
down the story of Beowulf was most likely a Christian monk. This
original writer is suggested by the fact that it was written on
parchment, which was a luxury reserved for the Church at the time.
The monks were for the most part the only class that could read and
write. However, the core of the story remains in the Pagan values of
personal wealth/accomplishment, super human strength, monsters, and
burning the dead. Beowulf is a Christian reworking of a pagan poem
with “a string of pagan lays edited by monks; it is the work of a
learned but inaccurate Christian antiquarian” (Clark 112).
The story was
set in a time when Christianity was a newly budding religion in
England. Beowulf is a link between two traditions, Pagan and
Christian. Throughout the book there are obvious references to both
Christian and Pagan rituals. The characters in the epic are newly
found Christians who are trying to remain true to their new faith but
are weak and hence, in times of great trouble, they resort back to
their Pagan traditions and gods out of fear. Pagan rituals in the
book are usually present only as reflections of the past or in times
of the character s greatest turmoil. Otherwise, in times of happiness
and rejoicing, they worship their one, almighty, Christian God.
When Grendel is
attacking Herot, and it’s people think they are in their greatest
danger, the people of Herot have one such lapse of faith. Hrothgar
and his counselors make useless attempts to appease Grendel. They
can’t offer him gold or land, as they might an ordinary enemy,
which puts them at a loss.
pagan shrines they vowed
idols, swore oaths
that the killer
of souls might come to their aid
and save the
people. That was their way,
hope; deep in their hearts
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. (Heaney 175-183)
shows that it was because of doubt and fear the people of Herot
regressed back to their Pagan roots. The use of the word heathenish
shows that the people did not acknowledge God or the Bible at this
time. Hell refers to their previous state under the Pagan religion.
Obviously, the characters were not the Christians as portrayed by the
writer. The Christian element is further added in the next lines.
Oh, cursed is he
who in time of
trouble has to thrust his soul
in the fires
embrace, forfeiting help;
he has nowhere
to run. But blessed is he
who after death
can approach the Lord
friendship in the Father s embrace. (Heaney 183-188)
This says that
the people whose fear consumes them to the point that they lose faith
that, after death, their souls will not be granted eternal peace by
the Lord. The soldiers who have fallen from faith in their battle are
doing so because of great fear, but God and good Christians look down
upon them. Only those who will sacrifice themselves and trust in God
will be let into Heaven.
monsters of Beowulf are derived from the trolls of Scandinavian
mythology. They were shadowy creatures of pagan beliefs that lurked
around waterfalls or caves. During the telling of the origins of
Grendel however, it is written that the monster is a product of Cain
(Heaney 106), a Christian character. This is a way that the
characters and Christian writers of the book justify their belief in
monsters. If they can say that the monster comes from a biblical
character, then they can’t consider themselves blasphemers for
believing in the Pagan idea of monsters. The characters are both
scared of the monster that is taking their lives and of what will
happen if they show a lack of faith, as is shown in the above quote.
rationalization can again be made when Beowulf is bragging about his
numerous victories and stops to say that he is not boastful but that
he is truthful. Having too much pride had been the downfall of many
Biblical characters and is the first deadly sin in Christianity.
Beowulf proceeds to tell his story but only after he has put on a
facade of humility, demonstrating that, at heart, he certainly isn’t
an orthodox Christian but only needs to appear to be one. It is easy
to see that Beowulf s humility could have easily been added to this
story at a later time as a result of Christian influences in the
documenting of the oral story.
of Beowulf are very focused on the accomplishments they achieve in
their lifetimes rather than their lives after death (Heaney
1386-1389). The afterlife is not mentioned as stage of existence.
Christianity relies on the promise of afterlife to sustain its
belief. Also, revenge is preferred over mourning according to Beowulf
in lines 1384 and 1385. These passages show two aspects of Beowulf
being the classic Pagan. The pagan virtues of the story also require
the characters to prove themselves and their personal worth. Beowulf
claims that the fight with the dragon is no one s but his own. He
says the battle is to measure his strength (Heaney 2534) and prove
his worth (Heaney 2535) even though he has demonstrated these things
on many occasions. Paganism also includes the belief that every human
life is in the hands of fate or destiny. Beowulf gives an
illustration of this is by saying what occurs on the wall / between
the two of us will turn out as fate, (Heaney 2525-2526). He clearly
feels that his life and death is all inevitable and predetermined.
burial at sea in lines 26 through 52 showed obvious Pagan traditions.
He was buried with Far fetched treasures and precious gear.
Christianity’s moralities are based on meekness and poverty not
wealth and treasures. Throughout the story, the good deeds of hero s
are rewarded with great riches and treasures as well. The importance
of material goods was one of the cardinal characteristics of the
Pagan’s beliefs. On the other hand Christianity’s moralities are
based on meekness and poverty. Even though Beowulf possesses
spiritual strength, he isn’t particularly concerned with the
Christian virtues. He wants to help people, in a Christian way, but
his motivation for doing so is directed toward fame. Beowulf
demonstrates an eagerness for material rewards and earthly fame,
which is a characteristic of Paganism. He has the heart of the
Christian to help people but received the selfish rewards of
At the end of
the story, Beowulf is cremated (Heaney 3137-3148) which is far from a
proper Christian burial. In fact, throughout the story, all but
Shield’s death ceremonies are conducted by cremation, a ceremony
looked down upon by Christians. Indeed in times of death and hardship
the people of Beowulf’s England are not the devout Christians they
were portrayed as. This shows that bad times go hand in hand with
Pagan values in the writer s eyes, suggesting a bias against the
religion. This is easily explained by considering the faith of the
Beowulf fundamental pagan characteristics are strongly evident. Even
after centuries of Christian translations the pagan core of the story
remains only slightly altered. However the details of the story have
been distorted to fit the Christian requirements of an epic. The
writer cites pagan rituals only if they occurred in the distant past
or in times of extreme hardships. Even in these cases the writer
describes the unfaithful as heathens not worthy of gods heaven. In
the description of Grendel, who is obviously a pagan belief, the
writer places the monster in the lineage of a biblical character.
This is pretty ingenious if the writer is a Christian himself or
herself. The main character of the story, Beowulf, is described as a
hero. He possesses magical super strength while fighting in
unbelievable environments, but according to the writer he had god
given abilities. The writer of Beowulf has turned around the pagan
facets of the story in order to conform to his or her own beliefs.
Personal wealth, accomplishment, strength, and fate also play a role
in the story. Each of these qualities is of a pagan nature. People
are cremated versus leaving the body whole for the afterlife. In
fact, little consideration is given by the characters to the
afterlife, which is a Christian requirement. Treasure and riches are
used as status symbols. With all of these pagan merits combined with
the probable faith of the writer, a belief that Beowulf is originally
a pagan story can be supported.
Works Cited :
Beowulf. New York: Twayne, 1990.
Beowulf. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.
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